Sydney Bishop hasn’t returned to Haven Lake, her idyllic childhood home, since a pair of shocking, tragic deaths shattered her family when she was only sixteen. Now a child psychologist engaged to marry a successful surgeon, Sydney has worked hard to build a relationship with Dylan, her fiancé’s teenage son, so she feels nothing but empathy when he runs away—until she discovers that his hitchhiking journey has led him to Haven Lake and her mother Hannah’s sheep farm.
Sydney returns to Haven Lake for the first time in twenty years to coax the boy home. Against her daughter’s wishes, Hannah offers to take Dylan in until he’s ready to reveal his own troubling secrets. Now, for Dylan’s sake as well as their own, Sydney and Hannah must confront the devastating events that tore them apart and answer the questions that still haunt their family—and the suspicious surrounding community—about what really caused two people to die on their farm those many years ago.
CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF HOLLY ROBINSON
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
Visit us online at penguin.com.
ALSO BY HOLLY ROBINSON
For my husband, Dan, the keeper of my heart.
And for our children, Drew, Blaise, Taylor, Maya, and Aidan:
you make everything I do matter more.
Her cell phone buzzed, angry as a wasp in her pocket. Sydney debated whether to answer it. She’d forgotten her headset and Route 1 was crawling with cops. Still, what if it was something urgent?
She’d scheduled only two appointments on Wednesday, because the first was a school visit in Quincy and she knew she’d hit a nightmare of snarled traffic through Boston in both directions. It had been a good visit—the teacher was creative, even compassionate toward Sydney’s third-grade client—but now her nerves were on edge. She hated missing calls. You never knew when a client was going to be in crisis.
The phone stopped, but just as Sydney’s shoulders relaxed, it started vibrating again. That did it. She pulled into the parking lot of the Agawam Diner and glanced at the incoming number. Dylan’s school. Various scenarios played out in her mind: sixteen-year-old Dylan mouthing off in class, an unpaid tuition bill, Dylan throwing up in the nurse’s office.
She wasn’t Dylan’s stepmother yet, but she and Gary had been seeing each other for two years and planned to marry in October. She’d grown fond of Dylan, trying to spend time with him without pushing too hard. Since Gary was a surgeon and couldn’t take calls in the OR, she was listed as Dylan’s alternate emergency contact.
Outside, the May morning was chilly and the gray sky was spitting raindrops that pelted her windshield, making Sydney wince even though she wasn’t getting wet. “Hello, this is Dr. Bishop.”
“Ah, Dr. Bishop,” Gloria said. “I’m just calling to check on Dylan.”
“Yes? What’s the problem?” Sydney had met the school secretary a few times. She’d hate to be on the woman’s bad side. Gloria had a gladiator’s shoulders and an accountant’s passion for details. Every school should be lucky enough to have someone like that in the front office.
“I don’t know.” Gloria sounded peevish. “That’s why I’m calling. Is Dylan sick again? Is that why he went home after first period? You do realize, I hope, that this is his seventh absence in a month. It’s his junior year and he’s in two AP classes. He can’t afford more absences.”
Sydney was confused. “Wait a second. I dropped Dylan off myself this morning. Are you saying he’s not in school? He left?”
“Yes. No one has seen him since first period and he never signed out. I did try to call his father,” Gloria added. “Dr. Katz is extremely difficult to reach.”
Sydney felt her face burn at the rebuke. “I’m sorry. Gary’s probably in surgery.” She hated feeling so defensive, but she was new at this parenting thing and, despite her profession as an educational psychologist, always felt like she was getting it wrong. “I’m sure Dylan’s at home. Let me check. Did you try his cell phone?”
“We don’t keep student cell phone numbers on record,” Gloria said. “Students aren’t allowed to use cell phones during the school day.”
Right, Sydney thought, thinking of every kid who came into her office texting with the urgency of bomb technicians defusing explosives. “I’m sure that’s a very good policy on paper,” she said before she could stop herself, then rang off.
Dylan’s cell phone went straight to voice mail, so Sydney called the house. No answer. She tried Gary’s cell next; of course it went straight to voice mail, too.
What if something was really wrong with Dylan? She left a message and decided to wait a few minutes to see if Gary would return the call. That would at least give her a chance to grab some lunch in the diner to go; her hands were shaking, though whether from nerves or hunger, she couldn’t tell.
Her office was in a historic brick mill building on the Merrimack River that had once housed a family of famous New England silversmiths and was now a beehive of medical specialists. There were five practitioners with Sydney in the Children’s Mental Health practice—a psychiatrist, two other psychologists, and two social workers. And Ella, of course, the secretary who mothered them all. Right now, for instance, Ella was tirelessly helping Sydney plan her wedding.
At her desk, Sydney wolfed down the turkey club, chips, cookie, and soda she’d hastily picked up at the Agawam—bad, bad girl, inhaling carbs and sweets instead of slimming with salads—then paced her office. Five more minutes. Then she’d phone Gary’s secretary and ask her to page him in the OR.
From the window of her second-floor office, the Merrimack River looked oddly flattened out, like a sheet of metal beneath the heavy gray sky. She loved working here because the view made her remember the history of this area, and how manufactured goods had once been transported from factories in Lowell and Haverhill up this river to Newburyport. Everything from combs to carriages had then sailed across the ocean to Europe on clipper ships built right here.
The magnolia trees along the riverbank were in bloom. The pink blossoms reminded Sydney of how her mother once convinced her as a child that fairies used them as teacups. This wasn’t an entirely happy memory, so Sydney shook it off as tension pushed like a fist against the back of her neck. She was having trouble taking a full breath.
Sydney recognized the onset of a panic attack and began talking herself down from the proverbial ledge. She’d learned to do this in therapy years ago: You’re happy, she reminded herself. What’s past is past. You’re beyond all that now.
This positive self-talk helped ease her breathing, but Sydney couldn’t banish her immediate worries. Why had Dylan left school without telling anyone? Some of the other kids at school had cars, licenses. What if he’d gone off in somebody’s car, and even now the car was nose-first in a tree?
Another possibility: Dylan could really be sick. Feverish. Even unconscious. There had been a meningitis outbreak at one of the universities recently.
A more likely explanation: Dylan was just ditching classes. But that idea led her down a dark mental corridor to her fear that Dylan’s increasing disinterest in school, his lack of engagement in anything beyond computer games, was related to Gary marrying her.
She had a client coming at two o’clock. It was nearly one now. Did she have time to drive home to check on Dylan?
Whatever she did, she’d better let Gary know what was going on. Maybe he’d take charge. Dylan was his son, after all. That’s the way it should be. Sydney had vowed she wasn’t going to be one of those stepmothers who took over. She’d seen too many of those in her practice.
She phoned Gary’s office again. To her relief, the receptionist said Gary was out of the OR and put him on the phone.
“Hey, sweetie. I was just about to call you back,” Gary said. “What’s up?”
The sound of his deep voice, slow and with a hint of Virginia, calmed her. Gary would know what to do. She heard him chewing and smiled. Probably wolfing down one of his cardboard-tasting fiber bars for lunch. There was a reason Gary still weighed the same at forty-six that he had in college.
Sydney wished she could say the same, but no. She was ten years younger than he was, but her curves kept getting curvier. “Sorry to bother you,” she said, “but Dylan’s school called and he’s not there. Have you heard anything from him?”
“I don’t think so. Hang on.” Gary put her on hold, then came back on the line. “Nope. No missed calls on my cell, and Amber says he hasn’t tried the office. When did he leave school?”
“After first period. He’s not picking up his phone. I think one of us should go home and look for him.”
“He’s probably just playing hooky. It’s a perfect rainy day for computer games, right?”
“I don’t know. It does seem like he’s been sick a lot lately. And you know he’s not eating enough.”
“Yeah, well, if he’d play sports and get off the damn computer, he’d have a better appetite and a healthier immune system.”
An old argument. Gary could be right. At the same time, Sydney secretly sympathized with Dylan, who was clearly irritated whenever his father brought up his own stellar sports records. Gary had been a Division I pitcher and had a trophy case in the den to prove it. He’d been drafted by a major-league team senior year, but had chosen to go to medical school instead.
“Do you want to check on him, or should I?” she asked.
Sydney could hear Gary tapping something into his computer, probably checking his schedule. He was the king of multitasking. She admired this quality, though less when she was only one of his many tasks.
“I hate to ask, but could you possibly do it?” he said. “I’ve got two more surgeries this afternoon and the patients are already prepped and waiting.”
“Sure, no problem.”
They exchanged a quick note about dinner—salmon, Gary’s turn to cook, thank God—and hung up. Sydney glanced at her watch. She’d drive home, have a quick word with Dylan, then call the school on her way back to the office, reassuring them that everything was under control.
Tonight, though, they’d have to sit down for a family meeting, find out what was really going on. Gloria was right: this was junior year. Dylan couldn’t afford to blow his final exams.
She went out to the reception area, where Marco Baez was talking with Ella and flipping through his mail, making Ella laugh. Sydney had joined the practice eight years ago after earning her doctorate in educational psychology; her specialty was assessing school performance problems and evaluating children for learning disabilities. Marco was the clinical psychologist in the group. He had joined the practice last year; she had already referred several of her most troubled clients to him with positive results.
She had also seen the effect he had on women. Marco—with his soccer player’s wiry build and curly black hair—turned heads whenever mothers were in the waiting room. Even the older teachers sat up straighter to adjust their sweaters during school meetings he attended.
Sydney was amused by him, but nothing more. Marco was fun to have around and good eye candy, but he was a player socially as well as on the soccer field, judging by the various attractive women she saw accompanying him to office parties. She’d been there and done that. She didn’t need any more players in her life.
“Hey, Ella, I’ve got to run home,” she said, “but I should be back before my two o’clock.”
“Okay,” Ella said. “Want an umbrella? It’s nasty out there.”
“No, I’m fine. The car’s close.”
“All right. See you later.”
Annoyingly, Marco dogged her out of the office and into the hallway, where he stood too close as she waited for the elevator. “You okay?” he asked.
Sydney sighed. It was often a drag working with other mental health professionals. Nothing went unnoticed and they were always checking in with one another. It was like being screened at an airport, only this was an empathy check; she’d prefer a quick X-ray anytime. She’d gone into educational testing precisely because it was the most analytical field of psychology.
“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just Gary’s son, Dylan. He left school and we don’t know where he is. I’m going home to see if he’s there.”
“I’m sure he is,” Marco said.
“You don’t know one thing about him.”
He surprised her with a grin. “You’re right. I apologize. I only said that because I want it to be true for your sake.”
“Nobody could be a better friend to him than you are, Sydney.”
“I’m not trying to be his friend. I’m trying to be his stepmother.”
“To a teenager grieving his mom like Dylan is, a good friend might be more important.”
Sydney jabbed at the elevator button. “Gary says I baby him.” She hadn’t meant to confide this to Marco, or to anyone, but the hallway was empty and here he was, Dr. Sympathy with his spaniel eyes. “He says Dylan needs to man up and play sports, get off the computer.”
“Depends on what he’s doing on the computer,” Marco suggested. “For some kids, that’s a social lifeline. Or a future career. I’m sure Bill Gates spent plenty of time on the computer in high school.”
Interesting. Sydney would have pegged Marco as one of those ban-the-computer types, with all of his big talk around the office about building good family communication skills. But there was no time to get into that now. The elevator arrived and Sydney stepped into it, ready to face whatever waited for her at home.
• • •
He hadn’t expected it to be such a freakin’ drag to hitchhike. Dylan had caught a ride with one of the seniors from his school in Hamilton to the center of Newburyport. From there he’d walked up Route 1 to Route 110 in Amesbury, where he’d stood for two hours in the rain by the on-ramp to Route 495 with his cardboard sign reading “Seattle” in dripping Magic Marker. Finally a guy in a battered pickup truck pulled over.
Dylan hesitated before getting into the truck. He’d seen plenty of those movies where the idiot kids get sliced and diced by some masked guy with a chain saw. But the driver of this truck wasn’t evil looking. Just some old dude with paint-spattered work boots.
“Don’t see many hitchhikers these days,” the guy said as they rattled up the highway ramp.
“Yeah, well, school’s out for summer and I’m headed out west to see my girlfriend.”
Lies and more lies today. But Dylan liked the vague sound of “out west” and the old guy didn’t seem to care. He just nodded like of course that’s what a sixteen-year-old kid would be doing on a Wednesday morning in May, then merged onto the highway without bothering to glance at the oncoming traffic.
The truck lurched as the old man shifted the clutch, but Dylan wouldn’t let himself cling to the dashboard like some pussy as they took the corner on two wheels. He wouldn’t let himself worry about the stink of booze on the guy’s breath, either. How drunk could somebody be at eleven in the morning?
“So what about you?” Dylan asked. He’d read somewhere that you should make conversation with potential sociopaths so they’d bond with you and not want to slit your throat. “What are you doing with all that stuff in the back?”
“Selling shit for scrap.”
Dylan glanced over his shoulder at the truck bed. It was piled high with enough metal parts to build a submarine. Maybe this was a line of work he could check out once he got to Seattle, if Typhoon Entertainment wouldn’t hire him as a beta tester. That was his dream: to test video games for a living and design them himself one day. He had a couple of apps he was working on now.
The driver talked about his own hitchhiking experiences as they rattled west. Dylan could hardly make out the words over the bum muffler, but most of the stories involved bloody bar fights or getting “some great pussy like you wouldn’t believe.” Dylan mostly tuned him out, nodding and saying, “Wow, cool,” or whatever, to keep him talking. The farther west they drove, the more distance there was between Dylan and his so-called life.
He wouldn’t let himself turn on his phone. He was done with phones. Nobody could track him down and that was exactly the way he wanted it.
The driver—who at some point said his name was “Mack,” like that was a real name—eventually dumped Dylan off in Fitchburg, where Mack said he needed to gas up before heading north to New Hampshire, to whoever in the universe bought scrap metal and probably paid Mack in beer.
Mack pointed toward the entrance ramp to 495. “You’re gonna want to wait there, like you did for me. Don’t hitch on the actual highway or the cops will snatch you up.”
Like Dylan didn’t know that already. But he thanked the guy and even offered him money for gas. Mack waved him off. “You need it more than I do, kid,” he said. “Seattle’s far. Might as well fly to the moon.”
If there was a way to leave the planet entirely, Dylan would do that. Instead, he hefted his backpack onto his shoulders and started walking slowly up the road in the rain, wondering if he looked as pathetic as he felt: a skinny, no-ass kid in a Doctor Who T-shirt and expensive soggy sneakers traveling alone to a destination that really did seem as far as the moon.
It was raining hard enough that Dylan wished he’d brought that stupid raincoat Sydney was always nagging him to carry to school “just in case.” It was a North Face jacket—she knew most of the kids at his prep school wore that brand—but Dylan refused to wear it for exactly that reason, even though he did feel kind of bad about her spending all that money for nothing.
Having Sydney around was okay most of the time, but Dylan didn’t need her nosy questions. She couldn’t fool him. That mom act she put on was totally for Dad’s benefit. Other women had tried getting on Dad’s good side, too, hoping to trap him. Who didn’t want a rich surgeon for a husband?
Besides, with Sydney around, he could feel the memories of his mother wavering, like some kind of fading hologram. He didn’t want that. Especially since Dad showed no signs of wanting to remember Mom at all.
Even before Sydney, Dad had trashed Mom’s clothes and stuff. Pictures, too. Or maybe he’d burned them. What did Dylan know? Anyway, every family photo except the one Dylan kept hidden in his dresser drawer was gone. That one was of Dylan sitting on Mom’s lap and blowing out the candle on his first birthday cake. You could tell from the picture that she was going to help him blow out the candle and get his wish.
Not that he did. Whatever wishes he’d made as a one-year-old couldn’t have included a dead mother splattered on the highway the month he turned twelve. Happy birthday to him: a mother mangled in a car that looked like an accordion after it flipped over in a ditch.
Dad tried to keep Dylan from seeing the pictures in the newspaper, but of course they were all around the Web. His mom had been driving her friend’s cheap shitbox Kia; her friend hadn’t died, only Mom at the wheel. Dad hadn’t let Mom take her BMW. He’d hidden her keys because he didn’t want her driving home drunk. Irony alert: Mom would have probably lived if she’d been driving her own car.
An hour later, he finally caught his second ride. A boxy Subaru. Parental hand-me-down, Dylan guessed, since the driver was in his twenties and wore a striped skater hat and jeans. A skateboard was belted into place in the backseat like a kid. Next to it sat a duffel bag, unzipped and vomiting clothes. The car reeked of pot and the kid was smiling and shaggy. If this guy were a dog, he’d be jumping on Dylan and wagging his feathery tail.
“Hey, bro, I can take you to Greenfield,” he said. “Not far, but it’ll get you out of the rain for an hour.”
“Cool.” Dylan dropped his backpack on the floor and climbed in, hoping the guy wouldn’t mind a puddle on his passenger seat.
The driver, Brooks, seemed oblivious. “Seattle, huh? From Greenfield you should go south on Ninety-one and hit the Pike. If I were you, I’d stop in Amherst and sleep at UMass. Somebody there would let you into one of the dorms. You could sleep in a lounge, start again in the morning. Trust me. You do not want to be thumbing rides in the dark, man. Nobody will pick you up. Or, if they do, it won’t be the kind of person you want to ride with.”
So far, Dylan had avoided toll highways, not wanting cameras to capture his image on film. But he pretended to go along. He could figure out an alternate route later. Right now he just needed to dry off.
Brooks was a senior at Worcester Polytech studying chemical engineering. He was on his way to visit his girlfriend at UVM, he said. “You should totally head north with me and see Vermont before you hit Seattle. Vermont’s got it all going on: mountains, green pastures, waterfalls. It’s a fucking paradise.”
“Sounds sick.” Dylan didn’t want to admit that his father had a ski chalet in Vermont and was always bugging Dylan to go up there. Skiing was the very last thing Dylan was good at, right after any sport involving a ball or a stick. “But I’ve got business to take care of in Seattle, you know? I’m applying for jobs in the gaming industry.” He hoped he sounded older than he looked.
It didn’t matter. Brooks was all over that answer. He slapped the steering wheel. “Good for you, dude! Fucking too true! That’s what all the great ones did: Dell, Zuckerberg, Gates. They didn’t bother slogging through pointless college classes, did they? They just fucking dropped out and made their fortunes. That takes cojones.”
Brooks lit a blunt, offered it to Dylan, who shook his head. “My girlfriend, man, she’d skin me if I didn’t finish my degree,” Brooks said. “She already thinks I’m a slacker. Women, man. You know what I’m talking about, right?”
Dylan nodded. He didn’t understand much about girls, but he knew this: Brooks was right. If you were stupid enough to fall in love, that girl had you by the balls.
He would have done anything for Kelly. Any fucking thing. But it hadn’t mattered. Whatever he’d done, or wanted to do, wasn’t enough. Kelly hadn’t just broken his heart. She’d shredded him, chewed him up, spit him out, and stomped on him with her spike shoes before setting fire to his head.
Brooks left him off at the Route 2 rotary in Greenfield, where headlights and taillights blurred in the rain like streaky yellow and red ribbons. From above, Dylan imagined the rotary would look like a giant dizzying pinwheel, like the one his mom had bought for him at the Topsfield Fair a month before she died. It was still hanging from the curtain rod in his room.
Dylan had left the pinwheel behind, proof he was done with grief. He could miss his mom, fine. But he wasn’t going to be the sort of dumb ass who cried—actually cried—like he had in front of Kelly. Never again.
Kelly had tweeted his pathetic whimpering to the whole world: “Skeleton Boy is leaking in front of me right here on the sidewalk! Ew!”
It wasn’t just raining, now. It was bucketing. Brooks had given Dylan a trash bag to put over his head and backpack to keep him dry. Wearing it made Dylan feel like a homeless meth addict, so he took it off as soon as the Subaru joined the kaleidoscope of lights, leaving its own trail of red and making Dylan wish he’d gone to Vermont after all.
• • •
Somehow, the lambs had squeezed through the wrong gate instead of following their mothers. Now they were in the upper pasture, separated from the ewes happily grazing in the lower fields and bleating as if their little hearts were broken. Meanwhile, their mothers were enjoying their uninterrupted gorging on tender new green grass.
The noise was shattering Hannah’s concentration. To make matters worse, it was raining hard, the water needling the surface of the pond below the barn that Allen had dubbed “Haven Lake” when they first bought the farm. The rain had already filled the tractor ruts with icy puddles.
Hannah suddenly had an idea based on something she’d read in a book: she could try tricking the lambs to follow her through the gate into the lower pasture.
She shed her yellow oilskin jacket, shivering a little as she got down on her hands and knees in the mud in her white T-shirt and jeans, feeling cold and stupid as she began baaing like a sheep. Never mind. Nobody was here to see her. She only needed to fool one lamb into following her through the gap in the fence and the rest would follow.
Hannah baaed again, feeling perfectly sheepish, and suddenly thought of Rory. Her brother-in-law had loved animals. Rory would have helped her find humor and grace in this moment, as he had in everything. Well, almost everything.
“Forget your perfect offering,” Rory used to say. “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
It was a quote from one of the folk songs Rory used to sing in high school. Funny how often she’d been thinking about him today. And Allen, too. Then again, it was a rainy day in May. Even after twenty years, Hannah still felt a piercing grief when spring brought the rain like this, when everything reminded her about Theo and Allen being gone. After Theo died, everything fell apart, as if the boy had been holding their community together.
The cops—the whole town, really—had blamed the adults on the farm for Theo’s death. Not only Lucy, Theo’s mom, but Hannah and Allen, too. “With ownership comes responsibility,” one cop said. As if she didn’t know that already. Life on Haven Lake was one chore after another, until every night she went to bed and was afraid to let herself lie flat, knowing the ache would crawl up the sore muscles of her back and shoulders like a live, gnawing animal.
A lot of outsiders viewed the farm as a commune where drifters and druggies congregated. “It’s because those people are heathens,” Hannah had heard one woman say in Shelburne Falls a few days after Theo died. “They had it coming, living the way they did. Nobody was watching those children.”
That was untrue, especially where her own daughter was concerned. Hannah had carried Sydney in a cloth sling for months, like she was still part of her own body instead of a separate creature, the baby’s white-blond curls tickling Hannah’s chin as she cupped Sydney’s hard, hot head in her hand to protect it as she worked, pulling weeds or taking bread out of the oven. She’d taught Sydney how to read and write, how to swim and ride a horse. She’d watched Sydney fall in love with Theo and then nearly die of grief.
Her daughter’s decision to leave the farm after Theo and Allen were gone still set off a noisy, percussive symphony of sorrow, anger, and hurt. Once triggered, those emotions reverberated up Hannah’s spine like an orchestra out of tune.
She gave herself a mental shake. No sense living a life of regrets. She’d done enough of that already. Besides, the sheep needed her now.
That was the thing about farming: you had to focus on the weather, the plants, and the livestock and forget about your own pitiful, small self.
One of the lambs was finally approaching her. She’d named this one “Casper” because he was one of the few snowy white ones in this year’s crop. Too bad he was a little ram. She’d had to castrate him. There wasn’t much call for rams these days. Another couple of weeks and she’d have to truck him up to the broker who sold the rams as meat. Sad, but one of the practical aspects of raising sheep.
Hannah kept up her steady baaing. Finally Casper nosed through the gap. The other lambs were soon jostling around him, piteously bawling for their mothers until the ewes called back. Soon mothers and babies were reunited and happily grazing, a picture-perfect postcard despite the steady rain. Beyond the sheep, the foothills of the Berkshires rose in an undulating silhouette above the pond like a woman lying on her side, the water reflecting the curves of the land. She’d always loved this place and loved it still, despite everything.
Hannah stood up, flicking her thick braid over one shoulder and rubbing her knees. At fifty-nine, she was definitely getting too old to be role-playing with sheep. But this was the life she’d chosen. The only work that kept her moving forward, day after day, instead of always looking over her shoulder to mourn the people she’d lost.
Sydney knew the house was empty even before she searched the rooms. Gary’s Victorian—a tall, narrow-shouldered blue house on Newburyport’s prestigious Federal Street—felt chilly and still, as if its occupants weren’t just out for the day, but dead and buried.
She shivered as she went from one high-ceilinged room to another, dutifully calling Dylan’s name. A small, shameful part of herself longed to be in her own small cottage on the river instead of here, dealing with this. The problem with marrying someone was that you married his problems, too.
“Dylan?” Sydney called. “Hello? Honey, are you here?”
Stupid, but that’s what people did: “Hello, hello? Anyone here?” even when the answer was obvious: nobody was home. Nobody at all.
She circled back downstairs into the pale yellow kitchen with its cherry cupboards and gleaming granite counters. Gary liked a clean house; he went on a tear every weekend and had cleaners come in twice a week besides.
She was reaching for her phone to text Gary when she saw the note, printed on a scrap of envelope and trapped in place by the silver pepper mill:
Dear Dad and Sydney,
I’m done with school, this puke-cute dinky-ass town and you. It’s time I emancipated myself. Don’t try to find me. I’ll write when I land.
It was the “sorry” that broke her heart. Jesus. The poor kid. What was going on that Dylan thought running away would solve his problems? And why hadn’t she and Gary seen it coming?
Sydney sank onto one of the counter stools in the kitchen and stared out at the rain. She started to cry, slow, lazy tears that she realized were there only when she tasted salt on her lips.
Just last Sunday, she’d gotten up early to make tea and read the Sunday paper. She had been sitting right here on this stool, excitedly waiting for the kettle to boil and planning how to tell Gary she was pregnant.
Knowing how much Sydney wanted a family, Gary had eagerly agreed to start trying for a baby soon after their engagement. Sydney was sure that having a baby would help them feel more like a complete family. Dylan was reserved, a loner, but she’d felt confident from the start that she could eventually connect with him. She’d devoted her career to helping children. Why not this one?
She had done everything she possibly could to let Dylan know that he didn’t have to accept her as a mother—too soon for that—but he could trust her as a friend: school shopping, movies, the skateboard park. She’d enjoyed watching him grow from an undersized boy of fourteen to a young man of sixteen who had to shave and take pills for acne.
Recently, she’d been rewarded during one of their movie outings when Dylan confided in her about his desire to design video games—something he’d never shared with his father. She knew this was because, as much as Gary loved Dylan, he was hard on him. Gary thought computer games were more than just a waste of time; they were “the downfall of civilization.”
She hoped the children she and Gary had together—she had always envisioned having two babies before her fortieth birthday—would create a bridge not only between herself and Gary and Dylan, but between the past and present. Gary and Dylan could heal their grief, and Sydney would be the sort of reliable mother—and stepmother—who loved her children unconditionally. The sort of mother who was as unlike her own mother as possible.
“We’re going to have a wonderful adventure,” Gary had murmured into her hair as they made love the night he agreed to start trying for a baby. “You’re going to be an amazing mom.”
Sydney had been silently, giddily excited when her last period was late and the home pregnancy test was positive. She’d decided to wait and tell Gary last Sunday because he wouldn’t have to go to work and they could celebrate properly.
Then, between the time the kettle boiled and her tea had fully steeped, her fantasy popped like a rainbow-tinted soap bubble. She’d stood up to reach for a teacup in the cupboard and felt the unmistakable trickle of liquid on her thigh. She twisted her nightgown around, and at the sight of the bright bloom of red on the pale cotton, she had wept, thinking, What if I missed my last chance to be a real mom?
Irritated now by her pointless self-wallowing, Sydney hastily texted Gary. When he didn’t answer, she called his office and told his receptionist to page him.
He was still in surgery; she had to wait ten minutes for him to return the call. When he did, Gary sounded terse and tired.
“Don’t call the cops,” he said after she told him about the note and said she wanted to contact the police. “It’s time we took the tough-love approach. I’ve given that kid everything from a huge allowance to private school, never mind thousands in therapy. I’m sick of how ungrateful and entitled he acts. Let Dylan see for himself what it’s like out in the real world. Did he take his computer?”
“He has his laptop for school, I imagine, but his PC is here on his desk,” Sydney said. “Why? What does that matter? We can’t just let him run away! It’s not safe. I don’t even think that’s legal. Plus, what if he doesn’t have any money?”
“Dylan always has money,” Gary said. “And if he has a laptop and a cell phone, he can reach us whenever he wants. Look, Sydney. Dylan’s not stupid. I know my son. He won’t take any real risks. He’s probably holed up with a friend, licking his wounds over some teen drama. I’m betting he’ll be back by tonight. If he’s not, we’ll call the cops then. Sorry. I’ve got to go. They’re paging me. I’ll call you in a few hours when I’m out of the OR.”
Gary hung up. Sydney sat with the phone in her hand, feeling frantic and useless. She glanced at the stove clock. She’d be late for her next client if she didn’t leave now. What to do?
She headed out the door, dialing the police as she went. Calling them might make Gary mad, but she couldn’t sit by and do nothing. She explained her situation to an officer, then asked, “Can I file a missing person report for a child who isn’t mine?”
The cop who took her call was kind, but didn’t seem any more concerned than Gary. “Anybody can submit a missing person report,” he said, “but you have to come into the station and file the report in person. We’ll need a photograph to get the process started, and then we’ll keep an eye out for your boyfriend’s son on the streets.”
“But you wouldn’t actually start an official search?” Sydney pressed.
“He’s sixteen, you said? No, probably not yet. Not unless you have good reason to believe the boy is in immediate danger, ma’am,” the officer said. “The thing is, until a few hours pass, he’s really not a missing person, right? Just a teenager who’s not in school when he should be. For now, I’d suggest checking with the boy’s friends. If you don’t make any headway, come see us at the station tonight and we’ll get right on it.”
Frustrated, Sydney drove the rest of the way to her office, pulled into the parking lot behind the medical building, and bolted up the stairs. She reached the waiting room just as another woman approached it, a redhead with hair worn the way Sydney wished she could wear hers, in a sleek, no-nonsense bob.
Instead, Sydney’s shoulder-length blond hair usually looked as if she’d been hanging upside down and just turned herself right side up. Every morning she grimly waged a hair war, taming her thick waves into a ponytail or jamming pins into a French twist, then spraying her hair in place.
“Mrs. Golding?” Sydney extended her hand. “I’m Dr. Bishop. Nice to meet you.” She invited the other woman to sit down and have a cup of coffee in the waiting room. “I’ll be with you in a minute. Let me set things up.”
The next hour went by in a blur as Sydney focused on Mrs. Golding’s account of her eight-year-old son’s problems in school. A typical menu: impulsive behavior, trouble sitting still in the classroom, bullying, anxiety. Sydney’s mind wandered to Dylan again. How could she trust herself to help other parents when she hadn’t noticed that Dylan, a teenager she practically lived with, was unhappy enough to run away?
At the end of the intake session, she gave the mother questionnaires for the teachers, plus one for her to complete about family history and behaviors at home. “I’ll use these questionnaires as part of my evaluation,” Sydney explained. “I’ll also do some testing when you bring him in next week to identify any learning difficulties. After that, I’ll write a report for you to share with his teachers, outlining what kind of specialized instructional approach he might need.”
“What Quinn needs is for his damn teacher to stop holding him in from recess as a punishment for acting out in class,” Mrs. Golding said.
“I beg your pardon?” Sydney asked. “Did you say he’s being punished by being denied recess?”
“Yes.” The other woman drummed her fingers on the desk and bounced her foot. “Then they don’t get why Quinn has more trouble sitting in the afternoon than the morning.”
Mother may have attention issues herself, Sydney scribbled in her notes. But Mrs. Golding was right. If anything, a child described as “impulsive,” “anxious,” and “unfocused” could benefit from an extra recess to help him blow off steam and relax.
“Thank you for sharing that,” she said. “Let’s gather our information, and then I’ll make some recommendations. Don’t worry. We’ll get your son the help he needs.”
By the end of the session, Sydney’s head was throbbing. She wanted nothing more than to go to her own house and sink into her favorite armchair with a good book and a glass of wine. But Gary would be home tonight to make dinner, and there was Dylan to worry about. She’d have to spend the night in Newburyport.
She would normally write up her intake report before leaving the office, but she couldn’t face doing anything else today. Sydney stood up from her desk, stretched, and went to the couch, where she curled up against one arm of it. Bliss. Her headache began to recede.
She was sound asleep when Ella woke her. “You planning to camp here all night?” Ella asked in her honeyed Southern voice.
Ella was from South Carolina, from a small town in a place she called “low country.” The way Ella said it, “low country” sounded like a land of velvet and silk, a place where you’d exist on fried chicken and biscuits. Sydney wanted to go there. Right now, if possible.
“No, I’m about to leave,” Sydney said. “I was just thinking and I must have dozed off.”
“Thinking about what? Wedding plans? Your honeymoon?” Ella cocked a hip and twirled her string of silver beads, making Sydney laugh.
Ella could always make her feel better. She was nearly sixty years old and long divorced, but magnificent to look at: six feet tall and well built, Ella was of mixed French-black-Mexican parentage and usually wore her lustrous black hair coiled in an intricate knot at the base of her neck. She was never without eyelash extensions and a gel manicure. She was also the only woman Sydney had ever met who was a size sixteen and didn’t care who knew it.
“More to love,” was Ella’s view.
Sydney patted the couch beside her and Ella accepted the invitation, pulling Sydney’s head down on her shoulder. “Tell me.”
“Dylan,” Sydney began. She described the phone call from the school, the empty house, the reactions by Gary and the police. “I’m so worried.”
“Well, of course you are! I think Gary’s right and Dylan’s probably safe—he’s a smart one, that kid—but you have to ask yourself why he did it.”
“I’m afraid it’s because of me.” Sydney’s stomach clenched at the thought.
“Nonsense! His mama was dead and gone for two years before you showed up, bless her heart. No, there’s got to be something else going on. You talk to his friends yet?”
“No. I don’t really know who they are.” God, Sydney hated admitting this. What kind of stepmother was she going to be, that she still knew so little about Dylan after two years?
On the other hand, Dylan was a teenager and most teenagers were, by definition, difficult to know. His entire social life seemed to be conducted online. Occasionally she’d hear a crowd of men shouting in Dylan’s room via Skype as he was gaming. It always shocked her to realize that those men could be anywhere from Korea to Spain, teaming up to play Call of Duty. She’d once asked Dylan to teach her the game, thinking this would be something they could do together, but she was terrified as her screen self rounded every corner, expecting a sniper to gun her down from a rooftop.
Marco appeared and asked if they wanted coffee. “Still some left in the pot,” he said. “I’ll have to toss it if we don’t drink it.”
Ella shook her head. “Not for me, sweetie. It’s after five. Anyone want to join me for a bucket of wine and a plate of wings at the Grog? It’s comedy night.”
“No,” Sydney said. “I’d better stay sober until Dylan comes home.”
“What for? Honey, if anybody needs a bucket of wine tonight, it’s you,” Ella said, making her laugh.
“Did you talk to Dylan’s friends?” Marco asked.
His brown eyes were so intent on Sydney’s face that she felt herself flush and had to look away as she repeated what she’d told Ella. “He must socialize a little at school, but he’s never brought anyone home since I’ve known him.”
Marco frowned. “Does he have a job?”
“Yes. He bags groceries at Shaw’s.”
“How about talking to people there?”
“That’s a good idea. I should have thought of that.” Sydney glanced at the clock on her desk. “This would be his shift. I’ll stop by Shaw’s on my way home.”
It was nearly six o’clock by the time Sydney pulled into the Port Plaza parking lot. There were two plazas beside each other in Newburyport; this one had a Shaw’s and the other a Market Basket. Each grocery store had a pharmacy and a liquor store beside it. Driving here reminded Sydney of Dylan’s Grand Theft Auto game as she maneuvered through the parking lot and dodged distracted drivers, shoppers, and boys retrieving long trains of shopping carts.
Sydney parked on the outer edges of the lot. A walk would do her good. (Really, why didn’t she just join that cheap gym? No more excuses! Her wedding was in less than four months!) She immediately regretted the distance between her car and the store, though, as the rain sent rivulets of cold water down the collar of her blouse.
Only two of the baggers looked around Dylan’s age. She approached the one closest to the door, a stocky kid with a stained purple necktie, and asked if he knew Dylan. He didn’t, but the second boy—older, with a shock of red hair and alarming blue braces on his teeth—nodded when Sydney mentioned Dylan’s name.
“Have you seen him lately?” she asked, trying not to wince at the way the boy was dropping cans on top of bananas in a bag while the poor shopper had her back turned, wrestling her toddler back into the cart.
“Yeah, he worked Saturday with me,” he said.
“Have you seen him since?”
The boy shook his head and plunked the bag into the woman’s cart, then started heaping items into another one. “No. We don’t go to the same school. Why?” The boy’s eyes were alight with curiosity.
“He left school early today and his dad and I haven’t heard from him,” she said, choosing her words carefully. It would be better if this boy thought she was Dylan’s mother. “If you can think of anybody who might know where Dylan is, I’d love to talk to that person. We just want to know he’s safe.”
The boy’s eyes flickered toward the door, then back to Sydney’s face. “You could try his girlfriend, I guess.”
“Girlfriend?” Sydney hoped she didn’t sound as shocked as she felt. She’d had no idea Dylan was seeing anyone. That could explain his recent erratic behavior. Let it be love, she prayed silently, that’s making Dylan act like such an idiot. “What’s her name?”
“No clue.” The boy dropped the second bag of groceries into the woman’s cart. “We call her ‘Rite Aid Girl’ because that’s where she works.”
“Thanks.” Sydney headed for the drugstore, hoping to find answers there.
• • •
Really, what was the point of Seattle? He only had seven hundred and thirty-two dollars, all of his birthday money plus the shit money he’d earned this year for bagging groceries. How long would that last? And who would really hire him?
You have skills, Dylan reminded himself as he pulled his collar higher against the steady rain. If Typhoon Entertainment didn’t want him, he’d earn his GED and go to community college. He’d work as a dishwasher or something, establish residency, then get a computer science degree at the University of Washington. One thing he was good at was school. Lots of people stupider than he was made a living. The important thing was to put as many miles as possible between him and home.
Dylan just wished it weren’t such crap weather. He’d finally turned his phone on just to check the time, then shut it down before he could be tempted to read the texts or listen to the messages. It was almost seven o’clock and darker than dark. Why hadn’t anybody picked him up? Did he really look that sketchy?
He supposed all of those school shootings and bombings in the past few years had pretty much stripped people of any trust they had for guys his age. Especially guys with backpacks. Who could blame them? If they wanted to spare the country more deaths-by-guys-going-postal, they should have laws keeping guns out of the hands of dudes between the ages of fourteen and thirty.
Brooks was right. He should forget about trying to go on tonight. He’d hitch to Amherst and spend the night. He didn’t want to stand out here anymore.
Was there a bus from Greenfield to Amherst? Dylan looked around, but the rotary was disorienting. No sign of an actual town, just roads spiraling in different directions.
Then Dylan had an idea that pierced the wet night like a lightning bolt: Hannah, his grandmother, lived near here. She wasn’t his actual grandmother—she was Sydney’s mom—but the few times he’d met her, she’d seemed pretty cool. Weird that she and Sydney were related. Hannah was all laid-back, while Sydney was always nagging him about homework or eating breakfast or didn’t he want to read a book for a change. Just like Dad. No wonder they fell in love.
The thought of love led Dylan, for a brief, sickening moment, to remember his mother: his beautiful giggling mother, setting out stuffed animals in a laundry basket in the living room so they could pretend they were adrift on the sea after the Titanic hit the iceberg. She and Dylan had rowed another laundry hamper over to rescue the animals, using all of the Band-Aids in the house to mend them. The house was always a mess when his mom was alive, but at least she knew how to have fun.
Dad probably fell in love with Sydney because she was quiet and sweet and pretty. Not model fine like Mom, who was all angles and sharp edges and magazine clothes, but comforting pretty the way a milkmaid is or something. Sydney would be even better-looking if she lost a few pounds.
Dylan knew he probably focused on weight more than he should, but it grossed him out, this whole food obsession thing in this country. At the same time, he hated his own judgmental nature. Too much like Dad’s. Dad was some kind of fitness fiend, still running marathons and going on cleansing fasts even though he was almost fifty.
Dylan hated it when Dad criticized what Sydney ate. He always said stuff like, “Really, Sydney? You’re having dessert? I thought we were off desserts.” Or, “Sitting is the new smoking, you know.” It wasn’t right for one person to judge another like that, at least not out loud.
Hannah didn’t look at all like Sydney. She was built like a greyhound, all long face and bony arms, long legs. At least Dylan thought so. Kind of hard to tell, since the few times he’d met her, Hannah was wearing sweaters big enough to keep an Eskimo warm.
She definitely looked too young to be anybody’s grandmother. Hannah had long hair, dark and wavy with one silver streak in front, and an aging rock star sexy vibe. Like Steven Tyler or maybe Mick Jagger, only not that old. She didn’t look much older than his dad, really, so Hannah must have had Sydney when she was pretty young.
Something weird happened with Sydney’s father. Dylan didn’t know what. He only knew the guy wasn’t in the picture. Dad teased Sydney about her “hippie, tofu-eating past,” saying that’s why she didn’t eat more vegetables now. Dylan could tell Sydney didn’t like the teasing, but she never told Dad that.
Anyway, Hannah was cool. She and Dylan both liked to talk about geeky nature facts, and she had one of those loud belly laughs you usually only heard guys do. He was almost sure she’d come pick him up and let him spend the night at her house.
But how to reach her? Duh: she must have a landline way out here in the Berkshires. Dylan pulled out his iPhone and Googled her number.
• • •
Hannah had meant to bring the hay down earlier today, but she’d gone with her friend Liz to a poultry auction after dinner. They’d driven home with thirty pullets and a dozen Indian Runner ducks. One of the farmers had fished the chickens out of a pen with a long wire hook, then unceremoniously stuffed the squawking, indignant birds into big wire cages. The ducks were in a separate, smaller wire cage.
“Why runner ducks? What will you do with them?” Hannah asked on the way home, turning around and laughing at the way the ducks stood upright in their cage, craning their skinny necks forward like subway commuters watching for a train.
Liz had waved a hand. “God, I don’t know. At our age, why do you and I do anything? Because we can, right? I just liked them. Maybe you can train that hyper dog of yours to herd them.”
Hannah was now up in the hayloft after dark, never her favorite place to be at night. Especially when it was raining, as it was today, as it had been the night she burned down the barn—the smaller barn, where Allen had died. Put a match to it herself after the funeral, saying a prayer. She wasn’t just burning the site of his death. She was burning everything they’d built together. Allen, of all people, would have understood that. She’d had sense enough to do it in the rain to ensure that the fire trucks would arrive in time to save the rest of the farm.
Hannah forced herself to move quickly through the maze of towers formed by the hay bales, maneuvering her way partly by headlamp, partly by feel as she slid bales across the wooden floor and shoved them through the trapdoor and down the chute. The hay plunked onto the cement floor and set the ewes and lambs baaing impatiently.
“Easy, girls, dinner’s coming,” Hannah called. She could hear her border collie, Billy, circling down there, too. The dog was restless because he liked to go everywhere with her. He hadn’t yet figured out how to climb ladders, thank God.
She pushed the last bale down the chute and descended the ladder. Back in the house, she stripped off her rubber boots and wet jeans in the hallway to avoid tracking mud through the kitchen. She ran a bath upstairs and longed for a shot of whiskey. Or maybe a whole bottle.
People said alcohol kills you, shutting down brain cells and your liver. Hannah had discovered that was a lie. Alcohol actually lets you survive things you never thought possible. It was only the things you did while using alcohol that might kill you. Or, when you stopped drinking, the things you felt without it.
Sheep knew what to do to survive: they flocked together. If a coyote or another predator approached, sheep formed a white wall to protect themselves. Every predator was born knowing that the surest way to feast on mutton or lamb is to cut a sheep away from its herd. A lone sheep is vulnerable.
After Hannah was left alone on the farm, she felt her vulnerability. She didn’t become an alcoholic, but she did drink. She drank so things wouldn’t hurt so much.
Booze had led her down some dark roads. But, oh, how she used to treasure that sweet moment in the evening when she finally had a glass in her hand and the day was behind her. She’d loved how whiskey turned her spine to liquid and quieted the noise in her head.
She should probably have left Haven Lake and her ghosts behind, but she couldn’t do it. She was in no financial or emotional condition to undertake that transition. Even now, Hannah still hated having to walk past the upstairs bedrooms, empty and silent, the white curtains lifting and falling as if the house were breathing with her, waiting, but she couldn’t abandon the farm. She was tied to it now.
Booze, along with the ghosts, grief, and loneliness, had caused her to seek out men in bars, online, at university lectures and country fairs. Hannah never had trouble finding companionship even here, in the sparsely populated Berkshire hill towns. She tried not to choose married men, but occasionally one slipped through the net. She’d had fun. Been distracted.
Then one day she’d met Les Phillips, a chemistry professor, in an Amherst coffee shop. They were both standing behind a coed who gave such an absurd order for a mocha-soy-double-shot-decaf-no-whip something or other that she and Les started laughing.
“I remember when it was just coffee, black or regular,” he said. “The most complicated thing was how many sugars.”
He was a good-looking man, going soft around the middle, but with a bulldog’s determined profile and a full head of kinky brown hair. They’d gone out for a drink a few days later, which had turned into several drinks while Les cried over his new divorce and losing custody of his kids.
She’d vowed not to see him after that—she had enough baggage of her own without shouldering this guy’s troubles, too. But Les wouldn’t let up. He’d called every day until she finally agreed to have dinner with him. That date had turned into the sort of nightmare that Hannah banished from her thoughts whenever the memory threatened to surface.
That was two years ago. She hadn’t dated since; she hadn’t gotten drunk, and she’d mostly avoided going into Amherst. She’d seen Les a few times anyway. He had even cruised her street with the windows down in his truck. Once, she was outside in the kitchen garden when she spotted him, and fear caused her to flatten against the side of the house so hard that the clapboards scraped her back through her shirt. After that she started sleeping with an unloaded shotgun under her bed. But she hadn’t told anyone, even Liz, what had happened.
Hannah slid down to her shoulders in the hot water and closed her eyes. She was nearly asleep when her phone rang.
Who the hell could be calling her at this hour?
Hannah climbed out of the tub, wrapped herself in a towel, and ran down the hall to answer the phone in her bedroom, nearly falling on the slippery wooden floor in the process. It would serve her right, too. Why should she answer? This wasn’t even a number she recognized.
Wait. That was the area code for the North Shore. Sydney, she thought, with equal parts panic and hope.
“Hello?” Hannah barked into the phone.
There was a small silence, during which Hannah heard the unmistakable rush of traffic in the background. A prank call or a wrong number, probably. “Hello?” she said again. “If you don’t identify yourself immediately, I will hang up and call the police.”
“Hannah?” an uncertain male voice said. “It’s Dylan.”
Even before he said his name, Hannah recognized the voice as belonging to that teenage kid of Gary’s, the doctor Sydney was planning to marry in the fall. She also knew, by something tightly wound in the boy’s voice, that he was in trouble.
“Are you okay? Where are you?” she asked, again thinking Sydney, stomach heaving. “Has there been an accident?”
Another brief hesitation. Then Dylan spoke again, raising his voice to be heard over a siren shrieking behind him. “I’m fine. It’s just that I’m a little bit stuck. I’m hitchhiking—”
“You’re what?” Hannah asked. She couldn’t have heard him right. Dylan was a nerdy straw of a boy who went to some tony private school and rarely, if ever, emerged from behind a computer screen to make conversation when Hannah was visiting. (Whenever Sydney allowed her to visit.)
“Hitchhiking.” Dylan sounded defiant.
Hannah had to smile. Good for him. Nice to know not all teenagers were coloring inside the lines these days. “That must be an adventure.” She had returned to the tub while they were talking. Now she settled back down in the water, warming her shoulders. “Where are you headed?”
“Seattle,” he said. “Only now it’s dark and I haven’t made it very far. I was wondering if maybe I could, you know, sleep at your house or something and start again in the morning.”
Hannah nearly asked whether his father and Sydney knew about this plan, but caught herself in time. Of course those two probably didn’t have a clue what this child was up to; parents rarely did. “Does this mean I would have to pick you up?” she asked. “Or are you planning to get a ride here? Do you even know where I live?”
“Not exactly,” Dylan said. “It would be great if you came and got me. I mean, if it’s not too much trouble. I’m in Greenfield.”
Hannah glanced down at her body—her slim, muscled, but definitely older body—no longer relaxed but thrumming with tension. It was nearly eight o’clock. She’d gotten through another long day. She’d done her chores and earned her reward. Was it too much trouble to drive half an hour to pick up a mopey teenage boy who was running away from home?
Of course it was, damn it.
“I’ll be right there,” she said. “Tell me exactly where you are.”
• • •
As promised, Gary came home in time to make dinner. He had grilled salmon and steamed spinach on the table by seven. They each drank two glasses of white wine while talking about Dylan and trying not to argue. Gary was nervous and irritable during dinner, getting up several times to refill his water glass and talking too fast. He still believed Dylan would reappear on his own.
Now they were sitting on the couch, exhausted by their emotional wrangling. They rarely fought. Maybe that’s why Sydney felt so emotionally bruised now: she’d never seen Gary this short-tempered.
“I really thought he’d text by now,” she said. “If we don’t hear from him soon, we should file a missing person report.” She didn’t mention her earlier call to the police station, counting on a different detective being on duty by now.
“It’s too soon. Think about it, Sydney,” Gary said. “Dylan’s almost seventeen. Practically old enough to go away to college. And if what that girl at the drugstore said is true, it probably means Dylan was deluding himself about having a relationship with her. Now he’s upset and holed up somewhere.”
“I didn’t trust that girl,” Sydney said. “She was definitely hiding something.”
Gary laughed and pulled her closer to him on the couch, kissing her swiftly. “I love how fierce you are,” he said, “especially when it involves my son. Come on. Finish your wine. Try to relax. If Dylan hasn’t called by midnight, I promise to go to the cops. Give it two more hours, okay?”
When she nodded, Gary turned on the television and played a recorded episode from one of his BBC dramas. Sydney settled against his shoulder, but instead of seeing the screen, she pictured the girl at Rite Aid: Kelly, with her too-pink lipstick and her blue eyes lined in black, her impossibly tall shoes. A music video girl, the kind of background vocalist who’d make any lame lyric sound sexy.
After leaving the grocery store, she’d found Kelly furtively texting behind the counter at Rite Aid and asked the manager if she could have a word with her. Kelly followed Sydney outside, where they huddled against the windows to keep out of the blowing rain.
“Thank you for taking a minute to speak with me,” Sydney had said. “A boy at the grocery store says you know Dylan Katz.”
“His last name is Katz?” Kelly shook her head. “Okay, whatever. What about him?”
“The boy I talked to says you’re his girlfriend.”
Kelly snorted. “Yeah? He told you wrong.”
Sydney had frowned at the girl. Something was off. Her defensive answer had come too quickly. “But you do know him.”
“Yeah, sure. But I know lots of people.” Kelly shifted from one foot to the other. Her shoes were expensive sandals with four-inch wedge heels and straps that wrapped around her ankles.
Sydney had felt furious in the face of the girl’s gum-chewing nonchalance. She hoped those shoes hurt, then immediately felt petty and mean. Kelly was just a child, too. “Dylan is missing. Do you have any idea where he might be?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Because that boy said you were Dylan’s girlfriend!”
Kelly gave her a pitying look. “Listen, we hooked up this one time. That’s it. Dylan knows I have another boyfriend. I can’t help it if he got the wrong idea and thinks I like him or whatever.”
“How would he get that idea?” Sydney asked, forcing a smile. “I mean, other than the fact that you slept together?”
“I let Dylan give me a ride home one day after work. We went to my place and hooked up. I mean, it’s not like we dated or anything. And we definitely didn’t go out.”
Sydney knew from working with teenagers that, on Planet Teen, going out was more serious than dating, which meant more than hooking up, but she still had trouble applying this adolescent code to Dylan. Dylan had never expressed an interest in girls. He was home every night for dinner and spent weekends on the computer unless they dragged him off on some family outing. He didn’t even have a driver’s license yet.
“What do you mean, he gave you a ride home?” she asked. “What car was he driving?”
“A sweet blue BMW.” The girl smiled. It was a pretty smile, expensive like her shoes, the teeth lined up and stark white. “Dylan came back here yesterday to pick me up after work, too, but my boyfriend was waiting in the parking lot and I thought it might be, you know, awkward.”
“I’m sure you were right,” Sydney said, wanting to slap her. “Well, if you hear from Dylan again, could you please let me know?” She had handed Kelly one of her business cards.
She hadn’t told Gary most of these details. Not one word about Dylan hooking up or driving his mother’s car. Gary would blow up if he knew Dylan had been driving the BMW without permission. There should be consequences, of course. But they could deal with that after Dylan was home safely.
Sydney had only told Gary about the girl because she hoped he’d understand Dylan’s heartbreak and sympathize. Surely that was possible, since Gary had been so hurt and betrayed by Amanda. She glanced at his strong profile and couldn’t help smiling. It was such a treat, always, to look up and see Gary beside her. He was handsome, the kind of silver-haired man with unflinching blue eyes you saw in ads for life insurance or retirement funds. A doctor who was both intelligent and compassionate, a problem solver with a big heart.
His only blind spot seemed to be Amanda, whose very name had the power to enrage him. “Absolutely thoughtless every day of her life,” he had explained to Sydney. “No wonder Dylan’s such a selfish kid.”
Sydney knew Gary’s anger at Amanda would ease over time. About Dylan, she didn’t think the boy was selfish, only lost and grieving. She knew how that felt; she’d lost a parent when she was around Dylan’s age and understood all too well about adolescent acts of self-preservation.
Gary was still watching television, jiggling his knee and setting Sydney’s teeth on edge. He made occasional comments about the characters, but to Sydney the actors in their elaborate period costumes might as well have been puppets. She watched the clock, waiting for Gary to set things in motion.
At last the credits began to roll. Sydney sprang up from the couch. “Let’s go to the police.”
Gary sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “All right. It’s not like we’re going to be able to sleep anyway.”
Suddenly, her cell phone rang. “Wait,” Sydney said. “Maybe that’s Dylan.” She lurched across the coffee table, nearly knocking their wineglasses to the floor, and rooted around in her purse. The phone showed a number both familiar and undesirable. “God, it’s my mother.”
“Shouldn’t you answer?” Gary asked. “It must be important. She never calls.”
Sydney looked up at him, panicked. “What do I say?”
“How about ‘hello’?”
Gary was right. Her mother went to bed early and rose with the roosters. She wouldn’t be calling this late unless it was an emergency—cancer, a fall, a fire? Sydney pressed the talk button. “Mom. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but I have something that belongs to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have your boyfriend’s kid.”
“What? How could Dylan be with you? Is he all right?” Sydney sank down onto the couch next to Gary, who watched her intently.
“He’s fine,” Hannah said. “He called me from Greenfield a while ago and said he was hitchhiking to Seattle and needed a place to crash. I went and picked him up.”
“Seattle? Jesus, Mom,” Sydney said, furious now. “Wasn’t it obvious he was running away? Why the hell didn’t you call us before? We’ve been worried sick!”
“It was obvious, yes. Of course it was. But Dylan was adamant about not wanting me to tell you where he was. I waited until he went to bed so he wouldn’t hear me calling you. I was afraid it might spook him and make him take off if he heard me.”
“Did he say anything about why he ran away from school?” Sydney couldn’t bring herself to say “home.”
“No. What’s going on?”
“I have no idea. Is he okay, Mom?”
There was a brief, heavy silence, but Hannah’s unspoken thoughts were clear to Sydney: This is what it’s like to have a child reject you. Then Hannah said, “I’m not sure. He’s extremely skittish. I tried to feed him, but he wasn’t hungry. He was drenched to the bone, of course, and exhausted. I made him take a shower and gave him some dry clothes. He’s in your old room. I just checked and he’s fast asleep. Look, Sydney, you must have some clue about why he ran away. Did something happen at school? With a friend, maybe?”
Sydney wanted to hurl the phone across the room. How dare her mother make veiled accusations about Sydney not knowing Dylan? Not taking care of him?
This is about Dylan, Sydney reminded herself sternly. Not you. “All I know is that Dylan’s seeing some girl, or thought he was, and she ended things. He might be upset about that.” Then, before she could stop herself from blurting it out, Sydney added, “I’m hoping it doesn’t have anything to do with me marrying Gary.”
She waited—unreasonably, childishly—for Hannah to reassure her, to say, “Don’t be silly. You’ll be a wonderful stepmother. The boy loves you.”
But Hannah had never been one to sugarcoat the truth. Instead, her mother said, “Of course he’s going to resent you. That’s to be expected. I’m not sure you can do much about it. The only thing Dylan has told me is that he doesn’t feel like he belongs at home or at school and needs to live somewhere else.”
What had propelled Dylan to seek out Hannah for refuge, of all people? And why would he confide those feelings to her, a stranger, when Sydney had been here at home, asking Dylan all the right questions?
Of course, Hannah always did have a way with children. Even Sydney had thought her mother was magical, once upon a time. Every child on the farm did.
She remembered Hannah leading them down to Haven Lake at night, a line of little children. Her mother taught them how to pull a knotted rope across a rock, then hop off the rock and swing out into the middle of the black star-studded pond and let go.
“Hear that, kids?” Hannah had whispered as they stood shivering on the rock, daring one another to be the first to try the rope. “The frogs are calling you! They want you to turn into a frog tonight and swim with them, just for one night!”
They had all jumped into the pond, Theo first, of course, shrieking into the blackness. They’d been young enough that Sydney imagined her skin turning slick and green, had expected her fingers and toes to become webbed as she frog-kicked her skinny legs through the water.
“What do you want to do?” Hannah was asking now. “Do you and Gary want to get Dylan tonight? Or tomorrow? His plan is to leave for Seattle in the morning, so you’d have to get here early to catch him. Unless the two of you want to let him try his wings.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mom. He can’t go to Seattle alone. And he certainly shouldn’t be hitchhiking. He’s sixteen!”
Gary raised his eyebrows at this. “What the hell’s going on? Is Dylan all right?”
She nodded. If it were up to her, she would get in the car immediately and drive the two hours to the Berkshires to bring Dylan home. But this was Gary’s child. “Let me talk things over with Gary. I’ll call you back.”
Gary shook his head and grabbed the phone, nearly jerking it out of Sydney’s grip. She was too surprised to protest. “If it’s okay with you, Hannah, we’d like to leave Dylan at your place for now,” Gary said. “I’m calling his bluff. Please let him know we’ll pick him up Saturday, because that’s the only day that’s convenient for us. Otherwise he can take a bus home. Dylan should have plenty of money for that. Please don’t use your own funds. And if he does, by some stroke of idiocy, decide to keep hitchhiking, that’s up to him. Just remind him that colleges don’t like dropouts and he’ll be throwing away his education.”
He mouthed “sorry” and handed the phone back to Sydney, who couldn’t believe Gary had sounded so harsh. Obviously Dylan was in a crisis. He needed them to come to his aid, not lay down the law!
But what could she possibly say? This was Gary’s son, not hers. Dylan was safe at the moment. Plus, she wanted to present a united front to both Dylan and her mother.
“Mom?” Sydney said. “I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of this, but I agree with Gary. Dylan should be held accountable for his actions. I hope this isn’t too much of an imposition. Tell Dylan we love him and we’ll pick him up Saturday.”
“That’s it?” Hannah demanded. “You’re going to stick me with this mopey kid and expect me to look after him? Well, all right. Apparently I have no say in the matter. I’ll try to make him stay until then. But no promises, understand?”
Sydney fumed after they hung up. Of course Hannah wouldn’t do one thing to stop Dylan. She’d never been the sort of mother to give children boundaries. That was the trouble with her parents: no rules. “If it feels good, do it”: that tired refrain from the sixties and seventies had somehow permeated Haven Lake right through the eighties.
“Sorry, honey,” Gary said. “I shouldn’t have hijacked the phone like that. But we need to send a strong message to Dylan that he can’t manipulate us.”
“I know you love him,” was all Sydney could think to say.
“I do,” Gary said. “And I love you for standing by me on this.”
He gathered her into his arms and rested his chin on top of her head. Sydney closed her eyes and pressed her face to his chest, trying to find comfort in his heartbeat, strong and steady. But she was having trouble swallowing. She knew they’d made the wrong decision.
Dylan opened his eyes and freaked. He had no idea where he was.
He sat up so abruptly that the room spun. He had to lie back again and prop himself up on his elbows. From this angle, he could see sky—bright blue, thank God, not a wet fucking gray blanket like yesterday—but not much else.
Hannah’s house. Dylan stared up at the ceiling. It wasn’t white, like an ordinary ceiling, but pale blue. The walls were dark red and the trim was white.
He was lying under a quilt made out of so many fabrics and colors that looking at it made him have to keep blinking. The walls were hung with abstract paintings in the same vivid colors. A bright green pottery mug filled with colored pencils sat on the bedside table next to him, and a wind sock—orange, green, red, and white—dangled from the curtain rod above his head.
Whose room was this? Sydney’s? It was cool looking, like being inside one of those bright box kites Mom used to fly with him on weekends.
It was quiet enough here to imagine he was the last survivor of a zombie apocalypse. His room in Newburyport faced the street. Even at night you could hear cars, sirens, people talking, dogs barking. Between the noise outside and the noise inside his room at home from the humming computer and his phone alerts, Dylan always felt both claustrophobic and lonely. Here, all he heard were the birds chatting one another up.
The smell of coffee got him out of bed and into his clothes, which Hannah must have hung up, because here they were on the chair by the window, dry and clean-enough smelling: shorts, a T-shirt, and a hoodie he didn’t really need because the air today was warm and soft. He dressed, wrapped the sweatshirt around his waist, and pulled on his socks. His shoes must be downstairs. Probably still had a bucket of water in them.
What time was it? Dylan dug around in his pockets for his phone, then remembered leaving it in his backpack downstairs. He didn’t even know if he’d brought the charger. Not that it mattered: he’d given up his phone for a reason.
He’d have something to eat, say thank you, hit the road. Dylan went downstairs, made a few wrong turns before finding the kitchen. He must have been really out of it last night. He didn’t remember anything about this house.
He was scanning the black-and-white squares of the kitchen floor for his shoes when some kind of animal, brown and round and furry, skittered beneath the four-legged stove, making him jump. Definitely not a dog. Couldn’t be a cat, either. Right size, wrong shape. Did Hannah have, like, really big rats? Possible, out here in the middle of nowhere. Did rats bite your feet?
Dylan inched his way over to the stove, watching every step. He reached the counter, breathed a sigh of relief, and poured coffee into a fat blue mug sitting beside the pot. Then he finally picked up his head and studied the room.
The sunny kitchen was painted light blue with green trim. Every windowsill was a tiny forest, jammed with potted plants. There were more plants in long boxes on metal shelves along one wall. The rug by the sink looked like a craft project his Montessori teachers used to have the kids make in his elementary school: an oval of bright cotton rags braided and sewn together.
There was no microwave, just a black stove on curved legs. No dishwasher, either, only a double metal sink. It was like he’d dropped through a time portal to Little House on the Prairie. The counters were clean and clear of clutter, except for a note scrawled on the back of a receipt:
Help yourself to food. Sneakers and backpack in pantry. See me before you go.
Okay, that was good. Hannah didn’t expect him to hang around. Though Dylan had to admit, if only to himself, that it was strange she wasn’t trying to stop him. Nobody was, apparently. He’d half expected the cops to pick him up by now. His dad was a smart guy. He’d know how to search for him, use GPS or some kind of app that tracked lost iPhones.
But maybe Dad didn’t want to find him? With him out of the way, Dad could just start his new, perfect family with Sydney.
Fuck the pity party. Pathetic. Move on. That was going to be Dylan’s motto now: Move on.
He scanned the counters, light-headed with hunger but not wanting to be lured into eating much. Yesterday he’d had a breakfast bar and a handful of almonds, nothing else. That was ideal. Hannah tried to make him a sandwich last night, but Dylan had told her he was too tired to chew. He had to be careful to eat just the right amount of food every day to keep him going without having that brick in his stomach weighing him down.
These muffins were going to be a serious problem, though. Hannah must have baked them this morning; she’d left the pan on the stove and the muffins were still warm. Dylan knifed just a corner of muffin free—banana nut—and ate it off his fingertips, licking up every crumb. Amazing.
Soon he’d wolfed down three muffins without even sitting down. He drank a glass of milk on top of that, the milk colder and better and thicker than any he’d ever tasted. It was in a glass bottle with no label. What the hell? Was it sheep’s milk or something? How much fat was in this?
Whatever. It was fuel. That’s how he had to see it. He might not eat again on the road.
The sudden infusion of calories and caffeine led him to crash. Dylan groaned and finally sat down on one of the chairs, closed his eyes. He willed himself to feel sick enough to upchuck the food, but couldn’t make himself throw up. No matter how desperate he was, he’d never managed to do that, even after that girl in his English class, Tiffany, a dancer who could recite all of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by heart, tried to show him how.
“Just stick your fingers down your throat,” she’d urged as they huddled together behind the gym after lunch, but he’d been frightened by her bad teeth and the fact that she was so skinny you couldn’t tell where her neck ended and her face began.
He must have fallen asleep in the chair, because the next thing he knew, Dylan was startled awake by a weird sensation on his foot. He glanced down, too terrified to move. There was that furry beast again, sitting on his foot and chewing on the raggedy end of his sock.
“Get off!” he yelled, shaking his leg furiously and sending the animal scurrying back under the stove with a weird little whistling sound.
Hannah started laughing. She had silently materialized in the doorway behind him. “You’ve met Oscar, I see,” she said.
“What the hell?” Dylan asked. “Is that thing a pet? I thought it was a rat!”
“Well, he didn’t start out as a pet,” Hannah said. “Oscar’s a woodchuck. He’s the kind of pest most farmers would shoot on sight, but nobody ever told him that.”
She clucked in the direction of the stove. The creature waddled back in their direction, its sleek brown head peeping out first from beneath the stove, then the rest of its body emerging, plump and furry and caramel-colored.
Oscar stopped when he saw Dylan and sat up on his hind legs, chattering away at him, his little hands or paws or whatever clasped like a monk’s over his round belly. It was like having a cartoon come alive in front of him.
Dylan felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “Sorry I scared him.”
“Oh, don’t be. I’m always shooing Oscar away. He was probably trying to nibble crumbs off your foot.” Hannah gestured at the floor, where Dylan was embarrassed to see a handful of muffin crumbs scattered like confetti.
“I ate three of your muffins,” he said, horrified by his own gluttony. “Sorry.”
Hannah grinned. “Good. Wouldn’t be much point in making muffins if nobody ate them.”
She was dressed like a man, in a green plaid flannel shirt over a pale blue T-shirt and jeans, her feet tucked into knee-high green rubber boots. But Hannah’s silvery black hair was coming loose from her braid and there was something cool about her. How to describe it? Free.
Last night, Dylan had been startled by a black pickup truck roaring toward him around the rotary. The truck’s bumper was papered with feminist stickers: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” “Just say no to sex with pro-lifers.” “Think outside the boxers.” Wow, he’d thought, way to wear your politics on your sleeve. Probably some hippie chick from UMass.
Then the truck slid to a stop in front of him and Hannah had rolled down the window, shouting at him over the rain and the traffic to get into the truck.
“Want to hold Oscar?” Hannah was asking now.
“I don’t know,” Dylan said, alarmed. “Probably not.”
“Suit yourself. But you’d be missing out. How many chances in life will you get to cuddle a woodchuck?” She clucked again.
Oscar came running over to her, wriggling his fat body and bristly tail. Hannah scooped him up and kissed his round head. “I found him under the porch all by himself. Later I found his mother on the road, run over.”
Dylan’s breath caught in his throat. Everybody at school knew death was an off-limits topic around him. Especially dead mothers. Somehow, though, the sight of Hannah holding Oscar was so weirdly funny that Dylan didn’t feel the usual punch to the gut he got when he heard something on the news about a mom dying or watched a Disney movie about yet another orphan.
“I guess I could try holding him,” he said finally.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Holly Robinson’s Novels
“Who and what make us who we really are? In Robinson’s luminous novel of buried secrets, she explores how the past can jump-start the future, how motherhood can be more than genetics, and why finding yourself sometimes depends on discovering the truth in others.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow
“Holly Robinson is a natural-born storyteller and her tale of three mismatched sisters and the lost brother they search for will keep you turning those pages as she quietly but deftly breaks your heart. I loved every single one of her characters and you will too; here is a novel to savor and share.”—Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of You Were Meant for Me
“A story about love, loss, secrets, and finding out where we’re really supposed to be in our lives.”—Maddie Dawson, Author of The Stuff That Never Happened
“[An] absorbing, big-hearted novel.”—Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point
“Robinson masterfully paints the portrait of a damaged family in the quake of a tragedy...This novel is a thoughtful exploration of the fragility, and the tenacity, of the ties that bind.”—T. Greenwood, author of Bodies of Water