Schooled

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Chapter 8

By the next week things were finally starting to settle into a rhythm. I was regaining my sense of control post-summer. Jake hadn’t texted lately and I figured he’d gotten the message that I had no interest in rekindling a friendship. Or anything else.

My class schedule was perfectly organized. I built in about three hours of study time daily, and still managed to find time to work on the business plan most evenings and weekends. The odd day I even made it to the gym or to the beach with friends. My world was slowly starting to make sense again.

Even Dylan was becoming part of the rhythm. He continued to make appearances in the mornings and I usually caught a ride at least once a week. I enjoyed his quiet company and was intrigued by the sense of humor that seemed to sneak out when no one was looking. To his credit he’d also held up his end of the bargain so far, ignoring what had happened between us at the party.

The third week of September my mom called out of the blue. It was the first time we’d talked since school started. The message I’d left on their machine confirming my safe arrival from New York probably didn’t count.

“We’ve bought a new house,” she said by way of introduction. “In Park Hill.”

I hadn’t even known they were looking. The house I’d lived in throughout high school was Grant’s house. It was only the second home I’d ever had, the only one after Dad had left us.

Mom was going on about the new place. “It has a hot tub, and a dance studio for Chelsea.”

“Why are you moving?”

“Since Grant made named partner we need more space.” Why, did the firm make partners keep their files in the garage? What Mom probably meant was that she deserved more space, and all the other partners had big houses.

She added that they’d be moving in November and wanted me to come home and clean out my stuff. “We have storage at the new house. If you need to keep a few boxes they can go in the new garage.” Maybe behind all the files.

Mom had met Grant through work when I was twelve. At least, that was when she had started bringing him around. They were both patent lawyers, but he had been further up the food chain. Apparently, given his latest accomplishment, he still was. Grant was well-known and respected in the legal community, and had just come off a divorce with his wife at the time. He and Mom had gotten married six months in, which felt like a whirlwind to me.

If the relationship between me and my mom had been strained before Dad left, it was fractured after. They had fought for a year before he took off. Some of their arguments had been about me. The gist of it was that my dad never wanted kids, a revelation I’d struggled to process at age nine—especially as he’d always been kind and loving. I thought he was the best dad in the world. And that was why my mom blamed me for him leaving. Those years were the worst of my life.

But somehow things changed with Grant and his daughter, Chelsea. Instead of being belittled I was mostly ignored. I had been the prototype daughter, a mistake acknowledged on holidays and when tuition was due. Chelsea was the refined model, to be indulged and celebrated.

“Why don’t you come home this weekend and go through your room?” I knew better than to think it was a request. If I didn’t comply, my belongings would likely become the property of Goodwill by the next time I visited. While part of me wanted to protest that things were too busy, school was only going to get more demanding with midterms and assignments. So I agreed.

It was clearly a sign from the universe when my car wouldn’t start Friday afternoon on my way to meet up with Jane for a study date. “Perfect.” I banged my hand against the dash.

I got out of the car and walked back inside. The heels I’d slipped on for the day were not put on this earth for walking to the bus stop, so I swapped them out for ballet flats. Ava stuck her head out of her room when she heard me. “I thought you were going out.”

“My car won’t start. Guess I’m not going home tomorrow either.”

Ava looked sympathetic. “I think Dylan’s going home this weekend. You could hit him up for a ride?” The Camerons lived barely a mile from my mom. I used to walk it in high school.

I fired off a quick text to Jane to tell her I needed to catch the bus and would be late for our study date and then closed the front door for the second time in as many minutes. My car was on the receiving end of a dark glare as I passed it and headed toward the bus stop.

My thumb tapped open another conversation on my phone.

Ava said you’re going home tomorrow

Any chance I can hitch a ride?

Dylan’s response came a minute later.

Three empty seats

At least something was going right today.

* * *

Dylan picked me up Saturday afternoon in the Mustang. He eyed the large suitcase I had in tow as I walked toward the car.

“Is this a one-way trip?”

I told him about the move. “It’s mostly empty,” I explained, depositing it in the trunk. “I need to bring some things back to school with me. My mom wants me to divest them of my earthly belongings so they don’t clutter her new floorplan.” I said it with a smile, but it sounded a little bitter to my own ears.

Dylan craned his neck to look behind my seat as he backed out of the driveway. “Sounds rough. Need help?”

“No, but thanks. What are you doing at home this weekend? Homesick?” I asked as we pulled out onto the main street. It wasn’t busy today, thankfully.

He looked over at me. “Dad’s doing some family financial planning. He wanted me to weigh in.”

I immediately called to mind wills and things. But it wasn’t my business to push. As it happened, he volunteered in any case.

“It’s about some investments he’s been thinking about.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you both engineers? Or one and a half engineers between the two of you, since you’re like a baby engineer?” I couldn’t resist teasing a little. “You know they have actual financial planners out there.”

Dylan turned to me and narrowed his eyes. “Well, when we lose it all you can say ‘I told you so’ from your corner office.”

“I don’t think fashion labels have corner offices. Especially not brand new ones.” Something else pinged in the back of my mind. “Isn’t your birthday around now?”

He glanced over. “Good memory. Yeah. Three weeks, though I’m pleading out of the whole family party thing. Here’s hoping they don’t try and surprise me with something.”

“Yeah. Because once you’re twenty, you have to watch your stress levels. You’re in prime heart attack territory.”

We continued talking the whole ride home, and it struck me again how easy our conversation was. The half-hour drive passed in the blink of an eye, and he pulled up in front of Mom and Grant’s place in no time.

“OK. I’ll pick you up tomorrow around noon?”

“Great. Thanks again.” I waved to Dylan as he pulled away from the curb and turned to head up the walk.

Grant’s place was a four-bedroom ranch-style house in a decent part of town. It was well-appointed and the neighborhood had manicured lawns and nice families. It had never felt like home. Still, there was a room with my name on it. At least for a little while longer.

I didn’t bother trying the door. It was always locked, even if people were home. I pulled a key from my purse and turned it in the lock.

Inside was familiar, but there were a few changes since I’d seen it nearly a year ago. It felt strange, like I was walking into someone else’s house.

The colors were different. What had been muted neutrals in the living room and foyer were now grays and blacks punctuated with bits of color. Looked like Mom was reinventing herself again.

Family pictures on the walls hadn’t changed much. I knew if I counted I’d be in maybe a quarter of them. I’d done it once when I was in high school—counted—just to prove a point. And the ones here were mostly ones I hated. One of my debate team in high school. One of finance club. A family shot with me, Mom, Chelsea, and Grant at my grandparents’ house in Chicago one year.

Chelsea was in nearly all the photos. There was Chelsea’s first pageant at age five, Chelsea’s first pointe recital. More recently, Chelsea’s cover article in the dance magazine for winning a national youth award. I’d made my peace with it, more or less.

Footsteps sounded from the galley kitchen past the dining room. A petite blond appeared, clad in a cotton summer dress. “Lex! I didn’t know you were coming home.” Chelsea rushed over to give me a hug. As much as her perfection rubbed me the wrong way, she was actually quite sweet. Somehow I couldn’t hate her.

“Mom didn’t tell you?” She shook her head. Typical. “How’s school, Chels?”

Her face scrunched. “Honestly? Too much math. It’s kind of shitty.”

“Pageant queens don’t say shitty. Say … challenging. Or better yet, character-building.”

“Haha. I’m sixteen. But you never visit, how would you know what I do or say anymore?” I felt a little guilty. Chelsea was a sweet kid and it wasn’t her fault she was perfect. Maybe I shouldn’t have left her to the wolves as much as I did.

“Mom told me about the house. Asked me to come pack.”

“It’s great, isn’t it? Did you see the pictures?” Chelsea was practically bouncing, which seemed to be her natural state of equilibrium despite the fact that she apparently used words like “shitty.” At least some things hadn’t changed.

“There’s a finished garage we’re going to turn into a studio. Dad’s going to start work on it in a few weeks so it’ll be done by the time we move in. How amazing is that?”

I’d forgotten how exhausting her enthusiasm was. Chelsea was like the energizer bunny. I wondered if the way Mom and Grant doted on her made her even more childlike.

It was the first I’d thought much about it. Probably because with Dylan it seemed to be the opposite—he was old for his age.

“They’re out furniture shopping today,” she added. “I think they’ll be back for dinner tonight.”

“I’d better get packing, then.” With any luck I could avoid them for most of the time I was here. “What are you doing?”

“I’m just going to the mall with girls from the squad. Allie’s picking me up in fifteen. Do you want me to stay and help you instead?” As sweet as her offer was, I was gunning for some alone time. Just me and my stuff.

“No, it’s OK. Thanks, though,” I added.

A wave of something washed over me when I opened the door to my room, suitcase trailing behind me. The furniture was pretty simple and included a twin bed, dresser, and mirror. I’d taken the rest with me to school.

The last time I’d lived there was two years ago in the summer. Since then I’d been back only a handful of times for a weekend or on a holiday. Most of my mid-year breaks I stayed at the townhouse, with the odd few days at Ava’s thrown in.

A few more pictures that hadn’t made the living room standards were here. Over my dresser was a collage that included one of me and Ava posing at a mock fashion show we’d put on ourselves at her house, using curtains folded and placed end-to-end as a runway. Another one of me at horse camp when I was eight. I was a terrible rider, which squashed Mom’s dreams that I might make it to the Olympics in dressage. Instead, Patches the pinto pony had just tolerated me—until one day he didn’t, sending both me and my mother’s dreams headfirst into the dirt.

Interspersed with the old photos were professional images of New York clipped from magazines: Central Park, the skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge. Now I’d been there. Lived there.

Mom had left a couple of brown boxes and garbage bags in the room for me. There were more of the latter than the former. Thanks, Mom.

I decided to start with the closet, so I put on some tunes and got down to it.

A couple of hours later I’d turned up some things I’d forgotten I had. There were two bags of clothes for Goodwill, a garbage bag full of old school notes for recycling, and half my suitcase was filled with other clothes and knickknacks.

I reached up to the top shelf of my closet, thinking I’d gotten everything. My fingers grazed a box pressed to the back that I had to stretch to grasp.

It turned out to be full of photos. These were older than either those in the living room or the ones pinned above my dresser. Me and Ava playing dress up—we must’ve been about six. Me and my grandparents when I was small. I didn’t remember my bucket hat and overalls. Finally, one of my dad.

It burned the backs of my eyes to look at it. I’d forgotten these were even here.

He was pushing me on a swing and I couldn’t have been more than four. I had that look on my face that only kids have, when everything in life is perfect and awe-inspiring. Before you realize your parents don’t have all the answers. That they make mistakes. That you were one of those mistakes.

My phone buzzed me out of my daydream and glancing at the clock I realized I’d already been cleaning for hours.

Liberated any family skeletons?

Not so far. Lots of clothes though

On impulse I took a snapshot of the pic of my dad and sent it to him.

That’s your dad? You look happy. Both of you

I think we were

This was getting into serious territory for texting and suddenly I wasn’t sure why I’d even sent it. I didn’t talk about my dad with anyone, except for Ava on rare occasion.

The door closed downstairs.

Mom home, gtg

I felt like a teenager again sneaking cell time when I wasn’t supposed to. I carefully set the photos back in the photo box and put it in my suitcase. Braced myself to face whatever was waiting for me downstairs.

* * *

“Alexis, would you pass the salad?” Dinner was a typical affair in our house. Eaten at the family dining room table, prepared by my mom.

It was civilized, if somewhat lacking in the warmth department. My mother was making polite conversation. Grant and Chelsea seemed more interested in my presence than she was.

“How’s school this semester?” Grant asked. Grant was tall and serious looking, with graying hair and eyes that were kind but missed little. “You have a law class? If your mother or I can help, just let us know.”

I started to thank him but my mom cut me off. “It’s an introductory class, Grant, not pre-law. I’m sure Alexis can fumble through on her own.” I gritted my teeth.

“I’m sure we’ll just hire our own lawyer once Ava and I launch the business anyway.”

“You know, Charles and Brenda’s daughter just graduated from business at Northwestern. Two years later, she’s next in line for National Director of Accounts at one of the big banks.” No matter how many times I said I was going into business with Ava it was as if she refused to recognize it. Mom was still trying to push me toward a more conventional career. One involving traditionally-cut suits and steady paychecks. She was probably regretting the day she’d enrolled me in the same kindergarten as my best friend.

I quickly steered the topic of conversation to Chelsea’s cheerleading, and we managed to navigate dinner without any major incident. When it was finally over Grant suggested we take a drive down to the new house. “It’s OK,” I said quickly. “Chelsea showed me the pictures and it looks fantastic. I have a lot of packing still to do and my friend’s picking me up tomorrow morning.”

After a mediocre sleep ridden with strange high-school-inspired dreams, I woke up ready to finish the last of my packing. I had to get out of this place before it drove me crazy. The old memories of the first year living here, when Mom was trying to figure out how to relate to me and I was figuring out my place in the new pecking order, were rushing back. The feelings of guilt at disappointing my mom, of abandonment after Dad took off, flooded my brain.

I fired off a text to Dylan to see if he could pick me up sooner than we’d planned, then finished my sweep of the room. The final tally was three bags of garbage, three for Goodwill, and just one box to go to the new house. My suitcase to take back to school was full of clothes and the box of pictures.

Relief washed over me when Dylan confirmed he could be there at ten thirty. I said a hurried goodbye to my mom and Grant. Chelsea wouldn’t let me leave without a hug.

Dylan Cameron, clad in faded jeans and a plaid shirt, leaning up against the side of the Mustang in front of my house was the best sight I’d seen all weekend. I let out a giant breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. My preference would have been for some alone time, but Dylan’s company was the next best thing.

“Lady ordered a jailbreak?”

“My knight in shining armor,” I tried a joke instead. “This rescuing thing is becoming a habit.”

“I’m hardly a hero, but glad I can help.” He took my suitcase from me and loaded it easily into the car. We slid into the front seat from opposite sides and he pulled away from the curb.

“You’re weird,” he said after a moment, his eyes still on the road.

I pulled my sunglasses down my nose and turned to look at him. “Thanks.”

“No. I mean something’s off. You seem … weird. Is it just from being around your parents?” I didn’t bother correcting him. I used to, when people said “your parents” or “your family” instead of “your mom and stepdad.”

I went with the shortest true answer. “Yup. What can I say. They bring out the best in me.” I didn’t like to talk about my family with anyone, even Ava. But for some reason it didn’t feel strange talking with him.

Dylan glanced across at me. “You guys aren’t close.”

“That’s the understatement of the year. I’m the daughter they were stuck with, not the one they wanted.”

“That’s hard to believe. Have you ever talked about it? With your mom?”

“About the fact that she finds me generally disappointing? Not so much.”

I could hear the wheels turning in Dylan’s mind. He didn’t miss much either. “Is that why you spent so much time at our house?”

“Well, that and your mom bought Cheetos.” I ran my finger absently along the edge of the window frame, where the faded leather interior met the glass.

He wasn’t about to let it slide. “We can’t pick our families, Lex.” We sat in silence for a few moments. “Do you miss your dad?”

I thought about it. “More than I’d like to. Less than I should.”

He nodded as if it made perfect sense. “He left when you were young, right?”

“Ten. But even before that he and my mom used to argue a lot—about money, about me. He’d been working for the city but lost his job. A month later he was gone.”

“And you have no idea where he went?”

“No. When I turned eighteen I thought about looking for him. I even saved up summer job money to hire a PI, but when I went to call the investigator, he asked what I’d do if we found him. Then I realized I didn’t actually want to see him. Is that crazy? To miss someone, but not want to see them?”

Dylan thought for a moment. “Maybe.” My eyes returned to the window and I watched the passing houses. Something had been on my mind for a while and I figured now was as good a time as any to take a risk.

“Dylan, can I ask you something?”

He didn’t say anything but flicked his eyes over to me and back to the road. I took that as a yes and forged ahead.

“Ava said you went to rehab. Is that true?” I was dying to know. Despite everything I’d known and heard about him, the Dylan Cameron I’d been getting to know the last few weeks contrasted sharply with the picture Ava had painted.

He stiffened instantly but remained silent.

“It’s none of my business. You can tell me where to go if you want.” I backpedaled in response to the sudden cold radiating off him in waves.

Dylan finally spoke. “At the end of last summer the story got out. The rehab thing. People had one of two responses: Either it freaked them out and they distanced themselves from me, or it drew them to me.” His voice held a hint of distaste but not the judgment I might’ve expected.

The traffic light in front of us turned red. Dylan paused for a moment before turning to look at me, really look at me. Those depthless eyes probed mine, but I felt like they were looking past me, into my soul. “Do you know that you’re the first person to ever ask if it was true?” In his gaze was gratitude, and something else. He was trying to figure me out, like solving a puzzle with his engineer’s brain. I felt a squeezing in my chest, either from his eyes or from compassion for this guy who seemed to have an uncanny ability to cut through my walls with his candor.

His gaze flicked back to the road as the light turned green, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let the air out.

“I wanted last year to be a fresh start,” he went on. “A place where no one knew me. Where I could be someone other than the druggie, or the prom king, or whatever other labels people slapped on me.”

“I think a lot of us want that. A fresh start,” I said softly.

Dylan hadn’t answered straight up about rehab, but it didn’t matter to me right now and I wasn’t going to press him. His words reassured me that whoever he’d been, he was trying to change now.

“Yeah. I realized something though. Running away isn’t the way to change how people look at you. Or if it is, it’s a coward’s way out. That’s why I came home.”

We drove in silence a while, but it was more comfortable even than the previous day. The conversation had brought us intimacy rather than awkwardness.

Part of me still felt unsettled from being back where I’d spent my teenage years, but I was mellowing with every passing neighborhood. Maybe it was because we were getting further from home and closer to school. Or maybe it was just letting go, having Dylan sitting next to me, perfect as ever on the surface and turbulent as ever underneath. Despite the contrast, he seemed completely comfortable with himself and with me, at ease and unassuming.

Finally he broke the silence. “So you know what they say about people who live in Park Hill?”

“I have no idea.”

Dylan shocked me by proceeding to try and entertain me with all manner of jokes, more off-color than not. Some were funny and some were just appalling. All of them made me laugh.

Like flicking a light switch, he turned on the boyish charm I’d only seen glimpses of before. I could immediately see why he’d been so popular.

I allowed myself a minute to look over at him. Dylan’s dark hair revealed chestnut highlights in the late morning sun and his grin seemed to get a little brighter whenever his eyes met mine. It occurred to me that we’d talked more in the last four weeks than we ever had. Out of nowhere I wondered whether we’d have been friends before if we’d met under different circumstances.

But what surprised me most? In that moment, Dylan Cameron, former quiet kid turned most popular guy in school turned troubled teen turned who knew what, wanted nothing more than to cheer me up. And I wanted nothing more than to let him try.

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