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I’m having second thoughts.
We’re driving down my sister Allison’s driveway, the one that makes a loop in front of her house. Judging by how slow she's driving her roomy Lexus down said driveway, she's having second thoughts about this, too.
Not that anyone cared to ask for my opinion before exiling me for the entire summer.
Not that I deserve to be consulted.
Allison sucks in one of her cheeks as she ekes the car farther down the drive, headlights marking our path in the waning sunlight. The painfully slow drive mimics my hesitation. Texas wildflowers sway against the orange skyline in the summer night. From inside the car, I can just barely make out the familiar scent of tall grass and weeds that cling to the tiny, wealthy city of Old Oak, Texas.
"Justin moved all the boys' toys out of the guest bedroom, so it's not a playroom anymore. And we told Cam he's not supposed to bother you. So, you know, hopefully he won't."
I snort, a smile springing to my face despite my nerves. No chance my five-year-old nephew is going to listen to that rule. He'll be bounding onto my bed by 6 A.M. no matter what, just like he did the whole week I stayed here last spring break. But with his wide brown eyes and fuzzy crop of black hair, it’s hard to stay mad at him. He's the only one I let call me by my old nickname, Piggy, instead of my real name, Paige.
When we reach the end of the driveway, my sister presses the garage door opener attached to the roof of her car, and the white garage door slides open. After parking inside, she pulls the keys from the ignition and turns to me.
"Should we talk about it?"
And there it is. I lift one shoulder and give my head a small shake, stomach uneasy. It’s always uneasy lately. "Mom already told you everything."
I heard her on the phone, huddled in a corner of the dining room early one morning, whispering loudly like she always does when she thinks she's being discrete. Mom told Allison everything. My face grows hot just thinking about what she knows. That night with Griffin, the police, what it did to Dad…
She nods, a faint pink creeping along her ears. "But you could tell me too. It might be nice to hear your side."
My teeth tug at my bottom lip. I swore I would not spend all my time here rehashing the events that led to this, to my punishment.
"I messed up, Ally. It was stupid, but I didn't think..." Something catches in my throat and I can't finish. What was I going to say, anyway? That I didn't think I'd get caught?
But really—I never thought Mom would take things this far. That she'd send me thousands of miles away to teach me a lesson. When Dad got sick the first time this year, what did I do? Sneak out in the middle of the night to meet Griffin. And when Mom grounded me for it? I spray-painted her name on the underside of a bridge in bold, drippy letters.
My eyes blink shut for a second before I release a deep breath. "Can we talk about this later?"
Allison nods a little too eagerly, her long brown hair cascading back and forth. "Absolutely. We'll talk once you're settled in."
I lift my suitcase from the trunk and follow her inside through the door that leads to the kitchen. Her flip-flops make a swish-swish sound across the grey tiled floors. Even with all the lights dimmed, her house is beautiful. It's one of those shiny white and grey modernist designs, but it's not cold and lifeless. Alongside the sleek lines and stainless-steel appliances are upward of one hundred framed pictures. Allison doesn't have much time for her photography business now that she has two kids, but she still takes a ton of pictures of her own family. From where I stand in the kitchen, gazing out across the open floor plan to the living room and dining room, a dozen photographed versions of my two nephews grin back at me.
My sister holds up a finger and walks through the living room and then through a door at the far corner of the first floor. "Hold on," she says.
I blink, one hand still squeezing my suitcase handle, the other skimming across the cool, black granite countertops. Five seconds later, she reappears with my brother-in-law, Justin. Even though I have older brothers of my own, Justin is one of my favorite people. When Allison brought him home to meet everyone for the first time over Christmas break, he spent the entire week teaching me how to play Phase 10. And even though I can't prove it, and he vehemently denies it, I'm almost positive he lets me win half the time—just to be nice. It would never occur to any of my older siblings to do something like that, even though I was still a little kid that Christmas. So, yeah. Justin is kind of special.
He strides toward me now, lips stretched wide in a familiar smile, and long arms outstretched. I let my bag drop and slip one arm around his waist and squeeze. He steps back to look at me, his thick black eyebrows lowering.
"I heard you've had an interesting couple of months. What's up with that?"
My heart zooms up from its normal place to an uncomfortable position in my throat. I can't forget about what I did for a minute, not even here.
From behind him, Allison shakes her head, making a growling sound. "She just got here."
He nods slowly, still sizing me up. I shift under his stare while Allison sighs deeply. She hooks an arm around her husband's waist and moves her gaze toward the shiny black clock hanging above the dining room table. "It's past our bedtime. Do you need help with your bags?"
My eyes follow hers. It's not even ten. This is where I'd usually tease them for being incredibly old and boring, but I chew on the inside of my cheek and force a grin. Better not to rock the boat the first day I'm here. I shake my head and sling my duffel bag up, tucking it under one arm. "I've got it. See you guys in the morning."
They head off to their bedroom, and I walk to the staircase on the other side of the floor. Up the stairs, past the bathroom and two other bedrooms, where yellow flickers from nightlights peep under the doors. The guest room door is slightly open and the bed's made sheets tucked in tight—just like Mom taught us.
The door firmly closed behind me, I lower myself to the bed and unzip the small bag at my side, sweeping past my newest romance book and pulling out the letter Mom sent with me with explicit directions to open it once I arrived. My eyes glaze over the first half—it's all boring sentimental stuff that sounds like she copied it from a generic parenting book. Instead I skip to the end where what she's written sends icy shivers down my spine.
With Dad’s health, we can’t afford to spend all our time afraid the police will show up at the house. I'll email you a link to Hopkin’s Boarding School later this week. It's the same place your Aunt Sarah attended when she was having trouble in high school, and it did wonders for her attitude. Remember how much we love you. This is all for your own good. I hope you know that.
XO-Mom and Dad
At the last line, my lip involuntarily curls. "For your own good" is code for "we're the bosses, so do what we say or else."
Or else boarding school.
My stomach flips over and over, like it’s bobbing in deep water and struggling to stay afloat.
I appreciate space from my parents as much as the next sixteen-year-old, but still. Boarding school is not my idea of a good time. Most of the time I actually like my family. And Dad…
It’s hard to ignore Mom’s not-so-thinly veiled suggestion that I’m the cause of his recent bout of sickness. Crohn’s disease can be exasperated by stress, but have I really been that bad?
My hand tightens around the letter, crumpling it in my fist.
A big reason I'm in this mess is because after twenty-nine years and five kids, Mom and Dad got too tired of parenting to pay attention to me. Neither of them has the energy to deal with what Dad deemed my "wild streak," especially with his worsening health. Something tells me Hopkin’s Boarding School is full of the youngest children with wild streaks. I'd be one of many. Again.
I slip a pen from the front pocket of my bag and flip over Mom's letter. Numbering one through three for every month I'll be here, I start at the top. For June, I can write apology letters to everyone back home, starting with my parents. I'm surprised apologies weren't Mom’s first requirement. Letters will definitely impress her. In July, I can work on myself somehow. Mom's letter says I need to change my behavior, so how about a big change? I write change down with a question mark after it. I can come back to that. And for the last month, August, I know what I have to do. Something big to prove that I'm not a lost cause. Some trick or easy lie that will make them sure I’m the good little girl they need me to be. We’re past the point for authentic grand gestures, and I think deep down even Mom knows that. Really, there’s only one thing my list should include, and it’s the only thing I’m not sure I’m capable of doing: Don’t. Self. Sabotage.
I slide my hand across the cool cotton sheets, lean back on the bed, and lay against the silky white pillow. I made some huge mistakes, but all I have to do is lie low this summer and do my community service, and then I can fly back to Washington in time for school in the fall. I’m not going to boarding school. I'll fix this.
I have to.