We Were Liars meets Speak in this haunting, mesmerizing psychological thriller—a gender-flipped YA Great Gatsby—that will linger long after the final line
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Ferns are older than dinosaurs. They’ve survived by growing under things, made hearty by their place in the shadows. Sucking up mud.
Barely even a plant. Ferns don’t make seeds, don’t flower. They propagate with spores knocked off their fronds by passing creatures or strong winds.
They sit there, forest deep, waiting to be touched.
Papa said Daddy could have any house he wanted, so he picked an old abandoned church at the end of a gravel road in the middle of the forest on an island.
Papa says it’s a money pit. Daddy says it’s a work in progress.
Papa says it was Daddy’s revenge for making them move for his career.
Papa says Daddy likes to make things hard for no reason. Daddy says it builds character.
Papa says I probably have brain damage from all the sawdust and paint fumes I inhaled as a baby. Daddy sometimes calls the house his other child.
Their bickering soothes me. That they argue about such little things reminds me we have nothing big to worry about. We’re the opposite of dysfunctional. We’re real live unicorns.
Commodore Island is nine miles long and five miles wide. In the summer, it’s overrun with tourists. Day-trippers from Seattle with their itineraries of the famous bakery and fish restaurant, the little boutiques and artisan cheese shop, all the old buildings preserved like a retro, small-town time capsule of family-owned businesses. You can barely see the tiny A-Corp logo on their signs.
Sometimes the tourists rent kayaks. Sometimes they go for hikes in the nature preserve at the center of the island. They walk around the muddy lake and take home photos and mosquito bites as souvenirs. They drive Olympic Road in its lumpy oval circuit, the mansions and luxury condos rising over them from the shore and stacking up the hill, each with its own view of the Sound, before the island’s middle gives way to forest.
The tourists slow at the gates of our more famous residents, stopping traffic to take pictures of the rare wild deer crossing the road. They get their little taste of quaint, of our tiny, unscathed bubble where you can almost believe the rest of the world isn’t falling apart, then they return to their gated communities in the city. There have been no deer in Seattle for a long time.
People can afford beauty here. The rich always get to keep a little of what they destroy.
Papa had a dream of becoming a fashion designer a long time ago, but he somehow ended up at A-Corp like everyone else on the island. Except he’s not some big fancy executive like most of the parents here. Papa’s the artistic director of the Children’s Division of Consumer Protective Apparel.
Instead of high fashion and runway shows, he’s in charge of making bulletproof vests for kids. It’s not glamorous, but somebody’s got to do it.
The tourists always end up at my work at some point on their trip: Island Home & Garden. They buy our signature T-shirts with the otters holding hands. Everyone loves otters holding hands. Even though otters haven’t been spotted here in a couple decades, not since the big oil spill off the coast of Vancouver Island.
My fathers are some of the few parents on the island who believe that a work ethic must be built; it is not something that can be inherited like wealth. I am the only person I know with a part-time summer job. I’m also the only person who works on this island who actually lives on this island. Everyone who lives here either works for A-Corp headquarters in Seattle, or doesn’t work. Everyone who works here lives in the giant subsidized housing complexes across the bridge to the west, on the peninsula, those miles of identical high-rise boxes strategically built on the other side of a hill so they won’t cheapen the view of anyone on the island. Buses full of workers arrive around the clock for shifts at the shops and restaurants, the grocery store, and the couple of car-charging stations, to work on gardens and remodels of houses. In and out, back and forth, like the tide.
I work while everyone else my age plays. I work while they travel, or while their parents travel and they stay home to party and be tended to by housekeepers and nannies who have their own families across the country waiting for checks to arrive, in the states that have no jobs because of the floods and the fires and the poisoned earth. I work while my best friend, Lily, is in Taiwan visiting family all summer. I sell orchids and fake antique watering cans to tourists and housewives, waiting for my real life to start.
There’s a rumor of a new arrival.
Moving trucks at the bottom of my hill. The gate across Olympic Road opens.
Not the usual executive rich. Not the CEOs and CFOs and COOs and CTOs of the various departments of A-Corp.
My sleepy town has woken up.
• • •
Rumor is she just got out of treatment. “Exhaustion,” they call it, which could mean anything. Drugs, alcohol, eating disorder, sex, gambling, self-harm, mental illness. It’s not so remarkable. Some kids on the island make these trips more often than summer camp.
Or she could just be tired.
“I’m tired,” Papa says. “I wish I could go somewhere for exhaustion.”
Daddy rolls his eyes in the way that means “I love you, but you can be so insensitive.”
Then Papa rolls his eyes in the way that means “I love you, but you can betoo sensitive.”
We have plums, apples, pears, blackberries, wild huckleberries. A vegetable garden that gasps for the few hours of sunlight that reach our small clearing in the forest. Overgrown gardens of rhododendron and azalea. Yellow scotch broom that burns my eyes and makes me sneeze.
In the spring: cherry blossoms and dogwood. Old, forgotten bulbs of daffodils and tulips peek through the weeds, the winter-browned pine needles, the brittle cones. The first sprouts always make Daddy tender and teary-eyed. They never last long enough.
Daddy goes around with a special paintbrush every afternoon pretending to be a bee, dusting each flower, and then the next, and the next, trying to spread pollen now that there are barely any bees left to do the work. He tells me that when I was very little, there were still a few real farms left. Almost everything you can buy at the grocery store is grown in a hothouse now, those vast acres of white buildings stretching across the countryside. But there are still people like Daddy who like to do things the old-fashioned way. They can sell one artisanal apple for twenty dollars at a farmers’ market.
But it is early summer now. The spring flowers are gone. We’re entering drought again. It is the name of the season even here, which used to be famous for being one of the wettest places on earth.
“Should we bring our new neighbors a pie or something?” Daddy says.
“That’s just in the movies,” Papa says.
“And how would we even get through the gate to give them the pie?” I say.
“You sound just like your father,” Daddy says.
“Meow,” says our cat, Gotami.
One thing Papa and Daddy agree on is that Commodore Island is full of a bunch of people with money trying to look like they don’t have money.
Seattle rich is a special kind of rich. It’s jeans and hiking boots and expensive high-tech moisture-wicking shirts for people who never sweat.
I can feel something different before I see them. A shift in energy. A sucking toward.
They are not Seattle rich.
They are big sunglasses and big purses rich. Loud, bright-printed sundresses against flawless bronze skin. Sparkling jewels and heeled sandals. Nobody here wears heels until they go off the island.
They’re practically matching. I don’t know who is copying whom.
Mother and daughter. From a distance, they could be twins.
A hundred years ago, this used to be a sleepy rural town that had a few small farms, a few small businesses, and a few Seattle commuters. Now the A-Corp elite who live in the massive estates lining the waterfront pay a fee that goes directly to the private security force that patrols the island.
A-Corp uses the nature preserve as an example of how progressive they are and how committed to preservation. But the trees keep dying, the pine needles turn brown and brittle, and the lake is full of dead fish no matter how fast workers clean it out and fill it with new ones.
We live on one of the few country roads left. Most have been bulldozed and replaced by ultra-modern, energy-efficient, luxury housing developments. Every time something breaks in our house, Papa reminds us that we could move to one of those condos. “You could still garden!” he tells Daddy, trying to sound cheerful. “There’s a community pea-patch! There’s a gym with a pool!”
We are good at leaving rich people alone. They walk among us every day. Most are the kind of rich that is not famous, though occasionally you might hear their names in the news, with words like “fiscal quarter” and “acquisitions” and “international market.”
They are not faces. They are not voices. They are not entire bodies and stories we’ve known since we were young. They are just names made out of money.
But this girl is made out of a different kind of money.
A boy asks for her autograph. Her smile is pure oxygen and sunlight. All the flowers in the store turn to her and open their petals.
For a moment, I am seeded. I have fruit.
Our house is built of old stones, covered with ivy so thick, it looks like it’s holding everything together. Daddy assures us it’s structurally sound. When the light hits us just right, the inside glows with dusty multicolored beams from the church’s old stained-glass windows.
This is the kind of thing Papa says: “Tasteful Episcopal stained glass,” with that look on his face like he’s chewing something rotten. He calls it “Art Deco Christianity.” At least there are no bloody Jesuses, he says.
Before they adopted me, Daddy went to school for a million years to be an interior architect. His specialty was adaptive reuse. He knows how to take old buildings and build them new insides. He likes finding broken things and nursing them back to life.
The few people in the shop steal shy glances her way. One takes a surreptitious photo with her phone.
“Can I get some help or what?” says the star’s mother.
I wipe my hands on my apron.
Papa is an atheist. Daddy is a Buddhist who likes Jesus. He says maybe the Three Wise Men were monks from Tibet looking for the new Dalai Lama. I say, Okay Daddy. He has all kinds of ideas he tells me when Papa’s not listening.
My job is to be handed things. I am to hold as much as I can in my arms until I have to deposit the pile on the counter by the register. I go back and forth with the mom’s ceramic cats and tiny shovels and decorative blown-glass balls. I keep my eyes on the items. I nod and say okay. I try not to look at the girl, the one made of sun.
Papa likes things clean and tidy and empty. Daddy likes everything full and found and barely unbroken.
The mom goes from shelf to shelf. There is no method to her selections except for more more more.
The girl mouths “I’m sorry.” I mouth “It’s okay.” Our whispers meet and tangle.
People love these fake antique watering cans. They’re Island Home & Garden’s best sellers, besides the T-shirts of the otters holding hands. Daddy says they’re an abomination. He says the rust and chipped red paint are a lie. The watering cans should have to earn their rust like the rest of us.
“What’s your name?” the sunlight says.
“Fern,” I say.
I am made.
• • •
This is my origin story. This is my creation myth.
Some kids take ferries every morning with the A-Corp commuters to go to their Seattle private schools. Others, like me, go to the employee-only A-Corp school on the island. Some go far away to boarding schools and then come back at holidays and in summer to have parties and remind the rest of us what we’re missing.
I am the one who goes nowhere.
This is the last summer.
“I’m Ivy,” the girl says. But of course I already know that. I tell her I think I’m her neighbor.
The mother holds up a fake antique watering can and says, “Ooh, this is so vintage! I love the rust.”
They are coming back, one by one, arriving at the airport with bags full of dirty laundry for their housekeepers to clean. They’ve already started their game of playing like adults with no consequences.
The local taxi service has called in reinforcements from the county across the bridge. There will soon be an island full of children getting drunk who need to get home.
• • •
I have to find boxes in the back to hold all the mother’s stuff. I concentrate on wrapping each thing in paper, but my hands are shaking.
“You seem nice,” says Ivy, the girl made of sun.
That’s me: Nice girl. Daddies’ girl. Good girl.
I am a middle-class girl from a loving, intact family. I am a fantasy. I am an endangered species. We are on the verge of extinction. I may be the last one of my kind.
“I’m supposed to recuperate this summer, and I need some company besides myself,” she says. “Here, write your number on this receipt. You can be like my tour guide.”
And now I have a real job. There is a use for me. I am chosen. I am touched.
Ash Kye. Tami Butler.
All year long, I follow their fabulous lives on social media while they forget I exist.
AshandTami. TamiandAsh. They are a unit. They are a single word.
I wonder what it would feel like to have a life that seems worthy of constant documentation.
I try not to get hung up on the fact that Tami is horrible. Ash chose her, so she must be made of at least something good. I’ve been trying to figure out what that is for years, ever since elementary school when we still went to the same A-Corp school, when she’d sit on top of the monkey bars and make us get in line to present her with “gifts” we found on the playground—a perfect pinecone, a special rock, a lost barrette—and no one questioned her authority. If we wanted to play with her, we had to play her game, and we always did.
It’s still like that every time she comes back from boarding school—everyone waiting to see if they’ll be chosen. I gave up caring a long time ago. People like Tami never choose people like me, so why should I bother wanting her to? What would I even get out of it? As far as I know, Tami doesn’t have any real friends. She has people she bosses around, people she parties with. Nothing deeper. Nothing real.
Despite all of that, my heart still jumps out of my chest when I see her car pull up behind mine outside the grocery store. Since when does Tami do her own grocery shopping? I expect her to act like I don’t exist, but for some reason she gets out of her car and walks up to me, her long white-blond hair trailing behind her in slow motion. She almost looks like she’s smiling. “You’re not fooling anyone with those sunglasses,” she says, and her voice is less bitchy than usual.
“Um, okay?” I say.
“Don’t act like you don’t remember me,” she says as she looks me up and down with what I think is approval. “It hasn’t been that long since Seth Greenmeyer’s party last fall.”
What is she talking about? We haven’t really hung out since elementary school. Is she high? She must be high. There are all sorts of designer drugs these days that make people act all kinds of weird.
“Of course I remember you,” I say.
“I would love to stay and chat,” she says. “But I’m running late. We have to hang out soon.” She pulls out her phone. “Here, tell me your number and I’ll text you.”
And that’s that. I give her my number and she drives off with a wave.
She didn’t even go into the grocery store. She stopped just to talk to me.
The first thing I think is that maybe she’s playing a trick on me. Maybe this is like one of those movies where the popular kid picks an unsuspecting loser to pretend to befriend only to humiliate later. This could be some kind of setup. But Ash wouldn’t let her do that. Even if our lives don’t intersect too much these days, he was still my best friend once. He’s the one whose house I went to every Saturday for years while Papa and his dad would go golfing, the one I built forts with, the one I tromped around with in the forest, pretending we were explorers from long ago before everything had already been discovered. Before there was AshandTami, there was just Ash, and he was mine.
His songs were mine. He started writing them when he was thirteen, and I was the only one he played them for. Even then, there was something about his music, a bittersweet beauty. He folded his body over his guitar while he played, all elbows and knees, thick black hair draping over his face like a package waiting to be opened. He wasn’t cool then. His braces were off but he still wore clothes his mother’s assistant picked out for him—preppy jeans that were a little too big and button-down shirts that were a little too short. His voice squeaked sometimes when he talked.
By sophomore year, he had learned to be cool. That’s when he and Tami started dating. Ash could have had his pick of anyone he wanted, but he chose her. Or he let her choose him.
His mother is Persian and his father is Korean. It doesn’t seem to bother him when Tami lifts her arm next to his and compares their skin, when she makes comments about what a pretty color their babies will be. He didn’t even seem to mind that time at a party when she was admiring their reflection in a hallway mirror and said, “I wish your eyes were just a little wider.”
Without a beat, he said, “And I wish you were just a little less of a bitch,” and then they laughed, and then they kissed, like he didn’t care that his girlfriend was kind of racist, like this is just how couples talk to each other.
But I’ve seen glimpses—the comments in passing, parsed over time like a continuing conversation: “Isn’t this exhausting?” he says to me at one party on his way to get another drink. “If only these assholes knew how I really feel about them,” he whispers in my ear at another, just before a couple of guys, pills in their pockets, lead him outside. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get away from all of this?” he sighs at still another, positioning his guitar on his lap, a crowd of girls seated at his feet. There have been so many glances at me across a room while Tami holds court next to him, while he’s surrounded by adoring people. But he looks at me like he’s alone, like he wants out, and I am the only person who sees it, I am the only one he’s allowing to see him.
There’s something intoxicating about this, about being let in on someone’s secrets, like glimpsing a tiny light shining through a crack in a wall, and all you want to do is start hammering away, see what else is hiding there, be the one to find it, to claim it. All I want is to see inside. To be the one.
I wonder what Ivy Avila was like as a kid. I wonder what she wants. What was it that made her who she is now? If, like Ash, she started out as someone different. Or if, like me, she hasn’t changed at all.
Tami called me two days after I ran into her at the grocery store and invited me over. I tried on a total of six different outfits before leaving the house, ultimately deciding on a pair of jeans and a black tank top because according to Papa, “the simplest option is always the most elegant,” and he knows these things, even if all he designs these days is armor. I’ve known Tami since kindergarten, but this is the first time she’s ever invited me over to her house,alone, for something other than a party that everyone else was also invited to. I try not to think too much about what this means, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe Ash had something to do with it. Maybe this is all some sort of premeditated plan. Maybe he’s the one who wants us to be friends. Maybe he thinks I’ll rub off on her or something. Like how Ivy Avila said, “You seem nice,” and asked for my number.
Ivy still hasn’t called. It’s been five days. I’m trying not to think about that either.
I drive to Tami’s house on the east side of the island and announce myself to the security camera at the front gate. It opens mysteriously and I park Papa’s little electric Honda behind Tami’s Tesla. I thought Ash might be here, but hers is the only car I can see, and I suddenly want to turn around and go home. My disappointment is not a surprise, but my fear is. I have never been alone like this with Tami Butler, not socially, not on purpose.
The house is just like Tami—beautiful and perfect and cold. On the outside, it is black corrugated metal. On the inside, it is all chrome and glass and white leather. A housekeeper leads me through the living area to the back deck.
“How are you today?” I ask her.
“Fine, thank you,” she says with a monotone Southern drawl, without looking back at me. She is probably one of so many workers from the southern states here on an inter-state work visa, or a refugee from the flooded coast, where things are so bad with hurricanes and poverty and diseased mosquitos. I wonder if she still has family back there, her own children maybe, while she’s here taking orders from Tami. I wonder if Tami even knows where the housekeeper’s from, what happened in her life that made her come here.
Housekeepers, gardeners, nannies, personal assistants. I wonder what it would be like to be able to hire people to do everything for you that you can do yourself.
Mountains frame the skyscrapers of Seattle, creating a dramatic backdrop to the covered deck where Tami is sitting with her arms stretched over the back of a huge wraparound couch. She could be posing for a magazine. She could own the view itself.
She does not rise to greet me, but simply gives a little wave of her hand, like she summoned me and is now simply acknowledging my delivery. She is perfection in black yoga clothes, the epitome of Seattle rich—active, casual, flawless—with long platinum hair that has never known a split end, and ice-blue eyes surrounded by long black curls of fake eyelashes. She is strikingly beautiful, powerful in a sharp, slightly scary way, with a look on her face like she’s sizing me up, calculating my worth with some intricate math only she knows and that I have no hope of learning.
“Luanne, bring us some snacks, will you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the housekeeper says. I will never get over eighteen-year-olds being calledma’am by women old enough to be their mothers.
“Well, you certainly are beautiful,” Tami says to me with something like disappointment in her voice.
I have never been the kind of girl anyone called beautiful. Maybe pretty, but more often than not, nothing at all.
“You changed your hair,” Tami says.
“I’ve been growing it out.”
“I envy you.”
“Me? Why?” I am nobody. I am the invisible girl who never leaves this island.
“You make it look so easy.”
“Make what look easy?”
Special. Ash is special. Tami is special. I am not special.
I want to be special.
If Ash were here, he’d have his back to me. He’d be facing the water and the city, playing something soft on his guitar. His hair would be much longer than the last time I saw him. He would not turn around. He’s the kind of person who likes to keep people waiting. He’s the kind of person who likes people to come to him. And we always do.
“I love this view,” Tami says as I enter the shaded U of the couch. I imagine her sliding closer to Ash now, draping her long legs over his knees, claiming him, pushing his guitar against his body so he’s trapped, unable to play. “You don’t need that right now, do you?” she would say. The tight muscles of his back would be defined through his thin T-shirt as he turned to set the guitar behind the couch.
You don’t need that right now. Tami dismisses Ash’s music, like his parents have. They’re old-school, the kind that require their children to learn an instrument at a young age, not to instill a love of music but because it’s supposed to make them smarter. He is not supposed to be a musician. He is supposed to continue the family A-Corp dynasty and turn out just like them. Just like Tami.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” I say.
Tami looks at me with a raised eyebrow.
Now is when he’d finally look at me from behind his curtain of hair, flicking it out of his eyes, and I would try to smile back, but my face would be crooked. He would smile with one side of his mouth like we were in on something together, like we’ve been carrying on some secret correspondence while he was away at school that no one, not even me, knows about.
He would say my name. He would smile that smile that feels like you’re being shined on. He would get up and hug me, his body hard and sun-warmed, smelling like sweat and pine needles.
“He’s stoned,” Tami would say. “He’s a hugger when he’s stoned.”
“You want to smoke, Fern?” he would offer as he sits back down, as Tami’s legs stretch over him once again.
“Remember, honey,” Tami would say. “Fern is morally superior to you and me.”
“Someone has to be.” He is so adept at softening Tami’s constant blows.
“I suppose you don’t want a drink?” Tami says now, taking a sip of hers, something clear and icy with crushed herbs of some kind.
“No thanks,” I say.
“Good for you,” she says.
Tami would remove her legs from Ash’s lap and he would immediately pick up his guitar from behind the couch and start playing again, his black hair guarding his eyes.
“Ash writes these little songs,” Tami would say. “It’s cute.” And he would act like he didn’t hear her.
“Your house is beautiful,” I say now. I know I’ve been here before, but after a while, all rich people’s houses start looking the same. Daddy always says if you can’t figure out what to say, give someone a compliment. Everyone loves compliments.
“I heard yours is pretty cool too,” she says, folding her long legs under her. “It’s on the west side of the island, right? Off Olympic?”
I nod. Why would Tami care anything about my house?
“Who are you hanging out with these days?”
“No one in particular. Mostly just Lily.” Lily, who moved here a year ago. My only real friend since Ash.
“Who’s Lily? You should bring her sometime.”
“She’s always going to Taiwan.”
“Ugh, I hate Taiwan. I hate anywhere you have to wear a mask. It messes up my face.”
Ash would look up from his guitar for a moment and emit a laugh like a puff of air and Tami wouldn’t even notice.
The beauty of the view is interrupted by a decrepit boat puttering by, in such bad shape, it looks like it shouldn’t even be floating. Laundry hangs off a line on the back next to a few bicycles chained together, surrounded by stacks of various crates and boxes secured by bungees. I see a skinny man and a smudgy little girl. Then a little boy, even younger. I wonder how long they’ve been sailing from place to place, hauling anchor as soon as they become unwelcome. Boats like these in Puget Sound—they’re not so different from the people living in cars or tents on land, except these people can fish for their food, and they can sink.
An island security boat motors up behind it, lights flashing, a voice announcing over a loudspeaker: “You’re too close to shore. Move away from the shore or you will be issued a citation.” A few nearby birds squawk at the interruption and fly away.
“Island security really needs to step up their game,” Tami says. “Did you hear they found a whole family living in the nature preserve? They’d been there for weeks and nobody noticed. We pay good money to not have to deal with that kind of thing.”
The two sunburned children look out the grimy windows of the boat’s cabin as it turns away.
“This island is so boring. How can you stand it?” Tami says.
“I kind of like it here. It’s beautiful. The air’s still breathable.” I almost add, “People are nice,” but that’s not true. People here are not nice.
“I guess,” she says. “But no offense, Commodore Island isn’t exactly the cultural capital of the world.”
Tami’s one of those people who says “no offense” before she says something offensive.
“God, I am so bored,” she moans. “I just got back, and I am already so bored.” She smiles, and something opens, a crack in her façade. “But now Ivy Avila’s here.”
My chest seizes. Has she met her already too? Has Ivy called her and not me?
“We’re going to have a good time this summer,” Tami says, looking at me, and her face is different—not so sharp and intimidating. “You and me.”
“Okay,” I say. You and me. There has never been a Tami and me.
“I don’t have a lot of friends,” she says. “I know a million people, but none of them are real friends, you know?”
“Yeah,” I say, because in some strange way, I do.
“I think we could be friends,” she says.
“Me too,” I say, but I feel something heavy in my stomach.
She laughs. “You want to hear this thing my mom always says? She’s been saying it ever since I was a kid. She always tells me, ‘It’s lonely at the top.’ I mean, it sounds so conceited, right? But it’s true. You know what I mean.”
Tami is lonely at the top. That’s what this is about. She wants to see what it’s like to have a friend who’s beneath her.
“When you get down to it,” she says, “most people aren’t really friends. Mostly we’re all just using each other.”
She forces a smile and sits up tall. She tilts her head and just like that, all her cold perfection clicks back into place. “Are you hungry?” She types something into her phone. “Where is that goddamned maid?”
I am not hungry. I want to leave here. I want to see Ash.
Maybe the reason Ash can stand to be with her is because of his talent for closing himself off, his strange knack for acting like he’s alone even when surrounded by people.
“We should have a party,” Tami says.
We both have this talent, Ash and me. We have our own worlds nobody even knows about.
“That’s all there is to do on this island,” she says. “Party. Get wasted and have sex.”
Maybe now is when I would look at Ash and he’d be staring right at me, and our eyes would meet, and Tami would fade away. And maybe she would go inside to check on the housekeeper, because no one ever does anything fast enough for her or the right way. And as soon as she disappeared into the house, I’d feel myself unchained, and Ash would tuck his hair behind his ear and say, “You just took a deep breath.”
“As soon as Tami was gone, you took a deep breath,” he says. “Like all of a sudden you could breathe again.” He smiles. “I feel like that too sometimes.”
“How’ve you been, Fern?” he says, with those eyes that make this feel like an incredibly important question. Like I am an incredibly important question.
I have been fine. There has never been much else besides fine. My existence is defined by fine.
“How are your dads?”
“Good. Papa’s working a lot, as usual. Dad’s thinking about writing a cookbook.”
“Isn’t he supposed to be an architect?”
“The only house he ever managed to actually build was ours.”
Ash laughs, and for a brief moment, I don’t feel so hopeless.
“How’s your dad?” I say. I’ve heard the rumors about him being back in rehab again.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, looking out at Seattle. “He likes the place he’s at. They have equestrian therapy there. He says he’s thinking about retiring early and buying a horse farm. We’ve talked on the phone a little. I don’t think he wants to leave.”
“He’s safe there.”
What I want to ask is: Do you talk to Tami about stuff like this?
What I want to ask is: What makes a person safe?
“She’s not in there getting food,” he says.
“She’s calling her boyfriend in Seattle.”
I stare at him, look for some shred of feeling, but it’s trapped somewhere deep inside, and all I see is a beautiful boy who deserves so much better.
But I already know Tami has another boyfriend. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done some research. It’s not difficult to find things out about people.
“You’ve changed,” he says.
“It’s the hair.” I’ve grown it long. It’s lightened in the sun.
“It’s more than that.”
“Maybe,” I say. Then, “Yes.” Then, “You’ve changed too.”
He doesn’t say anything for a long time. I like being quiet with Ash. I like watching the sky darken to strips of orange.
“I bet the sunset looks different on your side of the island.”
“Do you still climb that tree by your house? Can you see the sunset from it?”
“Let’s do that sometime, okay? Let’s climb that tree and watch the sunset.”
“Let’s keep in better touch when we go to college.”
I say nothing because I can’t keep saying yes, yes, okay. I must have something to say besides what I have always said. Besides just doing what I’m told, besides just agreeing, besides just validating everyone else’s existence.
Ash sighs. His eyes are glassy and tired. He drains his drink, crunches on an ice cube.
“You’ll chip your teeth,” I say.
“Papa always says that when I chew ice.”
“But that’s what dentists are for. There’s always someone to fix everything.”
We look at the sky a little longer. Sunsets take forever in the summer.
“None of this is real,” Ash says out of nowhere, and I look at the orange and pink reflected in the windows of the Seattle skyscrapers.
“You’re real,” I say, even though I know he’s not, that this entire conversation has taken place in my imagination.
I feel my skin tighten, an oppressive weight in my chest. I know before I even turn around that Tami has returned and Ash is gone.
“Put the food on the table,” she tells the housekeeper, who is following her, carrying a tray of tiny sandwiches and intricately sliced raw vegetables.
“Thank you,” I say.
“What are you going to do now, tip her?” Tami says, laughing.
“Anything else, Miss Tami?” the woman says.
“No.” It’s like she makes a special effort to not say “No, thank you.”
Before the housekeeper is outside hearing range, Tami says, “That accent makes them sound so stupid.”
“I think I’m going to go,” I say, standing up. The heavy feeling in my stomach is worse now. “I don’t want to be late for dinner,” I say, even though I already told Daddy I’d be home late.
“Oh,” Tami says, and for a moment I see her edges softened, her shoulders not so yoga perfect. She is disappointed, maybe even embarrassed. She is maybe a small piece of human. Maybe all people, even the Tami Butlers of the world, get lonely sometimes.
“Okay,” she says, making an effort to sound chipper. “I’ll feed your food to the fishes, then.” She rises and walks to the bar to make herself another drink. That’s two just since I’ve been here. “Seattle is so far away,” she says to no one in particular. “I wish I had my own helicopter.”
I almost say “Tell Ash I say hi,” but stop myself.
“Let’s do something wild,” she says. “I’ll think of something.”
“Okay,” I say, even though I am the girl who never does anything wild. She should know that. But maybe she knows something I don’t.
And I walk away, leaving Tami to drink alone. And just like that, I am gone, like I’d never even been there.
I drive home but I don’t go inside just yet. It’s almost dark. Daddy and Papa are probably drinking herbal tea and watching some kind of smart show, probably a documentary or critically acclaimed dramatic series. Gotami is getting her fur all over the throw blanket in the nest she’s made between them on the couch. Daddy has some dried garbanzo beans soaking in water to make homemade hummus in the morning. My sweet little family doing their sweet little family things.
I climb the giant old oak tree on the edge of the property, between the fruit trees and where the real forest starts, with thick, strong branches in all the right places. A curved one near the top is a perfect perch, with another branch behind it that serves as a backrest. I could probably fall asleep here and be safe from falling.
I listen to the bugs and night sounds, leaning back to look up at the sliver of moon peeking through the branches of the taller trees overhead. I think how this would be a perfect place for a teenager who wanted a place to get away, a place to have secrets.
I think it is time for me to start making some secrets. I’m eighteen years old and I’ve done nothing yet.
It’s almost lunchtime in Taiwan. I can’t remember if it’s today there, or tomorrow, or yesterday. Lily and I promised to call or at least text each other every day, but I have no idea what I’d even say to her right now. She’d want to know what happened at Tami’s, and I don’t want to talk about that, don’t want to tell her how disappointed I was that Ash wasn’t there, don’t want to tell her Tami says she has plans for us. I don’t want to tell her how this both terrifies and excites me.
From here, I can just see over the trees down the hill toward the shore. I can see the lights on at Ivy Avila’s house, the walls of which are almost completely glass. A dark figure is in an upstairs window, looking out at Seattle, and everything about it, objectively, is beautiful. But something about the scene makes me think of Alcatraz, another island, how the prisoners there must have felt so many years ago, behind bars with the most beautiful view in the world.