Who We Were in the Dark
- Pages: 368 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780735228146
An Excerpt From
Who We Were in the Dark
There are places you know, and then there are places that know you. Donner Pass, the high point over Truckee, where the elevation made Donner Lake spread like deep blue ink throughout the dip in the valley—that was somewhere that knew the sound of my footsteps, the smell of my frozen hair, the rhythm of my heart.
Inside the cabin, the plink plink plink of the kitchen faucet needled my ears. I tossed my keys onto the cracked tile counter and flipped off the water. It had been left on by someone to keep the relentless cold from freezing the pipes solid. Our cabin wore the signs of a year without me. Cobwebs trailed down the staircase spindles, a layer of grease caked the stove from the year before, and the once-white sink was stained with rust spots and limescale.
I used to miss these walls and woods when I was suffocating between locker-lined hallways. I’d wait for summer and winter and spring—three times a year when Kevin’s Jeep would climb up, up, up through the twisted hills. As the oxygen thinned, I could finally breathe.
Here in Truckee, high above Donner Lake, the air tasted like pine, like lake water, like fresh snow. Here, I’d hear my brother’s whoops as we tore through the forest at night, feel Rand’s kisses vibrating against my throat on the hotel rooftop, relish the hollow clink of Grace’s glass against mine, her eyes going bright as she raised her drink to the night and the summer and us.
Back then I didn’t know that I’d have to hold Grace’s silence too. How that absence of sound would be the loudest of all.
Donner Pass didn’t just know me. It knew them too. Now, after a year away, without me and without us—our wonderful and wretched foursome—I wished this place could forget.
Spring: Year One
There was a story Scotch-taped to my bedroom wall back home. Frayed edges, torn from a spiral binder. The ink was gel and purple from a too-nice pen I’d borrowed from my math partner last year and forgot—kind of—to give back. Inside that shimmery, violet universe, a girl was trapped in a box. One day, the girl tunneled through the side and reached out for a perfect world. A bright, sunlit life her fingers couldn’t quite touch—
A jerk of the Jeep made my eyes snap open. Mountainside trees whirred past, giving way to the bright flash of a quick-flowing river.
Kevin and Wesley were listening to the game on the radio—A’s vs. Cardinals. I’d lost track of the score.
From the back seat, I stared at the sleeve of Kevin’s Cal T-shirt as he shifted gears on the old Jeep and cornered the tight mountain turns. The college tee didn’t go with the gray at Kevin’s temples that peppered its way into his half-hearted beard. That was the real giveaway that he had decades on Wesley and me. A forty-year-old former frat boy who had inexplicably sprouted a conscience.
The A’s batter struck out and Wesley bit his knuckles.
He was an A’s fan—we both were. My brother liked that they were a small team with no budget who turned it all around. Our mom raised us on the roar of the A’s stadium and hot dogs that snapped between our teeth. That was back when we had extra cash for games, before Mom got sick.
The constant stream of the announcers’ voices and the occasional roar of the fans were enough to drown out the silence in the car.
“Yeah!” Kevin yelled when the Cardinals hit one out of the park, which was probably the eighth word he’d said since we left Gridley two hours before. I didn’t know why he’d root for them, a team from Missouri. I didn’t know why, because I didn’t know him at all.
Wesley hugged the headrest behind him as he looked back at me. “Nora, you got your stuff out of the dryer, right?”
He’d already asked me this twice, first while we watched the front window for Kevin to pull up—half an hour later than Kevin had said—and again before I went back inside to leave a fresh glass of water next to the pill bottles on Mom’s nightstand while she slept. The back of her hand had been curled up over her eyes, blocking out both the midday light seeping through her blinds and the phantom from her former life idling his Jeep in our drive.
“Forgot,” I said as I propped my bare feet on the center console and wiggled my toes against Wesley’s arm. “I guess I’ll be sockless and pantsless all week.”
“There’s a Target in Reno,” Kevin said over his shoulder. “I don’t mind detouring.”
Wesley exhaled and faced forward. “She’s being a smart-ass.”
Kevin chuckled, tightening his hand on the steering wheel and letting it go loose. “The smart-ass gene runs rampant on my side of the family, Nora.” He scratched the scruff on his chin and flicked his eyes to Wesley. “Your, uh, mom says you play baseball.”
“Yep.” Wesley shifted his long limbs around in his seat, knobby knees bumping the glove box. “Just JV, though. They don’t put a ton of freshmen on varsity.”
Kevin squeezed Wesley’s shoulder, and I noticed the carburetor burn from Wesley’s after-school job had turned an angrier shade of red. “Next year,” Kevin said. “You’ll make it next year.” In the rearview mirror, he gave me a questioning look. “Nora, you, um, play too, yeah? Eighth grade. You gonna try out for JV next year?”
The seat belt chafed my neck. I zipped my sweatshirt to my chin and sat up straighter. “There isn’t a girls’ team next year. Not at the high school.”
The dizzying pull of the roadside river’s current churned through my stomach.
Spring breaks were for sleeping until lunch, climbing up on the roof to see the stars, and staying over at any house that found itself parentless for the night.
Our mom had just moved us into a smaller apartment that put my brother and me into a new school district. Everything I’d known for basically all my life was being carried away from me, whitecaps on a roiling river.
The trees pulled away from the wide blue sky as our wheels hit the lookout point at the top of the hill. Kevin rolled down the driver’s-side window. The air slapped against my face as the car climbed higher. It must have been twenty degrees cooler than back in the valley.
“Lots of history in these hills,” he said. “You can feel it.”
Wesley bumped his head up and down in a little nod. “Sounds cool.”
He was approaching this “vacation” like it was another day of work at the shop, a thing to go along with, a duty to fulfill.
“You’ll feel it when you’re up there, Nora,” Kevin said. “The air, the lake, the pines—you’re going to love it.” He glanced to Wesley. “Both of you.”
All I could feel was the humming of the radio speaker against my leg and the certainty that my brother and I should not be hurtling up a mountain with a stranger.
My short story was far, far away, flapping under the ceiling fan I probably left on. I should have brought the pages with me. A year ago, I’d started it. It still needed an ending.
The announcer on the radio called the game for the Cardinals. The A’s lost. Kevin’s fist punched up in the air. Wesley cringed a little but smiled at Kevin and said, “Go, Cardinals.”
These two, my dad and my brother, they were both strangers to me. Just in different ways.
Kevin said less and less again the closer we got to Truckee. Occasionally when he had to change lanes, he lifted up in his seat and craned his neck to see over the luggage blocking the back window.
My brother and I spilled onto the dirt driveway like puppies, blinking in the mid-afternoon sunlight, muscles tight from the long drive. I hadn’t realized I’d expected a taste of the luxe life until I was staring up at the cabin. I felt myself sink a little.
It must have been built in the seventies and never updated. Every cabin we’d passed on the way up had seemed nicer, newer. But they all had to have been built around the same time. So not newer, but fresher, maybe. More lived-in. More loved.
A nice cabin wasn’t somewhere Wesley and I belonged anyway.
Nice cabins were for kids who didn’t worry the electric company would turn off the lights again because that little red notice in the mail went unanswered, or that their gym shoes were too tight around the toes to climb the rope to the tip-top, or that the school would give them a different lunch than the other kids—only half a sandwich and an apple—because their lunch account was short by twenty bucks.
Holding my backpack in front of me, I walked inside and stood in the middle of the carpet, watching dust float across the sun-streaked air.
Kevin tossed the keys on the tiled kitchen counter and swept his hair off his sun-freckled forehead. He glanced around the musty room. “This is, uh . . . it.”
Do you remember him? I’d asked Wesley the week before, sitting on his bed and trying to make him talk to me. He’d just shaken his head. Wesley must have been about eighteen months old when Kevin took off. Me, just days.
Our mom said he’d died. A quick answer in the drop-off line at school while Wesley and I sat in the back seat clutching backpacks as big as we were. It was the week before Father’s Day, and Wesley had wanted to know where to send the card he’d made during craft hour the day before.
But our dad was very much living. He had not one but two mailing addresses, when we could barely pay the rent on a tiny two-bedroom duplex.
Wesley came through the front door behind me, my duffel hanging from his long arms. He took in the framed baseball paraphernalia hanging on the wood-paneled walls.
“Let me.” I reached for the handle of my bag.
Wesley heaved it farther into the room. “I’ve already got the thing inside.”
I’d always looked a lot like my brother—our matching dark hair, pale skin, and pink-tipped noses that sunburned too easily. Only I was an inch shorter than his five ten, had a meatiness to my structure he lacked, and my jaw was softer, not so square.
Now that I watched Kevin in profile, I knew where my soft jaw had come from.
A darkness filled me up, even as sunlight rippled in through the tattered curtains. I picked at the edge of one and curled it between my fingers.
Kevin cleared his throat behind me. “Those were your grandma’s. This place was hers.”
“Our grandma,” I said. “She’s—”
“Gone,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said, at the same time Wesley asked, “When did she die?” Under the unease, there was still that polite interest in his voice, almost cheeriness.
“Just this last year. Your grandfather the year before that.”
A sadness settled over me then. We could have known them.
I picked up my bag and held it close to me. Inside it, there was a king-size bag of M&M’s and two books—enough to last me approximately two of the five days we were trapped between these walls. “What, um, what are we going to do all week?”
“Well, I guide,” Kevin said, gesturing toward the back window. I guessed that was the direction of the lake. “Fishing tours during the on-season. For tourists, I mean.”
My backpack was making my arms ache. I let it thud against the carpeted floor. “What do you do in Boise?”
“Lodi,” he said. “I haven’t lived in Idaho since I was in my twenties. I work at a hardware store, off and on.”
A flush rose up Wesley’s neck, settling in his cheeks. “Lodi?” When the most recent version of the truth had come out, Mom had said our very-not-dead dad lived all the way in Boise, Idaho. “That’s, like, three hours from us.”
I blinked hard.
Three hours in the car and he could have reached us, found out we were not okay. Now I understood whydead was the kinder lie.
Kevin swallowed and rubbed his chin. “I’m—” He threw a wild look out the window in the direction of the lake we hadn’t yet seen. “I need to get down to my slip, check on the boat.”
He could have told us ten different lies about why he’d never come and we probably would have doe-eyed nodded. Because even if we’d known he was full of shit, it was what we needed—a reason. So we’d take the lie. But Kevin didn’t even offer that. Kevin didn’t want to try.
So I wasn’t going to either. I wouldn’t try to ask hard questions that’d only get me silence. I wouldn’t try to “bond” or whatever. I wouldn’t try to undo fourteen years of dead or not dead or who cares anyway he just wasn’t there.
Wesley grabbed the handle of my duffel, knuckles going white.
“Wesley,” I said. “Wesley.” Hoping he’d say something to make this a little bit okay.
In the month leading up to this trip—and even now—I kept waiting to catch my brother in a look, in some kind of shared understanding. We had a dad. He wasn’t dead. He liked theCardinals. And we were spending a week with him somewhere around Donner Lake. If there was ever going to be a time when Wesley and I got each other again, it should have been this.
But there was a panic in his eyes I’d only seen when Mom was spinning out.
I heaved my luggage away from him, high in my arms, and headed up the creaking stairs.
The pines shuddered in the breeze outside. Every room, closet, and cabinet felt like they hadn’t been opened in years. But the March air was cold, and Wesley pushed past me, struggling to close the window I’d opened in the bedroom.
“Stop,” I said. “It’s broken.”
He fought it, the tendons in his neck popping out.
“Wesley, stop,” I said, stepping closer. He was too quick to get mad, and I didn’t want this to be one of those times.
The window wouldn’t budge. The frame was bent. I’d fix it later.
He let go and sank down to the worn carpet. “Stupid-ass thing,” he said. “Everything in this hole is broke or busted.”
I smiled. “Same thing.”
Wesley, clutching the back of his neck with both hands, met my eyes. “I guess.” His body relaxed against the wall.
“And we’re luckier than most—two live parents and two broke and busted houses.”
Wesley hmphed, not really a laugh.
A pine needle blew in. I picked it up and sat down on the end of the bed. “How was Mom?”
I didn’t know for sure he’d called her, but I knew he’d been worried she’d forgotten to walk the rent check to the mailbox.
“Fine. I guess.” Wesley tossed his hands up, dropped them. “Or maybe her voice did a good job of fooling me. She paid the rent at least.” He was quiet. “Thing needs some oil.” He nodded toward the window. “Won’t glide. I’ll see if there’s any around here.”
“Hm,” I said.
He looked over at me, eyebrows drawing close.
I thought about Mom, what she might be doing at home without us.
We’d been apart from her one week the summer before, when our uncle Dan took us to Fort Bragg. Her headaches were worse while we were away. The day we got back, she’d begged Wesley to get her to the hospital—he couldn’t even drive yet.
Fifteen minutes of jolting brakes and too-fast turns, and he’d pulled up to the hospital.
This trip was just a week long; the next one would be all summer. Mom couldn’t make it all summer without us.
“How do you really think she is?” I asked.
“Good.” Wesley stood and tried to shimmy the window again. “Bills we could prepay are prepaid. Sticks are in the casings of all the windows—no one will be busting in.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
He tugged at a loose strand on the fraying, rust-colored carpet. “The neighbors are going to look in on her.”
I said, “Fixing things, Wesley—it isn’t going to actually fix anything.”
He sighed. “I know that, Nora.”
The pine needle crumpled in my fingers and I let the pulverized pieces drop to the carpet. “It’s . . . complicated.”
“Complicated,” Wesley said dryly. “You have no idea.”
The gray full moon was high in the sky after I’d unpacked my stuff upstairs. We’d had a family dinner, sort of—some burgers Kevin threw on the grill and let burn. I was no stranger to hunger, but I couldn’t eat mine. Wesley scarfed his down, said he was tired from the drive, and disappeared into the bedroom next to the one I’d chosen. It had been two hours, and I could hear the theme forFinding Bigfoot humming tinnily from his computer speakers through the wall.
The distance wasn’t too different from home—me in my room and him in the living room that served as his bedroom.
Still, I wished he’d come out, do something, even just walk through the woods with me.
But Wesley and I hadn’t really been friends since two summers before, when he’d turned thirteen and decided to focus all his energy on whatever would put extra cash in our pockets—mowing lawns, clearing brush, tossing newspapers onto dewy morning lawns. He’d disappeared.
One sweltering August night before school started up, Mom had been sprawled on the couch while I traded cold washcloths for colder ones, pressing them to her scorching forehead.
Wesley had come in the back door. The refrigerator opened and I heard him pouring a glass of milk. The tension that had gripped me like a fist loosened. Wesley would talk to Mom this time, know the right thing to do, make it better somehow.
But he froze as he came into the living room. His long arms, tanned from a summer outdoors, went slack at his sides. Milk sloshed from his glass. He looked from Mom on the couch to me cross-legged on the floor, then back to Mom. Her breaths were sharp, her freckled cheeks pink beneath the washcloth covering her forehead.
Over the raised brim of his milk glass, Wesley met my gaze.
I looked at him, waiting, hope making me float a few inches off the floor.
He took a drink and shook his head, then padded in his grass-stained socks across the carpet to his room, the one he still had back then. The door clicked shut behind him.
I half expected things to change the morning Mom sat us down—clear-eyed that day, not bloodshot like nights when the headaches kept her up. She told us about these breaks—these springs, summers, and winters we’d be spending in the mountains with our bio dad. The one who wasn’t dead after all.
Wesley had just spooned through his cereal until his cornflakes, bought with his own money, dissolved. He’d finally looked up, but all he had for me was that same absent stare.
Now I opened my window to the Truckee night—Wesley had spent the afternoon fighting the thing and cussing at it before I’d nudged him aside and straightened the bent frame with a pair of channel locks I’d found in the woodshed.
Outside, the mountain air was a million degrees cooler. Only one house stood close by, a few hundred feet up and across the road, away from the faraway black expanse of shiny Donner Lake. Everything was quiet and dim inside. No signs of life.
Lights salted the windows of a few homes across the lake. The houses were as small as tiny lanterns from where I stood watching from the window. Our cabin—Kevin’s—it must have looked like a dollhouse to the people on the other side. I wondered if I was small enough that they couldn’t even see me.
A creak rippled through the wind. In the sole nearby home, an upstairs light flicked on. The window opened.
I ducked behind the drapes.
A heave and huff from a small voice made me peek out into the night. A scuffle from between the curtains, and one jean-clad leg swung out. Then the other. A girl scaled the tree branch and slid down the trunk.
She tucked her copper hair behind her ear as she touched down on the ground. She wore it in a messy, slept-in way that would have made her look like an extra in the cast ofLes Mis—a wretched street waif with style.
“Hey!” she said into the night. She stomped down the road, closer to Kevin’s cabin. Closer. She looked right up at me. “Hey, you.”
My fingers froze to the windowsill. I’d moved out from behind the curtains without thinking. I opened my mouth, but no words were there.
“You going to keep standing there or you going to come out with me?” she asked.
I’d snuck out once before, one night when I couldn’t calm Mom down. Wesley’d come after me, freaking out at me the whole way home.
“You shouldn’t. You can’t. You couldn’t possibly,” she said. “Those are the words standing between you and the night of your life. Ask yourself this: What will you regret more at sunrise—coming with me or staying here?”
Her words were a lit match.
“I’m . . .”
“You’re what?” she asked.
A thousand things—pissed off, jealous. Alone. But none of them the answer I wanted. Nora Sharpe, what was I?
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