It’s become my favorite sound in the world--the soles of my shoes slapping the pavement erratically. It’s December, which means it’s freezing, and it’s dusk, which means it’s going to be dark soon. But the thing is, I don’t care. My cheeks flush and burn against the evening air, and I don’t wait for the signal to change before bounding across Seventy-Third Street. I just . . . go.
It started a few weeks ago. I don’t know how it happened, but it was like something entirely out-of-body came over me. One minute I was staring at my computer screen, and the next I was tying my running shoes. And then I just took off. I ran past Rosie in the kitchen, humming while she prepared her famous Irish stew, past Poppy in the den watching My Fair Lady for the millionth time, and past the Warhol hanging in the foyer. I ran past Eddie at the front door, starting his five o’clock shift, hopped back and forth impatiently until the rush hour traffic slowed down . . . come on, come on, come on . . . and then I took off.
In my nearly sixteen years, I had never gone running. But here I am. Running. Every day at dusk. It can’t be the morning or afternoon. It has to be dusk. I like seeing the last bit of daylight escape the sky. I like that I know I probably shouldn’t be running alone at this hour but that I do it anyway. I like that I’m actually a terrible runner--I get out of breath, my cheeks get bright red, and I never know when to speed up or slow down. I like that the only thing I think while I’m running is right-left-right-left-right-left.
I don’t have to think about why Ms. Barnett gave me a B-minus on my House of Mirth paper, or why Aisha and Sabrina are suddenly in on some private joke that doesn’t pertain to me. I don’t have to think about Dad and Louisa and our upcoming Christmas break trip. I need a break all right. But what I need is a break from all the madness--theirs, mine, all of it. Right now the only place I can be is no place. Transient. Free.
Of course, when it feels like my lungs are going to burst, and it’s getting too dark, I come home. I may feel crazy, but I’ve lived in this city long enough now to know that there’s real crazy out there. What no one ever seems to understand about me is how scared I am. Of everything.
I guess I hide it pretty well. I’ve had to ever since that rainy Tuesday two years ago. It was December, two weeks before my fourteenth birthday, and my life would never be the same. I was in orchestra, rehearsing for the Winter Showcase, when suddenly the music room door opened, and there was Headmaster Hu accompanied by two people I would later learn were plainclothes police officers. The rest of the orchestra kept playing, but I froze. Something about the way Mr. Hu found my eyes in the room, and the serious expression on his face, made me know in my bones that they were there for me. I can’t be sure, but I feel like I stood up from the piano even before Ms. Holmes stopped the orchestra and called out, “Flynn Barlow.” I followed Mr. Hu and the others into the hallway, where they told me what I’d already suspected. Something was very wrong. There had been an accident. And in that moment, my eyes went blind, and all I could hear was the loudest, most silent scream ringing in my ears. I just kept thinking one thing: Please, Mom, don’t leave me. Do not leave me.
The rest is all a blur--like my life was happening in slow motion and fast-forward simultaneously. It turns out there’s no how-to guide for these kinds of situations. How was I supposed to know how to say goodbye forever to my mom, my friends, my home in Northern California, where I’d spent the first thirteen years of my life--to everything I had ever known?
Dad and Louisa arranged everything: the funeral, the flowers, the movers, the plane tickets. They’re good at things like that: making calls, typing on their iPhones, telling other people what to do. Louisa even knew to show up with a black dress for me that morning, knowing I wouldn’t want to wear anything in my closet. Your mother’s funeral isn’t exactly the type of thing you are prepared for. As we rode in the limo down El Camino Real to the service, everyone remained painfully silent. The Christmas decorations in the store windows and the trees fastened festively to the car roofs felt like a personal affront. I watched Dad, with his dark hair like mine and faraway eyes, look longingly out the window at the town he used to call home. I realized that was what Woodside, the Silicon Valley suburb with its oak-filled valleys and rolling hills, was about to become for me--a place I used to call home.
The funny thing is that my dad always used to say how much he hated New York. He’d complain every time he had to travel there for work. Maybe that was why it was so hard to imagine how his life had just moved on three thousand miles away. Even though I only visited him a few times a year, Dad always kept a bedroom for me at his and Louisa’s apartment. I just don’t think either one of us ever thought I’d actually live in it.
One of the strangest things about my new New York life was my new New York family. Of course, they weren’t totally new--I’d first met Amos when I was six and he was seven. I was the maid of honor and he was the best man at our parents’ wedding. It was a small luncheon at the Carlyle Hotel. I was still young enough to hope that Louisa would be walking down the aisle in some Cinderella-style princess dress. Instead she wore a simple beige sheath.
At the reception, Amos spit in my coconut cake and ignored me for the rest of the evening. One year later, Poppy arrived. I had asked Santa for a baby sister every year for Christmas, so I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Despite the fact that we lived across the country from each other, I felt instantly connected to Poppy, and somehow felt compelled to protect her. Even as a baby she seemed, I don’t know, kind of sad. Louisa isn’t exactly the most warm and cuddly mom--I mean, she’s a perfectly nice lady, but hugs aren’t really her thing. That’s what they pay Rosie for, with her soft skin, sturdy frame, and old-world wisdom. The only time I ever see Louisa get really excited is when she’s talking about the art she’ll be auctioning at Christie’s. That’s how she and my dad met in the first place--he was the big bidder that night. He won the Ellsworth Kelly and took Louisa out after to celebrate. Too bad they were both married at the time. If only life were as simple as that black-and-white painting.
I guess part of me thought that moving to Manhattan would mean I’d get to spend more time with my dad. But he was always negotiating his latest tech acquisition, or attending some conference, or going to an event with Louisa. Not like I really cared. I was too gutted--trapped in a fog so deep during those first few months, I don’t think I would have noticed either way. I kept doing everything I always did, like getting straight A’s and practicing piano. It was just that now I missed Mom every minute of every day. I missed the frittatas she’d make with zucchini and basil fresh from her garden, the smell of her hair, and how she’d sing Joni Mitchell to herself at night when she thought I was asleep.
The thing about losing someone is that you want the pain of losing them to go away, but the memories to stay. You want to trick yourself sometimes and think that you don’t even miss them--that maybe life can go on without them. But when you realize there could be a world without this person, even though this person was everything, then you end up feeling all sorts of sad, all over again.
But then one spring day, I started to feel a little bit better. It was the strangest thing--I was sitting on my bed, struggling to get through my Aeneid translation for Latin, when Amos waltzed into my room and said, “Let’s go.” I didn’t ask any questions; I just hurried up and followed him out the door. Amos and I hadn’t interacted much since I’d moved in, aside from the occasional “Pass the salt” at the dinner table, and suddenly, there we were. Hanging out. Alone. We walked for a whole ten blocks before he said anything.
“They can be such assholes.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Our parents,” he said with a shrug. And then: “Everyone.”
We spent the rest of the day together. We wandered through Central Park in silence for hours--it wasn’t awkward or anything, just comfortably quiet. We ended up all the way over in the Shakespeare Garden, where Amos guided me to an odd-shaped stone bench hidden in a corner. He led me to one end and sat me down, and then proceeded to sit at the other end, some twenty feet away. I thought it was kind of weird, but then, even though he was all the way on the other side, I heard him whisper--as if his voice were in my head--“I’m happy you’re here.”
I smiled. It seemed like magic. Amos explained that the Whisper Bench is one of the best-kept secrets in Central Park. Because of its unique design, if you whisper on one end, the message can be heard at the other end. The secret broke the silence between us, and Amos and I spent the rest of the day discussing anything and everything. Conversation flowed freely and didn’t stop . . . until recently.
I knew all the girls on the Upper East Side idolized Amos, and after that day I could see why. With his classic features and bone structure, Amos always looks as if he’s just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. I know that isn’t something most girls typically say about their stepbrothers, but Amos isn’t most stepbrothers. And it’s not as if we grew up together, sharing things like parents and holidays and genetics. He’s more like this strange creature I suddenly started living with.
But it’s more than Amos’s obvious good looks that sets him apart. Somehow he manages to exist somewhere in between bad boy and good guy, which means that no matter where you fall on the social spectrum, you’re aware of Amos Abernathy. Amos is smarter than the rest of the boys his age, and he knows it. And unlike the rest of them, Amos isn’t afraid to talk about how he’s feeling, or at least he isn’t afraid to do that with me. Sure, he can be annoyingly smug sometimes, like when he went on a social media strike to prove some point, but when you’re with him, you feel like the only person in the world.
I round the corner so now I’m running along Fifth Avenue, adjacent to Central Park, recalling how from that first afternoon on, Amos and I were basically inseparable. I traded him my classical music for his classic rock, and he introduced me to the magic of vinyl. He brought me to the best ramen in the city, and I got him hooked on peanut butter Pinkberry. On Sunday afternoons, we’d get sucked into one of Poppy’s movie marathons--we’d all curl up in front of the television, and whether it was a Disney movie or a Hollywood classic, it didn’t matter that Dad and Louisa weren’t around. All I knew was that I finally felt like I was home.
So when I returned this past August from eight weeks at camp as a junior counselor and saw that Amos’s room was empty, I assumed Louisa must be remodeling. But then Poppy poked her head in, nearly scaring me half to death, and informed me that Amos had already left for orientation at Andover. I felt sick to my stomach. In the very few, very brief emails Amos had sent me while I was away all summer, he had somehow failed to mention that he had decided to transfer to boarding school in Massachusetts for his junior year. Sure, Louisa had been pushing Andover on Amos forever, telling him that it’s an esteemed Abernathy tradition, that it’s what boys like him do, that it’s the kind of opportunity “you simply do not pass up.” But Amos had never seemed even slightly interested in doing anything particularly “Abernathy.”
So imagine my surprise when he was just suddenly . . . gone. And I can’t help but feel like he left because of me. Because ever since that August afternoon, I’ve barely heard from him. It’s as if everything that happened evaporated.
My heart is still pounding from my run as the elevator doors open and I step back into our apartment.
“Flynn, time to wash up! Dinner’s almost on. We’ve got to put some meat on those bones,” Rosie calls out to me. I’m heading toward the dining room when I hear footsteps in the hall. I know these footsteps--they can belong to only one person, and mean only one thing. Amos is back.