My sister, Maddie, is crying, her pretty face damp and frightened. One of my legs is heavier than the other and I don’t understand and I want to ask her why, but I can’t form words, because there’s an ocean inside me, warm and sweet, and I’m bobbing along the waves, just like the ones that carried me and Joey all those years ago in San Diego, when everything was perfect or as close to it as we could get. That was a nice time, when I was twelve and Joey was thirteen, letting the waves carry us, Maddie stretched out on the beach in her purple bikini and floppy-brimmed hat. Far away from Mill Haven, we were in a different world, where no one knew who we were.
I try to ask Maddie where Joey is, but she can’t understand me. She thinks I’m saying something else, because she leans forward and says, “Do you need more? Do you need me to press the button?”
And her finger presses a button on the side of the bed and the largest wave I’ve ever known billows over me, like the parachute game we played in the gymnasium in kindergarten, all of us laughing as the fabric gently overtook us and blocked out the world.
My mother’s voice is trembling. “This is not normal. This is not something that happens to people like us.”
My father sounds weary. He has been weary for years now. Joey makes people weary.
He says, “There is no normal, Abigail. Nothing has ever been normal. Why can’t you see that? He has a problem.”
My finger stretches out for the button to make the waves come again. My parents make me tired, years and years of fighting about Joey.
My mother’s hand touches my head. Like a kitten, I respond, leaning into it. I can’t remember the last time she touched me, stroked my hair. Everything has always been about Joey.
“There was heroin in his system, Abigail. How did we miss that?”
The word floats in the air before me, something eerie and frightening.
There was vomit spattered on his hoodie at the party. When we found him in the bedroom. He was woozy and floppy and strange and made no sense and I thought . . .
I thought he was just drunk. Stoned, maybe.
“I will fix this,” she says to my father. “He’ll go to rehab, he’ll get better, he’ll come home.”
She says rehab in a clipped way, like it hurts to have the word in her mouth.
“That’s not a magic wand you can wave and make it all go away, Abigail. He could have died. Emory could have died. A girl did die.”
The ocean inside me, the one that was warm and wavy, freezes.
“What did you say?” I whisper. My voice feels thick. Can they understand me? I speak louder. “What did you just say?”
“Emory,” my father says. “Oh, Emory.”
My mother’s eyes are wet blue pools. She curls her fingers in my hair.
“You’re alive,” she tells me. “I’m so grateful you’re alive.”
Her face is blurry from the waves carrying me. I’m struggling inside them, struggling to understand.
“But she just had a headache,” I say. “Candy just had a headache. She can’t be dead.”
My father frowns. “You aren’t making any sense, Emmy.”
She had a headache. That’s why she was in the car. She had a headache at the party, and she wanted a ride home and it can’t be right that a person has a headache and gets in a car and dies and everyone else lives. It can’t be right.
“Joey,” I say, crying now, the tears warm and salty on my face. “I want Joey. Please, get me Joey.”
When I open my eyes, he’s there.
I’ve seen my brother cry only once before, the afternoon he and Luther Leonard decided to dive from the roof of our house into the pool. Luther made it; Joey didn’t, and the sound of his sobs as he writhed on the brick patio echoed in my head for days.
But his crying is quieter now.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. His voice is croaky, and he looks sick, pale and shaky. There are stitches above his left eye. His right arm is in a sling.
“I thought you were drunk,” I say. “I thought you were just drunk.”
Joey’s dark eyes search my face.
“I messed up. I messed up so bad, Emmy.”
Girls swoon over those dark eyes. Or they did. Before he became trouble.
Joey Ward used to be cool, a girl said in the bathroom at Heywood High last year. She didn’t know I was in the stall. Sometimes I stayed in there longer than I needed to, just for some peace. It’s hard all the time. Pretending.
Not anymore, another girl answered. Just another druggie loser.
I cried in the stall, because I knew Joey was more than that. Joey was the one who taught me to ride a bike, because our parents worked all the time. Joey was the one who let me read aloud to him for hours in a bedsheet fort in my father’s den, long after he probably should have been ignoring me in favor of his friends, like most older siblings do. He taught me how to make scrambled eggs and let me stay with him in his attic bedroom while he drew.
Until he didn’t. Until the day I knocked and he told me to go away.
He stands up, wiping his face with his good hand. His beautiful dark hair is in tangles, hanging over his eyes.
“I have to go,” he says. “Mom’s waiting.”
Rehab. It floats back to me from when Mom said it. Was that yesterday? Or this morning? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. Things are bleeding together.
“Joey, why did you do . . . it?”
I wish I could get out of this bed. I wish my leg wasn’t hanging from some damn pulley in the air and that my body wasn’t heavy with the ocean of drugs inside me.
At the door to my hospital room, Joey turns back, but he doesn’t look at me. He looks at the floor.
“I love you, Emmy, but you have no idea what it’s like to be me.”
And then he’s gone.
I’m in the downstairs bedroom off the kitchen that my mother remodeled for Nana, hoping she’d come live with us, but Nana is stubborn and says she wants to stay in her own house until the day she dies.
The walls are painted pale gray. The sheets and blankets are white and crisp and perfect and I’m imagining how the sweat dripping off my forehead is going to stain the pillowcases. My mother doesn’t like messes.
At my feet, my dog Fuzzy nuzzles closer to my good leg, whines softly. I rub her with my toe. Her fur is coarse; no one’s been brushing her. Westies need brushing.
My bad leg is in a blue brace, propped on more white pillows. My knee is throbbing, sparks of white heat that make me breathe hard. Make me sweat.
I can hear them in the kitchen, my sister Maddie and my mother, arguing.
“Mom, she’s in pain,” Maddie’s saying. “Just let her have a pill.”
“She can have ibuprofen. She was on so much medication in the hospital. I don’t want her . . .”
My mom’s voice trails off.
“Mom,” Maddie says forcefully. “She fractured her kneecap. And she’s not Joey.”
“That’s right,” my mother answers, in a suddenly hard voice that makes me shiver. “And I want it to stay that way.”
Maddie sleeps next to me in the gray room, her eyelids growing heavy as she clicks the television remote from one show to another: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, My Lottery Dream Home, Friends. When the remote finally slips from her fingers, I turn the television off and just listen, Fuzzy tucked next to me, soft and sleeping.
Maddie snuck me a pill after my mother went to bed, fed me crackers and juice, and I’m not sweating anymore.
I’m listening to the quiet of the house.
Some things haven’t changed since I came home. My dad still gets back late from his shifts at the hospital, peeking into the room at us to say hello and ask about my knee before he eats whatever Goldie has left for him in the refrigerator before going to the den and settling down with his drink to watch his own shows. He’ll fall asleep in the recliner, glasses slipping down his nose, while my mother is asleep upstairs. That’s the way they’ve been for what seems like years now, my mother up, my father down. I thought that might change, with everything that’s happened. That they’d get closer, somehow, after the accident.
I thought they might stay home with me, too, at least for the first few days, but they didn’t. They went right back to work. Maybe because Maddie is here now and can take care of me. And Goldie, too, if it’s one of her days with us.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t exist in this house because I’m not beautiful and loud, like Maddie, or a problem, like Joey. I’m just me. The good one.
The one thing that’s changed is the sound of our house.
It was never quiet with Joey, especially last year, when things got bad. So much yelling and fighting with my mom about his grades. His attitude. Slammed doors. Joey burying himself deep into his hoodie when my dad would try to talk to him. I did whatever I could to make things better. Woke him up for school, even if I had to pour cold water on his face to do it. Did his homework, just enough to get his grades up, make it look like he was trying, but not enough to raise suspicion. I just wanted the noise to stop.
Next to me, Maddie rolls over, her knee knocking into mine. Little flares heat my knee, but not too much, because of the pill. I bite back a little gasp. Maybe I need another one? But I don’t want to wake her up. I don’t want any more fights about taking pills. I don’t want noise anymore.
Because this quiet? Even though I love Joey, he’s my brother, how could I not love him?--this quiet is peaceful.
It’s finally peaceful now that my wild and troubled brother is gone.
And I feel guilty about loving this peace.
“It’s a mess up there,” Maddie says. “But I think I got most of it cleaned up.” She drops a milk crate on the living room floor and flops down on the couch next to me. Her hair is in a ponytail and her neck gleams with sweat. The stairs to the attic are steep.
Even sweaty and with no makeup, my sister is beautiful. I shouldn’t feel jealous, but I do.
“Mom really tore Joey’s room apart. I don’t know if I told you. Maybe you don’t remember. You were so out of it in the hospital. But we came back here a couple of days after the accident to shower and change clothes and went up there. You know? To see what he’d been hiding, and she just . . . kind of lost it.”
She leans forward and shuffles through the milk crate. “I don’t think she found much. Maybe a bong and some weed. But look what I found.”
She hands me a stack of papers. Joey’s art. Gold-winged dragons with orange fire spilling from their jaws. Hulking creatures with sharp talons and red eyes. A whole world he created in the attic when our parents let him move up there when he was thirteen. He could sit for hours at his drafting table, immersed. My mother turned his old bedroom into her exercise space.
“I don’t think he draws anymore,” I tell her. “Maybe he will now. When he comes back. When he’s better.”
Maddie looks at me carefully. “Emmy, I’m not sure there’s going to be a ‘better.’ He took heroin. That’s some serious stuff. That’s not something you can just . . . brush off. I mean, I had no idea. Did you?”
I arrange the papers into a neat pile on my lap, avoiding her eyes. “I thought . . . I don’t know. It was hard. I was just trying to take care of him. I thought it was just . . . being stoned and stuff. You don’t know what it was like, last year. You were gone.”
I start to cry, tears spilling onto my T-shirt. I haven’t taken a shower in days and I’m wearing the same clothes I came home from the hospital in, the crutches are giving me sores under my arms, and I feel awful and rank sitting next to my beautiful sister with her hair up in a messily perfect ponytail.
And I feel guilty about Joey, like part of this is my fault, for keeping his secrets for so long.
And then there’s Candy.
It’s too much, everything bubbling inside me at once.
“Oh, Emmy,” Maddie says, wrapping her arms around me. “It’s okay. Don’t cry. It’s not your fault. I swear, it’s not your fault.”
But somewhere, deep down, I think it is.
Because if I hadn’t tried to hide Joey’s secrets, maybe Candy MontClair wouldn’t have died.
When I limp into the kitchen, my mother flips over the newspaper she was reading and sets her coffee cup on it.
“Well, hello,” she says brightly, turning to the stove. She slides scrambled eggs onto a plate for me. “It’s a big day. You need to eat. You haven’t been eating much. I’m getting a bit worried.”
She sniffs the air delicately. “Did you shower?” She pulls her hair back and weaves it into a stylish, casual bun. She’s wearing a lovely cream blouse, dark gray jacket, pants that flare elegantly over her crisp black shoes. Her work clothes.
“You’re going to work?” I ask, my heart sinking. I thought she’d want to come with me when I finally got my leg brace off. It’s been five weeks. I don’t know why I got my hopes up.
She frowns. “Of course. I can’t miss today. We’ve got a deposition. Maddie’s here. She’ll take you to your appointment.”
I take a few bites of egg and then push the rest around on the plate while she busies herself with wallet, keys, purse. My mother is a lawyer and my dad is a doctor in the ER, which means they’re both always pretty much working, but I thought at least one of them would want to be there the day I got my leg brace off.