From Karen M. McManus, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying, comes your next obsession. You’ll never feel the same about family again. Start reading The Cousins and pre-order your copy now!
I’m late for dinner again, but this time it’s not my fault. There’s a mansplainer in my way.
“Mildred? That’s a grandmother’s name. But not even a cool grandmother.” He says it like he thinks he’s being clever. Like in all my seventeen years, no one else has ever noticed that my name isn’t the fashionable kind of classic. It took a Wall Street investment banker with slicked-back hair and a pinkie ring to render that particular bit of social commentary.
I sip the dregs of my seltzer. “I was, in fact, named after my grandmother,” I say.
I’m at a steak house in midtown at six o’clock on a rainy April evening, doing my best to blend with the happy hour crowd. It’s a game my friends and I play sometimes; we go to restaurant bars so we don’t have to worry about getting carded at the door. We wear our simplest dresses and extra makeup. We order seltzer water with lime—“in a small glass, please, I’m not that thirsty”—and gulp it down until there’s almost nothing left. Then we wait to see if anyone offers to buy us a drink.
Somebody always does.
Pinkie Ring smiles, his teeth almost fluorescent in the dim light. He must take his whitening regimen very seriously. “I like it. Quite a contrast for such a beautiful young woman.” He edges closer, and I catch a headache-inducing whiff of strong cologne. “You have a very interesting look. Where are you from?”
Ugh. That’s marginally better than the What are you? question I get sometimes, but still gross. “New York,” I say pointedly. “You?”
“I mean originally,” he clarifies, and that’s it. I’m done. “New York,” I repeat, and stand up from my stool. It’s just as well he didn’t talk to me until I was about to leave, because a cocktail before dinner wasn’t one of my better ideas. I catch my friend Chloe’s eye across the room and wave good-bye, but be- fore I can extract myself, Pinkie Ring tips his glass toward mine. “Can I get you another of whatever that is?”
“No thank you. I’m meeting someone.”
He pulls back, brow furrowed. Very furrowed. In a behind- on-his-Botox sort of way. He also has creases lining his cheeks and crinkles around his eyes. He’s way too old to be hitting on me, even if I were the college student I occasionally pretend to be. “What are you wasting my time for, then?” he grunts, his gaze already roving over my shoulder.
Chloe likes the happy hour game because, she says, high school boys are immature. Which is true. But sometimes I think we might be better off not knowing how much worse they can get.
I pluck the lime out of my drink and squeeze it. I’m not aiming for his eye, exactly, but I’m still a little disappointed when the juice spatters only his collar. “Sorry,” I say sweetly, dropping the lime into the glass and setting it on the bar. “Normally I wouldn’t bother. But it’s so dark in here. When you first came over, I thought you were my dad.”
As if. My dad is way better-looking, and also: not a creep. Pinkie Ring’s mouth drops open, but I scoot past him and out the door before he can reply.
The restaurant I’m going to is just across the street, and the hostess smiles when I come through the door. “Can I help you?”
“I’m meeting someone for dinner? Allison?”
Her gaze drops to the book in front of her and a small crease appears between her eyes. “I’m not seeing—”
“Story-Takahashi?” I try. My parents have an unusually amicable divorce, and Exhibit A is that Mom continues to use both last names. “Well, it’s still your name,” she’d said four years ago when the divorce was finalized. “And I’ve gotten used to it.”
The crease between the hostess’s eyes deepens. “I don’t see that either.”
“Just Story, then?” I try. “Like in a book?”
Her brow clears. “Oh! Yes, there you are. Right this way.” She grabs two menus and winds her way between white-covered tables until we reach a corner booth. The wall beside it is mirrored, and the woman sitting on one side is sipping a glass of white wine while surreptitiously checking out her reflection, smoothing flyaways in her dark bun that only she can see.
I drop into the seat across from her as the hostess places oversized red menus in front of us. “So it’s Story tonight?” I ask.
My mother waits until the hostess leaves to answer. “I wasn’t in the mood to repeat myself,” she sighs, and I raise a brow. Mom usually makes a point of pushing back on anyone who acts like they can’t figure out how to spell or pronounce Dad’s Japanese last name.
“Why?” I ask, even though I know she won’t tell me. There are multiple levels of Milly criticism to get through first.
She puts her glass down, causing almost a dozen gold bangles to jingle on her wrist. My mother is vice president of public relations for a jewelry company, and wearing the season’s must- haves is one of the perks of her job. She eyes me up and down, taking in my heavier-than-usual makeup and navy sheath. “Where are you coming from that you’re so dressed up?”
The bar across the street. “A gallery thing with Chloe,” I lie. Chloe’s mother owns an art gallery uptown, and our friends spend a lot of time there. Allegedly.
Mom picks up her glass again. Sips, flicks her eyes toward the mirror, pats her hair. When it’s down it falls in dark waves, but, as she likes to tell me, pregnancy changed its texture from smooth to coarse. I’m pretty sure she’s never forgiven me for that. “I thought you were studying for finals.”
“I was. Before.”
Her knuckles turn white around the glass, and I wait for it. Milly, you cannot exit your junior year with less than a B average. You’re on the cusp of mediocrity, and your father and I have invested far too much for you to waste your opportunity like that.
If I were even a little musically inclined, I’d start a band called Cusp of Mediocrity in honor of Mom’s favorite warning. I’ve been hearing some version of that speech for three years. Prescott Academy churns out Ivy League students like some kind of blue-blood factory, and it’s the bane of my mother’s existence that I’m always ranked solidly in the bottom half of my class.
The lecture doesn’t come, though. Instead, Mom reaches out her free hand and pats mine. Stiffly, like she’s a marionette with a novice handler. “Well, you look very pretty.”
Instantly, I’m on the defensive. It’s strange enough that my mother wanted to meet me for dinner, but she never compliments me. Or touches me. All of this suddenly feels like a setup for something I’d rather not hear. “Are you sick?” I blurt out. “Is Dad?”
She blinks and withdraws her hand. “What? No! Why would you ask that?”
“Then why—” I break off as a smiling server appears beside the table, filling our water glasses from a silver pitcher.
“And how are you ladies this evening? Can I tell you about our specials?”
I study Mom covertly over the top of my menu as the server rattles them off. She’s definitely tense, still clutching her near- empty wineglass in a death grip, but I realize now that I was wrong to expect bad news. Her dark-blue eyes are bright, and the corners of her mouth are almost turned up. She’s anticipating something, not dreading it. I try to imagine what might make my mother happy besides me magically A-plussing my way to valedictorian at Prescott Academy.
Money. That’s all it could be. Mom’s life revolves around it—or more specifically, around not having enough of it. My parents both have good jobs, and my dad, despite being remarried, has always been generous with child support. His new wife, Surya, is the total opposite of a wicked stepmother in all possible ways, including finances. She’s never begrudged Mom the big checks he sends every month.
But good doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to keep up in Manhattan. And it’s not what my mother grew up with.
A job promotion, I decide. That must be it. Which is excel- lent news, except for the part where she’s going to remind me that she got it through hard work and oh, by the way, why can’t I work harder at literally everything.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad with chicken. No anchovies, dressing on the side,” Mom says, handing her menu to the server without really looking at him. “And another glass of the Langlois-Chateau, please.”
“Very good. And the young lady?”
“Bone-in rib eye, medium rare, and a jumbo baked potato,” I tell him. I might as well get a good meal out of whatever’s about to go down.
When he leaves, my mother drains her wineglass and I gulp my water. My bladder’s already full from the seltzer at the bar, and I’m about to excuse myself for the restroom when Mom says, “I got the most interesting letter today.”
There it is. “Oh?” I wait, but when she doesn’t continue, I prod, “From who?”
“Whom,” she corrects automatically. Her fingers trace the base of her glass as her lips curve up another half notch. “From your grandmother.”
I blink at her. “From Baba?” Why that merits this kind of buildup, I have no idea. Granted, my grandmother doesn’t contact Mom often, but it’s not unprecedented. Baba is the type of person who likes to forward articles she’s read to anyone she thinks might be interested, and she still does that with Mom post-divorce.
“No. Your other grandmother.”
“What?” Now I’m truly confused. “You got a letter from— Mildred?”
I don’t have a nickname for my mother’s mother. She’s not Grandma or Mimi or Nana or anything to me, because I’ve never met her.
“I did.” The server returns with Mom’s wine, and she takes a long, grateful sip. I sit in silence, unable to wrap my head around what she just told me. My maternal grandmother loomed large over my childhood, but as more of a fairy-tale figure than an actual person: the wealthy widow of Abraham Story, whose great-something-grandfather came over on the Mayflower. My ancestors are more interesting than any history book: the fam- ily made a fortune in whaling, lost most of it in railroad stocks, and eventually sank what was left into buying up real estate on a crappy little island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Gull Cove Island was a little-known haven for artists and hippies until Abraham Story turned it into what it is today: a place where rich and semi-famous people spend ridiculous amounts of money pretending they’re getting back to nature.
My mother and her three brothers grew up on a giant beachfront estate named Catmint House, riding horses and attending black-tie parties like they were the princess and princes of Gull Cove Island. There’s a picture on our apartment mantel of Mom when she was eighteen, stepping out of a limousine on her way to the Summer Gala her parents threw every year at their resort. Her hair is piled high, and she’s wearing a white ball gown and a gorgeous diamond teardrop necklace. Mildred gave that necklace to my mother when she turned seventeen, and I used to think Mom would pass it along to me when I hit the same birthday.
Didn’t happen. Even though Mom never wears it herself. My grandfather died when Mom was a senior in high school.
Two years later, Mildred disowned all of her children. She cut them off both financially and personally, with no explanation except for a single-sentence letter sent two weeks before Christmas through her lawyer, a man named Donald Camden who’d known Mom and her brothers their entire lives:
You know what you did.
Mom has always insisted that she has no clue what Mildred meant. “The four of us had gotten . . . selfish, I suppose,” she’d tell me. “We were all in college then, starting our own lives. Mother was lonely with Father gone, and she begged us to visit all the time. But we didn’t want to go.” She calls her parents that, Mother and Father, like the heroine in a Victorian novel. “None of us came back for Thanksgiving that year. We’d all made other plans. She was furious, but . . .” Mom always got a pensive, faraway look on her face then. “That’s such a small thing. Hardly unforgivable.”
If Abraham Story hadn’t set up educational trusts for Mom and her brothers, they might not have graduated college. Once they did, though, they were on their own. At first, they regularly tried to reestablish contact with Mildred. They hounded Donald Camden, whose only response was the occasional email reiterating her decision. They sent invitations to their weddings, and announcements when their kids were born. They even took turns showing up on Gull Cove Island, where my grandmother still lives, but she would never see or speak to them. I used to imagine that one day she’d waltz into our apartment, dripping diamonds and furs, and announce that she’d come for me, her namesake. She’d whisk me to a toy store and let me buy whatever I wanted, then hand me a sack of money to bring home to my parents.
I’m pretty sure my mother had the same fantasy. Why else would you saddle a twenty-first-century girl with a name like Mildred? But my grandmother, with the help of Donald Cam- den, stonewalled her children at every turn. Eventually, they stopped trying.
Mom is looking at me expectantly, and I realize she’s waiting for an answer. “You got a letter from Mildred?” I ask.
She nods, then clears her throat before answering. “Well. To be more precise, you did.”
“I did?” My vocabulary has shrunk to almost nothing in the past five minutes.
“The envelope was addressed to me, but the letter was for you.”
A decade-old image pops into my head: me with my long- lost grandmother, filling a shopping cart to the rim with stuffed animals while dressed like we’re going to the opera. Tiaras and all. I push the thought aside and grope for more words. “Is she . . . Does she . . . Why?”
My mother reaches into her purse and pulls out an envelope, then pushes it across the table toward me. “Maybe you should just read it.”
I lift the flap and pull out a folded sheet of thick, cream- colored paper that smells faintly of lilac. The top is engraved with the initials MMS—Mildred Margaret Story. Our names are almost exactly the same, except mine has Takahashi at the end. The short paragraphs are typewritten, followed by a cramped, spidery signature.
We have, of course, never met. The reasons are complex, but as years progress they become less important than they once were. As you stand poised on the threshold of adulthood, I find myself curious to know you.
I own a property called Gull Cove Resort that is a popular vacation destination on Gull Cove Island. I wish to invite you and your cousins, Jonah and Aubrey, to spend this summer living and working at the resort. Your parents worked there as teenagers and found the environment both stimulating and enriching.
I am sure you and your cousins would reap similar benefits from a summer at Gull Cove Resort. And since I am not well enough to host guests for any length of time, it would afford me the opportunity to get to know you.
I hope you will accept my invitation. The resort’s summer hire coordinator, Edward Franklin, will handle all necessary travel and logistics, and you may contact him at the email address below.
Very sincerely yours, Mildred Story
I read it twice, then refold the paper and lay it on the table. I don’t look up, but I can feel my mother’s eyes on me as she waits for me to speak. Now I really have to pee, but I need to loosen my throat with yet more water before the words can burst out of me. “Is this bullshit for real?”
Whatever my mother might have been expecting me to say, it wasn’t that. “Excuse me?”
“Let me get this straight,” I say, my cheeks warming as I stuff the letter back into its envelope. “This woman I have never met—who cut you out of her life without looking back, who didn’t come to your wedding or my christening or anything related to this family for the past twenty-four years, who hasn’t called or emailed or written until, oh, five minutes ago—this woman wants me to work at her hotel?”
“I don’t think you’re looking at this the right way, Milly.”
My voice rises to a near shriek. “How am I supposed to look at it?”
“Shhh,” Mom hisses, her eyes darting around the room. If there’s one thing she hates, it’s a scene. “As an opportunity.”
“For what?” I ask. She hesitates, twisting her cocktail ring— nothing like the five-carat emerald stunner I’ve seen on my grandmother’s hand in old pictures—and suddenly I get it. “No, wait—don’t answer that. That’s the wrong question. I should have said for who.”
“Whom,” my mother says. She seriously cannot help herself. “You think this is a chance to get back into her good graces, don’t you? To be—re-inherited.” “That’s not a word.”
“God, Mom, would you give it a rest? My grammar is not the issue!”
“I’m sorry,” Mom says, and that surprises me so much that I don’t finish the rant I was building toward. Her eyes are still bright, but now they’re watery, too. “It’s just—this is my mother, Milly. I’ve waited years to hear from her. I don’t know why now, or why you, or why this, but she’s finally reaching out. If we don’t take her up on it, we might not get another chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“To get to know her again.”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to say Who cares, but I bite it back. I was going to follow that up with We’ve been fine all this time without her, but that’s not true. We’re not fine.
My mother lives at the edge of a Mildred Story–shaped hole, and has for my entire life. It’s turned her into the kind of person who keeps everybody at a distance—even my dad, who I know she loved as much as she’s capable of loving anyone. When I was little, I’d watch them together and wish for something as perfect. Once I got older, though, I started noticing all the little ways Mom would push Dad aside. How she’d stiffen at hugs, use work as an excuse to stay away until past our bedtimes, and beg off family outings with migraines that never bothered her in the office. Eventually, being chilly and closed off turned into criticizing absolutely everything Dad said or did. Right up to the point when she finally asked him to leave.
Now that he’s gone, she does the same thing to me.
I draw a question mark in the condensation of my water glass. “You want me to go away for the entire summer?” I ask.
“You’d love it, Milly.” When I snort, she adds, “No, you really would. It’s a gorgeous resort, and kids apply from all over to work there. It’s actually very competitive. Staff quarters are beautiful, you get full access to all the facilities—it’s like a vacation.”
“A vacation where I’m my grandmother’s employee.” “You’d be with your cousins.”
“I don’t know my cousins.” I haven’t seen Aubrey since Uncle Adam’s family moved to Oregon when we were five. Jonah lives in Rhode Island, which isn’t that far away, but my mother and his father barely talk. The last time we all got together was for Uncle Anders’s birthday when I was eight. I only remember two things about Jonah: One, he whacked me in the head with a plastic bat and seemed disappointed when I didn’t cry. And two, he blew up like a balloon when he ate an appetizer he was allergic to, even though his mother warned him to stay away from it.
“You could get to know them. You’re all the same age, and none of you has any brothers or sisters. It would be nice for you to be closer.”
“What, like you’re close to Uncle Adam, Uncle Anders, and Uncle Archer? You guys barely talk to one another! My cousins and I have nothing in common.” I shove the envelope back toward her. “I’m not doing it. I’m not a dog that’ll come running just because she calls. And I don’t want to be gone all summer.”
Mom starts twisting her cocktail ring again. “I thought you might say that. And I realize it’s a lot to ask. So I want to give you something in return.” Her hand moves up to the chunky gold links gleaming against her black dress. “I know how much you’ve always loved my diamond teardrop necklace. What if I gave it to you as a thank-you?”
I sit up straighter, already imagining the necklace sparkling at my throat. I’ve dreamed about it for years. But I thought it would be a gift—not a bribe.
“Why wouldn’t you just give it to me because I’m your daughter?” I’ve always wondered but never dared ask. Maybe because I’m afraid the answer would be the same one she gave my dad, not with her words but with her actions: You aren’t enough.
“It’s an heirloom,” Mom says, like that doesn’t prove my entire point. I frown as she rests one manicured hand on the edge of the envelope. She doesn’t push it, exactly. Just sort of taps it. “I always thought I’d give it to you when you turned twenty-one, but if you’re going to spend your summer in my hometown— well, it just seems right to do it sooner.”
I exhale a silent sigh and take the envelope, turning it over in my hand while Mom sips her wine, content to wait me out. I’m not sure which is more frustrating: that my mother is trying to blackmail me into spending the summer working for a grandmother I’ve never met, or that it’s totally going to work.
I stretch my fingers toward the slick wall of the pool. As soon as they touch, I turn and push off for the final lap. This is my favorite part of any swim meet: water rushing over my extended limbs as I glide through it on pure momentum and adrenaline. Sometimes I resurface later than I should, which Coach Matson calls my derailer: a tiny flaw in technique that can mean the difference between being a good swimmer and a great one. Usually, I try to correct it. But today? I’d stay down here forever if I could.
I finally break the surface, gasp for air, and settle into the rhythm of the breaststroke. My shoulders burn and my legs churn in welcome, mindless exertion until my fingers brush tile again. I pull off my goggles, panting, and wipe my eyes before looking at the scoreboard.
Seventh out of eight, my worst finish ever for the two- hundred meter. Two days ago, that result would have devastated me. But when I spy Coach Matson staring at the scoreboard with her hands on her hips, all I feel is a triumphant spark of anger.
Serves you right.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m never swimming for Ashland High again. I only showed up today so the team wouldn’t have to forfeit.
I haul myself out of the pool and grab my towel from the bench. The two-hundred meter was my final event of the day, in the last meet of the season. Normally, my mother would be in the stands posting overly long videos to Facebook, and I’d be poolside getting ready to cheer for my teammates in the relay. But Mom isn’t here, and I’m not staying.
I head for the empty locker room, my wet feet slapping the tiled floor, and extract my gym bag from number 74. I drop my cap and goggles into the bag and pull a T-shirt and shorts over my wet bathing suit. Then I put on my flip-flops and send a quick text: Feeling sick. Meet me at the door?
The relay is in full swing when I reenter the pool area. My teammates who aren’t racing are at the pool’s edge, too busy cheering to notice me skulking away. My chest constricts and my eyes prick, until I catch sight of Coach Matson at her usual spot next to the diving board. She’s leaning forward, blond ponytail spilling over one shoulder as she shouts at Chelsea Reynolds to pick up the pace, and I’m hit with a sudden, almost irresistible urge to barrel forward and shove her straight into the pool.
For a delicious second, I let myself imagine what that would feel like. The Saturday crowd at the Ashland Memorial Recreation Center would be shocked into silence, craning their necks for a better look. Is that Aubrey Story? What’s gotten into her? No one would believe their eyes, because I’m the Girl Least Likely to Cause a Scene About Anything, Ever.
I’m also a giant wimp. I keep walking.
A familiar lanky figure hovers near the exit. My boyfriend, Thomas, is dressed in the Trail Blazers jersey I bought him, his dark hair buzzed short for the summer like always. The knot in my stomach loosens as I get closer. Thomas and I have been dating since eighth grade—we had our four-year anniversary last month— and collapsing against his chest is like slipping into a warm bath.
Maybe a little too like it. “You’re soaked,” Thomas says, disentangling himself from my damp embrace. He looks me up and down warily. “And sick?”
I might’ve had one cold the entire time Thomas has known me. I’m weirdly germ-resistant. “You don’t take after the Storys,” my father always says with a sigh. “The merest hint of a virus can incapacitate us for days.” It almost sounds boastful the way he says it, like his side of the family are rare and delicate hothouse flowers, while Mom and I are sturdy weeds that can thrive anywhere.
The thought of my father makes my stomach tighten again. “Just feeling a little off,” I tell Thomas.
“You probably caught it from your mom.”
That’s what I told Thomas last night when I asked him to drive me today; that my mother wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t tell him the real reason on the ride over this morning, either. I couldn’t find the words. But as we reach his Honda I find myself itching to spill my guts, and it’s a relief when he turns to me with a concerned look. I just need him to ask What’s wrong? and then I can say it.
“You’re not gonna throw up, are you?” he asks. “I just vacuumed the car.”
I tug open the passenger door, deflated. “No. It’s a headache. I’ll be fine after I lie down for a while.”
He nods, oblivious. “I’ll get you home, then.”
Ugh. Home. The second-last place I want to be. But I’m stuck for a few more weeks, until it’s time to leave for Gull Cove Island. Funny how something that was so weird and unwelcome at first suddenly feels like sweet salvation.
Thomas starts the engine, and I pull out my phone to see if either of my cousins added to our group chat since this morning. Milly has; she’s posted a summary of her travel schedule and a question. Should we try to all take the same ferry?
When I first got my grandmother’s letter—which Dad immediately assumed I would agree to, no questions asked—I looked up both my cousins online. Milly was easy to find on social media. I sent a follow request on Instagram and she accepted right away, unlocking a timeline filled with pictures of her and her friends. They’re all beautiful, especially my cousin. She’s white and Japanese, and looks more like a Story than I do—dark-haired and slender, with large, expressive eyes and cheekbones to die for. I, on the other hand, take after my mom: blond, freckled, and athletic. The only characteristic I have in common with my elegant grandmother is the port-wine birth- mark on my right forearm; Gran has one almost the exact size and shape on her left hand.
I have no idea what Jonah looks like. I couldn’t track him down anywhere except Facebook, where his profile picture is the DNA symbol. He has seven friends, and I’m not one of them because he still hasn’t accepted my request.
Jonah barely posts in our group chat except to complain. He’s angrier than Milly and I about getting sent to Gull Cove Island for the summer. Now, as Thomas pulls out of the Recreation Center parking lot, I distract myself by scrolling through yesterday’s conversation.
Jonah: This is bullshit. I should be at camp this summer. Milly: What, are you a counselor?
Jonah: Not that kind of camp. It’s a science camp. Very competitive. Nearly impossible to get into and now I’m supposed to miss it?
Jonah: And for what? A minimum-wage job cleaning toilets for a woman who hates our parents and most likely hates us too.
Aubrey: We’re not cleaning toilets. Didn’t you read Edward’s email?
Aubrey: Edward Franklin. The summer hire coordinator. There are lots of jobs you can choose from. I’m going to be a lifeguard.
Jonah: Well bully for you.
Milly: You don’t have to be a dick about it.
Milly: Also, who says “bully for you”? What are you, 80?
Then they argued for ten minutes while I ghosted the conversation because . . . confrontation. Not my thing.
The last time I saw any Story relative was right after we moved to Oregon, when my father’s youngest brother breezed through for a weekend visit. Uncle Archer doesn’t have children, but as soon as he arrived, he dropped onto the floor like a Lego expert to help me with the town I was building. A few hours later, he vomited into my toy chest. It wasn’t until recently that I realized he’d been drunk the whole time.
Dad used to call himself and his brothers and sister the Four As, back when he still talked regularly about them. Adam, Anders, Allison, and Archer, born a year apart from one an- other. They all had distinct roles in the family: Adam was the golden-boy athlete, Anders the brilliant eccentric, Allison the reserved beauty, and Archer the charming jokester.
Uncle Anders, Jonah’s father, is the only one who didn’t inherit the family good looks. In old pictures he’s short, scrawny, and sharp-featured, with eyebrows like slashes and a perpetual thin-lipped smirk. That’s how I picture Jonah whenever I read his messages.
I’m about to put my phone away when a new message pops up, from Milly to me. It’s the first time she’s ever texted me without including Jonah. Aubrey, important question for you: Is it just me, or is Jonah a total ass?
A grin tugs at the corners of my mouth as I type, It’s not just you. I open Thomas’s glove compartment, where he keeps a handy assortment of snacks, and dig out a brown sugar– cinnamon Pop-Tart. Not my favorite, but my stomach is rum- bling with post-meet hunger pangs.
Milly: I mean, nobody’s thrilled about this. I might not be signed up for Genius Camp, but I still have things I’d rather be doing.
Before I can respond, another message pops up, from Jonah in our group chat. That ferry time is inconvenient and I don’t see the point in arriving in tandem anyway.
Milly: Omg why is he such trash??? Jonah: Excuse me?
Milly: . . .
Milly: Sorry, wrong chat.
Milly, in our private chat: Fuck.
I laugh through a mouthful of Pop-Tart, and Thomas glances at me. “What’s so funny?” he asks.
I swallow. “My cousin Milly. I think I’m going to like her.” “That’s good. At least the summer won’t be a total loss.”
Thomas drums his fingers on one side of the steering wheel as he turns onto my street. It’s narrow and winding, filled with modest ranches and split-levels. It was supposed to be our starter home, bought after my father’s first novel was published almost ten years ago. The book wasn’t a blockbuster, but it was well re- viewed enough that he was offered a contract for a second novel. Which he still hasn’t written, even though author is the only job he’s had since I was in grade school. For the longest time, I thought he got paid for reading books, not writing them, since that was all he ever did. Turns out he just doesn’t get paid at all.
Thomas pulls into our driveway and shifts into park but doesn’t cut the engine. “Do you want to come in?” I ask. “Um.” Thomas takes a deep breath, his hand still drumming
on the steering wheel. “So, I think . . .”
I lick my lips, which taste like cinnamon and chlorine, while I wait for him to go on. When he doesn’t, I prod, “You think what?” His shoulders tense, then rise in a shrug. “Just—not today.
I have stuff to do.”
I don’t have the energy to ask what stuff. I lean toward him for a kiss, but Thomas pulls back. “Better not. I don’t wanna get sick.” Stung, I retreat. Guess that’s what I get for lying. “Okay.
Text me later?”
“Sure,” Thomas says. As soon as I’m out of the car and shut the door, he reverses out of my driveway. I watch him drive up the street with an uneasy flutter in my stomach. It’s not as though Thomas waits for me to make it through the front door when he drives me home, but he doesn’t usually take off quite that fast.
The house is quiet when I get inside. When Mom is around she always has music on, usually the nineties grunge she liked in college. For one hopeful second I think that means I have the place to myself, but I’ve barely set foot in the living room before my father’s voice stops me.
“Back so soon?”
My stomach twists as I turn to see him sitting in a leather armchair that’s too big for the cramped corner of our living room. His author chair, the one Mom bought when his book was published. It would look better in one of those office-slash- libraries with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, an imposing mahogany desk, and a hearth. Our tabby cat, Eloise, lies stretched across his lap. When I don’t reply, he asks, “How was the meet?”
I blink at him. He can’t really expect me to answer that question. Not after the bomb he dropped last night. But he just gazes back calmly, putting a finger in the book he’s holding to mark his page. I recognize the cover, the bold black font against a muted, almost watercolor-like background. A Brief and Broken Silence, by Adam Story. It’s his novel, about a former college athlete who achieves literary stardom and then realizes that what he really wants is to live a simple life off the grid—except his rabid fans won’t leave him alone.
I’m pretty sure my father was hoping the book would turn out to be autobiographical. It didn’t, but he still rereads it at least once a year.
You might as well, I think, my temper flaring. No one else does.
But I don’t say it. “Where’s Mom?”
“Your mother . . .” Dad hesitates, squinting as the sunlight streaming through the picture window reaches his eyes. The light brings out glints in his dark hair and gives him a golden glow he doesn’t deserve. It makes my chest hurt, now, to think about how mindlessly I’ve always worshiped my father. How deeply I believed that he was brilliant, and special, and des- tined for amazing things. I was honored that he’d given me an A name. I was the Fifth A, I used to tell myself, and one day I’d be just like them. Glamorous, mysterious, and just a little bit tragic. “Your mother is taking some time.”
“Taking time? What, did she, like . . . move out?” But as soon as I say it, I know it isn’t true. My mother wouldn’t leave without telling me.
Eloise startles awake and jumps down, stalking across the living room with that irritated look she gets whenever her nap ends. “She’s spending the afternoon with Aunt Jenny,” Dad says. “After that, we’ll see.” A different note creeps into his voice then—petulant, with an undercurrent of resentment. “This is hard on all of us.”
I stare at him, blood pounding in my ears, and imagine myself responding the way I want to: with a loud, disbelieving laugh. I’d laugh all the way across the room until I was close enough to rip the book out of his hands and throw it at his head. And then I’d tell him the truth: There is no us anymore. That’s ruined, and it’s all your fault.
But I don’t say or do any of that. Just like I didn’t push Coach Matson into the pool. All I do is nod stiffly, as though he said something that made actual sense. Then I trudge silently upstairs until I reach my bedroom door and lean my head against the cool, white wood.
You know what you did. My grandmother’s letter from years ago said that, and my father has always insisted that she was wrong. “I can’t know, because nothing happened,” he’d say. “There’s not a single thing that I, my brothers, or my sister ever did to justify this kind of treatment.” And I believed him without question. I believed that he was innocent, and treated unfairly, and that my grandmother must be cold, capricious, and maybe even crazy.
But yesterday, I learned how easily he can lie. And now I don’t know what to believe anymore.
I’m going to be late.
I’ve been in this car for almost three hours, driving seventy- five miles through stop-and-go traffic from Providence to Hyannis. It’s been the longest, most expensive Uber trip of my life.
“Typical last weekend in June,” my driver, Frederico, says as we crawl through Saturday-morning Cape Cod traffic. He brakes as the light we were about to pass through turns yellow. “What can you do, right?”
I grit my teeth. “You could’ve run that light, for starters.”
Frederico waves a hand. “Not worth it. Cops are everywhere today.”
Google Maps says we’re just over a mile away from the ferry that will take me to Gull Cove Island. But even when we get through the red light, the line of cars ahead of us barely moves. “I’m supposed to leave in ten minutes,” I say, hunching forward until my knees bump the seat in front of me. Whoever last rode shotgun in Frederico’s car likes a lot of legroom. “Are we gonna make it?”
“Wellll,” he hedges. “I’m not positive we’re not gonna make it.”
I suck in a frustrated breath and start stuffing papers back into the folder I’m holding. It’s full of press clippings and printouts about Gull Cove and Mildred Story—mostly the island, though, because Mildred’s practically a recluse. The only social event she ever shows up for is the annual Summer Gala at Gull Cove Resort. There’s a picture of her in the Gull Cove Gazette at last year’s event, wearing a giant dramatic hat and gloves like she’s the queen of England. Donald Camden, her lawyer and sender of the infamous you know what you did letter, is standing next to her. He looks like the kind of smug asshole who would enjoy the job.
Mildred is now best known for being a patron of the arts.
Apparently she’s got a massive private collection of paintings and sculptures, and she spends a ton of money supporting local artists. She’s probably the only reason there’s still an artist com- munity on that overpriced pile of rocks they call an island. So she has that going for her, at least.
The back of the folder has a few things related to Aubrey, Milly, and their parents. Old reviews for Adam Story’s book, coverage of Aubrey’s swim meets, an article about Toshi Takahashi making partner in one of New York’s biggest law firms. I even dug up an old New York Times Vows column on his and Allison Story’s wedding almost twenty years ago. Nothing about their divorce, though.
It’s a little weird, maybe, to be carting all this around, but I don’t know these people. And when I don’t know something, I study it.
I shove the folder into my duffel bag and zip it up. It’s one of those oversized bags meant to see a kid through two weeks of summer camp. It has to last me two months, but I don’t have much. “Don’t you know any back roads?” I ask Frederico. We’re down to eight minutes.
“These are the back roads,” Frederico says, glancing at me in the rearview mirror. “How fast are you?”
“Can you run a five-minute mile?”
“Shit.” I exhale as his meaning hits me. “You can’t be serious.” “We’re not moving, kid. If I were you, I’d make a run for it.”
Desperation turns my voice into a snarl. “I have a bag!”
Frederico shrugs. “You’re in good shape, aren’t you? It’s either that or miss your ferry. When’s the next one?”
“Two and a half hours.” I look at his dashboard—seven minutes to go—and make up my mind. “Fuck it. I’m going.” A mile isn’t that long, right? How bad could it be? Better than being stuck at a dock for almost three hours. Frederico brakes so I can get out, and I loop the straps of my bag around my shoulders like an oversized backpack.
He points out the window. “GPS says it’s on the right.
Should be a straight shot along this road. Good luck.”
I don’t answer, just take off for the grass at the side of the road and start running. For about thirty seconds it’s fine and then everything goes to hell: the bag’s thumping too hard against my back, I can feel rocks through the thin soles of my cheap sneakers, and my lungs start burning. Frederico was wrong; I’m not in shape. I look it, because I spend hours every day hauling boxes, but I haven’t flat-out run in a long time. My lung capacity sucks, and it’s getting worse by the second.
But I keep going, lengthening my strides because it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere near fast enough. My throat is so dry that it aches, and my lungs feel ready to explode. I pass a cheap motel, a seafood restaurant, and a minigolf course. The air is hot and muggy, the kind that settles over your skin even when you’re standing still, and sweat coats my hair and pastes my T-shirt to my chest.
This was a big mistake. Huge. How am I going to explain collapsing on the side of a Cape Cod road to my parents?
Somehow I’m still running, my bag whacking me painfully with every step. My eyes sting with sweat and I can barely see, but I keep blinking until I make out the edge of a squat white building. It looms closer, and I spy a cobblestone path and a sign that reads steamship authority. I don’t know how much time has passed, but I’m here.
I drag myself to the ticket window, panting. The woman behind the glass, a blonde with heavy makeup and teased bangs, looks at me with amusement. “Ease up on the heavy breathing, handsome. You’re too young for me.”
“Ticket,” I gasp, digging in my pocket for my wallet. “For . . . the . . . one . . . twenty.”
She shakes her head, and my pounding heart drops to my feet. Then she says, “You like to cut things close, don’t you? You almost missed it. That’ll be eighteen dollars.”
I don’t have enough breath left to thank her. I pay, grab my ticket, and push through the doors into the station. It’s bigger than I thought, so I pick up my pace to the exit, one hand pressing against the stitch in my side.
There’s a fifty-fifty chance I’m going to hurl before I get on this boat.
When I reach the dock there’s hardly anyone on it, just a few people waving at the ferry. A guy in a white shirt and dark pants is standing at the entrance of a walkway connecting the dock to the boat. He checks his watch and grasps a chain that dangles to the ground, fastening it across the two posts on either side of the walkway. Then he looks up and catches sight of me lunging toward him with my ticket outstretched.
Don’t do it, I think. Don’t be a dick.
He takes my ticket and unclips the chain. “Made it in the nick of time. Bon voyage, son.”
Not a dick. Thank Christ.
I stagger up the pier and through the ferry’s entrance, almost groaning with relief at the air-conditioned chill that greets me, and collapse in a bright-blue seat. I dig inside my bag for my water bottle, unscrew the top, and drain almost the entire thing in three long gulps. Then I pour the rest over my head.
Note to self: take up running this summer, because that was pathetic.
My fellow passengers all ignore me. They look primed for vacation, wearing baseball caps, flip-flops, and T-shirts with what I’ve come to realize is the unofficial Gull Cove Island logo: a circle with the silhouette of a gull inside and the letters GCI above it.
I keep still until my breathing returns to normal, then pull a Gull Cove Island tourist brochure out of my bag and flip to the transportation section in the middle. The ride is two hours and twenty minutes, and we’ll pass Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket along the way. Gull Cove Island is smaller than either of them— which is saying something, since Nantucket is only fourteen miles long—and what the brochure calls “more remote and rugged.”
Translation: fewer hotels and worse beaches.
I put the brochure away and survey the crowd. It looks like people are just leaving their luggage wherever, so I stuff my bag under my seat and get up. Might as well check the place out. I head for a staircase next to the snack bar, and my stomach instantly growls. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast and that was five hours ago.
Upstairs looks almost the same, with a staircase that goes to the top deck. That’s open air, and everyone is clustered around the railings that overlook the ocean. It’s overcast, threatening rain, but the air that was choking me onshore is crisp and salt- scented here. Seagulls circle above the boat with noisy cries, water stretches smoothly on every side of us, and for the first time in a month this doesn’t seem like the worst idea I’ve ever had.
I’m more thirsty than I am hungry, so I decide to head back downstairs and get something to drink from the snack bar. I’m preoccupied, digging for my wallet to check how much cash I have on me, and almost bump into somebody who’s heading up as I’m going down.
“Watch it!” says a girl’s voice.
“Sorry,” I mumble. Then I look up and gulp. “I mean, hey. Hi.”
At first, all that registers is that this girl is drop-dead gorgeous. Dark hair, dark eyes, and full lips curved in a smirk that should probably be annoying but isn’t. She’s wearing a bright- red sundress and sandals, with sunglasses holding back her hair and a large, man-sized watch on one wrist, and—oh.
Oh, shit. I can’t believe I blanked for a second. I know exactly who this is.
“You mean hi?” she asks. The smirk gets bigger. Possibly a little flirty. “Are you sure?”
I step back, forgetting I’m on a staircase, and nearly fall. I take a few seconds to consider my predicament while I grasp the rail to steady myself. I was hoping to avoid this particular per- son, at least until we got to Gull Cove. But now that I’ve almost literally run into her, I guess there’s no going back.
“I’m sure,” I say. “Hello, Milly.”
She blinks in surprise. Behind us, someone clears his throat. “Excuse me,” calls a gruff voice. “I’m trying to get downstairs.” I turn to see an old guy in plaid shorts and a Red Sox baseball cap hovering behind me, one foot on the top step.
“Hang on. We’re going up,” I say, and reverse course. He steps aside to let me pass, and I lean against the wall of an alcove beside the staircase.
Milly follows, her hands on her hips. “Do I know you?”
Crap. I can’t believe I was just checking her out. I don’t think she minded, either. Awkward. “Yeah. Well, sort of. I’m Jonah.” I hold out my hand. Her eyes widen, and she doesn’t take it. “Jonah Story.”
“Jonah Story,” she repeats. “Your cousin,” I clarify.
Milly stares at me for a beat. Then she takes my hand so gingerly that her fingers barely graze mine. “You’re Jonah?”
I let annoyance edge into my voice. It’s my trademark, after all. “Do you have auditory issues? I’ve responded affirmatively multiple times.”
Her eyes narrow. “Oh, there you are. I got a little confused by this whole”—she waves a hand near my face—“J. Crew model look you have going. I have to admit, that’s unexpected. I thought you’d look how you talk.” I’m not going to rise to the bait and ask her what she means, but she keeps going without prompting. “Like a constipated gnome.”
Points for creativity, I guess. “Nice to meet you too.”
Her nose wrinkles as she looks me up and down. “Why are you all sweaty?”
I resist the urge to sniff myself to see if I smell. From the look on her face, I probably do. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“Why are you even here? I thought you didn’t see any point in arriving in tandem?”
I fold my arms, wishing I’d never come upstairs. Talking to her is wearing me out. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it up. “My schedule changed.”
Milly clucks her tongue a few times before lifting her hand in a beckoning motion. “Come on, then. You might as well meet Aubrey.” I’m not in the mood for more people, and it must show on my face because she rolls her eyes and says, “Trust me, she’s not going to enjoy it any more than you are.”
“I don’t think—”
“Hey!” Another voice breaks in. “There you are! Thought I’d lost you.” It’s a girl my age wearing a short-sleeved blue hoodie and gym shorts, her blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail. She has serious freckles, the kind that cover not just her nose and cheeks, but her entire body. I’ve seen her face throughout the news clippings in my folder, although she’s usually wearing a swim cap. Aubrey’s smile, aimed at Milly, widens when she notices me. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not,” Milly says quickly. She gestures toward me like she’s a game show host giving away a prize nobody wants. “Guess what? This is Jonah.”
Aubrey’s brows shoot up. She glances uncertainly between Milly and me. “Really?”
Milly shrugs. “Apparently.”
Aubrey’s eyes are still ping-ponging between us. Even when she’s not smiling, there’s something friendly about her face. And honest. She looks like she’d be a terrible liar. “Are you guys messing with me?”
Time for me to talk again. “Sorry I don’t splash my face all over social media like a mindless lemming desperate for attention.”
“Oh.” Aubrey nods. “Okay, then. Hi, Jonah.” She looks back at Milly, whose eyes keep wandering to the ocean like she’s weighing the pros and cons of pushing me overboard. “You don’t really look like a Story.”
“I look like my mother,” I tell her.
Aubrey sighs and brushes a strand of windswept pale hair out of one eye. “Me too.” Then she takes a deep breath and steadies herself, like she’s about to dive into a frigid pool. “Come on. Let’s go downstairs and sit for a while. Might as well get to know one another.”
Half an hour later, Milly’s had it. I don’t know her well enough to be sure, but I’d bet everything I have that she’s taken an instant, profound dislike to me.
Mission accomplished, I guess.
“I’m getting a drink,” she says, rising from our window booth on the first floor. “Aubrey, do you want anything? Or to come with?”
I expect Aubrey to take off too, but she’s distracted. Every once in a while—like right now—her entire face droops as she stares intently at her phone. She’s looking for something, and she keeps getting disappointed. “No thanks,” she murmurs. Milly heads for the stairs, and silence descends as Aubrey swipes methodically at her phone. Mine buzzes in my pocket, and I dig it out to a text from a contact I’ve saved as JT.
How’s everything going?
Every muscle in my body tenses as I reply, Fine. That’s all you have to say?
I could say fuck you, I think. But all I type back is Yep.
I ignore the buzz of a new text and stuff the phone back into my pocket as Aubrey lifts both hands to tug on her ponytail, pulling it tighter. “Sorry about Genius Camp,” she says.
She tilts her head. “That’s what Milly and I call that science camp you wanted to go to. Do you think you’ll get another chance? Like next summer, maybe? Or is that too late?”
“Too late,” I say. “The whole point was to enhance the college application process.” Without Milly here, I can’t inject as much disdain into my words as I want to. Being sarcastic to Aubrey feels like kicking a puppy.
“That’s too bad. I wasn’t sure you’d come, to be honest. You seemed pretty determined not to.”
“Turns out I didn’t have a choice.”
“I guess none of us did,” Aubrey says. She crosses a leg over one knee and jiggles her foot, staring out the window at the darkening sky. It’s thirty-five miles from Hyannis to Gull Cove Island, and it looks like we’re headed for stormier weather. “What’s your dad like? Uncle Anders.” She says the name like he’s a movie character. “I think I last saw you guys when I was five? I can’t remember him at all.”
Aubrey’s blue eyes take on a faraway expression. “My dad talks about yours the least of anyone. Like, he probably has the most in common with Aunt Allison, and he seems to feel sort of protective about Uncle Archer, but your dad? He barely mentions him. I don’t know why.”
I swallow and lick my lips. I’m on unsteady ground, and not sure how much to say. “My dad . . . he was always kind of the odd man out, you know? I think he felt that way, at least.”
“Are you guys close?”
To that asshole? No way. I swallow the truth and try for a nonchalant shrug. “Ish. You know how it is.”
“I do. Especially lately.” Rain starts spattering against the window next to us, and Aubrey cups her hand against it to peer outside. “Do you think she’ll meet us at the dock?”
“Milly?” I ask. “What, you think she found better company till then?” Here’s hoping.
“No,” Aubrey says, laughing a little. “Gran.”
The laugh catches me off guard. Aubrey and I are getting comfortable with one another, and that’s not good. In the words of every reality contestant ever: I’m not here to make friends. “Yeah, right,” I snort. “She never even bothered to send a follow-up letter.”
Aubrey’s face clouds. “You too? I wrote her six times and heard nothing.”
“I wrote zero times. Same result.”
“It’s so cold.” Aubrey shivers a little, but I know she’s not talking about the temperature. “I don’t understand. It’s bad enough that the first time she ever contacted us, she made a job offer. Like we’re hired help instead of family. But then she can’t even be bothered to stay in touch? What’s the point of all this, if she’s not interested in getting to know us?”
“Cheap labor.” I mean it as a joke, but Aubrey’s mouth just turns down further. I’m about to make an excuse to leave when I catch a flash of red on the stairs: Milly’s back. That should get me moving even faster, but for some reason I stay put.
“Here you go, cousins.” Milly is balancing four plastic cups: one full of clear liquid and garnished with a lime wedge, and three that are empty except for ice. She settles next to Aubrey and starts evening out the cups, pouring the full one into the other three until it’s empty. When she’s finished, she hands one cup to me and one to Aubrey. “Cheers to—I don’t know. Finally meeting the mysterious Mildred, I guess.” We all clink cups, and Aubrey takes a long swig of hers.
“Ugh!” She spits it right back out. “Milly, what is this?”
Milly hands her a napkin, unfazed. She plucks the lime garnish from the empty cup and squeezes juice into each of ours. “Sorry, forgot the lime. A gin and tonic.”
“Seriously?” Aubrey grimaces and sets her cup down on the table. “Thanks, but I don’t drink. How’d you get alcohol?”
“I have my ways.” Milly watches as a line of people stream down the staircase from the upper deck to escape the rainstorm, then focuses her attention on Aubrey and me. “So. Now that we’ve covered all the surface stuff, let’s get real. What aren’t we telling each other?”
My throat gets dry. “Huh?”
Milly shrugs. “This entire family is built on secrets, right? It’s the Story legacy. You guys probably have some juicy ones.” She tilts her cup toward me. “Spill.”
I glance at Aubrey, who’s gone pale beneath her freckles. I feel a muscle in my jaw start to twitch. “I don’t have any secrets,” I say.
“Me either,” Aubrey says quickly. Her hands are clenched tight in her lap, and she looks like she’s about to either throw up or cry. I was right; she’s a terrible liar. Even worse than I am.
Milly isn’t interested in going after Aubrey, though. She pivots toward me and leans forward, her big watch sliding down her arm as she cups her chin in her hand. “Everybody has secrets,” she says, taking a sip of her drink. “That’s nondebatable. The only question is whether you’re keeping your own, or someone else’s.”
A bead of sweat gathers on my forehead, and I resist the urge to wipe it away as I gulp down half my drink. I don’t like gin, but any port in a storm seems like a solid metaphor right now. I try for a half-bored, half-irritated expression. “Can’t it be both?” Rain lashes the window behind Milly as her eyes lock on mine. “With you, Jonah?” she asks, raising one perfectly arched brow. “I’m guessing it can.”
Extract copyright © 2020 by Karen M. McManus LLC
Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.