Young Adult Fiction

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The Book of Sam

Chapter 1: Harper James

Where is she? I thought as I sat on the steps of my front porch, a safe distance from the noise of my family. Inside my house a PlayStation controller pounded amid video game gunfire, heavy feet ran up and down the stairs, and above all that, my dad screamed at my mom about something I did or left on or forgot to put away or whatever. I didn’t pay much attention to it, lost in my own head.

Harper was almost an hour late. The plan was to go to Queens Quay to board a ferry to the Islands. There, we’d spend a night huddled around a bonfire on Ward’s Island. I’d been looking forward to this night all week, the first that Harper didn’t have family stuff or cheerleading practice or a model UN meeting.

I leaned back, my elbows pressed against the wood, trying to see around the house on the corner, hoping Harper would pop into view.

I hadn’t seen her since Justin Breslow’s party the Friday before. His parents were in Las Vegas, so he’d announced to the cafeteria that there would be a party at his house. Since I was at the back of the room, I was officially invited, even if I was eating alone. So I went — and by went, I mean I stood in a corner, talking to Harper as she fended off guys trying to press up against her. I walked her home, and before we parted I asked her if we could hang out on the Islands next week, one of her last before she was going to leave for Paris on an academic exchange. I had applied for the same program, but was told that my application didn’t meet their standards. She happily agreed to my proposal before kissing my cheek.

I checked my phone for the hundredth time. No texts, but a couple dozen Snapchat notifications, which I was sure were about some party I wasn’t invited to. I made a mental note to check later.

That annoying voice in my head started yapping, conjuring scenarios where something bad had happened. Harper lived only a block away and had walked the short distance to my house thousands of times without a problem. Both of our streets touched what was once Toronto’s boardwalk, The Esplanade. It’s a ribbon of road that runs east to west along shimmering Lake Ontario, and it once buzzed with the noise of distilleries, refineries, twirling carousels, and transport trains rushing into stations. Eventually, the trains were moved above and below ground, the carousels were dismantled — the sad painted horses packed into kitschy restaurants to amuse kids as their parents ate — and the distilleries and refineries were shut down to make way for new industries. Toronto expanded south. Like prison bars, condo buildings cut the city off from the water, though I still liked to tell people that I lived by the lake. It was more interesting than saying I lived near the new forty-five-storey condo on top of a Whole Foods.

Whatever action was happening on The Esplanade was not spilling onto my street, where the only things going on were a dog peeing on a flowerbed, some discarded flyers cartwheeling across the pavement, and Jake Springer, a kid from my school, helping his dad change the oil in their car. His dad wiped the dipstick with a grey cloth, plunged it into the oil tank, and pulled it out, teaching Jake to read the level.

The shouting from inside my house grew harsher. I walked to the window and snuck a look through a gap in the curtains. My sister Amy marched down the stairs and passed like a ship through choppy waters between my parents arguing in the hallway. She was the oldest of the kids and the most immune to the stress of our home. I couldn’t make out what my parents were saying, but I heard my name. I’d done something wrong.

I retreated to the steps of the porch, but this time I chose the bottom one to give myself a little more distance. I tapped my feet to the beat of the song I was humming, trying to think happy thoughts: bunny rabbits, baseball, Harper — that kind of stuff.

Finally, Harper appeared from around the corner, her face blocked by a bubble of pink gum. The sight of her quieted the noise from my family as if a steel door had hermetically sealed them off. Her hands were shoved into the pockets of her ripped jeans, and her brown hair was pulled into a ponytail except for two strands that bracketed her face. She threw me a half-hearted wave and a practised smile, which wilted in seconds. Harper was as subtle as a marching band, and even from a distance, her mood was evident. Something was wrong.

We met at the bottom of the steps for a hug — a big warm one without any restraint, her arms squeezing around my neck. How many more hugs did we have before she left?

“Ready to go?” I said.

She tilted her head down and stared at her shoes, kicking the toe of one against the ground. Her nose crinkled as if she smelled something pungent.

“I don’t wanna go anymore,” she said, her voice barbed.

“Why not? We’ve been planning this all week.” I was annoyed.

“I’m just not in the mood anymore,” she said. She breathed in and her eyes looked upwards at the clouds to avoid contact with mine. I was starting to think her hug had been a pity hug, a sorry-your-aunt-didn’t-make-it hug. She crossed her arms.

“Have you looked at your snaps in the last hour?” she said, not quite managing to sound casual.

I shook my head. “No, but my phone’s been blowing up. Why?”

She adjusted her ponytail even though it was fine. She crossed her arms again and then uncrossed them.

“What is it?” I said. “You’re being weird.”

“Maybe we should go inside,” Harper said.

She took my hand and pulled me up the porch steps. I tensed, wondering what she was going to show me. Did someone post something about her? A pic no one was supposed to see? That had happened to a girl we knew, Priya. She was a quiet girl who’d met a guy online. After some pleading and manipulating on his part, she sent him a topless selfie. The next day it was on the screen of every phone and tablet at school, a cruel prank by a popular girl, who told the principal she did it out of boredom.

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It felt like hours, but I honestly had no idea how much time passed. Clay noticed I was breathing at a normal pace again and he asked, "You ready to go back home?"

"Not really," I said. "Can't we just stay here?" I felt embarrassed that Clay had seen me like that. But I was really grateful he took me away from it all.

"You could, but your mom would probably freak out," Clay said with a half grin.

"She's always freaking out these days," I sighed. "We should go back, I guess."

Clay snapped his fingers and the darkness began to fade away. The stars fizzed out and once everything was said and done, it didn't look much different at all. The moon was resting above us, while stars were all around the sky.

"How long were we there?" I asked.

"A while, but don't worry. Are you okay?"

"I don't know," I admitted. I got to my feet and wiped the grass off my jeans. How could I be okay after that?

I turned around and saw my truck still parked in the same spot. We pulled out of the area and went back the highway towards Yarmouth. I didn't want the road to end. I wanted to keep driving. Driving felt like I was finally in control of something for once in my life. Nobody could take that away from me. Not a stupid city, not Mom, not a stupid attendance sheet. We eventually made it back to the city and once we got close to the path Clay said, "I'm around if you need me."

I looked to my right and he was gone.

I had a feeling Mom would be waiting for me, and sure enough, she was on the front porch in her housecoat.

"Anna!" she whispered-yelled. "Where were you?"

When I saw Mom, I didn't know how to react. I kept thinking about her being the young woman in the grey hoodie, hanging out in that trailer where that man lived. I knew I couldn't bring it up; it would only make things worse.

"I Tia's place."

"No you weren't," she cut in. "I called and you weren't there." She crossed her arms. "Not only that," she continued, "but I got a call from Ms. Anderson today. Why weren't you in class? Apparently this wasn't the first time, either."


"Nothing to say for yourself? C'mon Anna. You're better than that. You're better than this."

How dare she say that? After I seen what I had seen, those words coming out of her mouth were like some sick joke. Her validation wasn't a hill I wanted to die on. She was the one who took me away from everything in my hometown and expected me to come back and pretend everything was normal. But this wasn't normal. Grampy dying without us here, and Mom expecting me to finish off grade eleven in the school he taught at wasn't normal. Abruptly moving back to my hometown with no timeline of our stay wasn't normal. Never mentioning my father and pretending he didn't exist wasn't normal.

There was nothing normal about any of this.

"Your grandfather worked so hard for everything he accomplished here," Mom was saying now. "He worked so hard for me, he worked so hard for you. I don't want you to go down this road. I don't want you to let him down."

That's when I lost it.

"Hold up!" I yelled. "Me letting him down?! You're the one who never visited in years. You never even saw him before he died!" I couldn't contain myself. "Then you have the nerve to hold me to some higher expectation after ripping me away from my hometown. Bringing me along to Halifax so you could study. I was fine here, Mom! I would have been fine, but no. You just had to take me along so you could say you did all by yourself while having a daughter!" I knew that last part wasn't fair, but I was done being nice. "You didn't even take into consideration my feelings when we left Yarmouth. You just left, and I never had a say!"

I didn't know where this furious energy was coming from, but I wasn't backing down.

"I'm not just some plot device in your story, Mom. I'm my own person. Now we're suddenly back here, and we're supposed to act like everything is normal? Are we supposed to act like Grampy being gone is normal? Am I just supposed to tighten my bootstraps and move on? Don't you think it hurts being in the school where he taught? Don't you think it hurts having Nan treat me like a stranger? Is that supposed to be normal? And do you think that we're supposed to pretend my dad doesn't still live in this town? Or do you just edit him out of the equation because it's easier for you, rather than having a conversation with your daughter?"

I could see the emotions shift on Mom's face. From angry to frustrated to disappointed to just...lost. I had never seen her like that before. I didn't know what else to say. I don't think there was anything else I could say after that. Who did she think she was? How was she acting any different now than Nan did when she broke curfew in the memory?

"Annaka, that's not a line you cross." Mom crossed her arms walking towards me.

"No. I'm just supposed to pretend the line isn't even there, right? I'm just supposed to accept things the way they are." I threw my hands up in exasperation. "We've been here for weeks, and you haven't even toyed with the idea of me meeting my dad."

That caused her to pause.

"Some people are better left in the past," Mom said quietly.

"And some people resent the ones who keep secrets," I shot back. "Where is he? Where is he, huh?"

Mom shook her head. "I'm not having this conversation with you."

"You never do."

"You're right, I never do," Mom agreed as she walked up the stairs. "You do what you want, it's your life after all. If you wanna be a high school dropout, if you want to fail and tarnish the good name of Rudy Brooks, then you do you."

"Oh, that's new," I spat. "You're making it about someone else for once."

That's when she looked back at me and I saw she was actually a little choked up. It was then I knew how hard my words had hit because she didn't reply, she just continued up the stairs.

Everything was silent. I stood there feeling a mixture of things, regret, anger, but mostly sadness. I didn't want that to go down the way it did, but it did. After a few minutes I walked upstairs to my room and lay in bed. I was trying to remember when things were easier. Before death, before grief, and before loss. Those were the ingredients that scrambled my whole world.

I lay in bed thinking. I couldn't believe I had seen my dad. That had to be him, right? His name was Blake Morrison. Could he still be in town? Could he be gone? Of course Mom wouldn't talk about it. I rolled over to look outside through a gap in the curtains; there were a lot of stars in the sky tonight. I decided I wanted a better view, so I grabbed my comforter and went outside. I climbed up to the treehouse, placing my head in my hands wishing I knew what I was looking for.

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