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Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father's fist), $3.84, and a secret. He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can't make him forget what he left behindhis mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret. At least so far. Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. First-time novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you've said enough, after you've run, after you've made the splithow do you begin to live again? Readers won't be able to put this intense page-turner down.
Now I have to start lying.
While I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in, I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind. "I was in the neighborhood"? Yeah, right. It's nineteen hours from Chicago to Albuquerque. If you drive all night. If you only stop for Mountain Dews and KFC extra crispy. By the way, KFC closes way too early in Oklahoma.
Maybe I should try "I'm just here to borrow a cup of sugar." Pathetic. How about "One more stop in the eternal quest for the perfect burrito"? Unless Christian has gone blind in the last five years, no lie is gonna cut it. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the slit and suck on the blood.
My face will tell half the story. For the other half, I'll keep my mouth shut and lie by omission. Someday I'll fess up, tell him the whole deal, and then he can perform a lobotomy or whatever it takes. But right now, I just need Christian to open his door, nudge it wider, and let me stay.
When I open the car door, a ding-ding, ding-ding sound makes me pause. I search the dashboard for clues. Oh--headlights. I'm not used to driving at night. My license is only a couple of months old, but after making it here despite pissy Missouri drivers, tired Oklahomans, middle-finger-saluting Texans, and clueless New Mexicans, I've got the mileage, if not the age.
The entrance glows under an outdoor light. Inside, the lobby is cramped, and the once-white walls are striated with grime. I scan the list of names next to the buzzer buttons.
There is no Witherspoon. Our last name is missing.
I curl a finger, rest my knuckle against the buzzer box and slide it down, stopping at each name to be sure. Gonzales, scribbled in blue ballpoint; MARSHALL in black Sharpie; Ngu in looping red ink; and a name that reminds me of G-rated swearing, SI#*%?
I yank my camera bag off my shoulder and crouch, setting it on the floor. The zipper grinds open, and I unload my camera and flash, searching for the envelope that my mom handed me before I left. I recheck the address. I'm in the right place, but I notice, for the first time, that the letter was postmarked a month ago.
I taste copper. If Christian has moved, how am I supposed to find him? The envelope says 4B. Even though 4B is labeled MARSHALL, I press the button, and the buzz echoes in the tiny foyer. Answer. Be home and answer.
Outside, a FedEx truck roars, pauses, and roars again. Its white profile steals away, leaving only a gasp of gray exhaust. A shrunken man drags the door open and holds it for his shrunken wife. Before they even step over the threshold, they see me and stop.
I am quite the picture. The split lip isn't the only re-landscaping my father has done. A purple mountain is rising on my jaw, and a red canyon cuts across my forehead.
They stare at me, and I suck in my lip, hiding what I can.
At that moment, a distorted voice comes through the speaker: "Who is it?"
Can I really have this conversation over a speaker? Remember me? The brother you left behind? Well, I've caught up. Even in my imagination, I stop here. I leave out the rest.
"Um," I say, "FedEx."
The couple unfreezes. The man grasps his wife's elbow, tugs her outside, shoves the door closed, and helps her hobble away. Great way to start my Albuquerque tenure: scaring the locals.
The buzzer sounds. I grab the handle, turn it, and climb the steps. On the second floor, I have to stop. The red shag carpet has been accumulating odors since the 1970s and is going to take some getting used to. I block up my nose as if I am swimming and breathe through my mouth. Even worse. Now I can taste the miasma of hash and cat piss. At least, I hope it's cat piss. I close my mouth, wishing I didn't have to breathe as I take the steps two at a time to the fourth floor. Gold numbers against a dark wood door. I press my palm against it, as if I can befriend the door, get it on my side. I knock and wait. I know some people go all deer-in-the-headlights when they panic. Their lungs stop, their muscles freeze, even their brains silence. Me--my foot's on the gas and the map's flapping out the window. My imagination creates scenes in rapid succession:
He'll throw open the door and hug me until I can't breathe. There'll be a pizza feast laid out on a banquet table: four pies, all pepperoni and pineapple. (Okay, this part might be influenced by the fact that I haven't eaten in ten hours.) He'll wrap an arm around my shoulder and say, "I've been looking out for you, even from here."
Or maybe I'll be overwhelmed by the sweet smell of pot, and his hair will be sticking up wildly, and he'll mug me for the $3.84 I have left.
Or maybe he won't recognize me.
The door swings open, and a rush of ginger and garlic overtakes the hash/piss scent. My stomach lurches, as if it wants to go inside all on its own.