I looked over at my mom, who was sitting at the kitchen table, a bagel she wouldn’t eat in front of her. It was sweet of her to make an effort.
“Not really,” I said, zipping my backpack shut. This wasn’t true: I’d already checked twice that I had my parking permit and class schedule, and yet I still kept having to make sure. But I didn’t want her to worry. About me, anyway.
“It’s a big change, a new school,” she said.
In the silence that followed, this sentence hovered between us, like an empty hook waiting for something to be hung on it. Ever since I’d decided in early June to leave Perkins Day and enroll at Jackson High School, my mom had been giving me opportunities to explain why. I thought I had. I’d been at Perkins Day my whole life. I needed something different, especially after the last year. And then, the reason I didn’t talk about: the money.
Peyton’s latest defense had not been cheap, and the bills from it, along with all the others from Sawyer Ambrose, were piling up. Though it wasn’t discussed outright, I knew things were tighter than they’d ever been. We’d let our housekeeper go and sold one of our cars, as well as a beach house we rarely used in Colby, our favorite coastal town. Nobody had said anything about my school expenses, but with college coming up in two years, I figured it was the least I could do. Plus, I was ready to be anonymous.
My mom and I had gone to Jackson to enroll me two days after my brother was sentenced. She was still like a walking ghost, drinking cup after cup of coffee each day and barely eating. My dad had resumed traveling, taking one out-of-town consulting gig after another, so that left just us at the house—at least when she wasn’t making the three-hour round-trip to Lincoln Correctional Facility twice a week and every other weekend. Still, she had rallied for our appointment with the school counselor, putting on makeup and arranging my transcripts in a folder labeled with my name. When we pulled into a visitor’s spot, she cut the engine, then peered up at the main building.
“It’s big,” she observed. Then she looked at me, as if I might change my mind, but I was already opening my door.
Inside, it smelled like cleaning fluid and gym mats, a weird thing, as the PE building was on the other side of the center courtyard. At Perkins Day’s Upper School—which had just done a huge remodel, funded by an alumnus who founded the social networking site Ume.com—everything was new or close to it. Jackson, in contrast, felt more like a patchwork quilt, the campus made up of old buildings with added newish wings, plus the occasional trailer here and there. The day we visited, no one was there but a few teachers and other staff, which made the halls seem even wider, the grounds that much bigger. In the guidance office, which reeked of cinnamon air freshener, there was no one at the main desk, so we took seats on a saggy couch.
My mom crossed her legs, then looked over at a metal bookshelf on her right, which held a box of mismatched clothing items marked LOST AND FOUND, a stack of pamphlets about eating disorders, and a box of tissues, which was empty. I could tell by her face that if she hadn’t already been depressed, this scenario would have done the trick.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “This is what I want.”
“Oh, Sydney,” she replied, and then, just like that, she was crying. This was part of the new Julie as well. She’d always been an easy crier, but over things like weddings and sappy movies. Normal stuff. These sudden sobby waterworks were another thing entirely, and I never knew what to do when they happened. This time, I couldn’t even offer her a tissue.
Now, back in the kitchen, I checked my backpack again, then wondered if I should change. At Perkins Day we wore uniforms, so I wasn’t used to dressing for school. After trying multiple options, I’d gone with jeans and my favorite shirt, a white button-down with a pattern of tiny purple toadstools, as well as the silver hoop earrings I’d gotten for my sixteenth birthday. But I would have worn camouflage if I thought it would help me disappear into the crowd.
“You look great,” my mom said, as if reading my mind. “But you’d better go. Don’t want to be late the first day.”
I nodded, slid my backpack over one shoulder, then walked over to where she was sitting. The bagel had one bite out of it now. Progress.
“I love you,” I said, bending over and kissing her cheek.
She reached down, taking my hand and squeezing it, a little bit too tight. “I love you, too. Have a good day.”
I nodded, then went out into the garage and got into my car. As I backed down the driveway, I looked in the kitchen window to see her still sitting there. I thought she might be watching me as well, but she wasn’t. Instead, she was looking at the opposite wall, her mug now in her hands. She didn’t drink or put it down, just kept it there, right at her heart, and something about this made me so sad, I couldn’t wait to be gone.
* * *
School let out at three fifteen. Ten minutes after the bell, I was the only car left in the lower lot. For once, it felt good to be alone.
The school was just so big. The hallways that had seemed so wide three weeks earlier were, when I stepped inside that first day, totally packed with people: you couldn’t take a step without bumping someone, or at least their arm or elbow. I’d expected that, though. It was the noise that was the real surprise. There was the shrillness of the bells: long, earsplitting tones. The jackhammers of the construction crew replacing one of the many broken sidewalks. And, always, people yelling: in the hallways, across the courtyard, outside the classroom door, at a volume that startled you even with the door solidly shut. It defied logic that in a place so cramped, you’d worry you might not be heard. But everyone did. Apparently.