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Authors: Anna Collomore

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The Ruining

BOOK: The Ruining
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The Ruining
Anna Collomore

Publication date: February 2013 $17.99 ($19.00 CAN) Ages 12 up * Grades 7 up 336 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59514-470-6

Razorbill
www.razorbillbooks.com www.penguin.com/teens

An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
RU I N I NG
RU I N I NG
ANNA COLLOMORE

 

An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The Ruining RAZORBILL

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Young Readers Group
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Copyright © 2013 Anna Collomore ISBN 978-1-59514-470-6 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available Printed in the United States of America

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For the Happy Bunch of Cousins:
beautiful, brilliant, fearless women who are just a little bit crazy and a lot lovable.
Chapter one

I’d NEvER BEEN TO CALIFORNIA. For the first eighteen years of my life, it was some other girl who watched the sun rise over the hilltops of San Francisco, dipped her toes in the Pacific Ocean, and ate raspberry frosted cupcakes from Cups and Cakes on a pier at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was always some other girl, and I’d grown used to that. Then one day it was me. I knew from the photos the Cohens sent (in emails and letters, every other day for a whole month before I arrived) that San Francisco would be hilly; that my new neighborhood would overlook a vast expanse of water with a concrete playground rising up beyond; that the sun would be perpetually brilliant. But I didn’t feel it, and so I was unprepared for its essence: the thing that seeps into your bones only after you’ve been inside a place and felt it surround you. I’d imagined all of these things, but nothing can ever prepare you for a place—the way it comes alive—except being there.

The day I got my letter from San Francisco State University, my stepfather had been sitting on the sofa we’d picked up at the Salvation Army a year before. He was smoking inside the house, even though my mother constantly begged him not to. The sofa itself had been beat up already, but within a month of purchase it was sunken in at the middle and stained with Dean’s sweat residue. The tips of Dean’s fingers were always dark from nicotine, and I was glad I hadn’t bothered showing him the letter—hadn’t let him hold it in his grimy palms. I hadn’t wanted his filth to ruin it. Dean’s front teeth had brown spots on them. It made me sick.

The smoke had begun to feel oppressive, and Dean’s focus had already turned back to the TV. I crossed the short expanse from the living room to the kitchen to the tiny patch of faded, green-and-yellow linoleum that marked our foyer. I let the screen door settle in place behind me as the cheap, rusted outer door slammed hard against the side of our dilapidated home. I hated it there.

It was gray outside, and if I hadn’t spent my entire life in Detroit I’d have assumed all of Dean’s cigarettes had leaked their charred air out the window and settled onto the surfaces of the city. But Detroit was mostly always like that: everything was different shades of gray no matter where you looked. The grass, the pavement, the buildings—but also the animals and the people. Like if you looked closer, the word “hopeless” would be scrawled all over everything, just under all of the tattooed and graffitied exteriors.

California, though, was the opposite of Detroit. California was golden to Detroit’s gray. I’d always known I needed to be there, ever since I saw it in Little Miss Sunshine when I was in middle school. And when I’d found the Cohens’ ad on the SFSU virtual billboard—“New to Marin County/Fam of 4 Needs Nanny”—I knew I had to be there. We could be new together, the Cohens and me. Dean and my mother didn’t know anything about the Cohens, of course. It was my secret—my ticket to a new life—and I needed it to stay that way.

I needed a clean break from my reality.
First day in our new home—soon to be yours, too! Someone—probably Libby Cohen—had written it on the back of one of the pictures in a delicate script. The photo itself showed all of the Cohens smiling happily in front of an enormous yellow home with white trim and two balconies. Walker Cohen had one arm wrapped around his wife’s waist, and baby Jackson nestled in the crook of his other arm. Walker was tanned and handsome, no older than thirty-five. Libby was gorgeous: radiant, slim, and young-looking. She wore a solid green shift dress and looked incredibly put together, her blonde hair swept up in a loose bun off the nape of her neck and a tasteful gold necklace circling her throat. She was utterly different from the women in Detroit. She was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.
Zoe, the threeyear-old, stood off to the side, a little gap separating her from Libby. It looked like she’d been caught off guard when the photo was taken; as a result, part of her arm was blurred where she’d been reaching toward her mother, maybe to hold her hand. Her body was angled to the side, but even in profile I could tell she was adorable. She had rich, chocolate-colored hair the color of her father’s, and it fell down her back in ringlets that maybe she wouldn’t grow out of, if they were still there at three. She was wearing a little white dress with a bib top and polka dots. Her eyes were wide and her expression grave. I remember wondering briefly why they hadn’t taken another shot, one with Zoe looking at the camera, but that thought was quickly eclipsed by my excitement. Their life—it looked perfect. It was the kind of life I’d always wanted, and the knowledge that I was about to become a part of it still felt just a little too much like a miracle.
That photo was the one I slipped into the back pocket of my cutoffs the day I left Detroit. It had gotten more than a little wrinkly because my palms were sweating from nerves, and I kept taking it out to look at it again and again while I was packing up all of my last-minute stuff.
My room in Dean’s house was barely big enough to hold my twin bed and a dresser. I couldn’t even close the door because the dresser stuck out halfway into the threshold, so I was perpetually covering myself up, talking in hushed voices on the phone, plugging my ears with cotton when I got sick of hearing Dean’s gravelly, hacking laughter and my mom’s half-dead voice. I’d never had any privacy, and as a result I’d developed those complexes and maybe some others I wasn’t even aware of. I had to make a point of reminding myself not to act mousy when I wasn’t at home.
I didn’t expect my mom to remember I was going, really, so it was a surprise when she dragged herself out of bed that day and leaned in my doorway an hour before I was supposed to meet the cab, her thin frame looking like maybe it couldn’t stay upright for long. I couldn’t help stiffening. Lately it had become my natural response around her.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she said. Her voice was thick and congested, and her red-rimmed eyes were only half-open.
“Hey, Mama.”
“Weren’t you gonna give me a proper goodbye?”
My mother’s eyes were already filling with tears, but her face was strangely inert, like she was too used up to let something like that shock her. Plus, it was partly true. We all knew it. I wanted to get out. But I hadn’t confronted the reality of it or let myself feel guilty until then. I was, in a sense, abandoning her to this freak she’d decided to link her life with. I wrapped my arms around her small frame and held her close.
“I love you, Mama,” I whispered, feeling the brittle ribs of her back under my fingertips. “I really, really love you.” She didn’t say anything at first, just let me embrace her while she stood limply folded in my arms. Then she said something I couldn’t make out, so I pulled back and leaned my ear toward her lips.
“Don’t you worry,” she was saying, repeating it over and over in her thin, wren-like voice. “Don’t you worry about her.”
“Who, Mama? Who are you talking about?”
“She’s okay now, you hear? God’s taking care of her and it’s time you let her go. So don’t you worry no more out in California, okay, baby?” I felt the tears sliding down my cheeks, their damp marking my mother’s thin cotton shirtdress. She was talking about Lissa. I buried my face in the space between her neck and shoulder, so I wouldn’t have to see Dean sneering at us. My mother had never said anything before to absolve me of my sister’s death.
“But what about you?” It was something that had been in the back of my mind since the day I’d vowed to leave. She hadn’t exactly been the best mother, but she’d never done me any harm. And now both of her girls would be gone.
“I already had my chance,” she whispered close to my ear, so Dean couldn’t hear. “This is yours. Get out of here and don’t come back.”
She pulled away from me, straightening up and squaring her shoulders, looking more resolute than I’d seen her in years. “Don’t come back, you hear?” she said loudly, provoking more sneers from Dean. Then she shuffled across the dingy living room in her nightgown, heading back toward her bedroom, the physical manifestation of her own dead-end future.
“I won’t,” I whispered quietly, unsure of whether she had heard me or not.
My mother, I think, was pretty once. Or at least she was in the one picture I have of her from when we were little. It was a day on the lake, and her long hair was wild and windswept, grazing the side of her face lightly as she looked out at me and Lissa playing in the water. She’d looked contented then. But now the things that once made her pretty were gone: her broad smile, the light in her eyes, all signs of health and vitality. It must be impossible to stay pretty, though, after you watch one of your babies die.
I couldn’t take it anymore; it was as if all the things I’d grown used to living with were magnified all of a sudden: Dean’s sour, cigarette-tinged odor; the perpetual ticking of the broken grandfather clock in the corner, a monstrosity that took up way too much room in our cramped quarters; the ring of congealed grease that lined the stove no matter how frequently I scrubbed. I threw the rest of my things in my duffel in five minutes flat, swept my long hair up in a ponytail, and was out the door. I waited on the curb until my cab showed up twenty minutes later. And on the plane, as I stared out the window watching the city of Detroit recede, I wasn’t sure if I’d see my mother again. The reality of my life in Detroit, a reality I’d spent almost every day wishing to escape from, was gone. Disappeared, like I’d never been a part of it at all. And in order to leave it in the past, I couldn’t let myself worry about leaving my mother behind. She’d made her own decisions, and for years I’d had to live within a situation I’d had no choice in creating. Now, I was heading toward a new family. In California, I would reinvent myself. I would finally have the life I deserved.

Chapter two
“ANNIE!”

Libby rushed toward me as I exited the US Airways terminal, somehow looking graceful despite her towering, fiveinch heels. She was even more gorgeous than in the pictures, her blonde hair so shiny it practically sparkled, her figure curvy yet somehow tinier in the waist than I’d ever been, even in my gangly preteen years. She wore green, strappy snakeskin stilettos with a simple white t-shirt tucked into a black chiffon A-line skirt. Enormous white-rimmed sunglasses took up half her face. The other half was radiant: dewy skin and lips the perfect shade of pink. Her toned arms suggested hours spent at the gym, or maybe she just hit the genetics jackpot. And she looked youthful, too—it was almost impossible to believe she had two children, one of them already three years old.
“Hi, Mrs. Cohen.” I offered my hand but she ignored it altogether, leaning in to give me a kiss on the cheek.

“It’s Libby, darling. God, doesn’t ‘Mrs. Cohen’ make me seem old! Just call me Libby, okay? You are just exactly the same as your pictures,” she told me in her oddly lofty language, without pausing for breath. “I’d know you anywhere. Gorgeous, darling. You’re just lovely. Come on now, the car’s waiting out past baggage, I told Walker to pay for short-term parking but he does this ridiculous thing where he circles around and around and it’s just insanity, so embarrassing, but he’s set in his ways. You know how men can be,” she said with a wink. “Oh, but your bags! Of course! What number is the claim?”

“This is everything,” I said, nodding toward the green duffle I’d taken as my carry-on. Libby pushed her glasses down slightly on the bridge of her nose and peered at it strangely.

“You can’t be serious. You’re living with us an entire year and this is all you brought?”
“Light packer, I guess.” I could feel the heat traveling from my cheeks to my ears and forehead; the truth was, this was pretty much everything I owned. I had the sudden, crazed thought that maybe all of this was too good to be true. Maybe once the Cohens realized what I came from, they wouldn’t let me within a mile of their perfect lives.
“The best way to be,” Libby declared. “The smartest lady doesn’t carry any baggage, I always say. She knows how to leave it in the past. Now come on,” she called out, already speeding ahead of me toward the passenger pick-up. “We wouldn’t want Walker to have to put in an extra lap.”
A black Range Rover was just pulling up to the curb as the sliding doors opened before us. The horn tooted twice short and once long, and for a second I thought I saw a look of irritation cross Libby’s face before she broke into a wide smile. Walker hopped out of the driver’s seat and made his way around the back of the car, looking sheepish. He had on a checked button-down with jeans and flip-flops, but he pulled the look off almost as if he’d stepped out of a Levi’s ad. Tanned, muscular, athletic-looking—it was hard to tell which half of the Cohen duo was more attractive.
“Don’t yell at me about the horn,” he began. “It was all Zoe. Little lady doesn’t know when to stop. She climbed out of the car seat herself. Pretty smart though, you gotta admit.”
“Pretty annoying,” Libby responded lightly. “Not to mention dangerous. We’ve got to kid-proof her kiddy-proof seat a little more, I guess.”
“Sorry, babe.” Walker leaned in toward Libby and gave her a passionate kiss, as though they’d been separated for days and not a mere twenty minutes.
“Walker, this is Annie,” Libby told him, breaking free of his embrace. “Grab her bag, will you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, winking in my direction. I got the feeling Walker had grown up in the South; from his mannerisms to his rugged appearance, Texas or even Kentucky would have made sense. He looked like one of those guys who’d never been worried in his life—who’d negotiated every age with the kind of playful confidence that eluded me. Libby hopped into the front passenger seat as Walker reached for my duffle. Despite myself, I felt a little nervous and awkward. It was the way I always got around attractive guys. Get yourself together, Annie, I told myself. You’re working for the guy. Besides, he was probably at least fifteen years older than me. The fact that he looked kind of like a younger Hugh Jackman was irrelevant.
“This is it?” Walker asked of my bag. His admiring look implied that maybe Libby wasn’t as light a packer as she’d claimed to be.
“Yeah, um . . .”
“Let’s go, Walk,” shouted Libby through the window. “Zoe’s getting cranky.”
“So says the queen.” Walker sighed in mock exasperation. “Between you and me, Annie,” he said as he tossed my duffel in the back seat, “I could not be happier that you’re here.” He turned his eyes skyward. “I just want my wife back,” he proclaimed dramatically.
“Very funny,” came Libby’s voice from the front. “We’re holding up the line, Walk!”
“Sally forth, then,” he said in a faux British accent, making me laugh. His good-natured personality was actually a little overwhelming, like a puppy’s. I could see why Libby wouldn’t think he was quite as hilarious after a few years of this. “Your chariot, madam?” Walker stepped aside and opened the door wider for me to climb in.
And there, awaiting me inside a vehicle that seemed cavernous compared to the other cars I’d ridden in, waited the sweetest little angel I’d ever seen. She was buckled into her car seat, sucking on a Dora sippy cup, peering at me from under long, upswept lashes. Her chestnut-colored waves stuck a little to her car seat from static, and her toddler feet were encased in little lacy socks and Mary Janes. My heart expanded a little just looking at her, and for a second I forgot about Libby’s perfection and Walker’s exhausting buoyancy.
“You must be Zoe,” I told her, extending my hand. “I’m Annie. I’ve been so excited to meet you.”
“My mom and dad alweady told me your name,” she said with this weirdly precise elocution, a kind of adorable thing coming from the mouth of a threeyear-old.
“That wasn’t very polite, Zoe,” said Libby. “Please apologize to Annie.”
“Go easy on her, babe,” said Walker. “She’s only three.”
“It’s okay, really,” I started.
“No, Annie, Zoe really needs to learn better manners,” Libby interrupted. “Actually, it’s something I hope you’ll help us work on. Walker, you know how important it is for Zoe to be more polite. Yet she’s still doing things like what she did a moment ago with the horn.”
“Daddy told me I could honk the hown,” protested Zoe, popping her sippy cup out of her mouth momentarily.
“Traitor,” said Walker, making me laugh.
“Daddy did not tell you to force your entire body weight onto the horn until it qualified as noise pollution,” Libby responded. I glanced toward Walker but he’d already zoned out, leaning forward to adjust the radio dial. Libby looked pointedly at Zoe.
“Apologize to Annie,” she said again.
“I’m sowwy, Annie,” Zoe said in a serious voice, looking worried. “It’s nice to meet you.” Her excessive formality blended with her tiny, high-pitched voice, and that bit of a lisp was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard.
“Nice to meet you, too,” I told her. “Shake?” Zoe extended her hand and I took it in mine, noticing Libby watching us through the rearview mirror. Zoe’s hand was warm, sticky, and small. In it—and in her eyes, which evaluated me carefully as I smiled at her—was something like trust. I felt a sudden, desperate urge to please Libby, to do everything right, to be the most exemplary nanny the Cohen family had ever had. To make this sweet little girl love me as much as I knew I would love her.
“Where’s the baby?” I wondered aloud, as Zoe popped the sippy cup back in her mouth, humming around it.
“Jackson’s at the house,” Libby said. “He was napping when we left, and I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left him in his pack-n-play.”
“Alone?” The word slipped out before I could stop myself. I’d let my guard down, transfixed by the cityscape that slipped past my window in a blur. But leaving a baby alone for even a couple of minutes felt insanely irresponsible. Bad things happened to kids when you didn’t watch them. Bad things you couldn’t ever take back. I felt a shudder worm its way from the base of my spine to my neck.
“Of course not,” Libby responded in an even tone, flipping down the vanity mirror to check her lipstick. She removed her sunglasses and applied another coat of mascara to her long lashes, and it was only then that I saw just how young she looked. “He’s with the baby nurse. Today’s her last day. Good thinking, though,” she said, flashing me a broad smile. “That’s why we need you so badly. There’s no way Walk and I could manage both the kids ourselves. Zoe, quiet, please.” Zoe had removed the sippy cup from her mouth and her humming had, as a result, gotten a little louder.
“What are you singing, Zo? What’s the pretty song?” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Zoe ignored me and kept on singing, kicking the back of her mother’s seat in rhythm. We idled at a light, and I watched as a man wearing a tie-dyed shirt passed us on a bicycle, the basket up front holding a small dog. Maybe I’d get a bike, eventually. It would be such a fun way to explore the city.
“Zoe,” Walker warned, looking concernedly at Libby. “Stop kicking Mommy’s seat, okay?” He turned the volume on the radio up even louder, his fingers drumming a nervous—no, energetic—beat on the steering wheel.
“CWADLE AND ALL!” shouted Zoe grandly, making me jump. I glanced her way and there she sat, smiling at me, arms outstretched. Apparently that had been the finale to what I now recognized as Rockabye Baby. It didn’t seem like this was the first time she’d graced her parents with a performance. I heard Libby sigh from the front.
“Sorry, Annie. Zoe’s had this little tune in her head for months, and we’re getting kind of sick of it, but that’s kids for you. It’s giving her mom a headache, though,” Walker said pointedly from the front. Sure enough, Libby had slid her sunglasses back on and was resting her head against the windowpane. But I was barely listening, because what towered in front of me was so much more majestic than in the pictures they’d sent me.
The house was enormous. It was more like an estate or a castle. It was like something I’d seen in a BBC Masterpiece Theatre version of Pride and Prejudice, all angles and stories and covered in landscaping so it had the illusion of extending on forever. Then we pulled into a massive, four-car garage, and Walker killed the engine.
“I’ll get the kids and bring Annie’s things in. Libs, why don’t you give her the tour?”
“Come on,” Libby said, leading me out of the garage. “We’ll start with the back. Your first impression needs to be the best one.”
It was easy to see that the house was positioned over a hill, but I hadn’t been able to see beyond the winding road that led higher and higher up the slope, nor had I been paying much attention to the scenery. So when Libby led me along a small brick path to the left of the garage, the last thing I expected to see was water spreading out in all directions.
We were standing on a terrace that overlooked San Francisco Bay. Herons circled the coast in search of their next meal. The midafternoon sun was hitting the ripples in the water just right, making them look like a million tiny gems. The blue of the water had a crystalline quality, so pure and vivid that it merged with the blue of the sky. It was extraordinary.
“Welcome to Belvedere Island, Annie,” said Libby in a reverent tone. “The most beautiful place on earth.”

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