Read The Truth about Us Online

Authors: Janet Gurtler

The Truth about Us

Copyright © 2015 by Janet Gurtler

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Nicole Komasinski/Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover images © S. Godere/plainpicutre, sayanjo65/Thinkstock, RaiAllen/Thinkstock

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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gurtler, Janet.

The truth about us / Janet Gurtler.

pages cm

Summary: When Jess's father orders her to work at a soup kitchen for the summer, she meets Flynn, a classmate from the wrong side of the tracks, and discovers that sometimes the person who should not fit in your world is the one who finally makes you feel as if you belong.

(alk. paper)

[1. Dating (Social customs)—Fiction. 2. Social classes—Fiction. 3. Family problems—Fiction. 4. Soup kitchens—Fiction. 5. Voluntarism—Fiction. 6. Conduct of life—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.G9818Tru 2015

[Fic]—dc23

2014042461

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chapter
one

I have fifteen minutes to get home. It's a twenty-five-minute walk.

I'm so dead.

If I were smarter, I'd run, rise to the challenge or something, but I'm not even moving at all. Instead, I'm stuck, my feet immobile on the sidewalk, all because of a pedestrian sign flashing a red hand at me, commanding me to stay where I am. The
Jeopardy
theme song plays in my head as I wait for the green light. Penny and I used to love watching
Jeopardy
. She always knew more answers. I wonder if she still watches. I gave it up when Penny and I stopped being best friends and Nance took her place.

“Hey, Jess,” a girl says as she and a boy walk past. I wave and my cheeks burn brighter, because it's awkward and weird to be busted with my feet refusing to move until a light turns green. The girl is a friend of my sister; I don't know the guy. They obviously don't share my hang-up about jaywalking, and they cross the street without even glancing around for cars.

No matter how hard I try to shake it off, choke its hold, and squeeze it out, some of my lameness still lingers in my cells, part of who I really am. Or who I was. I don't know anymore.

“It's not a good idea to walk all alone at night,” she calls back like she's a friggin' genius and I'm the poster child for bad choices. The light finally changes, and I step onto the road and walk, glancing down at my phone. My head is fuzzy and my heart pounds thinking about my dad at home waiting for me. I didn't plan to screw up again, but apparently it's kind of a gift, because I'm really, really good at it. Being late will equal no phone for a few days at least. My dad knows how much I hate to lose my phone.

I jump when a car toots the horn as it whizzes by. A boy screams something about my ass and whistles. My heart beats faster, and for a second, fear springs the hairs up on my arms and a swooshing sensation swells in my belly. Fear feels a lot like excitement. The fact that some pervert thinks I'm whistle-worthy might be the best part of my day. Of course,
pervert
is the key word. So he's probably not that picky.

“Does your stupidity not know any bounds?” I hear my dad say in my head.

I worry it doesn't. And wish he were away on one of his business trips so I wasn't in this bind. In lots of ways, things are easier when he's gone. I think about blaming Nance for my predicament. She does have a knack for getting me into these situations. Of course, I have a knack for letting her. Besides, responsibility for my own actions and all that. Blaming her will get me exactly nowhere.

Another car whizzes past, and I glance back to see if my sister's friend is still behind me, but she's nowhere in sight. They must have turned down another street or live somewhere close by. There's another car coming now, and it's driving slower. I know from every horror show I've ever watched that it's not a good sign. Man, I know from what happened to my mom it's not a good sign.

I force myself to glare at the car. It's an old rust bucket, “an eyesore” as my dad would say. Not the kind of car usually seen in this neighborhood. I frown and peer inside, keeping my expression fierce. When I see the driver grinning at me, I relax a little. He's about my age, and his smile reminds me of a floppy-eared golden retriever. Friendly. Wouldn't hurt a soul. The guy in the passenger seat stares off into the distance, as if he doesn't see me.

“Hey,” the driver calls and leans forward to look at me with an even bigger smile. “Where ya headed?”

He's cute. Blond with overly spiky hair. I have an urge to offer him a treat. Scratch him behind the ear. His car is a total piece of crap, and the guys inside obviously aren't from around here, but they look harmless.

“Home,” I tell him and glance at the passenger again. He's good looking too but in a totally different way. His hair is longish and black. His eyes are dark. He looks biracial or something. Exotic and almost pretty. He turns his head and looks right at me. When our eyes meet, my insides mush together. Fear or excitement? It's hard to tell them apart sometimes.

“Come on. I'll give you a lift,” the driver calls. “I'm Braxton Brooks,” he offers. “This is Flynn. He's not as badass as he thinks he is.”

Flynn. I have an urge to say the name out loud. To feel the shape of the quick and hard sound on my lips.

“Screw you, Brooks,” Flynn says, and I turn away so he doesn't see me smile.

The car drives slowly beside me.

“No strings,” Braxton calls. “We're not serial killers or anything.”

“You sure about that?” the passenger asks. His voice is deep and low.

I stop walking and narrow my eyes, a nervous sensation pooling in my stomach. When my gaze locks with Flynn's, goose bumps run up my arm and I'm as woozy as if my blood sugar plummeted. I get a sort of déjà vu vibe from him, as if we've met before.

“What's the matter? Are you drunk?” he asks.

“Not anymore.” A heated blush melts my mouth into a frown.

“Chill, Flynn,” Braxton says to him and leans forward to smile before returning his attention to the road. “We'll drive you home. Come on. We're from Tadita too. Not this neighborhood, but I know I've seen you around. You're not scared of us, are you?”

It sounds like a challenge, and I'm not going to admit to being scared. Still I hesitate. A tiny argument starts up in the back of my head. I don't recognize them. They don't go to my school. But they would get me home by curfew. Besides, rapists or murderers don't give out their names. I won't lose my phone privileges. I'll stay out of trouble. A swoop of adrenaline bungee jumps up and down in my gut as I consider my options. I don't want more trouble at home. I want my troubles at home to leave me the hell alone.

“You're not actually going to accept a ride from perfect strangers?” Flynn asks.

I glare at him. That's an even bigger challenge.

“It's a basic,” he says. “Something you learn in kindergarten.”

“Dude,” Braxton says to him. “Quit dicking around.” He leans forward. “Don't listen to him. We'll take you straight home. It's safer than walking.”

The vodka coolers I drank at Nance's earlier still linger in my system though they're wearing off in the cool night air. I lift my chin to show him I'm not afraid. I might be a girl who can't cross the street when the light flashes at me, but I reach for the car door handle.

chapter
two

The car smells like hamburgers. I give Braxton my address and a couple of directions and lean back against the backseat. He keeps talking, but my head is full and all it sounds like is blah blah blah. There's a hive of angry bees buzzing around my head, and I nibble on my thumbnail. His voice sounds far away. I feel removed.

My gaze drifts to the back of the passenger's head. Flynn. His hair touches the back collar of his T-shirt. For a second I have an urge to lean forward and touch it to see if it's as soft as it looks. Braxton keeps talking in a hum of words I don't understand as Flynn stares out the side window at the night air, ignoring me. Braxton is quiet then, and I realize he's asked me a question.

“Which way?” he asks again.

I look out the window. “Uh, turn right. It's halfway up the next street.”

He whistles as he turns the corner. “Holy crap. Your family rob a bank?” Braxton jokes, laughing.

There should be a punch line, but it evades me.

“The one with the lights on,” I say, pointing to my house.

He stops his car in front of the driveway.

“Uh, thanks. For the ride.” I reach for the door handle.

Say
something
, I silently urge Flynn.

“You're lucky that's all you got,” Flynn says softly.

Um. Not that.

“Chill,” Braxton says and turns to me. “No problem.” He glances quickly at his friend's profile, but Flynn stares out at our neighbor's house, his lips turned down in a frown.

“Hey. Can I get your number? I could give you a call sometime?” Braxton asks.

Flynn turns his head and glances back at me, kind of smirking, and raises an eyebrow. We stare at each other for a brief second, and then Braxton glances at Flynn and frowns. I drop my gaze, my hand still on the door handle. I don't want to give Braxton my number. I want to give it to his friend. I have an urge to crawl over the front seat and try to make him like me.

“Uh,” I say.

“Don't stop here too long,” Flynn says. “Someone will call the cops or a tow truck in this neighborhood.”

“Dude,” Braxton says. “You don't have a car, so shut up, man.”

“You call this thing a car?” Flynn laughs.

I open the door, using the interruption as a way to avoid giving out my number without offending anyone. Avoidance is another one of my skills.

“Thanks for the ride. See you around,” I say quickly, as if he never asked the question, and climb out and shut the door behind me.

• • •

I walk toward my room but stop in front of my mom's bedroom door. It's closed but I wrap my hand around the knob, push on it slowly, and look inside. There's a lump under the covers, but her face isn't visible. The hope I'd been holding in my heart—that maybe she was feeling better—squeezes out. She's been laying low for a couple of days. I pull the door closed and wonder how long this spell will last. It's unpredictable, how long she'll disappear for.

“She's still not feeling well, Jess,” a voice behind me says softly.

I bite my lip and turn to look at my dad. Even this late at night, he's still dressed in business casual. His hair is styled with product, and I know he's handsome for a dad—I hear it all the time—but I wish he'd relax sometimes. Maybe put on a pair of sweats, Lululemons if that's what he needs. Forget to shave. Spill mustard on his shirt. Quit with the perfect.

“I heard a car. Did Carol drive you home?” he asks. Carol is Nance's mom, an old friend of Mom's. When she had friends, that is.

I shrug, the best way to lie without saying a thing. Carol left Nance and I alone so she could go to her boyfriend's for a sleepover. Nance's brother bought us a case of vodka coolers, with a markup for supplying underage drinkers. We drank until we felt silly and FaceTimed a couple of boys from the high school across town. Nance flashed her boobs and we both dirty danced for the camera until one of the boys' mom's shouted in the background and he abruptly hung up. I'd thought it was funny at the time. Now it seems stupid.

I think about the two boys in the car. Even more stupid.

“Jess?” Dad says.

“Yeah, Dad?”

“Everything okay?”

“Fine.”

He clears his throat. “Okay,” he says softly. “I picked up the Audi from the shop,” he tells me. “It's parked out front. Try not to back into anything again, okay? They replaced the back bumper. She's good as new.”

I backed into a streetlight and gave the Audi its first dent. As soon as he was home, he'd rushed it in to the shop to get it fixed.

“Yeah, I saw,” I say and then force out, “Thanks.” He likes his cars flawless.

“You're welcome,” he says and clears his throat. “Allie's sleeping at Dana's house tonight. They both worked late,” he says, as if I'm worried about where my sister is.

“Yeah?” I ask. She's not. She's at her boyfriend's. Doug Henderson. They've been dating for three years. Dad has no idea Doug's mom allows her to stay over all the time. I suppose she feels sorry for Allie and her messed-up home life. The family secret isn't much of a secret, no matter how much Dad pretends it is.

I wonder if my dad even knows the last time we had an honest conversation. He doesn't want to hear truth from me or from my sister, not really. He's not as good at Mom's job. She used to check up on us. She'd make sure we were where we said we'd be. I don't think he can fathom that the people he created could lie to him.

He walks down the hall to his bedroom then, the separate room he moved into to give Mom space to recover. Something else we don't talk about. He looks over his shoulder before he disappears into it. “I have to be at work early. Can you check on Mom in the morning? Text me and let me know how she is.”

I nod and he pauses, as if he's going to say something more, but then he steps inside his bedroom and shuts the door behind him.

Stupid Allie for leaving stupid Mom in my hands tomorrow. I cringe and immediately guilt sticks to my belly. I wish every day for my mom to be back. The mom I used to know. I don't blame her for the way she is now; how could I? But still.

I miss her.

• • •

A greasy scent floats under my bedroom door. Bacon. Mom is obviously out of bed today. And apparently she's cooking. Out of bed and cooking means it's a good day. I haven't seen one in a while, so I push off my covers and stretch and head downstairs to the kitchen.

She's in front of the stove holding a spatula, staring down at hissing and popping bacon. She looks up and smiles when she hears me, and it almost reaches her eyes, but they're a little fuzzy, a little off. She meets me as I walk over and puts her arm around me. For a moment I let her try to convince me everything is fine. I lean against the warmth of her, and my heart fills with sadness, remembering days when her touch could convince me nothing bad could happen.

I step away, and she goes back to the stove. I lean up against the counter, bringing one leg up into a tree pose. My favorite standing position. Mom and Allie do it too.

“You want to make some toast?” she asks.

“Sure.” The toaster sits permanently on the counter. Mom used to put the toaster away when it wasn't being used. Everything had its place. I open up a loaf of white bread and pop in a couple of slices. We eat white bread when Dad does the grocery shopping.

“Allie's at Dana's,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says softly. “I texted her this morning when I saw she wasn't in bed.”

We don't discuss that she didn't know Allie was gone until the morning. We don't discuss that she was in bed all day yesterday with the lights off. Or why. We don't even discuss that she has her own bedroom now.

“Everything okay, Jess?” She piles the bacon on a plate and heads toward the kitchen table.

I snag a piece of crisp bacon as she passes and take a bite, suppressing an urge to blurt out what I did last night. Drank coolers, stayed at Nance's too late, and then got in a car with two boys I didn't know.

I imagine telling her I'm worried that Nance is a little too fond of flashing her boobs at boys and that her mom is too busy with her new boyfriend to notice. But it would send her back to her bedroom, so I keep chewing.

“Everything's fine,” I tell her.

The toast pops up so I butter the slices and take them to the table.

“You sure you're feeling okay?” she asks. “You've lost weight. You're getting too thin.”

“No. I mean, I'm fine. Fine.” She used to be the kind of mom I could tell anything to. We used to have long talks. She used to want to listen.

“Okay,” she says as I sit across from her. “But you're not dieting, are you? You girls are both naturally thin. You don't have to do that.”

“Nope. No dieting,” I tell her. “How about you, Mom?” I ask her softly. “You okay?”

For a second, our eyes meet. We stare at each other, and the pain that's nestled inside her soul shines out. It breaks my heart and I drop my eyes.

“I'm sorry,” she says. She doesn't say what for, but I know.

For disappearing.

“No,” I say softly. “You have nothing to feel sorry for.” I don't look up because I don't want her to see that I'm lying. I do blame her sometimes. I want her to get over it. Go through it or around it or under it, like the hunting song she used to sing to me when I was little. Sometimes I hate who she is now. Weak. Afraid.

She's left us to deal with things, and I, for one, am really messing it all up. I want to be allowed to get mad at her like Nance gets mad at her mom. Fight with her. Yell at her. Tell her off. But I can't.

She stares down at her plate for a moment, playing with a piece of toast, then looks up. Tries to smile. “Do you need some spending money?” she offers. “It's almost time for back-to-school shopping. You and Penny could go.”

I swallow my bitterness. She doesn't acknowledge that Penny and I aren't friends anymore. For years it was PennyandJess, the kind of best friends who could look across a room and know what each other was thinking. But I screwed that up. Now it's me and Nance, and I'm living a life I never would have imagined.

“Sure, I could go shopping,” I say. Dad already gave me money for back-to-school shopping, but it's not like they'll discuss it. She stands and walks over to the counter where she leaves her purse and pulls out her wallet.

“Is five hundred enough?” she asks as she sifts through her cash.

“That'll buy me a pair of boots I have my eyes on,” I say, testing her, pushing for a reaction.

“Really?” She looks up, but she doesn't even give me the crap I deserve. Instead, she sighs. “Things are so expensive these days. I used to get my entire back-to-school outfits from a thrift store.”

I don't say anything. She grew up without a lot, but she made up for it by marrying Dad and also made a killing of her own selling real estate. There was a time she'd wanted Allie and I to have all the things she never did. The best schools, the best clothes. The best friends. I don't know what she wants now.

“You can take my credit card. You know the PIN, right?”

“Yeah, I do. Nance and I will shop till we drop.” I emphasize Nance's name and sound angrier than I intend. I pick up a piece of bacon, chew on the end, and stare at my mom, willing her to see me.

She walks over and puts her gold MasterCard on the table beside me. “Put it back when you're done and leave me the receipts. Not too overboard, right? A couple of tops and a couple of pairs of jeans to go with the boots. Maybe a dress. Okay?”

“You know I don't hang out with Penny anymore. I'll be shopping with Nance,” I say, spelling it out for her.

She sits and frowns down at her plate and sighs. “You know, I never really thought you and Nance would be such good friends,” she says. “Penny…”

I hold my breath. Hoping she'll ask me about Penny. Listen to me. Maybe even offer some advice. Tears pop up in the corners of my eyes, and I blink fast to keep them from spilling out.

“I miss Penny,” she says. “You and Nance are so different.”

My breath sticks to my throat, waiting for her to ask, silently begging her to ask. I remember how much it hurt to cry alone in my room when I lost Penny. It ached even more because I suspected my mom heard me. And I needed her. But she let me cry all alone.

“How's Carol?” Mom asks.

I press my lips tight. She's gone too, I want to tell her. But her absence is different. She has a new boyfriend. She's finally over Nance's dad fooling around on her and moving out, and she's going on with her life, pretty excited to have new attention from the sounds of it. Nance doesn't see her mom much either, but we don't talk about that. She and I don't talk the way I did with Penny.

“Carol's okay.” I press my lips tight. Blow out a big breath. “You know something, Mom?” I ask.

She blinks. Waiting.

“Me and Nance,” I tell her. “We're not so different anymore.”

Her eyes are getting cloudier and she frowns. We sit in silence for a while longer, both of us nibbling quietly at toast and bacon. Finally she pushes her plate away.

“I'm feeling a little tired. I'm going to go up and have a nap. Would you mind cleaning up, sweetie?”

“No.” I stare at my plate, holding in tears, wanting to cry, wanting to yell. Make a scene. Do something. Instead, I push my own plate away and stand and start piling the dishes. “It's fine.”

I'll clean up and then I have to get out. I'll choke on the quiet in the house.

“I'm heading to Nance's later when I'm done,” I tell her.

She stands and moves away from the table, nodding. “Okay,” she says. “Have fun.”

“I'll drink to that,” I mumble softly, but she's already gone, shuffling up the stairs. She doesn't hear me. Or maybe she pretends not to.

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