"I'm not going, Stenny."
At ten o'clock on a June Wednesday, I sat on the wood deck of my childhood sky castle. My bare legs dangled in the coolness-kissed night air. I had hooked one arm around the railing for safety – not because I was afraid of falling, but because holding on seemed like the smart thing to do.
I stared into the darkness. I'd never given much thought to how high thirty feet was. Kingsway was visible through the branches of the nearby trees even though acres separated me from my home. The branches swayed in the wind, and a pink-white glimmer from the desk light in Dad's office winked at me.
Was Dad still working, still trying to sort out what he had called a misunderstanding?
Beside me, his shoulder brushing mine as he moved, Stenny pried a splinter from the railing. He set the piece of wood aflame and dropped the burning sliver over the edge.
I leaned forward, peering at the streak of light. I counted under my breath, calculating how long the flame would take to land on the mat of leaves beneath the tree house. Would the splinter start a fire? Would the sharp little spike impale an ant, flambéing a life that neither of us could see or even imagine? Did ants wander around at night? Why was I thinking about the lives of ants when everything in my own life had gone so wrong?
"Why not, Van?"
The flaming splinter landed, spluttered, and went out. The breeze that had extinguished the flame carried the scent of Stenny's body spray, a citrusy, almost girlish fragrance he layered on so thickly the mosquitoes were avoiding him. I should have thanked him for wearing the spray, since the mosquitoes weren't landing on me either, though they buzzed all around. But the overpowering scent made me want to sneeze.
Stenny shifted to face me. "Why don't you want to go?"
He was close enough to kiss, the way we had inside the tree house before worry took over again and I had wriggled away from him and come out onto the deck. His face was a pale white smudge in the moonless night, and I couldn't make out his expression. Could he really be so dense that he had to ask why I couldn't go to France with him?
No, he had an IQ in the genius range, and stupid wasn't a word I'd ever use to describe him.
"You know why not." I turned back to Kingsway, to the light shining in the window of Dad's office. The memory of how he'd looked earlier that afternoon – pale, shaky, and trying not to vomit – haunted me. "I have to be here for Dad."
"Why? What can you do for him here that you can't do in France? We're not traveling to Mars. You could call him every day. Besides, your mom's here for him. She's not going anywhere. Come on. Be practical."
"Now isn't the time for being practical. Dad needs me."
"I need you." He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.
I leaned against him. For a brilliant geek who reeked of girly citrus fragrance, he was solid, not soft at all.
"We've been planning our trip all year, Van. I got tickets and reservations and everything."
I was pretty sure he'd asked his father's assistant to make the actual travel plans for what he called our "gap summer," the three months between high school graduation and our first semester as freshmen at Harvard. Still, even if he hadn't done any of the work himself, he was excited about going, just the two of us exploring a place some people called the city of love. He wanted this summer to be our special time.
I wanted a special time for us too. But my life had changed. Didn't he understand how much my life had changed?
"I can't go away now. Calling Dad is not the same as being here."
"Almost the same." Stenny's tone edged toward sulky. His arm loosened around me. "Maybe better. Over there you wouldn't have to deal with the journalists and the photographers."
"Are they still out front?"
The shouting, jostling throng at the gated entrance to Summerpath that afternoon had bristled with microphones, cameras, recorders and rude questions. I was grateful for our community's harried guards, who were keeping them at bay and away from the residents. Away from my pale, shaken father.
"Yeah. There's even more than when the FBI came this morning." Stenny chuckled. "I counted. I think they're breeding."
On a different night, I would have laughed too. Tonight, I couldn't. Having the Federal Bureau of Investigation knock on the front door sucked the joy right out of a day. I rested my head against Stenny. His heart beat with the same pulse as the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the chirping of the bugs living among the tree leaves.
I looked at the big house where I'd grown up. From here, my life seemed storybook perfect. I wished I could sit here forever.
I said, "If the attention gets too overwhelming, I'll move into the tree house."
Stenny snorted. "Sure you will."
"I could. I could be…I don't know, like Thoreau at Walden." The idea held a lot of appeal. Living alone in the woods sounded so independent.
"This isn't the eighteen hundreds. You can't live in the woods on your own like Henry Thoreau did. You'd have to have permits or licenses." Stenny's tone was impatient. "Besides, if you'd actually done the work on that paper you turned in for Honors Lit, you'd know what Thoreau wrote in his book. He was trying to find something, not run away from something."
"I did the work. Part of the work, anyway. And I'm not running away. I'd be having an adventure."
"Forget that idea. You're not the outdoors type." He paused. When he spoke again, his tone no longer carried an edge. "Seriously, is the money a problem? I mean, I know the FBI probably took everything your dad has, but the main stuff is paid for, and I have enough allowance to cover whatever else we want to do."
I stiffened. He was making assumptions, both about me and about my dad. Or was he? Had the FBI taken Dad's money? I didn't know.
"The money isn't the reason I changed my mind. I told you, I want to be here for Dad. Having to face these lies is really hard on him."
Stenny was quiet, and I relaxed against him again. Was he trying to imagine what my dad was going through? A lot of our friends thought Stenny had a computer in place of a heart, but I knew a side of him no one else did. He was probably thinking of how my determination to stay with my dad proved my loyalty. Stenny appreciated loyalty. That was one reason why he loved me.
"Are you sure they're all lies, Van?"
I jerked back. "How could you even ask that question? Dad never cheated anyone in his life."
He shrugged, the movement almost imperceptible in the darkness. That little shrug stabbed into my heart the way I'd imagined the splinter impaling an ant. I scrambled up, stomped into the tree house, grabbed my sneakers, and jammed them onto my feet. My hands shook, and I couldn't tie the laces. I left them undone, stalked out to the deck, and glared at Stenny.
His shoulders hunched into his turtle look. He got that drawn-into himself expression whenever he was trying to think of what to say or how to fix whatever he'd already said that had turned out to be wrong.
Let him figure out what he'd done all by himself. This time I wasn't going to rescue him.
I went to the stairs that spiraled around the tree and jogged down, circling the thick trunk, one hand trailing along the polished railing.
Stenny clomped behind me.
I picked up speed and took the steps two at a time, feeling dizzy, and too hurt and angry to care. When I got to the bottom, I dashed across the clearing to the narrow path leading to Kingsway.
Stenny caught up with me at the edge of the woods. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. "I'm sorry, Van. For whatever I did."
His cluelessness hurt almost as much as his doubt. Maybe he did have a computer for a heart. "Are you really sorry? Or do you just think you ought to be?"
"I meant the FBI doesn't usually make mistakes."
"My. Dad. Never. Cheated. Anyone." I ground the words out and wrenched my arm away from him, growing hot on a fresh spurt of anger. "If you think he could, you don't know him at all. And if you think I'd leave him to face these lies by himself, you don't know me either."
"That's not true. I do know you."
"Go away, Stenny. Go to France for your precious gap summer and don't worry about me or my dad." I whirled from him, breaking into a run as I plunged into the woods.
He called my name. I refused to answer. My pulse pounded in my ears as I ran, headlong, through the darkness, away from him – and away from Kingsway, away from Dad's anguish, away from the unwanted spark of fear that Stenny might be right.
No, he was wrong. Wrong.
I tripped over my shoelace, fell to my knees. A stick jabbed into my leg. I started to cry, partly from the pain, partly because Stenny didn't understand me at all, and partly for Dad.
A branch cracked behind me and leaves rustled. I scrambled to my feet.
Stenny had come after me! He really did love me, enough to follow me, and…
Pete Hawthorn stepped out of the woods, holding a flashlight. The backglow lit his face, which was drawn into the frown he wore lately whenever he saw me, and his mouth turned down into a scowl. "Don't you have any sense at all, Dandy-Vandy?"
I should have known Stenny wouldn't traipse through the woods searching for me. Running through the dark wasn't his style. He'd use his phone.
My own phone, tucked in the pocket of my shorts, burst into the first bars of Boyfriend. I ignored the noise and poked a finger at Pete's chest. "Quit calling me that. Don't you have better things to do than skulk around the woods in the dark? Like maybe going to work?"
"I took the night off." He peered at me. "Why are you crying?"
"None of your business!" Then, as his words sank in, I asked, "Why'd you take the night off? Is Gus okay?"
"Gramps is the same as he always is." Pete slid the button on the flashlight and the bulb dimmed. "I stayed home because we heard the news about your dad. We're going to help, in whatever way we can." His voice barely carried across the small space between us, the words and tone sincere.
"That means a lot. Thanks. Tell Gus thanks too."
"Yeah." Pete turned the flashlight on bright again and waved it in a searching arc. "Where's the jerk-off? He leave you alone out here?"
My gratitude evaporated like dew off grass. I planted my hands on my hips as my phone played Boyfriend again. "Stenny's not a jerk-off, and he's probably at the tree house, where I left him."
"How nice to know he'll stay where you tell him to. At least you won't need to put a leash on him when the two of you are wandering around France." Pete narrowed his eyes. "The woods are really dark, Dandy-Vandy, in case you haven't noticed. Do you have a flashlight? Or am I gonna have to walk you home?"
I didn't need him to babysit me. I opened my mouth to say so, and then reconsidered as the sounds of the night surged around me. He was right. The darkness crackled with noises I hadn't paid much attention to during my rush to get away from the hurt of Stenny's doubt. The air seemed ominous too, full of a sickly-sweet odor, a combination of gasoline, motor oil, and damp dirt. The mix stunk the way I imagined zombies – or worse, vampires – would.
"Thanks, Pete. That's a good idea."
"I have them occasionally." He gestured with the flashlight. "The path's this way."
We strode along single file without speaking. The dry leaves crackled beneath our feet and the occasional haunting cry of a bird shredded the air.
"Nightingale," Pete said.
We reached the end of the path, coming out of the woods behind a row of bushes fencing Kingsway's open lawn. A line of solar lights illuminated the back yard, glowing against the pool cabana and the house's white walls beyond – big, ornate…and home.
I smiled despite my worries. "I love how pretty our house is at night."
Pete shut the flashlight off. "I'll send you pictures while you're enjoying your European adventure with the jerk-off."
I was turning to him when a man carrying a portable video camera dashed across the lawn. I gasped. "He's headed for the house! I have to warn Dad."
"Call him." Pete lifted his own phone. "And get down so that guy doesn't see you. I'll contact security. They'll take him off the property."
I yanked out my phone and sank onto the soft ground. My fingers shook as I punched speed dial for Dad's cell. Pete dropped down beside me as I waited for Dad to answer. I half-listened to what Pete was saying to Summerpath's security service while the horrifying scene in front of us unfolded.
The man with the camera approached the enclosed pool. The camera clicked and whirred as he aimed the lens first at the screened cabana and then at the main house.
Pete ended his call. "The guards'll be here in a minute," he whispered in my ear. "Did you tell your dad to stay inside until they get this guy?"
My call went to voice mail. "He's not answering!"
I sprang to my feet. The guy with the video camera swung around.
Pete grabbed my arm and yanked me back behind the bushes. "Stay down! Call the landline in your dad's office. Maybe he'll answer that. I'll call Gramps. He'll know what to do."
He punched another number into his phone. I raised my phone, and then lowered it as three security guards raced around the side of the house and yelled, "Freeze!"
The cameraman threw his hands up, still clutching his camera.
Pete finished talking with his grandfather and peered through the branches of the shrubbery. "I'm glad you're going away with the jerk-off. This is not the place you want to be this summer."
"Stenny's not a jerk-off. And I'm not going away with him."
"Not going? Are you crazy? Those reporters will make your life miserable."
"Dad needs me." I gestured at the cameraman the guards were hauling off. "This proves I have to stay here."
"You mean this proves you can't stay here."
"Yes, I can. If things get too bad, I'll move into the tree house. I think living like Thoreau did at Walden will be fun."
"Sure. Tons of fun," Pete said, in the same tone Stenny had used when I had told him my idea.
I lifted my chin. "I think so."
He snorted, another exact imitation of Stenny. "Dandy-Vandy in a tree house. That's a real stretch." He shook his head. "Forget that idea. You'll be a lot safer going away with the jerk-off."
"I'm perfectly capable of living in the tree house." I jumped to my feet. "Thanks for your help. Why don't you go dump your lousy advice on somebody who needs it?"
I pushed through the bushes and stomped across the grass to Kingsway. I was in the middle of the back lawn when the deafening roar of a helicopter swooping low made me duck. Harsh white light scattered the darkness, drowning out the glow from the solar lamps. I raised my arms to shield my face from the glare. The round red logo of the local television news station on the side of the helicopter glared down at me like an angry eye. I froze.
"Come on, Van!" Stenny shouted. "Run for the cabana!"
He tugged at me. My muscles loosened and I sprinted across the grass, holding his hand, as the helicopter light tracked us. By the time we reached the sheltering pool enclosure, my heart was pounding.
I let go of Stenny's hand and swiped the sweat off my forehead.
Stenny was breathing hard too. He looked out through the screen. The helicopter hovered a few more moments, the spotlight jabbing through the air like a bony finger, and then swooped away toward the front of Kingsway in the same direction the security guards had taken the trespassing reporter.
"You all right?" Stenny asked.
"You're hurt?" He caught my shoulder. "Did you get hurt?"
"I'm not hurt. I'm just shaky and scared."
"Yeah, that was pretty scary. I'm glad you're okay." He puffed out a breath, half snort, half chuckle. "I've never been chased by a helicopter before. What took you so long to get through the woods? Why didn't you answer your phone?"
"I was talking to Pete." I checked the yard. Nothing moved in the area lit by the solar lamps or the darker place near the woods where Pete and I had crouched behind the shrubs while hiding from the reporter. "I hope Pete's all right."
"Don't waste your time worrying about that loser."
"He's not a loser." I crossed my arms. "What is with you guys?"
Stenny shrugged. "I don't like losers. Pete will never amount to anything. He'll end up mowing lawns like his Grandpa Gus."
"There's nothing wrong with mowing lawns. And Gus is practically part of our family."
"I know." Stenny bent to poke the pool water, sending shimmering waves skimming across the surface. "The setup is weird, don't you think? I mean, Gus isn't your family. So why did your dad build a cottage on the property for him to live in after the loser showed up?"
I had no idea. Gus had lived in town and worked days as our groundskeeper when I was little. He'd moved into the newly-built caretaker's cottage after Pete's mom and dad were killed in an auto accident when Pete was seven, and they'd lived there ever since. I couldn't imagine not having them around.
"Because Dad enjoys helping people. He's a good person, no matter what you think of him." A light flicked on in the kitchen. "I better get inside. If Dad heard that commotion, he'll be worried."
Stenny caught my arm. "I'm sorry for what I said before. If your dad says he didn't do any of the stuff everyone's tweeting about, that's good enough for me."
I turned to him. The gleam of light from the solar lamps softened his features, and he looked like the boy who had stood beside my desk on the first day of grade school and said, "I'm Carsten Valencia Junior."
He had said his name proudly, as if everyone should recognize him. Most of the kids had – except for me.
He'd added, "You're wearing a Valencia designer dress from my dad's summer collection."
Stuck up, I'd thought. I'd changed my mind when he said, "Can we be friends?"
Our first meeting hardly seemed that long ago.
"Thank you, Stenny," I said now. "I needed to hear you say that." I brushed my fingers across his cheek.
He caught my hand and placed his lips against my palm. "I want to be with you this summer. Please come to France with me."
I wanted to, wanted to so badly I had to struggle to speak. "I can't. I…I just can't."
His shoulders slumped. "I figured you'd say that. Once you make up your mind, you never change it. Arguing makes you more determined."
"You do know me, don't you?" To keep the kiss he'd placed in my palm safe, I wrapped my fingers tight, then pressed his kiss to my heart and reached up to place my own kiss on his lips. For a few wonderful seconds, the world retreated, and we were alone, cocooned in each other. "I love you, Stenny."
Before he could answer, my phone beeped. I read the text from Mom.
Where R U?
I tilted the screen so Stenny could see. "I have to go."
"Yeah, me too." He pulled his own phone out and showed me the text from his dad. Where R U? "Parental minds think alike."
I laughed, and we stepped out of the cabana and walked hand in hand across the lawn.
"Don't move!" a voice behind us growled. "I have a gun and I'm an excellent shot."
I squeezed Stenny's hand and said, "Please don't shoot us, Gus."
"Oh, geez, Vandy, I'm sorry." Gus lowered the gun as I turned. "I heard your voices and thought you were more of those damned reporters."
"Were you really going to shoot?" Stenny said.
Gus grinned, his teeth very white in the darkness. "Don't be ridunkulous, boy. Of course I was."
Stenny swallowed and pulled his hand away from mine. "Listen, Van, I have to get home. You'll go inside now?"
I nodded and glanced at Gus. "Would you give Stenny a ride home, Gus? I'm worried about the reporters."
"No need," Stenny said. "I'll be fine."
"My pleasure." Gus cradled the gun over his forearm. "Come on, boy. If we see anyone who's not supposed to be here, I'll take care of 'em!"
They crossed the yard. A few seconds later, the electric cart Gus used to patrol the property whirred into life, and the boxy white vehicle zipped away down the path. I hurried to the back door of the house. As I keyed the code into the digital lock, my parents' voices came clearly through the window.
Dad's tone was soothing. "We'll be okay, Dana."
"I know," Mom said. "We'll get through this horribleness together. I just wish Vandy would answer my text. Did Gus know where she is?"
"No, but when I called, he said he and Pete were checking the property. If she's here, they'll find her. Stop fretting. She's a big girl."
"She's not quite all grown up yet, Armstrong, no matter what you think. She's only seventeen, and she's led a very sheltered life. With everything that's happened today, I have good reason to worry. Where is she?"
"I'm right here." I pushed open the door and walked inside. The brightly lit kitchen was spotlessly immaculate, the way Martha left it every night when she finished her housekeeping work and went home.
"Finally! Where have you been?" Mom hurried to give me a hug.
"Stenny and I were trying to stay out of sight." I hugged her back.
Mom glanced out the door, into the yard. "Where is Stenny?"
"Gus is taking him home in the cart. I was afraid the reporters would spot him. They're everywhere." I nudged the door shut with my foot. "Did you see the one filming the house?"
"Filming the house! This is awful." Mom released me and stepped back. "I feel like we're under siege."
"The ruckus will be over soon enough." Dad leaned against the counter, his arms crossed.
My gaze went to the window behind him. The plantation blinds were drawn, for what was probably the first time since we'd lived in Kingsway. Was Dad more worried than he wanted us to think?
Dad winked at me. "I'm glad you're home, Princess."
I crossed the kitchen to give him a hug, and he squeezed me as if he might never let go.
"I'm glad you're here too," Mom said. "We need to talk about what happened today."
Dad looked straight at me. "The first fact you need to know is that I'm innocent."
"You don't have to tell me. I know you're innocent."
He drew me closer. "Thanks. You're the best."
His words left me more certain than ever I'd made the right decision about staying home instead of going to France with Stenny. "I need to tell you guys something too."
"Oh?" Mom's eyes widened. "What? What happened?"
"Nothing! I mean, nothing bad! I have good news. I swear."
Dad would think so, anyway. He'd be happy about my choice. He always went along with what I wanted, and this time what I wanted was what he needed. I was less sure about Mom, especially after the sheltered life remark.
"We could use some good news." Dad smiled at me, and then glanced down as his phone rang. He checked the caller identification and raised a finger. "Hold that thought. I have to take this. Business call."
I nodded. His business always came first.
He said into the phone, "Let me call you right back on the land line. I don't know if this one is secure." He disconnected. "I'll be a while, Princess. Why don't you tell your mom the good news? She can fill me in later."
"No! I mean, that's all right, Dad. I can wait until you're finished."
He paused on his way out the door. "Are you sure?"
I had to tell them my plan when they were together. Dad was a lot better at convincing Mom than I was.
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