Excerpt: 'Along for the Ride'

Read an excerpt of Sarah Dessen's new book.

July 1, 2009— -- Sarah Dessen presents a first-person account of a slightly awkward girl named Auden, who spends her summer before college at a small beach town with her dad and stepmom and their new colicky baby.

Read an excerpt of the book below and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.


The e-mails always began the same way.

Hi Auden!!

It was the extra exclamation point that got me. My mother would call itextraneous, overblown, exuberant. To me, it was simply annoying, just likeeverything else about my stepmother, Heidi.

I hope you're having a great last few weeks of classes. We are all good here!Just getting the last few things done before your sister-to-be arrives. She'sbeen kicking like crazy lately. It's like she's doing the karate moves in there!I've been busy minding the store (so to speak) and putting a few finaltouches on the nursery. I've done it all in pink and brown; it's gorgeous. I'llattach a picture so you can see it.

Your dad is busy as always, working on his book. I figure I'll see more of himburning the midnight oil when I'm up with the baby!

I really hope you'll consider coming to visit us once you're done with school.It would be so much fun, and make this summer that much more special forall of us. Just come anytime. We'd love to see you!

Love,Heidi (and your dad, and the baby to be!)

Just reading these missives exhausted me. Partially it was the excitedgrammar—which was like someone yelling in your ear—but also just Heidi herself.

She was just so…extraneous, overblown, exuberant. And annoying. All the thingsshe'd been to me, and more, since she and my dad got involved, pregnant, andmarried in the last year.

My mother claimed not to be surprised. Ever since the divorce, she'd beenpredicting it would not be long before my dad, as she put it, "shacked up with somecoed." At twenty-six, Heidi was the same age my mother had been when she had mybrother Hollis, followed by me two years later, although they could not be moredifferent. Where my mother was an academic scholar with a smart, sharp wit and anationwide reputation as an expert on women's roles in Renaissance literature, Heidiwas…well, Heidi. The kind of woman whose strengths were her constant selfmaintenance(pedicures, manicures, hair highlights), knowing everything you neverwanted to about hemlines and shoes, and sending entirely too chatty e-mails topeople who couldn't care less.

Their courtship was quick, the implantation (as my mother christened it)happening within a couple of months. Just like that, my father went from what he'dbeen for years—husband of Dr. Victoria West and author of one well-received novel,now more known for his interdepartmental feuds than his long-in-progress followup—to a new husband and father to be. Add all this to his also-new position as headof the creative writing department at Weymar College, a small school in a beachfronttown, and it was like my dad had a whole new life. And even though they werealways inviting me to come, I wasn't sure I wanted to find out if there was still aplace for me in it.

Now, from the other room, I heard a sudden burst of laughter, followed bysome clinking of glasses. My mother was hosting another of her graduate studentget-togethers, which always began as formal dinners ("Culture is so lacking in thisculture!" she said) before inevitably deteriorating into loud, drunken debates aboutliterature and theory. I glanced at the clock—ten-thirty—then eased my bedroomdoor open with my toe, glancing down the long hallway to the kitchen. Sure enough,I could see my mom sitting at the head of our big butcher-block kitchen table, aglass of red wine in one hand. Gathered around her, as usual, were a bunch of malegraduate students, looking on adoringly as she went on about, from the little bit Icould gather, Marlowe and the culture of women.

This was yet another of the many fascinating contradictions about my mom.She was an expert on women in literature but didn't much like them in practice.Partly, it was because so many of them were jealous: of her intelligence (practicallyMensa level), her scholarship (four books, countless articles, one endowed chair), orher looks (tall and curvy with very long jet-black hair she usually wore loose andwild, the only out-of-control thing about her). For these reasons, and others, femalestudents seldom came to these gatherings, and if they did, they rarely returned."Dr. West," one of the students—typically scruffy, in a cheap-looking blazer,shaggy hair, and hip-nerdy black eyeglasses—said now, "you should really considerdeveloping that idea into an article. It's fascinating."

I watched my mother take a sip of her wine, pushing her hair back smoothlywith one hand. "Oh, God no," she said, in her deep, raspy voice (she sounded like asmoker, although she'd never taken a drag in her life). "I barely even have time towrite my book right now, and that at least I'm getting paid for. If you can call itpayment."

More complimentary laughter. My mother loved to complain about how littleshe got paid for her books—all academic, published by university presses—whilewhat she termed "inane housewife stories" pulled in big bucks. In my mother'sworld, everyone would tote the collected works of Shakespeare to the beach, withmaybe a couple of epic poems thrown in on the side.

"Still," Nerdy Eyeglasses said, pushing on, "it's a brilliant idea. I could, um,coauthor it with you, if you like."

My mother lifted her head and her glass, narrowing her eyes at him as asilence fell. "Oh, my," she said, "how very sweet of you. But I don't do coauthorship,for the same reason I don't do office mates or relationships. I'm just too selfish."I could see Nerdy Eyeglasses gulp, even from my long vantage point, his faceflushing as he reached for the wine bottle, trying to cover. Idiot, I thought, nudgingthe door back shut. As if it was that easy to align yourself with my mom, form somequick and tight bond that would last. I would know.

Ten minutes later, I was slipping out the side door, my shoes tucked undermy arm, and getting into my car. I drove down the mostly empty streets, past quietneighborhoods and dark storefronts, until the lights of Ray's Diner appeared in thedistance. Small, with entirely too much neon and tables that were always a bitsticky, Ray's was the only place in town open twenty-four hours, 365 days a year.Since I hadn't been sleeping, I'd spent more nights than not in a booth there,reading or studying, tipping a buck every hour on whatever I ordered until the suncame up.

The insomnia started when my parents' marriage began to fall apart threeyears earlier. I shouldn't have been surprised: their union had been tumultuous foras long as I could remember, although they were usually arguing more about workthan about each other.

They'd originally come to the U straight out of grad school, when my dad wasoffered an assistant professorship there. At the time, he'd just found a publisher forhis first novel, The Narwhal Horn, while my mom was pregnant with my brother andtrying to finish her dissertation. Fast-forward four years, to my birth, and my dad,riding a wave of critical and commercial success—NYT best seller list, National BookAward nominee—was heading up the creative writing program, while my mom was,as she liked to put it, "lost in a sea of diapers and self-doubt." When I enteredkindergarten, though, my mom came back to academia with a vengeance, scoring avisiting lectureship and a publisher for her dissertation. Over time, she became oneof the most popular professors in the department, was hired on for a full-timeposition, and banged out a second, then a third book, all while my father looked on.He claimed to be proud, always making jokes about her being his meal ticket, thebreadwinner of the family. But then my mother got her endowed chair, which wasvery prestigious, and he got dropped from his publisher, which wasn't, and thingsstarted to get ugly.

The fights always seemed to begin over dinner, with one of them makingsome small remark and the other taking offense. There would be a small dustup—sharp words, a banged pot lid—but then it would seem resolved…at least until aboutten or eleven, when suddenly I'd hear them start in again, about the same issue.After a while I figured out that this time lag occurred because they were waiting forme to fall asleep before really going at it. So I decided, one night, not to. I left mydoor open, my light on, took pointed, obvious trips to the bathroom, washing myhands as loudly as possible. And for a while, it worked. Until it didn't, and the fightsstarted up again. But by then my body was used to staying up way late, whichmeant I was now awake for every single word.

I knew a lot of people whose parents had split up, and everyone seemed tohandle it differently: complete surprise, crushing disappointment, total relief. Thecommon denominator, though, was always that there was a lot of discussion aboutthese feelings, either with both parents, or one on one separately, or with a shrink ingroup or individual therapy. My family, of course, had to be the exception. I did getthe sit-down-we-have-to-tell-you-something moment. The news was delivered bymy mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter,fiddling with his hands and looking tired. "Your father and I are separating," sheinformed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I'd so often heard her use withstudents as she critiqued their work. "I'm sure you'll agree this is the best thing forall of us."

Hearing this, I wasn't sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushingdisappointment, and again, it wasn't a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there,the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was theweirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood towash over me, long overdue.

I'd been a child, of course. But by the time I came along, my brother—themost colicky of babies, a hyperactive toddler, a "spirited" (read "impossible") kid—had worn my parents out. He was still exhausting them, albeit from anothercontinent, wandering around Europe and sending only the occasional e-mail detailingyet another epiphany concerning what he should do with his life, followed by arequest for more money to put it into action. At least his being abroad made all thisseem more nomadic and artistic: now my parents could tell their friends Hollis washanging out at the Eiffel Tower smoking cigarettes, instead of at the Quik Zip. It justsounded better.

If Hollis was a big kid, I was the little adult, the child who, at three, would sitat the table during grown-up discussions about literature and color my coloringbooks, not making a peep. Who learned to entertain myself at a very early age, whowas obsessive about school and grades from kindergarten, because academia wasthe one thing that always got my parents' attention. "Oh, don't worry," my motherwould say, when one of their guests would slip with the F-word or something equallygrown-up in front of me. "Auden's very mature for her age." And I was, whether thatage was two or four or seventeen. While Hollis required constant supervision, I wasthe one who got carted everywhere, constantly flowing in my mom's or dad's wake.They took me to the symphony, art shows, academic conferences, committeemeetings, where I was expected to be seen and not heard. There was not a lot oftime for playing or toys, although I never wanted for books, which were always inample supply.

Because of this upbringing, I had kind of a hard time relating to other kids myage. I didn't understand their craziness, their energy, the rambunctious way theytossed around couch cushions, say, or rode their bikes wildly around cul-de-sacs. Itdid look sort of fun, but at the same time, it was so different from what I was usedto that I couldn't imagine how I would ever partake if given the chance. Which Iwasn't, as the cushion-tossers and wild bike riders didn't usually attend the highlyacademic, grade-accelerated private schools my parents favored.

In the past four years, in fact, I'd switched schools three times. I'd only lastedat Jackson High for a couple of weeks before my mom, having spotted a misspellingand a grammatical error on my English syllabus, moved me to Perkins Day, a localprivate school. It was smaller and more academically rigorous, although not nearlyas much as Kiffney-Brown, the charter school to which I transferred junior year.Founded by several former local professors, it was elite—a hundred students, max—and emphasized very small classes and a strong connection to the local university,where you could take college-level courses for early credit. While I had a few friendsat Kiffney-Brown, the ultra-competitive atmosphere, paired with so much of thecurriculum being self-guided, made getting close to them somewhat difficult.

Not that I really cared. School was my solace, and studying let me escape,allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives. The more my parents bemoanedHollis's lack of initiative and terrible grades, the harder I worked. And while theywere proud of me, my accomplishments never seemed to get me what I reallywanted. I was such a smart kid, I should have figured out that the only way to reallyget my parents' attention was to disappoint them or fail. But by the time I finallyrealized that, succeeding was already a habit too ingrained to break.My dad finally moved out at the beginning of my sophomore year, renting afurnished apartment right near campus in a complex mostly populated by students. Iwas supposed to spend every weekend there, but he was in such a funk—stillstruggling with his second book, his publication (or lack of it) called into questionjust as my mom's was getting so much attention—that it wasn't exactly enjoyable.Then again, my mom's house wasn't much better, as she was so busy celebratingher newfound single life, and academic success, that she had people over all thetime, students coming and going, dinner parties every weekend. It seemed like therewas no middle ground anywhere, except at Ray's Diner.

I'd driven past it a million times but had never thought of stopping until onenight when I was heading back to my mom's around two A.M. My dad, like my mom,didn't really keep close tabs on me. Because of my school schedule—one night class,flexible daytime seminar hours, and several independent studies—I came and wentas I pleased, with little or no questioning, so neither of them really noticed that Iwasn't sleeping. That night, I glanced in at Ray's, and something about it just struckme. It looked warm, safe almost, populated by people who at least I had one thing incommon with. So I pulled in, went inside, and ordered a cup of coffee and someapple pie. I stayed until sunrise.

The nice thing about Ray's was that even once I became a regular, I still gotto be alone. Nobody was asking for more than I wanted to give, and all theinteractions were short and sweet. If only all relationships could be so simple, withme always knowing my role exactly.

Back in the fall, one of the waitresses, a heavyset older woman whose nametagsaid JULIE, had peered down at the application I was working on as she refilledmy coffee cup.

"Defriese University," she read out loud. Then she looked at me. "Pretty goodschool."

"One of the best," I agreed.

"Think you'll get in?"

I nodded. "Yeah. I do."

She smiled, like I was kind of cute, then patted my shoulder. "Ah, to beyoung and confident," she said, and then she was shuffling away.

I wanted to tell her that I wasn't confident, I just worked really hard. But shehad already moved onto the next booth, chatting up the guy sitting there, and Iknew she didn't really care anyway. There were worlds where all of this—grades,school, papers, class rank, early admission, weighted GPAs—mattered, and oneswhere they didn't. I'd spent my entire life squarely in the former, and even at Ray's,which was the latter, I still couldn't shake it.

Being so driven, and attending such an unorthodox school, meant that I'dmissed out on making all those senior moments that my old friends from Perkins Dayhad spent this whole last year talking about. The only thing I'd even considered wasprom, and then only because my main competition for highest GPA, Jason Talbot,had asked me as a sort of peace offering. In the end, though, even that hadn'thappened, as he canceled last minute after getting invited to participate in someecology conference. I told myself it didn't matter, that it was the equivalent of thosecouch cushions and cul-de-sac bike rides all those years ago, frivolous andunnecessary. But I still kind of wondered, that night and so many others, what I wasmissing.

I'd be sitting at Ray's, at two or three or four in the morning, and feel thisweird twinge. When I looked up from my books to the people around me—truckers,people who'd come off the interstate for coffee to make another mile, the occasionalcrazy—I'd have that same feeling that I did the day my mother announced theseparation. Like I didn't belong there, and should have been at home, asleep in mybed, like everyone else I'd see at school in a few hours. But just as quickly, it wouldpass, everything settling back into place around me. And when Julie came backaround with her coffeepot, I'd push my cup to the edge of the table, saying withoutwords what we both knew well—that I'd be staying for a while.

My stepsister, Thisbe Caroline West, was born the day before my graduation,weighing in at six pounds, fifteen ounces. My father called the next morning,exhausted.

"I'm so sorry, Auden," he said, "I hate to miss your speech."

"It's all right," I told him as my mother came into the kitchen, in her robe,and headed for the coffeemaker. "How's Heidi?"

"Good," he replied. "Tired. It was a long haul, and she ended up having aCaesarean, which she wasn't so happy about. But I'm sure she'll feel better after shegets some rest."

"Tell her I said congratulations," I told him.

"I will. And you go out there and give 'em hell, kid." This was typical: for mydad, who was famously combative, anything relating to academia was a battle. "I'llbe thinking about you."

I smiled, thanked him, then hung up the phone as my mother poured milkinto her coffee. She stirred her cup, the spoon clanking softly, for a moment beforesaying, "Let me guess. He's not coming."

"Heidi had the baby," I said. "They named her Thisbe."

My mother snorted. "Oh, good Lord," she said. "All the names fromShakespeare to choose from, and your father picks that one? The poor girl. She'll behaving to explain herself her entire life."

My mom didn't really have room to talk, considering she'd let my dad nameme and my brother: Detram Hollis was a professor my dad greatly admired, while W.H. Auden was his favorite poet. I'd spent some time as a kid wishing my name wasAshley or Katherine, if only because it would have made life simpler, but my momliked to tell me that my name was actually a kind of litmus test. Auden wasn't likeFrost, she'd say, or Whitman. He was a bit more obscure, and if someone knew ofhim, then I could be at least somewhat sure they were worth my time and energy,capable of being my intellectual equal. I figured this might be even more true forThisbe, but instead of saying so I just sat down with my speech notes, flippingthrough them again. After a moment, she pulled out a chair, joining me.

"So Heidi survived the childbirth, I assume?" she asked, taking a sip off hercoffee.

"She had to have a Caesarean."

"She's lucky," my mom said. "Hollis was eleven pounds, and the epiduraldidn't take. He almost killed me."

I flipped through another couple of cards, waiting for one of the stories thatinevitably followed this one. There was how Hollis was a ravenous child, sucking mymother's milk supply dry. The craziness that was his colic, how he had to be walkedconstantly, and even then screamed for hours on end. Or there was the one aboutmy dad, and how he…

"I just hope she's not expecting your father to be of much help," she said,reaching over for a couple of my cards and scanning them, her eyes narrowed. "Iwas lucky if he changed a diaper every once in a while. And forget about him gettingup for night feedings. He claimed that he had sleep issues and had to get his ninehours in order to teach. Awfully convenient, that."

She was still reading my cards as she said this, and I felt the familiar twinge Ialways experienced whenever anything I did was suddenly under her scrutiny. Amoment later, though, she put them aside without comment.

"Well," I said as she took another sip of coffee, "that was a long time ago.Maybe he's changed."

"People don't change. If anything, you get more set in your ways as you getolder, not less." She shook her head. "I remember I used to sit in our bedroom, withHollis screaming, and just wish that once the door would open, and your fatherwould come in and say 'Here, give him to me. You go rest.' Eventually, it wasn'teven your dad I wanted, just anybody. Anybody at all."

She was looking out the window as she said this, her fingers wrapped aroundher mug, which was not on the table or at her lips but instead hovering justbetween. I picked up my cards, carefully arranging them back in order. "I should goget ready," I said, pushing my chair back.

My mother didn't move as I got up and walked behind her. It was like shewas frozen, still back in that old bedroom, still waiting, at least until I got down thehallway. Then, suddenly, she spoke.

"You should rethink that Faulkner quote," she said. "It's too much for anopening. You'll sound pretentious."

I looked down at my top card, where the words—"The past isn't dead. It isn'teven past"—were written in my neat block print. "Okay," I said. She was right, ofcourse. She always was. "Thanks."

I'd been so focused on my last year of high school and beginning college thatI hadn't really thought about the time in between. Suddenly, though, it was summer,and there was nothing to do but wait for my real life to begin again.

I spent a couple of weeks getting all the stuff I needed for Defriese, and triedto pick up a few shifts at my tutoring job at Huntsinger Test Prep, although it waspretty slow. I seemed to be the only one thinking about school, a fact made moreobvious by the various invitations I received from my old friends at Perkins todinners or trips to the lake. I wanted to see everyone, but whenever we did gettogether, I felt like the odd person out. I'd only been at Kiffney-Brown for two years,but it was so different, so entirely academic, that I found I couldn't really relate totheir talk about summer jobs and boyfriends. After a few awkward outings, I beganto beg off, saying I was busy, and after a while, they got the message.Home was kind of weird as well, as my mom had gotten some research grantand was working all the time, and when she wasn't, her graduate assistants werealways showing up for impromtu dinners and cocktail hours. When they got toonoisy, and the house too crowded, I'd head out to the front porch with a book andread until it was dark enough to go to Ray's.

One night, I was deeply into a book about Buddhism when I saw a greenMercedes coming down our street. It slowed as it neared our mailbox, then slid to astop by the curb. After a moment, a very pretty blonde girl wearing low-slung jeans,a red tank top, and wedge sandals got out, a package in one hand. She peered atthe house, then down at it, then back at the house again before starting up thedriveway. She was almost to the front steps when she saw me.

"Hi!" she called out, entirely friendly, which was sort of alarming. I barely hadtime to respond before she was heading right to me, a big smile on her face. "Youmust be Auden."

"Yes," I said slowly.

"I'm Tara!" Clearly, this name was supposed to be familiar to me. When itbecame obvious it wasn't, she added, "Hollis's girlfriend?"

Oh, dear, I thought. Out loud I said, "Oh, right. Of course."

"It's so nice to meet you!" she said, moving closer and putting her armsaround me. She smelled like gardenias and dryer sheets. "Hollis knew I'd be passingthrough on my way home, and he asked me to bring you this. Straight from Greece!"She handed over the package, which was in a plain brown wrapper, my nameand address written across the front in my brother's slanted, sloppy hand. There wasan awkward moment, during which I realized she was waiting for me to open thepackage, so I did. It was a small glass picture frame, dotted with colorful stones:along the bottom were etched the words THE BEST OF TIMES. Inside was a picture ofHollis standing in front of the Taj Mahal. He was smiling one of his lazy smiles, incargo shorts and a T-shirt, a backpack over one shoulder.

"It's great, right?" Tara said. "We got it at a flea market in Athens."Since I couldn't say what I really felt, which was that you had to be a prettyserious narcissist to give a picture of yourself as a gift, I told her, "It's beautiful.""I knew you'd like it!" She clapped her hands. "I told him, everyone needspicture frames. They make a memory even more special, you know?"I looked down at the frame again, the pretty stones, my brother's easyexpression. THE BEST OF TIMES, indeed. "Yeah," I said. "Absolutely."Tara shot me another million-watt smile, then peered through the windowbehind me. "So is your mom around? I would love to meet her. Hollis adores her,talks about her all the time."

"It's mutual," I said. She glanced at me, and I smiled. "She's in the kitchen.Long black hair, in the green dress. You can't miss her."

"Great!" Too quick to prevent, she was hugging me again. "Thanks so much."I nodded. This confidence was a hallmark of all my brother's girlfriends, atleast while they still considered themselves as such. It was only later, when the emailsand calls stopped, when he seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, thatwe saw the other side: the red eyes, the weepy messages on our answeringmachine, the occasional angry peel-out on the road outside our house. Tara didn'tseem like the angry drive-by type. But you never knew.

By eleven, my mother's admirers were still hanging around, their voices loudas always. I sat in my room, idly checking my Ume.com page (no messages, not thatI'd expected any) and e-mail (just one from my dad, asking how everything wasgoing). I thought about calling one of my friends to see if anything was going on, butafter remembering the awkwardness of my last few social outings, I sat down on mybed instead. Hollis's picture frame was on the bedside table, and I picked it up,looking over the tacky blue beads. THE BEST OF TIMES. Something in these words, andhis easy, smiling face, reminded me of the chatter of my old friends as they tradedstories from the school year. Not about classes, or GPAs, but other stuff, things thatwere as foreign to me as the Taj Mahal itself, gossip and boys and getting your heartbroken. They probably had a million pictures that belonged in this frame, but I didn'thave a single one.

I looked at my brother again, backpack over his shoulder. Travel certainly didprovide some kind of opportunity, as well as a change of scenery. Maybe I couldn'ttake off to Greece or India. But I could still go somewhere.

I went over to my laptop, opening my e-mail account, then scrolled down tomy dad's message. Without letting myself think too much, I typed a quick reply, aswell as a question. Within a half hour, he had written me back.

Absolutely you should come! Stay as long as you like. We'd love thecompany!

And just like that, my summer changed.

The next morning, I packed my car with a small duffel bag of clothes, mylaptop, and a big suitcase of books. Earlier in the summer, I'd found the syllabi to acouple of the courses I was taking at Defriese in the fall, and I'd hunted down a fewof the texts at the U bookstore, figuring it couldn't hurt to acquaint myself with thematerial. Not exactly how Hollis would pack, but it wasn't like there'd be much elseto do there anyway, other than go to the beach and hang out with Heidi, neither ofwhich was very appealing.

I'd said good-bye to my mom the night before, figuring she'd be asleep whenI left. But as I came into the kitchen, I found her clearing the table of a bevy ofwineglasses and crumpled napkins from another of her get-togethers, a tired look onher face.

"Late night?" I asked, although I knew from my own nocturnal habits that ithad been. The last car had pulled out of the driveway around one thirty."Not really," she said, running some water into the sink. She looked over hershoulder at my bags, piled by the garage door. "You're getting an early start. Areyou that eager to get away from me?"

"No," I said. "Just want to beat traffic."

In truth, I hadn't expected my mom to care whether I was around for thesummer or not. And maybe she wouldn't have, if I'd been going anywhere else.Factor my dad into the equation, though, and things changed. They always did."I can only imagine what kind of situation you're about to walk into," shesaid, smiling. "Your father with a newborn! At his age! It's comic."

"I'll let you know," I told her.

"Oh, you must. I will require regular updates."

I watched as she stuck her hands into the water, soaping up a glass. "So," Isaid, "what did you think of Hollis's girlfriend?"

My mother sighed, wearily. "What was she doing here, again?"

"Hollis sent her back with a gift for me."

"Really," she said, depositing a couple of glasses into the dish rack. "Whatwas it?"

"A picture frame. From Greece. With a picture of Hollis in it."

"Ah." She turned off the water, using the back of her wrist to brush her hairfrom her face. "Did you tell her she should have kept it for herself, since it's probablythe only way she'll ever see him again?"

Even though I'd had this exact same thought, after hearing my mom say italoud I felt sorry for Tara, with her open, friendly face, the confident way she'dheaded into the house, so secure in her standing as Hollis's one and only. "You neverknow," I said. "Maybe Hollis has changed, and they'll get engaged."

My mom turned around and narrowed her eyes at me. "Now, Auden," shesaid. "What have I told you about people changing?"

"That they don't?"


She directed her attention back to the sink, dunking a plate, and as she did Icaught sight of the pair of black, hip-nerdy eyeglasses sitting on the counter by thedoor. Suddenly, it all made sense: the voices I'd heard so late, her being up early,uncharacteristically eager to clean out everything from the night before. I consideredpicking the glasses up, making sure she saw me, just to make a point of my own.But instead, I ignored them as we said our good-byes, her pulling me in for a tighthug—she always held you close, like she'd never let you go—before doing just thatand sending me on my way.


My dad and Heidi's house was just what I expected. Cute, painted white withgreen shutters, it had a wide front porch dotted with rocking chairs and pottedflowers and a friendly yellow ceramic pineapple hanging from the door that saidWELCOME! All that was missing was a white picket fence.

I pulled in, spotting my dad's beat-up Volvo in the open garage, with anewer-looking Prius parked beside it. As soon as I cut my engine I could hear theocean, loud enough that it had to be very close. Sure enough, as I peered aroundthe side of the house, all I could see was beach grass and a wide swath of blue,stretching all the way to the horizon.

The view aside, I had my doubts. I was never one for spontaneity, and thefarther I got from my mom's, the more I started to consider the reality of a fullsummer of Heidi. Would there be group manicures for me, her, and the baby? Ormaybe she'd insist I go tanning with her, sporting matching retro I LOVE UNICORNStees? But I kept thinking of Hollis, in front of the Taj Mahal, and how I'd foundmyself so bored all alone at home. Plus, I'd hardly seen my dad since he gotmarried, and this—eight full weeks when he wasn't teaching, and I wasn't in school—seemed like my last chance to catch up with him before college, and real life, began.I took a deep breath, then got out. As I started up to the front porch, I toldmyself that no matter what Heidi said or did, I would just smile and roll with it. Atleast until I could get to whatever room I'd be staying in and shut the door behindme.

I rang the doorbell, then stepped back, arranging my face into anappropriately friendly expression. There was no response from inside, so I rang itagain, then leaned in closer, listening for the inevitable sound of clattering heels,Heidi's happy voice calling out, "Just a minute!" But again, nothing.Reaching down, I tried the knob: it turned easily, the door opening, and Ileaned my head inside. "Hello?" I called out, my voice bouncing down a nearbyempty hallway painted yellow and dotted with framed prints. "Anyone here?"Silence. I stepped inside, shutting the door behind me. It was only then that Iheard it: the sound of the ocean again, although it sounded a little different, andmuch closer by, like just around the corner. I followed it down the hallway, as it gotlouder and louder, expecting to see an open window or back door. Instead, I foundmyself in the living room, where the noise was deafening, and Heidi was sitting onthe couch, holding the baby in her arms.

At least, I thought it was Heidi. It was hard to say for sure, as she lookednothing like the last time I'd seen her. Her hair was pulled up into a messy, lopsidedponytail, with some strands stuck to her face, and she had on a ratty pair ofsweatpants and an oversize U T-shirt, which had some kind of damp stain on oneshoulder. Her eyes were closed, her head tipped back slightly. In fact, I thought shewas asleep until, without even moving her lips, she hissed, "If you wake her up, Iwill kill you."

I froze, alarmed, then took a careful step backward. "Sorry," I said. "I just—"Her eyes snapped open, and she whipped her head around, her eyesnarrowing into little slits. When she spotted me, though, her expression changed tosurprise. And then, just like that, she was crying.

"Oh, God, Auden," she said, her voice tight, "I am so, so sorry. I forgot youwere…and then I thought…but it's no excuse…." She trailed off, her shouldersheaving as, in her arms, the baby—who was tiny, so small she looked too delicate toeven exist—slept on, completely unaware.

I took a panicked look around the room, wondering where my dad was. Onlythen did I realize that the incredibly loud ocean sound I was hearing was not comingfrom outside but instead from a small white noise machine sitting on the coffeetable. Who listens to a fake ocean when the real one is in earshot? It was one ofmany things that, at that moment, made absolutely no sense.

"Um," I said as Heidi continued to cry, her sobs punctuated by an occasionalloud sniffle, as well as the fake pounding waves, "can I…do you need some help, orsomething?"

She drew in a shaky breath, then looked up at me. Her eyes were rimmedwith dark circles: there was a pimply red rash on her chin. "No," she said as freshtears filled her eyes. "I'm okay. It's just…I'm fine."

This seemed highly unlikely, even to my untrained eye. Not that I had time todispute it, as right then my dad walked in, carrying a tray of coffees and a smallbrown paper bag. He was in his typical outfit of rumpled khakis and an untuckedbutton-down, his glasses sort of askew on his face. When he taught, he usuallyadded a tie and tweedy sport jacket. His sneakers, though, were a constant, nomatter what else he was wearing.

"There she is!" he said when he spotted me, then headed over to give me ahug. As he pulled me close, I looked over his shoulder at Heidi, who was biting herlip, staring out the window at the ocean. "How was the trip?"

"Good," I said slowly as he pulled back and took a coffee out of the carrier,offering it to me. I took it, then watched as he helped himself to one before stickingthe last on the table in front of Heidi, who just stared at it like she didn't know whatit was.

"Did you meet your sister?"

"Uh, no," I said. "Not yet."

"Oh, well!" He put down the paper bag, then reached over Heidi—whostiffened, not that he seemed to notice—taking the baby from her arms. "Here sheis. This is Thisbe."

I looked down at the baby's face, which was so small and delicate it didn'teven seem real. Her eyes were shut, and she had tiny, spiky eyelashes. One of herhands was sticking out of her blanket, and the fingers were so little, curled slightlyaround one another. "She's beautiful," I said, because that is what you say.

"Isn't she?" My dad grinned, bouncing her slightly in his arms, and her eyesslid open. She looked up at us, blinked, and then, just like her mom, suddenly beganto cry. "Whoops," he said, jiggling her a bit. Thisbe cried a little louder. "Honey?" mydad said, turning back to Heidi, who was still sitting in the exact same place andposition, her arms now limp at her sides. "I think she's hungry."

Heidi swallowed, then turned to him wordlessly. When my father handedThisbe over, she swiveled back to the windows, almost robotlike as the crying grewlouder, then louder still.

"Let's step outside," my dad suggested, grabbing the paper bag off the endtable and gesturing for me to follow him as he walked to a pair of sliding glass doors,opening one and leading me outside to the deck. Normally, the view would have leftme momentarily speechless—the house was right on the beach, a walkway leadingdirectly to the sand—but instead I found myself looking back at Heidi, only to realizeshe'd disappeared, leaving her coffee untouched on the table.

"Is she all right?" I asked.

He opened the paper bag, pulling out a muffin and then offering it to me. Ishook my head. "She's tired," he said, taking a bite, a few crumbs falling onto hisshirt. He brushed them off with one hand, then kept eating. "The baby's up a lot atnight, you know, and I'm not much help because I have this sleep condition andhave to get my nine hours, or else. I keep trying to get her to get in some help, butshe won't do it."

"Why not?"

"Oh, you know Heidi," he said, as if I did. "She's got to do everything herself,and do it perfectly. But don't worry, she'll be fine. The first couple of months are justhard. I remember with Hollis, your mom was just about to go out of her mind. Ofcourse, he was incredibly colicky. We used to walk him all night long, and he'd stillscream. And his appetite! Good Lord. He'd suck your mom dry and still beravenous…"

He kept talking, but I'd heard this song before, knew all the words, so I justsipped my coffee. Looking left, I could see a few more houses, then what appearedto be some sort of boardwalk lined with businesses, as well as a public beach,already crowded with umbrellas and sunbathers.

"Anyway," my father was saying now as he crumpled up his muffin wrapper,tossing it back in the bag, "I've got to get back to work, so let me show you yourroom. We can catch up over dinner, later. That sound good?"

"Sure," I said as we headed back inside, where the sound machine was stillblasting. My dad shook his head, then reached down, turning it off with a click: thesudden silence was jarring. "So you're writing?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm on a real roll, definitely going to finish the book soon," hereplied. "It's just a matter of organizing, really, getting the last little bits down on thepage." We went back to the foyer, then went up the staircase. As we walked downthe hallway, we passed an open door, through which I could see a pink wall with abrown polka-dot border. Inside, it was silent, no crying, at least that I could hear.My dad pushed open the next door down, then waved me in with one hand."Sorry for the small quarters," he said as I stepped over the threshold. "But youhave the best view."

He wasn't kidding. Though the room was tiny, with a twin bed, a bureau, andnot much room for anything else, the lone window looked out over an undevelopedarea of land, nothing but sea grass and sand and water. "This is great," I said."Isn't it? It was originally my office. But then we had to put the baby's roomnext door, so I moved to the other side of the house. I didn't want to keep her up,you know, with the noises of my creative process." He chuckled, like this was a jokeI was supposed to get. "Speaking of which, I'd better get to it. The mornings havebeen really productive for me lately. I'll catch up with you at dinner, all right?""Oh," I said, glancing at my watch. It was 11:05. "Sure."

"Great." He squeezed my arm, then started down the hallway, humming tohimself, as I watched him go. A moment after he passed the door to the pink andbrown room, I heard the door click shut.

I woke up at six thirty that evening to the sound of a baby crying.

Crying, actually, was too tepid a word. Thisbe was screaming, her lungsclearly getting a serious workout. And while it was merely audible in my room, withjust a thin wall between us, when I went out in the hallway in search of a bathroomto brush my teeth, the noise was deafening.

I stood for a second in the dimness outside the door to the pink room,listening to the cries as they rose, rose, rose, then fell sharply, only to spike again,even louder. I was wondering if I was the only one aware of it until, during a rareand short moment of silence, I heard someone saying, "Shh, shh," before quicklybeing drowned out again.

There was something so familiar about this, it was like a tug on mysubconscious. When my parents had first started to fight at night, this had been partof what I'd repeated—shh, shh, everything's all right—-to myself, again and again,as I tried to ignore them and fall asleep. Hearing it now, though, felt strange, as Iwas used to the sound being private, only in my head and the dark around me, so Imoved on.


My father, sitting in front of his laptop at a desk facing the wall, didn't moveas he said, "Hmmm?"

I looked back down the hallway to the pink room, then at him again. Hewasn't typing, just studying the screen, a yellow legal pad with some scribblings onthe desk beside him. I wondered if he'd been there the whole time I'd been sleeping,over seven hours. "Should I," I said, "um, start dinner, or something?"

"Isn't Heidi doing that?" he asked, still facing the screen.

"I think she's with the baby," I said.

"Oh." Now, he turned his head, looking at me. "Well, if you're hungry, there'sa great burger place just a block away. Their onion rings are legendary."I smiled. "Sounds great," I said. "Should I find out if Heidi wants anything?""Absolutely. And get me a cheeseburger and some of those onion rings." Hereached into his back pocket, pulling out a couple of bills and handing them out tome. "Thanks a lot, Auden. I really appreciate it."

I took the bills, feeling like an idiot. Of course he couldn't go out with me: hehad a new baby at home, a wife to take care of. "No problem," I said, even thoughhe was already turning back to his screen, not really listening. "I'll just be back in alittle bit."

I walked back to the pink room, where Thisbe was still going full blast.Figuring at least this time I didn't have to worry about waking her up, I knockedtwice. After a second, it opened a crack, and Heidi looked out at me.She looked more haggard than before, if that was even possible: the ponytailwas gone, her hair now hanging limp in her face. "Hi," I said, or rather shouted, overthe screaming. "I'm going to get dinner. What would you like?"

"Dinner?" she repeated, her voice also raised. I nodded. "Is it dinnertimealready?"

I looked at my watch, as if I needed to confirm this. "It's about quarter toseven."

"Oh, dear God." She closed her eyes. "I was going to fix a big welcome dinnerfor you. I had it all planned, chicken and vegetables, and everything. But the baby'sbeen so fussy, and…."

"It's fine," I said. "I'm going to get burgers. Dad says there's a good placeright down the street."

"Your father is here?" she asked, shifting Thisbe in her arms and peering overmy shoulder, down the hallway. "I thought he went down to campus.""He's working in his office," I said. She leaned closer, clearly not having heardthis. "He's writing," I repeated, more loudly. "So I'm going. What would you like?"

Heidi just stood there, the baby screaming between us, looking down thehallway at the light spilling out from my dad's barely open office door. She started tospeak, then stopped herself, taking a deep breath. "Whatever you're having is fine,"she said after a moment. "Thank you."

I nodded, then stepped back as she pushed the door back shut between us.The last thing I saw was the baby's red face, still howling.

Thankfully, outside the house it was much quieter. I could hear only theocean and various neighborhood sounds—kids yelling, an occasional car radio,someone's TV blaring out a back door—as I walked down the street to where theneighborhood ended and the business district began.

There was a narrow boardwalk, lined with various shops: a smoothie place,one of those beach-crap joints that sells cheap towels and shell clocks, a pizzeria.About halfway down, I passed a small boutique called Clementine's, which had abright orange awning. Taped to the front door was a piece of paper which read, inbig block print, IT'S A GIRL! THISBE CAROLINE WEST, BORN JUNE 1, 6 LBS, 15 OZ. So this wasHeidi's store, I thought. There were racks of T-shirts and jeans, a makeup and bodylotion section, and a dark-haired girl in a pink dress examining her fingernails behindthe register, a cell phone clamped to her ear.

Up ahead, I could see what had to be the burger joint my dad mentioned—LAST CHANCE CAFÉ, BEST O RINGS ON THE BEACH!, said the sign. Just before it, there wasone last store, a bike shop. A bunch of guys around my age were gathered on abattered wooden bench outside, talking and watching people pass by."The thing is," one of them, who was stocky and sporting shorts and a chainwallet said, "the name has to have punch. Energy, you know?"

"It's more important that it be clever," another, who was taller and thinnerwith curly hair, a little dorky-looking, said. "Which is why you should go with mychoice, The Crankshaft. It's perfect."

"It sounds like a car shop, not a bike place," the short guy told him."Bikes have cranks," his friend pointed out.

"And cars have shafts."

"So do mines," the skinny guy said.

"You want to call it the Mine Shaft now?"

"No," his friend said as the other two laughed. "I'm just making the point thatthe context doesn't have to be exclusive."

"Who cares about context?" The short guy sighed. "What we need is a namethat jumps out and sells product. Like, say, Zoom Bikes. Or Redline Bikes.""How do you redline on a bike?" another guy, who had his back to me, asked."That's stupid."

"It is not," the guy with the wallet muttered. "Besides, I don't see youoffering up any suggestions."

I stepped away from Clementine's and starting walking again. Just as I did,the third guy suddenly turned, and our eyes met. He had dark hair, cut short,incredibly tanned skin and a broad, confident smile, which he now flashed at me."How about," he said slowly, his gaze still locked with mine, "I just saw the hottestgirl in Colby walking by?"

"Oh, Jesus," the dorky one said shaking his head, as the other one laughedout loud. "You're pathetic."

I felt my face flush, hot, even as I ignored him and kept walking. I could feelhim looking at me, still smiling, as I put more and more distance between us. "Juststating the obvious," he called out, just as I was about out of earshot. "You could saythank you, you know."

But I didn't. I didn't say anything, if only because I had no idea how torespond to such an overture. If my experience with friends was sparse, what I knewabout boys—other than as competitors for grades or class rank—was nonexistent.

Not that I hadn't had crushes. Back at Jackson, there was a guy in my scienceclass, hopeless at equations, who always made my palms sweat whenever we gotpaired for experiments. And at Perkins Day, I'd awkwardly flirted with Nate Cross,who sat next to me in calculus, but everyone was in love with Nate, so that hardlymade me special. It wasn't until Kiffney-Brown, when I met Jason Talbot, that Ireally thought I might actually have one of those boyfriend kind of stories to tell thenext time I got together with my old friends. Jason was smart, good-looking, andseriously on the rebound after his girlfriend at Jackson dumped him for, in his words,"a juvenile delinquent welder with a tattoo." Because of Kiffney-Brown's smallseminar size, we spent a fair amount of time together, battling it out forvaledictorian, and when he'd asked me to prom I'd been more excited than I everwould have admitted. Until he backed out, citing the "great opportunity" of theecology conference. "I knew you'd be okay with this," he'd said to me as I nodded,dumbly, hearing this news. "You understand what's really important."Okay, so it wasn't like he called me beautiful. But it was a compliment, in itsown way.

It was crowded at Last Chance Café, with a line of people waiting to be seatedand two cooks visible through a small kitchen window, racing around as orders piledup on the spindle in front of them. I gave my order to a dark-haired, pretty girl witha lip ring, then took a seat by the window to wait for it. Glancing down theboardwalk, I could see the guys still gathered around the bench: the one who'dtalked to me was now sitting down, his arms stretched behind his head, laughing ashis short, stocky friend rode a bike back and forth in front of him, doing little hopshere and there.

It took a while for the food to be ready, but I soon realized my dad was right.It was worth the wait. I was digging into the onion rings before I even got out thedoor to the boardwalk, which by then was crowded with families eating ice-creamcones, couples on dates, and tons of little kids running along the sand. In thedistance, there was a gorgeous sunset, all oranges and pinks, and I kept my eyes onit as I walked, not even looking over at the bike shop until I was almost past it. Theguy was still there, although now he was talking to a tall girl with red hair who waswearing a massive pair of sunglasses.

"Hey," he called out to me, "if you're looking for something to do tonight,there's a bonfire at the Tip. I'll save you a seat."

I glanced over at him. The redhead was now giving me the stink eye, anannoyed look on her face, so I didn't say anything.

"Ah, she's a heartbreaker!" he said, then laughed. I kept walking, now feelingthe redhead's gaze boring in somewhere between my shoulder blades. "Just keep itin mind. I'll wait for you."

Back at the house, I found three plates and some silverware, then set thetable and put out the food. I was shaking ketchup packets out into a pile when mydad came downstairs.

"I thought I smelled onion rings," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Thislooks great."

"Is Heidi coming down?" I asked, sliding his burger onto a plate."Not sure," he replied, helping himself to an onion ring. Mouth full, he added,"The baby's having a hard night. She probably wants to get her to sleep first."I glanced up the stairs, wondering if it was possible that Thisbe was stillcrying, as I'd been gone at least an hour. "Maybe I'll, um, just ask her if she wantsme to bring it up to her."

"Sure, great," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. I stood there for asecond, watching as he ate another ring, tugging a nearby newspaper over with hisfree hand. I'd wanted to have dinner with my dad, sure, but I felt kind of bad aboutit happening this way.

Thisbe was still crying: I could hear her as soon as I got to the top of thestairs, Heidi's dinner on a plate in one hand. When I got to the pink room, the doorwas ajar, and inside I could see her sitting in a rocking chair, her eyes closed,moving back and forth, back and forth. I was understandably hesitant to bother her,but she must have smelled the food, because a beat later, she opened her eyes."I thought you might be hungry," I called out. "Do you—should I bring this toyou?"

She blinked at me, then looked down at Thisbe, who was still howling. "Youcan just put it down," she said, nodding at a nearby white bureau. "I'll get to it in asecond."

I walked over, moving aside a stuffed giraffe and a book called Your Baby:The Basics, which was opened to a page with the heading "Fussiness: What CausesIt, and What You Can Do." Either she hadn't had time to read it, or that book didn'tknow jack, I thought as I slid the plate over.

"Thanks," Heidi said. She was still rocking, the motion almost hypnotic,although clearly not to Thisbe, who continued to cry at full volume. "I just…I don'tknow what I'm doing wrong. She's fed, she's changed, I'm holding her, and it'slike…she hates me, or something."

"She's probably just colicky," I said.

"But what does that mean, exactly?" She swallowed, hard, then looked backdown at her daughter's face. "It just doesn't make sense, and I'm doing all I can…."She trailed off, her voice getting tight, and I thought of my dad downstairs,eating his onion rings and reading the paper. Why wasn't he up here? I didn't knowjack about babies either. Just as I thought this, though, Heidi looked up at me again."Oh, God, Auden, I'm so sorry." She shook her head. "I'm sure this is the lastthing you want to hear about. You're young, you should be out having fun!" Shesniffled, reaching up to rub her eyes with one hand. "You know, there's a place calledthe Tip, just down the road from here. All the girls at my shop hang out there atnight. You should go check it out. It has to be better than this, right?"

Agreed, I thought, but it seemed rude to actually say that. "Maybe I will," Isaid.

She nodded, like we'd made a deal, then looked back at Thisbe. "Thanks forthe food," she said. "I really…I appreciate it."

"No problem," I told her. But she was still looking at the baby, her faceweary, so I took this as a dismissal and left, shutting the door behind me.Downstairs, my dad was finishing his dinner, perusing the sports section.When I slid into a chair opposite him, he looked up at me and smiled. "So how's shedoing? Baby asleep?"

"Not really," I told him, unwrapping my burger. "She's still screaming.""Yikes." He pushed his chair back, standing up. "I better go check in."Finally, I thought as he disappeared up the stairs. I picked up my burger,taking a bite: it was cold, but still good. I'd only eaten about half of it when hereappeared, walking to the fridge and grabbing a beer. I sat there, chewing as hepopped the top, took a sip, and looked out at the water.

"Everything okay up there?"

"Oh, sure," he said easily, moving the bottle to his other hand. "She's justcolicky, like Hollis was. Not much you can do except wait it out."The thing was, I loved my dad. He might have been a little moody, anddefinitely more than a little selfish, but he'd always been good to me, and I admiredhim. Right at that moment, though, I could see why someone might not like him thatmuch. "Does Heidi…is her mom coming to help out, or anything?""Her mom died a couple of years ago," he said, taking another sip off hisbeer. "She has a brother, but he's older, lives in Cincinnati with kids of his own.""What about a nanny, or something?"

Now he looked at me. "She doesn't want help," he said. "It's like I told you,she wants to do this on her own."

I had a flash of Heidi craning her neck, looking down at my dad's office, thegrateful look on her face when I brought her dinner. "Maybe," I said, "you should,you know, insist, though. She seems pretty tired."

He just looked at me for a moment, a flat expression on his face. "Auden," hesaid finally, "this isn't something you need to worry about, all right? Heidi and I willwork it out."

In other words, back off. And he was right. This was his house, I was a guesthere. It was presumptuous to show up and just assume I knew better, based on onlya few hours. "Right," I said, balling up my napkin. "Of course."

"All right," he said, his voice relaxed again. "So…I'm going to head upstairs,get back to it. I'd like to finish this chapter tonight. You'll be okay on your own?"

It wasn't even really a question, only phrased to sound like one. Funny howintonation could do so much, change even what something was at its core. "Sure," Isaid. "Go ahead. I'll be fine."

© 2009 "Along for the Ride" by Sarah Dessen