The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 15: A Green Valentine’s Day

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Episode 15: A Green Valentine’s Day

“You’ve got plans next Saturday.”

My boyfriend Chris Clayton’s words—I couldn’t tell if he was asking a question or making a statement—caught me by surprise, and the plate I was lifting from the dishwasher slipped from my hand. Luckily, the plate’s fall was only a few inches, and it crashed harmlessly between matching ones.

“I don’t think I have plans.” I responded as if he’d asked a question and stacked clean plates.

“You do now.” The eagerness in his voice and grin on his face raised my curiosity.

“Okay.” I stepped around him and put the plates in the cabinet. “What are my plans?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Is that why you abandoned me to do kitchen chores alone?” I waved at the stack of dirty dinner dishes in the sink waiting for an empty dishwasher. Chris and I always paired up when one of us had kitchen cleanup chores, but tonight, he’d ditched me after dinner.

“Kind of.” Chris watched me like I was supposed to be reacting somehow to his news. But with his news being a “surprise,” I had no clue how to react. Apparently, Chris decided to help me. “You do know what next weekend is, right?”

“Next Saturday is February thirteenth.”

“And the next day is . . .”

“February fourteenth.”

“Which is . . .”

“The middle of the month?” I stopped unloading the dishwasher and leaned against the counter. This could take a while.

Chris shook his head.

“Whatever that thing is in English when two words start with the same sound?”

“No. I mean, yes, it’s an alliteration, but no.”

“C’mon. You know I’m not very good at—Oh, Valentine’s Day!” I almost jumped up and down at my excitement over answering what should’ve been an easy question. Especially for a girl with a boyfriend.

“Good job.” Chris clapped his hands.

“So we’ve got a date for Valentine’s Day?” Probably a dumb question. He was my boyfriend. Of course we’d have a date on Valentine’s Day.

But I’m really slow on the obvious. Unless it’s literally two plus two equaling four, I need help.

“Yep.”

“What kind of date?”

Chris shook his head. “Not going to trick me into details.”

As if tricking him occurred to me. “I mean, is it a date that I should wear this for—” I pointed at my T-shirt and jeans. “—or date-date clothes.”

“Date-date clothes.”

“Okay.” I returned to my dishes chore.

“You’re not disappointed are you?” The excitement dissolved from his voice, unlike the strands of spaghetti I spied in the dishwasher’s trap. Yuck.

“Disappointed about what?” I’d clean out the spaghetti when no clean dishes risked contamination.

“I don’t know. That I planned the date. That I’m keeping it a secret. That you have to get dressed up.”

“What? No.” I froze clutching a glass in each hand. “If you didn’t make the plans, we wouldn’t celebrate at all, since I obviously didn’t remember Valentine’s Day.”

“So you’re excited?”

“Yeah.” I put a grin on my face.

“That almost looks believable.”

“I’m—”

“I’m teasing.” Chris took the glasses from me and put them in the cabinet. He took over unloading the dishwasher. “Holidays, anniversaries, you forget them all. Weird, since you’re number obsessed.”

I stepped aside and pinched my lower lip. He was only half right. I didn’t forget those things. I remembered the exact dates of every kiss, every date, every breakup. What I forgot was to celebrate on those days. Not the breakup days, obviously, but the others. The days anyone else would recognize as romantic.

“A special date for Valentine’s Day.” I explored the idea, searching for the giddiness I was supposed to feel. Hearts and flowers and chocolate. Nope, didn’t do anything for me. Chris and me, alone, away from his parents, his siblings, and my cousins. Holding hands. The spicy-sweet scent, some cologne or something that Chris only wore on our dates.

Those thoughts sent a tingle all over.

“I can’t wait.” I smiled again, this time, one-hundred percent believable.

***

Now that I knew about Valentine’s Day, I had ten days to get Chris a gift. Plenty of time, if I only had any idea what to buy.

Gifts for the boyfriend fell into the same romance category as anniversaries, and I was no less clueless. If I wasn’t under the pressure of a holiday, I’d have no trouble. I’d see a T-shirt or an autographed poster or anything at the sports memorabilia store in the mall and just buy it. But I’d bought every gift for Chris from there, before we were a couple, after we’d broken up, and every gift-giving holiday in-between. This year, for a Valentine’s Day that Chris had carefully planned, those gifts didn’t seem special enough.

I asked everyone I knew for suggestions.

Abby: “In a magazine, I saw the suggestion of a romantic date box. You put in a movie, popcorn and candy, drinks, a candle, and . . .” Her face had turned red, and she wouldn’t tell me what else had been included.

Angel: “I got Dean a pair of red boxers with heart-shaped basketballs on them.” This time, my face turned red.

Derrick: “Why are you asking me? Why do you always ask me these things? I. Don’t. Care.”

Joseph: “Valentine’s Day . . . think I should buy Lilli something? Or is it too soon for her to forgive me?”

Not helpful.

I even brought it up in a letter to Jaxon Braddock. I’m horrible at romantic gifts, and this weekend is Valentine’s Day. What am I going to get Chris?

The Wednesday before our big date, I still hadn’t found anything, despite scrolling through Amazon and Googling “Valentine’s Day Gifts for Guys.” Those only brought up suggestions that flamed my face. Romantic gifts wasn’t researchable.

When I got home from school that day, a letter waited on the table from Jax. I quickly tucked it into my backpack.

Chris acted like he hadn’t noticed, but he ripped open a box of crackers with enough force to send a dozen flying into the air.

I helped him clean up before we did our homework.

Later, after I was in bed, I read Jax’s latest letter. He talked about a science experiment gone wrong and how his Geometry teacher never explained things as well as I had. He said he’d finished reading the book of Acts and asked if I knew what had happened to the apostle Paul. Then he brought up Valentine’s Day.

You really need help choosing a present for your boyfriend? You’ve known Chris forever. And you can literally buy him anything he would want. Suggestions? Sports anything, right? Isn’t that what he’s into? Or tickets to a game. March Madness is coming up. Any of the games close enough?

Tickets to a March Madness game? Like the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four? Why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d love to go to one of those games, but I’d never realized I could. But why couldn’t I? Like Chris said, I could literally buy almost anything. I’d just need David and Candy, Chris’s parents’, permission. And a close enough game.

I grabbed my phone and searched for tickets. One of the Final Four games, teams TBD, would be played in Chicago. A two-hour or so drive or I could buy plane tickets if David didn’t want Chris driving that far.

This could totally work. And be the best Valentine’s Day present ever. For Chris and me.

***

David agreed to the game and the plane tickets, but he had to join us. He said he’d pay for his own game-and-plane tickets and even sit in a different section. I insisted we sit together. Chris might not like his dad tagging along, but we were going to a basketball game, not a dinner for two or a movie.

So two days before Valentine’s Day, I finally bought Chris a gift. Luckily, March Madness tickets were purchased online. No wait for mail delivery. No visiting a ticket office. Just print and slide into an envelope. Done.

Then rip open the envelope because a Valentine’s present needed more than a sheet of paper, even if what was printed on that paper was better than any card I read in the store. But I found a cheesy one—what’s Valentine’s Day without a little cheese?—with a basketball and a line about bouncing into my heart, placed the folded, printed tickets inside, and put everything in a red envelope. Done. For real.

For the next two days, I felt jittery keeping Chris’s gift a secret. Then I woke up Saturday morning, and the whole world felt jittery. Spinning.

I sat up but immediately fell back against my pillow. My head throbbed. My stomach heaved. I squeezed my mouth and eyes shut. Not today. Any day except today.

Maybe if I laid here a few more minutes, the feeling would pass.

I might’ve fallen asleep or maybe I’d woken up a lot later than usual the first time. Either way, the next time I opened my eyes, the clock showed after ten. I never stayed in bed that late. Not even the morning after a double overtime basketball game that lasted until eleven p.m. at a school two-and-a-half hours away.

I pushed upright, slowly. The throbbing inside my head was still there, but less intense. If I got moving, I’d probably feel better. I twisted around until my feet dangled over the side of the bed. Anchored my heels to the floor. Stood. The room swayed for a moment. Deep breath. I could do this.

Dressing in jeans and a T-shirt took fifteen minutes. Sweat broke out along my hairline. Weird, since I was freezing. I pulled on a hoodie. My toes were cold, but socks would be too much work. I could deal.

I walked to the door, changed my mind, and dug a pair of socks out of my drawer. Another five minutes, and I finally left my room.

“You slept in.” Chris’s greeting in the kitchen was more like stating the obvious. He sat at the dining table in front of a plate piled with food I tried not to look at. “Mom made pancakes.”

My stomach reacted violently to the suggestion. “Not hungry. Thanks.”

“Getting extra sleep for your date tonight?” Elizabeth, Chris’s younger sister, wiggled her eyebrows and stuck a sticky, drippy forkful of pancake and syrup into her mouth.

“Our date,” I echoed. That’s right. Today was Chris’s and my big Valentine’s Day date. Chris’s surprise. I couldn’t be sick.

“You feeling okay?” Chris squinted at me.

“Uh, yeah.” I forced a smile.

“Good.” Chris chomped down on a piece of bacon.

I clamped my teeth.

“Today would be a bad day to be sick.” Chris didn’t know how close he was to the truth. Or maybe he did.

“I’m fine.” I would not be sick today. “I’ll be back.”

I left the kitchen for the bathroom, trying to move at a normal pace, not the careful shuffle of the seriously ill. Maybe I’d find something in the medicine cabinet. At least some tylenol or ibuprofen that might let me pretend to feel better.

When I reached the bathroom, I had to sit on the toilet to catch my breath before exploring the medicine cabinet. Not many options. Candy, Chris’s mom, kept most of the medicine in the master bathroom. But I found tylenol. Even better, they were children’s chewable tablets. I didn’t think my stomach could handle swallowing pills.

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The pink tablets tasted sickeningly sweet, but my stomach didn’t object. I chewed eight of them, half the box, but the right amount for my weight. Then I sat back on the toilet lid and waited for the magic to happen.

After about ten minutes, I felt exactly the same.

Someone knocked on the door. “I gotta go!” The high pitched, desperate voice belonged to seven-year-old Jamie, Chris’s little brother.

“Just a sec.” I stood, supporting myself with a hand on the cool ceramic vanity, and shuffled to the door.

Deep breath.

Smile.

Pretend to feel awesome.

“Bathroom’s all yours.” I stepped into the hall.

Jamie almost spun me around as he dodged inside. My hoodie barely missed catching in the slamming door.

“You sure you’re okay?” Elizabeth paused by our bedroom door. “You’re not getting sick, are you? Not before Valentine’s Day.”

Deep breath. Smile. Pretend to feel awesome. “Of course not. I’m fine.”

“Good.” Elizabeth sounded relieved, like my date mattered to her, and went into the bedroom.

Deep breath. Smile. Pretend to feel awesome. I repeated that over and over, and after a couple of hours, I was able to delete the “pretend.” I almost did feel awesome. Positive thinking? Or the tylenol kicking in?

Must’ve been the tylenol. By late afternoon, the throbbing returned inside my skull. Getting dressed for my date took ten times longer than it should’ve. Good thing I’d chosen my clothes the day before. I’d needed clothes from my mansion closet for something as special as tonight, and the thought of walking in the dark and cold from the Claytons’ to the mansion set me shivering.

I should probably take more tylenol.

The dark red dress didn’t warm me up. My legs were bare from the knees down, and the sheer sleeves added only style. So I slipped on a black sweater and a pair of black leggings I found buried in a drawer. Both were about three inches too short, but I felt less cold. Not warm, just less cold. Probably the best I could hope for.

Dressing took way too long again, so I was out of time when I went into the bathroom to do my hair. Didn’t matter. Brushing made my head ache. I couldn’t handle any twisting, pulling, or fastening. But I chewed up the last four children’s tylenol. Not a full dose, but hopefully enough. If anyone found out I was sick, the date would be off. I couldn’t do that to Chris. And I was still conscious and upright. That would have to be enough.

After grabbing a purse, which functioned as a hiding place for Chris’s present and nothing more, I walked out to meet my date.

Chris stood near the front door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, drumming his fingers against dark khaki pants, looking as nervous as any date waiting to pick up his girl even though we’d been an off-and-on couple for over two years. Even though we lived in the same house. Even though this was his house.

And the way he grinned when he saw me . . .

I’d just been looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. I was pale, my eyes dull, my hair lifeless behind my ears. Nothing I’d seen deserved that kind of smile. But Chris gave it anyway, and a burst of fireworks inside me had me forgetting how awful I felt. For about two seconds.

“Are you ready?” Chris stepped forward and took my clammy hand in his warm, dry one. “You look beautiful.”

“Thanks.” If only my mother would view me like Chris did.

Where had that thought come from? Mother was not someone I wanted to think about, and most of the time, I didn’t. I shook her out of my head, figuratively since any real head shaking would leave me dizzy.

Chris and I walked hand-in-hand into the garage. He opened the car door for me, and I winced when he pushed it shut. The metal-on-metal sound rattled my brain. Luckily, Chris was walking around the car and didn’t notice.

Deep breath. Smile. Pretend to feel awesome.

Worked earlier today, so maybe the mantra would work tonight.

We were silent on the drive. Chris kept glancing at me, so I forced the corners of my mouth to stay tipped up. At least he didn’t try to get me to talk. But quiet was normal.

Chris drove into the parking lot of L’assiette, and my smile fell off my face. I rubbed my foot against the hem of my leggings like I could make them longer. This was the nicest place in town, kept alive by people like my parents and Jax’s on evenings when they couldn’t fly into Chicago for something better. “We’re eating here?”

“Yeah. Valentine’s Day. Reservations.” Chris sounded proud of himself, but then his smile fell off. Not a good night for smiles. “Is this okay?”

“As long as I don’t have to eat snails.” My stomach lurched at my joke. “I’ve tried them before, but I’m not in the mood for them tonight.”

“No snails. Promise.” Chris’s smile returned. He got out of the car and rushed to open the passenger door for me.

He didn’t need to hurry. I still moved like the world was made of water and everyone in it had fins but me.

I locked my arm through Chris’s and let him walk me into the restaurant. The coat check room was near the door. I checked my sweater too, leaving me goose bumpy. But this wasn’t a restaurant for a too-short sweater. I should probably slip into the ladies’ room and shed my leggings.

The first thing I noticed was the quiet. No TVs blasted a game. No music competed with dinner conversations.

My head felt happy. Or at least as happy as my head could feel when aching as if stuffed with a scratchy, bunched up tutu.

An impossibly tiny woman—tiny wrists, tiny ankles, tiny neck—showed us to a table lit with a candle floating in a shallow glass bowl of water. Everything on the table was white, except the silverware lined up on the cloth placemat.

I opened my menu. I’d barely eaten all day, but not in anticipation. My stomach rebelled with each description. Filet Medallions in White Wine Sauce. Chicken Livers Sautéed in Butter on a Bed of Greens. Prawns with Hollandaise Sauce.

Simple and bland. That’s all I could handle.

“Would you like anything to drink other than water?” The waitress caught me by surprise. She set a goblet of water in front of each of us and waited for a response.

“Coke,” Chris said.

“Sprite.” Maybe the lemon-lime and carbonation would settle my stomach.

“I’ll be back in a few moments to take your order.” She left as silently as she’d appeared.

“What are you going to have?” Chris asked from behind his menu. “The filet sounds good. Or maybe prawns.”

“I don’t know.” I continued searching for simple and bland. Boring. Like soup. A consommé with mushrooms and asparagus. Perfect.

“What would you like tonight?” The waitress placed our drinks on the table and folded her hands in front of the narrow black apron tied below a white button-down shirt.

Chris nodded at me to order first.

“The consommé.” I pointed in the menu, then handed it to the waitress.

“Is that all?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Chris narrowed his eyes and scanned the menu. “Aren’t you going to eat something?”

“Yes. The soup.”

“I mean real food.” Chris’s voice was tight, and I had the feeling I’d done something wrong. But I couldn’t figure it out around the fogginess.

“All I want is soup.” Why waste food? At best, I’d take a few bites. At worst, those few bites wouldn’t stay down.

The waitress listened without changing her expression. I couldn’t tell from her if I was messing up the date or what.

Chris frowned over the top of his menu—hardly a romantic look—then slapped his menu closed. “The filet mignon with potatoes.”

“I’ll tell the chef.” The waitress picked up the menus and retreated.

“You’re doing it again.” Chris leaned toward the middle of the table, his voice harsh.

“Doing what?”

“Being cheap. Acting like I can’t afford to spend more on a date than the price of soup.” He said “soup” like Jamie would say “spinach.”

“But soup is all I want.”

“Yeah, right.” Chris thumped back against his chair and looked around the room, his glance going everywhere but to me. “You can eat way more than a bowl of soup. You can eat as much as me. More sometimes.”

I rubbed my forehead and groaned. The ache was getting worse, and the thought of eating like normal . . .

“I wanted—”

“Stop.” I lowered my hand and stabbed him with a glare of my own. “I know what you wanted, which is why I’m here tonight. I feel terrible.”

“You should,” he muttered.

“Not for the reasons you think.” If I’d had the energy, I would’ve kicked him under the table. “I’m sick, Chris. My head hurts and my stomach can’t handle anything more than soup—if it can handle that. But I didn’t want to ruin tonight by letting you know. If I’d realized how important ordering was for our date . . .”

“You’re sick?” Chris’s gaze landed on me again, and the heat in his voice evaporated. “I guess that explains why you slept in this morning and didn’t eat much and looked so, um, less like normal.”

“Thanks.” My sarcasm was only half-serious.

“Do you really feel that bad? Because we can go home now and go out again next weekend.”

“No. I’ll be fine. I took some tylenol.” I’d already survived this far; no reason to give up now. “Besides, I’ve got your present.”

“A present?” The eagerness on Chris’s face made up for our earlier fight.

“Yep.” I pulled the envelope out of the purse. Anticipation danced through my veins, overpowering the germs still determined to take me out. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Chris opened the envelope, the flap scritch-scratching. The smile that spread across his face while he read said I’d chosen well. Then he set the card and envelope down and unfolded the tickets. The real present.

His smile disappeared, replaced by wide eyes and a slack mouth. “Final Four tickets? You got us tickets to the Final Four?”

“Just one game. And we’re flying up there, but I didn’t put those tickets in the card. And David’s coming with us.”

“Wow. These must’ve—” Chris clenched his jaw. “I mean, I can’t believe you got us tickets to the Final Four. This is awesome.”

“I know, right? I can’t believe I never thought about it before, until Jax suggested it.”

“What?” That one word snapped off Chris’s excitement. The hardness returned to his eyes. “You asked Jax what to get me for Valentine’s Day?”

I didn’t quite understand why mentioning Jax was bad, but I should’ve known better. Jax always got this reaction. I blamed being sick. My head just wasn’t connected.

“I asked everybody. You had something big planned, and I wanted to get you something just as special.”

“So you asked Jax?”

“And Derrick and Angel and Abby and Joseph.”

Chris folded the tickets and returned them to the envelope. He wasn’t looking at me again, but with his head down, I couldn’t tell if he was angry or something else.

“So do you not want to go to the game because of how I came up with the present?” I sidestepped mentioning Jax’s name.

“I still want to go.” Head still lowered, Chris slid the envelope under his silverware.

“Do you want to go with someone other than me?”

Chris didn’t answer.

I was trying to make a joke. Mostly. What if he did want to go with someone else?

“Of course I want to go with you.” Chris raised his head, but his expression was indecipherable. Not happy. Not angry.

“Is it a good present?” Ugh, I sounded needy. But gift buying was difficult, so feedback was important. For future holidays.

“Yes. It’s the best present you’ve ever gotten me.” The sincerity was clear, but Chris’s smile lacked wattage. My insides didn’t warm.

The waitress returned with Chris’s filet and my soup. If possible, I had even less appetite now. I’d failed at Valentine’s Day. No surprise, since I usually failed any romantic occasion. But I’d tried this year. Stupid sickness.

The rest of the meal passed quietly. My aching, foggy brain couldn’t come up with much small talk. Just stuff about the food being good.

Chris paid the bill, and we picked up our coats from the coat check. Then we walked into the cold darkness, back to the car. I wanted, no needed, some way to fix tonight. To turn it back into the romantic date Chris planned.

“Chris—”

“I love you, Sydnee.”

His words knocked whatever I was going to say right out of my head. Not hard to do tonight, but still.

“I love you,” he repeated, waving the envelope I’d given him. “More than tickets to any game or any meal in a fancy restaurant.”

“I love you too.” This was only the second time I’d said those words to Chris, and they filled me with a electricity. “More than anything—or anyone—else.”

Chris moved in like he was going to kiss me.

“I’m sick.” I ducked away, not wanting to share my germs any more than I already had by breathing the same air.

“I don’t care.” Chris cupped my cheek and pressed his lips against mine.

Maybe I hadn’t failed at Valentine’s Day after all.

The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 14: People Pleasing Party Planning

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Episode 14: People Pleasing Party Planning

I pushed open the kitchen door and the heat slapped my frozen cheeks. The walk from the bus stop to the Claytons’ house had threatened frostbite to every centimeter of exposed skin.

Okay, at thirty-six degrees—according to the bank sign the bus had passed—frostbite probably wasn’t a real threat or David Clayton would’ve been waiting at the bus stop and driven us the quarter mile. But my cousin Joseph Andrews and my boyfriend Chris Clayton’s noses and cheeks were pomegranate red, just like my left hand, the hand Chris had been holding most of the walk home. My right hand had stayed warm-ish inside my coat pocket.

Joseph, Chris, and I dropped our backpacks by the dining table. Joseph’s brother, Derrick, and Chris’s sister, Elizabeth, ninth-graders at the junior high, were already working on their homework, snack crumbs littering their placemats and papers.

An envelope waited on my placemat. I snatched it up and stuffed it into my backpack. I’d read the letter later, in my room.

“Is he writing every day now?” Chris glared from the other side of the table.

“What?” Chris’s comment startled me, and I jerked my hand out of my backpack too fast. The zipper teeth scraped my knuckles. I’d expected him to say something two weeks ago, when the letters started showing up more often. But Chris hadn’t said a thing. Until now.

“Not every day.”

“Sure seems like it.” Chris’s glare intensified.

“Jax went back to school sixteen days ago.” The number came easily, not because I was keeping track like my friend Abby Stewart counted every word her crush Dean Larkin had spoken to her, but because counting was automatic and numbers imprinted on my brain for eternity. Or at least fifteen-and-a-half years. “This is only letter eleven.”

“Not the point, Sydnee.” Derrick didn’t look up from writing in a notebook to deliver his warning.

“I know,” I said to Derrick, realizing too late that I shouldn’t have jumped to Jax’s defense. I looked at Chris. Maybe the right numbers would slice through Chris’s annoyance. “I’ve only written Jax six times. In three weeks.”

“Used to be once a week.” Chris hung his coat crookedly on the back of his chair and stalked into the kitchen. Behind me, cabinet doors creaked open and slammed shut.

I rubbed my smarting knuckles. What was I supposed to do? Not write Jax? Maybe that was the right answer. But the letters were important. I was the only person Jax communicated with outside of Lindview Academy, a boarding school where Jax had no access to a computer, phone, or other twenty-first century necessities. Our letters were also read by someone at the school and censored, like I’d read the government had done during the World Wars. Except instead of blacking out lines, the letters just disappeared, I think, because a couple of times, Jax had repeated questions I knew I’d answered.

Hmm. Maybe Chris was right and Jax had written me every day for the last sixteen days and five letters had “disappeared.” Probably shouldn’t speculate on that out loud.

I shrugged out of my coat and searched for a distraction from my pen pal.

A colorful invitation magnetted to the refrigerator caught my eye. A party for one of Elizabeth’s friends.

“Think I should have another party?” I threw out the suggestion before the idea took root.

“A party?” Chris’s eyebrows pinched together. He opened a box of crackers and dumped a handful into a bowl. Then another handful into a second bowl. For me, I assumed, which meant he wasn’t too angry. “Because parties go so well for you?”

“They’re not always disasters. Not if I create the right guest list.”

“So invisible friends only?” Chris’s joke was further proof he was getting over the letter.

Joseph snickered as he splashed salsa onto a plate. He passed the jar to Chris.

“No.” I drew out the word. “But people who should already get along. Like the basketball team. Both our basketball teams.”

“The basketball teams?” Chris spooned salsa into one side of the bowl and added baby carrots.

“Yeah.” I nodded along with myself, the idea taking shape. The suggestion started sounding good. “An end of the season party for the basketball teams.”

“Okay.” Chris handed me one of the bowls and walked around the dining table to his seat.

“Unless . . . do you think they already do something for the end of the season?”

“I think the boys’ team might go out for pizza or something. I don’t know, but I haven’t heard anything official.”

“If not, then let’s have a party. At the mansion.” I pointed out the picture window behind Chris. All we could see in the late afternoon twilight was the stone wall surrounding the Cameron Estate, but beyond that was the Cameron Mansion, technically my home but usually way colder than the January temperatures. Especially when my mother and sister were living there. But when fall came, they left for Florida, leaving the mansion empty. Perfect for a party.

“Why not?” Chris shrugged, crunched on a salsa-loaded cracker, and pulled out his Algebra textbook. “Last party wasn’t too bad.”

“Actually, that party went pretty good.” Of course, I might have selective memory. Abby had gotten mad at me because Angel Lincoln, my basketball-team friend, and Dean, Abby’s crush, had become a couple that night. But Abby didn’t play basketball, so she wouldn’t be at this party. And that was a minor problem. Not like getting grounded, which had happened at an earlier party.

Maybe I should rethink this.

No. I could throw a successful party. Fifth time’s a charm, right?

***

“An end of the season party at your house?” Brielle Fuentes stared at me, eyes as round as the hoop above her head. “Like a party at the Cameron mansion?”

I nodded, taking in the gaping mouths and bug eyes of my teammates.

“We’re all—” Star Lucello ran her finger through the air in a big arc to include the entire basketball team, dressed in shorts and tanks for practice. “—invited?”

“Um, yeah.” Why was this a big deal? I looked at Angel Lincoln for support, but she’d taken advantage of the unused goals to work on her layup.

Excitement buzzed through the team, and the girls started talking to each other.

“I’ve always wanted to see the inside of one of those houses,” Madison Sharp told Brielle.

“My mom told me that some of the houses look completely different every time she’s goes inside,” Brielle said. “Like they’ve been completely redecorated in the two or three months since she was last there for an after-party cleanup.”

“I hear the food is awesome,” Trayna Davis said. “Kayla says the best part of a catering job is eating the leftovers.”

“Wait.” I invited myself into the conversation. “Kayla who?”

“Kayla Mann.” Trayna said the name of my least favorite person in the world—well, tying Mother. “She was a waiter with one of the caterers this summer.”

“She was?” How hadn’t I noticed Kayla? Why hadn’t Kayla made herself noticeable? But that explained a bad conversation a few months ago where Kayla knew about Jax. “What else did Kayla say?”

“She said that no one really pays attention to the people with the food unless they need someone to yell at. And everyone’s a . . .” Trayna’s face darkened and she squeezed her mouth closed for a few seconds. “She said, um, the pay’s really good.”

And a lot of other really complimentary things, I was sure.

“Who’d you hire to play?” Madison asked.

“Play?” I looked at her. “Play what?”

“Play at the party.” Madison spoke like it should be obvious. “Are you having a band or a DJ?”

“A band or a DJ?” I repeated stupidly.

“I’m going shopping today for a new dress,” Brielle said.

“Finally, an end of the season party that doesn’t involve pizza,” Trayna said. “I’ve never been to a party that was catered for real. You know, not by some place like Taco King or Seven Sandwiches.”

Band? DJ? Dresses? Caterers? “Wait, this isn’t—”

“Ladies!” Coach walked into the gym from the locker rooms, clapping her hands for our attention. “Why is no one warming up? Start moving. Season isn’t over yet!”

My teammates scattered onto the court, and I didn’t have a chance to explain that this wasn’t supposed to be a fancy mansion party. I’d pictured a pizza-and-soda party. A rip-open-a bag-of-chips party. Not an approved-by-my-mother party.

What kind of party was I hosting?

***

“They were talking about new dresses and whether I’d have a live band or a DJ.” My voice sound funny, echoing inside Claytons’ freezer. I dug around and discovered a forgotten box of pizza rolls. The sell-by date had passed, but they were probably edible. Even if they weren’t, they were still totally the kind of food was in the mood for. Cheap, easy, and not catered. I held them up to show Chris, Joseph, and Derrick. “Want to split these?”

Shrugs and “sures” were repeated.

“I didn’t get a chance to tell them that this was supposed to be casual.” I stabbed the oven buttons and dumped the frozen, slightly icy rolls onto a cookie sheet. “You know, just the basketball teams hanging out. Music from an iPod. Food like this.” I jiggled the cookie sheet in the air, the rolls rattling, and then slid them into the oven. “But now, they’re expecting something bigger. Better. Like the parties they’ve apparently heard about.”

“Or seen on TV.” Elizabeth scooted around me to put a water glass in the dishwasher.

“But why?” I leaned against the stove, and the oven warmed the back of my legs. “Don’t those parties always come with drama?”

“But they’re fun.” Elizabeth’s eyes shone like my teammates had. “Exotic.”

“No they’re not.” I scratched my thighs, remembering all the itchy dresses I’d been forced to wear to those “fun and exotic” parties. “And that’s not the kind of party I can plan.”

“Like your mother actually plans any of her parties.” Elizabeth returned to her homework at the dining table.

“Huh. Good point.” I peeked inside the oven and poked a pizza roll. Still hard. I looked at Chris, who so far, hadn’t offered any suggestions. “Think I could do that? Just hire someone to plan this party for me?”

“I don’t know, can you?” Chris’s response wasn’t much help. Neither was his shrug.

“I bet David and Candy know who she hires. All I’d have to do is call the company and tell them to put together a party like everyone wants and to leave me out of it, right?”

“What about your mother?” Chris reached around me for glasses in the cabinet. “Want some juice?”

“Yes.” I stepped out of his way. “What does Mother have to do with anything?”

“Won’t whoever you hire talk to her? Or at least send her a bill?”

“Not if I pay the bill.”

“But aren’t bands or DJs and caterers and all that stuff expensive without paying some party planner too?” Chris filled glasses with orange juice and returned the bottle to the fridge. “Not that you can’t afford it.” A strange tone hung onto those words, but before I could identify it, he continued. “I mean, I know you can afford it, but don’t you only get an allowance every month?”

“Yeah, but I don’t spend that much of it. And even after Christmas . . .” I shrugged, wanting to avoid money talk. I didn’t know who had decided the amount of my allowance—my dad or his lawyer or his accountant or David—but more than I could spend every month appeared in my bank account. “Besides, if I give the party planner a budget, they’ll have to stick to it. Or close enough.”

“Then I guess you could hire someone to plan a party like everyone wants.” Chris stared into his orange juice as he spoke, almost like he was avoiding looking at me. “Are those pizza rolls done?”

“Probably.” I checked inside the oven. Hot and smelling like spicy tomato sauce. I removed the cookie sheet. “This is going to work. I’ll throw the party everyone expects without having to plan any of it. Thanks, Elizabeth.”

I thought I heard Chris mutter something as he juggled hot pizza rolls onto a plate. Something like a sarcastic, “yeah, thanks,” but probably my imagination. Chris couldn’t care about how the party was planned or what kind of party I hosted. Why would he?

***

So hiring a party planner—I mean, event planner, as I was informed by Raquel during our first conversation—didn’t provide the keep-me-out-of-it experience I’d wanted and save me from a headache. Not until I exploded with an “I don’t care!” during our twelfth conversation—twelfth in five days!—did Raquel finally listen. The only parts that mattered to me were that we had no servers (because no way was I risking Kayla Mann showing up at my party as part of the staff), that the party took place in the Cameron Mansion entertainment floor (“basement” was too common a word), that someone provided music, and that everything came in under budget.

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“Your budget is a little low,” Raquel warned during our third conversation. “People will notice if you cut corners.”

“I don’t care.” The first twenty times I said that phrase I managed not to yell. “None of them are paying.”

Raquel’s lips pinched together. She was probably used to Mother who cared most about what people thought. Obviously, I cared a little or I wouldn’t have hired Raquel. But I didn’t care enough to spend tens of thousands of dollars on six hours of food, music, and atmosphere.

The week of the party, Raquel only contacted me three times, and my headache went away.

The day of the party, I stood inside my mansion closet, bigger than the bedroom Elizabeth and I shared, and picked through the dozens of dresses. Many never worn since I usually avoided fancy-dress parties. Nothing too short. That eliminated a half dozen that wouldn’t cover my thighs. Mother probably forgot how tall I was when she bought those.

Nothing too long either. Too hard to move in.

Nothing sparkly. Nothing glittery. Nothing transparent. Nothing strapless.

My list eliminated all but four dresses. A blue dress with black tulle peeking from under the knee-length hem. A dark green dress with an empire waist. A shimmery red-black dress with a black bolero jacket. An orange dress with a longer-in-back hem.

Orange and uneven hems, nope. Back on the rack.

I tapped a finger against my lips and stared at the final three. Why was this taking so long? I never cared what I wore.

Except tonight, I cared a little. Usually, I barely knew the people at a party. They were all kids of my parents’ friends. But tonight, everyone would be my friend. And Chris would be there too. My date. My boyfriend. At a mansion party.

My stomach fluttered in a way that never happened when standing in this closet. Usually my stomach felt weighted with bricks. Or surging with hot lava.

But if I didn’t choose right now and get dressed, I risked being late, and I really wanted to scope out Raquel’s work before everyone showed up. I hadn’t wanted to decide on the details, but I didn’t want to be completely ignorant of them. How would it look if I couldn’t point people to the food? I’d had to tell eight people, “It’s a surprise,” when asked about the music because I didn’t know if I’d hired a DJ or a band.

The blue and black dress won. I performed contortions to zip it up, and then I shoved my feet into low-heeled, black shoes and hurried down three flights of stairs. The sounds of speaker feedback and tuning guitars hit my ears before I reached the lowest level. Must’ve hired a band. One question answered.

“There you are.” Raquel’s greeting was breathless and tinged with panic. She clutched a tablet to her chest like a shield.

“What’s wrong?” I scanned the rooms. Furniture had been rearranged to create dance floor—I stopped myself from making a face. Music and a dance floor didn’t mean I had to dance—red and white tablecloths for our school colors and platters of food topped the four tables placed around the room. A bar blocked the theater, blocking access to the dark room that couldn’t be used over the music, and a black-bow-tied bartender stood behind the counter. He was the only server. Raquel’s suggestion to have an attended bar serving non-alcoholic drinks, of course, sounded crazy to me, but David and Candy had thought the idea sounded good, and Elizabeth had thought it cool.

I swept my glance around the room one more time. Except for the inevitable party atmosphere that I’d requested, everything looked perfect.

“Everything’s fine.” Raquel sounded more relaxed, and she lowered the tablet to her side. “I was concerned that you wouldn’t arrive in time to give final approval.”

“Oh.” Final approval? What was she going to do if I didn’t like something? “Looks great. I think everyone will like it.”

“Good.” Raquel nodded a couple of times and looked around the room. “I’ll be here all night. If you have a problem, come to me, and I’ll take care of anything and everything.”

“Okay.” Not that I could imagine having a problem with anything, and if someone else had a problem, they could just go home.

“Your first guests are early.” Raquel nodded at the stairs behind me.

I turned. “That’s just Chris and Joseph.”

My careless words ignored the thrill dancing across my stomach. Just Chris? In a silver-blue shirt that made his eyes sparkle more than any glittery dress in my closet, Chris wasn’t “just” anything.

He grinned and walked toward me, his sparkling eyes like sparks of electricity.

“What do you think?” I broke eye contact and glanced around the room before I got electrocuted. “Looks good, right?”

You look good.” Chris took my hand.

And zap. There went any hope of thinking straight. Or talking straight. My mouth went dry and my tongue felt swollen.

Was it too early to hit the fake bar for a soda?

I attempted to clear my throat instead. “Think everyone will like it?”

“Why do you care what everyone thinks all of a sudden?” Chris’s grin faded.

“I don’t care, care. I just want people to be happy. Or have fun.”

“You’ve never worried about that before.”

Chris was mostly right. A few times I’d tried to make people happy, like when I’d invited Abby and Lilli over for a sleepover last year. But usually halfway through my efforts, I realized it was a losing battle and quit, letting everyone else sort out the details. Kind of like I’d done by hiring Raquel. Except I had started to care. A little. Which is why I had hired Raquel.

“Everyone’s been so excited about tonight.” I tried to explain what I didn’t quite understand. “I don’t want them to be disappointed.”

“So you spent hundreds of dollars to make them happy.” Something in Chris’s tone sent another jolt through me. But this jolt felt like ice.

“Not happy exactly.” Here it was. The problem, the fight, the disaster. Happening before the party even began. “Just once, I’d like to throw a party that’s a success. My way has obviously never worked, so I’m trying everyone else’s way.”

“You’re trying your mother’s way.”

What did that mean?

Before I could ask, Chris moved to inspect a table of food, and footsteps sounded on the stairs.

Time to party.

I greeted Brielle and Star, listened to their compliments about my dress, and attempted to gush over their dresses. I must’ve succeeded, because they preened and smiled and then took my suggestion to look around, clutching each other’s arms.

Mother’s example of proper hostess etiquette forced me to keep my position by the stairs, but most guests bypassed me without a glance, which didn’t bother me.

“Thirsty?” Chris handed me a glass.

“Thanks.” I relaxed. The disaster had been my imagination. Chris had only walked off to get me a drink. I took a sip, and cold Dr Pepper perked me up.

I looked around at the eighteen people spread around. A group of Chris’s teammates treated one of the food tables like their own personal feast, knocking back bacon wrapped shrimp and mini quiches like they hadn’t eaten in hours. A group of my teammates, including Brielle and Star, clustered together on the opposite side of the room, talking. The band was playing in the background, and no one was dancing. So pretty normal.

Thumps and voices thundered from the stairs, and a few seconds later, an entire crowd appeared, Chris’s teammates and mine.

“I can’t believe this place,” one of the guys was saying. A senior on the team. I didn’t know his name, but he wore number twenty-one. “You could put six basketball courts down here.”

“More like eight,” another said.

“Dude.” Number Twenty-One headed for Chris, hands raised in either greeting or to illustrate how gigantic the room was. “You don’t live here too, do you?”

“No.” Chris’s answer was short, his face blank.

“But I bet you spend a lot of time here, right?” Number Twenty-One wiggled his eyebrows and glanced at me.

I opened my mouth, ready to say that I spent my time at Chris’s, not the other way around, but Chris spoke first.

“Does it really matter where I spend my time?”

“Uh-huh, I know exactly what you mean.” More eyebrow wiggling and Number Twenty-One slapped Chris’s shoulder.

I totally didn’t know what any of this meant.

“Guess you’ve got lots of reasons to date Sydnee.” Number Twenty-One looked me over, slowly and in a way that had me wishing I wore grass-stained jeans and a stretched-out sweatshirt. “Several million and then some.”

Chris didn’t say anything, maybe because he was too tense to open his mouth.

Number Twenty-One didn’t seem bothered by the silence. He took off toward the middle of the room, his crowd following him.

“Was he saying that you’re dating me because of my money?” That part, I’d understood. Sort of.

“Of course.” Chris’s voice was as stiff as the rest of him. “What do you expect?”

“What do I expect from . . .” I searched for a name. Nothing. “From number twenty-one?”

“Terrance Glade.”

Number twenty-one equals Terrance. I recited that over and over, committing the number and name to memory.

“Probably everyone here wonders if that’s why I’m dating you.” Chris looked around the room, scowling like he could hear everyone wondering.

“Huh?” Still mentally reciting Terrance’s name and jersey number, Chris’s words took a second to sink in. “That’s crazy. There’s no way—”

“Yes, they do.”

“But not everybody.”

“Yes. Everybody.”

“People gotta have more interesting things on their minds than why you and I are dating.”

“Not while they’re in this mansion. All they see is money. And me standing next to you.”

“But that’s so stupid. Why would people waste their time or brain cells thinking about our relationship anyway?” And could I steal the mic from the band and set everyone straight?

“Because they’re bored? Because they’re jealous? Because that’s what people do?”

“I don’t.”

Chris’s scowl landed on me.

“I don’t wonder why two people are dating. And I’ve never wondered if you were dating me because of my money.”

Chris held his scowl for a second longer. Then his face relaxed. “I know.”

“And who cares what everyone else thinks?”

“Says the girl who’s throwing the party she thinks everyone wants.” A smile added teasing to Chris’s words.

“But I’m not worried about what anyone thinks of me.”

“I know.” Chris put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me around for a hug, the glass in his hand cold against my shoulder blades.

“And I know why you’re dating me.”

“Why?” Chris pulled back, curiosity or caution narrowing his eyes.

“Because I’m an awesome basketball player. You’re dating me because you hope I’ll teach you some of my mad skills.”

“Mad skills?”

“Uh, yeah. If there was a basketball court down here, you know I’d kick your butt on it.”

Chris laughed and hugged me again. “Yeah, I know.”

I squeezed him with one arm, keeping my half-full glass a safe distance from Chris’s shirt. Spilling Dr Pepper down his back would count as a party disaster. Of course if Chris was right about what people were thinking—and he probably was, because my way of thinking wasn’t like most people’s—maybe this party was already a disaster.

But I’d meant what I’d said about not caring what people thought. The only person whose thoughts really mattered to me were Chris’s. I didn’t believe he cared about my money.

At least, I hadn’t until tonight.

The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 13: Problem Solving

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Episode 13: Problem Solving

I stepped out through the airport’s sliding doors and hugged my coat tight, tucking my bare hands under my arms. January was no warmer at nine p.m. than at seven a.m. when I’d arrived at the airport.

“They’re this way.” My cousin, Derrick Andrews, nodded to the left.

I followed him down the sidewalk, along the row of cars and SUVs and minivans parked at the arrivals’ curb. A familiar minivan’s back door slid open as we approached.

“How was the trip?” David Clayton glanced back from the driver’s seat.

“Awesome.” I slid into the back row next to Chris Clayton, my best friend and boyfriend. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Chris took my hand, wrapping my icy fingers in his calloused palm. The warmth traveled up my arm and warmed me everywhere.

“How about you, Derrick?” David pulled into the slow moving traffic. “Good day?”

“Yeah.” Derrick’s answer lacked emotion, which made no sense, because he should’ve been way more excited than me.

“Is that all you’re going to say?” I leaned against the captain’s chair in front of me so I could see Derrick’s face in the other seat. “We spent all day at Liven Games for you. Playing your game. Which is a real game, by the way.” I glanced at Chris and David. “It’s, seriously, a real computer game, that you can play and everything.”

“What did you expect?” Derrick shifted to look at me, his eyes narrowed so the piercings in his eyebrow nearly touched below his eye.

“I don’t know. You created it in your bedroom. I just thought it would be more . . . I can’t do anything like that with a computer.”

“None of us has computers like Derrick’s.” Chris pointed out my obvious disadvantage.

“Like I could create something like that with the right computers. Please.” I shook my head and slid back against my seat. “I can barely play the game.”

“So you got to play it?” David asked.

“Technically . . . yeah . . .”

“She proved I need to make the tutorials more tutoring-like.” Derrick shot me a look—lips pressed, eyebrows pinched. But a playful gleam in his eyes overrode any annoyance.

“You cannot play video games, can you?” Chris sounded ashamed, but he was joking. I think.

“Other people came in to watch.” I ducked my head, my cheeks hot. “Some of them tried to die like me, but couldn’t.”

“No one’s supposed to die in the tutorial. It should be impossible.” Derrick’s voice took on an edge, as if he took my poor video game skills personally. “But you died three times.”

“Hey, it’s the only thing I do well in a video game.” Maybe not a skill to brag about, but I was the only one capable of dying in the tutorial.

“You can’t change the game for Sydnee.” Chris squeezed my hand. A warning that I wouldn’t feel complimented by his next words. “She’s got a special talent for video games. As in, no talent.”

“Nice way to show you missed me.” I elbowed him since I couldn’t free my hand to smack him.

“You were just gone a day.” Chris sounded like it wasn’t a big deal, but he tugged me closer.

A happy shiver danced over my skin. He’d missed me.

“How long before we can all play the game?” Chris asked.

“Nine months, maybe.” Derrick’s tone echoed the shrug of his shoulder. His lack of enthusiasm had to be some sort of cool-guy attitude.

“Wow, that’s soon.” David stayed in the conversation from the front. The rearview mirror reflected his eyes for a second. “You excited?”

“I guess.” Derrick faced the window, as if the night landscape might be as interesting as the future release of his video game.

“Is that all you did today?” Chris lowered his voice a little, turning the conversation private. “Hang out at Liven, playing Derrick’s game?”

“Pretty much. Except for me, it wasn’t playing so much as dying in Derrick’s game and having people ask if I was really Alexander’s daughter.” Now I was the one trying to pretend not to care. But the words replayed in my head. Each joke a fist pushing against my stomach. Each tease shoving my stomach into my throat. “I think they were kidding.”

“Of course they were.” Chris let go of my hand to put his arm around my shoulders, like he could hear the repeating words and wanted to make me feel better. “What does being able to play video games have to do with Alexander being your dad?”

“He created his first game at twenty. I can’t do more than write a paper or look up stats on a computer. Derrick’s more like him than I am.”

“You look like him.” Derrick never had any respect for private conversations. “And you’re more like him than I am, in ways that count.”

“Thanks.” I wanted to ask what those ways were, but my questions annoyed Derrick. And I needed him in a good mood. “You promised you wouldn’t stay in your room all day tomorrow, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember.” He didn’t sound happy about remembering, but he hadn’t been happy about his game either, so that meant nothing.

“What’s tomorrow . . .” Chris’s voice faded away and he pulled his arm off my shoulders. “Oh, yeah. That.”

“You’re still okay with Jax coming over, right?’ I took Chris’s hand before he could scoot away, not that his seatbelt would let him scoot far.

Chris didn’t answer, but he didn’t tug his hand away. Did that mean he agreed or disagreed?

Chris didn’t like my friendship with Jaxon Braddock, but somehow, I’d talked Chris into saying he was okay with my inviting Jax over during Christmas break. I wasn’t sure how, especially since I’d said I wouldn’t see Jax during Christmas break if Chris really didn’t want me to. My relationship with Chris mattered more than my friendship with Jax, but Jax and I had been exchanging letters—real paper-and-pen letters—since he’d been sent away to some sort of boarding school. Over the last five months, those letters had shifted from boring “what’s going on” ramblings to deeper discussions about God and faith. Then Jax asked if I could come to his house while he was home for Christmas to talk about those things in person. I didn’t want to say no, so I’d compromised with inviting Jax to Chris’s house, where there’d be more people, including Chris, to make sure Jax didn’t . . .

Actually, I wasn’t quite sure what Chris thought Jax might do. But whatever Chris imagined angered him.

The silence begged to be filled, but I pressed my lips together. Talking was likely to get me in trouble. Besides, I was tired and probably misreading Chris’s body language. I misread everybody else’s.

But Chris continued staring out the same window as Derrick and nothing in the black landscape screamed interesting. Jax was always a problem. A problem I tried to keep away from Chris. And tomorrow, Chris and Jax would be in the same room.

I had to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem. “We’re just going to hang out. All of us. And there’s going to be food.”

Silence.

Was it too late to cancel tomorrow? But that wouldn’t be fair to Jax. I was the only person his dad was allowing him to see over Christmas break.

“There’s always food.” Chris’s low voice startled me out of my thoughts. His grip tightened and he looked at me again, his smile tense, like he was testing the advice about smiling making you feel happier.

“Because food is a necessity. We’d die without food. At least, I would.” As if on cue, my stomach grumbled. “See?”

Chris laughed and erased the weird tension in the silence between us.

As long as food was involved, maybe tomorrow would be okay.

***

Despite my claims about the necessity of food, the next day I found eating difficult. A pile of bricks had moved into my stomach, and I didn’t think the airplane pretzels were to blame.

Inviting Jax over had seemed like a good idea three weeks ago, but now the day arrived, all the things I hadn’t considered then piled into my mind. Chris was only a small, potential problem.

Jax and I had hung out a lot over the last fifteen years. We’d had playdates back in preschool. His chauffeur had driven us to Evans Prep for five years. We hung out at every party Mother forced me to attend.

But today, Jax was coming over to the Claytons’ house. I hadn’t thought much about that because I’d pretty much lived with the Claytons since I was eight. But those long ago playdates and more recent parties happened in mansions. Mansions with parlors, great rooms, dens, and family rooms. Mansions with formal dining rooms, family dining rooms, and breakfast nooks. Mansions with theaters, game rooms, and swimming pools.

The Claytons’ house had a living room, dining area, and a kitchen. One side of the house to the other was only thirty-two steps. I’d counted once.

The Cameron and Braddock mansions each had at least thirty-two rooms.

Would the Claytons’ house be big enough for all of us—Jax, Chris, Derrick, Joseph, and me? At least Candy, Chris’s mom, was taking Jamie and Elizabeth, Chris’s siblings, out. That was three less people. But sometimes, “big enough” had less to do with how much space and more with who occupied that space.

The few times I’d been with Jax and Chris at the same time, I’d felt claustrophobic.

I sat on the couch in the Claytons’ living room and rubbed sweaty palms against my jeans. I craned my neck to see out the kitchen window with a view of the driveway.

“You want to watch something else?” Chris sat next to me and aimed the remote at the basketball game on TV. “Thought you liked Kansas, but we can watch a different game.”

“What?” I glanced at the screen. “This game’s good.”

“You sure? ‘Cause you seem distracted.” Chris spoke quieter than usual, just loud enough for me to barely hear. And the hint of annoyance . . . please, let that be my imagination.

“Sorry.” I took Chris’s hand. With my other hand, I pinched my lower lip. Lord, let today not be a disaster.

Chris set the remote down.

I attempted to empty my mind of anxious thoughts and focus on the game by tracking the stats of the players. Remembering all the numbers was easy. Calculating to see if that sunk shot raised the shooter’s average was almost as easy. But concentrating on that took all my focus.

So when the doorbell sounded, I jumped and my heart pounded in the rhythm of a fast dribble.

I stood and rubbed my hands on my jeans again. My palms sweated like I had been playing basketball, not watching.

I moved toward the front door, almost bumping into Derrick coming off the stairs.

“Chill.” Derrick kept his voice low.

Was my anxiety that obvious? I licked my lips, recited the final scores of the last six basketball games I’d watched, and opened the front door.

Jax waited on the other side of the screen door. A smile flashed across his face, but didn’t stick around.

“Come in.” My voice croaked, but I could blame that on cheering for the game.

“Thanks.” Jax entered, followed by Gerry, his driver. Or babysitter? Jax turned sixteen a month ago, so he should’ve been able to drive himself. But his parents hadn’t let him get his license yet, and at his strict boarding school or whatever it was, he probably didn’t have the opportunity to practice.

“So, um, have a seat.” I waved at the living room area.

“Gerry.” David snuck up behind me and held out his hand. “Are you staying around? Want a cup of coffee?”

“Coffee sounds good.” Gerry stepped toward the kitchen.

David squeezed my shoulder before leading Gerry to the coffee. From the kitchen, they’d be close enough to listen if they wanted to hear. Reassuring? Maybe.

Jax glanced around and I followed his gaze, assessing the available seating. The couch next to Chris? David’s recliner in the corner?

Jax chose the moonchair Derrick normally sat in. Next to him, Joseph sat in the chair at a right angle to the couch.

I returned to my seat next to Chris, and Derrick rolled over the desk chair, blocking the seating area exit.

“So, um, how are you?” My voice squeaked a little. Why did I feel so awkward? I’d had plenty of conversations with Jax. But never in such a formal setting or with an audience. Usually just in a deserted corner during a party.

“Good.” Jax shrugged.

“Uh, how was your Christmas?”

Derrick rolled his eyes, slow and exaggerated.

If he had a way of making this conversation less painful, I wished he’d speak up instead of making faces.

“Boring.” Another shrug.

“Why are you here?”

“Chris!” I snapped my head to face him. That wasn’t going to make this less painful.

Across the room, Derrick didn’t even try to hide his smile. I glared at him, and he turned his hands upward in a helpless What do you expect me to do? gesture. Or maybe he meant, What did you expect?

He was right. I should really lower my standards.

“Sydnee invited me.” Jax’s voice took on the familiar, smug tone. A tone that rarely showed up when we talked alone, but I almost always heard when others were listening.

“You invited yourself.” Chris shifted to the edge of the couch, his voice and eyes hard.

“Does anyone want something to drink? Or maybe some food?” I didn’t wait for an answer. Just jumped to my feet and tugged Chris into standing next to me. “Come help me.”

I practically dragged Chris into the kitchen. David and Gerry sat at the end of the table farthest from the living room. If they’d been talking before, they stopped when Chris and I entered, and I felt them watch us. But I didn’t care.

“What are you doing?” I backed Chris into a corner of the kitchen, against the cabinets, speaking low enough that maybe no one would overhear.

“Me?” Chris widened his eyes. His innocence was as fake as the dusty flowers in the vase behind him. “I was just making conversation.”

“You were not.”

“Did I say anything that wasn’t true?”

“Yes. Jax did not invite himself. He never even suggested coming over here. That was completely my idea, and you know it. You even agreed.” I boxed Chris in with my hands planted against the counter on either side of him. He was a little over an inch taller than me, so we were practically eye level.

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Chris’s eyes had darkened, looking more gray than blue. “Maybe I’m having second thoughts.”

We also stood at lip level, and my thoughts were clouding. My anger apparently wasn’t strong enough to overlook how easily we could switch from arguing to kissing. I stepped back. “Then you should’ve said something.”

Chris blew out a sigh that ruffled my hair, and his gaze shifted to somewhere over my shoulder. Neither of us spoke for a minute. Finally, he looked into my eyes again. The storm-cloud color had lightened. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be nice. Or quiet.”

Should I believe him? He looked sincere, unlike his earlier innocent act. “Good. Thank you.”

I stared a second or two longer, wishing David and Gerry weren’t somewhere behind me, probably watching. Not that I had a problem kissing Chris in front of David. Usually.

Instead, I spun around and led the way back to the living room.

“Did we miss anything?” I returned to my spot on the couch. Chris sat next to me.

“You forgot something.” Derrick raised his eyebrows, apparently trying to telepathically inform me of what I’d forgotten.

I had no clue. My telepathic skills were nonexistent.

“So.” Chris started off sounding conversational, not confrontational, like before. “You said you wanted to talk about God and stuff.”

“Chris!” I jabbed my elbow into his ribs. This was playing nice?

“That’s true.” Jax lost his earlier smugness.

“Then start talking about that.”

And I thought I lacked social skills. Chris was making me look good.

“Fine.” Jax’s mouth twisted to one side for a second, his gaze never leaving Chris. “Okay. I know why Sydnee and Derrick believe in God, but what about you? Why do you believe in God?”

Interesting question, but probably not a way to make peace. I looked at Chris. Instead of some sort of irritated expression, like I expected, he looked surprised. The surprise faded, and his eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Because you’re in the middle of it. Seems like people move into your house and somehow, they all become Christians. Because of you?”

“No.” Chris glanced at an empty corner of the room, where the Christmas tree had stood until a few days earlier. “Definitely not because of me.”

“But you believe in God, right? And you are a Christian?”

“Yeah, but . . .” Chris stared into the empty corner a few more seconds.

“But what?” Jax’s tone stayed just far enough on the curious side that his persistence didn’t come off as mean. “You’ve been going to church your whole life so you believe by default?”

“No.” Chris faced our little circle again. “I mean, yeah, I’ve been going to church my whole life. And I guess I’ve always believed in God. But not because my parents and Sunday school teachers told me to. I believe because . . .” Chris swallowed and glanced around at each of us, his eyes resting a half-second longer on me. Or so I hoped. I slipped my hand into his. “Because all these people keep moving in a becoming part of my family. And my parents don’t treat Sydnee or Joseph or Derrick any different from how they treat me or Elizabeth or Jamie. The same number of presents under the tree. The same rules to be followed. The same cheering section for basketball games or cross country meets.

“And I figure that’s what it means in the Bible when it says we’re children of God and co-heirs with Christ. God treats us exactly the same. But for that to happen, Jesus had to leave his home—heaven—and die. Nobody kicked me out of my house so these guys could become part of the family to do. And forget about dying for any of them. Except maybe Sydnee. Maybe.” He repeated the possibility light-heartedly, shooting me a grin. “But Jesus did that for everyone, whether they deserved it or not. And now we can all be part of his family. Kind of like people become part of mine, only bigger and better and forever.”

Silence followed Chris’s speech, but not an awkward one. At least, I didn’t feel awkward. I felt awed by his analogy. And lucky that I belonged to two families I hadn’t been born into—the Claytons’ and God’s.

The tension finally broken, the rest of the afternoon filled with less intense topics, like which colleges had the best players this year. And eventually, I remembered hostess duties about the time David popped into the living room to ask if we wanted pizza. Three hours later, food and soda cans cluttered the living room when Gerry told Jax it was time to go.

“I’m glad you came over.” I walked Jax outside. The cold air bit through my shirt and I shivered. Surprisingly, Chris didn’t tag along. I glanced back at the house but didn’t see him spying. The motion sensor light on the garage kicked on as Jax and I got close, lengthening the shadows. “Sorry we talked more about the ‘stuff’ than about God.”

“You’re lucky, you know?” Jax nodded at the Claytons’ house. “To have all this.”

“I know.” I looked at the tiny-compapred-to-a-mansion house, my heart swelling to castle-like proportions. “But you’re the only person who’s ever realized it. Most people think that’s what makes me lucky.” I pointed in the direction of the Cameron mansion behind us, hidden beyond the tall stone wall.

“Because they don’t realize that there, no one is really welcome.” Jax’s voice turned brittle. “Not even people who are part of the family.”

“You’re always welcome here.” My response was politely automatic, but one-hundred-percent sincere.

“Even by the heir?” Jax joked, but a hint of seriousness hovered beneath the words.

“Hey, he didn’t follow us out here, so yeah. I think Chris would be okay with you being here.”

“Thanks.” Jax shoved his hands into his pockets and shuffled his feet. “For, you know . . .”

I didn’t exactly “know,” but I nodded like I did. “No problem.”

Gerry held the back car door open, and Jax slid inside.

I stood on the grass until the red rear lights disappeared down the drive. Then I turned back to the house and the family I was lucky to be a part of.

But maybe “lucky” was the wrong word. Luck hadn’t made me part of God’s family, so maybe luck wasn’t what made me part of the Claytons’ either.

I looked up at the stars dotting the black sky. “Thank you.”

The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 12: Who Do You Love More?

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Previously in The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, Sydnee’s cousins, Derrick and Joseph, surprised everyone by showing up at the Claytons’ house. (Episode 10: The Prodigals Part 1 and Episode 11: The Prodigals Part 2)

Episode 12: Who Do You Love More?

Can you come over to my house while I’m home at Christmas? 

I’d read that line in Jax’s letter a dozen times. We’d been writing each other since August. We talked a little about what was going on in our lives. I told him about placing second at State for Cross Country and how we’d won our first four basketball games. He told me how hard his classes were, especially geometry. But after the small talk, we discussed God and the Bible and Christianity.

We can talk about God and stuff.

I wasn’t really sure how religion had become the major topic in our letters. I’d told Jax that my cousin, Derrick, had needed more than motivation to stop causing trouble. He’d needed God.

Jax found that crazy at first. Maybe because Derrick with his black wardrobe and piercings and color-of-the-day hair didn’t look like a Jesus follower. But over the last couple of months, I’d tried explaining the unconditional, supernatural love of God.

And now Jax wanted to see me.

I hadn’t thought about seeing Jax when I got permission to write him at school. Yeah, I’d said we could hang out when he came home at holidays, but I’d meant that to give Jax hope that his parents weren’t sending him off to boarding school forever.

Chris Clayton, my boyfriend, knew about my letters to Jax. He saw me put my letters to Jax in the mailbox by the bus stop. He saw my letters from Jax waiting on the dining table after school. And on those days, Chris was extra touchy-feely, holding my hand, putting his arm around my shoulders, kissing me. He’d accepted the letters, but they were just letters. Words on paper. He’d hate it if I hung out with Jax.

But Jax wanted to “talk about God and stuff.” How could I say no?

I folded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. Jax wouldn’t be home for another two weeks. I didn’t have to make a decision now.

***

Four days later, on Saturday, my lack of a decision haunted me.

I sat at the dining table in the kitchen, alone, working on homework. Chris and Joseph had a Saturday basketball practice at school. I was only half paying attention to the algebra equations, but math was my easiest subject. My brain performed calculations automatically.

I could just ignore Jax. He’d said I’d have to call him because he didn’t know my number and his dad had taken away his phone with all his contacts as part of the punishment package that included the boarding school. And he might not get any letter I wrote now because his school had to read them first. I don’t know what they censored, but apparently not religion.

So not making a decision was definitely an option. An option that guilted me awake at night.

The sound of pouring cereal pulled my attention away from solving for x and y.

“Derrick? Can I talk to you?”

“No.” My cousin grabbed milk out of the fridge without looking at me. His hair had grown out in the last four weeks since he’d returned from Kansas, and he’d looked more like himself. He sounded like himself too.

I never took Derrick’s refusals seriously. I abandoned my homework and walked over to the counter. “Jax wants me to come over to his house during Christmas break.”

“Why are you telling me?” Derrick stabbed a spoon into his cereal. “If you’re asking me to talk to him again, the answer’s no.”

“Talk to him?” I hadn’t thought of that. But that might make things easier. At least Jax and I wouldn’t be hanging out just the two of us. “Why won’t you come with me?”

“Because I’ve got nothing to say.”

“But you had plenty to say last time. And you really made a difference.” More than Derrick knew. Maybe I shouldn’t have told Jax so much about Derrick’s spiritual transformation. But Derrick wasn’t a respecter of personal info—his or others.

“If I made a difference, then I really shouldn’t talk to him again.”

“Why?” I leaned against the counter, preparing for a conversation.

“Because I failed.” Derrick poked his spoon through his cereal, pulverizing the flakes. “Everything I told him about not doing things just to anger someone, but doing what he wanted to do, what he cared about—I failed at all that. I lost my computers, my hair—” he pointed at the short blue spikes on his head “—pretty much everything.”

“Why can’t you tell him that?”

“Because if what I said is working for him, then he doesn’t need to hear that it might become too hard. It’d be like telling him he will fail. Especially when he’s home around his dad again.”

“Or maybe what he hears is that you tried and failed, so you returned to a place where you wouldn’t spend every day losing.”

“But it’s not like I chose to come back here either.”

“Don’t lie. Nobody makes you do anything. You could’ve left Joseph in the bus station in Chicago and disappeared. You didn’t because you wanted to come here. But you were scared to admit it because that would mean wanting something, and like you already said, you’d failed at doing what you wanted.”

He stared at me for a long moment. Then he set down his uneaten breakfast and clapped. “Great story.”

“True story.” I sounded confident, but I’d pulled all that out of the air. Now I’d said it though, it made more sense than Derrick only coming here because Joseph was the one with the money.

Derrick shrugged, picked up his bowl, and started eating what by now had to be soggy mush.

“But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.” I opened cabinets and found a bowl and cereal. Soggy mush or not, watching him eat made me hungry. “Should I see Jax at Christmas?”

“I don’t know. Do you want to see him?”

What did I want? That was a question I couldn’t figure out the answer to. I splashed milk on my cereal. “Chris will be really mad if I see Jax.”

“Oh yeah.” Derrick made a sound like a laugh. Did he find the potential drama funny?

“I hate fighting with Chris.” Now I was the one stirring my cereal into mush. So much for being hungry. “But Jax said he wanted to talk about God and the stuff I’ve been writing him about. So how can I say, no, sorry, my boyfriend barely tolerates me writing you?”

“Why are you asking me this? Do I look like your life coach?”

“Yes. If this computer game designing thing doesn’t work out, you should consider a career as a life coach.”

Derrick attempted a deadpan stare, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

“And I really don’t want to be a girl whose boyfriend controls her friends or what she does.” I ate a bite of cereal before it became too mushy. “So what do I do?”

“You ask like I have experience. I’ve never had a girlfriend, you know. So maybe you should be talking to someone else.”

“But you know people. And you’re objective. You aren’t bothered by offending anyone. And someone’s going to be offended.”

“Fine. Since you asked me, deciding not to see Jax because Chris will be angry is a bad reason. Like you said, he doesn’t have the right to say who you’re friends with.”

“So I should see Jax?”

“That’s not what I said. I said not seeing him because you’re scared of Chris’s reaction is a bad reason. That’s a reason to break up with Chris.”

“So I should break up with Chris and then see Jax? I don’t like that idea.”

“I’m saying you should take Chris out of the decision.” Derrick rinsed out his bowl and stuck it in the dishwasher. “Decide why you want to or don’t want to see Jax. Then tell Chris.”

“That’s not helpful advice.”

“Guess I should come up with a different Plan B Career?” Derrick flashed a grin. “See you later.”

Well, that didn’t solve my problem.

I finished off my cereal and returned to algebra. Those problems I understood.

***

“It’s only eight-thirty.” Chris held open the gym door for me and a dozen other friends and parents of the freshmen basketball team. The December air stung my cheeks. “Want to get ice cream or something before we go home?”

“Sure.” Almost a week had passed since I’d talked to Derrick, and I still hadn’t made a decision.

Actually, that was a lie. I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to tell Chris.

“Something wrong? You look worried.” Chris pulled me into his warm side. I slipped my arm under his coat and around his waist. “I promise we’ll be home by ten.”

“I’m not worried about that.”

“But you’re worried about something?” Chris unlocked the car and opened the passenger door.

“Not exactly. Just thinking. Thanks.” I climbed inside.

I needed to talk to Chris tonight. Jax would be home next weekend, and I wanted to see him.

Chris drove us to Bekah Rose’s Ice Cream Parlor downtown. Inside, the shop smelled of sugar and waffle cones. I ordered a scoop of mint chocolate chip and a scoop of banana nut in a cup. Chris got a waffle cone with rocky road and whipped cream.

We sat at one of the little round tables and talked about the basketball game—who would be a good asset to the varsity team next year, strengths and weaknesses—as if either of us had a say in the coaching of the team. But the topic was easier than what I needed to discuss.

A lull hit. Chris crunched on the end of his waffle cone. I scraped the melted puddles of ice cream from my cup. My heart raced—maybe from the sugar. Maybe from what I had to say.

“Jax wants me to come over while he’s home for Christmas.” The words rushed out while I felt a moment of bravery.

Chris froze mid-chew, his jaw off-center.

“He says he wants to talk to me about the things we’ve been writing about. Like about God.”

Chris swallowed and his eyes darkened. “That’s not why he invited you to his house.”

“How do you know? That’s what he said.”

“He likes you, Sydnee. It’s like a date.”

“It is not.”

“Yes, it is.” Each word was sharp.

“But he knows we’re together.”

“So? You know being in a relationship doesn’t stop people.”

“It stops me.” Heat bubbled beneath my skin. Just because Chris and my cousin Joseph had cheated in their relationships didn’t mean everyone did. “Besides, if Jax liked me, wouldn’t he have shown up when my mother fixed me up on a date with him?”

“What?” Chris’s voice was as cold as I was hot.

He didn’t know about Jax’s and my non-date in New York this summer, and now was probably the worst time to tell him about it.

“You went on a date with Jax?”

“No. Jax stood me up.”

“But you were going to go on a date with him?”

“No. Not a date, because Jax is just a friend, and he knows you’re my boyfriend.”

“But you were going to hang out with him in New York?”

“Yes.” I couldn’t deny it now.

“You were texting me every day, and you never said anything about your mother fixing you up on a date.”

“Because you’d get mad about it, and there was nothing I could do to get out of it.”

“You could’ve told your mother no.”

“Like my mother listens when I say no. Fighting with her accomplishes nothing. Fighting with you would’ve accomplished nothing. And Jax didn’t even show up, so it never mattered anyway.”

Chris pushed away from the table.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. But I’m telling you about seeing Jax at Christmas.”

“I don’t know why. You’re going to do whatever you want. You don’t care what I think.” He stood and walked toward the doors.

“Chris?” Was he leaving me in the ice cream parlor?

A blast of cool air, and Chris was gone.

Yep, he’d left me.

I sat, stunned. I’d known Chris wouldn’t like me going over to Jax’s, but I hadn’t expected this kind of fight. And I definitely never expected him to abandon me.

I pulled out my phone and opened email. Derrick didn’t have a phone and couldn’t text, but he was probably on his computer and would get an email.

sydneedraw33sm

I told Chris about going to Jax’s, and he left me. I hit send and waited.

A few second later, a reply arrived. Left you where?

Me: In Bekah Rose’s.

Derrick: You knew he’d be angry.

Me: Not this angry. He says Jax likes me and inviting me to his house is like asking me on date. Is Chris right?

Derrick: About Jax liking you? Yes. About Jax’s reasons for inviting you over? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.

Me: But if Jax likes me, why didn’t he show this summer when my mother fixed us up on a date?

Derrick: Did you say that to Chris?

Me: Yes. I know—stupid.

Derrick: Very stupid. You’ve known Chris a long time. Did you really think he wouldn’t get mad about that? 

Me: Of course I knew he’d get mad. That’s why I hadn’t told him before. And I didn’t mean to tell him now. But back to my question. If Jax likes me and wouldn’t care about the fact that I have a boyfriend, why didn’t he show up for that date?

Derrick: Maybe he respects you having a boyfriend. Or maybe he didn’t show up because he was avoiding you over the summer.

Yeah, the avoidance thing. Jax hadn’t spoken to me most of the summer.

Me: What do I do? Should I not see Jax? What if he really does just want to talk and it has nothing to do with whether or not he likes me?

Derrick: Again, why are you asking me for relationship advice? But since that won’t stop you, do you really want to let Chris control your friendships? Does that sound like a good relationship to you?

Controlling my friendships? So you think I should break up with him? Chris doesn’t control my friendships, does he?

Derrick: He sounds controlling of this one. But since he doesn’t have a problem with the other guys you’re friends with, you probably don’t need to worry.

Yeah, I felt better now. And why would Chris have a problem with any of my other guy friends? Probably didn’t want to go there. So I should see Jax? Or I shouldn’t?

Derrick: I’m not telling you what to do.

Me: Will you tell me what I should do about going home? If Chris doesn’t come back in the next ten minutes, I won’t be home by ten and I’ll be grounded.

Derrick: David won’t ground you for missing curfew because Chris ditched you. He’ll ground Chris.

That didn’t make me feel better. I didn’t want to get Chris in trouble. But Bekah Rose’s closed at ten, so not only would I miss curfew, I’d be kicked out and into the cold. Wasn’t like I could walk ten miles home. Well, I could walk ten miles, but that would take all night and probably wasn’t safe to do on the highway.

I stared at my phone. I’d have to tell David I needed him to come get me.

“You ready to go?”

At Chris’s voice, I jumped. “You came back.”

“Yeah.” He avoided eye contact and stood behind my chair.

I stood to face him. Anger pinged off him, hitting me almost like static electricity. If this was about my relationship with Chris . . .

I wrapped my arms around him and kissed him.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“Because I . . .” My heart drummed in the pit of my stomach. I slid my hands to his shoulders. “Because I love you.”

“I love you too.” Chris held my wrists, keeping me close to him, and kissed me.

“Maybe you’re right about Jax.” I rested my forehead against Chris’s, watching his blue-gray eyes as I spoke. “But maybe you’re wrong too.”

Chris pulled away a little, still holding my wrists, his grip tightening, looking anywhere but at me.

“What if Jax is telling the truth about wanting to talk about God? Who else is he going to talk to?”

“Stop, please.” Chris’s voice was rough, but not exactly angry. “You’re going to win this argument. You’re going to win, and I’m going to say you should see Jax, but I’m going to be angry about it. And I don’t want to be angry right now.”

“Okay.” If it mattered this much to Chris, maybe I should listen. Or compromise. “I won’t go over to Jax’s house.”

“You won’t?”

“No, I won’t. I’ll invite him over to our house instead.”

“Sydnee.” Chris groaned and moved away from me.

“If he comes to me—to us—everyone will be there. David, Candy, Derrick, Joseph, you. If he’s telling the truth, then that’s a lot of people who can talk with him. But if you’re right, all of you can help me beat him up.”

Chris shook his head, looking out Bekah Rose’s windows and into the dark street.

I took his hand, trying to pull him back to me.

“Why do you have to be friends with him?” The struggle in Chris latched on to every syllable.

“I don’t know.” I wound Chris’s arm around my waist, pushing myself into his side. “But I am friends with him. Just friends.”

“I know.”

“So can you be okay with me inviting Jax over?”

Chris let out a long sigh that seemed to carry his frustrations. “Yeah, I guess I can be okay with that.”

“Thank you.” I kissed him again. Then I put on my coat and grabbed my empty ice cream cup off the table.  “If we leave right now, we should be home by ten.”

“But if we’re late, then we’ll be grounded and no one will be allowed to come over.”

“You’ll be grounded.” I threw away my trash and walked outside. The cold, dark air slapped my face. “Not me.”

“Because Dad likes you better than me?”

“Yep. Not because you almost abandoned me.”

“Hey! I came back.” Chris reached around me to open the car door. “And by the way, I didn’t really leave you. I was outside, waiting.”

“So you were going to come back in eventually?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” He ducked his head. “Actually, Derrick emailed me and told me that if I didn’t want Dad to find out I’d abandoned you, I better go back.”

“Derrick told you that?”

Chris nodded.

“What else did Derrick say?” My eyes narrowed and I stepped behind the open car door. Derrick wasn’t one to keep secrets.

“He asked if this was worth breaking up over.” Chris looked at me over the window. “Were you thinking about breaking up with me?”

“No. This wasn’t worth breaking up over.” I leaned into the door and kissed him. “I’m not choosing between you and Jax. I already chose you over everyone.”

The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 11: The Prodigals Part 2

 

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Previously in The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, Sydnee’s cousins, Derrick and Joseph, surprised everyone by showing up at the Claytons’ house. (Episode 10: The Prodigals Part 1)

Episode 11: The Prodigals Part 2

I woke up Sunday morning wondering if the night before had been a dream. Not because last night had been too good to be true, even if I’d had an unexpected date with my boyfriend, Chris Clayton. Neither had the night been so-scary-hope-it-wasn’t-true, even if yesterday had been Halloween.

No, yesterday might’ve been a dream because my cousins had shown up on the Claytons’ front porch. Which was definitely good because I’d missed Joseph and Derrick. But bad too, because to come here, they’d run away from home.

I kicked off my blankets and, still in my pajama pants and T-shirt, hurried to the kitchen.

“They’re still here.” David Clayton glanced over from the coffee maker. The fragrance of coffee grounds filled the air.

“I was scared they’d never been here at all.” Relief pooled out my bare feet, like waking up from a nightmare and realizing it wasn’t real. Except this was real, and I wanted it to remain real. “Do you think they’ll be able to stay?”

“Seeing as it’s six-thirty in the morning, I have to say the answer’s still the same now as it was last night at eleven.” David pushed the buttons on the coffee maker and stepped away.

The machine gurgled and hissed.

“When do you think you’ll have a different answer?”

“Not until this afternoon.” He took a loaf of bread from the cabinet, eggs and milk from the fridge. “But if you need a distraction, want to help make French toast?”

“Joseph and Derrick are the distraction.” I climbed onto a bar stool facing the island where David set the ingredients. “I’ll probably burn anything I tried to cook.”

“I’ll run the griddle then. You take care of the bread.” David pushed a bowl in front of me and the milk, eggs, vanilla extract, and bread.

Cracking and beating eggs didn’t help me forget, but at least it filled the time. I dipped the bread in the egg mixture and placed it on the electric griddle. David took care of flipping the slices and making sure they didn’t burn. By seven-thirty, we’d French-toasted an entire loaf of bread, and we were still the only two people in the kitchen.

“You’d think the smell would wake them up.” The smell had woken up my stomach, which gurgled like the coffee maker.

“Go ahead and eat.” David slid two slices onto a plate. The rest he added to the pile on the cookie sheet. The cookie sheet went back into the oven to keep everyone else’s breakfasts warm. “I’ll go get people up.”

I drizzled syrup on the French toast, poured a glass of orange juice, and dug in.

A few minutes later, Chris and Joseph entered the kitchen. Wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts, they were ready for church.

I glanced down at my pajamas. Oh yeah.

“French toast’s in the oven.” I gestured with my fork.

“Thanks.” Chris pulled out the cookie sheet, and he and Joseph put a couple of slices on two plates. After drowning their breakfasts in syrup, they moved to either side of me, Chris sitting on a bar stool and Joseph standing at the end of the island.

Neither spoke, which wasn’t unusual for mornings, but a weird vibe hung in the air. Like the silence wasn’t just-woke-up quiet but don’t-want-to-say-this-and-have-to.

I glanced from Chris to Joseph and back to Chris. Chris watched Joseph, and Joseph stared at his plate like he was trying not to look at anyone as he swirled a bite of French toast through his sea of syrup.

“I cheated on Lilli.” Joseph’s head snapped up, and he looked straight at me.

The confession slammed a dozen memories into me.

“You—you what?” My stomach churned and I pushed my plate away. “You cheated on her?”

Joseph nodded slowly, like he didn’t really want to admit it. His face was pale, and his eyes red like he hadn’t slept in days.

“That explains why you haven’t been talking to her.” I looked at Chris. When Chris had cheated on me, he’d avoided me. Must be a guy thing.

I looked back at Joseph. “Why are you telling me?”

“Chris—” Joseph’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “Chris said I should.”

“Why?” My chest felt tight, and my throat . . . I took a painful breath, forcing air to fill my lungs. “Because I’m not telling Lilli for you. You’re going to have to tell her yourself.”

“I know.” Joseph spoke quietly, but my voice rose.

“Is this why you came here? To break up with Lilli? Because you could’ve done that on the phone. And why didn’t you break up with her before you cheated on her? Or right after?”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Joseph scraped his uneaten breakfast into the trash and walked out of the kitchen.

“Way to go, Syd.” Chris sounded disappointed and maybe a little annoyed with me.

“What’s that mean?” A fire burned inside me. “And why’d you tell him to tell me?”

“Because I thought you’d want to hear it from him and not Abby later. And because I thought you might be a little supportive or something.”

“Supportive? Why would you think I’d be supportive? He cheated on Lilli. This is going to hurt her so bad.” I sucked in a shaky breath. “I know how much this is going to hurt.”

“I’m sorry.”

The regret in Chris’s voice and lack of defensiveness shaved off the jagged edges of my anger. But the pain of the memories remained.

“But Joseph hates himself for what he did,” Chris said. “It’s not like he has to tell her—Kansas is pretty far away—but he knows he has to. And that’s going to hurt him.”

“So you feel sorry for him?” My anger returned sharper. “I guess that makes sense—I know how Lilli’s going to feel and you know how Joseph’s feeling. So you sympathize with him and I sympathize with Lilli.”

Anger, hurt, regret flashed across Chris’s face, but he didn’t say anything.

“This is what taking sides feels like, isn’t it?” That realization poured ice over my heat. “I don’t want to take sides. I don’t like what he did, and I might be mad at him for it, but I don’t want to take sides against him. But I’m going to have to, aren’t I?”

“No.”

I practically grabbed hold of that word.

“Everyone else will probably take sides.” Chris shrugged like it was inevitable. “And Abby’s going to say you have to, but I’ve been thinking about it since last night. About you. I knew you wouldn’t take sides. You have this weird ability to be angry about what someone did without hating them. Even when they deserve it.” Chris dropped his gaze to the counter and lowered his voice. “Even when I deserved it.”

Elizabeth, Chris’s sister, walked in, followed by Candy and Jamie, Chris’s mom and little brother. I didn’t want to continue the conversation in front of an audience, and I didn’t have anything left to say.

“I need to get dressed.” I slid off the bar stool. “Will you tell Joseph that you were right about me?”

“Yeah.” Chris smiled at me, and I knew we weren’t on opposite sides.

In the room I shared with Elizabeth, I quickly changed into a skirt and shirt, not really paying attention to what I was throwing on. My mind was racing in a dozen directions. Lilli. Joseph. Heartbreak. Cheating.

Chris had been right about me. I’d been hurt and angry with Chris two years ago when he’d kissed Kayla Mann, but I hadn’t hated him. He was my best friend, and we had too many years of history. But remaining friends with Chris had been weird according to people like Abby, and Joseph and Lilli hadn’t even known each other a year.

But that problem belonged to the future. Today, the problem was telling Lilli.

I returned to the kitchen and found Chris and Joseph standing around.

“I’ve been thinking.” I planted myself in front of Joseph. “You have to tell Lilli, of course, but if you tell her as soon as you see her, she’ll fall apart, and she’ll be stuck at church. So I think you should wait until after and avoid her before because you can’t pretend things are fine. She’ll know something is wrong, and she’ll imagine a million possibilities, but as long as she doesn’t know for sure, she’ll be able to hold it together. At least, that’s how I’d feel. But I often think differently than most people.”

“I think you’re right this time.” Chris leaned against the counter, listening. “Waiting won’t make it easier for you, but Sydnee’s probably right.”

Joseph nodded. He looked so awful with that pale face and those red eyes. My anger almost faded completely. But I still didn’t understand why he hadn’t broken up with Lilli sooner—like before he cheated on her or at least right after. Then again, maybe he’d gotten on a bus and come straight here.

But I wasn’t going there again.

“Lilli knows you’re going to be at church today, because I told her last night.” I also wasn’t going to think about how I’d said Joseph probably wasn’t breaking up with her. “So we’ll have to be late class to avoid sitting next to her or talking.”

“We?” Joseph’s voice swung upward with hope.

“I don’t want to answer any questions, so yeah, ‘we.'”

“Thanks.” A ghost of a smile crossed his face.

“I’m still mad about what you did.” I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t let him think my help equaled being okay with what he’d done. “But you can’t go back and not do it.”

“Time to go.” Candy spoke over her shoulder, herding Jamie toward the garage door.

We grabbed our coats and followed them into the minivan.

The drive to church was quiet. I pinched my lower lip and worked to untangle my feelings. Lord, why did they have to leave? If Joseph and Derrick had never left, this wouldn’t have happened. This was going to be awful, and somehow, people would end up mad at me. I was already having enough trouble in my friendships with Abby and Lilli.

I looked at Chris, next to me on the back row of seats.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?”

“For what I did to make you look at me like that. Like you’re angry and hurt.”

“I’m not.” Except I was. I could feel those emotions warring inside. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, I did.”

“But that was a long time ago.”

“And you’re not over it yet.”

“How do you know?” Those weren’t accusing words. I wanted to know how he knew what I was feeling better than I did.

“Because when we started going out again, Dad told me you wouldn’t forget for a long time, and I better be ready to accept that. If not, then I had no business dating you.”

Weird to think that David talked to Chris about me like that. But kind of sweet too. My own parents didn’t look out for me like that. I slipped my hand inside his. “Most of the time I do forget.”

We arrived at church five minutes early. Joseph, Derrick, Chris, and I huddled by the side of the van, hands tucked in pockets and squeezed under arms to keep warm.

“Aren’t you all going to class?” David looked at us then toward the building where Elizabeth and Jamie walked inside.

“We are,” I answered. “Just not yet.”

David’s eyebrows rose, his question silent but heard.

“We need to be late, so we don’t have to talk to anyone.” I glanced out the corner of my eyes at Joseph.

“Right.” The question disappeared off David’s face, replaced by sympathy. “Promise you’ll go to class? And only a couple of minutes late, not ten minutes before it’s over.”

“I promise.”

The boys nodded agreement, and David left.

“David knows?” I asked Joseph.

“Of course he knows.” Derrick answered for his brother. “He made us play true confessions last night. He knows everything.”

“Why are you still here?” Chris asked.

“You’re right. Why am I still here?” Derrick pushed off the side of the van and started walking away. But in the opposite direction of the building.

“Wait. Where are you going?” I called.

Derrick kept walking.

“Hey.” I jogged after him. “I promised we’d be in class.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t make promises for other people.” He kicked at a patch of gravel.

“Stop.”

“No.”

“Why are you so scared?”

“Scared?” Derrick stopped and stared at me. “I’m not scared.”

“Yes, you are. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be running away. You wouldn’t be pretending you hated us again. Because you don’t. You’re scared to want to stay here.”

“You’re wrong.” Derrick’s chin jutted up. “You’re the one who’s scared. You’re scared Chris is going to cheat on you again.”

sydnee32sm

“You’re right, and I’m not pretending like I’m not scared.” Even if Chris and Derrick had to tell me what I was scared of. “No matter how much of a jerk you act like, we’ll still want you to stay. Because we know the real you. This is the fake you. This is you pretending to be the guy you used to be. But you aren’t that guy anymore. You stopped being that guy the day you accepted Christ.” I shook my head. “No, you stopped being that guy when you realized God loves you.”

Derrick steadied his gaze on me. No expression.

Where had all those words come from? I didn’t know if any of them were true, except for wanting Derrick to stay.

Derrick turned around and took off toward the building.

Had my words worked? I held my breath, watching him, until he walked through the doors.

Wow. I’d said something useful. Maybe I’d be as successful with helping Joseph break up with Lilli in the least dramatic way possible.

I returned to the van and Chris and Joseph. “When we go in, Lilli will probably be saving you a seat. Elizabeth’s already there, and probably told them you’re here. So if we can’t sit on the opposite side of the room, I’ll sit next to Lilli. Everyone expects me to do stupid stuff like that.”

“We’ll disappear soon as class ends.” Chris continued with the plan. “Then we’ll show up in the sanctuary right before church starts. Or right after.”

“And if Lilli or Abby ask me anything, I’ll pretend I know nothing.” I took a deep breath. Was that lying? I didn’t want to lie, but telling Lilli was Joseph’s job. “Or I’ll try to avoid them too.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Chris turned toward the building and stared.

Joseph and I did the same, staring at the large yellow-white building. Not moving. Like a delay might make it easier. Or change everything.

“We have to go inside,” I finally said. I grabbed hold of Chris’s hand on one side and Joseph’s on the other. And together, we walked into the building

Class had already started, just like we’d planned, and even though Lilli and Abby had saved seats, we found an open row on the other side of the room. When Abby sent me questioning looks, I shrugged, like I didn’t know why she was confused.

Who I didn’t see was Derrick. He’d come inside, but where had he gone? Guess our little talk hadn’t been as successful as I’d though. But that wasn’t an omen.

Chris and Joseph darted out of class almost before Mike dismissed us. I followed a few seconds behind, hurrying down to the bathrooms in the elementary classroom hallway. No one would look for me here.

This avoiding people was hard. And tiring. And annoying.

I waited until the sounds in the hallway had faded. Then I waited a little longer before walking to the foyer. Chris and Joseph came around a corner at the same time. Timed that right.

We entered the sanctuary during the first song and slipped into a row behind the rest of the youth group. Abby and Lilli sat two rows ahead. They kept glancing back at us.

I stared at the words projected on the screen at the front of the room like I’d never heard these songs before and needed to read the lyrics.

During the third song, Liam, sitting in front of us, passed me a note in Abby’s handwriting.

What’s going on? Why are all of you avoiding us?

Passing notes in church was wrong, and if David saw, would get us in trouble. I tucked it inside my Bible.

Despite my attention to everything on the screen—song lyrics, sermon notes—my mind was on Lilli and Joseph. My stomach felt inside out. My heart felt shredded. Lilli knew. I could see the suspicion in her eyes. The ache on her face.

Lord, I’m sorry I’m so distracted today, and have no right to ask for anything, but please, soften the coming pain.

The service ended too soon.

People stood, moving into the aisles, talking.

Abby and Lilli stayed in their row, watching us, looking uncertain about whether to come to us.

“You have to tell her.” I nudged Joseph with my elbow. “It’ll be okay.”

“Will it really?” He looked at me, begging me for reassurance.

“Yeah. Eventually.” But not today. I didn’t say that because he already knew.

Joseph pushed against the crowds, said something to Lilli, and then they left the sanctuary together.

“He’s breaking up with her, isn’t he?” Abby appeared in front of me. I hadn’t even seen her coming. Had she jumped over the seats?

I shrugged.

“I know you know.” She shook my arm, the accusation raising her voice. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you warn Lilli last night?”

“Because I didn’t know anything last night.”

“But you know something now. Why’s he breaking up with her?”

“You’re going to have to ask Lilli or Joseph.” I glanced around for an escape and squeezed past Abby. “Hey, Derrick, where’d you go this morning?”

“The prayer room.” Derrick met my gaze straight-on, like earlier this morning, but without the challenge glowing in his eyes.

“The what?”

“The prayer room? You know. You’ve been going here longer than I have.”

“Yeah, but . . . the prayer room? Why?”

“To pray. Why else?” Derrick frowned as if my questions were stupid. Then he walked off.

“Okay, that was a little weird, wasn’t it?” I asked Chris.

“Yeah, but it’s Derrick.” Chris put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into his side. “And this whole day is weird.”

True, but hopefully the day would be survivable.

“I’ll be back.” I stepped away from Chris. Abby was leaving through the same door as Joseph and Lilli. I followed.

Abby found Lilli outside, alone, and I was a few seconds behind her.

“I’m sorry, Lilli.” I reached to touch her shoulder, but Abby grabbed Lilli in a hug, swinging her away from me.

“You should’ve told her.” Abby shot me a look she could’ve learned from Derrick. “If you were really Lilli’s friend, you would’ve told her.”

But I was Joseph’s friend too. I couldn’t tell Abby that. She wouldn’t understand. She never did.

“Hearing it from me wouldn’t have hurt any less,” I said. My shredded heart ached, but nothing I said or hadn’t said would make Lilli feel better.

They didn’t want me around, so I left, a tear rolling down my cheek.

***

After lunch, David suggested, in a way that wasn’t really a suggestion, that we all hang out in the living room.

Chris turned on a football game. Joseph stared into space, looking even more miserable than he had that morning. Derrick read a Bible, which was weird for so many reasons, one being that he remembered every word he ever read, kind of like I remembered numbers, and his reading list had already included the Bible.

I sat on one side of Chris, half-watching the game, and Jamie sat on the other side of his brother, asking questions about the teams and the plays.

Despite David suggesting family togetherness, he was missing.

The game was in the fourth quarter when David came from the hallway into the living room and stood near Derrick and Joseph. He looked almost as weary now as he had the night before. “I just finished talking to your dad.”

Chris hit the mute button on the remote. We gave David more attention than we’d been giving the game.

“When do we leave?” Derrick spoke carefully, like he tried to keep any emotion, any hope, from taking root.

But hope jumped from person to person like the wave in a stadium, and if everyone felt like me, we were all too scared to grab hold.

“Not any time soon.” A smile broke across David’s face. “You’re staying here.”

“Really?” Derrick and Joseph spoke together, leaning forward, expressions cautious like neither wanted to believe in case they’d misunderstood.

“Yes. Really and definitely. You’re not going anywhere.” David touched each of their shoulders. “It’s okay to look happy.”

For the first time since my cousins arrived, they relaxed.

“Finally.” Chris turned the volume on the TV back on. “Now things will finally be normal again.”

I glanced at Joseph. Things weren’t quite normal. But Joseph looked happy despite everything else that had happened that day. I understood that though. I’d rather be here than anywhere else.

“Welcome home,” I said.