The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 2 Episode 22: Beginning Again

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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 22: Beginning Again

“Here’s your phones back.” David Clayton stood in the kitchen and handed out three cell phones Sunday morning before church. Chris Clayton’s, Joseph Andrews’s, and mine.

“Finally.” Chris immediately unlocked his screen and began checking what he’d missed since being grounded two weeks ago. Kind of unnecessary. Anything important had been discussed at school.

Joseph tapped on his phone. Probably texting the good news to his girlfriend, Lilli James, who he’d see at church in thirty minutes.

I was the only one staring at the phone thinking that even if I was grounded for a year, I probably wouldn’t have missed it.

“Get it all looked at, played with, whatever now.” David sounded like he was warning us. “Because you better not have your phone out at church.”

“Have you ever seen me with my phone during church?” Chris took a break from catching up on electronic life to challenge his dad.

“No. And I don’t want to today.”

Shaking his head, Chris returned to his phone.

David left the kitchen.

“Interesting you used the word ‘see.’” Derrick Andrews, Joseph’s younger brother and my cousin, leaned against the kitchen island. He didn’t have a cell phone, probably because his access to technology was strictly controlled after he’d gotten in trouble for hacking a year ago. He also hadn’t been grounded like the rest of us. “You didn’t deny being on your phone during church, just asked if he’d seen you.”

“Shut up.” Chris walked into the living room, either for comfortable seating or to get away from Derrick. Chris and Joseph shared a room and were like brothers who got along, but Chris and Derrick were like brothers who hated each other.

“What are you looking at?” Derrick widened his eyes. Light reflected off the metal piercings on his face.

I tilted my head and kept staring.

Derrick’s lips thinned, and he tried to look threatening. He would’ve succeeded if I didn’t know him so well. Finally, I laughed and left the room.

What Chris couldn’t understand was that to beat Derrick, you couldn’t get angry or defensive. You had to pretend that you didn’t care or that Derrick didn’t mean what he said. That drove him crazy. And if Derrick couldn’t shake you, he’d give up and go after an easier target. In this house, Chris was easiest.

Maybe I needed to be a better friend and let Derrick win against me sometimes.

I put away my phone in my sock drawer, but not to avoid the temptation of looking at it during church—my phone only tempted me to throw it across the room. I’d survived two weeks without it. I’d survive a few hours.

Chris obeyed orders and kept his phone tucked away during Bible class and worship, but not in between. He only spent a few seconds looking at it, but really? His best friends—me and Dean Larkin—were in the room with him. Who or what else mattered?

We were standing and singing the next-to-last song. Worship was almost over and Chris would have all afternoon to ignore me and stare at his phone, when Derrick walked to the front of the sanctuary.

“What’s he doing?” Chris’s warm whisper sent tingles down my left arm and leg.

Then the tingles spread up my right side. “He’s going to be baptized.”

“No way. Doesn’t the water burn the devil?”

I elbowed Chris in the ribs. Hard.

Chris grabbed his side. His gasp could be heard over the singing, and the seventh-graders in front of us looked over their shoulders.

“We’re not Catholic.” My whispered voice was tight and firm. “That water’s the same as what we wash our hands with in the bathroom or drink from the water fountain.”

Chris didn’t respond. His face was red, but I wasn’t sure if he was angry or if I’d just elbowed him that hard. Either way, I didn’t feel a need to apologize.

The song ended and everyone sat. On the front pew, a small crowd had gathered around Derrick—David, the pulpit minister, the youth minister. The song leader glanced at them and flipped through a songbook.

The pulpit minister stood and faced the congregation. “Derrick has come forward today, wanting to be baptized.”

“Told you,” I whispered to Chris.

He didn’t even look at me. Guess he was mad. Oops.

“Derrick.” The minister waved Derrick to his feet.

Derrick stood next to the minister, looking like an atypical soon-to-be-baptized person with his fading green hair and piercings. Atypical for our church, anyway. But I’d never read anything in the Bible about hair color, and piercings weren’t condemned.

The minister wrapped his arm around Derrick’s shoulders, all fatherly. “Do you believe Jesus Chris is the son of God?”

“Yes . . . sir.” Derrick added the last word almost like a question, and the minister smiled at him in a way people didn’t usually smile at Derrick. Warm and kind.

Derrick, David, and both ministers exited the sanctuary through a door on one side of the stage.

We sang another song, then David and Derrick came into view through the cutout behind the stage. They walked to the center of the baptistry, sending the water slapping against the sides.

Ten-and-a-half months ago, I’d met Derrick, my cousin, for the first time, and he’d been the least friendly person I’d ever met. He was so unfriendly he was scary. On purpose. Some of his first words had been to tell Chris he’d never be good enough for me and to tell Alexander, my dad, that I’d never stop hating him. Lies, but Derrick sensed insecurities and latched onto them like an alien parasite, sucking out the poison then spewing it on the entire room.

But he’d changed. I’d watched him. He stopped trying to hurt everybody. He’d stopped trying to make the world hate him. He stopped trying to destroy himself.

Now he let God save him.


“I’m sorry,” I told Chris after the final prayer. We still stood in our pew row. Derrick was surrounded by people, and we wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. “I’m sorry if I hurt you. Your ribs, not your feelings.”

“Okay.” Chris didn’t look at me, and he didn’t sound accepting of my apology.

“Derrick’s my cousin and I love him and I don’t like hearing people call him names or say bad things about him.”

Chris shrugged, still not looking at me.

“I react the same way when people say things about you.”

“What do people say about me?” He finally faced me.

“Stuff. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“If it doesn’t matter, why would you bruise someone for saying it?” He rubbed his side as if to make sure I understood.

“I don’t usually bruise people for it. I save that for you.”

“You know we’re in church, right?”

“Yes. And I already apologized for hurting your ribs, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.” Chris looked past me, at Derrick. “Think he really means it, becoming a Christian and all?”

“Why would he do it if he didn’t mean it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he found Alexander’s will and it said he wouldn’t inherit anything if he wasn’t a Christian.”

“Alexander would’ve never said that.”

“Yeah, probably not.”

“Derrick’s not a bad person. At least no more than the rest of us. Not now anyway.”

“Uh-huh.” Chris sounded as agreeable as he would’ve if I’d suggested a game of Round the World with multiplication flashcards.

“Why can’t you like him? Or at least pretend to.”

“Because he’s always trying to make me angry, like this morning. Or get me in trouble. He couldn’t have changed that much in three hours.”

I looked over at Derrick. Except for the wet hair, he was mostly the same. But different. Like he was happy. Almost.

“I guess I understand. It’s hard to trust someone when they keep proving you can’t.”

Chris didn’t say anything, but his silence was the kind of silence that had texture. Rough texture.

I looked at him, trying to figure out what I’d said wrong.

“You mean me.” His voice was as harsh as his silence.

“You?” For a few seconds I had no idea why he’d think that. Then I knew. “I wasn’t talking about you. Or me. Or us.”

Chris stared at me. My stomach churned, turned inside out. I’d told him the truth—I wasn’t thinking about why we’d broken up when I mentioned trust. But I didn’t want him to ask if that’s how I felt about him, because I didn’t know.

“Hey, you two.” David sliced right through our silence. “Ready to go? We’re going out for lunch.”

“Yeah.” I grabbed my Bible off the pew.

Trust. Sometimes it was so hard and scary. Even if you really cared about someone.


We sat in a Mexican restaurant, surrounded by scents of corn and chili peppers, waiting for our lunches. Chris and Joseph had out their phones, but any second, David or Candy would insist they put them away.

“You don’t have your phone do you?” Chris looked at me from across the table.

“No. Why would I need it?” I stressed the words, trying to hint that he shouldn’t need his either.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“Is your mouth broken?”

“Never mind.” Chris put his phone away, but didn’t say anything else. Guess it wasn’t that important.

“My dad sent an e-mail.” Joseph spoke suddenly, like seeing an e-mail from his dad surprised him so much he’d spoken before it completely registered.

“Why?” Derrick had been mostly quiet since we’d arrived at the restaurant, but not his usual, plotting-something-and-waiting-for-the-right-moment-to-execute quiet. His quiet had had a feel of contentment. Now, his voice took on an edge, a ready to defend or fight.

“He says he’s got his orders to Fort Leavenworth. In Kansas.” Joseph read the email, paraphrasing for us. “They’ll PCS—move—in August. And . . .” Joseph seemed to choke on the words. “He’ll see us there.”

No one spoke. We all knew Joseph and Derrick were only living with us temporarily—Derrick’s hacking got him kicked off the army base in Germany, where his dad was stationed—but having a date, seeing the end, none of us were ready for that. Especially not today.

“No.” Derrick’s voice was hard, cold. Several weeks ago, he’d told me that he believed in God but wasn’t ready to do anything about it because he didn’t want to stop hating his dad. That hate was breaking through whatever peace salvation had brought only a couple hours earlier.

David looked down the table at Derrick, his happiness also erased. “Derrick—”

“No.” Derrick didn’t raise his voice, but the word sounded like a scream. He shoved away from the table and walked off.

The rest of us glanced around. Should someone go after him?

“Okay, who had the cheese enchiladas?” The waitress stood next to the table, a bright yellow plate in one hand, a turquoise one in the other.

We stared at her for a second, as if we’d all forgotten where we were or lost our appetites.

“He did.” Joseph pointed at his brother’s empty seat.

The waitress set down Derrick’s lunch and found the orderer of the second plate—Chris’s younger sister, Elizabeth.

David stood.

“Wait.” Joseph stopped him. “Let me go find him.”

David hesitated as if not sure Joseph would be able to talk Derrick into returning. But he sat back down. “Okay.”

Joseph left the table, and the waitress returned with more plates. Soon everyone was served, but the only one eating was seven-year-old Jamie. The rest of us just poked at our food.

Chris leaned across the table. “This is why you need your phone so we can talk.”

“Why can’t you just say it?” I kept my voice low. The mood required a level of soberness. “Unless it’s that you’re glad they’re finally leaving. Then keep it to yourself.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.” Chris glanced over at his parents, as if afraid he’d get in trouble. “I was going to say . . . is your food good?”

I didn’t believe that’s what he really intended to say. But I went with it. “Probably. I haven’t tried it yet.”

“Oh.” Chris ran his fork through his refried beans like combing sand. “And I don’t want them to move.”

“Either of them?” Probably a mean question, but I couldn’t help confronting Chris with it.

“Yes. Not if they have to move back in with their dad.” He sounded truthful and a little sad. My uncle Ian, Derrick and Joseph’s dad, didn’t rub people the wrong way, he pretty much stabbed people. Maybe that’s where Derrick had learned his skills.

“Me either.” I looked at David. “Do they have to move?”

“Probably.” Despite the hint of an alternative, David responded like he didn’t have any hope that an offer would be accepted.

Joseph and Derrick returned, but the celebratory mood didn’t. We finished our food, just to keep from starving. At least, that’s why I ate mine. But I didn’t enjoy a single bite of the burrito.

Derrick wasn’t the devil, but the devil had definitely crashed our lunch.


When we got home, I went to my room to check my phone. After Joseph and Derrick’s bad news, I didn’t want to look, but summer was almost here and that meant Mother would be delivering more bad news—that she’d arrived for the summer and expected to see me at some party that night. But she wasn’t ruining my day—or my summer—yet. I did have a half-dozen texts from Chris for some reason. I scrolled through them.

Ribs sore. Thx

Derricks not devil.


U can trust me.



By the end of the texts, my stomach felt all gooey. I dropped my phone back into the drawer and went to join Chris on the living room couch.

“You can say those things out loud.” I spoke to Chris but stared at the TV. “You have said those things out loud. Except maybe Derrick not being the devil.”

“Derrick’s not the devil.” Chris didn’t look at me either. “I meant everything else too. Including not wanting either of them to move.”

“Are you sure?” I turned sideways on the couch, tucking one ankle under my thigh. “Because after they leave, things will go back to what they were before last summer.”

“I don’t want things to go back like that. Not everything, anyway. Do you?”

“Derrick and Joseph gone? No. But if I could go back and freeze time at the very beginning of May, when I’d met Alexander but didn’t know he was my dad or that he was dying, I’d go back there. And . . .” The gooey feeling in my stomach had moved up and gelled my words.

“And what?” Chris stared at me.

Suddenly, I got why texting was easier than talking.

I jumped up and darted into my bedroom.

Back to June. I typed the words on my phone. When I trusted u more than anyone.

I peeked around the corner, through the doorway, and into the living room. I could just see Chris on the couch, looking at his phone.

He glanced up.

I dodged back into hiding and typed again. I still do.


That was true. No matter how scared I was about getting hurt again after Chris flirted with a girl at camp last summer—in front of me, his girlfriend—I didn’t trust anyone more. I couldn’t have survived learning Alexander was my dad or his dying or living after all that if it hadn’t been for Chris.

My phone vibrated.

I was stupid. He’d texted. Smarter now.

After a few seconds, another text.


I laughed and put my phone away.

“You’re smarter.” I sat on the couch again. The weird awkwardness had melted. Mostly. “We broke up ten months ago, and you . . .”

“I what?” Chris planted his elbow against the back of the couch and propped his head on his fist. “What did I do?”

“Nothing. You haven’t liked another girl. I mean, I don’t think you’ve like a girl. I don’t actually know.” I was wrong. The awkwardness was still here. I swallowed against the stupidity gummed up in my throat. Maybe I should go get my phone.

“I haven’t liked anyone else.” Chris’s voice was soft, his ears were pink, but his gaze stayed on me.

“Okay. Good. But you could’ve, because we weren’t, you know, together.”

“I didn’t want to.”

“Oh. Okay.” My whole body felt hot. I could talk to Chris about anything, but not this. Never this.

I glanced down at my arms to make sure they weren’t blushing. Nope. Maybe my face wasn’t blushing either.

We stared at each other. Noise came from the TV, but my brain couldn’t process the sounds. The same, sizzling awkwardness was in the air like before the other times we’d kissed. Or almost kissed. And even though we were sitting on the couch, in the living room, where anyone could—and would—walk in at any moment, David had told us a long time ago that if we weren’t willing to do it in front of him, then we shouldn’t be doing it. So . . . maybe . . .

“We’re not moving.” Derrick’s declaration knocked Chris and I against the couch. My heart slammed my ribs.

“Um, you’re not?” My voice sounded breathless, like I’d just sprinted a mile. Or gotten caught almost kissing.

Derrick looked at us sideways, taking in every flush and twitch, and a gotcha look flickered through his eyes.

“I don’t want you to move either.” David stepped into the room from the hall. If he was close enough to hear Derrick . . . had he been watching us? Not that we’d gotten to anything worth watching.

David walked over to his recliner in the corner. “I’m going to let your dad know that we still want you here, and that you two are doing well here.”

Chris’s hand touched mine on the couch. Then his hand was on top of mine, his fingers laced in mine.

“He won’t listen.” Despite Derrick’s earlier rebellious comment, he sounded defeated now. His gaze dropped to the space between me and Chris. “Are you two doing that again? Really? After what—”

Joseph cut him off in a sharp whisper. But since he was speaking German and only Derrick could understand him, whispering was kind of pointless.

Derrick’s mouth tightened. “Sorry . . . congratulations.”

Chris and I looked at each other, and he dropped my hand. Congratulations? That was too weird.

I think David was trying not to laugh in the corner.

“We don’t want you to move either.” I spoke for Chris and me and changed the subject away from whatever was going on with us. “Maybe like David said, if your dad knows how good you’re doing in school here, he’ll want you to stay.”

“Didn’t you hear me? He won’t care.” Derrick’s voice was angry, but the words carried a tremor. “He’ll just want to know why I couldn’t get straight-As before. Or why I don’t keep getting them.”

“You will.” Whatever humor David had seen in the handholding had disappeared. “You’re stronger now. And just because you leave here, doesn’t mean you lose your contract with Liven Games.”

Derrick looked away from all of us, and I knew what he was thinking. His contract to develop a game for Liven depended on Derrick’s good grades. With his brain, the grades were easy. But until he moved here, Derrick’s grades hadn’t even been average, not because he was an underachiever, but because his dad valued sports over all else, and Derrick was scrawny and not athletic. He messed with his dad’s head—and everyone else’s—by getting bad grades and using his intelligence to get into trouble like hacking into school computers and changing grades. Other people’s, not his own. And he claimed he’d been caught only because he wanted to be. I didn’t know if that was true, but it definitely could be.

I understood all that better than anyone in this room, except maybe Joseph who had the same dad. My mother valued beauty over everything, and she liked to tell me all the ways I wasn’t beautiful. And no matter how many other people said the opposite, her voice never completely left my head. If I had to hear her every day, I wouldn’t survive.

“Guess we have to pray, right?” Derrick turned back to us.

I blinked a couple of times. Derrick’s mouth had moved, but what came out hadn’t sounded very Derrick-like. A lot of what he was saying today wasn’t Derrick-like. After the last year, I probably shouldn’t be surprised about what God could do inside people, but I was.

“Yes. Pray,” David said. “And no matter what, you always have a home here. You’ll both always be a part of this family, no matter where you live.”

Chris took my hand again. I don’t know what he was thinking, but maybe it was the same as me. That he couldn’t imagine his family going back to the way or the size it was before last summer.

Or maybe how nice it was to hold my hand again.

I was thinking both.

Some things might look the same as a year ago, like Chris and me holding hands, but everything was different. Everything had changed. We were all smarter. All sadder. All happier. All better than we were back then.

Good thing, since we couldn’t freeze the past.





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