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.”

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