The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 3.5: Let Freedom Ring

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 mother takes her to New York for a vacation without a return date and sets her up on date with Jaxon Braddock, who doesn’t show up. (Year 3, Episode 3: Designer Torture by Mother) 

Episode 3.5: Let Freedom Ring

I slipped out the kitchen door of the Cameron Mansion. The moon was high overhead and almost full. Perfect, even if I didn’t need light to cross the grass between the mansion and the back gate.

The car had pulled into the front drive only twenty minutes earlier, at 2:05 a.m. Mother, Jessica, and I had gone inside the mansion and up the stairs to the bedrooms. But unlike my mother and my sister, I’d run down the backstairs to the kitchen. And now I raced across the grass, away from the mansion that shared my name, and to the house that felt like home.

I exited the gate and stopped to stare at the Claytons’ house. Dark, except for one second-floor window, and way less impressive than the huge mansion with its dozens of rooms, most of them empty. By comparison, the Claytons’ house was cramped. Crowded. And when Mother unexpectedly dragged me to New York fifteen days ago, I’d been terrified I might never sleep in the bedroom I shared with Elizabeth Clayton. Having my own bedroom, whether in the mansion or in a hotel suite, was overrated.

I climbed the porch steps to the front door. But it was locked. Of course. It was two a.m. Everyone was asleep. Except maybe one person.

I stepped off the porch and looked up at the only light in the house. My cousin Derrick Andrews’s bedroom. He liked to stay up late, developing a computer game. And if he was awake now, maybe I could get into the house.

I’d probably have to go back to the mansion tomorrow and see Mother, but I’d sleep on the Claytons’ porch before I’d go back to the mansion tonight.

I stepped onto the porch railing and heaved myself onto the roof. Being tall had advantages. Then I crawled over the shingles, not caring what I might be dragging my designer jeans across—dirt, leaves, bird poop. All worth it.

Derrick sat in front of his computer, typing. I knocked on the window.

Derrick jumped and spun around. His chair rocked onto two legs, and his mouth formed a word I probably didn’t want to hear. He stumbled to his feet and the chair fell over. He shoved the window open. “Sydnee?”

“I’m home.” I would’ve hugged him if my position on the porch and Derrick’s inside his room hadn’t been so awkward.

“And the first person you want to see is me? I’ve told you; we’re not friends.” His voice was hard, and my breath froze in my lungs. Derrick said some version of those words every time I tried to talk to him. But I thought we’d finally become friends. Had things changed in the two weeks I’d been gone?

Then Derrick grinned, and his face lit up in a way that I still wasn’t used to. After knowing an angry, hates-the-world Derrick for nine months, this happy version looked weird. And beautiful. “But really. Why’d you come to my window and not theirs?” He pointed to the the window in the perpendicular wall.

I glanced toward the dark room. Joseph Andrews and Chris Clayton’s room. Every part of me heated up. If I’d had to pick the one person I’d missed most, it would be Chris. My best friend. My boyfriend. And I wasn’t waking him up in the middle of the night. “They’re asleep.”

“Good enough reason.” Derrick stepped aside. “You coming in?”

“Yeah, but I’m not supposed to be on the second floor. Or in your room.” I peeked inside, looked at the clothes scattered around, the shoes and books. “And I might break my ankle.”

“So you’re going to make me walk all the way downstairs?” Derrick made it sounds like a huge inconvenience, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking. “Fine.”

The window slammed shut.

I scrambled back over the edge of the porch roof and was waiting in front of the door when Derrick opened it. The air conditioning wrapped around me and carried the smell of home. I couldn’t describe the exact smell. Maybe it was a combination of the eight people who lived here. The eight people who loved me. “Thanks.”

“Welcome.” Derrick pushed the door closed and stood by me a second. “You better not be expecting me to ask about your trip.”

“I wouldn’t want to tell you about it if you did ask.”

“Then I’m going back to work.”

“And I’m going to bed.” We moved in separate directions—Derrick toward the stairs and me toward the bedrooms.

“Hey.” Derrick stopped on the stairs and leaned over the banister.

“Yeah?” I glanced up.

“I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me too.”

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The sheets felt soft, worn, and a pillow flattened by use cushioned my head. This didn’t feel like a hotel bed with its too puffy pillows and overstuffed comforters. This felt like home. Was I dreaming?

I squeezed my eyes tighter, not wanting to open them and see the cream-colored walls or the tall corner posts of the double bed. I shifted, and my knee bumped the wall. The hotel bed hadn’t been next to the wall.

I sat straight up, eyes open wide. How could I have forgotten I’d come home?

Elizabeth still slept in her bed. No one but Derrick—who was probably asleep too—knew I was here.

I kicked off my Cubs blanket and yanked on clean clothes. But not new clothes. Everything I’d worn in the past two weeks had been new. Today, I was wearing my clothes. Today, I was living my life.

The living room smelled like coffee. I wasn’t the only one awake. I followed the scent to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. David sat at the end of the dining table, his back to me. Chris and Joseph sat on one side of the table, spooning cereal from bowls to sleepy heads propped up on fists. Breakfast at six a.m. instead of ten. A beautiful sight.

“Hi.” I walked into their lines of vision.

All three stared at me. Then they blinked a couple of times, as if not sure they were awake.

“Sydnee.” David was the first to speak and stand. He wrapped me in a hug so tight I couldn’t breathe. “When did you get here?”

“Last night.” My words sounded muffled against David’s chest.

“How did you get in?” David’s glance jumped to Chris and then back to me.

“Derrick. His light was on, so I climbed up to his window. But he let me in through the front door.” I said the last words in a rush, not wanting David to think I’d been on the second floor.

David’s mouth tightened like he was biting back a smile. “You could’ve knocked. Or called. Or let us know you were coming home.”

“I didn’t know for sure until we got here. We were in Chicago until midnight. I didn’t want to say anything just in case it didn’t happen.” My throat tightened at the memory of landing in Chicago two days ago and finding out Mother had decided to spend at least a day shopping. “She didn’t tell you either?”

“No.” David picked up his mug and drained the last drops of coffee. “But that means we need to get working.”

Chris and Joseph carried their bowls to the dishwasher. Chris kept his gaze on me, smiling, which he never did this early.

I smiled back, feeling that awkward weirdness of not knowing what to do or how to act with David and Joseph watching.

“Are you helping us, Sydnee?” David pulled my attention away from Chris and back to him.

“For a few hours. I thought I’d be back in the mansion around noon, you know, just in case.” I didn’t have to explain that I was worried about Mother. Most summers, she ignored me except to demand I attend the occasional party, like tonight’s annual Fourth of July celebration. But a couple of weeks ago, when I stood up to her about inviting my friends to play basketball on my court, she’d punished me by taking me to New York without telling anyone—including me—when we’d return. Maybe she’d forget about me now that we were back. Or maybe she’d drag me to London or Paris tomorrow. I didn’t know, and I didn’t trust her. I wanted to stay out of her way, but if she couldn’t find me because I was off playing with the son of her housekeeper and gardener . . .

At least she slept late. I could spend the morning, and every morning until she left, with Chris and my cousins.

We left the house together and crossed through the gate into the Cameron Estate. Chris ended up next to me outside. His knuckles brushed my hand, and then his fingers were threaded in mine, the callouses on his palm rougher than I remembered. Or else after two weeks of spa days and shopping sprees, my hands had gone soft.

“You two want to catch up on the basketball court for a couple of hours?” David glanced over his shoulder at us.

“Don’t you need our help?” I asked. Setting up for the Fourth of July party, making sure the plants and flowers in the garden looked perfect, sweeping up any dirt tracked across the pool tiles, all of that required multiple people. Chris, Joseph, and I were helpful. And David was paying Joseph and Chris.

“Shh.” Chris nudged me with his elbow.

“Joseph and I can handle things this morning, right?” David clapped a fatherly hand against Joseph’s shoulder.

Joseph must’ve been too tired to respond.

“We’ll be on the court then.” Chris was already tugging me to the right, away from David and Joseph.

“If you need our help, come get us,” I called over my shoulder.

“Why are you so eager to work?” Chris stopped tugging and we walked side-by-side, hand-in-hand. “I get the morning off, and you’re trying to take that away from me?”

“I’ve missed working.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Spend two weeks trying on dresses and shoes and being told that if you weren’t so tall or so skinny or so whatever then everything would look better on you.” I shrugged. “You’d miss working outside all day too.”

“She’s wrong.”

“About what?”

“Everything looks good on you.”

Heat flooded my cheeks, and I ducked my head. “I don’t listen to anything she says.”

“You shouldn’t.” He pulled me a little closer, wrapping my arm behind his back, until we were hip-to-hip. We walked like that onto the court. “You want to play a game?”

“No, I don’t think so.” I untangled my hand and arm from Chris’s and stepped away.

You don’t want to play basketball?” Chris looked at me like those weeks in New York must’ve scrambled my brain.

“It’s just after last time we played basketball . . .” That’s what had started everything, the sound of the basketball hitting the court and my friends and me cheering each other on. We’d given Mother a headache, and she’d punished me.

“Okay. We’ll just sit and talk.” Chris didn’t sound all that excited.

“I think I told you everything.” Everything important, anyway. One thing, one unimportant thing that never actually happened, I’d kept to myself.

“I would’ve gone to find you if you didn’t come home by our birthday.” Chris led me across the blacktop, holding my hand again. “I mean it.”

“I know.” I squeezed his fingers, and we sat on one of the wooden benches on the sidelines. “And now you don’t have to rescue me.”

“But I would’ve. And if she makes you leave again . . . do you think she will?”

I shrugged. I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t. Not after the last three weeks.

“Then after our birthday—”

“Stop.” I smacked his arm and laughed like I wasn’t worried. “I don’t want to think about that. I’m home. Right now. That’s what matters.”

And I’d pretend I believed those words as long as possible.

***

The annual Fourth of July party. I stood outside the French doors, glancing around at the half-familiar people talking and drinking around the pool. The crowd changed very little each year, but I didn’t really know any of the people. But maybe one person was here I knew well. One person I’d been trying to talk to all summer.

I smoothed the front of the red dress that had partly caused the Chicago detour and walked past the pools to the area where those who were forced by parents to attend hung out.

So far, Jaxon Braddock had avoided me this summer. Three days ago, Mother had set us up on a date, and Jax hadn’t shown. That was the one thing I hadn’t told Chris about. A date that didn’t happen wasn’t worth mentioning. Jax wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Actually, maybe that explained why he’d stood me up—the date wasn’t serious.

But Jax avoiding me was serious. We were friends, even if I’d said the opposite four months ago when I was angry.

I spotted Jax standing with his friends Wynn and Trey. They passed around a bottle of something, laughing and shoving each other. A girl swiped the bottle between passes.

Jax glanced my direction, and his smile melted off his face.

I started walking across the tiles.

Jax turned his back to me and grabbed the bottle out of the girl’s hand.

“Hey, Jax.” I stopped behind him, my heart pounding in my stomach.

“What do you want?” He spun around, standing close enough I could smell the sour alcohol on his breath.

“Just wanted to say hi.” I ignored Wynn and Trey and the girls behind Jax. “Did you get my messages the other night?”

“Don’t remember.”

“You could’ve told me you weren’t going to pick me up.”

“Really?” Jax knocked the bottle back. Then he scowled at it and tossed it on the ground. Luckily, it hit dirt. A soft landing. “Thought you were smart.”

“Smart? About what?”

“Smart enough to know I wasn’t going to hang out with you. I’ve got better things to do.”

Jax’s friends laughed.

“‘Sides.” Jax continued talking, his words not as clear, like his tongue and lips were swollen. “You’re not my type. Not pretty enough.”

His friends laughed harder. The words stung more than I expected. More than they probably should’ve.

“And I like girls who—”

“Shut up, Jax.” I took a deep breath. The biting smell of whatever Jax had been drinking made me lightheaded. “You know I don’t want to date you.”

Jax clenched his jaw, but what I said couldn’t be news.

“You going to take that?” Wynn asked.

I was done. This was why I didn’t hang out with Jax and his friends. I took off back through the crowd. Jax and Wynn yelled after me, but I couldn’t understand what they said. And I didn’t bother trying. If Jax really wanted our friendship to be over, then fine. I hardly ever saw him anyway, so I didn’t care.

But a twisting in my chest, a sharp pain like something was being ripped out, disagreed.

I walked to the tent shielding tables and food and kept going to the kitchen door. Black-and-white clothed servers streamed past me. I dodged past them and stepped into the busy kitchen.

“Is it ten, yet?” I stopped in front of David. He stood near the door, supervising but ready to help whenever or wherever.

He looked startled to see me and checked his watch. “Not even nine. Party not going well?”

“Never does.” I sat on a dining table chair, my red skirt fanning around me. “Don’t make me go back.”

“I won’t.” David’s voice was soft, sympathetic. “But we’re not leaving for an hour.”

“I’ll wait.” Sitting in the busy kitchen would be more fun than hiding in a corner among the partiers.

I watched the catering activities. Forty-seven trays of went out, fifty-two empty trays came in. Ninety-three glasses of wine and champagne and other, more colorful drinks went out, one-hundred-seventeen empty glasses came in. This was definitely more fun than the party.

Finally, the hands of the clock closed in on ten p.m. Fireworks time.

David, Candy, and I walked back to their house, hurrying to beat the display. The porch roof, where I’d climbed the night before, offered a perfect view of the fireworks, and we beat the first explosion of color—red—by five seconds.

“You’re still here.” Chris spoke right in my ear, over the whistles and cracks of the fireworks.

“You didn’t think my mother would leave right before her party?”

Chris shrugged, his shoulder rubbing against mine. He was probably right; I should’ve been worrying about that all day.

“She didn’t.” I shifted a little closer, not caring that Chris’s parents sat behind us. “And I’m not going back. Not tonight.”

If only I could say forever. But as long as Mother didn’t make me leave for forever, I could be happy.

But even if Mother ignored me tonight and tomorrow, she wouldn’t ignore me forever. Would Jax though? Was our strange sort of friendship over forever? I had so many reasons not to be friends with Jax that tonight’s insults didn’t even need to be on the list. But a history of vulnerable moments and rescues had me holding on. Look how Derrick had changed. I still believed Jax could too.

 

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