The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 4: The Success and Failures of Friends

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 with no return date, but they returned home in time for the Camerons’ annual Fourth of July Party. 

Episode 4: The Success and Failures of Friends

I was late to lunch with Mother. Never good. Being late drew attention, and Mother had given me too much attention this summer.

Feeling like I could hear a ticking clock reminding me I was supposed to be downstairs five minutes ago, I hurried out of my bedroom, down two flights of stairs, and slid to a stop outside, next to the poolside table. The empty poolside table.

When would I figure out that Mother was always late? But if I ever counted on that, she’d be five minutes early and I’d be in trouble.

I sat underneath the white umbrella shading me from the July sun, but not preventing the heat. Sweat prickled my hairline.

“Hi, Sydnee.” Candy Clayton carried a tray of salads and fruits. She set it down on the table, glanced at the French doors, and handed me a napkin-wrapped sandwich. “How was your morning?”

“Good. Too short. Thanks.” I unwrapped the roast beef and cheddar sandwich and ate at a speed between scarfing down and polite. Mother’s obsession with her weight meant no-calorie foods. But I’d run three miles early this morning and worked with David Clayton, my boyfriend Chris Clayton, and my cousin Joseph Andrews in the gardens until I’d had to shower for lunch. So I needed more than lettuce and carrots and tomatoes. Candy always slipped me a sandwich before lunch since I was usually the first one to the table. Even when I was late.

“I don’t know . . .” Mother’s uncertain tone floated from inside the house.

I shoved the rest of my sandwich into my mouth and chewed behind my hand.

Candy finished unloading the lunch tray and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

“But I’m so bored here.” Jessica’s whine beat her out the French doors. A few seconds later, my sister walked outside. “Why do I have to spend all summer here? My friends are in Florida. Let me go home, Mom.”

A jolt of something I’d never felt toward Jessica surged through me. Sympathy. I’d never thought about how coming here every summer ripped Jessica away from her friends in Florida, but it did. Just like going to Florida at Christmas or spring break ripped me from my friends.

“It’s all your fault I’m stuck here.” Jessica glared at me and slid into a seat on the other side of the table.

And the sympathy died. “It’s your dad who works in Chicago.”

Jessica’s face tightened, and she looked at me the way Cain might’ve looked at Abel.

My other cousin, Derrick, had given me lots of practice with staring contests over the last year, so I met Jessica’s gaze.

“Summer will be over soon.” Mother glanced at her phone’s screen. “Isn’t your birthday coming up, Sydnee?”

Mother needed to ask me when my birthday was? Pretty much summed up our relationship. “Yeah. Friday.”

“Then I really need to have Eva plan your party.”

Eva, Mother’s personal assistant. Would Jessica’s birthday also be handed off to Eva? Or was I not important enough for Mother to plan it herself?

“Who are you going to invite? Sydnee doesn’t have any friends.” Jessica still hadn’t broken eye contact.

Neither had I. “I have friends.”

“Only loser friends who don’t count.”

I pressed my lips together. I wanted to defend my friends. None of them were losers. Most of them were basketball players on a winning team. But even if I was best friends with the Golden State Warriors, this year’s NBA champs, Jessica and Mother would still consider my friends losers.

A battle not worth the fight.

Mother blew out a sigh. Was she annoyed by Jessica and me fighting or by me not having friends? “Fortunately, the Camerons matter enough around here that we’ll see a decent showing for Sydnee’s birthday.”

So she was annoyed because I didn’t have the right friends.

“Invitations are Eva’s problem. Let’s eat lunch.” Mother served herself a couple of different salads.

The heat drove us inside after lunch was eaten. Could I sneak off to the kitchen now that lunch was over? I’d probably find Chris there, and if not, Candy or Delia would know where he was. I kept an ear tuned to Mother, but she wasn’t sharing her plans. So I followed her into the grand room.

A new painting hung on the wall. I stopped to admire it. A swirl of colors—pinks, reds, and oranges—with little pinpricks of yellow that reminded me of the fairies from Peter Pan. The painting felt vaguely familiar. I glanced at the signature in the corner. Lara Grace.

“Hey, Abby’s mom painted this.” That explained its familiarity. I’d seen Abby’s mom’s artwork in their house.

“Abby? Who’s Abby?” Mother glanced up from her phone and sounded interested for once.

“One of my best friends.”

“You’re friends with Lara Grace’s daughter?” Incredulity tangled around the interest in Mother’s voice.

“Ever since she moved here two years ago.” I shot Jessica a look. Not all my friends were losers by Mother’s standards.

Mother stared at me, but with a strange look on her face. One I didn’t recognize. I was used to disgust or contempt or annoyance. Earlier this summer, she’d looked happy, and that had been terrifying—and ended with me spending two torturous weeks in New York—but this look didn’t have any of those familiar or terrifying emotions. This look wrote interest all over her face.

“For your birthday, why don’t you invite Abby over?” Mother’s voice lost the jagged edges she usually used to stab me. “She could even spend the night.”

“Um, okay.” This was weird, but not bad weird. Abby bugged me to have sleepovers, and a sleepover in the mansion was definitely her thing. Not mine, but hey, it was just my birthday.

“And I should get to know your friends’ parents. After all, I know most of Jessica’s friends’ parents.”

I could point out that she knew Chris’s parents very well, since they worked for Mother, but comments like that were the first shots in battles I would lose.

“Send me Abby’s parents’ contact information. I’ll arrange a special dinner for your birthday, and Abby can spend the night. How does that sound?”

Still very weird, but mostly because it sounded like a birthday party I would enjoy.

***

Chris and I sat on his front porch. I pushed my foot against the ground, setting the swing swaying. Dinner with Abby and our parents wasn’t until seven p.m., and it was only four.

“So Abby’s coming to dinner tonight with your parents—your mom and stepdad?” Chris asked this for the twentieth time in two days, the disbelief still as strong in his voice now as it was the first time.

“Yeah. She confirmed it at lunch today.” My disbelief matched Chris’s. I kind of expected Mother to meet me in the dining room tonight and start laughing at me for showing up. “But I’ll be here at midnight.”

“Why?” Chris looked at me, face blank, but he could only hold the look for a few seconds. Then he broke into a grin.

“You know why.” I shoved him into the arm of the swing. We’d been meeting on his front porch at midnight every year starting with my eighth birthday and Chris’s ninth—the summer we’d become friends and discovered we had the same birthday. “But what I got you is probably not as good as getting your license today, since that’s all you’ve been talking about.”

“Unless you got me a car.” Chris’s teasing didn’t quite hide a hint of hope.

“I didn’t even think of that until David said I wasn’t allowed to.” I didn’t pay much attention to the price tag on Chris’s presents, but a car was too big a gift to buy for a friend or boyfriend, even if I had the money. “But when I do get a car, it’s going to be a Jeep.”

“Not until you’re sixteen.” David walked out the front door, his hair wet from the shower.

“That’s what we were saying.” Chris said. “Do you think we don’t listen?”

“Nope. I know you listen. And I’ve got something you’ll want to hear. It’s about your birthday present.”

“What is it?” Chris shifted to the edge of the swing. He got into the whole present thing more than I did.

David pulled his keys from his pocket and dangled them in the air. No explanation necessary.

“You said I couldn’t take your car today.” Chris stood and snatched the keys out his dad’s hand.

“I changed my mind.” David’s grin argued against his whatever voice. “But you’ve got to have Sydnee back here in an hour, so she’s not late tonight.”

“Sydnee can go with me?” Chris reached for my hand, pulling me to my feet. “You said no about that too. Not for a long time,.”

“And you didn’t argue or say how unfair it was, so I changed my mind about that too. But I need to know where you’re going.”

Chris looked at me. For ideas? I shrugged. I hadn’t expected to go anywhere today. Or most days. I had dinner plans, and I wasn’t a hang-out-at-the-mall girl. I had a basketball court in my backyard and a theater in the mansion basement.

But Chris’s expression shifted, like he’d come up with an idea, and he took out his phone.

“Are you texting your friends to hang out?” The joy in David’s voice was gone. “Because if you are—”

David’s phone dinged.

“Always expecting the worst from me.” Chris shook his head, smiling

David read the text on his phone and nodded. “That’s fine.”

“What?” I looked from Chris to David and back to Chris. “Where are we going?”

“If I wanted to tell you, I would’ve said it out loud.” Chris led me into the house, holding my hand.

“Wait, just a second.” David squeezed past us and walked toward his room.

Chris shifted impatiently.

My heart pinged with mixture of curiosity and excitement. I didn’t think I cared about going somewhere with Chris driving, but it turned out I did. Just a little.

“This would be a good time for this.” David returned and handed Chris an envelope. “When you get there.”

“Okay.” Chris glanced at the envelope and tucked it into his back pocket. “Let’s go.”

“An hour, remember,” David called after us. “That’s five-fifteen.”

“Got it.” Chris waved his hand in the air.

We hurried through the kitchen and into the garage to David’s car.

“So where are we going?” I buckled the seat belt and checked to make sure it was secure. Not that I was worried or anything.

“You’ll see.” Chris backed out of the garage.

I watched outside. Trees gave way to buildings. Shopping centers. Not much of a clue, since we had to go into town to go anywhere But then we headed out of town again, and just outside of town, Chris turned onto a narrow drive.

“A cemetery?” I craned my neck, reading the sign we passed under. “That’s the surprise?”

“You said you were going to get a Jeep.” Chris glanced over, his tone uncertain. “Like Alexander had. So I thought you were probably thinking about him.”

“Yeah. Sort of.” I pinched my lower lip. I hadn’t been thinking about my dad directly, but he was the reason why next year I’d buy a four-door Jeep Wrangler, just like his.

“But now I don’t know where to go.” Chris stopped the car in front of a fork in the road. “Sorry.”

“Right.” I pointed. I’d only been here three times, including the funeral, but I’d memorized the drive. I directed Chris through a couple more turns. Then he parked.

“Dad gave me this to give you.” Chris pulled the envelope out of his back pocket. “It got a little wrinkled.”

Alexander’s handwriting. Sydnee’s 15th Birthday. The words blurred. I swallowed, and my throat burned.

“Was this a bad idea? Because we can go somewhere else.” Chris’s words piled on top of each other. “I’ll text Dad and—”

“No, this is good.” I smiled and tears spilled onto my cheeks. I wiped them away. “Thank you.”

I opened the door and climbed out. “You coming?”

“Yeah.” Chris hurried out of the driver’s side.

He followed me between grave markers. Gray, white, pink. The shiny rectangles marked long lives and short lives. Everyone missed by someone.

I stopped in front of a gray granite rectangle and sat down. Alexander Christopher Andrews. I hadn’t know until I saw Alexander’s named etched in the headstone that Chris had been named after my dad. And under his name were the dates marking a short life. February 9, 1974-November 13, 2014. And following that, the words, No better friend or father. I’d been allowed to add those last two words after he died. Alexander never believed he’d been a good father. Maybe by most standards he hadn’t, but even if I’d known him a fraction of the time I’d known my mother, he’d been the better parent.

Talking to a grave never made sense to me. Still didn’t. But seeing his name, his dates, reminded me that he’d been alive. That I’d known him. I hadn’t known him long enough to celebrate his birthday, but he’d been able to wish me one happy birthday.

I eased my thumb along the envelope’s seal. The flap came loose, and I pulled out two sheets of notebook paper, covered in Alexander’s handwriting.

I rubbed the tears from my eyes and read.

 

My beautiful Sydnee,

Fifteen years old today! Happy birthday! 

What advice can I give for this year of your life? You’ve survived so many years without my advice, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. You’re in the middle of high school years. No longer a new freshman, but senior year looks so far away. Old enough for a learner’s permit, but a driver’s license is a year away. Don’t keep your eyes so focused on the future that you fail to enjoy this year. This is a year for great things. A year when you’ll succeed and fail. Both are guarantees. Both are necessary. Failure is simply an opportunity for a bigger success. And you are destined for big successes, as long as you don’t get hung up on the world’s definition of success like I did. Success is living the purpose God created you for. Remember that. Keep your eyes on God, and every failure will be a success, and every success will be even greater.

I love you, Sydnee. You are my greatest success.

Your dad, Alexander.

 

Tears dotted the paper, but some had dried. They weren’t all my own.

I sniffled and scrubbed my cheeks with my palms.

Chris put his arm around my shoulders, and I turned into him, resting my cheek against his chest. “Thank you.”

I don’t know if I meant those words for Chris or for Alexander. Maybe I meant them for God, for every success and failure I’d made and Alexander had made, for a future that wasn’t completely without my dad.

sydnee26

Alexander’s words buzzed inside my head two hours later as I descended the mansion stairs. Would tonight be a success or failure? I’d never attended a party given by Mother that felt like my definition of success, but neither had she invited one of my real friends to a party.

I stepped off the stairs and heard the hum of voices. A lot of voices. Weird. Abby and her parents weren’t due for another five minutes.

I followed the sound and found a couple dozen of my parents’ friends sipping drinks in the grand room. Why were they here? Had Mother arranged one of her usual parties filled with her friends and their children for my birthday? Probably. But at least Abby would be here to erase the sting of celebrating with strangers.

“Lara Grace.” A man standing near me mentioned Abby’s mom to a woman. My skin prickled, and I listened a little harder. “But no surprise Noelle would find a way to host her.”

The prickling turned into an itch underneath my skin. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but I had a bad feeling about it.

Of course, I had a bad feeling whenever Mother was mentioned.

I took a deep breath and eased out the air and bad feelings. No way could tonight be worse than the day of Alexander’s funeral when Mother insisted I eat dinner here. Unless she announced plans to make me move to Florida.

I felt sick already, and I hadn’t had any cake or other junk food.

The doorbell rang. I hurried to the front door.

“You’re here.” My greeting to Abby and her parents sounded more desperate and relieved than I’d intended. “Come in.”

“Happy birthday, Sydnee.” Lara smiled. She had curly red hair like Abby, but cut really short like Annie in the classic musical version.

“I still can’t believe how big this house is.” Abby twirled into the foyer, looking up at the twelve-foot ceiling. She lowered her chin and tugged the seams of her dress. “Am I dressed okay?”

“Yeah, you look fine.” I’d told Abby to dress up, and after seeing tonight’s other guests, I’d been right.

“Lara Grace?” Mother swept into the room, a smile on her face. “What a pleasure to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. Oh!” Lara’s eyes widened as Mother air-kissed her cheeks.

“We purchased one of your paintings just last week. Beautiful work.”

“Thank you.” Lara’s face blushed a few shades lighter than her hair. She tugged Abby’s dad forward. “This is my husband, Lance.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Mother sounded less sincere this time. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Lara and Lance followed Mother into the grand room.

“Want to take your stuff to my room?” I didn’t really want to join the adults, and Abby had two bags hanging off her shoulders.

“Yeah, show me your room.” Abby climbed the stairs, glancing over the sides of the curved banister, at the ceiling, to the hallway. “I thought the spiral staircase in my house was cool. But this is better.”

“Abby, stop.” Lara looked up the stairs, her face and voice pinched. “We’re leaving.”

“What? Why?” Abby glanced around as if searching for the fire.

The prickly, itchy feeling returned.

“Because this isn’t a birthday dinner for Sydnee.” Lara’s cheeks weren’t red from an embarrassed blush anymore. Looked more like barely held back rage. “This is a . . . an ambush to introduce me to all the Camerons’ friends.”

A lump rose into my throat. I swallowed. Mother hadn’t wanted to celebrate my birthday with my friends. She’d wanted to show off knowing Lara Grace. Abby had told me once how her mom hated things like being featured at art galleries and anything that made her socialize. But I hadn’t thought Mother would use my birthday and my friends as an excuse to throw her own party.

I should’ve expected it, but I hadn’t.

Abby and I descended the stairs.

“Lara, my apologies.” Mother pleaded in a low voice, probably to hide her failure from the other guests. “This was a small, spur-of-the-moment dinner party. Not even a dinner party, really. Just a few friends for dinner, like most Friday nights.”

Lara didn’t even look at Mother, but she smiled at me. A sad, apologetic smile. And she hugged me. “I’m really sorry about this, Sydnee. Happy birthday.”

Then the Stewarts walked out the front door, tying tonight’s birthday party with dinner after Alexander’s funeral for worst night ever.

“You used me.” I spun to face Mother, glaring down at her. “I thought you finally cared about me, about my friends. But all you care about is whether anyone is famous enough or rich enough for your friends.”

“Sydnee.” Mother’s voice was as cold as her heart. No hint of an apology. Just a warning that people could hear me. A warning that she could make me miserable.

Not much of a warning when it comes after the storm and destruction.

But I didn’t want to fight with her. I couldn’t fight with her. Instead, I walked away.

Candy, Chris’s mom, was in the mansion kitchen. She met me with the question, “What happened?”

Maybe my emotions were written all over my face. Then again, I was supposed to be hanging out with Abby right now, not hiding out in the kitchen.

“She used me.” I collapsed at the dining table. “She didn’t want to get to know Abby or Abby’s parents. She wanted to show her friends that she knew Lara Grace, the artist.”

“Oh sweetie.” Candy didn’t have to ask who “she” was. She sat next to me and rubbed my back.

“It’s not fair.” I shook my head. That was what Chris or his sister Elizabeth said about not having a car or cell phone. “No, it’s not right. And I’m not going back in there tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that. I’m done doing whatever she asks. I’m done trying to play her games. I’m just done.”

I waited for Candy to argue, to point out she was my mother and I didn’t have a choice. But Candy didn’t.

“David’s at the house,” she finally said. “Why don’t you head back there?”

I nodded and left the mansion through the kitchen door. The words in Alexander’s letter still echoed in my head. “So this was obviously a failure.” I aimed my words at the dark blue sky with the sinking sun. “What kind of bigger success could ever come from anything my mother does?”

I wasn’t talking to Alexander exactly. I didn’t really believe he could hear me. Maybe he could, but I didn’t know that for sure. I just knew God was listening. “What purpose do you have for keeping her in my life, and me in hers?”

No answer. Not that I expected one. Tonight just proved that the two worlds I lived in—Mother’s and the Claytons’—couldn’t ever coexist. There’d be no crossover between the two. But if I had a choice, I’d always choose my friends. That’s how I defined success—by the kind of people in my life.

 

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