Levi held his sandwich by one corner and took a bite from the other. “Are you too worried about your dad to talk about why you’re mad at me?” His mouth was full.
“It’s not important,” she muttered.
“It is to me.” He swallowed. “You leave the room every time I walk in.” Cath didn’t say anything, so he kept talking.… “Is it because of what happened?”
She didn’t know how to answer that question. She didn’t want to. She looked up at the wall across from her, up where there’d be a TV if this place wasn’t such a prison.
She felt Levi lean toward her. “Because I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Cath pinched the top of her nose, wishing she knew where her tear ducts were, so she could hold them closed. “You’re sorry?”
“I’m sorry I upset you,” he said. “I think maybe I was reading you wrong, and I’m sorry about that.”
Her brain tried to come up with something mean to say about Levi and reading. “You didn’t read me wrong,” she said, shaking her head. Just for a second, she felt more angry than pathetic. “I went to your party.”
She turned her head to face him—even though she’d started to cry, and her glasses were fogging up, and she hadn’t officially brushed her hair since yesterday morning. “The party,” she said. “At your house. That Thursday night. I came with Reagan.”
“Why didn’t I see you?”
“You were in the kitchen … preoccupied.”
Levi’s smile faded, and he sat back slowly. Cath set her sandwich down on the chair next to her and clenched her hands in her lap.
“Oh, Cath…,” Levi said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. You both seemed pretty happy about it.”
“You didn’t say you were coming.”
She looked over. “So if you’d known I was coming, you wouldn’t have been making out with somebody else in the kitchen?”
For once Levi didn’t have anything to say. He set his sandwich down, too, and pushed both hands through his wispy blond hair. His hair was made of finer stuff than Cath’s. Silk. Down. Blown-out dandelion seeds.
“Cath…,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
She wasn’t quite sure what he was apologizing for. He looked up at her, from the top of his eyes, looking genuinely sorry—and sorry for her. “It was just a kiss,” he said, pleating his forehead.
“Which one?” she asked.
Levi pushed his hands to the back of his head, and his bangs fell loose. “Both of them.”
Cath took a deep, shaky breath and let it break out through her nose. “Right,” she said. “That is, um … good information to have.”
“I didn’t think—”
“Levi.” She cut him off and looked him straight in the eye, trying to look stern despite her tears. “I can’t thank you enough for bringing me here. But I couldn’t mean this more: I’d like it if you left now. I don’t just kiss people. Kisses aren’t … just with me. That’s why I’ve been avoiding you. That’s why I’d like to avoid you now. Okay?”
The door buzzed, and a nurse stepped through it, wearing flowered scrubs. She smiled at Levi. “You guys want to come back now?”
Cath stood up and grabbed her bag. She looked at Levi. “Please.” And then she followed the nurse.
* * *
Levi was gone when Cath came back to the lobby.
She took a cab to her dad’s office to get his car. It was full of fast-food wrappers and crumpled-up ideas. When she got home, she did the dishes and texted Wren.
Cath didn’t feel like calling. She didn’t feel like saying, Hey, you were right. He’s all drugged up and probably won’t come out of it for a few days, and there’s no real reason for you to come home—unless you just can’t stand the idea of him going through this alone. But he won’t be alone, because I’ll be here.
Her dad hadn’t done laundry for a while. The steps to the basement were covered with dirty clothes, like he’d just been throwing stuff down there for a few weeks.
She started a load of laundry.
She threw out pizza boxes with desiccated slices of pizza.
There was a poem painted on the bathroom mirror with toothpaste—maybe it was a poem, maybe it was just words. It was lovely, so Cath took a photo with her phone before she wiped it clean.
Any one of these things would have tipped them off if they’d been at home.
They looked out for him.
They’d find him sitting in his car in the middle of the night, filling page after page with ideas that didn’t quite make sense, and they’d lead him back inside.
They’d see him skip dinner; they’d count the cups of coffee. They’d notice the zeal in his voice.
And they’d try to rein him back in.
Usually it worked. Seeing that they were scared terrified their dad. He’d go to bed and sleep for fifteen hours. He’d make an appointment with his counselor. He’d try the meds again, even if they all knew it wouldn’t stick.
“I can’t think when I’m on them,” he’d told Cath one night. She was sixteen, and she’d come downstairs to check the front door and found it unlocked—and then she’d inadvertently locked him out. Her dad had been sitting outside on the steps, and it scared her half to death when he rang the doorbell.
“They slow your brain down,” he said, clutching an orange bottle of pills. “They iron out all the wrinkles.… Maybe all the bad stuff happens in the wrinkles, but all the good stuff does, too.…
“They break your brain like a horse, so it takes all your orders. I need a brain that can break away, you know? I need to think. If I can’t think, who am I?”
It wasn’t so bad when he got lots of sleep. When he ate the eggs they made him for breakfast. When he didn’t work straight through three weekends in a row.
A little manic was okay. A little manic made him happy and productive and charismatic. Clients would eat awesome straight out of his hands.
She and Wren had gotten good at watching him. At noticing when a little manic slid into a lot. When charismatic gave way to crazed. When the twinkle in his eyes turned into a burnt-out flash.
Cath stayed up until three o’clock that morning, cleaning up his messes. If she and Wren had been here, they would have seen this coming. They would have stopped it.
* * *
The next day, Cath took her laptop to St. Richard’s with her. She had thirty-one hours to write her short story. She could e-mail it to Professor Piper; that would be okay.
Wren finally texted her back. “are you here? psych final tomorrow. right?”
They had the same pychology professor but were in different classes.
“i’ll have to miss it,” Cath typed.
“NOT ACCEPTABLE,” Wren replied.
“NOT LEAVING DAD ALONE,” Cath texted back.
“email the professor, maybe he’ll let you make it up.”
“email him. and i’ll talk to him.”
“ok.” Cath couldn’t bring herself to say thanks. Wren should be missing that final, too.
Her dad woke up around noon and ate mashed potatoes with yellow gravy. She could tell he was angry—angry that he was there and angry that he was too groggy for any of his anger to rise to the top.
There was a TV in his room, and Cath found a Gilmore Girls rerun. Their dad always used to watch Gilmore Girls with them; he had a crush on Sookie. Cath’s computer kept falling asleep in her lap, so she finally set it down, and leaned on his bed to watch TV.
“Where’s Wren?” he asked during a commercial break.
“Shouldn’t you be there, too?”
“Christmas break starts tomorrow.”
He nodded. His eyes looked dull and distant. Every time he blinked, it seemed like maybe he wasn’t going to manage to open them again.
A nurse came in at two in the afternoon with more meds. Then came a doctor who asked Cath to wait in the hall. The doctor smiled at her when he left the room. “We’ll get there,” he said in a cheerful, comforting voice. “We had to bring him down pretty fast.”
Cath sat next to her dad’s bed and watched TV until visiting hours were over.
* * *
There was no more cleaning to do, and Cath felt uneasy being in the house by herself. She tried sleeping on the couch, but it felt too close to the outside and too close to her dad’s empty room—so she went up to her room and crawled into her own bed. When that didn’t work, she climbed into Wren’s bed, taking her laptop with her.
Their dad had stayed at St. Richard’s three times before. The first time was the summer after their mom left. They’d called their grandma when he wouldn’t get out of bed, and for a while, she’d moved in with them. She filled the freezer with frozen lasagna before she moved out.
The second time was in sixth grade. He was standing over the sink, laughing, and telling them that they didn’t have to go to school anymore. Life was an education, he said. He’d cut himself shaving, and there were tiny pieces of toilet paper stuck with blood to his chin. Cath and Wren had gone to stay with their aunt Lynn in Chicago.
The third time was in high school. They were sixteen, and their grandma came to stay, but not until the second night. That first night they’d spent in Wren’s bed, Wren holding Cath’s wrists, Cath crying.
“I’m like him,” she’d whispered.
“You’re not,” Wren said.
“I am. I’m crazy like him.” She was already having panic attacks. She was already hiding at parties. In seventh grade, she’d been late to class for the first two weeks because she couldn’t stand being in the halls with everyone else during passing periods. “It’s probably going to get worse in a few years. That’s when it usually kicks in.”
“You’re not,” Wren said.
“But what if I am?”
“Decide not to be.”
“That’s not how it works,” Cath argued.
“Nobody knows how it works.”
“What if I don’t even see it coming?”
“I’ll see it coming.”
Cath tried to stop crying, but she’d been crying so long, the crying had taken over, making her breathe in harsh sniffs and jerks.
“If it tries to take you,” Wren said, “I won’t let go.”
A few months later, Cath gave that line to Simon in a scene about Baz’s bloodlust. Wren was still writing with Cath back then, and when she got to the line, she snorted.
“I’m here for you if you go manic,” Wren said. “But you’re on your own if you become a vampire.”
“What good are you anyway,” Cath said. Their dad was home by then. And better. And Cath didn’t feel, for the moment, like her DNA was a trap ready to snap closed on her.
“Apparently, I’m good for something,” Wren said. “You keep stealing all my best lines.”
* * *
Cath thought about texting Wren Friday night before she fell asleep, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.
The Humdrum wasn’t a man at all, or a monster. It was a boy.
Simon stepped closer, perhaps foolishly, wanting to see its face.… He felt the Humdrum’s power whipping around him like dry air, like hot sand, an aching fatigue in the very marrow of Simon’s bones.
The Humdrum—the boy—wore faded denims and a grotty T-shirt, and it probably took Simon far too long to recognize the child as himself. His years-ago self.
“Stop it,” Simon shouted. “Show yourself, you coward. Show yourself!”
The boy just laughed.
Her dad and Wren came home on the same day. Saturday.
Her dad was already talking about going back to work—even though his meds were still off, and he still seemed alternately drunk or half-asleep. Cath wondered if he’d stay on them through the weekend.
Maybe it would be okay if he went off his meds. She and Wren were both home now to watch out for him.
With everything that had happened, Cath wasn’t quite sure whether she and Wren were on speaking terms. She decided that they were; it made life easier. But they weren’t on sharing terms—she still hadn’t told Wren anything about Levi. Or about Nick, for that matter. And she didn’t want Wren to start talking about her adventures with their mom. Cath was sure Wren had some mother–daughter Christmas plans.
At first, all Wren wanted to talk about was school. She felt good about her finals, did Cath? And she’d already bought her books for next semester. What classes was Cath taking? Did they have any together?
Cath mostly listened.
“Do you think we should call Grandma?” Wren asked.
“Let’s wait and see how he does.”
All their friends from high school were home for Christmas. Wren kept trying to get Cath to go out.
“You go,” Cath would say. “I’ll stay with Dad.”
“I can’t go without you. That would be weird.”
It would seem weird to their high school friends to see Wren without Cath. Their college friends would think it was weird if they showed up anywhere together.
“Somebody should stay with Dad,” Cath said.
“Go, Cath,” their dad said after a few days of this. “I’m not going to lose control sitting here watching Iron Chef.”
Sometimes Cath went.
Sometimes she stayed home and waited up for Wren.
Sometimes Wren didn’t come home at all.
“I don’t want you to see me shit-faced,” Wren explained when she rolled in one morning. “You make me uncomfortable.”