Oh. My. God. You are never going to believe who I just saw driving through town in a Subaru. Who?
You’re not serious.
Do I look like I’m laughing?
I heard she’s been sunning herself on the French Riviera for the past two years, living off all our college funds.
No way. Her dad lost all that money.
My mom says they’ve been living in a trailer in West Virginia somewhere, like, under a bridge or something.
Oh my God. Did she look malnourished?
Her hair was kind of frizzy. . . .
I can’t believe she’s back. Does Chloe know?
Are you kidding? She sent a 911 text to the girls and they’re already convening at Jump.
Unbelievable. Ally Ryan back in Orchard Hill.
I cannot wait for the first day of school.
“So? What do you think?”
Hmm. What did I think? I had to take a moment to sort out an answer to that one. Here’s what I came up with.
I thought that my ass hurt from sitting for four straight hours on the car ride from Maryland to New Jersey. I thought that the dingy gray condo in front of which I was now standing—discernible as my new home solely by the fact that the movers had propped the storm door open with a cinder block—was butthole hideous. Although, on the bright side, it was exactly the same butthole hideous as every other condominium on this particular block of the Orchard View condo complex, so at least it wasn’t alone in its butthole hideousness. I thought that the last time I had been in Orchard Hill, about eighteen months ago, there had been a gorgeous apple orchard right where I was standing—an orchard that actually made sense of the name Orchard Hill—and that now it was gone. So not only was there no orchard anywhere near the Orchard View condominiums, but there was also no view, because we were at the bottom of the hill from which one would have viewed said orchard, back when said orchard existed.
I also thought—no, knew—that the way I answered this question would determine my mother’s mood for the rest of the day. The rest of the week. Maybe the rest of the year.
So I smiled and said, “It’s great, Mom.”
Her tired, sad eyes brightened, and the tension disappeared from her smile. “Don’t you think? And, honey, it’s not forever. I’m going to put half my paycheck away every week, and Danielle says that before we know it we’ll be able to afford one of those cute little houses over by the library and . . .”
Danielle was Danielle Moore, mother of my old friend Shannen Moore and the only one of my mom’s friends from Orchard Hill who still talked to her. Probably because she understood that wives and daughters should not be held responsible for the actions of husbands and fathers. Mrs. Moore was also the realtor who’d found us this lovely little condo in the first place. I reminded myself not to thank her when I saw her again.
I missed the rest of my mother’s rambled promises because one of the movers—a round dude with too much facial hair—was walking by with my bike on his shoulder.
“Um . . . excuse me? Could I get that, please?” I asked, swallowing my aversion to strange men with pit stains.
He grunted and dropped my bike to the ground so hard that I swear I heard the suspension whimper. But at least it was my bike. If home is where the heart is, home had just arrived.
He grunted again. I straddled my bike. Closed my hands around the well-worn rubber grips. There was plenty of dirt stuck up in the thick treads, and I was ready to add some more. Instantly, I felt about nine hundred percent better. Nine hundred percent more free.
“Ally, where’re you going?” The light was already gone from Mom’s eyes. “Don’t you want to see your room?”
“I’ll see it later. I’m going for a ride,” I said.
“Where? I hope you’re not thinking of—”
The movers slammed the truck door shut, muffling her last words, but I knew what she had said. And we both knew that I was thinking of doing what she thought I was thinking of doing. There was no reason to confirm or deny. Without a backward glance, I rode through the gates at the front of the complex, hooked a left, and headed for town. It felt good to move. To breathe. To get the hell away from my mother and all her positive thinking. I love you, Mom, but things were not going to be the same now that we were “home.” Things were never going to be the same.
But still, it was kind of good to be back. As I waited at the light at the bottom of Orchard Avenue, I couldn’t believe it had been more than a year. The place looked exactly the same. Not one storefront had changed, and they all still had the same cheesy names that had cracked me up back in kindergarten. The Tortoise and the Hair Beauty Salon. Baby, It’s Yours Kids’ Clothing. Needle Me This Knitting Supply. Jump, Java, and Wail! Coffee Company. The proprietors of Orchard Hill lived for their cutesy plays on words, which just made the Starbucks and the Gap look all the more cold and austere with their been-there-done-that signage. The movie theater anchored the downtown shopping area, its old-school neon lights doused now, since the sun was still up, its marquee advertising the three latest and greatest indie movies of the month. The brick-faced post office was bustling with activity, and a few middle school guys were using its wheelchair ramp to show off their tricks. In Veterans’ Park across the way, a group of girls were lying out in shorts and tanks, their tops folded up to expose the maximum amount of stomach. As soon as I saw them I stood up on the pedals, racing up the hill and under the train trestle toward the crest. I doubted I knew any of them—most of my former friends had huge backyards with pools if they wanted to lie out—but I wasn’t ready to do the whole reunion thing yet. Which was hilarious, considering where I was headed.
I hesitated for a split second at the foot of Harvest Lane. What was I doing here, anyway? I hadn’t seen this hill since February of my freshman year—the night my family and I had driven down it for what I’d thought was the last time, me staring out the back window of my dad’s soon-to-be-repossessed BMW, trying to commit every detail to memory. I hadn’t even called my friends to say good-bye. Hadn’t texted. Hadn’t e-mailed. Hadn’t tweeted a less-than-140-character “See ya!” I’d been too confused, too scared, too embarrassed. And soon too much time had passed, and getting in touch felt awkward and humiliating and I just . . . never had. Now here I was, eighteen months later, wishing I could go back and smack my freshman self upside the head. Because if I had said good-bye, if I had kept in touch with any of them, it would have made moving back here so much easier. But how was I supposed to know my mother would one day get a job at Orchard Hill High? When we’d left, my parents had told me we were gone for good, and I’d believed them.
It wasn’t my fault they didn’t have a clue.
After spinning a couple of circles at the foot of the hill, I figured, what the hell? I’d come this far. If fate wanted me to bump into one of my old friends today, then let fate have her way. I turned, flipped my bike into first, and started the long climb. The late August sun beat down on my back, and sweat prickled my neck and underarms as I worked my bike uphill. There were no houses on this stretch of Harvest—the drop-off on my right was way too steep for building, the ridge on my left made of solid rock. As I came out of the trees, the view opened up and I glanced back over my shoulder to see New York City lying low and gray in the distance. In front of it, the town of Orchard Hill opened up like a pretty pop-up book at my feet. From this height I could see Orchard Avenue and all the little side streets crisscrossing it at various angles. Atop the hill on the far side of town was Orchard Hill High, where I’d be starting school in a few days, and at the foot of that hill, the Orchard View condos, where my mom was probably cursing my name right now. Beyond that were all the cute cookie-cutter houses on their gridlike streets and the strip mall with its Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS and mom-and-pop pizza place and deli. At least we lived within walking distance of Munchkins and pizza. Always try to look at the bright side.
At the tip-top of Harvest I paused and put my feet down, breathing heavily and taking in the view. I’d been thinking about this moment the whole ride up from Maryland. But now that I was here, my heart fluttered with nerves. I swallowed hard and pretended I didn’t feel it. Why should I be nervous? It wasn’t like I was going to see anyone. It wasn’t like it mattered. It was all in the past. I was a completely different person now. Smarter. Stronger. Better.
I took a deep breath and rode around the bend. Suddenly everything became crisply clear in front of me, as if I’d been looking through someone else’s glasses for the whole ride up here and they’d finally fallen away. I leaned back on my bike and drank it all in. The tall, green trees forming a canopy of green, the hissing sound of the sprinklers spritzing the manicured lawns, the scent of barbecue wafting through the air from the backyard of one of the stately houses. Suddenly I was twelve years old again. Ten. Five. A little kid running from yard to yard, chasing fireflies with my friends, laughing and shouting and singing l...