“Thanks for everything, Callie.” Joanie smiled as she slung her duffel bag over her shoulder. The sun was sinking slowly over the horizon.
“Anytime, hun.” Callie McLain waved from the front seat of the van as Joanie unlocked the door to her family’s apartment.
Joanie’s friends, Ben and Cody McLain, who happened to be identical twins, had let Joanie go with their family to the beach for a month. Some of her other friends-Olivia Duncan, Lucas Jones, and Kasey Pearson-had also gone.
Joanie braced herself for the yelling. Her dad was home, it was bound to happen. She just hadn’t expected it to be directed at her.
“Joanna Noel Waters!” Her mother screamed as Joanie reached the top of the stairs. Why would she use her full name? That wouldn’t happen unless . . .oh no! She knew.
“Hi, Mom. Great to see you too, it’s only been a month.” Joanie said sarcastically.
“Don’t sass me, Missy! This came in the mail! It’s your supply list, for Madge High School.” Her mother narrowed her eyes.
“There must be a mistake or something. I go to Bailey, you know that.” Joanie quickly lied. She had to do it too much, and was an expert by now.
“It has you’re name on it.”
“Your entire name. Joanna Noel Waters. It says it right here.”
“YOU LIED TO ME!”
The two had been so engrossed in their fight that neither noticed Joanie’s dad had come in the hall.
“THIS! THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT! SHE’S YOUR DAUGHTER.”
Joanie’s father started to defend his daughter, which ended up in a shouting match between her parents. Joanie stormed into her room, and slammed the door. Even that didn’t get her parents attention.
She plugged in her headphones and played the music as loud as it would go. It was probably an hour before she got a text.
Cody: Hey Joanie, what do u call a bee born in the United States?
Ben: a USB hahahaha
Ben: also, Ally said she has one of ur t-shirts by accident
Cody: lol I’m hilarious
Ben: Joanie?? What’s wrong?
Cody: wait, what?
Ben: something’s wrong, she didn’t bother to tell us how lame we r
Joanie: well at least u no u r lame so I don’t have to say it no more
A minute after answering her friends, Ben FaceTimed her.
“Dude, seriously, is something wrong?” He asked.
“No more than normal.” She didn’t want to share the fact that she had lied to her parents for an entire year about what school she attended.
“Yes, they’re just fighting.” She tried to say like it was no big deal, even though it wasn’t.
There was a beep on her phone, and Cody joined the FaceTime. “Good news: I found my phone.”
“Don’t tell me you got it taken away and stole it back in the hour I’ve been gone.” Joanie shook her head. She would laugh if she were in a good mood. Her best friends always ended up getting in trouble, no matter what.
“Okay, fine, Ben tell her.”
“Yeah, and I’m keeping watch at the door because Mom thought she already had my phone.” Ben said.
“Well, mine too, but she caught me earlier.” His head perked up at a sound. “That’s mom, got to go.” Cody hung up, hurriedly and worriedly. He was about to get caught, again.
“Mom’s downstairs. That was me. It scared him so much!” Ben started laughing. He stopped suddenly, “Crap. That actually is Mom. Just, tell me if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay. Now, go before you get caught and I can’t tell you.”
Ben half-heartedly laughed and ended the call.
Joanie realized her music was paused, and she couldn’t hear any yelling. She cautiously pulled her headphones off and left them on her bed, along with her phone. She crept into the hall, where she could hear her older sister, Sky, and their parents talking in the kitchen. Not yelling, talking.
Sky had graduated college the year before, and lived in an apartment a few blocks away.
“Why didn’t you tell her?” Sky demanded.
“Tell me what?” Joanie was never one for eavesdropping. She stood in the kitchen doorway.
“Joanie, your mom and I decided that it’d be best for everyone if we got a divorce.” Her dad said gently.
To Joanie, it felt like a slap in the face. She had known it was coming for sometime now, but it still hurt. The shock must’ve registered on her face, and her mother explained further. “I’m moving to Atlanta for work. You’re coming with me, and we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“No.” Joanie said, backing away and desperately trying to blink the tears away. “No. I won’t.” She turned and ran down the stairs. The door slammed behind her.
She didn’t know where her legs took her as she sprinted down the streets she had learned so well over the years. Atlanta was three and a half hours away. There was no way she could leave her friends at Madge. Not after she’d sunk this deep in her lies. She didn’t do it all to have it taken away now.
Her anger was overridden by sadness, knowing there wasn’t a solution. Without realizing it, she’d taken herself to a sacred place. The tree, a place where she, Cody, and Ben, shared in their best and worst moments.
Best? When they came here at the beginning of summer, stargazing and hiding from Austin after they turned his hair purple.
Worst? Definitely last winter, when the twins had found her after her parents had one of their worst fights yet, that ended with her dad leaving for the night.
And she was going to lose her best friends and everything she had learned to call home. Heck, she’d even miss Abby, her enemy at school, and her complaints about Joanie’s frizzy black hair.
What she didn’t know is that her phone was blowing up with messages from her parents, sister, and friends. She’d been gone for two hours without knowing it. What she didn’t know was that her family thought she’d run away. Sky had called Callie to ask if Joanie was with the twins.
Then her knees felt like jelly. The world was tilting. She didn’t know what was happening, but all the guilt and fear of the last few hours kept repeating over in her mind.
And again. And again. And again. And again.
“Joanie?” Cody called out. He was yards away from her, and stopped short when he saw her. She was slowly sinking to the ground, sobbing.
“Joanie!” Ben raced toward her, with his brother on his heels. He knelt down in front of her, and took her hand. “Joanie, can you hear me?”
Her brain barely registered what was happening. But she thought she could hear her friends calling out to her.
“Joanie?” Ben’s voice was barely a whisper.
She could hear them clearly again. She looked at her two friends, and choked back a sob.
“What happened?” Cody asked.
And so, Joanie told them everything. About how she lied to her parents in order to attend a normal high school, instead of a tech school. Her parents fight and how they were getting a divorce. And finally, about how she was moving to Atlanta the next day.
Of course, they were upset, but they tried to put on brave faces for Joanie. They took her to their house, which was only a minute’s walk away.
The tree was actually at the edge of their acres worth of yard.
The McLain family had nine kids, and three of them had moved out. So, with a count of eight, including their parents, it was very surprising to find only Callie, their mother, awake.
Callie gave Joanie a glass of water, and asked why she looked so shaken up. The twins helped Joanie lie, or half the truth. She asked them not to tell anyone about the whole lying to her parents about attending Madge thing. So they skipped over that part and just said that her parents were getting divorced. Callie took Joanie to Sky’s apartment.
It actually all managed to work out. Sky had returned to her home, knowing Joanie would come there instead of her parents’ house. They talked and worked everything out.
Joanie was allowed to stay at Madge as long as she kept her grades up and behaved. She would live with Sky when school was out, since Madge was a boarding school and she’d only be out on holidays and summer. Her mom would move to Atlanta, and her dad would remain in Savannah a few blocks away from the sisters. He traveled for work, so he’d be gone most of the time, but they’d visit when they could.
The next morning, Joanie rushed over to see her two best friends. They were ecstatic to know that she wasn’t saying goodbye, but sharing the amazing news.