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Stranger With My Face

Lois Duncan

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  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  Q&A with the Author

  For David and Maria Martin

  Mary Ann, Johanna and Elizabeth

  My name is Laurie Stratton. I’m seventeen years old, and I live at the Cliff House on the northern tip of Brighton Island.

  My parents moved here with me when I was four. My father is a science fiction writer, and my mother is an artist, so this out-of-the-mainstream existence suits them. They bought this house from the descendants of the Brighton family, who at one time owned the island, and had it remodeled to fit their needs. Except for an occasional trip down to the village for groceries and mail, they seldom leave the house and almost never leave the island.

  “Why go back to the rat race on the mainland,” asks Dad, “when we have everything we need right here?”

  There was a time when I, too, loved Cliff House. It’s perched on a ledge of rock that hangs out over the ocean, and from the balcony off my bedroom I can look out into forever. In the summer the skies are such a brilliant blue that they seem to have been painted on cardboard, and the water varies from light blue to dark blue, to aqua, to emerald green. The island is fun in the summer. The cottages at the south end fill up with vacationers, and the Yacht Club has sailing races, and the Tennis Club has tournaments, and students from Harvard and Yale and Princeton come swarming out from the mainland to compete for jobs as lifeguards. The Brighton Inn has live music on the weekends, so there’s a place for dancing, and the roads are filled with cyclists, and the beaches with picnickers, and the warm, sweet air with the sound of laughter and the smell of sunscreen.

  In the winter the scene changes. The gray moves in, and with it, the cold. We have the place to ourselves then—my family and I, and the people in the village.

  It’s the villagers who gave our home its name. From the village you can look across the inlet and see it hanging out against the sky like an extension of the cliff on which it stands. The Brightons designed the house so that every room, no matter how small, has a window overlooking the sea. My mother’s studio is at the top of the house, angled so that it’s flooded with north light, and my father’s office is downstairs off the kitchen. On the middle level is a huge, heavy-beamed living room with a stone fireplace at the far end, and the three bedrooms climb the side of the house like stair steps, fitting the curve of the cliff. The topmost room is mine—then comes my parents’—and the third, which was originally going to be a guest room for agents and editors who come out from New York—belongs to my younger brother and sister.

  “If we had expected them, we would have made better arrangements,” my mom always says with a laugh, because I was supposed to have been an only child.

  So I live at the Cliff House with my parents, and with my brother, Neal, who is eleven, and my sister, Megan, who is eight.

  And with someone else.

  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her, but I know she’s here. In bed at night, above the sound of the surf on the rocks beneath my window, I hear very faintly the rustle of her passage down the hall. She moves softly, but I can hear, for I’m used to the sound of her.

  She pauses outside my door.

  In my dreams I hear her voice. But are they dreams? Or in the months since I saw her last has her voice become so slight that this is the only way she can reach me?

  I blame you, she whispers. Only you.

  I’m not afraid of her any more, but her presence here disturbs me. Even the beauty of the ocean is no solace. I stand at the window and stare out at the sun-dappled waves of the summer sea, and I brace myself as though against an icy wind.

  My parents worry about me. They don’t understand what’s happened. Of the three people I could talk to, two are gone, and the third is very young.

  I’ll be leaving soon too. That’s why I’m writing this. When I go I want to leave it all behind me—Cliff House, my memories and her. To do that, though, I have to pour the story from my mind into another vehicle first.

  I don’t have my father’s talent for writing. That went to Megan, just as my mother’s artistic talent went to Neal. But since there is no one here I can talk to, I have no choice but to set my tale down on paper.

  I hope I can finish before September. . . .

  That was the beginning. September one year ago.

  I awoke that particular morning with a question in my mind—Am I going to make it?

  I lay there for a while, considering, almost afraid to test myself. Then, very slowly, I sat up. Nothing happened. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and hoisted myself gingerly to my feet.

  Still, nothing. The room remained stable. My stomach didn’t leap and lurch. My mouth tasted normal.

  So Mom had been right after all, and the horrible nausea I suffered the day before had been nothing more than one of those twenty-four-hour viruses! It was over. I was fine. I would be able to go to the first day of school.

  I crossed the room, wobbling a little with that leftover weakness that always follows a round of the stomach flu, and went out onto the balcony. It was like stepping into a bath of golden light; the sunlight seemed to be pouring in from every direction. Overhead the sky was a radiant, piercing blue, and the salt breeze still smelled like summer. The water was so calm and clear I felt as though I could look straight down through it to the sand floor below.

  It seemed impossible that fall was officially here!

  In every girl’s life, I guess, there must be one special summer that’s a turning point, a time of stretching and reaching and blossoming out and leaving childhood behind. This had been the summer that had happened to me. The year before, I had been awkward and gawky, all pointed knees and sharp elbows and bony rib cage, hiding my shyness behind a book while girls like Natalie Coleson and Darlene Briggs wriggled around in their bikinis and got boys to buy them drinks and rub them with sunscreen.

  This summer it had all been different. The first day I walked out onto the beach, clutching my book and my beach towel, I heard a whistle.

  At first I didn’t believe it was for me.

  Then somebody called, “Hey, Laurie!” and I turned to see Darlene’s boyfriend, Blane Savage, grinning at me. Next to him, Gordon Ahearn, who had been sprawled flat, soaking up sun, lifted his head to see what was going on.

  “Hey, come on over here!” Blane called.

  Slowly I walked over to stand in front of them. I was bewildered by the summons. I had seen Blane all year long in school, and he’d hardly bothered to speak to me.

  “What do you want?” I asked.

  “Just to say ‘hi,’” Blane said. His shoulders were white and freckled, and he looked a lot less handsome in swim trunks than he did with clothes on.

  With Gordon, it was another thing entirely. His lean, well-muscled body seemed to keep a year-round tan. He shoved a lock of blond hair back from his face and regarded me quizzically.

  “Is that a new swimsuit?”

  I shook my head. “It’s the same one I had last year.”

  “Well, something looks different,” he said approvingly. “Why don’t you set up camp and stay a while? Want some lotion?”

  “No, thanks,” I told him. “I never burn.”

  Over by the base of the lifeguard tower, Natalie Coleson was talking and laughing with a bunch of the college kids who had come over from the mainland on the ferry. Natalie had been Gordon’s prom date. She was really pretty and popular, but I noticed that she had gained some weight over the winter. She was pretending to be caught up in conversation, but her eyes kept flicking in my direction.

  I glanced down at my own flat stomach (weight has never been one of my problems) and felt a sudden amazing surge of self-confi
dence. It was a new feeling for me to like my looks and to realize that other people did too.

  Carefully I spread my towel out on the sand next to Gordon’s and lowered myself onto it. The sun felt great on my back and shoulders.

  “Want a Coke?” Gordon asked me.

  I never got around to doing any reading. I hardly picked up a book again that summer, with all the swimming and sailing, and dances and beach parties and moonlit walks by the ocean.

  I had my first kiss. Actually, that happened pretty fast. Gordon wasn’t a guy for playing games.

  “You’ve got a sweet mouth,” he told me on our first date, “and I’m going to do something about it.”

  He had a nice mouth too. And beautiful, sea green eyes, a strong face, and soft hair that kept getting lighter and lighter under the summer sun until it became the unreal color of corn silk.

  Going out with Gordon automatically made me a part of his crowd—Darlene and Blane, Natalie, Tommy Burbank, Rennie and Mary Beth Ziegler, and the various others who came and went as the “cool” group changed boyfriends and girlfriends. At first the girls snubbed me out of loyalty to Natalie. Soon, though, she zeroed in on one of the summer vacationers—Carl Something-or-Other—and that eased the tension. Eventually she and I got to be pretty good friends. Or so I thought.

  That was one reason I felt bad about missing the party.

  Natalie’s father owned the Brighton Inn, and Nat had talked him into letting her throw an end-of-the-summer party there. Everybody was excited about it, especially the girls, because it would give us a chance to dress up. There weren’t many such occasions, since on the island everybody dressed casually for everything. I even got Mom to take me shopping on the mainland for a long dress and matching high-heeled sandals.

  And then I got sick.

  The flu hit suddenly, and it knocked me out completely. It was crazy; that morning I was feeling great, and by midafternoon I was sure I was going to die. I threw up everything I’d had to eat all day, and went in and fell onto the bed and didn’t move again for hours. At about five I got myself up long enough to stagger to the phone and call to tell Gordon that I wouldn’t be going to the party. He wasn’t home, and there is absolutely zero cell phone reception on the island because of some local law about building towers, so I left the message with his mother, who was sweet and sympathetic.

  “That’s such a shame, Laurie,” she said. “I know it won’t be nearly as much fun for Gordon if you’re not there.”

  I hadn’t thought about Gordon going without me. If things had been reversed, I definitely wouldn’t have gone to a party while he lay on his deathbed. At the same time, confronting the situation logically, it was silly to expect him to miss the final get-together of the season.

  “Tell him I’m really sorry,” I said, and then had to practically throw the receiver back on the hook as a wave of nausea came sweeping over me. Mom found me in the bathroom and put me back to bed. I fully expected to stay there until Christmas.

  Which was why I was so amazed now, just one day later, at how good I felt. I drew in a final long breath of sunny air and left the balcony to get dressed.

  “Are you sure you feel well enough for school?” Mom asked me worriedly as I came into the kitchen. “The first day can’t be all that important, and you need to get your strength back.”

  “I feel fine,” I told her.

  Neal and Megan were seated at the kitchen table, licking the sugar off their cinnamon toast and messing around with their cereal. I barely recognized them. All summer they had run around barefoot in swimsuits or cutoffs with their hair sticky with salt and their arms and legs plastered with grains of sand. Now they were neatly dressed in their brand-new school clothes, and Megan even had her hair curled.

  “Laurie doesn’t want to miss the ferry ride,” she announced knowingly. “She’s afraid some other girl will sit with Gordon.”

  There isn’t a school on the island, so the resident kids commute to the mainland by ferry. It’s a forty-minute ride each way, and both the elementary and high schools are within walking distance of the landing. The ferry ride was fun, and as usual when she made her smug, precocious remarks, Meg was right. I did want to make the ride with Gordon. The year before, I had been one of the loners, sitting with Neal or Megan, or standing at the rail by myself or with somebody like Jeff Rankin, pretending it didn’t matter that the “in” crowd was bunched together on the bow, laughing and joking around, oblivious to my existence.

  This year it would be different. I had a place now, an identity. I was “Laurie Stratton, Gordon Ahearn’s girlfriend,” and I would be there on the bow with the others, Gordon’s arm tossed casually around my shoulders as we shared the sea wind and the blowing flecks of spray.

  “I feel completely fine,” I said again to Mom, and to prove it I ate some breakfast—not a lot, but a few bites of toast and some coffee. And then the kids and I set off for the ferry landing a half mile away.

  The moment we were out the door, Neal took off like a bullet and was gone, streaking down Beach Road and disappearing around a curve. Neal never walks anywhere if he can run. Meg is strong, but a little chunky, and I am thin, but lazy; so we just sort of jogged along together, enjoying the morning, knowing that even if we were a few minutes late Neal would make them wait for us.

  When we came around the bend in the road, we could see the crowd already assembled at the dock. Rennie and Mary Beth were always there early, because their dad ran the ferry, and there were a bunch of younger kids running around, proudly toting backpacks and pretending to try to shove each other into the water. Jeff Rankin was standing by himself over by the seawall. And I saw Darlene and Blane. Then, a little beyond them, I saw Gordon talking with Natalie.

  I raised my hand and waved.

  Darlene waved back at me, but it was an odd sort of gesture. She raised her hand halfway, then glanced at the others and slowly lowered it again. Gordon didn’t seem to see me, which was strange because he was looking right at me.

  I slowed my pace, and Meg trotted on ahead of me, glancing back over her shoulder.

  “You coming, Laurie?” she called.

  “Yes,” I told her.

  Something was the matter. I could feel the vibrations of hostility stretching to meet me. My apprehension mounted as I drew nearer, and I found myself walking more and more slowly.

  “Hi,” I said as casually as I could when I came up to them. “What’s going on?”

  No one smiled, or even tried to. There was a moment of silence.

  Then Natalie said, “You missed a good time last night. It turned out to be a pretty great party.”

  “I’m sure it was,” I said. “I felt so bad canceling on you. You wouldn’t have wanted me, though, in the condition I was in.”

  “You seem okay this morning,” Gordon said without even saying hi first.

  “I am,” I told him. “It’s like a miracle.”

  “It seems that way. When did it happen?”

  “When did what happen?” I glanced in bewilderment from one unfriendly face to another. “Hey, what’s with you guys?”

  “The miracle,” Gordon said. “When did it happen? Pretty quickly after you called my mom?”

  “Look, Laurie,” Natalie said, “you can cut the act before it gets any more embarrassing than it already is. We know you weren’t sick.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Just that. We know you’re lying. That was twenty bucks’ worth of lobster dinner you cost my dad. If you didn’t want to come, you could have said so in the first place.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I turned to Darlene. “What is she talking about?”

  “It’s not like it was a backyard barbecue or something, Laurie.” Darlene’s soft little voice was gently accusing. “This was a formal party. Nat’s folks had gone to all kinds of trouble getting things set up with a band and all that awesome food.”

  “If I’d known you didn’t want to come, I would
have asked someone in your place,” Natalie told me. Her pretty, heart-shaped face was flushed with anger.

  “Where are you getting this stuff about my ‘not wanting’ to come?” I was beginning to get angry myself. “What choice did I have? People don’t get sick because they want to. I guess you think it’s my idea of fun to lie there in bed when all the rest of you are out partying!”

  “Come off it, Laurie,” Gordon said. “You weren’t at home in bed any more than I was.”

  “I had the flu,” I said. “If you don’t believe me—”

  “I don’t.” His voice was flat and hard. “Because I saw you.”


  “The band took a break, so I went outside to get some air. The moon was bright, and I saw you on the beach.”

  “Gordon, you’ve got to be crazy!” I stared at him incredulously. “I never left the house last night. You can ask my parents.”

  “I don’t need to ask anybody. I saw you. So answer me something—who were you meeting there? And don’t try to tell me ‘nobody,’ because I’m not going to buy it. It was one of the summer guys, wasn’t it? Which one—that dude from Princeton? Or that one with the beard who’s been giving you the eye at the Tennis Club?”

  He was furious. I had never seen Gordon so livid. His jaw was set, and his eyes had narrowed to slits of glimmering green.

  Mr. Ziegler gave the boat whistle a toot, and I realized suddenly that we were the only ones who hadn’t boarded.

  “I won’t even try to answer that,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster. “There isn’t any answer. I was home, sick in bed. Period. If you saw somebody on the beach, it wasn’t me.”

  For a moment nobody spoke.

  Then Natalie said quietly, “That’s not true. I was with Gordon. We both saw you. There’s no way in the world it could have been anyone else.”

  It was a long, strange day.

  There were all the usual things that have to be done at the start of a new school year. I went to the office for my locker assignment, filled out registration forms, and located my new classrooms.