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The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, numerous, messy, affectionate. And every day from her balcony perch, seventeen-year-old Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs her terrace and changes everything. As the two fall fiercely in love, Jase's family makes Samantha one of their own. Then in an instant, the bottom drops out of her world and she is suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?
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Huntley Fitzpatrick is the author of My Life Next Door. She lives in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, with her husband and six children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
by Huntley Fitzpatrick
an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Table of Contents
The Garretts were forbidden from the start.
But that’s not why they were important.
We were standing in our yard that day ten years ago when their battered sedan pulled up to the low-slung shingled house next door, close behind the moving van.
“Oh no,” Mom sighed, arms falling to her sides. “I hoped we could have avoided this.”
“This—what?” my big sister called from down the driveway. She was eight and already restless with Mom’s chore of the day, planting jonquil bulbs in our front garden. Walking quickly to the picket fence that divided our house from the one next door, she perched on her tiptoes to peer at the new neighbors. I pressed my face to the gap in the slats, watching in amazement as two parents and five children spilled from the sedan, like a clown car at the circus.
“This kind of thing.” Mom gestured toward the car with the trowel, twisting her silvery blond hair into a coil with the other hand. “There’s one in every neighborhood. The family that never mows their lawn. Has toys scattered everywhere. The ones who never plant flowers, or do and let them die. The messy family who lowers real estate values. Here they are. Right next door. You’ve got that bulb wrong side up, Samantha.”
I switched the bulb around, scooting my knees in the dirt to get closer to the fence, my eyes never leaving the father as he swung a baby from a car seat while a curly-haired toddler climbed his back. “They look nice,” I said.
I remember there was a silence then, and I looked up at my mother.
She was shaking her head at me, a strange expression on her face. “Nice isn’t the point here, Samantha. You’re seven years old. You need to understand what’s important. Five children. Good God. Just like your father’s family. Insanity.” She shook her head again, rolling her eyes heavenward.
I moved closer to Tracy and edged a fleck of white paint off the fence with my thumbnail. My sister looked at me with the same warning face she used when she was watching TV and I walked up to ask her a question.
“He’s cute,” she said, squinting over the fence again. I looked over to see an older boy unfold himself from the back of the car, baseball mitt in hand, reaching back to haul out a cardboard box full of sports gear.
Even then, Tracy liked to deflect, to forget how hard our mother found being a parent. Our dad had walked away without even a good-bye, leaving Mom with a one-year-old, a baby on the way, a lot of disillusionment, and, luckily, her trust fund from her parents.
As the years proved, our new neighbors, the Garretts, were exactly what Mom predicted. Their lawn got mowed sporadically at best. Their Christmas lights stayed hung till Easter. Their backyard was a hodgepodge of an in-ground pool and a trampoline and a swing set and monkey bars. Periodically, Mrs. Garrett would make an effort to plant something seasonal, chrysanthemums in September, impatiens in June, only to leave it to gasp and wither away as she tended to something more important, like her five children. They became eight children over the years. All approximately three years apart.
“My unsafe zone,” I overheard Mrs. Garrett explain one day at the supermarket when Mrs. Mason commented on her burgeoning belly, “is twenty-two months. That’s when they suddenly aren’t babies anymore. I love babies so much.”
Mrs. Mason had raised her eyebrows and smiled, then turned away with compressed lips and a baffled shake of her head.
But Mrs. Garrett seemed to ignore it, happy in herself and content with her chaotic family. Five boys and three girls by the time I turned seventeen.
Joel, Alice, Jase, Andy, Duff, Harry, George, and Patsy.
In the ten years since the Garretts moved next door, Mom hardly ever looked out the side windows of our house without huffing an impatient breath. Too many kids on the trampoline. Bikes abandoned on the lawn. Another pink or blue balloon tied to the mailbox, waving haphazardly in the breeze. Loud basketball games. Music blaring while Alice and her friends tanned. The bigger boys washing cars and spraying each other with hoses. If not those, it was Mrs. Garrett, calmly breast-feeding on the front steps, or sitting there on Mr. Garrett’s lap, for all the world to see.
“It’s indecent,” Mom would say, watching.
“It’s legal,” Tracy, future lawyer, always countered, flipping back her platinum hair. She’d station herself next to Mom, inspecting the Garretts out the big side window of the kitchen. “The courts have made it absolutely legal to breast-feed wherever you want. Her own front steps are definitely fair game.”
“But why? Why do it at all when there are bottles and formula? And if you must, why not inside?”
“She’s watching the other kids, Mom. It’s what she’s supposed to do,” I’d sometimes point out, making my stand next to Tracy.
Mom would sigh, shake her head, and extract the vacuum cleaner from the closet as if it were a Valium. The lullaby of my childhood was my mom running the vacuum cleaner, making perfectly symmetrical lines in our beige living room carpet. The lines somehow seemed important to her, so essential that she’d turn on the machine as Tracy and I were eating breakfast, then slowly follow us to the door as we pulled on our coats and backpacks. Then she’d back up, eliminating our trail of footprints, and her own, until we were outside. Finally, she’d rest the vacuum cleaner carefully behind one of our porch columns only to drag it back in that night when she got home from work.
It was clear from the start that we were not to play with the Garretts. After bringing over the obligatory “welcome to the neighborhood” lasagna, my mother did her best to be very unwelcoming. She responded to Mrs. Garrett’s smiling greetings with cool nods. She rebuffed Mr. Garrett’s offers to mow, sweep up leaves, or shovel snow with a terse “We have a service, thanks all the same.”
Finally, the Garretts stopped trying.
Though they lived right next door and one kid or another might pedal past me as I watered Mom’s flowers, it was easy not to run into them. Their kids went to the local public schools. Tracy and I attended Hodges, the only private school in our small Connecticut town.
One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time.
Outside my bedroom window, there’s a small flat section of the roof with a tiny fence around it. Not really a balcony, more like a ledge. It’s in between two peaked gables, shielded from both the front and backyard, and it faces the right side of the Garretts’ house. Even before they came, it was my place to sit and think. But afterward, it was my place to dream.
I’d climb out after bedtime, look through the lit windows, and see Mrs. Garrett doing the dishes, one of the younger kids sitting on the counter next to her. Or Mr. Garrett wrestling with the older boys in the living room. Or the lights going on where the baby must sleep, the figure of Mr. or Mrs. Garrett pacing back and forth, rubbing a tiny back. It was like watching a silent movie, one so different from the life I lived.
Over the years, I got more daring. I’d sometimes watch during the day, after school, hunched back against the side of the rough gable, trying to figure out which Garrett matched each name I heard called out the screen door. It was tricky because they all had wavy brown hair, olive skin, and sinewy builds, like a breed all their own.
Joel was the easiest to identify—the oldest and the most athletic. His picture often appeared in local papers for various sports accomplishments—I knew it in black and white. Alice, next in line, dyed her hair outlandish colors and wore clothes that provoked commentary from Mrs. Garrett, so I had her down as well. George and Patsy were the littlest ones. The middle three boys, Jase, Duff, and Harry...I couldn’t get them straight. I was pretty sure that Jase was the oldest of the three, but did that mean he was the tallest? Duff was supposed to be the smart one, competing in various chess competitions and spelling bees, but he didn’t wear glasses or give off any obvious brainiac signals. Harry was constantly in trouble—“Harry! How could you?” was the refrain. And Andy, the middle girl, always seemed to be missing, her name called longest to come to the dinner table or pile into the car: “Annnnnnnnndeeeeeeeeee!”
From my hidden perch, I’d peer out at the yard, trying to locate Andy, figure out Harry’s latest escapade, or see what outrageous outfit Alice was wearing. The Garretts were my bedtime story, long before I ever thought I’d be part of the story myself.
On the first sweltering hot night in June, I’m home alone, trying to enjoy the quiet but finding myself moving from room to room, unable to settle.
Tracy’s out with Flip, yet another blond tennis player in her unending series of boyfriends. I can’t reach my best friend, Nan, who’s been completely distracted by her boyfriend, Daniel, since school ended last week and he graduated. There’s nothing on TV I want to see, no place in town I feel like going. I’ve tried sitting out on the porch, but at low tide the humid air is overpowering, muddy-scented from the breeze off the river.
So I’m sitting in our vaulted living room, crunching the ice left over from my seltzer, skimming through Tracy’s stack of In Touch magazines. Suddenly I hear a loud, continuous buzzing sound. As it goes on and on I look around, alarmed, trying to identify it. The dryer? The smoke detector? Finally, I realize it’s the doorbell, buzzing and buzzing, on and on and on. I hurry to open the door, expecting—sigh—one of Tracy’s exes, daring after too many strawberry daiquiris at the country club, come to win her back.
Instead, I see my mother, pressed against the doorbell, getting the daylights kissed out of her by some man. When I throw the door open, they half stumble, then he braces his hand on the jamb and just keeps kissing away. So I stand there, feeling stupid, arms folded, my thin nightgown shifting slightly in the thick air. All around me are summer voices. The lap of the shore far away, the roar of a motorcycle coming up the street, the shhhh of the wind in the dogwood trees. None of those, and certainly not my presence, stop my mom or this guy. Not even when the motorcycle backfires as it peels into the Garretts’ driveway, which usually drives Mom crazy.
Finally, they come up for air, and she turns to me with an awkward laugh.
“Samantha. Goodness! You startled me.”
She’s flustered, her voice high and girlish. Not the authoritative “this is how it will be” voice she typically uses at home or the syrup-mixed-with-steel one she wields on the job.
Five years ago, Mom went into politics. Tracy and I didn’t take it seriously at first—we’d hardly known Mom to vote. But she came home one day from a rally charged up and determined to be state senator. She ran, and she won, and our lives changed entirely.
We were proud of her. Of course we were. But instead of making breakfast and sifting through our book bags to be sure our homework was done, Mom left home at five o’clock in the morning and headed to Hartford “before the traffic kicks in.” She stayed late for commissions and special sessions. Weekends weren’t about Tracy’s gymnastics practices or my swim meets. They were for boning up on upcoming votes, staying for special sessions, or attending local events. Tracy pulled every bad-teenager trick in the book. She played with drugs and drinking, she shoplifted, she slept with too many boys. I read piles of books, registered Democratic in my mind (Mom’s Republican), and spent more time than usual watching the Garretts.
So now tonight, I stand here, stunned into immobility by the unexpected and prolonged PDA, until Mom finally lets go of the guy. He turns to me and I gasp.
After a man leaves you, pregnant and with a toddler, you don’t keep his picture on the mantel. We have only a few photographs of our dad, and they’re all in Tracy’s room. Still I recognize him—the curve of his jaw, the dimples, the shiny wheat-blond hair and broad shoulders. This man has all those things.
Mom’s expression morphs from dreamy bedazzlement to utter shock, as though I’ve cursed.
The guy shifts away from Mom, extends his hand to me. As he moves into the light of the living room, I realize he’s much younger than my father would be now. “Hi there, darlin’. I’m the newest—and most enthusiastic—member of your mom’s reelection campaign.”
Enthusiastic? I’ll say.
He takes my hand and shakes it, seemingly without my participation.
“This is Clay Tucker,” Mom says, in the reverent tone one might use for Vincent van Gogh or Abraham Lincoln. She turns and gives me a reproving look, no doubt for the “Dad” comment, but quickly recovers. “Clay’s worked on national campaigns. I’m very lucky he’s agreed to help me out.”
In what capacity? I wonder as she fluffs her hair in a gesture that can’t possibly be anything but flirtatious. Mom?
“So, Clay,” she continues. “I told you Samantha was a big girl.”
I blink. I’m five two. In heels. “Big girl” is a stretch. Then I get it. She means old. Old for someone as young as her to have.
“Clay was mighty surprised to find I had a teenager.” My mother tucks a wayward strand of newly fluffed hair behind her ear. “He says I look like one myself.”
I wonder if she’s mentioned Tracy, or if she’s going to keep her on the down-low for a while.
“You’re as beautiful as your mother,” he says to me, “so now I believe it.” He has the kind of Southern accent that makes you think of melting butter on biscuits, and porch swings.
Clay looks around the living room. “What a terrific room,” he says. “Just invites a man to put his feet up after a long hard day.” Mom beams. She’s proud of our house, renovates rooms all the time, tweaking the already perfect. He walks around slowly, examining the gigantic paintings of landscapes on the white, white walls, taking in the so-puffy-you-can’t-sit-on-it beige couch and the immense armchairs, finally settling into the one in front of the fireplace. I’m shocked. I check Mom’s face. Her dates always stop at the door. In fact, she’s barely dated at all.
But Mom doesn’t do her usual thing, glance at her watch, say, “Oh, goodness, look at the time,” and politely shove him out the door. Instead, she gives that little girlish laugh again, toys with a pearl earring, and says, “I’ll just make coffee.”
She whirls toward the kitchen, but before she can take a step, Clay Tucker comes up to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Seems to me,” he says, “you’re the kind of girl who’d make the coffee herself and let her mama relax.”
My face heats and I take an involuntary step back. Fact is, I usually do make tea for Mom when she comes in late. It’s sort of a ritual. But no one has ever told me to do it. Part of me thinks I must have misheard. I met this guy, like, two seconds ago. The other part instantly fee...
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