What We Hide
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An engrossing novel-in-stories that paints a tapestry of secrets and lies: why we keep them, why we tell them, and what happens next.
Americans Jenny and her brother, Tom, are off to England: Tom to university, to dodge the Vietnam draft, Jenny to be the new girl at a boarding school, Illington Hall. This is Jenny's chance to finally stand out, so accidentally, on purpose, she tells a lie.
In the small world of Ill Hall, everyone has something to hide. Jenny pretends she has a boyfriend. Robbie and Luke both pretend they don't. Brenda won't tell what happened with the school doctor. Nico wants to keep his mother's memoir a secret. Percy is hush-hush about his famous dad. Oona lies to everyone. Penelope lies only to herself.
Deftly told from multiple points of view in various narrative styles, including letters and movie screenplays, What We Hide is provocative, honest, often funny, and always intriguing.
“Poignant and often witty.” —Kirkus Reviews
“An evocative representation of the tumultuous ’60s.” —Publishers Weekly
“Juicy, fast-paced.” —SLJ
Release date: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Print pages: 288
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What We Hide
So here we were, running away to save Tom's life.
And turning mine inside out.
If there hadn't been a war going on, my brother would have taken a year off before college and doodled down to Mexico in a van. But now it was college versus Vietnam. Unless he wanted to fake a mental disorder, but Dad said over his dead body was he having a son with psycho on his record and Mom said it would be her dead body if her son got sent to war. They didn't say those things with me in the room, but the heating vent in the upstairs hallway conveniently transmitted any words spoken in the kitchen, so I listened in as the discussions went on for weeks.
The original plan was Canada. Tom was leaving. So was his best friend, Matt, of course, but to a different place. That part was bad. Tom was my closest person on earth, but when Matt got his draft notice, it was almost worse, because it made me feel lucky in an awful kind of way. Our parents looked at every option to keep their son out of the army. At Matt's house they were proud for him to be a soldier, like his dad had been.
They told me at a Saturday breakfast. I held my spoon between two fingers, making it vibrate like a hummingbird's wing. The idea of Tom staying at home and attending the University of Pennsylvania had been abandoned weeks earlier. Not safe enough. Now Canada--all billion acres of it--was also too close.
"If he goes to college in England he'll take up residence on another continent." Dad's hand swept over to capture my rattling spoon. "At least temporarily. It slows down the whole process if his name comes up. The new lottery system still lets the boys go to college, but that could change at any time."
Did he know what he was talking about? Or was it pure hope?
"There's a rumor," said my mother, "that they'll end college deferment altogether. He'd be forced to join up. Every single month counts, as long as he's eligible."
"Maybe he'll meet a girl," Dad said. "If he married an English girl, he'd become a citizen of the United Kingdom, which is not involved in the war. He'd be safe forever."
"Does Tom know you're arranging his marriage?" I wanted Tom to be there so I could roll my eyes at him. This was almost funny. But Tom, typically, was still in bed. "And why did you keep the whole boy-wonder-goes-to-Britain plan such a big fat secret? No one thought I'd care whether my brother suddenly moves across the ocean?"
"We didn't want you getting upset until we knew for certain."
But Tom had known for ages, adding foreign applications to the pile he'd done for American schools.
"And now it's decided?" Without me having a say? "Where exactly is he going?"
"The acceptance letter came yesterday," said Dad. "He'll be at Sheffield. A very fine university." His smugness made me want to grind my teeth.
"Isn't he clever." For a pothead. I drummed the spoon on my side of the table as many times as I could before Dad's hand stopped me. "And what about Matt?"
Mom folded her napkin and stood to clear the dishes. "It's . . . hard about Matt."
I knew she loved him too, and had ever since the boys started Little League in the third grade. He'd sat at this table for a thousand bowls of macaroni, a million fistfuls of popcorn. Mom's eyes caught mine, but then she looked away.
"Each family has to decide for itself," she said. "We can only do what we think is best. For us. For Tom."
"It's not fair," I said. "None of it."
"Matt will be leaving in a few weeks, just like your brother."
"Just like? That's the dumbest thing I ever heard! Tom goes to England and Matt goes to napalm bomb land? How is that the same?"
And what about me? Losing Tom and Matt? Who would I be without them? All my life I'd had two big boys to watch for clues, two boys teasing me, squishing me between them, agreeing that I was a flea and a pest and still the best sister ever.
"You look hideous," they'd say when I dressed up for a party.
"We'll kill him," they said when Jared Benner didn't show up for the tenth-grade dance.
So now it was me, Mom, and Dad. Dad's earnest legal cases. Mom gung ho about the Equal Rights Amendment and having what she called "a voice." She wasn't exactly a women's libber, but she did say "Thank goddess" instead of "god" to support the movement. I told my parents that school was boring, even if my friends Becca and Kelly were as entertaining as a soap opera. Boys and drama. Competitive crushes on Tom. I was more a background kind of person, not shy, exactly, but . . . undercover. Tom was sure of himself, the one who got noticed, the one who knew every time what to say, who to charm, what to do.
"I'm supposed to just carry on, pretending that Tom is not a draft dodger?"
"Don't use the word dodger," said Dad.
"I should say evader? Or you like resister better?"
"Don't they track down draft dodgers and put them in prison?" I pushed my bowl of cereal sludge away. "And I'm supposed to invent a story for my friends that he's got flat feet or something?"
Not that making up stories would be any different from usual. I had to fabricate home drama now and then, just to have something to say.
"G'morning." Tom slouched into the room. Boxer shorts, T-shirt, hair standing up on one side. The bristling silence made him pay attention. "What?" When did he start having stubble in the morning? It made him look so arty.
"Your sister"--Mom poured him juice--"is having one of her moody mornings." She opened the oven, releasing the warm cinnamon-bun cloud saved just for Tom.
"What?" he said to me.
"Moody? You've been hiding this from me for how long? Months? And now I'm supposed to just lie? On command? As if my opinion means nothing?"
I left the room. What was my opinion?
"Jenn?" He found me later.
"I'm not talking to you. Traitor. Secret-keeper. Favorite child. Sister-leaver."
"I've refined the plan."
I pulled a pillow over my head. The bed jounced as he sat down.
"Really. You're going to like it."
"I told them that I'd only go over there if you came too. You should do a semester abroad, come to England, be my pal."
I dragged the pillow off my face and sat up. "What?"
He lay down next to me. "Yep."
"What did they say?"
"That you'd have to go to school. Of course. But . . ."
"Three whole months? They didn't say no?"
"They were actually sort of cool with it. They think it was their idea. An opportunity for mind-broadening. Good for the college applications. You can always leave if it's awful. Or maybe stay if you love it. Plus it makes me going more believable."
"Like, boarding school?"
"Yeah, we'll find someplace near Sheffield. You can pretend to be Jane Eyre."
"Didn't her best friend die of tuberculosis in the dormitory?"
"Look at the alternative: You. Mom. Dad. Here. Forever."
The summer suddenly got busy. Shopping, packing, planning, and goodbyes. The hum of anything can happen, which I'd never felt before. My friends were wild with envy. The only really awful part about leaving was Matt acting as if we weren't running away from him too. He cheerfully never mentioned the sinking ship, or the rat named Tom who was jumping clear.
I told Becca and Kelly not to come to the airport.
"Family." They knew to avoid the situation. I'd used that single word to create this dark mythology about my home life.
So the send-off was parents plus Matt.
Matt was on leave, going back in four days to Virginia to finish basic training, just as Tom would be sitting down for his first college lecture across the ocean.
Tom had obviously smoked a joint before leaving the house. He bought a bag of M&M's and ripped it open in the airport shop. He poured them down his throat, laughing. Matt poked Tom, trying to break the flow of candy. Matt was taller, with broader shoulders and more muscles. You'd think Tom was the scruffy, poetic type, but he was the sneakiest, quickest guy on the basketball court. He couldn't chew and laugh and swallow, though, so he was spitting out M&M's, laughing so hard he almost gagged. I bugged my eyes at Matt to pull Tom away, behind the magazines. All we needed was for Dad to launch into another lecture on responsibility.
Mom and Dad took turns hugging us goodbye, making us show them again that we had passports, tickets, contact info for Dad's colleague who was renting us a car, English pound notes, and traveler's checks. Matt scooped Tom and me together for a lump hug, hanging on as if it were the last time. His uniform was stiff against my cheek, hardly worn.
Tom punched him lightly on the arm. "Go, bro."
"You be the one goin'." Matt tapped him back.
And then Matt mussed my hair and leaned in to kiss me, almost right on the lips. "Don't be messin' with those English soccer boys," he said. I tried to laugh, but tears were splashing out, probably blotching everything. He caught my chin in his hand and looked straight into my eyes, his beautiful brown face too close for me to see all of it. "Be brave."
One more little hug, Matt-smell practically killing me.
And that was goodbye.
Illington Hall was announced by a faded sign at the end of the drive. Tom drove the rental car like a maniac, usually remembering which side of the road we should be on. We bounced over a half mile of rutted lane from the main road to the columned entryway of an old manor house. Tall oak doors. Sheep grazing on the playing field out front.
Tom whistled. "We should be arriving in a brougham instead of this rattletrap," he said. "With a team of fine horses and a couple of footmen, eh what?"
I grinned out the window. It was a rare pleasure to impress Tom. I'd be living like a character in a novel, far from junior year in the suburbs. In England, I'd be the mysterious stranger, the American with an unknown past. Finally, I'd be the one with drama.
The word Headmaster was etched into a brass plate under the doorbell. In less than a minute, the huge door swung open.
"Tweed!" murmured Tom. "Patched elbows!"
"Welcome to Yorkshire!" The man's enormous hand clasped mine, the calluses on his palm like the pads on a dog's paw. "You must be our new American girl. Jenn, isn't it? Jolly good show." He actually said that! He shook Tom's hand, face radiant with hearty English cheer.
"Richard Woods. We use given names here, no 'Misters,' in keeping with the Quaker tradition. Do come in." The most perfect headmaster on earth. "Quite enterprising, getting yourselves all the way here from America!"
We followed him into what he called the Great Hall, meaning great as in big, not awesome, though it was kind of both. It had a cracked stone floor and gleaming wooden doors leading off in all directions. A grand staircase swept upward, wide marble treads worn into dips, guarded by a polished banister that looked better than a sledding hill for a speedy ride. Probably not allowed.
"I've got a check here from our father"--Tom brought out an envelope--"paying the big bucks to unload my sister."
Richard Woods chuckled. "How very American. Straight to business, eh?"
The headmaster's assistant was also his wife, Isobel. She was about half her husband's height, with slight buckteeth and a gentle voice. "Your trunk arrived this morning. It's up in your dormitory. Please feel free to look around," she said. "Most of the students won't arrive until this evening." She pointed to a corridor that would take us to a courtyard where we could see the classrooms. And a path that led into the woods.
"A lovely ramble at this time of year. In the spring we have the most beautiful bluebell grove in Yorkshire, but autumn has its own special marvels." Mah-vels.
"Well then," said Tom. "Let's go on a ramble." We shook hands again and set off.
We passed the kitchen--"God, I hope that's not your lunch we're smelling," said Tom--and stepped onto a flagstone terrace. "Pretty damn quaint! Your classrooms are the stables!"
A giddy thrill gripped my chest. "I've landed in some weird gothic novel."
"Let's find the woods. I've got a joint."
"How did you scrounge a joint? We're four thousand miles from your dealer!"
He turned down the rim of his knit hat, displaying a neat little row of joints.
"Ohmygod, Tom! What if you'd been caught?"
"Ah, but I wasn't."
"But . . . ohmygod! You could have been arrested or sent back or . . ."
"But I wasn't."
"You could have gone to Vietnam over a joint! You would have been blown to bits by a land mine because you're a pothead."
"And now that won't happen," said Tom. "Relax."
A sun-dappled path led through a rose garden turned jungle and into the shadows of deep woods beyond.
"Nice," said Tom, "Quick escape to nature when needed."
A low granite wall rimmed an old stone fountain just off the path. A busted-up angel stood in the middle, looking as if she'd been in a bar brawl. Half her nose was gone, as well as chunks of her cheek and shoulder, but her wings were intact, and one graceful hand rested on the head of a swan, which would have appeared to be swimming if there'd been water. The angel's other arm held an urn.
"Too bad it's not working," I said.
"She looks like she's pouring a pitcher of beer over someone's head."
"A sight you're familiar with?"
"Clearly the hangout." Tom kicked the dirt beside the fountain's edge. "A million butts."
I glanced around at the tangle of wild roses and overgrown ferns. Maybe this view would become as familiar as the tree outside my bedroom window at home.
"Let's go farther before I light the spliff," said Tom. "Don't want to get you kicked out before you've even unpacked your trunk."
A few more steps brought us into the real woods.
"It's called weed over here," Tom had said. "But hash is way more common."
"How do you know that already?"
"I checked. Key vocabulary for survival in a foreign land."
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