Just Listen





  So, what did you think?

  “So. Did you listen?”

  “To your show?” I said.

  “Yeah.”

  I nodded. “I did, actually.”

  “And?”

  “Well,” I began. “It was…interesting.”

  “Interesting,” he repeated.

  He just looked at me, studying my face for what felt like a very long time. Then he startled me by standing up and taking three strides, quickly closing the distance between us before sitting down beside me.

  “I don’t know if you remember,” he said, “but you did tell me that you lie.”

  “I didn’t say that.” He raised an eyebrow. “I said I often hold back the truth. I’m not doing that this time, though. I listened to the whole show.”

  “Interesting,” he said, “is not a word.”

  “I—” I began, then stopped myself. Maybe it was the fact that he was so clearly on to me. Or my sudden awareness of how rarely I was honest. Either way, I broke. “I…I didn’t like it,” I said.

  “I knew it! You know, for someone who lies a lot, you’re not very good at it.”

  “I’m not a liar,” I said.

  “Right. You’re nice,” he said.

  “What’s wrong with nice?”

  “Nothing. Except it usually involves not telling the truth,” he replied. “Now. Tell me what you really thought.”

  What I really thought was that I felt very unsettled, as if somehow, Owen Armstrong had figured me out, and I hadn’t even realized it.

  Novels by Sarah Dessen

  Dreamland

  How to Deal

  Keeping the Moon

  Lock and Key

  Someone Like You

  That Summer

  The Truth About Forever

  This Lullaby

  Just LISTEN

  a novel by

  Sarah Dessen

  speak

  An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  SPEAK

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

  345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in the United States of America by Viking,

  a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2006

  Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008

  Copyright © Sarah Dessen, 2006

  All rights reserved

  THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE VIKING EDITION AS FOLLOWS:

  Dessen, Sarah.

  Just listen: a novel / by Sarah Dessen.

  p. cm.

  Summary: Isolated from friends who believe the worst because she has not been truthful

  with them, sixteen-year-old Annabel finds an ally in classmate Owen, whose honesty

  and passion for music help her to face and share what really happened

  at the end-of-the-year party that changed her life.

  ISBN: 1-101-12852-6

  [1. Self-actualization—Fiction. 2. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. 3. Models (Persons)—Fiction. 4. Family problems—Fiction. 5. High schools—Fiction. 6. Schools—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.D455Jus 2006 [Fic]—dc22 2006000472

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

  The best way out is always through.

  —Robert Frost

  Just LISTEN

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter ONE

  I taped the commercial back in April, before anything had happened, and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, it had started running, and suddenly, I was everywhere.

  On the rows of screens hanging over the ellipticals at the gym. On the monitor they have at the post office that’s supposed to distract you from how long you’ve been waiting in line. And now here, on the TV in my room, as I sat at the edge of my bed, fingers clenched into my palms, trying to make myself get up and leave.

  “It’s that time of year again….”

  I stared at myself on the screen as I was five months earlier, looking for any difference, some visible proof of what had happened to me. First, though, I was struck by the sheer oddness of seeing myself without benefit of a mirror or photograph. I had never gotten used to it, even after all this time.

  “Football games,” I watched myself say. I was wearing a baby-blue cheerleader uniform, hair pulled back tight into a ponytail, and clutching a huge megaphone, the kind nobody ever used anymore, emblazoned with a K.

  “Study hall.” Cut to me in a serious plaid skirt and brown cropped sweater, which I remembered feeling itchy and so wrong to be wearing just as it was getting warm, finally.

  “And, of course, social life.” I leaned in, staring at the me on-screen, now outfitted in jeans and a glittery tee and seated on a bench, turning to speak this line while a group of other girls chattered silently behind me.

  The director, fresh-faced and just out of film school, had explained to me the concept of this, his creation. “The girl who has everything,” he’d said, moving his hands in a tight, circular motion, as if that was all it took to encompass something so vast, not to mention vague. Clearly, it meant having a megaphone, some smarts, and a big group of friends. Now, I might have dwelled on the explicit irony of this last one, but the on-screen me was already moving on.

  “It’s all happening this year,” I said. Now I was in a pink gown, a sash reading HOMECOMING QUEEN stretched across my midsection as a boy in a tux stepped up beside me, extending his arm. I took it, giving him a wide smile. He was a sophomore at the local university and mostly kept to himself at the shooting, although later, as I was leaving, he’d asked for my number. How had I forgotten that?

  “The best times,” the me on-screen was saying now. “The best memories. And you’ll find the right clothes for them all at Kopf’s Department Store.”

  The camera moved in, closer, closer, until all you could see was my face, the rest dropping away. This had been before that night, before everything that had happened with Sophie, before this long, lonely summer of secrets and silence. I was a mess, but this girl—she was fine.
You could tell in the way she stared out at me and the world so confidently as she opened her mouth to speak again.

  “Make your new year the best one yet,” she said, and I felt my breath catch, anticipating the next line, the last line, the one that only this time was finally true. “It’s time to go back to school.”

  The shot froze, the Kopf’s logo appearing beneath me. In moments, it would switch to a frozen waffle commercial or the latest weather, this fifteen seconds folding seamlessly into another, but I didn’t wait for that. Instead, I picked up the remote, turned myself off, and headed out the door.

  I’d had over three months to get ready to see Sophie. But when it happened, I still wasn’t ready.

  I was in the parking lot before first bell, trying to muster up what it would take to get out and officially let the year begin. As people streamed past, talking and laughing, en route to the courtyard, I kept working on all the maybes: Maybe she was over it now. Maybe something else had happened over the summer to replace our little drama. Maybe it was never as bad as I thought it was. All of these were long shots, but still possibilities.

  I sat there until the very last moment before finally drawing the keys out of the ignition. When I reached for the door handle, turning to my window, she was right there.

  For a second, we just stared at each other, and I instantly noticed the changes in her: Her dark curly hair was shorter, her earrings new. She was skinnier, if that was possible, and had done away with the thick eyeliner she’d taken to wearing the previous spring, replacing it with a more natural look, all bronzes and pinks. I wondered, in her first glance, what was different in me.

  Just as I thought this, Sophie opened her perfect mouth, narrowed her eyes at me, and delivered the verdict I’d spent my summer waiting for.

  “Bitch.”

  The glass between us didn’t muffle the sound or the reaction of the people passing by. I saw a girl from my English class the year before narrow her eyes, while another girl, a stranger, laughed out loud.

  Sophie, though, remained expressionless as she turned her back, hiking her bag over one shoulder and starting down to the courtyard. My face was flushed, and I could feel people staring. I wasn’t ready for this, but then I probably never would be, and this year, like so much else, wouldn’t wait. I had no choice but to get out of my car, with everyone watching, and begin it in earnest, alone. So I did.

  I had first met Sophie four years earlier, at the beginning of the summer after sixth grade. I was at the neighborhood pool, standing in the snack-bar line with two damp dollar bills to buy a Coke, when I felt someone step up behind me. I turned my head, and there was this girl, a total stranger, standing there in a skimpy orange bikini and matching thick platform flip-flops. She had olive skin and thick, curly dark hair pulled up into a high ponytail, and was wearing black sunglasses and a bored, impatient expression. In our neighborhood, where everyone knew everyone, it was like she’d fallen out of the sky. I didn’t mean to stare. But apparently, I was.

  “What?” she said to me. I could see myself reflected in the lenses of her glasses, small and out of perspective. “What are you looking at?”

  I felt my face flush, as it did anytime anybody raised their voice at me. I was entirely too sensitive to tone, so much so that even TV court shows could get me upset—I always had to change the channel when the judge ripped into anyone. “Nothing,” I said, and turned back around.

  A moment later, the high-school guy working the snack bar waved me up with a tired look. While he poured my drink I could feel the girl behind me, her presence like a weight, as I smoothed my two bills out flat on the glass beneath my fingers, concentrating on getting every single crease. After I paid, I walked away, studiously keeping my eyes on the pocked cement of the walkway as I made my way back around the deep end to where my best friend, Clarke Reynolds, was waiting.

  “Whitney said to tell you she’s going home,” she said, blowing her nose as I carefully put the Coke on the pavement beside my chair. “I told her we could walk.”

  “Okay,” I said. My sister Whitney had just gotten her license, which meant that she had to drive me places. Getting home, however, remained my own responsibility, whether from the pool, which was walking distance, or the mall one town over, which wasn’t. Whitney was a loner, even then. Any space around her was her personal space; just by existing, you were encroaching.

  It was only after I sat down that I finally allowed myself to look again at the girl with the orange bikini. She had left the snack bar and was standing across the pool from us, her towel over one arm, a drink in her other hand, surveying the layout of benches and beach chairs.

  “Here,” Clarke said, handing over the deck of cards she was holding. “It’s your deal.”

  Clarke had been my best friend since we were six years old. There were tons of kids in our neighborhood, but for some reason most of them were in their teens, like my sisters, or four and below, a result of the baby boom a couple of years previously. When Clarke’s family moved from Washington, D.C., our moms met at a community-watch meeting. As soon as they realized we were the same age, they put us together, and we’d stayed that way ever since.

  Clarke had been born in China, and the Reynoldses had adopted her when she was six months old. We were the same height, but that was about all we had in common. I was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a typical Greene, while she had the darkest, shiniest hair I’d ever seen and eyes so brown they were almost black. While I was timid and too eager to please, Clarke was more serious, her tone, personality, and appearance all measured and thoughtful. I’d been modeling since before I could even remember, following my sisters before me; Clarke was a total tomboy, the best soccer player on our block, not to mention a whiz at cards, especially gin rummy, at which she’d been beating me all summer.

  “Can I have a sip of your drink?” Clarke asked me. Then she sneezed. “It’s hot out here.”

  I nodded, reaching down to get it for her. Clarke had bad allergies year-round, but in summer they hit fever pitch. She was usually either stuffed up, dripping, or blowing from April to October, and no amount of shots or pills seemed to work. I’d long ago grown used to her adenoidal voice, as well as the omnipresent pack of Kleenex in her pocket or hand.

  There was an organized hierarchy to the seating at our pool: The lifeguards got the picnic tables near the snack bar, while the moms and little kids stuck by the shallow end and the baby (i.e., pee) pool. Clarke and I preferred the half-shaded area behind the kiddie slides, while the more popular high-school guys—like Chris Pennington, three years older than me and hands-down the most gorgeous guy in our neighborhood and, I thought then, possibly the world—hung out by the high dive. The prime spot was the stretch of chairs between the snack bar and lap lane, which was usually taken by the most popular high-school girls. This was where my oldest sister, Kirsten, was stretched out in a chaise, wearing a hot-pink bikini and fanning herself with a Glamour magazine.

  Once I dealt out our cards, I was surprised to see the girl in orange walk over to where Kirsten was sitting, taking the chair next to her. Molly Clayton, Kirsten’s best friend, who was on her other side, nudged her, then nodded at the girl. Kirsten looked up and over, then shrugged and lay back down, throwing her arm over her face.

  “Annabel?” Clarke had already picked up her cards and was impatient to start beating me. “It’s your draw.”

  “Oh,” I said, turning back to face her. “Right.”

  The next afternoon, the girl was back, this time in a silver bathing suit. When I got there, she was already set up in the same chair my sister had been in the day before, her towel spread out, bottled water beside her, magazine in her lap. Clarke was at a tennis lesson, so I was alone when Kirsten and her friends arrived about an hour later. They came in loud as always, their shoes thwacking down the pavement. When they reached their usual spot and saw the girl sitting there, they slowed, then looked at one another. Molly Clayton looked annoyed, but Kirsten just moved abou
t four chairs down and set up camp as always.

  For the next few days, I watched as the new girl kept up her stubborn efforts to infiltrate my sister’s group. What began as just taking a chair escalated, by day three, to following them to the snack bar. The next afternoon, she got in the water seconds after they did, staying just about a foot down the wall as they bobbed and talked, splashing one another. By the weekend, she was trailing behind them constantly, a living shadow.

  It had to be annoying. I’d seen Molly shoot her a couple of nasty looks, and even Kirsten had asked her to back up, please, when she’d gotten a little too close in the deep end. But the girl didn’t seem to care. If anything, she just stepped up her efforts more, as if it didn’t matter what they were saying as long as they were talking to her, period.

  “So,” my mother said one night at dinner, “I heard a new family’s moved in to the Daughtrys’ house, over on Sycamore.”

  “The Daughtrys moved?” my father asked.

  My mother nodded. “Back in June. To Toledo. Remember?”

  My father thought for a second. “Right,” he said finally, nodding. “Toledo.”

  “I also heard,” my mom continued, passing the bowl of pasta she was holding to Whitney, who immediately passed it on to me, “that they have a daughter your age, Annabel. I think I saw her the other day when I was over at Margie’s.”

  “Really,” I said.

  She nodded. “She has dark hair, a bit taller than you. Maybe you’ve seen her around the neighborhood.”

  I thought for a second. “I don’t know—”

  “That’s who that is!” Kirsten said suddenly. She put down her fork with a clank. “The stalker from the pool. Oh my God, I knew she had to be way younger than us.”