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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How the Light Gets In

Katy Upperman

Swoon Reads



I never used to be the kind of girl who’d hotbox her bathroom.

Perched on the counter next to the porcelain sink, I lose myself in a haze that distorts the flower pattern dancing across the shower curtain. My bare feet bounce against the cabinet below. I absorb the staccato thumping until it permeates flesh and muscle, vibrating into my bones.

Pipe to mouth. Deep inhale. Hold the smoke until my chest sizzles. Exhale.

My junior year at North Seattle Prep ended today, and I’ve been drifting—a wisp of cotton in a summer breeze. The last day of school used to mean celebration. A break from the demands of private school: quadratic equations and chemical reactions and accessorizing my uniform just right. I used to spend summers with my sister, giggling over romance novels, all brawny men and luscious women. We used to shop and swim. We used to eat grilled food and drink iced mochas with extra chocolate and stay up late, gazing at the stars.

This summer, I won’t spend my mornings at the pool, panting through grueling sets, and I won’t squander my afternoons in a lounge chair. Instead, I’ll hide out in the house. I’ll avoid my parents, and I’ll avoid Isaac, who’s due back from his freshman year at UCSD any day.

I’ll avoid life.

Pipe to mouth. Deep inhale. Hold the smoke until my chest sizzles. Exhale.

That’s what I’m doing when my dad comes knocking, a sharp rap that makes me jump.

Fanning the air, I slide from the counter and empty the bowl of my pipe into the toilet, mourning the loss while the water whirlpools away. I spray perfume, splash drops into my eyes, then peek reluctantly at my reflection in the mirror. My hair looks washed out, dry as wheat, and my eyes are sunken and shadowed.

The old me is so far gone, I hardly remember her.

Dad’s face crumples when I open the bathroom door. He sees her, too—the hopeless girl who stared at me in the mirror a moment ago. I sigh; a family meeting is the unavoidable next step, another pseudointervention during which Dad will threaten me with therapy.

I went once, nearly a year ago, at his insistence.

It didn’t help.

We sit in his office, where the air is clear, though I’m sufficiently blazed. He’s in a navy version of the standard suit he wears daily to the University of Washington, where he teaches ancient Greece using the textbooks he spent the bulk of his adult life writing. He’s seated in the thronelike leather chair behind the mahogany desk, looking two parts disappointed, one part heartbroken. Mom is in the paisley wingback beside mine, her cooked-spaghetti hair held back by a thin plastic headband. She wears her favorite terry cloth robe. Once a deep crimson, now it’s faded and dull, the color of rust.

Nearly a minute of silence drags by. Dad’s gaze bores a hole through me. Mom picks a ragged cuticle, checked out as usual. I stare at the small cherry wood clock displayed prominently on the desk, a Father’s Day gift personalized with a silver plaque. It’s engraved with my dad’s name—Dr. Arthur Ryan—and, smaller, Love, Callie and Chloe.


I concentrate on the chipped polish on my fingernails as a wave of sorrow rises in my chest. Pulling in a wheezy breath, I struggle to shove memories of my sister down.

I need out of this office, but Dad’s watching me like a warden.

There are choices, and he presents them like gifts on a platter: Wild Expeditions, a Montana wilderness camp for troubled teens—hostile, disobedient, performs below potential, according to the glossy brochure—or Oregon with Aunt Lucy, Dad’s younger sister who, early last year, bought a run-down Victorian that teeters on a coastal cliff. She’s been working to renovate it into a bed-and-breakfast and, according to Dad, would love my help again this summer.


“You’ve lost your motivation,” he says, tapping the Wild Expeditions brochure. “I think you need distance to find it.”

All at once I feel too stoned. Underwater, every movement slow and deliberate. Dad’s muffled voice sloshes around in my head as I swallow the threat of a sob.

“That’s it?” I say. “Montana or Oregon? Prison camp or indentured servitude?”

“Don’t be dramatic, Calliope. Mom and I are trying to do what’s best.” He gestures between himself and my mom, who might as well be comatose. “You need a change of pace. Your grades have gone to hell, you’ve quit swimming, and more often than not, you’re … high.” He spits the word like it tastes rancid.

A petulant huff escapes me. “It’s just weed.”

Dad slams a fist down on the desk. “I won’t tolerate it!”

A hand slips into mine. Cool, slender fingers, a ring with a diamond the size of a blueberry. Mom squeezes my palm; the gesture feels like solidarity, like she’s worried about being sent away, too. For the first time in ages, I feel a kinship with her that extends beyond grief, beyond mutual substance abuse, beyond the crushing weight that accompanies failing Arthur Ryan.

“If you choose Montana,” Dad says, “you’ll fly out this weekend. If you choose to go to Lucy’s—” His voice falters. He pauses until he’s composed himself. “I’ll drive you to Bell Cove tomorrow.”

Bell Cove. A tiny Oregon beach town. I visited last summer with my sister, right after Lucy bought the Victorian she lovingly refers to as Stewart House. She’d gone through an ugly divorce the year before; her Los Angeles movie producer husband had trouble keeping his pants on, which resulted in a generous settlement, which turned Lucy into a homeowner. She invited Chloe and me to come, pitch in, swim, spend some time away from our parents, away from Seattle. We thought Lucy was glamorous, an enigma. We jumped at her invitation.

I can’t go to Montana, but I can’t go back to Oregon, either.

“Dad, please.”

“I’m sorry.” He glances at my glassy-eyed mom and sighs. “It’s just too hard.”

I get it—I do. It’s torture for my parents, looking at me every day, an older, blonder version of the daughter who was taken from them. No wonder Dad’s exhausted, losing weight, tense. No wonder Mom can’t wade out of her merlot sea. They lost one daughter, but that doesn’t mean they won’t set the other loose for the family’s greater good.

“There’s got to be another way,” I say, panic blooming in my chest. “Let me stay. I’ll do whatever it takes!”

“Callie, you’re not being punished,” Dad says, his tone gentle now. “Mom and I love you, but something has to change. Think of this summer as an opportunity to work on yourself.”

He rises from his chair and circles his desk, headed for the door. With a hand on the knob, he turns, looking far older than his forty-four years. He gives his head a sad shake. Sending me away might break him, but I know my dad—his convictions are unwavering.

“You’ll let me know what you decide first thing in the morning,” he says before walking out of the office.

* * *

Every night, I sneak into the memorial that was Chloe’s room. I lie on her bed and pretend I can still detect her scent—clean lilac with a trace of swimming pool chlorine. I talk to her, though she doesn’t talk back.

She’s gone, an iridescent bubble, light and breezy, suddenly—carelessly—burst.

She doesn’t talk back, but I pray for a noise, a sensation, a glimmer of light. An indication she’s still with me. A sign that communicates, I forgive you.

I pull her crocheted blanket up and over my shoulders, the woolen yarn scratchy against my neck. If I close my eyes, I can almost convince myself that she’s here, demanding I give her blanket back and then, ever so sweetly, begging me to take her out for mochas.

Her bedroom, frozen in time, has walls plastered with posters of Olympic swimmers showing off shiny medals. Its closet holds dozens of drag suits stored alongside a basket of swim caps and goggles, plus running leggings and a wealth of sneakers. Its bed is, charmingly, populated by a menagerie of stuffed animals. Her favorite, a threadbare pig called Piggy, shares the pillow on which my head rests.

“Dad thinks it’s best I go away for the summer,” I whisper. “He and Mom need room to be sad, to figure out how to go on. Dad thinks I do, too. Like a trip to Montana or Oregon will help me stop missing you.”

At my mention of Oregon, a memory finds me: my sister and me last summer, in Bell Cove, not long after we arrived at Lucy’s, before everything fell apart. We’d joined our aunt in her enormous bed, sharing a bowl of popcorn studded with M&M’s, and a liter of Mountain Dew split between three tumblers. We were in the midst of an eighties movie marathon.

“I’m so glad you girls came down,” Aunt Lucy said, picking a yellow M&M from the popcorn to toss into her mouth.

“So are we,” Chloe said. “Bell Cove’s got Seattle beat any day of the week.”

I wasn’t sure about that. I missed my swim team and my Acura and my boyfriend. But it was fun, being with my sister and my aunt. Refreshing to escape the city and its expectations.

Lucy paused the movie—one of her favorites: Can’t Buy Me Love. “Promise you’ll come back next summer,” she said. “I’d love to have you both here when I open the B&B.”

Chloe, eternally impulsive, was already nodding. She’d turned fifteen a few weeks prior, and sitting beside her on Lucy’s bed, I barely felt the year and a half that separated us. She’d matched my height months prior and filled out before that. Her hair was strawberry blond while mine is so pale it’s nearly white, but we were sometimes mistaken for twins.

“Let’s wait and see—” I started, but Lucy cut me off with a handful of popcorn to the face.

“I know summers are sacred,” she said, “but it’s not like I’m a tyrant when it comes to getting things done. You’ve had fun so far, right?”

“Right,” I allowed. “But next summer’s the one before my senior year. Who knows what I’ll have going on?”

“Nothing more important than your aunt and your sister,” Chloe said. Of course she was cool with committing to a second summer in Bell Cove. She could run and swim and bike anywhere. Plus, like me, she was romanced by the shabby, old house; the relaxed, oceanside way of life; and the almost absolute autonomy Lucy allowed us. We may have had a little home improvement to knock out in return, but compared with the rigors of school and swim team, Lucy’s was a vacation. Chloe thrust her tumbler in my direction, splashing soda onto the duvet. “Next summer,” she said. “Bell Cove. You and me and the B&B. Promise.”

“Fine,” I relented, because I’d been double-teamed by two of the most stubborn people in my world. I clanked my cup against my sister’s, then my aunt’s. “Next summer. Bell Cove it is.”

Chloe grinned, satisfied. Lucy restarted Can’t Buy Me Love.

An oath sworn over popcorn and Mountain Dew.

I’d keep my word regardless, but the reality is, a summer at my aunt’s is a lesser evil than a summer in Montana, where I’d undoubtedly have my heart pried open and pored over by a bunch of well-intentioned strangers. The idea of stepping inside Stewart House again fills me with breathtaking anxiety, and there’s no denying that Lucy and I aren’t in the best place these days, but I’ll go to Bell Cove.

Because she needs me.

Because my parents don’t.

Because I made a promise to my sister.

Chloe was morning bedhead, races in the pool, petty arguments, and relentless laughter.

Sometimes, I’m desperate to remember, to dissolve into remembering. Sometimes, I want to light my memories on fire, so they burn until nothing’s left but ash and despair.

Guilt is a vulture.

Guilt picks me apart.

Guilt never, ever flies away.

Copyright © 2019 by Katy Upperman