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The Outliers


Why are the bad things always so much easier to believe? It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, every single time. You’re too sensitive and too worried, they say. You care too much about all the wrong things. One little whisper in your ear and the words tumble through your head like you’re the one who thought them first. Hear them enough and pretty soon they’re etched on the surface of your heart.

But right now, I’ve got to forget all the ways I’ve come to accept that I am broken. As I sit here in this cold, dark room, deep in the pitch-black woods, staring into this lying stranger’s eyes, I need to think the opposite about myself. I need to believe that I am a person I have never known myself to be. That in my deepest, darkest, most useless corners lies a secret. One that just might end up being the thing that saves me. That saves us.

Because there is a lot that I still don’t understand about what’s going on. So much, actually. But I do know this: despite all the fear in this woman’s eyes, we need to convince her to help us. Because our lives depend on it. And on us getting out that door.





My dad’s phone vibrates loudly, shimmying a little across our worn dining room table. He reaches forward and switches it off.

“Sorry about that.” He smiles as he runs a hand over his thick salt-and-pepper hair, pushes his square black glasses up his nose. They’re hipster glasses, but that’s not why he bought them. With my dad, any hipness is entirely accidental. “I thought it was off. It shouldn’t have even been on the table.”

It’s a rule: no phones in the dining room. It’s always been the rule, even if no one ever really listened—not my mom, not my twin brother, Gideon, not me. But that was before. Things are divided up that way now: Before. After.And in the dark and terrible middle lies my mom’s accident four months ago. In the after, the no-phone rule is so much more important to my dad. Lots of little things are. Sometimes, it feels like he’s trying to rebuild our lives out of matchsticks. And I do love him for that. But loving someone isn’t the same thing as understanding them. Which is okay, I guess, because my dad doesn’t understand me either. He never really has. With my mom gone, sometimes I think no one ever will.

My dad can’t change who he is though—a hard-core nerd-
scientist who lives entirely in his head. Since the accident, he does say “I love you” way more than he ever used to and is constantly patting me and Gideon on the back like we’re soldiers marching off to war. But all of it is weird and awkward. And it just makes me feel worse, for all of us.

The real problem is that he hasn’t had a lot of practice with warm and fuzzy. My mom’s heart was always big enough for the both of them. Not that she was soft. She couldn’t have been the kind of photographer she was—all those countries, all that war—if she hadn’t been tough as hell. But for my mom, feelings existed in only one form: magnified. And this applied to her own feelings: she bawled every time she read one of my or Gideon’s homemade welcome home cards. And how she felt about everyone else’s feelings: she always seemed to know if Gideon or I were upset before we’d even stepped in the door.

It was that crazy sixth sense of hers that got my dad so interested in emotional intelligence, EI for short. He’s a research scientist and professor at the university, and one tiny part of EI is pretty much all he’s ever studied. It isn’t the kind of thing he’ll ever get rich from. But Dr. Benjamin Lang cares about science, not money.

And there is one legitimate upside to my dad being the Tin Man. He didn’t fall apart after the accident. Only once did he start to lose it—on the phone with Dr. Simons, his best friend/only friend/mentor/surrogate dad. And even then, he yanked himself back from the edge pretty fast. Still, sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t trade my dad totally losing it for a hug so hard I can’t breathe. For a look in his eyes that says he understands how ruined I am. Because he is, too.

“You can answer your phone,” I say. “I don’t care.”

“You might not care, but I do.” My dad takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes in a way that makes him look so old. It tears the hole in the bottom of my stomach open a little wider. “Something has to matter, Wylie, or nothing will.”

It’s one of his favorite sayings.

I shrug. “Okay, whatever.”

“Have you thought any more about what Dr. Shepard said in your phone session today?” he asks, trying to sound casual. “About starting back for the half days?”

For sure he’s been waiting to talk about this one thing since we sat down. Me ditching the home tutor and finishing up my junior year at Newton Regional High School is my dad’s favorite subject. If we ever aren’t talking about it, that’s because he’s biting his tongue in half trying to keep his mouth shut.

My dad is afraid if I don’t go back to regular school soon, I might never. My therapist, Dr. Shepard, and he are on exactly the same page in this regard. They are perfectly aligned in most things, probably because the two of them have been exchanging emails. I said they could after the accident. My dad was really worried about me, and I wanted to seem all cool and cooperative and extra sane. But their private chitchat has never actually been okay with me, especially not now that they’re both on team get-Wylie-back-into-regular-school. I don’t think it’s helped that Dr. Shepard and I had to switch to phone appointments three weeks ago because I can’t get myself to leave the house anymore. It kind of proves her point that me avoiding school is just the tip of a very dark iceberg.

Dr. Shepard barely signed off on the home tutor in the first place. Because she knows that my problems with regular school didn’t start that day four months ago, when my mom’s car spun across a sheet of ice and got sliced in two.


“I’m concerned about where this might lead, Wylie,” Dr. Shepard said in our last face-to-face session. “Opting out of school is counterproductive. Giving in to your panic makes it worse. That remains true even in the midst of your very legitimate grief.”

Dr. Shepard shifted in her big red armchair, which she always looked so perfect and petite sitting in, like Alice in Wonderland shrunk down to nothing. I’d been seeing Dr. Shepard on and off—mostly on—for almost six years, since middle school. Sometimes I still wondered whether she really was a therapist at all, someone that small and young and pretty. But she had made me better over the years with her special therapy cocktail—breathing exercises, thought tricks, and lots and lots of talking. By the time high school started, I was just a regular kid on the nervous side of normal. That is, until my mom’s accident cracked me open and out oozed my rotten core.

“Technically, I’m not opting out of school, just the school building.” I forced a smile that made Dr. Shepard’s perfectly tweezed eyebrows pull tight. “Besides, it’s not like I didn’t try to stay in school.”

In point of fact, I’d only missed two actual days of school—the day after my mom’s accident and the day of her funeral. I even had my dad call ahead to be sure no one treated me weird when I went back right away. Because that was my plan: to pretend nothing had happened. And for a while—a whole week maybe—it worked. Then that Monday morning came—one week, one day, and fourteen hours after the funeral—and I started throwing up and throwing up. It went on for hours. I didn’t stop until they gave me antinausea medicine in the ER. My dad was so freaked that by the time we were leaving the hospital, he had agreed to the home tutor. I think he would have agreed to anything if there was a chance it might make me okay.

But how could I ever be okay again without my mom around to help me see the bright side? My bright side. “You’re just sensitive, Wylie,” she’d always said. “The world needs sensitive people.” And somehow I had believed her.

Maybe my mom had just been in denial. After all, her mom—my grandmother—had died sad and alone and in a psychiatric hospital. Maybe my mom didn’t want to believe I was history repeating itself. Or maybe she honestly thought there was nothing wrong with me. Someday she might have told me. Now I’ll never know for sure.


I look down at my plate, avoiding my dad’s stare as I push some perfectly cooked asparagus into a sculpted mound of couscous. In a rough patch, my appetite is always the first to go. And since the accident, life is basically one long rough patch. But it’s too bad I’m not hungry. My dad’s cooking is one of the few things we have going for us—he was always the family chef.

“You said I could decide when I was ready to go back to school,” I say finally, even though I’m already sure that I will neverbe ready, willing, or able to return to Newton Regional High School. But there is no reason to break that to my dad, at least not yet.

“When you go back to school isup to you.” He’s trying to sound laid-back, but he hasn’t touched his food either. And that little vein in his forehead is standing out. “But I don’t love you bumping around alone in this house day after day. It makes me feel—it’s not good for you to be by yourself so much of the time.”

“I enjoy my own company.” I shrug. “That’s healthy, isn’t it? Come on, you’re the psychologist. High self-esteem and all that.”

It’s crazy how much less convincing my smile feels each time I force it. Probably because part of me knows it might be better if I finally lost this argument. If I was forced, kicking and screaming, back inside Newton Regional High School.

“Come on, Wylie.” My dad eyeballs me, crosses his arms. “Just because you like yourself doesn’t mean that—”

There’s a loud knock at our front door then. It makes us both jump.Please, not Gideon—that’s what I think, instantly. Because the last time an unexpected knock came, one of us was ripped away. And Gideon—my opposite twin, my mom used to joke, for how insanely different we are, including that Gideon is a science and history whiz and I’m all about math and English—is the only one of us left who’s not at home.

“Who’s that?” I ask, trying to ignore the wild beating of my heart.

“Nothing to worry about, I’m sure,” my dad says. But he has no idea who’s at the door, or whether there might be something to worry about. That’s obvious. “Someone probably selling something.”

“No one sells things door-to-door anymore, Dad.” But he’s already tossed his napkin on the table and started through the living room toward the front door.

He’s got the door open by the time I round the corner.

“Karen.” He sounds relieved. But only for a second. “What are you—what’s wrong?”

When I can finally see past him, there’s Cassie’s mom, Karen, standing on our porch. Despite the sickly yellow glow of our energy-efficient outdoor bulbs, Karen looks coiffed as always—her brown shoulder-length hair perfectly smooth, a bright-green scarf knotted neatly above her tailored, white wool coat. It’s the beginning of May, but we’re locked deep in one of those mean Boston cold snaps.

“I’m sorry to just show up like this.” Karen’s voice is all high and squeaky. And she’s panting a little, her breath puffing out in a cloud. “But I called a couple times and no one answered, and then I was driving around looking for her when I saw your light on and I guess—God, I’ve looked everywhere.” When she crosses her arms and takes a step closer, I notice her feet. They’re completely bare.

“Looked everywhere for who—” My dad has caught sight of her feet, too. “Karen, what happened to your shoes? Come inside.” When she doesn’t move, he reaches out and tugs her forward, gently. “You must be freezing. Come, come.”

“I can’t find Cassie.” Karen’s voice cracks hard as she steps inside. “Can you—I hate to ask, Ben. But can you help?”




In the living room, my dad guides Karen to a nearby chair. She drops down, body stiff, face frozen. Nothing at all like I’ve ever seen her. Because it’s more than Karen’s clothes that are always perfect. She is always perfect, too. “The Plague of Perfect,” Cassie actually calls her—so thin and so pretty, always with a smile and never a hair out of place. And thin. It’s worth saying that twice. Because according to Cassie, someone’s weight matters to Karen twice as much as anything else. And that could be true. Karen’s always been nice to me, but there is something about the way she talks to Cassie, a sharp edge buried inside her smooth voice. Like she loves her daughter, but maybe doesn’t like her very much.

“Wylie, can you get Karen a glass of water?”

My dad is staring at me. He’s worried about this—whatever it is—upsetting me. The last thing I need is to be more upset; it’s not a totally unfair point. So he’s dismissing me for my own good. As if keeping me from the room could ever keep me from worrying about Cassie now. I’ve already heard too much.

“Water would be great,” Karen says, but like she couldn’t want anything less. She’s just following my dad’s lead. “Thank you.”

“Wylie,” my dad presses when I stay put, staring at the carpet.

I have to be careful. If I seem like I’m losing it, he’ll make me go upstairs for good. He might even tell Karen to leave before I find out what’s going on. And I need to know. Even after everything that’s happened between Cassie and me, even though this isn’t exactly my first-ever Cassie-related emergency, I still care about what happens to her. I always will.

But I can tell by the look on my dad’s face. He wants to wrap this up ASAP and send Karen on her way. He’ll do that, too, no matter how much he likes Karen and Cassie. Since the accident, he’s drawn a lot of new lines in the sand—with my grandparents, teachers, doctors, neighbors. Anything to protect us. More me, it’s true. Gideon has always been the “more resilient” one. That’s what people say when they think I’m not listening. Or if they’re my grandmother—my dad’s mom—they say it to my face. She cornered me at the house right after my mom’s funeral and told me all about how I should really try to be more like Gideon. And right after that, my dad asked her never to visit again.

The truth is, my grandmother never liked me. I remind her too much of my mom, who she also never liked. But she was right about Gideon. He does bounce back a lot more easily than me. He always has. Feelings, especially the bad ones, roll right off him— probably something having to do with that huge computer brain of his—while on me they get stuck, forever trapped in a gooey, inescapable mess. Don’t get me wrong, Gideon’s definitely been sad. He misses our mom, but he’s mostly stoic like my dad.

I’ve always been more like our mom. Except if her feelings were cranked up to full volume, mine blew out the speakers a long time ago.

“Okay, water, fine,” I say to my dad, who’s still eyeballing me. “I’m going.”


Cassie and I became friends in a bathroom. Hidingin the bathroom of Samuel F. Smith Memorial Middle School, to be exact. It was December of sixth grade and I’d headed to the bathroom, planning to crouch up on a toilet through all of homeroom if I had to. It didn’t occur to me that someone else might have the same idea when I banged hard on the door to the last stall.

“Ow!” came a yelp when the not-locked door swung back and banged into someone. “What the hell!”

“Oh, sorry.” My face flushed. “I didn’t see any feet.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of the whole point.” The girl sounded pissed. When she finally opened the door, she looked it, too. Cassie—the new girl, or newish girl—was squatting up on the toilet, fully clothed, just like I had planned on doing myself. She stared at me for a minute, then rolled her eyes as she shifted to the side, freeing up some of the seat for me. “Well, don’t just stand there. Come on. Before someone sees you.”

Cassie and I knew of each other—our school wasn’t that big—but we weren’t friends. Cassie still didn’t really have any friends. And I felt bad about the way some kids picked on her. It was her snug sweatpants or her short, knotted curls or the fact that she was bigger than the other girls—both her boobs and her belly. No one cut Cassie a break because she was a sports star either. She might have single-handedly made our soccer team decent for the first time that fall, but all they cared about was that she didn’t look the part. But it wasn’t like I could be Cassie’s defender or something. Especially not anymore. I was barely hanging on myself.

“So what brings you to the bowl of shame?” Cassie asked once our knees were touching over the open water of the toilet.

There was no way I was going to tell her anything. Except then suddenly, all I wanted was to tell her everything.

“All my friends hate me,” I began. “And they’re all in my homeroom.”

“Why do they hate you?” Cassie asked. I was glad she hadn’t tried to talk me out of it straight off the bat. People love to talk you out of your bad feelings. (Believe me, I am an expert in this phenomenon.) Instead, she just seemed curious. “What happened?”

And so I told her all about how Maia, Stephanie, Brooke, and I had been a foursome since we were eight years old, but lately it had felt like the rest of them were in on some joke that was mostly about me. I’d still been hoping it was my imagination, though, right up until that Saturday night at the sleepover when they started interrogating me about my therapist. Maia’s mom volunteered in the school office and must have seen the note about me having to leave early for my first appointment with Dr. Shepard. And then had apparently decided to tell Maia, which I still couldn’t believe.

“Come on, Wylie. Tell us,” they’d chanted.

I was sweating already when the room began to spin. And then, it had happened.

“I didn’t even realize I’d thrown up until after I heard the screams,” I said to Cassie. And I could still hear them ringing in my ears: “Oh my God!!” “Ew!!!”

“Oh, that sucks,” Cassie said. Like what I’d told her was important, but not really that alarming. “My basketball coach showed me his stuff yesterday. You know, Mr. Pritzer. He drove me home after practice and then he just whipped it out. And more unfortunately, he’s also my homeroom teacher.”

And she said it like her getting flashed wasn’t so terrible either, just kind of unfortunate.

“Oh,” I said, because I couldn’t think of what else to say. It made me so embarrassed just imagining Mr. Pritzer doing that. “Ew.”

“Yeah, ew.” Cassie frowned and nodded. Now she looked sad.

“Did you tell your parents?”

“My mom won’t believe me.” Cassie shrugged. “That’s what happens when you lie a lot.”

“I believe you,” I said. And I did.

“Thanks.” Cassie smiled. “And I’m sorry you lost all your friends.” She nodded, pressing her lips together. “Good thing you’ve got a new one now.”


Out in the kitchen, I move fast, not waiting for the tap to run cold before sloppily filling a glass of water for Karen. The truth is, I’ve been waiting for a long time for “the big one” to happen where Cassie is concerned. Rescuing her has always been a thing—playing human shield so she didn’t get beat up for talking shit about some huge eighth grader, bringing money down to the Rite Aid so she didn’t get reported for shoplifting a lipstick (Cassie doesn’t even wear lipstick). Harmless, stupidkid stuff.

This fall, though, things did take a dark turn. Cassie’s drinking was the biggest problem. And it wasn’t just how much (five or six beers in a single night?) or how often (two or three times a week?) that got me worried. That was kind of excessive for anyone, but for someone with Cassie’s genes, it was a total disaster. Once upon a time, she said herself that she should never drink. She loved her dad, but the last thing she wanted was to end up like him.

But then it was like Cassie decided to forget about all the promises she’d made to herself. And boy, did she not like me reminding her. By a couple of months into this year, our junior year, she was unraveling so fast it was making me dizzy. But the more worried I got, the angrier she became.


Luckily, Karen is still talking when I finally get back out to the living room. I might still catch the details that matter.

“Yeah, so . . .” She glances up at me and then clears her throat before going on. “I came home to see Cassie after school and she wasn’t there.”

The glass is definitely warm as I hand it to Karen. When she takes it, she doesn’t seem to notice. But she does finally notice my hair. I see the split second it happens. In her defense, Karen recovers pretty well, steadies her eyes before looking all the way shocked. Instead, she takes a sip of that bathtub water and smiles at me.

“Couldn’t Cassie just still be out then?” my dad asks. “It’s only dinnertime.”

“She was supposed to be home,” Karen says firmly. “She was grounded this whole week. Because she—well, I don’t even want to tell you what she called me.” And there it is. The tone. The I-hate-Cassie-a-little-bit, maybe even more than she hates me. “I told her if she wasn’t home, I really was going to call this boarding school I’d been looking into—you know, one of those therapeutic ones. And no, I’m not proud of that threat. That we’ve sunk as low as me shipping her off. But we have; that’s the reality. Anyway, I also found this.”

Karen fishes something out of her pocket and hands it to my dad. It’s Cassie’s ID bracelet.

“She hasn’t taken that bracelet off since the day I gave it to her three years ago.” Karen’s eyes fill with tears. “I didn’t even really mean it about that stupid school. I was just so worried. And angry. That’s the truth. I was angry, too.”

My dad looks down quizzically at the bracelet looped over his fingers, then at Karen again. “Maybe it fell off,” he says, his voice lifting like it’s a question.

“I found it on my pillow, Ben,” Karen says. “And it wasn’t there this morning. So Cassie must have come back at some point and left again. It was meant as a sign—like a ‘screw you, I’m out of here.’ I know it.” Karen turns to me then. “You haven’t heard from her, have you, Wylie?”

Back when things were still okay between us, Cassie and I wouldn’t have gone more than an hour without at least texting. But that’s not true anymore. I shake my head. “I haven’t talked to her in a while.”

It’s been a week at least, maybe longer. Being at home, it’s easy to lose track of the exact number of days. But it’s the longest stretch since the accident that we’ve gone without talking. It was bound to happen eventually: we couldn’t be pretend-friends forever. Because that’s all we were really doing when Cassie came back after the accident: pretending.

The accident happened in January, but Cassie and I had stopped talking the first time right after Thanksgiving. Nearly two long months, which, let’s face it, might as well be a lifetime when you’re sixteen. But the morning after the accident, Cassie had just showed up on our doorstep. My eyes had been burning so badly from crying that I’d thought I was seeing things. It wasn’t until Cassie had helped me change out of the clothes I’d been dressed in for two days that I began to believe she was real. And it wasn’t until after she’d pulled my hair out of its ragged, twisted bun, brushed it smooth, and braided it tight—like she was arming me for battle—that I knew how badly I needed her to stay.

I don’t know what Cassie told Karen about our best-friend breakup and our temporary get-back-together. And it ended anyway a few weeks ago. But I can bet it’s not much. The two of them aren’t exactly close. And it’s not like the reasons we stopped talking reflect so well on Cassie.

“You haven’t talked to Cassie in a while?” my dad asks, surprised.

My mom knew about my falling-out with Cassie back when it first happened. Apparently, she never told my dad. It is possible that I asked her not to—I don’t remember. But I do remember what my mom said when I told her that Cassie and I weren’t friends anymore. We were lying side by side on her bed, and when I was done talking, she said, “I would always want to be your friend.”

I shrug. “I think the last text I got from Cassie was last week? Maybe on Tuesday.”

“Last week?” my dad asks, eyebrows all scrunched low.

The truth was, I really wasn’t sure. But it was the following Thursday now. And it was definitely at least a week since we’d spoken.

“Oh, that long.” Karen is more disappointed than surprised. “I noticed that the two of you hadn’t been talking as much, but I didn’t realize . . .” She shakes her head. “I called the police, but of course because Cassie’s sixteen and we’ve been fighting they didn’t seem in a big rush to go after her. They filed a report and are going to check the local hospitals, but they’re not going to start combing the woods or anything. They’ll send a car out looking, but not until the morning.” Karen presses her fingertips against her temples and rocks her head back and forth. “Morning. That’s twelvehours from now. Who knows who Cassie will be with or what shape she’ll be in by then? Think of all the horrible—Ben, I can’t wait until morning. Not with the way she and I left things.”

I’m surprised that Karen seems to know even partly how out of control Cassie has gotten. But then, without me to help cover for her, Cassie was bound to get busted eventually. And this scenario Karen has in her head—Cassie well on her way to passed out somewhere—isn’t crazy. Even at this hour, just before seven p.m., it’s possible.

“Nooners,” the kids at Newton Regional called them. Apparently getting totally wasted in the middle of the day was what all the cool kids were doing these days. The last time I rushed out to help Cassie was back in November, and it was only four or five in the afternoon. I had taken a cab to pick her up at a party at Max Russell’s house, because she was way too drunk to get home on her own. Lucky for her, my mom had been traveling, my dad had been, like always, working at his campus lab on his study, and Gideon was still at school, working late on his Intel Science Competition application. I slipped out and we slipped back in with no one ever the wiser, Cassie bumping into walls as she swayed. After, I held her hair back over the toilet when she threw up again and again. And later I called Karen to say she had a migraine and wanted to stay the night.

I told Cassie the next morning that she needed to stop drinking or something terrible would happen. But by then I wasn’t her only friend. I was just the one telling her the things she didn’t want to hear.

The Outliers
by by Kimberly McCreight