Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead

Pub: August 4, 2015

Wendy Lamb Books

Bridge and her friends live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When Bridge was in third grade, she survived being hit by a car, and ever since she’s wondered: why am I here on earth? There must be a reason. Bridge and her best friends Tab and Emily start 7th grade, and dramas unfold: Emily suddenly has “a body” and is getting lots of attention, including texts from a popular older boy who sends revealing photos of himself, wanting Em’s photos back. Tab immerses herself in the human rights club and feminism. Bridge becomes good friends with Sherm, a boy who makes her question a lot of things, such as: did Apollo 11 really land on the moon? And she wonders: what’s the difference between liking someone, and love?


The waitress at the Dollar-Eight Diner seemed genuinely happy to see Bridge. “Hey there, Cinnamon Toast. Little while no see!” She grabbed two menus from a stack and handed them to Sherm, winking at him. “Sit anywhere, guys. I’ll be right with you.”

Sherm was impressed. “You weren’t kidding—she really does call you Cinnamon Toast.”

Bridge smiled and slid into a booth. “Are you opposed to splitting a vanilla shake?”

Sherm said he wasn’t at all opposed to a vanilla shake.

“Good. Because a vanilla shake goes really well with cinnamon toast.”

Sherm grinned.

She kept waiting for the strangeness to arrive—being at the diner with Sherm Russo. This is strange, she told herself. They’d met in front of school and walked here together, pretending it was perfectly normal, which it wasn’t. Only it didn’t exactly feel strange, either.

Bridge had once read a story about a girl who goes on a date to a restaurant where she’s too shy to order anything but the cheapest thing on the menu, which is a cream cheese and olive sandwich.

“Have you ever had a cream cheese and olive sandwich?” she asked Sherm. Not that this was a date.

“No,” Sherm said. “Have you?”

“No.” They looked at their menus. “You can order anything you want,” Bridge said. “I have money.”

“Thanks. But we came for cinnamon toast, right?”

The waitress came back with two glasses of water. “You guys know what you want?”

“Two orders of cinnamon toast, please,” Bridge said. “And a vanilla shake in two glasses.”

The waitress smiled. “You sure you need two glasses? I could bring one glass and two straws.” She winked again.

“Two glasses,” Bridge said. “Please.”

Suddenly she worried that when the waitress walked away and she and Sherm were sitting across the table from each other with no menus between them, they would have nothing to say to each other. There would be what her brother Jamie called awkward silence.

That was what Jamie said whenever the conversation died down at dinner: “Awkward silence.” And when their mother said, “It’s comfortable silence, Jamie. There’s nothing awkward about it,” Jamie would wait a beat and then say, very doubtfully, “If you say so.” Once, this routine had made Bridge’s friend Emily laugh so hard she practically snorted her dinner through her nose and had to leave the table to pull herself together in the bathroom.

“You know that riddle?” Bridge said to Sherm. “With the two brothers guarding the two doors, and one door leads to heaven and the other one leads to hell?”

Sherm shook his head. “Never heard of it.”

“Really?” Bridge leaned forward. “So there are two brothers. One brother always lies, and one brother always tells the truth. You want the door to heaven, obviously, but you’re only allowed to ask one question.”

“One question each?”

“No. One question.”

“Do I know which brother is which?”

Bridge thought. “No. You don’t know which is which.”

The waitress brought their food, and Sherm picked up two toast halves together, like a sandwich.

“Stop!” Bridge said. “What are you doing?”

Sherm’s hand froze. “Eating my cinnamon toast?”

“You can’t eat it like that! You have to eat one piece at a time, faceup, so that the cinnamon and the sugar hit the roof of your mouth.”

Separating the two sides of his toast, Sherm muttered, “You’re lucky I’m used to living with bossy women.”

“Very funny.” Bridge felt herself go red. “I’m just trying to give you the real experience here.”

Sherm took a bite of the cinnamon toast.

“Well?” Bridge said.

“It’s delicious,” Sherm said. He bowed his head. “Thank you for showing me your planet.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“I especially enjoy the way the cinnamon and sugar feel against the roof of my mouth.”

“Double hilarious. Just go ahead and pretend this isn’t the best thing ever.”

“It is, actually,” Sherm said, looking her straight in the eyes, the way he had during the intruder drill. “Best thing ever.”

Bridge pushed his glass toward him. “And you haven’t even tried it with the shake!”

There were no awkward silences. When the check came, they each paid four dollars. Bridge never left less than a twenty percent tip. Her mom said that was the definition of a good New Yorker.

“Nice wallet,” Bridge told Sherm. “Looks about a hundred years old!” She grabbed it. “Check out all the secret pockets!” She turned it upside down, and something fell to the table.

It was a worn square of paper with a date written on it in big letters.

“What’s February fourteenth?” Bridge asked, reading upside down. She felt bad all of a sudden, about grabbing the wallet and shaking it like that. She closed it and held it out to Sherm.

He took the wallet and then picked up the slip of paper from the table.

“It’s Valentine’s Day, dummy.”

“And you just like to carry that piece of information around so you don’t forget?”

“Actually, this was my grandfather’s wallet. And this”—he held up the paper—“is his birthday.”

“Oh God, sorry,” Bridge said. “I didn’t—”

“He’s not dead,” Sherm said quickly. “He moved out over the summer. My grandparents always lived with us, but now it’s just my grandmother. He left her, after fifty years.”

“Oh. Wow. Where did he go?”

Sherm made a face. “He moved to New Jersey.”

Watching Sherm tuck the slip of paper into his wallet so carefully, Bridge felt even worse. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That really sucks.”

“I write to him sometimes,” Sherm said. “Letters. Do you think that’s weird?”

“It’s not weird. It’s nice. Does he write you back?”

Sherm looked up. “I haven’t actually mailed any of them.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “He doesn’t deserve letters. He just left. My dad says he’s moving in with some woman he met. Which feels kind of crazy, to tell you the truth, because he’s a great person. I mean, he was. We don’t really talk about it much. That’s another crazy thing, not talking about it. But my parents are really busy and my grandmother only likes to talk about happy things. Happy things, or books.”

Bridge nodded. “I get that.”

Sherm rubbed the worn leather of the wallet with his thumbs. “I remember when you got hit by that car,” he said.

There was a funny feeling that traveled down Bridge’s legs sometimes—a zinging rush to her feet. “You do?”

“Yeah. It was right at the end of my block.”

“Your block? That’s so random. I didn’t realize you even knew about that.” She laughed. “Even I forget about it sometimes.”

“Everybody knows about it.” Sherm raised his head and the light hit his eyes. Now they looked greenish-blue mixed with light brown. Bridge thought they looked like tiny planet Earths. “What was it like?” he asked.

“The accident? I don’t remember it. All I remember is the hospital—the nurses, and stupid stuff like these paper menus they had with pictures of animals all over them that you were supposed to color in with these broken crayons. I remember that.”

“You almost died, my dad said.”

“Yeah, everyone says that. But I don’t remember it.”

Now Sherm stacked sugar packets on the tabletop, carefully shaking each one first to make it lie flat. “My grandparents went to the hospital,” he said. “That first night. They sat in the lobby.”

“Really?” That was strange to think about.

Sherm looked at her. “A bunch of people were there, my dad said.”


“Just people. From the neighborhood, I guess. The next day my grandmother wanted me to pray with her, but I ran out of her room.” His eyes flicked to Bridge’s, then back to his sugar tower. “I feel weirdly bad about that.”

“That’s okay.” Bridge got an achy feeling at the bottom of her throat and took a sip of her water. “You were just a little kid. It wouldn’t have made a difference. I mean, I’m fine!” She reached her arms up over her head and wiggled her fingers as if this were universal proof of being fine.

Sherm smiled. “Yeah.”

“Actually,” she said, “I lied before. I don’t ever forget about the accident.”

He nodded, unsurprised.

Bridge hesitated. “After the accident, this nurse at the hospital told me that I’m here for a reason.”


Bridge nodded. “She said that’s why I didn’t die. It kind of weirds me out, actually.”

He was the first person she’d ever told. She hadn’t planned to tell him—she hardly knew him. It had something to do with how he had tucked that little piece of paper back into that cruddy wallet. The way he seemed to meet her thoughts wherever they went. The look on his face.

Sherm said, “My grandfather used to say that everyone alive has already beaten the craziest odds, just being born. Like one in a trillion. Your parents could have had a million different kids, but they had you. And before that could happen, your parents had to be born themselves, and their parents had to be born.” He picked up his shake and used the straw to vacuum the bottom of the glass. “I mean, think about it. It goes all the way back.”

Bridge laughed. “I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.”

“Maybe it should just make you feel lucky. Yeah, you were really lucky you didn’t die after the accident. But you were a lot luckier to be born in the first place. So if you’re here for a reason, maybe we all are.”

“I guess. Yeah.”

“You never told me the answer to that riddle.”

“Oh,” Bridge said. Then she laughed again. “You know what? I can’t remember.”


October 24

Dear Nonno Gio,

Nonna made lasagna and you’re pretty sad you missed it, even if you don’t know it.

I tried cinnamon toast today and it was great. Do you think people are born for a special purpose? I don’t. I think it’s just something that happens.


P.S. Three months, twenty-one days until your birthday.


Valentine’s Day

You have to tell your mom you aren’t in a ditch. That’s kind of weighing on you. There’s a copy shop on Broadway, near the university, where you think you can get online. You’ll send her an email.

You turn north, pull your hood up again, and play hot lava all the way there.

The copy place is busy: there are college kids sitting at computer terminals, two men with a stroller at the counter, and people waiting for the copiers. You get in line behind the couple with the baby and watch a woman struggle with a color copier. She keeps hitting the big green button, but nothing is happening. A man in a down jacket is using the paper cutter near the door, trimming a stack of pale blue cards. Invitations, you think. He pauses. Walks over to the woman at the copier. “Not working?” he says.

She gives him a frustrated smile.

After the apocalypse, they’ll have three kids, you decide. The middle kid will turn out to be some kind of genius. The younger one will be an artist. The older one might marry the baby in the stroller, who’s trying to jam his straw into his juice box. He’s having problems. Don’t worry, you think at him. After the apocalypse, there will be no more juice boxes.

Gina invented the apocalypse game. The game sounds creepy but it isn’t. Not super-creepy, anyway.

“What if there was a nuclear bomb, and only the people in this room survived?” Gina asked one day last fall. You remember that she was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of Smurfette on it. You were at Dollar-Eight, feeling relaxed and goofy. No Vinny.

“Nuclear bomb, nice thought,” you said.

“Yeah, but who do you think you’d end up with? I mean, we’d all have to pair up and have babies, right? To repopulate the planet.” Gina scanned the diner. “Oh, I think I want him.”

From her lap, she mini-pointed to a kid sitting alone near the window, reading a paperback.

You’d laughed. “So everyone we know is dead and your first thought is dating?”

Gina looked fake-hurt. “For the sake of the human race.”

“Okay. I’ll take the one at the counter. We both like French fries.”

She leaned, looked. “I approve. So what about everyone else?”

And the two of you sat, arranging families and assigning jobs.

“Those two are made for each other!”

“He looks like a doctor, doesn’t he?”

“That woman is definitely the president of something—look at those killer shoes. She can be in charge.”

“Okay. But she still needs a love life. . . .”

That was the game.

“We’ll stay best friends, of course,” Gina said that day. “Those girls in that booth over there look nice too. They can hang with us.”

Best friends. You remember the happiness of that.

At the copy shop, you play the game by yourself, feeling in your pocket again and again for your phone. It’s beyond weird to be without it.

Every time the door swings open, your fragile world gets a little more broken. First, the color-copier lady leaves without even saying goodbye to the blue-invitations man, and their three kids evaporate like mist. Then the woman in the funky glasses walks away from her true love in the suede shirt at computer terminal #3. He doesn’t care, just stares at the document on his screen as if nothing has happened. It’s sad. Everything they would have come to feel for each other—gone.

You reach again for your phone without meaning to. Stupid neighbor.


Or Is She a Woman?

Bridge loved Tab’s living room. Her dad’s plants on the windowsills, the black-and-white photographs on the walls, and jars of nail polish scattered across the coffee table like pretty rocks. There were sheer ivory curtains under embroidered turquoise ones and small brass sculptures on the bookshelves. Bridge couldn’t remember if they were from France, where Tab’s parents lived before they had kids, or from India, where they were born. She loved the way her feet sank into the carpet, the bowls of salty soy nuts, the way their cat snuggled with them on the couch. Jamie was allergic to cats.

“What do you think goes through her mind when she looks in the mirror?” Bridge said. She and Tab were on a homework break, huddled in front of a laptop on the couch, looking at a picture of Julie Hopper, the eighth grader from Em’s soccer team who’d had her legs across Em’s lap during the clubs fair. “Does she see what we see? Like how other people see her? I mean, boom, she’s beautiful. You know?”

“Well, I see her as kind of naked,” Tab said, clicking the picture to make it bigger. “Like a naked person with a towel over her shoulders.”

“She’s wearing a bathing suit. Everyone looks half naked in a bathing suit.”

Celeste, Tab’s sister, walked in and said, “Who’s naked? That’s my laptop, Tab, bought with my babysitting money. You’re supposed to ask first, remember?” She dropped down on the couch next to them. “Hold the phone. That’s Julie Hopper? When did she get so gorgeous? Wait—she put that up on her own page? It kind of looks like she’s not wearing pants.”

“It’s a bathing suit,” Bridge said.

“Oh. Maybe the angle is weird. Looks like she forgot to put on pants.”

“See?” Tab said. “Told you.”

“You know Julie Hopper?” Bridge asked Celeste.

Celeste looked at her. “I actually went to your middle school, remember? Last year? I was the one with the gorgeous bod and the perfect makeup?”

Bridge smiled. “I remember. I just didn’t know you knew Julie.”

“She’s only a year behind me. Last spring, some poor kid wrote her a letter about how much he liked her and she read it to her homeroom. She was famous for at least a week after that.”

“Wow—that’s mean,” Bridge said.

“He probably deserved it,” Tab said.

“Eighty-eight comments!” Celeste said, squinting at the screen. “Bridge, scroll down.”

Bridge scrolled down, reading the comments on Julie’s page, mostly things like “Gorgeous!” and “So hot!”

Em had written: OMG. I wish I was you. Serious.

And Julie had written back: Aw thanks! ILY.

And Em had written back: ILYSM.

“Don’t worry,” Celeste said, looking at Tab and Bridge. “You guys just haven’t, you know, grown those parts yet. Julie’s a year older than you guys. You’ll look just like that! More or less.”

“Do I look worried? I’m not worried,” Tab said.

Tab would probably look like Celeste, Bridge thought. Celeste had the kind of body Bridge would want, if she could choose: not too much, not too little.

“I’m just saying it seems like a big deal, but it isn’t.” Celeste threw her shoulders back and took a deep breath, which pushed her chest out and made Bridge think that Celeste actually did think it was kind of a big deal.

“Again,” Tab said, “not worried.”

“Do you guys ever watch The Twilight Zone?” Bridge asked.

“The vampire books?” Celeste asked vaguely. She had taken control of the laptop and was scrolling through Julie Hopper’s photos.

“No, The Twilight Zone. It was this old show on TV. These different stories.”

“Sounds cute.”

“They’re kind of creepy, actually. There’s this one about a woman in a hospital bed and her whole head is wrapped up in gauze. Just her head. And the nurses—but you can only see their hands, not their faces—are starting to unwrap her. And the doctor, but you can’t see him either, you can only hear his voice, is telling her she shouldn’t get her hopes up, because the surgery might not have been successful.”

“Notice how the nurses are women and the doctor is a man?” Tab said, nodding.

“I didn’t say the nurses were women,” Bridge said.

“Oh. Were they?”

“Yes,” Bridge admitted.

“Ha!” Tab said.

“Shush. So finally the bandages fall away and she’s perfect. She’s, like, ridiculously beautiful. The room goes silent, someone passes her a mirror, and then she starts screaming her head off. She’s horrified by what she sees in the mirror.”

“I don’t get it,” Tab said.

“You’re not supposed to yet. Then the camera pulls back and for the first time you see the faces of the doctors and nurses in the room, and they all look like pigs! They have these snouts!”

“What?” Celeste looked up, suddenly interested.

“Snouts! Like pigs! It’s this other reality, where she looks like a supermodel but she’s the ugly one. Get it?”

“I wouldn’t want to live on a planet where everyone looks like a pig.” Celeste fake-shuddered.

“You’re missing the point,” Bridge said.

“Maybe you had to be there.” Celeste closed her laptop and looked at Bridge. “Your hair is getting so long. Have you ever tried a messy bun?”

“Messy bun?” Tab said. “Is that to eat? Mmm, messy bun. Sounds delicious.”

“Don’t be mental.”

“Mental,” Tab told Bridge, as if Celeste weren’t sitting right there. “She gets that from these hair videos she watches on YouTube. A lot of the girls are British. Now she runs around saying everything is either ‘brilliant’ or ‘mental.’”

“I do not. But, Bridge, did you know there are like a hundred thousand videos on the Internet about how to put your hair up or do your makeup? It’s this whole world of information.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s why they invented the Internet,” Tab said.

“You know what, Tab? You don’t have to make a statement every five seconds.” Celeste looked at Bridge thoughtfully. “Or maybe a sock bun.”

“What’s a sock bun?” Bridge asked.

“Mmm, sock bun,” Tab said. “Sounds delicious.”

“It’s a bun rolled up around a sock,” Celeste told Bridge. “Looks prettier than it sounds. And your hair is so dark and heavy . . . it’ll be beautiful. Even with the cat ears.” She paused, leaned back. “You know, I think I like the ears. They give you some nice height.”

Tab burst out laughing. “Tell me you didn’t just say that.”

“Ignore her,” Celeste instructed Bridge. “Want to try it? The sock bun?”

“Uh. Maybe,” Bridge said.

“I’ll go get the stuff!” Celeste jumped up, glanced at herself in the mirror hanging over the couch, and did a double take.

“No. No! It’s still there. It’s—bigger!”

“What is?” Bridge asked.

“She can’t pass a mirror without looking at herself,” Tab said.

“This zit!” Celeste turned, her finger aimed at a place to the left of her chin. “I paid, like, twenty-eight dollars for this stupid cream that was supposed to boost my radiance. What did I get for it? A four-dimensional zit!”

“It’s tiny,” Bridge said. “I didn’t even see it until you pointed.”

Tab rolled her eyes. “Four dimensions? Does it smell or something?”

“Ew, no. The fourth dimension is time. This thing has been here for two weeks!”

Tab said, “Stop laughing, Bridge. You’re encouraging her.”

Celeste glared at the spot in the mirror. “Leave, thing! Leave!”

“I can’t help it,” Bridge said. “She’s funny!”

“You realize our fifteen-minute break was over half an hour ago, right?” Tab pointed to their books on the coffee table.

Celeste spun away from the mirror and squinted at the computer. “Is it four-thirty? I’m so sorry, Bridge, I have to pick up Evan from computer club. I’ll show you the sock bun later, okay? Promise.”

“Anyway, we’re supposed to be doing French,” Tab told Bridge. “Remember? Did you look at the flash cards I made you?”

“Sort of.” Bridge rooted around in her backpack for her flash cards. “There’s this new girl at the Bean Bar. She says French is the language of love. And that’s why she refuses to speak it.”

Tab made a face. “That’s stupid. How can there be a language of love? And Bridge, is she really a ‘girl’? Or is she a woman?”