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When We Were Them
Table of Contents
About The Book
When they were fifteen, Willa, Luz, and Britton’s friendship was everything.
When they were sixteen, they stood by each other no matter what.
When they were seventeen, they went through the worst.
And when they were eighteen, Willa ruined it all.
Now, it’s the week of graduation, and Willa is left with only a memory box filled with symbols of the friendship she destroyed: A book of pranks. Corsages from a nightmarish homecoming. A greasy pizza menu. Greeting cards with words that mean the world…
It’s enough to make Willa wonder how anything could tear her, Luz, and Britton apart. But as Willa revisits the moments when she and her friends leaned on each other, she can’t avoid the moments they leaned so hard their friendship began to crack.
As Willa tries to find a way back to Luz and Britton, she must confront the why of her betrayal, and answer a question she never saw coming: Who is she without them?
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, THE idea of death was so far away, we used to dream up ways we could haunt each other. It became a game. We dealt it playfully over gigantic hot chocolates, boxed yellow cake, or in front of vanity mirrors. If Britton died first, she’d sing herself into our heads. A soaring C note above the C above middle C, just to remind us she used to be good at it. Ghostly Luz would circle her doll-sized hand around our wrists, two fingers to the artery there, or pressed against the throbbing pulse point at the sides of our necks.
I didn’t know what form my haunting would take, but Brit and Luz did. They swore I’d be a spectral nag—the scrapbook, save-everything kind. A pine box and some dirt shoveled over my head wouldn’t stop the “Willa J. Davidson sentimental gene.” And to my friends still full of blood and caffeine, I’d whisper: Are you keeping every greeting card, and a corkboard pinned with photos of all the miraculous stuff you’re doing without me?
When Nico was around for these talks, he said he would never haunt us. Would never dare, and just let us be. But I didn’t believe him.
Our game shifted when we turned thirteen and my family changed forever. We kept our jokes quieter, hiding them, like everything else in my home. We carried on this way until right before eighteen, when we shut down all forms of the haunting game. Packed it away and moved it out like a county fair that never found summer again.
Fourteen days before this one—this summer—officially arrives, I kick off my flip-flops and sit directly on the sand of my childhood beach. Seven minutes to go, my dive watch says. To face my friends. To face what they found three days ago.
I’m early on purpose, notched between the time the post-dawn surfers leave and the bulk of the boogie boarders and sandcastle engineers come. Grays and chalky whites swirl above like most San Diego–June skies. Two lifeguards I see every season perch at Tower 13, red rescue cans swinging off the side. Alert. Ready. Out of habit, I pick one swimmer and zero in on him. I was taught to predict possible trauma. Taught to watch for the one who might not fully appreciate the strike of a wave or the raging current on a yellow-flag warning day.
Tourist season always brings ocean virgins. The sum of their swimming might be pool plus lake plus pond and maybe creek. A yellow-flag ocean sneers at this. As much as I love my Pacific, I’m trained to wipe that gorgeous, smug grin off its face.
Five minutes, the watch taunts. My stomach twists, but I still have him—this swimmer. I’ll call him Nebraska. I usually pick a landlocked state. Nebraska is a white male, aged somewhere between fifty and sixty. His ball cap is about to get drenched and probably ruined if he keeps wading out.
As Nebraska edges forward, my mind drifts backward seventy-two hours. To Britton, holding the envelope I thought I’d gotten rid of eight months ago. To the way she’d stared. Blank. Hollow, like I’d dissolved into her tea and she couldn’t find me anymore.
The unearthed envelope, scrawled with Luz’s name on the front and my betraying words inside, said more than either of us could, right then. That I had failed my friends spectacularly and tried to hide it. That I had failed at that, too.
Chasing this spot in my mind and taking over, a Goliath wave grows from way, way back. I spring up to my knees because Nebraska has pivoted, staring toward the Giant Dipper roller coaster off the boardwalk, and this sort of wave leaves you gasping if you don’t take it right. Pay attention, for chrissake! Too many of these I took wrong when Nico taught me how to surf. We were just kids, but I swear my throat will never be fully free of that salt. Ocean water climbs, Nebraska!
I’m already standing as the Pacific puts my guy in the dunk tank. When the wave hits bull’s-eye, movement spears from my right. Marianne from Tower 13 is down and running. But not toward Nebraska. He’s not the one. He just hacks a lung or three and shakes like a Labrador. And he’s fine, bobbing upright, searching for a red cap even though it’s been sacrificed to the underneath.
I trot to the shore. There’s a young girl who lost her boogie board, who can’t stand and can’t find her way into floating. Her mom must be the one yelling, Emma! She’s trying to reach her daughter, but the undertow keeps swinging her back. I missed Emma, but Marianne’s already there, securing her. I missed Emma because, one minute. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s fine—I’m not the one on duty. (You can be human right now, I repeat.)
I forgive myself, but only for this one slip. Not for the envelope, or for an entire October I ripped up so small, I no longer recognize it. Not for Luz crying out, three days ago: It’s not that you did it and took it all back. It’s that you used… Nico, of all things. Of. All. The. Fucking. Things.
(When Luz—a girl who wants to heal and repair bodies one day—said this, she flipped my skin inside out to nothing. There wasn’t even enough left to haunt from.)
My watch says thirty seconds. I shuffle through warming sand and across the boardwalk; my friends are already at the picnic table. One breath. Another. The air thickens, blurring until I reach the girls, where the universe siphons away and there is no South Mission Beach, no San Diego, no life but them.
“I… Hi” is all I have.
“Well, you look like total shit,” Luz says. Blessedly, it’s the same way she pokes at my lead-foot driving, then grins us through yellow lights and on-ramps.
Remembering, I flub a watery laugh for all those times. For that me and that her. I shift, glancing around the beach that grew us. The refurbished wooden coaster, the cluster of posh condos, the coaster again, the ant trail of kids coming in with boards and pails.
“Willa, sit. Okay?” Britton pats the table with a hand manicured the color of ballet slippers. “Your remarkable ass is blocking the view.”
I move my—often noted by Britton, and sometimes in French—“remarkable ass” onto the bench. A trickle of hope flits across my chest. We’re stronger than one mistake, this massive sum of us, and we, and them. Maybe all we need is time.
“I didn’t go through with it,” I say, which sounded so much better in my head.
With no wall to slump against, Luz crouches forward and tucks her limbs to form Origami Luz. A done, defeated kind of shape.
“Fine. But were you ever going to tell Luz? If I hadn’t found out?” Britton asks, skipping straight to the hard part like a new aria.
Too many beats pass before I shake my head. I imagine the cult-classic movies we’ve watched in Britton’s living room under tented monogrammed quilts. Some of those plots were about do-overs, or entire yesterdays that restarted until the character got it right.
These words land into dust with my waning hope. “I am so, so sorry. And I’m not asking you to forget.”
Luz unwinds herself. The smallest of the three of us, she takes up little space at the table. For the first time, I’m terrified of words from a friend who’s barricaded my secrets for years. Today she’s more shooting star than girl. She’s the green flash we stalk during sunset, and a bonfire ember in the sand, and a hundred other brightly fleeting things—at their most brilliant, seconds before they disappear.
“I thought that’s what you’d expect, with us coming here. For me to forget.” Luz motions toward Britton. “Because of all the years we’ve been friends.”
“I know that’s not fair. It’s not about forgetting. But… can you forgive?”
Three words. For ten years, there were countless other words we’d naturally grouped into threes: I love you. We have cake. You are amazing. I brought tacos. I’ve got you, I’ve got you, I’ve got you.
Can you forgive?
Luz falls quiet again, but it’s more her lack of action that ticks my worry. She isn’t doing any of her Luz-normal things. She hasn’t detailed the chemical makeup of our distress. She hasn’t tried to—
“Here.” I hike the sleeve of my striped tee, baring my pale wrist. Future cardiologist Luz always used my heartbeat to read my stress level. “Take my pulse. Feel what I’m feeling.” Nothing. A film on pause. I jerk my arm away. “Please say something. Or—or yell! Can’t you just let me have it all so we can do the next thing?”
Whatever that is.
Britton slumps forward, dark hair closing around her and this mess I’ve made. Luz won’t even look at me. I don’t know what else to do. “Is this it?”
Luz’s shoulders jerk upward, and the seam of her mouth splits. “You know, it’s a miracle you didn’t get emergency bangs because of this. Thought you might.”
These girls have witnessed my most primal snorts and guffaws, but the one I make now is from a new animal. My hand crimps my dark blond waves—ragged, from being a wind sock. From clawing over my scalp trying to tame what’s underneath. From watching Nebraska not drown.
“Bangs?” Britton’s sniffle slips into a giggle. “God.” She moves upright, cross-armed on the weather-pocked table.
“Like I’d ever violate the code. Bangs are never really about bangs,” I say right as Luz and Britton say, “They’re never really about bangs.”
Our eyes lock tight over the echo of one of Britton’s life mottos.
I realize we’ve drifted closer. I guess our brains haven’t told our bodies I ruined the world. Our shoes outline a polygon. Shoulders turn with muscle memory (inward, close, usual), and the air between us billows. I could rest here. No, I could. Right here, with them soft-mouthed and seeing me again. (What envelope? What October?)
We have always been our best this way. A secret in plain sight. An entire ecosystem small enough to hide under a seashell.
“Tell me one thing,” Luz says, but not with the anger I deserve for hurting her. It’s her diagnosis voice. Do no harm—a huge part of the oath she’ll take one day.
“I need to know why. I deserve that much before I can even think of…”
Forgiving. Of moving forward and trusting me again. I fill in her blanks like they’re my own.
“Because of us,” I say out loud. “I panicked because I couldn’t lose you, too.” I shoot a knowing glance at Britton, whose plane ticket screams Paris, whose departure date races toward us.
“Nope, no way. That’s not all,” Luz says. “That envelope is about more than what’s happening after graduation.”
“You used Nico. That’s bigger than a panic play, Willa.”
The words aim right for my throat, instantly dragging me back to days made of fog. I fight the slip, grounding myself onto the bench. “I couldn’t take any more loss.” All I remember from last October was that senior year and graduation were looming. My newly shattered life was going to open up wide into so many more unknowns, and I couldn’t stop it. But I thought I would try, and that led to the worst decision of my life. It led us here. “I swear if there were more, I’d tell you.”
Luz spears a glance at the sky. “I learned that sometimes a person will have cancer, but initial tests don’t show it. And it hides and continues to disrupt the body until doctors look deeper. I think the same is true for you.”
Chills branch under my skin at the way she’s read me; the truth is a silent lurker behind my liver and lungs.
“Almost our whole senior year, you’ve been living as my best friend after trying to betray me,” Luz says. “But me being your friend makes me worry about why, and worry for you. If you can’t see the real reason here, that’s a problem. You’re gonna have to find it there. Back then.”
“I’ll try,” I say.
Luz shakes her head. “You broke my heart. Before I can even think of forgiving you, I need the whole truth. I’m serious, Willa. You need to do this alone. This week, or that’s it.” Luz swallows once. “Or we’re done.”
Oh. I absorb the blow, nearly convincing myself that another Luz has switched places with the one in front of me. My Luz doesn’t talk this way. These aren’t words we say. But what did I expect? I’m the one who changed everything. For eight months, I’ve tried to unhook myself from one act, removing it from my body until it felt undone. Unsaid. I reduced the unimaginable into code. It. The thing. My betrayal. I’ve lost the language to name it for real. But six days before we don Mission Point High School graduation gowns, saving the most important friendship of my life means rewinding to a place and time I tried to bury instead.
“I will,” I say, and learn I never needed to die to haunt myself.
Why We Love It
“There are plenty of books about romantic breakups, but few capture the devastation of friendship breakup quite as well as When We Were Them. BFFs are supposed to be forever, after all—so what happens when forever isn’t as long as you thought it would be? And what do you do when the end of forever is all your fault? Laura Taylor Namey beautifully portrays the bittersweetness of growing up and growing apart as readers are left questioning, What did Willa do?”
—Alex B., Editor, on When We Were Them
- Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (November 16, 2021)
- Length: 384 pages
- ISBN13: 9781534471276
- Grades: 7 and up
- Ages: 12 - 99
- Lexile ® HL720L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
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Raves and Reviews
"Namey’s prose is lyrical and tender, authentic in its portrayal of late teen angst and growth.... An intimate portrait of friendship at the cusp of adulthood."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Beautifully poignant.... A bittersweet story that will touch many hearts, especially as readers remember that time when their friends were everything. Hand to those who love Nina LaCour."
"Female relationships take center stage in Namey’s narrative about growing up, growing together, and, sometimes, growing apart."
– Publishers Weekly
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): When We Were Them Hardcover 9781534471276
- Author Photo (jpg): Laura Taylor Namey Photograph by J. Chang-Tablada(0.1 MB)
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