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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Coming of age

The Face You See, The Broken Series Book I

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THE BROKEN SERIES

_The Face You See _

The Face Beneath

COMING SOON

The Scars I Bear

[]

THE FACE YOU SEE

THE BROKEN SERIES, BOOK ONE

Copyright © 2016 by Amy Legendre

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Thinkstock are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only.

Certain stock imagery © Thinkstock.

Interior Designer: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing, www.unforeseenediting.com

“In swift and relatable prose, The Face You See juggles the many difficult topics and circumstances that young adults face.”

Foreword Clarion Review

“ …those who have experienced or overcome traumas will find Dannie relatable and empowering …”

—BlueInk

“It initially seems that this book will present yet another high school love triangle, but the plot surprises and unsettles those expectations. It moves past lighthearted teen drama to present a serious, emotionally affecting coming-of-age tale … An engaging contemporary romance, whose conflicted, nuanced heroine helps it transcend the conventions of its genre.”

—Kirkus Review

[]

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Epilogue

About the Author

Letters from the Broken

[There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known.
__
—Luke 12:2]

[]

Three Years Ago

I sit stiffly in the metal fold-out chair in the middle of the crowded auditorium. Freshman orientation. I snort at the thought of it. It feels more like a meat market, or what we called “the bowl” in juvie. Freshman kids crowd the front while the upperclassmen sit in the back, silently studying the crowd, looking for the weak.

I sneer in the direction of the older students; they certainly have another thing coming if they believe I’m an easy target. No one gets the jump on me. I may be a freshman, but I’ve already been incarcerated, and at six feet one, I can hold my own against anyone trying to make a name for him- or herself. I hunch lower in my chair, causing the metal to screech loudly, attracting unwanted attention. I glare at anyone who appears to look my way.

A small voice whispers, “You aren’t gonna make any friends with a look like that one.” I stiffly turn, enraged at the audacity of the voice, ready to spit at ’im.

I freeze—frozen by a pair of impossibly blue eyes. She’s a skinny little thing, not usually my type … but those eyes.

“Maybe I’m not looking for any friends?” I say curtly, but I give her a slow smile to show I’m not completely serious—or, at the very least, implying that she would be the exception to that statement.

She frowns, obviously trying to figure me out as she lowers herself next to me. Like a fly caught in my web … I’m gonna have fun with this one.

It’s been a while since I’ve had some fun.

Raising her brows, she leans forward and whispers again, “Sometimes you have to know when to fake it,” before turning to face the front in her seat, abruptly ending our short conversation.

I’m more than a little shocked that this girl, who happens to look like a little nun in the making, would presume to tell me what to do. But the more I think about what she said, the more I realize she’s right.

And that pisses me off.

[_Stupid girl. Doesn’t she know who she’s talking to? What does she know about life? About the real world? About how ugly it can be? And she wants me to fake it and play nice? _]I close my hands into fists, controlling the rage I can’t expel here.

As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point.

I look around the room at the yuppie-puppies from the Golden Coast and think, [_Hell, I’m smart enough to fool them. Definitely smart enough to fool my parents, who are under the impression they can buy their way into fixing their youngest son. _]

As the dough-faced principal takes the stage to commemorate the start of our high school careers, I ignore him completely; instead, I contemplate the blue-eyed girl’s words, mull them over, letting them roll and flow in my mind.

[_Pretend … _]

[_Play the part of a good boy … _]

[_Not be … me? The troubled kid from a “good” family who secretly covets the destruction of life. Covets the power it gives me. The control. Faking it would be a challenge, for sure. I happen to like the thought of playing a role, catching them off guard, wearing a mask. _]

A person can have many faces[_ … many masks._]

The mask of a good boy who does what everyone wants him to do. Is who everyone wants him to be. Become the tall, athletic wonder boy who makes his father proud. I softly chuckle at that thought.

I like this plan. And the pretty girl sitting beside me gave me this plan. I’ll have to think of a way to thank her.

[]

[_Crying. I am crying at the top of the stairs. I look down at my chubby baby arms and my chubby baby tummy, and I wail. I look up at the man holding my hand. Mommy’s friend is holding my wrist while alternating between looking fearfully at me and screaming at my mother, who happens to be lying on the couch in the living room. Why is she sleeping there? I wonder as tears burn my eyes. Why is she looking at him like she’s mad? Mommy, why are you mad at me? Look at me, Mommy! And she does. Only there is nothing but anger in that look. Disgust. I shrink back behind Mommy’s friend while he is screaming at her. I hear nothing though. I can’t make out any sound, actually. All I know is that my skin stings. _]

[_Mommy, why does my skin hurt? I look down at my naked body, and I see colors. Why are there so many colors? Why are there prints on my tummy? _]

Mommy, make it stop burning.

I jolt straight out of bed, startled. My heart races inside my chest, pounding so loudly I am sure it will wake someone up. My thick hair sticks to the back of my damp neck. It was the dream … no, the memory.

Will I ever sleep without nightmares? I stare at the ceiling, haunted by the look on her face, her eyes completely indifferent—almost inhuman.

I groan while palming my eyes. Might as well get up because there is no way I can fall asleep after that!

It’s too early and there isn’t enough coffee in the world to make six fifteen worth it! But mmm … café au lait sounds so good after the night I just had.

Earphones in, I blast some good ol’ Paramore as I look out the window, watching the morning pass by in a blur as the school bus moves its hostages closer to the better parts of town.

It’s uncomfortably hot already; my legs are sticking to the seat. Yuck. Shouldn’t fall be … fall?[_ ]Brisk? Breezy? Trying to think of _fallish words fails to bring about a breeze. Apparently, that’s not gonna happen in California today. I let my head fall back because it hasn’t stopped pounding from the lack of good sleep and my morning dose of caffeine. The headache could also be from my stinging backside—my mother’s punishment for my latest misdemeanour.

She always did prefer the belt for solving problems. Luckily, today I can hide it easily.

I refuse to think about her today, of all days. It’s the first day of senior year—and only one year before freedom. Freedom. Ignoring the pain, I distract myself by making a mental checklist of everything I need to do this year before college. Lists help me keep my sanity, and as I finish the list, I feel content knowing that I’m capable of accomplishing it all.

Although I feel better momentarily, I am still weary. Somehow I’m just barely awake enough to put on my game face when we pull up to the next stop.[_ _]

“The bus doesn’t smell like a douche cake today!” I hear over my music.

Jemma’s speech continues to amaze me after all these years. I feign shock as she pulls out my earphones and lowers herself onto the bench next to me, simultaneously retrieving her makeup from her backpack. Jemma, or Jem, has always been my best friend, storm of life, partner in crime, and confidante. I look at her with a practiced patience as I notice today’s look.

“So is that supposed to be a good omen or something?” I notice she is going for a glamazon appearance. I smile up at her, glad for the distraction she brings. “Dude, are you wearing enough eyeliner today?” I ask.

She gives me an incredulous glare while refreshing her already perfect makeup. I wish I could say I had her porcelain skin or her platinum blonde hair that naturally falls perfectly to her shoulders in ringlets, but I can’t. For all her pale skin and blonde glory, I am a stark contrast with my golden skin and dark hair. She is tall with dark, mysterious, come-hither eyes, and I am short with wide blue eyes. She somehow looks somewhere between a country star and the girl next door, while I look a little beach fried.

If I didn’t love her so much, I would hate her.

“Good morning to you, Ms. Danielle Lee. I guess someone woke up with her panties in a twist. And don’t call me dude.” Jem uses my full name as if I were a child needing scolding, while giving me her signature wink as we pull up to High Ridge High. I suppress a laugh. Always so polite, that girl.

She asks, “So,[_ _]did he call again?”

“Hmm?” I reply, letting out a sigh as I roll my eyes. “Of course he did.”

And?”

“I love you … but I’m not gonna talk about it.” I stand up forcefully, ending the conversation. Luckily, she lets me.

My boyfriend of two years suddenly decided to break up with me at the beginning of summer before he left for college. He wanted to “date other people” and “see what’s out there.” Bastard.[_ _]Jett also happens to be Jem’s big brother, so I tend to avoid talking to her about him or his occasional drunken phone calls.

Note to the wise—when you are drinking, don’t make phone calls. Put the phone down, and just say no!

After two years of trying to convince me he was serious while declaring his devoted love, the relationship abruptly ended. Jett, out of the blue, started the typical end-of-the-relationship tells—not returning my phone calls, lying, and outright ignoring me. What a cliché.

Everything got way out of hand when he started hassling me in front of his jock-head friends, calling me a variety of colorful names—slut, whore, crazy, clingy—nothing very original, honestly. Finally it ended with an obnoxiously drunken fight, him being the one drunk, over the phone no less. And after two dedicated years, that was all I got out of it. The end.

So much for true love, right?

Needless to say, I can check “get duped by a douche bag” off my proverbial life-lessons list. I have happily conceded my love life to singleness. I’m just disappointed with all the wasted time.

Jem bounces back quickly. “Earth to Dannie! Do you want some?” she asks, holding out a compact as she approaches the locker wall.

I immediately snap out of my internal monologue.

“As your best friend, I must intervene and prevent you from going to class looking like you just rolled out of bed,” she declares, hand on hip, eyebrows raised.

_Oh dang, I think she means business. _

Ignoring the fact that I practically did just roll out of bed, I hesitantly look down at my cutoff shorts and white T-shirt, my satchel hanging across my chest and filled with nothing but a pen, sunglasses, and an old copy of Persuasion—all a true Cali girl needs, in my humble opinion. But my thick dark hair falling in natural waves, adding to my beach-bum persona, happens to be my favorite asset, though it still leaves a lot to be desired.

I look around, realizing I probably do look less than stellar compared to the other students. High Ridge High School is just like you’d picture a school in California’s upper-middle-class suburbia. Nestled in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevadas is a quaint town called El Dorado Vista, home to the Bay Area commuters and housewives addicted to plastic surgery. I happen to be an El Do native, one of the few who weren’t born to the San Fran business class, which has gained me untold ridicule, by my not being a city kid. High Ridge High is brimming with spoiled rich kids, as evidenced by the parking lot filled with Beamers and Navigators. The image is finished off, of course, with an open quad populated by teenagers who look more like walking designer-clothing ads than students.

Screw it! I roll my eyes as I shuffle through the throngs of my peers. Deep breaths, Dannie.

Turning to her again, I ask, “Who am I gonna impress, Jem, really?”[_ ]I shake my head slowly from side to side[. ]Since[ _]I have pretty much sworn off all men, who cares? I may be one of the few brunette students who actually stay that way, not to mention being shamelessly dumped by said boyfriend, so regardless of what I look like, I will be ridiculed today.

I can’t say that I care much at this point. I give her my biggest fake smile, which I know she hates.

“Very funny, ha ha. Well, at least let me put some mascara on you.” She tilts her head to the side while giving me her most impatient look.

I wink at her.

“Fine, but I’ll have you remember I was the one who taught you everything you know concerning hair and makeup once upon a time.” I hold still while she swipes blush across my cheeks, infusing life back into my skin.

“Not anymore, beautiful!” Smiling, she starts waving the brush across my eyes as fast as she can, happy now that she won our duel and probably worried I will change my mind.

I used to be all into my hair and makeup, but I somehow lost the motivation at school about the same time I stopped dating.

Looking in the mirror hanging in my locker, I see my face, which I’ll admit looks much better now that Jem has fixed me up a little, and begrudgingly accept that this is my life. This is my stage, where I am pretending to be what I know deep down I am not—normal, the good girl with good grades, who is never a troublemaker and never late to class, and a chronic list keeper, because control is apparently an issue for me. No real surprise there. I pretty much fly under the social radar with my nose buried in a book as often as I can get away with it. I’m probably the only high school student who gets in trouble for reading in class. Such a rebel. But I have always been good at keeping my secrets with a smile on my face—my personal stage face. No one notices the girl who is always happy, right?

“Your blue eyes stand out so much more with mascara, Dannie,” she says while she gets her gloss out and starts making my lips look shinier than is natural.

Whatever will keep her happy. Jem tends to win most arguments—okay, all our arguments. She is my best friend, and I love that she honestly doesn’t care at all what other people think of her, that she is willful, stubborn, and always knows what she wants out of life. I wish I was as self-assured, but I am not. Not even close.

“Knock ’em dead, girlie.”

“Love to!” I laugh.

“Pul-lease don’t go emo on me. I can only handle one at a time,” she says, referring to our friend Melody. She finishes with a “Gotta run, lady,” and walks away in a hurry while the bell sounds, signalling the official start of the last year of high school.

Got to keep it together for one more year. I put on a small smile that I don’t feel as I walk into leadership class.

The morning was filled with class syllabi and lectures, so many they all blurred into one very long class. By the time I made my way to the quad for lunch, Jem was already sitting with Melody, the newest member of our group, therefore completing our trifecta of awesome. Melody transferred here from Santa Cruz right before our junior year, but we instantly hit it off over seasons of Heroes, Peet’s coffee, and our love of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream—not to mention her colorful tattoos make enough of a statement in a school like High Ridge High and immediately caught my attention. Talk about flying a freak flag in Wonderland. She is as fabulously strange as Jem and I are, so, of course, we loved her.

I grab my food and make my way over to our table, glad Melody’s boyfriend, Jay, doesn’t have lunch with us this year. Last year’s lunch period was hard enough to get through without Jem punching him in the face for being an ass. Just us girls now. _Thank God. _

Melody also has platinum blonde hair that falls perfectly straight to her lower back. Surprise, surprise. But where Jem is glam country, tall, and curvy, Melody is a glam rocker, petite, and sporting not only many tattoos but bold facial piercings as well, topped with a bright-purple streak in her hair that fades to hot pink. Somehow it only makes her look more beautiful. We are just about the most random group of girls at High Ridge, but it works for us.

As willful and confident as Jem is, Melody could not be more opposite. She is the queen of compromise, consideration, and peace-making. They are my sassy diva and gentle lady on opposing shoulders, so to speak. Angel and devil would be going a little far … even for them.

“Miladies,” I say, greeting the girls.

“So how has the gossip been today? Anything interesting?” I sit and patiently wait to see what people have circulated from the summer’s happenings.

Melody gives me a tight-lipped half smile, knowing that I am worried about the gossip about Jett and me and our rumour-worthy split. I might fly under the radar, but my ex certainly never has—especially with the constant stream of rumours he started after we broke up. In a relatively small town like El Do, they get around fast. “That bad, huh?” I try to sound casual, but inside my stomach feels like someone is slowly squeezing it. What did he say this time?

“Screw ’em!” Jem says, giving no one in particular the bird.

Kendal and her group of gossips happen to be walking past at that moment, making it painfully obvious that they are talking about me.

Kendal suddenly smirks while flipping her red hair over one shoulder and shouts, “Did you have a good summer, Dannie?”

[_Wow. What a sad, sad little girl … a real grade-A bee-see. _]

“As a matter of fact, I did. Thank you so much for asking.” I give her a glorious smile.

Jem snorts.

“I heard you got dumped. I’m glad Jett came to his senses. It’s obvious he can get better than someone like you.” She raises one eyebrow while slowly looking over me from head to toe. Compared to her with her immaculate clothes and hair, I look like a troll. I feel a little like a troll at the moment because I’m frozen in place, not knowing how to respond to her observation. She turns to her friends, smiling as they walk away whispering to one another again.

“Kendal has always had a thing for my brother. Don’t let it bother you,” Jem whispers.

Honestly, if I didn’t feel so sorry for Kendal for being so jealous over Jett, I would be a bee-see back to her. No one should be jealous over a dickhead. But I’ll admit that I’m more than a little wounded by the insinuation that I’m a social pariah. Quickly Melody and Jem begin chatting about their mornings, obviously trying to distract me. I try to listen in contemplative silence, occasionally giving a nod or smile at regular intervals. Being the quiet one of the group has its advantages. I can mope without drawing too much attention to myself.

Is it bad that I just want to take out my book and ignore everyone? Not acceptable? Okay then.

[]

Does every guy in California wear skinny jeans? I’m all for clothes that fit well, but these guys are too much. It takes all I have not to shake my head in disbelief. I can’t take a man who looks like he is wearing jeans my sister might wear seriously.

My mental rant is over. Although I can’t seem to stop laughing in my head.

First day is about as cliché as you can get—blonde girls who wear next to nothing in this heat (my father would be appalled), guys (that’s being generous considering their choice of jeans) with long hair who say “Dude” and “Hella”[_ ]a lot. Going to school in California really is just like I thought it would be—something out of _Gossip Girl.

I am ashamed that I even know what that show is, but I’ll blame it on my sister or else forfeit my man card.

It bothers me that people pass by without saying hello and how no one looks you in the eye unless he or she personally knows you. It seems really rude to me, but maybe city kids were never taught manners.

City kids.

Shaking my head, I walk to the cafeteria because food is beckoning. I’m starved but also a little anxious to see what a cafeteria even is. My school back home was so small we didn’t even have one. I have to say I’m curious as to what you actually do during your hour break.

I walk through the doors into utter chaos and freeze. What. The. Hell.

People are everywhere. They are sitting at tables or sitting on tables, benches, or chairs. Lines to different lunch counters weave between tables full of people. Holy cow, there are more people in this cafeteria than in my entire hometown. I feel my face redden as someone pushes me from behind, propelling me forward toward the herd of teenagers.

I manage my way to a lunch line where they are selling burgers. Burgers. At least some things are familiar because all these people are honestly freaking me out and I’m suddenly contemplating walking out the door. I hate crowds. As I wait in the line impatiently shifting from one foot to the other, hands in pockets, I look around at my classmates. Some are freshman. It’s painfully obvious. It’s hard to imagine I was that short once, although probably not since fifth grade. Some people I recognize from classes, some are clearly the cool kids, and some are so strange. I have never seen Goth kids in real life.

I can’t believe I just thought that because it makes me sound like I lived under a rock. But really, I have never seen a person in all black leather, and in this heat, it just seems weird.

I spot a group of guys, all wearing letterman jackets with their hair perfectly spiked exactly alike, and it makes me think that they all must be on the same team. Football? Soccer? I’m not sure, but they must use a hell of a lot of hair crap between the ten to fifteen guys standing together. The amount of hair gel makes me question the use of the word guy again.

Aside from that, is every Californian girl blonde? Or do they all change their hair? Girls who change their hair are beyond me. I don’t understand it, and I certainly don’t want to. It doesn’t make them look better if their skin is so brown they look like a leather sofa and their hair is so fake it’s practically straw. Girls. It’s a good thing I’ve always preferred brunettes anyway.

I notice a secluded table with only three girls sitting at it. Maybe they want some company? Maybe they wouldn’t mind a stranger sitting with them because they look a little random themselves. I’m nervous even considering it because Californians have so far seemed less than friendly, and it’s really starting to piss me off. Two of the girls are blonde (of course), but they actually seem naturally blonde, so that’s not so bad, although one of them has tattoos all over, and from here, it looks like she has a lip piercing too. Is that even legal at this age?

Wow, I guess I really did come from under a rock.

The third girl has long dark hair though, pretty hair that looks like the color of dark chocolate. See, why don’t more girls just keep their hair the way God made it to be? Women. I shake my head, looking back at their table suddenly very interested in what the dark-haired girl looks like. From the back, she looks small but not deathly skinny like other girls I have had classes with. It makes me want to buy a bunch of burgers and start passing them around. I am chanting in my head, Turn around. Turn around, when she finally turns her head. Some redhead says something that catches her attention, and although she isn’t looking at me, she is looking in my direction.

My mouth hangs open, and my heart rate increases uncomfortably. Holy hell. Beautiful.

_Close mouth immediately, idiot. _

Her eyes are what I notice first. They are such a light color of blue they look unreal—not a true blue, but a blue green. They are so bright that even at a couple of yards away, they are bright enough to notice. I start to shift my eyes away because now I am obviously staring. This is going to be embarrassing if I don’t get control of myself. But this girl is seriously beautiful. I slowly look at her again because I can’t seem to help myself. It’s like gravity. I notice a dimple on her left cheek when she smiles, but I don’t see one on her right side. It makes her look freaking adorable. Now I close my eyes, lean my head back, and breathe slowly in and then out. _Keep it together, Reed. Keep it together. _

Unfortunately, as I look around, it seems that I’m not the only guy to notice the beautiful brunette. Guys check her out as they pass by. One tall blond guy wearing a letterman’s jacket seems to be staring at her quite intently. It pisses me off. I feel like I should stake my claim, but that would be completely ridiculous considering I don’t even know her.

I look back, but she has already turned away. It doesn’t matter because I am pretty sure her face is forever burned into the backs of my eyelids. Her eyes, her dimple, her smile with those pale-pink lips that I definitely remember. Lips. Stop! Or I really will have to get some fresh air.

I take a deep breath and start going over different trucks I like …

After getting my burger, I realize there is no way I can eat across the table from that girl, so I go outside, hoping distance will help. Maybe I can sit with them another time, if I decide I can be a man, instead of acting like I’ve never seen a girl before. I have been in this overcrowded room for too long, and I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic.

Pause period is apparently when you have finished too many elective classes and you have no required classes offered at that time so you have to stay in the library to do homework. I can’t say I have been in a library too many times, only when forced by assignments and projects, because I don’t particularly like to read books.

Newspapers, yes. Books, not so much.

When I walk through the door, I look around as I enter. An older lady with short white hair is behind a counter. I safely assume that she is the librarian. I scan the room and freeze. Yes! I feel like cheering, perhaps clapping. The beautiful girl from lunch is sitting at a table unloading book after book from her bag. I stand there for a moment, transfixed by her.

[_Wow, that’s a lot of books for one girl … _]

I swallow hard, and as if of their own accord, my feet head straight for her. I see the moment she notices me because she tenses as if startled. I walk a little slower. Maybe she wants to be alone? Maybe she thinks I’m a creeper because I am staring straight at her as if I know her? Maybe I should say something?

“Hey,” I breathe out.

[_Wow, that was it? Nice going, idiot. _]

I can’t help the small smile on my face when I catch her looking at me from head to toe. I’m elated. It feels like I just won the freaking lottery, knowing she checked me out. Me! I try to smile a little to make it more comfortable for her, maybe a little less creepy, but she suddenly looks away like she is frightened of me. Do I really look that intimidating? Either way, I’m committed now so I pull out the chair across from her and sit.

I try to make things less awkward, because let’s face it; this is super awkward. I take out my homework and start organizing papers, assignments, and requirements from each class, laying little piles around me, but I can’t help but be very aware of the person right across from me. I am close enough to smell her perfume, and she smells like warm vanilla … or cookies …

This girl is gonna kill me.

Seriously, she’ll be the absolute death of me …

Against my better judgement, I decide to look at her just once now that I am sitting across from her and I can study her more closely. Oh God, I do sound like a creeper. I raise my eyes regardless of my personal chastisement, and I am glad that I do. She is reading like a bat outta hell. She must read super fast, or maybe my awkwardness is freaking her out. I hope not. She has such thick dark hair falling in waves around her face and shoulders, I just want to reach out and see if it’s as soft as it looks. _Again being creepy. _

I look away before she notices and realize she never said hello back. Maybe I scared her? Damn. I’m hoping that it’s not because she is rude like almost every other person I have met today. I’m beginning to think California has a very inconsiderate culture.

Looking again, I see she has a little bit of a frown, like she is concentrating so hard she doesn’t realize that her eyebrows are drawn together in a serious expression. It’s adorable. Her lips are moving slightly as she reads, drawing my attention to her mouth. It is going to be difficult not to think of it every time I see her, which I hope will be a lot—if we both have this period free. I try my hardest not to lower my eyes to her body, but I’m a guy. I know that’s no excuse for being a tool, but I think she’s breathtaking. I glance up at her face again just as her blue eyes flash up to my face.

Holy hell.

She just caught me checking her out. Now she will definitely think I’m a freak. I screwed this all up, and this might be my only chance. [_Crap! _]I feel myself get red. Is it hot in here? Shouldn’t someone do something about the heat? I hate California heat. I look around, knowing that it is probably just me blushing like a schoolboy caught with his pants down.

I clench my jaw and then take a deep breath, trying to concentrate on the work in front of me. All I see is a math problem while I try not to think about the beautiful girl across the table from me and the embarrassing, uncomfortable way my body has reacted. I try to think of anything that will keep my mind preoccupied from all those things until the bell rings. I pack up my backpack and walk away without looking back.

[]

Watching from afar isn’t enough. I sit in the library contemplating my predicament in the business of other students. I look around, hating everything I see and all it represents—everything from being forced to go to class and the expectations of the team to my parents’ academic demands. All of it feels meaningless to me.

None of them know me. Except one—the girl who told me to fake it. Problem is I’ve faked it for so long I’m beginning to hate myself for it, hate that I’ve let them make me into this disgusting farce of a human being. I’m fake, plastic, and writhing beneath the mask I hide behind. Does that make me a genius or a coward? I’m not so sure anymore …

All I know is I feel like I’m about to explode. The rage keeps building until it detonates. I want to, but I can’t. I’m forced to play nice, and I hate every person on sight because of it. Looking at my teammates at the table in front of me, I imagine myself snapping, swinging my fists, smashing, breaking, bleeding. That’s what I crave. It’s what makes me different.

Hide it. Control it. Fake it.

I think back to when she wasn’t mine, when she was [_his. _]Jett, that asshole, never appreciated what he had. Jett never deserved her.

My jaw clenches at the thought of his smug face.

Two Years Earlier

I keep an eye on the blue-eyed girl, always from afar, but every girl needs a man to take care of her. I might not be on her radar, but it’s the least I can do after she gave me the formula of my freedom, the means to my success. I appreciated her words of wisdom that day, and to repay her, I will make sure no one messes with her. She is under my protection. Under my guard. Mine to care for.

Mine.

I watch her between her classes, almost always with a tall blonde girl, talking while exchanging notes or reading unaware of my notice. Unfortunately, walking on her other side is a guy who lingers a little too close for my liking. Another player on the team, I believe. Varsity. That asshole doesn’t stand a chance if you ask me. There is no way she would fall for his line of bull, I think as he strategically drapes his arm over her shoulder, claiming what isn’t his.

Does she not even notice his eyes lingering on the legs of the passing redhead? The redhead notices and exaggerates the swing of her hips, giving him a lustful eye. Or does my blue-eyed girl not care? I hope not because I know exactly what type of guy he is …

Later in the locker room while changing for practice, I finally decide to approach the varsity player and ask him exactly what his intentions are with Ms. Blue Eyes.

Be nice. Play it cool. Don’t lose control.

“Hey, man, how’s it going?” I say casually. Standing toe to toe with this douche bag, I still tower over him now that I have hit six-four. I like that. He doesn’t seem to notice me for a minute so I cross my arms to keep my clenched fists hidden.

He turns, smiling at a joke another player made. “Hey, kid. What’s up?”

A-hole.

“Nothin’. I was just wondering if you’re dating that girl Dannie? I was thinking of asking her to homecoming but didn’t want to step on any toes?” Yeah, like I would go to a school dance. Only pussies dance.

“Yeah, she’s spoken for, dude. Sorry,” he says, looking anything but sorry.

Spoken for, huh? We’ll see.

I try to think on my feet. “Really? She seemed like she wanted to go with me when we talked about it earlier today. I just wanted to double-check as a courtesy.”

His brows furrow in confusion.

Annoyed at him, I smirk slightly, just to piss him off.

“Really? She told me she wasn’t allowed to go.” He tries to brush off his wounded ego. “You know women … always teasing men.” He laughs it off to save face in front of the other teammates. He makes the mistake of continuing, “Hey, more power to you, man. Just forewarning you though … she doesn’t put out.”

Wrong thing to say.

Now my fists are shaking as I try not to hit this bastard. The blue-eyed girl better not be putting out for this piece of shit. “Good.” I turn on my heels before I do anything to jeopardize my position on the team. I walk away, still able to hear him loudly talking smack about my blue-eyed girl.

She better not go anywhere near that guy. She’s gotta be smarter than that. Either way, he insulted the wrong girl in front of the wrong guy.

Breathe, Nick. She isn’t his anymore. If she were honest with herself, she’d realize she was never his. She has always been mine.

Jett … he’ll get what’s coming to him …

Snapping out of my thoughts as I look at Dannie across the library, I allow myself to wonder what she would feel like in my hands. Dannie … the girl I dream about … the girl I crave.

My biggest challenge.

My greatest weakness.

I hate the power she has over me as much as I love it.

I think over the method of my pursuit. How would she respond the way I need her to? The way I crave her to? I think I’ve figured it out, and as long as everything goes according to plan, I will succeed. I won’t stop until Dannie is mine.

We are fated, destined, both pretending to be something we are not, both hiding beneath the mask of our own creation, both smart enough to fool those around us.

Yes, we are meant to be together. I just have to prove it to her.

[]

When I arrive home that day, I can already hear the screams of my mother and stepfather, Mark, from the front walk, so I prepare myself for the scene I will surely walk into—or so I assume. I walk in just as I hear the loud crack of my stepfather backhanding my brother, startling me.

_Stay still, Dannie. Stay quiet. _

My brother, Ryan, although he is a rather tall guy, looks oddly shrunken before Mark. He looks red eyed, but he is barely maintaining an impassive expression—either from the drugs he is currently on or from holding in tears so Mark and my mother don’t see him cry. His personal rebellion. As I’m frozen at the sight of them, silently wishing I could disappear, I see my mother looking concerned, but I know from personal experience that she really doesn’t care—at least not enough. As long as Mark’s wrath is directed at someone other than my mom, she will allow his episodes, as she calls them.[_ _]

We are her sacrificial lambs.

What were you thinking?” An earsplitting shout holds everyone’s attention. “Get your head out of your ass, and pay attention.” Mark stares him down for whatever folly demanded his wrath. “Sue, you deal with him. He’s your bastard son.” He stalks away, swiping a glass on a table as he passes, shattering it against the wall. We all jump at the noise but otherwise continue to stand speechless for a suspended moment. Suddenly, my mother turns and walks up the stairs and into her room, no doubt pretending nothing has happened.

My brother, trying to be brave, walks past me and out the door, but not before I see his tears starting to fall. I stoically find a broom to clean up the glass, lest my baby sister accidentally walk on a sliver of glass. I see Amanda, our half sister, playing with my older sister Avery outside in the backyard. Avery is obviously trying to keep Amanda safe and far from witnessing her father in his anger—a monster of fury, our ever-waking nightmare. It is a secret we try to hide from her so that maybe, just maybe, she might have a better start to life than we did. Although, I know she will figure it out soon enough …

This is what we do. We try to survive in whatever way we can. My brother deals in his own way with drugs, drinking, women, and silent rebellion. But I still see the blade marks carved into his inner arms, trying to bleed out the pain that seems to constantly torment him. On the other hand, Avery always seems to have a boyfriend, or girlfriend for that matter, to keep her mind off of things. The ever-changing, always evolving enigma that is my big sister. She has been a Mormon, a lesbian, straight with a string of boyfriends, a Bible-thumping Christian, a Wiccan, and just about everything else … And that’s just in high school. I try to accept that she’s just trying to fill her mind with something that will make her feel better.

I’m more subtle. I simply try to keep busy and keep quiet. I clean, cook, and keep my mouth shut while inside I want to scream. I want to shred this delicate house of lies down, brick by brick, memory by memory.

I constantly keep a closely controlled rein on what I allow myself to feel. I don’t ever let my guard down. I don’t allow myself the luxury of deep feelings or, heaven forbid, trust. Emotional attachments with anyone who is in my family are too much of a risk for me to take anymore. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. I wear a tight blank mask at all times to keep myself hidden while I try to become nobody. Maybe no one will notice me if I just keep my head down, my mask of submission on tight, and simply disappear.

For as much as my brother attracts the wrath of Mark, I seem to attract the wrath of my mother. She has always blamed me, the unwanted third child of her first marriage, for my dad leaving us, leaving her a single mother of three kids and leading her to make the poor decision of marrying the first man to notice her—Mark.

But Amanda is just a baby, so we try to keep her hidden, hoping to make a difference, hoping we can somehow protect her innocence a little while longer.

Innocence I was never allowed.

My mother suddenly comes into the kitchen in a flurry of false exuberance, breaking me from my darkened thoughts. “So when does cheer start for the year?” My mother somehow thinks all things in life revolve around cheerleading. She was a high school cheerleader, and of course her girls just have to join too. I roll my eyes and don’t bother responding. I haven’t told her that I didn’t go to tryouts; therefore, I can’t possibly be on the team. I hate cheerleading, and I am done trying to make her happy. What has she done to deserve it?

“Well, I am going to get my nails done, maybe even a few highlights.” She smiles as if it were the most exciting news. I am sure I will hear the ensuing fight this will cause between her and Mark when he finds out she is spending more money she doesn’t have. She gets manicures, pedicures, and highlights; she has a personal trainer and is constantly shopping for new furniture or clothes. Yet somehow, she always seems to look haggard—an obvious sign she’s been worn down by life.

She turns a keen eye on me. “You could use some highlights, dear. You are looking a little dull. When I was your age, I made sure to always look my best to catch a good man. I weighed only 113 pounds at your height, so I think it’s high time to start watching what you eat, young lady. The least you could do is make sure you have nice hair.” She looks up and down my curvy body with a critical look in her eyes.

WT heck!

Honestly, I suffer from busty boobs. Really, it’s an issue when you can never find anything to wear without looking like you want extra attention or when they get in the way of sports!

A hundred and thirteen pounds! How much thinner does she want me? I think I’m healthy.

Well, it’s truly a wonder that Avery starves herself. I roll my eyes and ignore her. If she wants to be an air-brain blonde bimbo, she can go ahead. It hasn’t kept Mark from telling her how ugly he thinks she is.

I don’t need any man to think I am hot. I don’t need any man to define who I am. If men are all like Mark and Jett, then no, thank you! I am just fine by myself.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but think of the pair of sexy green eyes below dark hair on the tall country boy I happen to see in the library today when I saw heaven in the form of a stranger. My mouth suddenly feels like a desert. [_Perfect _]is what comes to mind. It is as if a collaboration of every spectacularly masculine attribute came together in this one walking gift from God.

Tall—check. Dark—check. Oh so handsome—check.

I literally have no words … except perhaps hot!

How ridiculous.

Could he be different from Mark or Jett? Probably not. Although maybe rough necks are different. Country boy … who could have guessed that I would be attracted to a cowboy? Beach dude, yes. Cowboy, not likely. The world is a strange place, I think, suppressing a smile as I quickly make my way upstairs to my room.

I take my time doing homework (earphones in, Imogen Heap on), giving myself an excuse to stay locked in my room where it’s peaceful. When I finally finish my homework, I lay in bed, wondering how weak or perhaps just afraid a person must be to feel so trapped by circumstances. My mother obviously feels trapped; therefore, she lets Mark treat her and her children however he sees fit while she ignores the reality of our situation. Or is she just selfish, without any care for her children? As long as a man is paying her bills, she can live in the comfort she has become accustomed to.

I think, deep down, if she was honest with herself, she must not love her children all that much. How can this be love? Does she not see that this isn’t normal? Because it’s not! As much as it hurts, a part of me hates her for it. As tears start falling from my eyes, I can’t help but dwell on the two parents who have failed me.

A part of me can’t help but feel a resentment for my dad, even if he has no idea.

Dad is a gentle-giant type. Like Melody, he always thinks the best of people. It’s no wonder he would never suspect anything as grotesque as abuse, torment, or neglect. A part of me is angry at him. How can he not know? Obviously, he turns one great blind eye on us all. That must be it. He must not love us very much either. My mom has always told me he never wanted me. Maybe she’s right.

I wish I were strong enough not to want to be loved by either of my parents. But I don’t think that I am. In fact, I know it because in my heart I want them to change. I want them to love me.

I find myself staring at the phone, day after day, year after year, wishing I had enough courage to tell him, to call my dad and finally ask him to save us. A little girl’s pipe dream, right? But I think I am more afraid of telling him and him not really caring enough to try. I hastily rub my eyes, trying to wipe away the thoughts of being saved by anyone. I have no saviour. I’m alone.

Tomorrow is a new day. I’ll try to forget this one by disappearing into music and books. Responsibly do homework or read?

Mmm … one of life’s great questions.

I pull out my deeply loved copy of Ivanhoe and swaddle myself in a quilt to hibernate in. I love books. I love words. I love stories that I can get lost in. I love the poetry and fluidity of grand tales. Since I started reading, I’ve never really been able to stop. I’m pretty sure I’ve read through most of my high school’s library by now—except for the autobiographies, because, let’s be honest, they’re boring.

It’s dark by the time I glance up, startled by a noise outside my window. I’m on the second story, so I’m not scared, but I’m worried a bird flew into the glass. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

I stiffly unwrap the quilt burrito I’ve made and quietly make my way to the window. I look out at the quiet night, glad that the long day is over and the argument from earlier hasn’t turned into anything more painful.

I quietly open my window to climb out onto the roof. I look around in the dark for the fallen bird but notice nothing out of the ordinary. I finally give up searching in the dark, having lost any concern considering there is no bird in sight. Not even a feather. It must not have hit hard enough to hurt itself, I think as I perch on the roof, looking around the yard, and freeze. I sit frozen in fear as I see a shadow of a man’s form at the edge of our fence line. I can’t tell who it is from the shadows that fall across him, but it is tall enough to make me think it’s definitely a man.

Is it my brother outside smoking? If so, where is the glow of the cigarette?

The shadow is perfectly still, but by the angle, it looks like the tall figure is looking right at me. I’m still frozen stiff, but I suddenly feel the need to hide myself—and quickly. Move, Dannie. Move! The fear releases me from my frozen state, and I scramble back into the darkness of my room. I quickly shut the window and blinds but stay by the window looking through the cracks. I don’t know how long the figure stays just beyond the fence in shadow, but it feels like forever as I stare, watching him in return.

Who would watch our house?

I’m trembling but not from the cold as the figure turns slowly and walks away. I can’t see if he goes into another house or leaves in a vehicle as he moves out of sight around a corner. I stand there, looking out into the dark night for a long time before going to bed.

[]

Before I know it, weeks have flown by. Homework assignments and projects have come and gone. Senior year is off to a great start all in all. No one other than Kendal and her lackeys seem to care much about the breakup. Other than her occasional snide comment or the occasional not-so-casual question, there seem to be more interesting things for people to talk about. [_Thankfully! _]

Sexy Library Dude still shows up every day, but I always sit a table away from him. I continue to face toward him so as to occasionally sneak covert glances at him. I check every day to be sure, but he is still just as hot as he was the first day of school, in case you were wondering.

I like our silent arrangement, looking, not speaking, and keeping him in my bubble of a fantasy. If I don’t know for sure that he is a jerk (because a face like that is surely attached to a douche), I can pretend that he is as perfect as he looks, right?

Regardless of my nervousness around his beautiful everything,[_ _]I’m surprised by my strong reaction to him. I dated Jett for two years and never felt this nervous around him—or any guy for that matter. I guess I have never met anyone that I found as appealing as my library mystery man.

Attraction is a strange emotion. I don’t trust it.

But, of course, now that I’ve noticed him, I see him everywhere—in the hall, during lunch, in the quad, in the parking lot, at the gym. He’s everywhere. How have I not noticed him before this year? He must be new. Unfortunately I am not the only one who notices him either.

“Hello? Dannie?” Jem waves her hand in front of my face with an expectant look on her face. “Who are you staring at?”

Both she and Melody look over their shoulders in the direction of my lingering glance. They spot Sexy Library Dude, who just so happens to have walked into the cafeteria, briskly moving toward the lunch line. He is a force that moves through the crowd, demanding attention while unaware of the girls watching him.

“Ooo!” Melody nudges my side.

I’m staring when I hear Jem distantly say, “Whoa. I see why you chose to ignore me. I’d have ignored me too.” She’s clearly impressed.

She catches my attention. “Do either of you know him? I see him during my pause period,” I whisper.

“Never seen him in my life, and I think I’d remember him. He’s sexy with a side of delicious. What do you think, Dannie?”

_Yes, he is. _

Jem smiles, while I continue to admire him from afar. I don’t like how much it bothers me that she is still scoping him out. I glare at her a little before I realize what I am doing. It’s not like he belongs to me.

Melody smiles, sitting up. “Yeah, he is in my calculus class. His name is Reed Fischer. He transferred here from the Midwest somewhere. He seems nice, a little quiet maybe, but nice.”

“Single?” Jem asks, still staring.

“Not sure.”

“Gay?”

“Don’t think so, but I’ve never actually talked to him,” Melody answers.

I look at him again, now that he has an actual name. Reed. I like it. It’s kind of fitting now that I know his name, considering I met him at the library. Fitting because I love to read, and I kinda love his face … or maybe just his body? I smirk to myself while trying to ignore the surprised stares of my friends.

“Sooo, are you going to go over and say hi, or should I?” Jem asks me.

“No, I don’t really want to get involved with a guy like him,” I reply quickly.

“A guy like what?” Jem questions me with a knowing look.

“A ridiculously good-looking, swaggering, jock-type guy. Any guy actually is a need-to-avoid situation. I don’t really need the mess right now,” I say vehemently, but a part of me is sad that I said it. Because eventually someone will approach him. And I do not look forward to the day I see him with some slutty airhead who is surely his type.

“No doubt.” She nods knowingly.

“I don’t want to be the girl who dates nothing but jerks. Been there, done that. Sorry, Jem,” I add.

“No offense taken, girl.” She apologetically nods.

Melody doesn’t agree. “Give him a chance, maybe even just as a friend. You shouldn’t judge him so harshly, Dannie. He seems to be really nice and kind of shy. He hasn’t really talked to anyone in class …”

Melody always thinks the best of people, even if they don’t deserve it. I find myself contemplating her words of wisdom before I can stop myself. Do I bother, or do I keep myself at a distance out of a sense of self-preservation?

Either way, I didn’t get much of a chance to decide.

In the library after lunch, I am walking past Reed toward my usual table when I hear a deep voice. “I don’t bite, you know.”

I halt and slowly turn toward an amused expression on an irritatingly perfect face, a face that is hard to look at for too long without losing my courage. Yikes. It even hurts to look at him directly.

“I know,” I whisper, heat burning my face.

He casually pulls out the chair next to him without response, clearly expecting me to sit, and to my horror, I do. My first thought is, What does he want? I’m skeptical, but my curiosity gets the better of me—that and the fact that my body apparently wants to be closer to him. I am truly a masochist. No one so beautiful could look at me as anything more than a friend. Maybe he is just lonely or desperately in need of a friend like Melody suggested? I can do that, right? Friends. I like it. It’s safe. And I can’t be disappointed when he eventually makes it evident that he isn’t interested in me that way.

Which he will do. When will you learn, Dannie? Don’t trust men! You don’t need to get involved with any guy after Jett, I reprimand myself silently.

“So why have you been avoiding me?” he asks, turning in his chair to face me, waiting for my response.

I can’t help but take a deep breath, his subtle cologne imprinting itself in my mind, before responding.

“I’m not. Why would I avoid you?” Do not look at him in the eye. Do not look.

Crap!

I look into his green eyes, which are waiting for my honest response. Hmm, here it goes. “I don’t really talk to guys,” and it’s true. I may be a wit in my head, but I tend to keep it in. I am suddenly glad to be sitting beside him and not across the table where it would be significantly harder to avoid looking at him directly. Truthfully, I’m not good with guys. I’ve never been good at talking to someone I am attracted to. And I’m very attracted to the guy sitting next to me right now. Some girls are flirty and cute, while I am all over here blushing, stumbling over what to say, making an overall spectacle of myself. No thank you!

He says with a soft laugh, “Why is that?”

I hold my breath while he raises his eyebrows in genuine surprise.

“Because I am not good at talking to guys. I generally try to avoid them. Most of them aren’t worth the time. Anyway, I like being alone,” I quickly respond while averting my eyes this time, embarrassed by how jaded that sounded. This is why I don’t talk to most people. I’m not gifted at sharing what I’m thinking, and I’m definitely not one to share what I’m feeling. It tends to come out all wrong!

He doesn’t reply. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to the crazy girl next to him? I did kind of insinuate that I didn’t want to have company of any kind. He just lets me quietly take out my binder and books in awkward silence, and then I start on my homework.

Trying to make amends for my rude behaviour, I ask, “So where did you transfer from?” The question makes it obvious that I had been asking about him, but I try to extend an olive branch anyway. Luckily he ignores the obvious implication.

“Kansas, in a small area named Lincoln. My dad was a dairy farmer but sold the farm and took a job out here. So here we are. I’m not sure I like it though. It’s a completely different world. Too many people, too many crowds.” He finishes his rant in a near whisper, almost like he regrets admitting it.

“Well, I have lived here my whole life, and I still don’t fit in, so don’t worry too much. You’ll get used to it.” He has no idea how much I don’t fit in. I pretend to be normal. I look like a normal girl and talk like a normal girl, but I know I am far from normal. I have experienced too much, and as much as I hate to admit it, it sets me apart. I can feel it.

“What year are you anyway? Maybe when you graduate you could go back to Kansas for college?”

“I am a junior.”

I sit there shocked. There’s no way he is that young, but I leave my comments to myself in case he was held back a grade or something.

He continues, kindly pretending not to notice my brain malfunction, “What are you doing after you graduate?”

I have always avoided this question simply because of the fact that I have very few options. My mother and stepfather could care less what I do, and I’m pretty sure my dad and stepmother don’t think I am smart enough for college despite my 3.8 GPA and perfect attendance. So my dad has been trying to talk me into cosmetology school lately. Oh joy.

“I’m not sure yet. I have been looking into cosmetology schools or starting at a community college before transferring to a four-year.” If I have to pay for my own schooling because my parents could care less or think I am dumb, then community college is my only choice without scholarships or serious student loans. But it is still embarrassing to admit in a school like High Ridge where everyone is rich.

“I’m Reed by the way.”

I know.

“I’m Dannie,” I say with a tight smile, still thinking about my embarrassing confession.

Reed looks at me like he wants to say more, but he simply replies with a smile. We both continue with our homework side by side in relative silence. Occasionally he asks a question about history, and occasionally I sneak sidelong glances of his serious expression while he reads his textbook. All and all, it’s a successful beginning of a new friendship. I smile to myself, satisfied, while I try to keep in mind that this can only ever be a friendship. I have too many secrets for anyone to really care for me, and I refuse to tell anyone those secrets. Friendship is all this will ever be.

Reed is definitely not the type of guy who likes girls like me, the quiet, bookish type who come with serious baggage—like a conveyer belt of baggage. But I don’t need to divulge that to a casual friend, and I have no problem putting myself in the friend zone. None at all.

[_Liar! _]

I struggle while trying to convince myself that I don’t need anything more than friendship from Reed. Men are far too much trouble to be anything more than friends anyways. I have to accept the fact that I will be alone for the foreseeable future, maybe forever, and that’s okay.

New friend: check!

[]

I haven’t been able to get the dark-haired girl out of my head, out of my dreams, out of my sight. It’s driving me nuts! I keep finding myself looking for her in the cafeteria, taking every opportunity to glance at her, but I have never worked up the nerve to sit next to her at lunch.

I’m distracted by her constantly. I try not to sit at her table again in the library so that I don’t freak her out, but all I want to do is stare at her the whole time. I’ve caught her looking at me numerous times, but it’s not necessarily with a look of interest. This girl is like a closed book ironically. She gives nothing away. She has no tell. She keeps glancing at me but never smiles, so I get the impression that she doesn’t like me for some reason. But then why does she keep looking? Does she think I’m gonna tackle her unexpectedly or something?

I made up my mind to talk to her today though. [Enough is enough. Time to grow a pair, Reed. Just do it! _]I intended to invite her _politely to sit at the table with me, but of course my mouth has a mind of its own and makes me sound like a tool instead. I unfortunately suffer from having no filter. It’s a serious problem. It’s a horrible condition because of which I constantly sound like a dick.

So what comes flying out of my mouth? Do you really want to know? Here it comes … “I don’t bite.” [_Who says that? _]

Douche bags, that’s who!

Regardless, I was shocked as hell, and more than a little pleased, when she sat down next to me. Sitting close to her was intoxicating. She was directly beside me so I could feel the heat from her arm right next to mine. I realize how ridiculous it sounds to be excited over such small a thing as body heat, but hey, I’ll take what I can get from her. I feel like I won a huge victory, and I am trying like hell to keep a stupid grin off my face.

We make small talk, but she looks increasingly uncomfortable sitting next to me. She starts to fidget, and then to my surprise, she admits to not being good at talking to guys. I’m floored. How does a girl who looks so beautiful not know that she doesn’t need to talk to guys to get their attention? The sight of her sitting still would be enough to get my undivided attention. Maybe Californian guys are different with their skinny jeans, hair gel, blonde girlfriends, and poor manners. I don’t know. I see plenty of guys check her out whenever I see her, so they can’t be completely blind. Although they mostly look at her body and then move on to the next. Seeing them look at her that way seriously makes me consider thumping them in the head, but she seems completely oblivious to their ogling. [_Thank God! _]

Dannie. Her name is Dannie. I wonder if it is short for Danielle. I think the name suits her perfectly; it’s simple and pretty, just like she is. I don’t care if that makes me sound like a love-struck fool.

It also gives me a bit of a rush that although she doesn’t usually talk to guys, which is a good sign in my opinion, she is still willing to talk to me. Makes me feel like a champ. I can suddenly smell her perfume again, snapping my focus back to reality. I can feel her hair brush against my arm while she turns her head to grab another book in her bag. I make my hands into fists in my lap so I don’t try to touch her. I pretend to read while all I can think about is how I can see more of her, talk to her, and be something to her because she has quickly become something to me.

It’s adorable that every time I’ve seen her between classes or at lunch, she has a book grasped in her hand. And how she watches people and listens to them so intently. I don’t think most people notice that when they speak to her, they have her full and complete attention. I like how when I’ve seen her read in the library, she laughs out loud at funny parts, tears up at the sad parts, and bites her nails when it’s suspenseful. It is as if the story is real to her, and she is completely unaware when she does it. It’s definitely something worth watching, and I find myself captivated by her constantly.

The rest of our time in the library we both focus on completing schoolwork. I silently try to control my mind and keep my eyes from wandering. I fail more than I care to admit.

I realize after the first few days of school that the girl Dannie sits with at lunch, the one with the tattoos and piercings, is in my calculus class. I hope we get the opportunity to talk to one another, mostly so I can get the inside scoop on Dannie. Becoming friends with her friends is a concept that has never hurt a guy’s chances. I try to be especially polite whenever I see her. Melody is her name—a name that is so sweet for someone who looks like she could rip your balls off. She scares me a bit, but she always smiles when I say hello, so she can’t be too bad.

By the time I get home, I feel like I am bursting at the seams with elation. I go straight to the kitchen, grabbing a bag of Munchies on the way, and sit on the stool in front of my mom. She’s cooking over the stove while talking on the phone to someone like it’s any other day, but it’s not any other day to me. I feel different. I feel the effect of Dannie.

My mom turns, knowing that I am sitting, eating, and waiting for her to get off the phone, but instead of a smile, she gives me a funny look. Is there something on my face?

I swipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Nope, nothing.

“How was your day?” she asks, putting down the phone.

It was probably a conversation with dad or maybe one of the aunts.

“Good … Yours?” I ask slowly, wondering why she keeps giving me sideways glances, as if she’s in deep thought.

She begins chopping veggies. “Something’s up. You’re looking like you’re about to jump clear outta your skin.”

Mother’s intuition is a crazy thing. How does she know? I’m just gonna say it.

“Mom … I met the girl I’m gonna marry …” I wait for her to reply while holding my breath, but all she does is look at me blankly.

“Did I hear that right?” she says slowly.

“Yup.”

She seems to consider my words for only a moment before responding with, “Okay then.” She smiles warmly and keeps chopping vegetables.

_Well, that went better than I thought it would. _

[]

Sleep continues to elude me. I keep having nightmares so regularly it’s getting harder to ignore them. But tomorrow’s a new day, I think happily, and luckily, it is better than the previous one. So is the day after that, and the day after that—no fights at home, no arbitrary punishments, no creepy guy watching the house in the dark. Altogether, it’s been as normal as my life can be.

Each day, I see the girls, glad that they’re my saving grace. They have no idea how much I rely on them for normalcy. Every day, I see Reed in the library, and we chat while working on homework together. Some days, we talk about his hometown or his plans for college. We seem to have become fast friends. I don’t think I can help it. He is a person you can’t help but like and respect, but to my own disappointment, I find myself looking forward to seeing him. I even find myself looking for him at lunch or in the hallways, hoping to see green eyes.

I’m hopeless.

Soon enough, the weekend is approaching, and the first football game is commencing. The whole town is excited to watch High Ridge football.

“So what are we going to wear?” Jem yells, running to catch up.

Melody and I smile back at her while walking to our lockers after school, glad for some normal teenage angst.

“Something scandal worthy?” I joke, wiggling my shoulders.

Really?”

“No.”

“Danielle Lee, you’re a tease. My house, right now, we have to get ready and look hot!” She smacks both of us on the backside while walking past us to her car. Suddenly, she stops dead in her tracks as she notices Reed turning the corner, cluelessly walking in our direction and straight into a trap. She looks back with a devilish grin.

No!

“Hey, it’s Reed, right?” He snaps his head in our direction and freezes. He glances at me, heat rising in his face, turning him a deep shade of red.

“Yeah.” He turns toward her stiffly.

“Sooo, are you coming to the game tonight? It’s a really big deal in this town. Everyone will be there, so it will be a great place for a new kid to meet people. Ya know, socialize?” She tilts her head to the side, giving him an innocent smile.

She’s really chummin’ it up, isn’t she?

He is obviously confused as to how she knows him. He is squinting as if trying to figure out if he’s even seen her before. Melody gives him a sympathetic smile, and of course, I freeze, hoping he doesn’t figure out she only knows him because of my big fat mouth. His gaze slowly slides toward me. He must have figured it out.

[_I’m so lame. _]

Friends, just friends, I tell myself silently, but I’m pretty sure I’m in denial about what it means to be “just friends.”

“You can sit with us if you don’t know anyone else.” Jem is practically bouncing as she talks, and I’m holding my breath.

He looks a little shocked but recovers and replies politely, “Sure. Thank you. What time is it at?”

“Six is the JV game. We will be there then.”

“Okay, thanks, I guess I will see you ladies then.” He looks at me as we walk past each other.

Dude, really? I glare at Jem as she gives me a triumphant smile. However embarrassed I am by her antics, I am equally excited to see Reed tonight.

I am hopeless.

After two hours, we are curled, hair-sprayed, polished, and finally ready. I am in the tightest pair of skinny jeans I own, matched with a lacy top and ballet slippers, while Jem and Melody both are teetering in sky-high heels. They are braver women than I.

We decide ordering pizza would be the best way to pass the remaining time until the game. Jem only lives about a mile away from school, therefore we have time to kill before we leave. Jem’s house is like a second home to Melody and me, so we all lounge comfortably, gossiping about school while stuffing our faces.

Melody has a difficult relationship with her parents, and well, I would rather live in a box than continue to live at Mark’s house, so we are both grateful to have a place that feels like home, a place that feels safe. Jem’s parents are the type of people who are always picking up stray children who have nowhere else to go and welcoming them into their home with love. Needless to say, their home has a constant revolving door to children in the community.

I love it here.

I feel my heart start to pound as I suddenly see a familiar truck driving up the lane. Problem commencing! I was really hoping to avoid this. Right as we are getting ready to leave the house, [_my ex _]walks through the door, followed by his minions. I freeze automatically, trying not to draw his gaze.

“Hey, where are you girls going?” He smiles knowingly at his sister, as Jem gives me a quick and worried glance.

I just try to give her the most sincere smile I can, but I know I fail miserably. No one answers as he continues, “We are heading to the game tonight. We won’t be here long …” Then of course he turns to me. “S’up, slut,” he says as his eyes grow ominously dark.

I simply ignore him and walk toward the door, the girls following me quickly. He started calling me “slut” right before we broke up, as if it were a cute thing to say to your girlfriend. How could I have known the boy who had been a good friend would eventually treat me like the dirt on his shoes once I was his girlfriend? I couldn’t have. Yet somehow, I’d like to think being around Mark would have given me enough reason to be more skeptical of men.

Apparently not …

“We’ll see you girls there!” he shouts after us as he bursts into laughter.

Great. I am glad I am walking away so he won’t see the tears I am holding in. Don’t you dare cry! _No more tears for men who are undeserving, Dannie. _

When we arrive at the stadium, I feel better the moment I see Reed waiting at the ticket line. He smiles as we walk up, and I realize he’s looking directly at me. Boom. My heart is suddenly pounding. Yes,[_ I do_] feel much better.

I shyly smile back, failing to hold his gaze. “Hi. I am glad you came,” my mouth says before my brain catches up.

“Me too.” He looks at me while speaking, and we stand for a suspended moment, staring at one another, not knowing what else to say.

“Anyways …” Jem clears her throat, smiling, successfully snapping us out of our moment. “Sooo lets go in, shall we?”

She and Melody start walking ahead, leading us to the home stands, while Reed and I fall behind side by side.

“Thanks again for inviting me. It would have been awkward coming alone … although I think I would have because I really love football.” He smiles broadly, stunning me momentarily. While he is obviously trying to strike up a conversation, I appreciate him taking the initiative. This is new territory for us so I’m a little unsure how to proceed. Our previous encounters in the library generally have always centered around homework with the occasional personal question. This will be the first time we are together in a social setting, so things can quickly become awkward if I’m not careful.

“Why didn’t you try out?” I suddenly ask.

“I’ve never played. We didn’t have a team where I am from … Not enough people ’n’ all that, but I play hockey … I am actually pretty good … Must have been all those figure skating classes.” He smirks at me in such a way that I have no idea if he is serious or not.

We shuffle through people, attempting to find good seats, but when we find Melody and Jem, I notice they are conveniently sitting at the end of a row, leaving only enough space for Reed and me to sit quite cozily at the end. [Oh, those girls. _]Although I’m secretly glad at this moment they are being nosy on my behalf. That’s what friends are for, _right?

Turning back to Reed, I ask, “Figure skating, huh?” as we sit closely on the cold bench.

“Yeah, actually, it gives you a lot of skill and speed on the ice. So when I was a kid, I did both figure skating and hockey. But don’t ask to see pictures because it isn’t going to happen,” he says with a smile.

“Fair enough.”

Melody leans over and whispers, “Incoming.”

I glance over Reed’s shoulder just as Jett walks up into the stands. I quickly look away, taking a deep breath.

“You okay?” Reed, noticing my unease, furrows his brows.

“Sorry … my ex and his friends are on their way over, but please don’t listen to anything they say about me. Jett likes to talk smack about his exes. He hates me, apparently, and is successfully trying to ruin my reputation, which in a town like this, is easily done. I am so sorry, but he is Jem’s older brother so he is pretty much unavoidable,” I quickly whisper.

Reed gives me a sympathetic nod. “So you broke his heart?”

I shake my head. “No, he broke up with me. I have no idea why he would feel the need to talk trash.”

Reed looks Jett over, from the top of his head to the tips of his feet. “You dated that guy?” he says, looking unimpressed. He turns to me with a serious expression. “He looks like a tool, if you ask me.” Then he leans closer to me and quietly adds, “You shouldn’t date guys like that.”

Shocked by what he just said, I look away, trying to find a response while pretending to pay attention to the game, which has just started. By his startled expression, I think Reed’s a little shocked by his reaction too. Luckily, Jett and his friends sit with the other ex-jocks who graduated and who also happen to be visiting for the first game of the season. Annoyingly, Kendal and her groupies are already making their way over toward Jett with fierce, skanky determination.

Jem, Melody, and I chat occasionally with the passersby we know or comment on which guys on the team are hot. Personally, I think all the football players our age are alcoholics in training and frankly a little dull, but I try to be supportive.

Reed sits dutifully beside me, periodically cheering with the rest of the crowd, but otherwise staying uncharacteristically quiet. I hope I haven’t made him feel uncomfortable with my confession. I try not to look over at him, but I fail miserably. The few times our eyes meet, I look away while trying to hide my blush. I also try not to concentrate on the fact that my entire left side is plastered to him. I may or may not have scooted closer to him than I needed to. It’s crowded, and I refuse to admit to any responsibility for our seating arrangement.

After our team wins the JV game, the crowd stands for intermission, trying to get the blood back in our legs. Reed leans into my ear, whispering above the noisy crowd, “Let’s go get some hot chocolate to warm up.” I try in vain to ignore the shiver it causes to have his breath on my neck.

He smells like soap, cologne, and Reed. I answer by simply nodding. It’s not like he would hear my voice in this crowd—or that my voice would work after that.

So. Sexy.

I admire him from behind while he forges a path through the bodies as I gladly follow. I have always liked guys with nice backsides, so sue me. He glances over his shoulder to see if I am still there. While the crowd pushes and pulls us, he suddenly grabs my hand as he continues forward. I am very aware that my hand, which was cold a moment ago, is now on fire. All I can think is, I hope it’s not clammy … Let’s be honest, girls; we all think that immediately.

I cannot have feelings for this guy. He is way out of my league! _Friends. Just friends. _

The concession stand line is pretty long, so we stand, waiting our turn quietly, hand in hand, and I give myself a pep talk. I peek up at him, realizing he is staring at me with a smirk he is obviously trying to hide. I stare back, feeling suddenly bold, taking in his dark-green eyes for a long moment. He exudes a confidence, a groundedness that I don’t experience but that I envy. He is beautiful, and from our time spent studying together in the library, I’ve found out that he’s also smart. Not so good with English, but amazing with numbers. Aside from that, he is unfailingly kind, and under all that corded muscle, he actually has a heart. Imagine that. He is the helps-the-old-lady-cross-the-road-with-her-groceries type of guy. And suddenly, with frightening clarity, I realize that I am in danger of more than a simple crush. I suppress a groan, caused by that wayward thought.

“Hey, loser,” I hear from behind us, immediately causing me to cringe because I know that voice too well.

A muscle in Reed’s jaw flexes, and his eyes suddenly look hard as we both turn toward Jett. Luckily, Reed towers more than a few inches over Jett and is solid muscle whereas Jett has become a little more “stocky” since college. Must be all that beer.

“Well, aren’t you going to introduce us?” Jett smiles at me in such a way that it makes me want to slap him across the face. His dark-grey blue eyes sparkle with unspoken humor. He looks up at Reed, stretching out his hand. “Hi, I’m Jett. It’s nice to meet you. And you are?” Smugly, he smiles at Reed through his curly blonde hair, making him look deceptively innocent. I speculate on his sudden change in style this year—more hipster than jock, except for, of course, the super-trendy lip piercing he’s recently been sporting.

Reed graciously takes his hand and shakes it. “Reed,” he quickly says. Looking like he is not going to say any more, he suddenly adds, “Heard a lot about you,” and with a smirk, he turns back around, abruptly ending the conversation.

Jett just raises his eyebrows while glancing at me. “Should have known you would have jumped into bed with the first guy to look your way.” He lowers his voice while leaning in. “That’s what sluts do, right?” He smiles, satisfied by the stricken look he must see on my face.

Reed’s shoulders suddenly go stiff, but as he slowly turns around, our eyes lock momentarily before he looks back at Jett. I am humiliated at the thought of Reed thinking, even for a minute, that I’m the slut Jett says I am. For once in my life, I wish I had the courage to tell Jett to his face just what I thought about him. A-hole. Instead, I do the next best thing. I turn on my heels and bolt.

I am shoving my way through the crowd, angry as hell, but I don’t even care if I look half crazed. Maybe I am. I am so tired of whatever obscenely obnoxious gossip Jett spreads around. Why do people believe him? He was my one and only boyfriend for crying out loud! I had had no experience with anyone else, and now as long as he is around to sabotage any possible relationship, I definitely won’t have any more. What does he want? He doesn’t want to be with me, but he doesn’t want me to be with anyone else? [_I don’t get it! _]

This is exactly why you can’t get close to guys, Dannie. This is exactly the heartache I never want to feel again. I relish in the anger I feel as it slowly replaces the pain. Don’t get close to men!

I am slowing my pace through the crowd as tears begin to blur my eyes, when a hand suddenly grabs my shoulder. I quickly turn to find Reed looking down at me with a somber expression. He lets his hand drop slowly. “Let’s get out of here … Want to go somewhere with me?”

All I do is nod, not trusting myself to talk yet.

I text Jem and Melody to explain why I am leaving as we hop in his truck just in time for me to see Jett through the fence laughing with his friends, his arm around some girl I don’t recognize. No surprise there. But I am surprised that it’s not jealousy I feel; it’s pity, disgust, and rage.

_Deep breaths, Dannie. Let. It. Go. _

Luckily, Reed, sensing my unease, can’t seem to get away fast enough. We drive to the outer edges of town where the houses are more spread out and you can actually see stars, but I feel safe with my friend in the silence of his truck. He reaches across and grabs my hand, giving it a light squeeze.

“Can I take you somewhere I go sometimes to get away? You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but I want you to know I don’t believe a word he said … And for the record, he’s a dick.”

I can’t help but chuckle at his comment while taking a deep, relieved breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

I can’t help letting my mind drift to the last time I felt something toward Jett, before he broke my trust.

Last Summer

I am pacing the floor, my hands shaking, still clutching the phone. Jett has just said those four words that I have been dreading to hear, and it’s almost surreal now that I have. “We. Need. To. Talk.” That’s all it takes to put any girl on edge.

He is on his way over, and although we broke up two weeks ago, he’s been back and forth as if he can’t quite let me go. I am afraid this is really it. The real end. Not just him asking for space. Not just him wanting to “hang with the guys” more. As if I didn’t know they get trashed almost every time they are together.

I hear his car park in the driveway, and I sit on my bed, waiting for him to come up. It feels like it takes him forever. I quietly listen to the sound of my own heart thumping in my chest. Alone. I am going to be all alone again. I close my eyes, so as to not see the look on his face while he walks through my bedroom door and closes it softly behind him. I pretend not to hear him walk over to me and kneel in front of me. I stop breathing the moment his lips touch mine. I open my eyes and look at the heartbreaking sadness written on his face that is certainly mirrored on my own. Only his eyes hold a regret that mine do not. I look into a face I have looked at a thousand times over the last few years, and I regret the friendship we risked by partaking in a relationship that wasn’t meant to be, the friendship we have surely lost.

But then he does the most unexpected thing. He smiles. That dimpled boyish smile reminds me of better days. Pulling me into a hug, he almost breathes in my ear, “I missed you,” and he starts kissing me again. This kiss has a little more heat with a little more intensity, bordering on neediness. He lifts up my shirt, and I lift up his while we push and pull at each other until we are both satisfied.

But before his breath has evened out or my heart stops racing, he sits up and quietly dresses. It feels like doom even while it sounds like silence, and I know this is the end. He was here for a good-bye, not reconciliation. And I was stupid enough not to know the difference. As he turns, sitting on the bed, my heart stops at the completely empty look on his face. He says, “Now I know I don’t love you anymore.” And he stands up and walks out, without so much as a glance behind him.

I can feel my heart break. I can even hear it …

Reed interrupts my wayward thoughts in a surprising way, declaring, “Dannie, it took every ounce of self-control I have not to beat the shit out of your ex tonight.”

I sit there a little stunned because that is the first time I had heard him curse. He isn’t the type to use any profanity, and I smile a little because it sort of sounds like he wanted to defend my honor or something. Those butterflies are definitely back. [Damn them. _]I’m suddenly glad for the silence because I haven’t a clue what to say.[ _]

“Believe it or not, but I was quite the hell-raiser in my old town. I don’t want to go back to being that guy, but if you ever need me to teach him some manners, all you have to do is ask.”

I am shocked by his admission, mostly because I just can’t see it. Although his eyes are deadly serious and his words sound sincere, it’s hard for me to imagine such a sweet person being in trouble. The regret that slowly fills his eyes is obviously the cause of his darkening mood.

He continues quietly, “I wasn’t a very good person, Dannie. I hurt a lot of people, but I decided before moving here that I wanted to change. People change,”[_ _]he mutters.

I stay silent because he seems to be talking to himself more than to me. Maybe he is trying to convince himself that he can be a different man?

Both lost in thought, we eventually pull down a dirt road and drive into a clearing before he turns the truck into the middle of a field. We are definitely on the edge of town, in a field far enough away that we can’t see any houses, just lights in the distance.

Stopping the truck, he suddenly smiles. “C’mon!” he says as he jumps out excitedly. He proceeds to hop onto the hood of his car.

I try to jump on like Reed but fail miserably. I blame it on my vertically challenged legs, so I ungracefully half-climb/half-roll onto the hood. Reed stifles a laugh at my sad attempt before giving me a helping hand.

“Don’t laugh!”

He tries to hide his smile behind a hand. “I’m not.”

“You are! Now I know you aren’t a gentleman. Shame on you!” I try to maintain a wounded look.

“Never said I was,” he retorts, not even trying to hide his smile now.

The hood is still warm as we lay back, looking up at the stars. Reed takes my hand again. It’s so nice holding his hand; in fact, I can’t recall the last time someone held my hand. Had Jett ever held my hand? Ignoring the direction of my thoughts, I linger on feeling the large masculine hand I am holding. Can hands be masculine? They’re a little work-worn, which fits his Kansas cowboy persona. I smile at my thoughts when I notice him smiling too.

“Thank you for bringing me here. Sorry about earlier …”

“My pleasure.” He seems to want to say more as he looks back up at the night sky. “Can I ask you something?” He pauses and waits for my response. At my continued silence, he asks after a moment, “Why did you ever date someone like that?” He turns his head toward me quickly. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that; it’s none of my business.” His voice is gentle, but his body looks tense in the moonlight. He’s clearly trying to keep himself from saying more.

I take a deep breath, and even though I hate talking about personal stuff, even to Jem and Melody, for some reason, Reed feels like a safe place. “I was young, and I think very naive about guys. Honestly, I think I loved the idea of him … of his family. His sister is my best friend. Jett and I were even good friends once too.” I continue the thought I couldn’t say out loud, “I never wanted to be the girl who dates jerks, but I totally was. He was controlling and mean to me in front of his friends. He was sweet enough when we were alone that it made me feel that it was worth it somehow. That it was justifiable.” I pause before continuing the worst part of my confession because I might as well get it all out there. “As horrible as that sounds, I think I was using him without realizing it, using him for normalcy.” His family is the family I wish I had. I wanted to legitimately be a part of his family, not just a close friend. I had never actually admitted that to anyone, but it felt nice to finally say it with words. Releasing the truth helps somehow, even if it’s hard to say, even when it makes you feel vulnerable.

Looking back on our relationship, I know I was never in love with Jett. I knew it even as I said the words to him, but a part of me wanted so desperately to belong to his family I was willing to take the bad with the good. I’m reluctant to admit to myself that I’m still a little girl somewhere inside looking for a place to belong. But what I really need is to be okay being alone. I am enough, and I need to learn to accept that, or else I’ll end up like my mother. I cringe at that thought.

I look hesitantly at Reed, afraid of what I will undoubtedly find. I expect to find judgment, but his face is filled with sadness. Not pity, thank God, but a heartbreaking resolve that I feel in my own chest.

Reed continues looking at me, squeezing my hand. “I am here if you need someone … as a friend.” His face breaks out into a heart-throbbing smile. “I am really good at listening. And I’m even better at talking.” He gives me a wink, clearly trying to lighten my mood.

My heart drops just a little at the “F” word. Friend. But that is okay, because that’s what I really need. I don’t need to date right now. What a mess that would be! Nevertheless, the silly girl inside is pouting just a little. He starts chatting excitedly about growing up on the farm and about the importance of weather and water. He describes in excellent detail his hometown. I am so grateful for his obvious attempt at distracting me that I just quietly listen to the sound of his deep voice and close my eyes.

Heart in my chest? Check. But not for long I fear.

I smile to myself, glad the night wasn’t a complete fail. Reed may have been trouble at his old school, but clearly he was trying to make a change. No judgments. He obviously has regrets, whatever they are. But don’t we all have some regrets? I won’t hold that against him. Lord knows I have my fair share of regrets following me around in the form of Jett. I can understand and definitely respect his need to start over while not letting his past dictate his future.

I tell myself that every day.

[]

[_WTHell! _]

I freaking friend-zoned myself! [_Why did I do that? _]

I’m driving home, pissed off, turning corners in my truck like the devil himself is after me. Again with the word vomit! I hit my hand on the steering wheel in frustration. Now I’m gonna suffer hard because instead of kissing her like I wanted to—and holy hell I wanted to—I couldn’t keep my mouth shut! Then, I dropped the “F” bomb. Friend!

I got home and headed straight to my room, glad my family is gone and can’t witness my crap mood. I can’t handle an interrogation right now. After slamming my door, I shuck my clothes off, fall into bed, and immediately cover my eyes with my arm as I go over the words I regret saying. I revealed more than I wanted about the person I was back in Lincoln. I didn’t want her to know that I might have been more like her ex than she suspected. I was a hell raiser, a complete tool, a punk kid with a chip on his shoulder. When you grow up in a small town, there are only two groups: the in-crowd and the outsiders. Unfortunately in my case, I had to become a dick to ensure my piece of acceptance in my old town. It was exhausting. I hated it, hated myself, and swore I would never care that much about what people thought of me again. The cost was just too damn high. The cost was my self-respect.

As I stare at the ceiling, my thoughts turn brooding. When I came here, I wanted a clean slate, I didn’t want to be that person anymore, but when I saw Dannie’s ex, I was reminded of who I had been. And I was ashamed. Not only that, but the crap he said about Dannie made me want to beat the smile off his face or seriously choke him out. I’m pretty sure I would do anything for this girl, pretty sure she’s[_ it_] for me. Luckily, I barely kept it together because I’m positive Dannie would not be okay with me punching her ex in the face.

He called her a slut right in front of me. [_Slut? _]I was about to lose it until Dannie bolted. Good thing she did, because it kept me away from that dick she once dated. My fists tighten on their own accord at the thought of them together. I hate the thought of him touching her. He didn’t deserve someone as sweet as Dannie. Hell. [_I don’t deserve a girl like Dannie! _]I close my eyes and push that thought away.

When I took her to the field, I was hoping for time alone. I thought it was romantic, but it didn’t go quite as planned. Perhaps my idea of romance is off? Most guys aren’t known for their romantic gestures. Maybe I was wrong about the field. I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my sister; she’ll laugh but will definitely give me some good pointers on dating.

Dannie told me a little about her relationship with the douche bag, which only made me want to hit him more, but I was glad she felt like she could tell me. Then I had to go and screw it up and say that word! I don’t want to be her friend—at least not just her friend. I want to be more than that; I want to be her future, her fantasy, her love, her companion, but not just her friend.

To make matters worse, she flinched when I reached to hold her hand. Flinched! I don’t even think she realized when I reached out to lace our fingers together she reacted as if I were going to hit her. What the hell did he do to her?

Is she afraid of me? I’m worried I ruined everything before I had a chance to show her that not all men are like him. I have to do some damage control.

I hop out of bed and fish through my jeans pocket for my cell, glad that I had the foresight to get her number. I text her before I chicken out.

As beautiful as the stars are, they look down at you and think the same. ;p

I hope she doesn’t think I am a freaking idiot, but girls like compliments from what I have seen.

Little over the top much?

Bad over-the-top? Or good over-the-top? This girl …

I was trying to get you to laugh

You succeeded, bravo

I crawl back into bed with my phone on the nightstand in case she texts again. I’ve got a grin on my face, knowing that I made her laugh, even if what I really want is to make her fall for me, because I’m pretty sure that I’m falling for her—a little every day, little pieces of my heart at a time.

Every day we sit in the library talking, laughing, and enjoying learning a little more about each other. She owns me. I know it. Every day is a confirmation of what I already know—that this girl is made for me. You know what they say, “When you know, you know,” and there is no doubt in my mind.

I lie in bed, remembering how her small hand fit in mine, how her laugh made me feel when she was joking with her friends. My stomach tightens at the memory as I lie there. I roll over and put the pillow over my head. I can’t help but think of how tight her clothes were because it distracted me most of the game. It was a great game, and I love football, but the girl next to me made me feel disoriented all night. I had to keep my mind on the game to regain some control more than a few times. She is so beautiful, so smart, and so sweet, and she doesn’t even know how special she is.

I’ll just have to be patient and take this slow.

[]

I grip the front of my letterman’s jacket where the pocket holds a red envelope—the first letter in a series to come. I laugh at my own lovesick plot.

Letters.

It’s not my entire plan, but it’s a start. I thought letters were the way to go about the same time I considered climbing though her window the other night just to get a closer look again, although I refrained. I hope watching her from a distance as she reads my letters will have a similar effect. The wonderment and uncertainty of anonymous letters seem to be the perfect beginning to a lasting relationship.

Phase 1 includes letters. Maybe I’ll send a few texts. Phase 2 includes approaching and casual conversation. Although I’ll have to pretend I know nothing about her. I’ll figure it out. Phase 3 is still undecided at this point.

This is difficult, mostly because I’ve never had a relationship before. Never met a girl who held my interest. Get in; get out. That’s the only amount of interest I have in most women. Women talk too much. I’d prefer not to talk at all with them, certainly not cuddle or share feelings. Most women are only good for only one thing, and once I get it, I no longer have any use for them. Dumb whores.

But my blue-eyed girl is different. She has always been different.

I take a deep breath of morning air while sitting on a bench overlooking the quad, which also happens to have a direct line of sight to Dannie’s locker. I’m watching Dannie as she’s talking to her group of friends at her locker. The tall blonde again, the short blonde with tattoos, and some lanky junior I’ve seen hanging around her friends lately. Come to think of it; I’ve seen him an awful lot hanging around Dannie. I shift on the bench I’m sitting on, leaning forward, my elbows on my knees as I watch the group interact. They all seem familiar with one another, comfortable, happy even. When I notice the boy watching Dannie a little too closely, I feel a rise of anger toward them both. I clench my fists. [_Don’t make that mistake again, Dannie. You’d better not go there … _]

As she turns to leave, she gives him a friendly smile and then walks away with her tall blonde friend. He stands there for a few moments longer, watching as she turns the corner. Well, damn. Not again … I take a deep breath, and before I notice what I’m doing, I’m heading in his direction. I follow him to what I assume is his next class, all the while trying to talk myself down from the rage that’s building, begging for release.

I assess him as I walk. He’s a pretty tall kid; I’ll give him that. He looks athletic from what I see, but there is no way in hell I’m gonna to let someone else get between Dannie and me again. I’m not waiting any more. I refuse to go unnoticed this time. He turns into his classroom, unaware of my approach. I pass by without drawing attention to myself.

Careful, kid. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt …

Certainly wouldn’t be the first time though, I think, smirking as I think back to summer when I may have caused some trouble for Dannie’s ex. It was nothing he didn’t deserve.

Last Summer

Bush parties are an excuse for adolescents to drink, dance, and sleep around. I hate rowdy crowds like this one, but it’s a good place to blow off some steam. I look around, hoping for a fight to break out; they rarely do, but you never know. A guy can hope.

I take a deep swig of my beer on the boulder claimed by players on the team. I analyze the growing crowd while the guys talk about the girls around the fire, which one they want to bag tonight, which ones to avoid, which are easy.

They will try; most won’t succeed. Pathetic.

I look around with vague interest, knowing the only girl I really want to be here with won’t be here. She’s never here. She is probably with her asshole boyfriend. I sneer, suddenly furious. I crave a fight tonight. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to destroy something. Someone’s bloody face will be a good distraction from Dannie.

I never understood how she fell for Jett’s line of bull. I thought she was smarter than that. I thought she knew better. I guess I was wrong. It doesn’t keep me from noticing her every time she crosses my path or constantly watching for her in social settings like this one.

I came to realize years ago that her dad happens to live directly diagonally from the house I grew up in. Every time Dannie is with her dad, I find myself looking in that direction. I can’t seem to help looking at that house constantly, looking out my window, hoping to see a glimpse of her, finding reasons to walk by.

It’s become a constant in my life, perhaps the only constant—even if my attempts have thus far been futile. She sees nothing beyond her boyfriend; she has yet to notice my attentions, my infatuation, my growing affection. I’m a man possessed by a girl with blue eyes.

I’m pulled from my thoughts by the one person I’d least like to see. Jett. I wish Dannie had never dated that jerk off. Jett strides quickly to the boulder I happen to be sitting on. He fist-bumps the other guys on the team, smiling and laughing about some nonsense. I can’t help but imagine ringing his neck. It puts a smile on my face.

“Freedom!” He throws back his head, shouting.

What the hell does he mean by that? I assume he means graduation so I shrug it off, but my ears have perked up a little.

He and Mike are talking in lowered voices as Mike beats Jett on the back, laughing. Mike turns to the guys. “Jett is a free man again. Get him a beer!”

Someone throws a beer at Jett, and he immediately pops the cap and chugs it.

“That’s right, boys. I got rid of the ball and chain. It’s time I look for some new tail ’round here,” he cheerfully says while scoping the girls dancing.

He broke up with Dannie? This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time. I try to hide the elation that tries to force its way onto my face. I won’t smile. I won’t.

On one hand, I’m pissed that he broke up with a girl like Dannie. What an idiot. On the other hand, I’m stoked! Finally, she’s free. I’m free of hiding this secret, hiding my obsession.

I watch Jett make his way over to the redhead I constantly see him here with. Kendal is a disgusting whore. Jett can’t seem to help himself when he’s drunk. As long as she keeps him from crawling his sorry butt back to Dannie, she can have ’em.

Disgusting.

I let my thoughts float back to Dannie and how we finally have a chance to be together. How do you make a girl fall in love with you? But I don’t just want her love or affection. Love is for pussies. I want her soul. I want her to be mine, under my complete control. I want to own her. I want her to be as obsessed with me as I am with her.

I calculate as I make my way quietly toward the assortment of vehicles past the tree line. No one will think anything of it beyond a quick piss. I spot the truck I’m looking for as I take out my old knife, looking around for unwanted spectators. Coast is clear. I leave my mark on the tires before heading back to the fire, satisfied with my work. It maybe a little mild for my taste, but at least it’s something.

That asshole deserves it.

[]

Weeks go by, Reed and I study for our midterms almost every day in the library. Jem and Melody even join us a few times after school, but life takes on a predictable routine. Reed doesn’t bring up what we talked about at the meadow, as if he could sense that I really don’t want to talk about it anymore. He respects my need to keep it to myself. Some things are better left unsaid.

Each day, Reed and I chat, trading jokes and funny stories. I listen but never divulge anything about my home or family. We start playing the twenty questions game, which has quickly surpassed twenty by now. And each night he sends me a cheesy over-the-top text that always make me laugh. A few weeks ago, I started receiving letters in my locker, and I assume they’re from him too—letters with poems or a note with a sweet quote. Each is different, each thought-provoking.

We have become easy friends, and it has taken on a normalcy that I start to rely on. I’m grateful that we can be friends. I want to be grateful that he doesn’t expect me to talk about certain things. He seems to sense when a subject is not up for discussion. Even if my heart longs for more, I know it can never become more than friendship. I’ve accepted that it’s just not meant to be. I have become uncomfortably aware that he is way too good for me, whatever his past regrets are. He deserves more than someone who comes from a family like mine. I’m tainted, although I hide that fact well. It’s only because I’ve had a lifetime of practice hiding my secrets. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m no good for someone like Reed Fischer.

Home is a complete disaster on our best days. Mom covers up for Mark’s outbursts. Mark marches around the house as if he were king of the castle and we are all subject to his authority. My brother hot boxed his room this week, causing quite the scene between him and my parents. Mom was livid when she found out I never even tried out for cheer, her disappointment in me evident with every glare. But my disappointment in her is equal. She will get over it eventually, and honestly it’s hard for me to care. I try my hardest every day to compartmentalize home from school, and anything related to home is my dark secret to hide.

“Have you told him about your mom and Mark?” Melody quietly and patiently asks at the lockers one morning before school.

The question is out of concern, I know, but I can’t help but feel accused, as if I am keeping something from him that he somehow deserves to know. It’s none of anyone’s business, but Melody comes from a difficult home too, and her gentleness reminds me that she shares my heart aching loneliness and shame.

Frustrated, I respond quietly, “No, I don’t want him to start feeling sorry for me … or to look at me differently.[_ ]You _know he will if he finds out …” I trail off, not wanting to acknowledge my secret. I continue, “He never asks about my family anyway, so I’ve never had to lie,” I say, lies of omission notwithstanding.

“I think you should tell him something. I know you don’t want to talk about it. I get it … really, I do, but you like him. He should know more about you before you get involved.”

Tell me something I don’t know.

“That’s just it, Melody. We won’t get involved. He doesn’t think of me that way. I am glad he doesn’t think of me as anything more than a friend. I don’t want a boyfriend … not after Jett …”

She just looks at me a little confused because she knows this has more to do with my family than Jett.

“Do you find him attractive?”

[_So attractive. _]“Yeah.”

“Do you think he is a good guy?”

“Of course.”

“Then I don’t see the hang-up?”

I can’t answer.

She probably doesn’t suspect that I don’t feel worthy of someone like Reed, someone from a good family. Jett was from a good family, but he wasn’t a good person. It evened the playing field a little. Reed, however, is way above my level in every way, not to mention he has voiced no interest in me as anything other than a friend.

I shake my head, clearing my thoughts. “I dunno.”

“Okay …” she says, allowing me to not answer. “Regardless, if you want to come over for Thanksgiving, you are more than welcome. It will just be my family bickering, but it might be better …”

Better than my house, she means, but she looks sorry she said it even if it’s the truth. I look at her and give her a sad smile. She knows I won’t say yes, but I love her for asking. Sweet, gentle Melody.

“Girls’ night at my house, bee-sees!” Jem slaps both of our backsides while walking past to her locker.

Melody and I smile at one another and follow her. We are both glad to have a night away from our crazy families.

[_Speaking of, _]I think to myself as I look down at my vibrating phone. “DAD” flashes across the screen as I hold the phone in my hand.

I answer. “Hello?” I hold my breath.

“Hey, honey, just wanted to call and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Are you doing anything fun?” my dad asks, sounding uncomfortable. Is he uncomfortable because of me? Or is it because of his terrible relationship with his ex-wife and her sparkly new hubby? Probably the latter.

“Oh, you know, the usual … dry turkey, green beans, and too much pie,” I say, trying to sound cheerful—not to mention the yelling and throwing of plates with the occasional rants from my mother while she is hopped up on prescription pills. But I leave that part out.

“Well, that sounds like fun. Kind of.” My dad laughs at the lie, but I laugh back as we share a casual and awkward conversation. I hang up the phone a little sad at the ease of my lie. When did lying become second nature? When did I get so natural at it, and what kind of daughter does that make me? I ponder these things as I gather my books and head to Jem’s.

The first night of Thanksgiving break is girls’ night. Grab cookie-dough ice cream—check. Grab a season of Grey’s—check. Rocking our leggings—check.

Bomb-dot-com.

Jem bitterly reminisces about her ex-boyfriend, whom she dated most of high school and who happened to dump her last year after cheating shamelessly while she was vacationing with her family. She has dated around a little since, but I know she has major trust issues from her ex.

Melody’s being unusually quiet tonight about her boyfriend, probably because she knows we can’t stand him, but it’s starting to worry me a little. He’s a total d-bag. It’s one of those beautiful, sweet girls with an ugly a-hole boyfriend situations. Yet another bonding cornerstone of our friendship.

Turning the attention toward me, “Sooo, how is Reed?” Jem asks while popping in the first season of Grey’s Anatomy. Nothing like hot doctors to make fangirls go crazy. We be crazy …

“He is good, perfect as ever,” I say exasperatedly, but she suddenly looks serious while shaking her head in disbelief.

“No man is perfect, honey. I promise,” Jem sharply responds.

_Whoa, okay. _

I turn to Melody, trying to change the direction of the conversation when I realize she has barely spoken all evening. “Melody, is everything okay? You’re really quiet tonight.”

“Jay shoved me last night,” she whispers.

I’m shocked. Jem makes a noise that sounds like a threat. She looks like she’s about to jump into her car, find Jay, and murder him. Or cut off his balls and then kill him.

I lean forward to hold Melody as she starts to cry.

“I don’t know what happened. We were bickering. Nothing out of the ordinary, and he just walks up, shoves me on the bed, and starts screaming at me.”

I don’t know what to say in response to that, so I just keep my arms around her.

“Did you break up with that dick head?” Jem asks, starting to raise her voice.

I give her a look telling her to calm down.

“No,” she whispers, and we know she isn’t going to, not yet at least. The best thing about Melody is also the worst. Her sweet, gentle nature can cause her not to stand up for herself, a lifetime of her mother walking all over her has now led her to allowing men to do the same—the cycle of destruction we are all fighting against.

We don’t argue with her after that; we know it’s no use. This is not his first indiscretion, and it won’t be his last. We just are here to help her get through it until she is strong enough to leave him for good. What else can we really do? We start the DVD in silence, arms wrapped around Melody.

I send my nightly message halfway through the movie, but suddenly I feel like being a little flirtatious.

how’s your first night on break?

He responds quickly.

uneventful. U?

[_with the girls … they fell asleep watching Grey’s _]

[_thats because it’s boring :p _]

i’ll pretend you didn’t say that!

[would you forgive me if I told you that I could quote almost all of _]Mean[ ]Girls[?_]

What?!

[_… my sister … don’t ask … _]

I may forgive you, still undecided …

what if I told you I know the theme song to Cinderella by heart … :)

[_What?! R u serious? _]

I can just imagine the ridiculousness of a hot guy singing “Cinderella, Cinderella,” and laugh at the thought.

[_… my sister … don’t ask … _]

I will have to thank your sister then;)

Better not! So what are you doing this weekend? Want to go somewhere with me tomorrow?

[_Where? _]

I am smiling now at my phone screen, but I’m starting to get those butterflies again.

Surprise?

Is this were you kidnap me and chop me into little pieces?

[_Yep, how’d you guess?! _]

I knew you had a secret … sure i am game. Im at Jem’s so you can pick me up from here whenever …

[_see you tomorrow … g’night, princess. _]

He started calling me princess after one of his midnight texts a few weeks ago. It wasn’t as romantic as it was funny at the time, but I had never been called princess before. Nothing felt farther from the truth in my mind, but when he calls me princess I kind of feel like one. I smile, my eyes closing while thinking of Cinderella of all things.

[_“Mmft.” _]

I hear what sounds like stumbling as the front door slams closed. It is 3:13 a.m. No, there is no way I am getting out of bed. No way. There is only one person who would be getting in at this hour, and I’d rather avoid him. Not going to do it.

I hear more stumbling around coming from down the hall, accompanied by a loud crash. He is gonna kill himself! I look over at Jem and Melody, who are sprawled quietly undisturbed on the floor, arms and legs thrown every which way in the dark. I hear a muffled thud followed by a loud four-letter word. Yep, I’m doin’ it. Pissed at myself, I quietly sneak out of Jem’s room while walking over two bodies, trying to avoid the countless piles of clothes and shoes on the floor. Jem’s a bit of a slob.

When I reluctantly approach the sound of the noise, trying to assess the damage, I watch Jett struggling to take his shoes off while at the same time attempting to take his shirt off.[_ Drunk moron_]. He hears me as I approach and abruptly stops. A shadow of regret and pain marks his face as he takes a small step toward me. Or am I just imagining it, hoping he would regret those words that day? Doubtful.

“What are you doing up?” he slurs.

“The girls are asleep. So was I until you got home. Thanks for that by the way, so please try not to be so freakin’ loud!” I whisper-yell as I pass him walking toward the kitchen. Grabbing a glass of water, I ignore the sounds of him getting closer as I’m filling it. Loud drunk, damn him. I turn around, surprised at just how close he is. He is practically breathing down my neck like a creeper.

“So was that your new boyfriend I met? How long have you been together? Have you kissed him?”

His successive questions make me wonder if he realizes he is actually speaking out loud. He just stares at me with his shirt off, standing in his kitchen, a look on his face that makes me feel sorry for him … almost.

Wounded. Hurt. That’s the only way to describe the look in his eyes.

I stare up at him, wondering how I could have ever found him attractive. Suddenly, I realize that I feel nothing but disappointment and regret. I look at him, contemplating how I could have confused comfort with love. He killed any chance of me [_ever _]feeling anything for him a long time ago—except maybe anger, but I got over that quite a while ago too.

I recognize with surprising clarity that I’m done. It’s over. I’m free, and suddenly I can finally breathe again.

Shaking away my thoughts, I turn away slowly while putting on a practiced mask of indifference, trying to hide the smile my revelation has summoned. “That’s none of your business.” I attempt to walk by him, but he grabs my arm quickly, startling me. He holds me tight, not tight enough to hurt but enough to command my attention.

He’s as controlling as ever, even drunk.

Looking up, I see pain reflected in his eyes. Jett, you burned that bridge … You broke my heart, while successfully throwing away years of friendship along with any semblance of trust we had. I plead with him silently. I try to convey with my eyes what I don’t have the heart to say aloud. That I just don’t care anymore, but he doesn’t seemed to get that message.

I pull my arm out of his grasp, taking a huge step backward as we continue our showdown. I’m not falling for this again. I’m not that naive anymore. If I were being brutally honest, I’d admit that I never trusted him to begin with, and how can you love someone you don’t trust? I don’t even think I know how to trust another human being.

He takes a deep breath, breaking the silence. “I am asking just as a friend. We can be friends, can’t we?” His voice is pleading, but his eyes dart to my mouth.

[_Don’t even think about it, buddy … _]

Can we be friends? Not really, when he continually treats me like trash in front of everyone, humiliating me just for laughs. But I try to be the bigger person because pettiness is what makes him the jerk and not me. I won’t let him see what hurt he has caused me by stealing my safe place. His home is the only home I have ever felt safe in, and now it’s being tainted by his bitterness.

So I simply reply, “Yeah,” with a noncommittal shrug, and I turn to go back to bed. I leave him standing in the kitchen alone, muttering something under his breath. I don’t bother to ask him what he said.

The next morning, I am the first one up, being the only morning person in the bunch, and head to the coffeepot. Caffeine. Surely proof that God is merciful …

I am halfway through my second cup and starting to feel like a person again when Jett walks into the kitchen, looking very awake for 8:26 a.m., considering when he went to bed.

“Want breakfast? I’m making eggs.” He looks at me, waiting for a response with a hopeful look on his face while holding a frying pan.

Utterly shocked, I stutter, “Sh-sure.”

I try to hide my confusion. Maybe he is offering a truce? I might as well try to reciprocate, attempt to make the peace last. Resolved, I get up to help him with breakfast while trying to keep a safe physical distance from him cooking. Jett, however, keeps brushing up against me or not so subtly putting a hand on my lower back. What is he up to?

I make no mention of it. It’s not worth a fight. I try to think of Reed to keep my mind off of the awkwardness. I’m not expecting Reed to text for at least a few more hours, being that he’s definitely not a morning person. So I guess I have time to kill; I might as well get this truce started so that Jett and I can finally put this craziness behind us. We have been friends before; we just have to get used to being around each other again, now that we aren’t a couple, now that we are trying not to be enemies.

He starts cooking the scrambled eggs, even though I prefer over-easy. He never made eggs the way I liked them, even when we were dating. He always preferred scrambled, so we always ate eggs scrambled. I should have taken that as a bad omen. But like everything else, I let it go because I thought it was normal.

I guess now I realize I simply want more.

He looks at me sideways and says quietly, “So I meant what I said last night about us being friends, ya know.”

I’m surprised that he can remember anything he said last night, considering how drunk he was. I quietly stare at his back while he cooks. “Yeah, I think we could manage that,” I say, trying to recover.

I kinda wish I could see his expression as he says it to determine what’s eating him.

“Good, because I just want you to know that I don’t know how I feel about Reed,” he says quickly, speaking over his shoulder.

Yeah, because he is talking to your ex? Jett’s having a contest over territory.

Hells no.

I’m not anyone’s territory. Disappointment shoots through me when I realize Reed and I are only friends, and he has never suggested he wants more.

“Well, we are just friends. I don’t really want to date anyone right now. I am too busy, and guys aren’t worth my time,” I say quickly, trying to sound bored. Reed would be worth my time, but I keep that to myself.

“Good,” he says, concentrating rather hard on the eggs.[_ _]

Good? What a butt face.

The morning flies by in a rushed blur once the girls get up. We all eat breakfast together, chatting about school, Jett asks us questions about our classes this year. We ask him questions about his freshman year at the state college he attends. He reminisces about parties and drunk frat pranks while we all try not to fall off our chairs laughing at them.

This is what I’ve missed—the friendship. If he wasn’t such a jerk to me in front of his friends, as if trying to prove an unknown point, we could be friends again. But I have a feeling that’s not going to happen, regardless of a momentary truce. We both know it[_ but avoid saying it_]. There is just too much history and too many hurt feelings to ignore.

“So what are you going to wear today,” Jem asks, wiggling her eyebrows as we clear the breakfast plates together. I glance at Jett, who is suddenly very interested in my answer.

Shrugging while trying to ignore the pang of guilt, I say, “I’m not sure. Can you pick something out? I don’t know what we are doing. He says it’s a surprise.”

Jett looks stiff out of the corner of my eye, but he isn’t my problem anymore. Let it go, Dannie.

[]

I picked Dannie up at Jem’s house after her girls’ night. I’m starting to really like Dannie’s friends. They’re hilarious, though blunt. They seem devoted to one another the way friends should be, not how some chick cliques are nice to one another’s faces but horrible when their backs are turned. Dannie’s friends aren’t like that at all. It makes me happy that she has friends who are genuine toward her.

What I didn’t expect was for her to be in that white dress. I felt like I had swallowed my tongue when she walked out of the house lookin’ like sunshine. She took my breath away. I opened her door for her, packed a picnic, and played music I know she likes. I’m even wearing a polo, not my usual style, but I wanted her to know I made an effort for her.

Now we are sitting on a blanket side by side, talking about anything and everything, and all I can think about is how to get her in my arms, to tuck her body beside mine so that they meld together. I’ll admit I’m having a hard time concentrating on what she is saying because I keep thinking about what it would feel like pressed against her.

She finally catches my attention when I tell her how beautiful she is, and she responds with a quiet, “Thank you.”

It’s not the words as much as the sad look on her face after I said it that startles me. I thought it was a nice thing to say, and I meant it; she looks gorgeous. Then why does she look like I hurt her feelings.

Then it hits me—Jett.

I’ll try again, however many times it takes to erase what he’s done. Trying to convey some sense of my sincerity, I cup her face with my hand, look her in the eye, and whisper, “You are perfect.” It doesn’t have the effect that I hope for because a shadow of some unspoken thought clouds her eyes.

[_What happened? _]

I lean a little closer. “I’m not him, you know. I would never treat anyone the way he treats you. I would never do that to you.” I pause before breaking contact by lying down. I try not to contemplate the fact that I might very well have treated her similarly if I had been back in Kansas. I always avoid thinking about my past when Dannie and I are together but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Where is the line between avoiding a topic and flat out lying about your past? I’d like to think I’d be more forthcoming if I were to be presented with the opportunity, but I’m not so sure. I can’t stand the thought of her looking at me differently. Looking at me the way I saw her looking at Jett during the football game. I can’t help but feel like I might lose her if she really knew the type of guy I used to be. A guy I am ashamed of.

“I’m not Jett”, I repeat to myself and to Dannie as I fold my hands behind my head so that I don’t reach out and touch her again. I have to be gentle with her, patient, careful. She has been hurt before, that much is obvious, and I have to earn her trust the right way.

Slowly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that she’s staring where my stomach is exposed. I wouldn’t say I’m ripped, but I’m an athletic guy. The look on her face is one of obvious interest. A girl looking at a guy’s stomach is the equivalent of a guy checking out a girl, so I am rather pleased that she notices me that way. Clearly she is embarrassed because she immediately lies down beside me while her face turns a little pink. So adorable. I can’t help but smile proudly that she thinks I’m worth looking at. Does she think I’m hot? I hope she thinks I’m attractive. I think I my nose is too big and my arms are too long for my body, and I know my short beard is not as common in California, but if she thinks I’m remotely attractive, I’ll be satisfied.

I reach over and lace my fingers in hers. Before I know it, I am tucking her delicate frame alongside my body. She fits just right, but I am hoping that this contact isn’t too much too soon for her. I close my eyes, the smile still on my face. My girl is in my arms. What more could I want?

She looks a little upset when I offer to help if she ever needs anything. It came out of my mouth before I knew what I was doing. It feels right when I can say it. I can tell she holds back, although I’m unsure of the reason. I want her to trust me with it. She is an island onto herself, never letting people touch her, never letting anyone close. She keeps her thoughts inside, but I want her to let me in. I need her to know I want her to want me too.

Looking down at her again, I ask, “No questions today?” trying to lighten the mood.

“Mmm … If you could be any profession, what would you be?”

Easy. “Anything with animals. If you could be any celebrity, who would you be?”

“Ha. Easy. No one, because I never want to be famous.”

I like that answer, especially considering she was raised in California. Too many girls here seem to be a little Hollywood crazed. “What would you want to be?”

“Not your turn to answer, sir.” She smiles. “But … anything with books. Librarian?”

Sexy librarian. I can definitely see it.

She looks like she really is thinking hard before she comes up with one. “What’s most important to you?”

“Family.” My reply is quick because it’s so natural. Family is the most important thing to me, but then why does my answer seem to make Dannie frown? “What’s wrong? What did I say?”

She shakes her head and smiles brightly—too brightly—and snuggles closer to me.

[]

My happy moment ends the moment I walk into my house after my wonderful picnic with Reed.

“Where is your mother?” Mark doesn’t even turn as he gruffly asks from his chair at the head of the table. He looks at me over the rim of his glass as he waits for my response. He is wearing a suit which must mean he intends to head into the office on a Saturday, giving me hope that he might not be around for the rest of the day. As long as I answer his questions correctly.

“I’m not sure; I haven’t been home.”

“That’s right. You’ve been gone without so much as a word to your mother and I, and you expect us to trust you?” Coldly, he glances at me, taking in my dress a little too much for my comfort. I’m surprised, considering they have never asked me to call or leave a note before, and I remember telling my mother earlier this week I would be at Jem’s. But I hold my tongue, knowing it would only make this worse.

Stay silent. Be invisible. Don’t. Show. Emotion.

“You are not to leave the house for Thanksgiving break. You are grounded for your irresponsibility. I expect you to complete all your chores and the extra list I left on the fridge.”

Oh, so that is what this is about. He needs a slave, and he knows I am the only one who will do it. I look down, holding my tongue. I honestly doubt I could do anything more as my hands start to shake.

“And if you do this again, your punishment will be severe.” His tone leaves me frightened with unsaid promises. His impending punishment is inevitable and only a matter of time. I want to throw up. I know what he is capable of. “You may go to your room now and think about this.”

His calm manner is more frightening and foreboding than if he had been yelling. I almost prefer his yelling to this cold, calculated Mark. The house suddenly sounds too quiet, and I’m afraid that we may be the only ones home. God, I hope not!

I slowly back out of the kitchen, careful not to make a noise. I can’t recall what life was like before fear was a constant shadow lurking in every corner, permeating every conversation, hiding beneath every lie. Once I’m out of sight, I quickly run to my room and lock the door with the lock my brother recently installed. Thank God. I slump to the floor while I begin to quietly cry alone.

This is my life. Desperation. Fear. Anger. Disgust. This is all I feel.

I don’t remember what woke me, but I wake up startled in the dark room. My big sister is sleeping a few feet away in her matching purple covered bed. I can hear her deep breathing. That shouldn’t have woken me. I think of crawling into bed with her because I am a little scared. I’m afraid of the dark now. What woke me? I think seriously about crawling into bed with Avery. She won’t mind, I think as I finally get the courage to leave the shelter of my blankets, and then I freeze. I see him in the dark, standing at the foot of our beds, staring down at us from the shadows. I try to pretend that I am still asleep, hoping he will go away. I can’t stop shaking. Squeezing my eyes shut, I begin to beg God that he will just go away. I am so afraid. My mommy said my new daddy sleepwalks and that is why he visits our room in the middle of the night, but I don’t know if I believe her. She lies too much. I don’t trust her.

And with the look on his face, it doesn’t seem like he is sleeping.

Startling awake, I sit up in bed, listening to the dark. What woke me? Suddenly worrying my nightmare will become a reality. Breathe. Just breathe.

My fear is interrupted by a chime on my phone.

Did you find it?

Confused and half asleep, I reply to the private number that I assume is one of Reed’s. I am thankful that he pulled me out of my nightmare and saddened at the realization that he will never know how much I appreciate the interruption. Or why …

Find what?

You’ll know when you see it. You might find it in your purse though :)

I scramble to my dresser in the dark to empty my purse, and at the bottom, I find a small envelope. I open it to find another handwritten letter, in the most awful writing I have ever seen. I laugh quietly, but I am also filled with joy. Honestly, how did teachers not correct his penmanship?

_I hoped you would read it and dream of me _

_You succeeded _

_TTYL My blue eyed girl. _

I read the letter while smiling, thinking how my life at home is drifting even further away from my life at school. A chasm of lies spans the two. I don’t know whom Reed likes more, me or the mask I wear to hide the painful truth. Hiding my secrets has been the longest bad habit I’ve had. I don’t know how not to keep people at a distance. The thought brings tears to my eyes, even as I try to ignore it.

I’ll thank him for the latest letter after Thanksgiving break …

I wake up to an empty house—or I thought it was empty until I turn the corner to the kitchen to see my older brother and sister talking outside. Ryan is smoking a cigarette, leaning against the patio swing Avery is sitting on. They are speaking urgently, their faces close together conspiratorially. I walk out the door, and they freeze, fear clouding their eyes until they realize it’s just me.

“What’s wrong?” I hold my breath, fearing the worst.

“What’s right?” Ryan retorts with bitterness, shifting his body slightly away. It’s then that I notice the hand-size bruise on his bicep and his split lip. I stare in shock and remorse, knowing all too well the cause of his injuries.

Although his motions are stiff, he looks at me with a defiant, unbeatable look in his eyes. “You knew it was only a matter of time. Better me than you girls …” My big brother, always standing guard. A part of my heart breaks for him, but at the same time, I am thankful. To my shame, I can’t even count the times Mark was coming after me when Ryan would step between us. Even as a little boy, he would try to protect us and Mom, even if it meant he would get hurt.

Mark has always resented him for trying to protect us. I remember once Mark beat Ryan with a wooden cutting board so hard and for so long it snapped in two. I recall his crying with devastating clarity. He was barely over ten years old.

At twenty-two years old, he’s the bravest man I know. For as defiant as he appears to me, I know different. We know that Mark has broken him down slowly and painfully over time. We know by the fresh cuts on his inner arm, by the near constant state of inebriation he seems to be in, and by the haunted, desperate look in his eyes.

We all look at each other in silence, knowing that this has to end but being helpless to end it. What can the three of us do? We are stuck in a nightmare we can’t escape. Ryan refuses to leave us girls alone with Mark, even though he is old enough to be on his own. Avery just started college but hasn’t been able to save enough money to move out because she is basically raising our little sister. With each day that passes, we grow more desperate with fear. Sometimes you break to the point that you can’t be fixed, and as I look around at each of my siblings, I realize we passed that point years ago.

“We can’t keep this up much longer,” I whisper my thoughts without any expectation that they might be heard.

Ryan nods his head, “We need to make some sort of plan for you girls. Some way for you both to get out.” I look at him startled at his response before Avery and I look at one another in surprise. Where did that come from? Is it possible to escape this life we’ve been subjected to? Is it possible to have hope that life could somehow change?

All we can do now is try to survive. The question is, whom do we tell? Should we finally tell our dad? The police? Or do we make empty threats, hoping to alleviate the difficult situation we are facing? No, that would never work. Mark would completely lose it, and I wouldn’t want to be there to see it. The retribution would be far worse.

People always think it’s so easy to report abuse. That it is simple, but the truth is that nothing is simple when people you love will be hurt in the crossfire. No decision is without its violent consequences in my home.

It’s a lot to think on.

As Thanksgiving break passes and we endure daily torment. Arguments, punishment, fear. Constantly on guard, we feel for the first time, in a very long time, an underlining feeling of hope that maybe we can escape somehow. We don’t speak of it, but we share it every time our eyes lock across a room. Every time Mark raises his voice at the table, there is an electric current running between us, keeping us strong. Hope can be a dangerous thing when you have had nothing but disappointment. I hope it doesn’t do more damage than good in the end.

[]

By the end of Thanksgiving break, I’m worried that I had read all the signals wrong. I haven’t seen her for a week, and I feel like I’m restless in my own skin. I know I shouldn’t be, that it is wrong to feel like this, but I can’t seem to help it. I try to distract myself by spending every minute with my dad, helping him redo our yard. Building the fence, planting bushes, and being outside do help, but my mind seems to wander of its own accord, always to a pair of blue eyes.

This is what insanity feels like. This is what clingy girls do. Get it together, Reed. What the hell?

She is not going to want anything to do with you if you toe the fine line of crazy. I step inside the house and see my sister at the table with her laptop, her black hair tied up in a knot on her head. My sister and I look absolutely nothing alike, but our shared sense of humor makes it obvious that we are siblings. My sister has my dad’s dark skin and black hair, but I take after my mom’s side, looking just like my grandpa with my light-brown hair and green eyes. Rochelle and I are polar opposites in just about every way except one: our family is the most important thing to both of us. Family is everything, and although the move is hard and missing my friends is hard, I could never leave my family.

Not looking up from her MacBook when I come in, she is obviously waiting for the explanation of my sour attitude. Well, I don’t feel like giving her any. I know what is inevitably coming, and I brace myself for it. As much as I love my sister, she has always been able to get on my last nerve when she wants something.

“What has been your problem this week?” There’s no inflection in her tone, but I can tell she is deadly serious. If I don’t placate her soon, it will start an argument.

Not that I care, so I answer with a shrug, muttering something like “None of your business.”

“Well, it is when you treat everyone like garbage.” She finally looks up; she has always had a short fuse. Although my sister is only a year older, she seems to think she is somehow wiser and deserves an explanation. Not true. Or else we are both equally stubbornly looking for an argument. Probably the latter.

We have an older brother Austin who got married to a girl right out of high school. Rochelle and I have always been close. My older brother has kept more to himself, while Rochelle and I were always friends with the same group of people in our hometown, so we would spend a lot of time outside the house with each other and our mutual friends. It tends to blur the lines on the boundaries of our relationship. Are we friends? Are we siblings? Sometimes it leans one way or another, given the circumstances. Right now, I can tell she wants to be my big sister and tell me what to do. So I will gladly be the annoying little brother who gets under her skin for the fun of it.

“It’s nothing.” I look away so she doesn’t see the confusion I feel.

She scoffs. “You’re full of it. What happened? School not going so well? Girl problems?”

I look over at her quickly before I can catch myself. Crap! I gave myself up. It’s not that I have ever kept anything from my family; I’m just not sure I am ready to talk about this to Ro.

“Ha! It is a girl! Soooo who is she? Is she your girlfriend? When can we meet her?” Talking a mile a minute is a quirk Ro has always had. It would be funny if she weren’t shooting her questions at me.

“Just a friend. We haven’t talked much this week.” I didn’t really know what else to say, but I sat down across from her and looked at her. I have never in my life asked my sister for advice, but maybe she is the perfect person to give it to me. She’s a girl, so she might be able to give me some pointers.

“I guess I just miss her.” I take a large drink of water and wait for her advice or criticism … or something.

“Don’t. Don’t be that guy. That guy that is whinny and clingy … No girl wants that.” She shakes her head, tilting it to the side in disappointment.

“I’m not!” I say, although I’m not so sure. “She hasn’t texted much, and she hasn’t mentioned wanting to see me this week. I’m starting to think she’s not interested. Should I ignore her?” That doesn’t seem right either, but it is a classic response.

“No, don’t play games either. Just be cool. Maybe she is busy. You don’t know why she isn’t texting or asking to see you. When you see her Monday, just play it casual. Be calm; don’t be weird.” She laughs while going back to her computer, probably Facebook.

“Thanks, Ro. Big help you are.”

I breath in deeply, thinking over my own anxiety, wondering what is bugging me so badly. Am I really that insecure? I am being ridiculous, and I hate it. _Just be normal. _

So when Monday finally comes, I am a ball of nerves, but I keep repeating, “Be normal” in my head like a mantra. When I see her sitting next to her friends at her usual spot, I take a chance and beeline it to her table before I chump out.

_Be. Normal. _

“This seat taken?” I pause, sliding into the chair and waiting for her to turn while holding my breath. The look she gives me is surprised but not necessarily happy. Did I totally screw this up? I break out in sweat, but then she smiles brightly and leans toward me slightly. Nice!

“Nope, all yours. How was your break?” she asks, giving me another warm smile.

My heart warms a little, and the anxiety I feel drains away slowly. Maybe I was worried for nothing.

“It was loud,” I say, hoping my response wasn’t awkwardly delayed. “My family is really big, and a lot of them flew out to see our new house. How was yours?” I am trying to pry without sounding like a jerk. But I still want to know why she blew me off. My pride is a little more than wounded, and I need her to tell me where I went wrong.

“It was fine …”

That’s it? But she looks away so quickly I feel like there is something she is holding back. Is she back with her ex-boyfriend and too ashamed to tell me? I would be too. That guy’s an ass.

Screw this. I’m gonna go out on a limb here. “I missed you,” I say, leaning in close enough to smell her vanilla sweet hair. I’m close enough that I’m sure she can feel that my heart is pounding furiously in my chest, but I don’t care. All I see is her. She smiles and looks away but not before I can see her blush deeply. Before I know what I’m doing, I grab her small hand, lacing my fingers through hers. I notice the pleased look that is evident on her face. Pride swells in my chest, and we go about the rest of lunch in our normal pattern. I breathe in deeply, feeling relief and something else that feels a lot like love.

[]

At school, students are getting ready for finals and Christmas break. It still isn’t very cold in California this time of the year, but at least you can wear long sleeves and pretend it’s cold. It doesn’t feel like the Christmas season when it’s sunny and still relatively warm out, I think as I draw my sweater closer.

Regardless of the lack of Christmas feel, people spread the cheer by sending candy grams to one another during class. I get one from Jem, Melody, and Reed. Surprisingly, I even get an anonymous candy gram. Hmmm … a candy gram mystery?

I try shaking my busy thoughts as I gather my books and walk out of my last class after my last final exam. I give a huge sigh of relief. Finals over. Check the hell outta that! My brain might have exploded from all the studying I have been doing.

I will get into college. I will get into college. I will! That’s all that is keeping me motivated at this point.

My heart gives a noticeable leap as I turn to see Reed approaching, a ghost of a smile playing on his full lips. I try not to notice how his body moves while he walks, his narrow hips in jeans and his broad shoulders—everything that makes him mouthwatering. [_Day-um. _]

I’m so lame! I think, rolling my eyes at myself.

His deep voice booms excitedly, “How did it go?” He stops right before me with obviously no intention of moving out of my way. I stand, looking up at his sincere face in awe of the striking features that are quite at odds with the beautiful color of his eyes.

I realize quickly he is waiting for a response. “I think I did fine. I won’t know for sure though until after break.” Lifting my hands to show my crossed fingers, I laugh. I studied so much I am sure I did pretty well.

Reed helped me study, so he is aware I know the material backward and forward. He puts his arm around my shoulders as we head in the direction of his locker. I try not to be too distracted by the warmth of his body against my side, but that’s impossible because my skin feels like it is burning. I wrap my arm around his waist and go with it.

“I am sure you did more than fine because you are a bookworm. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re a total nerd. With the books, the checklists, the studying … it’s pretty obvious.” He smiles while saying it so there is no doubt he means it as a compliment.

He noticed the checklists? I groan inwardly. I always have been a bookworm, but the checklists? Does he miss nothing? He turns toward his locker, pulling away from my side, and I try not to whimper in response.

“What are your plans for the break?” I ask, trying to look casual. I’m sure I fail.

“Hanging out with you, genius,” he says it without so much as skipping a beat. But neither does he look at me while saying it so I get the impression he is nervous or has something on his mind. I choose to ignore it while trying not to read too much into it.

“Well, I will be at my dad’s for the break. It’s on the other side of town, so not too far if you want to do something …” I am sure my voice sounds as nervous as I feel saying it, but I hold my smile firmly on my face.

He glances sideways at me and smirks. “Sounds good. I’ll text you.” he finally turns while shutting his locker, but his expression looks guarded.

He clears his throat softly. “Would you want to come over and meet my family? My mother invited you to dinner, but I understand if you can’t …” he trails off while something similar to nervous fear flashes in his expression. It’s gone so fast I doubt it was really there to begin with. I’m not gonna pass up this opportunity to have time with Reed outside of school, but I also don’t want to sound too eager.

Calmly, I reply, “Sure, I’d love to. I don’t know my dad’s plan for the break, but I’ll let you know. I have your number,” I say, trying to keep it lighthearted. I smile and hip-bump him, while inside I am jumping for joy. I’m proud of myself for keeping my cool.

I’ll refrain from doing my happy dance, for now.

“Good.” He smiles as he walks backward toward his locker. “They’d love to meet you.”

_They. _

“Favorite color?” I suddenly shout out.

“Blue. You?” He smirks.

“Green.” _The color of your eyes. _

I walk away, trying not to think too much about the fact that if his mother invited me, it means he must have mentioned me to her. I know how close Reed is to his family so maybe it doesn’t mean as much to him as I think it might. Either way, I’m starting to freak a little as I walk toward the parking lot and away from Reed, refusing to look back at him in wonderment. Did that just happen?

As I leave school, heading out of town, a feeling similar to peace fills my body, as my sister and I finally drive to my dad’s for Christmas break. Finally! While we drive through the neighborhood our dad lives in, I can’t help but admire all the Christmas light displays in front of the impressive-looking houses. Each house is more beautiful than the next as the houses grow more spread out among the tall oaks. Houses? More like monuments to the successful upper class.

They are literally the “houses on the hill,” and there are dozens of these monstrosities.

Walking up the steps, I begin feeling apprehensive of the holiday we will be spending with relative strangers. Even though we look forward to visiting him, we feel like guests in our dad’s home. Intruders. An unwelcome reminder of my father’s failed first marriage that occasionally stop in for visitation on holidays. It’s nothing they do that makes us feel that way, but years of your mother insisting your dad doesn’t want you would make anyone feel unwelcome.

A flash of memory comes to mind as fear of rejection overwhelms me.

[_I turn into the kitchen to find my mom sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window with a sad look on her face. I try my best to get ready like she wants me to before school. Quietly so I don’t wake her up. Was I loud this morning? Why is she already awake? _]

[_“Mom, are you feeling better?” This is the first time I have seen her in two days. She says she has been so sleepy. She hasn’t even gone to work, but she sits at the table in her bathrobe with her hair sticking out everywhere. It looks kind of silly, but I won’t tell her in case it makes her sad. _]

[_“Yeah, baby, I feel a little better today. I don’t think I will be going back to work today though.” _]

[_“Am I going to see daddy today? Or do you want me to stay home with you? If you want me to, I’ll stay,” I say sadly. I don’t really want to stay home, but Mom gets sad when I leave. “I don’t really want to go. I want to stay with you,” I lie to make her happy, hoping that it’s what she wants to hear. _]

She stands up to make a cup of coffee. As she turns around, she is looking at me with a strange expression. “Do you know why your father left, Danielle? I really shouldn’t say … maybe I shouldn’t.”

[_I stand nervously. I don’t really understand, but I try to stand tall like a lady the way I know she wants me to. “I’m eight, Mom. I am big enough to know now.” _]

[_She sits down and grabs my hand as if to comfort me for reasons I don’t yet know. _]

“He left because I got pregnant with you, Danielle. He only wanted two children, but I accidentally got pregnant with you. He left right after you were born. He didn’t want you.” She takes her hand away, turning to stare out the window again, ignoring me, as if she hadn’t just shattered my heart. I turn to leave, trying to hold in the tears I will shed only when I am alone.

_I put on my good face, the face my mommy expects me to wear. It has become the fake face I wear for my mom, to hide the bad stuff I feel. _

Before I can even finish mulling over my hesitation, the door opens, snapping me back to the present. My dad is standing in the doorway with a huge grin on his face, wearing a ridiculous Santa hat. I can’t help but smile at him, my apprehension quickly fading.

My dad, Charles, bellows, “Merry Christmas, girls!” He opens his arms, and we both gladly give him a hug. Perhaps I have nothing to worry about. Maybe it’s all just in my head. [_I hope so … _]

The afternoon goes by in a flurry of laughter and a steady stream of questions about school. My stepmom, Mary, quietly listens while setting dinner on the table for each of us. It’s so different from home, where we do everything ourselves, because here she even serves us our meals. It’s still unsettling to be taken care of at dad’s after years of taking care of others.

My dad looks at Avery and then at Mary before settling on me with a concerned expression on his face, something that I rarely see from my father. My stomach drops. Something is wrong.

My dad clears his throat nervously. “Avery called me a few weeks ago with a question.”

I suddenly look over at Avery, feeling a little panic, but she avoids my questioning stare.

“Your stepmom and I have discussed it, we talked it over with Mary’s daughter Crystal, and Avery has decided to come live with me full-time from now on. We haven’t discussed this with your mother yet, but we will as soon as we can. Before we do, I want to know if you wanted to come and stay with me more often too? Your sister will be continuing her schooling while living with us. You are also welcome to stay at the same school and finish out your year here with us. It’s up to you,” he finishes, taking a deep breath, almost as if he is afraid of my answer.

I’m suddenly afraid of it as well.

On one hand, he is offering me everything I have always hoped for. It doesn’t erase the past or the fact that he has been absent, but it’s a start. I glance over at my sister, shocked that she never mentioned anything to me. She knew but chose not to say anything. What else is she hiding? I feel a little hurt that she chose to stay silent. Looking at her, I feel like I am really seeing her for the first time.

I turn back to my dad, who is still waiting for a reply. “Well, do I need to decide right now?”

My voice comes out as a whisper. I clear my throat. “I’ll feel bad if Mom loses us both completely. Maybe I can still visit her on the weekends?”

I feel bad even saying it. A part of me feels like I am betraying my family by leaving—not that they deserve my loyalty, but I feel like a disappointment to my mom. Because when it comes right down to it, if I am being honest with myself, all I have ever wanted was for her to want me, for her to love me the way she loves her other children, for her not to look at me as though I was the unwanted monster who took away her husband. I have always known she resents me, but that hasn’t kept me from trying to earn her love and forgiveness.

I can’t leave. Not yet. Not until I know without any doubt that I can’t fix my family, until I know it can’t get better. I’m too afraid, too unsure, and too ashamed to walk away just yet.

This will destroy her pride, and I know it, so perhaps if I just stay here Monday through Friday, it won’t seem like such a betrayal to her. I hate to think of the repercussions from Mark that will surely be coming. I fear them as much as I feel helpless to avoid them, unless I never go back. But I know that is something I might never do. It’s something I should do, but I can’t bring myself to be so cruel to my mother. I’d rather suffer the consequences than hurt my mother that way.

My father nods his head and looks at Mary for comfort, his eyes warming at the sight of her. Their love has always been obvious, regardless of how and when their relationship started. After my parents divorced, they were married so quickly that it makes you wonder when it started. But it’s hard to care when she makes him so happy, and a love like theirs is a rare thing, too rare to pass up. It’s something I can never hold against him because I am glad that he is happy. Besides, my mother isn’t an easy woman to be around anyway. My dad has always been too sweet for someone like my mother.

Mary suddenly turns to me and asks, “What do you want? Do what makes you happy. Not what we want, not what your mother wants, but what’s best for you.”

Her advice is so simple, but she has no idea how complicated this decision really is. Someone will pay for this offense; Mark will make sure of it. I’m just unsure of who it will be. I simply nod my head. Conversation suddenly turns to more lighthearted topics, but my head is filled with questions and my heart is heavy with the answers to them.

I sit outside while watching the sun fall behind the oak trees and contemplate how Avery and I got into this position. How do you decide between two people you love? How does a child choose between her parents, and how does divorce eventually lead to this? I wish it didn’t have to, and in a perfect world, it wouldn’t, but I know all too well that the world isn’t perfect. It’s dark, flawed, and unfair.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Dannie. Get over your pity party and focus on making the rational decision. Not emotional … rational.

I take a deep breath. On one hand, I feel like somehow I owe my mother my loyalty. My father left her, so how can I justify leaving her too? A person can only take so much abandonment, and I don’t want to hurt her. On the other hand, why should it matter to me? Look at the position she has put all her children in. Look at the life she has forced us into. Why shouldn’t I leave without a second thought? I should leave. I know it’s what would be best for me, but I hate the thought of hurting my mother. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and leaving out of revenge doesn’t feel right. If I leave my mother’s home for good, I want it to feel like I have tried everything I can to make it work, and there is nothing more I can do. I don’t want the guilt or the responsibility to be on my shoulders.

I’m mulling over the two sides of my decision when someone sits down beside me on the steps. I look over to see a grim look on my dad’s face—not something I often see.

“What are you thinking about that is making you cry?” he asks, handing me a tissue.

I feel my face, not realizing that I was crying. How could I not realize I was crying?

Embarrassed, I quickly dry my face. “Oh, you know, thinking about how to make this decision. It seems a little impossible.” I look down, not knowing what else to say.

“Well, it is a terrible decision. It’s a decision that will affect the relationship you have with your mother. I hate that it has come to such extreme measures, but your mother has never made it easy on us.”

I look over at him a little confused. “What do you mean?”

He looks a little startled. “Oh, you know, how she tried to move and change your names to hide you from me?” He starts looking a little confused as he sees my stricken expression. “You don’t remember, do you?”

“N-no, I …” I look him in the eyes to see if he is lying. He clearly isn’t. My father has never lied to me, and he looks like he regrets telling me instantly. “She tried to hide us?”

“She didn’t want to share custody with us. The divorce was hard on her, hard on you kids too … I know marrying Mary so quickly was difficult to accept, but I promise the two decisions where completely unrelated. It wasn’t easy on your mother.” He begins to look a little awkward at the turn of conversation so I intervene.

“So you wanted custody?”

His head snaps in my direction as he looks at me critically for a long moment.

“Do you really think I don’t want to know my children?”

I don’t respond immediately, not sure what to say. “Is that what you think?” he asks again.

“I always thought you kind of didn’t. You left so soon after I was born … I don’t know … I guess I assumed you didn’t want me.” I hang my head as fresh tears come to my eyes. I feel my dad’s arm wrap around my shoulders.

“Of course I wanted you. Of course I want to spend time with you, finally get to know you, finally get to be a part of raising you. More than just occasional weekends and holidays. It’s not the same. It’s never been the same. But your mother made it seem like if she didn’t have you, she wouldn’t have anything to live for. How could I do that after leaving her? I knew we weren’t good together, and we were both miserable married, but we both love you kids.” He pauses to give me a moment before continuing, “I would love to have you live with us. It will be hard to transition to a different home, but I think we can do it. But don’t ever believe that I don’t want you here. In fact, I don’t want you to ever think or say that again.” He smiles brightly, trying to lighten the mood.

I feel a burning in my throat at the realization that my dad wants me to live with him. He wants to share custody. My father always wanted me, and the years of rejection I have felt were all based on lies my mother told me out of her own bitterness and anger. I sit on the steps long after my father goes inside. I sit and think about all the things my mother has said about my father over the years and whether or not those stories were ever true.

I sit and also think about all the things my father doesn’t know.

[]

I’m thrilled Dannie is at her father’s for Christmas. I don’t know her mother or stepfather, but from what I’ve seen, I’m not their biggest fan. Dannie’s father, on the other hand, is a nice enough man. Naive maybe, but that suits me just fine. Being a neighbor has its advantages when you desperately want a neighbor’s daughter. All it takes is a friendly hello, moving the trash can for them occasionally, watering their plants, and feeding the dog when they’re on vacation. It’s given me access to Dannie’s room at the very least and, I hope, made a good impression on her old man.

What a good boy I am. I laugh at that thought. If he only knew the thoughts I had of his daughter, he might get a restraining order instead of cheering for me at my games.

I’ve given Dannie a few letters, which she seems to appreciate. I’ve watched her smile when she opens her locker to find one, so I must have been right about the letters. They are filled with cheesy poetry. Sometimes I describe what interests me about her or how attracted I am to her. Women love that crap, even my smart, silent, blue-eyed girl.

Whatever works.

I stand at the bottom of her driveway in the dark, contemplating how to give her the Christmas present I bought for her. It’s a simple charm bracelet, but I filled it with charms that remind me of her: a book, a cheerleader even though she isn’t on the team this year, a mascaraed mask. I slowly walk up the driveway, hoping I don’t draw the attention to any of the other neighbors as I intend to set the small jewelry box on the front step and freeze. I don’t have the courage to give it to her myself, but is this the right time? I turn, and quickly walk back home with the small box in hand. I wish I could, but it’s not the right time.

Soon …

Imagine my surprise when later that week, when grabbing the mail, I turn to find Dannie doing the same thing. I am so shocked, it takes me a moment to shake myself out of it.

“Sorry to startle you. Just grabbing the mail,” she says, stepping around me toward her mailbox.

I clear my throat, annoyed at my own behavior. “No problem. You look familiar. Do I know you?” I ask, acting as if I’m trying to place her from somewhere.

She turns her head, giving me that inquisitive look she has and says, “Yeah … we go to school together. I used to be on the cheer squad. You’re on the varsity team, right? Nick?” She turns a little red as if the slip of my name gives her away. She knows my name, excellent.

I smirk. “Yeah, I’m Nick. Sorry I didn’t recognize you. Ya know when you go to a school of two thousand, it’s hard to keep track of everyone.” I hope I sound casual because I’m having a difficult time not celebrating my victory. “I didn’t realize you lived so close. Did you just move in?” I ask, hoping to drag this conversation out as long as I possibly can.

“Well, no, my dad has lived here for years, but I just recently moved in with him …” she trails off as if not quite knowing what else to say.

So she lives with her dad full-time now? Hell yeah, this is going to be perfect. It’s as if all the stars have aligned in my favor.

As if God himself gives his approval.

As she nervously tucks her hair behind her ear, I resist the urge to reach out to do it myself.

“Well, it was good to see you,” I say as I turn and walk away as fast as I can possibly move without running as I hear her utter a good-bye behind me.

I walk into my house and nearly make it to the kitchen before my father catches me, breaking my thoughts away from Dannie.

“Have you turned in all your college applications yet Nick?”

[_Of course you idiot, you only remind me every damn day! _]Instead of responding with what I really mean, I give the man an enthusiastic pat on the shoulder and a cheerful smile.

“Sure thing Dad! I’d better hear back from UCLA or else I might have more grey hairs than you Old Man.”[_ _]UCLA is the last thing on my mind but he doesn’t need to know what really preoccupies my thoughts. I give him more quick witted banter before finally escaping into my room, looking out the window, and filling my mind with all the possibilities the future could hold.

After four years of cleaning up my act or “turning my life around” as my mother would say and putting on the “good boy” mask Dannie so generously inspired. I’ve learned to hide my thoughts skillfully without much thought or effort. I can have an entirely different conversation in my own head as my parents go on about their days none the wiser because if they really knew what was beneath this facade, they’d be afraid.

They would certainly have reason to be.

[]

The next morning, my sister makes the inevitable phone call. I am in the other room, but I hear her when she begins to raise her voice. She sounds like she is crying, but I can’t be sure. My dad and Mary walk outside to give her privacy, but I can see them holding hands in the backyard, speaking quietly to one another.

This feels so surreal.

What did you expect?” Avery shrieks, definitely angry now. ‘Did you think that I would just live with you forever and raise [_your _]daughter? I’m not your babysitter! I can’t do this anymore.”

I don’t hear what my mother says back, but I can tell she is yelling through the phone as my sister approaches my room. Her face is bright red as she enters, clearly restraining her temper.

“I don’t know what Dannie will do, Mom. That’s her decision.”

Oh no, I was not expecting this so soon. I am not ready. I don’t know what to say. “Here she is,” Avery hands me the phone, thrusting it in my face as she turns on her heels and stomps away.

All of a sudden, I hear, “Dannie? Are you leaving me too?

My heart breaks as I say, “No.” All I want is the courage to say yes.

I sit there and try to calm my mother down. I explain to her that Avery needs to be here to finish school and that all I want to do is spend the weekdays here during the school year. I tell her things like “You won’t even notice I’m gone” and “I just want a chance to get to know Dad better.” She screams at me about how we are leaving her too, just like our father did, and we never appreciated everything she sacrificed for us. All the while, an anger burns in me.

What about all that we were forced to sacrifice? What about the innocence that was ripped away from us? Life isn’t fair. It certainly hasn’t been for us. I feel the mask of calm that I cling to when I am around her begin to crack. In fact, I feel it melt as my fury rises. I clench my hands as they begin to shake.

“I have to go now, Mom,” is all I can say as I hang up on her mid complaint. Breathe, just breathe. I try to calm myself as I remember all that we were forced to suffer for her own selfishness. All the things that I have never allowed myself to dwell on begin to take shape before me—too many nightmares to count, too many nights going to bed afraid, too many days of abandonment forced to stand alone.

I don’t realize tears are falling freely as I am staring out the window but not seeing anything beyond my own nightmares I am reliving. Suddenly I realize I am not alone, that someone else is in the room. My stepmom is sitting in the corner chair behind me, patiently watching me with a sad, defeated look.

“Come here.” She gives me a small smile as she pats her knee. I don’t really know what to do since I have never sat on anyone’s lap before, but I don’t want to insult her either. The look on her face is one of remorse and kindness—not that I have ever thought of her as a kind woman. I have always been somewhat intimidated by her. Maybe even a little afraid of her. I don’t have the best experience with parents after all.

Unsure, I sit in her lap and lean back as she wraps her arms around me and lets me cry. Given the fact that she is closer to six feet and I am barely five-five, I feel like a small child. I have never found comfort in the arms of anyone before—surely never my own mother’s—but there is something about this moment that brings me peace. The knot in my throat seems to get impossibly bigger.

“Do you know how much your father and I love you?” she whispers.

I don’t say anything; I don’t think I can. Although I don’t answer her and she doesn’t say anything else, I do feel loved. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like someone is finally on my side. Someone does care, and all I do is cry harder.

The next week goes by in a blur. Never had I [_ever _]gone shopping more in my life. Mary got it in her head that whatever clothes we had were not suitable, and I couldn’t help but agree with her. I was still wearing clothes from last year. My mother had forgotten, or perhaps didn’t even consider, getting me new clothes for the year. Last year’s clothes were starting to fit uncomfortably, especially across my chest.

[_Holy shopaholics! _]My legs feel like they are about to fall off when we finally get home from our latest excursion. I feel like a true huntress of the bargain buys now.

I am grateful for Mary’s consideration but a bit daunted by the fact that I now have more clothes and shoes than I ever have had in my life. She even brought us to a makeup store and chose a little of everything that we might need. I am beginning to believe that she might be trying to cheer us up from the nightly phone calls we get from our mother. They are not so much phone calls as they are being yelled at through a phone. I don’t see why my mother thinks her ranting is going to make us want to come crying back to her, but she can’t seem to control herself. _No surprise there. _

I have tried hard to keep Melody and Jem updated through texts, and they couldn’t be more thrilled—especially Jem, who can’t wait to see my new wardrobe. In her opinion, I should never go back to my mother’s at all. Maybe she is right, but I can’t seem to bring myself to be that cruel.

Nevertheless, I have resolved to spend equal time with my parents. We decided that I would stay at my mother’s on the weekends and spend the school week at my dad’s. My dad, being adamant that I have a good education, was appalled after my guidance counselor made him aware of how much school I had been missing. I couldn’t tell him the reasons, other than my mother needed me home. I couldn’t tell him that between taking care of my baby sister and my mother, who is often in bed, sometimes for days at a time, I simply didn’t have the option. Those reasons seemed like too much for my dad to handle.

Reed keeps asking me when he can see me, but I have been so busy with everything that I haven’t seemed to have the time. Luckily, the day before Christmas Eve, his family is all getting together, and Reed insists that I come and meet everyone. How can I say no?

[]

Standing outside her house, I feel a daunting sense of WTHell? She lives in a castle. Oh crap. How can I compete with this? I was raised on a dairy farm, and she lives like a princess. I am so out of my league here. I look down at my clothes and say a little prayer that I meet her father’s expectations as Dannie’s potential boyfriend.

Do I shake his hand? Do I bow?

Panicked, I have no freaking idea, but I know that my palms are now sweating and my hands have a slight tremor to them. I did not foresee this as a potential problem. When I invited Dannie over, I was worried that she wouldn’t like my family or that my family wouldn’t like her, maybe even that she wouldn’t fit into our loud, chatty family Christmas. Never once did I consider that she was from a pretentious upper-class family that might look down on me for being, I dunno, normal? Middle class? From Kansas?

I walk toward the door like I am walking to the gates of hell. How on earth am I going to impress these people? Dannie seems so normal; she dresses so casually I would never have guessed this is where she is from. I knock, the noise seemingly loud in the silence of the quiet neighborhood.

The door swings open to an impossibly tall, smiling man. Crap.

“You must be Reed? I’m Charles Lee.” He looks so much like Dannie I feel a moment’s relief in his wide blue eyes. He looks normal, so I reach my hand forward for the customary shake.

“Yes, sir. I’m Reed Fischer. It’s nice to meet you.” I smile, but it’s tight on my face. My nerves keep me on my toes.

“Come in. Come in. It’s nice to finally meet you. We have heard little about you. Dannie isn’t one to talk much about boys, so I will take advantage of you being here in the flesh to pick your brain a bit.” He smiles while walking toward the kitchen.

I follow the tall man, taking the opportunity to look around at the picturesque house. Everything is in its place; everything is perfect. It looks like a picture of a home-decorating ad. Incredible.

Toto, I’m not in Kansas anymore …

I follow him into the kitchen where an equally tall lady is standing over the counter, making dinner. She walks around the counter past her husband and looks me up and down with dark, questioning eyes.

“I’m Mary. It’s nice to meet you, young man. Come and sit. Can I get you anything?” She shakes my hand too, but she looks like she is trying to figure me out. Shoot, she makes me more nervous than Mr. Lee, like she can see my soul and can determine if I am found wanting.

“No, thank you.” I’m pretty sure I croaked while answering. I sit at the table across from Mr. Lee, and he smiles.

He is a blond male version of Dannie, easy to talk to, and I feel comfortable with him instantly. We chat about where I’m from and the work my parents do. My mom works at the local day care and has a degree in child development. We talk about my siblings. The more we talk, the more comfortable I am with him. Mary is quiet and thoughtful. I can tell she is studying me, carefully considering all my answers to decide what she makes of me. I know Dannie isn’t her biological daughter, but it is obvious that this woman loves her and would take a bat to my face if I hurt her. I’m suddenly glad for her intensity, however intimidating, because it goes to show how loved Dannie is. That’s what is most important, and I find myself respecting the woman across from me more as she glowers in my direction.

Laughing about the differences between Kansas and California, we hear Dannie approaching. We all stand, but when I turn around, I’m not quite prepared for what I find. [_Sweet Jesus. _]I’m stuck. Shocked. Beautiful. My mind goes from one thought to the next, not really settling on one for too long.

Dannie looks different. Hair maybe? Clothes? Confidence? I dunno, but she is walking toward me smiling, and that is what matters most. Her dad gives her a shoulder hug, and we say our good-byes before shuffling out of the house so fast it all kind of blurs. I don’t really know; all I can see is how pretty she looks. Her hair is down and styled, and she has some sort of makeup stuff on her face. She doesn’t need it, but it makes her eyes look bluer somehow.

I open the car door for her, and I’m pretty sure I tell her how beautiful she looks, but I might have said it in my head because she doesn’t say anything. We smile at each other and simply stare. She has such a soft sweater on that I find myself reaching out for her before I can even stop myself. I pull her to my chest. We crash together in a hug, her body small and pliable against mine. My mind’s not working so great right now, but it feels so good to hold her.

When I manage to let go, I give myself a little time to breathe as I make my way to the driver’s side. “You ready for this?” I give her a smile, trying to make her more relaxed, but I’m still so distracted by her body and her beautiful face that I try to hold her gaze.

“As ready as I’ll ever be, Mr. Reed.” She smiles in reply, but she is playing with her hands as if she is not so sure. Meeting the parents is always a big deal. She is obviously nervous, so I put on some music and sing along, trying to ease the tension.

The night was better than I could have imagined. Everyone loves her. I am so relieved that she chats with everyone I introduce her to, even striking up conversations with my cousins when I am distracted by one person or another. She is a pretty introverted person naturally, but she seems to be great with crowds nonetheless. My family is loud, full of social butterflies, and we are all very close, knowing everything about everyone, for better or for worse. But they are my family, and I love them, so when I brought Dannie here, I knew that this was a defining moment for our relationship. I know that I couldn’t have a future with anyone who didn’t love my family or whom my family didn’t love in return. She felt like one of us from the first moment I introduced her, and if anything was a sign that she was the one for me, this was it.

“Zombie apocalypse or the Antichrist?” I say, trying to think of a challenge.

“Zombie apocalypse … they only want to eat your brains, not your soul.”[_ _]She laughs. “Boobs or butts?”

I cough suddenly. “What?”

“Boobs or butts?”

Is she seriously asking me this?

“I guess I’d have to go with boobs …” I look over to see her looking smug. We both know why.

Before I know it, we are in front of her house again, but I am not ready to give her up just yet. I can’t go home without knowing what she thought of my family. I have to know. As nervous as I am, I can’t not know. I clear my throat. “So what did you think? I know they can be a little overwhelming, but—”

She cuts me off suddenly. “They are wonderful, Reed. I loved your family. Thank you for letting me meet them,” she says, and the look she is giving me is one of pure sincerity.

Thank God. I breathe easier knowing what this means for us.

“Good” is all I have in me to say.

Suddenly she quietly responds, “So the other girls you brought home to meet them didn’t like your family?”

What? Where did that come from?

Confused, I sputter, “I haven’t had my family meet any girls before. I have never had a girlfriend …” Way to be awkward, Reed.

But it’s true. I haven’t had my family meet any girl that I liked. My sister pretty much tormented any girl that I liked back in Kansas until she gave up. I figured if they couldn’t handle my sister, they sure as heck wouldn’t handle all of ’em. But I never have had a relationship before. I have had crushes or vague interest in some girls, but never like this. Never have I felt what I feel toward this girl looking at me with mesmerizing blue eyes.

She is mine. I can feel it in my soul, and no one really compares to that.

Trying to keep things a little more lighthearted, before I declare my undying love too soon and freak her out, I laugh. “You weren’t what they expected either.”

Smiling, she asks, “What do you mean? What did they expect?” She looks surprised.

“Well, they were worried—since you are from California, after all—that you’d be stuck-up. They are glad you aren’t, by the way.” I smirk, knowing that it’s the truth. They were worried, but it was for nothing, because Dannie isn’t like that at all.

She laughs. “Well, they aren’t what I expected either … I was worried they would all be a little more redneck.”

I burst out laughing, knowing that we are both right.

“I’ll tell them you said that. My mom will enjoy that!”

“You’d better not!” Her eyes go wide.

“Oh, they will love it.”

She starts pouting, and it’s all I can do not to pull her to me and kiss the hell out of her. She is so cute when she doesn’t get her way. It makes me want to say no more often. I chuckle to myself. We end the night with a hug, and I can’t help but kiss her hair. She isn’t ready for what I have to offer, and I know it, even if she doesn’t. I’m willing to wait. Patience is worth the reward because she is worth waiting for.

“Good night!” I call out as I watch her walk toward her house. I can’t wipe the smile from my face as I start my truck and pull away.

[]

The morning after my date with Reed, I found box left on my front porch with nothing but my name written across it. I wonder why Reed wouldn’t give it to me himself. Was he too nervous after we met each other’s families to give me a gift? I open the box to find a pretty charm bracelet. [_I love it. _]It’s so thoughtful I feel slightly bad I didn’t give him a gift in return.

I’m a little disappointed he didn’t give it to me himself, but perhaps he didn’t want me to feel obligated to give him a gift too? Who knows? Guys are too confusing to lose sleep over. I’ll ask him about it in person.

The holiday flies by, and for the first time, I am on my way home alone. My sister, sticking to her initial decision of staying with my father full-time, is still with Dad and Mary. A part of me wished I was staying too, but I told my mother I wouldn’t abandon her, so I won’t. It’s just two days, and then I will be at school on Monday.

My life is a strange one where children look forward to school. I snort a cynical laugh. My life …

I walk through the door and freeze. Nothing greets me but dead silence. My stomach begins to tighten in foreboding. I slowly make my way toward the kitchen, quickly noticing Mark sitting alone at the table as if waiting for someone. For me? I hope not. I try to slowly back away, hoping he won’t see me, but that is wishful thinking.

“Sit,” his voice commands.

Shaken, I approach the table and slowly sink into the chair, mentally preparing myself for the onslaught that is surely coming.

“I wanted to speak to you about what has been going on with you, your sister, and Charles.” He sneers as he says my father’s name. His dislike for my father has always been apparent.

“Your mother has made me aware of the situation, and to say I am disappointed is an understatement.” He pauses and stares at me, his version of an interrogation. Years in the military have made him very good at intimidation, and I can’t help but respond by looking around the room for my mom or Ryan to come save me from this.

“No one is here, Dannie. I wanted to talk to you alone.”

My throat closes.[_ _]

He continues, “After all that we have done for you both, this is the thanks we get?” He slowly shakes his head. “I need you to know what this has done to your family. You need to know. You are dead to us. To your mother and I. You are dead.”

I sit there, stunned, silent, as if my heart wasn’t just ripped from my chest. [_Dead? _]Although this man in front of me is not a good man, he has been a parent to me most of my life. My mother, despite her flaws and shortcomings, is someone I love very much. [_Dead? _]All because I wanted to spend more time with my dad, all because I wanted the feeling of safety and freedom for once in my life.

I am dead to them? The words keep repeating in my head as I absorb what this means to them, what this means to me.

Turning away, dismissing me, Mark says quickly, “You may go.”

Somehow I find strength to stand and go toward my room. Mark doesn’t look at me again as I slowly leave.

I fall into my bed, wishing I could somehow disappear.

I stare up at the ceiling through watery eyes, wondering what I did wrong. I tried to share time. I tried not to abandon my mother completely. None of it matters to them. She doesn’t care. Mark doesn’t care. Their pride has been wounded, and for that, they will make their children pay. Again. I am not sure how much more I can take before my heart completely goes cold in my chest. I am pretty sure I have nothing left to offer this family I have been born into. I am nothing but a burden to them.

Ironically, I do feel dead.

Tucking the towel under my arms to keep it up, I brush through my hair quickly with a comb. Are my ten minutes up in the bathroom? I try to be quick, but sometimes I forget and my new dad yells at me. I don’t like it when he yells.

[_Oh no, I forgot my jammies in my room! I look around the bathroom for anything other than my towel or dirty clothes, and tears begin to sting my eyes. I don’t even have clean panties. I open the door just a crack, and I don’t see or hear anyone. I hold my breath and decide to make a run for it. If my ten minutes are up, I am still in here, and I left my jammies, I would hate to think how much trouble I would be in. _]

[_I open the door wide and tiptoe toward my room down the hall. I don’t make a peep, and I am thankful the floor doesn’t squeak and give me away. I rush into my room and shut the door behind me quickly. I lean against it, catching my breath after holding it for so long. My sister looks up from her bed, and noticing what I am wearing, her eyes go round in surprise. _]

[_All of a sudden, I feel the door start to push open. I spin around, and my mom slips into the room. I start to panic. Did I go over my ten minutes? Mark says it’s really important not to cost him more money. I don’t know what that means, but I don’t want him to yell at me, so I try to be fast. _]

My mom looks at Avery and then turns her eyes toward me and glares while looking me up and down. “Why don’t you have your clothes on?”

[_My voice doesn’t seem to want to work, but I manage to whisper, “I forgot my jammies.” _]

[_“Don’t you ever walk to your room naked again. What if Mark were to see you?” She looks like she is shaking with anger now, and I take deep breaths and say nothing. I don’t want her to be mad at me. “Do you know what he could have done?” _]

_I shake my head slowly. _

[_“You never know. If Mark sees you walk to your room naked, he might rape you.” _]

_I am not really sure what that means, but I know that it is not good. _

[_“Do you want that?” She looks at Avery as if to say this also is for her to hear. _]

_I shake my head, and my tears starting to fall down my face. _

“Good. Make sure you don’t do it again, or he might.” She turns silently to leave without looking back. I fall to the floor, scared. Why would she marry someone like that?

I wake up with the crushing weight of fear. No child should live in such a constant state of fear, under a perpetual shadow. I feel bile rise in my throat. I barely make it to the bathroom before I heave. My tears mingle with my vomit. Why did my mother have to marry that man?

Why, God? Why? I’m suddenly angry. Why do some kids get stuck with horrible circumstances while others don’t?

I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I don’t want to live this lie every day. It hurts so much; I feel it’s slowly wearing down my soul. I can feel sorrow changing me into someone unrecognizable. This mask I wear, this facade of a happy, “normal” kid, doesn’t seem to fit the same now that hope of freedom grows inside me. It’s painful to admit the truth—that I’m too tired to keep pretending—but I’m terrified of who I am when I let the mask go. I’m afraid that the scared girl I keep hidden inside won’t be strong enough to face this world, that the woman she turns into will remind me of my mother.

It’s easier to push people away than let them in. It’s easier to pretend to be strong than it is to admit that you need help. What if there is no one who is willing to help? What if there is no one who loves you enough to care? What if …?

[_I’m not sure I can let go just yet, but I want to try, _]I think to myself as I drift back to sleep.

Somehow I wake up so early I don’t quite remember when exactly I fell asleep. Groggy and still wearing my clothes from the day before, I take a deep breath and make my way to the kitchen toward coffee. I hear people before I see them, and I say a little prayer that nothing bad happens. My sister is at the table, and my mother and Mark are in the kitchen whispering, undoubtedly about me.

But they ignore me. I don’t even get a cursory glance.

The entire breakfast they talk among themselves and to my baby sister, but not once do they include me. They ignore me as I get my coffee, they ignore me as I eat, and they even ignore me as Amanda talks to me about the kids in her kinder-care. I do see Mark giving me a scowl as Amanda, who is completely oblivious to the cold shoulder I am receiving, asks me questions about my Christmas. He obviously doesn’t want me to taint his daughter.

Mark takes Amanda to the park after breakfast, and still my mother refuses to speak one word to me. By about noontime, I am starting to move on from feeling guilty to a little pissed off—actually more than a little. I walk around the house straightening up and scrubbing the filth, and I get nothing but silence. My brother finally opens his door, and all he does is beckon me over to his room. Oh no, not him too.

I walk over to him, not sure I can handle another verbal heartbreak, but as I walk into his room, he wraps me in a big hug. Shutting the door behind me, he lets me go and we both sit on his bed. The tears are already falling from my eyes. I don’t even care anymore if anyone sees. I am so weary of this. I’m not sure how much longer I can fight for a family that just doesn’t give a shit about me.

“I am so happy for you,” he whispers.

My head snaps up, and I see nothing but honesty in his eyes. “I am glad you are going to be living with Dad. I wish he and I could get along, but we don’t.”

After a long moment, he continues, “I need to stay here and look after Mom anyway. I won’t leave her and Amanda alone with Mark.”

I understand why he feels that way, but I am still sad that he has resigned himself to this role in the family—the protector. I wish he didn’t need to be, but he is.

I also wish he and my dad got along better. A few years ago, my brother was high and picked a fight with my dad. Ryan was going through a lot at the time, but my dad didn’t deserve all the things Ryan said to him. He couldn’t take his rage out on the one person he wanted to—Mark. Nevertheless, he walked out my dad’s door and never spoke to him again.

Pride is apparently an issue in my family.

I looked into my brother’s eyes, knowing that this decision that I have made will come between us eventually. In our family, you have to take sides. Our parents demand nothing less. I will miss him like I will miss a limb that has been removed. It’s always a missing piece of you. You learn to live without it, but you’re never quite whole again.

“How bad has it been here since we left?” I ask as my brother winces.

“Bad. Mom was crying a lot, but she took a bunch of pills.” He looks at me knowingly. It’s no secret our mother has a pill problem. He continues, “Mark and her got into it a few times, but nothing out of the norm.” Unfortunately our norm is quite ugly.

“I’m so sorry, Ryan. It wasn’t my intention to leave forever, not like Avery. I was trying to split time up as equally as I can, but I guess that doesn’t really matter at this point …”

“Don’t worry about it. Honestly, it will blow over.” Ryan tries to make me feel better, but I’m not sure I can believe him. This changes everything.

“They are just pissed because it feels like Dad has won. To them, this feels like people know now how bad things are. They’re humiliated. They always want people to believe that there is nothing wrong, like we’re the perfect family.” He pauses and looks like he is holding something back.

I begin to worry. “What?”

“They are telling people Dad brainwashed you.” He looks like he regrets saying it. “They are saying to their friends that you girls wanted to be with your rich dad. As if you are gold-digging teenagers.”

I close my eyes, not wanting to hear more. Our family, my parents’ friends we have known our whole lives, will now think the worst of me. They are destroying every relationship I have ever had—my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. _Everyone. _

“Why?”[_ _]I plead as if Ryan can give me all the answers to my mother’s punishment.

My brother looks like he doesn’t know if he should go on. I can tell when he decides. He looks up at me silently, and I know he won’t say another word on the subject.

Too many secrets in one family.

“Well, should we finally report Mark? What should we do?” I ask.

“I don’t know … In California, apparently child abuse is pretty difficult to prove. Unless one of us were hospitalized, it’s our word against theirs. I’ve been reading up on it, and I just don’t know if we would have a solid case.” He looks like a lost boy.

What a broken system to leave children to make these types of decisions. And all the rest of us who fall through the cracks are left to forge a way out of abuse.

How could this happen to children?

The rest of the weekend goes by in constant silence as I accept our lack of options. Aside from my iPod keeping me company and stolen moments with little Amanda, time passes rather slowly. I try to occupy my thoughts with schoolwork. I stay in my room most of the time except for meals, where I am still expected to cook and clean but not be spoken to. I hope this silence will pass; otherwise, my weekends will get worse.

[]

After another sleepless night, I drive over to Jem’s extra early to avoid the awkward silence before school. I’m done caring at this point. She texted me last night to invite me for French toast, and there is nothing better than her mom’s French toast.

I walk through the door, finally feeling like I am coming home. The house is so cozy; it’s still decorated for Christmas. Mama Bea really goes all out. I hear her and Jem chatting in the kitchen. Unfortunately I hear Jett’s voice too, which immediately puts me on edge, but I try to remember our truce.

“Hello, love.” Mama Bea spots me and comes over to give me a kiss. I love this woman. She is still in her sweats, now standing over the stove with her hair standing on end, but she is the most beautiful woman to me. Honestly, I hope I am just like this woman someday. She takes in all the neighborhood kids who have problems at home and loves them as her own. There is no place like Mama Bea’s.

Looking me up and down, Jem exclaims, “You look awesome!” She squeals as she runs over to me and wraps me in a hug. “You have to do my eyeshadow this morning. Come!” Jem grabs my hand and bounces out of the room with me in tow.

Once we make it to her disaster of a room, she sits down in front of her vanity. “Tell me everything.”

I go on to tell her everything, including the conversation at my dad’s when they told me Avery planned to stay, the nightly phone calls, and the silence I endured when I returned to my mother’s. I still wince when I tell her how Mark told me I was dead to them. Her brown eyes widen when I tell her that detail.

“Oh my God! I am so sorry, Dannie.” She looks like she wants to cry for me, but we both know she is a tough cookie. I hold nothing back because the thing about Jem is that you can tell her anything and she will never tell another soul. It’s why I love her.

“Breakfast is ready!” we hear coming from the kitchen. Mama Bea will come looking for us if we don’t hurry up.

“We will finish this later. You still have to tell me all about your night with Reed.” She winks while passing me. I was hoping she would have forgotten that, because although it went well, it wasn’t more than a night with a friend. I hate to admit I’m sad it wasn’t more, but I get my butt up and follow her to the kitchen, trying to swallow my disappointment.

When we walk into the kitchen, I head for the coffeepot like the addict I am. Jett turns around as I pass him, and his eyes linger a little longer that I want them to on my body. My face heats up, but I hide the fact with my thick hair as I turn away.

He clears his throat, drawing my attention. “How was your Christmas?” This was the first Christmas in two years I didn’t stay here. I didn’t think it was appropriate now that I wasn’t Jett’s girlfriend, so I stayed away.

“It was great. How was yours?” I try to smile as sincerely as I can, even if I don’t feel it. He can tell though; we have known each other too long for me to hide it.

“Quiet.” He leans against the counter and crosses his arms.

We both feel what is unsaid between us. It isn’t the same. He knows it, and so do I, but that is the choice we made. Before he can say anything more, I nod, walk past him silently, and sit at the table next to Mama Bea as she starts asking me all about my holiday.

On the way to school, Jem turns to me. “So what was that in the kitchen this morning?”

I hadn’t realized she had noticed so I’m taken off guard by the question.

“Nothing.” I can tell she doesn’t believe me so she waits, eyebrows raised.

I sigh, defeated. “Honestly, I have no idea. We decided to call a truce and be friends a few weeks ago so I’m not sure why he was acting so strangely.”

Jem just stares at me as if trying to decide if I am telling the truth or not.

“Not that it’s any of my business, I love you both so I will say it anyways, but I’m not sure you could ever just be friends. I’m glad you’re getting along—don’t get me wrong—but you both need to move on from each other. It’s not a healthy relationship between you two. I want you [_both _]to be happy, so don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad. I promise. I want that too. I don’t feel the same about him as I used to. I don’t hurt either actually.” I turn forward again toward the road to ponder the fact that I really don’t feel hurt. I haven’t for a while.

“You really like Reed, don’t you?” She slowly smiles at me, and I can’t even help but respond with a smile of my own.

Melody meets us in the quad, looking a little pale and drawn. I wonder what her break was like. I hope it wasn’t as chaotic as my own. We all turn to walk toward our lockers, chatting and catching up on Christmas break. Melody talks vaguely about her family’s holiday, and although she sounds relatively happy about it, Jem and I can tell she is holding a lot back.

When we get to our lockers, Melody turns and exhales. “Jay and I broke up. And it’s for good this time.”

We both look wide-eyed for just a second before we congratulate and hug her. She smiles and shakes her head.

“I don’t know why it took me so long, but really it’s over.” She looks sincerely relieved, although it probably took a lot out of her. The turmoil is evident in her withdrawn gaze.

We instantly have our arms wrapped around each other in a lady triangle, all wearing goofy grins. We all silently take in the moment before Jem says, “Yay! We are all single and ready to mingle just in time for college.”

I realize this is the first time that all three of us have been single since high school started, and I am looking forward to going to college with these girls now that we have all ditched our dipstick boyfriends. A fresh start for all of us!

We continue to stand that way as Melody gives up the update on why she broke up with Jay. We are so engrossed in the details from Melody, we are startled when someone comes up behind us.

“Am I interrupting something? Should I come back later?”

I look over my shoulder to see Reed smiling with a tilted head as if to determine why we are wrapped together.

Jem chimes in, “We are all single ladies. Watch out world!”

Reed shakes his head while obviously containing his laughter. We all look at each other and burst out laughing.

“Well, I guess I’m warned.” He looks at me and winks.

[_Oh dear, I’m a goner. _]

“So where are you girls all headed?”

“Jem and I have physics. Dannie, where are you going?” Melody, suppressing a smile, asks as if she knows the answer. What does she know?

“I have Shakespeare.” I took it on a whim as an elective, but I thought I already mentioned that to the girls last semester when we were picking out our schedules.

“Me too!” Reed says with barely contained enthusiasm.

Shakespeare and Reed? [_Really? _]

Wow, what do you know? What a coincidence!” Melody looks smug, and I shake my head slightly as if to tell her that we will talk about this later. Traitor. I can’t say I’m mad though.

“Come on, princess. Don’t want to be late for our first day.” He picks up my book bag, slings it over his shoulder, and starts quickly walking toward our English class.

Stunned, it takes me a moment to start moving, and I hear the girls laughing quietly behind me. They will have to answer to me later, but I have to admit I am thrilled at the idea of spending classroom time, or any time for that matter, with Reed.

Before we reach our class, I gather the courage to ask about the bracelet.

“Reed, I feel really bad about the gift you left me. You know you didn’t have to get me anything for Christmas, right?” I’ve been wearing the charm bracelet since I got it, so I really hope he doesn’t want it back. But I don’t want him to feel like he has to get me gifts or that I’ve taken advantage of him.

“What do you mean? What gift?”

I look up at him, thinking momentarily that he’s joking. But he looks serious so I stand there confused.

“The charm bracelet … didn’t you …” I trail off, not knowing how to get out of this awkwardness.

He looks devastated, like it hadn’t even dawned on him to give me a gift. I feel awful. “I’m so sorry, Dannie. I didn’t get you anything … Did you want me to?” He rubs his hand on his short hair nervously. “I didn’t think about that. I’m so sorry. I feel like the biggest tool now.”

“Don’t … I shouldn’t have jumped to any conclusions. I woke up with a gift on my porch, and I just assumed you left it—”

“Who do you think it was from?” He suddenly seems a little mad.

Who was it from? I don’t have a clue. Was it from my mother? Did she suddenly feel bad? It’s definitely possible.

“I’m not sure. It could be from Sue, but she would have left something for Avery too … Jett? But I doubt it.” He was acting weird this morning though.

Reed looks distraught as he examines the bracelet, but I don’t really know what to think about it myself. I’m sure I’ll find out eventually.

[]

After the shock of her realization that we have a class together, or rather that I changed my schedule so that we would have a class together, I quite enjoyed our staring contest during class. I wasn’t sure how she would react. Perhaps it was too forward, but I took a chance and it certainly paid off. When I became aware that she was staring at me, I couldn’t concentrate at all, not on Shakespeare, not on anything but her. I caught her checking me out, and I wanted to push her a little, so I stared back. I wasn’t going to be the first to break eye contact, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to freely look at her.

There is something to be said for looking without the ability to touch, something powerful and intoxicating. She became embarrassed so I pushed her further by leaning into her personal space while the teacher was distracted just so she would become as frazzled and confused as she constantly makes me. I realize it’s been a long time since she has flinched at me. She used to flinch whenever I would reach for her hand, but she has long since stopped. Taking that as encouragement, I feel it’s time to push her a little but not so much as to make her uncomfortable. She is so self-contained, pushing people away too much for me to wait for her to make a move. It needs to be me who pursues her completely.

I won’t stop until we get exactly what we both want—each other.

I’ll be damned if the tall blond in the back, the guy I spotted staring at Dannie on the first day of school, isn’t in our Shakespeare class too. He keeps giving me dirty looks between staring at Dannie and chatting with some redheaded girl. As long as red keeps him company, I’m cool, but by the way he completely ignores her while staring at Dannie, I realize he might become a problem. What a dick. I’ll make sure he knows exactly who Dannie belongs with as the bell signals the end of class.

As we get up to leave, I lean in so that my lips are at her neck. “Breathe, Princess” is all I say, but the goose bumps on her arms confirm that she feels what I say, that she can feel my intent. I won’t stop until we are together, and I will make sure she knows it—mind, body, and soul. As I look over her shoulder, I see the blond guy stepping out of the classroom. I can’t help but notice the anger pouring off him in waves as he passes us. Good, I suppress the urge to beat my chest like a caveman. Boys will be boys …

Although the knowledge that Dannie received a gift from someone on her front porch the morning after she was out with me bothers me. [_Seriously? _]I’m pissed by the thought of someone giving her a gift when I so ignorantly failed to give her one myself.

If I find out it was her douche bag ex-boyfriend, I’ll be livid. He can’t treat her like crap in front of a crowd of people and then play nice when no one’s around. What kind of man does that?

A jerk.

I feel the weight of disappointment in myself for being thoughtless, hoping I didn’t hurt her feelings too badly by not giving her a Christmas gift. I’ll have to try to make up for that error somehow.

I walk to my class, feeling excited over the rush I get by being around Dannie and equally disappointed that I seriously dropped the ball on this one. We had such a great time together with my family; it’s a shame that it is now shadowed by this question of gift exchange.

[_Reed, it’s official; you suck at dating! _]

I shake my head while stepping into my next class, trying to think of a way to make this up to Dannie. How was I supposed to know to get a Christmas gift? Although now that I think about the situation, it seems obvious that I should have done something.

[]

Sitting in Shakespeare was torture. Watching Dannie, my blue-eyed girl, wearing my bracelet while flirting with another guy made me feel betrayed in the worst way. After years of my undivided attention, my constant protection, she throws it in my face with the new kid.

What’s worse, the kid happens to notice the attention I obviously give Dannie. His not-so-subtle glare makes it clear how he feels about me. I am unwelcome competition in his eyes. Little does the kid know, I held claim to Dannie long before he was in the picture, and I’m not about to walk away just because she is confused about her options.

First Jett, now this kid … Unbelievable.

Violent scenes and scenarios run through my head at the idea of punishing Dannie. Or better yet, the kid.[_ _]I try to control my anger by reminding myself that Dannie and I are linked by something more powerful than flirtation. Something real.

Our masks … our secrets … they bind us …

I continue to think over the situation as I watched her sleep from outside her window late that night. I look at the moonlight touching her face as if in a dream. Enchanted. I decide in that moment that I wont bother with the kid. Revenge is futile. Other men will notice Dannie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will affect our relationship. It doesn’t make me insecure; it just makes me more possessive. Any man would feel the same.

I don’t know how much time passes as I watch my blue-eyed girl sleep, but I feel the crescendo of my desire as I remind myself of how it feels to watch her with that kid. Like a guardian angel, I will sit waiting … wanting what is just beyond my reach. It makes me want her that much more because there is resistance. As she sleeps, I consider all possible outcomes of the current situation. Do I scare the kid away from her? Or do I simply pursue her more aggressively?

She will be a great victory—my hardest challenge—and I refuse to fail.

[]

The next few days fly by with my head in a bit of a fog. Melody mentions at lunch that Reed had not so subtly asked her about my electives during calculus. She figured he would sign up for Shakespeare, but she wasn’t certain. I felt happy with the realization that he did join Shakespeare for me. With that and the memory of our stare-down on Monday, it’s turned into a really nice week.

Of course there was still my mystery bracelet and the letter filled with Shakespearian sonnets left in my locker.

When I pull up to my dad’s house after school, I notice smoke rising from the backyard. Curiously I make my way toward the back and hear my sister and Dad talking.

“Howdy!” my dad smiles, looking up from the barbecue, wearing a “Kiss the cook” apron. He’s dancing in front of the grill. He has always been a goofball so I just laugh in response as Mary walks out of the house with a pitcher of lemonade.

“Ready for a barbecue?” she asks with a smile.

We sit and begin eating dinner together. So this is what a family is like? I bask in the glow of a perfect day, thankful for the sudden turn my life has taken but afraid it’s too good to be true.

I hear the chime of my phone as I get a text. Looking down, I see Reed’s name.

_I miss you _

My face breaks out in a smile. My life is officially perfect. I close my eyes as doubt suddenly grips my heart. I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t think I can. But I also don’t want to let fear keep me from the things I want. Like Reed. I won’t let them take anything more away from me than they already have. Lord knows they have taken enough.

_I miss you too _

I hold my breath, hoping that it means to him everything that it means to me.

:) When can I see you next?

Tomorrow at school … lol

haha very funny. I mean outside of school. When can I see you next? This weekend?

I think for a minute before I reply. If next weekend is anything like this weekend was, a reprieve would be nice.

[_ Sure but i’ll be at my mom’s so u’ll have to pick me up there. Or we could meet?? _]

Maybe we should meet somewhere. I don’t want him to meet those people. I don’t want him to think less of me.

i can pick u up. time?

[_Anytime. But I have to warn you my mom and stepdad aren’t all that welcoming. I’m not sure you will want to meet them. _]

It’s a long time before he replies. Now I’m beginning to worry.

[_That’s ok. _]

I’m relieved that he replied, although it’s a short reply. I hope he isn’t mad, but I really don’t want to burden him with my family issues right now. A small part of me wonders what he would say if he knew everything? Would he think less of me? Probably. I try hard to ignore that small part of me because if I do tell him everything, I can’t take it back and I’m afraid he will want nothing to do with me after.

The week ends in a pile of homework assignments and project start-ups. Shakespeare is by far my favorite class—surprise, surprise—especially now that Reed and I write back and forth on our class notes. Our assignments are starting to look like a running dialogue. I smile as I pack my book bag with schoolwork. I am excited to see Reed tomorrow but apprehensive at the prospect of what is waiting for me at my mother’s.

Before I know it, I am walking into the house feeling every bit of dread that has been growing in my stomach. Silence meets me again. As I enter the kitchen, I see my mom on her laptop at the kitchen table. She and Avery have talked a few times this week, but the conversations have all ended in tears and yelling. She still hasn’t spoken to me, so I am surprised when she looks up at me now.

Brightly smiling, she says, “I am working on a letter to you girls. I have been to my therapist, and she says that I need to express to you both how I have been feeling. Since I can’t seem to talk to you both without getting overly emotional, I am writing it down.”

Oh joy. I just stand there awkwardly, not really knowing what to say to that.

She cheerfully continues, “You can start on dinner. The letter is almost done.” And with that, she turns her head back to the laptop, and I am excused. My mother has been seeing a therapist for as long as I can remember—not that it has helped any. She hasn’t seemed to improve on any of her numerous issues. Since she started seeing a therapist, she suddenly think she’s Dr. Laura and has authority to give out advice, as if she knows what the hell she is talking about. She should consider her own words of wisdom, if you ask me, because therapy can only work if the person taking it admits that he or she even has a problem. My mother only seems to be able to blame others for her lot in life.

My anger burns as I begin to make dinner for this farce of a family. I can’t help but compare the fact that if I were at Dad’s, Mary would be cooking. She even had me do my homework at the table so that we could talk and I could ask her questions if I needed to. It was really thoughtful of her, and as I look over at my bitter mother as she types away on her laptop, I can’t help but feel like this letter will bring me untold pain. It’s like a foreboding rain cloud—maybe more like an earthquake. Either way, it will bring nothing good for sure.

I went to bed with dread spreading, knowing that whatever is in that letter will be the worst of my mother’s punishments. No amount of physical or psychological torment, no threat, could compare to what I know is coming. Cold adrenaline causes me to shiver uncontrollably and makes me lie awake for hours.

Call it a premonition, call it years of living with a manipulative mother, but I know that I am afraid of the unleashing of my mother’s mind. I know she has always resented me; I hear it in her snide remarks and feel it in the belt she hits me with, but to read it will be another torture altogether.

I sigh. It feels like a Beatles moment.

Turning on my music, I listen distractedly when I hear the chime of my cell phone under my pillow. I take it out and read the nightly message from Reed. I try to smile. I fail miserably, but I try to keep in mind that no matter what my mother says in that letter, I am not alone. Not anymore. I try to hold on to the comfort of my friends, my Dad, and even Mary, as I fall into a restless sleep.

[_Shhh, stay quiet.“We are going to play a little game. It’s called sex. Wanna play?” _]

[_I stare, not knowing what to say because I have never heard of it. I want to go back inside. I don’t like that look. I start to shake because I know I can’t say no. No one listens to my no’s. Because I’m little, they say. Because I don’t know what I am saying, they say. But when I hear that tone of voice, I’m afraid. _]

I wake up crying at this one, feeling lucky I at least wasn’t raped. Just pretend, just pretend, they said. But I’m shaking, knowing that my memories leave me feeling dirty.

“God, make me clean. God, make me clean. God, make me clean,” I chant until I fall back asleep.

I wake up to the click of my door being shut quietly. Was Mark in here again? It’s been a while since he has watched me sleep, or at least I hope it has been. I look around the room for any clue, only to find an envelope with my name on it sitting beside a letter with Avery’s name written on it. This can’t be good. My heart starts pounding in my chest, sending ice through my veins. Might as well get this over with. As I open the letter I notice pages of front-to-back single-spaced typing. She must have a lot on her mind. I try to make light of what is in front of me, but I don’t really feel the humor in it.

As I read further into the letter, I feel tears falling. I don’t bother to wipe them away. What’s the point? The letter goes on to say that she doesn’t ever want me to come back home, that she thinks we are [gold-digging bitches _]who are looking to have a good time with Daddy’s money. It talks about how ungrateful we are and what horrible children we have been to her and Mark. It blames us for their marital problems and even has a taunt to my dad saying, “Now it’s your turn, _Good luck!”[_ _]as if we are rebellious teenagers.

Me a troubled teen? I have never been late for curfew, never skipped a class, never even been to a high school party. I am the least rebellious teen I know, probably because I am terrified of the retribution I would receive from Mark if I were caught. None of that matters though. She has made it very clear that she wants nothing to do with either of her oldest daughters, the daughters, who in her mind, have betrayed her. She feels justified in all that she writes because her therapist has told her that this is okay. Does her therapist know the venom of her words? What mother speaks to her children like this? Even when adults are mad, shouldn’t they exercise some self-control?

My heart feels like it has been turned inside out. I feel numb. I feel broken. This is the one step beyond pain, where you feel like your soul has left your body, leaving you an empty shell of a human. I may know in my mind that I am not alone, that there are people who love me, but in my heart, I feel utterly abandoned. Reason has no place in heartbreak. Heartbreak is a death you experience within yourself, but cruelly you still feel your heart beating in your chest because you are in fact alive. A taunt of fate.

I suddenly get up and start moving. I have to keep moving. I start to pack a bag, knowing that I will never be coming back. I try to pack the things that are important to me and will fit in a single back pack. Everything else will have to stay.

I send a text quickly to Reed asking him if he wouldn’t mind picking me up now. I give him the address and run to the bathroom to wash my face at least and brush my teeth. I know when I look in the mirror it’s no use. My eyes are puffy and red, and my hair looks like I went through the wars, but I can’t bring myself to even care. I hear the chime of my cell, and I rush to my room to see Reed’s response.

On my way!

[]

[_Can you pick me up now? ASAP? It’s an emergency. _]

That is the text I wake up to. I jump out of bed, fear slicing through my body. Is she hurt? What happened? Is it Jett? I’m out the door in less than five minutes, shooting her a text while I start my truck. I peel out of my driveway.

[_On my way! _]

Whatever happened, there is nothing that will stop me from getting to her. I just hope I’m not too late.

She runs out of the house before I even park the car. She looks like she just rolled out of bed, but her eyes are red from crying, so I know that isn’t the case.

She doesn’t look injured; there doesn’t seem to be anyone parked at the house besides me. If Jett’s not here, who hurt her? I’m confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Go!” she shouts as she opens the door and hops in.

I look over her shoulder, and a woman who could only be described as a hot mess is walking down the steps of the house glaring as she heads straight toward us.

I look back at Dannie. “Are you s—”

Go!”[_ _]

As Dannie looks back toward the woman, tears start streaming down her face and my heart breaks a little for her. What happened? I drive quickly away, but not before I notice a man, her stepfather, walking out of the house toward his wife. This man looks calculatingly at the situation; there is something about him that doesn’t sit right with me.

“Thank you. I-I c-couldn’t stay,” Dannie quietly mutters as her shoulders shake with her attempts to control herself.

“What was that about, Dannie?”

“I have a lot to explain to you, Reed, a lot you don’t know about me, and you’re not going to like it. If you don’t want to know, then we will never speak of it again, but if we are going to continue being friends, it’s only fair that you know some of it. So then you can decide for yourself if you want to walk away.”

What. The. Hell.

What does she mean by that? I am suddenly afraid of the answer. All that I do know is that she is in pain, heartbroken, fearful, and it’s killing me to watch. We ride in silence as I drive to our field. I’m not giving up on her no matter what she says. This is not going to change that, but I am terrified of what she might tell me.

Regardless, she needs to know that this changes nothing between us.

I park the truck before turning to her hesitantly “Look at me, Dannie … Look at me, Dannie, please. What happened? Did someone hurt you?” I’m holding my breath because I already know what the answer is by the look on her face. The only question is, to what extent?

She doesn’t even respond before she moans in agony, while the tears she has been struggling to hold in break loose. My heart breaks completely as I wrap my arms around her. I don’t know what else to do but let her fall apart and hold the pieces together. A greater part of me wants blood for this. Whoever is responsible, whoever is to blame, I want to destroy that person. I want to protect her, keep her close, but I also want revenge. I am shaken with the knowledge of that, but now is not the time, so I keep holding her, rubbing her back, kissing her hair, and wait.

I pull back when she finally settles down. I want to ask, but I can’t speak past the lump in my throat and the anger in my veins. I don’t trust myself to speak. Luckily, I don’t wait long before she answers all of my questions in full.

“My mother is without a doubt the most selfish, irresponsible adult you have ever met. But I love her; she’s my mom. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see her faults. She’s a bitter woman. After my father left, she quickly married another man, Mark. He is … an asshole. Sorry, but there is no other way to describe him.” She looks sorry and embarrassed, but she continues, “We were really poor. My mom has always had a difficult time holding down a job. She isn’t what you would call a very motivated person, but she found a solution when she met Mark. So she married him. It wasn’t long after they got married that he started changing. Short version—he isn’t a good man; I’ll just keep it at that for now.” She looks around the meadow, gathering her thoughts before she continues.

I know I shouldn’t push her to talk about it if she isn’t ready, and she clearly doesn’t want to bad-mouth either of them, even if that is what they deserve, but I recognize all that she doesn’t say. She has been hurt deeply. I keep my anger in check and listen because that is what she needs. I’m afraid if I speak, the spell will be broken and she will clam up again.

“Anyway, around Christmas, my sister and I decided to spend more time with our dad. My sister didn’t want to go back at all, but I felt bad and chose to go to my mom’s on weekends only and stay with my dad during the week. It was more fair, but my mom was really hurt that my sister didn’t want to come back at all. I thought it would be too much too soon, ya know? I hated hurting her that way. I guess it doesn’t really matter now. … My mom and stepfather have pretty much ignored me every weekend since I moved. Then I woke up this morning with this at the end of my bed … Well, I guess it’s pretty self-explanatory.”

She bends to take a letter out of her bag and hands it to me. I just look at her at first, shocked that this is what she has been going through, and I have been completely oblivious to it. How could I have not known? How can I have been so blind? Has she seemed more worn down, more broken, and I have excused it as something trivial? Disgusted by my own blindness, I feel like I have failed her somehow.

I make my eyes read the letter in my hands. It’s a typed letter that sounds like a teenage hazing honestly. Who thinks this about another person? Her own children nonetheless. It goes on, and on, about how Dannie has been ungrateful, using curse words and other nonsense. How did this woman raise a daughter like Dannie? How did she make it out alive? I look up gravely, at a loss for words. More adrenaline pours into my veins, causing me to shake slightly out of fury. I do the only thing I can think of doing. I grab her and hold her. If I’m holding her, I won’t drive my car over to her house demanding justice.

“I don’t know what else to say but that I am so sorry you had to read something like this.” Angry all over again, I pull away. “How the hell does someone write something like this to their own daughter?”

“I don’t know, Reed. I can’t say I am surprised at my mother. She’s always been a cruel woman, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

“Yeah, I can only imagine.”

I swallow my fury. “Has she ever hurt you physically? Has Mark?” Silence. I know what she doesn’t say, and it feels like I’ve been kicked in the heart.

“You don’t want to know, Reed. And I’m not ready to talk about it.”

There it is. I have my answer, but before I can react, she crawls toward me across the bench seat and lies on my chest and in my arms. I can’t say anything because I am enraged, heartbroken, and afraid, but more important, I am needed. She needs me to be strong for her, so I am, whether I feel it or not, and I let her cry, silently promising to help her put all the pieces back again. I can do that for her, and I want to. I just don’t know how.

This explains so much. It explains her flinching and why she dated a guy who treated her like crap. It explains her self-contained, independent nature. It explains why she keeps people at a distance, and it definitely explains why she never talks about her family. I’m speechless.

She falls asleep in my arms, and all I can do is watch her. After a while, and many ignored phone calls later, I decide it’s time to wake her up. We can’t avoid the inevitable forever. Her phone has been blowing up, but I didn’t have the heart to wake her. It’s now or never.

“Dannie, wake up,” I say, gently shaking her. “Wake up, honey. Your phone has been going off for a while. You might want to call your dad.”

Her eyes slowly open at the mention of her dad. She sits up, straightening herself as her phone continues to chime. She just stares at it.

I start the truck and head in the direction of her father’s house, knowing she has to face her family but wishing we didn’t have to leave so soon. I stop at the end of the field and look over at her. Her face is defeated. I can’t stand the look on her face, so I reach over and kiss her. I scoop her up and pull her across my lap. What I meant to be a comforting kiss quickly becomes something more, something I didn’t expect as we grab desperately on to each other, as if trying to feel something more than the pain of this morning. As I am pouring out comfort and love into each kiss, it feels like heaven because today has been a certain hell. I reluctantly pull away, breathless, my hands roaming all over her, but I can’t take more. I can’t. It’s not the right time, but damn it’s hard to resist her.

I release her, and she groans a little, making it harder to pull away, but I need to stop before this gets out of hand. It would feel like I was taking advantage of her if it went further. So I attempt to reason. “We should be going. I don’t want your dad to be pissed, especially because I intend to see you very soon,” I whisper on her lips, before I look in her eyes and find everything I feel staring back at me.

[]

I reluctantly reach for my phone. “Hello?”

“Where are you? Your mother called and said you ran off with some guy this morning. Are you with Reed?” My dad sounds more worried than mad, and I’m almost certain that my mother would never admit to the letter.

“Dad, I’m so sorry I worried you, but is it okay if I come over now instead of on Monday. Sue wrote a letter to me, and I woke up with it on the end of the bed. Pretty much it tells me to leave and never come back. I kinda lost it. I’m sorry …” My voice wavers, trailing off, but I refuse to cry again. Sue—her name is no longer Mom to me. I’m done.

Reed is obviously heading slowly toward my dad’s house, and I am so grateful he is here even if I am more than a little embarrassed.

My dad is silent on the phone for a moment. “Do you have the letter with you?”

“Yes, there is one for Avery, but I haven’t opened it.” I am confused as to why he is asking, but I stay silent.

“I’m so sorry, Dannie. Come home now please. We will talk about this when you get here. I promise you don’t have to go back. I’m just sorry it has come to this. This is not good. I’m so sorry Dannie.” He sounds like he is talking to himself more than to me, but I am thankful to hear I can stay with him. A part of me was prepared for him to say no, and I can’t explain why. I guess it’s because I have lost all faith in my family, even the ones who don’t deserve it, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still angry at my dad for not seeing what was happening to us. Although, I only have the emotional energy for one family issue at a time at the moment. I end the phone call and look at my inbox. My mother has sent me text after text, pleading for me to come home. Some are livid, and others express regret. She asks me to bring back the letter and says that she didn’t mean it. Either way, it’s too late.

Before I’m even out of the truck, my dad opens the front door. We silently walk toward each other, and he gives me a big hug that makes me feel like a little girl again. I’m hollow, and I begin to quietly cry again as I turn to wave at Reed, assuring him that I am fine now that I am home. When we get inside, I hand him and Mary the letter as we all sit down at the table. I also hand Avery her letter as she begins to cry while opening it.

“She just called us about an hour ago, telling us that she was trying to look for you herself. When did you get this, Dannie?” my dad asks.

“When I woke up, at about eight thirty, I think. I didn’t really look at the clock before I texted Reed. I didn’t want to take my car.”

My dad just nods his head, knowing that Sue had bought the car and that I wouldn’t have wanted to take it.

“She mentioned that she wrote a letter, but that she never meant for you to read it.”

What?

“I woke up with it at the end of my bed this morning. My name is on the envelope; she meant for me to read it …” I am starting to get angry at the obvious bull she was spinning for my father.

“Sorry, you are probably confused as to why I am asking all these questions. The thing is, girls, I have been talking to my lawyer about getting full custody of you Dannie, and he said that without her consent, I won’t be granted full rights. This letter gives me full rights. That’s why she wants it back. Do you understand?” He and Mary patiently wait for us to catch up.

I’m too confused and too tired to string two thoughts together.

“What does this mean?” Avery asks, looking confused and teary-eyed.

He takes a deep breath and looks at me with sorrowful eyes. “This means that Dannie legally won’t have to go back and probably that she won’t be allowed to see Dannie at all without a mediator present. This letter shows that she is clearly an unfit parent. That family court will never rule in her favor now. In fact, we might have to get a court order against her if things get too out of hand.” He looks pointedly at Mary, because we all know that things will get out of hand shortly.

I take a deep breath, knowing exactly what this means. It means I finally have my freedom. More important, I have no guilt for it. She crossed a line I can no longer ignore. I have to be stronger than this even if I am just pretending. We continue to talk more about the changes that my dad will have to make legally. He also asks if we would want to see a therapist, for whatever good it may do. It didn’t do any good for my mother, so I don’t see the point of it.

My dad asks a little more about what my weekend was like before that, and I explain that my mother and stepfather haven’t been talking to me. I also tell him about my stepfather telling me that I was dead to him and my mother. My father is horrified when I tell him that, but I figure he needs to know if this thing is going to be brought to court and made official. I finally get up the nerve to check my voice mail, and I put it on speakerphone for my dad, Mary, and Avery to hear. We all listen to message after message, alternating between her fake tears, her furious ranting, and her pleading. They all fall on deaf ears. As for me, I am through with the woman. My heart is broken, and I have never been one to give second chances to people who have shattered my trust and faith.

[_I hide under the bed behind the colorful bed skirt that falls to the floor. I hear the shouting of my mommy and new daddy. Why are they so loud, I remember thinking to myself. Why does mommy always cry? Why do I hear my big brother cry in the next room too? I love my brother, don’t cry Ryan I am here, I love you. I am afraid to come out, so I stay in a tight ball under my bed. I am safe here, no one can see me in the dark. Someday I will be brave. Someday I won’t be scared. I cover my ears and try to sleep, but the noise of my brother’s agonizing scream keep me awake. _]

School on Monday seems to be oddly normal besides my sleep hangover. After too many nights of crap for sleep and nightmares I am starting to look deranged. I look around at my classmates realizing how foreign they are to me. I feel fundamentally different from a regular teenager with regular post pubescent problems. They get to worry about the next party, their current boyfriend, or sex, while I am dealing with things that I don’t feel mature enough to handle. I am not mature enough to get a grip on how I’m feeling. I feel bereft, abandoned, and weary, but I refuse to wallow. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. But I’m also not allowing myself to grieve, and I know that’s gonna bite me in the butt eventually. Regardless, if I don’t start getting some real sleep, I am going to start acting like a zombie. No joke, I am practically ashen.

Not. Good.

I’m reading an old, well-used copy of Jane Eyre when a pair of warm arms wrap around my waist, pulling me from my dark thoughts. I inhale deeply, enjoying my new favorite smell. It recently passed the smell of coffee on the list. I know, crazy good.

But I also really want coffee.

“How are you doing this morning?” Reed whispers in my ear, and that’s all it takes for me to be fully awake. I feel his whole body against my back, spreading warmth all over me. I have to start thinking of a response, but all I can think of is kissing him again and things no good girl thinks about. Bad girl! I work on getting control of my thoughts as this past weekend slams into my brain, bursting my little bubble of Reed.

“I’m doing as well as can be expected. I haven’t responded to Sue yet. I don’t think I will … My dad can handle her.”

Reed doesn’t respond right away because honestly what do you say in a situation like this? “Whatever you feel is best. I don’t know what I would do. Taking a step back for both of you might be good. I don’t really want you around your mom right now anyways.” Always being a white knight, this one.

Jem and Melody turn the corner and notice Reed’s arms wrapped around me. Jem raises her eyebrows, and Melody simply smiles knowingly. I called both of them this weekend to give them the update on my mo—Sue. Both were equally sad for me, but not at all surprised. I think they are just glad no one ended up in the hospital. I did however omit the kiss with Reed, but I am sure the girls will squeeze it out of me the moment we are alone. Reed senses a girly moment coming and kisses my head, letting go of me.

“Ladies,” is all he says as he walks away toward his next class. I take the time to watch him walk away, admiring him. Sigh. What is that boy doing to me? I just shake my head. He must have felt me watching him because he turns back toward me and gives me a wink before disappearing into his classroom. Damn him.

“So what’s the deal with you two lovebirds. Swooning yet?” Jem smirks, bumping my hip, while Melody tries to hide her laugh. I give her a snarky look because who says that?

“We may or may not have kissed … But we haven’t had the DTR chat yet, so I am about as clueless as you are.” Disappointment is written all over my face and slouched shoulders. I feel the full weight of the questions and doubts that rattle my thoughts.

“Well, I think it is pretty obvious that he has been in love with you for as long as he has known you. I’m pretty sure everyone knows it but you.” Jem pokes me in the stomach while settling against our lockers.

Melody nods her head. “And if we know you as well as we know we do, you are completely in love with him. And freaking out about it.” She looks pointedly at me with a look that tells me to spill it.

Love? [_Love! _]Do I love Reed? I contemplate it only momentarily before my heart betrays my reason. How did I not see this sooner? Oh, that’s right. [_Denial! _]I’m also afraid because I’m not sure I can afford to love anyone the way I love Reed. I’m not sure I can love him the way he needs me to. I’m not sure I have the courage.

[_How did they know? _]I ask myself, looking at Jem and Melody with wide eyes. Is it so obvious to everyone else? Oh, these girls know me too well.

“And there it is” Jem smiles knowingly.

I take a moment to gather my scattered thoughts and come to the conclusion that honesty really is the best policy. “You’re right. I am freaking out. Guys like Reed don’t fall for girls like me. He is too good for me, and the moment he realizes it is the moment he will run.”

They physically pause, gaping.

“Shut the front door, lady. Reed is not too good for you. OMG really? What on earth makes you[_ think_] that?” Jem snaps out of it, pissed.

What does she expect me to say? That we are made for one another? We aren’t. I don’t believe that. I can’t. Reed deserves someone perfect and uncorrupted by life. If I wasn’t so selfish and weak, I would walk away. But I am not so sure I can.

Maybe I am as selfish as Sue.

“You know what my life has been like, and I don’t want him tainted by it,” is all I say before the bell rings and we stand there staring at one another, not knowing what else there is to say. There is really nothing to be said because we disagree and no amount of arguing will persuade any of us to feel differently. Being stubborn is the only trait we all share. Nevertheless, they don’t know what it’s like to have seen the things I have seen, done the things I have done, been hurt the ways I have been hurt. They don’t know what it is like. Even these girls whom I love more than anyone else don’t know what it feels like to be dirty, fouled.[_ _]I don’t want them to know what that’s like.

The rest of the day goes by in contemplative silence. We all have a lot to think about, but we will figure it out. We always do.

By the end of the day, I feel like maybe the girls have a point. Maybe these feelings of unworthiness are all in my head. Years of being beaten down would cause even the most confident of people to have doubts about themselves. Perhaps I have been believing a lie about myself that my mother fed me my whole life—that I am unlovable. I walk to my car, contemplating the possibility that maybe I have a chance to be worthy of Reed, a chance to be more than what I have settled for … a chance.

I find another letter on my car windshield, but after my mother’s letter, I’m really beginning to hate letters in general. As sweet as the poems and riddles are, I’m not sure if I want to read anything that even looks like a letter anytime soon. Why would Reed write me a letter after what Sue wrote? I’ll have to remember to ask him, but I’m not sure how to do that without hurting his feelings. Perhaps I will just hold on to them until I have the courage to read them.

[]

I spend my Monday afternoon driving around the foreign Californian suburban town, taking stock of the weekend with Dannie. Everything she shared with me in my truck Saturday morning is still fresh in mind, causing a turbulence I’m not used to. I’m a simple guy. I’ve had a very simple life. I was blessed with two parents who love each other, two siblings whom I not only get along with but enjoy. It’s rare, I know, and yet it took me by total surprise when Dannie told me a small part of the difficulties she has been through.

I wipe my hand down my face, trying to scrub away the look on her face as I asked her if her stepfather had ever hurt her. I try to erase the memory of her crying, of the letter I read, of her utter acceptance of her circumstances.

I can’t even fathom the pain she must have suffered. The loss. I can’t imagine how alone she must have been. I don’t even want to, I think as I finally pull into my driveway.

I walk into my house in deep thought. My face must reflect the bleakness I feel because my mom and sister notice right away, stopping me before I can hide in my room.

“Why the long face, Reed?” Mom asks, continuing to bake bread with my sister.

“What happened to you? Did your girlfriend finally smarten up ’n’ dump you?” my sister Rochelle adds with a sarcastic tilt of her head.

“No way.” I give her a smile in return. The smile fades as I take a deep breath and sit down at the kitchen table. Might as well get it all out there now. My family pretty much shares everything so there is really no point in delaying the conversation. “You know how I rushed out of here Saturday after getting a text from Dannie?”

“Yeah,” Mom replies, suddenly worried.

“Well … she has been having problems at home. Her mom apparently kicked her out for wanting to spend more time with her dad. Her mom and stepfather also have been … bad parents …” Not really knowing what else to tell them, I stop and think about what I can say without betraying Dannie’s trust.

“What do you mean by ‘bad parents’?’’

I shrug my shoulders, not knowing how to reply to that.

Ro chimes in, “Do you mean abusive? Or just mean?” She comes and sits at the table across from me, suddenly interested.

“She didn’t exactly tell me details, but it seemed pretty bad from what she did say.”

My mom sits down next to Ro quietly.

I clear my throat. “So I’m not really sure what I should or shouldn’t do in this situation,” I reply honestly.

My mom finally speaks up. “Well, this is a difficult situation. People who have lived difficult lives will constantly struggle to get through whatever has happened to them. Divorce is hard on kids. Look at your dad; his parents were divorced under good circumstances, and it was still hard on him. But … abuse is a different story altogether … I like Dannie. I do. She seems like a sweet girl. But are you sure you are going to be able to handle the difficulties she will have in getting through this? Do you think you can make it as a couple through them?”

I think for a moment and realize I already have my answer. I’ve always had the answer. I may not have known the details at first, and I might never know all of them, but it doesn’t change what I know is true. “Yes. I know it’s not going to be easy, Mom. I know it is going to take years, maybe our whole lives, to get through whatever happened to her … but … I don’t know how to explain it other than I feel like I was meant to help her through this. I feel like I am meant to heal whatever has been broken.” I feel tears flood my eyes, and I quickly wipe them before my sister gives me flack for crying. I know I sound like a loon, but I know I’m going to help Dannie through this. We will overcome whatever we face, and we will do it together.

“Aww, Binky, you’re such a sap.” My sister pulls out my childhood nickname only during the worst times, but right now, I don’t even care. I’m looking at my mom’s face, unsure of what she is thinking. Does she disapprove of Dannie? I don’t think she does, but she is obviously concerned.

“Well, if that’s how you feel, then I guess it’s decided.” She gets up and continues to bake bread, leaving me to my thoughts.

My mind is made up. I’m going to help Dannie through everything she has to overcome. I’ll help her through the pain, through her fears, and past her breaking point.

[]

By the end of the week, I’m fried. I’ve been having horrible nightmares every night, and I don’t know how to get rid of them. On top of my restless sleep, my mo—Sue, dang it—calls almost every night, wanting to discuss everything. She talks to Avery, but I continually refuse to speak with her. I’m not ready, and I have nothing to say to her that is appropriate or kind—not now and maybe not ever. My dad is going to court with Sue and is on the phone with his lawyer constantly. He is gathering all their mediation transcripts, e-mails, and voice mails that can be used to keep me from having to go back, years’ worth of e-mails and court conversations about how she wanted to leave Mark but didn’t have enough money. So of course the court would order my father to pay more child support, but Sue never ended up leaving him. There were e-mails about how we didn’t want to come over for Dad’s allotted weekend or holiday, about how we didn’t want to see him all the while she was telling us Dad had cancelled because he didn’t want us. Years of manipulation, and for what? Did she really think this wouldn’t blow all to hell right in her face? By the time I am done reading all of it, I am livid.

Days pass, and after the court date, Dad comes home looking like he went through the wars. He sits down at the table, and we all just wait for him to say something—anything. I am beginning to feel frightened about the outcome when he speaks.

“Dannie, you don’t have to go back.” He looks at me, and I can tell there’s more. I close my fists as they begin to shake.

[_Take a deep breath, Dannie. _]I remind myself I can handle this; I’ve gone through the worst of it—that letter being the worst. What else can she really do at this point?

“They gave us full custody, no visitations without supervision. Mandatory counselling for Dannie.” He pauses for a moment, giving me time to protest, but I hold my tongue. If that’s what I have to do to be free, then I am surely not going to gripe about it.

He continues, “She is, however, suing us for back payment on child support saying we weren’t paying enough while you were living with her and it caused her to go into debt.” He looks at Mary, and I watch as they clearly have a conversation with their eyes that I don’t understand.

W.T.Heck? He was paying them out the ears every month. Debt? How can she even do this legally? Then it hits me. She doesn’t want us back. She doesn’t regret writing the letter. She regrets the consequences of that letter. She regrets that she let her monthly paycheck, her pill money, slip through her fingers. That’s the bottom line, the money.

My dad is waiting with a look of regret on his face. He clearly doesn’t know if telling us was the best idea, but he doesn’t want to lie to us either. It’s always better to know the truth, even if it feels like a knife to the heart.

“What are you going to do about it, Dad?” I try to take a breath, and so does he.

“She was fighting it at first, trying to get shared custody, but I spoke with her privately and we came to an agreement … I am going to continue paying her child support as if you are still living there.”

And now I am truly shocked. No words.

“W-what? Why would you do that?”

“Because it’s just money. And if it means that much to her, she can have it; I’d rather have you girls. I’m sorry I didn’t do this earlier, I just thought you’d want to be with your mother more.”

That’s when I break down. I officially lose my cool. My whole life I was told my father didn’t want me. I was convinced that he didn’t love me, but now I know the truth. A cruel, bitter woman kept us apart because of her own pride, and she ended up losing everything that matters anyway. My father always wanted us; he wanted to be a part of our lives, but he was told we wanted nothing to do with him. We were both duped, played by a woman who would stop at nothing to get revenge, even at the expense of her children.

Avery just sits there, looking down at the table in shock. I am not sure what is going through her mind, but I am sure she is just as overwhelmed as I am. I don’t even know how to respond other than to walk around the table and give my father a hug. My dad. I love him so much more than I realized, than I allowed myself to admit, because I was afraid. Now I know I had nothing to fear all along. He is willing to pay my mother to get her to back off, just so he can have a short time with us girls. It’s never too late for second chances in life; it’s never too late for your family. I might still be angry, but I know we will get through it together.

We all spend the rest of the night chatting and eventually even laughing. We needed this; we needed to be brought together and made whole again. It’s a shame Sue didn’t want to be a part of it. She made her bed, and now she has to lie in it. Alone. I’m sure she never expected the consequences of her actions to be that she would lose her kids—half of them at least.

Later when I finally settle down in my room, I glance at my phone and see messages from Reed, Melody, and Jem. I call them each in succession to fill them in on the family court situation; they all give me time to explain before telling me they’re here for me. I am so grateful for my friends; I don’t know what I would do without them. Jem finally suggests celebrating together at a party this weekend. After everything, it seems a little frivolous to go to social events, but Jem made a strong argument about having some normalcy, so I relented.

We make plans to get ready at her house with Melody this Friday before heading to the local party spot together. I hang up the phone, finally feeling what it must be like to be a normal, ordinary teenager. I smile and softly laugh at myself for my silliness.

By Friday, we three girls are in a tizzy. The girls pretty much can’t shut up about how I can finally come to a party. We are standing by the lockers contemplating our “Mission of Fabulous” when Reed comes up behind me and settles his arm around my waist.

“What are you girls up to this weekend?” he asks, looking directly at me while pushing a stray lock of hair behind my ear, which gives me goose bumps.

“Dannie has finally agreed to the frivolity of high school!” Jem is practically bouncing.

“Huh?” He laughs, clearly confused.

Melody smiles and shakes her head at Jem. “We are going to the party up at Ice House.”

Ice House is like the city kid version of a bush party. It is an old ski hill next to a lake, made into a local tailgate party by the high school kids on the off season.

“Party? You!” he says, playfully squeezing me closer to his side.

“Yeah. You want to join?” I ask, hoping that it will give us some more time alone. With everything going on at home, we haven’t had much time for more kissing. And I really want more kissing.

As if reading my thoughts, he goes a little pink. “Unfortunately, I can’t … I have a family thing this weekend—my grandparents’ anniversary—but how does your Sunday look?” He leans forward to whisper in my ear, and I feel his breath as he says, “I really need to see you this weekend.” He pulls away, and I can see his eyes grow intense. Hot.

“Sunday works for me,” I choke out my response, a little breathless. [_Oh my … If his eyes look this heated now, what the heck will they do to me when we are kissing again? _]I feel a little feverish already.

Sexy men do that to a woman.

The ladies were giving us a little privacy, but Jem finally springs forward and grabs my hand while practically dragging me away. Melody takes my other arm as she looks over her shoulder. “We will return her in one piece, Reed.” And I have no choice but to follow for our ladies’ night. I look over my shoulder to give him an apologetic smile, and he just waves while laughing at our spectacle.

“You girls have fun now,” is all he says before turning. I can hear him chuckle.

[]

It’s dark by the time we drive up to Ice House, but we can hear the thump of music long before we see cars. After getting dressed, curled, and practically glued with hairspray by Jem, we make it to my first high school party. We get out of Jem’s car and see a blazing fire through the trees. Considering how many cars are parked on the ridge, there have to be at least fifty people here.

When we get to the clearing, I start to recognize some people from school, ranging in age anywhere from jailbait to college dropouts—all ages, all kinds. I see Kendal and her group loitering around the jocks. I see most of the cheer squad and almost all of the potheads/partygoers from school. Otherwise, there seems to be a good mix of every crowd. Wow, this really must be the local spot for kids who want to kick back without adult supervision.

Jem grabs my hand, and I in turn grab Melody’s so as to not lose each other. We make our way toward the coolers to get our own drinks (’cuz, girls, let’s not be stupid) in red Solo cups. I feel a heavy arm come around my shoulders and smell beer breath before I even turn my head. Yuck.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Fresh meat, huh?” Although he heavily slurs his words so that they are hardly recognizable, I turn my head to see the cocky grin of a good-looking college-age ex-football star. His dark hair is gelled to perfection—so not my type.

“Miiike!” a girl whines before I see her tug his arm. I see red hair before I see the sneer on Kendal’s face, making her look pinched. Doesn’t she know how unattractive that is?

“Hey, Kendal.” He wraps his other arm around her. “Have you met my new friend …” He squints, trying to remember if I gave him my name.

“Dannie.”

“Dannie! My beautiful Dannie, how about I get you a drink, girl?” He leans in to whisper the last part in my ear, and I am overwhelmed by the smell of stale beer. I push his arm away and smile sweetly, handing him back to Kendal. She can have him.

“Aww, don’t be like that …”

I laugh him off and grab the girls again, and we make our way toward the dance floor. The dance floor’s just a small clearing to the left of the fire where there are fewer boulders or trees and enough room for people to gyrate with each other in front of blaring speakers. We dance until we are sweating. I start to feel the rhythm as we smile and laugh at each other’s moves. I may not be a party girl, but I love to dance and I always have. Jem grabs the closest guy, stands in front of him, and works her magic. Melody and I stand in front of her, laughing and trying not to get pushed over by the crowd.

I feel hands at my waist and someone pressed against my back, and I think, What the hell? Why not? I dance with mystery guy, and he is a good dancer. He also doesn’t get grabby so we keep dancing. I look up and see Melody facing a cute guy with black hair and a brow piercing, talking, or trying to in this noise, while dancing. I smile, because he is good-looking and a little emo, which is totally her type. Jem finally looks over. Our eyes meet, and we smile at each other until she raises her eyes toward my dance partner, and they widen. She looks back at me suddenly, grabs my hand, and pulls me toward the kegs. I grab Melody’s hand, she grabs emo-boy’s hand, and we all make our way out of the throng of people.

“What the heck?” I suddenly pull us all to a stop. I let go of Jem’s and Melody’s hands although Melody and emo-boy keep holding hands.

Jem’s brows rise to her forehead. She steps closer. “Do you know who you were dancing with?”

“Hey, where did you run off to?” I hear a familiar voice behind me.

I whip around to see none other than Jett. Ex-boyfriend Jett.

For the love of God, Really? What have I done?

I turn toward Jem, my confirmation written on her face. He may be her brother, but she doesn’t want to see me hurt either. She’s looking like she might rip off someone’s manhood. _Ouch. _

“What happened, ladies? I almost lost ya.” Jett finally stands right next to me and has the nerve to put his hand at my lower back.

I look up at him in utter shock at his audacity, but I should have seen this coming. We were trying to be on better terms. I suppose better terms means something very different to him than it does to me.

“What do you think you are doing?” I just shake my head while walking toward the cooler to grab a water. I feel him come up behind me. He grabs a cup from the keg.

“Just being friendly. We are trying to be friends, aren’t we?” He smirks, looking down at me. He glances at my mouth suddenly, flicking his lip ring with his tongue. I know I shouldn’t think that is hot, but I do. Bad habits and all that …

Then I feel fury blaze in my stomach. I am probably angrier at myself for even going there because there is nothing attractive about a man who treats women like Jett does.

Suddenly I feel like fighting fire with fire. “Yeah, I guess we are friends.” He takes a long drink of his beer without breaking eye contact over the rim.

“Want some?” He motions for me to take the cup, his eyes darkening to see if I will take it from him.

I pause before shaking my head no.

“Why? You used to share with me?” He glances at me sarcastically.

I give him what I hope looks like a suggestive smile. “Yeah, but there are a lot of things I used to do that I would never do again.” I brush by him quickly while bumping into him, knowing that I’ve made my point. I am not that girl anymore, that girl who will follow him whenever he beckons.

I will never be that girl again.

I don’t wait around for his reply before I grab Jem’s hand and join Melody and emo-boy to dance until dawn. I don’t see him for the rest of the night, but I am pretty sure he got the message. I hope he isn’t too drunk to remember tomorrow that I made my position of “friends” clear.

I. Am. Not. Interested.

We didn’t last until dawn, but we did dance until we felt our legs were going to fall right off. I danced with my cute neighbor Nick and of course Mike, my drunken friend. He was actually really funny once he sobered up a bit.

Eventually I grabbed a hand of each girl and headed toward the water bottles taking a much needed break, thoroughly worn out. Emo-boy, also known as Stephan, exchanged numbers with Melody, resulting in a silly grin on her face. I checked my phone when I finally had a moment, wondering if Reed had texted. Sure enough, I had one in my inbox.

How’s the party, girls? Meet any super hot boys ;)

no … but I was thinking about a super hot boy. Actually Melody met a hottie, he got her number too:0

[_I hope you aren’t referring to me as a boy. I am definitely a man. I can grow a beard and everything … _]

I tried not to laugh out loud, but I couldn’t contain that one. What is it with guys and facial hair or chest hair for that matter? Boys are weird.

I wish you were here. We could danced.

well maybe next time, but I have to warn you … I can’t dance … but I can two-step!

[_mmmm … I’m pretty sure no one will join you if you do … _]

then I suppose you will have to teach me;)

looking forward to it

night, princess

night:)

Sunday couldn’t come fast enough.

[]

Touching her feels like touching a flame. Dancing with her after watching her for years is a tantalizing taste of what’s to come. A bittersweet reward for my efforts. As we move to music beside the bonfire, I gaze down at her small form, entranced by the feel of her skin, the motion of her body, the look in her eyes.

Mine.

She feels so right when she is within my reach, and I can’t help but wonder how I’ve lasted so long without touching her. I can’t stop. I can’t go back from this addiction that I feel. She is my soul-bending addiction, and I won’t stop until I’ve consumed every drop of her.

I let my head fall back in the moonlight as we move together in perfect synchronized motion. I imagine myself consuming her. My hands grip her tightly at the thought. Total possession of my blue-eyed girl is my deep obsession. One I’ve grown to hate. An obsession I can’t seem to control as I lean forward, inhaling the scent of her hair as she continues to dance unaware.

What will be the end game? What will fulfill my deep need, my all-consuming craving of the girl in my arms? There is only one thing I can think of, one thing that might make me lose interest once and for all … Maybe I can get past this once I’ve had my fill and move on and be in control of myself once again.

Could I ever be rid of this need, or has it become so much a part of who I am I can no more separate her from my thoughts as I can remove a limb from my body?

We’ll see …

I continue dancing, touching, exploring her movements as I contemplate our fate until she finally leaves.

[]

When Reed finally picked me up on Sunday, I was so nervous from anticipation that I was trembling. Whether it was from excitement or from fear of him not feeling the same way, I couldn’t rightly tell. I had taken so long to decide what to wear, standing in front of my closet, throwing things around the room before settling on a dark-blue dress. The dress would have gone perfectly with a short knit sweater that I accidentally left at Ice House on Friday. I’ll never see that again!

I put on a little makeup and curled the ends of my hair. I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard, but I was also very aware that this was our first dinner date. Either way, I was having a hard time keeping my head clear, so when he asked me how my weekend was, I barely responded with a shrug.

“What’s wrong?” He had started the car but made no move to actually drive out of my driveway.

“Nothing. Why would anything be wrong?” I gave him a half smile that I didn’t quite feel.

Looking over with his brows furrowed, he said, “You’re acting weird. I’m not moving until you tell me.”

Stubborn man. Why does he have to be perceptive? His serious face is nothing but sexy. My mind starts to wander while I just sit there looking at him in the dark car. I can see his sweater pulled tight across his broad chest, his dark eyes patiently waiting for my response, which only makes it harder to speak.

I cautiously lean forward before I have the chance to change my mind, wrap my hand behind his neck, and kiss him. He’s surprised for only a moment before he leans into me, wrapping his arms around my back and pulling me closer to him. My tongue is saying what my words can’t as I pour everything I have into that kiss—all my fears, all my desires for him, and all my hopes for us as we invade one another’s mouth. He suddenly pushes me away, and I freeze.

“We shouldn’t do this here.” He looks sideways at my dad’s house but still keeps me close enough for me to feel his warm breath. “Let’s go somewhere else. I don’t want your dad storming out of your house to rip my arms off.”

My dad may be a nice guy, but every father has his limits so I agree. He clears his throat, and I move away from him, taking a deep breath. We stare at each other for a moment longer before he pulls away from the house.

We pull up to a restaurant, and he opens my door and gives me a helping hand out of the tall truck. I take it, glad to feel his touch again, and I feel like I am on fire. He pulls me against his chest and gives me a chaste kiss before pulling away.

“Later. First I’m going to feed you, princess,” he says, but his eyes are still hooded with barely contained attraction.

Dinner is great, despite the energy between us. We hold hands throughout the meal and talk about safe subjects, but his fingers draw slow circles on the back of my hand, keeping me very aware of his thoughts. His dark-green sweater makes his eyes seem more vivid, and they are keeping me quite preoccupied during dessert. He slowly leans in after giving the waiter back the bill with his card and gives me a kiss on the cheek. He lingers, keeping his face beside mine, allowing me to smell his faint cologne while feeling his stubble on my cheek. Some girls may be turned off by facial hair, not me. I never realized how sexy, how masculine it can feel against my skin. It makes me wonder—No, no. Don’t even go there.

“Thank you for coming to dinner with me,” he whispers in my ear, and suddenly I feel him nip at my earlobe. Holy mother—

We need to leave quickly. I squirm in my seat to keep my mind off of how much that affected me. He notices and pulls away slowly with a knowing smirk on his face. This boy is trouble. He may have a heart of gold, but he is still a guy, and it is getting harder to determine what this is between us and where we stand. But I can no longer deny that there is something between us and that there is no way I could just be friends with him. I don’t want to ever be just friends with him.

If I am honest with myself, I never did.

“Dannie I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me.” He looks nervous as he suddenly avoids my eyes. He runs a hand through his hair as if he is struggling to find the words. What is this about? “I wanted to confess something. Something I think you should know before we start … anything. I think you deserve to know.”

_Oh crap. This can’t be good. _

“Dannie before I moved here I wasn’t the same person I am now. Well, I guess I was always [_this _]guy I just didn’t know it. I didn’t want to.” He pauses before taking a deep breath and grabbing my hand gently. “I was a jerk. I was a punk kid that treated the people around me like shit. I lied and snuck around my parents, I pranked people, was constantly wasted, and was a total bully.” He loses his courage as he looks straight ahead at the table, “I’m ashamed to say that I became a bully after being bullied. I hated that the kids made fun of me, my family, how I talked. So, the bigger I got the meaner I got. I was lucky to have my sister to tell me to shut my mouth for the worst of it. I had my best friend Marcus to pull me back before I tried some really stupid things I could’ve been in a lot of trouble for, but mostly I’m glad I came here and could start fresh. I wanted to be me, ya’ know? Just me.” He looks at me with the saddest face I’ve ever seen and his shame is apparent in that look.

I may not know specifics, Reed will tell me when he’s ready, but I can understand the need to have a fresh start and finally be aloud to become the person your circumstances were preventing you from becoming. Who am I to judge? Who am I to hold that against anybody?

“Thanks for sharing with me Reed.”

He looks surprised for a moment before exhaling. “I was so sure you’d never want anything to do with me after you found out.”

“Why on earth would you think that!?” I laugh at the mention of his fear.

He squeezes my hand before he simply says, “Jett.”

I sit staring at him with a profound sense of understanding. He’s right. I have been bullied by Jett but now I see the other side of it. Jett wasn’t always a bully, in fact I knew him well before he became my personal hell, and the flip side of it is that Jett might feel as much pain and regret as Reed does. The real question is whether or not I am willing to forgive him. If I can forgive Reed, shouldn’t I forgive Jett? Reed was never my bully but he certainly was someones, and as long as I hold a grudge against Jett I will forever be bound to him in anger.

“I forgive Jett.” The moment I say the words I recognize how true they are. I do forgive Jett, even if he still has occasional relapses and feels the need to lash out towards me, because in the end I can handle it. It really is over and I don’t have to fear my bully anymore.

Reed gets up from the table, reaching out his hand expectantly, suddenly looking nervous. I know that whatever comes next will change the definition of us.[_ _]

I. Can’t. Breathe.

We make it to the field before we are once again staring at each other, both nervous to make the first move. He takes my face in both his hands and leans forward, gently biting before kissing. He kisses like a man looking for air. Starved. I never realized what kissing really was; when he kisses me he kisses me with his whole body wrapping himself around me, gentle but possessive.

It changed my entire perspective on kissing.

We kiss for an unknowable amount of time, lost in one another, but keep it PG-ish. Not surprising considering he’s Reed—respectful, patient, and a little bit shy. He walks me to my door with one light kiss and walks back to his truck. I stare at the perfect guy, after the perfect date, having experienced the perfect kiss.

What more can I ask for? Life is going pretty good from where I am standing.

[]

I lie awake in bed, and after a night like this, it’s no wonder I can’t get to sleep. Memories of her body pressed against mine haunt me as I lie there alone. [_Alone. _]I scrub my hand down my face to clear my head slightly. It doesn’t really work, but we’ll pretend.

After graduation, I want to ask her to be my girlfriend. Officially. Unofficially, she owns my heart, but does she know that? I’m not so sure. But she has had so much going on lately, it has never felt like the right time. Maybe I’m just a pansy, too afraid that she means more to me than I mean to her.

When did I become so insecure?

Ignoring my self-deprecating thoughts, I make a long-overdue decision. I’ll take her out, maybe on a moonlit walk. So cheesy, but chicks like that sort of thing. Or another picnic maybe? Perfect. I’ll buy her flowers and then ask her out. I’ve been hoping over time she will fall as in love with me as I am with her, because this is it for me. I know in my gut that I’m hers. I’m going to help her through whatever she has gone through because I truly believe I’m meant to. I am a firm believer in fate, and she is mine.

She doesn’t even know that I’m graduating early either. I applied to a few universities, and I got into the same one Dannie is going to. I’ll start during the spring semester, but that is not even six months of long distance. Piece of cake.

I feel elated at the thought of us going to college together—being together. I can still feel her heart beating so fast under my fingers, her breath on my mouth as I kiss her. I smile at the smell of vanilla that is all over me. I love it.

I text her quickly.

xoxo, princess

She replies immediately.

_xoxo _

Monday morning, I get to school early in order to grab some coffee for Dannie and me. As I’m waiting in line, I notice Melody sitting on a bench not far from Dannie’s locker, looking like she’s been crying. I pay for three drinks and head in the direction of Dannie’s best friend. I tread carefully, trying not to splash hot coffee from the three cups I’m now carrying. As I draw closer, I notice the moment Melody realizes I’m headed in her direction. She furiously wipes the tears off her face, trying to hide the fact that she’s been crying.

I have a sister, so I’m no stranger to women’s tears, but by the way she is looking around, she seems to be embarrassed by them. Perhaps she wants me to pretend I didn’t see them?

“Here you go,” I say with a smile, handing her a cup of coffee. She looks up at me, obviously shocked I got her coffee. Do I seem like an inconsiderate jerk? I look down at myself, questioning what I might look like to her. I sit next to her, silently waiting for her to say something first, and I notice her covering her wrists with her long sleeves nervously.

“Th-thanks for the coffee, Reed. I can see why Dannie likes you. You’re sweet …” She blows on the coffee to cool it before taking a small sip, trying not to draw attention to the tears in her eyes.

I take a deep breath. “Melody, are you okay?”

She just bows her head as if the weight of my words are too much for her to bear. “I’m not sure, Reed. I’m really not.” As she lifts her hand again to take another sip, her sleeve moves just enough to reveal a thin red line. A cut. I’ve noticed the scars on her inner arm before in class. Most are covered by tattoos so they are hard to notice but not impossible, although none looked recently made—until now that is.

This comes as more than a shock to me. I had asked Dannie about them before, but she insisted Melody hadn’t struggled with cutting in a long time. She said it was something Melody had done when she suffered from depression long before she had even come to this school. So why the fresh cut?

Melody notices the direction of my gaze and quickly covers her wrist again. “Pretty gruesome, huh?”

“Why?” is all I can think of to say. I have never met anyone who struggled with something like this, so I’m at a loss for what to do.

“It’s nothing. Really, I’ve just had a rough few months … with Jay … and my mom. It’s all been a little too much for me to handle.” She looks at me like she’s sorry even though she has nothing to apologize for.

What do you say to that?

“Can I help?”

“No. Please don’t say anything to Dannie … She has enough on her plate already.”

Although I agree with her about Dannie, I can’t just do nothing. It doesn’t feel right.

She continues softly. “I haven’t in so long, but I guess I just slipped up, ya know?”

No, I don’t know, and that’s the problem. I don’t know how to help, but I suppose if she wanted my help she would ask for it. I will be keeping a close eye on her though. If it happens again, I’ll have to say something to Dannie.

I just don’t know what to do to help.

[]

For all the time Reed and I spend together in school and out of school, we continue as friends, teetering on the edge of something more but not quite crossing it. Weeks have gone by since that first dinner together. We go on dates or spend weekends watching movies, having picnics, and goofing off, but we have kept everything relatively innocent. I know that it is responsible to take our time, but a part of me feels like I am going insane. We hold hands, occasionally kiss, and sometimes even have earth-shattering make-out sessions, but he has never called me his girlfriend, nor has he asked me like a junior-high schooler, “Will you be my girlfriend?” I’d totally take that rather than this limbo at this point. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about labels.

On the other hand, my home life seems to be remarkably mundane. My dad spends his evening helping me with homework. We go to dinner as a family occasionally and see movies on weekends. If I get a good grade, he takes me for a banana split. It’s a little Leave It to Beaver, and I am loving every moment of it.

Sue has slowly tapered off her nightly phone calls to Avery until they only occur about once a week. Clearly, for all her sob stories and guilt trips, she isn’t missing us too much. A part of me worries about the repercussions our decision to leave might have for Ryan and Amanda, but there really isn’t anything I can, or should, do. I can’t spend my life trying to keep a family that is doomed together. My mother made her choice, and I am not going to suffer or sacrifice any more for her.

It kills me to have been forced to walk away. What do you do when your own mother wants nothing to do with you? Fears and insecurities crawl around in my thoughts because she made it seem like it was our fault, like it was my fault. A lifetime of being the family scapegoat has made it easy to shoulder a burden that isn’t mine to bear. But old habits die hard.

I’m cramming in study time in the library at lunch when I see coffee lowered in my view. Oh mercy. I smell it while I reach for it like an addict finding her next hit. Mmm café au lait …

“I thought you might need a pick-me-up from all the late nights and early morning study time.” Reed lowers himself into the chair beside me. I look at him over the rim of the paper cup, not sure which I like more, my morning coffee or the boy sitting next to me.

Caffeine or muscles?

“Morning,” I finally say. “And thank you for the coffee. I really need caffeine this week. Pressure’s on.”

He nods while lacing his fingers through mine. I start to wonder where we stand, but I don’t want to ruin the moment so I stay silent and turn back to my work. Last week. Relationships can wait.

“Sunset or sunrise?”

“Sunrise. It’s so full of possibilities.”

I stop what I’m doing suddenly. “I’ve been thinking; I need to talk to Sue.” I pause, letting the awkwardness of the topic I’ve brought up settle in.

Reed immediately stops and turns toward me. “Why?”

“I feel like I need to let her know what she did was wrong because I don’t think she knows what she did was unacceptable. I need her to know just how hurt I am, how angry, but that I don’t hate her.” I shake my head, clearing my emotions. “She calls my sister all the time crying. I can tell she’s frustrated that I don’t pick up her calls. What I really need is for her to back off and give me some space, but she isn’t going to do that unless I explain to her why. Does that make sense?” I’m rambling, but I don’t really care. It might not make sense to anyone else, but it feels like something I need to do. It’s been bugging me for a while, but I didn’t really realize why until recently.

Reed considers what I’ve said before shrugging. “I don’t understand. You’re right; I don’t think she deserves an explanation, but if it’s something you need to do in order to let go, then you should do it.” He looks a little lost for a moment, as if not knowing if he has the right to be upset. “If you need someone there, I’d be happy to go with you,” he adds quickly.

I smile sadly, “Thanks, but I think I need to do this with my dad and Mary.”

Nodding before continuing, he says, “So once you’ve called Sue and aced your finals, can we celebrate? Say, this weekend?” He leans in and brushes my cheek with a kiss, lingering so that I can enjoy the feel of his stubble. The man knows me; that’s for sure. I turn so that our noses are practically touching.

I look him straight in the eyes and lower my voice to a whisper, “How do you want to celebrate?”

His breath stops for a moment as he tries to discern my meaning. I’m not really sure what I mean, but I thought flirting was appropriate at this time. Now I wonder if maybe I am playing with fire.

He takes a moment to respond. “Well, I assume you are going out with the girls on Friday night after grad. Can I have you on Saturday?”

I can’t quite tell if he means to imply anything by using the words have you, but I am nervous and excited by the thought of it. I am almost eighteen. I wouldn’t call myself experienced with men, but I do know that Reed is my every fantasy in 3-D. Even if nothing happens, I am happy if he even thinks of me that way because I can’t seem to stop thinking of him[_ that way_].

When did my brain suddenly become a cesspool of debauchery? Oh yeah … right around the time I realized what physical attraction was, thanks to Reed.[_ _]

“Anytime.” I turn my head away before I turn bright red. Ha! Take that, Mr. Flirty.

He clears is throat but stays silent. I chuckle to myself, trying to hold it in but fail to do so. He nudges me, obviously aware of what I said, how I said it, and that I am laughing about it. He suddenly leans over and gently kisses my neck.

_Swoon. _

My throat runs dry, definitely nothing funny about that. I look over at Reed, and he gives me a victorious grin and winks. “Can’t wait.” He slowly stands and walks out of the library as quietly as he entered.

I slowly shake my head side to side. So delicious …

The bell rings, pulling me out of my trance. I shove my books and binders into my bag and make my way into the science building. Today is the last review day before finals, so I need to make the most of every second of the lecture today.

As I look at my dad and Mary from across the table, I feel nervous but supported. I look down at the phone in my hand and begin to dial the number I’ve been dreading for months.

I listen to the ring until Sue finally picks up. “Hello? Dannie, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Mom.” I cringe because calling her “mom” feels wrong now. I don’t like it, but I honestly don’t know what else to call her. “I thought I’d call before graduation. I think we need to talk,” I say quickly before holding my breath.

“I think that’s a good idea. How have you been, sweet girl?”

Sweet girl? Never has she called me anything remotely endearing. “I know you’ve been trying to get ahold of me—”

“Well, I’ve been calling you, hoping we could clear up this mess,” she says, cutting me off. “I know it was a mistake now to have given you that letter. I see now it was a bit rash on my part, but I just want you to know I really didn’t mean it for you. It was really meant for your father’s eyes only and for your sister of course. Avery really has been giving us so much trouble lately with her attitude and all; it’s really been horrible. Between Avery and your brother, I’ve been out of control with stress. Really, Dannie, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

I’m a little shocked for a moment by the load of bull I am hearing, but I can’t decide if I’m more hurt or angry. “Then why did you put my name on the envelope if it was for my dad. The letter was written to me, Mom …” Apparently I’m going with anger right now. “If the letter wasn’t about me, why did you give Avery and me separate letters to begin with?”

“Well, that was an unfortunate judgment call on my part, and I’m sorry.” She doesn’t skip a beat.

“Sorry you wrote it? Or sorry you left one for me?”

“Both, honey, I’m sorry for both. It really wasn’t meant for you.”

Well, that’s the world’s worst apology, but that’s most likely all I’m gonna get.

“What about Mark telling me that you both consider me dead?” Now I’m just pissed. I’m gonna be hurt eventually, but I’ll take advantage of my anger while it’s here. “Do you think that was a very good thing for a parent to say to a child?”

“Well, it’s not like you’re a baby, but Mark and I have talked about that and he is very sorry he said that. He was angry and didn’t mean it at all. Honey, why are you bringing all this up? It’s all in the past now; we should just try to move on as a family. Speaking of, how is your father treating you? Is he being kind? Is your stepmother treating you nicely? I know they can both be very cold sorts of people, but hang in there.”

I’m sure Mark is terribly sorry. He’s so humble after all. “They are fine, Mom. Everything has been going really well over here.”

“Hmm. That’s good to hear,” she says in a tone that in no way implies that she is happy about it. “After everything that has happened, we still would love to see you. If you’re willing of course.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I don’t think I should see you for a while, Mom. I don’t feel like I’m ready. Actually, I don’t feel ready to talk to you right now either … Maybe eventually we could try to have a better relationship, but until then, I was hoping you could give me some space.”

Give you space? I haven’t seen you in months. How much more space do you need? I really think we should all go to my counsellor, sit down, and talk about this. This isn’t right what you’re doing; we are a family.”

“I know, Mom. I just can’t have you calling all the time or showing up places expecting me to want to see you. This has been really hard to deal with … I can’t do that if I’m constantly afraid of you or Mark.”

“Afraid of me? Why on earth would you be afraid of me?” she says with honest bewilderment.

I sit there for a moment a little stunned, not really knowing what to say. Does she not remember what life was like when we lived with her? Or is she just too embarrassed to discuss it? I’m confused for a moment before I continue, “Don’t you think I have pretty good reason to be afraid? Or at the very least cautious?”

“Of course, dear, but that is all so far in the past. Mark has been doing so well at therapy; he has hardly had any episodes lately. And I have been really working through my issues. Maybe someday I can share them with you and you’ll finally understand from my perspective. Do you think all this has been easy on me? I’m humiliated. All I’ve ever done is be a good mother to you girls, and this is the thanks I get?” She starts sniffling as if she’s crying, but I’m not convinced.

“None of this was very far in the past for me. This is what I’m saying, Sue …” Finally I use her given name, not caring if it hurts her feelings. “You refuse to apologize or take any responsibility for your actions. I don’t feel like I can talk to you rationally because you are acting totally irrationally. For right now, I really think we both need to take some time to figure out what is the best way to have any relationship. If we can even have one …” Choosing my words is becoming incredibly difficult, but I really am trying hard to be respectful. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow only to regret my words. I want to be level-headed about this, but she is seriously pushing it.

“So you’re never gonna talk to me?” Somehow she exchanged her tears for attitude again. “You are being very immature, Dannie. Well, if that’s what you want, I’ll think on it and let you know how I feel about this. I have to be honest though, I’m very hurt by you girls. It is going to take me some time before I can talk to you reasonably.”

Really? I have no words for her brand of crazy.

She continues, “Well, I hope you know that I love you, but I’ve really gotta go. I have an appointment that I just can’t miss. Bye, sweet girl.”

Click.

So much for wanting to talk. I hang up the phone, take a deep breath, and finally look up at my dad. He is a little red-faced. It looks like he’s about to spit fire so I take it that he must have heard most of our conversation. I look over at Mary to see her appalled look, which mirrors my dad’s.

“I don’t know what to say to that, but at least I know I tried,” I say quietly, worried that my dad may have a stroke while we sit here.

“Well, we realize you needed to get that off your chest, but it might be best to take a breather for a while before you call her again,” Mary adds, taking my dad’s hand.

“That woman …” my dad trails off, lost in thought again.

“It’s okay, Dad. I needed to know she won’t be constantly trying to get in touch. I need time. I needed answers. I may not have gotten what I was hoping for, but at least I can walk away knowing I wasn’t wrong about her … and that this whole mess wasn’t my fault.” I whisper the last part, but they both hear.

“Is that what you think? That any of this is your fault?” my dad asks.

“Well … sorta.”

My dad and Mary look at each other before pinning me with looks of concern. “No, none of this is your fault. We are both glad you are here with us, and now that we are starting to understand what it was like for you at Sue’s house. Why didn’t you tell us everything that has been going on? Dannie, how bad was it?” my dad asks.

“It wasn’t good, Dad, but it’s over.”

Mary looks as if she is trying to read my thoughts, and after a few seconds of her scrutiny, I think she knows. She sees, and she understands the entirety of it. Finally.

[]

After my last final of the day, I walk out of class like a champ and breathe the fresh air of freedom. I can’t believe that was the last class of my high school career. It’s early Friday. Graduation is in two hours and then party time.

The girls are in front of my locker before I reach it myself. “Free at last … Free at last!” Jem shouts, causing the other seniors in the vicinity to whoop and holler back at her.

Hella fried … but so pumped for grad!” she continues as I finally put my last binder in my bag to bring home and throw away gladly.

“So where are we meeting up? I have pictures to take at home, and then my dad will bring me here,” I say, not able to wipe the grin off my face. Graduation. Hells yes.

“Same here. I will be here as early as acceptable. My mother has the whole family out …” Melody trails off because that is explanation enough if her whole family is at her house. Yikes, I’m sure it will be a showdown.

“Perfect!” Jem shouts, “We will meet here but bring bags for overnight because I plan to party like we are graduates,[_ _]ladies!” Another round of hollering commences from every senior passing.

Jem suddenly steps closer with a serious look on her face. “So how have you been, hon?” She grabs my hand as Melody wraps an arm around my waist.

I love these girls. “I’m doing okay actually. I’m feeling … hopeful.”

Jem gives me a smile, and Melody squeezes me tighter.

“Glad to hear it. It’s about time things start turning around for you girls,” Jem says sincerely before saying her good-byes and walking toward the parking lot.

I take a deep breath and turn toward Melody, knowing we have to have a conversation sooner rather than later.

As I finally lift my eyes to Melody’s, I feel the need to ask about something I’ve noticed. “You’ve been doing it again, haven’t you?” I whisper so she doesn’t feel cornered.

Seconds go by in silence as I realize how oblivious I’ve been to the pain of those around me. The guilt breaks my heart before she responds, “It’s just been really bad at home lately. I know you’ve had a lot going—”

I cut her off, pull her into a hug, and hold her there.

“I’m so sorry I’ve been so wrapped up in my own crap I’ve overlooked this. You can tell me anything, you know? I love you.” I feel Melody start to cry softly as we grieve for her heartbreak together.

I get ready for graduation with Avery and Crystal. While they help me do my hair and makeup, we catch up quickly. Picking out the sundress I’ll wear under my cap and gown to keep me cool in the Cali heat, we have a surprisingly good time. We talk about Crystal’s boyfriend and the silly things that have happened at college. Avery updates us on her most recent boyfriend, whom she assures us is “the one.” I try to hide the fact that I am rolling my eyes, but Crystal spots it and smirks. Apparently she thinks Avery’s declaration is as ridiculous as I do. But it seems familiar and normal and comfortable, so I am glad they are both in my room hanging out with me. I need them, and as much as I hate admitting that I need anyone, I am tired of being alone. I am tired of distancing myself from everyone. I’m just plain tired.

Graduation flies by in a blur. Honestly you prepare for this your entire educational career, but you hardly remember it because you are so damn nervous about tripping on stage.

Just me? Okay.

We laugh at the speeches and roll our eyes at the guy who pulls out a beach ball and tosses it around the graduates. Only in Cali. Jem and Melody keep sending me meaningful glances as if to say, “We did it!” And I return their smiles and glances from across the rows of students. The entire stadium is packed so I can’t make out my family or Reed. But I know they are all there, and that is what matters. Even if Sue is out there, she is no longer my problem. So when the crowed rushes onto the field and we throw up our caps signalling the official end of graduation, I feel sad—elated but sad. As they say, the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

“I’m so proud of you!” My dad wraps me in a big hug and kisses my cheek. I squeeze him back before giving Mary and my sisters hugs.

“So how does it feel to be a big kid?” My dad laughs at his own joke, and I smile in return.

“Pretty good, Dad.”

The girls make it over to us with their families, and everyone proceeds to chat loudly. I feel arms wrapped around me, and I lean into them automatically.

“Hey, princess,” he breathes in my ear.

I turn in his arms and jump into them. He picks me up and swings me around.

I squeal, “Put me down!” I laugh, giving him a chaste kiss when he does.

“I’m so proud of you.” He smiles, and I just smile back with my arms around his neck, looking into his beautiful dark-green eyes.

“None of that. None of that!” My dad chuckles, and I look over to see him smiling at us, holding Mary’s hand, looking not at all disapproving. He loves Reed, and I know it. Even Mary likes him, and she doesn’t like people unless they are worthy. I trust her opinion. So when I look back at Reed, who is blushing slightly, I give him another kiss.

Laughing into the kiss, he pulls away. “Are we still on for tomorrow?”

“Yep. Can’t wait.” I can’t wipe the grin off my face at the prospect of what might happen. I’m so excited I wish it was tomorrow.

But tonight is girls’ night out, and the girls are just as important to me. I’m glad Reed recognizes that and never impedes my girl time, nor does he get jealous of it. He gets it, and he gives me space. I love that about him.

Leaning in, he pulls me closer. “Neither can I, princess.” He gives me a kiss on the cheek and lets me go. He keeps his arm around my waist as we make the family rounds. I give hugs to Mama Bea, her husband, and all the cousins. I try in vain to avoid Jett, but he is right there, unavoidable, scowling at me. What is his problem? I just ignore his glare.

We say our good-byes to our families while walking toward our cars. Reed keeps his arm around my waist the whole way, but he is silent. When we get to my car, he suddenly presses me up against it and kisses me deeply. I open my mouth for him, and he quickly responds. He holds me up against the car with his body, and we lose all sense of control. The parking lot is quiet and dark, but if someone got close enough, they would definitely see. I’m not sure that I care right now.

I moan into his mouth, and he suddenly stills and rests his forehead against mine. We both try to catch our breath, but it’s hard for me not to grab him and start this all over again. He steps away after a moment and smiles at me.

“So I’ll pick you up tomorrow? You gonna miss me tonight?”

“Nah … miss you? What’s there to miss?” I laugh and smile.

“Cruel woman.” He smiles again while slowly backing away. “Lov—miss you.” He stills, looking shocked and embarrassed, maybe even scared because we both know what he was going to say.

All I can do is smile. He loves me? He loves me! Love!

I’m amazed, and as much as I want to shout, “I love you!” back, I don’t. He stopped himself so I don’t know if he was ready.

“You too,” is all I say in return with a shy smile, hoping that he gets my meaning. I love him too, and I will miss him too. Equally. I start my car without looking back at his face because I’m so nervous. I pause for a moment in my car and glance up. What I see is not what I expect.

Jett’s truck is in front of mine, and in the front seat is Jett, looking ready to jump out, grab Reed, and throttle him. He is gripping the wheel hard enough that his knuckles are white, and his eyes are fiercely staring at me—predatory, angry, frightening.

I look away, shaken by the expression on his face, and start the car quickly. I know he will be at Ice House tonight, but right now, I feel a little vulnerable. We are alone, in a dark parking lot, and he looks like he wants to hurt someone. He just witnessed me making out, and a predeclaration of love to my new boyfriend.

If he is in fact my boyfriend—because we still have not had the DTR talk. Dang, I must be getting really good at deflecting because I haven’t even attempted that conversation. It’s been a crazy year, but I am looking forward to the summer and all the possibilities that it holds.

I drive away from my former high school. Now if I could only get that look out of my mind, the look Jett gave me that gives me goosebumps and shivers. And not the good kind …

By the time I get to Ice House, the girls are already there. All the seniors from our class are here; luckily there are no underclassmen in sight, but there are plenty of former graduates so it’s just a matter of time before Jett gets here. We are all dressed up, and the music pumping is a new song. It’s party time. We are all prepared to camp out, stay up all night, and sleep in cars or tents so we can party all night like graduates.

Jem grabs my hand, I grab Melody’s, and we head toward the dance floor. We start swaying and shouting the wrong lyrics over the music while drinking enough beer to finally get a buzz. I see Jett over Jem’s shoulder as he finally arrives. He beelines it to the dance floor, grabbing Kendal as he walks. They start dancing, or maybe it was really sex with their clothes on because that is certainly what it looks like. Is he trying to make me jealous? Because using Kendal to do it is not going to have the desired effect. Icky, that’s what that is.

I keep dancing and try to ignore their dry humping and utter obnoxiousness near me. If it weren’t for the fact that every few minutes I notice him watching me, I would think he was totally in to her. I’m not so convinced.

“Eww, is that my brother?” Jem finally notices the two lovebirds and scrunches her nose at them.

“It is just wrong to see one’s brother in such a state. I need to wash out my eyes.” She walks away, shaking her head in an aggravated gesture. Melody keeps dancing with anyone around her. I feel hands on my waist. I turn to see Nick, so I smile up at him. He is really tall, but we seem to have fun. We have danced before so we fall into a rhythm quickly—close, but not so close that it feels wrong.

I look over at Jett again, and he is fuming, furiously moving with his dance partner, who is completely eating it up. Clueless that one. I start dancing with Nick a little faster just to piss him off because it’s funny as hell. Payback’s a bee-see, isn’t it? After a few more dances with Nick, who is a really good dancer, I walk away, needing a break.

Water. Sweet holy mother of water.

As I grab a bottle out of the cooler and take a long swig, I feel fingers digging into my arm painfully.

“So you are just a little slut now, aren’t you? I knew you always were, but tonight I got my proof. Making out with one guy one minute, rubbing up against another the next. Typical.”

I whip around to see the sneer on Jett’s face.

W.T.Hell?

Who do you think you are? Don’t talk to me! Don’t look at me! Don’t come near me!” Shocked by my outburst I suddenly freeze. Who is this girl who has suddenly body-snatched me? I never would have had the guts to say that to Jett’s face six months ago. Now it’s all I can do not to take a swing at his snarling face. “You’re one to talk, Jett. Really? After that show with Kendal, I feel like I should pay you for that. Or wash out my eyes.”

“Don’t tell me you actually like that guy. What’s his name, Reed? Are you kidding me with him?[_ Do you actually think you love him_]?” He scoffs while we face off, toe to toe. “Whore,” he says under his breath.

“Don’t call me that! Yes, I do love him.” Suddenly calm, I continue, “He loves me, and it’s none of your damn business.” I turn to walk away when I hear him mutter something not worthy of repeating.

I’m pissed and need a distraction so I pour a beer from the keg. Grabbing the girls, I continue to dance while trying to ignore the nagging in my brain that says, “I shouldn’t be drinking.” I don’t care. I want to be free from everything—my mother, my ex, my own expectations of keeping everything together all the time, the feeling that I’m never going to be good enough for Reed. All of it.

I drink and dance it away.

Nick continues to linger while dancing with me, acting as a buffer between Jett and me. Thankfully, I notice Jett start making out with Kendal against a tree at some point. I can tell what is going to happen with that on a night like this. Not surprised. Good riddance to them both.

After a while, I need to take another breather so I head over for water and walk out of the tree line. There are some beautiful trails here that look over the water, so I make my way up to the face of a rock to get a better shot. My head is spinning a little, and I stumble before I finally sit on the boulder for the view. I hear twigs snapping behind me, and I look around to see Nick. I feel a jolt of fear before the alcohol dulls the feeling.

It’s just Nick. How many classes have I had with him? He lives next door for crying out loud! He is tall but never intimidating. He’s dated around, but no one has had a bad word to say about him.

What’s there to fear?

“Hey, I saw you escape. Thought you might want some company?” He settles down beside me, pressing his side to mine. I get a little uncomfortable because as much as I love to dance with people, I really do love Reed. We might not be officially together, but I’m his in my heart. When I look over at him, he looks hopeful. His blond hair is falling into his eyes, but I resist pushing it away because that might encourage him. I look straight ahead.

“Thanks. It was getting to be a bit much. I had a lot to drink, and it was all starting to spin a little.” I try to laugh to ease the tension.

“It is beautiful out here. I love the lake. Wanna get a closer look?”

I shrug as he stands, holding his hand out for me. I pretend not to see it as I walk past him toward the path. We lumber down the sand toward the lake’s edge, both stumbling from too much beer. He has to hold on to my arm several times as I stumble on the uneven path. I’ve definitely had too much to drink, and I bump into him on more than one occasion. He seems to be enjoying the contact, but I’m starting to get annoyed.

We stand at the edge of the beach, looking out on the lake in silence. He clears his voice. “So did you like my letters? The bracelet …”

That’s a beyond strange thing to say. I freeze a little. I’m confused as I look over at him; his face is impassive and unreadable. Letters? Bracelet? He can’t mean my charm bracelet, can he? I got that before I really knew him … on my front porch … across the street from him.

Suddenly nervous as the pieces fall together, I’m still rather confused as to why. “Wh-what do you mean?”

He suddenly looks annoyed. Gone is his easy smile as he takes a step closer, his movements deliberate. “The letters I have been writing you and leaving in your locker? Your purse? The windshield? I know you’ve gotten them.”

It takes my mind a moment to catch up. The only letters I have gotten were from Reed. Or at least I thought they were from Reed. Reed has also given me letters by leaving them in my books or on my car windshield. But there were none from Nick.

Or were they all from Nick? Letters with poems, letters with riddles, letters that describe everything that is beautiful about me. Letters filled with descriptions of my face and body and laugh—they now seem threatening. Were they all from Nick? I barely know Nick.

Nick has stepped so close I have to back up a little to look up at his face. He really is quite tall so it is hard to do drunk, and I sway a little. He touches my wrist, the one with the bracelet. “You mean to tell me I have been writing you letters all year, and you have had no idea they are from me? I find that hard to believe, Dannie … Stop playing games; it’s getting old fast.” He grips my wrist tightly, too tightly; it hurts.

“What games? What’s your problem?” I’m confused still, but I’m starting to realize that I do have a reason to feel fear now. I look around on the beach, noticing that we are completely alone and on the other side of the ridge from the party.

Anger flashes in his face. “What games? Really, Dannie? That dick head you used to date! Throwing him in my face … and that boy who follows you around like a lost puppy! I’m sick of it! Stop playing with me …”

I stare, stunned, before he continues more quietly, obviously trying to control his temper. “I notice you looking at me in class. I know you love the bracelet, the letters … This thing between us, it won’t go away. You made me who I am. What I am! I haven’t forgotten!” He leans in, breathing in my ear. “No one will stop this … Not that asshole you dated for too many years, not that boy. It’s okay. I forgive you for them. We will start over. Every couple has their rough patches … I understand.” He throws me down in the sand and sits on my legs, my arms still in his grip against my chest. I can’t breathe he is so heavy, but I squirm.

“Nick, what are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”

He hits me, and I freeze with terror.

“Don’t worry, my blue-eyed girl. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

I see his eyes, and something in them looks frightening, maybe even mad. Either way, my skin crawls. “We are meant to be together, Dannie. I have waited long enough; it’s time for us to be together, babe.” His lips are suddenly on me, drowning out my protest. I’m frozen; as much as I want to fight, there is something like a cage, a vice in my mind, and I can’t break free. Tears fall from my face freely as I start sobbing.

No. No. No. No. No.

God, please get me out of this. Help me …

As he struggles against me, lifting up my dress, he makes quick work of what he is doing, controlling and forceful, quite at odds with the strange words he repeats, telling me how much he loves me, how I need him, how this is my fault, that I made him do this, that I belong to him, I’m his …

No. No. No. No. No.

I burn while he whispers, “You’re mine, Dannie. You’re mine. We’ll always be together, baby …”

I fade him out. I can’t hear.

I disappear. Years of abuse have trained my mind to do one thing: crawl inside myself and disappear. I’m shaking uncontrollably while I hear someone loudly sobbing. I’m frozen, but I’m still burning. I can hear someone saying, “No,” over and over, but I feel nothing but empty.

I stare out into the night and try to think of nothing, try to be nothing. That’s what my mother taught me—to disappear.

[]

When the fog lifts, I realize I’m alone again, not really knowing how much time has passed. He’s gone, but I’m afraid he will come back or that he might be close by. I tremble as I pull my dress back in place with shaking hands. I can’t see well because I can’t seem to stop the constant flow of tears. Loud sobs rack my body to the point of aching pain as I fall to my knees and hurl. I throw up until there is nothing left but dry heaves and sobbing. I see my bracelet from the corner of my sandy eyes and frantically tear it off my wrist. I throw it as far as I can as if it were burning me.

I stumble up the path back to the party, staying outside the tree line to get to my car without being seen. I start my car and drive away from the party. I drive without much conscious thought to Reed’s field before I crawl in the backseat of the car and cry myself to sleep, hoping never to wake up.

Unfortunately I do wake while the light is barely over the tree line. I take stock of my injuries. I feel hollow. I feel sore inside and out. I sit there thinking how I never really escaped, how I traded one nightmare just to walk right toward another.

I get home and try to slip in unnoticed. I avoid any mirrors before I make it to the shower. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see. I stand under the scorching water, watching my skin slowly turn pink. Water and tears mix together as I indulge one last cry over my mistakes that left me vulnerable. I should have known better. After the types of men I know are out there (namely Mark), I should have been more diligent in protecting myself. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so stupid. My fault.

I wash and wash and wash, but I don’t feel clean.

After putting myself together as best as I can, I lie on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling for a long time. I am going to have to face Jem sometime. Melody … Reed … Just thinking his name hurts, knowing what I am going to have to do. How am I going to pretend to be fine? I stare at my flashing phone before I finally find the courage to read my texts with shaking hands.

The girls’ messages repeat themselves. Clearly they had been looking for me at the bonfire. Not hard enough apparently … I close my eyes and take a deep breath. It’s not their fault; it’s mine. My fault.

where are you?

[_where did you go???!!! _]

[_ helloooo??? _]

[_call me asap! Im starting to get worried hon … _]

Then I open up a few from Reed, trying not to cry as I read them.

Good night, princess, hope you’re having fun with the girls:) Ms. Graduate!

Miss you

Morning … what time should I pick you up tonight??

Oh, Reed … I can’t deal with this. I just can’t.

My eyes are misted over, but I try to control myself. Trembling even more, I scroll through my missed call log, which shows both Jem’s and Melody’s numbers. Even Jett’s number shows up. Unfortunately there are also quite a few from a blocked number, which causes my stomach to lurch. I make it to the trash can in my room before I heave up what is left in my stomach.

I shouldn’t have gone to the party. I shouldn’t have started to go to parties. I shouldn’t have drunk … all the things I shouldn’t have done that could have prevented the hell I woke up in. I fist my hair hard, tugging until my scalp burns. Tears spring from my eyes again as I promise myself never again.

Never again will I put myself in a vulnerable position. Never again will I cry about this. Never again will I be a victim. Never again will I let anyone break me. Not my mother, not any man, not even me.

Never. Never. Never. My fault. My fault. My fault.

Suddenly I feel like a caged animal. I have to get out. I have to leave all this behind. But how? Lying on my bed for an unknowable amount of time, I form a plan. It somehow lets me feel somewhat normal for a moment, like if I check off these things from my list, I might be okay again. Might being farfetched, but it’s all I can do to help myself feel sane in this moment.

Now, I know what to do, but doing it is another thing completely. I have to protect myself—from Nick, from Sue, from Mark, from myself, because clearly I can’t even trust myself.

The memory of the letters crashes into my thoughts. I suddenly rip the shoe box from under my bed and open letter after letter, many of which I didn’t open after the situation with my mother’s letter. I didn’t have the heart to tell Reed to stop writing me letters, but come to think of it, we had never talked about them. I assumed they were from Reed. I close my eyes at the thought of how wrong I had been to assume.

I read furiously though the letters. They start out sweet, mostly poems or romantic quotes, but after a while, they sound obsessive and even angry—angry that I hadn’t reciprocated. They eventually go on to mention my relationship with Reed and how I was being disloyal. If I had read them the last few months, it would have been obvious that Reed hadn’t written them.

I sit there lost, lost in memories of previous encounters with Nick over the last few years. He hardly knew me. I didn’t realize he had even noticed me. I hang my head at how very wrong I was. But the thought of anyone knowing what happened is humiliating, and I don’t know if I can handle that at this point. I don’t think I can handle much right now. I feel shattered.

My dad would be heartbroken. Mama Bea would be heartbroken. What would I even say to explain how this happened—that I made a horrible judgment call? The cost was too much to be sure, and I just can’t handle the look I would see on their faces.

Disappointment … disgust …

I don’t feel strong enough to handle that. I feel ashamed, and I start to cry even as I think it, trying not to remember the night before. Stop! No, I can’t go there. I can’t even think about it right now.

Don’t think about it. Don’t think!

I’m not sure how long I sit telling myself not to think, but as time passes, I realize I can’t avoid people forever. I get up slowly and go downstairs, prepared to put on a face of calm composure. What is one more secret to hide? What is one more mask? I will do better, be better, and never allow myself to be vulnerable again. Never again.

I text the girls that I hadn’t felt good the night before so I went home and crashed. I text Reed to pick me up ASAP. I just need to get it over with so that I can move on as fast as I can from all of this. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. I throw my phone on the bed, not bothering to look at their responses as I make my way downstairs.

Walking into the kitchen is like walking into the Twilight Zone. Everything is normal even though everything has changed. I am still shaking slightly, praying for Mary not to notice as I grab a yogurt and only pretend to eat.

“Morning. How was your night?” my dad says as he is reading over the newspaper.

“Fine. Hey, Dad, do you think I could get a job for the summer?” Not skipping a beat, I say, “I don’t have a car so I was hoping you or Mary could bring me to look for jobs today?”

His eyebrows rise slightly.

“So soon? Don’t you want to take some time? You just finished school yesterday.”

“No, I’d like to go today. Reed is coming over soon, but we won’t be long …” I cut myself off, knowing that my conversation with Reed might not take more than a few minutes, but I don’t want to tell my dad that. It’s not really anyone’s business anyway.

“Well, if you’re sure,” he says, questioning me again.

“Yep, I’m sure. Thanks.” Check off my list. The sooner I move out, the better. I need to get out of this place. This town. But I’m gonna need money to do it, and I will spend every second of my summer getting it. I am not going to rely on anyone anymore. Not even my dad.

I am starting to see the truth of that all too clearly.

I hear Reed’s truck faintly in the distance so I get up and make my way outside. I wait at the end of the driveway, feeling a deep sense of doom. I feel sick to my stomach, sick in my soul, but I have to go through with this. I have to get this done so I can focus on my plan—or so that I can crawl in a hole and die. That sounds like a better plan in fact …

I stand there while he parks in front of me, smiling though the window as I fail to calm my heart. I have to control myself or I’m going to be sick again. [_Don’t cry. Just do what needs to be done; then you can go back to your room to wallow. _]I hate myself for what I’m about to do.

“Hey, beautiful.” He comes around the front of his truck to open my door, holding a single white rose. Handing me the rose, he gives me a quick hug, which I barely reciprocate. He gives me a tilted head look, like he is trying to figure something out. Is it that obvious? Did what Nick do leave a mark on me as if to say defeated, tarnished,[_ foul_]?[_ _]

_Broken. _

“Hey, can we just sit in the truck for a minute? I want to talk to you real quick.” I don’t meet his eyes as I climb up into the truck, putting the rose on the dash as if it were going to turn into a snake any moment.

“Sure … Are you okay, princess?” He looks sincerely worried at this point. He is going to see right through me if I don’t make this fast.

“Yeah, of course. I want to talk for a bit.” The false brightness in my voice sounds too fake for him not to notice. But he shuts the door slowly, comes around to his side, and gets in quietly.

He turns to me, looks into my eyes, and waits. I can see the wheels turning in his head as he tries to figure out what is different. So I speak before he has a chance to figure it out.

“I can’t see you anymore, Reed. This doesn’t seem to be working out… whatever this even is. We aren’t officially dating anyways. I wanted to be fair to you by telling you to your face that I want to go to college without any attachments. I think I took this too far for too long without considering the fact that I am leaving at the end of the summer. I’m not going to go to Sacramento State anymore. I’m going to be farther away, so there is no point to pursuing this thing between us. I’m sorry I let it go on for so long.” I pretty much paraphrased the same speech Jett gave me a year ago. It makes me feel like I am as bad of a person, but it’s for Reed’s own good. Jett wanted to screw other girls and have his fun; I want Reed to be free from someone like me, someone so tainted and ugly that I will only ruin his chances at happiness. He deserves more than what I can give him. I love him too much to hold him back. Even if it kills me, he is worth the sacrifice. There isn’t much left of me now to kill anyway.

“What? Are you serious? What is going on really? This is bullshit, and you know it!” He sounds hurt but mostly disbelieving. He doesn’t believe what I’m saying. I’ll have to do better then.

“I am serious. I don’t feel like we should drag this on anymore.” I look at him now with a straight face, remarkably calm.

“Too young? That’s ridiculous. Look at me and tell me you feel nothing for me.”

I look away.

“Look at me!”

I startle at his voice and look at him.

“I love you, Dannie. I love you!” He puts his hands on either side of my face, stopping when his mouth is an inch away from mine. “Tell me you feel nothing,” he says, and he closes the gap. But when his lips touch mine, I reel back, slamming into the truck door. I can’t let him touch me where [_he _]touched me. I can’t taint Reed that way. I can’t let him touch the ugliness.

No! Reed, I’m sorry, but I don’t love you. I don’t feel anything.” I scramble to find the handle to escape from him as fast as I can, but not before I see the pain in his eyes. I turn before he sees the tears that are beginning to fall. It’s true; I don’t feel anything.

I feel numb. [_Don’t think. Don’t think. _]

“What happened? What did I do, Dannie? I’m sorry. I won’t try to kiss you again. Tell me what I did wrong.” His voice breaks, and my heart hurts for what I am doing to him. But it’s for his own good. He will find someone better who will be better for him. He should be with someone as perfect as he is. And I’m not.

I try not to look at him too long for fear of losing my courage to do what needs to be done. I can’t help but feel as though I need to take in every detail of his face, to cherish our last few moments together even if it makes every moment after hurt. I take in the anguished look on his face and notice the defeat in it as well. I cry out to his soul, hoping he will hear it and not the words coming from my mouth—that he will somehow understand why this has to happen.

[_I love you. I love you. I love you, _]I repeat in my head, knowing that I have to end this, that I will not allow myself to be vulnerable. I can’t afford to, not even to Reed. Setting him free is the right thing to do. I will lock away my love for him with all the other things I try to forget and walk away.

Never again. Never again. Never again.

Turning away from him one last time, I breathe in deeply to steady my voice and breathe out. “You didn’t do anything, Reed. I just don’t love you.” Like a last nail on a coffin, I know that what I said was the death of his love for me. I accept what must be as I walk toward my house, concentrating simply on putting one foot in front of the other. It was a difficult feat at this point.

Quietly, I hear Reed breathing deeply as he whispers, “I don’t believe you.”

[]

I poured out my sickness.

I’m cured of the blue-eyed girl.

I won.

As I watch her over the course of the summer from my bedroom window, I contemplate the precarious situation I am left with. Do I let her go? Do I even want her to stay? More important, do I threaten her to keep the secret of what transpired between us?

Although, that last thought seems unnecessary at this point. It’s been almost a month, and she clearly hasn’t said a word. Any time I have captured a glimpse of her, she startles and flees from my sight as quickly as she can. It’s like she doesn’t want to see me or something.

I laugh at the thought.

I relish the memory.

I can’t say Dannie does it for me anymore. Although I will cherish the memory of our time together, high school, our night at the beach, I’d have to say I am ready to move on. I’m almost certain it was the thrill of the hunt that spurred me on.

The chase.

Her fear.

I close my eyes, letting my head fall back as the memory washes over me. Adrenaline pumps through my blood, heating every cell in my body at the thought of doing it again. The thought consumes me.

My path.

My true purpose was unknowingly uncovered at freshman orientation, all with her fresh innocence, which I stole from her. An innocence I will find somewhere unexpected, and when I do …

I’ll take it.

[]

As I look out my window at nothing, my mind traces the steps that led me to this moment—the steps that led me off a cliff I should have seen coming. I have never been one who believes in happily ever after. Little girls grow up believing in white knights and fairy-tale endings. Little girls who grow up safe, loved, and happy do. I am not one of those girls. Those principles were squandered and broken by the very people who should have nurtured them. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to believe; I simply didn’t have the luxury of it.

The tears burn my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall. I can’t allow myself weakness anymore. Look where it has led me. I chastise myself again for my stupidity, for my ignorance. I can only try to find faith in the strength of my own heart. I have only ever relied on the blind hope that one day I will conquer the impossible, survive the insurmountable, and find freedom from fear, that God might find it in his righteous heart to show me mercy. I’d even settle for pity, but now, I’m feeling rather angry with God.

As if I’d summoned His intervention, Melody and Jem step into my room.

“Hey there, stranger,” Melody says, sitting at the end of my bed.

Jem comes and sits beside me, but I fail to hide the cringe on my face as our bodies touch. I’m not used to being touched anymore. It feels wrong somehow—even by Jem apparently.

She notices and scoots away a little. “We thought we’d stop by and catch up. It seems you have been working so much we hardly get to see you. We miss you.” Melody nods her head with a weak smile. She is clearly trying to sort out the puzzle I’ve become these last few weeks. I’ll have to try harder to act normal. I have to blend in again.

I finally try speaking. “So what’s new?” My voice is obviously forced; they can instantly tell, but I ignore their concerned glances.

Jem pipes up quickly. “Well, apparently you broke Reed’s heart.”

“Jem!” Melody says with a worried look.

“It’s true … Hon, why on earth did you break up with him? I know how you feel about him. It just doesn’t make sense to us. Did something happen?” she asks in a softer tone.

I look at her, shaking my head. “It was bad timing, Jem. I’ve had the year from hell. You know that … I can’t handle a guy too.” Although that isn’t the whole truth, it is the truth in part. The more I’ve thought about Reed these last few weeks since graduation, the more I realize that I had relied on Reed too much this year. I need to learn to be self-reliant and be comfortable by myself. I need to focus on working through everything that happened this year and do it on my own.

“I love Reed; you girls know that. It’s just more important to me right now to feel whole again. It’s all just too much.” I think for a moment about the poor timing of meeting Reed. “I want to be me again,” I repeat.

“That kind of sucks for Reed though. He was a little blindsided by the whole thing, ya know?” Jem says bluntly.

Melody chimes in. “Maybe you could give him more of an explanation. He’s our friend too, and I know he is really hurting right now … It’s hard to watch you two go through this …”

I can’t imagine talking to him. It would hurt too much. I don’t think I could bear it. “Could we talk about something else?” I ask, pleading for them to give me a break.

“Sure,” Melody says with obvious disappointment.

“Well, my brother has a girlfriend,” Jem says with a sarcastic laugh.

I smile weakly. “Good for him.”

“Oh, and your neighbour was arrested last night … Did you know him? A Nick something … I think. He beat up some guy at a party, almost killed him apparently.”

My head whips toward Jem in fear. Nick arrested? How? Why? For how long? I want to ask, but I can’t.

Melody must have noticed my look because she adds, “It was some fight up at Ice House. Nick apparently got too rough with some guy’s sister, and it turned into a beat-down.” She gives me a curious look, but I ignore it. I can’t explain. I don’t even want to.

“They say he is going to serve a few years at least. Especially considering his prior record …”

Record? Nick had a record? How could I not know that. I shut down completely until the girls realize I’m done visiting and finally leave.

Nick is gone, arrested. Gone. I begin to shake with relief as I muster enough courage to glance at his house diagonal from mine. He’s gone. There is nothing and no one to be afraid of anymore. I can’t explain the sudden crushing guilt that accompanies my relief at the thought of the other girl involved in this or her brother who was obviously trying to protect her. If I had had more courage, I could have prevented them both from being hurt. Unfortunately I didn’t, and the regret, the shame, is overwhelming. Should I come forward? It’s hard to even consider.

With Nick out of the picture, or at least for the foreseeable future, I can move on, learn to pretend again, learn to hide just one more time with just one more secret.

Secrets have been my unfortunate reality. No one would guess my reality, that the girl who always smiles is broken, living in a world where nightmares hide. No one will venture to guess that the face you see is no face at all but a mask. No one questions the girl who has her life put together perfectly. No one would guess the girl who seems to have all the answers is shattered beneath.

I have always kept my heart close, even from those I love most, to protect them from the harsh truth—that I had been broken long before I was given the chance to be whole. I don’t remember what it means to be innocent. My innocence was taken before I could really believe in fairy tales. Yet somehow, I get through it. I learn to live with the circumstances of my life, my family, the abuse I’ve endured, and the abandonment I’ve felt. I kept breathing. I kept going. I refused to give up.

… and I’ll learn to do it again.

Reed’s face suddenly flashes in my mind. I squeeze my eyes shut at the thought of all we had, at what could have been. I didn’t have to pretend for him. For a short time, I felt like I had a hope of freedom, a chance at normalcy. Reed came into my life, bringing me the gift of his love and friendship—a boy who gave me a reason to believe in happy endings. And for the first time in a very long time, I wanted to believe him.

He handed me love, lending me his own strength, giving me faith in people again.

It was a gift I was forced to give back. I walked away from the man before I broke him too, before he saw the face beneath the mask I wore so perfectly, for so long, that I had forgotten what it was concealing.

A mask that hid the truth …

I have come to the realization that we are all broken. Some of us break many times. I broke the first time my mother hit me. I broke when she told me to leave and never come home. I broke the night he raped me, and I broke the moment I walked away from the only man I had ever fallen in love with. I had been broken over and over, and I came to one conclusion: that no one was going to put me together but me. I will be strong enough again. I will find a way to be capable, and if only to prove to myself that I am worthy, I will try.

Moving away feels like the only way to do that. There are simply too many bad memories for me here in my hometown, reminding me of my shame. Sue, Mark, Jett, [_him … _]

It’s too much.

Perhaps when I’m strong enough to stomach it, I’ll finally make my way back. But until I’m ready, I’ll find refuge in a city far enough away to give me space from it all, space to put myself back together one piece at a time.

[]

I stand in Mama Bea’s kitchen, hugging her for the last time in what may be a very long time. I hold her quietly as she whispers how much she will miss me and how much she loves me. It soothes my soul to know that this woman will be waiting for me when I’m ready to come back.

“Come back when you’re ready. I know you’ve been through a lot this year, hon, but you’ll figure it out. You just need to work through it. Jem tells me you might try out Melody’s therapist?”

I nod my head but just look over her shoulder at Jem as she watches me with a hurt expression. I know this has been hard on her. I haven’t given my girls any explanation that might make them understand what I’m going through, but I just don’t know how to say the words.

“Well, we love you. Let us know when you’ve settled in. Give Melody a big hug for me.” She kisses my cheek before turning toward Jem.

I walk toward Jem hesitantly, not sure how to leave her. Our plans were to go to college together, but I switched schools at the last minute, leaving her hanging. I’m a terrible friend for it, but I had to. I just hope she will forgive me for it someday.

Wrapping her arms around me, she quietly asks, “Why are you running away?”

I shake my head. “I’m not. I promise I’m not. I know I haven’t explained why I need to leave, but I need this. After everything …” I pause, thinking over the year. So much has happened—so many things I haven’t even begun to really process or accept. “I was running away at first. I’ll admit that is true.” I pull away to look her in the eyes as I get this all out. “Now, I know I need to leave to gain perspective. I can’t do that here. With Sue and Mark close by … with Reed.” With Nick, I add silently to myself. “I just need to get away from the things that have caused me so much pain and confusion this year. I need to figure out how to live again.”

She nods silently. “What about …” She stops, looking regretful.

“What, Jem?”

“What about what you haven’t told Melody and me. I don’t know what you’re hiding … If you’re not ready, I’ll wait. But you need to talk to someone about it. Promise me you’ll try,” Jem says as tears begin to well in her eyes. Jem. My strong Amazon queen. Crying … over me.

I pull her into a long hug before replying, “I promise.”

That evening, I stand in the driveway of my father’s house, looking up. I see, not just a house, but a symbol of my past, the symbol of who I was before I died on that beach. It’s an unexplainable feeling, being stripped of everything that makes you feel human, an impossible feeling. So I have to go to search for a new me.

As I close the trunk of the old rusted Honda Accord I spent all summer saving for, I gladly feel like I’m closing the lid on everything I desperately wish to leave behind. I take a deep breath, hugging my dad and Mary as we say our good-byes, and before I know it, I’m watching them get smaller in the rearview mirror. The farther away I drive, the less weight I feel pressing against my chest. I can breathe. For the first time since graduation, I can breathe.

Praying for a safe journey, I form a truce with God. Thinking back to when I cried out to God that night, I know I meant it with all of my soul. I need to be whole again, need redemption, need to feel clean again. This is the only way I know how—by leaving.

[]

After months of Melody’s constant yet subtle hints imploring me to see her therapist, Ms. Gee, I caved. Standing in an office that looks more like a living room than a psychiatrist’s office, I let out a long breath of relief. Surrounded by calming colors and nautical-themed decor, I am glad that the facility connected to the local hospital is cozy, considering the circumstances. At least it doesn’t look or feel like a hospital.

I hate hospitals.

Sinking into the overstuffed beige couch while Ms. Gee makes us some tea, not even having her secretary make it for us, I take the time to size up the older woman. Tall for a woman, she would certainly have reason to be intimidating if not for her calm demeanour. I’m stumped, trying to guess how old she is because although her white hair suggests age, her face is unlined. She suddenly turns, smiling and holding a mug in each hand, but as she approaches, she makes it obvious that she is going to sit down beside me and not in the chair across from me, as I had expected.

I’m suddenly nervous as she turns to me, holding my gaze. It feels like she is looking into me as she quietly stares, as if waiting for something. I’m suddenly afraid. I feel naked and exposed.

“Why are you here, Dannie?” she softly asks with a small smile and a tilt of her head.

I don’t know. “My friend recommended that I come see you.”

“And why would she suggest you see a therapist?”

Since moving to San Fransisco with Melody the nightmares have gotten so bad that I keep waking her up? Or perhaps because I am obviously changed, different … broken, and Melody has no idea why.

“I think Melody is concerned. I think she is worried about me but doesn’t know what to do …” I trail off, feeling bad for the position I’ve put my friends in. I know I’ve shut them out, but I don’t know how to break the habit I’ve had my whole life, a habit that has become exponentially worse after graduation.

“That’s a good friend to have. What I’d like to start with is your family. How did you grow up? What was your life like that led you to be here today? Would you be willing to talk about that?”

She patiently waits for an answer that I can’t begin to give. I like her immediately. I like her approach. I like her directness, and I definitely like the impression that therapy isn’t just a job to her; she genuinely wants to help people. It’s obvious in the look that she is giving me, in the inflection of her tone, even in the way she carries herself.

It’s just not that simple for me.

“That’s a complicated question …” I hold myself back, but she simply takes a sip of tea while waiting for me to continue. It’s apparent that she will wait however long it takes for me to gather my thoughts.

Or gather enough courage.

[]

I open one more box of old textbooks with a grunt.

Unpacking is the worst. It’s a waste of time, especially when you’re hyper-organized. It takes substantially longer than if I were someone who could simply throw my crap into the corner and call it good—like my roommate. If he weren’t my best friend, I might kill him.

“You about done there, Reed? I’m starving.”

I scowl at Marcus. He knows this process takes me forever. He knows I’m not even close to being done, but after four years of being roommates, he is still trying to rush me. I guess I can take a break. I breathe out a heavy sigh of defeat. I don’t want to leave this mess, but I can’t deny that I’m starving, too.

“Excellent.” He smiles, unconcerned by the look I sent him.

I follow him out of our apartment and toward the pizza place that’s close enough to walk to. Thank God for college towns.

“So, do you have to go get your books? I’m planning on grabbing mine tomorrow, if you wanna catch a ride with me,” I offer, knowing full well that Marcus hasn’t gotten his books.

Luckily, classes here at Sacramento State don’t start for another week.

“Sounds good, man.”

We walk into the restaurant and wait in the long line of other college students who have moved back this week and are unpacking and getting settled before the new semester begins.[_ _]

My last year. It feels good. I’m planning on going back to Kansas for grad school. Marcus, having grown up with me in Kansas, has come to love California. Either that, or his college girlfriend, whom he met freshman year, is not willing to leave. I’m sure they will figure it out. He and Lena are good together, so I am happy for him.

Marcus clears his throat, as if to get my attention. “So, what would you say if I told you that Lena had a friend she wanted to set you up with?”

[_What? _]I nearly choke on the pizza in my mouth. “Well, I’d say there’s no way in hell. No offense to Lena, of course.”

He looks a little disappointed but not at all surprised. “Man, it’s been too long. You’ve gotta let her go…” He trails off, knowing that topic is off-limits.

I feel like crap, knowing that they mean well by trying to get me out of my no-relationship policy.

I bite the bullet. “Tell you what. Once school begins this semester, I’ll meet this girl. But under no circumstances will I go on any awkward dates with this chick, okay? We can all go to a party or something.”

Marcus smiles immediately[_. _]

[_What the hell have I just gotten myself into? _]

After moving to California and the whole Dannie situation, my best friend applied to California’s Sacramento State University. Luckily for me, Marcus was always brilliant at school and was willing to move in with me. He graduated early and got accepted easily.

I really needed him that first year after Dannie had left me. I was a wreck.

I had decided to stick with my original plan to attend Sac State simply because it was close to my family, it had the major I wanted, and most importantly, Dannie said she wasn’t going here. After she broke off our relationship, I called her every day for the rest of the summer, trying to reason with her and get her to reconsider her sudden change of heart. Calling seemed better at the time. I didn’t want to show up at her doorstep like a deranged ex, and I drew the line at stalking her.

I heard from Melody that she got a job that summer, working almost every moment she could. Dannie apparently also stopped hanging out with everyone important to her, becoming a recluse who rarely went out. She cut everyone off, not just me, which seriously worried her closest friends and family.

Dannie had always been independent and aloof, but never had she cut all ties completely with the people who cared for her most—well, until that summer. We all called one another the first few months, trying to figure it out, trying different methods to get through to her, but nothing worked. Eventually, I stopped trying. I’m not sure about the others, but I wasn’t going to force someone to love me back.

I’m not proud to say that I walked away. A person can only handle so much rejection. By the end of the summer, I decided that I would try to move on the best I could. So, when I heard that Dannie had changed her college to San Francisco State, I was relieved but heartbroken all over again. It felt like the end. Like a book that suddenly shut, there was a feeling of finality to it.

I knew I needed to move on. I tried the only ways I could think of. I stayed busy, didn’t think about it, dated other people but didn’t fall in love again, didn’t think about it, stayed busy—well, you get the idea[_. _]

“Want to hit the gym?” Marcus says, snapping me out of my thoughts.

How someone can eat that much pizza and then work out without throwing it all up is beyond me, but I find myself agreeing anyway.

As we’re walking, I decide to rile him up, considering I sort of agreed to a blind date and all. “Ask Lena to marry you yet?” I smile at him and wink.

I’m not gonna lie. I’m super jealous he has someone. Lena is a great girl. She’s really sweet, and she obviously loves Marcus.

“Not yet. I’m thinking right after graduation…”

I snap my head up to search his face, only finding complete sincerity. Not what I expected. I’m not shocked per se, but I asked the question as a joke, so I’m taken a little off guard.

Wow.

“That’s great, man. I’m happy for you. Although I don’t know what she sees in you, man…” I am completely joking, but it doesn’t stop him from forcefully punching me in the arm.

Marcus is a one-of-a-kind sort of friend, more like a brother. I’m lucky to have him. He’s a great-looking guy, and he has always gotten attention from women. I originally thought, when he came to Cali, he would be a bit of a ladies’ man. But, at one of the first parties our freshman year, he ran into a girl from class and hit it off. The rest is history.

“You cool with that?”

I know he is referring to my aversion to relationships and my lack of anything remotely romantic—unless you consider the occasional one-night stand romantic. And let’s face it; that would be a hell no.

Serious for a moment, I reply, “Of course. I want you to be happy.” And I mean it. No one deserves happiness more. Just because I don’t believe in it anymore doesn’t mean I don’t want it for him.

I head through the gym doors, cutting off the direction this conversation has taken.

Marcus takes the hint. “So, vet science, huh? Have you decided on where you’re applying?” He makes small talk. He can sense when I’m brooding, and as per usual, he tries to pull me out of it as we begin our reps.

“Yeah, I’ve applied to Kansas and a few schools in SoCal.” Listening to the words I use, I can hear the influence of Cali. I cringe slightly before shaking my head while trying to concentrate on working out instead.

We are both over six feet and athletically inclined, so we are equally matched for spotting, and I constantly find myself in need of an outlet for my anger and frustration. Needless to say, we find ourselves here a lot.

[_I’m late! _]

How is it that, when you wake up early for your first day of work, you still end up late?

I grip my coffee as I step inside the classroom on my first day as a teaching assistant, or TA. I am nervous but hope it doesn’t show as I quickly find my seat. I set my coffee down on the desk, avoiding the eyes of the students already in their seats, while Professor Williams writes on the board. He glances over at me with one raised bushy eyebrow as a warning. We just met only last week, so this is a poor first impression of my work ethic.

Here goes nothing.

I guess I’ll have to double my efforts at earning his trust and respect now.

Why did my car choose today to not start? That’s what I get for buying a cheap beater car that was more fuel-efficient than my old truck.

I smooth down my slightly wrinkled button-up, hoping it doesn’t look ridiculous on me. I feel like a tool, wearing something that is so not me. I went all out, even wearing old-man loafer-type shoes instead of my usual shitkickers, like I’m some sort of hipster. My sister would laugh if she saw me looking like a Cali native. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

After a few deep breaths, trying to calm my frantic heart, I finally start chugging my much-needed coffee. Listening to the prof go over the syllabus as well as his expectations for British Literature, I get a little antsy. It’s not my favorite topic, but I desperately need the extra income because student loans aren’t cutting it, especially now that my car has gone haywire.

For many, Brit Lit is a requirement to complete their undergrad, but some are truly interested in majoring in English or Literature. Either way, I will have to read quite a few extra books this semester in order to grade their essays and exams.

_You gotta do what you gotta do. _

I have finally settled in enough to attempt a cursory glance at the students in the nine a.m. class, hoping to find a girl worth the time I’ll be spending here or at least avoiding one with whom I have a history not worth repeating. I slowly make my way through the students, deciphering which ones are here for credits and which ones are here for their love of literature.

My eyes suddenly glimpse a familiar face that makes me choke. A hard pair of azure eyes are locked on mine with an expression that freezes my heart.

Dannie. Here. In my class. My Dannie.

No, not my Dannie. She left me. She wanted nothing to do with me.

_She. Left. Me. _

Scolding myself, I stare for longer than is appropriate, but I don’t care. It’s Dannie.

My stomach is slowly tying in knots as I steal a glance at a beautiful woman who is a phantom of a girl I once knew. She seems to be shocked, frightened, and maybe even regretful. I can’t be sure.

I first take note that her hair is just above her shoulders. No longer does her hair freely flow to her waist. This chick has a stylish yet sophisticated style that is not at all like Dannie’s carefree demeanour that I once loved. I take in a curvy figure that has filled in, changing a teenager into a woman who takes my breath away. I’m more than a little preoccupied with her body when I force my eyes to snap back to a face that is all too familiar. What was once the fresh face of a teen is now shadowed in makeup in such a way that suggests a pro went all out.

I can’t imagine Dannie doing her makeup every day. The thought is ludicrous. It can’t be her. Yet those eyes…those eyes seem filled with recognition as they widen slightly.

She appears to be as startled as I feel, and she looks away. It’s then that I notice a slow blush on her skin.

[_It’s her. It really is Dannie Lee. In this classroom. My classroom! _]

The pain I have been unconsciously suppressing, the anger from a bitter rejection, rises in my throat until it feels like I’m frozen by it. I realize I’m breathing hard, practically panting, with my hands curled into fists.

_Keep it together, Reed. Keep your shit together. _

I take a deep breath, forcing myself to look away, as I mentally absorb the reality that I am a TA in a class that Dannie is in. I must stay impartial. I cannot afford to lose this job. All the other jobs around campus have been filled by now, and if my car is not going to be functional, then I can’t financially afford to lose this job.

She’s just a girl. Just like any other girl. Nothing special about this one.

Even as I think it, the thought stills in my brain, as if dead. It’s so far from the truth, and there’s no point in lying to myself.

She was everything to me, everything I wanted, everything I’d naively hoped for. What a lovesick fool I once was. What a ridiculous pipe dream. I was forced to be a realist the day she left me, ripping my heart to pieces.

Truthfully, I have never been the same.

[_Well, sweetheart, there’s nothing left for you to break, so you can just move along. Thanks. _]

I let my bitterness bleed into the recesses of my body, giving me resolve. Anger is my best weapon against other emotions. That’s all I will allow myself to feel. I refuse to be attracted to her. I refuse to close my eyes because her face is all I will see. The girl in the white dress on a picnic blanket no longer exists.

And as the prof excuses the class, I stand, walking away from her this time without so much as a backward glance.

[_Payback’s a cruel bitch, princess. _]

After years of escaping the past, Danielle Lee decides to return home where she is confronted with facing the people she left behind, including Reed Fischer.

For four years, Reed has been trying to get over his first love, but that feat is made impossible when Dannie unexpectedly walks back into his life. Trying his best to move on, Reed ignores her existence, but she’s suddenly everywhere he is.

A friendship blossoms…until feelings start to blur. Remnants of how they used to be together are still there, but Reed can’t forget how much Dannie hurt him when she left, and Dannie is still struggling with her secretive history while living with the aftermath of an assault by an obsessed stalker.

With the help of her best friends, Melody and Jemma, Dannie is on the path to healing…until the past meets the present, and she comes face-to-face with the one person she hoped never to see again.

The Face Beneath shares the tale of a young woman trying to overcome a traumatic childhood while living with PTSD, but with the love and support of her friends, she finds hope and the courage to face her past, confront her fears, and live again.

[]

The Face You See is my debut novel as a writer and inspired the following books of the series. I was born and raised in California where I began volunteering with Youth Programs dedicated to helping teens find mentors. Remembering how lost and confused I was as a teenager gave me the conviction to help those who felt just as alone as I had. I eventually began working in Alaska doing much of the same work before going to Haiti and the Aleutian Islands to build houses, distribute food and medical supplies, as well as disaster relief. I met my husband while working abroad and eventually settling down in Canada where we now have two beautiful children. I am thankful I escaped the circumstances of my childhood but acknowledge the fact that not everyone has the opportunity; most are left with lingering scars. This series captures that complex moment when a person finds the courage to let go of the painful circumstances of their life, the people that hurt them, and the guilt they feel by leaving while crossing over to accept themselves. My passion has always been to help, to serve, and to protect young women. By writing what I believe are messages of encouragement to those who have been in similar situations to those I have experienced and worked with, I believe they can be given hope. I am currently getting a Bachelor’s in English and Education at the University of Saskatchewan, and have always had a passion for books as well as writing stories.

I’d love to hear from my readers! Contact me at [email protected] or on my blog at amelialegend.blogspot.ca

I am also on Facebook and Instagram!

[]

These are real letters from real woman who have sent me their stories to share with all of you! They have not been altered, edited, or changed in any way, and if you have a story of your own to share, email me at [email protected]

Anonymous, Canada, 30 years old

I wanted to grow up. I was only thirteen. The boys we hung out with would try to give us girls ‘tatty-twisters’ and chase us. The bugged me that I was flat. No kidding I was flat I barely had hit puberty!

I had won a volley ball game that day; was excited and came home elated. I remember my brothers friend giving me extra attention following me around the house. I didn’t think anything of it. Then he followed me to bed and closed the door. At first I thought maybe this meant that he liked me, or that this is just what boys do when you are when you ‘grow up’. At first I thought it would be ok. He began ‘tickling’ me, but could tell I wasn’t into it. But he didn’t stop. He continued to touch me. I froze. I just said ‘ow’. I wish I would have said something like “stop”, or done something. I knew I had to get out. I pretended I had to pee and left eventually. I left the door open and pretended to be tired and sleep.He kept asking for me to close the door, as my parents were home. At first I thought maybe this was just how it was supposed to be, but deep down I knew it was different. I didn’t want this. I felt sick. The smell of him made me want to vomit. I hated him. I felt used, defeated, broken. Growing up was supposed to be sexy, this sure felt nothing like that.

I don’t hate him still, I found the grace to forgive him years ago. But I still see a thread of the effects it had on me. I no longer would be the victim, I would be the initiator. I wouldn’t be vulnerable in any sexual situations I found myself. My body was all guys wanted anyway, wasn’t it? My body, became all that mattered. To the point of making myself vomit after meals, and using exercise as a punishment for eating. I would control my weight because life was out of control and plus that is where my value lied.

Healing has come slowly through grace alone I have found peace, rest and freedom from the fear of my weight. Healing from the Healer, who gave me a husband who respected me and treaded me like I had more worth than just my body. My husband loved all of me, and valued all of me. We waited till we were married and sex was beautiful and continues to be.

Meghan, Canada, 29 years old

On October 7th, 2014 I got on a transit bus in Vancouver. I was heading to a singing lesson at school and immediately as I sat down I noticed a gentlemen starring at me. Within the first few minutes I was on the bus, he got up from his seat and came to sit down beside me. His first words were, “I want to know you.” I began to talk to him and try and answer the questions he had for me. I recognized though that this was not a normal situation and so I did my best to not give him too much personal information but he persisted and didn’t stop asking his questions until I gave him answers that satisfied him. I remember wracking my brain, trying to remember all I had learned in my verbal counsellor training about “boundaries” and trying to utilize those tactics to keep myself safe. But at some point, my fear began to grow and I just tried to do whatever I could to keep him calm. He was very confusing to me – some moments he seemed friendly, other moments he was a little more aggressive and sometimes he even seemed confused. Eventually, the physical boundary was crossed and his hands were on me. Nothing happened that was too intimate, he had his hands on my back and his fingers in my hair. He kept trying to hug me. It could have been a lot worse of course… I think I thought it wasn’t a big deal at the time. I got off the bus and went to my singing lesson but I was pretty shaken up, so after my teacher did some music therapy with me she took me to counselling services, then they told me to call a hotline, then the hotline transferred me to the police and then two officers came to see me on campus to take my statement.

For the first few months after the incident, I tried to pretend like nothing happened. I felt really embarrassed about the situation. I felt like it was my fault and whenever I tried to talk about it with someone, their questions often implied I must have done something wrong to have gotten myself into that situation. I don’t think they meant to imply this, but I have realized this is how we deal with these things as a society.

The victim blaming, shame, guilt, fear, paranoia were all repercussions of this experience and they felt just as bad as the incident itself. I’m not sure what the answer is to this issue. It certainly isn’t to point fingers at anyone and play the “blame game”. I think the first step is to realize that you are not entitled to anyone else and they are not entitled to you. Nobody has the right to touch you if permission has not been granted. Omission of permission should still be treated as a ‘no’.

Anonymous, England, 18 years old

I have a problem with repetitiveness, it triggers me. The thought of everyday staying the same makes me want to run, makes me want to find a way to escape. Sometimes the need to get out becomes so overwhelming that I don’t care about the consequences of my actions on my grades, my relationships, and my health. Lots of the time I feel as empty and cold as the land around me. My own head is a trap, a labyrinth that I can’t find a way out of. No what turn or twist I take, I can’t seem to lose my demons. It’s exhausting and I’m exhausted. I barely have the energy to try anymore. Everyday, I’m on auto-pilot. I know that I work far too much and I stay out far too late. To me, it’s better than going home to a sleepless night alone in my own head. In a sick sense, it’s to the point where I have to be so tired that I’ll fall asleep instead of waking up with more scars on my body. A lot of people don’t understand depression because they’ve never had it. No one gets how much self-hatred it takes to do such destructive things to yourself. Depression isn’t being sad or having a down day, it’s an illness that is constantly with you. You can’t escape it or the feelings that follow you. This lack of understanding makes it much worse for us. There are teenagers out there who draw lines across there skin with razors, who starve themselves, who sleep all day, who drink, or take drugs to feel something or to stop feeling everything.

The sick part?

Is not that we do these things but we turn around and tell other depressed teenagers that these things aren’t the answer. Then, on our way home we cross the street without looking and later, we’ll forget to count how many pills we’re taking, washing them down with vodka on a stomach that hasn’t eaten in days. Then we’ll sit on the bathroom floor in the early hours of the morning with tears streaming down our face, staring at the blade wondering if maybe it is the answer. Wondering if it’ll quiet the demons that only we can see and hear. Wondering if it’ll take all the pain away.

Depression isn’t a phase, it isn’t teenagers being lazy or seeking attention. Depression is an illness and all we’re looking for is a little understanding.


The Face You See, The Broken Series Book I

“In swift and relatable prose, The Face You See juggles the many difficult topics and circumstances that young adults face.”
 -Foreword Clarion Review
★★★★★ “ ...those who have experienced or overcome traumas will find Dannie relatable and empowering ...” -BlueInk “An engaging contemporary romance, whose conflicted, nuanced heroine helps it transcend the conventions of its genre.” -Kirkus Review Nestled in the Golden Coast of California, Danielle Lee lives a lie. As her senior year in high school begins and the escape of her dark secret draws near, she finds someone unexpected. Dannie struggles to move past her torments, hide the truth from her friends, and keep it together until she can finally have what she has always wanted: freedom. Reed is a junior who just moved to California from Kansas. Wildly attracted to Dannie, he is convinced she is everything he has been waiting for. After fate leads them to finally meet in the school library, Dannie first tries to place Reed in the dreaded friend zone. But she too cannot ignore the obvious chemistry. As Reed teaches her how to find hope, trust, and even love, Dannie must decide whether to harbor her secrets or reveal the truth and risk everything. While she wrestles with her decision, Dannie has no idea that a secret obsession will drive another young man to stop at nothing until she is his and his alone. The Face You See shares the compelling tale of a teenage girls quest to free herself from her past where she finds hope in the most unlikely of circumstances, the courage to embrace love, and the will to defy all odds.

  • ISBN: 9781370787579
  • Author: Amelia Legend
  • Published: 2017-08-04 22:20:24
  • Words: 67736
The Face You See, The Broken Series Book I The Face You See, The Broken Series Book I