Your SlideShare is downloading. ×
Deeper we fall (fall & rise #1) by chelsea m. cameron
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in...5

Thanks for flagging this SlideShare!

Oops! An error has occurred.

Saving this for later? Get the SlideShare app to save on your phone or tablet. Read anywhere, anytime – even offline.
Text the download link to your phone
Standard text messaging rates apply

Deeper we fall (fall & rise #1) by chelsea m. cameron


Published on

Two years after her best friend was involved in a car accident that caused a traumatic brain injury, Lottie Anders is ready to start her freshman year of college. Ready to move on. Ready to start …

Two years after her best friend was involved in a car accident that caused a traumatic brain injury, Lottie Anders is ready to start her freshman year of college. Ready to move on. Ready to start forgetting the night that ripped her life apart.

Her plans come to a screeching halt when not one, but both brothers responsible for the accident end up back in her life again.

Zack is cruel, selfish and constantly rubbing what happened to her friend in Lottie's face.

Zan is different. He listens to her awkward ramblings. He loves To Kill a Mockingbird as much as she does, and his dark eyes are irresistible. His words are few and far between, but when he does speak, she can't help but listen.

The trouble is, Zan was the driver in the accident, and now Lottie's discovered he lied to her about what happened that night. Now she must decide if trusting him again will lead to real forgiveness, or deeper heartache.

Published in: Entertainment & Humor

1 Like
  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Total Views
On Slideshare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

Report content
Flagged as inappropriate Flag as inappropriate
Flag as inappropriate

Select your reason for flagging this presentation as inappropriate.

No notes for slide


  • 1. Contents Title page Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven
  • 2. Chapter Twenty-eight Chapter Twenty-nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-one Chapter Thirty-two Chapter Thirty-three Chapter Thirty-four Chapter Thirty-five Chapter Thirty-six Chapter Thirty-seven Chapter Thirty-eight Chapter Thirty-nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-one About the Author
  • 3. DEEPER WE FALL By Chelsea Cameron
  • 4. Deeper We Fall is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2012 Chelsea M. Cameron
  • 5. Chapter One Lottie “How can you not see how delicious he is? I just want to put him on a stick and lick him on a hot summer day,” said Lexie as she watched Zack Parker chucking cans of beer out of a cooler at people, regardless of whether they were ready to catch them or not. Not only was Zack Parker the only sophomore on the Varsity Baseball team at Seaport High, he had the hair, the bod and the attitude that made girls like my best friend turn into puddles of helpless goo in his presence. Oh, and did he know it. “Just look at his arms. Are you looking at his arms? Do you see them?” Yes, I saw his damn arms. I’d seen his damn arms since grade school. They were arms. Granted, they’d gotten thicker and more muscled in the years since we’d met, but still. They were just arms. The way Lexie talked, you’d think they were the Greatest Arms Ever. “Are you almost ready to go?” The party was just getting started, but I’d already had enough. Between the clouds of pot smoke that choked me and made my clothes reek of skunk and the alcohol being carelessly thrown around, to the various couples who had paired up and went off to find an exclusive truck bed or spot of woods, I felt like I’d had the high school party experience all in one night. There were about thirty kids all hanging out in the gravel pit behind Matt Spencer’s parents’ house. They were out, but from what I gathered, they didn’t seem to mind hoards of teenagers doing whatever they wanted on their property. My parents weren’t nearly so liberal, which was why I’d lied and told them I was having a sleepover with
  • 6. Lexie. If they knew I was here, I would get a tongue-lashing from my mother that would definitely leave scars. “I have to talk to him.” Lexie had been trying to talk to Zack for about two months, but hadn’t yet. “Oh my God, here he comes.” She adjusted her jacket and swiped her gorgeous chestnut hair out of her sea foam green eyes. Lexie was a total babe, as I’d told her millions of times. If Zack didn’t see that, then he was a moron. Too bad Lexie didn’t see it that way. “Hey, Sexy Lexie. Hottie Lottie.” The origin of the nicknames was a mystery. Granted, Lexie was more than sexy. I was only tagged with an equally appealing nickname by default of being her best friend. “Hey, Zack,” Lexie said, turning her head to the side so her hair fell just right. I wrapped my arms around myself and tried not to feel like a third wheel. “Are you having a good time?” He took several slow steps toward Lexie, and all I could think of was a leopard stalking a zebra. It was safe to say that I was the only girl Zack didn’t turn into goo. He turned me into ice. Cold, hard and sharp. “I am now,” Lexie said with a breathless giggle. I saw Zack’s eyes brush across the freckles on her nose and then down to settle onto her chest. “Well that’s good. You want a drink?” Lexie nodded and bit her lip. I stared at the fire which was getting higher as the night wore on. I knew Lexie hated beer, and would only sip it for Zack’s behalf, so I wasn’t worried about her driving us back to her house. Besides, it was only a few miles. “Thanks.” As soon as Zack sauntered to the cooler, Lexie grabbed my hand, her eyes bright with excitement. “Holy crap. I think I’m going to die. What do I do?” Her fingers dug into mine. “First of all, you’re going to let go of my hand before it falls off.” I
  • 7. tugged her hand from mine. “Second, you’re going to talk to him. With words and everything.” “What do I say?” “I don’t know,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Tell him how much you love his arms.” “I can’t talk about his arms,” she hissed as Zack made his way back over. “Here you go.” He handed her a can of cheap beer and cracked open another for himself. “You want one, Hottie?” His face formed what he probably thought was a seductive smile. It just made my skin crawl. “No, thank you.” With that, he turned his attention back to Lexie, making her turn so her back was to me. He spoke low, and she giggled, sipping her drink. Or at least pretending to. I glanced at my phone, realizing that she only had about a half hour to seal the deal with Zack. A roar went up as one of the guys threw a huge branch on top of the fire, making it spark and flame. It was a wonder they didn’t set the town on fire. Zack touched Lexie’s face and I could tell she was blushing, even though it was too dark to see. I couldn’t watch it anymore, so I walked away, pretending I was getting a drink. There had to be some soda or something in there. I felt his eyes on me as if he’d said my name out loud. Zan Parker. Zack’s younger brother. He was only a year younger than Zack, but he dwarfed nearly every other guy by several inches. He shared his brother’s dark almond skin coloring and dark hair, except his was longer and more chaotic. Where Zack’s dark eyes were predatory and sinister, Zan’s were deep and bottomless like the ocean. I couldn’t put my finger on why their eyes were so different. Maybe it was what was behind the eyes. He stood by himself near the fire, sipping on one of the cans of cheap beer. He pulled his gaze from me and stared at the fire as if it was a
  • 8. puzzle he was trying to solve. He lifted his head to the sky and closed his eyes as the smoke blew in his direction. I fished in the cooler, finding nothing but beer and hard lemonade. I tried the second cooler with the same results. “Here.” A hand holding a bottle of water appeared in my line of vision. I didn’t need to see the body attached to the hand to know who it belonged to. I rose slowly and realized he was standing so close to me that I nearly bumped into him. He stepped back as if I’d hit him. Or maybe he just didn’t like people invading his personal space. “Thanks,” I said, taking the water. It was still sealed, otherwise I never would have touched it. I waited for Zan to say something else, but he just walked away. Weird. I unscrewed the water and took a sip, glancing over to where Lexie and Zack had been. They were gone. I didn’t panic right away, and did another visual sweep of the area. Drunk guy, drunk guy, really drunk girl… No Lexie. No Zack. I figured maybe they’d gone for a walk or something, so I did a wider sweep of the area. I really hoped they hadn’t gone into the woods to hook up. Maybe they went to get something out of her car. I walked up the road that led to the pit, which was studded with trucks and crappy cars and hunks of metal that barely qualified as vehicles. I went for Lexie’s car first. Nothing. Then I heard her laugh. I weaved through the other cars and trucks and found her and Zack kissing and leaning against a semi-POS truck I knew had been his sixteenth birthday present. He had her back pressed to the passenger door, his hands and mouth devouring her. What was the protocol in this situation? I didn’t want to make an ass
  • 9. out of myself, but I didn’t want my best friend having sex for the first time pressed up against a rusted-out truck, either. And I’d never been one for tact. “Lex!” I called sharply. She pulled away from Zack and I was surprised I didn’t hear a sucking sound, like pulling one of those little suction cup things from a window. “Oh, hey Lottie,” She tried to hide the embarrassment in her voice, and did a good job. Zack ignored me and just kept trying to kiss her neck. Lexie’s eyes rolled back in her head and she bit her lip. It was almost pornographic to watch. “I’m supposed to be home soon.” “Zack volunteered to take us. Right?” “Sure, babe.” He spared a quick glare at me before going back to feeling up my best friend. “Can’t we just take your car? You probably shouldn’t leave it here. Remember what happened to Joel Ostrander’s truck?” A bunch of seriously drunk hooligans hopped up on who knew what had decided to turn his truck bed into a trampoline. It hadn’t ended well for the truck bed. Lexie rolled her eyes as Zack skimmed his hands all over her ass. “He’s been driving for years. Come on, Lottie, it’s only a few miles.” “I don’t think it’s a good idea. He’s been drinking.” I didn’t address Zack directly. There was something about him that left a bad taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t just because he was treating my best friend like a petting zoo. I didn’t trust him. Not one tiny bit. “Oh come on, I’ve driven much more drunk than this. Get in,” he said, moving Lexie so he could open the passenger side door for her. She hopped up on the passenger seat with a smile. “Lex, come on. I can drive your car.” “Lottie,” she whined, “just get in the truck. We’ll be at my house in a sec. Besides, you couldn’t drive a stick if your life depended on it.”
  • 10. That stung. Will and I had gone out several times with Dad’s car, but I still hadn’t gotten the hang of driving a standard. “Just get in the truck, babe,” Zack said, coming up behind me as if he was going to lift me in. No. This was the first time Lexie wasn’t going to get her way. “No, I’m not riding with you. Lex, come on. Please?” I tried to use her trick, but she only had eyes for Zack. “What about your car?” “Zack can drive me back later to get it. We won’t be gone that long.” “I’ll drive,” a deep voice said behind us. I turned to find Zan. I had no idea how long he’d been standing there. “You’re not old enough,” I said, stepping away from Zack’s grabby hands. “And you’ve been drinking just as much as he has. I saw you.” Zan didn’t respond. “I’ve taught him everything he knows, right?” Zack slung his arm around his brother’s shoulder and handed him the keys. I tried one more time. “Please, Lex. I just don’t think this is a good idea. Please.” I looked in her eyes and begged with everything I had. She cracked for a moment, her face folding into a frown, but then Zack hopped up beside her and pulled her into his lap. She squealed with delight as Zan got behind the wheel. He didn’t look at me as he put the key in the ignition and drove away.
  • 11. Chapter Two Two years later… Lottie “Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?” my younger twin brother Will (I was older by 47 seconds and I never let him forget it) said. “I mean, you really have a problem. You know there’s probably like, Talkers Anonymous or something.” “Hi, my name is Lottie, and I’m a Talker,” I said. “Hi, Lottie,” Will said, playing along. “It’s been, um, well it hasn’t been any time since I last talked, because I’m doing it right now,” I said as I shouldered another box out of the back of Will’s truck. My own vehicle had met its untimely demise two days before we were set to move into our dorm rooms, so I was vehicle-less; at least for now. “Well, you do have a problem,” he said, hopping into the bed to pull a box forward. “Did you bring enough stuff? Seriously, where are you going to put all these books?” “It’s not my fault that my car decided to shit the bed. Stupid transmission.” “I told you to take it in when you started hearing those noises,” he said in an I-told-you-so voice. I rolled my eyes at him and stumbled into the dorm, nearly bowling several other students over. Will thought I was insane for taking so many books, but I just couldn’t leave them behind. “Dude, elevator’s this way,” Will called behind me. “Don’t call me dude,” I threw over my shoulder as I squished myself
  • 12. against the wall so a few people could pass. I’d been in this building one other time during orientation, but that had been months ago . Logically, the elevator should have been right in the front of the building, but it wasn’t. I managed to rotate myself around and follow Will’s mop of blonde hair to the elevator where we were crammed in with three other students and all their crap. My books were important. A framed poster of some moronic boy band wasn’t. Will was busy trying to catch the eye of the girl carrying said poster, and he succeeded, giving her what he thought was a roguish wink that made her face go red. Honestly. I glared at him and he gave me an innocent look as if to say, “I can’t help it.” He was hopeless. Will just had a mutual break-up with his girlfriend, Kandy, and he was a free man for the first time in a year and a half. Looked like he was going to make the most of it. Will and I stumbled out of the elevator on the fourth floor and down the hall to my room. We were early, so my roommate wasn’t there yet. The room was just as I remembered, square, white, sterile, boring. Bleach and fresh paint fumes seeped into my nose, giving a new meaning to my fresh start. It was time to make this place mine now. New place, new life, new me. Zan I stared up at the dorm building and it reminded me of The William H. Carter Center, the Maine state juvenile facility. I’d only been sentenced to one year there, but one year was more than enough. The day I’d gone in, it had been raining. At least the sun was out today. At least that was different. This building was also made of brick, but there were no bars on the windows. No metal detectors. No threatening guards. People passed by me, and I shifted away from them by instinct. I made sure to keep my
  • 13. eyes down, my shoulders hunched. I’d learned that much at Carter. Lay low, stay safe. Hard to do when you’re 6’4. “Dude, are you going to fucking stand there all day?” Zack said, shoving me from behind. My anger flashed, and my fist dived out toward him before I could even think. Zack ducked; he was used to it by now. “Calm down. You can’t afford to lose it here.” He touched my shoulder, grounding me back in my new reality. The new clothes my mother had bought me were stiff, and I couldn’t wait to ditch them and go back to my regular t-shirts and jeans with holes in them. The new outfit was supposed to be part of my new image. Clean cut, normal. Safe. The sleeves covered the scars that roped their way around my left arm, and the other scars on my wrists. But there was something else they couldn’t cover. I could cut my hair and change my clothes, but nothing could change the thing that hovered over me. The thing that people saw when they looked at me, the thing that made them look away and cross to the other side of the street. “Bro?” Zack said, taking me out of my reverie. “You just going to stare at it or help me get my junk in? I have to get to the gym.” Zack was on the first floor, so we got his stuff out first, since it was on top of mine. He also had more stuff than I did. Another thing I learned at Carter. Don’t care about things, because you’ll probably lose them. Mom had wanted us to room together, but Zack and I had agreed that we didn’t want to. He didn’t want his black sheep brother dragging down his love life and I didn’t want his love life shoved in my face. I’d had enough of that last summer. Zack took off to say hello to one of his baseball buddies as I hauled his free weights from the truck to the room. Of course I dropped one on my foot and cursed in the lobby full of families moving their students in.
  • 14. There was a pause in the action as everyone stared at me and then went back to their own lives. “You need a hand?” A guy passing buy bent down to pick up the weight and hand it to me. When he stood, I saw he was almost as tall as I was. The other thing I noticed about him was the effortless smile that spread across his face. I’d never been very good at smiling. People like him made it look easy. “Nah, I’m good,” I said. “Thanks, though. You, um, moving in too?” I wasn’t much for conversation, but conversation with strangers is often easier than conversation with someone you’ve known for years. “Yeah. Just going to find my room.” He moved to the side so a girl with a giant stuffed bear could pass. “I guess I’ll see you around?” “Yeah, sure.” He winked and pointed to the weights. “Be careful with those.” “I’ll try,” I said. Zack finally appeared again after I’d gotten all of his stuff into his room, including the rest of his weights and a lifetime supply of protein powder. It took only three trips to get all of my stuff into my new room. My roommate hadn’t gotten there yet, so I picked the left side of the room and swapped out the mattresses. It was larger than the dorm rooms I’d had before, but it wasn’t anything special. I had about three feet of space between my bed and my roommate’s, a desk, dresser and a closet. At least I was allowed to have a microwave. I wasn’t at the other places. Too dangerous. Might put my head in there and try to kill myself or take it apart and make a bomb. “You sure you’re going to be okay with this? I just don’t want you calling me in the middle of the night saying you need to hide a body that you beat the fuck out of. I would do it, but I’d rather not.” I didn’t respond. Words weren’t my strong suit. I always seemed to pick the wrong ones these days. I couldn’t count how many times I’d
  • 15. said the wrong thing and ended up getting myself in some deep shit. Zack’s phone vibrated and he smiled as he answered the text message. By his smile, I could tell the message came from someone of the female persuasion. It was the smile of someone who knew they had complete control, and could get anything they wanted. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta go see my girl.” He winked and strolled out, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “Text me if you need anything.” I nodded and he left, calling his girlfriend, Katie. She was a sweet girl, but she wouldn’t be when he was done with her. I glanced around the room, taking it in. It was a tight fit, but at least I only had to share it with one other person. Also, it had a decent amount of shelves for my books. I had to look at the bright side, no matter how dim it might seem. Fuck the bright side, Zack would have said. Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon; How much can fill your room depends on its windows. Or so said Rumi, the thirteenth century Muslim poet, according to Miss Carole, my social worker. She’d given me a book of it a while ago, and I used to memorize lines when I was feeling especially destructive. Those poems had gotten me out of a lot of trouble. “You have to open your windows,” she’d say. Hard to do when there are padlocks on them, and you tossed the key away.
  • 16. Chapter Three Lottie “What if she’s one of those people who becomes obsessed with you and tries to steal your identity and then kill you, like in that movie?” Will said as he set a box of bedding and pillows on my bed. I plunked down my box of books, and narrowly missed dropping them on my foot. “Then I’ll sleep with a knife under my pillow,” I said, rolling my eyes. I’d talked to my new roommate, Katie, online, and so far so good. Even though she also used way too many emoticons in her emails. Will had begged me to stalk her on the various social media outlets, but honestly, I didn’t want to know ahead of time. Then I would have just spent the entire summer having nightmares about her. “If she’s hot, I guess the crazy doesn’t matter,” Will said, as if it had just occurred to him. “First, you’re disgusting and second, I have no idea what she looks, like and she definitely mentioned a boyfriend.” Several times. “That doesn’t mean anything.” “Um, I think it means she’s in a relationship, dumbass.” I moved the box of books with my foot and stretched my spine. I was going to sleep like a rock tonight. “Well, you should have found someone you knew to room with instead of playing Roommate Roulette, Charlotte.” I ignored the use of my full name. No one called me that unless they were trying to get my attention. “Yeah, because I had so many options.” “What about that girl from your bio class? The one who moved in halfway through senior year? What was her name?”
  • 17. “Glory,” I said, shuddering. I didn’t want to bring anything from my high school with me, and that included a roommate. Also, she had an unfortunate foot odor problem. “Her parents must have been high.” “No doubt. Hey, why don’t you help me with that desk,” I said. I’d already moved it three times, but I’d finally decided I wanted it at the foot of my bed. “Again?” “You’re a guy. You’re supposed to be used to moving heavy objects for us delicate females.” I went to the desk and pretended to move it. “Oh, I do declare, I might swoon,” I said, putting my hand to my forehead and collapsing on the bed. “You’re such a drama queen,” Will said, flopping down next to me. “Whatever, little bro,” I said, shoving his shoulder. Voices drifted up and down the hall as people moved boxes and bags and garbage bags of their worldly goods into tiny dorm rooms that were barely big enough to breathe in. Our parents were supposed to be here helping us move, but Dad was off studying plankton in the Caribbean for his lab and Mom was busy with a library charity auction. She tried to get out of it, but being the Head Librarian, she didn’t really have a choice. “Knock, knock,” A sweet voice said just before a round, cute face peered around the doorway. I hummed the Miss America theme song in my head. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said when she saw Will and I on my bed. I looked from her to Will and back. Oh, she totally thought we were… I burst out laughing as I got up from the bed. “Hey, you must be Katie, I’m Charlotte, but everyone calls me Lottie, and this is my brother,” I said, sticking out my hand. She gave me a limp shake. Not a good sign. There were a few people behind her, carrying boxes.
  • 18. “Is this it, Katie?” A woman who must have been her Mom said over an armful of pink pillows. Katie was only about an inch taller than my 5’1, but she looked… vulnerable. Young. She had these big brown eyes that made me think of Bambi, wandering around in the woods after his mother was shot. She had her hair in a high flippy ponytail and her tanned legs in a pink pair of shorts. In contrast, my hair was hastily tossed into a clip that couldn’t really hold my thick blonde mane and cargo shorts that may or may not have originally been Will’s. “This isn’t so bad,” a man who must have been her dad said, as he ducked into the room. He was so tall, the top of his head almost scraped the doorway. “Hi, I’m Katie’s roommate, Lottie. This is my brother, Will. He’s living on the second floor.” Will got up, put his hands in his pockets and tried to look both cool and attractive at the same time. Now that she knew he was my brother, she had definitely noticed him. People always noticed Will. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Lottie. I’m Glenn and this is Regina.” Katie’s Dad took my hand, then Will’s, giving both of us a hearty shake. That was more like it. Regina set to work immediately getting Katie’s fluorescent pink bedding out and starting to put it on the bed. Wow, it was even more obnoxious when it was all spread out like that. I hoped it didn’t glow in the dark. “Gina, why don’t we get the rest of the stuff in before we do all that.” Regina was already fussing. Katie must have been an only child, or at least the youngest. “Do you need a hand? We’re nearly done with our stuff,” Will said, jumping right into the “helpful young man” role. “Oh, that is so sweet,” Regina said. “Katie’s boyfriend is moving in today too, or else he’d be here to help us.” “Okay, well, I’m going to get the rest of my stuff from the truck and
  • 19. then I can give you a hand too,” I said, giving Katie a smile. She smiled back. Maybe this was going to work out. I got the rest of my junk, including two more boxes of books. I passed Will in the hallway, bringing in another box of what looked like pink stuff for Katie. Oy. Regina had already gone back to work on the bed, arranging so many throw pillows on it that there wouldn’t be much room for Katie, who was busy hanging a gigantic photoboard on the wall. Of course, all her friends were equally cute and attractive and photogenic. Katie’s phone rang, treating us all to ‘We Found Love’ by Rihanna, as Regina began to straighten Katie’s bed skirt so it would be perfect. Will would have choked if he’d heard it. As it was, I had to stifle a giggle. “Hey, babe. Where are you? No, come on up. Four-oh-seven. Love you too. Bye.” Katie let out a little sound of glee that punched my eardrums. I really hoped that wasn’t going to be a frequent sound. “Zack’s coming up. My boyfriend,” she said, as if I needed clarification. “You’ll love him. He’ll be here a lot, so I hope you get along. He was going to go to UMaine, but he got a baseball scholarship to come here.” Why did I have a sinking feeling? Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a few hours. Will had consumed all our road trip snacks about ten minutes from home. “I’m sure we will,” I said, trying to inject my voice with sunshine and rainbows. “You’ll love him,” Katie said again with a dreamy look. Her mom smiled at her as if she’d won the biggest prize at the science fair. I gave Will a look as he brought in another box of pink crap. Our room was beginning to look like the inside of a Pepto Bismol bottle. Katie’s Dad went to get the last of her stuff and Will decided to go back to his own room to unpack and wait for his roommate Simon to get here.
  • 20. “Pizza? There’s a place just up the road,” Will said. I glanced at Katie’s heart-shaped pink plastic clock. Leave it to Will to know where the nearest pizza joint was. If I let him, he’d eat pizza, baked potatoes and Cheetos for the rest of his life. “Simon should be here in soon.” “Yeah, he texted me earlier,” I said. Will and Simon had been best friends since Simon moved to Seaport two years ago. Even Simon coming out of the closet and confessing a secret crush on Will hadn’t broken their bond. In fact, it had just made it stronger. “Cool. I’ll be back in a few. It was nice to meet you,” Will said to Katie, Regina and Glenn. I fought the urge to make him stay. The idea of being alone with them made me feel uncomfortable. When I got uncomfortable, I had a tendency to babble and say things I wouldn’t normally say and go on, and on, and on… “Simon’s Will’s roommate,” I said to Katie as she put up even more pictures. I didn’t look too closely at them. There were just too many. They were like a fungus that I knew would somehow migrate to my side of the room. I’d wake up one morning and see her cute face pouting at me via photo. “Oh, I see,” Regina said, as she handed Katie another picture while they shared a look. “Is he cute?” “Will’s more his type. Simon’s gay,” I said, which put a stop to that line of questioning. “I mean, I always knew, but it wasn’t until he told me how much he really, really loved Channing Tatum that I finally confronted him and made him tell me. Then we had this whole intervention-type thing with Will, but he didn’t really care. I mean, some guys would be weird about living with a gay guy, but they’ve been best friends for so long –“ I was finally able to cut off the flow of words there. My word explosion was met with a stunned silence. “Oh,” Regina said. Glenn cleared his throat and asked Katie where she wanted her television. We’d agreed ahead of time that she was in charge of bringing
  • 21. electronics, since her parents had already bought them last year. I had my own stuff, but hers were top of the line. Katie’s phone buzzed with a message and she made that God-awful squealing sound again. Looked like I was going to have to get used to that. Or just learn how to not use my eardrums. I was busy alphabetizing my books by author’s last name (in series order) when I heard a voice behind me. “Hottie Lottie?” The books I’d been shelving hit the floor. I turned slowly, hoping against hope that it wasn’t who I thought it was. I hadn’t heard that voice in years; thought I’d never hear it again. In one second, his voice brought back that night, the full memory. The smoke in my hair, the cool of the moonlight, and the fear that filled my stomach like hot lead as Zan, Lexie and Zack got in his truck and drove away. I swallowed back bile and turned all the way around, just in case I was having an auditory hallucination. Nope. There he was. Zack Parker. Two years ago, I’d seen him laid out in a hospital bed, his body bruised and crushed and battered. I remembered looking at him and wishing he was dead. They found Lexie ten feet from the flipped truck. None of them were wearing seatbelts, and the deer came out of nowhere. Zan had swerved and the truck rolled, throwing all of them from the truck. Zan and Zack had broken bones, but Lexie suffered a traumatic brain injury. That night had changed everything. Lexie went from a girl who loved horses and strawberry ice cream to a girl who had to learn how to walk again. A girl who couldn’t remember my name. When I visited her in the hospital after she woke up, I had to wear a nametag and keep reminding her who I was. “Hey, babe!” Katie squealed and flung herself at him as if they were reuniting after he’d come home from a long deployment. Regina smiled
  • 22. and Glenn scowled. Clearly, he wasn’t won over by Zack’s charm. “Hey,” he said, glancing at her before looking at me. I’d never seen Zack shocked before, but for just a blink he was. Then he quickly smoothed it behind his smirk. I wanted to take that smirk and shove it so far up his ass a proctologist couldn’t find it. “Nice to see you again.” “I have to get something out of the truck,” I said, hiding my shaking hands behind my back. I would not let him see me this way. So I ran.
  • 23. Chapter Four Zan There was a knock at my door as I was putting my clothes in the dresser. My roommate still hadn’t showed up yet, and I was beginning to wonder if he ever would. “You will never guess who’s here,” Zack said, his arm around Katie, as if she was solely there for the purpose of letting him lean on her. She eyed me warily, as usual. I wanted to tell her to run while she still could. To run while she could still stand and he hadn’t crushed her under the weight of his arm. Granted, she wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. “Who?” He smirked. “Hottie Lottie.” The nickname made all sorts of things explode in my brain at once. Many of them were curse words, but her name was the loudest. Charlotte Anders. Everyone called her Lottie, but she’d always been Charlotte in my head. It suited her better. Charlotte Anders was here. At the same University. “Are you sure?” I stuttered. “I think I’d remember the girl who had you totally pussy-whipped for years.” I didn’t bother to contradict him. It wouldn’t do any good. I had to sit down on my bed so I didn’t fall over. I never thought I would see her again. My chest constricted and my hands shook so I put them in my pockets. “She’s also Katie’s roommate. Right, babe?” Zack clearly got a sick thrill out of doing this to me. I wasn’t the only one who looked
  • 24. uncomfortable, though. “Can we go?” Katie said, nudging him in the chest. He looked down as if he’d just remembered she was there. His face slowly arranged itself into a smile, and he tweaked her nose, which made her smile back at him. “Sure, babe. See you later, Zan. We’ll have to go out soon. Just the guys.” He gave me a wink and steered Katie down the hallway. “Bye.” How like Zack to drop a bomb like that and walk away. It wasn’t until after he left that I remembered I was supposed to tell him to call Mom. I’d probably end up doing it so she wouldn’t worry. She and I were like two people who only spoke half of their words in the same language, so only half of what was said on either side was understood. I was going to put off calling her as long as possible. It hadn’t always been like that, but after the accident the distance between us had gotten so big and wide and deep, we’d never been able to cross it again. I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, so I just kept unpacking and repeating her name in my head. Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte. I was definitely going to run into her at some point, if we were living in the same building. I looked around the room, and it suddenly started feeling smaller. The familiar tight feeling in my chest and lightness in my head told me I needed to get out of there. Now. Without my medication to press the Stop button in my brain, there was no telling what could happen. What I could do. Everything just built and built and built in my brain until I had to get it out, and usually that involved destroying things to prevent the guilt and pain and regret from absolutely crushing me. I’d gotten control of it over the past two years, but seeing her threatened to send that spinning into chaos. I almost forgot my key card, which would get me back in my room, but I grabbed it at the last minute before the door slammed behind me
  • 25. and I headed for the nearest exit. I almost crashed into some guy, but didn’t even pause to say I was sorry. It wouldn’t have mattered. Once I was outside, I started walking. There were far too many people around. I had to get away from them. From their loud happy voices and their loud happy energy. There weren’t many places you could find on a college campus to be alone, but I was damned if I wasn’t going to find one. Just the act of walking was helping me. If I could focus on walking, I could stop focusing on the insanity going on in my head. Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte. What was she doing here? Her brother was probably here too. They’d always been together back in school, but that was two years ago. Maybe they were different now. Maybe she was different now. The last time I’d seen her, I was in a hospital bed, and she’d been standing in the open doorway of my hospital room, staring at me. I’d never forget that look in her eyes. Those blue eyes that reminded me of the sky reflecting off lake water on a summer day. They’d been empty. Cold and dull and empty. I’d never seen them that way before. The girl who was always talking and laughing and bright was gone. Shattered. She stood there until I closed my eyes and turned my head. Like a coward. I bet she sure as hell didn’t want to see me. I shook my head at the memory and crossed the railroad tracks that ran through campus. I had no idea where I was, but I didn’t care. I passed the Field House and found myself on my way to the farm, just on the edge of campus. Perfect. Since classes hadn’t started, things were quiet, but there were a few horses out in the paddock. There had been a horse farm up the road from my house when I was a kid, and I’d often walked over there when I’d been mad at my mom or stepdad for whatever little thing they’d
  • 26. done to piss nine-year-old me off. I walked right up to the fence, hoping no one would come out and yell at me. That wouldn’t turn out well, I knew that much. Watching the horses run and chase each other helped me clear my head. I wished I’d brought the camera I’d gotten as a present from my social worker. She’d gotten me into photography as another outlet for my energy. I would definitely come back again when I was thinking more clearly. With Charlotte back in my life, that was highly unlikely. Fuck. I resisted the urge to bang my head on the fence. “Hey!” A sharp female voice made me look up. A woman who looked like she’d been born in a horse barn and would probably end her days there marched over to me, hands on her stonewashed jeans- clad hips. “What are you doing?” She had a bucket of something in one hand, and a pitchfork in the other. I would have been a complete dumbass to mess with her. “Nothing, just taking a walk.” I could have said anything and she still would have glared at me like I was going to mug her. “Well move along,” she said, jerking her chin to tell me to get lost. I fought the urge to grin at her. If I had my hat on, I would have tipped it and bid her good day. That always threw people off. God, I really, really wanted to get high. Just lay back and listen to a record and watch the wind stir the clouds. Or fuck the brains out of a girl. That worked too, but it didn’t last. Only about as long as it took for the sweat to dry and I pulled out and stared down at her and tried to remember her name. Most of the time I got it right. Afraid of provoking the woman with the pitchfork, I turned around and started to walk back to the dorm.
  • 27. I couldn’t go out and get high. I couldn’t go out and screw a random girl. I could, but Miss Carole, my social worker, would call me after and she’d know. She always knew, and the disappointment in her voice when she said my name was the worst sound in the world. Second only to the sound a car makes when it flips over and over. So I walked slowly back to my new dorm room, keeping my eyes down and hoping I didn’t run into her. Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte. Lottie I found the stairs and instead of going down and getting swallowed by the crush of people moving in, I went up to the roof. I always felt most calm when I was up high. Maybe it had something to do with the tree house Dad had built for Will and me one year when he was feeling especially father-y. Will wouldn’t go up there, so I had the place to myself. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that most people dwarfed me. There was a threatening sign on the door that led to the roof, but I wasn’t afraid of it. The worst someone would do was yell at me. I didn’t have anything to prop the door open with, so I pulled off one of my sneakers and shoved it in the crack so I wouldn’t be the girl who freaked out and got herself stuck on the roof and had to be rescued. The gravel crunched under my shoe and dug into my sock-clad foot as I stepped away from the door, putting my back to it. The discord of the cars and the voices from everyone at the street level faded, and I closed my eyes and imagined I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. “Are you screwing with me again?” I said to the nearly cloudless sky. A seagull called in the distance and was answered by another. I’d started this weird habit of talking to the sky after Lexie’s
  • 28. accident. My parents made me see a counselor, but that never helped. It was actually Will who had suggested it. I figured there had to be someone up there who was listening. “Haven’t we suffered enough? Is this some sort of lesson I’m supposed to be learning, because I don’t get it. Why us?” The sky offered no answers. I picked up a piece of gravel and chucked it. With my luck, it would hit someone in the head. “I just don’t understand.” My throat contracted painfully around a ball of tears that was threatening to come up and leak out my eyes. “Why won’t you let me move on?” I paced from one side of the roof to the other, even though I was lopsided from missing my shoe. I paced a few more times, resisting the urge to shake my fist at the sky, or fall to my knees and sob. I’d done that way too many times already. After a few more deep breaths, I pushed my way back through the door, stopping just long enough to put my shoe back on and tie it. As I pounded down the stairs, I skipped my floor and headed straight for Will’s. I banged my fist on his door, hoping that, first of all, I’d gotten the right room, and second, that he was there. He opened the door with a scowl, but it melted into concern when he saw my face. “What’s wrong?” “Two words. Zack fucking Parker.” “That’s three words.” “Will!” “Sorry. Zack Parker. What about him?” He could be so dense sometimes. I wanted to slap him upside the head. “He’s here.” “Where?” “HERE. As in, he’s probably in my room right now sucking my
  • 29. roommate’s face off.” “Wait, what?” “Katie was talking about her boyfriend, and then there he was. He was the Zack she was talking about. So he’s here. At this school. With us.” “Shit.” “Yeah.” “Fuck.” “Yeah.” “Shitfuck.” “My feelings exactly.” My voice broke and the sobs finally broke through the barrier I’d try to put in front of them. “Oh, Lot.” Will folded me into his arms as I let myself fall to pieces. He pulled me over to his bed, which wasn’t made yet, and covered with boxes. Will shoved them aside and sat with me. He was the only person on the planet I could let myself go with. “I just don’t understand.” “I know, I know.” He patted my back and let me soak his shirt with my tears. Will never told me I was being silly, or I shouldn’t cry, or that I needed to move on. Before Lexie’s accident, we’d fought a lot more, especially about stupid things. After, it was like he’d decided that me not knocking on his door before I barged in wasn’t important. He’d become a hell of a lot more sensitive after that night too. “Do you want me to beat the shit out of him? Mom and Dad aren’t here to stop me this time.” I’d lost track to the times Will had wanted to beat Zack up. Zan too, for that matter. I giggled a little. “There’s my sister.” Will rifled through one of the boxes and came out with a washcloth. “I don’t have any tissues.” He handed it to me, so I wiped my eyes and my nose. “Thanks, William.”
  • 30. “Anytime.” He tossed the washcloth back in the box. Yuck. “Are you sure I can’t beat the shit out of him? I really think he needs to be in a hospital bed again.” “It’s okay, Will.” It definitely wasn’t, but I didn’t want him fighting my battles for me. Not that I was going to fight Zack. I didn’t know what I was going to do. After the accident, I’d thought of a million different ways to kill him. That probably wasn’t normal. Actually, I knew it wasn’t normal, but that didn’t stop me from imagining him being run over by a car, or suffering intense pain or having his limbs ripped off, one by one. Will’s phone buzzed. “There’s Simon.” I sniffed one more time and rubbed my hands on my face. I probably looked like a hot mess. “I’m gonna go help him. You going to be okay?” I nodded, hopefully in a convincing way. Will rubbed his hand on the top of my head, effectively ruining my hair before he left the room. “Punk.” I leaned back against one of the boxes and stared at the ceiling. “What. The. Fuck.” I couldn’t escape the past. Not even here.
  • 31. Chapter Five Zan A slew of garbage bags and boxes spilled from my open door into the hallway. I stepped over them and surveyed the room, finding a guy about six inches shorter and a few inches wider and a quite a few hair shades lighter than me trying to find enough room for all the bags and tattered boxes. My roommate had arrived while I was busy staring at the horses and talking myself out of making a bad life decision. “Hey,” I said. “Devin, right?” I waited to see if he wanted to shake hands. When it came to getting a roommate, I’d had little choice. Without the option of living with someone I knew, and no one I knew was going to live with me, I’d had to take my chances with a random match-up. I’d gotten Devin Johnson’s name nearly two months ago, but we’d barely exchanged an email. “Yeah, you’re… Alex?” He threw one of the bags on top of the already towering pile on the bare mattress. He didn’t hold out his hand to shake mine. “Zan,” I said, coming all the way into the room. “Zan?” “Yeah, like Alex-zan-der.” My mom thought it was cute back when Zack and I were kids to have us both have Z names since we were so close in age. I’d never been able to shake it. “Got it.” He went out and came back with a backpack. “Do you need any help?” “Nah, I’m good.” He tossed the bag down and looked at the pile, as if
  • 32. it was Mt. Everest and he didn’t have a bottle of oxygen. I was curious why his parents weren’t here to help him, but that would involve asking him such a personal question, and I wasn’t going to do that. Mom and Steve would have been here, but Steve had surprised her with a trip to Vegas. He didn’t know when he booked the trip that it was during move-in weekend. “Knock, knock.” My brother appeared in the doorway, with the addition of his arm candy. They both had sex hair, so clearly they’d hooked up somewhere, probably in the truck. I really didn’t want to think about how many times he’d hooked up with girls in that truck. At least I used a bedroom. Most of the time. “Hey, you want to go out and get some pizza?” For the moment, he had decided to be my brother. These moments were like four leaf clovers. Rare and hard to find and sometimes I missed them, and sometimes I stomped on them, crushing them under my feet. “Sure.” Since we were so close in age, we played a lot together as kids. When we were little, our personality differences weren’t much of an obstacle to building a town out of blocks on the living room floor and then destroying it with our dinosaurs. When I was three, and he was almost five, he saved me from drowning one day at the beach, so for a few years, he was my protector. But it didn’t last. As we grew, our differences became more pronounced. He was competitive, always wanting to wrestle and challenge everyone. I was more solitary, preferring to run, to read, to do things on my own. The fact that he had his license and a truck brought us back together, due to my lack of transportation. Then that night happened, and we hadn’t been the same. But nothing changed the fact that he was my brother. “I guess I’ll see you later,” I said to Devin. He just grunted and started ripping open one of the garbage bags. Since pizza was the food of choice for most college students,
  • 33. naturally there were about three pizza places per student just outside of campus. On the way over, I sat in the passenger seat with Katie beside me. She made sure to scoot over as far as she could she wouldn’t touch any part of me. I slouched toward the door, helping her out. Other than that, she ignored my existence. Or she was doing a good job at pretending. He found a parking spot and we got out, Zack lifting Katie out, making her squeal with delight before he gave her a rough kiss and took her hand to lead her into the cramped restaurant. I looked away, regretting that I’d come with them. It had the typical Americanized idea of an Italian place. Black and white tile floor, Italian flags, and pictures of fat jolly chefs twirling dough and chopping tomatoes on the wall. We slid into a booth, me on one side, Zack and Katie on the other, wrapped around each other like ivy and a brick building. It was disgusting, really. I’d never been one for PDA, but then I’d never really had a girlfriend. Just a long line of fuck buddies. “What do you want, babe?” “I don’t know,” Katie said, glancing at the menu. I could tell she wasn’t even really reading it. “You pick.” The waitress came to take our drink orders, and we all got Cokes. I knew Zack wanted a beer, but the chances of getting one in a college bar without an ID were about as good as my chances of walking into a store and not having a salesperson follow me around to make sure I didn’t steal anything. Less than zero percent. Even our waitress gave me a second look before Zack captured her attention. I got a calzone so Zack and Katie could share a pepperoni pizza. Katie kept checking her phone and trying to fix her ponytail so it was just messy enough to show people that she didn’t care. I mostly ignored them as Zack kept sliding his hand up her thigh and trying to feel her up. Either she was oblivious, or she was doing the best she could to ignore
  • 34. him. Judging by the stiff hold of her neck, she was doing the latter. I always wanted to ask the girls he went with what it was about him. Why did they put up with him? Zack was harder on girls than he was on his truck. “So there’s this party next weekend at this guy Todd’s house, and you’re invited. It’s going to be a bunch of baseball guys, but it should be fun. Lots of new girls to get friendly with.” Zack had never been friendly with a girl. Not in the non-sexual way. “Maybe,” I said. Not that long ago, I would have been into it, but now things were different. “Come on, little bro. We need to get you out and social. You’ve been at that freak school for too long. You’ve forgotten how to be around normal people.” Yeah, I’d seen what he called normal. “And why the fuck was I at the freak school?” I said it quiet, but Katie flinched anyway, and cast her eyes down. I hated to do this in front of her, but I could only deal with Zack’s mouth for so long, especially now that he’d dropped the fact that Charlotte was here before walking away. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. About what she would look like when I saw her. If her eyes would still be like that. “Jesus, calm down, dude. I was just trying to be a nice big brother. No need to get your panties in a twist. I’m just trying to get you out of your own head so you’re not thinking about Hottie anymore. You haven’t even asked me how she looks.” I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, that I’d hitchhike back, but that would cause a scene, so I shut my trap and finished my calzone. Katie had remained mostly silent and barely picked at her pizza. She looked so sad already, or maybe it was just because I was with them. But then Zack whispered something in her hear and took her hand and kissed the back of it, and she smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. He was already using her up, like a tube of toothpaste that would soon be
  • 35. squeezed dry. “So let me know about the party. You should come,” Zack said as we walked back to the dorm from the student lot. The air was still full of summer, and crickets still sang in the grass. If I was still at home, I would have climbed out my window and laid in the field behind our house for a while and stared at the sky. The streetlights were on, casting that orange glow over everything and blocking out the stars from visibility. “I’ll think about it,” I said, twiddling my hands in my pockets and fingering the lighter I still carried around. I’d quit smoking pot, but I couldn’t give up my lighter. It was only a stupid chrome Zippo, but it had been my grandfather’s, so I was attached to it. One of the only things I’d be really upset if I lost. My roommate was gone when I got back, and the trash can was full of torn-up garbage bags. His bed just had a cheap thin comforter thrown on it, and most of his other stuff was just crammed here and there. I threw myself back on my bed and tried to keep my mind from going to the place it kept wandering. I pulled out the lighter and snapped it off and on, trying to focus on the little swoosh as the flame lit. “You got a special gal in your life?” Gramps had asked me one of the last times I’d visited. He never called them girls. Always gals. “Not really.” I was in the midst of trying to get up the balls to talk to Charlotte. I’d been trying different ways, but so far I’d been too much of a pussy to do anything. “Don’t you lie to me, young man. I know that look in your eye. You’ve got it bad. Just like I did when I was your age. What’s her name?” He puffed on his pipe and sat back deep into the recliner. I shook my head. “She must be pretty special if she’s caught your eye. What’s she like? Bet she’s gorgeous. I remember your grandmother at that age. What a set
  • 36. of legs.” He whistled and threw his head back, as if the memory had taken over his brain. “I can’t talk to her,” I said. “Why not? What’s wrong with you?” “I don’t know. Whenever I see her, I choke.” “That’s natural. Gals have a way of making you feel like you’ve got no tongue at all.” That was how she made me feel. As if someone had cut my tongue out. “If this gal can’t see who you are, she doesn’t deserve to see it. You’re like your grandmother. Hard shell on the outside, but real sweet on the inside.” Gramps comparing me to candy made me grin just a little. “So, you going to talk to her?” “Sure.” “Good man,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder. Three weeks later he died. Six months later, I tried to talk to Charlotte. A half hour after that, everything went to hell in fucking hand basket. Lottie “It’s been so long!” Simon’s face split into a grin and he pulled me in for a hug, yanking me off my feet and spinning me around. His glee at seeing me made me put on a happy face and shoved the dark clouds that had descended on my first day aside. “I saw you this morning,” I said as he set me on my feet. Simon and Will were nearly the same height, but they looked like night and day. Simon had dark hair and green eyes and the most infectious smile in the world. A few girls who walked by gave him the once over, and it was clear that they liked what they saw. Girls were always coming on to Simon, almost as much as they did to Will. “What can I say? The ladies love me,” he’d always say.
  • 37. “So I heard about your little encounter. Do you want me to pretend it didn’t happen and just be my normal charming self? Or do you want me to make a voodoo doll? Or I could sit and watch chick flicks and cry with you.” That was another good thing about Simon. He was so shiny and bright and happy, he could brush away even the most morbid and depressing of thoughts. “I’ll take option one.” “Done,” he said as Will struggled in behind him, carrying three clear storage tubs. “You have a problem, you know that?” he said, setting the tubs down. Simon was the most organized person I’d ever met. He said he used to freak out when his mom threw all his food in his lunchbox and didn’t divide it up in separate compartments, and he’d asked for a label maker for every Christmas and birthday since he was five until he’d gotten one. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to live with Will? You’ve seen his room.” Not that Will was a pig, but he wasn’t Simon, the Master of Organization. Will gave me a look, but I ignored him. We were back to being normal again. “I am going to convert him to my way of life.” “Oh really? And how do you presume to do that?” “I have my ways,” he said with a wink. “Excuse me, I’m standing right here,” Will said, waving his arms. “Yes, we see you, William.” Will pouted and Simon shoved him. “Is it just me, or is it smaller than I remember?” Will shoved back before plunking himself down on the stack of tubs. “Maybe it’s a magical room that changes size. Like Hogwarts,” I said. “I’m pretty sure they had better beds,” he said, sitting down on his with a horrible metal screech. “Oh, that’s going to need some WD-40.” “We haven’t even been here for five seconds, and you’re already
  • 38. fixing something,” Will said, as Simon snapped his fingers for him to get off the tubs. One of them was marked Tools. “I can’t sleep on a rickety bed,” Simon said, diving into the box. Will looked like he was going to say something, but I shook my head and went to go get some more of Simon’s tubs. Seven trips later, we had all Simon’s stuff inside, my arms were like Jell-o and Simon had not only fixed the squeaky bed, but had tightened the screws on all the chairs and re-arranged all the bookshelves. He was like a one man Extreme Makeover Home Edition team. All he needed was a megaphone and a tape measure. Will had given up and gone to get pizza after the third trip to the car, the slacker. “How freaking long does it take to get pizza?” I said as Will came through the door. “You’re welcome,” he said, handing me a box marked mush&extrachz. “Hey dude, you made it.” They fist-bumped and Will opened a box and held it out to Simon. They each grabbed a slice, folded them in half and started munching. Boys. “You have any paper towels?” I said. “In the supplies box,” Simon said, glancing around. “Here.” He kicked the box with his foot. I got some out, handing them to both of the boys. Inevitably, one or both of them was going to spill. “I saw him again. Zack,” Will said around a mouthful of cheese. “He was parking a pretty sweet ride, and I saw him sucking the lips off your roommate.” “Thanks, Will. I haven’t been thinking about it at all.” “Maybe he’ll get kicked out,” Simon said. “Maybe Zack will get wasted and the University will decide he’s a menace to the campus and get rid of him.” Simon had never met Zack. He’d moved to Seaport, Maine after the
  • 39. accident, but he was as invested in hating the brothers as Will or me. “Unlikely,” I said. “Katie told me Zack’s here on a baseball scholarship. You know how easy it is for athletes to get away with everything.” His name tasted like the bitterest cough syrup in my mouth. Even though Zack had been drunk when the accident happened, he’d gotten off without being punished. Zan, on the other hand, ended up in the state youth facility, and then was shipped off to a school for delinquents up-state. At least I didn’t have to worry about seeing him. He still had another year of high school. “This is batshit,” Will said. “Pretty much,” I said. “So what do we do?” “There’s nothing we can do. Just avoid him, I guess.” “Just promise me that you won’t act all brother-y and do something stupid,” I said, sticking out my pinky. “I would never do something stupid,” Will said. Simon and I both snorted. “Yeah, okay,” Simon said. “Just promise.” “Yes, yes, I promise,” he said sticking out his pinky. “Twin promise?” He sighed. “Twin promise.” We linked pinkies, then spit on our hands and shook. “You two are so strange,” Simon said, getting out some anti-bacterial wipes. Will just wiped his on his pants, and I used my paper towel. I’d been sharing Will’s germs for more than 18 years. “So, I think I need to see this pink monstrosity you’ve been talking about,” Simon said. “Come on, you’re going to have to go back to your room sometime. If I can come out to my crazy conservative parents and live, you can face this jerkoff.” He had a point. He put his arm around
  • 40. my shoulder and pulled me to my feet. “If you want me to punch him for you, I will. Just say… um… duckling, and I’ll do it,” Simon said. “Duckling?” “What? You got a problem with ducklings? They’re adorable.” That was Simon for you. Will shrugged. “Also, I may or may not have several knives at my disposal. If you ever ask me about it, I will deny it. Nevertheless, they are at your disposal if you ever need them,” Simon said, pointing to the Tools box. Katie and Zack were nowhere to be found, but there was a note on the door, written in pink pen no less with the I’s dotted with little hearts, that said they’d gone out. “Holy carp, it looks like this is where pink came to die. How are you going to live like this?” Simon said. It was even worse than when I’d left, with the addition of pink curtains to cover the one window at the end of the room, and a pink throw rug that rested between our beds. I finally looked at the pictures on her side of the room and saw Zack’s grinning face. How had I not seen it before? “Maybe I’ll become desensitized and get used to it,” I said. “Or maybe you’ll become pinkblind and everything you’ll see will be pink,” Simon said. “If you were pinkblind, you wouldn’t be able to see pink,” Will pointed out. Simon gave him a look. “You knew what I meant. Wow, it really is awful. It’s like she murdered a Muppet and made pillows out of its pelt.” He pointed to the pile of pillows. My phone buzzed and I pulled it out of my back pocket. It was Lexie. I took a calming breath before I answered. “Hey, Lex!” I said as brightly as I could manage. “Lexie,” I mouthed at Simon and Will. Simon handed me a tissue from a fuzzy pink box on
  • 41. Katie’s dresser. “Hi, Lottie! What are you doing?” “I just moved in. How are you?” “I’m fine. I went to the zoo.” “Awesome! What kind of animals did you see?” “Um, I saw a lion and a bear and an el—um…” she struggled to find the word. “An elephant?” “That’s it. It was huge.” “I bet.” “Are you busy?” “I’m never too busy for you, Lex.” “Good.” I sat down on my bed and chatted with Lexie. I’d gotten used to how different she was, but today, after seeing Zack and having the flashback, it was especially heartbreaking. The damage to Lexie’s brain had been so extensive, at first they didn’t think she’d be able to walk or talk again. She’d proved them wrong, but certain areas were never going to recover. Her memory had been affected, as well as her emotions. She was prone to rages, and I always had to be careful what I said so I wouldn’t set her off. Her fits of anger were both violent and scary. “Are you coming to see me soon?” “Definitely!” Kay, Lexie’s mom, got on the phone and we hammered out details for me to come the next weekend. My parents accused me of picking Dirigo University because it was only a half-hour away from Lexie’s house. When Will and I had been choosing colleges, he’d been the one to suggest it. We’d made an unsaid pact that we would go to the same college. “I love you, Lex.” “Love you, too.”
  • 42. Chapter Six Lottie Katie didn’t come back until later that night. Simon and Will had stayed in my room, just in case she came back with Zack and they needed to lay the smackdown. Their words, not mine. When she did come back, Katie had a blissed out grin on her face until she saw Will and Simon. “Oh, hey,” she said. “Katie, this is Will’s roommate, Simon.” “Nice to meet you,” Simon said, nodding. I hoped she didn’t mind that we were breaking in her television with a marathon of The Walking Dead. I flipped it to another channel and Will and Simon groaned. “Did you already have dinner?” I asked Katie as the guys got all pouty. “Yeah, Zack took me out.” She sidled into the room warily, as if we were all going to pounce on her. She paused before she sat back on her sea of pillows. “You kind of freaked out when you saw him. I thought you were like, an ex-girlfriend or something, but he said it wasn’t that,” she said. “So he set the record straight?” I said with a little bit of an edge. Will put his hand on my back and pinched my spine. He knew I was getting ready to blow. “Yeah, he said that he dated your best friend and that they were in some sort of accident.” Not exactly. “You know what? I’m a little hungry myself. I thought I’d go down to the dining commons. You want to come with, Lot?” Simon said,
  • 43. standing up. Of course, we’d had pizza only a few hours before, but Simon had the appetite of three normal guys. “Um, sure,” I said, knowing it was a ruse to get me out of the room before I blurted something out that would make her hate me. I’d done that more times than I could count. “I’ll come with,” Will said, also standing. “I guess we’ll see you later,” I said to Katie as I was dragged out of the room. She waved hesitantly. “You guys didn’t have to do that,” I said as we walked down the hall. “I wasn’t going to do anything.” “No, but you were about to do that thing when you start just saying whatever comes into your mind, and I don’t think she’s ready for that yet,” Will said. Simon nodded in agreement. “I was not,” I said, crossing my arms. “You know you can’t lie to me, Lottie,” Will said. “My twindar is strong.” He tapped his forehead. Any moment he was going to start quoting Yoda. “Avoid confrontation, we should,” he said. I pretended to punch his stomach, and he clamped my neck under his arm and messed my hair up. I went limp until he let me go. “Annoying, you are,” I said as I tried to fix my hair. When we reached the front door, Simon went to open it, but someone else was coming in and got there first. He stood back to let us pass. Simon nodded to whoever it was and I looked up to say thank you and stared right into a set of deep, dark eyes. His face had matured over the years. He was still tall; taller than when I’d seen him last. His hair was longer, and hung on either side of his eyes. Zan fucking Parker. Will crashed into me because my legs decided to stop working. “Lottie, you wanna keep walking there?” I couldn’t answer. Zan seemed frozen as well.
  • 44. “Lottie, seriously.” Will stepped around me to see what held me up. “You coming, Lottie?” Simon said, turning around and realizing I wasn’t right behind him. “Zan,” Will said, first clenching his jaw and then moving to stand in front of me. “You’re Zan?” Simon said. I continued to gape until there were a few people behind me that wanted to get through. “Um, could you keep moving?” A girl said in a snotty voice. “Lottie, move,” Will said, taking my arm and leading me away. I stumbled, but he kept dragging me until we were outside the building. “Oh, fuck,” I said, going to lean against the building. “This is not happening.” I closed my eyes as Simon and Will tried to decide what to do in barely-hushed whispers. “Charlotte?” Oh no, this was not happening. My eyes snapped open to find him standing ten feet away, with Will and Simon between us, like the lions that guarded the New York Public Library. “What the hell do you want? You’re not even supposed to be here. You should be a senior in high school.” He started to say something, but then decided against it. “I think you’d better leave,” Will said, puffing himself up. My protective little brother. “I skipped a year,” he said before he turned and went back in the building. “Shit,” I said. I struggled to pull air into my lungs. “You okay?” Simon said. “How could both of them be here? And in this building?” “Shitty luck,” Will said. “How did he skip a grade? I heard he’d been sent to that youth facility and then that school for kids who set their beds on fire and tried to kill their parents and stuff.” Will didn’t have my gift of gab, but he could hold his own in the rambling department.
  • 45. “You must have murdered a bunch of people in a past life and you’re making up for it now, Lot.” Simon said, watching Zan go back into the building. I didn’t feel like I could breathe until the door closed behind him. “Shut up, Simon,” Will said. “Whatever,” I said, peeling myself from the building. I was not going to let them ruin my first day of college. “I feel like I should get drunk and make some bad decisions right now.” “Lottie, only girls in books do that. And not even good books. Just those crappy romance ones you hide from mom,” Will said. He was right, of course. I had to smuggle in trashy paperbacks so my mother wouldn’t see them. “Let’s just go to dinner,” Will said, taking my arm and not giving me another option. Zan I knew I would see her eventually, I just didn’t think it would be so soon. I hadn’t even had time to rehearse what I could possibly say to her if we ever bumped into each other in the laundry room, or the dining hall. If I’d had time, I might have come up with something better. Something that didn’t make me sound like a dumbass. I knew it would happen sooner rather than later, given the fact that her brother was my neighbor. I’d seen them putting up the names on the doors, and heard him moving his stuff in, and I’d stayed in my room like a coward so he wouldn’t see me. I didn’t really feel like getting punched in the face on my first day. I also realized that Will’s roommate was the guy who had offered to hep me with the weights earlier. He seemed nice, but I knew as soon as he figured out who I was, his attitude toward helping me was bound to change. I hadn’t seen her in two years, but there was no mistaking Charlotte Anders, even though her hair was longer and she looked like a woman
  • 46. instead of a girl. Her sadness was as palpable as it had been when I’d seen her after the accident. And her rage. I could feel that, too. Her eyes weren’t dead anymore. They snapped on mine like lightning, and the world stopped moving for a moment as I was yanked back in time to the night of the accident. Back to when I was just a boy who had a crush on a girl and couldn’t get up the courage to talk to her. But things had changed since then. Now the biggest emotion I felt when I looked at her was guilt. The other feelings were still there, too, and they all mashed together. What was guilt about the accident and what was part of the crush that was leftover and what was this urge to get her to see me as someone else, I couldn’t separate. She’d flinched when I’d used her full name, as if I’d slapped her in the face. Just a few months ago, seeing her would have led me on another downward spiral, but I couldn’t do that now. College was supposed to be my fresh start. A new chance. A place to be around people who didn’t know who I was, didn’t make assumptions about me based on what they had heard. I wanted to say something to her. So many somethings, but all I could tell her was that I’d graduated a year early from school. The girl with the angry blue eyes had completely disarmed me. Another Rumi quote spun through my brain: what you seek is seeking you. I was fucked. I went back to my room and lay on my bed, wondering where my new roommate was. My phone rang, and I looked to see who it was before I answered. Huh. It was Katie. “Hello?” I said. She hadn’t called me in a very long time. “Hey.” She took a breath before she continued. “I’m just calling to say that I’m sorry about the whole Lottie thing. I should have figured it out sooner, but Zack never mentioned her last name.”
  • 47. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” “This is going to make things weirder. I mean, weirder than they already are.” I couldn’t deny it, because things were going to be weird. As if we didn’t already have enough tension. “Look, just, don’t do anything. Please,” she said. She was one to be giving me advice. Not that long ago she was pretending I didn’t exist. “I won’t.” “Damn, Zack is back. Bye.” She hung up on me. Lottie “We could go out to the movies.” It was clear Will and Simon wanted to keep me away from the dorms. Too much drama in one day. “I guess,” I said as they shoved me into the truck. We saw a crappy action movie that I didn’t bother to watch. Afterward I begged Will to take me to the bookstore. I needed some paper therapy. The first thing I did was to go for the romance section and pick up a few of the bargain titles. As far as I was concerned, the only bad book was a book that didn’t have any pages in it. Will and Simon went for the science fiction section and then to look at the movies. I made my rounds, hitting the young adult section, the fiction section and the classic section. Of course I found a leather- bound Complete Works of Jane Austen that I had to have. Will just sighed heavily when he saw me staggering to the checkout counter. I didn’t know why he was so surprised. When my high school boyfriend, Clark, and I broke up, I’d gone on a paperback binge and had cleaned out entire shelves at our local used bookstore. “Where are you going to put them?” Simon said. Of course, his first concern was storage. “I’ll find a place. You wanna loan me one of your tubs?”
  • 48. “What?” he said as if I was asking to borrow a kidney. “Never mind. I’ll buy my own.” At least the boys helped me carry my latest fix back to the car. “We can set up something for you on the floor, to sleep tonight,” Will said as we pulled into the student parking lot. “It’s fine. I’m going to have to face this for the rest of the year, so I might as well get it over with.” “Are you sure?” he said. “I’m sure,” I said, hoping that he couldn’t tell I wasn’t. “Look, I’ll text you tomorrow morning for breakfast. Okay?” Will wanted to say something else, but he shut his mouth. “You should call Mom.” “You haven’t called her?” “Not yet.” “Will!” “What? I was too busy making sure you weren’t going to freak out and stab someone.” “Oh, please.” We stopped outside Will and Simon’s door. I only knew it was theirs because someone had put their names on it while we were at dinner. “Um, Lot?” Simon said, pointing. “What?” “Look.” The door on the right of Will’s had two names on it. One was Devin. The other was Zan. “Seriously?!” I screamed at the ceiling, throwing my hands up in the air. Simon and Will looked at each other and I could tell they had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what to do, either. “I’m going to my room,” I said, taking my bags of books from them and heading for the elevator. I was so tempted to take it to the roof again, but I shoved aside the latest development. I couldn’t deal with
  • 49. one more thing today. My brain would explode and spill out of my ears and I really didn’t want that to happen. When I opened the door, I thought I had the wrong room. First of all, the pink was worse than I remembered. Second, there were a bunch of girls in it I’d never seen. And of course, they were all gorgeous. “Hey,” I said, to alert them to my presence. They were all on Katie’s bed, looking at something on her computer. “Oh, hey. This is my roommate, Lottie. This is Britt and Karina and Ashley.” She didn’t specify who was who, so that was going to be a challenge. Two were bleach bottle blonde and the other was artificially dark-haired. They clearly all shopped at the same store, because they had shirts with the same brand splashed across the front. I wasn’t being judgmental at all. Seeing Zack and Zan kind of flipped my bitch switch into hyperdrive. “Hi,” I said, setting my books down. The one with the dark hair sort of looked me over. I wanted to glare at her, but she quickly looked away. The four of them ignored me as I started sorting through my books. Katie glanced over, probably wondering if I’d gotten anything pink. “What did you get?” She glanced at the bags with interest. No, there was nothing pink in them. “Um, some books.” “Books?” She said the word as if she’d never heard of them before. “Don’t you already have a bunch of books?” What kind of a question was that? We were college students. And whoever heard of having too many books? Damn, I was losing big in the Roommate Roulette. “Oh my God, you have to see this, Katie,” the one with the dark hair said, pointing to something on the laptop and laughing with glee. “I’m going to go take a shower,” I said. “It was nice to meet you.” The three friends just sort of stared at me blankly.
  • 50. The shower was actually better than I thought it would be. The water pressure was freaking amazing. I stayed in much longer than I would have at home. There was no one else knocking on the door, telling me they had to pee, or that I was using too much hot water. It was heaven, if only for a moment. Katie was alone when I got back, with some vampire show on the television. The silence was so thick, my mouth decided to fill it with meaningless chatter. “So, um. Your parents seem nice,” I said. “I mean, not that they wouldn’t be. You really like pink, don’t you? I had a pink phase when I was four, but Will, my brother, well you met him, he took all my pink stuff and set it on fire. Well, it didn’t really burn, because some of the fabric was flame retardant, but…” Balls. I’d done it again. She reached for her phone and started typing on it. A clear “go away” signal if I’d ever seen one. “Sorry about that.” I clamped my jaw shut and went to throw my dirty clothes in my hamper so I didn’t have to face her. “Sure,” she said. She’d barely looked up from her phone during my verbal word spew. “I’m, um, going to call my mom.” “Uh huh,” she said, still visually attached to the phone. “And then I’m going to cut my arms off and beat you in your sleep with them.” She didn’t even react. With that, I went down to the study lounge, which was empty, seeing as how classes hadn’t begun. I had to get my books the next day, and then Monday we started. “Hey, Mom, how was your event? Raise lots of money so the roof doesn’t cave in?” “What’s wrong?” Of course hello was too traditional. “Why do you think something’s wrong?” “Mother’s intuition.” Damn her Mom Superpowers.
  • 51. “It’s nothing, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not. Since I got a text from your brother, I’m going to assume neither of you has been killed or dismembered, so you might as well tell me what it is.” My mother didn’t tolerate secrets. She could make Will and I sing like songbirds when we were kids and tried to hide things from her. Yet another one of her powers. “Zack and Zan Parker are here. In this dorm. Oh, and Zan is living right next to Will. And my roommate is dating Zack. Also, I forgot to bring my cell phone charger.” “How did that happen?” “I have no idea. I thought I packed it, but I can’t find it.” “I wasn’t asking about the cell phone charger.” “I know. I was just screwing with you.” “Language.” The woman could read a book full of filthy language, but she would never let one of the words pass her lips, or those of her children. “Mom, I don’t know what to do.” “Mockingbird.” “Mom, I don’t think reading about Scout for the millionth time is going to help in this situation, despite how much I love it.” “The words of Atticus Finch are relevant in any situation, especially this one. You would do well to remember them.” Great. I’d insulted To Kill A Mockingbird and made Mom mad. It was worse than if I’d take the Lord’s name in vain. Mom had this idea that any situation could be solved by reading the right book. When I hit puberty and got my period, she handed me every Judy Blume book she could find. For when I liked a boy who didn’t like me back, she handed me Jane Austen. When I was all moody and hated the world, I got Poe and lots of other dark poetry to soothe my angst. To Kill A Mockingbird worked for anything and everything. For the love of Shakespeare, the woman named me after a talking spider.
  • 52. “That was a long time ago, Lottie. People deserve second chances.” “Not for something like that.” “You can’t hold grudges like this. They’ll eat you up.” I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to scream that it wasn’t her best friend that had been put into a coma for a week. It wasn’t her best friend that had been in the hospital for months. They’d had to cut a part out of Lexie’s skull so her brain could swell without killing her. She didn’t understand. “So what are you going to do?” “I don’t know.” “You should figure it out. You have to live there for at least one semester.” “I know that.” I could picture her pursing her lips and giving me the stare down. “Do you want to talk when you’re not so worked up?” “I’m not worked up,” I said through gritted teeth. This call had been a bad idea. She chose a less-treacherous path. “What’s your roommate like?” “You ready for this? She’s obsessed with pink. I’m living inside a gum bubble.” “Oh, dear.” We moved on to the topic of pink, and that carried us into other safer topics. “Tell your brother that he best be calling me tomorrow if he values my patience.” “I will. Love you.” “Love you too, Lottie.” We made kissy noises and hung up. I sat back on the blue DU couch with the white antlers on it. “What are you doing out here?” Will’s voice roused me. “Talking to our mother. You’d better call her tomorrow or else she’s going to drive up here and yell at you.”
  • 53. “Okay, okay. What did she say?” “What do you think?” “Mockingbird?” “Yep.” “Dad emailed me.” “How’s the plankton?” “You’d think he was discovering water on Mars.” Dad was as passionate about ocean currents and sediments and tiny water bugs as Mom was about books, which was why I’d chosen marine bio as my major. I thought Dad was going to cry when I told him that was what I’d decided on. It wasn’t that I was in love with science, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. Sure, I loved books almost more than breathing, but Mom had discouraged me from the literary path. “You don’t make any money. I want you to be able to support yourself.” It was true that Dad was the main breadwinner in our family. Who knew plankton could be so profitable? Somehow Will had gotten off the hook of fulfilling our parents’ hopes and dreams, and was going to be an athletic director. I was convinced it was because he was a boy. “Are you sure you don’t want to crash on my floor? Simon brought an extra blanket.” “No, I’m fine.” “Okay, then. Goodnight.” He hesitated, as if he didn’t want to go. Will and I had never slept so far away before, at least not for any length of time. We shared a bathroom, and it was going to be weird waking up tomorrow morning and not banging on the door so he’d get of the shower and I could brush my teeth. “Goodnight,” I said, getting up and giving him a hug. He left and I wandered back to my room. The glow of the television greeted me again. Even in the dark, the pink glowed.
  • 54. “Are you, um, ready for bed?” I was about to sleep only a few feet away from a complete stranger who was dating one of the people I hated most in the world. “Sure,” she said, turning the show off and flipping onto her back, still staring at the phone. After brushing my teeth, I came back and grabbed my iPod, shoving the earbuds in. I closed my eyes and turned over so the glow of Katie’s phone wouldn’t disturb me. “Goodnight,” I said. “ ‘Night,” she said.
  • 55. Chapter Seven Zan I popped in another piece of the cinnamon gum that Miss Carole had given me to help replace my more destructive coping mechanisms as I walked back from breakfast the next morning. It didn’t really work, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to give it a shot. She hadn’t given up on me yet, despite my efforts to make her. Running had also joined the gum in my repertoire of destruction- avoidance. I’d done it when I was younger, but the accident had dampened my passions until Miss Carole had suggested it. The thing I liked about running was that it gave me the same masochistic thrill as anything else, but it was more socially acceptable, and even encouraged. I’d gotten a few texts from Tate, one of the only friends I’d had at Foster UlhamAcademy (or, as Zack called it, Fuck Up Academy), but I hadn’t returned them. I knew what he wanted, and I was not letting him come up and hang with me. Hanging with Tate meant some combination of drugs, alcohol and mayhem, not necessarily in that order. He was a good guy, he just went too hard and too fast sometimes. “Life’s a bitch, then you die,” he’d say. “So fuck it all and do whatever you want.” “That doesn’t rhyme,” I’d say. He’d take a drag from whatever he was smoking at the time and blow it out. “Who cares?” It was a pretty grim worldview, but Tate had a lot of reasons for a grim worldview. Being abandoned by your parents and then being in a series of bad foster homes could do that to you. Not to mention all the
  • 56. stuff he wouldn’t tell me about. I knew there was plenty of that, too. I really shouldn’t feel so shitty about my life. I shouldn’t bitch all the time, even if it was just to myself. Miss Carole was always trying to get me out of that habit. She could be a bit too sunshine and rainbows sometimes, but for some reason, it had worked to bring me out of my darkest place. The time I’d gone stoned out of my mind to one of her sessions and she’d screamed at me for fifteen minutes straight had also helped. Because I knew she actually gave a fuck. No one had for a while, not even Mom or Steve, and it was just the slap in the face I needed. I’d told her the truth that day, the first person I’d ever actually told. It was like ripping the words out of my throat to get them out, but I did. She listened, not making a sound, and somehow that made it easier. When she put her hand on my shoulder, it was like she was holding me up, because she was. I glanced up at the sun, that lazy globe in the sky. Tomorrow I started my first classes. I hadn’t picked a major, despite Miss Carole helping me make list after list of what I was interested in. The truth was that I didn’t have any interests that could easily translate to an actual career. Listening to old records, reading and running until I fell over weren’t career paths. She’d suggested working in a music shop, a bookstore and an athletic shoe company as possible places I could try until I decided. The sun glinted on the hood of a car, making me shade my eyes, and then I saw her walking toward me. Lost in thought, she didn’t see me until we had almost met on the sidewalk. I realized we were almost to the dorms. Her mouth opened just a little in shock before she snapped it shut and jutted her chin out, looking over my shoulder instead of at me. I couldn’t stop looking at her. Once again, she was the eclipse, drawing me in. It sounds intense and it is, being drawn to look at someone like that.
  • 57. Her chin trembled as she marched, trying to get past me. A part of me wanted to say “fuck it”, grab her arm and make her listen to me. To force the truth down her throat until she swallowed it. I wished that part was dominant. More dominant than the part of me that was scared out of my mind of what would happen if I did touch her, did tell her. So I let her stomp by. Let my eyes follow her body, even though I had to crane my head to look backward. The wind caught her ponytail and it streamed out behind her. I stood, until she turned a corner and I couldn’t see her anymore, and I was finally able to breathe. Yes, Zack had said I was whipped, but it was more than that. Charlotte didn’t just shake my world. She created an earthquake that had irrevocably changed the landscape of my life. I changed out of my jeans into some grey workout pants and a long- sleeved t-shirt. I was going to boil, but it saved me from getting weird looks. Then I put on my running shoes, and set my iPod to shuffle, wondering what it was going to give me. ‘Circle Game’ by Joni Mitchell came on and I smiled. Perfect song. Her thin, haunting voice was just what I needed, singing about the carousel we all ride on, and how it goes up and down. Can’t go back, just forward. I burst from the dorm and took off, looking for the first trail into the woods I could find. I didn’t have to go too far before I could veer off the straight dark pavement and onto the uneven ground of a trail. The trees swallowed me up as Joni’s voice devoured my ears, blocking out everything except the pounding of my feet, the sound of my breath and the beat of my heart. I stopped chanting her name in my head and thought just about moving my body forward, keeping it going. It started to rain, but I kept going. Rain never bothered me. My hair streamed in front of my eyes, but I pushed it away and ran harder, my feet splashing against the increasingly wet ground. Lungs screaming, heart racing, I kept going.
  • 58. From Joni to The Lumineers to Matchbox 20 to Ella Fitzgerald to Crowded House to Imagine Dragons. Words and notes and songs, all played with the background of my heart. I welcomed the pain of my lungs, of my legs, of my body. It meant that I could still feel something, it meant I was still human, still living. The ground was slick with rain, so my footing wasn’t as sure as it normally was, and I went down hard. I rolled over onto my back and watched the rain fall, letting it slap my face and run into my mouth and down my cheeks. Putting my arms out, I begged for the rain to somehow wash me away. Wash the last two years away. Wash away the memories and all the shit that happened until I was back to the way I’d been. Closing my eyes, I wished for something that couldn’t happen. After a moment or an hour, I sat up. My lungs were almost back to normal, but my muscles were burning and twitching. Good. I had to go back to my room, but all I wanted to do was keep running until the woods ran out. I wondered where that would take me. If I could drive, I would have been long gone. I would have taken Zack’s truck, drained my measly bank account, taken a box of records, the player, my grandfather’s lighter and his favorite hat and hit the road. Never looking back. Putting as many miles as I could between me and Seaport. After the accident, I could never bring myself to get my driver’s license. I would have had to go through driver’s ed, and that was sort of impossible while I was at Carter, since I didn’t have a lot of free time for something like that. Whenever I thought about getting behind the wheel, my blood crystalized into ice and I couldn’t swallow. Zack made fun of me and said I was a fucking pussy, but that didn’t change the fact that even thinking about driving scared the shit out of me more than anything else. Almost anything else. I wiped the rain from my eyes. I was absolutely covered in mud. I
  • 59. should go back to the dorm, shower and figure out what the hell I was going to do to get through the next few months of my life, but I got up and kept running down the trail. I wanted to see where it ended up. Lottie Twice in twenty-four hours. I should have been holding onto myself, rocking in a corner or something. I was far from okay, but having my brother and Simon around was like holding onto two helium balloons that wouldn’t let me descend into the depths of despair. It was an effort not to punch him as he walked past me that morning. I wanted to punch the stare right off of his face, even if I’d need a step stool to do it. I imagined doing exactly that, but by the time I’d decided to do it, he’d walked past me and I wasn’t going to say his vile name out loud. I didn’t tell Will or Simon about seeing Zan the second time. They were already riled up as it was, and I didn’t want them doing anything stupid. So I shoved it aside, put on a happy face like I’d done so many times before and went about my day, trying to get acclimated to a place that felt like it was a foreign country. There were voices coming from my room when I got back with my textbook burden. One female and one male. I opened my door to find Zack and Katie canoodling on her bed, whispering sweet nothings and groping. “Oh, hey,” I said, so they would notice me. Both of them looked so wrapped up in each other that I was pretty sure I could have tossed a grenade at them and they wouldn’t have pulled apart. “Hey, Lottie.” “Hey, Hottie Lottie,” Zack said, winding some of Katie’s hair around his finger and giving me a smug look. She looked both uncomfortable and pissed that he’d called me that. “How’s Sexy Lexie doing?” Oh no. He was not going there. I bottled the rage that threatened to spew from
  • 60. my mouth and instead settled for a sweet smile. “She’s doing great. So, I ran into your brother. What’s he doing here?” The momentary flustered look that passed over his face was only mildly satisfying. “He skipped a year.” Katie looked mortified, but I couldn’t stop. “Was that before or after he was in the state youth facility? I mean, I’m sure they had wonderful educational programs, but it seems kind of odd that he would both be able to skip a grade and then get accepted here, you know, seeing as how he has a criminal record.” “After.” His eyes narrowed and I caught a glimpse of the guy who’d stood behind me and tried to get me into that truck so many years ago. “Hey, babe, I’m really sorry about last night, but it was a guy thing, you know?” It took a second for Katie to answer. She’d been busy following our verbal ping pong battle. “Sure. I understand.” “So I was thinking I should take you out tonight to make up for it. This guy I met last night is having a party. You want to go?” “I guess,” she said as he kissed her cheek. She didn’t give him a gooey smile, but she still took his hand and let herself be led away. “See you later,” she said. “Bye, Hottie.” Zack gave me a little finger wave and I wanted to grab them and snap them off one by one, but I just waved back and smiled. After the door closed, I collapsed on the bed. This was going to be a long fucking semester.
  • 61. Chapter Eight Lottie When my eyes cracked themselves open the next morning, and I saw the stained ceiling tiles above me, I had a panic attack and thought I had been kidnapped. It only lasted for half a second, but it was enough to really wake me up. I turned my head to the side and saw Katie, sprawled out in her pink nest, her mouth open and one foot sticking out of the blanket. Attractive, that was. I craned my neck to look at my clock. It was only seven thirty. I didn’t have to be up, so I was mentally kicking myself for deciding to be awake so early. I got myself up and ready, trying to be quiet so I didn’t wake Katie. It was a strange situation, suddenly being thrown into a forced- intimate situation with a complete stranger. Granted, I could have done the social media stalking, but it was a little too late now. God, what if I had found out about her and Zack this summer? That would have put a damper on my beach days. When I came back from the bathroom, Katie was awake. “Hey,” I said. I wasn’t a real ‘good morning’ kind of person. “Good morning,” she said with a wide yawn. “I’m, um, going to breakfast with my brother and Simon. Do you want to come?” I didn’t think she did, but it would have been an asshole move not to ask. “No, I’m meeting the girls for brunch later.” I assumed they were probably the same girls I’d met before. I still hadn’t figured out which one was which.
  • 62. “Okay, well. See you later.” Awkward moment. “Yeah.” I shut the door headed for the stairs down to the second floor. I banged on Will and Simon’s door, knowing at least Simon would be awake. “Good morning, sunshine,” he said, looking as if he’d already had twelve cups of coffee and maybe some uppers. “Hey,” I said, walking in and noticing Will was still sacked out, sprawled all over his bed. I took a little running jump and pounced on him. “Wake up!” “What the fuck?!” He blinked several times before he realized it was me. “Damn, Lottie, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Why the hell are you so perky?” “I took my Valium this morning.” He rubbed his face and grabbed for a shirt. “Seriously, why is everyone awake?” he said, glancing at the clock. “Because normal people are up at this time.” “I don’t want to be normal.” “Well, congratulations, you’re not.” I mussed his already-mussed hair even more before I went to sit on Simon’s bed. I didn’t want to antagonize Will too much before he’d had his daily dose of coffee from the illegal coffee pot they kept hidden in the closet and would only bring out when they used it. “I have some English Breakfast if you want it,” Simon said, handing Will his cup. “Not feeling that today. I’m in a Green mood. Thanks anyway.” “Sure.” Will took his sweet time getting ready, so Simon and I sat and played the picnic game. It was stupid, but we always ended up laughing. “I’m bringing apples,” I said.
  • 63. “I’m bringing apples and blueberries,” Simon said. “I’m bringing apples and blueberries and cocaine.” “I’m bringing apples and blueberries and cocaine and drama.” We continued like that until one of us messed up. It was usually me. Will was finally ready, so we headed downstairs. Of course the first person I saw when I walked in the cafeteria was Zan. He was sitting by himself reading, of all things, and drinking coffee. I fought the urge to turn my head so I could read the title on the spine. “We could walk down to the Union,” Will said. “No, it’s fine. It’s fine,” I said. I was not going to let him ruin my enjoyment of baked apple French toast. I veered to the right, going as far away from Zan as we could get. The dining room was surprisingly empty. Everyone was probably still hung over. Of course, in order to get to the French toast, I had to walk right by Zan. I could feel his eyes on me, like someone tapping me on the shoulder. I kept my own eyes on Will’s back. He and Simon had made a Lottie sandwich. I breathed a sigh of relief as we sat down. “He’s looking at you,” Will said. “Thanks, that’s very helpful,” I snapped, stabbing my breakfast with a knife. I needed tea. I got up to go get some from the little coffee cart, and ended up dropping a whole stack of cups. I bent down to pick them up, hoping no one had noticed. “Here,” a deep voice said. I turned my head to find Zan’s face only inches away. He crouched next to me, holding one of the cups. I stood up so fast, I banged my arm on the table. He stood up and handed me one of the cups before walking back to his table and picking up his book. What the fuck? I forgot about the tea and went back to my table to find several bites
  • 64. of my French toast missing and both Simon and Will wearing innocent faces. The coffee cart was blocked by a counter, so they hadn’t been able to see what happened with Zan. “I thought you were getting tea,” Will said. I opened my mouth to tell them about Zan, but then I decided not to. We were about one encounter away from Will and Simon telling Zan that they should take it outside and having one of those old-fashioned beat downs. Not that I’d ever witnessed one of those in real life, but I wouldn’t put anything past Will and Simon. “Changed my mind.” So I ate my French toast and tried not to turn my head. I won my battle most of the time. “Stop looking at him,” Simon said. “I can’t help it. It’s like Hoarders. You’re horrified, but you can’t look away.” “Please, do not mention Hoarders.” Simon had watched five minutes of one episode and thrown up. “Did you see the one where the woman found a dead cat under her couch?” Will said, winking at me. “Stop. Seriously stop. I will pay you money to not talk about that for the rest of the day,” Simon said as we put our trays on the conveyor belt that went back into the kitchen. “He’s still watching you,” Will said as we walked out the door. “I know.” Zan I couldn't remember the day I stopped thinking girls were annoying creatures from another planet, and when I decided I liked them, more than I thought I could like anything. Well, not all girls. Just one. Maybe it was fifth grade, when she won that school-wide essay contest about your hero, and she wrote about Scout Finch. I wondered if
  • 65. she remembered how she got on the stage, wearing a dress her mother had no doubt shoved her in. Even then, Lottie wasn't much for anything fussy or frilly. Her hand trembled as she gripped her essay, her crystal blue eyes wide. I'd always thought her eyes reminded me of a tank at the aquarium, with that soothing blue light. Her voice shook as she started to read, but after one sentence, it was like something clicked and she became someone else. Confident, assured. She knew who she was and what she was saying and if anyone disagreed with her, they could go to hell. Or at least that was how I saw her. I spent the next several years pretending I didn't like her, because that's what you do when you like a girl, but even thinking about talking to her made me want to crawl into a hole or puke, or do some other embarrassing thing. I spent so much time pretending to dislike Lottie that it backfired. By high school I was in so deep that even thinking her name made my palms sweat. My brother knew I liked her and had called me a pussy for years for not approaching her. He was all for Lexie. Sexy Lexie. Sure, she was pretty and fun, but there was something about Lottie. I didn't know what it was, but I knew I wanted to be around it more than I want to breathe. Then came the night that changed everything. The night that ruined my chance of ever getting to be around her. The memory pricked at the back of my head, clawing at spots that are still raw and fresh and torn. She walked past me, pretending she didn't see me. She pretended so hard that it was obvious to anyone watching that she was trying to avoid me. I didn’t blame her. I'd avoid me too, if I could. I was pretending too. Pretending to be reading Slaughterhouse Five. Pretending that she was just another girl eating breakfast.
  • 66. I forced my eyes back on the page. Forced them to stop tasting her name over and over in my mind, like a piece of delicious candy I didn’t want to dissolve. Forced myself to stop imagining a world in which she would look at me with anything other than pure hatred and pain. It was true. I was a fucking masochist. I popped a piece of cinnamon gum and made a mental note to ask Zack if he could take me to the store to get more. I was going to need a shit ton of it. Mom called me while I was walking back to my room. Probably just to check on Zan, but I answered anyway. “Hey, Zan. How’s everything going?” The subtext of the call was to ask if I’d gotten myself into trouble. That was usually the only reason we talked lately. “Did you get moved in okay?” “Yeah, everything’s fine. How’s Vegas?” I could hear sounds and commotion in the background, so she was probably out somewhere with Steve. “Steve won at blackjack and I’m trying to convince him to quit while he’s ahead. You know how he gets.” Steve was an all-in, balls to the wall kind of guy. He never backed down from a challenge, whether that was a company merger or a bet or a friendly touch football game. “Are you sure everything is okay? Have you talked to Miss Carole?” “We’ve texted, but I haven’t called her yet.” I’d been putting it off. I didn’t want to seem too needy. Plus, she’d see right through me in a way that my mother couldn’t. “Well, you should call her. I know she’d want to know how you’re doing. Are you taking your meds?” “Yup,” I lied as I swiped my card to unlock my door. She breathed a sigh of relief anyway, swallowing my lie without hesitation. The background noise got louder and I heard Steve’s voice say something to her. “Listen, I have to go, but I’ll call you when we get back, okay? Steve
  • 67. sends his love.” Yeah, right back atcha, Steve. “Love you, Mom.” “Love you, too. Bye.” Before the accident, before Steve, Mom and I had been close. She had a harder time managing Zack, because he was always getting into something, or breaking a bone, or a lamp or curfew. I was the good boy, the one who remembered her birthday and kept my room clean. Not to say that I was an angel, but I definitely caused her less headaches. Still, Zack always excelled at everything he tried, and more than made up for his troublemaking by winning awards and praise. She used to call me her ‘little man’, but then came Steve and she didn’t need me anymore. He filled a place that I couldn’t. She pulled away from me and I started pushing her away, and then came the accident, and a chasm opened up between us that I wasn’t sure we could ever bridge. We didn’t know how to talk to each other, and that was on both our parts. Miss Carole was always bugging me to talk to my Mom, and I knew Miss Carole talked to her about trying to reconnect with me. Every now and then, Mom would suggest we do something together, but I’d put her off. Sometimes there were lost causes, and judging on the fact that my own mother hadn’t looked me in the eye in two years, our relationship was one of them. Some things were just broken and you had to put them aside and move on. Lottie I was going to spend my evening reading To Kill A Mockingbird again, but Will texted me, pretending to invite me down to his room for an impromptu game night with Simon. It was really just a ploy to make sure I wasn’t sitting my room in the dark, listening to dark music and sawing at my wrists. I messaged him back saying I needed a shower and then I would be down.
  • 68. “How long does it take you to shower?” Will said when I walked into his room. “I had to shave certain personal areas,” I said. “Whoa, whoa, WAY too much information,” Will said as Simon made a gagging noise. “Hey, you asked. I think I’ll take that English Breakfast now, Simon.” “In the kitchen box,” Simon said, pointing to said box that was on top of their mini fridge. I found a cup that said May The Force Be WithYou and had a picture of Yoda on it. “You’re just going to sit and read, aren’t you?” Will said, as if this was some new phenomena. I pretended to be shocked as I settled myself on Will’s Papasan chair as the microwave dinged. Simon handed me the cup and I tossed a teabag in it. “How did you know?” “Come on, I swear I’ll go easy on you.” “No thanks.” I opened my book and held it in front of my face. “You’re being weird,” Will said, pulling the book away from my face. “Weirder than normal.” “Thanks, bro.” “You know what I mean. You didn’t run into the Brothers of Doom, did you?” “Is that what we’re calling them now?” Simon said. “I thought we decided on Sons of Assholery?” “We’re giving them nicknames?” “Why not?” Simon said, as if that was a stupid question. “Back to your weirdness. You totally had another interaction with them, didn’t you? Which one?” Both, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. “Zack was with Katie when I got back. He still makes my skin crawl.”
  • 69. “All you have to do is say the word duckling,” Simon said. “I’ll keep that in mind.” “Why don’t you tell her?” “Tell her what?” “That he’s really a Storm Trooper,” he said, rolling his eyes, “what do you think? Tell her about what he did to Lexie.” “He already told her his version. If I tell her what happened, she’s going to think that I made it up. You don’t understand how this girl thing works. If I tell her that, then she’ll think I’m trying to break them up and then she’ll turn on me and living with her will be total hell. Or, she’ll think I’m trying to steal him from her. Girls choose their boyfriends over girls they’ve just met. See?” “Uh, no,” Will said. “Sometimes, I’m really glad I’m gay. Guys aren’t nearly as complicated as girls,” Simon said as I sipped my tea. “Can I go back to my book now?” “Yeah, whatever.” I could see Will turning what I’d just said over in my head. I went back to Scout and Jem and Boo Radley. *** I called Lexie as Will and Simon engaged in an epic Minecraft video game battle that had turned them both into yelling barbarians, bent on destruction. Honestly, you’d think they were actually battling for the future of the world. I was a little late in calling, so I didn’t know what state she would be in. I’d called her late before and it hadn’t ended well. I’d just been so distracted that I hadn’t had a chance until now. “Hey, Lex!” I said, making my voice bright and cheerful. Will always said I sounded like I was a psychotic kindergarten teacher, but I was willing to do whatever it took to keep her calm and happy. “Hi,” she said, her voice quiet and low. Uh oh.
  • 70. “What’s wrong, Lex?” My cheer faltered a bit. She sniffed. “You hate me.” My heart dropped. “Who said that? I don’t hate you. I love you. You’re my best friend.” I fought hard to keep my voice steady as my heart, shattered so many times already, cracked a little more in the weak places and threatened to break one more time. “I know you hate me because you were supposed to call today and it’s the night and you didn’t call. I waited for you to call and you didn’t call!” She was starting to escalate, which could be dangerous. It had been before. Many times. “Lex, is your mom there? I need to ask her something.” Usually, Lexie’s mom listened in on our phone conversations just to make sure Lexie was calm, but I didn’t hear her breathing on the other line. “She has nothing to do with this!” She shrieked. Will and Simon looked up from their game, hearing Lexie yelling through the phone. I took a deep breath. “Lex, sweetie, where’s your mom?” “Lexie?” I heard Mrs. Davis in the background. “What’s wrong, baby?” I heard Lexie trying to wrestle the phone away from her mom. “Lottie hates me!” she wailed, and the phone crashed, probably to the floor. I heard Mr. Davis come in and scuffling as he fought with Lexie so he could restrain her. “Mrs. Davis!” I yelled, “I’m so sorry. I should have called her earlier,” I said as I heard her pick up the phone, and a screaming Lexie being dragged to her room. “It’s okay, honey. It’s not your fault. Maybe you should just wait a couple of days, okay?” Her voice was weary. The little pieces of my heart cracked just a little more for her. “I think you should still come down next week, but we’ll let you know. Okay?” “Okay,” I said, choking back tears. She hung up and I put the phone down. My life had gone from not so bad to worst. “Is she okay?” Will said, Minecraft forgotten.
  • 71. “Not really. She just had another fit. I tried to get her out of it, but she was too upset,” I said as Simon handed me a tissue. “Maybe you shouldn’t call her so much,” Will said. He’d said the same thing before. “That’s what Mrs. Davis said. I just… I just don’t want her to think I’ve forgotten about her. She’s still my best friend.” “I know, but maybe you need to take a break. You’ve got a lot going on.” “I just can’t abandon her.” Before the accident, Lexie never went a day without a social engagement. She never went a moment without texting someone on her phone. She never was at a loss for friends. After, she had me. Her life had been a beautiful flower, with thousands of bright petals. Those petals withered away and were scattered by the wind, until there was one else left. I couldn’t be the last one to leave her. “You’re never going to do that, Lot,” Simon said. “I’m going to bed,” I said, wiping my eyes and getting up. “Lottie,” Will said. “Just leave me alone.” My room was dark when I opened the door. Katie still wasn’t back from her date. It wasn’t super late, but I was wondering if she was going to make it back. I wished I could text her, but I didn’t have her number. I turned off all the lights except for one lamp and put some music on; just a compilation of soft piano tunes. I went back to Mockingbird, wishing I had an Atticus Finch to give me life advice. I woke the next morning and Katie’s bed was empty. Shit. I’d known the girl for less than a week, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t
  • 72. concerned about her. I had enough time to go down to the dining hall for breakfast before my first class, so I booted up my computer and checked my neglected Facebook account. Yes, there was a message from Katie, telling me that she’d spent the night with Zack and leaving me her cell number. I added it to my phone and then texted Simon to see if he wanted to have breakfast. Will had an eight o’clock class, so he was on his way already. Somehow Will and I had gotten put in the same bio class, so I’d see him at least once today. “You okay?” Simon said when I met him in front of his door. “Is that your sweet way of saying I look like shit?” I’d seen my face in the mirror. My clear blue eyes looked even paler than ever, which, added to the fact that I had blonde hair and couldn’t hold a tan to save my life, added to the ghost look I was rocking. If I’d lived in Jane Austen’s time, I would have been the shit. All the Mr. Darcy’s would have wanted me. “I would never say that, Lot. You just look… less than rested.” “You’re sweet,” I said, giving him a side hug as we walked down the hill to the dining hall. “Will’s really sorry. He was pissed at himself for the rest of the night.” “It’s not his fault, and it’s not like I haven’t heard it before. It’s just hard when everyone tells you to stop doing what you know is right.” “Maybe he realized that he couldn’t help her anymore.” “That sounds like the easy way out.” “I know, but there is no easy way out.” He had a point there. “I can’t abandon her.” “You’re not abandoning her. No one would think that, after all you’ve done. Don’t you remember when her parents were begging you to go home?” Of course I did. “She’s my best friend.” Simon stopped walking, pulling me onto the
  • 73. grass in front of one of the other dorms so people could pass us. “Lottie, you have to stop blaming yourself for what happened.” “I’m not,” I said. “Yes, you are. You know it, I know it, I’m sure even Lexie knows it, deep down.” “Lexie doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t remember her birthday.” He put both his hands on my shoulders and looked at me in a way that made me want to look away. “You have to stop punishing yourself.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Can we please go to breakfast?” Simon squeezed my shoulders before letting go. “Hop on my back,” he said, leaning down. I rolled my eyes, but jumped on his back as he carried me the rest of the way. I wasn’t punishing myself. There were other people who needed to be punished. The court thought they had been, but I sure as hell didn’t think so. Zack and Zan were never going to be off the hook for what they’d done. They hadn’t killed her, but they’d killed her potential. What she could have been. Before the accident, she’d been in the top five in our class, on the fast track to an Ivy League school. They took that away from her. And I hadn’t been there for her. Everyone said I was lucky to not be there, but all I could think was that if I had been there, I might have been able to do something to stop it. Irrational as it was, I couldn’t help what I felt. “Um, you might not want to look now, but B of D number two is over there again,” Simon hissed in my ear as we walked into the dining hall. He didn’t have to tell me. It was like I had Zandar, in addition to my twindar. He was in the same seat, in the same position, but he was reading a different book. I kicked myself for noticing the fact that it was a
  • 74. different book because that meant that I was noticing things about Zan Parker. I wanted to wipe his existence from my life, not notice that the cover of the book he was reading today was blue and yesterday’s was mostly green. I turned my back and got in line, Simon behind me so he blocked most of my view of Zan. I stared at the back of the guy in front of me, telling myself that his flannel shirt was the most fascinating pattern I’d ever seen. Blue, green, yellow, gray. Blue, green, yellow, gray. “Lot,” Simon said, poking me in the back. “Pay attention. The line is moving.” I’d been gumming up the works, so I shuffled forward to get my pancakes and hash browns. “I’ll get your tea. Green?” Simon said as we sat down as far away from Zan as we could get. The place was more crowded, so our options were limited. “Sure.” My eyes started to drift in Zan’s direction, as if to check and see that he was still here. That he wasn’t some sort of elaborate nightmare mirage thing I’d cooked up in my brain. Nope, he was real. I stabbed at my pancakes, trying to remember my schedule for the day. The solution to my Brothers of Doom problem was to not think about them. If I didn’t acknowledge their presence, they didn’t exist. They were the cat inside that box that didn’t exist. “Your tea, my lady,” Simon said, handing me my cup with a flourish. Ah, sweet nectar of the gods. “You ready for our very first day of the rest of our lives?” “You sound like the start of a really crappy movie right now.” “Wow, you’re extra grumpy this morning.” I gave him a look. “Oh, right. So, um… that duckling thing stands for that one too,” he
  • 75. said, jerking his head in Zan’s direction. “Although, Will said he heard about some pretty rough stuff he got involved in at that place.” “What stuff?” This was the first I was hearing of it. “Oh, shit. I just assumed he’d told you. I sometimes forget you have two brains. Most of the time I think you’re one brain in two bodies.” “Thanks, Simon.” “You knew what I meant.” “And back to what you heard from Will,” I said, jabbing him with my butter knife. “Well, if he didn’t tell you, then I’m probably not supposed to.” I poked him again with the knife. “Whatever, it’s not like he told me not to tell you.” I waited. Zan was still reading by himself. “It’s nothing huge. Just that he got in a lot of fights and stuff. There was also a story about him stabbing someone, but the facts on that are pretty murky.” “Where did Will get it from?” “Who do you think?” “Joel?” “Oh my God, how did you guess?” Simon said, feigning shock. “Joel never knew how to keep his mouth shut about anything. You know it’s probably not true. Things have a tendency to get blown out of proportion. Especially things like this.” “Don’t I know it.” I’d been the victim of the vicious rumor mill many times before. “I shouldn’t have told you. Your face is doing that thing it does when you’re thinking too much.” “Jesus, is it insult Lottie day?” “No, I just suck at the making you feel better thing. See? This is why I’m gay. I suck at talking to girls.” That made me laugh, and some of the tension I’d been holding since I
  • 76. saw Zack the day before evaporated. It didn’t entirely leave me. It would never leave me. “You ready?” I’d barely touched my breakfast, but Simon knew how I was when I was upset. I either ate like a horse, or I didn’t eat at all. This was one of those not-eating times. I volunteered to take up our trays, but as I set them on the conveyor belt to go to the kitchen, I felt him behind me. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I snapped around and nearly crashed into him. He didn’t even blink as I tried to catch my balance, and tried to do whatever I could not to touch him. “Sorry,” he said. That simple word ignited the logs of tension I’d been piling up since I’d seen his brother two days before. “Oh, you’re sorry? Well, that’s fan-fucking-tastic. You know what I’m sorry about? I’m sorry you and your brother ever existed. Because you know what? If you didn’t, my best friend would probably remember what a fucking elephant is.” I didn’t realize how loud my voice was until I stopped talking and realized everyone was staring at me. In addition to a rambling problem, I also tended to have a volume control problem. Zan took my verbal assault with stoic indifference, which just pissed me off more. Luckily, Simon started tugging at my arm. Dragging was actually a better word to describe it. “Just leave her alone,” Simon hissed at Zan. “I’m sorry. Again,” Zan said to both of us. “Let’s go,” Simon said, giving me a little tug, like I was a dog on the end of a leash who wouldn’t heel. I glared at Zan the entire time Simon was pulling me away, not even caring that the entire dining hall had erupted in conversation about me. Once Simon had me outside, I yanked my arm out of his iron grip. A few people walked out behind us, and a few glanced backward at me
  • 77. before going on their merry way. I was going to be the talk of the campus very soon. “Don’t say anything,” I said, cutting him off before he could tell me I’d made a scene for no reason. “Okay,” he said, holding his hands up. “You weren’t supposed to say anything.” “Fine, I won’t say anything.” “You’re doing it again.” He pretended to zip his lips closed and tossed away an imaginary key before crossing his arms and giving me the stare down. I knew what he was doing. “What was I supposed to do? Just pretend he didn’t bump into me on purpose? You know he meant to do it.” I paused and waited for Simon to comment, knowing he wouldn’t. “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have said fuck so many times. I should have taken the high road and turned the other cheek and all that, but I’m not that kind of girl. You know I’m not. I suck at keeping my mouth shut.” Simon nodded in agreement. “I don’t have to justify myself.” Simon shrugged. “I don’t.” He shrugged again. “Shut up.” He gave me a look. “Yeah, I know you didn’t say anything. But you were thinking it.” He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Don’t you have class?” He nodded and tapped his arm as if pointing at a watch. “Go, get to class. Oh, can you do me a favor? Don’t tell Will. I mean, I’m sure he’ll find out about it, but in case he doesn’t, please?” He nodded.
  • 78. “You can talk now.” He opened his mouth wide and moved his jaw back and forth, as if it was stiff. “Thank God.” I just started walking. “See you later, Lot,” he called as I walked toward the dorm and he walked toward his first class. “Try not to bump into anyone else today. I think you’ve already used up your allotted effs for the day.” I showed a special eff finger to his back as he walked away, waving over his shoulder.
  • 79. Chapter Nine Zan I saw a moment to say something to her, and I took it. My only intention was to apologize for the other day with the cups, but maybe it was something more. My attempt to start to change her perception of me. My attempt to start showing her how sorry I really was for everything. As futile as that was. She had every right to lash out at me. I deserved it. I wasn’t trying to stalk her, or bother her, but that was how I came across. Not much I could do to change that, except probably not approach her from behind like a creepy stalker. I headed off to calculus trying to think of anything but Charlotte. Fuck that. The problem was, everything made me think of Charlotte. I tried using a trick Miss Carole taught me to help me clear out my negative thoughts. I took every thought I didn’t want to have, imagined blowing it into a balloon and releasing it. I blew Charlotte and her hair and her eyes and the way she walked and her laugh and her smile into thousands of balloons and tried to let them go. I was still working on that when I got to class. I was almost late, so the only seat left was next to a guy with hair that had been bleached recently, and a silver ring in his lip. He gave me a nod as I sat down, and I returned it. A lot of the guys at Carter had rocked a similar look. Our professor turned out to just be a grad student math genius named Quan who wasn’t much older than most of his students. He droned through the syllabus as I filled more thought balloons with Charlotte. The guy next to me was busy drawing in his notebook, and seemed to be
  • 80. going for the World Slouching Record. By the time class ended, half of the people were asleep and the other half were on their way, while the guy next to me, whose name was Stryker as I found out when our professor called roll, had completed four drawings. From what I could see out of the corner of my eye, they were all comic-looking scenes, and they were all good. Everyone sighed in relief when Quan said we could go, after giving us our first homework assignment. Stryker gave me another nod in goodbye and I returned it. Maybe next class we’d graduate to actual words. I spent the rest of the day filling millions and millions of Lottie thought balloons and trying to let them go. I texted Miss Carole about moving in and my first day of classes. She messaged back that she was proud of me and I should check my mailbox because there might be something in it. Right around the afternoon I started feeling tense. The encounter with Charlotte had thrown me, more so than I thought it would. I’d stopped taking the meds my doctor had put me on to “regulate” my moods this summer. That had also been Miss Carole’s idea, although if my parents ever found out I wasn’t taking them, I’d be screwed. Those pills messed with my head and made me foggy and sleepy and not give a shit about anything. They made everything ten thousand times harder to do. I had two hours between my second class of the day and my last, and instead of going to the library or doing something smart, I smoked the last joint I had. My safety joint. I knew when I smoked that last one, it was all I had and I wasn’t going to buy any more. Tate, my supplier, was almost two hours away, and I didn’t drive. I figured the best place to go was the roof, so I climbed the four flights of stairs and propped the door open with a wet floor sign one of the maintenance workers must have left hanging around.
  • 81. I lay down and blew the smoke into the sky. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing here. I didn’t belong here. Being here was only going to fuck things up, and not for me. When I’d finished the joint I didn’t feel any better or worse than before I smoked it, but at least it had given me something to do for a few minutes. At least it was out of my life. I pulled out my phone and texted Miss Carole again. I can’t do this. The phone rang a second later. “Alex, what’s wrong?” She was the only one who called me Alex. “I shouldn’t be here.” “And why is that?” “She’s here. Charlotte. And her brother.” “Oh, Alex. That must be hard for you.” “No, shit.” She never cared if I swore. “That doesn’t mean you should just throw in the towel. It hasn’t even been a week.” I walked to the edge of the roof and looked down at the people below, all going about their lives. They all had shit to deal with, some more so than me and somehow they could function and make it look easy. “I don’t want you going down the negative road again. It only leads to a negative place. Send out negative energy and you’ll get it back.” “I’ll try.” “Do better than try. You can do better. You can be better. Don’t be emo, it doesn’t look good on you.” I laughed a little. “I won’t.” “Call me, Alex. Anytime.” Sounds of children playing echoed in the background. She’d obviously been in the middle of something when I’d called her.
  • 82. “I will.” Talking with Miss Carole made me feel better than the joint had. I went back to my room and read for a while and listened to random records I chose by closing my eyes and picking from the milk crate Gramps had given me. I also sorted through my clothes and tossed the worst of them in a garbage bag to donate to Goodwill. I heard Will and his roommate coming back from their classes and chatting next door. I was surprised Will hadn’t asked me to step outside and settle things. Again. I’d let him beat the fuck out of me after the accident. He’d been in a rage and I hadn’t cared, so I figured he might as well go ahead. I got a few punches in just to make it look like I was fighting back, but for the most part it was all Will. Not that he was a pansy, by any means. I didn’t think my jaw would ever be the same. My mother hadn’t even asked when I’d come home looking like I’d been in another car accident. My doctor had accepted my explanation of falling down the stairs without so much as a blink. Zack knew, but he was still too wrapped up with his physical therapy so he could get back to training that he didn’t ask for details. It would be interesting to see what a fair fight would look like between me and Will. Not that I would go out of my way to provoke him. I’d promised Miss Carole that I wouldn’t get involved in any fights. I’d already broken my promise not to do drugs, so I wasn’t going to break another. At least not this week. Lottie My mood lifted a bit when I got to my first class. It was British Literature, and I couldn’t go wrong with that. I was one of the first to arrive, so I took a seat in the middle and got out my copy of Wuthering Heights and started skimming it. That had been another book Mom had thrust at me during my angsty phase.
  • 83. “Oh, sorry.” A girl who was trying to get into the seat next to me, knocked into my bag. “Don’t worry about it,” I said with a little smile. “Thanks,” she said, sitting down. Wow, she was tall. Even more tall than just plain tall, considering she was wearing boots with monster heels. She somehow folded her runway-ready legs under the desk with total grace and took out her own copy of the book. It was well-worn. Clearly, a personal copy. I looked at the clock and we still had ten minutes before we started. “How much do you want to bet ten percent of the other people in this class won’t actually read the book?” I said to her. It seemed apropos, given as how we were in a literature class. “What?” I repeated myself. She looked kind of stunned that I was talking to her before she glanced around the room at the other students, all of them female. “I would say it’s more like twenty percent.” “I’m Lottie.” “Audrey,” she said. “It’s a shame, because even though all the characters are horrible, it’s a really good book. People our age just don’t seem to see the value in reading the classics unless they have to.” Don’t ramble, don’t ramble, don’t ramble. She looked a little taken aback, but she hadn’t shifted her desk away, or pulled out her phone and pretended she was really busy texting when really she wasn’t. I had lots of experience with that. “So, what year are you?” I said. That was a normal question. “First year,” she said. “Saying freshman sounds so… lame.” “I totally agree. First year sounds like we go to Hogwarts. Only without the magic and whimsy.” Will groaned every time I mentioned Hogwarts or anything Harry Potter-related when he was around. Good thing he wasn’t.
  • 84. One of Audrey’s perfectly-sculpted eyebrows flicked upward for a second. “And apparating and Butterbeer,” she said. Oh thank God. Another Potter fan. We weren’t as rare as I thought. I smiled. “Exactly.” She smiled back. As Anne Shirley would have said, I’d found a kindred spirit. Our teacher turned out to be an actual British guy named Mr. Halloway who looked like he could have been Liam Neeson’s cousin. I could have stayed in the class forever, listening to him read the syllabus out loud. I wasn’t the only one. I swore I heard some dreamy sighs when he told us he was from Hampshire, but had fallen in love with Maine when he visited ten years ago. Disappointment rippled through the room as well when he mentioned he’d come here with his wife. Too bad, so sad. He let us go early, after giving us our homework assignment. Ah, literature homework. How I had missed it. Will always made fun of me because I loved reading assignments. I made fun of him because he loved golf. “I guess I’ll be seeing you on Wednesday,” Audrey said as we packed up our stuff. When she stood up, I had to crane my head back. Yep, she was a goddess with long dark hair and a perfect waist and gorgeous skin. “Yeah,” was my witty response. “Stay away from dementors until then,” she said as we parted ways in the hallway. “Will do,” I said, and waved. I shook my head at my good fortune and went to my next class, which was bio and held in a large room with at least two hundred other people. Most of the core classes were in the large lecture halls, and nearly all of the students attending them were also first year students. I searched for Will’s hair and he was easy to find. He waved to me
  • 85. and pointed to an empty seat next him. I sighed inside, but climbed the steps and sat next to him. “You still mad at me?” His hair was in his face again, and not in a good way. “What does your twindar tell you?” “Results are inconclusive at this point.” That made me bite back a smile. My twindar told me he felt like and asshole and didn’t want to fight with me any more than I wanted to fight with him. “Can I please cut your hair tonight?” I said, pushing it out of his eyes. “If you’ll stop being mad at me.” “Fine.” “Okay then.” He grabbed his bag and pulled out his textbook. The room buzzed like a hive full of nervous bees. Some already had their textbooks open and their notebooks ready. Some looked like they’d just rolled out of bed and had randomly wandered into the room. Like an arrow, I felt his eyes on me. “Brother of Doom Number Two is here,” I said, nudging Will, who was digging in his bag for a pen. “What?” “Look,” I pointed as Zan walked up the steps, his eyes sweeping the room, and taking a seat a few rows in front of us. “I seriously want to punch that fucker,” Will whispered, cracking his knuckles. The girls in the row in front of me totally heard him and started giggling. “Keep it down, you idiot.” “I’m just saying.” He glared at the back of Zan’s head. “At least he isn’t staring at you.” “Can we please not talk about it now?” A professorial-looking fellow entered the room while syllabi were handed around and class began, effectively ending Will’s line of conversation. I had no doubt he’d pick it back up again when class
  • 86. ended. When it came to Will, the only way to get him to let go of something was to distract him with something shiny. Or something with boobs. You had the best shot if you had both. “So, I think I made a new friend,” I said as we exited after another run-through of class procedures and policies. “She’s of the female variety.” I watched Zan’s back as he vanished out of a side door. Will didn’t notice. Point for me. “Yeah?” Will was instantly all ears. Another point for me. “We bonded while sharing Harry Potter references.” “And?” “And, she’s really nice.” “That’s great.” He was less-than enthusiastic. I was totally stringing him along. “She’s got long legs.” “You don’t say,” he said, and I could almost feel him getting more interested. Will was a leg man. It was only mildly disturbing that I knew that. “And long dark hair.” Will was also a hair guy, especially if it was straight. “Keep going.” “And she seems smart. She warned me against dementors.” Will snorted and shook his head. “A hot dorky girl? Those are hard to find.” “Thanks, Will.” “You knew what I meant.” “Sure.” He gave me a leading look. “Yes, I will casually mention you the next time I talk to her, if it’s not creepy.”
  • 87. “I just have one favor to ask you. Please, I beg you, don’t do that thing where you ramble and tell all sorts of personal information. Please.” “So you don’t want me to tell her about the time in kindergarten when you got lost going to the bathroom and peed your pants?” “Christ, Lottie, keep your voice down.” He glanced right and left, but everyone was too busy with their own crap to notice. “Or how about the time you tried to burn you report card and ended up setting the kitchen on fire? Oh, how about the time –“ My word flow was dammed by Will’s hand. I reached my hand out and got him in his ticklish spot. The hand vanished from my mouth as he fought to get away from me. “Duckling! Duckling!” He yelled as he thrashed and got a hold of my thumb. That made me laugh, which gave him an opening to get the upper hand. “I surrender, I surrender,” I said, letting go of him. “So,” he said, pretending to dust himself off, “how long are these legs?”
  • 88. Chapter Ten Zan I almost skipped bio, but at the last minute, I decided to go. I knew it was going to be hard finding a seat, but I had no idea I’d be looking for an empty seat and find her. Not just her, but Will too. I immediately went for a seat that was as far from them as possible, and forced my neck not to turn to glance back at them. That didn’t stop me from feeling their eyes on me, especially Will’s. If he could have punched me via eye contact, I’m sure he would have. It was harder being in class with Charlotte than I thought it would be, and I bolted through the first door I could find. I also kicked the first trashcan I could find before punching the first thing I could find, which turned out to be a wooden sign. Not the brightest thing I’d ever done, but I didn’t know how much longer I could deal. “Shit!” I screamed after I realized I’d probably broken my hand. The sign remained intact. Miss Carole wasn’t going to be very pleased. Ignoring the horrified faces of my fellow college students, I went back to my room to bandage my hand. It was swelling pretty badly by the time I got back, but I wrapped it with some tape and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer. As long as it didn’t turn black, I was probably okay. My hand was hurting like hell, but I was going to make myself feel it. My brother had left me a message saying that he was busy with Katie, but he wanted to hang out at some point. Zack’s idea of hanging out was getting as shitfaced as possible and passing out wherever he fell. It usually meant me dragging him into bed and turning his head so he
  • 89. didn’t choke on his own vomit. The only person that was fun for was Zack. I zapped some chips and cheese in the microwave and dragged out Gramps’ records and thumbed through them, looking for something to soothe my mood. My fingers found Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions. Perfect. I put the record on and set the needle. I waited while the pops and static disappeared into ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’. I munched my snack as I started my calculus homework. The numbers floated in front of my face, and I couldn’t make them settle. I kept thinking about Charlotte.. And her voice. Her deep, throaty sexy voice that made me think of sex and skin and tangled sheets. I closed my eyes and let Leonard’s voice wrap around me. “Hey,” Devin said opening the door, blinking rapidly like he was trying to clear his eyes. Or he was trying to figure out if I was really there. I could spot a stoner a mile away. “Hey,” I said. “You staying tonight?” Devin had only spent one night in our room so far. I was curious about where he went, but I never asked. “Nope.” I’d also never seen him with books, or a backpack or give any indication that he’d gone to class. That was also a mystery. He put is bag down and went for his computer without another word. I let the music play, figuring if he had a problem with it, he could say so. I had headphones. He hadn’t said anything about my music yet, except for asking about the record player. “What the hell is this?” “Leonard Cohen.” “Never heard of him,” he said, giving me a look like I’d said Adolf Hitler. I didn’t have much hope for the future of the human race if people didn’t know who Leonard Cohen was.
  • 90. “What happened to your hand?” “Nothing,” I said. Before I could ask if he wanted me to put on my headphones, he stuffed some earbuds in his ears and turned up something that sounded like crushing trash cans from where I was sitting. I tuned him out and focused back on Leonard. He left a few minutes later with barely a good-bye. My phone buzzed with a message from Miss Carole. How are you doing? Fine. Surviving. She messaged me back right away. Have you talked to her? Sort of. She yelled at me. I could almost hear her laugh, even though she wasn’t here. Oh, Alex. Maybe actions would speak louder than words. You should do something for her. Like what? Showing her my busted-up hand didn’t seem like quite the gesture Miss Carole was thinking. You’re a smart boy. You’ll figure it out. Talk soon? Definitely. The record ended, and I got up to flip it over. I glanced around the room, looking for an idea. My eyes settled on the top of the microwave, on my tin of tea. She’d been trying to get it the other day when I’d bumped into her accidentally on purpose. I had an idea. I just needed a coffee cup, a packet of tea and a black marker. It was probably fucking stupid, but seriously, did it matter? Did anything matter when you came down to it? Lottie I didn’t encounter Zan or Zack Parker for the rest of the day. By the afternoon, I was beat and my head was full of homework. I also needed
  • 91. to find a job, and bug Will to find a job so Mom would get off our backs about supporting ourselves. My head was pounding by the time I made it back to my room and saw another note from Katie. Out with Zack. Be back later. Someone had drawn a crude penis next to it. Three guess who. She was going out again? Didn’t she have class? Whatever. She could do what she wanted. I wasn’t her mother. I had a quiet dinner with the boys and then settled in for some reading. I was nearly done with Mockingbird, but I needed something lighter. I scanned my shelves, grinning fondly at the titles. I needed some cute romance to lose myself in. I was just about to settle in with a cute book with lots of kissing when I got up to pee. I opened the door and there was someone standing in my doorway holding a coffee cup and wearing a shocked face. Zan Parker. Again. “Do you have a stalking problem? Seriously, you didn’t get enough of me this morning? My brother and Simon have offered to beat the shit out of you for me, but I’m kind of considering doing it myself. If you don’t move within five seconds, I’m gonna go ahead and take care of that. Got it?” It didn’t matter that he was over a foot taller than I was. I had rage on my side. Hell hath no fury and all that. He listened to my tongue-lashing in silence. His lips didn’t move, but I swore he was smiling. “One,” I said, starting my countdown. “Two.” When I got to four, he handed me the coffee cup and walked away. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I yelled out behind him. A girl who was going to the bathroom turned and gave me a nasty look. “I wasn’t talking to you, sorry,” I called. She looked at me like I was crazy and went into the bathroom. He stood with his back to me ten feet down the hall. I noticed that
  • 92. there was a bunch of white tape on his left hand, as if he’d hurt it. “What do you want from me? Haven’t you taken enough already?” He turned around slowly, and his face fractured for a second. I was so used to him being so expressionless, it startled me. “I can’t take anything you don’t give me. Stop giving me power over your life,” he said before turning and walking toward the stairs before I could say anything else. I stared after him, absolutely perplexed. What was it with this guy? The girl I yelled at came out of the bathroom and scurried back to her room, as if she was worried I was going to run and attack her. Great, now I was going to be the Crazy Girl Who Lived Down the Hall. The coffee cup was just a paper one, from the cafeteria. There was writing in a tight messy script winding around it. A packet of green tea was tucked inside. ‘You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don't. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.’ You’re not the only one with regrets. -Zan The first part was clearly a quote, but not one I recognized. The second part made me want to chase him down and smash the cup in his face. What did he regret? Did he regret breaking Lexie? I hadn’t seen any evidence of it. Never an apology, never a tear of remorse. Nothing. Just a blank face. Except for his eyes. Those told their own story, but it wasn’t in a language that I knew how to read. What he could do was leave me the fuck alone. Disappear from my life so I didn’t have to see his face and be reminded. Every. Single. Day. I turned the cup in my hands, reading the quote again. Too bad he hadn’t let me get to five. I was debating on shoving my thumb in his eye,
  • 93. which would require me to jump, or just going for something even more sensitive. After making sure he was gone, I went to the bathroom. I tossed the cup in the trash, but put the tea in my pocket.
  • 94. Chapter Eleven Zan I felt like a fucking moron when she opened the door. I’d be trying to be really quiet when I saw the light on in her room and heard someone moving around. My plan had been to leave the cup and head for the stairs, but it seemed someone else had another plan. Her face melted into the pain and rage I’d seen that morning. Once again, words failed me. Hers didn’t. When she talked about beating the shit out me, I had to fight a smile. I had no doubt she could bring me to my knees. She could do that with her blue eyes alone. I caught myself staring at her eyes, and I had to snap myself out of it. She’d started counting, and I figured I should probably go while the getting was good, so I handed her the cup and walked away. She called after me, and I finally found my voice and said the first thing that came to my mind. You’re not the only one with regrets. My hand was fast becoming a regret. At least the swelling had stopped, and the pain had gone from sharp to a dull ache, but my knuckles were painted purple and blue. Miss Carole had left me a message while I was up with Charlotte. Worried about me, no doubt. I called her back to ease her mind. “Hey, Alex. I just got home so I wanted to check on you. Did you make it through the rest of the day?” “I fucked up my hand punching a sign.” She sighed. “And what did that sign ever do to you?” “Nothing. I just had a moment of weakness.”
  • 95. “Alex, I’ve told you to find an outlet. What about your camera?” “I haven’t unpacked it yet. I’m sorry.” “I’m not the one with the messed-up hand.” “No, that would be me,” I said, flexing my hand and wincing. “Oh, Alex, you’re between a rock and a hard place. Have you thought about the truth?” “I can’t.” It was a battle we’d waged over and over, and I’d given her my answer already. “Then you’re going to have to figure something out. Love has a way of working itself out, if it’s meant to be. Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” There she went again, another Rumi quote. I wasn’t going to tell her, once again, that I didn’t love Charlotte. “You probably don’t want to take the advice of an old lady.” I chuckled, because she was only forty-five. “I met my husband when I was fourteen. Everyone told us we were kids and I was crazy for saying I was going to marry him someday. But then I did, and they all had to eat their words. I know you, Alex. You’ve been head over heels for this girl since the day I met you, even though you wouldn’t admit it. Feelings like that don’t come and go. Make her come to you. Girls love a mysterious guy, and you’ve got that going for you. Take a step back and see if she follows.” “She’s not following me anywhere, unless it’s to kill me.” “You always underestimate your charm, Alex.” “Charm can’t overcome pure hatred.” “You’d be surprised. Have you ever thought that she might have feelings for you, and she’s fighting them because she thinks it’s the right thing to do?” I sputtered for a moment. “No.” That had never occurred to me. “Oh, Alex. What a self-deprecating boy you are. Give her a chance. I
  • 96. have a feeling she’ll come around. But that is just my two cents. Remember; Elizabeth fell for Mr. Darcy, Beauty fell for the Beast and Scarlet fell for Rhett. Girls love a mysterious boy with a dark past. Trust me.” Lottie Katie didn’t come home that night either, and I barely saw her at all the next week. She was always with Zack. Thankfully, most of the time they went to his place so I didn’t have to see him. I didn’t see much of Zan, either. The next bio class he sat even further away, and never looked at me. I’d stopped myself from Googling the poem at least twenty times. I’d pulled the cup from the trash and stashed it in the back of my drawer so no one would know about it. I hadn’t even told Will about the encounter. Something told me he wouldn’t like it, and would probably use it as an excuse to beat Zan up. Not that he needed much of an excuse. “I think he’s avoiding you,” Will said. “He must have finally decided that you’re batshit and he should stay away.” “Haha.” I got a piece of good news on Wednesday day when I got a phone call asking if I could come in for an interview at the fabric store on Friday afternoon. When I’d applied, I hadn’t thought I had a chance of even getting an interview, but I’d put all my sewing experience down and hoped for the best. Sewing was one of my stress relievers, and I’d thrown an epic hissy fit when I realized I couldn’t bring my machine with me to the dorm because it wouldn’t fit anywhere. I guessed I’d be doing a lot of hand-sewing which was fine, because I was working on an epic Elizabeth Bennett costume for Halloween. I texted Will, asking for the truck and he reluctantly agreed. I didn’t know what his problem was with me borrowing it. It was a piece of shit anyway. It wasn’t like one more ding was going to ruin the paint job.
  • 97. My stomach was jumpy as I parked Will’s truck at the store. It was pretty quiet for a Friday afternoon. I walked in and was met with walls of fabric. When I was little, my Nana used to take me with her when she went to fabric stores. I’d want to touch every single bolt, and wouldn’t leave until I had. I went right up to the cutting table, trying to make myself look confident and probably failing. There was a girl leaning against the counter, tapping her scissors and waiting. She sure didn’t look like she belonged here. Between her citrus orange hair, to her torn skirt over leggings, to her combat boots, she looked like she would have been more comfortable in a store that sold ‘alternative’ clothing. Of course, she was the only person who wasn’t busy. “Um, hi. My name is Charlotte, I’m supposed to be having an interview?” My voice made it sound like a question. “Yeah, sure.” She looked up and I saw that she had violet contacts in. They were both eerie and pretty at the same time. “I’m Trish,” she said, pointing to her nametag. “My name’s Charlotte, but I go by Lottie.” “Cool. Let me take you back to see the Queen of the Shears.” She motioned for me to follow her. “What?” “Sorry, I shouldn’t make you jaded before you’ve started. That’s just our nickname for Claud. She acts like she’s running a kingdom and we’re all freaking Cinderella.” She pushed through a swinging door marked Employees Only, and took me back to an office that was much nicer than I would have thought. “Got another one for you,” Trish said, after she knocked on the door. “Send her in,” was the reply. “Good luck,” Trish said before clomping back out to the main store. “Hi, Charlotte, come on in.” She was just how I’d pictured. Hair that
  • 98. looked like she’d just come from the salon, perfect acrylic nails and a set of glasses on a chain. Wow, did I call that, or what? “Thank you so much for calling me.” “Well, we’ve had a lot of applicants, but you’re one of the youngest.” Wait, was that good? Don’t open your mouth and ramble. Don’t open your mouth and ramble. “I’ve always loved to sew.” Wow, brilliant. You might as well have rambled. “Why don’t we start with what you think you could bring to our team here?” Don’t open your mouth and ramble. Don’t open your mouth and ramble… *** “How did it go?” Will asked when I dropped his keys back off to him. I’d had to reassure him more than once nothing had happened to his truck and I definitely wasn’t going to mention the asshole who cut me off and almost made his truck into a crushed tin can, with me inside it. “Well, I didn’t mention my drug dependency and I lied about my previous pole dancing experience. Hope they bought my act,” I said, showing him my crossed fingers. “Uh huh,” he said as I dropped the keys into his palm. “I’m assuming you didn’t mention your diarrhea of the mouth disease?” “Uh, no. I was able to keep that under control. Those new injections and shock therapy seem to be working.” “Nice,” Will said, holding up his fist. I gave him a bump and we exploded in unison before he pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. “This is one of those moments that you dream about, but you never think will happen.” “Shut up. Where’s Simon?”
  • 99. “Um GSA? PETA club? One of those acronym things.” Oh, Will. “You want to do something tonight? Besides reading Mockingbird or watching the movie for the millionth time?” “At least I’m not going out, getting wasted and screwing half the football team.” “Who’s doing that?” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know, but I’m sure some girl at this school is.” “She must walk funny then, from all the sex. She probably also has chlamydia.” “You are so gross,” I said, shoving him in the chest. “I’m just going to hang out in my room, I think. Maybe I’ll go for a walk.” “It’s raining. You’ll melt.” “Shut up. I’ve got a magic fucking umbrella.” “Language, my dear.” I shut the door in his face, hearing his laughter on the other side. Whatever. Of course, just as I stepped outside, it started pouring. I had a waterproof jacket, but the hood sucked, and didn’t stay on my head. I felt like a total dork holding it up, so I just let it fall back. I had an umbrella, but it was in my room, and I didn’t feel like going back to get it. A little rain never hurt anyone. I sucked a little rainwater from my bottom lip and started walking. I’d done some investigating on the campus map and found that there was a nature trail just down the road from the dorm. I wasn’t much of a nature girl, but I figured it would be the quietest place for me to think, especially since it was raining. I had only gone a little ways when I heard someone coming up behind me. Whoever it was was running, and I pictured one of those psycho fit girls who would crawl to the gym even if their legs were broken so they didn’t gain an ounce of fat. Bitches.
  • 100. I moved off to the side so they could pass me, but my foot got caught and my ankle twisted, causing me to lose my footing and fall. I squeaked and put my hands out to catch myself, but I didn’t hit the ground. “Are you okay?” I turned my head at the sound of his voice and the feel of his hands on my arms, holding me up. My words got stuck in my throat for a moment. He was completely soaked, as if he’d been out here for hours, and his hair was plastered to his head. Rain dripped from his nose, but he didn’t seem to mind. I realized I was as close to Zan Parker as I’d ever been and that caused me to lunge away from him, but he didn’t let me go, and the force of me pulling away backfired, making him pull me toward him even harder, so I crashed into his chest. “Get the fuck off me!” I screamed, even though I was the one who was sort of on him. I swatted at him with my hands, but he held tight until we were both standing again. Then he dropped his hands from my arms, and I realized how warm they’d been. I crossed my arms over my chest and started walking. Shit fuck. My ankle was not very happy, and twinged with every step. “Are you okay?” I gritted my teeth against the pain and kept walking, away from the dorm. Away from Zan fucking Parker. “I know you don’t want to be around me, but I don’t want you to mess up your ankle.” “Why do you care about my ankle? You didn’t care about Lexie.” The words lashed out of me. I could feel them erupting from deep inside, where I usually kept them in a jar with a tight lid. Time to smash that damn jar. “Fair enough. Still, would you at least let me walk behind you, so in case you need it, I can offer some form of assistance.” “Fuck off.” I kept walking, but it was starting to get harder. Damn
  • 101. defective ankle. I’d always had issues with them. I’d lost count of how many sprains and twists I’d had over the years. I heard him walking behind me as I continued to struggle. I didn’t think it was a sprain, but I’d have to go back and ice it anyway. I spun on my non-injured heel, finding him much closer than I thought. He was also a quiet walker. “I can’t stop you from following me, since I don’t have my pepper spray with me, but I swear, I will go to campus security the second you do anything to piss me off. Got it?” “Message received.” The way he said it made me think he was laughing at me. “Do you think this is funny?” “No, you just have some mud on your face. Right here.” He reached out, but I flinched back. He looked almost hurt. “ I wasn’t going to touch you.” His hand pulled back, and I took my sleeve and wiped it down the side of my face he’d indicated. Great, I was quite a spectacle. I fixed my eyes straight ahead and started my slow walk, Zan behind me like a shadow. He was just about as soundless. My plan was now to treat him like a shadow. It took forever to walk back to the dorm, and I stumbled a few times on my bum ankle, but he never touched me. I headed straight for the elevator and he followed me. I got in, and he got in behind me before I could close the door. Honestly, if I wasn’t so livid, I would have laughed at his appearance. He was just as splattered with mud as I probably was. A microscopic part of me wanted to ask him what he’d been doing, running in the rain. I stomped on my curiosity and watched the elevator lights as we approached the fourth floor. It became harder to breathe the higher the elevator climbed. An eternity later, the elevator dinged and I dived out of the enclosed space. I turned and watched the doors close behind me as Zan pushed the button for the first floor.
  • 102. He hadn’t said a word.
  • 103. Chapter Twelve Zan I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways. My eyes traced the letters, and I closed the book of Rumi poetry Miss Carole had given me, along with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five and Pride and Prejudice. All of her essential reads, she said. I’d read all of them multiple times. I’d been really into books when I was younger, but the passion had waned due to the influence of things I considered better, namely pot and pills and booze. And girls. Rumi had a lot to say about silence, and Miss Carole had helpfully marked those passages for me with little sticky flags. I really missed her. I’d have to make a trip down sometime. I made a mental note to get a bus schedule. I knew it was her when I saw her hair and the way she walked. Even a hundred feet away, I knew it was her. My plan had been to run past her and pretend like I didn’t know she was there. I figured she’d be so lost in thought she wouldn’t even see me. I was just about to pass her when she tripped and my stupid instincts kicked in, and I had to catch her, even with my bum hand. I knew she wasn’t normally that clumsy, it was just shit luck. At least she hadn’t broken her pretty face. That would have been a damn shame. I swallowed hard as I held her, the rain pounding down around us, oblivious. She wanted me to let go, and pulled, but I knew she’d just go backwards, so I yanked forward and she ended up mashed into my chest. How the hell that happened, I still couldn’t figure out. The other thing I couldn’t figure out was why my chest had felt like it was going to
  • 104. explode. Well, I knew the reason. I also knew the reason I wanted to suck the rain from her lips, and peel her clothes off and lick the rest of the rain from her skin. I fucking wanted her. So much that my pants got tight walking behind her, and I had to take care of myself afterwards in the shower. She put up with me walking behind her, and then getting into the elevator, so that was a step, right? One step forward. Maybe tomorrow she would meet my eyes. Maybe tomorrow… Oh, who the fuck was I kidding? Just because she hadn’t called campus security and had me arrested for stalking, didn’t mean she was going to be jumping into bed with me. Fuck, I had to stop thinking about jumping into bed with her. It just made me hard again. I hadn’t jacked off so much since I was twelve and didn’t have a girl to do it for me. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, willing my dick to stop doing what it was doing. I picked up To Kill A Mockingbird and started reading. If there was anything that could kill a hard-on it was small-town prejudice and racism. Lottie My effing ankle ended up just being bruised when I got back, so I iced it and told Will I wanted to order in. He complied, knowing that I was PMS-ing and that all I wanted to eat when I was PMS-ing was pizza and salt and vinegar chips and chocolate-covered pretzels. I hobbled down to his room, and consumed all three without him noticing that I didn’t get up, and that when I left I grimaced. I put the rain incident in a box and shoved it deep in the back corner of my mind in the same place I kept all those embarrassing moments that made me want to die. I threw a cloth over it and shut my brain door. I woke up on Saturday with Katie sacked out in her bed. I didn’t hear her come in, and she reeked of cigarettes and alcohol and she had a
  • 105. dress on that barely qualified as a dress, with monster high heels. Her mouth was open and she was snoring like a bear. Someone had a good night. I left as quietly as I could and didn’t mention it when I saw her again after breakfast and she was still in pretty much the same position. “Hey, how are you?” I said, closing the door. “Can you shut the curtains?” she said. It was more of a moan. Her arm was thrown over her eyes and her dress was hiked up so far I could tell she was either wearing the smallest pair of panties ever, or none at all. I really didn’t want to know, so I averted my eyes and closed the curtain. “Did you have a good night?” “I have no fucking clue.” Wow, I’d never heard Katie swear before, but I hadn’t spent all that much time with her, either. She licked her lips and tried to sit up. “Do you want some water or something?” I’d taken care of Will and Simon on enough occasions to know the Hangover Drill. She shook her head, but I got out a bottle of water from the fridge and some crackers I had on hand for just such an emergency. I got some pain medication into her and she finally noticed her skirt and pulled it down. “Where’s my phone?” She looked around, and I searched under the bed before we heard her ringtone. She’d been sitting on it. “Hey, babe,” she said, answering and holding the water bottle to her forehead. “No, I just got up… No, I’m fine, how are you? Aw, poor baby. Want me to come make it better?” Her voice got deep and throaty and my stomach churned in revulsion. “Just let me get sexy for you and I’ll be right down… Okay… Love you, too.” She scrolled through her phone and typed out some messages. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said, her eyes locked on the device as she chugged the water and shoved a cracker into her mouth. I didn’t
  • 106. have any doubts about that. She seemed like a girl who went balls to the walls. At least she did when it came to pink. Why would this be any different? “All I need is a crazy fattening breakfast and a few glasses of water, and I’m good to go.” She stuck her legs straight out, swung them until they were hanging over the edge of the bed and levered herself upright. It looked difficult. “Whoa,” she said, wobbling a bit and clutching her head. She had a crazy pillow mark on one cheek and her hair was all smashed to one side of her head. She had that Ke$ha thing going on. My doubts about her being able to make herself presentable again were crushed when she managed a rapid shower and re-makeup job along with straightening her hair and getting dressed in under a half hour. I wanted to give her a round of applause. “How do I look?” “Fresh as a daisy,” I said, appraising her. “Good,” she said, primping one last time in the mirror. “See you later.” “Bye,” I said, and she gave me a tight smile before closing the door, but it opened a second later. “Thanks for the water and crackers.” “You’re welcome.” What I should have said was that she shouldn’t be getting drunk with the likes of Zack Parker, but the words wouldn’t come out. Why did there have to be two of them? I’d barely thought about Zack lately, given all the drama with Zan. Zan. The lid on his box had come loose, so I slammed it back on and went to breakfast with Simon and Will, piling heavy thoughts and boxes on top of the Zan box to keep the damn thing shut. ***
  • 107. Sunday I did have something that put the Zan box in the back of my mind. I’d called Mrs. Davis on Saturday to make sure it was okay to come. “She’s much better, and she can’t wait to see you. She’s gotten obsessed with the zoo lately, so we’ll probably have to go to make her happy.” Kay didn’t sound like it would be a very happy affair. Sometimes I wondered if she resented me for being normal. Or as normal as I was. For being what her daughter could no longer be. Such morbid thoughts spun in my brain as I drove Will’s truck to Lexie’s house. Her father was an accountant with his own office, and when we’d been younger, they’d lived very well in a nice house with a pool and nice cars and Disney vacations. The accident had sucked all that away, including the nice house and the pool and the vacations. I pulled my truck down the narrow road that led to their house. I was forced to park halfway on the lawn, since there wasn’t much room for the truck. The one-story house was coated in the same dingy yellow paint as it had been last time. Mr. and Mrs. Davis’ cars had gone from sleek black luxury cars to pre-owned generic models that had rust problems. “Lottie!” Lexie opened the door and shrieked my name. “Lexie, slow down,” Mrs. Davis said, holding her back from throwing herself down the rickety steps that led from the front door to the yard. Lexie’s balance was still off, so her mom was never farther away than a few feet. “Hey Lex!” I skipped the rotten step and dashed to the front door and into Lexie’s waiting arms. Sometimes she hugged, and sometimes she didn’t. Today was one of the former. “We’re going to the zoo!” She sang, trying to spin around in a circle. I looked at Mrs. Davis, who gave me a tired smile. The sun caught a
  • 108. few gray hairs she hadn’t had the time or maybe the money to get fixed at the hairdresser’s. “Let’s go,” Lexie said, grabbing my hand and trying to drag me back out the door. “Lexie, why don’t we sit and talk for a while. You can show Lottie your pictures.” “Come see my pictures,” Lexie said, changing directions and trying to drag me to her room. I held onto her elbow to make sure she didn’t fall. The entire house had been Lexie-proofed. The hard corners on furniture had been covered with foam, the knives had been put in a locking cabinet, and anything else that Lexie could use to hurt herself had been gotten rid of, or put in a place she couldn’t get to. Lexie’s room always made me choke a little when I walked into it. In an effort to try and help her keep continuity or some such crap, they had left everything as it was on the day of the accident. Not just the things on the walls, but everything else. Lexie’s dresser was like a shrine, with her endless tubes of lipgloss, the pictures of the two of us in frames that she’d painted, a movie ticket from the day she’d gotten her first kiss from none other than Joel Ostrander. That boy got around. But her room wasn’t the same. There were now finger paintings that she’d done as part of her therapy that covered the posters of half-naked guys and bands and pictures of Paris. Lexie had always wanted to go to Paris. Now her poster of the Eiffel Tower was covered over with what was probably a kitty. Or a dog. Or a giraffe. I couldn’t really tell. Not that it mattered. “See?” Thrusting a picture in my face, she flopped down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. “It’s gorgeous, Lex.” It wasn’t really a picture of anything, just a swirl of colors, but it was really pretty. Before the accident, Lex had been our art teacher’s pet student. Some of her paintings were still hung around her parent’s house. Another shrine to who she had been.
  • 109. “Lex?” She didn’t answer. Sometimes she got lost in her head and went into a semi-catatonic state. The only thing to do was wait for her to get out of it. “You ready to go?” Kay poked her head in, holding Lexie’s coat. She saw Lexie on her bed and I could hear her sigh, even though she didn’t. “Lexie, baby? You want to go to the zoo?” No response. I always wonder where she went, in her head when she got that still. You could never get her to talk about it after she’d come out of it. She’d just snap, and be back. It was a short episode, only lasting about five minutes. In that time Kay called her name at least twenty times, snapped her fingers in front of her face and tried anything to get her to come back from wherever she was. No response.
  • 110. Chapter Thirteen Zan “Zack said you hurt your hand,” my mom said when she called me. I should have known that Zack would squeal. I’d told him that I’d fallen or some such shit, but he knew better. I was grateful Devin was gone again, or else I wouldn’t have answered the phone. “It’s fine. It was an accident.” She sighed. “Zan, are you taking your medication?” “Yes, Mom.” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice so she wouldn’t think I was being defensive. Defensive people were most often lying. “Alexander, I know that things have been hard for you, but you don’t have to take them out on me.” “I know, I’m sorry.” “Steve and I were thinking of making a trip up to see you and Zack. What do you think?” “Yeah, sure.” I would be in deep trouble if they came up. Steve missed nothing, and he would know I was off my medication. I’d tried to stop taking it a number of times in the summer, but he always caught me. Steve and I didn’t see eye-to-eye and it wasn’t because I was taller. “So I was just making some of those coconut cookies for Steve’s work party and I thought I might send some up to you. Would you like that?” The hope in her voice made me feel like an asshole for snapping at her. When I was little and Zack would be off blowing things up in the backyard, I used to bake with her. Wow, I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.
  • 111. “Yeah, I’d love that. Thanks.” There was a pause as both of us tried to find something to say. “Call me anytime you need to, okay? I miss you,” she said. “Miss you too.” We hung up and I pounded my non-busted fist into the wall, only realizing seconds later that the wall I’d banged on belonged to Charlotte’s brother and his roommate. I heard one of them exclaim and then there was a knock at my door. A very pissed Will Anders glowered up at me. I had at least two inches on him. “What the fuck is your problem?” I didn’t answer, instead dissecting his face and finding all the similarities to Charlotte’s. There were quite a few. “Did you, or did you not just bang on my wall?” I wasn’t sure there were any words that I could use that would make him back down. He had come for a fight. “Yes.” “Yes you did, or yes you didn’t?” His eyebrows puckered just like hers. I seriously needed to stop, or things were going to get weird. “I did.” “Listen, I know you’ve served your time and all that, but you being here is making my sister upset. No one makes my sister upset, not even me. So I swear to God, if you purposely do anything to make her more upset, I will fucking kill you. Understand?” His words were fierce, as was his love for Charlotte. “I understand,” I said, nodding. I understood more than he could comprehend. “Good.” He rolled his shoulders, as if he had accomplished something he’d been thinking about for a while. I almost smiled, but was able to hold it back. “Sorry for banging on your wall. It won’t happen again.” He seemed stunned that I’d apologized. His bewilderment was also kind of funny. “Okay,” he said, sort of rocking from foot to foot. Then he gave me a
  • 112. jerky nod and went back to his room. I couldn’t help the laughter that came out of me a few seconds later. I tried to hold it in, but it burst from me at the irony and the sheer fucking ridiculousness of life. Lottie “Again!” Lexie said after nearly every ride. I’d decided to give Kay a break, so she was on a bench reading a book while I took over for a while. The park was small, and nearly all of the rides were kiddie rides, but Lexie didn’t care. While we were getting on a train that took us around the entire park, she stumbled, but I was there to catch her. A couple of pre-teen boys snickered behind us. Lex was oblivious. As we rode, she pointed out and tried to name every animal, but she couldn’t come up with some of the animal names. “Lottie! It’s a…a…d…d,” she said as I tried not to say it for her. “It’s called a fucking deer you retard,” one of the boys said. Oh no, that was so not okay with me. If Lexie hadn’t been sitting next to me, it would have been ON. Lex didn’t hear them, and the train moved on, but the boys continued. At the end of the ride, I turned slowly and gave them each a sweeter- than-fucking-sugar smile, holding eye contact and not looking away. That seemed to make them a little nervous, but they laughed nervously and nudged each other. I winked before I strode up to the person supervising the ride, who happened to look like an ex-football player who was a bouncer in his spare time. I’d left Lexie on the little train. “Excuse me, but those three boys, right there have been harassing me and my friend and using foul language in a park filed with children. I’d like them removed, immediately or else I’m filing a complaint. And I don’t think the park would like the negative press.”
  • 113. His eyes narrowed and he yelled out to the three kids, who were busy shoving each other and laughing about their exploits. I knew just what kind of men they’d make, and it made me sick to think about. They froze when he walked up to them, and their eyes got wide for a second before they puffed up, accusing me of lying. Yeah, because I get my kicks by throwing little pricks like them out of zoos. The guy snapped his fingers and another guy in a park t-shirt appeared and escorted the boys, who were yelling about injustice, away. “Thank you,” I said as I got Lexie off the little train. The man looked like he wanted to help, but I waved him off. “She doesn’t like to be touched by strangers.” “You left me,” she said, and I sensed an episode coming on. “Just for a minute. I’m back now, see? I’m not leaving you again,” I said, taking her arm. “Best friends never leave each other, right?” “Right,” she said, her face breaking into a smile. “You have a nice day,” the guy said, nodding. “I have a brother with Down syndrome.” I gave him a tight smile before taking Lexie back to where Kay was lounging on another bench, feeding one of the tame peacocks that wandered the park. “Did you have fun?” “I’m hungry,” Lexie said. Kay laughed and started pulling snacks out of her bottomless purse. Lexie fell asleep on the way home, which gave me a chance to talk to Kay. “Her violent episodes have been getting worse. Her therapist can’t figure it out, so they’ve been doing some more tests. I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She leaned her head on the hand she wasn’t using to drive. I wanted to say something, anything that would make sense, or make it better, but I’d learned a long time ago that words for things like this were useless.
  • 114. Even for me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be dumping this on you.” “It’s okay, Mrs. Davis. I’m just sorry I can’t do more.” “Oh, sweetie, you’ve done more than a sister would have done, and I’m so grateful, but you have to have your own life. You’re in college now and you’ve got a lot of responsibility, and that doesn’t include taking care of Lexie. I’m her mother, that’s my job.” I’d always hated it when people talked about being a parent as a job. Like it was something that was forced on you, something you were obligated to do. Not something that was a joy, a reason to get up in the morning. Not something that you were blessed with. I glanced at Lexie, with her face mashed against the window and thought about the time when I’d had a crush on this guy, Andrew. We were in sixth grade, at a dance, and Lexie convinced me somehow to go up to him and ask him to slow dance. Unlike in our fantasies, where the guys would smile and sweep us off our feet and then we’d go and make out under the bleachers and live happily ever after, he stuttered and said no. Crushed, I went and cried myself out on Lexie’s shoulder in the bathroom before she went up to him and verbally castrated him in front of all his friends before spreading a rumor about the microscopic size of his penis that followed him all the way through high school. That was Lex though. Extreme in every aspect of her life. It wasn’t until after the accident her mother found out about her secret self-inflicted navel piercing. By then it didn’t matter. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said, sitting back in my seat. Kay whispered something under her breath, but I heard it anyway. “I wish you would.”
  • 115. Chapter Fourteen Zan Zack texted me later that afternoon, asking if I wanted to go for a run with him. I usually ran alone, but then I could tell him to call Mom and he could fulfill his mandatory brotherly time and I could get another run in. It wasn’t exactly an ideal situation, but I’d suck it up. “Hey bro,” he said, showing up at my door in a wife beater and black shorts. I had my long sleeves and pants on, as usual. “Dude, it’s like a million degrees out. Why don’t you lose the sleeves?” He knew why. “You’ve got the tat now. Girls love shit like that.” My eyes found his scars, several criss-crossing his legs, and a few on his arms. Mostly from broken glass when we’d all be thrown from the car. His injuries were the least severe of the three of us. Even then, he’d gotten lucky. I shook my head and closed my door behind us. “You should call Mom. Steve wants to know how that new workout thing is going.” Steve and Zack had spent nearly the entire summer devising a new workout regimen for Zack that would make him faster, stronger, better. As if he wasn’t already. “I have been such a slacker. It’s just been so nice to have some alone time with Katie without worrying about her mom walking in and asking us if we want some cookies.” Dear sweet Regina. She thought the sun shined out of Zack’s ass. Just like everyone else. “Did I tell you about that time she actually did that?” He laughed as we exited the building. “I was right in the middle and she just barged in. I thought Katie was going to die.” He jogged in place and earned a few approving glances from a pair
  • 116. of girls strolling by. He grinned and winked and checked out their asses. I was beginning to regret this. “Come on, I’ll race you.” He shoved me in the chest and took off. I waited a half second and followed. Zack may have been stronger than I was in the muscle department, but I could kick his ass when it came to speed. All those muscles caused too much wind resistance. I soon caught up with him as we dodged pedestrians and made our way down to the track that looped around the football field. Zack always preferred the track to the unpredictability of the woods. I slowed to a jog and he fell into line beside me. “You got laid yet?” Zack was terrible at starting conversations. “I’m celibate now.” “Bullshit. There’s plenty of girls here. What’s wrong with you?” “I’m just not into that anymore.” “Wouldn’t have anything to do with Hottie Lottie, would it?” “Can you not call her that?” “That answers my question, then.” “Shut up.” “You are such a pussy.” “Do you really think she’s going to go for the guy who she hates more than Satan?” “That was a long time ago.” “Two years isn’t a long time.” “Why don’t you just work your freak angle? Lots of girls will go for that. Find someone else.” I’d done someone else. I’d done a lot of someone elses, and I was done with it. So done. Sensing he was hitting a brick wall, Zack changed direction. “Are you sure you don’t want to come out with us maybe next weekend. No pressure. You don’t have to talk to anyone. You can sit in the corner and be weird and I’ll try to convince you to play beer pong
  • 117. and you’ll tell me how much you hate beer and we’ll both get drunk and wind up passed out naked on the lawn. Sounds epic, right?” I just shook my head as we passed a half-naked girl going in the opposite direction. Zack gave her a whistle and chuckled. “Don’t you want to be bad again? I know you do. It calls to you.” “Doesn’t mean I have to answer.” He just sped up and kept laughing. I put on a surge of speed and shoved him and he almost fell, but regained his balance and shoved me back. We did another lap of running and shoving until we both collapsed in a heap on the hard surface. “Bastard,” he said, coughing. He punched my right shoulder, wary of staying away from my left, where my scars were. “Asshole.” I got him in the stomach. “Remember that time we counted punches?” “I thought Mom was going to have a heart attack when she saw the bruises. I still say that I won that one.” “You are so full of shit. I took twenty two and you only took twenty. We counted out loud, remember?” We were such idiots. “Well, I did save your life, so I’ll say you won the punching contest, and now we’re even.” I shut my mouth and nodded. When we were kids, we’d been playing hockey on a pond near our house on thin ice. I’d fallen through, and Zack had dived in and pulled me out. We both ended up in the hospital for hypothermia, but he was hailed as a hero, and even interviewed by the local news station. He’d never let me forget it. “You hungry? I could go for a burger.” He hocked a spit wad and shot it out onto the ground. “Come on.” He held his hand out and pulled me up. “Sperm to worm?” It was the same thing he’d said when he pulled
  • 118. me out of the pond. Brothers for life. “Cradle to grave,” I answered. Lottie “I’d rather stay home and watch a black and white movie than go out and get drunk. At least I’ll remember it in the morning,” Audrey said Monday after class. “Exactly.” It was like she was taking my thoughts and saying them out loud. “Plus, the guys are a lot sexier. I mean, you set Mr. Darcy on a horse next to some frat boy with a keg, and who do you want to sweep you off your feet?” It was freaky how much we had in common. I still hadn’t broached the Will topic, but he wouldn’t shut up about it ever since he found her on Facebook and started stalking her. “Are you free at noon? I’m meeting my brother at the Union for lunch.” “Um, yeah, sure.” She seemed hesitant. She probably smelled the set- up. “Cool. I’ll meet you in front of the taco place.” “Sounds good. Listen, I gotta get to poly sci, but I’ll see you then.” “Bye,” I said, and we parted. I texted Will saying that all systems were go for the set-up and he sent a smiley face back. I could just picture him. He was at least much more presentable now that his hair was shorter. He looked more surfer dude and less I-smoke-so-much-pot-I-don’t-care-about-how-long-my- hair-gets-or-what-I-look-like. *** “Where is she?” Will said when I met him in front of the taco place
  • 119. in the Student Union. It was supposed to be like a Taco Bell, but they couldn’t call it that, so it was called the Salsa Hut. Potato, tomato, as Will would say. “Keep your shirt on, she’s coming. She texted me like, two seconds ago saying she was on her way. Oh, there she is.” I spotted Audrey’s gorgeous hair from the entrance. She was one of those girls who always looked like they had a wind machine on them. Her hair moved in a non- existent breeze as she walked. “Christ,” Will said under his breath. “Close your mouth,” I said. He had, indeed, been gaping. “Hey,” she said, her eyes flicking over Will and then settling back on me. I tried to ignore the uneasy expression on her face. “This is Will, my brother. Will, this is Audrey Valdez.” “Nice to meet you,” Will said. Audrey nodded. I could already taste the awkward. “I’m going to get in line for nachos,” I said to try and break the moment. “That sounds good,” Audrey said. “After you,” Will said, stepping back so Audrey could go behind me. The only time Will was chivalrous was when he was really, really trying to impress a girl. Once he had her impressed, he went back to his normal ways. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a quick glance before stepping behind me. I really felt the need to make conversation while we waited, but I didn’t want to blurt out any of Will’s embarrassing stories. There were just so many… I risked a quick glance over my shoulder and saw Will checking Audrey out from behind. Fuck me, he mouthed at me. It took all my strength not to roll my eyes. We all got our food and found an empty table, which was hard to do in the middle of the lunch rush. Will hurried to pull Audrey’s chair
  • 120. out for her. As an afterthought, he did the same for me. “Why Will, did you take gentleman lessons?” He shot me a shut up Lottie look. I just smiled sweetly and sat down, crossing my ankles. Will ended up sitting next to Audrey, and she kept throwing him nervous glances, like he was a vampire about to bite her. I was going to have to apologize for this later when Will was gone. “So, Lottie says you’re a poly sci major? What do you want to do with that?” “I’ll probably end up going to law school. Both my parents are lawyers.” I’d told him this already, but he had to start the conversation somewhere. “That’s intense. I bet you couldn’t get away with anything.” “I never had to,” she said. Uh oh. The awkward now had now morphed into tension. I kicked Will’s foot under the table. This was all his fault. “Do you live on campus?” Creepy, Will. Now she’s going to think you’re a stalker. “Yeah, in Halscock.” If Audrey wasn’t a hot girl he wanted to impress, Will probably would have made a penis joke. I could tell he really, really wanted to. She didn’t elaborate. The tension was starting to stink. “Have you started that paper that’s due next week?” “I just wrote an outline,” she said with relief. Clearly, talking about academia was in her wheelhouse. I steered the conversation onto more stable footing. Will tried, but he didn’t have much to say. Poor boy. He usually had an easy time with girls. Audrey finished as quick as she could and said she had to get to her next class. I knew for a fact that she didn’t have class for at least another half hour, and she knew that I knew. I said good-bye and said I’d see her in Brit lit. As soon as she was gone, I texted my apologies. “I’m such an idiot,” Will said, raking his hands through is hair.
  • 121. “Yeah, you are. What happened to that guy who charms every woman in a five-mile radius, regardless of age?” “He’s not here right now. I’m pretty sure he abandoned me. Come back later.” “Aw, Willy, it’s okay. You can’t win ‘em all. Buck up.” “I know, I know.” He was so grumpy, he didn’t even finish his second taco. Poor thing. “I’ll see you later,” he said, giving me a sad smile. I tried to think of something shiny. “Hey, you want to go do something this weekend? Movies? I think they’re having a battle of the bands here on Saturday night.” “Sure,” he said, still miserable. “I’ll see you later.” “Have you found a job yet?” “I’m still looking.” “Okay, well could you at least make something up so I can tell Mom? She’s up my butt about it again.” “Okay, okay,” Will said before shuffling off. Great, he was going to have PMS for at least a few days. Pissy Man Syndrome. “Hey, Hottie,” a slimy voice said behind me. I turned slowly. “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” I said with a teeth-hurting smile. He shook his head. I hated the fact that he was standing while I was sitting, so I got up and grabbed my tray. “That’s not very nice language for a sexy girl like you.” “Don’t you have a girlfriend? She’d be awful upset if she heard you saying that about another girl.” “No, I don’t think she will, because you’re not going to tell her.” He was right, I wasn’t. I couldn’t say anything bad about Zack without looking like a vindictive bitch. He had me right where he wanted me. “See you later, babe,” he said, his hand barely touching my ass as he walked by. “Touch me again, and I will fuck you up. I swear to God.”
  • 122. He just smiled, as if I was a child saying that I wanted to be a unicorn when I grew up. He leaned in, and I fought the urge to knock his teeth out. “Anytime, anywhere.” I felt like I needed a shower the second he left. He’d always left me feeling like that, although I didn’t notice it so much when I was younger. Now it was like a bright red flashing light. I went downstairs to the bookstore and bought a tiny container of pepper spray and a rape whistle. I wasn’t going to underestimate the Parker brothers a second time.
  • 123. Chapter Fifteen Zan To keep my mind off Charlotte, I threw myself headfirst into schoolwork, like slipping into a cool lake on a summer day. I dove into calculus and English and biology and European history and physics. I shut out everything else but that, so when a voice spoke to me as I was getting up to leave from calculus on Wednesday, I didn’t pay attention at first. “Do you have a lighter?” It was Stryker. “Yeah, sure.” I pulled out Gramps’ lighter, and handed it over. “Just be careful.” I followed him as we walked outside. “Thanks, man. I’ll, um, give it back.” He lit his cigarette and handed the lighter back to me with care. “You want one?” He offered me one from his pack. Normally, I would have just shaken my head and that would have been it, but for some reason, I decided to talk to him. “No thanks.” He puffed a cloud of smoke over his shoulder so it wouldn’t blow in my face. “So what’s your deal? You don’t really have that college-boy vibe.” “Neither do you.” That made him laugh a little and he blew out another puff. “It’s all an illusion,” he said, making smoke rings. I’d never been able to do that. “People look at me and assume I’m on drugs, going nowhere, dumbass fuck-up.” Been there, done that. “And you’re not?” “Used to be. But once people put you in a box, you can’t do anything
  • 124. to get out of it.” “I’m Zan,” I said, sticking out my hand. Stryker held his cigarette between his teeth as he took my hand and gave it a good shake. “Stryker.” He leaned back against the building. “So what’s your deal?” I shrugged. Stryker put his cigarette out in the flower pot filled with sand outside the building. “Thanks,” he said, handing me the lighter. “See you on Friday.” “See you,” I said, pocketing the lighter. I thought about what he said the rest of the day. That once people decided what they thought of you, that was it. You’d been judged. You got a stamp on your forehead that you could never wash off. *** My roommate crashed through the door in the middle of the night, bringing with him the stench of puke mixed with alcohol. I was a light sleeper, thanks to Carter. Never knew when someone was going to hold a sharp object they’d made to your throat and ask you for drugs or money or whatever else they wanted. I didn’t know the kid’s middle name, but I got his nasty clothes off and into a garbage bag, held the trash can for him and got some crackers and water into him. He finally passed out into a drunken stupor around four. I cleaned the room and knew I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went for another run. The only people I passed were the mid-week drunks on their way home, and a few early risers from sports teams that had to fit their workouts in where they could. A misty rain started, and I finally decided to strip off my shirt once I was ensconced in the safety of the woods. I tied the shirt around my waist and kept going. Seeing the scars brought the memory forward, as sharp and clear as it had been on that night. I avoided looking down
  • 125. when I was in the shower and mostly changed in dark rooms. I remembered the screams from Lexie as the car swerved out of control to avoid the deer. The lurch in my stomach as the truck flew over the guardrail and threw itself down the embankment, the horrible crunch and crash of the truck as it turned over. And then the silence as my body came to rest and the truck stopped moving. That was the worst part. The silence. Wondering if I was dead. The next sound was of Zack. I’d never heard him scream like that. After that followed sirens and chaos and bright lights and lots of people touching and talking and moving. “What happened?” That was the first thing Zack said to me when we got to the hospital. I stared at him, unable to comprehend how he couldn’t remember what had just happened. “You were in a car accident, sweetie,” the nurse closest to his head said. “Do you remember anything?” “What?” He tried to move, but, like me, he was strapped to a backboard and had a C-collar on. I remembered every single second in crisp detail. “Where’s Lexie?” I whispered. My throat hurt for some reason I didn’t understand. There were people all around me, but no one was listening to me. I had to repeat myself before someone took notice. “They’re doing everything they can. You just worry about you right now.” That didn’t answer my question, but when people said things like, ‘doing everything they can,’ meant things weren’t going well. It wasn’t until the next day I found out how bad it was. I ran as the sky went from washed out blue to a muted grey, to the brighter shade of a new morning. The rain stopped, and the rising sun sparkled on the moisture that clung to the trees. I stopped to rest, leaning against a large trunk. I glanced down at my chest, looking at the tattoo I’d gotten only a month before. The dark ink that intertwined with the scars that crossed my skin still
  • 126. threw me off every now and then when I saw it. The artist had done a beautiful job. My fingers traced the outline of a little mockingbird that sat in one of the branches of the tree that dominated my left side. It was really because of Boo Radley that I’d gotten a tree. Because of those magical little things he’d left for the Finch children in the tree in front of his yard. I hadn’t thought of what I was going to get before I went to the tattoo place, just that I’d know when he asked me what I wanted. My copy of To Kill A Mockingbird had be lying on the dashboard of the truck when Zack and I got in to go to Connecticut, so that was what I thought about the whole way. I didn’t think getting a giant mockingbird was going to cut it, or be very masculine, so I needed something else. While Zack was busy finding a radio station that wasn’t “gay,” I flipped through the book until I found something that struck me. There it was, as Zack sang at the top of his lungs to Satisfaction. Somehow I was able to describe what I wanted in enough detail that the artist did an amazing job, and it looked like a painting and not like a cartoon. Zack got one too, his baseball number on his left pectoral. I didn’t bother to point out that his number was going to change. Zack did what Zack wanted. Always. I came to a bend in the trail and turned to go back, even though I didn’t want to. More words from Rumi echoed through my head. ‘I run from body. I run from spirit. I do not belong anywhere.’ Lottie “Thank God you’re here, Q of S is on a rampage,” Trish said when I walked into work on Friday afternoon. It was only my first week, and she’d already adopted me, but it wasn’t totally her fault. Within about five seconds of talking with her, it was like her soul and my soul did a fist bump and said, Hey, I know you! “Uh oh.” I punched in, being sure to avoid the office area before I
  • 127. donned my apron and got to the cutting counter. “Any more interactions with the B’s of D?” Of course the entire Zack/Zan saga had spilled out of me during my fifteen minute break on my second day. I didn’t mean to tell her, but it just sort of happened. Like most of my rambles. “Not since the thing in the rain that I’m not talking about.” The fact that I was limping had triggered the explanation in the first place. Trish narrowed her eyes at me and then swiped her hair back. “You know, if you wanted, I could get my brother to beat Zack up. Or just scare him out of his mind. My brother scares a lot of people.” How different hers was from mine. “No, I can deal. My own brother sort of has that covered.” “What is it with men and thinking that we can’t take care of ourselves?” “It’s the penis effect.” I made sure to say it quietly, so no customers overheard. “The what?” Her eyebrows disappeared into her side-swept dyed- citrus orange bangs. “The penis effect.” It was something Lexie had come up with. Basically, it explained anything stupid, or otherwise, that men did. Trish thought about that for a second before she bobbed her head in agreement. “You’re right. It is.” Chat time was over as Claudia called me to restock the cone thread. Trish gave me a sympathetic look, but two seconds later a grandmother with a cart full of bolts of pastel fabric walked up to the counter. That meant cutting a million tiny amounts from each bolt to make quilt squares, and it took forever. We didn’t get a chance to talk again until our breaks. Since the break room was full, we went outside. “So you want to hang out? My roommate will be gone for the weekend, so you won’t have to deal with her crazy.” Trish had already
  • 128. filled me in on her roommate who had a host of issues from food allergies to her issues with her boyfriend to her inability to vacuum or do the dishes or anything productive. “We could like totally paint our nails and then we could like, watch a movie with no redeeming qualities and then we could like, have a pillow fight or do shots and make out and put the video online so all the boys will like us. Like,” she said, grabbing a chip from the bag that we were sharing on the bench in the back of the store. “Oh Em Gee! We should totes do that!” We both laughed like morons for a few seconds. “Thank God you’re not one of those girls.” “Those girls?” “The ones that shop at that horrible store that I won’t talk about, but you know the one with all the naked people in the ads and who wear the latest that Bath and Body Works has to offer and who think that thinking is lame.” “Basically you’re saying thank God I’m weird.” “Obviously. Have you ever noticed that the weird people are the ones we remember? I mean look at Jane Austen. She didn’t sit around and fritter her life away with needlepoint or marry that creepy dude who asked her. Look at Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Picasso, Da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Michael Jackson. All weirdos. All geniuses in their own fields. As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re weird, you’re nobody.” She shrugged and lit a cigarette, cupping the lighter with her hand against the wind. “All I’m saying is weird is good.” “Weird is good. I feel like that should be on a bumper sticker,” I said. “I’ll get you one.” “Well, you’ll also have to get me a bumper. Preferably one with a
  • 129. car attached.” “Bummer. Hey, if you want, my brother is like, a car genius. He could find you a junk bucket and pimp it out if you want. All you have to do is pay for parts,” she said. “Seriously?” She blew a smoke ring. Not that I’d ever wanted to smoke, but that was pretty damn cool. “He gets off on it. Guess it’s the penis effect,” she said. I nodded. “Exactly. We should go in. You working tomorrow?” “Bright and early,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette and rolling her eyes. “Fuck my life,” she muttered. *** Will was still in the depths of despair about Audrey at dinner, and Simon was MIA at another club meeting. We ended up sitting with a group from our dorm that Will had made friends with. He was already working his magic, even when he was all moody and weird. My eyes still scanned the room, looking for either of the Parker brothers, and breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see their dark heads of hair. I’d gone two days without seeing either of them. My luck was bound to run out sooner or later, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Granted, if Zack even breathed near me again, he was going to have a broken penis on his hands, and probably some other injuries when I got done with him. And then there was Zan. Yes, he’d sort of been nice. If he wasn’t Zan Parker, things would have been different…Maybe. I shut the lid on the Zan box in my brain before that line of thinking could go any further, kicking it into the farthest corner of my mind. Katie was actually doing homework when I got back. I almost fell over when I walked in the door. It was the first time I’d seen her crack
  • 130. a book. Also, she was wearing hipster black-framed glasses. That was the first of those I’d seen. Her hair was sloppy, and not the sloppy that took two hours to meticulously arrange, just sloppy. “Hey,” I said, closing the door. Her eyes took a second to focus on me as her pupils adjusted. “Oh, hey.” “What’s up?” I really wanted to ask what the hell she was doing, but that would have been rude, right? She shrugged, pointing to her book. “I have a test next week and I haven’t done any of the reading.” I had to jam my mouth shut so I wouldn’t say it was because she was too busy getting drunk and banging her asshole of a boyfriend. “Do you need any help?” I startled myself as much as her when I said it. “I mean, we could go to the library or something.” “Um, I think I’m okay. I just need a few hours and I’ll be fine.” “If you need to stay up late and keep the light on, I don’t mind. I could sleep through a fireworks show.” This was completely untrue, but I figured she didn’t know me well enough to spot the lie. “Thanks.” Her eyes drifted back to her book and I decided to take a shower and make myself scarce so she could focus. Of course, I didn’t remember to grab my pjs and realized that when I was already in the shower and completely wet. Great. I didn’t want to put my other clothes back on, so I just wrapped my towel under my arms and hoped I the hallway was empty. I was just turning the corner to go to my room when I slammed into something tall and human-shaped. I went flying, my shower stuff went flying and so did something else. My towel. I felt it ripping itself away from my body, and my fingers were too busy trying to break my fall to worry about it. I also may have cursed, before my damp and naked body was stopped from becoming intimately
  • 131. acquainted with the floor by two strong arms. “Are you okay?” The world started to move at normal speed again. It went from slow motion to unbearably fast and I had to blink a few times so things would come back into focus. “Where’s my towel?” My voice sounded like a roar in my ears. “Right here,” he said, letting go of me like I was a burning him, and handing it to me. I was too flustered and freaked out to appreciate that he kept his eyes on my face and not on other areas. My hands shook as I wrapped the towel around myself. Zan looked away and started gathering up my conditioner and soap, etc. My clothes were scattered, but my underwear was right by my foot, so I snatched it up and stuffed it under my jeans. “I’m sorry,” he said, handing me my basket of shower stuff. “I didn’t see anything.” Yeah, and my name was really Scout Finch. I started to say something, but realized I should probably just get out of the damn hallway and go back to my room so I could die. He stepped aside as I rushed by him, my face no doubt turning a brilliant shade of red rivaled only by a tomato. Zan. Parker. Saw. Me. Naked. The words repeated themselves over and over in my mind. Shaking, I walked back into my room where Katie was still eyeballs deep in her book. Where were my effing pajamas? I tore through my drawer, desperate for anything to cover my body. “Whoa, what’s wrong?” My frenzy to find something attracted Katie’s attention. “Nothing,” I squeaked. “Okaayyyy,” she said, closing her book. Why couldn’t I find a damn pair of sweatpants? Finally it clicked that I had a laundry basket full of clean clothes that I hadn’t put away yet. I ripped through that and found my sweatpants, some underwear and a
  • 132. large t-shirt. I kept my towel wrapped around me as I dressed. Didn’t need yet another person seeing me. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong? Because you’re acting like if you don’t get those clothes on, you’re going to catch fire.” “I’m just cold. I forgot my pjs and I’m freezing.” Once I was clothed I didn’t feel any less naked so I crossed my arms in front of my chest and sat down on my bed and pulled my blanket around me. “Uh huh.” She squinted at me for a second behind the giant frames of her glasses. They looked adorable on her. “I didn’t know you had glasses.” “Just for reading,” she said, taking them off. “You should wear them more often. They’re cute.” “I look like a total dork with them. Zack thinks they’re stupid.” He would, the asshole. “Where is he tonight?” I wasn’t going to say his name. I’d probably choke on it, and suffocate and die. “Out with some guys from the baseball team. Some sort of male bonding ritual that probably is just all of them getting wasted. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of drunk texts when I get up tomorrow. Although, he’s a lot sweeter when he’s drunk. He’ll say romantic things he never would when he’s sober.” Somehow I found that easy to believe. I’d never seen Zack as much of a romantic guy. Charmer? Definitely, but only to get what he wanted. “Is it weird for you for me to talk about him? I can stop if it makes you uncomfortable.” No, what made me uncomfortable was knowing that she was headed down the same path as Lexie. Sure, the chances of the accident happening again were like, a bazillion to one, but that didn’t mean something else couldn’t happen. “It’s fine. Everyone gets second chances.” Okay, I lied. Those were the words that choked me.
  • 133. “Okay, good.” She let out a breath that she’d probably been holding since she found out about my history with Zack and Zan. Ugh, Zan. Nonono, go away memories! I wished I had a giant fly swatter that I could just smash them with. I pulled my blanket tighter and prayed to God to give me amnesia.
  • 134. Chapter Sixteen Zan That was not how I pictured seeing Charlotte naked the first time. Not by a long shot. And I’d imagined that far more times than I’d ever admit, especially lately. I knew if I went up there, I had a chance of seeing her. I knew it, and I did it anyway. I tried to justify it by telling myself that I wanted to see if her ankle had healed, or if she had broken it and was now on crutches. Also, my roommate was still sleeping off his binge from the night before and my room stank, so I wanted to stay away from it as long as I could. She probably knew I was lying when I said I didn’t look. My eyes were drawn to the bare expanse of her skin like a moth drawn to the world’s biggest bonfire. As she started falling, my hands, of their own accord, reached for her. It was her voice that made me pull my eyes away from her damp glowing skin to her horrified face as she asked where her towel was. That sure snapped me out of it, and I let go of her. She probably wanted to take another shower after having me touch her. I gave her back the towel and helped pick up her shower things and put them back in the basket while she gathered up her clothes. Even with most of her covered, there was still way too much skin that I wanted to look at. Being so close to her made thinking and breathing difficult. With every gulp of air, a little bit of the perfume from her clean skin invaded my nose and imprinted itself on my brain. Jasmine. Coconut. Freshly melted snow.
  • 135. I didn’t even remember what was said, but I remembered walking back down the stairs to my room, trying to get her out of my head again. It was getting harder and harder, in more ways than one. By the time I got back downstairs, I had to head for the shower too. I turned the water on as cold as I could and threw myself back into shitty memories of Carter so I would stop thinking about how much I wanted her. Fuck. Once I’d gotten dressed, I sat on the stairs and tried to control the explosion that was going on in my brain. Maybe this was another part of my punishment from God or whoever. Putting this beautiful unattainable thing in front of me and then pulling it away. Fuck you Zan Parker; this is what you can’t have. Her brother would probably rip my eyeballs out and shove them down my throat if he knew. Something told me he wouldn’t find out. That she wouldn’t tell anyone. Not that she could keep a secret. She was so free with words, always saying what was on her mind, whether it was appropriate or not. I especially loved it when it wasn’t appropriate. She wasn’t like those girls who say things just to shock people. Charlotte said what was on her mind, without even considering if it should be said or not. We were opposites in that way. I held my words in, she let them spill out of her. Charlotte was so free about so many things. Except her body. Her body… God dammit, I had to stop thinking about it. Easier said than done. *** “Good weekend?” Stryker said when I walked into class on Monday. I’d spent my weekend trying to get the vomit smell out of my room as
  • 136. my roommate tried to avoid me and I tried to avoid thinking about Charlotte naked. I’d done a lot of running. Zack had also convinced me to go out with him, but I ended up sitting in a corner with a passed-out guy next to me. I’d only had one shot of tequila, and the burn felt so good that I wanted to grab the bottle and down the rest. I’d told Miss Carole I wasn’t going to drink, but it was just one shot. “One shot leads to two shots, which leads to trouble,” she’d say if she knew. I heard her voice in my head as the alcohol slid down my throat. At least it had been a week since my last slip up. There were a few girls that stopped by the party, and a few tried to talk to me, but after my one-word answers, they moved on to more talkative companions. I watched them go with a little regret. I hadn’t gotten laid in a while, and the need to lose myself in someone burned even hotter now that I’d seen Charlotte. Still, when I thought about losing myself in a body that wasn’t hers, my need cooled a bit. I shrugged in response to Stryker and he turned back around. Damn, I was bad at this. Other than my brother I hadn’t really had a lot of friends. Tate had sort of adopted me, “like a lost fucking puppy,” he’d said. He didn’t care if I talked or didn’t. He could hold the conversation for both of us. “You?” “Got this done,” he said, turning around again pointing to the new eyebrow ring I hadn’t noticed initially. “Hurt like a bitch. Even more than this.” He pointed to his lip. “You got any?” I shook my head. Piercing hadn’t been my thing, although I liked the look of his lip ring. “Just a tat.” “Nice. I’ve got a couple. I’m saving up to finish my arm piece.” He pulled his t-shirt sleeve up, showing me a bit of a half-finished tattoo. It
  • 137. looked like the lines of a musical staff, along with a treble clef and a few musical notes. There were words as well. “I’m getting my favorite song lyrics added. So I never forget them. What’s yours?” “A tree. Here,” I said, motioning to my chest and shoulder. “Why did you cover it up?” “Long story,” I said. That was my patented response whenever anyone asked me about it. That usually shut them up. “You should tell me sometime. I have a thing for long stories,” he said with a smile. I’d never gotten that reaction before. Quan started writing equations on the whiteboard, so I had an excuse to turn my attention away from Stryker. A moment later, he went back to drawing in his notebook. *** “Didn’t mean to be in your face about talking,” he said when class ended. “I just know what it’s like to have shit you carry around with you that you can’t tell anyone about.” “It’s fine. I have that ‘chip on my shoulder’ look.” So did he, come to think of it. “Yeah, I’ve perfected that look. Comes in handy, though. Cuts down on all the normal bullshit people throw at you.” True. In an unwritten agreement, we walked outside and I handed him my lighter without him having to ask for it. “How old are you?” I said. “Twenty-one.” “Don’t think I’m trying to be a douche or anything, but aren’t you a bit old for Math 101?” That make him chuckle as he blew out a puff of smoke. “I’m taking it for an easy grade. I only needed three more credits to graduate, so I took the easiest thing I could think of.”
  • 138. “What are you majoring in?” “Mechanical engineering and environmental science.” “Shit.” “Yeah. Wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I’m a fucking genius.” He smiled at the look on my face. “Well, not a genius, but I’m pretty smart, but like I told you, once people make up their mind about you, that’s it. Like Boo Radley.” “What?” “You know, Boo Radley, from ‘ To Kill A Mockingbird’?” He flicked some ash from the end of the cigarette. “Yeah, I do.” He handed my lighter back, and I pocketed it. He nodded in understanding. “Figured you did.” We stood there for a second longer. “You live on campus?” he said. “Yeah.” “I’ve got an apartment off campus, so anytime you wanna hang out or whatever, you’re welcome.” He gave me his number and we went out separate ways. Looked like I’d found another Boo Radley. Lottie Katie’s study habits lasted about a week. During that time, we’d gotten along really well. Her studying a lot spurred my own academic pursuits and I got ahead on all my homework and reading and got a 97 on my first test. It also helped me forget about the towel incident. It wouldn’t fit in the box with the rain incident. I was going to need to get a bigger Zan box for my mind. On Saturday night, I heard Katie stumble in after one a.m. and she was crying. She wasn’t being loud about it, but it was a tiny room, and I had seriously good hearing. Years of Will trying to sneak up on me had sharpened it to sniper precision.
  • 139. “Katie? You okay?” “Did I wake you?” She sniffed loudly. “No, I just… um, had to pee and I heard you.” Great story, now I was going to have to get up and pee so she didn’t think I was lying. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what she was apologizing for. “Are you seriously okay? Did something happen with Zack? Did something happen, or—” I had to shut my mouth or else I was going to start babbling again. “I’m fine.” She sniffed and I heard her grabbing a tissue from the fuzzy pink box on her desk. “We just… we had a fight. I thought this was going to be such a good night, and then it was stupid and I left.” I turned my lamp on to find Katie wiping her nose. She was a wreck. The pink shirt she’d ironed so carefully earlier was wrinkled, and her face was coated by streaks of mascara. “I just love him so much,” she said, wiping her nose and missing most of the grossness. “I know you do. You’ll work it out.” I couldn’t believe I was saying it, but I had to earn her trust, even if I had to lie through my teeth. Zack hadn’t done anything else but call me Hottie and leer at me. The second it went to more than that, it was on. I sat on her bed and patted her shoulder. Since she didn’t flinch, I leaned down and gave her a little hug. “It’ll be okay.” Two hours and one-and-a-half pints of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia later, we were watching a marathon of Law and Order. “The maid did it,” Katie said, shoving another spoonful in her mouth. I’d gotten her to the bathroom to wash her face, so she was looking marginally better. I really wanted to brush her hair out, but I thought offering to do that would seem a little creepy. “My money is on the nanny,” I said. “Bet?”
  • 140. “You’re on. Ten bucks?” “Deal.” She stuck out her hand and we shook. It was amazing how well she’d snapped out of her crying fit. I still hadn’t gotten the details out of her, but I wasn’t giving up. “I didn’t want to have sex,” she said out of the blue. I pulled my eyes away from the television to find her stabbing the bottom of the ice cream container with her spoon. “I don’t like having sex when I’m on my period and I said I didn’t want to. He kind of freaked out and we had this big fight. I just… I didn’t want to deal with it, so I left.” I turned to face her. “He’s done it before. I mean, he’s never forced me to, but sometimes I just don’t want to and the next thing I know my underwear is off and we’re doing it. I mean, I enjoy it and everything, but sometimes I just want to watch a movie or something. I’m making a big deal out of nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re not.” “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.” She swirled the now-melted ice cream with her spoon. “I love him, but sometimes he’s too much. You know?” “Maybe you should take a little break,” I said. What I wanted to say was that she should get out now. This was a gigantic red flag. I wanted to get up and wave my arms and tell her to run, run, run. “Are you sure you want to be with him? I know you love him, but convincing someone to have sex when they don’t want to isn’t how a relationship is supposed to work. He should respect your wishes, too.” “He loves me. I know he does. We just had a fight, that’s all. He’s been texting me like crazy, sending apologies. He wants to take me out to a fancy dinner to say he’s sorry.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Oh there were so many things I wanted to say. So. Many. Things. I nearly choked when I swallowed most of them. They cut my throat on
  • 141. the way down. “It’s up to you, but I really think you should think about it. You deserve someone who respects you.” “What do you know? You don’t even have a boyfriend.” Uh oh, she was getting defensive. It was time to pull back. “I’m just concerned about you.” She chucked the ice cream in the trash and didn’t answer, effectively ending the conversation. “Look, it was the maid,” I said, as the cops dragged her off in handcuffs as she screamed her innocence.
  • 142. Chapter Seventeen Zan A loud pounding on my door late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it, woke me. My roommate was absent again. I’d barely said anything to him since I’d taken care of his drunk ass. “Zan!” Based on the tone of his voice, it was my brother and he was drunk. Drunker than drunk, probably. That would be great, for him to get caught, so I got up and pulled him into the room. “She fucking left me, the bitch,” he slurred. “I wanted to fuck her and she fucking left me. Probably to go screw a bunch of guys. Stupid bitch.” I got him sitting on my bed and tried to evaluate just how drunk he was. “I fucking love her, man.” Yup, he was about as drunk as he could get, if he was to the crying stage. I got some tissues and wiped the snot from his face and handed him a bottle of water. “I fucking love her,” he cried, slobbering all over. “Yeah, I know.” At least he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone or destroy anything. He’d done that enough times. He had gone past the angry drunk stage to the emotional drunk stage. It was almost worse to deal with. Something had clearly happened with him and Katie. My mind drifted upstairs, wondering if Charlotte was doing the exact same thing at this moment with Katie. Maybe, maybe not. “I just wanted to have shex with her,” he blubbered, grabbing my shoulder. “I know, I know.” Throughout the night and after a few puking sessions, I got the story
  • 143. out of him. By the time he passed out around dawn, I was exhausted as well. I wished I could have gotten him back to his own room, but that wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t want to risk him getting caught by one of the RA’s that stepped up their hallway patrols on the weekends. “You’re such an asshole,” I said to my brother’s snoring body. “I hate you.” Lottie The next morning Katie was sacked out in a pile of used tissues, face still streaked with mascara. Had she ever heard of waterproof? I made a mental note to buy her some for Christmas. I crept out of the room and went down to talk with Simon and Will about the Zack and Katie situation. I hoped she wouldn’t wake up and start crying again, so I was trying to be quick. I was raising my hand to knock when the door on the left opened and a rumpled Zan emerged with a towel and a shower basket much like mine. At least he had a shirt and shorts on. “Oh,” I said. I couldn’t help it. He stared at me, as if he was waiting for my brain to wake up. “Would you tell your asshole brother that if he hurts my roommate that I will rip off his testicles, coat them in chocolate and then make him eat them?” His mouth twitched, as if he was choking back a laugh or a smile or both. “I’ll pass that along.” He stepped around me, taking me back to the last time I’d seen him, when I’d been naked. That thought pulled my blush trigger and my face flamed red. He cleared his throat, but didn’t move. “So yeah. Just tell him that.” I involuntarily crossed my arms. I could practically feel his blazing stare and I didn’t like it. “I will.” He said and I bobbed my head before he passed by me and
  • 144. went down the hall toward the showers. I had to take a breath before knocking on Will’s door. “Lottie my love!” Simon’s beaming face was just the ray of sunshine I needed. He pulled me into his arms. “You look tired. Up late reading again?” “Not exactly. Taking care of a heartbroken roommate. Do you mind if she comes to breakfast with us? I want to get her out and about.” “Of course not, the more the merrier. We don’t all have to wear pink, do we?” “No,” I said, flopping down on his bed. “Where’s my worser half?” “Shower.” At the mention of it, my face got red again, and Simon noticed. “What’s up with you?” “Nothing.” “You know, when people say ‘nothing’, that always means it’s something. If people would just say something other than nothing, people wouldn’t be as suspicious.” “Whatever.” “Spill, girlie.” He crashed down next to me and put his pouty face right in front of mine. I pretended to bite his nose and he kissed me on the cheek. Oh, there were a number of things I could tell him. About Zack coming up to me, about the rain incident, about Zan seeing my girlie parts (even though he said he didn’t look), about me threatening both of them, multiple times. That was quite a list. A list I wanted to keep to myself. Will interrupted Simon badgering, grumbling about how he’d bumped into Zan in the bathroom. “God, it wasn’t enough that his drunk roommate was yelling all night,” Will said, cleaning his ears out with his towel. “What?” I said.
  • 145. “The guy forgot his card, couldn’t get in and then started banging on the door until Zan let him in. And then he wouldn’t shut up all night.” “Why didn’t you get the RA?” I said. Simon shrugged. “If it was the end of the semester, sure, but we figured there were any number of ways to retaliate, so we decided to suck it up,” he said. “Did you hear Zan?” “Not really, but he doesn’t talk much so that doesn’t mean anything.” Huh. I couldn’t picture Zan taking care of a drunk roommate, but then I didn’t really know what he was capable of. “Come on, I gotta make sure my roommate isn’t crying herself into a puddle,” I said. *** I filled Trish in on the drama from the night before as we re-stocked the buttons. It took two of us to match up the right ones to make sure we got them in the right places. I’d already consumed three cups of double caffeine tea to help me stay awake, and it was Trish’s job to poke me if my eyes closed for too long. “Wouldn’t it be crazy if you ended up with one of them? What a story you’d have to tell your kids.” I gave her an icy look. “Don’t freak out on me, I was just saying that if your life were a Nicolas Sparks novel, you’d totally end up together, dying in the same bed while holding hands.” I slid another card of ivory buttons on the rack. “What?” she said. “I never pegged you for a Sparks fan.” “I wouldn’t say I’m a fan…” she trailed off and fiddled with the box of buttons.
  • 146. “Trish, is there something you need to get off your chest?” She glared at me before she rolled her eyes back and sighed. “Fine. I’m a Sparks fan. Happy?” I grinned and nodded. “But don’t tell anyone.” “Your secret is safe with me as long as you don’t tell anyone I read those books with the half-naked dudes and the swooning women on the cover.” “You do not.” Our souls gave another fist bump. I wanted to go over to Trish’s after work on Sunday, but I was still taking care of Katie. Her stupid friends had come over to commiserate, but all they’d done was make her feel even more like shit and piss me off in the process. I stole Will’s truck again and forced Katie to go shopping with me. Not that she needed anything else pink, but I figured retail therapy couldn’t hurt. “What do you think of these?” She held up some dangly earrings with, you guessed it, pink beads on the end. “Cute.” The only earrings I ever wore were studs. The dangly things were always brushing the side of my neck and freaking me out. “Do you mind if we stop at the bookstore?” I said. “What for?” I resisted the urge to say ‘unicorns and rainbows.’ “I just want to see if there’s anything new out.” “Yeah, sure.” She grabbed the earrings and added them to her basket. Katie insisted on taking me into Bath and Body Works before we went to the bookstore. I loved their stuff, but seriously, how much body lotion and those little bottles of anti-bacterial gel did one person need? “Try this,” she held out a bottle for me to smell. “That’s nice.” It had a soft floral scent that wasn’t overwhelming. “You should get it.” She handed it to me and found the matching shower gel and a bottle of perfume. “Every girl wants to smell pretty.”
  • 147. “Is this some sort of subtle way to tell me that I stink?” She laughed. “No, I just think you need a signature scent. Once you have that, we can work on your look.” “My look?” “Yeah.” “What’s wrong with it?” She gave me a sardonic look. Okay, so I was wearing jeans that were a little too big and a ratty Train t-shirt, but who cared? It was Sunday. Sunday was frumpy clothes day. “If you want a guy to notice you, you have to put at least a little effort in. You’ve been taking too many fashion tips from your brother.” It was true that Will and I used to swap clothes when I was younger. That was before he grew like a weed and dwarfed me. I could still wear some of his shirts, though. “Sweetie, you could have this total vintage thing if you wanted to.” I loved the vintage look, but it just seemed so out of my realm. I couldn’t wander around with Will and Simon in a pretty dress. It would just be weird. “We could get you some skirts and some cute tops and some pumps. You could do the whole 1940’s pinup girl thing. It’s really in right now.” “I don’t know. I don’t wear heels very often.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t walk in them, but they always seemed to give me blisters. Probably because I bought cheap-o ones from the discount stores. “You should. They’d make you taller.” No shit, Sherlock. She picked up a few more bottles and threw them in her basket before she continued. “Would you let me do a make-over?” “What?” She clasped her hands and pouted her lips. “A make-over. Please?” On the one hand, I didn’t think I needed to be made over. It wouldn’t last anyway. I’d go right back to my comfy t-shirts and jeans. On the
  • 148. other, maybe this would distract her from Zack. I’d do almost anything to make that happen. “Okay,” I said, heaving a sigh like it was a big inconvenience. “Really?” She nearly smashed over an entire display in her enthusiasm. “Oh my God, this is going to be awesome.” “Yeah,” I said, trying to be as enthusiastic. I had a flash of her turning into some sort of psycho makeover demon. “Okay, when we get back we need to go through and decide what look you’re going for. Then we can do a color palette and then we can start shopping.” Wow, that sounded like a lot of work. “Yay, I’m so excited!” She made the little squeal-y noise that Zack usually elicited. Katie’s enthusiasm was on hyperdrive for the rest of the day. I even convinced her to come to dinner with Will and Simon and me. Will flirted mercilessly with her, and she giggled a lot in return. Oy. Even Simon flirted with her. He was so good at it. “Your brother is cool,” she said as we walked to our door. There was someone standing in front of it. “Babe, where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you all day.” Zack had been waiting for us. I played with my keys until my little pepper spray container was in my hand and ready to use. “What are you doing here?” Katie said, not rushing immediately to him. I tried to take that as a good sign. “What was I supposed to do? You won’t call or text me back. I need to talk to you. Alone.” He directed the last word to me. “Zack.” Katie drew out his name. I wanted to tell her to stay strong and not cave to her hormones, but that would have been a losing battle. “Babe, come on. I want to make it up to you. We can go out. You can wear that gorgeous pink dress. I’ll open the door for you, we can dance.” He put what he thought was a sexy smile on his face, but it just made me sick. Zack Parker was a predator. I wanted to spray him in the face and
  • 149. then shove the bottle down his throat and watch him choke on it. “Can you give us a minute?” Katie said, biting her lip and not looking at me. “Yeah, sure.” I wasn’t going that far. “I’m going to go hang out with my brother. I’ll see you later.” I went down the hall as if I was going for the stairs, but I lurked around the corner. I could just barely hear them. “I’m so sorry, babe. I just… I just want you so much. You turn me on. You’re so fucking sexy. You’re turning me on right now. I just want to get you out of those clothes—” his voice got low and husky, and I could tell he was probably kissing her face, “and kiss you all over and touch you. Especially here…” I may or may not have heard a little moan from Katie. Shit. Shit fuck. “Let’s go back to my room. My roommate is gone,” he said. “I can’t.” “Why not?” “Because…” She couldn’t seem to think of a good reason. Probably because Zack was doing his thing. Why didn’t I have something loud to explode in the hallway? Or maybe I could set off the fire alarm. “What are you doing?” It was the second half of the Brothers of Doom. Of course. “Nothing,” I whispered. He moved closer behind me and I tried not to flinch. “Then why are you whispering?” “Can you just shut up for a second?” I’d missed something and now they were walking away. “Damn.” “Are you spying on someone?” He peered around the corner. I yanked him back before they could see him. I motioned him to come with me and I went down the hallway to the study lounge. “I was spying on your brother and my roommate. He’s working his magic on her right now and sucking her back into his vortex.”
  • 150. “His vortex?” “You know what I mean.” This was the longest civil conversation we’d ever had. He was also standing way too close to me. I took a step back. “You and I both know that your brother isn’t good for any girl. I blame him more than you for what happened.” He stared down at me from his height and the scrutiny felt invasive. “You do?” “If he wouldn’t have been so intent on getting in Lexie’s pants, he wouldn’t have wanted to get in the car, ergo, you wouldn’t have had to drive drunk, ergo, you wouldn’t have been driving. Or maybe you would have. I don’t really know anything about you, but I still blame him more. That doesn’t mean I don’t blame you too. Just less so.” He took my verbal word spew with barely a blink. “So what are you going to do about it?” “About Zack and Katie? Well, my master plan to distract her by letting her give me a makeover lasted about five seconds. I’ve also considered throwing my brother at her, but that’s not really fair to Will, although he’d probably be all for it. He’s trying to get over his girlfriend, even though he says that their break-up was mutual, it was totally more on her side, but I’ve been trying to set him up with my friend Audrey. Soooo…” I was able to cut it off there. I heard Zack and Katie walking and then the door to the stairs shut with a bang. They must be going downstairs to his room. Zan seemed oblivious. “She wanted to give you a makeover? Why do you need a makeover?” “Which room is he in?” I said, turning. “106.” I started to go for the stairs, but had a thought that halted me for a second. “What were you doing up here?” He took his hands out of his pockets. “I don’t know.”
  • 151. “I thought I told you to stay away from me.” “You did.”
  • 152. Chapter Eighteen Zan “So why were you up here?” She wasn’t going to let me get off that easy. “Would you believe me if I said I was lost?” She blinked for a second. Charlotte always blinked a lot when she was confused. “No,” she said, turning for the stairs. “I’m going down to see my brother.” She also spoke more slowly than normal when she was lying. I followed her as she walked toward the stairs. “No you’re not. You’re going to check my brother’s room to see what they’re doing.” “Smart, you are,” she mumbled under her breath, thinking I couldn’t hear. I almost burst out laughing. That hadn’t happened to me in a long time. “What?” I said, hoping she’d repeat it. There was nothing cuter than a girl quoting Star Wars. Well, there was nothing cuter than Charlotte quoting Star Wars. “Nothing,” she said, pushing the door to the stairs open. Against my will (yeah, right), my eyes drifted from her head and down her spine and right to her butt. I tore them away and focused on her back. I hadn’t really gotten to see much of it, but I was sure it was as pretty as her front. “You’re following me again.” “Maybe I’m still lost.” I couldn’t see if that made her have to hide a smile or not. We walked a few more steps before she spoke again. “Now are you talking actually lost, or lost in the existential sense?” I could hear the smirk in her voice. That was a first. “Can I be both?”
  • 153. “Sure, why not?” We got to the bottom of the stairs, and I wanted to open the door for her, but something told me that would be too much. I was taking this one step at a time. She peered around the corner and dived back, then did it again. I had to bite back another laugh. “Is this how you play it cool? You’d be a terrible bank robber,” I said as she took one slow step into the hallway. If she just acted normally, no one would give her a second thought. By trying to act like she wasn’t up to something, she was sending out a flashing signal that she definitely was up to something. “And you’re still picturing me naked.” Well, that was both true and an effective means of shutting me up. When we got to the door, she put one ear on it. I stood behind her, trying not to be too much of a creeper as I also pressed my ear to the door and tried not lean in and smell her hair. Jasmine and coconut again. I didn’t know what kind of conditioner she used, but I was pretty much getting high off it. It sounded like they were just talking. I waited for a few more seconds to be sure, but so far, it sounded okay. Katie giggled, so that was a good sign. Charlotte turned and put her other ear on the door, as if it was going to hear something different. We were face to face. If I wasn’t afraid of her biting my finger off, I could have reached out and pushed the hair back from her face. After a few more seconds of her listening and me putting my hands in my back pockets so I wouldn’t touch her, she moved slowly away from the door. She put her finger to her lips as if to shush me while we backed away and went back to the stairs. “I’ll keep an eye on them,” I said as we walked back up the stairwell. I had an even better view of her butt this time. What was she doing to me?
  • 154. She stopped walking, so I almost crashed into her. I was able to catch myself on the handrail at the last moment. Turning slowly, she bit her lip as if she was undecided about something. Charlotte was never undecided about saying anything. “I’m scared he’s going to hurt her,” she whispered, not meeting my eyes. I moved up one step, so I was looking down at her. I silently begged her to look at me. She finally did. “I know,” I said. “I’ll do what I can.” “Like last time?” The words cracked like a whip. I deserved that. “No, not like last time.” I hoped she wouldn’t ask me to promise. “You promise?” Of course she would. “I do,” I heard myself say. Why was I promising this? “Pinky swear.” She shoved her pinky in my face. “Pinky swear,” I said, linking my pinkie with hers. It was the first she’d voluntarily let me touch her skin. It was only for a second, because I let go quickly. I didn’t want to make any sudden movements. “Thanks,” she said before dashing up the stairs. I did it. I had a semi-normal conversation with her and she didn’t threaten to hurt me, or tell me to go away. It made me grin like a fucking idiot. That made me want to punch myself in the face for being such a moron. After she left, I hung around Zack’s door, just in case. All I heard were normal couple sounds. Once those picked up in intensity, I was out of there. I’d heard my brother having sex more times than I could count, and I didn’t want to add one more to the list. Periodically, I went down to check outside Zack’s door. The carnality continued nearly all day, and he didn’t seem to be the only one enjoying it. Stryker texted me asking if I wanted to hang out, and I took him up on it after Zack said he was taking Katie out for an apology dinner. He
  • 155. didn’t say that was what it was, but I knew. He didn’t say anything about the night before when I’d taken care of him, and I didn’t give him any details. It was better to just let it go and move on. Stryker lived so close that I just ran to his place. It was your typical apartment, occupying one floor of a three story house that had probably not been an apartment originally, but had been converted sometime in the 1980s. “Come on in.” The rooms were cramped, but neat and crammed with books and musical instruments and the walls were papered with his drawings. He had some music playing that I didn’t recognize. “What is this?” I pointed to his massive speakers. “Random Canadian band. I like underground stuff that has less than a thousand fans. You want something to drink?” “Yeah, water is fine.” I perused his books and found we had quite a few in common as he filled a glass with water. “Smoke?” “Nah, I’m trying to stay sober. Did too much of that shit.” “Yeah, I hear you. Just thought I’d offer. You play?” He caught me eyeing the drum set crammed into the corner next to the futon. “Not really. I wasn’t born with much of a musical gift. You play?” “Yeah.” “You play anything else?” My eyes swept the room and found and orchestra’s worth of instruments. Stand-up bass, guitar, drums, keyboard and a few cases that probably had other things in them. “I told you I was a fucking genius. I’m also a musical prodigy.” He went to one of the cases and pulled out what turned out to be a banjo. “Got this from my grandfather. That’s him,” he said, pointing to a black and white photograph of a man sitting in a helicopter in camo, nestled in between the drawings on his wall.
  • 156. He slid some picks on his fingers and started playing. It wasn’t until he started singing that I recognized it was Woody Guthrie. Gramps had liked him, and I had a record in my collection, but I hadn’t listened to much of it. Stryker tapped his foot in time to the song, and I tapped mine as well. I should have had some spoons and I could have played with him. Gramps had taught me how to play spoons when I was a kid so I could play along with his records and when he sang. “Does this knock me down two spots on the badass scale?” Stryker said when he was done. “Only if you start wearing overalls and a straw hat.” “Good.” He picked at the banjo strings. “You wanna learn?” “Seriously?” He shrugged. “Why not?” Ten minutes later, I could play three chords. “Not bad. You’re doing as well as my five-year-old cousin after half an hour.” “Thanks.” An hour later, I could play a very basic song. Stryker’s door banged open just as I was about to start the song again. “Hey, can I borrow your car? Mine crapped out again.” The girl that stomped in didn’t even glance at me. Reading quickly between the lines, given her brilliant orange hair, similar mouth, and similar wardrobe, this must be Stryker’s sister. “Sure,” he pulled his keys out of his pocket and threw them at her. “Hey,” she said eyeing me and the banjo. “Zan, this is my sister Trish. Trish, Zan.” “Nice to meet you,” I said as she fiddled with the keys. “Wait, did you say Zan? As in Zan Parker?” “Yeah,” I said.
  • 157. I was infamous. It had only taken a few weeks. “Seriously?” she said, looking from me to Stryker and back in disbelief. “What is your problem?” Stryker said, standing up. “You don’t even live here.” I’d been down this road plenty of times before. It was time to run again. “It’s fine. I’ll see you later.” I took off the banjo and set it back in the case. “No, you don’t have to leave. I’m sorry my sister is being a psycho, but that’s sort of her thing.” “This time I have justification,” Trish said. With each word, she moved closer to Stryker. “Not when you come into my house and make my friends feel uncomfortable.” My ear caught on the word friend. “It does when you’re friends with people like that,” she said. “People like what?” They were in each other’s faces and I was almost forgotten. I tried to slide toward the door, but Stryker caught me. “People like me. People who cause car accidents when they shouldn’t be driving that end up hurting people,” I said. “Isn’t that what you mean?” They both gave me the same semi-stunned expression. “You could say that,” Trish said. “How did you find out?” I asked her. She flipped her hair back. “I work with Lottie.” “Hold up. I feel like everyone knows something I don’t,” Stryker said. “I’m sure she gave you the full story, so you can tell him for me. I’ll see you in class,” I said, and before he could say anything else, I pulled open the door and started running down the stairs. I didn’t stop until I collapsed. The only sound over my heart and my
  • 158. breathing was the sound of my phone. I pulled it out of my pocket and saw a bunch of missed calls and texts from Stryker, and a message from Tate. I hit Reply and sent Tate back a message telling him to come down if he wanted. Screw it. I was going to fall off the wagon. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I’d let go for one day, and then I’d be back to trying to be what Miss Carole wanted me to be. I just had to let go for one day. Just one day. I could handle one day of my old life. But first I had to check on my brother and make sure he hadn’t done anything else to Katie. I was sweating and still exhausted from my run when I knocked on Charlotte’s door. She didn’t hesitate before opening it. “Hi,” she said. Her hair was twisted into a casual ponytail and her baggy shirt hung off one shoulder. “Is everything okay?” “Yeah. I’ve had my eye on them. They’re out for a ‘sorry I screwed up’ dinner right now.” She smiled, just a little bit. “I know. Katie texted me.” I pulled my sweaty hair out of my eyes so I could see her better. “Running again?” I glanced down to find my pants covered in stains. I always ended up covered in dirt when I went running. I nodded. It seemed like a good time for me to leave, so I started to walk away. “Thank you. For looking out for her.” I looked over my shoulder at her as she leaned in the doorway. “You’re welcome, Charlotte.” Lottie Katie came back that night with a smile on her face. An I-got-laid smile. It made me feel sick.
  • 159. “Everything okay?” I said, pretending I was the super supportive roommate who didn’t want to bash her boyfriend’s face in. It was a little bit easier now that I knew Zan was also on the look-out. “Yeah. We made up. He was so sweet. Look.” She showed me a silver necklace with a little lopsided heart. One of those generic things that you could get in nearly any jewelry store. “Wow, pretty.” Yes, because the shiny thing made up for him forcing her to have sex when she didn’t want to. “He said he’s going to be more understanding.” “I hope you hold him to it.” She didn’t answer and just kept staring at the necklace. “Seriously, Katie. I just don’t want you to get yourself into a bad situation.” “I’m fine.” I wanted so, so much to believe her. “Do you want to go to the library with me?” “Yeah, sure,” she said, staring down at the necklace. It nestled perfectly between her boobs, something I’m sure Zack had planned on. She was distracted the entire time we were at the library, too busy texting or doing whatever on her phone to pay attention to her textbook. I also caught her fingering the necklace more than once. About an hour into her study time, Brittney showed up and dragged her over to a corner where she could squeal about the necklace. Granted, I definitely had done the squealy-happy dance before, but for some reason, this one left a sour taste in my stomach. Katie came back and packed up her stuff. “We’re going to the movies to see that new Nicholas Sparks. You want to come?” “I should really get this done. I’m like, way behind.” I pointed to my book. “I wish I could.” Seriously, I did. Although, Trish would probably see it with me if I asked her. “Okay, then. I’ll… um… see you later?” It sounded like a question.
  • 160. Of course I’d see her later. We lived in the same room. “Yeah.” She gave me an almost sad smile before she left. For the first time, I felt sad for her. The Zan Parker box rattled open after Katie left. I’d put duct tape on it, but I couldn’t keep it closed any longer. We’d had two semi-normal interactions. For the first time, I didn’t want to rip his head off and spit down his throat. And, I would dance naked in the football stadium before I admitted it, but he’d almost been funny. He probably thought I was a freak for the whole pinky swear thing, but he’d been the creepy guy who’d given me tea with a poem on the cup, so maybe we had weirdness in common. Oh, hell no. I had nothing in common with Zan Parker. Nothing. “Hey, long time no see.” Simon’s voice made me almost pierce my tongue with my teeth. He laughed and sunk into Katie’s chair, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Whoa, calm down. Just your gay friend, not a serial killer.” “How do I know you’re not a serial killer?” “Because I actually have social skills.” “I’m sure there are plenty of charismatic serial killers.” None came to mind, but if he gave me a moment, I was sure I’d come up with one. He grinned. “Not as charismatic as I am.” I shook my head, fighting a smile. “I miss you,” I said. “I know, I miss you. I’ve been so busy with everything, not to mention, um, there’s this guy…” he trailed off and sighed a very un- Simon dreamy sigh. “Oh, really? And when do I get to meet this fellow and make sure
  • 161. he’s up to your standards?” “Soon. We’re not really a definite thing yet. Boys are complicated.” Now it was my turn to sigh. “Tell me about it.” “How’s the Brothers of Doom sitch?” I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Confusing.” “How so? No ducklings?” “It’s… Nothing. It’s fine.” Wow, I was actually able to reel the words back in before I blurted them out. Maybe I was making progress. “No way, you do not get to dangle a piece of something delicious like that in front of me and then snatch it back.” “You’re going to think I’m a freak.” “Lot, I went to one of those religious camps where they try to pray away the gay. I can handle it, I swear.” So I launched into telling him about the bizarre encounter with Zan, leaving out as many details as I could, including the pinky swearing. He listened without comment until I was done. “You don’t have to be ashamed of being nice to him. Maybe you’ll turn into one of those people who’s able to forgive.” “You don’t just turn into one of those people, Simon. You either are one, or you aren’t. I’m just not. It’s enough that I told him I don’t blame him as much as Zack, but he was still part of it.” “People can change.” I closed my book. “How long have you known you were gay?” “Since I saw Fabio on the cover of one of the romance novels my mother hid in her underwear drawer, why?” “You haven’t ever changed your mind?” He narrowed his eyes. “I know what you’re getting at, and these are two different things. Think about it: What if Will had caused the accident? What if he had been drunk and driving?” “It didn’t happen that way.” I knew what he was getting at, and I
  • 162. didn’t like it. “Hypothetically.” “You know my answer. The difference is that I love Will. He’s my brother. He could do anything, and I would still love him.” Simon paused before he said, “What if you loved Zan?” I snorted. That was never going to effing happen. “Just saying,” he said, getting up. “Come on, I’ll buy you one of those tea drink things and we can go watch whatever sappy movie you want.” “Can’t. I have homework.” He glared at me, and I gave in a bit. “But you could buy me some tea anyway.” Simon bought me tea and he filled me in on the latest doings of the millions of clubs he was in. It gave me a chance to focus on something else. Something outside my head. I went back to my homework, but I didn’t get very far. I called it a night around eleven and went right to bed. Katie slunk back in around midnight and I pretended to be asleep. Simon’s ‘hypothetical’ question kept me up half the night. After several hours, I decided that imagining Will had been the one driving got me nowhere. He hadn’t been driving. End of story.
  • 163. Chapter Nineteen Zan “So this is it, huh?” Tate took a drag off his cigarette and stared up at my dorm. He’d managed to get his car project, a 1973 Camaro, to run well enough to drive it down. I nodded and leaned down on his car. I was skipping all my Monday classes to hang with him. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. No safety joint. No one tequila shot. All the way. Back to my comfort zone. “You been to any good parties?” he said, tossing the cigarette into the grass. “Not really.” “Then what have you been doing? Studying your books like some smart kid?” He glared at a few guys who gave his car the once over. “I’ve been running a lot.” “Don’t tell me now you’re going to turn into one of those granola freaks?” “No worries. Hey, you wanna get out of here?” I didn’t want to invite Tate into my room. “Sure, let’s roll.” Tate had brought a bunch of weed and a few pills with him. I stuck to the weed, even though he threw a bag of pills at me. “For later.” I shoved them in my pocket. I could always flush them after he left. “What’s up with you man? I thought you died or something.” We were parked in a little gully on the side of a bridge overlooking the river, both sitting on the hood of the car and passing a joint back and
  • 164. forth. “Just been busy.” He turned his head and grinned at me. “Right, busy. What’s her name?” “What?” “The only time a guy bails on his friends is for a girl. She hot?” “It’s complicated.” I saw him nodding out of the corner of my eye. “So she’s not hot.” I couldn’t tell Tate that Charlotte wasn’t just hot. She was certainly that, but she was also beautiful and sweet and funny and adorable. She made me want to do stupid shit like quote Rumi in the moonlight and buy her sparkly things for her ears. She made me want to grab her and kiss her and run my fingers through her hair and promise to bring her the moon. “Dude, you’re spacing out,” Tate said. “Sorry.” “Damn, you are so whipped.” He laughed and blew some smoke in my face. “You fucked her yet?” “No.” The last thing I wanted to do was fuck Charlotte. I wanted to have sex with her, but not just fuck her once and have that be it. Once wouldn’t come even close to being enough with her. “What are you waiting for?” “I told you, it’s complicated. She isn’t that kind of girl.” “Calling it complicated just means that you’re too much of a pussy to make a move. The Parker I know would never let a chick run his life.” I watched a cloud slide across the sky, changing and reforming. “Maybe I’m not that guy anymore.” “Whatever. I think all this reading and shit has made you into a moron.” He tossed the remains of the joint in the river. “Just quote her that poetry you started reading. Girls love that crap.” I tossed in my unfinished joint as well.
  • 165. “So what are we doing tonight? I didn’t bail on work just to come down here and mope with you about a girl.” “I don’t know.” “Guess we’ll just have to find something.” Tate grinned in a way that made me think twice about the decision to invite him up. But only for a moment. Not long enough for me to say no when he told me to get in the car. Lottie A bang against my door woke me from a half sleep. The room was just starting to lighten, and Katie was dead to the world, snoring with her arms and legs thrown out everywhere. The bang sounded again, so I got up and looked out the peephole. There was some guy I didn’t know standing, or rather leaning, and a very messed-up looking Zan Parker leaning on his shoulder. What. The. Fuck. “Open up. Parker wants to sleep with you.” Great. The guy I didn’t know was clearly bombed out of his mind. How they’d even gotten up here was a mystery. I had to open the door so they wouldn’t wake up the entire hallway. “He lied. You’re totally hot,” the strange guy slurred. Zan was totally silent. He may have been passed out. “Look, I don’t know who you are, or why you’re in front of my door in the middle of the night, or what you’re on, but you can go now.” “Whatever, bitch,” he said, shoving Zan from his shoulder. He dropped like a stone before I could catch him. Not that I would have been able to hold his weight anyway. “I’m outta here. You college kids are all too uptight.” He stumbled toward the elevator and was gone. There I was, with a fucked-up Zan Parker at my feet. “Charlotte?” His eyes opened and he squinted up at me. He really
  • 166. needed a haircut. “Why the hell didn’t you go to your own room?” “Couldn’t remember the number.” He closed his eyes again. “But you remembered mine.” “Yup.” I stared down at him, wishing I could just be a heartless bitch and shut my door and leave him there. Or drag him to the elevator, push him in and watch the doors close. “Shit fuck.” I grabbed his arm and tried to get him to his feet. “You wanna give me a little help here?” “Trying.” He got his long legs under himself and with my help, we got him to a standing position. “Now what?” he said. Yeah, my thoughts exactly. “Can you walk?” I didn’t want to wake Katie up. Partly because I didn’t want to be a bad roommate and partly because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was doing. Slowly I got Zan to move his feet forward and got him to the elevator. My plan was to get him back to his room so he could sleep it off. I just hoped we didn’t get caught. I probably wouldn’t get in trouble, but I didn’t want anyone, even an RA, to know about this random act of kindness. If that was what this was. I got him in the elevator and leaned him against the wall so I could have a break. If he wasn’t so freaking tall, it would have been a lot easier. I yawned and Zan rolled his head so he could squint at me again. “Charlotte.” “What?” “I’m sorry.”
  • 167. “I’m not sure which of the thousand things you’ve done wrong you’re sorry for now and I doubt you know either, in this state.” The elevator opened on his floor and I got his arm over my shoulder again as we struggled our way to his door. “Where’s your card?” I said. He opened his eyes for only a second. “What?” I shoved him against the door and started the lovely task of searching his pockets. Of course he couldn’t be the kind of person who wore their card on a lanyard. I didn’t either, but I always kept my card in my back left pocket. He watched me while I searched, finding it in his back pocket. I tried really hard not to think about where my hands were going, and that only a little bit of fabric separated my hand from his skin and other things. I moved him to lean against the wall and slid the key card into the door before opening it as slowly as I could. There was enough light from the hallway to see that his roommate’s bed was empty and I breathed a sigh of relief as I turned the light on. One side of the room was a disaster. Clothes and cans and random crap everywhere. The other side was orderly and sparse. I figured that was the Zan side. I got him in and sort of shoved so he fell onto the bed, banging his head on the wall. “Ow,” he moaned. “Shut up,” I hissed. My brother and Simon were on the other side of that wall, and they were the absolute last people I wanted to find out about this little adventure. “‘We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” he muttered, opening and closing his eyes. “‘We are tasting the taste this minute of eternity.’” I swung his feet up on the bed and started yanking his shoes off. “‘We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.’” How the hell he was with it enough to quote poetry but barely able to
  • 168. walk, was beyond me. “Charlotte?” “What?” I finally jimmied his shoes off and chucked them on the floor. I guessed it didn’t matter if he slept in his clothes, because I sure as hell wasn’t undressing him. “I’m sorry.” “You don’t know what you’re saying.” He tried to sit up, but I shoved him back down. “Just shut up and stay here. I’m going to get you some water.” He nodded and stayed put. I peered out into the hallway and dashed as fast as I could to the bathroom and back with a glass I’d found on his desk. I didn’t really care if it was dirty or not. He wouldn’t know the difference. Zan was on his side when I came back. “Here,” I said, shoving the water at him. He took it, but his hand was wobbly, so I held it for him as he sipped. There, I’d done something good for my karma. That was it, I was done. “Charlotte?” “WHAT?!” I snapped before I realized how loud my voice was. Shit. I clapped my hand over my mouth, as if I’d screamed a curse word in church. “I’m Boo Radley.” “You’re what?” He sort of slurred it, so I wasn’t absolutely sure that was what he said. What did Boo Radley have to do with anything? “I’m Boo Radley.” His eyes closed and he went limp on the bed. “Aw, shit. Zan, Zan!” I tapped his face and his eyes fluttered open before closing again. Good, he’d just passed out. I put the glass back on his desk and stared at him for a minute. If I was being completely objective, and I was only doing so because I was tired, I would say that he was good-looking.
  • 169. The dark hair, the eyes, his height. Good body, too. If I was a different kind of girl, I might have pulled his shirt up just to see what was under there, stomach-wise. I wasn’t that kind of girl. Zan twitched in his sleep, his face creasing as if he was concerned about something. He breathed deeply and his face relaxed again. Okay, so he was good-looking. Handsome, even. In kind of an old- fashioned Mr. Darcy kind of way. I shook my head to snap myself out of the little hallucination I’d just indulged in. I was clearly suffering from sleep loss. I took one last glance around the room. He had lots of photographs pinned (against dorm policy) to the wall. All of them were in black and white, but I didn’t gaze long enough to see details. I wondered if he’d taken them. I twitched the curtain aside and saw that the sun would be up soon. I had to sneak back to bed before anyone saw me. “This never happened,” I said to Zan. “Got it?” I was met by the sound of his quiet breathing. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
  • 170. Chapter Twenty Zan Someone had apparently been hacking into my brain with a chainsaw as I’d slept. Or at least that was what it felt like when I woke up the next morning. Correction, it was the next afternoon when I glanced at the clock on my desk. Fuck. I looked down and found I was still in my clothes from yesterday, but someone had removed my shoes. I had a fuzzy memory from the night before, but I must have imagined it. There was a half-full glass of water on my desk that I grabbed and chugged, if only to get the nasty taste out of my mouth. I had no idea what happened to Tate. The last thing I could remember clearly was the two of us crashing a party at the local apartment complex and drinking a lot and him snorting some of the pills. I couldn’t remember snorting any, but that didn’t mean anything. I pulled my shirt off and found some bruises on my arms and torso from who knew what. I got myself into a sitting position and called Tate. It went straight to voicemail, so I left him a message. I seriously had to pee, so I swung my sock-clad feet onto the floor and stood up. Bad idea. It took me two more tries before I could get up. My foot slipped on something, and it took me about an hour to lean over to pick it up. A key card, but it wasn’t mine. It was Charlotte’s. I read her name and stared at her smiling face for a few seconds
  • 171. longer just to be sure. Her gorgeous face grinned at me from the plastic card. I searched the room for any other evidence of her. I didn’t remember how or why she’d been in my room, but she’d been in my room. I was still alive, so she hadn’t had nefarious motives. Reaching back into the static that my brain had made of last night, I pulled a few moments forward. I told Tate where her room was after he’d begged me. He’d wanted to see if she was hot, and in my state I was determined to prove she was. Her voice echoed through the fuzz, but I couldn’t remember what she said, or what I said back, if anything. My head started pounding again, so I went to find some aspirin, all the while flipping Charlotte’s card over in my hand. She was going to need this back. I had two options. Be a gentleman and bring it to her, or wait for her to come to me. Both options had pros and cons. Being a gentleman won out. First though, I needed to make sure I was sobered up. I couldn’t face her like this. Again. It took another hour and a half, a long-ass shower and three more glasses of water before I was able to think about going up to her room and facing her. I didn’t know her schedule, and there was a chance she wouldn’t even be there, but I walked up the steps anyway and slowly made my way to her door, checking to see if there was any light under it, or any sounds. It reminded me of when we’d listened at Zack’s door. I heard movement in the room, so I took my chances and knocked. Footsteps sounded as whoever it was walked to the door to look through the peephole. I crossed my fingers and prayed it wasn’t Katie. I didn’t think I could deal with her in this condition. The door swung open and I met Charlotte’s lovely blue eyes. They
  • 172. were puffy and had dark smudges under them, which made me feel even more like shit. “What do you want, Zan?” Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d been yelling. For all I remembered, she’d been screaming at me. I liked the sound of my name coming from her mouth. “I came to return this.” Her eyes went wide as I held up her keycard. “Where did you get that?” “You left it on my floor when you poured my drunk and stoned ass in bed last night. Or this morning.” She opened and closed her mouth a few times before snatching it from my hand and shoving it in her back pocket and then mumbled something about a lanyard. “Thank you. For whatever you did last night. I sort of remember showing up at your door, but the rest isn’t all that clear.” She looked up. “You don’t remember anything?” “Not really.” “Well, I’m not going to give you a recap, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to pretend last night didn’t happen.” “Why?” She took a deep breath, as if she was preparing to jump off a diving board into the deep end of the pool. “Because I don’t like the fact that I did something nice for you. I hate you, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’d like to keep imagining you being maimed and crushed and destroyed in very painful ways. Being nice to you feels like betraying Lexie, and that is the last thing I will ever do. I know you did a nice thing by looking after Katie, but it doesn’t erase everything else. Please, just leave me alone.” “I’m sorry.” “You say that a lot.”
  • 173. “I seem to have a lot to be sorry for.” “Can you just go?” Her voice shook a little, and I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her cry, so I turned around. “You mentioned Boo Radley,” she said as I walked toward the stairs. I faced her again. “Boo Radley?” She looked down at her card, turning it over in her hand. “Yeah. And some poem about mirrors.” “Huh.” A glimmer of a smile crossed her face, but was gone as quick as a blink. “Thank you again,” I said. She nodded and closed the door. Tate didn’t message me back until late that night, and he didn’t have any more insight into what we had done than I did. I didn’t tell him about Charlotte rescuing me. That was something I was going to keep to myself, and not just because Charlotte asked me to. My day of indulging in my old life might not have been such a bad idea after all, except for Miss Carole. The next time I talked to her she was going to find out about this. She always did, somehow. She always told me it was because she raised two boys and had eyes and ears everywhere. Sometimes, I believed her. After I’d gotten myself detoxed from whatever I’d consumed, I checked on Zack via text message. He sent one back saying he had class and then was going to the gym. Zack tended to keep it together better when he was working out. It gave him focus. Gave him somewhere to put his restless energy. Better working out than mindless sex with Katie or anyone else. I also had a lot of messages from Stryker. His sister must have told him about everything, or at least Charlotte’s version of things. He said that he didn’t care, that he wanted to hear my side, that he didn’t judge
  • 174. people. I wanted to believe him, but I’d heard it before. The only reason Tate and I were friends was because he didn’t give a shit about anything, least of all something like that. Maybe Charlotte’s moment of kindness or whatever it was had rubbed off on me, because I messaged him back, asking if I could come over and explain. He said he had to work, but I could drop by at nine. I spent the time waiting to go see Stryker doing the homework I should have done the night before when I went out with Tate. I emailed my professors and gave my excuses. Most of my classes were so large that my teachers wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground, but still. I wasn’t taking any chances. The hours went by slowly as I ploughed through my work. I had to keep filling Charlotte thought balloons again so I could focus and wondering if this meant that she didn’t hate me as much as she said she did. Normally you didn’t bring people you hated back to their rooms and put them in bed. She should have called Campus Security and had me hauled in. I would have been out of her life as quick as you could say ‘juvenile delinquent’. But she hadn’t. Lottie Boo Radley. What the hell did Boo Radley have to do with anything? I’d been turning that over in my mind the entire day. “What is up with you, Lot?” Will said when I didn’t answer him at dinner. “You’re being weird again.” “Nothing. I just have a test I’m freaking out about.” “The only time you speak in less than one sentence is when you’re trying to deflect. I’m your twin. I don’t need my twindar to tell me that.” “Nosey, you are.”
  • 175. “Hiding something, you are.” I decided to go with something that was bothering me, but wasn’t the biggest thing that was bothering me. Will turned away from his new crew, Nick, JT, Brad and Seth (who were busy discussing what the Boston Red Sox’ chances were of making the World Series the next year) and focused on me. I couldn’t hide from the eyes that I knew better than my own. Zan had said something about mirrors. Will was mine. “I’m worried about Katie. I just have this vision in my head of her getting into a bad situation with Zack. Something even worse than Lexie.” “Lot, you gotta stop worrying about other people. Katie is an adult, she can make her own decisions.” “But—” “Lottie. You can’t save the world.” “I’m not trying to save the world. Just my roommate from getting hurt. Thanks so much for your concern.” “Aw, you know I don’t mean it like that.” I knew he didn’t. If there was anyone who would stick up for another person, it was Will. He’d done it over and over with Simon after he came out. If he wasn’t so well-liked by the entire high school (including the administration), he might not have gotten away with getting into so many altercations. “I just wish I could put one of those trackers like they use for pedophiles on him,” I said. “Have you talked to Katie?” I shook my head. “She won’t listen to me. She went right back to him after he gave her an ‘I’m sorry I screwed up’ necklace.” “That worked? Hmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Do you think that would be super creepy to get for Audrey?” I grabbed onto the topic change like a drowning person to a life raft. That was another thing I’d yet to deal with. The awkward Will/Audrey situation. She hadn’t mentioned it, and I had kept my mouth
  • 176. uncharacteristically shut about it. *** “So I wanted to officially apologize for the whole Will thing. I didn’t mean to throw him at you like that,” I said during our study date that night. “It’s okay.” “No, it’s really not. Okay, so, I was talking about you and he just really wanted to meet you. That sounds creepy, but it’s really not. The lunch was weird, but only because Will was kind of being an idiot. He can be really charming, but –“ “Lottie.” She raised one eyebrow. I always wished I could do that. “Yes.” “It’s okay. I didn’t think you were throwing him at me. I should have been honest with you before. I just got out of a really serious relationship, and I’m still having a hard time with it.” “I’m so sorry.” “It’s not your fault. It’s his, actually. We were engaged until one night he left his phone at my house and I saw all the sexts from his ex- girlfriend.” “Wow. What a douche.” “Yeah, he was. I can’t believe it took me so long to realize it. There were so many red flags,” she sighed and mimed shooting herself in the head. “Yeah, I’m quite familiar with those. My roommate is head over heels for Brother of Doom numero uno.” I’d told Audrey a little about Zack and Zan. “Yeah, that’s what you said. I feel bad for her, honestly. You know he’s only going to hurt her.” “I’m just scared he’s going to really hurt her. This guy isn’t just a jerk. He sets my women’s intuition into overdrive.”
  • 177. “Maybe she’ll come to her senses?” We looked at each other. “Probably not,” we said at the same time. “Why? Why do girls do these things?” “Because boys know how to push all the right buttons. They say the right things and make us feel special, and then they touch you and it’s like you think you’re going to die from how good it feels. And it does feel good, for a while. “But then reality sets in and you realize that the boy who made you feel so good doesn’t anymore. There are things about him that you don’t like, and not just things like the fact that he snores, or won’t cut his toenails. You realize that he’s not the guy you thought he was. That’s the hardest part. Giving up the dream you made for yourself of this perfect guy.” I’d never been through anything like that. Sure, I’d cried when Clark and I broke up, but our relationship went back to a weird sort of friendship after a week or so. “My ex was scared to kiss me,” I said. “What?” “It was like he was afraid someone was going to jump out and yell at him or something. I mean, we’d be at my house alone and I’d try to kiss him and he’d get mad.” “How long were you with him?” “Eight months. We were friends all through high school and everyone was always telling us to date, so we did.” “Why did you stay with him for so long?” “It wasn’t bad. I liked kissing him, when he would give in, and we had fun on dates. It was like we were still friends, except we went to prom and held hands every now and then.” “So I’m guessing if he was freaked to kiss you, it never went further than that.” “You could say that.”
  • 178. “Was he your only boyfriend?” I hesitated. Oh, what the hell. “Yeah.” “Well, there are plenty of options here.” Two walked by and gave Audrey the once over. Their eyes just skimmed over me. “So enough about exes, do you want to come with us to the football game next Saturday? There’s a group going, so it wouldn’t be awkward,” I said. It was part of my master plan to get Will and Audrey together. What better place than an all-American football game? “I don’t know. I have a lot of studying to do.” I thought I was bad, but when Audrey got on a study kick, the girl didn’t stop for hours. She had “overachiever” written on her forehead. I couldn’t imagine a boy who would cheat on someone like Audrey. She made every Victoria’s Secret model look like a hag. Boys sure knew how to fuck up a good thing.
  • 179. Chapter Twenty-one Zan “Did you do it?” Stryker said, sitting back on his couch and sipping a cup of coffee. I didn’t like it all that much, but I was still recovering from the night before, so I had some as well. It was nice to have something to hold onto. “Cause the accident? Yeah, I did.” “Shit. I thought my sister had gone mental.” I took a sip of the hot liquid. It was a bit like drinking tar. Stryker liked his coffee strong. “I can’t speak for her truthfulness about anything else, but about this, you can believe what she says.” “I knew you had something you weren’t telling me, and I just figured you’d come out with it when you were ready. Sorry my sister dragged you out of the proverbial closet. God, I need a cigarette. You mind?” We went out the window to his bedroom and climbed up a small set of fire stairs to the roof. “So what happened after?” I told him about Carter, about FUA. About Miss Carole and how she’d made me get my shit together. I lightly skimmed the surface of the impact Charlotte had on my life, especially recently. “Have you seen her since? Lexie?” “Yeah. I used to go over to visit her. Her dad hated it, so I had to go when he wasn’t home. I’d written her all these letters when I was bored out of my mind in the hospital. About how sorry I was about what happened, how much I wished it could have been different. I didn’t really write them for her, but I folded them all up and gave them to a sympathetic nurse who passed them on. Her mom calls me sometimes,
  • 180. too.” He leaned back on his elbows and stared at the sky. “Is she ever going to get better?” I shook my head. I hadn’t talked to Mrs. Davis in a few months, but I didn’t think anything was going to change. Still, miracles happened. “That’s heavy,” Stryker said. No one had described it like that. Heavy. It was heavy. So heavy I thought it would crush me most of the time. “Do you have any heavy?” I asked. He stubbed out his smoke and laughed a little. “You could say that. Typical messed up shit. Dad split, Mom loved the bottle and drugs more than she loved us. We bounced from home to home, each one worse than the last. As soon as I was old enough, I got out and took Trish with me. It’s been just the two of us against the big bad world.” “Heavy.” “Nah. Nothing a little music can’t fix. There isn’t anything that music can’t fix.” That sounded so much like something Gramps would have said. My thumb brushed the lighter. Stryker continued. “I mean, I’ve been on nearly every pill and drug and whatever that you can smoke, inhale or otherwise get into your body. They all got me high for a while, but I always crashed afterwards. But I can play a song on the drums, or my guitar, or the piano or the ukulele and I’m high off it for hours. No crash, no end to the good feeling. It sounds lame, but music is my drug of choice now.” He picked at his nails, which were painted a purple so dark it was almost black. “I used. When I was in Carter and FUA. It didn’t last,” I said, remembering my brief dip back into my old life. Granted, it had given me a reason to talk to Charlotte, but I wasn’t going to try it again.
  • 181. “What did you replace it with?” I had to think about what gave me the feeling drugs did. “Running. Books. Taking pictures.” Being around Charlotte. I didn’t mention the last thing. Stryker nodded in understanding. “So we’re cool?” I said. “I told you, I don’t judge people based on their pasts. I judge people on how they act in the present. No sense in worrying about the past. It’s not going to worry about you.” He was so free about it. Just a shoulder-shrug and the past was past. I couldn’t shrug off my load so easily. Maybe that was because I was weaker, or it was just too heavy. Lottie Miracle of miracles, I didn’t see Zan again for a whole week. I either saw him a million times, or none at all. I wished it would just be the second, but no such luck. At least that was what I told myself. I kept close watch on Katie, but she and Zack seemed to be getting along. I made it a point to text her repeatedly when she was out with him, asking stupid questions about where the broom was, or if she’d seen my favorite socks. It was totally transparent, but she always answered me. She was still intent on her makeover plan, but she’d let me in on very few of the details. We had more crime show marathons when she wasn’t with Zack or her friends. I said it was fine if they came over, but every time they did, all they wanted to do was go somewhere else. They half-heartedly invited me and I always turned them down. Katie was arguing with someone on the phone when I got back from class on Friday. I had to rush because I had work, but I wasn’t going to leave until I knew who she was talking to.
  • 182. “No, I’m not talking about this with you right now… No, I will… I will… Yeah, I love you too… Bye.” She chucked her phone onto her bed in disgust. “Who was that?” “My mom. She’s bugging me about choosing a major. No, that’s wrong. She’s bugging me about choosing the major she wants me to choose.” “Which is?” “Education. Or nursing. Something stable that I have no interest in.” “What are you interested in?” I knew so little about her, and it was partially my fault. She sat back on her mountain of pillows. “I don’t know. Lots of things.” She picked a thread on one of the pillows and tied it in a knot. “Nothing that my mom would think was worthwhile. Her other plan is for me to marry some guy who will take care of me.” What the hell? “Is it 1954?” “Right? She just doesn’t get it.” I didn’t mention the fact that Zack was headed for a lucrative career, even if he didn’t make onto a professional baseball team. He’d have his MBA to fall back on, and a stepfather that had a successful business career. I couldn’t remember in what. I just remembered seeing him in a suit at all of the games. “Oh crap, I’m late for work,” I said, noticing the time on her pink clock. She waved her hand. “It’s fine, go ahead.” “You sure?” “Yeah. I’ll figure it out.” She shrugged, trying to brush it off. “If you want to talk later, I’m here.” She smiled and turned the television on. “Thanks.”
  • 183. *** “I have something to tell you,” Trish said during a dead moment at work. She made sure to speak quietly, because Claudia was on the warpath since one of the other workers had quit without two weeks’ notice so we were short-staffed before Halloween. I couldn’t pick up any more hours than I already had, but Trish had jumped at it. I wondered when that girl slept. “Okay.” Trish wasn’t the kind of person who held anything back. She tossed her hair back and fiddled with her scissors. “Seriously, what? You’re acting like you strangled someone and want to ask me if I have a storage unit you can use to hide the body,” I said. “I would never hide a body in a storage unit. You know, if I needed to hide one. That’s just gross. Unless you had a really good chest freezer… Never mind. This isn’t about hiding a body.” “What is it about?” She peered at me from under her orange bangs. “Zan Parker.” And my good luck was up. At least it had lasted an entire week. “And what about him?” “My stupid brother has decided to be friends with him, even after I told him about everything.” I shrugged. “So?” “You’re not pissed?” “I don’t even know your brother. It’s none of my business who he’s friends with.” Claudia stormed by, so we both shut our mouths and made our hands busy until she’d gone back into her office. “Now if you said he was friends with Zack Parker, then I would question his sanity,” I said when it was safe to talk again. “I’m not very happy about it, but Stryker doesn’t listen to anyone about anything. As long as I don’t have to be nice to him, I’m good. I’m
  • 184. sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.” “Seriously, it’s fine. No big.” Who was I to judge? “You’re awesome.” She held up her scissors and I grabbed mine and we tapped them together. It was our version of the high five. I checked the mail on the way back to my room later that night and found a stupid card from the school with a 15 percent off coupon for one item at the bookstore, and one more thing. A blue lanyard with a clip on the bottom for my key card. I only needed one guess to know who had put it in there, even without a note. For a brief second, I thought about tossing it in the trash. I didn’t want him to see me wearing it and read more into it than he should. Then again, did I really care what Zan Parker thought? No one else would know he’d given it to me. I snapped my card into the clip and put it around my neck.
  • 185. Chapter Twenty-two Zan A knock on my door Saturday morning snapped me out of my reverie. I’d been listening to Bob Dylan this time and reading a cheap thriller novel. “Open up.” It was Zack. He pounded a few more times before I went to open the door. “You, football game, now.” He was grinning like he’d already had too much to drink. Katie stood next to him and looked everywhere but at me. “I’ll pass.” “I’m not taking no for an answer,” Zack said, slinging his arm around my shoulder and yanking me into the hallway. “You are boring and serious and it’s time you had some normal fun. Let’s go.” His arm clamped around my neck like a vise and he steered me away from my door. I let him. “You will also be pleased to know that Hottie and her posse are coming too.” “Charlotte is coming?” “Yes, so you should get drunk and finally get laid. Here.” He reached in his pocket and handed me one of those tiny bottles of alcohol you got on airplanes or in hotel rooms. “Drink up, dude. Liquid courage.” He was ‘courageous’ enough for the both of us. I handed him the bottle back, meeting Katie’s eyes for a split second. “All the more for me.” He put it back in his pocket, where it clinked
  • 186. against however many other bottles he had. We made our slow way down to the field. Mostly because Zack wasn’t all that steady. I wasn’t worried about him getting caught, because he definitely wasn’t going to be the drunkest one there. Not by a long shot. The only glimmer of positivity I could see in going to the game was that at least I’d get to see if Charlotte had kept my present or if she’d gotten rid of it as quick as she could. I made myself a little bet as we walked down. If she was wearing it, I’d talk to her. If she wasn’t, I wouldn’t. Or maybe I’d just suck it up and talk to her anyway. Lottie A late September cold snap caused all of us to bundle up for the game on Saturday. Will brought his backpack which had a couple of thermoses of coffee and a couple of blankets, just in case. Everyone looked like they were smoking when they breathed, and I was already wishing I’d worn an extra coat by the time we got down to the field. “Have you seen Katie?” I said as I scanned the line. We were meeting her and Zack. I cringed at the thought of sitting through an entire sporting event sitting near him, but at least I could keep an eye on them. “Not yet,” Will said, pretending he hadn’t been staring at Audrey. “Shit, I forgot my stupid gloves,” I said as we joined the end of the admissions line. “Well, you can’t go back and get them,” Will said. “There’s no way they’re going to let you get back through the line.” “Do you want mine?” Audrey pulled off hers, which were leather and fitted her elegant fingers as if they were made for her. “I knew I should have brought an extra pair. Sorry, Lot,” Simon said. “Thanks guys, I’m fine.” I stuck my hands in my pockets. That would have to do.
  • 187. “You can have mine.” A pair of gloves entered my line of vision, held toward me from over my shoulder. I turned to see Zan, Zack and Katie. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I wasn’t the only one, as I saw Will’s eyes narrow and Simon’s smile fall. Audrey just looked them both over. This was the first time she’d seen either of the Brothers of Doom. “Do you want them?” He held out the gloves to me again. “I’m fine. What is with everyone’s sudden concern for my hand welfare?” “Because I don’t want to hear you bitching about how cold your hands are for the next few hours,” Will grumbled loud enough for me to hear. Simon laughed, but I could tell it took him some effort. He and Will turned around and started talking with Audrey, and Katie pulled Zack’s attention away, so the first awkward moment of the day was broken. I knew there would be many more. Zan put the gloves back in his pocket. The line in front of us started moving a few minutes later, and we climbed the loud metal bleachers to find seats. Of course, since we were near the end of the line, we had to go all the way to the top. My butt was already cringing, thinking about sitting on the cold metal bench. There was a shuffle to decide who would sit next to whom, and somehow I ended up being one of the last ones in, and guess who was sitting next to me? Karma was kicking me in the ass again. “You don’t mind, do you?” Zan said as he slid onto the seat next to me. Hell yes, I minded, but the stands were filling up fast and I didn’t want to look like a heartless bitch in front of everyone. So I just shook my head and scooted over so I was as close to Audrey as possible. A sharp wind snapped at our faces, and I was already wishing the game was over. “Will? You wanna pass out the blankets?” Audrey had her arms
  • 188. around herself and Katie was rubbing her hands together. “What is with girls and being cold?” he said as he passed the bag down. I got out one and spread it across my lap, sharing with Audrey. The other blanket went to Will and Simon, with Katie getting a little bit of the corner. “I’ll keep you warm, babe,” I heard Zack say. Actually, it was more of a slurr. He was already wasted, and I wasn’t the only one who saw him pulling little nip bottles out of his pockets. At least he was on the very opposite end from me. Thankful for small mercies. “You want to share?” I said to Zan without looking at him. “I’m fine, thank you.” Zan fixed his eyes on the field as the cheerleaders got ready to welcome in the players. He was wearing a grey wool peacoat and a matching newsboy cap. If I could take away my feelings and be objective, I’d say he looked good. More than good. I glanced around at the other students. A group of raucous guys in front of us were already three sheets to the wind and yelling out epithets at the other team. They all guffawed as if was the funniest thing ever. One of them leaned back and banged into my knee. “Sorry,” he said with a burp. Classy. “I’ve never been much for organized sports,” Zan said. “Then why did you come?” “Because my brother showed up at my door this morning and told me I had to come. That’s the short answer.” “Is there a long answer?” He turned his head and looked at me full on. “That he told me you’d be here.” I stared out at the field, refusing to meet his eyes. “I don’t get you. I just don’t get you.” “I know.” “Why am I even talking to you? I hate you,” I said more to myself than to him, glad the lanyard was under my coat where he couldn’t see
  • 189. it. We were interrupted as the stands roared with the arrival of the DU Bull Moose. Of course we had to stand and cheer with everyone else, or look like traitors. I spent most of the first half trying to make Audrey understand the intricacies of football, with random input from Will and Simon. Zan was silent. Having him so close to me for such a long time was completely distracting. Our legs were just about touching, and if I leaned just a little to my left, our shoulders would have bumped. They actually did touch a few times, but I ignored it. I’d completely lost track of the game, but everyone was cheering, so I figured we’d scored another touchdown. I glanced at the scoreboard, and we were up by more than ten points. We all counted down to halftime and got on our feet to cheer again. “My butt is numb,” Audrey said as we stretched our backs. “Ditto,” I said, trying not to move too close to Zan. “Who wants coffee?” Simon held up the two thermoses and some paper cups. It was technically against the rules to bring in outside food, but who the hell cared when it was this cold? My hands were little blocks of ice and it was hard to bend my fingers. “You don’t talk much,” I said as I wrapped my frigid hands around one of the cups. “No, I don’t.” “Why is that?” He thought for a moment. “I think most people talk too much.” “Like me?” I definitely had the gift of gab, as my mother said. He didn’t answer. “I’ll take that as a yes.” I finished my coffee and flexed my fingers, blowing my warm coffee breath on them.
  • 190. “Here.” He grabbed both my hands and wrapped his around them. “I can’t stand to sit here the whole second half and watch your fingers get black and fall off. It’s the least I can do after you took care of me the other night.” It was one of the longest sentences I’d ever heard him utter. That, coupled with the fact that he’d grabbed both of my hands left me stunned for a moment. “What are you doing?” I tried to pull my hands back, but he wouldn’t let go. Damn, his hands were warm. It was like sticking them in a hot bath. It was such a change for my poor frozen hands that it almost hurt. “Better?” he said after a moment. “Maybe.” Yes. I stole a glance at the rest of my group, but no one was paying attention to me. Katie and Audrey were talking about bad gifts their previous boyfriends had given them, Zack was having words with a guy seated on his other side and Simon and Will were still going at it about the game. “So is this your plan? Warm my hands up so I’ll keep being nice to you and have a change of heart?” I said. “No. Your hands were cold, my hands are warm. I don’t have an ulterior motive other than to make your hands warm.” “Or maybe you’re just telling me you don’t so I’ll believe you.” “Or maybe you think too much.” I wanted to give him a snappy retort, but the game was starting again, so I had to get up and be a fan again. Zan let go of my hands. I liked football, but only when I was in a warm room with lots of snacks and a comfy seat. I put my hands under the blanket when I sat back down, trying to keep the heat in. I heard a little sigh from Zan’s direction as he shoved his hands under the blanket and folded mine in his again. We stayed that way for the rest of the game, except when we had to get up and be supportive of the team. As soon as we sat back down, his hands would be around mine again. The heat traveled up my arms and
  • 191. through my body, almost completely defrosting me. When the final buzzer sounded and DU won, 32 to 17, everyone in the stands got up and joined their voices in the school fight song and Zan let go of my hands for good. We bumbled along, since we didn’t know the words, but it didn’t really matter.
  • 192. Chapter Twenty-three Zan “Your brother really likes football, doesn’t he?” I said as we left the stadium. Charlotte had stopped holding my hands as soon as the game had ended, but I could still feel them in mine. Phantom hands. “He wants to be an athletic director, so yeah. He loves sports.” She looked at Will as he and Simon bounded ahead, still high on the win, as if they’d had something to do with it. “He’s passionate,” I said, thinking back to Stryker and our talk of highs. “Yeah, he is,” she said. “Mom just wishes he’d be passionate about something that pays better.” My parents hadn’t given me any guidance on picking a major. They’d been stunned I’d even gotten into college. She continued to walk beside me as everyone else walked ahead of us. Zack glanced back at me and winked. Her brother also noticed and his look wasn’t as encouraging, but he was soon distracted by Audrey. “So just like we’re not talking about the rain incident, the towel incident, the you-showing-up-outside-my-door incident, we’re not talking about the hand incident.” I said the first thing that came to my mind. “That’s a lot of incidents.” “There wouldn’t be so many if you would just leave me alone.” True. “Maybe I don’t want to.” I wasn’t sure what made me say it. Her mouth dropped open for a second before she started walking faster to catch up with her brother. I snagged her arm to make her stop. “Let go of me,” she hissed.
  • 193. I let go of her arm. “I’m sorry. Again.” “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” I looked down and shook my head. “I ask myself that every day, Charlotte.” “Well, when you figure out the answer, let me know.” She turned and started walking again, but she stopped after a few steps. “Thank you. For the lanyard. You didn’t have to do that.” “I know. You’re welcome, Charlotte.” She nodded once before she turned around and ran to her brother, jumping onto his back for a ride. “I saw you getting all cozy with Hottie back there,” Zack said, breathing in my face. He was a hotel’s worth of sheets to the wind. “Come on babe, let’s go back to your room,” Katie said, trying to support his weight. She’d wanted to go out with the rest of the group, but there was no way Zack was walking into a restaurant without getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He’d started singing, which meant he was going to pass out in a few minutes. “You need any help?” It was the first thing I’d said to her directly in a seriously long time. She still couldn’t look at me. “I’m fine.” She may as well have been spitting the words at me. Zack continued to belt ”Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of his lungs. Katie was holding her own, but Zack tripped and they almost went over. “Come on, bro; let’s go back to your room.” I took his weight from her. Drunk, he was even heavier than normal. “Why don’t you go ahead and see if anyone is around so we can get him to his room without him getting busted.” Mom would have a coronary, and then Steve would have to pull some strings and make it go away. I’d rather not have to go through all that in the first place. She nodded and held the door for us and went on ahead, making sure the coast was clear. I swiped the card to his door and got him on his bed. “I wanna go out. Let’s party,” Zack said.
  • 194. “No, you need to sit down.” “I don’t wanna sit down.” He gave me a good shove, but I was ready for it. This was going to be a long night. *** Zack finally passed out an hour later, after throwing whatever he could get his hands on, and slugging me in the stomach twice. Katie stayed, even though I told her I had it under control. “I hate it when he gets like this,” she said as he snored with his mouth wide open. She brushed back some of his hair. Even though he was passed out, she was still under his spell. “He’ll be fine. Just let him sleep it off.” She covered him with a blanket, tucking it in as if he was a child. He certainly acted like one. “Thanks,” she said as we closed his door and walked toward the stairs. “He’s my brother,” I answered. When we got to the second floor, she gave me a little tight smile and kept walking to her floor. To Charlotte’s floor. I had a few more missed calls from Tate asking me to party again. And one that Miss Carole had left for me during the football game. I’d been avoiding her, and she was getting suspicious. I paced my room a few times before I called her. “Hey, Miss Carole.” “Alex, hello.” The relief in her voice was palpable. The fact that she worried so much about me made my throat hurt. “I’m sorry I haven’t called you back. I’ve been really busy.” “By the tone of your voice, I’m going to guess it wasn’t because you’ve been spending time with that girl we talked about. Alex, you don’t have to be ashamed to tell me anything. I’ll love you no matter
  • 195. what.” It was one of those things that parents said, but when she said it, I actually believed her. Miss Carole didn’t lie to me. “I hung out with Tate.” She didn’t need details, most of which I couldn’t remember anyway. “I’m not going to lecture you, since I’m pretty sure you’ve already lectured yourself. Did you learn anything from the experience?” “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t the same.” “See? This is why I say you need to make your own mistakes. You are the best teacher you’ll ever have.” She’d said it more than once to me. “So you’re not mad at me?” “No, Alex, I’m not mad at you,” she said, laughing. I loved her laugh. It always made her sound like a much-younger woman. I went on to fill her in on everything else, including Stryker and my interactions with Charlotte, including the hand-holding. “Well Alex, it seems that your mysterious charm wins out.” “She says she still hates me.” “Actions are stronger than words, Alex, but you know that.” I did. Lottie “So you and Zan seemed pretty cozy. What the hell was that about?” Katie said that night when she got back from taking care of drunken Zack. The rest of us had gone out to get Chinese. I was prostrate on my bed, pretty sure I was never going to move again because I’d eaten too much. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said. “I saw you holding hands. I thought you didn’t like him.” “I don’t.” She came and stood right next to my bed and looked down at me. “Then why were you holding his hand?”
  • 196. I shrugged. “Because my hands were cold, and his were warm, and because I didn’t know how to say no.” Katie smirked. “Well, you looked pretty into it. So did he.” “What?” I finally sat up, making the food slosh uncomfortably in my stomach. “Are you fucking blind? Zan is totally into you.” “What?” I said again. Her words didn’t make sense. Zan into me? “Will you stop saying that?” “I’ll stop saying it when you explain what you’re talking about.” She made an exasperated sound and went back to her own bed. “Just be careful with that one. You know what they say about the quiet types.” I was saved from continuing the uncomfortable conversation by a call from Lexie. I hadn’t been able to visit since our zoo trip, but I’d been calling her on schedule, and she seemed better. “Hey, Lex!” “Hi Lottie, this is Kay.” Her tone told me instantly that something was wrong. I’d heard it to many times before. “How’s Lex?” She took a breath before she answered. “She’s not doing so well. She had an episode and she found one of the knives in the kitchen.” Her voice quivered and I wanted to beg her to stop. I didn’t want to know. “She’s okay, but she’s in the hospital. I just wanted you to know. She’s going to recover, but we’re thinking about putting her in a facility for a little while. There’s an excellent one in Texas where they’re trained in to help people with injuries like hers. I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for her the past couple of years. You’ve been the best friend she could have asked for and even though she has her moments, she always asks for you.” My voice broke and Katie looked up from her phone. “Can I see her?”
  • 197. “I don’t think so, honey. She’s having a rough time right now, and she needs to concentrate on getting better. You need to do your own thing. You’ve done so much already, and I can never thank you enough for that.” “Can I talk to her?” The tears were coming soon, but I wanted them to wait until I got off the phone. “She’s still asleep. Oh, honey. I’m sorry this is the way it has to be. I’ll let you know when we get her settled, okay?” I had no choice but to say, “Okay.” “Bye, Lottie.” “Bye.” I stared at the phone in my hand and gave the tears permission to come. “Is everything okay?” Katie said. “No.” I didn’t want to be in my room anymore, but I didn’t know where else to go. I could go talk to Will and he and Simon would make me feel better. Or I could call Mom and let her give me a literary prescription. None of those sounded like good options. “I’ll be back later,” I said, grabbing my lanyard from my desk. “Where are you going?” “For a walk,” I said, shoving my warm boots on. “Alone?” It was starting to get dark, and it wasn’t smart to be walking alone at this time of night alone, especially on a Saturday night. I brought my phone with me and grabbed a jacket. My whistle and pepper spray were on my keychain in easy reach. “See you later,” I said. I shut the door and headed for the stairs, my eyes blurry with tears. I wasn’t looking where I was going and crashed headfirst into someone carrying a laundry basket. I went flying. The clothes went flying. I waited for the crash of my body and the feeling of pain, but an arm pulled me and I ended up on top of something that wasn’t the floor.
  • 198. “We should really stop meeting like this.” I stared down into the eyes of Zan. His arms were around my waist and my body was pressed against his full length. Zan moved, trying to slide himself out from under me and I was pressed against all sorts of areas I’d never been pressed against. It took me a second to realize there was a pair of boxer shorts on my head. “You look good in my clothes.” As if this wasn’t a shocking enough situation, he smiled. “You’re smiling,” I said. “Yes, I’ve been known to do so every now and then.” “We should probably get off the floor.” I was going to have to peel myself off him. “Probably.” He pulled the boxers off my head and tossed them near the upended laundry basket. “You’re going to have to get up first,” he said. Our faces were so close our noses almost bumped. “Oh, right.” I put my hands on the floor and sort of rolled off him onto my back. I thought about getting up, but my brain didn’t seem to think it was a good idea. Too much to process at once. Zan sat up and looked down at me. “Are you okay? You’ve been crying.” He pulled his knees up and rested his arms on them. The laundry had been forgotten. I finally sat up and found a sock on my foot. I took it off and handed it to him. “I’m sorry” he said, and the apology hit me like a punch. “Oh yeah?” I turned my head so I could look at him, my rage over the injustice of it all boiling to the surface. “Tell me how sorry you are.” “Can’t we just talk?” he said. “We are talking.” “I’ve spent every single second of my life since I woke up in the hospital remembering that day and thinking about it and wishing it could have happened differently. It’s one of the last things I think about before I go to bed and one of the first when I wake up. I see the scars every
  • 199. day.” His eyes locked on mine and I couldn’t look away. “Scars?” “Yeah. I’ll show you.” He stood up and started pulling his shirt off. I almost put my hands in front of my face, but I didn’t. In between noticing his stomach was toned, and he had those v things on his sides that dipped into his pants, my eyes traced the ropes of scars that covered his left side. Since his skin was so dark, the scars were lighter, and thick with tissue. They covered the left side of his body from his stomach to his shoulders and partway down his arms. There was one more thing that made me stare. Interweaved between the scars was a tattoo that covered most of that half of his body. A tree with gnarled and bending branches that reached out and down his arm. There was even a little bird perched on one of the branches. I’d never seen something so heartbreaking and so beautiful at the same time. It made me want to cry, except I already was. “Do you want to take a walk with me?” I blurted out.
  • 200. Chapter Twenty-three Zan “It’s a little cold out,” I said after recovering from the shock of her asking me to go somewhere with her. “But I don’t want you going out alone.” “You can put your shirt on,” she said, motioning to my bare chest. “Oh, good.” I slid it over my head as she tried not to stare and failed. I held my hand out to help her up from the floor. She let go as soon as she was on her feet. “Just let me get my laundry into my room and grab my coat. Looks like I’m going to have to re-wash everything.” I picked up my clothes, including several pairs of boxers. She wiped a few more tears from her cheeks. I wanted to know what had caused them. Charlotte didn’t cry easily.“Are you okay?” “I have quarters. You know, if you need some. My mom gave me and my brother a whole box of them as a present. Will’s barely used his. I have to bug him all the time to do his laundry. One of these days I’m going to have to do it for him,” she said, not answering my question. I tried to think of something to say, something to get her to talk to me, but nothing came to mind as I held my laundry basket. “Thanks. I’ll be right back.” Bravo. I was a moron. I threw my stuff in my room, grabbed my jacket and gloves and threw on my grandfather’s hat. I needed all the luck I could get. She was swinging the lanyard when I got back. I smiled to myself as she put it away before looking up. “Shall we?” I said. She went in front of me, but I dived forward to open the door for her.
  • 201. Being a gentleman couldn’t hurt at this point. The night air had a bite to it, and she immediately shoved her hands in the pockets of her coat. Forgot her gloves again. Silly girl. “Here,” I said, handing her my gloves. “I figured you’d forget them again.” Another point in the gentleman column. “Thanks.” She put them on and they dwarfed her hands. I got a weird kick out of the fact that her hands were in my gloves. Sick, I was seriously sick. I looked up, but there was too much light pollution to see the stars. There were only a few cars driving down the main road, but otherwise it was pretty quiet, except for a blaring bass coming from one or several dorm rooms. I had to walk slowly, since my legs were so much longer than hers. “Why were you crying?” “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. We walked a few more steps in silence before she said something else. “Sooo…That’s a beautiful tattoo.” “Thanks. My mother wasn’t very happy when I got home after getting it.” Her screams still reverberated in my brain. One month later Zack had come home from a visit with his own ink and she’d exclaimed at how beautiful it was. She nodded in understanding. “I bet. My mother would hang me up by my toes if I even thought about getting one.” “Mine just about did.” A car drove by us and honked before shouting something suggestive out the window at Charlotte. Get in line, asshole. Charlotte ignored it. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to her. “So how did you skip a grade?” she said, brushing a stray hair from her ponytail back from her face. “After I left the youth center, I was assigned a social worker who really cared about me. She didn’t put up with my crap, and told me I
  • 202. was better than what I was doing.” I didn’t know how much Charlotte knew about the trouble I’d gotten into after the accident. “She pushed me to do better in school and pushed me to apply here. I never thought I would get in, even though my grades were good.” I didn’t need to say the reason why. We both skimmed over that issue without diving into it. We’d reached the football field, which was wide and empty now. “You want to walk around the track?” I said. I wanted to know why she’d been upset, and I was going to walk in circles all night if that’s what it took to get it out of her. “Sure.” We walked several times, sometimes talking, sometimes not. She did most of the talking. I couldn’t find anything to say that didn’t involve talking about the one thing I didn’t want to discuss. “Let me know when you’re ready to go back. I don’t want you walking on campus alone.” “Why, do I look vulnerable?” she said with a small laugh. “No. I just know that when guys see a pretty girl alone, he can get ideas, and not all of them are good.” She stopped walking. “You think I’m pretty?” “Oh, Charlotte,” I sighed. Lottie “What? You just said, ‘When guys see a pretty girl alone,’ so am I the pretty girl? Or were you talking about girls in general and not just specifically –” It was stopped by a pair of lips on mine. I froze for a moment, my brain trying to understand what was happening. There were lips on mine. Zan lips. Warm, soft Zan lips. Kissing, that was what this was called. Only, I’d been kissed before. By Clark and… what was the other guy’s name?
  • 203. The lips pulled away from mine, and he rested his forehead against mine. He was so tall, he had to bend quite a bit. “Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?” he said, moving his thumb across my bottom lip. “All the time,” I whispered. “What was that for?” “It was the only way to get you to stop talking.” “So you wanted to shut me up and you thought that was the best way to do it? What is wrong with –” There it was again. The lips. On my lips. I froze again, and he pulled away. “Stop thinking,” he said, before trying again. Persistent, he was. My brain wanted to think about the fact that I was kissing the boy who was responsible for not only ruining my life, but the life of my best friend, but for once, I told it to shut the fuck up. My hands placed themselves hesitantly around his neck and shoved themselves into his hair. My lips started working with his and he responded, pushing me farther, closer, hotter, more, more, more. It was so easy to open my mouth and let him in. For the first time, he hesitated before sliding his tongue into my mouth. I’d tried that with Clark, but it was always awkward and weird and I felt like I was drowning in spit. This was…He tasted like crisp leaves and rain and cinnamon gum. I never wanted it to stop as my body sang. His hands caressed the sides of my face and stroked my hair and finally came around my neck, pulling me closer until I was pressed against the scratchy wool of his coat. We broke apart and breathed in unison for a moment. “Wow,” he said, wiping my hair away from my face. The wind had blown it all around. I hadn’t noticed the wind at all. I was on fire from my fingertips to the ends of my hair to my toenails. “Uh huh.”
  • 204. I held onto him and we stared at each other. This close, I realized his eyes weren’t just dark. No, they were blue and green and gold and brown and black and every color an eye can be. They were like a Monet painting that looked like one color from far away, but when you got close you could pick out all the little pieces. “I’ve wanted to do that for so long,” he said. “I haven’t.” “God, I love how honest you are.” Wait, love? Did he just say love? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold the phone. I pulled back from him and reality crashed down. I clamped my hand over my mouth. “Oh, shit.” “What is it?” “I kissed you.” “Technically I kissed you and you let me.” Oh, it was more than that. If I’d just let him kiss me, my face would have been still. Not moving against his like I’d been practicing my whole life and this was my one shot at kissing him. “This never happened.” He took a step back too, and let go of my face. I started shivering the moment his skin left mine. “If you want it that way.” I nodded. “This didn’t happen. It can’t happen. Please, I just…” “It’s okay, Charlotte. You don’t have to explain it to me. I shouldn’t have done it. But I’m not going to take it back.” He licked his lips, as if he was trying to taste me on them. “Then why did you do it?” “I stopped thinking and just ran with it.” So did I.
  • 205. Zan “So what happens now?” she said as we walked back to the dorm. I was replaying the moment when I’d leaned in and found out her lips were just as sweet and soft as I’d always imagined them to be. No, they weren’t. They were better than I imagined. Kissing Charlotte was better than fucking every single girl I’d ever fucked. I’d have to be careful so I didn’t show her how much I liked the kiss. “What do you want to happen now?” I said. “This can’t be a thing. It just can’t.” She motioned to me and back to herself. “I’m an emotional train wreck right now and I’m not thinking clearly, and this can’t be a thing. If you were someone else…” She had no idea how many times I’d wished I was someone else. “I understand.” She pressed her fingers to her lips, and it made me lick my own to taste her still on them. “Will you at least tell me one thing?” “What’s that?” “Why were you crying?” She breathed out slowly. “Lexie. Something happened to Lexie.” “What?” She wrapped her arms around herself. She should have told me she was cold. “I don’t think I should be talking about this with you.” We were almost to the dorm, and once again, my time with her was being cut short. “You can talk to me about anything, Charlotte,” I said, wishing it were true. “No, I can’t, and that’s why this can never happen. You and me.” My heart pounded when she’d said ‘you and me.’ “There will always be this thing between us. I’m never going to get past it. I can pretend, but I just can’t. It’s between you and her and I
  • 206. choose her.” I’d asked for this. I’d asked for these words. I shouldn’t have kissed her. She smiled sadly as I held the door open for her. “Can I walk you to your door?” This was the end. “Sure.” She was just about to open her door when we both heard something that made her blush and me want to roll my eyes. Katie and Zack were going at it, loudly, and from the sounds of the squeaking bedframe, very energetically. “Oh my God,” Charlotte said, moving away from the door as if it was diseased. “I can’t believe her.” Katie let out an especially loud moan and Charlotte gave me a look of revulsion. “You can come down to my room and wait, if you want. My roommate is almost never here,” I said. Zack yelled out something that we couldn’t make out and Charlotte’d had enough and booked it toward the stairs with me following. “It’s just disgusting the way they go at it like rabbits. It’s like he makes her lose all common sense.” “He has that effect on women.” “I know.” We walked the rest of the way to my door in silence.
  • 207. Chapter Twenty-four Lottie I hadn’t really looked at his room the last time I’d been inside it. How had I not noticed the enormous amount of books? “You read?” “Yeah.” He stood in the doorway, as if he was afraid to come inside. “Can I get you anything?” “No, I’m fine. Look, I can just go knock on my brother’s door.” “Will you just do one thing for me? Before you go and this night becomes another thing we have to pretend didn’t happen?” “That depends on what it is.” “It’s not what you think it is,” he said, going to his closet and getting what looked like a very old, ugly yellow suitcase out, along with an old red milk crate. “This was my grandfather’s,” he said, setting it down in the middle of the floor and opening the top. Inside was a turntable, and the crate was full of records. He pulled several out before choosing one and bringing it back over. He didn’t say a word as he put the record in place and set the needle. “Lie down,” he said, getting down and lying with his head on one side of it. “What?” I had no idea what he was up to, but I wasn’t going to just lie on the floor with him. “Just lie down. You can hear it better. It’s not some sort of twisted game. I just wanted you to hear this. I think you’ll appreciate it.” He closed his eyes and patted an empty space beside him. What the hell. I couldn’t go back to my room, and if I went to Will’s
  • 208. now, he was going to know something was up, and I didn’t want to deal with him. I lay down as the pops and fuzz sounded the beginning of a new song. I caught my breath when it started. ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ by Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice filled my head, pushing everything out, including my conflicted feelings about Zan. I heard him breathe next to me as we both stared at the ceiling and listened to Ella sing about a boy she had loved and lost and regretted losing. Our shoulders were nearly touching and his arm was so close to mine, I could feel how warm he was. His finger twitched and bumped into mine. Then he did it again. I glanced down, and saw him take my hand. It made complete sense to wrap my fingers around his. He’d held my hands all afternoon, so what was a little more? Holding Zan’s hand, in that moment, with Ella singing, felt right. This moment felt right. More right than I’d had in a long time. Zan’s thumb started moving up and down the back of my hand with the rhythm of the song. “I wish you wouldn’t hate me,” he said when the song ended. I turned my head to look at him. Our hands were still linked. “I don’t want to anymore.” His eyes were deep and bottomless again. “But I can’t just erase what happened. I told you. I have to choose, and I choose her.” “I know.” He looked down at our hands, where his thumb was still moving. He tried to pull away, but I didn’t want to let go. Correction, my hand didn’t want to let go. It was happy holding Zan’s hand. As far as hand-holding went, it was definitely top five in all of my hand- holding experience. Oh, who was I kidding? This was the pinnacle of hand-holding. Not that he had a whole lot of competition. Clark’s hands were always sweaty.
  • 209. “If I could change it, I would,” he said. “So would I.” I shifted so I was closer to him. “I used to wonder what would have happened if it was me in the car, instead of her.” “It’s not your fault, Charlotte.” I took a breath as Ella continued to sing. Something about the raw power and emotion in her voice loosened something in me. “You make me feel very… confused. I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m not usually lost for words,” I said. He didn’t answer. “I just… You’re not the guy I imagined in my head. All these years, I’ve turned you into this monster, and then here you are, and you’re nothing like I thought you were, but it’s so hard to let go of that image, even if it isn’t real.” “Who am I now?” For maybe only the second time in my life, I thought about my answer before I said it. “You’re this guy who sees everything. You think before you speak, as if you’re picking the right words in your head. I wish I could be like that. Words just tumble out of my mouth and I can’t seem to stop them. I’m like a… word geyser.” His eyes were on me, so I looked back up at the ceiling. “You’re an extraordinary girl, Charlotte.” “Why do you call me that? Everyone always calls me Lottie.” “I like Charlotte. It just happens to be the name of my favorite talking spider.” I turned my head and met another earth-moving smile. “I was named after that spider, you know,” I said. “I know.” “How?” “Lucky guess.” The record ended and the room was quiet, except for the videogame noise from Will and Simon’s room. Zan got up and found another record and put it on. And then another, and another.
  • 210. Before I knew it, my eyes were drooping as we listened to Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ Zan was humming along, and we were still holding hands. Zan “Charlotte?” “Hm?” I had been holding her hand for almost an hour. She hadn’t flinched, or tried to pull away, or yelled at me or hit me. For a second when I kissed her, I thought that she was going to slap me, but I would have taken it. A million slaps in the world would have been worth it. Burning in hell would have been worth it. “We should probably get you to bed,” I said, as her grip loosened. Her eyes were closing, despite her effort to keep them open. Katie and Zack were probably done, but I didn’t want her to leave. “Where’s your roommate?” she mumbled. “Not sure. He’s never here, really.” His crap certainly was, though. “Oh.” She let go of my hand and sat up. “I really don’t want to go upstairs. What time is it?” “Nearly one.” “They’re probably done, right?” “I’m not all that familiar with my brother’s, um, stamina.” She screwed her face up and her expression made me laugh. “Oh, God. That is the last thing I want to think about,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “You could stay, if you wanted.” I’d been saving the right moment to ask her. “You could have the bed and I’ll take the floor.” I hoped she didn’t think it was a ploy to seduce her. It honestly wasn’t. “I don’t know.” “At least let me walk you back up, then.” She yawned and tried to get to her feet. “Tell you what. If they’re still going at it, I’ll come back.”
  • 211. I’d never hoped that my brother was having sex so much in my life. There was murmuring coming from Charlotte’s room when we got back upstairs. It didn’t sound like sex noises, but I definitely heard Zack’s voice. Her face fell. “Are you sure?” she whispered. “I could always knock on my brother’s door.” “No, it’s fine. Come on.” She sleepily shuffled beside me back down to my room. I tried not to smile too much. “Hold on,” I said before she went for my bed. I pulled out my desk chair for her and she sat down, leaning her face in her hands and resting her elbows on my desk. I’d just changed them, so the sheets were fresh, but I straightened them for her and tucked the blankets back in. “It’s all yours.” I got some extra blankets from the closet and made up a little nest on the floor. I could have used my roommate’s bed, seeing as how he never did, but even the idea of using it grossed me out. “Are you comfortable?” I said, looking up at her. “Mm.” She rolled over on her side and cracked her eyes open. “Thanks.” “You’re welcome.” She closed her eyes and settled in with a sigh. I turned off the light and the record player and lay down on my side so I was facing her. The sound of her breathing became the soundtrack to my night as I drifted off more peacefully than I had in a long time.
  • 212. Chapter Twenty-five Lottie When I woke up the next morning, I panicked because I didn’t recognize the bed I was in, why I was still wearing my clothes, or any of the items in the room. It took a full second to realize that I was in Zan’s room. I looked down to see him on the floor, asleep in a tangle of blankets. He was on his back, with one hand on his chest and the other thrown out. I rolled over onto my stomach and studied him for a moment. He still had the clothes he’d worn last night on. He really was handsome. Not in the traditional way, but in a more subtle, old-fashioned way. A lock of hair had fallen over his forehead and I wanted to move it. To feel his hair run through my fingers again. Oh my God. What was I thinking? This wasn’t just a guy I’d met and developed a crush on. This was Zan Parker. I shouldn’t be kissing him and I definitely shouldn’t be spending the night in his room. What had gotten into me? Were there common-sense-destroying rays shooting out of the lights in the football stadium? Zan sighed in his sleep and I froze. I shouldn’t be here. Ever so slowly, I got out of his bed, which still smelled like him, found my jacket and shoes and scribbled a quick note. I practically had to step over him to get to the door. Zan didn’t move as I glanced one last time at him before I shut the door and headed back to my own room. “What the hell are you doing?” Simon said behind me, making me drop my shoes. “Do not tell me you are coming out of Zan’s room. Please tell me I’m having a hallucination from playing Minecraft for too many hours.” His voice was loud, and I was worried about him waking
  • 213. Zan, so I grabbed my shoes and Simon’s arm and dragged him down to the end of the hallway. “It’s not what it looks like,” I hissed, even though there was no way Zan could hear us now. “Oh really? Because all I see is you wearing the same clothes you wore last night, minus jacket and shoes and sneaking out of a boy’s room as if you’re sneaking out of jail. Did I get that right?” Simon was pissed. He almost never got mad, but when he did… watch out. “We didn’t have sex, Simon. We took a walk and then we listened to some music and I fell asleep. He put me to bed and then he slept on the floor. Oh, and we held hands.” “Are you sure that was it?” “Of course I’m sure. What, do you think he drugged me and then took advantage? Because I think I would know if my virginity had been stolen.” Simon shuddered at the thought of my stolen virginity and his anger subsided a little bit. “I suppose.” “Nothing happened, Simon. Except we didn’t wear protection when we held hands. God forbid. I was upset about Lexie and I had a moment of weakness. Or insanity. Or something. Just don’t tell Will, please.” I tried to go for the stairs to escape, but he wouldn’t let me go. “What are you thinking, Lottie? You’ve spent so long hating him and then all it takes is one day and you suddenly don’t? What happened to duckling?” I seriously needed to get back to my room so I could get ready for work. “It’s not like that.” He threw up his hands. “Tell me how it is, because I’m seriously confused.” “I don’t have time right now. Could you do something for me?” I
  • 214. glanced back at Zan’s door, just to make absolutely sure he hadn’t heard me. “What is it?” “Could you not tell Will? I don’t want him to know. Please, Simon.” I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. I didn’t want to tell Will anything until I’d figured out what the hell I was doing. He put both hands on my shoulders and reluctantly nodded. “Okay, okay. Your semi-walk of shame is safe with me.” “Thanks, Simon. You’re a lifesaver.” I shoved my shoes on and dashed up to the fourth floor as fast as I could. Zan When I woke up, she was gone. The bed was still rumpled from where she had been, and there were a few blonde hairs on my pillowcase as evidence that it hadn’t been a dream. I smelled my sheets, and they smelled like her. She’d left a note on a piece of paper pulled from one of my notebooks. Zan, Thanks for letting me crash. I’m not sure if I want to forget about this, but please don’t tell anyone. I need some time to figure it out. -Lottie I folded up the note and put it in my desk. I was definitely saving that one. If she decided this hadn’t happened, at least I had this piece of paper to prove to myself that it had. That was all I needed, for now. After showering and having a Pop Tart, I went to my brother’s room to see if he was there. His roommate, a transfer from Rhode Island answered the door and said he hadn’t seen Zack since the night before. I texted him, but got nothing. As a last resort, I thought I would try Charlotte’s room. The light was off, so I knocked softly. “Hey,” Charlotte whispered, opening the door slightly. She wore
  • 215. different clothes, and her hair was wet from a recent shower. “Katie is still sleeping.” She squeezed out of the half-open door so the light from the hallway wouldn’t invade the room. “I’m looking for Zack.” “He’s out having a hangover breakfast with some of the guys from the team.” “Is she okay?” “I think so. She feels like shit. Apparently, he had quite a few of those nips stored away, and she had a few.” I shook my head. “I just don’t get it,” she said, shaking her head and raking her hair back with her hand. “He’s like this malevolent force that takes normal girls and turns them into something they’re not. Not that I’m saying drinking and having a good time isn’t okay. It’s just that they do it all the time, and I know she wants to do better in school. Why am I telling you this?” “I don’t know.” “I don’t either. I’m still pretending last night didn’t happen. You’re a really quiet sleeper, by the way. I was expecting snoring, or talking or something.” I moved closer to her, hoping she wouldn’t step back. “Sorry to disappoint.” “No, it’s fine. Just weird.” “I’m pretty weird,” I said. She let out a soft laugh. “A very wise friend told me that weird is good.” “I’ll have to remember that one,” I said. Neither of us said anything for a moment. I had no idea what went through her head, but all I wanted was to kiss her again. She blinked, as if to clear her mind. “Any more news about Lexie?” “Not yet. I’m going to call her mom later,” she said. “Look, I have to
  • 216. be at work soon, but, um, I’ll see you later?” “Not if I see you first.” “Yeah, right.” Shit, I’d pushed too far. She was backing away. “Bye, Charlotte.” “Bye.”
  • 217. Chapter Twenty-six Lottie “So I did something extremely stupid last night.” I was late for work, but Claudia had already been yelling at one of the other girls, so I’d been able to slip in unnoticed. I’d already filled Trish in on the newest development with Lexie, but I hadn’t told her the rest. We were both stuck at the cutting counter, and so far, it had been slow, so we were re-arranging the bolts of quilt fabric. “Did you get drunk and wake up in a strange guy’s bed?” “Not exactly.” At least the drunk part hadn’t happened, and Zan wasn’t a stranger. He was a known entity. “Come on, I’m dying here. I was up late all last night doing inventory. Please share something juicy with me.” “I kissed Zan.” “You, what?!” Her eyes got so big she looked like one of those bush baby monkeys. Claudia heard her and gave both of us the stink eye for socializing when we were supposed to be working. “Well, actually, he kissed me, but I let him and then I touched his hair and kissed him back. Not just a little one. We moved into make-out territory. Then we went back to his room, and listened to music and I fell asleep, and we didn’t have sex, and now I’m freaking out. I was upset about Lexie. That’s the only reason I can think of for how this happened. “I don’t know if I can repeat it. I told him I was going to pretend that it didn’t happen, but I just really need someone to talk to about it. Someone who isn’t involved.”
  • 218. “Okay, so did you like it? The kissing that didn’t happen?” “It was…” What was it? “You’re speechless and blushing, so I’m gonna say that it was good. Did he give you any tongue?” “No, it was just open mouth.” “How did it compare to your other kisses?” It didn’t, which was why things had become so complicated so fast. “Your silence speaks volumes.” I bet it did. “Okay, let me give you a hypothetical.” Not another one. She leaned against the fabric rack. “Say he’s Stryker’s friend and I invited you over to hang out and he was there and you met. Say you talked and took a walk and he kissed you.” “And?” I kept my eyes peeled for Claudia. “Would you pursue a relationship with him, if he didn’t have the baggage?” I’d asked myself the same thing ever since I’d started being nice to him. “I don’t know.” “Yeah, you do. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself.” I pressed my lips together. “You know I’m right.” She was right. So right. “Hey! Less lounging, more working,” Claudia snapped as she emerged from her office, her face as dark as a storm cloud. “He is good-looking, if you like the tall, dark handsome, brooding types,” she said, grinning at me during break. “He is all of those things.” If only he weren’t so handsome, things would be much easier. “I’m more of a ‘scrawny rocker’ girl, myself, but I can see the appeal.”
  • 219. We finished putting the bolts away so we walked back to the cutting counter. “So what do I say to him?” “Sweets, you gotta go with your gut.” “What if it’s wrong?” She shrugged one shoulder. “Then at least you learned something. I also have the feeling that your gut is rarely wrong, Lot. But what do I know?” She smiled and went to help a customer. What in the hell was I going to do? *** I called Mrs. Davis after work to get an update on Lexie. It made my stomach twist to realize how much being with Zan had put it out of my mind. “Hi sweetie,” she said, sounding as if she’d just woken up. “How is she doing?” “She’s stable and they’ve moved her into her own room. We’re hoping to take her home in a few days. She’s been asking for you.” The words were sharp. They pierced my heart as if someone had stabbed me. “Can I come see her?” “We’re limiting her visitors right now, but maybe in a few weeks when she’s feeling better. Okay, sweetie?” It wasn’t okay. It was the farthest from okay. What would Lexie think if I didn’t show up? I understood why they were doing it, but that didn’t mean I agreed with it. “Okay.” The word came out in several syllables because I was trying my hardest not to break down on the phone. “I’ll let her know that you called. I’m sure she’d love it if you sent a card so she could have it to look at.” “I will.” “Thank you for being such a good friend, Lottie.”
  • 220. “Okay.” I couldn’t find another word to say. We hung up and my legs gave out and I folded to the floor. A horrible gasping sound filled my ears and I realized it was my own breathing. How could I have kissed Zan? How could I have considered spending even a second of time with him? How could I? Lexie had had setbacks and problems before, but this time I felt like this one was my fault. I hadn’t been around as much for her. I hadn’t called her as much as I should, or visited as much as I should have. I got caught up in everything and abandoned her, which was the one thing I’d promised myself never to do. Tears didn’t come. They almost never did when I cried like this. I cried and cried, but no tears came. Just pain. Blinding pain. Distantly, I heard a knock at the door, but I was too lost in myself to do anything about it. I couldn’t even uncurl my body from the fetal position. The knock turned into a bang, and then there was a commotion. More sounds followed. A pair of warm hands clasped my shoulders and tried to pull me upright. I fought them, but they were strong and wouldn’t let me go. “Charlotte. Charlotte.” The voice was quiet, but insistent. It penetrated the wall of agony. Somehow. I lifted my head and met a pair of eyes as dark as the night and as deep as the ocean. “Hey.” I couldn’t use my voice just yet. “What happened?” It took me a moment to put the pieces together, and once they snapped into place, I fought to get away from those eyes, from those hands. “Whoa, hold on.” “Let me go! Let me go!” He did, and I fell back in my effort to get away from him. “Just go away!”
  • 221. He backed off, but didn’t leave. “I’ll go, but I just want to know what happened. I’m not leaving you like this.” I held onto myself so I wouldn’t fall apart. “I shouldn’t have done it. I shouldn’t have kissed you. It’s all my fault.” He crouched in front of me, but didn’t touch me again. “What is, Charlotte?” “Lexie.” “What happened to Lexie?” “She’s in the hospital and it’s all my fault. I wasn’t there for her and then I kissed you and I spent time with you when I should have been thinking about her. It’s my fault.” He reached out his hand, like he was going to touch my face, but dropped it when I pulled away. “No, it’s not pretty girl. None of this is your fault.” “It is. It’s yours, too.” He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it and shook his head. “It appears to be.” I used the frame of my bed to pull myself up and crawled onto my mattress, pulling my knees up. “Please, just go.” “Okay.” He left, but didn’t close the door, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. A few minutes later, there was a soft knock before someone peered in. Will. “Hey, Lot.” I rolled over to see him. “Did he send you?” “Sort of. I was coming up to see you anyway. My twindar went Code Red.” Will came in cautiously, but as soon as he sat next to me on the bed,
  • 222. he put his arms around me and pulled me into his chest. He smelled like home, like safety. “It’s not your fault, Lot. You have got to stop blaming yourself for everything. None of this is your fault. None of it.” I put my head next to his heart. “I shouldn’t have done it.” “Done what?” “I kissed Zan.” “Wait, what? Is that what you’re upset about?” He didn’t seem overly shocked. “Yes. No.” He put his chin on the top of my head and pushed my hair back. “If there were a prize for taking blame for things that you had nothing to do with, you’d win.” “Don’t joke, Will.” “Sorry, Lot.” Pulling my chin up so I could look him in the eye, he said, “The world isn’t going to end because you kissed Zan.” “Actually, he kissed me.” That got me a look. “Lottie.” “I know. It’s still not something I should be doing.” I put my head back into his chest. “If I ask you a question, will you answer it without me having to call you out if you lie?” I knew what he was going to ask. “You like Zan, don’t you?” he said. I raised my head and met his eyes. I couldn’t hide from them. My mirror, my truth. I’d never been able to lie to Will. Not about something as small as eating an extra piece of his Easter candy or something as big as liking Zan. “Yeah.” “Wait for a second.” He stayed totally still, as if he was waiting for something. “Do you hear that?”
  • 223. “Hear what?” “Just a second.” He went to my window and looked out. “Unless this is some elaborate computer program designed to look exactly like real life, I think it’s safe to say that the world hasn’t ended because you admitted you liked Zan.” I pulled a pillow into my arms. I still needed something to hold onto. “I didn’t admit it. You said I liked him and I just agreed with you.” “Lot. Semantics aren’t going to get you out of this.” I held the pillow tighter, hoping it would anchor me. “I can’t like him, Will. He’s the last person I should like.” “Except for Zack.” “I would never like Zack.” “Thank God.” He flopped back on my bed and I rested my head on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll put it in our vault.” Will and I had a special vault for our secrets that only the two of us shared. Even our parents didn’t know the combination. He made a series of noises that sounded like locking a vault and putting in a key and hiding that key. “It’s not against the law for you to like someone. It’s not something you can help. Feelings happen, even if they’re not supposed to. You can’t stop it,” he said. I closed my eyes. “I want to.” “I know, but I don’t think this is one of the crushes you can just get over.” “How do you know?” “Because I know you, and I know how you behave when you like someone and I’ve never seen you like this before, because I’ve never seen you like someone like this before. I could lie to you and tell you that you’ll get over it, but then you’ll know I’m lying.” “Since when have you been Zan’s biggest fan?”
  • 224. Will shrugged. “Since I can see how much you like him. I’m not saying I’m on his side, but I can tell that you like him.” “Why does it have to be him?” We were both quiet for a while, thinking. “Why did Luke Skywalker make out with his sister?” It always came back to Star Wars with Will. “Because it was a plot device?” “Because sometimes you have a connection with someone and you can’t explain it right away, but someday, it will all make sense.” I raised my eyebrows. “So you’re saying that Zan is our long lost brother?” “What I’m saying is that you don’t know why you’re drawn to him right now, but someday things might fall into place and you’ll realize it was supposed to happen.” “I think you’ve watched Star Wars too many times.” He shook his head and hugged me again. “I don’t think you’ve watched it enough.” Zan As soon as I knew her brother was taking care of her, I changed my clothes, grabbed my iPod and went running. I was inches away from totally losing it and destroying something greater than my hand, so I had to get out. With every smack of my feet on the ground, I screamed another expletive in my head. I’d been so stupid. That whole not-thinking thing had backfired and led to me hurting her. Again. It had to stop. I had to put a stop to it. I’d been so selfish. She’d already gone through enough and here I was, forcing her to relive it all. I was the biggest fucking douchebag. Even worse than Zack. At least
  • 225. he’d never tried to kiss her. Not that he hadn’t thought about it. I’d learned quite a lot during his drunk ramblings. I wasn’t even hearing the music that came through the earbuds. It could have been that awful pop crap that the radio wouldn’t stop playing for all I knew. That kiss would have to do. That night would have to do. I would never hold her hand again, or make her smile or make her cry. Maybe I should switch schools. If only Zack wasn’t here, I would. If I wasn’t worried that something else would happen if I left. I’d averted enough disasters in the past to know what could happen if I wasn’t there. If I wasn’t there to clean up after him. Besides, I’d promised Charlotte that I would keep an eye on Zack and Katie. I couldn’t break that promise now. Filling thought balloons wasn’t going to do it this time. I was going to have to shut those moments away in a place far in the back of my mind and only take them out years from now. I couldn’t forget her, but I’d have to push her aside in my head. Focus on school, focus on anything else. I ran until it was so dark I couldn’t even see where to put my feet. I fell a bunch of times, but I got up and kept going. My hands were scraped raw, as were my knees. I was punishing myself, I knew, but that didn’t mean I was going to stop doing it. I’d just do it without drugs and sex this time. *** The only way I could push Charlotte out of my life was to fill it with other things, like playing the banjo and running and reading. I pulled out the camera Miss Carole had gotten me that had been neglected in a drawer and started taking pictures on my runs. I visited the farm and took some of the horses. I didn’t encounter the woman who’d chased me off the first time, but I mostly went to the farm late or
  • 226. early, when fewer people were around. I filled my life as much as I could, but the other things couldn’t squeeze her out. I saw her a few times, but only at a distance. I’d thought about sending her a note, or something like that to make it final, but I didn’t. I’d accidentally made eye contact with her in class once, and she’d broken it as fast as she could, and that was all the good-bye I needed. I caught her brother looking at me, and it wasn’t with pure hatred. It was almost pity, but that didn’t make any sense. “You shouldn’t back down,” Stryker said during one of our banjo sessions. He had a habit of starting random conversations with me while we were playing. He was on his banjo and I was on an extra one he’d bought. He claimed it wasn’t specifically for me, that he’d gotten a good deal on it, but I didn’t believe him. It was a pity banjo. “I can’t put her through any more. It’s not fair to her,” I said, struggling with our current song. He was convinced I could play ‘I Will Wait’ by Mumford and Sons, but I thought he was insane. “Then you’ve got to decide if potentially hurting her is worth getting laid.” “You know I don’t want her for that.” “I know. You love her. In a deep once-in-a-lifetime kind of way. A first love. Maybe an only love.” I kept my mouth shut because he was right. “You ever felt like that?” I asked. He shifted the banjo on his lap. “Not yet. I’ve been looking for the right girl. Haven’t found her yet. Hasn’t stopped me from trying a few out to see if they fit.” He gave me a grin. “How is that working out for you?” He plucked out a tune. “I’ve had to return all of them so far. Haven’t found the right fit yet. Trying them on is part of the fun, though.”
  • 227. Chapter Twenty-seven Lottie With some mental gasoline, I set the Zan Parker box on fire and watched it burn, then swept the ashes out of my mind. I added some bleach for good measure. I wasn’t going to think about him, talk about him or even acknowledge his existence for the rest of my life. Will told me I was crazy. Simon shook his head in disappointment. Trish said I was fighting the inevitable. Audrey said I should give him a chance. Katie didn’t say anything. Mom suggested Mockingbird, but that reminded me of him, so I asked her for another suggestion, and I got Pride and Prejudice. How my mother knew it was a problem with a boy was one of those mysteries about moms that kids had been trying to solve for hundreds of years. They all seemed to want to talk about it, and it wasn’t until I went ballistic during a study session with Will, Audrey and Simon that they decided to drop it. I called Mrs. Davis every day to get updates on Lexie, and she was making progress. They upped her medication and effectively turned her into a doped-up robot. At least she couldn’t hurt herself. The days turned into weeks, and Halloween was upon us. I’d been hard at work on my Jane Austen costume, staying up late until my eyes were burning so I could get the damn thing sewed. Trish thought I was insane to hand-sew it. She had a really nice machine in her apartment and was working on her own costume, an absolutely sick Mad Hatter outfit that she was hoping to win a costume contest with. “So Zack and I are going to the Kappa Sigma party, and you can
  • 228. come, if you want,” Katie said a week before Halloween. Will, Simon and I had just planned on going to the campus party, which would be lame, but none of us had an in on any of the “cool” parties. “I think I’ll pass.” “Are you sure? It should be a good time.” “My costume isn’t really frat party couture.” It covered most of my body, but at least had a little cleavage going on. I’d bought a non-period appropriate bra to go with it because I didn’t have the time to make a corset and I couldn’t afford to buy one. Katie smiled in a way I’d come to dread. It meant she was plotting something. I’d come to know her better, and this was my least favorite of her faces. “Well, I just may have a solution to that problem.” She dashed back to her closet and came back with a box. “I may or may not have bought you a little something.” “What for?” She laughed. “For putting up with me. For not kicking me out. Maybe for that night that I ended up kicking you out. I’m still sorry about that.” We’d had an awkward conversation afterward, and Katie had agreed to take her carnal activities with Zack elsewhere. She also agreed not to drink that much again, but I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep that promise, especially considering we were considering going to a frat party. “Go on, it won’t bite.” I opened the box and pushed back some tissue paper to find something silky and red. I crossed my fingers, hoping it wasn’t lingerie. I pulled it out and found a fire engine red 1940s style form-hugging, wide-strapped dress. “I thought it could be part of your new wardrobe.” She’d been subtly sending me hints about the supposed makeover, including sending me emails with pictures and buy links for things she thought I should get.
  • 229. “It’s gorgeous,” I said, because it was. Silky and sexy and made for someone who wasn’t me. “There’s no way I can wear this.” “Why not? It’s just a dress, Lot.” Katie had glommed onto the nickname of my nickname. “Will you at least try it on?” “How much did you pay for it?” “I got in on sale. Will you please just try it on?” “Fine, fine.” I started to take my jeans off, but Katie stopped me. “Wait, I want to get the full effect of the before and after.” Katie turned her back and I slipped the dress on, after taking off my T-shirt and jeans. I wasn’t wearing the right underwear with it. This thing was going to require a thong and a strapless bra. The zipper was on the side, so I was able to do it myself. I smoothed down the rich red fabric and told Katie she could turn around. She didn’t say anything at first. “How bad is it?” She was blocking the mirror. “Turn,” she said, twirling her finger, and cocking her head to the side, as if I was a mannequin she was studying. I turned slow so she could check out the full effect. “Come here,” she grabbed my arm and dragged me to the full-length mirror that was propped in her closet. “I think the two words to describe this look are ‘hot’ and ‘damn.’ You look amazing.” I turned to the side and back. Somehow the dress had pulled in at my waist, giving me an hourglass figure, and making my somewhat hippy body look proportional. It also made my boobs look much boobier than they really were. Stopping just short of my knees, it made the rest of my legs look longer than they really were, too. “This is a magical dress,” I said. “If you didn’t have the raw material, it wouldn’t work. I also had your measurements, so I could fit it right. They were written in your sewing notebook.” I had them written down in a little book I took with
  • 230. me when I shopped for patterns so I could always buy the right one. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” I checked out how flat my stomach was and tried to be pissed. I didn’t try very hard. “So will you wear it and come?” I couldn’t really accept the dress without having a place to wear it. Maybe a frat party wouldn’t be so bad. I’d have to bring someone else. Maybe Will or Simon, or even Trish. Someone as a buffer. Someone I could escape with if I had to. “As long as I get to bring someone.” She played with the straps, adjusting them so they sat perfectly on my shoulders. “Zan isn’t coming, if that’s what you’re worried about. I know I’m not supposed to mention his name, but I just wanted you to know he won’t be there. In case you were worried.” I hadn’t considered it until she mentioned his name. I’d been that good at keeping him out of my brain. “So now I’m not going to talk about him, but how damn gorgeous you look. Would you let me do your makeup? I have red lipstick that would look amazing, and we can do a smoky eye –” I cut her off before she could go much further. “Sure, why not? I just have one question. Who am I supposed to be?” She grinned again, as if she’d been waiting for me to ask. “I was thinking you could either get some white gloves and do Jessica Rabbit, or be really daring and do Marilyn. You’ve got the hair and the skin to do Marilyn, you bitch.” The last part was said in a playful tone. “Are you kidding? I’d kill for your skin tone. Or at least severely injure someone.” “I’d kill for your figure in that dress.” I just gave her a look. “Thanks for the dress,” I said. “Really.” “You’re so totally welcome. I meant what I said about the makeover. Anytime, anywhere and you’re on. I’ll have to practice with your hair
  • 231. before Halloween so we get it right.” She started messing with my hair and twisting it around her fingers and talking about curlers and mousse and such. I just let her. I’d become a human Barbie doll. “Okay, take it off. We don’t want anything to happen to it.” I slid the dress off, and pulled my regular clothes back on while Katie wrapped the dress back up in the garment bag and put it on a hanger in my closet. “What are you going as?” “Zack and I are doing this whole vintage gangster thing. It’s really an excuse to get him to wear a fedora. I love guys who wear hats.” Talking about guys in hats made me think of him and his newsboy cap. Katie interrupted my thoughts. “We’re doing dinner tonight, yes? Zack’s got this training thing he has to go to.” “As far as I know.” Katie had joined our dinner crowd, when she wasn’t with Zack. I wanted to ask why she didn’t eat with her friends, but it seemed like a touchy subject. I’d seen less and less of them lately, and her pictures had been gradually disappearing from her wall. Katie and I walked down to get Will and Simon. He’d abandoned his initial attraction to her after she said she’d never seen Star Wars, so they’d turned into sort-of friends. I ignored the door beside Will’s. It was so odd that I’d bumped into him so much those first few weeks, but I’d barely seen him since. Except in class, which we couldn’t help. He tried to sit as far from Will and me as possible, but sometimes the only seat was a few rows away. He kept his eyes to himself and didn’t even glance over. “You ready to go?” I said to Will when he opened the door. “Yeah. We’re Simon-less again.” “Typical.” “Is Aud coming?” Will said.
  • 232. “Think so.” Audrey and Will were still dancing on eggshells around each other. I was at the point where I just wanted to lock them in a closet for several hours so they’d just realize they were perfect for one another, but I’d probably get in trouble for that. They’d thank me after, though. We walked one building over to grab Audrey. I made Will do the door knocking. “Hey girl,” I said. “You coming to dinner?” She grabbed her coat and gloves. “Yeah, sure. I have to make it quick. I’m behind on this stupid project.” “Are you sure you’re actually behind?” “Yes, I am actually behind.” Audrey set these crazy deadlines for herself and claimed she was ‘behind’ if she missed one of them, but she always had the paper or project done ages before anyone else. “She loved the dress,” Katie said as Audrey got her coat. “You knew about the dress?” Katie and Audrey had somehow, inexplicably, become friends. I was still puzzling over that one. “Of course. She helped pick it out,” Katie said. “Hey, Aud,” Will said, falling into step with her as I walked next to Katie. “Hey,” she said softly. The nickname never failed to make her blush just a tiny bit. “She loved it, so this means you have to come to the party,” Katie said, pouting at Audrey. “Please?” She shook her head and put her hands up, as if to halt Katie’s line of “I can’t. I have a huge project. Otherwise I would.” “You are so full of crap.” Katie skipped ahead and held the door for all of us. “What party?” Will said to Audrey. Katie was the one who answered, now skipping along the sidewalk.
  • 233. “Halloween party at Kappa Sigma. You in? All you need is a costume.” Will thought about it for a second. “I’ve got my Jedi outfit from last year.” I grabbed his arm and made him stop walking. “You are not wearing that in public. Again.” He pulled his arm away. “I didn’t spend all that money on a lightsaber replica just to keep it in the case.” “You have a lightsaber?” Audrey said. Will gave her his girl-melting smile. Finally, he was on his game. “Yeah. That make me a total geek?” She gave him a come hither smile back. “Not if having a complete set of wands does.” “You have the wand set? I freaking hate you,” I said. “My parents got them for me last Christmas. It was the only thing I wanted.” Katie gave me a look, but I just shrugged. I understood. I glanced back at Will and Audrey and they were talking about their shared fangirling and fanboying. “Hey Will—” I grabbed Katie’s arm and cut her off, jerking my head to indicate the cozy little conversation I didn’t want disturbed. She winked and walked faster, leaving more space in between us and the other two. “You should just get them drunk. It would work a lot faster. That’s how Zack got me the first time. It was in the back of his truck on a tarp. Totally romantic, I know.” I’d relaxed my ‘no talking about Zack’ restriction, so she talked more about their relationship. It was kind of impossible for her not to talk about him. I just pretended he was some other guy I hadn’t met named Zack and I was able to listen without throwing up in my mouth. “If nothing happens by Christmas, I’m locking them in a closet together,” I said.
  • 234. “Good plan.” As if Katie’s mention of his name had conjured him up, he was sitting alone in the dining hall when we got there. We were having an early dinner, so it was relatively empty. “Does he have any friends?” Will asked Katie. “Not really,” Katie said, giving him a quick glance. She was always super weird when she saw him, and I didn’t know if it had to do with me, or with Zack, or with something else. I’d never asked. I’d been able to control a lot of my verbal outbursts lately. Will said it had something to do with growing up. I wasn’t convinced that was it. We sat at a table on the other side of the dining hall, and I knew it was just because of me. “What’s the verdict on the Halloween party?” Katie said. “Are you in?” She pointed her finger at Will. “Yeah, I’m in. Someone has to keep this girl in line,” he said, jabbing his thumb at me. “You’re not going as Jane Austen to a frat party, are you?” “First of all, I was Elizabeth Bennet and second, no. Katie came up with my costume. I’m doing Marilyn.” “There isn’t a lot of cleavage involved, is there? I really don’t feel like spending my night fending off drunken morons who are staring at your chest.” He shuddered. “You can just vanquish them with your lightsaber. You know, use the force.” I wiggled my fingers in front of his face and he smacked them away. His face went red and he glanced at Audrey. “Shut up.” “I’m sure I won’t be the most scandalously dressed girl there,” I said. “She won’t be,” Katie said. “I can guarantee some of the costumes will have nipple action.” Will’s face went redder and his fork clattered to the floor. I was kind of enjoying this. It was a welcome distraction from him.
  • 235. “And sooner or later, there will definitely be some vag flashed by more than one girl.” Katie was clearly enjoying this too. If Audrey hadn’t been there, Will would have been laughing and having a good time. But she was, so he squirmed in his seat. “Fine, I’ll come,” Audrey said. “I think I’ve got something I can throw together.” She tapped her chin as if she was mentally going through her closet. “You going to share, or is it a surprise?” Will said, leaning closer to her. “Oh no, I’m not telling. You’ll see.” She smirked and I thought Will was going to melt into a puddle on the floor. He coughed and went to get a new fork. “It’s not really fair to torture him like that,” I said to her. “Why not? It’s way too easy.” Katie said. “Stop it,” Audrey said. Now who was red-faced? Will came back and they looked like a matched pair. Katie smirked at me and I tried not to laugh. We were both barely holding it together when something out of the corner of my eye attracted my attention. He was taking his tray back to the conveyor belt. He kept his eyes forward, but glanced once in my direction at the same time I was watching him and our eyes locked. The world halted for a fraction of a second, and then he blinked and looked away. I had to hold onto the table, because it felt as if he’d dragged me forward in that moment. “Lot?” Will said. “Yeah.” My eyes followed as he walked toward the door. “You’re staring at him.” “I know,” I said, still watching. “Hey!” Will snapped his fingers in front of my face and I stopped watching his back as he left.
  • 236. “Are you sure you couldn’t, maybe, talk to him?” Will said, flinching back as if I was going to hit him for saying it. “Stop flinching, I’m not going to hit you, idiot.” An uncomfortable silence fell over the table, and I finished my salad just for something to do. “I’m not saying you should see him, or anything. Just talk to him. I know you miss him,” Will said. “I don’t miss him,” I lied. Everyone sort of shared a look. They all knew. “So do you want to come and get ready with us on Friday night?” Katie said to Audrey. “Yeah, that would be great.” Zan I’d hoped by hunching my shoulders and sitting in the corner, she wouldn’t see me. I ate fast and kept my eyes away from her, but it was no use. Our eyes met and for that moment I wanted to say fuck it, walk over, pick her up and carry her to my room, shut the door and kiss her and talk to her and get her naked and let things happen. My hands shook as I left. It was time for another run. I’d run every day and at least once during the night in the past few weeks. The one night of sleep I’d gotten when she was with me was only a memory. I was even leaner than I’d been when I came to school. I’d been eating less too, so I’d lost a bit of weight. Zack was on me about it, but I ignored him. I didn’t really care all that much. Miss Carole was worried about me. She even threatened to come down and yell at me if I didn’t get my act together. I told her my grades were good, and I was going to all my classes, but she could tell I wasn’t doing well in any other area of my life. I had enough cash stored up from summers of mowing lawns and odd
  • 237. jobs to get me through school, but I was considering a job, just to fill up some more of my time. When I got back from yet another run in the dark, I went right to the shower. Bruises covered my body from my falls, and I had yet to get all the splinters out of my hands. It’s kind of hard to remove your own hand splinters. I was just putting on Pink Floyd when there was a knock at the door. Figuring it was Zack, I opened it without looking through the peephole. “Hi.” Charlotte stood in the hallway, twisting her hands together and making sure her eyes were on anything but my face. “Hey.” It was the best I could come up with as a response. “What are you doing here?” “I’m not exactly sure. I just… I wanted to apologize for freaking out and giving you the silent treatment, um, up until now. I realize that ignoring you is kind of a stupid thing to do, because you’re here and I can’t really transfer schools for something this stupid. So. Here I am, saying that I’m not going to ignore you anymore. I don’t think I can go back to what happened before, with, the kissing and all that, but I think we could try maybe being friends. Or something. What do you think?” She’d blinked those sexy blue eyes about a million times during her little speech. I could tell she’d rehearsed it on the way down the stairs. “I think that I miss you, too,” I said. I smiled. “I didn’t say I missed you.” Her eyes traveled up to meet mine. Finally. “Do you want to come in? Friends can go into friends’ rooms and listen to music, can’t they?” Her smile appeared. “I guess so.” “I can leave the door open to give you an escape route, if you want.” She rolled her eyes and came in, pulling the door shut with a click. “Pink Floyd?” she said after listening for a moment.
  • 238. “Why not?” She nodded in agreement. “Do you want to sit?” “I’m good.” She paced the room like a tiger in a cage. I should have left the door open. “Would you like some tea?” “What?” I went to my closet and pulled a box of green tea off my shelf. I even had a bottle of honey and some creamer. Miss Carole always made me tea when we had meetings, and I’d come to associate the stuff with soothing and calming. “Sure. Thanks.” I made both of us some tea as she paced the room some more. “Do you listen to anything modern?” she asked, looking at some of my new photos. “Sometimes,” I said as the microwave dinged. “Cream and honey?” “Yes, both.” I handed her a mug and she blew on it before taking a sip. She couldn’t really pace with a mug of hot liquid, so I pulled out my desk chair for her and sat on my bed. “This is good, thank you.” She seemed surprised. “Most guys think tea is lame or gay or something.” I smiled. “I think most males in Britain would have a problem with that.” “True.” We both sipped as I waited for her to say something. I knew she wouldn’t be able to deal with the silence for long. Her eyes perused my wall, which had changed since she was here the last time. “Did you take those?” She nodded at some of the recent pictures I’d taken of the horses at the farm. “I had to find a way to keep you out of my head.” I wanted to pull the
  • 239. words back, but they were already out. “I’m sorry. That came out sounding a lot creepier than I intended.” She laughed nervously and I finished my tea. “What else do you do? For hobbies.” “Terrorize pretty girls like you.” She snapped around to see if I was serious. A beat of silence passed. “I run.” “I never pegged you for the running type.” “That was what I was doing, when I nearly took you out that time. Is your ankle okay?” “Yeah, it’s fine.” She finished her tea, and that looked like it was going to be the end of it. “So what do you do for hobbies?” One corner of her mouth lifted in a half-smile. “Annoy handsome guys like you.” It was my turn to be shocked. She giggled at my expression and handed the mug back to me. “Maybe we could do something sometime. I know that sounds vague.” “You’d go somewhere with me?” She moved toward the door. “As long as I can drive.” “I don’t drive anyway. I never got my license.” Stopping, she turned. “You didn’t?” “I couldn’t really get behind the wheel after all that, and Zack is always around to give me a ride.” “Huh.” “Does that surprise you?” “Not now that I think about it, actually it does.” She sat on the floor and crossed her legs. Maybe she wasn’t going anywhere. “Sorry I brought up the driving,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s not like I can avoid it.” “True.” She drew a circle on the rug with her finger. “I don’t hate
  • 240. you, by the way. I used to, but I don’t think I can. Not now that I know you.” I wanted to kiss her right then, but I made myself stay still. “I tried, and I couldn’t. Then I tried blaming myself for letting it happen, and that sucked. I thought Will was going to have to beat some sense into me.” I wanted to do the same. How dare she take on any of the blame? “I should have done more, that night. So she didn’t get in the truck. If I could have convinced her, it wouldn’t have happened, and I’d still have her the way she was.” “You’re smarter than that, Charlotte. Falling into that trap is too easy for someone like you.” She traced some more circles, turning them into loops, like the infinity symbol. “It was easier to blame myself than to say that it was an accident that I had no control over. Losing control is one of the scariest things. That’s why people are afraid of the dark. Or death. They’re afraid of not being in control.” She looked up from the rug to see what I thought. This was one of those times when I couldn’t find the right words. “You’re right.” Simple, but true. She looked back down, and I realized I should have said more. The silence lengthened and then it was too late. “Sorry to be such a downer,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me. I’m sorry I’m not better at conversation.” “I talk enough for two people.” “Maybe I could borrow some of your words, and then we’d be even.” She laughed softly. “Deal.” All the things I wanted to say to her, to have her know, clamored
  • 241. around my brain, begging for me to let them out. “I should probably go. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming down here. Katie probably thinks I drowned in the bathroom sink.” She started to get up. “Wait.” Her eyes locked with mine. “There are a lot of things I want to say to you, but I’m afraid if I say them that you’ll go away again, and I don’t want that.” “I say things I should be afraid to say all the time. You didn’t seem afraid that night by the football field.” “That was before I knew what it was like to lose you.” “In all fairness, you never really had me.” Her words should have hurt, but they were true, and I knew it. “Just spit it out Zan. If I haven’t left already, given what’s happened, I’m pretty sure I won’t.” Even she seemed shocked by the last part. “That’s not because I like you, or anything. It’s just—shit.” Her face went a brilliant shade of red and she looked so flustered I couldn’t help but laugh. “You are not laughing at me.” I pressed my lips together and tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. “Stop laughing,” she said, starting to laugh herself. She leaned down and smacked me in the shoulder. “Jerk.” I grabbed her arm and pulled her down next to me. She made a little sound of surprise, but didn’t stop me. “This is what I want to tell you.” I clasped her face between my hands and let myself sink into the depths of her eyes. She was frozen, probably with shock, but at least she wasn’t struggling. I would have let her go if she did. “‘I want to see you. Know your voice.
  • 242. Recognize you when you first come 'round the corner. Sense your scent when I come into a room you've just left. Know the lift of your heel, the glide of your foot. Become familiar with the way you purse your lips then let them part, just the slightest bit, when I lean in to your space and kiss you. I want to know the joy of how you whisper ‘more’’” The words, memorized this summer came to my lips. They were better than any I could come up with. She reached her hand up and stroked my hand on her face, and looked away from my eyes. “I guess I asked for it,” she said, closing her eyes. “Why can’t you be someone else?” “I’ve asked myself the same thing every single day.” I moved my hands, tracing her face, her nose, her ears. She had such sweet ears. “Why can’t you be someone else?” She opened her eyes and gripped my arms, but she didn’t try to pull them away from her face. Biting her bottom lip, I watched her struggle. I knew I wasn’t the only conflicted one.
  • 243. “I swear to God, if I kiss you, and something bad happens, that’s it. And not something like a papercut or getting my period early. Something like falling down the stairs, or getting robbed. Anything happening to Lexie. Got it?” “If the sky starts to fall, I’ll catch it for you, pretty girl.” I moved my face an inch closer, so I could feel her every exhale on my skin. “Why do you have to say things like that and make this so hard? If you were just an asshole like your brother, I wouldn’t be here right now.” “I could be an asshole if you want me to.” I moved again, and we were so close that her face blurred in my vision. “That would make things a lot easier.” Neither of us could fight the last millimeter of space that separated our lips. It was even better than the first time, if that was possible. This time she knew it was coming, and wanted it. Probably not as much as I did, but still. It took two people to make a kiss happen. I started to move my head, and she went in the same direction and our noses crashed, causing both of us to pull apart and try again. “Sorry,” she said to my mouth. “Okay,” I said back. We tried again, and I let her decide where she was going to go. Fuck, her lips were soft and clean. I’d drowned far too much in sticky gloss in my lifetime. Lips didn’t need lube. Her hands reached for me, fisting in my shirt and pulling me closer. We were sort of smashed sideways against the wall, so I turned, and let her lie back, keeping myself propped on my arms so I wasn’t lying on top of her. I didn’t think I could deal with that much body contact without losing it and embarrassing myself. And then her hands wrapped around my back and she pressed her body upward, begging me.
  • 244. “Charlotte,” I said before I slid my tongue into her mouth. Her only response was a throaty moan that had replaced her saying my name as my favorite sound in the entire world. If she was any other girl, I would have had her clothes off and would be fucking her by now. I never wanted to fuck Charlotte. Well, not unless she let me. All those other girls, I lost myself in them. Forgot who I was. Forgot Zan Parker and all the mistakes he’d made and what everyone thought about him, and how shitty my life had gotten. I wanted to find myself with her. I pulled away from her lips and kissed her nose. “Let the sky fall,” I said. “It’s worth it for something like that.” She brushed my lips with her fingers. “Regrets?” I said. She shook her head. “I’ve never seen you mute before.” “It’s rare,” she said, tracing the outline of my lips with her forefinger. I kept just enough space between our bodies that she couldn’t feel my hard-on. It was pretty obvious, but I didn’t want her to think that I was pushing her. We’d only talked about kissing. I was also almost positive she was a virgin. “I’m not having sex with you,” she said. “I don’t expect you to.” She raised both eyebrows. “I would never, ever push you to do something you didn’t want to. If sex was what I wanted, I could find it somewhere else.” She swallowed before she asked. “Do you?” “I used to.” Her hands moved up and down my arms. “Oh.” “Does that shock you?” “I don’t know. My brain is not exactly in top thinking form right
  • 245. now.” She smiled and I relaxed a little. “Do you think that this could happen again?” I said. “I’ll have to ask my Magic 8 Ball, but my sources say… Maybe. I don’t know, Zan.” “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?” She licked her lips. “Be someone else?” “I could be someone else. Who do you want me to be?” “Can I call you Alex?” I smiled. “There’s only one other person in this world who calls me Alex, but I think I can make an exception. Would you like a new name?” “I like it when you call me Charlotte. I almost forget sometimes that it’s my name.” “It’s such a lovely name for a lovely girl.” I kissed her softly on the cheek. “How do you know I’m a lovely girl?” “I know more than you think, Charlotte.” “Stalker.” “I couldn’t help noticing you.” “Why?” Now that was a question I didn’t have the right words to answer. “I’ve been noticing you for so long that I don’t even remember anymore. You’re kind and sweet and you always want the best for everyone you love, and you do whatever you can to make it happen. You’d sacrifice your own happiness for someone you loved.” It was so much more than that, but at least I had words for that part. “It’s not because I’m the one girl you can’t have? Some people do that. Fall for unattainable people so they don’t get hurt.” “Some people do, but not me.” A sound in the room just on the other side of the wall made us both look up, as if someone had walked in on us. “I should go. I shouldn’t be here now,” she said.
  • 246. “This isn’t the first time you’ve been in my bed.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Please don’t remind me, Alex.” “You didn’t like sleeping in my bed?” “Shut up.” She pushed her palm into my chest and I rolled away so she could get up. “I am probably going to go back to my room and overthink this and blab to Katie and freak out and ignore you tomorrow.” “Is that so?” “I know my patterns.” I walked my fingers up and down her back and she let me. It was so freeing, after not being allowed to touch her for so long. “Would you like to have breakfast with me?” “I don’t think I’m ready to go public with this. Whatever this is.” Twirling her fingers in my hair, she pulled a little, and I thought she was going to kiss me again, but she didn’t. “I can make a mean Pop Tart, and there’s always more tea.” “True. As long as I can sneak down here after everyone else has gone.” We sat for a moment and I was just about to kiss her again, but another sound next door put a stop to that. “So, breakfast?” I said. She nodded. “Breakfast.” I walked her to the door. “One more goodnight kiss?” I asked. I was probably pushing my luck, but it was traditional. I had precedence on my side. “I guess,” she said, getting up on her tiptoes to give me a quick, chaste kiss. It was still hot. “Goodnight, Alex.” “Goodnight, Charlotte.” I closed the door and heard her footsteps go down the hall. “Fuck,” I said, collapsing on my bed and glancing down at my jeans. I was past the point of no return, so I was going to have to take care of
  • 247. myself. There was no running that off.
  • 248. Chapter Twenty-eight Lottie “Where have you been?” Katie said when I finally came back. “I was about ready to call campus security.” “Just made a little detour.” “Where?” She stared at me, but I sealed my lips over the words that fluttered behind my lips like caged birds. “Nowhere.” I yawned and flopped on my bed. “You are lying to me, Lot.” “I’m not lying. I’m just not telling you where I was.” “Well, considering there is only one place that you would be reluctant to tell me about, I can assume that we got to you during dinner and you went to go see him. I’m going to guess it went well, seeing as how you were down there for a long time, and your hair is kind of funky in the back.” “It is?” I reached back and found that my ponytail was sort of smushed to one side and quite disheveled. “You really like him, don’t you?” The hipster glasses were back, and her bed was spread with textbooks. There was hope after all. “I don’t know.” “Just… be careful.” Obviously. “Katie? Can you please not tell anyone? I’m still trying to work out what’s going on, and I want to keep it to myself.” “What are roommates for?” “Exactly.” I crawled into bed and stared at my ceiling. I couldn’t help touching
  • 249. my lips. They were just a little swollen. I licked them, and found his taste still on my skin. “Be careful,” Katie said again. “Zan’s been with a lot of girls.” I glanced up, but she wouldn’t look directly at me. “How many?” He’d said as much, but we were just kissing. It wasn’t like he was going to be my boyfriend and buy me flowers and take me on lame dates and all that. We were… we were sort-of friends. Friends who might kiss once in a while. Friends with benefits sounded so cliché. “A lot.” Were we talking ten a lot, or twenty a lot or more? She kept re-arranging her notebooks and I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. Why had she brought it up? “Well, I’m not planning on sleeping with him.” “I’m sure a lot of those girls said the same thing. It just sort of happens.” Penises entering vaginas didn’t just happen. Otherwise there would be a lot more pregnancies. There was a lot that led up to it before the actual act. “Have you ever had it ‘just happen’?” I said. She nodded as if it was no big deal. “A few times.” “With who?” “Guys I shouldn’t have been sleeping with.” She was being really frustrating. “Anyway, just be careful.” “Be careful, got it. You ready for bed?” “Yeah, just have to brush my teeth.” I’d brushed mine before I went to see Zan. I liked calling himAlex. It didn’t make him a different person, but it was like he had a secret identity that only I knew about. I also liked having the taste of him on my mouth. ***
  • 250. Somehow Zan and I made it through the next five days without anyone getting wise. Even Will. I’d sneak down, or he’d sneak up, or we’d meet somewhere people wouldn’t see us. He introduced me to his friend Stryker, who said that his place was at our disposal for any and all trysts. I went red as Zan explained that it wasn’t that kind of relationship. We hadn’t progressed past kissing, but that didn’t stop me from feeling his hard on every single time. He tried to hide it, but he wasn’t the only one who had a hard time keeping it in their pants. I just didn’t show it as much. Stryker and Zan would have banjo marathons while I did homework or read, or Zan and I took walks. He tried to get me to run with him, but I knew he’d leave me in the dust and I didn’t want to drag down his pace. He soaked into my life, and once it started I couldn’t stop it. If I’d wanted to stop it, I shouldn’t have gone to his room that night, or let him kiss me. It was too late, and I was still waiting for the sky to fall. We were alone at Stryker’s one afternoon while he was at work, and we were supposed to be studying, but I kept getting distracted. “Hey,” I said leaning over the rim of his book. “Hey.” He closed his book and leaned forward. “Are you trying to get me to forget about my homework? Because it’s working.” “Maybe. Maybe I think you’re way more interesting than ribosomes.” “I should hope I’m more interesting than ribosomes.” He cupped my face in one hand and I leaned into him. “What is it?” “I feel like I’m betraying Lexie by being here with you.” His lips inched closer to mine, and his face was so close, my vision blurred. “I know she doesn’t remember anything, but that doesn’t matter. I feel like I’m breaking a promise.” “I wish you didn’t feel that way, but the fact that you feel such loyalty
  • 251. is another thing that makes me want you.” I pulled back just a little so I could see him better. He was so serious and so honest. That was all I needed to know. I pushed myself forward so my lips crashed into his. He leaned back and pulled me on top of him, scattering our books and pens and notebooks. Who gave a shit about ribosomes? I rolled so he was above me. There was a book digging into my hip and I shoved it away. We should have moved to the couch, but I didn’t want to break away from him for that long. He propped himself above me, as if he was waiting for something. I pushed myself up on my elbows and kissed his lips. “You’re beautiful,” I said. “Not as beautiful as you.” His hands slid under my shirt, pulling it up. “Well, you’ve already seen everything there is to see,” I said, remembering the towel incident as I sort of pushed myself up on my elbows and tried to use my hands at the same time. How was I going to get my shirt off while I was lying down? Why was this so easy in movies? “I didn’t,” he said, pulling me up. “Do you need a hand?” He looked like he was fighting a smile. “Several,” I said as he pulled the cardigan off my shoulders, and helped me get my arms out. My t-shirt was next. He fingered the hem, raising it just a little to expose my stomach. “Lie back.” “What are you going to do?” “Wait and see.” I hesitated, but he kissed me again, and my insides melted and my spine turned liquid. He left my lips and slid down my body, until his face was in line with my stomach. He lifted the shirt a few more inches, and my skin erupted into little bumps as it was exposed to the air. Zan blew on my skin, which both tickled and made
  • 252. certain parts of my body start tingling. His fingers slid across my skin, and then his lips followed. “Sweet fuck,” I hissed through my teeth. His lips vibrated as he chuckled and it was one of the sexiest experiences I’d ever had. Granted, most of my experiences with the opposite sex had been not that sexy, but still. “I like that you don’t have a filter,” he said as he kissed my bellybutton. “I like this too.” He slipped his tongue inside and my mind exploded. Or at least that was what it felt like. I didn’t have words for that. Just incoherent noises. “You’re adorable,” he said, pulling himself back up my body to meet my lips again. “I can’t believe I get to kiss you.” “I can’t believe you just did that.” My skin was humming with joy. I still had a book under my back, but it seemed really unimportant. “Charlotte?” he said, holding my face. “Uh huh?” “Are you sure?” I ran my hands under his shirt and over his stomach. “About this? Honestly, no. But I like it, and I want it to continue.” “How far do you want it to continue?” “You sound like me, over analyzing. Just go with it.” I clamped onto the back of his neck and mashed my lips with his. It wasn’t the most romantic thing, but he responded, finally putting his hands fully up my shirt. “Shirt off,” I said between kisses. He got it off as fast as he could, and it didn’t get stuck on my head. I had a moment of holy-crap-I’m-not- wearing-a-shirt before he ran his hands down my sides, over my bra (which was a cute one, at least) and back up to my face. And then the door opened. Zan
  • 253. “Jesus. I wish I had a bucket of ice cold water right now,” Trish said, swinging her keys around in a circle. She was aware of the change in my relationship with Charlotte, and she made it no secret that she thought it was both bizarre and wrong. “Hey, Trish,” Charlotte said, tipping her head back and looking at Trish upside down while covering herself with her shirt and cardigan. “I was just coming over to drop off something. I didn’t know you two would be here.” I rolled off Charlotte and looked at the carnage we’d made of our study session. She got both shirts back on and redid her ponytail. I grabbed a book and placed it strategically in front of my crotch. Charlotte caught me and averted her eyes. Girls had it so easy in that department. “Are you coming to the Halloween party?” Charlotte had mentioned it, but hadn’t asked me if I was going. We’d been skirting the issue of going public. I wasn’t ready to define what we were until she was ready, and if she couldn’t tell Will yet, then I knew she wasn’t ready for that. He’d almost caught us several times, and it was torture sitting so far away from her in class. Sometimes I wrote her little notes when we were apart and slipped them under her door. More often than not, they had the wisdom of Rumi in them. “I don’t know, am I?” I glanced over at Charlotte, who was busy separating my books from hers. “You can do whatever you want.” “I don’t have a costume.” “I thought you two would have already figured this out. My bad,” Trish said, trying to edge her way to the door. “If you come, that means we’ll be in the same place at the same time and everyone will probably know what we’re doing,” Charlotte said. “Everyone knows anyway,” Trish muttered. “What?” Charlotte got to her feet. “What do you mean everyone
  • 254. knows?” Trish held her hands up in surrender. “Hey, I didn’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re thinking, but you’ve been underestimating your ability to hide your activities.” “Does Will know?” “He’s your twin. Don’t you have that special twin connection that tells you when one of you is in pain, or lying or something?” Charlotte had explained about her ‘twindar.’ “Will’s been really busy lately…” She looked off into space as if she was listening for something. “Aw, shit. He does know. I’ve never been able to lie to him, so I’ve been trying to just not tell him details, but he must know.” “There’s also the fact that you’ve been canoodling in the room right beside his.” “We’re not loud,” Charlotte said. “You may not think you are, but you’re not really aware of that in the moment, are you?” Trish said, giving me a glare. Charlotte turned to me. “Did you know that he knew?” “Not exactly, but I knew he would find out eventually. I was just following your lead. You’re in charge, Charlotte,” I said. She started pacing around the living room. “Oh, shit. I should have told him. Why did I think we were going to be able to hide it?” I’d thought it was useless to try, but it was her plan. “You should have told me I was being stupid,” she said, smacking me in the chest. “I would never say you were being stupid about anything. Except if you said that stupid boy band that’s popular is better than The Beatles. That would qualify as stupid.” “Oh my God.” She tugged at her ponytail. “I have to go see him.” “Do you want me to come?” “No, he’d probably kill you. Just… Stay here. I’ll call you.” She
  • 255. gathered up her mountain of books and gave me a distracted kiss on the cheek before dashing out to Will’s truck. “Guess it’s just you and me, cowboy,” Trish said, coming over and sitting on the couch as if she owned the place. “Guess so.” “You need a ride back to campus? I can’t really see you running with those.” She gestured to my stack of books. “That would be great, thanks.” I grabbed my stuff and made sure I’d left everything the way it was when I came in. Not that Stryker really cared. He’d told me where the spare key was and said his door was always open. “So you and Lottie, huh? I saw that coming a mile away.” I didn’t answer. She wiped fog from the windshield and cranked the defroster. “I’m not going to pretend that it makes me happy.” Still, I didn’t answer. She was baiting me. “Strong and silent, aren’t you?” I finally looked at her. “I don’t want to say anything that you may try to use against me later.” “Hm.” She turned on the radio and switched it to the alternative rock station and started blaring some Muse. “Are you going to come to the Halloween thing?” “Only if she wants me to.” “Do you do everything she says?” That made me laugh. “For the most part. I’m not going to fuck this up by taking it too fast. She’s too important to me.” “Fast is normally your speed.” That wasn’t a question. “Normally. But she’s not a normal girl.” “No, she’s not. I haven’t known her for as long as you, but she’s one
  • 256. of the only people who doesn’t look at me like I’m a dyed, pierced freak. If anything happens to her, I swear I will kill you and make it look like an accident. I know people.” I would have laughed if she weren’t so serious. Charlotte loved fiercely, and those people loved her fiercely in return. You couldn’t really love her any other way. “Message received. Although, you would probably have to get in line behind Will, Simon, Audrey and Katie in order to get your shot at killing me.”
  • 257. Chapter Twenty-nine Lottie I hadn’t been thinking. I’d been too caught up in the kissing and the flirting and the sexiness of it all. When I’d told Will I was studying, or working, or hanging out with Trish, he always accepted it with no questions asked. I pounded on his door until he opened it. “Lottie, what the hell?” He must have been taking a nap. “How long have you known that I was hanging out with Alex?” He yawned and rubbed his hair. “Who’s Alex?” “Zan. How long have you known I was hanging out with Zan?” He moved aside to let me in. “I heard you talking that night you came down after dinner. My suspicions were confirmed the next morning when you didn’t come to breakfast, and then over and over because you’d mysteriously disappear.” I whacked him on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you say anything, you idiot?” “I figured you’d tell me eventually.” “So you’re okay with this?” “I wish you would have told me instead of me using my twindar against you.” “I just didn’t know how you’d react. You were all for it the other day, but that was before you knew about anything, so –” “Lottie. You are my sister and I want you to be happy. If he makes you happy, even if he’s the guy you wanted to murder just a few weeks ago. I’m on your side.” “There’s just one thing I need to do before I’m completely for you
  • 258. being with Zan.” “What’s that?” Will grabbed my face between his hands and stared deep into my eyes. “What are you doing?” “Making sure your soul hasn’t been replaced by an alien species.” “How does staring at me prove that?” “Your eyes would be dead. Or different, or something.” I tried to pull back, but he wouldn’t let go. “What the hell are you talking about?” “Quick, when is your birthday?” He had lost his mind. “Uh, same as yours. December 25. We celebrate Birthmas every year.” He narrowed his eyes and finally let go of my face. “I guess so.” “You are so weird.” “Says the girl who changed her mind and decided to sleep with her mortal enemy.” I jabbed my finger in his face. “First off, we haven’t had sex .” Yet. “He’s not my mortal enemy.” He was one of two. He moved my finger away. “Okay, Lottie. So are you guys, like, together? Am I going to have to be nice to him now?” “We’re not anything, and yes, you have to be nice to him. Or else I will tickle you into submission.” I went for his tickle spot, but he was too fast for me, getting my arm and twisting it behind me as I struggled to get free. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m related to you.” He finally let me go, but I pulled him into a hug. “Ditto.” “Lottie?” “Yeah?”
  • 259. “Just be careful.” God, how many times was I going to hear that? “I will.” “Okay.” He gave me a squeeze before letting me go. “Love you, Will.” We hardly ever said we loved each other, but this felt like a good time. “Love you, Lot.” “Oh, Will?” I said before I went to call Zan and tell him that Will wasn’t going to kill him (at least not today). “Would you mind if he came to dinner with us tonight?” Will sighed and looked upward, as if begging for help from a higher power. “Fine.” “And you’ll be nice?” “I’ll be nice.” “Great. Now twin promise that.” “Come onnnn.” “Twin promise.” He did it reluctantly. “Thanks, Will.” “Yeah, yeah.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek and dashed back to my room before he changed his mind. Zan “Come on, tell me what you’re going to be.” It was a few hours before the Halloween party, and Charlotte was trying to get my costume out of me. She’d already been through my closet, looking for clues. What she didn’t know was that I was hiding my costume in Stryker’s closet. “Tell me what you’re going to be,” I said. She wasn’t the only one keeping her costume a secret.
  • 260. “I told you, Jane Austen,” she said slowly. Such a liar. “No, that was going to be your costume.” “How do you know that?” “I have my ways.” Trish told Stryker, Stryker told me. “Come on, tell me.” She pouted up at me. We were on my floor and she had her head on my chest as Leonard Cohen serenaded us. “No way, pretty girl.” “Fine. But I get to choose the next song.” She’d brought her iPod with her so I could steal some of her music. I’d given her a lot of mine, so it was only fair. She cranked the volume and plugged in my speakers. I recognized the melody, but not the version. We’d been listening to Leonard’s version only moments before. “‘Dance Me to the End of Love’,” she said. “Covered by The Civil Wars.” “I love this song, but I’ve never heard this version.” “So do I,” she said. “Dance with me.” I got up and held out my hand, pulling her up. I wrapped my arm around her waist and kept her other hand. This wasn’t the slow-dance shuffle most guys my age were familiar with. No, if I was going to dance with her, it was going to be the real thing. Our height difference was going to be an issue, so I pulled her up until she was standing on top of my feet. “There,” I said. She looked up at me and held on as I swayed and moved my feet. Much easier. “I hope I don’t step on your toes,” she said. “Step all you want, pretty girl. I don’t mind.” The song ended and I dipped her like they did in the movies, which made her laugh. “Where did you learn to dance like that?” she said. “My grandmother. She said every boy had to know how to dance with a woman properly.”
  • 261. “You’re good.” “Thank you. I never knew I’d need that skill until now.” I’d been saving it for her, specifically, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. She glanced at the clock on my desk. “I should go get ready. Who knows how long Katie is going to take to turn me into whatever she’s going to turn me into.” “I can’t wait to see you.” I just hoped she wouldn’t go overboard and changed Charlotte into something she wasn’t. “Ditto. See you at five?” I touched her nose. “Bye, pretty girl.” “Bye, Alex.” I ran to Stryker’s to grab my own costume. It had actually been his idea. “Hey,” he said, and it took me a second to recognize him with the plastic fangs he’d attached to his teeth and the black outfit, complete with red cape. “What do you think?” He had a tiny bit of a lisp when he talked. “It’s a little cliché, don’t you think?” “Maybe.” He swept the cape around and let me in. “But chicks are big on vampires now. It’s the surest way to get laid.” I gave him a look and he laughed. “I figured it was the surest way to blend in,” he said. “Got it.” I got my costume on and Trish came over to get ready with a huge garment bag. “You know, if you want to move in with me, you can just pay me a couple hundred bucks a month and the couch is yours,” Stryker said. “The only reason I’m here is because my roommate is having a party and I can’t stand the horrible music she’s playing.” “Well hello to you too,” Stryker said, mussing her hair. She punched him on her way to the bathroom. “Asshole.”
  • 262. “You’d better not be in there for three hours,” he called after her. “Bite me,” she answered back. “Don’t antagonize the vampire,” he yelled. *** When Charlotte opened the door wearing a vintage red dress, her hair curled and pinned up in the back and a single string of pearls around her neck, I didn’t know what to say. Words couldn’t do her justice. She spun in a slow circle, revealing the low-cut back that showcased her gorgeous skin. “I’m hoping the fact that you’re not saying anything is good, and not because I look hideous.” “You’re stunning, Charlotte. I’m afraid to take you anywhere.” She pursed her bright red lips. “And why is that?” “Because you’re so beautiful I don’t think I’ll be your only suitor tonight.” “What if I want multiple suitors?” She leaned against the door, and my eyes skimmed her figure, accented by the tight nature of the dress. “Then I might have to get in a lot of fights.” “You’d fight for me?” I took her hand and twirled her around. “Charlotte. I’m always fighting for you.” She smiled. “You look worth fighting for too, Ponyboy.” My costume consisted of a leather jacket I’d borrowed from Stryker, ripped jeans and a T-shirt that said GREASER on it. I’d slicked my hair back, too. And I felt like a jackass standing next to her. “Although, I’m not sure how fast I’d be in this thing. It’s a little
  • 263. tight.” She tugged on the hem of the dress. Of course that drew my attention to just exactly how tight it was. I wondered if she was wearing anything underneath it. “You could always split the sides,” I suggested. She narrowed her eyes. “Are you trying to get me naked, Alex?” Who wouldn’t try to get her naked? “If I say yes, are you going to slap me dramatically like in one of those classic movies?” She flushed and ducked her head. “I know we’re sort of going public, but I still don’t know if this is something I want. You and me. It’s been wonderful so far. I just feel like I’m still waiting for the sky to fall, and the longer it doesn’t, the more scared I get.” I’d been so careful not to push her, but it seemed I’d have to be even more cautious. Why did she have to talk to me when she was wearing the sexiest dress I’d ever seen? Well, it wasn’t the dress that was the sexy part. The dress was nothing without her in it. “We don’t have to talk about it tonight,” I said. “We can go to the party and have a good time and then we’ll talk tomorrow. Tea and Pop Tarts?” “How can you be so patient with me? I keep asking myself if I should just call it off so I don’t tie you down.” Dear sweet Charlotte, never thinking about herself. “Pretty girl, I will wait for you until the stars burn out, but if you want to end it, you can. You’re calling the shots.” She laughed softly. “For a guy who has a reputation of a player, you certainly don’t act like it.” “Being with you and having meaningless sex are two different things.”
  • 264. “Do you miss the meaningless sex?” Honestly, yes. Sometimes. “I used it as an escape. A way to not be me for a while. Now that I have you, I don’t need it anymore. That’s not to say I don’t want to escape with you. I’m just not going to push you into it.” “You’re my escape, too.” “Are you coming?” Trish poked her head down the hallway, her hat still in place. “Everyone’s ready, but I was the only one brave enough to come and see if you two were knocking boots or not.” Charlotte grabbed her coat and put it on. I worried about her bare legs in the cold, but she could always have my coat if need be. “Knocking boots?” she said, tucking her lanyard in the pocket of her coat. “What? It’s an expression. Holy shit, you look fabulous,” Trish said to Charlotte. “So do you. Badass.” Charlotte tapped Trish’s top hat. “Totally sick.” “That dress is pretty sick.” It was. I hoped there would be enough girls in lingerie for the pushier of the guys to go after. Not that Charlotte had a problem with saying no to anyone. That made me smile to myself. “What are you smiling about?” “Nothing. Just you.” I wanted to take her hand, but I didn’t want to do it front of Will. He’d said he was amenable to our relationship, that didn’t mean I wanted to rock the boat. “What do you think, William?” Charlotte said when we met our group in the lobby of our building. Will had on an ugly striped sweater, a black wig, orange face paint, and was holding rubber duck, and it wasn’t until I saw Simon with his similar shirt and yellow face paint that I made the connection.
  • 265. Burt and Ernie. “Jesus, Lot. Little risqué, don’t you think?” Will slash Ernie said. “What’s wrong with it?” Trish said. “It’s just… kinda tight,” Will said. Simon slash Burt gave her a thumbs up. “Bellissima,” he said. “Am I the only one that thinks it’s tight?” Will said. “This is so typical. Why doesn’t she just cover her entire body and live in a cave?” Trish said, giving him an icy look. “Christ, Trish, relax. Just because I don’t care if you dress like a tart, doesn’t mean someone else’s brother doesn’t care,” Stryker lisped around his fangs. “So you’re saying she’s dressed like a tart?” “That’s not what I meant,” Stryker said to her. “You would never dress like that, Lottie.” “Even if I did, it would be no one’s business but mine. Not even yours, William,” Charlotte said, pinching Will’s ear with her fingernails as if he was a little boy who’d snuck a cookie out of the jar. She didn’t let go until he begged for mercy. I was completely confident in her ability to hold off any unwanted suitors. “Okay, okay. Are we ready? I texted Aud and she’s going to meet us out front,” Will said, rubbing his ear and opening the door for the rest of us. “Is it that tight?” Charlotte said, looking down. “Just right,” I said, reaching to take her hand. She slipped her fingers into mine and we swung our arms as Trish and Stryker continued to argue about women wearing tight clothing.
  • 266. Chapter Thirty Lottie I was really glad I took Katie’s suggestion to wear pantyhose because it was quite nippy outside. Holding Zan’s hand helped, too. Audrey had her coat on, but opened it to show us her costume. A thin button-up shirt that showed her belly button, a short pencil skirt, sexy pumps and a set of sensible glasses. Her hair was twisted back, revealing her cheekbones. “Wow,” Will breathed. “You look –” He couldn’t continue. “Damn, girl. You are going to make one sexy lawyer,” Trish said. “You got it? I brought this in case people didn’t get it.” She held up a gavel. “Even though I won’t get to bang one, I thought people might get the idea.” Will was still trying to put his eyes back in his head. “Close your mouth, Ernie,” I hissed at him. Zan looked like he wanted to laugh. Stryker coughed and Trish rolled her eyes. *** The noise from the party was so loud you could hear it far up the street. Since the house was just off campus, we’d decided to walk. “You sure about this?” Zan said looking at the pounding house that was practically bouncing on its foundation from the music and the gyrating bodies. “You only live once.” The dress gave me more confidence than I normally would have had. “Hopefully the sky will wait until tomorrow to fall.”
  • 267. “I’ll make sure we at least get one dance in beforehand,” he said, taking my hand and giving me a twirl. We all entered the party together, but quickly split off. Zan and I ended up in a corner by a window out of the way of a lot of the action. Trish had gone to get a drink, Stryker went out for a smoke, and Will and Audrey found their own corner. “You see Katie?” I had to pull his ear down and yell so he could hear me. “There,” he said, pointing. There she was, my roommate in a pink cleavage-showing, hip-hugging pinstriped dress, doing the mouth tango with Zack. The fedora was on her head, and his hands were all over her. I flashed back to the night of the bonfire, and how Zack had done that with Lexie. I turned away. “Are you okay?” Zan sensed my distress. “Fine. It just… reminds me. Of that night.” “I understand. Do you want to go outside?” I nodded. He took my hand and led me out of the large living room where most of the party was, but he didn’t take me out the front door. “Where are we going?” I yelled. “You’ll see.” He pulled me up the stairs, which were crowded with people and opened several doors before finding one that wasn’t occupied. He tried to pull me in, but I jerked his hand back. I was not hooking up with him in a strange frat guy’s bedroom. “Zan!” “Just hold on,” he said, tugging me along as if I offered no resistance. We didn’t stop at the bed, but he went to the window, which he pushed open. He stuck his head out, looked around and then hoisted himself through. “Come on,” he said, holding his hand out. “Outside is this way.”
  • 268. Somehow I was able to get myself out of the window, even though it was much more difficult than it would have been in jeans. “That was an act of congress,” I said when we were finally out on a little landing that doubled as a fire escape. “Here we go,” he said, taking my hand and leading me onto the roof. It was sloped, but not enough that I was scared of sliding off. The sound of the party was muffled, as if we’d stuck our fingers in our ears. “Better?” he said once I’d gotten myself into a sitting position. “Much.” I pulled my coat tighter. It was effing freezing up there. Zan put his arm around me and tucked me into his chest. He blocked a lot of the wind, and he was always warm. “Do you want to go?” “We can’t leave yet. We came all the way down here, and I didn’t wear this dress for nothing.” “What did you wear it for?” “I don’t know. I just felt sexy and grown-up when I put it on. Is that dumb?” A triumphant yell sounded from the house below. Someone probably won the Beer Pong Championships. “Not at all.” He took my hands and put them inside his coat. “Just in case they get cold.” We sat for a while, not talking. If only we could see the stars and had some hot tea, it would have been perfect. “You’re not mad at me, are you?” I asked. “Mad at you for what?” “For not knowing what I want.” “The fact that you’re even sitting next to me is more than I thought I’d ever have, so no.” He kissed my cheek. “It just isn’t you. It’s like I’ve known these two different Zans. The one that wrecked everything and then the guy who put everything back
  • 269. together.” “Oh, Charlotte.” I moved so I could look at him. “What?” He paused for a long time before he spoke. Choosing the right words. “Would you come somewhere with me tomorrow? You’ll need to drive.” “I have the day off. I was going to hang out with Audrey and Trish.” “Please.” He’d never asked me for anything. “Sure. Where are we going?” “You’ll see. I just… I need a place where we can talk. A private place.” If he were any other guy, I would have said it was some sort of covert plan to get me to have sex with him. With Zan, things were different. I knew when he said he wanted to talk, it meant just that. “Do you want to go back down?” he said a few minutes later. “We probably should. Trish and Stryker are probably still arguing.” Zan helped me get to my feet and back through the window without any issues. “And I didn’t even rip the dress,” he said as he set me down. “Good boy,” I said, patting his cheek. The party seemed even more raucous when we got back to the heart of it. Above the music and the laugher, I heard someone yelling. “I believe no means no, you insensitive douchebag!” Zan and I glanced at each other and followed the voice. A crowd had assembled in the large living room quicker than you could say ‘fistfight.’ Zan shoved his way through as someone yelled back at the guy who had yelled first. Stryker. “Zack,” Zan breathed. “I’ll be right back.” “You can get the fuck out of my way, fang boy,” Zack said, trying to shove Stryker backward. My eyes searched and found a sobbing Katie
  • 270. being comforted by Trish and Audrey in the corner. Will was standing just beside Stryker, as if he was waiting for a good moment to step in. Zan waded into the situation with the grim determination of someone who had been there before. “Zack, come outside with me,” he said, trying to pull him away from the fracas. “No way, man. This guy was trying to tell me what I can do with my girl,” Zack said, trying to get to Stryker, who held his hands up, as if to say that he didn’t want any part of a fight. The crowd was getting restless, itching for someone to throw a punch. People tried to shove me aside, but I threw out my elbows and handed out a few bruises. “Let’s just go outside and get some air and we can deal with it, okay?” Zan said, trying to take one of Zack’s arms and remove him from the situation. “Fuck you, Zan. Fuck you.” Zack jerked away from Zan’s grasp and tried to punch him, but Zan was too fast. Unbalanced from the thwarted punch, Zack went down. “Need a hand?” Will said, leaning down to help Zan. “I’ve got it,” Zan said, his voice sharp. I’d never heard him be sharp with anyone. “I’ve got it,” he said again, heaving a swearing and thrashing Zack to his feet and starting to drag him out of the house. The crowd parted like the Red Sea for Moses. I wanted to follow, but Will beat me to it. “I’ll make sure they’re okay. You check on Katie.” “Thanks, Will.” Shoving my way through the crowd, I finally reached my friends. “What happened?” I said, as someone turned the music back up. Audrey was busy holding Katie up and dabbing at her running mascara. “Zack started groping her and she told him no, and he didn’t like it. Stryker was just getting a drink and happened to be walking by, so he told Zack he should listen to Katie, and then their testosterone
  • 271. exploded,” Trish said. “The penis effect?” “Exactly.” “Stryker was about to beat the shit out of him when you came down.” “Zan should have let him.” Trish nodded. “Hey, Katie,” I said, wishing the dress allowed me to carry a purse. I couldn’t shove any tissues in the tiny little phone holster I had strapped to my leg. “It was so stupid, Lot. He just got a little handsy. That was all.” “Katie.” “I know! I know you hate him!” She chucked her now-black tissue on the floor. It was already littered with cups and wrappers and God knew what else. “Katie,” I said as she started to walk away. “I just want to go home.” She’d been so excited about tonight, and just like that, it was ruined. By none other than Zack Goddamn Parker. Zan I got Zack outside even though he didn’t make it easy on me. He kept saying that he was going to beat the shit out of Stryker. Yeah, that was going to happen. Stryker was a black belt in Jujitsu, and even though he hadn’t practiced in a while, he could still take out my drunk brother. “I’d beat the shit out of that pussy-ass loser,” Zack said as I dragged him to a bench on the lawn of the frat house. “Sure you would, bud.” Steve had always called Zack bud when he was younger and he was still trying to kiss up to my mother. “Everything okay?” Will was striding across the lawn to check on us. “We’re good,” I said. I’d done this enough times. I could take care of my damn brother.
  • 272. “Anything I can do?” “Call a cab? I’d rather not drag his ass all the way across campus.” “No prob.” Will pulled out his phone and found the number for the local cab company. “Done,” he said when he hung up. “Should be here in a few minutes.” “Where is he?” Zack tried to stand up and I shoved him back down. “I just wanted to have a good time with my girl.” “I know, I know,” I said, wishing Will would go the hell away. I glanced up at him, and he nodded at me, his hands in his pockets. “Some party.” “Yeah,” I said. This was the first time we’d been sort of alone. “You make her happy, you know,” he said, shuffling from one foot to another and hunching his shoulders in the cold. “Lottie,” he said, as if I didn’t know who he was talking about. “She lights up when she sees you. Even before you got together. Even when she was pretending to hate you.” A group of half-naked girls stumbled past us, yelling about something. They cheered as they walked up the steps, and there were cheers inside as well. “I’m not saying that it makes me happy. I also don’t get how she can flip from wanting you to burn in hell to making out with you in such a short time, but I’ve made some questionable dating decisions myself, so…” Clearly, the gift of conversation was genetic. That almost made me smile. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m not going to stand in your way.” He held out his hand. I stared at it for a second, and then shook it with mine. “From what I’ve seen, you’re a good guy. You just did a bad thing, and you’ve been paying for it. But I guess you’re not the only one.” He jerked his chin at Zack, who was slumped over on the armrest of the bench.
  • 273. He didn’t really know what he was talking about, but I let it go. I’d always let it go. “That looks like the cab.” Lights swept over the lawn and pulled into the circular driveway. “Hold on a sec and I’ll get Lottie.” “It’s okay. I’ll call her later.” I didn’t want to see Charlotte’s face right now. Seeing everything written on her face would just turn this shitty night into an even shittier one. I’d been a moron to think this could work with her. With Will’s help, I got Zack into the cab. “Tell Charlotte I’ll call her when I can. I want to know how Katie’s doing.” “I will. Have a good night.” Not likely. I got in the cab and gave the driver the name of our dorm. “Fuck you,” Zack mumbled beside me, rousing from his stupor. “Right back at you.”
  • 274. Chapter Thirty-one Lottie Audrey was able to get Katie calmed down enough to get her out of the party and start walking back to the dorm. There definitely wasn’t anyone sober enough to offer us a ride, and Katie refused to take a cab. Luckily, we had Will and Simon and Stryker for protection, because there were definitely a lot of creeps out. Halloween really brought out the hooligans. Will had given me Zan’s message about calling when he could. It stung that he left, but I understood his reasoning. Besides, I didn’t want to be within shooting distance of Zack Parker right now because I didn’t fancy getting arrested. No one really talked much as we walked back until Katie’s teeth started chattering loudly. She’d forgotten her coat back at the frat house and refused to take anyone else’s. “For the love of Christ,” Stryker said, shrugging off his cape and draping it over her shoulders. “I don’t want it,” she said, the words taking several tries to get out because of her chattering teeth. “Tough luck, sweetheart.” He wrapped her up like a burrito and she was too cold to fight him. As soon as he had it secured, he pulled the collar up, turned around and kept walking. The night had been a bust, so we all went to our separate rooms, and Stryker dragged Trish to his car, despite her protestations. “If you need anything, call me,” she said as he pulled her along. “I will.” Audrey helped me get Katie to our room, and Will and Simon left us
  • 275. to it. “Will everyone stop staring at me? It’s really pissing me off,” Katie said as we shut the door. I shared a look with Audrey, but we just ignored her. “Katie, we’re just concerned about you.” “Yeah, well, I have parents for that. I don’t need you doing it too.” She grabbed one of her pink pillows and hurled it onto my side of the room. “Everything just gets so fucked up.” She threw another pillow. Then another until her bed was bare. Then she screamed at the top of her lungs and hurled herself on the bed. It was going to be a long night. *** Audrey ended up crashing on our floor, on a mattress made from all those effing pillows. I didn’t know what else to do but make Ramen noodles and put on a Law and Order marathon. There was always at least one on some random cable channel. We kept the room dark, and didn’t talk about the party. Katie kept her dress on, but I took mine off, and Audrey borrowed some of Katie’s pjs, since mine wouldn’t fit. My phone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I sent Zan a text saying that we’d gotten back fine and I was taking care of Katie. I wanted to ask if we were still on for the next day, but he was probably busy taking care of Zack, so I didn’t want to pressure him about it. I was the last one to get to sleep, based on the deep quiet breathing of Audrey and Katie’s snoring. She had to break up with him. Sooner or later, he was going to destroy her. Destroy her just like he’d destroyed Lexie. I wouldn’t stand by and watch this time. No, it stopped now.
  • 276. I rehearsed what I would say for the rest of the night, getting only a few hours of sleep. First to rise, I got up and went to the bathroom, and when I came back Audrey was awake. “How did you sleep?” “Like I was on a cloud, actually. They should start making pillow beds.” She stretched out and yawned. “Hungry?” “Not really. I think I’ll go back to my room.” “Like that?” I indicated the pink tank top and sweatpants she was wearing. “I’ve got my coat.” I hated asking her for something. “Um, Aud?” “Yeah?” “I might be going out today. Do you think you could take Katie out? Or watch movies with her, or something? I don’t want her to be alone so she won’t think going back to him is a good idea.” “Sure. Just let me go back to my room and get some stuff and I’ll be back.” “You’re a lifesaver.” “I try.” I went to take a shower, and I had to wash my face about four times to get all the makeup off. Such a waste. Katie was awake when I got back, her hand in a box of cookies and a stupid reality show on the TV. “Hey,” I said, closing the door. “Hey,” she replied around a mouthful of cookies. “Don’t choke.” “Whatever.” She still had her dress on. It was wrinkled, and her hair resembled a haystack. Tracks of mascara still crossed her face.
  • 277. “Do you want to get breakfast? We could go out. I’ll buy.” “Nope.” I brushed out my hair and sat down on my bed. “Do you want to talk about it?” “Nope.” “Do you want to go up to the roof and throw things off and watch them explode when they land?” “Nope.” Well, I was shit out of luck. Katie stared at the TV until Audrey came back. Katie’s phone was blowing up, but she just glanced at it, but didn’t touch it. “Hey, I was wondering if you wanted to watch some movies. I know you haven’t seen Breakfast Club, so I brought it up.” Her hair was wet and twirled back into a bun, and she had leggings and a sweatshirt on. I’d never seen Audrey so casual. “Nope.” “I brought chocolate.” At that, Katie finally looked away from the TV. “What kind?” I breathed a sigh of relief as Audrey handed her the box. I said I was going to brush my teeth and went to call Zan. He didn’t pick up until the fourth ring. “Hey,” I said, leaning against the wall. “I was just checking to see if we were still on for today.” “Charlotte,” he said. For the first time, I didn’t like the way my name sounded when he said it. I waited and listened to him breathe. “Only if you still want to,” he said. Did he really think that was going to change things? Silly boy. “Of course I do. Last night had nothing to do with you.” “I wish that were true.”
  • 278. “I want to see you,” I said, because it was true. “You owe me a dance.” I could almost hear his smile. “Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes?” Usually we met in his room, but I wasn’t going to argue. “As long as you bring tea and Pop Tarts. Oh, and your banjo.” “Promise.” “See you in ten.” “Bye.” Zan After the cab had dropped us off in front of our building, I’d gotten Zack to his room and into bed, much to the confusion and dismay of his roommate. “What the hell?” “Sorry. He’ll probably just sleep it off.” I could have taken him to my room but I was done with taking care of him for one night. I was done with his shit, done with his drinking and fucking girls and fucking up. I left his room and ended up going for an angry run in the dark. This time I brought a flashlight, but that didn’t stop me from falling a few times because I couldn’t be bothered to watch the ground as my feet hit it. Running on the track would have been safer in my condition, but I welcomed the pain, the blood, the unpredictability. I tried to call Charlotte a million times, but couldn’t do it. I was a fucking coward. Telling her the truth had seemed so easy last night on the roof with her in that red dress. So easy. In the jagged light of a new day, everything seemed heavier and more complicated. It was good to hear her voice and hear that she still wanted to talk. Still wanted to see me.
  • 279. Sweet Charlotte. I didn’t deserve to be around her. I shouldn’t pull her into this shithole that was my life. My secret had dragged me down. I didn’t want it to drag her down too. I searched my book of Rumi, desperately looking for something that would give me some wisdom. Tell me what to do. He may have been dead for hundreds of years, but he knew a hell of a lot about love. Gone was the red dress when I went to meet her. She had on comfy skinny jeans and a bulky maroon sweater and a long white scarf. It wasn’t the red dress, but she still looked damn good. Except for the dark circles under her eyes that showed that she had also had a long night. “Your Pop Tart and tea, my lady.” I had two cups of tea and the Pop Tarts in a paper bag, as if they were from a bakery and my banjo slung across my back. I’d gotten several odd looks from passersby. “Thanks.” She took the offered cup and the bag. “Truck’s out in the student lot.” Humming softly to herself, she sipped her tea. “This is it,” she said, pointing to a forest green machine that had more than a few rust spots that had been patched and painted over. She had to hop to get up in the driver’s seat, and once she was in it, she had to move the seat as far forward as it would go. “Do you need blocks on the pedals?” “Shut up,” she said, but she was smiling. She switched to a cheesy announcer voice. “Being short comes in handy. I’m travel-sized for your convenience. I also fit in tight spaces, would make an excellent cat burglar and I am probably the only person you know who can wear the same dress I wore when I was twelve. I can be yours for only four easy payments of fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. Call right now and we’ll throw in a vegetable chopper absolutely free.” She leaned toward me. I leaned too. “What a bargain. You and a vegetable chopper?”
  • 280. “If you call in the next forty-five seconds, we’ll knock one whole payment off.” Our faces were only inches away. “If I kiss you, can you knock another payment off?” “I don’t know about that. We’ll have to see…” I kissed her and her lips tasted of honey from the tea, mint from her toothpaste and her normal Charlotte taste. The last was my favorite flavor. The kiss was brief because she pulled away. “I think we can knock off a payment. Would you like to try and knock it down another payment?” she said. “Absolutely.” I kissed her again, and this time I didn’t hold back. I sucked her bottom lip between my teeth and nibbled on it and traced her teeth with my tongue and made her moan in the back of her throat. We had to break the kiss so both of us could breathe. She’d made me forget how. “Free. You can have me for free. You just have to pay the shipping and handling for the chopper,” she said a little breathlessly. “I don’t mind,” I said, diving toward her mouth again. I pushed harder, and she responded, fisting her hands in my hair and pulling me closer. This was not what I had in mind for today. “Mmm,” she said, licking my bottom lip. “We should stop. Not that I want to, but I need to know where we’re going.” “You’re going to turn right out of campus and head to I-75 South.” “Okie dokie,” she said, giving me one last peck before putting on her seatbelt. “My Pop Tart, sir.” I handed her one and took one for myself. She got the car started with some effort. The thing was so loud, I was worried we were going to get pulled over for excessive noise violation. She turned on the radio, changing from the classic rock station I
  • 281. assumed Will had it set on. “This doesn’t feel like an Eagles and Def Leppard kind of day. Not that I wouldn’t rock out to that. I do. Frequently.” “Listen to whatever you want.” “Hmm,” she said, flipping through the stations. “Oh, I wish there were some way I could listen to some really sweet banjo tunes. Alas, I can’t find a banjo-playing station. Whatever shall I do?” she said in a fake-Southern accent. “Look at that,” I said, playing along. “I have found a banjo.” I held it up and she cheered. “You must play it.” “Your wish is my command, pretty girl.” I picked out a few tunes and she sang along, making up her own words while she finished her Pop Tart. I’d brought a few extras, just in case she wanted more. We had a long drive on the highway, and at every exit sign, she asked me if she was supposed to turn. “Not yet,” I’d say and she would glare at me. I started trying to play other tunes, some with success, some without. “I like that one, what is it?” she said. “Woody Guthrie.” “Does it have words?” “Yes, but I can’t sing, so it would probably make him turn over in his grave.” “I find that hard to believe. Give it a shot.” For her, I would. I started ‘So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You’ and struggled a bit with playing and singing at the same time. It was a simple song, but as I told her, I wasn’t much of a singer. “What the hell is wrong with you, Alexander? You’ve got an amazing voice. It reminds me of Bob Dylan, and a lot of people said he couldn’t
  • 282. sing either.” “Thanks for the compliment.” “It’s a sad song, even though it sounds like it should be happy.” “It’s about the dust bowl. A lot of his songs are.” We passed another sign marking an upcoming exit. “Should I turn here?” “Not yet.” Chapter Thirty-two Lottie We drove and drove, and I got more and more impatient. Also, I had to pee. Finally, when I asked if we should turn, he said yes. “Where are we going?” “You’ll see.” Right off the exit there was a fast food place, so I used the bathroom and ordered a couple of egg and cheese sandwiches and more tea. “I thought you got lost,” Zan said when I handed him the cups and the bag as I climbed back into the truck. “No, just had to get some sustenance. A girl can’t live on kissing and Pop Tarts alone.” “Definitely not.” He handed me my sandwich and I pulled out. “Turn left,” he said. So I did. ***
  • 283. We drove and drove, getting further and further away from the highway, and closer to the lakes region. I had tried to come up with every possibility, and nothing jumped out at me. “You’re not taking me to your fortress of solitude, are you?” “I’m not a superhero. Although, there are times when I wished I had a fortress of solitude. Or a way to turn back time.” “You’re not the only one.” We’d both go back and change the same thing. I decided to change the subject. “I’m sorry our night got ruined. It took forever to get that makeup off.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not yours, either,” I said. He stared down at the banjo. “I’m not the only one who blames themselves for things.” “Charlotte –” he started to say. “No, let me get this out. You wouldn’t have been driving if Zack hadn’t forced you take the keys. You did it to try and protect Lexie and Zack. I know that, because I know you.” Two years. Two effing years. “I’m so sorry.” My voice broke and I knew I was going to cry. “I’m so sorry for being such a bitch to you.” “You had every right to be, Charlotte.” I shook my head and wiped at my eyes. The road blurred in front of me, and I pulled into a random driveway. “Look at me,” he said, putting his hand under my chin. “You have every right to want me to burn in hell. God knows I wish I could.” “Don’t say that,” I said, turning in my seat. He wiped a tear away with his thumb. “I don’t want you to go anywhere.” His dark eyes were fierce, but there was a ripple of sadness there. “I wish I could believe that,” he whispered. “Why don’t you believe me?”
  • 284. “Because you don’t know everything. You need to know everything before you decide. You deserve to know.” He dropped his hand from my face and I wanted to reach for him, to pull him to me, to crush myself into his chest. To try and take away some of that unbearable sadness. He moved back to his seat and put the banjo back on his lap, plucking a few of the strings. I wiped away the rest of my tears and put the car in reverse just as someone from the house glared out the window at me. *** “Turn left here.” We’d driven onto more and more rural roads, until we pulled onto a one-lane dirt road with a mailbox at the end of it. We’d been mostly silent since my little confession. “Now if I watched more horror movies, this would be the part when you tied me up, and took me into the basement of your creepy cabin where you held me hostage for weeks as revenge on your mother for not hugging you,” I said as we bounced along the pot-holed driveway. “Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that brain of yours.” “Dude, you have no idea.” We rounded a corner and smack dab in front of us was a log cabin. “See? I wasn’t far off.” The cabin was gorgeous, with a huge porch that wrapped around the entire first floor, a green metal roof and a chimney at each end. “This is Steve’s cabin. My stepfather,” he said. “He bought it as a wedding present when he married my mom.” “Jesus. Must have been hell to wrap.” I thought he’d laugh, but he didn’t. “So, are we going to go in?” He nodded, and I could feel his reluctance. “Whatever you’re going to tell me, I think I can handle it,” I said, giving him my most confident smile. We both got out and he led me up the steps before moving a
  • 285. flowerpot right by the door and pulling out a key. “Seems like a really obvious place to hide a key,” I said. Shut up, Lottie. He opened the door without a word and held it for me. “Are you ready?” I took a breath and nodded. I could take it. The cabin was big and bright and open, and had more than a few animal heads on the wall, which skeeved me out, but I chose to ignore them. “Wow.” The dining room even had a chandelier made of antlers. “It’s Hunter Chic,” I said, noting the tasteful plaid couch and chairs and high volume of things with moose on them. The best part was a huge stone fireplace that took up one entire wall. “Could we start a fire?” It wasn’t that cold out, but you couldn’t come to a place like this and not make a fire. “If you want to. I’ll have to go get some wood.” The wood box next to the enormous fireplace was empty. “Will you have to chop it?” Chopping wood was sexy. Visions of shirtless Zan chopping wood while I watched flitted through my head. “Steve orders it pre-chopped.” “Damn,” I said under my breath. He went to the fireplace and started fiddling with the chimney. “Why, did you want me to chop some?” “No,” I said. “Well, maybe.” That finally made him crack a tiny smile. Progress. “Be right back.” I inspected the rest of the downstairs while he brought in a few armfuls of wood. I felt like a slacker, making him do it, but something told me he didn’t mind. There were only a few canned goods in the pantry, but I did find
  • 286. some tea and honey. “Jackpot!” I also found a bag of marshmallows that wasn’t expired, and I definitely had half a bar of chocolate in my purse. I searched the rest of the cabinets, but couldn’t find any graham crackers. “Look what I found,” I said, holding up the bag of marshmallows. “I have no idea where those came from. Steve’s diabetic, so we don’t keep a lot of that stuff around.” “You know, if you would have warned me this is where we were coming, I would have brought provisions. Although, foraging in a strange house is kind of fun.” He remained quiet and sullen as he got the fire going. “Ironic, isn’t it?” His voice startled me. I’d been staring at one of the deer heads, trying to see if its eyes were following me like one of those paintings. “What is?” “That I’m building a fire.” “What? Oh.” Bonfire. I got off the couch and crouched next to him on the hearth. He braced himself on the mantle and stared into the fire. “Hey,” I said, tugging on his sleeve. “You’re far away.” “Sorry.” He sat down next to me. “I don’t know where to start, Charlotte.” “We don’t have to start right now. How about we have some tea?” He nodded and I got to work, boiling the water in a kettle with a cheery moose painted on the side. “Who has the moose obsession?” “That would be my mother, but I blame Steve. She used to shop at garage sales and not really care about what she looked like, and then she met him and she started wearing Chanel and buying matching furniture. She got really into decorating this place.”
  • 287. “It’s…” I said, searching for the right word. “Quaint. And moosey.” “I think that was what she was going for.” I brought the tea over and we both sat on the hearth as the fire got going. I took off my coat and Zan did the same, his shirt riding up a little and revealing a tiny bit of his stomach. I should not be thinking about that right now. “I wish I had your confidence with words,” he finally said. “I wish I had your restraint, so there you go.” He set his cup down and gazed at me. “If you want, we could make out a little,” I suggested. He shook his head, smiling. Ha. I knew it was hiding in there somewhere. “As much as I would like to do that, I don’t think it would help.” I brought my knees up and rested my chin on them. He took a deep breath and made sure I was looking directly at him before he spoke. “I love you.” My mouth dropped open. “That’s not what I need to tell you. Well, it is, but that’s not the biggest part. I just thought you should know. I’ve loved you for a really long time, but I need you to know.” He reached for me and I let him gather me into his arms. “I love you, pretty girl.” His fingers skated along my forehead and down to my cheek and my lips. I said the first thing that came to my mind. “I think I love you, too,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense, and it’s too soon, and I shouldn’t feel this way, but that doesn’t stop it. Maybe the reason it feels so real is because it goes against all logic.” “Loving you is very logical. Not so much for the other way around.” “Don’t be so negative, Alex.” I pulled his face down and kissed him slow and tender. It wasn’t a
  • 288. demanding, needy kind of kiss. “I told you making out would work,” I said when he broke the kiss, but didn’t let go of me. He just closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against mine. “At least I had this,” he whispered. I held his face between both of my hands and he started to talk. Zan “The night of the accident, I was driving.” She was in my arms, but I didn’t know how long that was going to last, so I held her tight, just waiting for the moment when she’d tell me to let go. “I was driving until Zack started grabbing the wheel and messing with me. He said he was good to drive, and he wouldn’t stop messing with the car, so I was afraid we were going to have an accident. Lexie was laughing and egging him on, so I pulled over and let him get in the driver’s seat.” Charlotte remained silent, but I could feel her trembling. It only made me want to stop talking, but I had to get this out. I’d told Miss Carole about this, but that had been different. So different. “I shouldn’t have done it, but I figured we were safer if he drove and I could grab the wheel if I had to. He had always been a pretty good driver when he was drunk, and it was just up the road, so I let it go. Then we saw the flashing blue lights and Zack stepped on the gas. I yelled at him to slow down, but he kept talking about how he couldn’t get pulled over and it would ruin his chances on the baseball team and Lexie was screaming and he just kept going faster and then there was a deer and he swerved and we crashed.” I didn’t need to go into detail. It was bad enough living through it. I wanted to spare her from the worst. “When he woke up in the hospital, Zack didn’t know what had
  • 289. happened. I could remember everything perfectly. Since I was the one who was the most coherent, they asked me what happened. I don’t know what made me say it, but the minute the words were out of my mouth, there was no taking them back. I thought it would be fine when Zack woke up and told them that he was driving, but then he didn’t remember and Lexie was…” I inhaled again and she breathed at the same time. “They asked me again and again, and I told them I was driving. Since none of us were wearing seatbelts and the truck was so mangled, it was impossible to tell for sure. By the time I wanted to tell the truth and I was facing charges, it was too late, especially since Zack didn’t remember, still doesn’t remember. It was too late to take it back.” Tears started to fall from her eyes and I wanted to brush them away, but I didn’t want to touch her face. I was scared shitless that she would push me away. At least I was still holding her. “I’ve lived this lie every day since then. I’ve regretted it and wanted to tell the truth, but what then? I’ve already done my time. Telling the truth doesn’t matter anymore.” “It does,” she finally said. “It does matter.” She pressed her lips to mine, saying over and over, “it does matter, it does matter.” I tasted her tears and her lips and the truth and my lie and her love. We kissed and then her hands were in my hair and my hands stroked her face and her neck. Her lips became more insistent, her hands demanding. I broke the kiss, but she didn’t break our contact. “Charlotte.” She put her finger to my lips, silencing me. “Stop thinking,” she said before she crushed her face to mine again.
  • 290. Chapter Thirty-three Lottie The moment the truth was past his lips, a dam broke inside me and all I wanted to do was kiss him and love him and be with him and make up for everything that he’d missed. Make up for the hell he’d been put through. I’d never wanted anyone else as much as I wanted him. So much that it hurt. The hearth wasn’t exactly a comfortable place to make-out, so I tried to pull him onto the thick shag rug that covered the floor. I succeeded in smashing my knee on the hearth and banging his arm pretty badly. “Ow,” we both said into each other’s mouth. “You okay?” he said, brushing his hand on my knee. The kissing kind of overwhelmed the pain. “Fine. You?” “Fine.” Finally we got horizontal on the rug, and he pulled away from my lips and brushed the hair away from my face. “My beautiful girl.” I wasn’t the beautiful one. “I love you,” I said, because it seemed like the right thing to say at such a moment. His eyes were wet as he said, “I love you. More than I know how.” He put his head on my chest and I held him. I started humming, also because it seemed like the thing to do. ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ came to my mind, so I hummed that, and he
  • 291. started humming along with me. He raised his head, and his eyes were wet and red. “You never got your dance,” he said. “We’re not really in a position for dancing.” I twisted my hands in his hair. God, I loved his hair. Even more so now that I finally got to have my way with it. “True.” He tucked some of my hair behind my ear. “Would you like to modify our position?” I swallowed. “What kind of modifications are you thinking about?” “I was thinking… maybe you might want to see my room?” He seemed as nervous as I was. “See your room?” I repeated. “Yes.” “Are you asking what I think you’re asking?” “If you think I’m asking you to come to bed with me, then yes. I am asking that.” His dark eyes burned with something else now. Need. “Are you sure this is the right time?” He propped himself on his elbows and started to pull away from me. It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown on me. “I’m not saying no. I’m just saying I don’t know. We’re both sort of lost in the moment and I know I said I loved you, and I do and I want to do that with you, I’m just not sure if I’m ready yet. For that. So the answer isn’t no. It’s just… Maybe?” To my surprise, he smiled. “And now I want you even more, pretty girl.” He kissed my forehead and rolled to the side, pulling me with him so I was nestled into his side. “You’re okay with that?” “If one of us didn’t want to, and then we did, it wouldn’t be right. And I want it to be right between us. You’ve been in control of this relationship, and I want to keep it that way. It’s the least I can do after
  • 292. everything I’ve put you through.” “You have got to stop beating yourself up. You can do it in front of other people, but not in front of me, understand?” I pointed my finger at him and he nipped it gently with his teeth. “No more kissing until you agree,” I said before I sat up and sealed my lips. “Harsh girl,” he said, trying to pull me back down, but I wouldn’t budge. “Fine. I agree.” “Good.” I gave him a peck, but he wouldn’t let me get away that easily. “How long can we stay here without anyone thinking you’ve kidnapped me?” His fingers traced letters on my back. “At least a few more hours.” “Whatever shall we do to occupy ourselves?” “I wish I’d brought the record player,” he said. “At least we have the banjo.” “At least we have that.” I moved my face closer so I could listen to his heart. “Charlotte?” “Hm?” “I know you said you didn’t want to spend the night with me, but we don’t have to do everything at once, if you get what I’m saying.” “For a guy with such a reputation, you certainly have a hard time talking about sex.” “You talk about my reputation, but you’ve never asked me directly about it.” I put my chin on his chest and moved my face so I could look at him. “Do you want me to?” He swallowed. “You should know beforehand.” “Okay then.” I walked my fingers up and down his chest. “How many girls have you slept with?” “Actual sex, or just fooling around?”
  • 293. “Actual sex, but oral counts.” He paused before he said, “fifteen.” “Fifteen?!” Why did that sound like way more than it actually was? He smiled. “Not all at once.” “Very funny. Do you regret it?” Zan thought for a moment. “I regret that they weren’t you.” “Did you at least learn a lot from these encounters?” “Maybe.” He winked at me. “Now your turn. I get to hear about your history.” “Yes. That.” I fumbled for the right words and he started laughing. “It’s not a crime to be a virgin, Charlotte.” “How do you know that?” “Intuition.” I gave him a look. “Zack let something slip during one of his drunken confessionals that Katie had told him.” “Great. My roommate is advertising my virginity.” “It’s okay, pretty girl. We’ll do what you’re ready for. Kissing you is better and sexier than fucking every single one of those girls.” “Is that what it was, fucking?” “More or less. Mindless and emotionless. Just a way for both of us to get off.” Just talking about it was making me burn inside. Even my skin ached for something, anything to release it. If I were alone in my dorm room, I would have taken care of it myself. Katie had asked me how I could get on without sex, but what she didn’t know was hidden in my sock drawer and only came out when I knew she would be gone all night with Zack. The only other person who knew about my little battery-powered friends was Will, and he pretended he didn’t. “What if that was what I wanted? Just to get off?” “Do you?” He looked like he’d swallowed his tongue. “I’ve never tried it before.” Granted, I hadn’t tried much before. I’d
  • 294. never understood why, when I thought about going further with someone, it always seemed wrong. Felt wrong. After I struck out with Clark, I didn’t really see the point. Until I met someone it didn’t feel icky with. Thinking about being with Zan was anything but icky. Thinking about it made me feel like I was on fire. “I don’t want to push you—” I shut him up. “Maybe I want you to push me. Maybe I want you to throw me over your shoulder, take me to your room and torture my body into submission. Ever thought of that?” “Do you?” “When are you going to stop asking and grow a pair?” I waited. Part of me thought he wouldn’t do it, which was why I said it. The other, less sensible, and more lustful, part of me was begging for it. “Fine.” With one movement, he got himself up, with another he’d yanked me up and then thrown me over his shoulder, as I requested. I still squealed when he did it, even though it was expected. “Must give the lady what she wants,” he said, tromping up the stairs. “If you change your mind, then you’ll need to tell me to stop.” “Got it,” I squeaked. Nearly all the blood in my body had pooled in my head by the time we got to his room. All that blood should have given me enough sense to take back what I’d said. He chucked me down on the bed like a sack of potatoes. I bounced and then came to rest. I pushed my hair out of my face and looked up to find him standing there, as if he was waiting for something. “Come here,” I said, reaching for him. He dived forward, catching himself with his arms so he didn’t crush me. He paused for a fraction of a second to let me tell him to stop, but I just pressed myself upward to capture his lips. I didn’t know if I could tell him to stop. Zan
  • 295. It was the most shocking thing she’d ever said. All the time we’d been together, I hadn’t pushed her, had pulled back when she’d kissed me harder, never once thinking that she wanted more. I wanted to ask her once again if she was sure, but her lips and her legs wrapping around me did the job of silencing me. For a girl who didn’t have a lot of experience, she sure knew how to kiss. Maybe like people who were naturally good at singing, you could be naturally good at… Charlotte tugging at the bottom of my shirt interrupted my mental ramblings. “Shirt off,” she said, kissing my neck. “Yes, my lady,” I said, biting her earlobe. I yanked my shirt over my head and she ran her hands over my scars and traced some of the branches of my tattoo. “I want to study this later.” “You can study it all you want.” “Later.” Her mouth went back to mine as her hands raced up and down my bare back. Fuck, she felt so good. “Your shirt off,” I said, kissing from her ear to her neck, sucking on her sweet skin. “If you insist…Hopefully it will be better than last time.” She sat up, and I helped her get the shirt off. “Sweet fuck,” I hissed. “That’s my line,” she said, tossing the shirt on the floor. “Are you trying to make me lose it?” “Blame Katie,” She said lying back so I could get a better look at the red lace bra. “So you like red, huh?” “It’s my new favorite color.” I dipped my head and kissed between her breasts, nuzzling them with my nose. I heard her gasp a little and I kissed her over the fabric. If we
  • 296. were going to do this, I was going to make it worth her while. My pants were now unbearably tight, but I was going to make this about her, and that meant I was going to have to deal with my hard-on. I should be used to it by now. As pretty as the red bra was, I wanted to see what was under it, but she was tugging at my pants. “Pants off?” I said peering up at her from between her breasts. I could almost see her heart pounding. “Yes, please.” My hands moved down and undid the button of her jeans. “I meant yours,” she said as I ever so slowly worked her zipper down. Then I dipped my tongue into her navel and she stopped talking. “Has anyone ever told you,” I said, kissing from her navel downwards, “that you talk too much?” “You,” she moaned. “And Will.” “I don’t want to talk about your brother right now.” “Good idea,” she breathed as I slowly started peeling her jeans off. I was really enjoying this. I’d never taken so much pleasure in going so slow before. Her every moan was worth it. I was powerless as her fingers hooked into my belt loops and pulled me back to her mouth after I’d gotten her jeans off and reveal a matching set of red lace panties. “Charlotte,” I growled as she undid the button on my pants, the zipper and started pulling them off me. “I’m sure this isn’t probably how it normally goes, but I’ll get better at it. I just need some practice.” The second her hand touched my dick through my boxers, I knew that if she touched it again, we weren’t going to get anywhere. I moved as fast as I could, pinning her underneath me. She shrieked, but it was a playful shriek. “I don’t want you to touch me until I have had my way with you.
  • 297. Understand? You said you wanted to get off, so I’m going to get you off. You asked for it, so that’s what I’m going to do.” “I’ve never seen you like this before.” “I’ve never been this fucking turned on before.” “Me neither.” She leaned forward and kissed my chest. The scarred side. I shuddered as her tongue circled my nipple. “I thought I was the one getting you off.” “Tit for tat, sir.” “My turn, my lady.” Leaning forward, I kissed her lips softly, and then harder before moving down her neck and to her breasts again. “I probably should have asked if you have a condom before we started all these shenanigans.” “I have some in the drawer.” She froze, and I stopped kissing her. “How long have they been there? Don’t they have an expiration date? Have you been tested for STD’s? Oh my God, I should have asked beforehand. What is wrong with me? I always get mad at those girls who –” I put my finger on her lips to silence the torrent of words. “I have a non-expired condom. Several, actually. I had a physical just before I came to school and got a clean bill of health, and you were caught up in the moment.” “Still doesn’t excuse my lack of common sense.” “You have more common sense than any girl I know.” “I’m talking too much again, aren’t I?” I kissed her mouth and that cut off the talking.
  • 298. Chapter Thirty-four Lottie “Where in the hell did you learn how to do that?” “You don’t want to know,” he said, kissing the inside of my thigh as his fingers stroked me. He’d absolutely ravaged me. “I don’t think I can move.” “You don’t have to.” He pulled himself up until he was next to me, but his fingers were still working, teasing, before he plunged them inside me. “I can’t –” “You know, the French call an orgasm. Le petit mort, or the little death.” He increased his pace with each word and crooked his fingers so they hit the exact right spot inside me. My hips reached for his hand and met his every thrust. I felt like I was dying. “Come for me, pretty girl. Let yourself die a little,” he whispered in my ear as I came around his fingers, crying out. I watched him stick his fingers in his mouth and suck. It was unbelievably sexy. “Did that meet your satisfaction, my lady?” “Yeah, you could say that.” I dragged my finger down his chest, stopping just short of his boxers. I felt guilty that he’d gone down on me, and I hadn’t done anything for him. Besides, I wanted to see him. To touch him. To give him a little something of what he’d given me. Even if I couldn’t deep throat him
  • 299. like a porn star, I could at least give a hand job a go. “Charlotte.” “Oh, hush. It’s my turn.” I rolled onto my side so I could get easier access before he helped me get his boxers off. Well, hello there sir. I’d seen a few penises in my lifetime. Having a twin brother had given me an intimate knowledge of the organ. Still, it didn’t mean I knew what to do with it now that I had one in my hand. “Shit, Charlotte,” he said, throwing his head back as I started to stroke him with my hand. I wasn’t doing a whole lot, but he seemed to like it. I went faster and he groaned, fisting the sheets in his hands. I had him in the palm of my hand. “God, I want to be inside you,” he hissed through his teeth. I looked down at his dick in my hand. It was a lot larger than a few fingers. Was I ready for that? “Fuck it. You got that condom?” His eyes went wide. “Are you sure?” “I love you. I want you. You gave me something. Now I want to give you something.” He kissed me hard while reaching into the night stand beside the bed and pulling out a condom. “This I can do,” I said taking it from him and ripping it, and rolling it on like I’d been doing it for years. He gave me a look. “It’s a long story involving me and Lexie and some bananas. I’ll tell you later,” I said to his unanswered question before claiming his lips again. “Jesus, I love you.” “Right back atcha.” He lay on top of me, skin to skin, chest to chest. It was the most connected I’d ever been to another person.
  • 300. “This is your show, Charlotte.” He put his arms around me and rolled, taking me with him until I was on top. I’d read about this more than a few times, so I braced myself on the headboard before I pulled myself up, grabbed his dick and started to lower myself. Yes, a penis was a lot bigger than two fingers. I bit my lip so I wouldn’t make any sounds of pain, because it did hurt, but not as much as I thought it would. “Go slow.” His fingers dug into my hips, and I knew they would leave marks. Ever so slowly, he slid into me until I had him completely inside. “Wow.” I gazed down at him and realized we would never be closer than we were at this moment. “You feel so damn good, pretty girl.” I leaned down and kissed him before starting to move my hips. He moved with me, rising to meet me. Our bodies moved together, as if they were made for one another. Two puzzle pieces that had gotten separated and had found one another again. “We fit together,” I said as the pressure built and I was about to lose myself again. I cried out as I found it, and he swore a few moments later, and I felt him spend himself into me. I collapsed on his chest, totally wrung out. Zan We lay together for a long time after I pulled out and tossed the condom and she went to take care of her own needs. “You don’t act like a virgin,” I said, tracing random letters on her back. “You don’t act like a man whore. Except that thing with your tongue.” She shivered with the memory. I’d hoped she would like that. “You didn’t have to do that.”
  • 301. “I know. That’s why I wanted to.” She took my hand and kissed my palm. “It was… It was more than the sensations. It was something we shared. Something I haven’t shared with anyone else. Something I’ll never share with anyone else. It’s yours and mine. Always.” More of Rumi’s words came to me. “‘The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing How blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.’” She smiled up at me. “That’s both beautiful and true.” I wanted it to stay that way. Always. I wrote the letters on her back. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Was it what you wanted it to be? I know I’m not experienced and I didn’t reciprocate on the oral.” I kissed her again so she would stop talking. “Shhh.” “You can tell me if it wasn’t great. I can take it.” “Lottie.” I knew using the nickname would get her attention. “I love you, and for the first time in years, I felt free, with you. I was in a cage that I’d made for myself. Today you handed me the key and let me fly. You’re right. It wasn’t just about the sex.” “The sex was kind of awesome, though.” She rolled onto her side, giving me quite a view of her perfect chest. I leaned forward and bit one of her nipples lightly. “Hey!” Her protest was quickly replaced by a moan and I got to make her die a little more. One, two, three times.
  • 302. *** “What time is it?” Charlotte was on her stomach, looking at my tattoos. “Almost six,” I said, reading the clock on the wall. “What’s this?” She pointed to the little bird perched on the tree of my tattoo. “He’s my little mockingbird.” “Is this a quote?” She moved closer to my chest so she could read it. “‘We are the mirror as well as the face in it ’. Why does that sound so familiar?” “It’s Rumi. He’s the author of most of the poems I’ve sent you. He was a Muslim poet who lived hundreds of years ago. Miss Carole, my social worker, gave me a book of his poetry and I used to memorize it when I was bored.” “You said that to me. The line about the mirrors. You were drunk, and I thought you were nuts, but now it makes sense.” “There are other things.” I showed her the other little bits hidden in the tree. The other quotes written around what looked like knots in the trunk, the little pictures hidden on leaves and branches. There was a record, and my grandfather’s initials, a book, some Leonard Cohen lyrics and a key. “What’s the key for?” “A car key changed my life. I sort of saw it as symbolic of losing my freedom that day. But now you’ve given it back to me.” “What are you going to do now?” “About Zack? Fucked if I know.” She giggled. “It’s funny to hear you curse.” “You’d be surprised how much I repress it around you. Wouldn’t want you sully your pretty ears with my filthy mouth.”
  • 303. “Oh please. I’ve been living with Will my entire life. Most of the bad words and gross things I know because of him. But we’re changing the subject.” “That’s because I didn’t want to ruin our moment of sunshine with clouds.” I kissed her shoulder. “There’s nothing I can do at this point, Charlotte. It’s over and done with.” She propped herself up with her arms. “It’s not over. You said telling me the truth set you free. If everyone doesn’t know the truth, then you’re not really free.” “I’m free with you, and that’s all I care about. Who gives a shit what the rest of the world thinks?” She shook her head. “It’s not right, Zan.” “I thought I was Alex now.” “You’re Zan again. Now that I associate the name with you, and not with the accident. It fits you.” “Should I start calling you Lottie?” “Everyone calls me Lottie. I want you to call me something different.” “How about just L?” “As in Love?” “Yes, as in Love. That’s what my grandfather used to call Gram. He called her ‘my love.’” “But people will think it’s for Lottie. I like that. It’s our secret. Well, another secret. Thank you for trusting me.” “You’re easy to trust, L.” She smiled at the use of her new nickname. “I’m sure my brother and Katie think we’ve been abducted by aliens.” “In all fairness, there was some probing involved.”
  • 304. She made a face, pulled the pillow out from under her head and hit me with it. “I knew you had a dirty mind.” “You have no idea.” I rolled onto my back and stretched. All I wanted was to pull her onto my chest, twist our legs together and go to sleep, but we couldn’t. “We should go.” “We should.” She grinned at me and I grinned at her and we both shook our heads slowly. Before I yanked her into my arms and crushed her lips with mine. Again.
  • 305. Chapter Thirty-five Lottie “You’re trying to keep me hostage,” I said a little while later. We’d only left the bed to take a shower, and now we were both wrapped in towels and trying to convince ourselves that we had to get back to campus. “That wasn’t my original plan, but now it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Steve and Mom don’t come up here that often. We could stay for a few weeks at least.” Imagining spending my life in bed with Zan sounded kind of like heaven. “If only it wasn’t for our pesky classes and my job and my stupid brother.” “And my stupid brother,” he said, rubbing the towel over his head. “I hope he hasn’t done anything else that I’ll need to clean up.” “You have to stop doing that. Why do you do that?” “He’s my brother. What would do if it was Will?” “That’s different.” I thought about it, but really, it wasn’t. Brothers were brothers. It was like what Simon had said. If Will had been the one driving… He looked at me through the wet ropes of hair that hung in his eyes. “Can I at least cut your hair sometime? I cut Will’s for him.” “Sure, L. I trust you.” He wasn’t just talking about the haircut. “You can cut it when we get back.” “It’s a date.” He chuckled and tugged at my towel so I fell toward him. “Sex fiend,” I said. “Only for you, L. Only for you.”
  • 306. *** The ride back to campus was completely different from the ride down. There was less tension, more smiling, more kissing and I was less one V card and he was less one secret. I finally understood what Katie had said about sex ‘just happening.’ Not that I hadn’t thought about what it would be like with Zan, but I never thought I would actually go through with it. I didn’t care what people would say. That it was impulsive, that we were just hopped up on hormones. Maybe that was true, but that didn’t take account the love that went into it. So much love. “Would you stay with me tonight?” he asked as we walked from the truck back to our dorm. Unlike this morning, he had his arm around me, and I pressed myself into his side as much as I could. “What kind of a question is that? Of course I’m going to stay. I don’t want to leave you.” We stopped for a kiss right outside the building. “Oh no, don’t start that again,” I said when he started biting my lower lip. “I have a broken roommate to check on and you have a douchebag brother who is probably thinking of some diabolical way to win her over. Again.” He kissed my forehead instead. “Duty calls.” “And we answer.” I didn’t want to let go of him. We stood in the lobby, twisting our hands together. “We should go,” I said. “Yes, we should.” We both laughed. “Keep me updated?” I said as we walked toward the stairs. “I will. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” At his floor, he gave me a lingering kiss, and I let go of his hand.
  • 307. “See you later, Zan.” “Bye, L.” Things were looking up when I got back to my room. Katie had finally changed her clothes and showered, and she was busy watching Pretty In Pink with Audrey and Trish. “When did you get here?” I said to Trish. “Few hours ago. I came right after work.” She looked me up and down and gave me an accusatory glare. “How was the sex?” “What?” How could she tell I’d had sex? “What sex?” Katie and Audrey swiveled their heads from the TV to stare at me. “Exactly, what sex?” I sat on my bed and tried to look casual. Trish sat up from her position on the floor. “The sex you had with Zan. Was it good?” “You had sex with Zan?!” Katie’s voice did that shrieking thing that she normally reserved for happy things. I gaped at them. I’d been hoping to hide it for at least a few days, but so much for that. “Fine. Since Trish seems to have sexdar, the answer is yes. I had sex with Zan. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. End of story.” Katie was the first one to speak. “I cannot believe you had sex with Zan. How could you be so stupid?” “What business is it of yours? Look who you’re sleeping with. Pot and kettle much?” Trish said. Katie glared at Trish before she said, “yeah well, at least I knew what I was getting into when I slept with Zan.” Zan Zack was in rough shape when I finally found him working his frustrations out at the gym. “Thanks a lot for having my back last night, little brother,” he said as
  • 308. he cranked the treadmill up. I hopped onto the one next to him and started running. “You were being an insufferable asshole, as usual. Why do you always have to do this, Zack? I’m so fucking tired of it.” “Screw you, Zan. If you don’t like it, then you can just go to hell.” “Already been there.” And heaven. I’d been there too today, with Charlotte. “You’ve got to stop doing this, Zack.” “I wish you would stop telling me what to do, like you haven’t made mistakes. You’re no fucking saint.” Zack’s abuse usually rolled off my back, but not today. Not anymore. “Fine. Keep screwing up. But I’m going to do everything in my power to keep that girl away from you. She deserves better. She deserves better than you.” I jumped off the treadmill and walked away before he could say anything else. I was done with him. Done with him fucking things up and done making excuses for him. My phone buzzed as I left the gym. “Hey, L. Long time no talk.” “Did you sleep with Katie?” Shit. “Did you sleep with Katie, Zan?” Her voice was soft, not accusing, which shocked me. “Yes. It was a one night stand, before she met Zack.” She took a deep breath on the other end. “I wish you would have told me.” “I should have.” I waited for the verdict while I walked as fast as I could back to the dorm. “I’m not going to say I’m over the moon, but I’m not pissed at you. I’m guessing she was one of the fifteen?”
  • 309. “Yes. I can tell you what number if you want to know.” She made a disgusted sound. “Ugh, not really. I just wish you would have told me. I thought we could talk about anything.” “I know, L. I know. I’m sorry. I swear, that is the last skeleton in my closet. Unless you’d like to go through the fifteen to find out if you know any more.” “Yeah, I’d rather not. So anyhow, dinner later?” “Absolutely. Do you want to go out or stay in?” “Out. The girls have figured out about the change in our relationship, so I’d rather not be here where everyone is going to make it awkward.” “Stryker would probably let us use his place. I could try to cook for you.” “I think I’ll take you up on that. What are you making?” “Can I surprise you?” She sighed. “I guess. See you at five in the lobby?” “It’s a date.” She giggled and I didn’t want to hang up, but I did. I called Stryker and got permission to use his place. He also offered to drive me to the grocery store for provisions. I filled him in on all the new developments since the night before. “So you finally made a move. It’s about time. Couldn’t resist that red dress?” he said as I grabbed a bag of fresh spinach. “It’s my new favorite color,” I said, thinking about earlier. “Good luck with everything, Zan. You deserve it. Unlike your ass of a brother. I really wanted to lay him out, but it would have been too easy.” “I know. I’m sorry about that.” “You don’t have to be sorry about anything, except that you were born to the same parents.” “Not much I can do about that.” We reached the checkout and he helped me get everything on the
  • 310. conveyor belt. “Is Katie okay?” “I think so,” I said as I swiped my card. I was definitely going to have to get a job if I was going to cook for Charlotte on a regular basis. “She’s been ignoring his calls. I’m sure that’s going to go over well with him.” “I don’t get it, Zan. I don’t get why girls stay with guys that treat them like shit.” He grabbed a couple of the bags, and I grabbed the rest. “Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t claim to be an expert in this particular area. So, what are you going to do tonight?” “I don’t know yet. I might go over to campus and get my cape or go over to this guy Allan’s house for a jam session.” He shrugged. “That must be an important cape,” I said as we got back in his wreck of a car. “Not really. Just want it back.” “Yeah, sure.” I didn’t believe him. *** “What are you making?” I’d forced Charlotte to stay in the living room while I cooked. I wanted her with me, but I wanted to surprise her, so we’d made a deal that she could stay with me while I cooked as long as she didn’t come into the kitchen. “That is for me to know and you to find out when I’m done.” “Lame,” she said, going to Stryker’s drum set and sitting behind it. “Will always wanted a drum set, but Mom said no way. I always kinda wanted to play them.” She grabbed his sticks and started banging out a rhythm. She wasn’t half bad. “So I have a question for you,” I said as she bopped on the drums. “And what is that?” “Would you teach me how to drive?” I’d been thinking about it for a
  • 311. while, but it was the first time I was able to say it out loud. “Or, re- teach me how? I never learned on a standard.” “You sure about that?” She set the drumsticks down and went back to the couch. I’d drawn an imaginary line right behind the couch that she couldn’t cross. “It’s time for me to start being free. Part of that freedom would be driving.” “I’ll have to get Will’s truck, and I don’t know if that’s going to happen right away with the new developments.” “Right.” “But Trish might let us use hers. I’ll ask her.” She leaned her chin on the back of the couch. “There’s something else we should talk about, as much as I don’t want to.” “Zack?” “Yeah. We have to get him away from Katie. You promised you’d keep her safe, and so far you have, but you shouldn’t have to. I know she’s mad at him now, but she’s been mad before and she let him back in. I just don’t get it. She could do so much better,” she said. “I agree, but there’s not much we can do, short of tying her down and smacking some sense into her, or giving her a personality transplant,” I said, stirring the pasta to make sure it didn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. “I know,” she said. “What are you makiiinnngggg?” She shook her hands at the sky. “Wait and see.”
  • 312. Chapter Thirty-six Lottie When I was finally allowed in the kitchen, I found a giant bowl of spinach and artichoke pasta, a salad, garlic bread topped with tomatoes and for dessert, grilled peaches with honey and cream. “Wow, Mr. Parker. Well done.” I rewarded him with a kiss, and he returned it with so much intensity, I wanted to say screw dinner, let’s go straight to desert, but he pulled away and held a forkful of pasta up for me. I took the fork from him. “I can feed myself, you know.” “There isn’t anything I doubt you can do, pretty girl.” “We’ll see how you feel after these driving lessons.” Will had taught me to drive, but I wasn’t going to yell at Zan as much as Will had yelled at me. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful teacher.” “Are you trying to suck up to me?” He held up another forkful and I ate it. “Maybe.” He kissed some sauce from the side of my mouth. The rest of our dinner went the same way, with both of us taking turns with the fork, just standing in the kitchen eating from the serving dishes. It wasn’t all candlelight and fancy napkins, but it was so much better. The company was pretty awesome too. After dinner I forced him to watch The Bre