Authors: E.J. Swenson
Amends: A LoveStory
by E.J. Swenson writing as Shanda Fisch
Copyright © 2014 by E.J. Swenson
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in anyform or by any electronic or mechanical means including informationstorage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing fromthe author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quoteshort excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names,characters, places, and incidents either are products of theauthor’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance toactual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirelycoincidental.
Love is a familiar. Love is a devil. There isno evil angel but Love.
From Laird's Sent Items,marked unread
Subject line: Pleasedon't delete this email
I've stopped texting youlike you asked. And I'll never see you again, if that's what youwant. I'm writing this email to explain what I did, not to justifyit. If you can understand why I did it, maybe you'll be able toforgive me. Or, at least, know me for the flawed human I am, andnot some cruel, heartless beast.
When I found you here atAdams, all I wanted was to make amends. To do something, anything,to make up for what I'd done. You see, I had a plan. I was going tostudy you, discover your most cherished dreams, and make them allcome true. Then I was going to forget you and try to live my lifewith a somewhat lighter burden of guilt. (Of course, I will alwaysfeel immense sorrow for what I did to your mother. To your entirefamily. Nothing can change that.)
What I didn't count onwas how I was going to feel when I first saw your pale blue eyesbrimming with sweetness and compassion. Remember when we first metat the cemetery? And then another lifetime later on RegistrationDay? You thought you were hiding behind your long, lovely hair, butI saw you. You didn't just touch my guilty conscience, you touchedmy heart. I wanted to wrap you in my arms right there. To make surethat nothing else bad would ever happen to you. To protect you fromthe world and from me. When you opened your mouth and I heard yourcareworn angel's voice, I was hooked. Irretrievably, irreversiblyhooked.
At first, I thought myfeelings for you would be part of my long-overdue penance. I wouldfollow my plan and keep my feelings to myself. Knowing I couldnever have you seemed like a fitting punishment. In a sick way, Iwas happy about it. I'd daydream about how badly I'd hurt and forhow long. I knew it wouldn't truly balance the scales—nothingwill—but I craved the sacrifice.
Then I got to know you,and things got really fucked up. I couldn't stay away. Every day Itold myself I would confess. Tell you who I really was and what I'ddone. And every day I failed, because I knew that would mean losingyou. I just couldn't give you up. There was no way you would havestayed with me if I'd told you everything. I knew that then, and Iknow it now for sure.
Bottom line? I wasstupid and selfish, every inch the criminally entitled piece ofshit you think I am.
And Ember? She hasn'tbeen my girlfriend for years. It's just that the twisted guilt andregret between us were so intense that I could never quite cut heroff. We had a strange, bewitching bond grounded in fear and selfloathing. If you were the Heaven I didn't deserve, she was the Hellwhere I belonged.
Enough excuses. Emberand I are done. For good.
Why am I writing? Mostlyto say I'm sorry. Always and forever. I know you can't forgive me.For any of it. But if you ever need anything, all you have to do istext me, and I'll be there. No questions asked. Even if the thoughtof hearing from me makes you sick, I hope you'll save my number,just in case.
Yours in love, sorrow,and regret.
p.s., I will think ofyou with every breath until I die.
Book 1: The accident
Even death has a heart.
–Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Chapter 1: Amity
I walk the gauntlet every day.
"Amityville Horror," whispers a tiny girlwith violently red hair. She's popular, takes Honors English, andis convinced that she's terribly witty. I disagree. My name isAmity. Everyone has called me the Amityville Horror since I was theonly girl in first grade to wear white orthopedic shoes. The doctorsaid they would correct my gait. All they really did was mark me asan outcast.
"Calamity Jane," snickers the captain of thedebate team. He claims my stammer lost us the county championshipand not his inability to distinguish between correlation andcausation.
"Spaz-spaz-spaz," chants a tall boy withfloppy platinum blond hair. His girlfriend, Sistine, is one of myteammates on the cross country squad. I remind myself she's neverbeaten me yet, no matter how awkward I look when I run.
I'm almost to homeroom when something softhits my face and drops to the floor. I'm just grateful it was noway wet or slimy. I keep walking without changing my pace orlooking down.
"It's a sandwich, Calamity," says one of thecheerleaders, obviously concerned for my health. "You should thinkabout eating it."
As I make my way into the classroom, I remindmyself that I only have to endure another six months at thisschool. I've applied for early admission to five colleges. I'mhoping I'll get into at least one. If I do, it will almost make thepast four years of daily insults and petty cruelties worth it. Mytorments have become raw material for a moving personal essay aboutsurviving high school with mild cerebral palsy. No admissionsofficer will be able to resist. At least, that's what I'mhoping.
How did I end up with minor factory defects?When I was born, the umbilical cord somehow got wrapped around myneck, cutting off the oxygen to my brain for a minute or so.Apparently, those first sixty seconds of suffocated life wereenough to give leave me with an unpredictable stammer and an odd,rolling gait. These glitches haven't stopped me from takingAdvanced Placement classes or joining the debate team or making thecross country team. I'm smart, argumentative, and fast. But I'malso an easy scapegoat—and maybe just a little bit bitter anddefensive.
I take a seat in the far back row, so I don'thave to worry about anyone sticking Post Its on my back or gum inmy hair.
I put my bag on the floor and notice a box onmy desk labeled EAT ME in pink marker. I open it and discover whatappears to be a small batch of genuine, homemade chocolate chipcookies. Despite my better judgment, I'm tempted. I haven't eatenbreakfast, and I love cookies. But I don't dare touch them. Theycould contain anything from laxatives to concentrated THC thatcould get me kicked off the cross country team for a dirty bloodtest.
My phone chirps softly. A new text. It'sMaggie, my best friend. She's strong, brave, and doesn't care whatpeople think. She's also acquired an undeserved reputation as theschool slut by virtue of her daring, less-is-more approach tofashion and the fact the she takes poetry classes at the UniversityExtension in Jasper Heights. Her Facebook page is littered withsomewhat older friend-boys from the Extension, but they treat herlike a pesky kid sister, even when she wishes otherwise. Nope,there's nothing even remotely slut-worthy about Maggie's life rightnow.
How was the gauntlet?she writes.
Same old same old. I have possibly poisonedcookies for your dining pleasure.
I sigh. She wants to know if I've receivedany replies from the many colleges I've applied to.
Nope, got to go.
I tuck my phone into my bag before Mrs.Carnegie starts taking attendance. I feel bad about lying toMaggie. My Inbox is filled with emails from all six of my colleges,but I'm too much of a wuss to read any of them and learn myfate.
It's lunchtime, and I'm alone with a slice ofpizza, a Coke, and a bag of M&Ms. As always. I have no idea howsome of my classmates have gotten the idea that I have anorexia.Sure, I'm tall and skinny like my mom, but I eat unholy quantitiesof garbage food. If they really wanted to tag me with a plausibleeating disorder, why not bulimia?
"Um, excuse me? Is anyone sitting here?"
I swivel my head around to see who's crept upbehind me. He's a tall, well-built guy who looks vaguely familiar.Probably a senior, although I'm not sure. The only members of myclass I know on sight are my fellow brains from the AdvancedPlacement classes. And, yes, they're just as mean to me aseverybody else. More so, really, because their facility with wordsmeans their cruelties are infinitely more clever and memorable.
I stare at him goggle-eyed as I try to figureout what he wants. I wonder if he's a new kid and doesn't know anybetter than to sit with the Amityville Horror. Or maybe the popularkids have given him a test, a task to prove his mettle and utterlack of compassion. If he mocks or humiliates me in some novel way,then perhaps he will advance one level in the social hierarchy atTriple Marsh High School. I narrow my eyes and allow my long hairto hang into my face a bit for added protection. My hair is a deepchocolate brown and falls to my waist in shiny, citrus-scentedwaves. It's by far my best feature.
His face creases with gentle confusionbecause I'm still gaping at him. "It doesn't look like anyone'ssitting here. Do you mind if I sit down?"
He smiles, and his wholesome, handsome facelooks as open and harmless as a daisy. He's wearing a thin goldchain with a tiny golden cross around his neck, which, to me, meansnothing. Plenty of bullies think they're good Christians.
I shrug. "Go ahead."
He sets his tray down, and I notice it's amodel of healthy food selection. A carton of milk. An orange. A bigCalifornia salad piled high with chicken strips and grilledveggies.
"I'm Chris, it's nice to meet you," he says,smiling again. God, he's ridiculously good looking. It has to besome kind of a trap, waiting to spring shut on Amity the Calamity.Maybe he'll ask me out and then stand me up. Or try to coax me intosending him a topless cam photo or declaring my love for him onFacebook. I steel myself against his friendly, toothy smile. Thisis the kind of shit that might have actually worked on me freshmanyear. But not now. Absolutely not now. I'm going to smash the trapand throw it back in Chris' deceptively cute face.
"I'm Amity," I say. He looks expectant. Iwaver for a second—his eyes seem so sweet and honest—but I refuseto be fooled. "Look, I don't know if you're new here, or playingdumb, or what. But everyone here calls me the Amityville Horror. OrCalamity. Or Spamity. Or just plain ole Spaz. Now you can go tellwhoever sent you to mess with me to go fuck themselves, okay?"
I gather up my tray and my bag and prepare toflee the cafeteria—my stomach's churning too much for me toconsider eating any more. Chris' face has turned red, and he seemsto be choking on his two-percent milk.
"Sorry," he sputters. "I wasn't trying tomess with you. I just moved here a week ago. I thought you lookedlike a nice person."
"My mistake," he mutters as I turn to walkaway.
Fuck yeah, I think, and try to ignore theweird stinging sensation in my eyes.
I'm walking through the parking lot,lumbering under a heavy load of books. I try to keep my pace steadyand even, so my limp isn't as noticeable. A car pulls up alongsideme. It's a black pickup truck decorated in high Gothic style. Redroses grow from cracked white skulls.
"Hey bitch," growls the driver, "want afucking ride?"
"Fuck yeah," I yell, smiling for the firsttime all day. The driver is Maggie, and her freshly bleached hairhas been sculptured into myriad spiky peaks. She unlocks the door,and I clamber into the cab, dropping my bag into the back seat.
Once inside, I take a quick glance today'sfashion statement. This time it's a red velvet bustier the samedusky red as the roses inked onto her wrists. It's beautiful, and Ifeel a small, unworthy stab of envy. I am, as usual, drab in anoversized gray sweatshirt and BigMart jeans.
"How's it hangin', girlfriend?" she asks witha wild grin.
"Floppy, deflated, and confused," I reply. Itell her about the Chris incident as she pulls onto Flamingo Drive."Do you think he could have been, you know, just a regular guy whowanted to talk to me?"
Maggie takes an audible breath. "Ams," shesays, "I know you've been through a lot. That you go through a lotevery day. But not everybody is so bad. Sometimes you have to takea risk."
I sigh. Of course, she's right, but I'dreally rather not say so. "Yeah, I know. I'm turning into a bitter,defensive old hag, and I'm not even eighteen."
"Well, you old hag, you better stop fuckinglying to me right now." Her voice is rough and growly with mockanger, and I know I've been busted.
"We applied to some of the same schools," shecontinues. "I got into NYU, although God knows how I'm going toafford it, and I was waitlisted by Barnard and Oberlin. There's noway you haven't heard by now."
"You got me," I confess. "I have an inboxfull of emails from college admissions officers. But I'm too muchof a coward to open them."
Maggie makes a series of clucking sounds asshe passes a truck full of watermelons. "We've got to do somethingabout all this fear you have." She pauses, pretending to thinkabout something she's probably had in mind for days.
"I know!" she exclaims, as if she's just wonthe lottery. "You can come with me and Damon to the Swamp Bowl.Then we can all get stoned and read your acceptance letterstogether."
I groan. This plan combines two things that Ihate into one evening of frog-marched fun. First, the Swamp Bowl isa post-season, pre-Christmas exhibition game between the TripleMarsh Gators and their arch rivals, the Jasper Heights Eagles.Jasper Heights is our rich sister city that sits on a manmade hilloverlooking the nice part of Lake Everclear. It's known for lush,green golf courses and rich, entitled assholes. Anyway, the SwampBowl almost inevitably ends in a drunken brawl.
And then there's Damon. He's one of Maggie'sfriend-boys from the Extension. He's tall, scrawny, and covered inink, just the way Maggie likes 'em. He also plays the drums in alocal band called Invasive Species and treats Maggie like she's afor-real dumb blonde and not the Marilyn Monroe devotee that sheis. It makes me slightly nauseated to see them together.
"C'mon," wheedles Maggie, sensing myreluctance. "It'll be fun."
"I don't think so. I have a calculus test onFriday. I need to actually study for it."
Maggie snorts. "Yeah, I know, tagging alongfor Bowl night with Damon just isn't your thing. Well, I'm notgiving up. I will totally text-stalk you until you read thoseletters."
I'm smiling—Maggie is awesome—when we pull upalongside my house, a beige stucco ranch surrounded by a lovelygarden that thrives on neglect. When I notice my mom's white FordEscape in the driveway, I instantly know exactly what I'm going todo with all those terrifying emails.
My mom has long, dark hair, ice blue eyes,and a totally impenetrable poker face. She's been reading theadmissions emails on my phone, one after another. She looks down atme with her usual placid expression. Because she works as apediatric nurse at the Jasper Heights Community Hospital, she'sused to giving bad news in a way that's both kind and free fromextraneous bullshit.
"So?" I ask. "What's the damage?"
Her face is a soft mask, and her voice is agentle monotone. "It looks like you got into Barnard, NYU, thehonors program at the University Extension, and the University ofPennsylvania."
"What about Adams? Did I get into Adams?"Adams is my dream school. I've wanted to go there since I figuredout that going to college was my only way out of Triple Marsh.
My mom's face remains stoic for anothermoment, and then it blooms into a rare, spectacular smile. "You gotinto Adams, too, honey."
My mind doesn't quite take it all in, but mybody goes wild. First, I'm chilly. Then I'm hot, sweaty, and dizzy.Partly from excitement and partly because my dad still hasn't fixedthe air conditioner.
I take a deep breath of air so humid I cantaste it. I can hardly believe it. Me. Going to Adams College. Anintellectual city on the hill with crisp falls and bracing wintersentirely unlike Florida's smothering humidity. A place where even amisfit like me might actually be accepted—or, at least,tolerated.
My mom, still grinning, pulls me into a long,tight hug. She smells like sandalwood and smoke. I know she has asecret cigarette every now and then. I've never caught her, but thesmell sometimes lingers in the back of the garage or on the frontporch. I don't say anything. Her modest little vice is nothingcompared to Dad's drinking.
I'm basically blackout giddy for about thirtyseconds when reality crashes back into my skull. How the fuck am Igoing to pay the tuition and all the other fees I remember from thefinancial aid application? Even if I get financial aid, which isn'tguaranteed, the school still demands a pound of flesh and a quartof blood from each student's parents.
I wiggle out of Mom's embrace. Her wide smilehas softened into a warm, happy glow. My face must have fallenfast, because she asks me what's wrong.
"Adams is pretty expensive," I say.
"I know, honey, I helped you fill out thefinancial forms."
"Can we really afford it?" I ask, thinking ofDad's job detailing cars at the Mercedes dealership in JasperHeights. He used to be a mechanic, practically a genius with cars,but he had trouble getting to work on time and staying consciouswhen he got there.
Mom puts her hands on my shoulders andsquints her big blue eyes. It's her determined look. "We'll find away. I'm going to start working double shifts. There might even beone tonight."
I try to protest—I don't want her to beexhausted, the state program at the Extension is both cheap andwell regarded—but she shushes me into silence as if I were one ofher young patients.
"I'm going to help you attend that fancy asscollege," she says firmly. "And there's nothing you can do to stopme."
Chapter 2: Laird
"Hey man," says Deegan O'Neil, holding asilver flask. "Want some?"
"Christ," I say, trying tosound at least mildly scandalized. "Are you actually offering me adrink at my own mother's funeral?" Damn it, I keep forgetting andsaying funeral. I can practically hear Mom's soft, cultured voicecorrecting me.It's not a funeral,sweetheart, it's a celebration of life.
Deegan winks and grins wolfishly. "I've gotweed, too." I know he does. He got stoned before, during, and afterlast night's Swamp Bowl. Neither one of us actually played. We letthe second string guys have their shot at glory.
Deegan waggles the flask again. I look at itand think about the hot, easy warmth it could give me. After a fewpulls, I could pass through this insane nightmare of a day withouteven noticing all the sharp edges that will surely cut me. I shakemy head. That's not how I'm going to play it. Not today.
"Thanks but no thanks," I say. "My head'salready fuzzy enough."
"Have it your way, man." Deegan takes a longswallow from his flask and tucks it back into his jacket. His facepinks up quickly, then slowly reverts to its usual deep tan.
I look around for a small but curvystrawberry blonde wrapped in a white bandage dress, but I can't seeher anywhere. Damn it again.
"Any idea where Ember went?" I ask.
Ember is my girlfriend. My beautiful, funny,untamed girlfriend with a heart-shaped ass that fits perfectly inmy two palms. She left about half an hour ago to hit the littlegirls' room. Or so she said. She's a free spirit with the rareability to immerse herself completely in the moment. The downsideis that she's really impulsive and does a lot of stupid,inconsiderate shit.
Deegan pauses and then shakes his head. Iwonder if he knows something I don't. I tell myself I'm beingparanoid.
"Do you mind looking for her?" I ask.
"Not at all, man. I'm on it." His voicecracks with relief. As I watch him go, it occurs to me that he'sreally cleaned himself up for this event. His long hair is slickedback and secured in a discreet pony tail. He's wearing a suit thatcovers all his tattoos except the one that spells FEAR in Japanesekanji on his neck.
Formal events are totally not his scene, butI'm glad he came, and I'm grateful he didn't show up looking like acarnival sideshow.
I feel a light tap on my shoulder. It'sTricia, a short, plump woman in a black, gathered pantsuit that mymom would have called suburban chador. "Are you ready?" she asks."Or do you need a little more time?"
I take a deep breath of cool,over-conditioned air and survey the crowd outside the industrialglass doors at the other end of the atrium.
My father's supposed to be with me, greetingall these random guests that Mom invited on one of her morphinehighs. But, as usual, he's nowhere to be found. He left around tenfor a business brunch with some guy who owns a startup softwarecompany in South Dakota. He said not to worry, that he'd meet mehere before the memorial started.
As I expected, and dreaded, he's still ano-show five minutes after the memorial was scheduled to begin.Ever since my mom got sick—really sick, hospital sick—Dad hasburied himself in his work and a series of barely legalgirlfriends, each more vapid than the next. It was me, not him, whologged time at Mom's bedside, feeding her cherry-flavored icechips. When I told her how sorry I was that Dad was being such anepic, gaping asshole, she smiled at me and took my hand. "Yourfather loves me in his own, imperfect way," she said. "He's justnot strong, like we are."
Tricia taps my shoulder again, this time abit more insistently. "Well? Would you like to wait for Mr.Conroy?"
"No, no," I mutter. "Let's do thisthing."
Tricia says something in Spanish into herheadset, and the doors open. A flood of people, mostly womenwearing black and white dresses, converge on me, their heelsclick-click-clacking like hungry mandibles.
I scan the crowd and dull, heavydisappointment settles into my chest. Ember and Deegan aren'tthere.
My mother never cared much for tradition. Andshe always hated funerals. So she left instructions in her willthat, in lieu of a memorial service, there would be a Black andWhite party in her posthumous honor at the Mangrove Center, astarkly post-modern conference venue where she liked to holdcharity events.
She could only bring herself to work on theguest list when she was high on pain meds. For obvious reasons, itwas heavy on friends and light on DNA. Dad hates his family—hecalls them a bunch of whining parasites—and Mom was the lastsurvivor of a tribe ravaged by cancer and bad luck. I try not tothink too much about this last bit, and what it may bode for my ownfuture.
Because Mom had a twisted sense of humor anda deep appreciation for camp, her final event is hilariouslymacabre. Before she died, she commissioned a full-sized sculptureof herself in ice and artificial snow. It's here today, suspendedfrom the ceiling, and wearing a black-and-white, asymmetricaldress. Even slowly melting, she looks better than most of herfriends.
I take a deep breath and try to ignore thetears gathering behind my eyes. My mother would have loved thiscrazy, swirling spectacle. Elegant people in black and white eatBeluga caviar on toasted Wonder Bread. Oh-so-flattering pictures ofher greatest charitable triumphs flicker by on a twenty-foot highdigital wall. Waiters in white shirts and specially madecheckerboard pants ply the guests with cocktails made of champagneand stout beer. They work hard to make sure no glass remains emptyfor long.
So far, about ten people have offered metheir drinks. I keep saying no. Tomorrow, I'll get shitfaced.Wasted. Incoherent. But today I'm going to suck it up and keep myshit together. I want to end this day as someone my mother wouldhave been proud of.
To that end, I stay stalwart at my station,which is beside a giant computer monitor asking guests to makedonations to one of several charities in my mother's name. At thehospital, she called it the ultimate charitable guilt trip,coughing out a long, wheezy laugh. My job is to record guests'pledges without breaking down into a sodden mess of blubberinggrief. Easy, right?
I'm thanking a woman aboutmy mother's age for donating to a local chapter of Mothers AgainstDrunk Driving—and thinking horrid thoughts likewhy are you still here when my mother is ashes in thewind—when Tricia sneaks up behind me. She'sholding an onyx tablet and stylus; her hunched posture makes methink of a vulture.
"Um, excuse me?" Her voice, full of guilt andforeboding, puts me immediately on my guard.
She purses her lips and looks nervous. "Yourfather. I need to speak to him. Soon."
Of course, even today, everything comes backto Dad. My head buzzes with anger, and I will my voice to remaineven. "Look, Tricia, I have no idea where my father is. Probably ata business meeting. I've tried calling him several times, as I'msure you have, and he doesn't pick up. It's probably easier if youjust ask me whatever it was you were going to ask him."
She shakes her head so her jowls wiggle. Hermask of compassion slips ever so slightly, revealing wearyimpatience. "I was going to have your father do this, but..." Shepauses and then steels herself to continue. "I'm sorry to ask youthis, but could you go through this list of expenses and approvethem?"
She hands me the tablet, and I see it's adetailed invoice that catalogues everything down to the last sliceof Wonder Bread—exactly the kind of thing my father doesn't givetwo shits about. If he were here, he'd probably say something like,"Get that fucking thing out of my face. I'm sure it's all fine.Just tell me where to sign." But he isn't here. It's just me. And Ijust hate the idea of making mistakes, especially today.
"OK, I'll do it." I handle the stylusgingerly, as if it were a knife.
My mom's celebration of life, like all herparties, is taking forever to wind down. Mom—the ice sculpture,that is—is almost entirely melted. Stragglers are holed upeverywhere. Some are the college-age sons and daughters of Mom'sfriends, getting hammered on free drinks. Others are middle-agedcouples running down the clock on their babysitters. A few olderwomen I recognize from Mom's various charitable committees mayactually be remembering her and reminiscing about special momentsfrom her life.
As I predicted, my father still hasn'tshowed. Asshole.
I want to tell Tricia to shut everythingdown. I need it to be over. Soon. But first I want to find Deeganand Ember. I leave the donation table satisfied that everyone whowas going to bleed some green has already done so. Even from thegrave, my mom is an ass-kicking fund raiser. Her guests havepledged more than five million dollars in her memory.
I walk quickly across the atrium, passthrough the front doors, and emerge into a carefully landscapedparking lot. It's full of green islands, flowering shrubs, andquaint little benches. It's exactly the kind of place where Deeganand Ember would go to get discreetly fucked up. I see a cluster offlowering trees—something rare and tropical that I can't quiterecognize—and a small cloud of smoke. I head towards it.
As I get closer, I see a blond man in a graybusiness suit with his arm around Ember. Deegan is standing off tothe side, puffing away. His posture is visibly uncomfortable. Emberand the man—who is in his forties with a long, ropy build and thekind of chiseled face girls seem to love—make a striking, goldencouple. She leans against him and giggles. He pulls her in for aplayful embrace.
"Dad," I call to the man in the suit with hishands all over my girlfriend, "what the fuck are you doing outhere? You missed the entire funeral."
"Laird," he says in the smooth, liquid voicethat parts investors from their money and women from theirclothing, "it was a celebration of life, not a funeral. Your motherhated funerals. You know that."
"I hate funerals, too," adds Ember, twistingher neck so she's gazing into his eyes. "How do we know death is sobad, anyway? Maybe it's just nature's way of setting the soul freeto wander the universe."
Dad gives Ember a squeeze, and she rests herhead on his shoulder, eyes closed. "Exactly," he says. "I'mconfident Maureen would not have begrudged me some time with thesewonderful young people."
Deegan looks at me and rolls his eyes. I knowthis sick-making tableau isn't his fault. I'm sure he tried to dragmy dad and Ember out of this very secluded corner of the parkinglot. But eighteen-year-old Deegan—tattooed bad boy wanted by halfthe girls in the senior class—is no match for my father.
I look at Dad and shake my head. "You shouldat least make appearance. C'mon," I say, walking as fast as I canback to the Mangrove Center.
Deegan hurries to keep up with me. His mouthis moving, but the buzzing in my head is all I can hear. I thinkhe's murmuring something like, "Dude, I know the score for sure. Istayed with them the whole time. Nothing happened, I swear."
I groan inside. He means well, but Deeganjust doesn't know Dad like I do.
It's almost midnight, and there's a party atDeegan's house, because life goes on, right?
Dad's on a plane to New York City. It's wherehe does a lot of business and where he keeps histownhouse-slash-fuck pad. After the memorial, I barely spent tenminutes with him. He cleared out the stragglers with a simple yeteloquent announcement and then excused himself to take an urgentbusiness call. When I followed him outside, he put his call onmute, shook my hand, and told me to go home without him, that he'dbe heading to the airport. Heartless fucker.
Now I'm driving Ember to Deegan's house.We're a study in hostile silence. She stares out the window,actively avoiding my gaze. I keep my eyes on the road, watching themile markers tick by. I try to lose myself in the hypnotic samenessof the landscape—the waxy looking shrubs, the palms, the pastelhouses. It doesn't work. My head is burning with anger. All I wantis for Ember to answer a single question.
"Enough with the silent treatment. What thefuck were you doing with my dad today?" I ask, my voice tight andquiet. Ember ignores me for a few beats, and my hands grip thesteering wheel harder and harder, until my knuckles are whitestars. Finally, she turns to me with cold, defensive eyes.
"I went outside to get some air, OK? You knowI've hated funerals ever since I saw Nana's open casket. I wentinto the parking lot to sneak a joint, and I just bumped into him.He was sad. Really broken up about your mother. He needed to talkto someone, so I talked to him, alright? I thought that's what youwould have wanted."
The buzzing in my head gets louder, and myeyes sting and water. I want to tell her that what I'd wanted—whatI'd really, really wanted—was for her to stay by my side at mymother's funeral or celebration or whatever the fuck it was.
Instead, I say this: "You know, he does thisall the time. You'll hear from him in a few months, when you'reabout to turn eighteen. He'll take you out to dinner a couple oftimes and then fly you someplace cool and urban. Or maybe someplacewarm and tropical. Whatever you want. You'll tell your parentsyou're going on college interviews. He'll fuck you senseless for afew days, ship you home, and send some kind of a courtesygift—maybe a lavish bouquet of flowers or, if you're really good,those fucking Louboutins you're always drooling over. And thenyou'll never hear from him again."
Ember says nothing. Her face is a painted,opaque mask, and her eyes are trained on the horizon. I reallyshould just shut up. But I don't. I take a long, deep breath andcontinue. "You know, he started doing this—fucking around withbarely legal girls—when Mom got sick. She said it was his fear ofdeath that drove him to it. I think he's just an asshole."
Ember still stares her zombie stare. Shewon't engage, won't argue. It's not too late for me to shut mymouth and cut my losses. I could still apologize and attribute myharsh words to grief. But the static in my head is deafening. Myvoice gets low and mean.
"Sometimes, girls he's been with show up atthe house, looking for him. When they find him, he calls theirparents to come get them. Then he gets a restraining order. If theyshow up a second time, our security guys call the police. I thoughtyou were better than that, but I guess not."
Finally, her mask cracks and steams. Shereacts with all the hot fury reflected in her name.
"I can't believe you think I would—howexactly did you put it?—fuck your father. I'm your girlfriend. Or,at least, I was your girlfriend. You keep telling me what a bad guyyou're father is, but I think you're the sick one."
Now it's my turn to stare out the window. Iwatch the road signs whip by. This is probably the worst day of mylife.
Ember clutches at my arm. Her long nails diginto my flesh. "Why don't you pull over and let me out of thisfucking car! I'll walk to Deegan's party! Just let me out!"
We're driving past a gator-infested culvert.There's no way I'm going to let her out here to stumble around inthe dark. "That's ridiculous! You're wearing high heels. You canbarely walk in them. I'll let you out when we get to the party.We're practically there."
Ember yells in my ear. "I said let me outnow!" She reaches over and grabs the steering wheel, pulling it tothe right. "Now! Now! Now!"
We struggle, and the car swerves. I'm sofocused on removing her hands from the steering wheel withouthurting her that I don't notice the stop sign, or the white FordEscape, until it's too late.
Chapter 3: Amity
I am dreaming of my future, perfect life atAdams college. My stammer and limp are magically gone. I have wittyconversations with pretty people in cozy cafés. The air is crisp,dry, and tasteless—the polar opposite of central Floridian air. Andthere is foliage. Lots of foliage.
"Amity, wake up, honey! Wake up!"
I feel a rough hand on my shoulder and inhalethe minty sour scent of beer imperfectly masked by mouthwash. It'sDad. I roll over, open my eyes, and push myself into a sittingposition. Dad looks awful: unshaven, red-eyed, andstoop-shouldered. He's wearing a white T-shirt decorated withcondiment stains.
"What's up, Dad?" I ask warily.
"It's your mother. She didn't come home lastnight." His lips quiver. He's close to crying. He's also obviouslydrunk.
"Are you sure she's not working an extrashift at the hospital?" Sometimes Mom will work around the clock,napping between shifts. I think of her promise to help me pay forcollege and feel a twinge of guilt.
"Yes, honey. She told me this morning she wasworking a double. She said she'd be home by eleven at thelatest."
I ask the next obvious question. "Did youcall or text her?"
"Yes. She's not picking up or textingback."
I frown. Mom is typically ultra-responsible.She has to be when she's at work—people could actually die if shescrews up—and I guess it just bleeds over into the rest of herlife. Dad looks distraught. Tears are gathering in the corners ofhis eyes.
"I'm sure there's a good reason," I say,trying to convince myself as well as my dad. "She could have acritical case. Maybe she's monitoring a child in a long, complexsurgery."
Dad shakes his head and locks his droopybrown eyes onto mine. He's about to burst into loud, drunken sobs."Can I ask you something?" His voice is tremulous.
"Is your mother having an affair?" When I letthe question dangle in mid-air, he rushes to add, "If you say yes,I'm not going to do anything crazy. I just need to know, OK?"
I nod slightly and think over what he justasked. My gut reaction is to say no in the strongest possibleterms. But then I remember my freshman year of high school, whenDad was getting blackout drunk, and he and Mom were fighting allthe time. Mom took Xanax like they were candy. They werelegitimate—her doctor prescribed them for stress and she never tookthem at work—but she told me later she'd had a problem. When Ireacted with shock and disbelief—Mom was always the stable one—shesaid, "Everyone has problems. It's just that some people are betterat hiding them than others."
Now, despite feeling like the worst, mostdisloyal daughter in the world, I wonder.
"Not that I know of, Dad," I hedge.
He is not satisfied. "C'mon," he says,wheedling. "You can tell me. Is it one of the doctors?"
I shrink back into my pillows. I'm trying tothink of something to say, when a Jasper Heights police car, sirensblaring, pulls in front of the house.
"More coffee, Mr. Dormer?" Dad nods whileChase McNaughton, the young male officer, expertly makes a freshpot. Chase is movie-star handsome.
I am lying on the couch wrapped in a blanketwith my feet propped up. Nan Jacobs—the rounded, middle-aged femaleofficer—takes my blood pressure. "A little low," she mutters, "youmight be suffering from a touch of shock."
"I thought that only happens when you lose alot of blood," I say, confused.
"No," she says. "Some people can have anextreme physical reaction to emotional trauma. It's a normalphysiological response to an abnormal situation."
I am silent for a moment. I feel strangelycold. My hands and feet tingle. What the officers told us justcan't be right. There's got to be some kind of mistake. Maybe Momreally is having an affair, and she's run off with a bipolarplastic surgeon. Anything but this.
"Are you sure it was my Mom?" I ask. "She's avery careful driver. She's never been in an accident before."
Nan's face radiates pity, and the bottomdrops out of my stomach. "We're sure," she says. "One of thedoctors at the hospital identified her body."
"But how did she die?" I can't help askingeven though I really don't want to know.
"Blunt force trauma," says Nan as gently asshe can. "It's a fancy way of saying she hit her head and then bledinto her brain." I feel my guts clench into a ball, and I'msuddenly glad I'm not a breakfast kind of person.
I close my eyes for a momentand open them when Dad starts sobbing. His cries are primal andanguished: rough, shuddering barks that Nan and I can hear from thekitchen. I hear a loud smash and Chase urging my father to keep ittogether from his daughter.Me.
Nan is frowning. She pulls a card from herpocket and hands it to me. It's a number for a women's shelter."I'm not exactly sure what your situation is here," she sayscautiously. "But, if you need someplace safe to go, don't hesitateto call that number."
"Thanks, but I'm fine." I'm not sure if it'strue, but it's my reflexive response. Dad keeps sobbing. He mustreach for a beer or a bottle, because I hear Chase ask him to putsomething down. Things are definitely looking ugly.
"I'm going to call my grandmother." I thinkof Gran, Mom's mom. If anyone can fix this, she can.
"Good," murmurs Nan, keeping one eye on thekitchen. "I think that's a really good idea."
I watch my father snore the deep, stentoriansnores of alcohol-induced unconsciousness. He's lying on thecarpeted living room floor like a shaggy dog. I covered him with ablanket when he finally passed out. My shirt is wet from histears.
Now I'm cleaning the kitchen, which is adisaster zone that would have made Mom curse and then weep. I startby sweeping up the broken glass. I brush it into a dustpan and geta sliver stuck in my finger. I pull it out and watch the blood pooland flow. My mind leaps to Mom's accident and all the damage shesustained. I run my hand—the one that isn't bleeding—across myscalp and contemplate the fragility of my skull, and how easily itcould be crushed.
Snap out of it, I tell myself. I bandage myfinger and keep cleaning. The next task is the worst: a pool ofbeery vomit that my father heaved onto the kitchen right before thepolice left. My mom usually took care of this kind of thing,although I know immediately what to do. I throw a couple of towelsonto the oozing to soak up as much liquid as possible. Then I wadup the towels, toss them into the washing machine, and set it onsanitize.
I'm about to spray some disinfectant on thesticky remnants when my phone chirps. It's a text from Gran:
Next available flight is tomorrow at fivea.m. Hang on tight and call if you need anything. Love you. Staystrong.
Another day alone here with Dad. It might aswell be an eternity. I feel awful for him—he just lost his wife—butI'm also angry. More than angry. I want to scream at him and shakehim for making me clean up his puke just an hour after I learnedthat Mom died. I take a deep breath and try to clear my head. Focuson the cleaning, I tell myself. But before I can do anything else,my phone chirps again. This time it's Maggie.
OMG, so fucking sorry, cannot believe it.Tell me what you need.
While Dad was gradually passing out, I sentMaggie what is probably the weirdest text I've ever sent. I wouldhave called, but I knew she was at a dance club with some of hercollege buddies. I'm so relieved to see her words I almost cry.
I reread Maggie's question and really thinkabout what I need right now. I look at my dad and the wreckage inthe kitchen. I wrinkle my nose at the faint smell of vomit andbeer. I decide what I really need is to get the fuck out ofhere.
The boy is dancing to some ska-punk-technohybrid, and his moves are fierce. He has shoulder-length dark hairand narrow, mobile hips. A thick vine—black with large,evil-looking thorns—is inked around his arms and neck. I ammesmerized.
"Hey, girl," whispers Maggie. "Drinkthis."
I take the plastic cup from my best friendand take a small sip. It tastes sweet, sour, and astringent. I makea face. "What is this?"
"Wine," says Maggie. "It'll help you relax.Just chug the whole thing."
Maggie looks at me expectantly. My mindflashes back to my father. I know alcoholism runs in families. Willthis cup of wine be the first step on a journey of life-ruiningaddiction and despair? Fuck it. I gulp down the wine as instructedand let it burn its way down my throat.
She nudges me. "Hot, isn't he?"
"Yeah. Nice to look at, I guess."
She giggles. "You can do more than look."
I roll my eyes. "Yeah, right," I say. "A guythat hot wouldn't even look at me. Besides, he's dancing with apixie right now. I'm way too tall for him, as well as being thesocial pariah of the senior class."
Maggie waves her hand as if to brush away myobjections. "He's just some guy from my Modern Poets seminar, andhe has no idea who you are. Just get out there and dance. Besides,you're an awesome dancer. You're actually pretty fucking gracefulfor a gimp."
I blush. She's basically right. I am,shockingly, a decent dancer. When I move to music, my awkwardnessand lopsided, rolling gait disappear. I've never taken a danceclass, but the few times Maggie has dragged me to dance clubs, I'vebeen fine. Maybe even slightly more than fine.
I look at the boy again. I guess he'stechnically a man, since he's out of high school. Maggie senses mywavering. "Go on," she says, "It could help get your mind off, youknow, everything."
Maggie's voice shakes slightly. She's almostas weirded out by Mom's death as I am. It's as if the sun or themoon just ceased to exist. I smile at Maggie, and she squeezes myhand. Then I let the music sweep me onto the dance floor and drawme to the boy.
For a while, I dance around him, barely inthe periphery of his vision. Then he turns and smiles at me likesome kind of predatory animal that's found fresh, tender prey. Ajolt of fear runs through me, but I will it away. Instead, I lethim take my hand and pull me into him. I rest my head against hischest as we sway to the music. He wraps his arms around me, and mylimbs go warm and boneless. It feels good to relax in his arms, toforget everything but this one, elastic moment. I try to take itall in: his strong, ropy arms, his taut midsection, the heat of hisbody. He smells like cedar and smoke.
I consider asking his name, but don't. Idecide that, for tonight, it doesn't really matter.
Chapter 4: Laird
Ember is screaming. It's aloud, high keening that cuts through the humid night air. Herscreams form curses and recriminations. And they're all directed atme.Fuck you. This is all your fault. Whydidn't you just stop the car when I asked you to? I can't believethis is happening.
I look at Ember and try toremember the First Aid class I took with the rest of the footballteam. Her pupils seem to be about the same size. Her cheeks areflushed, indicating adequate oxygenation.You really should have stopped the car. What are we going todo now? What are YOU going to do?Yes, Idecide, she's fine.
I close my ears and leap out of the LandRover. One of the headlights is cracked, and there's a small dentin the front left fender. Otherwise it's fine. The small, white carI hit—a Ford Escape, I think—is another story. A whole differentbook, even. It's crumpled like an accordion. K.T. Tunstall blaresfrom the broken window on the drivers' side, and I realize I musthave hit a woman my mom's age. Little pussy that I am, I want topuke, but I manage to hold it all together. Barely.
I approach the car and basically tear thedriver's side door from its hinges. All those muscles I put on forfootball season are finally doing something useful. When I flingthe door aside, my darkest fears are realized. The other driver isa woman who vaguely resembles my mother—at least, the way Iremember her from her worst days at the hospital. Her eyes areclosed, and her face is swollen. Dark bruises ring her eyes. Shereminds me of an overripe fruit just beginning to rot.
I look down and notice her dress. A nurse'suniform, spattered with blood. I stare for a few long moments.
I hear someone shrieking inmy ear. Ember must have gotten out of the car.What the fuck are you doing? If we're not going to leave, thenyou better fucking help her. Don't just stand there with your dickin your hand.
Ember's words galvanize me into action. Shemay be awful, but she's right. I kneel by the other driver and putmy hand on her chest, feeling for the rise and fall of regularrespiration. When I realize there's nothing, I panic and wonder ifI should have listened to Ember and just driven away. No, I tellmyself sternly, that would have been wrong. I take a deep breathand check her airway for obstructions. Then I sack up and startgiving the woman CPR, just like Coach taught us. I compress herchest, frantically hoping I'm not pushing bone shards into vitalorgans, and lock my mouth onto hers. She tastes like breath mintsand blood. I try not to think about it.
The pushing and the breathing go on for whatseems like forever. At some point, soft hands and strong arms pullme away. A paramedic—a short blonde woman with thick, musculararms—shakes her head. "I'm sorry, it's too late. At least youtried. You did everything you could." Then she calls me a hero, andI vomit onto the swampy ground. As I heave up everything in myguts, she strokes my back. "Everything's going to be fine," shesays in a low, calming voice. I let her lead me to theambulance.
"There's somebody here who'd like to seeyou." She smiles and points towards a gurney. Someone is risingfrom the makeshift bed, someone with a mass of dark, tangled hairlike seaweed. She slowly lifts her head so I can see her face, andthat's when I start to scream. It's my mother, rotted and ruined byworms and whatever else is with her under the ground.
Then I wake up.
My heart feels like it's going to punch itsway out of my chest, and my body is slick with sweat, despite Dad'sstate-of-the-art climate control system. I can't stop thinkingabout the accident. And Mom. And Ember.
Dad's doctor met me here at the house andgave me a shot of some kind of tranquilizer. All it's doing isgiving me nightmares. There's no way I'm going to sleep tonight, nomatter how many drugs I'm on. I get out of bed and go to mycomputer. I am obsessively curious about the woman I killed.
Killed.The word echoes in my brain. I killed someone. It feelssurreal. My mother is dead, and I killed someone.
I open my browser, and ittakes me all of two seconds to find my victim. The accident isalready all over the Internet.Local womankilled in late night crash, the headlinesread. Her name is—was—Laura Dormer. She was a beloved pediatricnurse at Jasper Heights Community Hospital. There's a picture ofher dressed up as a witch, handing out Halloween treats to kids onthe cancer ward. She has a strong jaw and ice blue eyes: a naturalprotector. She's a rougher, more robust version of my ownmother.
She is survived by her husband Craig Dormer,an auto detail technician, and a daughter about my age. Thedaughter's name is Amity. She's been accepted to Adams College,which is, eerily enough, my first choice. There's a picture of herholding a giant beet from her mom's garden. Her expression is oddlytentative, as if she's afraid to fully commit herself to a smile.She has long, storybook hair and aspirations to become a pediatricsurgeon. She's a wounded princess who's lost her mother—just likeme. And it's all my fault. I want to throw myself at her feet andbeg her forgiveness.
I take a deep, shudderingbreath and quickly scan the rest of the article. It mentions theheroism of the other driver—me—giving CPR to Laura at the scene. Italso includes a self-serving quote from Ember:I really have no idea what happened. She just came out ofnowhere. I think she must have blown through the stop sign orsomething.I suppose I can't blame her fortrying to deflect the blame. She's trying to protect herself—andmaybe me. I still don't know what I'm going to tell the police whenthey ask for my statement.
Someone's knocking on my door. "Come in."
It's Katya, my father's assistant. She's awashed up model at just twenty-five years old. Her hair is thecolor of honey, and she has broad Slavic cheekbones. She'sheartbreakingly beautiful. Every once in a while I see her swimmingtopless in our forty-foot pool. On every other breath, a small,evenly tanned breast pops out of the water. I'm pretty sure she'ssleeping with my father. I avoid her as much as possible.
She looks at me with tired eyes. "Your fatherasked me to tell you that he's flying back from New York. He'll behere this morning. He says not to talk to anyone until he getshere."
No duh. When the cops looked at my driver'slicense and realized I was Josiah Conroy's son, they called himimmediately. Dad basically owns Jasper Heights and everyone in it.Then they gave me what was probably the most gentle and courteousroadside sobriety test ever given. Once they established myBreathalyzer was clean, they asked me to drop by the stationsometime over the next couple of days. At my convenience.
Katya's still standing in the doorway. Irealize I've been rude.
"Thanks," I say. But she still doesn't leave.Instead, she takes a step into my room.
"Your father also said I should do anything Ican to make you comfortable. I know you've had a very terrible day.You're a good-looking boy. Let me help you feel better."
She slowly unbuttons her shirt, and I stare,transfixed. Then I remember Dad's hands exploring Ember's body andall the pretty young things who show up here with red, swolleneyes. I force myself to look away.
"It's OK, Katya. I'll be fine." Of course,it's a lie, but one she's happy to accept. She shrugs anddisappears out my door, closing it behind her. A few minutes later,I hear another knock.
"Katya, I said I'm fine, OK?"
I turn around, and it's not Katya. Not atall. It's Ember. She drops her coat onto the floor and comes tome.
Ember is sobbing andshaking. Her face is chalky. Her eyes and nose are red. I want torage at her—what the fuck were you thinkingwhen you grabbed the steering wheel?Instead I take her in my arms and smell her hibiscus-scentedhair. She feels soft, warm, and fluttery against my chest. I'm abig guy—about six-four and two hundred pounds—but I forgetsometimes how small she is. I close my eyes and take in the warmthand closeness like an alkie sucking at the bottle.
After a long moment, she pulls away. "I'm sosorry," she gulps. "What you said about me and your father made meso mad. I just wasn't thinking."
A sudden rush of tenderness and sorrow takesmy breath away. I feel crushingly responsible for harming LauraDormer and her haunted daughter, but now I also want to protectEmber. Yes, she should have been there for me at Mom's memorial,but people are weird about death. They do strange, inexplicablethings. Plus, my dad is such an operator he probably made it soEmber couldn't get away from him—the tragic, grievingwidower—without feeling like a total asshole. I shouldn't haveyelled at her. She shouldn't have grabbed the wheel.
I stroke her fine, blonde hair. It feelsslightly greasy. My mind flashes to Amity Dormer's long, fairytalelocks, and I imagine running my hand through them. Oh God, I amsuch a sick fuck. I take a small step back and kiss Ember lightlyon the forehead.
"You know, we killed someone today." Justspeaking those words makes my voice and hands tremble.
Ember's lip quivers, and her eyes overflowwith tears. "Now what are we going to do?"
"Nothing," I say softly. "It was an accident.A horrible accident."
I climb onto my bed—a soft, king-sized oceanof comfort—and pull her to me. She rests her head on my chest. Wefall asleep like that, listening to each other's fragile, finiteheartbeats.
I swim back to consciousness from awonderfully blank, dreamless sleep. First, I'm aware of Ember's,soft, warm weight, which has, in fact, become somewhatuncomfortable. I shift my position and flex my hand. Now it's aliveand tingling from a flood of new blood. Next, I notice the worldoutside my eyelids is surprisingly bright.
I open my eyes and see my father sittingbeside my bed in my Aeron, bouncing slightly. His blond hair flopsboyishly into his eyes, even though he hasn't been a boy for morethan twenty years. He's a wearing a trendy T-shirt and jeans, as ifhe's just come from a wild night of club hopping.
"Good morning, son," he says soberly.
Ember awakens with a gasp and pops up like atarget in a shooting gallery. Her eyes are wide and panicked untilshe touches her shirt. Then she relaxes, relieved that we fellasleep in our clothes.
"Good morning to you, too, Ember." He givesher a gentle smile. I'm relieved that his expression is concerned,avuncular, and nothing more. "Actually, it's good you're here. WhatI have to say to my son is essentially what your father is going tosay to you, too."
Ember and I nod, still emerging from oursleepy haze.
"I know you're both in shock from theaccident last night. I'm sure you're both feeling raw." He pauses.We nod again.
He continues, "It's because of yourfeelings—your fine, sensitive feelings—that I don't want either ofyou talking to the police, insurance companies, or any counselretained by the family of that unfortunate woman without a lawyerpresent. My team will help you draft accurate statements for thepolice report, and someone will be by your side during any officialconversations you have about the accident. Do you understand?"
We nod once again. Ember is gazing at himwith a sort of grateful reverence that bothers me. I suppose she'sglad he's taking charge of the situation. I tell myself to stopbeing a paranoid asshole.
Dad takes my hand and Ember's, and we sitsilently, each of us alone with our thoughts. Mine hover aroundLaura and her family like wounded birds too injured to fly anywhereelse. Her daughter, Amity, has been accepted into Adams College,one of the most expensive colleges in the country. I wonder howAmity is going to pay her tuition without her mom. Then it occursto me that there's something I know for sure my father—thefabulously wealthy Josiah Conroy, America's favorite corporatekingmaker—can do for her. I squeeze his hand.
"Dad, can't we just give that woman's familysome money? I know it won't bring her back, but it might help herdaughter pay for college. Isn't that the least we can do?"
Dad gently pulls his hand away and sighssoftly. "Laird, that's a noble sentiment. But any money we givethat family without some kind of court order will look like anadmission of guilt. Instead of simply being grateful, that woman'shusband and her daughter would most likely find a lawyer and goafter you—and maybe even Ember—for wrongful death. It could followyou around for the rest of your life. No, it's best to leave thefinancial aftermath to the insurance companies."
Ember looks enormouslyrelieved that there will be no consequences for our actions. But Ican't stop thinking about that phraseadmission of guilt. Even if the carwreck was technically an accident, I am guilty, and so is Ember. Itfeels wrong that we will go on with our lives as if nothing hasreally changed, while that girl—Amity—has probably lost her motherand her college dreams in a single, agonizing blow.
I wonder what my mother would have wanted meto do. I struggle—and fail—to hold back a surging wave of sorrow.Soon I am sobbing uncontrollably like the little fucking pussy Iam. Ember gently strokes my back, while my father slips quietly outof the room.
Chapter 5: Amity
"Good morning," purrs a low, male voice.
I open my swollen, sticky eyes and squintinto the early morning sunlight. I do a quick self orientation. Thetorn wallpaper and quilted bedspread indicate I am, in fact, in myown room. I pinch my arm, and it actually hurts. So I'm awake. Myhead aches as I turn it slowly in the direction of the male voicethat could not possibly be here.
Oh my fucking God, I broughthim home with me. It's the guy from thedance club with the tattoos and the intense green eyes. I try topiece together the sequence of events that led from the dance floorto my narrow twin bed, but the large cups of cheap wine I dranklast night have burned holes in my memory. Did I kiss him? Did I doanything else?
"What h-h-happened?" I ask with what feelslike an endless stammer.
He smiles the slow, predatory smile Iremember from the dance club. "We made sweet love all night long.You rocked my world, little girl."
My mouth forms a perfect O of surprise as Iwonder how I could have forgotten that. I mean, I am—was?—a virginby circumstance, if not necessarily by choice.
Tattoo guy laughs. "Just kidding, little one.I brought you home because your friend told me you were drunk andout of your mind because your mom just died. Very sorry about that,by the way. That really, truly sucks. I stayed over because yourdad seemed kind of wasted and insane. I didn't want to leave youalone in any kind of bad situation."
I nod silently. Of course, nothing happened.I am such an idiot. "That's very nice of you."
Tattoo guy laughs again. "You lookdisappointed."
I shake my head. "I'm not," I say primly andhop out of bed. I'm still wearing last night's clothes. They smelllike stale sweat and clove cigarettes.
"I'm hurt," he says, pretending to pout. He'sstarting to annoy me until he stands up and I see his lean torsocovered in intricate ink. There are vines, Chinese characters, anda large bird of some kind. I'm taking it all in when he throws onthe white T-shirt he wore at the club.
"Look, kid. I have class this morning. Areyou OK staying here, or can I give you a ride somewhere?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. My grandma is flying in thismorning. She'll keep us all in line."
He smiles. "Sounds great. Well, I've got togo."
He walks towards the door, stops, and piercesme with his heart-stopping green eyes. "Take care, kid."
After he's gone, my head starts throbbing inearnest. I lie back down on my bed, and then I remember: I neverdid catch his name.
Freshly showered and changed, I tiptoe downthe hall and into the kitchen, where I smell freshly baked bananamuffins. Gran is standing by the stove, inspecting the muffin tops.She's tall—about my height of five-ten—with ropy muscles and longiron-colored hair gathered into a bun. Put her in a bonnet and aprairie dress, and give her a rifle, and she would be a convincingpioneer.
"Gran!" I say, my eyes filling withtears.
She smiles ruefully. Her eyes are dry andtired. "I let myself in. Your father was in sorry shape.Understandable under the circumstances, I suppose. I sent him tobed. Hopefully, he'll sleep it off."
"Thank you." I take a long, deep breath,thankful that someone who is not me is finally in charge.
Gran extends her arms. "Come here, girl." Ilaunch myself into a shuddering, tearful hug and rest my head onGran's strong shoulder.
After I don't know how long, Gran gentlydisengages and looks me over from head to toe. She frowns. "Youlook thin, girl."
My mouth twitches into a half-grin. "Youalways say that. Anyway, it's not my fault. It's yourgenetics."
Gran smiles back, and now there are tears inher eyes as well. "You look so much like your mother did at yourage. Well, you'll have to tell me all about that fancy college yougot into."
She pauses, and her smile turns sly. "Andyou'll have to tell me all about that young man who skulked out ofhere this morning."
It's the day of Mom's memorial service, andI'm trying my best to keep my shit together. Fortunately, I'mstanding between Gran and Maggie. They'll help me stay focused. I'mgoing to give the eulogy, and I'm terrified that I'll stammerexcessively, burst into tears, faint, or any combinationthereof.
Maggie takes my hand. "Don't worry, bitch.You're going to kick ass. Your mom would have been so fuckingproud."
I grip her hand, unable to speak withoutbreaking into sobs. Maggie, as always, detects my distress.
"What's wrong?" she asks. "I mean, aside fromthe obvious?"
"It's those p-p-pictures," I stutter,pointing at the wall where a photographic retrospective of Mom'slife is playing on a loop. The photos flicker by, assaulting mewith memories while an instrumental version of Amazing Grace trillsin the background. Here's Mom, pale and tired, holding me as anewborn in a fuzzy pink hat. Click. Now Mom's dancing at herwedding with cake on her face, her black hair flying around herlike ribbons. Click. Mom's waggling her tongue at the camera.Click. Mom's holding a giant pumpkin from her garden.
"Look at me," says Maggie, putting her handson my shoulders. "Try not to fixate on the photos."
A trim, competent-looking woman with shortbrown hair stops in front of us and regards me with appraisingeyes. "You must be her daughter," she says. "You look just likeher. I'm Brenda."
"Thanks," I reply, grateful for thedistraction." So how did you know her? Did you work together at thehospital?"
"Yes, we did. I'm a pediatric oncology nurse.Your mom and I crossed paths quite a bit. She was a tremendouslycompassionate woman."
I nod, again unable to speak. Brenda takes mycold, trembling hand in her warm, capable one and gives it a firmsqueeze. Then she pulls me into a quick hug.
After Brenda leaves, I check the time. Damn.I'm supposed to give the eulogy in just ten minutes. Thenondenominational minister we hired to manage the service—a short,bald man with a goofy smile my mom would have loved—is callingeveryone to take their seats. Maggie gives me a quick hug and awhispered "Good luck."
Gran is standing with her arms crossed and agrim expression on her face. I'm pretty sure I know what theproblem is.
"Any sign of Dad?" I ask.
Gran's frown deepens so her mouth isbracketed by deep, long parentheses. "I'm sorry to say it, but yourfather is a weak man. He loved your mother and he loves you, buthe's goddamned weak."
"I know, Gran. I know."
The rent-a-pastor has begun his preparedremarks. I'm almost up. I turn to walk towards the podium, whenGran clutches at my arm.
"You'll do fine, you know. You're strong.Just like your mother."
"The kids will miss her kindness, and thedoctors will miss her long legs and fine ass. To Laura!" A table ofmiddle-aged nurses—Mom's work friends—raise their wine glasses anddrink. Again.
After the funeral, we all drove to theLakeside Grill, a slightly rundown establishment on the TripleMarsh side of Lake Everclear. Most everyone toasting Mom's memoryis from the hospital. Mom was the only child of two only children.She didn't have any family, except for me, Dad, and Gran.
Of course, Dad is nowhere to be found. Itexted him three times that we were coming here. I'm shocked thathe's passed up a socially sanctioned opportunity to get publiclydrunk.
Gran is moving from table to table, makingsure everyone has enough to eat and drink. Maggie and I haveretreated to the bar.
"Those nurses sure know how to party," shesays.
"Yeah, I know." I stare down at the scarredwooden bar top. I can't believe Dad didn't even show up for thefuneral. I bet he's lying on the couch, drinking beer and watchingTV.
"I can't believe my dad was a no-show."
"Did you really expect anything else?"
We sit silently for a moment, listening tothe laughter drift in from the other room. Maggie pastes a widesmile on her face, determined to cheer me up. "Let's try to have alittle fun. I bet I can get the bartender to serve us drinks. Realdrinks."
I look at Maggie and raise my eyebrows. Herface is bare, and she looks like an overdeveloped twelve-year-oldangel. "I seriously doubt it," I say, fiddling with a tinystraw.
Maggie smirks and waves downthe bartender. He has long hair and intricate tattoos snaking downhis muscular arms.Oh my God, it's thenameless guy from the dance club.
"Hi, kid," he says, glancing at me. His toneis cool, and his eyes are more wary than intense. He is not happyto see me.
"Ethan," trills Maggie,oblivious, "can you hook us up with some rum and Cokes? We've justcome from a funeral. It's been a really rough day. Especially forher." She points at me and winks. All I can think is:Ethan, that's his name.
"Sorry, kids. I can't do that, or I'll losemy job."
Maggie makes a face at Ethan and sticks outher tongue. "You're no fun. Well, I promised Amity's grandma I'dhelp keep an eye on the rowdy nurses. I'll see you soon." Before Ican say anything, she's slipped off her stool and disappeared intothe main room. I can't believe she's left me alone with him.
"So what can I get you?" he asks.
"A Coke. Look, thanks again for bringing mehome the other night."
"Yeah, about that," he says. "I'd appreciateit if you could ask your friend to keep that on the down low. Ihave a girlfriend, and she might, uh, misinterpret the situation,all right?"
I react first with disappointment—of course,he has a girlfriend—and then with elation. I am thrilled that hisgirlfriend—probably a college girl—might actually be jealous of me,the Amityville Horror. I smile brightly, and he seems to relax.
"No problem, Ethan. I'll tell Maggie to keepit quiet."
"Thanks a bunch, kid," he says, handing me mydrink. I take a sip and taste the sweetness of Coke combined withsomething medicinal. It must be the rum and Coke Maggie had askedfor.
He winks. "Don't tell your little buddy aboutthis, either."
Gran insists on driving us home in thehalf-dead, mostly rusted Mustang we borrowed from Dad this morning.When I protest—I'm younger with better reaction times—she looks atme with a strange, sad expression. "I can smell it on your breath,"she says.
Oh God, I realize, she thinks I'm turninginto my father. Anything I can think of to say—it was just onedrink, I didn't even ask for it—sounds exactly like the kind ofbullshit he always told my mother whenever he turned up drunk atthe worst possible time. So I keep my mouth shut and let Gran takethe wheel.
We spend the whole trip in silence. When Granpulls into the driveway, I get out of the car and head inside. I gostraight to my room and stare at myself in the mirror. Except formy small ears—Mom's were big—I look nothing like my father. Still,I inspect the contours of my face for early signs ofalcohol-induced corruption. I'm gazing into my own eyes when I hearGran's cries for help.
"Amity! Come here! Please hurry!"
I follow her voice and find her and my fatherin the living room. My father is lying on the floor in a pool ofhis own vomit. Gran is hunched over, one hand clutching herchest.
"Get my purse off the coffee table," shegasps. "Find the pills. The Nitro."
I do as she says, and open the bottle. "Howmany?" I ask.
I hand her the tablets and she dry swallowsthem. I know she's feeling better when she gradually stands up.
I glance down at my father and then back upat Gran. I look her in the eye as steadily as I can. "I'm not myfather. That's not who I'm going to be. Ever."
Gran returns my look with her own cool gaze."I will pray every night that you're right," she says. Then sheplaces her hand on my shoulder and her expression softens intosomething like pity, only sadder. "Girl, I'm so sorry I have totell you this. Your father is dead. I think he's drowned in his ownvomit."
Chapter 6: Laird
It's happening again. I'm standing outsidethe crumpled Ford Escape. Ember is screaming and cursing in thebackground. I see the bruised, swollen face of Laura Dormer, thewoman I killed. I know what I have to do—try to save her life bycompressing her chest and forcing air into her broken lungs.
As I go through the motions of CPR, I hearCoach's gravelly voice in my ear. "Remember, it's a simple asA-B-C. Airway. Breathing. Compressions. Check the airway. Pinch thenose. Make a tight seal around the victim's lips and give 'em abreath. Then compress the chest. Hell, if lip locking with astranger gives you the heebies, just stick with the compressions.It's better than nothing." I tune him out and focus on the rhythmof the breaths and compressions.
After what feels like an eternity, heavyhands take hold of my shoulders and haul me up. I stumble to myfeet and find myself facing Coach. He slowly shakes his blockyhead. "Son, you've lost the game. Give it up already. It's time towalk it off."
My face burns with rage. "Someone's dead. Howcan I just walk it off?"
"You just do it, Laird. Go that way." Hepoints towards a dirt path leading into dense, swampy woods. Ithink I see someone standing alongside it, but I'm not sure."Follow her," he says.
I squint my and try to make out the hazy,indistinct figure. It's hard to see details in the moonlight, but Ican tell it's a tall girl around my age in a T-shirt and baggyshorts. I think she looks at me, but I'm not sure. Before I can getnear her, she takes off like a frightened deer, disappearing intothe trees.
I run after her, my breath turning ragged.Eventually, I get close enough to see her more clearly. She haslong, wild hair. Tendrils fly behind her like pennants. Althoughshe's fast—faster than any girl I've ever known—her gait isstrangely off-kilter. She looks like she's falling and catchingherself with every stride.
I know I'm not going to catch her. She moveslike liquid mercury. So I simply yell, "Stop! Please!"
She slows and turns around. Her hair settlesaround her, cascading over her shoulders and resolving into glossycurls. Her face is delicate, sensitive, and familiar. It's Amity,the daughter of the woman I killed. She opens her mouth to saysomething, but I don't hear it. Sirens are blaring, and they'regetting louder and closer.
I open my eyes and grab my bleating phone offthe nightstand. My alarm must have been going off for hours; it'salready past noon. I see the bottle of Ambien out of the corner ofmy eye. Dad's doctor left me a prescription on the night of theaccident. It's a decidedly mixed blessing. It helps me sleep, butit also gives me incredibly vivid dreams. Dreams that I wouldrather not remember.
My phone vibrates. I have new texts. One fromDeegan:
Saturday afternoon BBQ, my place. Youin?
And one from Ember:
Are you going to Deegan's today? Really wantto see you.
"Want a beer, bro?" Deegan holds out theCoors Light like a peace offering. I accept.
"Sure, man," I say, taking a long pull.Deegan's folks are the kind of self-consciously cool parents whodon't mind if their kids drink, as long as they do it at home andstay off the roads. A lot Jasper Heights parents are like that.Benign neglect, they call it. They buy beer and booze for theirkids' parties and take weekend trips to New York and Vail.
The party is pretty chill—a casual afternoonbarbecue beside a huge kidney-shaped pool built in honor ofDeegan's mom, a successful nephrologist.
Deegan and I make our way to the grill. Headjusts the flame and places eight perfectly formed jalapeñoburgers onto the rack. I flop down on a nearby chaise. It's acloudy, threatening day, all wrong for a pool party. Withoutsunlight, the girls look pale and vulnerable in their bikinis.Ember blows me a kiss. I wave back with the limp, languid motionsof a consumptive. She smiles and turns back to her companions, aclutch of other honey-skinned blondes drinking sweet, fruityconcoctions.
Deegan flips burgers with élan. He's so goodhe could easily get a job at one of the many snack shacks and grubgrills surrounding Lake Everclear. Of course, that would neverhappen. Like all the kids in Jasper Heights, Deegan has a weeklyallowance that most wage slaves would envy. The cooks at thelakeside burger barns are all from Triple Marsh, our poor sistercity.
Deegan lets the burgers sizzle and settlesdown next to me. "You know, man," he says in a low, confidentialvoice, "my dad is an insurance guy. He says the intersection whereyou crashed is really poorly designed. One of the street lamps isbusted. And both stop signs are practically hidden by trees." Helooks me straight in the eye. "It could have fucking happened toanyone."
"Yeah, but it happened to me," I snap andimmediately regret it. "Sorry, man. I'm still kind of fucked up.You know, Mom, the accident. I shouldn't have come."
"No worries, dude." He eyes the empty cannext to me with brotherly concern. "I'm going to get youanother."
I'm six—or is that seven?—beers in, and myoutlook is now considerably more relaxed, although I'm still not upfor loud noises or sudden movements. I sit quietly on my chaiselike an invalid, watching the action.
The guys—all varsity football players—areclustered around the diving board, taking turns showing off. Deeganis rating their dives as harshly and creatively as possible. Someof them are doing shots of Jack. I'd normally find thistremendously entertaining, but all I can think is that someone'sgoing to break his neck and end up in a quadriplegic's chair forthe rest of his life.
The girls are watching and giggling as theguys make gigantic asses out of themselves. Except for Ember. She'ssitting alone at a table, texting madly. Her face is lit softly bythe glow of her phone, her expression rapt. She must be texting oneof her friends. Maybe it's Sara, who's stuck at home with mono, orone of her drama club buddies who won't do the football scene.
There's also someone else Ember could betexting. The thought of it—of him—sickens me and turns my heartinto a jackhammer. I pick up my beer, looking forward to a long,deep swallow, and realize it's empty. I decide I'll get another,and another, and however many are necessary to get me well andtruly fucked up. Of course, I won't drive home. I'll crash atDeegan's. I'll give Ember money for a cab. I'm trying to rememberif I still have the number for the Jasper Heights Cab Company in mycontacts list, when Ember stands and heads inside, probably for abathroom break.
She's left her phone tantalizinglyunattended. For about a second I remind myself that snooping andspying is for insecure little pussies. Fuck it, I think, I've gotto know who she was texting. I make my way to her table and snatchthe phone. The other girls are absorbed in the diving spectacle, soI'm free to snoop and spy unobserved. I type in her password andimmediately see she has a new text from a number stored as BadIdea. My eyes devour their conversation.
Ember: You of all people know I have aboyfriend.
Bad Idea: At your age, that meansnothing.
Ember: That's not true. I have integrity. Iwon't cheat on him.
Bad Idea: Oh, I'm not saying cheat on him.Don't be dishonest. Break up with him first. Then you can be freeto explore other possibilities. Other forms of relating.
Ember: You mean like fucking you?
Bad Idea: Don't be crude, you little slut.What I mean is that you're far too young for a monogamousrelationship. By the way, when do you turn eighteen? How would youlike to do a bit of shopping in New York City?
Ember: Your son said you'd do this. Wait forme to turn legal and then try to hook up.
Bad Idea: I like the taste of young, ripefruit. And you, my dear, are a succulent plum, nearly ready to besavored.
Ember: I'm not a plum. I'm a peach. And I'mno low-hanging fruit. You'll have to climb a long way to getme.
I'm interrupted by a loud, high female voice.It's Ember. "What are you doing with my phone?"
Ember's mouth is moving, but I can hearnothing except the roar of my rage. She is the worst girlfriend,ever. Sure, she's not technically cheating, but text-flirting withmy father after everything I told her? I don't get it. I thoughtshe cared about me.
Ember is reaching out for me, grabbing at mewith her carefully manicured hands. Oh yeah, I think, she wants herfucking phone. I throw it into the pool and stalk down the paththat leads to Deegan's back yard and the marshy woods behind it. Inthe distance, I hear a chorus of female outrage, but no footsteps.I realize she's not going to run after me. Good.
I open the gate and head into the woods. Myfoot immediately sinks into the mud. Fuck it. I walk as fast as Ican away from everyone. A flash of lightning illuminates the skyand underscores my black mood. I follow a small, foul-smellingcreek that's probably crawling with snakes and gators. Fatraindrops pelt my back and shoulders. Uncaring, I keep walkinguntil I reach a narrow, paved path. I read a small placard anddiscover it's part of the Jasper Heights lakeside trail system.
Mindlessly, I follow the paved trail until Ireach a quaint, covered park bench. I sit down on the wet seat andlisten to the thunder get louder and angrier. I feel so miserableand alone. I tell myself I'm just a whiny little pussy with ashitty girlfriend and a creepy father and a fucked up life. I can'ttalk to my father for obvious reasons, and my mother's gone.Deegan's my best friend, but he's also another guy, and guys don'ttalk about this kind of shit. They just get each other beers.
I watch the rain pour off the shelter, and itoccurs to me that there's one person who might understand what I'mgoing through right now, someone who's also riding the same wavesof anger, grief, and sorrow. It's Amity, the girl of my dreams andmy nightmares.
It's a truly bizarre thought that makes mewonder just how drunk I am. After all, it's my fault she lost hermother. But I bet she can relate to what I'm feeling right now.Maybe there's some way I could help her, or we could help eachother.
I pull out my phone and find her on Facebookand Google+. Her haunted eyes peer out at me from her profilepictures. I'm not brave enough to friend her. But I do pop open myGmail and start writing her a note that I'm not sure I'll ever havethe balls to send.
Dear Amity, I begin. There's no easy way tointroduce myself under these bizarre and unfortunate circumstances.I was the other driver in the accident that killed yourmother...
Chapter 7: Amity
Maggie sits on the foot of my bed with aconcerned expression on her face. "I don't think it's a goodidea."
"Why not?" I ask. "It's my eighteenthbirthday. I deserve a little fun, especially since my life hasotherwise gone straight to Hell." I pull a clingy black T-shirt—theonly clingy thing I own—out of my dresser. I'm going to wear itwith my mom's old leather skirt and a pair of kitten heels. For thefirst time in my life, I—the Amityville Horror of Triple MarshHigh—am going to look pretty. Maybe even sexy. I stifle a giggle.These days, laughing is dangerous. It can turn on me in an instantand lead to convulsive weeping.
Maggie doesn't even crack a smile. "You'regoing to get hurt," she warns. "I did a little research on him, andit's not pretty. He has a girlfriend, and he cheats on her all thetime."
I sigh. "I know. He told me all about her.We're just friends. We're going dancing, and that's all. In fact,I'm going to help him stay out of trouble." I spray ashine-enhancing chemical into my hair and watch my curls go fromdull to glossy.
Maggie rolls her eyes. "Don't be naive.There's a reason he just happened to text you on your eighteenthbirthday. You're legal now. He'll be all over you."
"Good! He's literally the first guy I'veinteracted with who hasn't called me freak or spaz or ugly. What'swrong with a little harmless flirting, as long as it doesn't goanywhere?" I apply thick black liner to my eyes and brick redlipstick to my lips. Dangerous, I think. I look dangerous, not likesome pathetic orphan who's going to attend her father's funeral intwo short days.
Maggie gets up and stands next to me so we'reboth reflected in my dresser mirror. She's beautiful in ahard-edged, Gothic way. But, for the first time, I feel like I holdmy own. I look like her peer, not some gimpy, gawky sidekick. Infact, we make an interesting study in contrasts. Short and tall.Blond and dark. Rounded and angular. Worried and sanguine.
I smile at her. "It'll be fine. You'llsee."
She shakes her head. "What you're thinkingabout isn't very sisterly. What if you were his girlfriend? I betyou wouldn't appreciate some other girl hanging all over him—evenif she was just a friend."
"Probably not," I concede. "But she's not myresponsibility. She's Ethan's. And I'm not going to think abouther." I pause as Maggie's face settles into a sad, resignedexpression. "Does that make me a bad person?"
Maggie sighs. "Not really. Just fallible. Andhuman." She puts her arm around me loosely. "Just be careful, OK?And bring enough money to take a cab home in case things get weird.Trust me."
Ethan leads me by the hand into the Hotspot,a new dance club north of Jasper Heights. His grip is strong, andhis hand is warm. I feel safe and somehow under his protection.Even though the sign outside said twenty-one and over in sternblock letters, Ethan whispered something to the bouncer, wholaughed and waved us through.
As we climb the stairs towards the main barand dance floor, I feel the vibration of music pumping throughmassive speakers. By the time we reach the top, the beat isthrumming through my body. I follow Ethan past the dance floor to acollection of velvet couches. We settle ourselves on agarnet-colored loveseat, and Ethan orders two rum and Cokes from awaitress with a nose ring. Or, at least, that's what I think hedoes. I can barely hear anything.
The dance floor is bathed in flashing redlight. Bodies come together, flow apart, and twirl around inseemingly perfect synchronicity with the beat. I am enthralled.
"Like what you see?" asks Ethan, grinninglike a coyote.
"I love it! It's beautiful. Thank you forbringing me here." I want more than anything to get up and dance,to lose my grief in a sea of motion and sound.
"Do you see that girl over there?" he asks,pointing towards one of the dancers, a short, limber girl withnarrow hips, a large chest, and a liquid way of moving. "She kindof reminds me of my girlfriend."
"Oh," I say, disappointed that he didn't askme to dance and not especially interested in chatting about hisgirlfriend. I wonder if this is what Maggie meant when she said I'dbe hurt.
"What kind of boys are chasing you rightnow?"
"N-n-no one," I reply, stammering. No one ischasing the Amityville Horror. I'm thankful that Ethan can't see meblush in the dim light.
"I don't believe that," he purrs, movingcloser to me. "There's got to be someone."
I'm about to launch into the whole pathetictale of woe that is my life as the least popular girl at TripleMarsh High, when the waitress delivers our drinks. I take a biggulp of mine and make a face; alcohol still tastes like medicine tome. The rum does its job, though, loosening my limbs andthoughts.
I decide that I don't want to sit and talkanymore. I slide off the couch and reach for Ethan's hand.
Ethan and I are swaying and flowing, nowentwined, then not. I lean into him and move my hips in a slowcircle. I raise my arms and let him put his strong hands around mynarrow waist. When the music slows to the rhythmic thump of thehuman heartbeat, I let myself collapse into his arms.
As we rock gently back and forth, he kissesmy forehead with soft, warm lips. When I look up, he tilts my headback and presses his lips against mine. Oh my God, it's my firstkiss. We taste each other, and it's a revelation. He's hot, sweet,and intoxicating, and I want more. He presses himself into me, andI squirm against him. I let my hands touch his hair; it'ssurprisingly soft.
When the music speeds up again, we pull away.I am breathless. "Don't you have a girlfriend?" I ask.
"Yes, and I love her deeply."
The surprise and dismay must show on my face,because he pulls me in for another long, delirious hug. His breathis hot on my neck. "It's your birthday," he whispers. "Whatever wedo today doesn't count."
I recall Maggie's warning, and I know now shewas absolutely right. But I want to be kissed again and again andagain. I'll worry about the emotional fallout tomorrow. I hug Ethanback and nuzzle his neck. We spend the next several hours dancing,kissing, and embracing.
When he brings me home and says goodbye witha small, chaste peck on my cheek, I feel like the most beautifulgirl in the world...and the stupidest.
I'm about to give another eulogy, this timeto a much smaller group. It's a makeshift ceremony, hastily throwntogether at the last minute. Gran said we couldn't afford thefuneral parlor, so we asked Forever Acres if we could have a smallgathering by the graveside, and they said yes.
Dad's mourners are a randomly assorted bunch.The guys from the shop where Dad cleaned cars are easy to spot withtheir red dealership polo shirts and matching phone cases. A coupleof drunks from the Tragic Monk, one of the bars where Dad liked togo after work, stand off to the side. They're pale, nervous,soft-bodied creatures who prefer shade to sun. One of themdiscreetly vomits on a nearby grave. As I look around, I also seeseveral compassionate diehards from Mom's funeral hovering likeconfused fairy godmothers, wanting to help but unsure what todo.
My hands are moist, but not from fear thistime. It's a hazy, warm day that makes everything look slightlyblurred around the edges. I glance at Dad's coffin, which rests ona bier beside an open grave. The humid air makes me think of wormsand decay, and my stomach clenches like a fist. Maggie tries tocatch my eye. She's worried about me, and so is Gran, who isfiddling with the clasp on her purse.
I'd written detailed notes on a folded squareof paper, but I let it drop to the ground. I thought I'd beterrified like I was at Mom's funeral, but I'm not. As I standbefore the motley mourners, I realize I'm not nervous at all.
"As you all know, we're here because myfather got drunk when Mom died, and kept on drinking, day afterday, until he passed out and choked to death on his own vomit." Ilook pointedly at his casket and try for sarcasm. "Thanks, Dad."The silent faces before me ripple with concern. Maggie's eyes growwide, and Gran's mouth is twists into a wry grin that could meananything. A bird whistles a happy, fleeting little tune. I take abreath and continue.
"He was a great guy when times were good. Heloved my mom. Most of the time. He taught me how to fish and builda computer from old parts. He never forgot my birthday." My breathcatches as I remember riding the fancy girl's bike with the lemonyellow seat, the best birthday present ever. I shake my head andblink back tears. I seize my anger like a shield.
"When times were bad, though, he got drunkand did stupid things he always regretted later. Buying an orangefishing hat on QVC was one of them. So was drinking himself todeath instead of attending my mom's funeral."
As soon as I say the words, an image of myfather's plastic, lifeless face pushes itself into myconsciousness. His sightless eyes are half open, and his mouth isfrozen into a never ending scream. I close my eyes and try tovisualize something neutral. An apple. A loaf of bread. Tennisshoes. I pinch the skin on the back of my hand. I can't afford tosoften into grief. Anger, I remind myself. Anger.
"I loved him. And I hated him. He was my dad.That's all I have to say."
Want to see a movie? Get outof the house?texts Maggie.
Gran's a basket case, gottakeep her company,I reply.
Alright, girlie. Love you. Stay tough.
I put my phone back into my purse and watchEthan drive. He's so calm and sure of himself, zipping in an out oftraffic. His phone is blinking, but he's ignoring it. I bet it'shis girlfriend. She's been out of town for a week, but she getshome tomorrow. I shake that thought out of my mind and put on mybest happy-girl voice. "So where are you taking me?"
"Kid, it's a surprise. You'll love it."
We pull into a large parking lot outsidesomething called the Kat Club. Another dance club, I assume. Westand in line for a few minutes, then Ethan works his magic withthe bouncer, and we're in.
As my eyes adjust to the dimlight, I realize I'm not in any ordinary club. Chairs and tablesare scattered around a long, narrow runway leading to a small,circular platform. Akon'sDangerousis playing at high volume. A woman, naked exceptfor a sequined thong, wraps herself around a pole. She has large,rounded breasts and long, slender legs. She looks otherworldly inthe red-tinted stage lights. I gape at her while Ethan gets usdrinks.
When Ethan comes back, I follow him to a lowtable by the platform. The stripper continues her routine. Thealmost exclusively male audience is rapt. They lay money and rosesat her feet. I wonder what it would be like to be the stripper, tohave that much power over men. I imagine it would be the oppositeof being me.
"You move like she does," whispers Ethan."You could do that. You'd be awesome."
I shake my head. My mom would have beenhorrified that someone—some man—brought me to a strip club. Iimagine her scolding me and struggling to express the strength ofher disapproval while simultaneously avoiding profanity. I wonderwhat the fuck I'm doing here. My eyes sting and then water. Ethannotices.
"Kid, what's wrong?"
"I was just thinking of my mom. This is notthe kind of place she would have wanted me to go."
He smiles widely. Red light strikes half hisface, so he looks like some kind of poorly lit demon. "Well, she'sdead, right? So there's nothing to worry about."
I gasp and then sob. I feel like I've beenpunched in the gut. Maggie was right. This guy is an asshole. I runout of the club and into the parking lot, where several taxis arewaiting like vultures. I jump into the first one I see, gratefulthat I listened to Maggie about always bringing cab fare.
"Where to, Miss?" asks the driver, whoappears to be at least seventy.
While I'm giving him my address, Ethanemerges from the club, looking for me. Fuck him.
"Drive, please," I say.
"You got it, honey," says the cabbie, and Iwatch as Ethan gets smaller and smaller, and eventuallydisappears.
Chapter 8: Laird
I'm driving with Ember again. We'restruggling for control of my Land Rover. We lurch into the centerof the road and then back again. Off balance, I slam my foot on thebrakes, but it's too late. In slow motion, I collide with LauraDormer's car. The small white vehicle rotates through the air withballetic grace and then crashes to the ground.
I leap out of the Rover and dutifully run tothe wreck. I feel like I've been here a million times before. Damnit, I know I'm dreaming. I sit down on the wet ground and refuse tomove. I'm not going to rip the door off the car and confrontwhatever horror my subconscious has placed there. I'm just not.
I feel a light hand on my shoulder. It's mymother. She's wearing a deep blue, floor-length gown, the kind shealways wore to her charity galas. She looks younger than Iremember, and her hair is longer. She's also brought a friend: atall woman in a nurse's uniform with pale blue eyes set in astrong, square-jawed face. I know it's Laura, but her capable,robust appearance surprises me. Awake and alive, she looks nothinglike my mother.
"Why are you sitting in the mud?" asks Mom."Stand up, son."
I rise slowly, facing her and Laura. Theylook at each other and smile.
Mom waves a delicate,birdlike hand towards Laura. "I was just talking to my friend here.She has a daughter about your age." I nod. Amity, the othermotherless child. The haunted, beautiful girl. The one I almostwrote to like the complete, self-centered asshole I am. Thank God Ididn't send that email. I can hear Ember's voice in the back of mymind.It's always about you, isn'tit?
Laura regards me with an intense focus thatfeels vaguely hostile. "Did you know she just lost her father?"
I nod. News of his death is all over thelocal news sites.
"Anything to say, hero boy?" spits Laura, hereyes contacting into angry slits.
My mother rolls her eyes. "Oh c'mon, honey,he drank himself to death. Your daughter is probably better off nowthat she isn't shackled to a barely functional alcoholic, who wouldhave needed help for the rest of his life."
Laura glares at my mother. "He was asensitive man who dealt badly with grief. He would have come out ofit, eventually. He loved his daughter very much."
My mother's about to respond when I hearsirens. They're coming from everywhere. Laura yells for us to duck,and then...I'm back in bed, slippery with acrid dream sweat andfumbling with my alarm.
I take a long, deliberate breath. Thesedreams are making me question my sanity. The line between what'sreal and what isn't is starting to get a little hazy. I go to mycomputer and look up Craig Dormer, Laura Dormer's husband. Yes,he's still dead. I've known for a while. The news just popped upone day while I was searching for information about Amity. Yet,somehow, it doesn't feel real. I guess I can't quite accept thatone moment of inattention, one stupid fight between me and Ember,destroyed someone's entire family.
I glance at the plastic prescription bottleon my nightstand. The Ambien beckons to me with false promises ofrestful sleep.
My phone vibrates, and Ifeel instantly sick. It's another text from Ember.Can I come over? Please?
I shut off my phone and go back to bed. Iskip the Ambien and shut my eyes, hoping to find a dark, silentrefuge from both dreams and reality.
I'm running alongside Lake Everclear, tryingto lose myself in the steady thud-thud-thud of my footsteps. I'veallowed myself to get out of shape since the season ended, so I'mdoing a brutal workout over a ten-mile course. If I can't fix mymind or my conscience or my life, I can at least burn some of thefat off my gut. My phone is constantly vibrating. Ember has sent meabout fifty texts. Some are pleading, some are wheedling, and someare angry.
I keep running, accelerating and deceleratingat regular intervals. I'm starting to sweat—clean, healthy sweat,not bitter dream sweat—and I focus on my breathing. I can seesailboats on the lake out of the corner of my eye. Their simpleshapes and movements are soothing. I spot a tall mangrove treeseveral hundred yards ahead. I speed up and hurtle towards it,fleeing from a pack of demons called grief, memory, guilt, andbetrayal.
I slow down when I reach the tree. As I catchmy breath, I realize there's a car creeping along right next to me.It's a pale green Maserati. Fuck. I stop and turn towards the car.The passenger side door unlocks, and I get in.
"How did you know where I was?"
Dad's mouth forms a small, dry smile. "Yourphone has GPS, and it's on my plan. I can track it online."
"Oh," I say. I remind myself that I need tostart paying for my own phone.
"We need to talk," he says.
I brace myself for a sick-making conversationabout Ember. I wish he would just leave it alone. He's won. He canhave her when she turns eighteen. I don't want her anymore. It'sjust that I don't want to have a Very Special Talk with my dadabout how he wants permission to bang my ex. Otherwise, it will bevery hard for me to pretend that I have a normal father who doesn'tfuck teenagers.
Dad's face turns solemn. "I want to cautionyou again about having any contact with the family of LauraDormer."
I groan. The only thing I want to talk aboutless than Ember is the accident. "I know Dad, alright? You told meto let the lawyers handle it, so that's what I'm doing." So far,I've signed a few forms and had a perfunctory interview with thepolice. I have no idea what his problem is, but I'm sure he's goingto tell me.
"The IT guys were working on my network thismorning. I couldn't find my phone, so I borrowed your computer tolook up a few stock prices. When I opened the browser, it becameimmediately clear that you've spent countless hours researchingLaura Dormer and her family. I even found a draft email to AmityDormer. Please tell me you haven't sent it."
I almost vomit. I should have changed thepassword on my MacBook, but Dad is almost never here. "No, Ihaven't sent anything. Yet."
Dad's clenches his jaw, and the caraccelerates. "I expect you're carrying around a lot of guilt aboutthis accident. You're a good boy. It's natural. But I see thisturning into an obsession."
"Of course, I'm obsessed," I fire back. "Ikilled someone. I ruined her daughter's life. Made her an orphan."I take a deep breath. It's time to confess. "The accident was myfault. Ember and I were fighting. She was grabbing at the wheel,and I was distracted."
Dad is quiet for a moment. "The toxicologyreport came back from the Medical Examiner. There were traces ofbenzodiazepines in Mrs. Dormer's system. I doubt that you and Emberwere entirely at fault."
He sighs heavily, something he almost neverdoes. "Of course, what happened with that woman's husband wastragic. Although, if you ask me, he did his daughter a big favor.Her life is going to be rough enough without having to take care ofa drunk."
I stifle a gasp. That's what Mom said in mydream, even though it's the kind of thing I'm pretty sure she'dnever say. I reach my hand to my temple and rub it. The existentialvertigo is hurting my head. Everything is true, and nothing is. Theonly thing I know for sure is that girl—Amity Dormer—needs somekind of help.
"Are you sure we can't do something for her?You're a billionaire. You could change her life with your fuckinglunch money."
My father frowns, and the car accelerateseven more. "I don't have time to explain to you how the worldworks, but you already know why we can't simply write a check. Youare not going to tie this albatross around your neck."
Tires squeal as he pulls into our driveway. Itry to open the door, but it's still locked. I glance over at mydad. He face is drawn, and there are new wrinkles around his eyes,as if he hasn't slept for days. "Son," he says with an odd catch inhis voice, "I'm going to make this simple. You are forbidden tohave any contact with Laura Dormer's daughter. If I discover you'vedisobeyed me, the consequences will be swift and severe."
He puts his hand on my shoulder and looksinto my eyes. "Do you understand?" he asks, his voice harsh withgrief.
I'm exhausted, and it's not the good kind ofexhaustion that leaves you sweaty, refreshed, and relaxed. As Imove slowly up the staircase to my room, my legs feel like deadweights. I wonder for the first time how my father is handlingMom's death. I thought he was fine—too fine, really—but now I'm notso sure.
I open the door to my room,wondering if it's too early to take an Ambien, andholy fuck, Ember is lying on mybed. I've got to talk to Dad's securityguys. They can't keep letting her in.
She sits up, and I can tell she's wearing oneof my old football shirts that barely covers her ass. Her hair ismessy, her face is flushed, and her lips are slightly parted as ifshe's just been kissed. Overall, she looks freshly fucked. She'sthe only girl I've ever been with, and seeing her like this tearsat my heart.
"Get out of here," I say, praying my voicewon't crack. "And stop texting me."
She sniffles and tears flow freely down herface.
"Please don't make me go," she begs, leaningforward so the shirt slips down and exposes one soft, smoothshoulder. "At least let me explain."
"There's nothing to explain," I say, tryingto sound hard. "I read the texts. You were flirting with my father.That's fucked up!"
Her mouth quivers, and her eyes get bigger. Iwant to take her in my arms and comfort her, but I know that's avery bad idea.
"I'm so sorry. I know I fucked up, big time.It was just texting. Stupid texting. It meant nothing. Yourfather's a famous billionaire and his wanting me made me feelimportant. But I never would have done anything with him. Iswear."
I shake my head, which is starting to hurtagain. "Look, Ember, maybe you're right. Maybe you wouldn't havefucked my father. But you've already gone too far. It's too weirdnow. I can't do it any more."
"So this is it?" she asks plaintively. "We'rebreaking up?"
"Yes," I say, eyes stinging. "We'reover."
Now she starts sobbing in earnest. Big,convulsive sobs rack her small, rounded body. Unsure what to do, Isit next to her and rub her back. "You'll be fine," I say over andover again. "You'll be fine."
Eventually, she quiets, and we sit silentlyhand in hand, just like we did when we first started seeing eachother. She looks up at me shyly. Her eyes are swollen, and her noseis pink, but the lines of her face are still beautiful.
"A kiss goodbye?" she asks.
I'm doomed the moment her lips touchmine.
Chapter 9: Amity
"Any luck getting into your mother'scomputer?"
"Just a minute, Gran!"
I try Mom's birthday. No luck. I try Dad'sbirthday and mine. Nothing. After many more tries, I finallycombine Mom's birthday with the name of the little wiener dog wehad when I was little. I type Wienerschnitzel0507, hit enter, andit works.
"Good," says Gran. "See if you can find anyof her financial information." She hands me a stack of notices fromthe bank, several credit card companies, and a car loan company.The sheer number of documents and the vaguely threatening qualityof the black lettering proclaiming URGENT and TIME SENSITIVE onevery page makes me uneasy.
I get started by searching for spreadsheets,but there aren't any. Maybe, I think, she paid her bills online. Idecide to check her email for payment confirmations. I scan herbrowser history and then click on her Gmail account. She saved thepassword in her browser, so I get right in.
My phone chirps. Another text from Ethan. Ifeel a jolt of adrenaline, and a twinge of nausea. I've beenavoiding him since he took me to that strip club. I've also beenmissing him—or, at least, the hot, amazing kisses we shared. Ittakes all the willpower I have to ignore this latest text, but Imanage it. Barely. I give myself a gold star and focus on the taskat hand—pawing through Mom's email.
I search for credit card companies by name,and at least twenty automatic payment receipts pop up. I startprinting them off for Gran. We'll be seeing a lawyer this afternoonto begin the process of untangling the financial mess my parentsleft behind. The whole thing is surreal. I remember my parentscomplaining about money, but it had seemed so abstract. The sheetsof paper flying out of the printer are shockingly real.
After I'm done printing thereceipts, I return to Mom's inbox. I tell myself I should stickwith my to-do list and search for her auto loan records, when aconversation titledI just can't do itanymorecatches my eye. I spend a fewmoments castigating myself for even thinking about reading it. ThenI decide I'm going to open it, anyway. After all, I reason, she'sdead. Privacy ends with the last breath, right?
My palms are moist when I click on the emailthread. I read quickly, clicking and scrolling while my heart beatsagainst my ribcage like a dying bird. When I've finished reading,my worldview has changed forever. Mom was having an affair with aheart surgeon—a married heart surgeon—and trying to break itoff.
It's toopainful, she wrote the day before shedied,to keep getting a taste of somethingI know I cannot have. I need time and space to come to terms withthe limits of my life, and embrace them. You make me wild andjangled. Loudly out of key. Nervous and mad and useless to thosewho need me. I'm more sorry than you know, but this mustend.
I get another text from Ethan and decide thatI've changed my mind. For now, I don't care that he's an assholewith a girlfriend. I want to feel his rough, hungry lips on mineand forget everything but his strong arms and darkly thrillingtouch.
I guess I'm my mother's daughter, afterall.
"Your parents died intestate," says Mr. Kost,fanning himself with a manila folder. He's a small, sweaty man witha round face and tiny, close-set eyes. The air conditioning in hisoffice is broken. A fan blows stale air around the room. Papers arepiled everywhere, suggesting more than a touch of hoardingdisorder.
"What does intestate mean?" I ask, startingto sweat myself.
"It's a legal term for dying without a will,"he explains. "Practically speaking, it means we'll need a courtorder to get you access to your parents' bank accounts."
I must look concerned, because he adds,"Don't worry. This kind of thing happens all the time. We can getit done in a week or two."
"What about the house and her father'struck?" asks Gran, holding out a green folder filled with papersshe found in Mom's desk drawer.
Kost reaches out to take them. Even the padsof his fingers are sweating. "The title transfers might take alittle longer, but your granddaughter has a legal right to all herparents' property as the only surviving lineal descendant."
"What about their debts?" I place the printedcredit card and auto loan statements on his desk. Mom had a lot ofcredit card debt, but not from shoes or vacations or anything fun.She was just trying to get us from month to month withoutdefaulting on her mortgage, her car payment, or the hospital billsleftover from my birth and Dad's detox. Each month's statement wasa relentlessly practical inventory—a car battery, a lawnmower belt,a new water heater.
Kost makes an odd hissing sound like aballoon deflating, and his little eyes narrow even more. "That'swhere things get a little more complicated. I'm sorry to be thebearer of bad news, but the insurance company representing theother driver in your mother's accident is looking for a settlementfrom the estate."
Gran's face flushes, and her voice drips withsarcasm. "What do you mean they want a settlement? A monstrous LandRover smashed my daughter's car to bits and took her life in theprocess. What do they want? A new paint job?"
Kost squirms in his seat as if he's beingscolded by his mother. "Actually, ma'am, that is exactly what theywant." He retrieves a paper from one of his folders and holds itclose to his face. "Twenty thousand dollars for a new custom paintjob, five thousand dollars for a new front left bumper, and twothousand dollars for a new left rim. And forty thousand dollars inmiscellaneous medical expenses."
Gran rests a hand on her chest and breathesheavily like she's sprinting after a thief. "Tell that insurancecompany to go to Hell. The accident was not my daughter's fault.She was on her way to work as a pediatric nurse, for God'ssake."
Kost fidgets even more. "I'm sorry ma'am, butthe settlement request came with a preliminary report from theMedical Examiner. The results suggest your daughter was on somekind of tranquilizer at the time of the accident."
Gran huffs. "That is a lie." Then she turnsto me. "Tell him," she says.
I look down at my hands andremember that stupid email.Wild andjangled. It all fits. It all fuckingfits.
Gran and I look down at the road from thehigh cab of Dad's truck. Gran finally stopped driving his half-deadMustang when it became fully deceased in the parking lot of a SuperBigMart.
Gran is driving in angry silence while I tellher about Mom's affair. Her face remains stoic, but the car dipsand swerves at odd intervals. I grip the door handle when she takesa sharp curve.
Finally, I've made my case. "Isn't itpossible that Mom was on drugs again?" I ask.
Gran snorts. "Your father was a shamblingwreck, and your mother wanted a little happiness on the side. Thatdoesn't mean she was back on the pills."
I nod—I don't know what else to do—and wipe asingle tear from my cheek. I have learned too much in too littletime. I remember when the most important thing in my life wasgetting into college.
Oh fuck,college. I received my financial aidpackage from Adams—one that assumes two living, working parents—andthere's no way I'm going to be able to swing it. Kost was talkingabout selling the house, so maybe—if I'm very, very lucky—I'll endup with about four or five thousand dollars for my education. Thewhole process, he said, could take two or three years.
My phone chirps. I'm half afraid and halfhopeful that Ethan is going to change our plans. But it's notEthan. It's Maggie.
Got my package from NYU, and it's sweet!You'll have to visit me in the Big City. I can hardly wait!
Sad, pathetic tears of self pity pool behindmy eyes. I'd wanted to start over in college. I was going to becomea new person and leave the Amityville Horror far behind. I guessthat's not going to happen any time soon. I'll probably need to getsome kind of job, so I can keep up with my parents' mortgagepayments until the house sells. Maybe I can think about going tocollege when I'm thirty.
"I'm going to get a job," I say glumly."College will just have to wait."
Gran's face shifts subtly from anger toresolution. "Of course, you'll get a job. I wouldn't expectanything less. But you can still go to college. Didn't you get intothe honors program at the University Extension? It won't be fancy,but it will still be a degree."
Ah, yes, the University Extension...whereEthan goes. I'm not sure if I'm pleased or terrified. I imaginerunning into Ethan and his girlfriend in class. I bet she's smalland dainty and perfectly poised—everything I'm not.
Gran interprets my silence as sulking. "Don'tfeel sorry for yourself," she says briskly. "Lots of people workand go to school at the same time. Some even do it when they havechildren."
"That won't be a problem for me!" I yelp.
"I should hope not." Gran chuckles for amoment and then falls silent again. After a few moments, she says,"You know, I don't feel good about leaving you here all alone tofend for yourself. Not good at all."
"I'll be fine!" I reply in what I hope is asufficiently upbeat and convincing tone of voice. I don't want tobe alone, but I sure don't want Gran to stay because she thinks Ican't hack it.
Gran chuckles again. This time it's a loudersound, something closer to a full-throated laugh. "Well, why don'tyou let me stick around and make sure of that? Besides, I can helpyou with the mortgage payments. I'd hate to see you lose the housebefore it's sold."
I smile. "I'd like that," I say. "And I thinkMom would have, too."
Gran drops me at school to collect somethings from my locker—mostly books I've been meaning to read. Ihaven't been to school since Mom died. My teachers said they'llkeep giving me As until I'm ready to come back, which may be never.I'm thinking about taking my GED in a few weeks and then startingat the Extension. I've always hated high school, and it's not likeI care about prom or graduation.
I pass through the hallways on the way to mylocker like I have a hundred times before, yet I have the strangestfeeling that something's missing. Then one of the guys from thedebate team mutters, "It's the Amityville Horror, back from thedead," and I know what it is. The thing that's missing is fear.After burying both my parents, I can no longer fear these children,no matter how hard they try to hurt me.
As I fiddle with my combination lock, myredheaded nemesis appears beside me, apparently conjured from thethick, humid air. She taps my shoulder and then flinches away, asif I'm a hot stove. I go about my business, loading books into mybag.
"Excuse me?" Her voice is soft anduncertain.
"Yes?" I look down at her from my full heightof five feet ten inches plus heels. I wonder how such a small, meanperson ever had such a big impact on my life.
She looks ashamed. "I just want to say howsorry I am about your parents." She says it fast, as if reciting adangerous spell.
For a moment, I think about spitting on her,or telling her to go fuck herself, or explaining in detail what amiserable hell she and her friends managed to create for me. Butthen I realize I feel nothing. And it's a good nothing, too. It'snot emptiness, it's freedom.
"Thanks," I say, right before I turn and walkaway.
Movie night, girlfriend? Pretty prettyplease?
It's Maggie again. I haven't really talked toher since I got her text about NYU. I'm coming to terms with my newsituation—living in Triple Marsh indefinitely, getting a serviceindustry job, going to the Extension in my spare time—but it's agradual thing. I'm not really in the mood to hear Maggie warble onabout going to school in the big city, even if she is my bestfriend.
I'm also avoiding her because I've been lyingto her about Ethan. She doesn't know I'm still seeing him, becauseI've been too embarrassed to tell her.
Before I can reply to Maggie, Ethan grabs myphone and tucks it into his jacket pocket.
"Hey!" I yelp. "I was in the middle ofsomething."
"Kid, don't you know that it's not polite totext when someone's talking to you?" He runs a finger along myneck, evoking the queasy excitement I've come to associate withhim.
I roll my eyes and stick out my tongue. "It'snot polite to lie to your girlfriend. Where does she think you aretonight?"
He smirks. "I didn't lie to my girlfriend. Itold her I was going to a club with a friend. You're my friend. Andwe're at a club. Sure, we may kiss a little and touch a little, butthat doesn't mean anything."
"Yeah, whatever you say," I mutter, lookingeverywhere but into Ethan's eyes. This club, like all the others,has dark walls and cool lighting that somehow make everyone looksmoother and slimmer. I see pretty people drinking and posturingall around me and suddenly wish I was watching movies withMaggie.
Ethan moves his chair closer to mine andwhispers in my ear. "If you're tired of being a virgin, just let meknow. I can show you the ropes in more ways than one. As a friend,of course."
My head practically explodes with righteousindignation. I open my mouth to release a stream of curses, butbefore I can answer, a heavyset man and in an oversized suitapproaches the table and pulls Ethan into an awkward man-hug. Ethanintroduces us with an ironic smile. "Dirk, this is my friend,Amity. Amity, this is Dirk. He owns the Kat Club."
When I stare blankly, Ethan adds, "That's thestrip club where you got scared and ran away."
I nod with recognition. I remember that nightvery well. It was probably the last time I made a smart decisionregarding my non-relationship with Ethan.
Dirk sits down next to me and scoots hischair so that he's just a few inches from my face. I can smell hissour, minty breath, so like my father's. He has close-cropped blondhair and a florid Germanic face. He takes my thin, cool hand in hisplump, warm one and squeezes firmly. "I'm sorry you were scared,schatzi." I nod nervously. His gaze is intense, and he takes inevery bit of me that he can see.
"Stand up," he commands.
I glance at Ethan. He shrugs. "Do what theman says." He voice is casual, but I know he means it.
I rise like the tall, gawky teenager I amwhile Dirk takes my physical inventory. I expect him to saysomething crude, or maybe mock my long limbs and small breasts. Buthe doesn't.
"Such long, perfect legs and such lovely,slutty hair," he sighs. "Do you know how much money you'd make atmy club, schatzi?"
I don't, but I want to know. I very much wantto know.
Chapter 10: Laird
It's Sunday. Dad is in New York City. Again.I'm visiting Mom's mausoleum on a day so bright and lovely it mocksdeath to its ugly face.
Like rich people throughout history, shebuilt a monument to her life and death, where family and friendscan visit, pay their respects and even, someday, choose to beinterred close by. It's a pretty, airy space with modern lines andangles carved in classic white marble. I'm sitting outside the tombitself on a marble bench positioned between the entryway and awaist-high wrought-iron gate.
Mom chose the highest point in the JasperHeights Eternal Home, so I have a panoramic view of the wholecemetery. Gravestones sprawl for as far as I can see.
My phone vibrates. It's Ember.
In the mall parking lot, after my danceclass?
I shake my head. I'm not going to do it thistime. Every time I see Ember, I try to break up with her, and everytime I try to break up with her, we end up naked and sweaty.Lately, our encounters have become frantic and desperate. We'vehooked up in cars, the girl's locker room, and even in a rest areaby Lake Everclear.
No time, Em. Visiting Mom.
That should shut her down for a while. Nobodywants to hear about your dead relatives. It punctures theirillusion of immortality.
I put aside my phone and try talking to Mom.I feel awkward speaking aloud to the air, so I have this one-sidedconversation in my head. I tell Mom how much I miss her and how Dadand I are drifting apart. I tell her that Dad practically lives inNew York City now. I tell her I can't stop thinking about thatdamned car accident or what's going to happen to the daughter ofthe woman who died. I tell her I'm trying to break up with a girlwho just might be a little crazy.
And then I stop. This feels too much likeprayer, and I was never the church-going type. Actually, neitherwas Mom. I turn my head to watch a black and white bird come torest on Mom's tomb and warble a few sweet, sad notes. Before I canget any funny ideas about spirit animals or signs, it fliesaway.
I hold my breath to keep from breaking intosobs. I know Mom hasn't become a benevolent spirit or a songbirdsporting her favorite colors. She's simply gone. I decide thisvisit was a bad idea. I should have waited until I had moredistance. More perspective. I wish I could fall into a dreamlesssleep the way I used to when Mom was still alive. I am so sick andtired of my own thoughts.
My eyes swell and burn with unshed tears. Idecide they could use a rest, even without the added bonus ofunconsciousness. I stretch out on the marble bench. It'suncomfortable, but not as bad you'd expect. I close my eyes, butmoments later I hear soft footsteps. I keep my eyes screwed shutand hope it's just another mourner passing by.
No such luck. The gate squeaks, a shadowfalls over my face, and I know its sweetly perfumed owner has comefor me.
Ember looks down at me with a small, hopefulsmile. Her wispy blonde hair floats in the breeze, surrounding herface like a halo. She's wearing a short black dress that shows offher strong, supple dancer's legs. I wonder what she wearing underher dress, and a wave of self-loathing washes over me.
I sit up and take her hand. "Ember, this ismy mother's tomb."
She squeezes in next to me and rubs my back."I know. I want to be here for you now, like I couldn't be at yourmom's funeral. I want to be the kind of girlfriend youdeserve."
"I know, Ember," I say, resisting the urge togather her to me. "But you can't change what happened. Neither ofus can. I think we both need to move on."
She takes my hand and places it on her barethigh. Her skin is tan, warm, and perfectly smooth. "I don't thinkyou want to move on."
I feel myself stir and remind myself that I'mat my mother's tomb, for God's sake. "You're a beautiful girl. Ofcourse, I want you, but..."
She cuts me off before I can say anythingelse. "Then what's the problem?"
"You just showed up at my mother's tomb, andnow you're acting like you want to hook up right here. To behonest, it's a little creepy." When her hand flies up to cover herface, I add, "This isn't who you are, Em. You've got to stopit."
"So, I guess that's it then?" she asks,sniffling.
"Yes," I say, cautiously. "I think it's forthe best."
"Friends?" She tilts her head and parts herplump, pink lips, waiting to be kissed.
"Yes." I give her a chaste peck on the cheek."C'mon, let me walk you back to your car."
I'm driving alongside Lake Everclear, feelinglike a zombie. I should feel light and free. After all, I finallyended things with Ember, and she hasn't texted me once since weleft the cemetery and went our separate ways. But the silence seemsvast and empty.
I try to lose myself in the feel of the road.I'm driving one of Dad's old Porsche Boxters, and it respondsbeautifully to even the lightest touch. I get so absorbed in thesimple act of driving that I cruise right past the exit for JasperHeights.
I take the next exit and find myself passingthrough Triple Marsh, the sad, rundown town where Laura Dormer andher husband lived and where, as far as I know, Amity Dormer stilllives. I ask my GPS to direct me back to the highway. It quicklycalculates a route and pops it onto the display screen. A breathy,feminine voice tells me to make a U-turn, when I notice a point onthe map labeled Forever Acres cemetery.
I think back to all the Internet coverage Iread on Laura Dormer and the accident. Forever Acres soundsfamiliar. I'm almost sure that's where Laura and her husband areburied. Then I get what is almost certainly a stupid idea. I'mgoing to go pay my respects to the woman I killed.
Forever Acres is surprisingly modern for acemetery—especially one in Triple Marsh. A simple touch-screenkiosk allows me to look up plots by name. It takes me just a fewseconds to locate Laura and Craig Dormer and print out a snazzylittle map to their adjoining graves.
Following the map, I make my way down anarrow path through a dizzying array of headstones. The dead aremuch more densely packed here than they are in Jasper Heights. Ifpeople actually visited these graves with any frequency, mournerswould have to stand sideways to avoid bumping each other'selbows.
But people rarely visit their dead. Thecemetery is almost empty. As I move along the path, I notice signsof neglect. Weeds grow between the stepping stones. The grass is acouple of inches too long. I glance down at the map. I should begetting close to the Dormers' plots. When I look up, I see a tallgirl in a black T-shirt and jeans, standing between two newlyfilled graves.
I approach slowly and cautiously, wonderingif I've fallen into one of my Ambien dreams. As I get closer, Irealize it's her. Amity. The girl of my dreams and my nightmares.Her arms are crossed in front of her chest, and her shoulders areslightly hunched. She's even thinner than I'd imagined, all sharpbones and hard angles.
I'm about to turn and leave—I don't want tointerrupt her private grief with my guilty fixation—when she cocksher head and waves. I look around, wondering if she could bebeckoning to someone else, but I'm the only one here.
Heart skittering in my chest, I walk towardsher. She meets me half way.
"Hi," she says, blushing prettily. "I didn'tmean to disturb you. It's just that I never see any other youngpeople here. I'm Amity." She sticks out her long, bony hand. Ishake it firmly.
"I'm Laird." My stomach makes a slow,sickening roll. I have no idea if she saw the police report or ifsomeone told her that I, Laird Conroy, was the other driver in theaccident that killed her mother. I search her face for signs ofrecognition—or hatred—and see nothing but gentle interest.
She smiles, and her face opens up like afreshly bloomed sunflower. "Nice to meet you. I'm here for myparents. Both of them. Car wreck and, uh, alcohol poisoning. Iguess I'm an orphan. What about you? Who are you here for?"
What I say next is both a lie and the truth."My mom. She died about a month ago. I visited her grave, and thenI needed to take a walk."
She nods. "I know what you mean. A monthisn't very long. I'm not used to coming here. I try to talk tothem—tell them about my life—but it feels weird."
Her blue eyes glisten. I open my mouth to saysomething comforting, but my throat constricts. Before I can stopmyself, I'm racked with rough, bone-shaking sobs. I expect Amity toturn away, but she doesn't. Instead, she encircles me with herslender arms as if I'm made of eggshells. She holds me tenderly andstrokes my hair while I bark and gasp and probably ruin her T-shirtwith tears and snot. I breathe in her scent—a mixture of sandalwoodand smoke—and it feels like she's a part of me.
When I'm finally quiet and spent, she pullsaway ever so slowly. She pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds from herback pocket. "Want one?"
Instead of saying no thanks, I find myselfreaching out my hand. I want to share something tangible with her,even if it is just a cancer stick. She pulls out a silver Zippo andlights our cigarettes. She takes small, dainty puffs. I hold thesmoke in my lungs until they ache, then exhale long, wildplumes.
When we're done, she takes our butts andplaces them in an empty mint tin. We stand silently, side by side,for a long while. The sunlight slowly fades, and the gravestonescast longer and longer shadows. When I reach for her hand, she'ssuddenly shy. She lets her hair hang into her face, obscuring herbig, bright eyes.
"I've got to go," she says. "I'm really sorryabout your mom."
And then she walks away, a sorrowful angelwith a hitch in her stride.
Book 2: The aftermath
Even when I'm dead, I'll swim through theEarth, like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to yourbones.
Chapter 11: Amity
Almost three years later, Gran is stilldriving Dad's old pickup. Actually, it suits her. She could be arancher on her way to inspect a shipment of cattle with her sharp,unwavering eyes. She sniffs the air and wrinkles her nose, as ifshe smells something distasteful.
"Your mother would be so disappointed," shegrumbles.
"What?" I ask all innocence, although I knowexactly what she's talking about. We have the same conversationalmost every morning.
"The smoking," she harrumphs."Just because Idon't see you doing it doesn't mean I can't smell it on you. Yourgrandfather smoked, and you know where it got him?"
"Dying in a nursing home on a respirator," Ifinish.
"Your mother was a nurse. She'd be appalled.You're leaving for that fancy college next week. Why don't you quitnow?"
I don't think Gran ever knew that Mom was asecret smoker. I wonder if I'm hanging onto the smoking becauseit's a link to her. Or maybe it's because the girls at work didn'taccept me until I began sharing their vice. I let Gran's questionhang in the air. I know I should quit, but I'm just not ready.
Gran doesn't give up easily, though. "Youdidn't start smoking until you got that awful job. Maybe if you gota better job—a decent job—you wouldn't have to smoke."
I groan. "That awful job as you call it isthe only reason I can afford to transfer to Adams College. It alsopaid for your air conditioning this summer."
Gran sniffs. "You don't need to pay for myair conditioning any more, girl. That's why I took that damn job asa cashier at BigMart. It's real, honest work. You don't see meshaking my bare bottom for the whole town to see."
Gran tries to maintain a stern expression;she succeeds for all of a nanosecond. We both dissolve intohysterical laughter. Then Gran grows quiet. I can tell she'sthinking of Mom.
"I know your generation sees thingsdifferently," she says. "Women can do whatever they want with theirbodies, and mostly that's great. But I think your mother would bevery sad to see you dancing for men like a wind-up toy. She'd wantyou to do something with your mind."
"Don't worry, Gran. I'm going to graduatefrom Adams College, get into to medical school, and become anamazing pediatrician. Maybe even a pediatric surgeon. I'm taking awork study job at Adams. I won't be stripping anymore." Unless, Ithink, we really desperately need the money.
"I hope not," says Gran asshe makes a sharp right at a neon sign that readsThe Kat Club: Exclusive entertainment for finegentlemen. I scan the parking lot forEthan's car—an ancient red Beemer. I'm relieved that I don't see itanywhere. He's been sort of stalking me ever since I stopped seeinghim last year, when he got engaged to his girlfriend. Once hefigured out I was serious about giving him up cold turkey, he camea little unhinged. He still sends me ten or so texts every day. I'mproud to say I ignore them all.
What worries me more is that, every once in awhile, he shows up at the club and follows me around, offering totake my virginity in a loud, booming voice until the bouncers haulhim away. The only upside to his performance is that it usuallytriples my tips. Men are intrigued by the idea of a virginstripper. I guess it's the old Madonna whore complex with a few newlyrics thrown in.
Gran sees me craning my neck and frowns. Itold her a little about Ethan, just in case he shows up at ourapartment. Ever since then, she's insisted on driving me to andfrom work. She pulls up as close as she can to the serviceentrance. "Be careful," she says, kissing me on the cheek. "I'm soglad you'll be starting school next week and getting away from thisplace."
"Goodbye Gran. I l-l-love you." I stammer forthe first time in weeks.
I hope it isn't some kind of omen.
When the deejay asks forTawny to come out and show her claws, I stalk down the runway tothe damaged-girl balladCloserby Nine Inch Nails. I feel the heat of male desireon my bare skin and smile like a hungry cat. Yes, I'm ashamed toadmit it, but I sort of like stripping. I love the freedom ofdancing without a limp and the power I have over theaudience.
I even love my stripper name. Tawny, my alterego, is a leopard goddess with sinuous limbs and an insatiable needto be worshipped. I imagine men crawling to her fire-lit temple asI gyrate around the stage and flirt with the pole, whipping theaudience into a frenzy. I really hope Ethan isn't in out there. Hegets a little extra crazy whenever he sees my act, which is ironicsince he's the one who pushed me to work at the Kat Club in thefirst place.
Now I embrace the pole as if it were myboyfriend. I wrap my arms and legs around it and move my hips in afigure eight. I can practically hear the customers breathing as onehuge, horny collective organism. When I finally leap and execute aone-legged spin-and-drop, green bills pop up like crocuses in thespring. I stuff the moist bills—the customers' sweatyofferings—into my garter, do a couple more tricks, and strut offthe stage.
The girls greet me in the dressing room withsmiles and friendly catcalls. At first, they didn't know what tomake of me—a fresh-faced honor student with a tentative way ofspeaking. We finally got to know each other over cigarettes in thealleyway behind the bar. Now they call me College Girl, which Ilike much better than Amityville Horror.
As I'm touching up my makeup, Syndy—a tinywoman of twenty-five in a Catholic school girl outfit—taps melightly on the shoulder.
"We know you're leaving for school soon. Thegirls and I wanted to give you this." She smiles, revealing a smallgap between two white front teeth, and holds out an envelope. "It'sa going away present."
I open it and stammer my heartfelt thanks.Inside is the one thing every stripper wants and needs: a thick wadof cash.
For me, the worst part of being a stripperisn't taking my clothes off. It's interacting with the customersand struggling not to stammer while making the very smallest ofsmall talk. In a lot of ways, the onstage show is just anadvertisement for my charms. The most profitable part of my job—forme and the club—is chatting up the customers and encouraging themto buy me overpriced drinks.
When I emerge into the lounge area wearing aslightly less revealing version of my kitty cat costume, I scan theroom for my kind of customer. Basically, I'm looking for a shy,quiet man who would rather gaze at a pretty, younger woman than tryto have a conversation. He might be an engineer or a softwaredeveloper or just a guy with bad social skills.
In the dim light of the bar, I spot a likelytarget. A heavyset man with a rounded, muscular back looms over hisbeer. His slouchy posture and thick, curly hair suggest a bear justout of hibernation. I slip into the seat beside him and say abreathless hello, mumbling something about being thirsty after myperformance. The bear takes the bait.
"What's your poison?" he asks in a voicethat's both tough and barely audible. Definitely the strong, silenttype, I think.
"Mountain Dew," I say, fake smiling.
Jody, the bartender, delivers my drink with awink and a genuine smile. She always looks out for the girls,keeping us appraised of potential creeps and putting aside our takeof the drink bills.
As I expected, the bear sips his beer whilehis eyes linger over my face, chest, and legs. It's a littleuncomfortable to be stared at with such intensity. I tell myselfit's no different than stripping for a crowd. I cross and uncrossmy legs and deliver occasional eye contact the way the other girlstaught me.
The bear clears his throat,and his eyes narrow as if he's sizing up a potential combatant.This is not the usual reaction I get from customers, so I turnaround to see what he's reacting to and...oh shit. It's Ethan. His hair ismatted, and his eyes are wild. He's drunk, and he's probably beendrunk for at least a day. I quickly signal Jody.
Ethan puts a heavy, proprietary hand on myneck and addresses the bear. "Did you know this kid's a virgin? Astripper-virgin, can you believe that shit? The Kat Club's own holyfucking Mary."
"Ethan," I say, searching his face for signsof the witty man-boy I once found so compelling. "You have afiancée. Go home. Be with her."
"Yes, I have a fiancée. A wonderful fiancée.But I also miss my friend. What the fuck happened to you?"
As Jody and the bouncer—a two hundred-fiftypound slab of tattooed meat named Alfredo—close in on Ethan, Imurmur, "I grew up."
Are you sure you don't needa ride home?texts Gran.
No thanks.I reply.I'm taking a cabto Maggie's place for a late night goodbye gathering.
Be safe!she writes.
I tuck my phone into my bag. I'm already inthe back of a taxi. According to Maggie, Ethan is sleeping it offat his fiancée's apartment. I have nothing to worry aboutstalker-wise—at least for tonight.
At last, the cabbie drops me at Maggie'scrumbling rental on Lake Everclear. Summer is ending, andeveryone—at least, everyone with a future—is preparing to leaveTriple Marsh. Miss Maggie herself will be heading to New York Cityin just a few days. She's majoring in film, and she's alreadycobbled together funding to shoot a pilot based on something shewrote for class.
I climb four flights of stairs and slap awayclouds of mosquitoes that seem to be breeding in the stairwell.Maggie's door is ajar, and the sounds of a small, happy party reachme at the end of the hallway. When I enter her apartment, I findher holding court in the kitchen, wearing a green velvet cocktaildress. She's the lovely, vibrant center of about ten gorgeous menbetween the ages of twenty and forty. Her living room is full ofcouples and pseudo-couples, reclining on cushions and kissing.
This is one of my last nights in Triple Marshfor the foreseeable future. I tell myself I should have fun. Iglance at the happy couples and consider peeling off one ofMaggie's incredible specimens for a random make out session. No, Ithink, my heart just isn't in it. It's three a.m., and all I canthink about is how, in just a few days, I'm going to be more than athousand miles from my parents' graves.
I brace myself to spend at least an hourgoing through the social motions—happy get-to-know-you chatter,catching up with Maggie, introductions to her growing circle offriends—when it occurs to me that no one actually noticed me walkin.
Slowly and carefully, I leave the party andcreep back down the stairs. I look up directions to Forever Acresand see that's it's only a mile away. I decide to walk it. The cabto Maggie's has already put me twenty bucks into the hole.
A mile on pavement is a shockingly longdistance in stripper heels. I can feel the vinyl rubbing against byskin with every step. But I keep at it, and soon I'm rewarded witha familiar sight—the arched entrance to Forever Acres.
I pass through the entryway undisturbed. Theguard who mans the kiosk—he must be at least seventy—is snoringlightly. By the bright light of the waxing moon, I make my way tomy parents' graves. I haven't been here for at least a month, but Istill have that strange feeling of expectation, as if somethingspecial—or something life changing—is going to happen to mehere.
I know this feeling is ridiculous. It's allbecause of that guy I met here almost three years ago, right aftermy parents died. I remember him telling me that he'd lost his momto ovarian cancer. I also remember how he sobbed on my shoulder,and how I ached with sympathy and understanding.
But instead of talking with him at any lengthor even getting his last name so I could find him on Facebook, Iran away. I guess it was because I'd just started stripping, and Ifelt strangely unworthy. Laird—I think that was his name—had seemedso solid and wholesome. Anything I could have told him about myselfwould have been a disappointment.
Still, every time I visit my parents, I alsothink of him. I wonder how he's doing, and if I'll ever run intohim again. Sometimes I even imaging an alternate reality in whichhe's the first boyfriend I take home to Mom and Dad. Totallystupid, I know. I watch the stars for a while and then depositmyself on a nearby bench. I say a silent farewell to my parents asthe dark night sky lightens slowly into day.
Chapter 12: Laird
I'm standing in a long line of about thirtyother men. We're all sweating in the late-summer heat, and we'reall eager to get inside, where it's cool and full of shadows. Ikeep my eyes trained on the pavement, hoping not to see anyone Iknow. I've avoided coming here all summer. I'm still not sure itwas a good idea.
As I wait, I imagine Amity the way she wasthe last time I saw her, just a month after her parents had died.She seemed young for her age, kind, and slightly awkward. Andclassically beautiful, with a sweet, open face that concealednothing. I hope that all this time trying to survive on her ownhasn't changed her, but I know that's wishful thinking.
When Amity walked away from me at thecemetery, I didn't run after her or try to get in touch. Anyfriendship we developed would have been a poor, fragile thing builton a foundation of lies. I don't think I could have brought myselfto tell her about my role in the accident that killed her mother.Every minute I spent in her presence would have been a terriblereminder that I was powerless to do anything for her, except holdher hand.
Soon, though, that's all going to change.When I turn twenty-one next week, I'll have access to part of mytrust fund. I'll use that money—anonymously, of course—to helpAmity's dreams come true. To do this right, I'm going to have tolearn everything I can about her—all her hopes and fears andstrengths and weaknesses. I want to be sure she'll spend my moneyon herself and her education, and not on drugs or a greedyboyfriend. My plan is simple and elegant. I'm going to become herfriend, change her life, and then get the fuck out of it.
Someone is tapping me on the shoulder. I turnaround and see a balding man in khakis and a light blue pologlaring at me. "Hey, buddy, move it along, would ya?"
I realize I've reached the front of the line."Sorry, man."
I cross a small pathway to the entrance ofthe Kat Club. The bouncer rolls his eyes at my fake ID, but lets mein anyway. After all, I'm Josiah Conroy's only son—unless he's lefta few love children here and there that I don't know about.
Inside, I settle myself at the end of the barand wait uneasily. I'm not sure I'm ready for what I'm about tosee. But I want to get a better understanding of what Amity's lifeis like, and I believe this strip club will give me at least a bigchunk of the whole, unvarnished truth.
I barely recognize Amity as she struts downthe runway. Her face is heavily made up like an anime doll, and herbody is all attitude and aggressive edges. The soft, gentle younggirl who mourned her parents is now locked inside a hard protectiveshell.
Amity's dance routine is more gymnastic thansensual. She works the pole as if it's a sporting event, showingoff her strength and flexibility. I admire her athleticism and thediscipline it must have taken to develop such long, lean muscles,but I feel no heat, no desire. As far as my body is concerned, shecould be my sister. I am enormously relieved. My life iscomplicated enough already.
My phone vibrates against my leg. I fish itout and read the text.
In town, visiting parents. Want to meet up?Em
Ember is my addiction and my kryptonite.Every several months, I break down and see her. Or, if I wait toolong, she gets impatient, tracks me down, and shows up wherever Ihappen to be. We come together and push each other away in anendless cycle of need, greed, and self hatred. We're not officiallytogether, but I haven't really found anyone else, either. Emberattacks sex with a mixture of passion and desperation that drivesme insane. None my college hook ups have ever compared.
I glance down at her text and remind myselfhow she hung all over my father at Mom's funeral, how our fight onthe way to Deegan's house killed Amity's mother, and how sheflirted with my father even after I warned her about him. No, Idecide, I'm not going to see her tonight.
I look up to watch the rest of Amity'sroutine, but it's too late. She's gone.
When Amity emerges into the lounge part ofthe club, she seems smaller and more vulnerable than she didonstage. Her big, painted eyes look huge and childlike. Her long,limber legs appear gawky and fragile, like a fawn's. She doesn'tbelong here, I think.
I hide behind my beer and watch her approachgroups of men, obviously encouraging them to buy her drinks. Hersmiles are pro forma and do not touch her haunted eyes. It takesher several tries before she finds someplace to land. It shouldn'ttake an objectively lovely twenty-year-old stripper that long tofind a mark. I don't think she's very good at this.
When she doesn't think anyone is looking, shecloses her eyes, perhaps to imagine she's somewhere else, someplacesafe. I wish I knew where that is.
My phone vibrates again. I hope and fear thatit's Ember, but it's not. It's Dad, and I'm late for dinner.
The restaurant where I'm meeting Dad and hisdate is so hip that it doesn't have a name—just a pinewood signbearing a giant ampersand. I push my way through frosted doubledoors and find the hostess, a tall, elegant woman dressed from headto toe in white. She looks down at an ivory tablet and then back upat me.
"Laird Conroy?" she asks.
"The rest of your party is already here.Please come with me."
The hostess leads me through a maze of tablestopped with clear Lucite and adorned with calla lilies in whiteceramic vases. She walks like she's in a hurry, and I have to takelong strides to keep up. My father and his date are waiting for mein a semi-private room behind a diaphanous white curtain.
Dad rises from a couch the color of Caribbeansand and claps his hand on my shoulder. He grins broadly, as if heis actually thrilled to see me. "Good to see you. It's been toolong."
He's obviously trying to impress someone, andI know it isn't me. I take a quick peek at his date, who looksconsiderably more wholesome than his usual girlfriends. Her ashblonde hair is scraped back into a severe ponytail, and her face isround and bare. Her features are small and harmonious.
Dad waves his hand in the direction of hispretty new toy. "This is Darla. She's studying film at NYU."
"Nice to meet you." I say, settling into theloveseat across from them. I'm dying to ask whether Darla is a gradstudent or an undergrad, but I refrain. I learned long ago not totorture Dad's dates.
Two waitresses—identical, pale-skinnedtwins—appear to set up white TV trays in lieu of tables and takeour drink orders. Dad asks for a Mojito. Darla and I order Cokes. Iwonder if she's underage.
As the twins disappear behind the curtain, myphone vibrates. I try to check it discreetly. It's Ember.Again.
Wait until it gets dark. Then sneak into myback yard. I'll be waiting in the hammock. Alone. Remember the goodand forget the bad.
Desire surges through me against my will.Ember's always known how to get to me. I take a deep breath andcount to ten.
"So who is she?" asks Darla with amischievous smile.
I'm halfway tempted to tell the truth—thatshe's Ember, the only one of my girlfriends who was hot enough forDad to hit on. But I don't.
"No one," I reply. "No one."
Dad chuckles and smirks. "My son isbashful."
"Then he's nothing like you." Darla's voiceis warm and teasing.
Before I can say anything else, the twinwaitresses appear with our drinks. When they leave, I watch Darla'slips curl around her straw. They're pink and lush, like Ember's. Ithink Dad notices, too. He slides closer to her and takes her hand.They exchange a shy smile. Or maybe it's a sly smile.
"So how did you two meet?" I ask.
"At a student film competition," explainsDarla. "Your dad was one of the judges."
"Dad doesn't know anything about film." Itake a large gulp of my Coke, wishing it was somethingstronger.
Dad scowls. "Maybe not, but I own a filmproduction company. I judged the event, because I wanted to meetthe next generation of directors." Dad plants a kiss on Darla'sforehead, and she giggles.
"What was your film about?" I ask.
She winks and says, "A beautiful young filmstudent who falls for a billionaire executive with a tragicpast."
I shake my head slightly. She's beautiful,witty, and self aware. I worry that this arch young woman who can'tpossibly be any older than me will someday be my stepmother. Theidea makes my teeth ache with anger.
While Dad and Darla bill and coo over thedessert menu, I text Ember.
See you at 10 p.m.
Ember, like everyone else I know, comes froma wealthy family. Her back yard boasts a forty-foot pool and anintricately designed lounging pavilion. The hammock where she'swaiting hangs between two slender yet sturdy silk trees. It'silluminated by delicate lanterns made of whisper-thin glass. Everytime there's a thunderstorm, the maids scurry to put them in thegarden shed.
I approach the hammock asquietly as I can. Even in the moonlight I can see the outline ofits shapely contents. When I'm close enough that I can hear thesubtle ebb and flow of Ember's breath, I trace my finger along hercollarbone. She inhales sharply and takes my hand, kissing each ofmy fingers. She whispers my name.Laird.It's an endearment and aninvitation.
I get on my knees and bury my face in herneck. She smells like ripe berries. I plant a quick kiss on herlips, tasting her hot, sweet tongue, and explore her smooth,rounded body. Her breasts are firm peaches with nubby tips. Herbelly dips and flares. She moans softly and rocks her hips, openingto her desire.
I'm about to lose myself entirely when mytraitorous mind jumps to the day of Mom's funeral and shows me whatI'd least like to see—Ember grinding her astonishing ass into myfather, a blissful smile creeping across her face.
Abruptly, I disengage myself from Ember andleap to my feet.
"What's wrong, Laird?" she cries. I cringe.When Ember is upset, her voice gets high, shrill, and nasal—justlike it is now. I think back to Dad and Darla at the restaurant,and Darla's low purr of a laugh. A wave of nausea twists its waythrough my gut.
I apologize as I walk away. "I'm sorry, Em. Ijust can't do this right now."
Chapter 13: Amity
I've washed all my clothes, and now theycover more than half the floor in my tiny postage-stamp of a room.After we sold the house to pay off Mom and Dad's old debts, Granand I moved into a small two-bedroom apartment in Sunset Estates,the only senior housing complex in Triple Marsh. It's cramped butcozy, and I'll probably even miss it a little.
I pick up a baggy, gray T-shirt with a gianthole in the armpit. This is an easy decision. I toss it into a boxlabeled Trash. Now I shake out a white button-down shirt that usedto be Dad's. I fold it carefully and place it into a box labeledGoodwill. By the time I leave for Adams, all of my things will beneatly packed and assigned to one of four categories—School,Storage, Goodwill, and Trash.
I'm excited and happy and sad and terrifiedall at the same time. In just a matter of hours, I'll be drivingthe more than one thousand miles to Adams, Connecticut, and I'll bedoing it in my very own car. I used some of my stripping money tobuy a bright orange '02 Camry. Gran's going to keep Dad's old truckand take over the monthly payment. She says she likes looking downon the other drivers.
I check the clock on my phone. It's four a.m.I still have plenty of time to finish packing before I hit theroad. I'm trying to decide whether or not to keep a pair ofoversized khakis, when a red light mounted high on the wall beginsto flash. It's the Sunset Estates version of doorbell. They made ita big, blinking light because so many of their residents can barelyhear.
I run to the door so I can get it before Granwakes up. I wonder who it could be at this quiet, lonely hour. Isuppose it's the building manager. Maybe Gran accidentally trippedtheir Life Alert system.
I look through the peepholeand...fuck me. It'sEthan. There's no way I'm going to let him in, or scream at himthrough the door. I run back to my room and get myphone.
Get out of hereEthan, I text.Gohome to your girl.
I hit send and hear his phone warble throughthe door. After a few moments, my phone chirps back.
I just want to say goodbye. I'm going tomiss you. I'm sorry things got so weird. One friendly hug, and I'mout of here.
I start typing again.Fine. I get it. You're sorry. But it's 4 a.m. Timeto go home, OK?
My phone is silent, and theseconds creep by. After a few minutes, I dare to hope that Ethanhas left. I tiptoe back to the door and peer out thepeephole.Damn it.Ethan's still there with a strange, unfocused look on his face. Hisshirt is untucked so it covers the front of his jeans, and his handis underneath, fumbling with something. I wonder what he's doing.Then, all of a sudden, I know. Although I've never seen it before,Maggie and the girls at work have certainly told me about it inexplicit detail.
You are disgusting. Leave now or I'm callingthe cops.
I wait five minutes and check the peepholeagain. He's gone, except for a white, gooey stain on Gran's welcomemat.
"Honey, why are you cleaning that thing? It'ssupposed to be dirty. People wipe their feet on it."
She's referring to her woven welcome mat. I'mholding it over the sink and rinsing it with the spray nozzle,hopefully washing away the last bits of Ethan's DNA.
"I know Gran. But there was a big splotch of,er, bird poop on it. I thought I'd clean it before I left."
Gran smiles and waggles her finger, mockscolding me. "Young lady, stop right there. You've got moreimportant things to worry about than bird poop. Especiallytoday."
"I'm all done," I say cheerfully, and hurryto replace the mat on our tiny concrete stoop.
When I return to the kitchen, I see Granquickly swallow a pill. I worry that it's her heart, but I knowbetter than to ask. The last time I tried, she said she was fine,thank you very much, asked if I was a doctor, and regarded methrough cold, wounded eyes for the next two days.
"What would you like for breakfast?" sheasks.
"Whatever you're having," I say, trying notto sniffle. Even though I'm excited about Adams, I'm going to missGran a lot.
"Guava pancakes, it is," she says, shooing meout of the kitchen before I can even offer to help.
I'm lining up my bags andboxes for their eventual transport to the car, when I see theflashing red light again.Please don't letit be Ethan.
"I've got it, Gran!" I yell, and run to thedoor, heart hammering. I look out the peephole and immediatelyrelax. It's Maggie.
Thank God for Maggie, because Gran and I bothsuck at goodbyes. While I stuff my face with pancakes and Granobsessively cleans the kitchen, Maggie keeps up a steady stream ofcheerful chatter about her new vegan diet.
"Is it hard to go vegan?" I ask, washing downa mouthful of pancakes with a swallow of milk from oppressedindustrial cows.
"It's not as hard as you'd think. I pourolive oil over everything. And dark chocolate is totallyvegan."
"Well, you look great," I say. And it's true.If anything, great is an understatement. She's about twenty poundslighter than she was in high school, and her skin is a soft, glowybronze. She's also about one hundred times more glamorous since sheditched the Goth look for something softer and more retro.
Maggie smiles and shrugs. "I have to lookgood. The film industry is totally shallow. And corrupt. You knowthat little development deal I have? The one for the pilot?"
I nod, taking another gargantuan bite ofpancake.
"The production company didn't even read myscript. My agent says the owner saw me at a film competition lastyear and offered me a deal, just because of the way I looked."
"That's ridiculous," I say. "How do you theyknow that you're not going to waste their money?"
Maggie rolls her dark, smoky eyes. "I guessthey have money to waste. The owner is Josiah Conroy—thebillionaire who's always dating some eighteen-year-old model.There's a rumor going around that he's sleeping with one of myclassmates. I bet she has a development deal, too."
I look at Maggie, questioning. "You're notsleeping with him, too, are you?"
"Oh God no," she says. "I've never even methim."
Once breakfast is over, there's no morestalling. It's time for me to get on the road. Maggie helps load mycar, and Gran gives me a tin of homemade chocolate chipcookies.
When all my stuff is wedged into my littleorange car, I stammer my awkward goodbyes. Gran hugs me first. Shefeels light and insubstantial in my arms, like she could floataway. I note her rosy cheeks and rapid, shallow breathing. I tellmyself it's just the heat.
"I love you, Gran."
"You'll make your mother proud." Her voicequavers slightly.
Now it's Maggie turn. She smells likeEternity and cigarettes, and I smile, strangely glad she shares mysecret vice. Before she releases me, she whispers in my ear. "IfEthan comes near you again, call the cops."
"I know," I whisper back.
Maggie pulls away as gently as she can. Shesmiles at Gran and takes my hands. "I wish I could follow you," shesays, "but the repair guy is still working on Racer. He says itmight be the alternator." Racer is what she calls her slow,massively unreliable VW Bus.
"Maybe you should buy a new car with yourT.V. money," I suggest.
Maggie scoffs. "It's really a pittance.Besides, I'm supposed to use it all for my project."
Finally, it's time for me togo. Gran walks back to our—now her—tiny porch, and Maggie makes herway to the van she borrowed from Damon. The name of hisband—Invasive Species—is painted on the side, along with a giant, red-eyed preyingmantis.
I get in my car and set the trip odometer tozero. One thousand, one hundred and fifty seven miles to go.
I'm about twenty miles away from the exit forAdams, Connecticut. My car is full of junk food wrappers, and thestale, re-circulated air smells vaguely of whatever chemical thefood-industrial-complex uses to preserve French fries. I pull offat the first rest area I see to clean up my car and take a quicksponge bath.
As soon as I step outside, my skin turnsslick with sweat. It's a humid summer day, and I'm a littledisappointed. All summer long, I've been dreaming of cool NewEngland weather. At least the trees don't remind me of home. Eventhis tiny rest area is dotted with oaks, birches, and hickories,all of which tend to droop and die in the swamps around TripleMarsh.
Once I've emptied the trash from my car, Iwalk across the parking lot to the women's bathroom. It'scompletely deserted, so I set up camp by the sink furthest from thedoor. I brush my teeth, rinse my armpits, and put on a fresh coatof deodorant. I also redo my makeup, which is halfway melted off myface. I started wearing makeup around the same time I startedstripping—which I guess isn't much of a coincidence. Gran hates mymakeup, but I think of it as camouflage. It's another layer betweenme and the rest of the world.
Still alone in the bathroom, I check myreflection in the full-length mirror by the door. I realize I'm notthe same girl I was when I started high school. The rough outlineis the same—tall girl with hair down to her ass, an unpredictablestammer, and a bit of a limp—but the colors inside are different.I'm stronger and a lot more confident—even if some of thatconfidence comes from questionable places, like the strip club.
I take a long, deep breathand smile at my reflection.Listen to me,girl in the mirror. You're going to make your motherproud. Once I get to Adams, schoolwork willbe my number one priority. I'm not going to waste any more timeobsessing over creeps like Ethan or even mystery guys like Laird.No entanglements will be my mantra.
As I walk back to my car, I pass a familyobviously taking their daughter to college. The mom and dad arebickering about directions, and the girl is sharing a giant orangesoda with her younger brother.
I scurry back to the bathroom and wait forthe tears to stop falling so I can fix my makeup one more time.