Read My sweetest escape Online

Authors: Chelsea M. Cameron

My sweetest escape

Also available from Chelsea M. Cameron

and Harlequin HQNMy Favorite Mistake

“I can’t believe your parents are forcing

you to leave. It should be, like, illegal.

You’re over eighteen. Why don’t you just

bail?” Kelly sat on top of one of the boxes of

my almost-packed dorm room and snapped

her gum. When we’d first met, the little

habit had irritated me to no end, but I’d

gotten used to it.

“I wish I could, but they’re footing the

bill for school, so right now I’m screwed,” I

said. Not to mention the fact that no one

said no to my mother. No one.

“Why don’t you drop out?” Oh, I’d

considered that more than once. Actually,

more than a thousand times. It was

impossible to explain the complicated

dynamic of my family to someone like Kelly,

who had moved out of her parents’ house

and gotten her own place when she was still

in high school.

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging and

taping up another box. Kelly flipped her

dirty blond dreadlocked ponytail and

cracked her gum again. She’d asked me if I

needed help packing, but so far all she’d

done was bother me.

“You’ll come back and visit, right?” she


“Yeah, sure,” I told her with a little

smile. We both knew t was unlikely that I’d

ever get back here. I folded my University of

New Hampshire blanket and shoved it into

another box. My mom had bought it for me

two summers ago as a

going-away-to-college present.

I was one of only two of my siblings or

steps who’d actually managed to graduate

high school, let alone get accepted

somewhere. Neither Mom nor Dad nor any

of my step-parents had finished high school,

so it was a big deal for any of us to make it

that far. The only other one who had was

Renee, and that was the reason they were

shipping me back to Maine to live with her


Kelly’s phone buzzed and she typed a

quick response to the text message and

grinned at me.

“Mac wants to meet up for coffee.” I

always wished she’d putcoffeein air

quotes, because we both knew that it

meant getting stoned and hooking up in the

backseat of his rusty Pontiac. Kelly and her

boyfriend were notorious; they’d even been

caught by campus security in the middle of

the day. It was a miracle they were still

students at all. I think they were holding on

by the thinnest of academic threads.

“Have fun.” I knew she’d bail on me for

Mac. She always did. Kelly wasn’t much of a

friend, but she was the only one I had. The

others had ditched me months ago.

“Call me before you leave. I wanna say

goodbye.” She got up and gave me a loose

hug. It was more of a lean involving arms

that was over as quickly as it had begun.

“See you later,” she said, slamming the

door. Kelly could never leave a room


I stared at my deconstructed dorm

room. My roommate was avoiding me, had

been avoiding me since the beginning of

this year. We’d had all of two

conversations—one of those happened on

the day we moved in, and the other

happened when she found me passed out

in front of the door one night after a crazy

time with Kelly and Mac and a bunch of

people I hadn’t seen again. As if I’d

remember them anyway.

I took Kelly’s place on one of the boxes,

pulling my knees up and resting my chin on


The fight I’d had with my mother when

she’d told me that I was being forced to

move back kept running through my mind.

Actually, the entire Christmas break had

been one long fight that didn’t seem to end.

What is wrong with you, Joscelyn?

You’d better straighten up andfly right. You

are coming back to Maine, or else I am

coming thereand dragging your ass back,


Straighten up and fly right. Yeah, I’d get

right on that, Mom. She was one to talk. My

parents had a half-dozen marriages

between them and kids and stepkids all

over the place.

It was a full-time job just keeping track

of them.

I’d screamed myself hoarse, but hadn’t

gotten anywhere.

She’d even put a moratorium on hating

Dad long enough to call him, fill him in and

then get him to yell at me, too.

I was powerless against the two of


And then there was Renee.

If Mom didn’t drag my ass back, Renee

would be on that.

She was worse than Mom in some ways.

Speaking of my sister…

My phone rang, and when I saw who

was calling, I debated about picking it up.

“Hey,” I said, wincing in anticipation of

the barrage I knew was coming.

“You better be getting your stuff

together and be out the door,” she said by

way of a greeting.

“Nice to talk to you, too, dear sister.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Jos. I am so

done with this. You’d better get your butt

on the road in the next hour or—”

“I know, I know. You’ll surgically remove

my fingers and sew them to my ass. Iknow.

” Having a sister who knew surgical

procedure and who was also mad at you

really sucked sometimes.

“Hey, I don’t need the attitude. You’re

lucky that you’re coming to be here with me

instead of Mom.” She did have a point. Back

at Mom’s I’d just be drowning in a sea of my

step and half siblings, among them a set of

four-year-old twins who made the devil

look like Mother Teresa.

“I know,” I said. That seemed to be my

phrase of choice lately.

“Just know that I’m going to be on your

ass like white on rice, and if I’m not around

someone else will do it for me.

You’re walking into a house full of

people that are going to watch your every

move and call you out on it. Understand?”

Jesus Christ.


“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you. Call me the

second you leave.”

“I will. ’Bye.”

I hung up before she could say anything

else. I put my hands over my face and

screamed into them. This was a nightmare I

never seemed to wake up from.

Asleep or awake, it never left me.

But I was awake now, and I had to

move, so I got off the box and picked it up.

After nearly twelve trips and a lot of

sweating and swearing, I got all my stuff

into my car. Despite it being freezing

outside, I peeled off my winter coat and just

wore my ratty sweatshirt, my breath visible

in the January air. People walked by and

gave me looks, and I knew what they were

thinking. Just another student who couldn’t

hack it and was being forced to leave and

not come back after Christmas break.

They didn’t have any idea.

I went back up to the half-bare room

and looked at it one more time.

Goodbye, freedom.

I didn’t bother to leave my roommate a

note and just shut the door behind me. It

wasn’t like she’d care anyway.

I texted Kelly that I was leaving, but she

didn’t respond.

Big surprise. Other than Kelly, there

wasn’t really anyone else at UNH that I had

left to say goodbye to. I hadn’t heard from

Matt since before the summer, when he’d

broken up with me. The others, my little

circle of friends, had long since lost touch

with the crazy, reckless emo girl. I’d heard

Page 2

them talking about my transformation

behind my back more than once.

Snow was just starting to float down

from the sky when I got back downstairs to

my car. I could barely see out the rearview

mirror, but I was mostly driving on the

highway anyway.

I plugged my iPod into my car speakers

and hit Shuffle.

It was going to be a long trip and I only

had music for company. The sleeve on my

sweatshirt rode up, exposing the bracelet I

never took off. It was simple, just a chain

with a little elephant charm on it. I kept it as

a reminder. A constant reminder.

Shaking my head, I pulled away from the

dorm and headed for the highway and the

next chapter in my life. A fresh start was

irrelevant when the dark things in your past

were always following you.

It took me longer than I anticipated to

get from New Hampshire to my sister’s

house in Bangor, Maine. Actually, it wasn’t

even her house. She’d moved in with this

guy Hunter, who was buying the house

because he was apparently loaded.

Leave it to Renee to find a rich friend.

She was also on again with her boyfriend,

Paul, which was a good thing, in my

opinion, because she was a pain in the ass

when she wasn’t with him. Even more so

than she was when she was with him.

I hadn’t seen the house before, so it was

a bit of a shock when I parked in front of

the house Renee had given me directions


“Damn,” I said. It was huge. Way huger

than Renee had let on. I’d pictured

something a little run-down, and small, but

this was bigger than any house I’d ever lived

in, with Mom or Dad.

I grabbed my backpack and headed up

the porch steps, glancing at the cars in the

driveway as I passed them. It was easy to

spot Renee’s, so I knew I must have the

right place.

There was even a freaking doorbell. My

finger was an inch away from ringing it

when the door flew open.

“There you are! I was worried you were

lying in a ditch somewhere,” Renee said,

flinging herself at me. Startled by the hug, I

sort of stood there and kind of hugged her


“I’m here.”

Somehow, I’d gotten a recessive

redhead gene in our family and ended up

with carrot-red hair, freckles and green


Renee had gotten the good genes, with

her blue eyes and blond hair that didn’t

need much highlighting. Our features were

similar, but our coloring was so different

that people never thought we were sisters.

She finally stopped hugging me, but kept

her hand clamped on my shoulder and

steered me into the house, as if I was going

to make a run for it. Where, I didn’t know.

Renee had mentioned something about

Stephen King living down the street, but I

wasn’t sure if I’d be any safer at his house


“How was the driving?” Renee closed

the door behind us and it clicked shut with


“Fine,” I said, glancing around the

house. Damn. Again.

I didn’t know who had decorated, but

they’d obviously used those crazy

home-improvement magazines as


One thing was for sure—it didn’t look

like a typical college crash pad. It was clean,

first of all, and second, there seemed to be

an actual scheme where things matched

and went together. There were also a lot of

peacock feathers, and similar peacock

colors around. Renee had mentioned

something about her roommate Taylor

being obsessed with peacock stuff. I

couldn’t remember why. I sort of tuned out

when Renee gushed about her amazing and

awesome life, while mine had gone into a

downward spiral that never seemed to hit


“Hey, Jos. How are you doing?” Paul

came around the corner. He was cute in

one of those white-bread nerd ways.

Not my type. Not that I had a


“Good.” It was a step up from fine. No

one questioned you when you said you

were good. Everyone thought there was

something wrong with you if you said,


He gave me an awkward hug. I’d seen

him at Christmas when he’d kept Mom and

Renee from throttling each other with

varying success. I’d tried to tell him it was

no use, but he’d done it anyway.

“Where’s everyone else?” I was actually

looking forward to seeing Darah and

meeting her new boyfriend. Darah was one

of the sweetest people on the planet, and I

knew if there was anyone who wouldn’t

judge me, it would be her.

“They wanted to give us some space.

They’ll be here later.”

Something about the way she said it

made me suspicious.

“They’re not going to make a big deal

about it, are they?”

“No,” Renee said, not looking at me, but

glancing at Paul.

Something was afoot.

“So, how about we get your stuff inside,

shall we? Come on, Paul.” Renee grabbed

Paul’s hand and yanked him out the door.

“Uh, okay.” I was left standing in the

foyer alone. I walked into the living room,

which was gorgeously decorated, except for

a mangy-looking recliner and the video

games the guys had probably left scattered

around. I saw the “Skyrim” box and smiled.

Renee couldn’t get enough of that game. It

had consumed quite a bit of her time over

Christmas break.

I flopped down onto the couch and

stared up at the ceiling. Even that was


A thud sounded a second later as Renee

and Paul brought in some of my stuff.

“Since we only have three bedrooms,

you, my dear sister, get to stay in the newly

refurbished basement. You’re lucky we

decided to put in a guest room,” Renee

said, panting.

“Great,” I said, although I wouldn’t have

minded staying on the plush leather couch.

It was the largest couch I’d ever seen and

took up most of the living room.

“Why don’t you show her around and I’ll

get the rest of the stuff,” Paul said. I got up

from the couch and Renee led me down the

stairs into the basement.

“Welcome to the man cave,” Renee

said, waving her arm.

A man cave indeed. A bar, a pool table,

yet another gigantic couch and a television

large enough for a movie theater.

There were also several sports team

posters, including the Red Sox, the Patriots

and the Celtics. Go teams.

Renee led me toward the back of the

space where there was a small guest room

with a bathroom right beside it.

Thank God. I wouldn’t have to share a

bathroom. I’d done that in the dorms

enough to last a lifetime.

“So this is it.” The room was decorated

in tan and black, which was boring, but nice.

I sat down on the large bed and looked

around at my new home.

“Okay, we have some ground rules,”

Renee said, leaning against the dresser.

Don’t even bother to beat around the bush,

sis. Go ahead and get right to the point.

“Number one,” she said, holding up one

finger. “You will inform me where you are

and who you are with at all times.

You will keep in touch via cell phone.

You will also answer said phone when I call

you, no matter what.”

I clamped my mouth shut. I didn’t want

to provoke her in the middle of her speech

that she’d clearly rehearsed, probably on


“Second—” she held up another finger

“—there will be no partying. No drinking.

No drugs. No substances of any kind other

than aspirin. There will also be no passing


Third, there will be a curfew which you

will follow or suffer the consequences.

Fourth, I may not be your mother, but you

will treat me with respect, and that goes for

the other people in this house. And fifth…”

She didn’t seem to be able to come up with

number five.

“Fifth?” I said after a few seconds of


“I had a fifth one, but I can’t remember

it right now,” she snapped. “But that

doesn’t negate the other four. Do you agree

to them?”

“Yeah,” I said. What did it matter?

“You said yes way too easily. I don’t

believe you.”

Jesus. I was being criticized for being too


“Whatever, Renee. Can I just be alone

now?” I turned over on the bed, touching

the sheets that were no doubt

Egyptian cotton and had a crazy high

thread count. Of course.

“Listen,” she said, sitting down next to

me. Ugh, she always started her lectures

like this. Just like Mom. Although, Renee’s

lectures always had more cursing in them

than Mom’s.

“You’re going through something right

now. A phase, if you will. I’ve been there.

Even Paul was there.” Yeah, I found that

extremely hard to believe. And she had no

idea what I was going through. She thought

she did, but she didn’t.

No one did, and I couldn’t explain it. I

twisted the elephant charm on my bracelet.

And then she smacked me on the

shoulder. Hard.

“But it’s time for you to get your head

out of your ass and straighten up.


“Why with the violence?” I flipped over,

jumped up and shoved her back. “Look, it’s

not my fault that Mom decided to dump me

on you. I don’t want to be here any more

than you want me to be.”

She glared at me, her face turning red.

“Look, I don’t like the fact that my

once-perfect sister, the one sister I knew

would never screw up, has fallen off the

wagon of epic proportions. You’re the one I

never worried about. You got better grades

than I ever dreamed of getting.

You were the good one. And then…”

She didn’t need to finish. And then

everything happened, and that girl, the one

who obsessed over straight A’s and wanted

to be the president of every club and who

had her sights set on being valedictorian

and someday running a huge company or

working for the government or doing

something important with her life,


Nine months ago, everything changed,

and everything I thought I wanted seemed

stupid and pointless. Or maybe I’d just

finally realized it was stupid and pointless.

That had less to do with what had

happened and more to do withhim.

Even thinking his name was like taking a

bullet in the chest.

“Yeah, then I decided to screw it all up. I

know. I’ve heard the story. I was there. You

don’t need to reiterate it to me.”

She shrugged. “Well, nothing else has

worked, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I’ve

also considered beating you senseless, but

that’s usually frowned upon.”

“Go for it,” I said, sitting back down.

Wasn’t going to work.

“Oh, believe me, I’d love to. But then

you’d be unconscious and I wouldn’t be

able to get information out of you, soooo…”

“And what information is that?”

“What the hell happened to you to

make you like this?”

That was something she could try to

beat out of me, but it wasn’t going to

happen. I shoved her aside and went back

out into the main area of the basement.

“I guess I just decided all that stuff was

bullshit. Getting good grades, being the

good daughter. Where did it get me?

Nowhere. And I was miserable. I never got

to have any fun because I was always

working or trying to get those good grades

or planning some sort of event for one of

the million clubs I was in. I got tired of it,

okay?” I understood them being upset

about me partying and that sort of thing,

but just because I wasn’t getting straight A’s

anymore, that was a reason to have a


Renee grabbed my shoulder to stop me

from running up the steps. I tried to shake

her off, but she yanked me around to face


“No, that’s not it. You’ve spent your

entire life following the rules. You don’t do

that and then just flip a switch and change.

People don’t change like that unless

something makes them.” I’d had this

conversation with her, with my parents,

with my now ex-boyfriend and ex-friends. I

told them all the same thing.

“Just leave me alone.” Everyone had,


Renee glared at me, her eyes turning a

steely blue like they did when she was

determined about something. Getting her

to back off was going to be a challenge. She

took stubborn to a whole new level.

“Fine. Go get the rest of your stuff.” She

let go of my arm and jerked her chin up the


“Fine,” I said, stomping up the stairs.

Page 3

“Hey, Jos,” Darah said, coming in while I

was putting my clothes away in the dresser.

Her voice scared the crap out of me and I

dropped the Fall Out Boy T-shirt I’d been


“Hey,” I said, picking up the shirt and

turning around. I could never figure out

how Darah and Renee had become friends,

because they were like night and day. But

out of all of Renee’s friends, I liked Darah

the best. I hadn’t met Taylor yet, I

supposed, so I couldn’t judge her.

“Are you settling in okay?” It was then

that I noticed she had a plate of cookies.

Oh, Jesus. What next? “Cookie?

Taylor and I made them last night.

They’re snickerdoodles.

I know those are your favorite.” Yes,

they were, but that wasn’t the point.

“Thanks, but I’m fine.” I refolded the

T-shirt and put it in with the others. Darah

sighed and sat down on my bed, setting the

plate of cookies next to her.

“Look,” she started.Here we go again.“I

know that everyone is going to be up in

your face and scrutinizing you, but I just

wanted you to know that I’m here for you.

If you want to talk, if you don’t want to talk.

Whatever. Even if you want to…I don’t

know, eat ice cream and cry in the middle

of the night. I’m here, okay?”

She got up and rubbed my shoulder.

What was it with people invading my

personal space? It was really starting to piss

me off. If Darah hadn’t been one of the

sweetest people on the planet, I would

have shrugged her hand off and told her to

leave me alone. But she was the sweetest

person ever, and she’d brought cookies, so I

let her touch me as I gritted my teeth.

“Okay, well, let us know if you need

anything. Um, Hunter and Taylor are doing

dinner tonight, and it’s going to be

vegetarian, if you’re cool with that.” I

nodded. Back in the day I’d been an

on-and-off vegetarian. Back in the day when

I’d been in the Climate Action Club and a

card-carrying member of PETA. I might still

have the thing in my wallet. God, I’d been

wound so fucking tight back then. I’d also

done a lot less cursing.

“Come on up when you’re ready.” She

patted me once more and shut the door

behind her, leaving the plate of cookies. Did

they expect me to polish those off and then

have dinner? I shrugged, snagging one of

the cookies. She must have put them in the

microwave, because they were warm and

crumbly. Oh, wow. I chewed slowly,

savoring the spicy sweetness of the cookie.

Footsteps and voices sounded upstairs. I

heard laughter and chaos. The house above

me was full of life and joy and people. And

then there was me, hanging out in the

basement. Lurking like a creeper. I shook

my head and shoved the rest of the cookie

into my mouth and went back to folding.

* * *

When the smell of whatever they were

cooking upstairs became too much for me

to withstand anymore, I ventured up the


“There you are,” Renee said, nearly

crashing into me as I opened the door.

She’d obviously been coming down to drag

me upstairs from my cave.

“Here I am.” I gave her a tight smile as

we walked into the kitchen/dining room.

Everyone went absolutely silent as

Renee and I walked in.

“Awesome. I was totally going for that

reaction. Well played, everyone,” I said as

they all tried to resume their normal

activities. It was weird seeing some of them

in person, because I’d only seen them in

pictures. They reallywere


Hunter was the first to come over and

offer me his hand. I got to give him the

once-over and I understood what Renee

had said about not allowing him near

anything flammable because he would set it

on fire with his hotness. Yeah, he had the

whole tatted-up, muscled thing going on.

Plus his smile was genuine when he said

he’d been looking forward to meeting me.

Taylor was next, but she didn’t touch me.

Thank God. She was also just as freaking

adorable as the pictures I’d seen her in. It

was easy to see why Renee and Darah had

asked her to move in with them.

“I hope this is okay. I wasn’t sure what

you’d like. We were planning on doing

something bigger, but Renee… Never

mind,” Taylor said, after getting the evil eye


Renee. I didn’t need to be able to see

her giving it to know that was what she was

doing. I’d been on the receiving end of that

look more times than I could count. Paul

stood next to Renee and gave me a

comforting smile.

Last was a guy who looked like he

missed his calling as a professional football

player. Or wrestler. Or attractive bouncer. I

guess sexy ran in the family of Hunter and


“Little Ne,” he said, giving me a

handshake that nearly crushed all of my

fingers. “It’s cool if we call you that, right?

We’ll probably come up with a better

nickname at some point. Unless you hate

nicknames as much as your sister seems

to.” He looked a little sheepish, which was

kind of funny, given how strong he looked.

“Whatever,” I said, flexing my hand to

get the feeling back into it. “I’m neutral in

nicknames.” I couldn’t count how many I’d

had in my life. Most of them I’d ignored,

including when my sister Cari spent an

entire summer calling me “Stinky Butt.” To

be fair, she was three, and “Joscelyn” was a

mouthful to say.

“Thanks for the cookies,” I said to Darah,

who was absentmindedly stroking Mase’s

arm. “They were really good.”

“Oh, good. I was hoping you’d like

them,” Taylor said, stirring something in

one of the steaming pots on the stove.

“This is about ready, so why don’t you

go sit down?”

“Is there, um, anything I can do to

help?” Granted, I had been forced here, but

they didn’t have to take me in. They could

have said no.

“Don’t worry, sis. You’ll be on the chore

chart soon enough,” Renee said, steering

me toward the dining room table. Someone

had already set out the plates, and there

was a place set for me, with a card sitting

on the plate, and yes, it was handmade.

“Taylor and Darah made that, so you

have to gush about it even if you hate it,”

Renee hissed as I opened it. How could I

hate it? Someone had made some really

cool designs with paint on the front that

looked like fireworks, and there were

letters cut from magazines spelling out the


“Yellowfield House?” I said.

Renee rolled her eyes and sat down next

to me, Paul on her other side. I caught him

taking her hand under the table and giving

it a squeeze.

“It was Taylor’s idea. She wanted it to be

like in one of those British novels, where

the house has a name. It was, like, the only

way she’d agree to let us all live here. It was

her one stipulation,” Renee said with a


“She wanted to make a sign and

everything, but the rest of us vetoed it,”

Paul said. “It was really cute, actually. She

was so excited. And then we shot her


“Um, weird,” I said.

“Shh,” Renee said as everyone else

carried dishes and pans and other dinner

paraphernalia. The second everyone sat

down it was a chaos of passing plates and

bumping elbows and trying to get everyone

what they needed. Taylor had made

spaghetti with an olive oil sauce with tons

of vegetables and garlic bread and a salad.

It was crazy delicious, and even though I’d

consumed several of the cookies, I put away

more than my share of dinner. It beat the

hell out of the cafeteria food, or eating

ramen for the millionth time.

Everyone laughed and talked about their

day, and for the first time, I wasn’t the

center of attention. It was really…nice.

They were all just so damn happy and

smiley and in love.

It was enough to make me sick, but

instead it somehow had the opposite effect.

I’d really wanted to hate it here. It would

have been more appropriate for me to hate


“Um, I still have some…stuff to unpack,”

I said, getting up as soon as I could. I

needed to get back to the loneliness of the

basement. All the happy was screwing with

my head.

Renee shot me a look, but nodded.

“Are you sure you don’t want to hang

out up here? You haven’t even seen the rest

of the house yet,” Darah said, giving me a

hopeful smile. I couldn’t really get out of


“Yeah, sure.” She led me upstairs,

showing me her room, which was

immaculate, as if they were selling the

house and had a decorator come in to make

it look good for prospective buyers. Renee

refused to let us see her room, and Taylor

only gave me a quick glance at her and

Hunter’s suite on the top floor.

“Just ignore the clothes on the floor. I

know I do.” Hunter and Taylor had tagged

along for our little tour. It was technically

his house, after all.

“Thanks. For…for letting me come here.”

For letting my parents force me on you. I’m

sure you had lots of choice in the matter.

“You’re welcome. Any member of

Renee’s family is part of ours,” he said,

putting an arm around Taylor. Did they

have to do that all the time? “I hope

everything…works out. I know what it’s like

to go through a rough time.” Yeah, yeah,

yeah. I’d heard all about Hunter’s and

Taylor’s tragic pasts and subsequent

“getting their shit together” moments. They

were probably planning my intervention

right now. Luring me into a false sense of

security before springing it on me.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said as he closed their

door and we went back downstairs.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us

for some music?”

Darah said as she and Mase canoodled

on the couch. What was this, the Partridge

family? Seriously, these people were a

Cleaver short of a heartwarming fifties

family show. “Hunter’s a really good guitar


“I’m good. I still have…stuff to do.”

“And things?” Renee said, giving me a

look. Yeah, stuff and things, Renee.

“Am I not allowed to do stuff and things

now? Was that the fifth rule on your list?” I

snapped, realizing only after I’d said it that

everyone could hear me.

“Whatever,” I said, heading for the

basement. “I’m going to bed.” It was only

eight, but I couldn’t take being around them

anymore. They were just so damn happy. It

was killing me. I needed to go back to the

basement of doom and comfort myself with

more cookies and heart-wrenching music.

“Good night,” they all chimed almost in

unison. Sick, this was sick. Maybe there was

something in the walls that seeped into

their pores when they were sleeping. Or

maybe it was the water?

I shook my head and walked back down

to what I was quickly deciding was my cave.

My basement of solitude.

My room reeked of the delicious

cookies, and even though I was stuffed from

dinner, I ate two more before heading to

the shower. The water pressure was

significantly better than the dorm, and I

took my time, savoring the sensation on the

back of my neck. All the showers in the

world couldn’t wash away the darkness in

my life, but that didn’t stop me from

enjoying it.

The charm bracelet caught in my hair as

I was brushing it and I spent a good five

minutes and several curse words getting it


We’re friends, right? And friends give

each other gifts. I knowhow much you love

elephants, so…here,he’d said when he’d

presented me with the box. I remembered

opening it and falling in love with it. Such a

simple, sweet gesture. He’d helped me put

it on, and I’d worn it every day since.

Especially after…

I shook my head and turned on some

music. Something nice and harsh and loud

to drown out the Sing-Along hour going on

upstairs. After scrolling through my recent

purchases, I found the newest Skillet album.


I could feel the joy seeping through the

floor and invading my cave, so I turned the

music up so loud that it was hurting my

eardrums. I should have just put on my


headphones, but I didn’t. I unpacked the

rest of my stuff and deleted the voice mails

from my mother and father, demanding

that I call them when I’d gotten to Renee’s.

Page 4

I was sure she’d already called them and

shared the news of my safe arrival.

My room was outfitted with a small

television and DVD player, but I didn’t turn

it on. Instead I got out my laptop and

scrolled through my pictures from a year

ago. I was torturing myself, I knew.

I remembered that girl. The one who

always had her hair perfect with cute clips

and had lots of cardigans and pumps.

The girl who had a boyfriend who was

headed for the White House, and had

friends who never let her down. It wasn’t

picture-perfect, but it had been as close as

it could get. And it had been a complete and

utter waste of time and energy.

I slammed my laptop shut and yanked

the covers back on the bed and got in. My

music was still blaring, but it seemed to be

quiet upstairs. Finally. They all probably had

class or whatever tomorrow. I was surprised

Renee hadn’t been up my butt about

registering for classes yet. I had all my

paperwork to become a UMaine Black Bear,

just like her.

I turned over on my side and closed my

eyes. Sleep was far away, and elusive, but

that’s how it always was now. I’d gotten

used to passing hours by staring at the

insides of my eyelids.

Several hours later, I decided I’d had

enough. I needed to go somewhere else.

Anywhere else, even if it was just to see the

stars. I pulled some sweatpants on over my

shorts and grabbed my winter coat and

tiptoed up the stairs. I listened for a second

to the almost-silent house before I pushed

the door to the basement open and started

creeping toward the front door. The floors

were all hardwood, so creaking was going

to be an issue.

And then a voice made me nearly jump

out of my skin.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Mase’s head popped up from where he’d

been lying on the couch in the living room.


“Out for a walk,” I said, somehow

finding something to say.

“Is that what the kids are calling it these


“What?” He got up from the couch and

came to stand in front of me, blocking

access to the front door. Yeah, there was

NO WAY I was getting past him. Not even if

I had a weapon.

“Have a seat.” He clamped his hand on

my shoulder and steered me toward the

couch. I tried to fight him, but he was even

stronger than he looked.

“Who are you? My dad?” Actually, my

dad never really cared this much what I did.

He was always too busy with his current

wife and one of my numerous siblings to

notice if I skipped out.

He sighed and sat down next to me.

“Look, I know you’re going through a tough

time. I’m familiar with those. Hunter was in

really bad shape for a long time, so while I

can’t say I know what you’re going through,

I know that whatever you were going to do

by leaving this house in the middle of the

night isn’t going to help.”

“But—” I tried to get up, and he stopped

me again. “I wasn’t going to do anything. I

just…needed some space.”

He smiled and shook his head. “You’re

not leaving this house right now,capiche?”

He pulled me up from the couch and

shoved me toward the basement. “Even if I

have to sit outside your bedroom door.”

“Why do you care?” I said as I stumbled

down the stairs back to my room.

He laughed. “Because Renee said she

would drug me, remove my dick and sew it

to my face if I let anything happen to you,

and I kind of like where my dick is in its

present location.”

I almost laughed, too.

“Sounds like Renee.” I paused outside

the bedroom door, and he sat down on the


“I’m also betting that her stubbornness

is genetic, so please don’t make me come

down here again. I have class in—” he

glanced at the clock on the DVD player “—a

few hours, so I’d like to get some sleep.” He

yawned and started to go back up the


“Good night, Little Ne.”

“Night,” I said, watching him walk back

up the stairs. I waited until I heard a door

close before I let out a frustrated sigh.

Seriously, Renee? SERIOUSLY?

Despite my late bedtime, I woke up at

seven the next morning, probably because

the smell of bacon had penetrated the

cracks under the door and seeped into my


I got dressed and threw on a ratty

thermal shirt with thumbholes I’d made

myself, a pair of holey jeans and decided to

venture upstairs. I half expected to see

Mase sitting next to the door to the


“You’re up,” Renee said, yawning and

coming down from upstairs. “I didn’t expect

you to be awake this early.” Her hair was all

over the place. Either she’d been having

some sweet sex with Paul, or she’d been

tossing and turning.

“Especially after I tried to sneak out last

night, right?” I said, saying the thing I knew

she was thinking. She crossed her arms and

her eyes narrowed.

“We will discuss that later. Right now

you’re going to have breakfast because it’s

the most important meal of the day.”

Where was she getting this stuff?

“You’re not my mother,” I said, walking

away from her and heading for the kitchen.

She wouldn’t make a scene in front of

everyone. At least, I hoped not.

“Hey, Little Ne,” Mase said brightly,

looking up from a giant mug of what I

assumed was coffee. Darah was manning

several frying pans and Taylor was slumped

over at the dining room table.

“Why did I sign up for an eight-thirty

class again?” she moaned as Renee went to

the coffeepot and poured herself a cup

before going back upstairs.

“Because it was the only time offered

and you need the class to graduate?” Darah

said, dumping a huge mess of bacon onto a

plate covered in paper towels.

“You want some?” Darah said. I shook

my head. As nice as the bacon smelled, I

didn’t think I could stomach it. “We have

some toast and eggs, if you want. And

there’s always cereal, and I think we still

have some pumpkin doughnuts

somewhere.” God, it was like living in a


“Um, do you have any tea?” I sat down

at the table near Taylor, who was trying to

pull herself upright so she could drink her


“Yeah, sure.” Darah opened a bunch of

cabinets before unearthing a dusty box of

Lemon Zinger tea. It was going to take a

little more than zing to fix my problems, but

it was a start.

Hunter came down a few minutes later,

freshly showered and with a grin on his


“Morning, Missy girl,” he said, giving

Taylor a kiss. “You awake yet?”

“No,” she moaned, putting her head

against his chest. He laughed and pulled her

onto his lap, and I remembered my reasons

for wanting to get out of the house last


“Make it go away,” she said.

“I would if I could, baby.”

Renee and Paul came in a few minutes

later. Her hair was fixed and they were both

dressed for the day.

“Okay, here’s the deal. Since I don’t

trust you on your own, you get to come

with me today,” Renee said, with a sweet

smile that I could tell was hurting her teeth.

Everyone looked at me.

“And since I have class in less than an

hour, you’d better get your ass dressed and

ready to go.”

“What am I supposed to do all day?” I

sipped my tea and stared into the cup so I

wouldn’t have to see everyone staring.

“I don’t know. You’ll think of something.

As long as it doesn’t involve you getting into

trouble, or getting me into trouble, we’ll be

good. So, that’s how it’s going to go.” It was

another well-rehearsed speech.

“Whatever,” I said, shrugging.

“I said she could come with me,” Darah

said, finally breaking the enormous silence

that had suffocated the room.

“No, it’s fine. She’s my responsibility,”

Renee said, going for the coffee.

“Um, sitting right here,” I said. “And I

don’t need a babysitter.”

“That’s not what I hear,” Renee snapped

at me. Mase coughed and shoved a piece of

bacon into his mouth. He chewed and

mouthed “sorry” at me. Of course he’d told


I would have been shocked if he hadn’t.

I sipped my tea and bit back a snarky


Two hours later I was yawning, sitting

outside one of Renee’s labs. I couldn’t

remember which one. It sounded

complicated and disgusting at the same

time. I’d been smart enough to bring my

computer, so I’d been catching up on some

of my favorite vlogs and music blogs.

Then I played my favorite game of trying

to find new music by clicking on random

videos online. This summer I’d started a

music blog, but I’d been slacking on posting

this week. Since I was so new at it, I was still

trying to find my niche when it came to

what the blog was about. I barely got any

views, but I discovered that the only thing I

loved more than music was writing about it.


I never would have considered music

blogging. I still hadn’t told anyone I was

doing it. They wouldn’t understand—that

was for sure.

Renee had promised me a tour of the

campus after we had lunch. From what I’d

seen so far, it was a lot like UNH.

College campuses were pretty similar,

especially if they were state schools. I’d

considered coming here, but the idea of

being away from my crazy family was more

enticing than saving a few bucks by going to

an in-state school. I’d gotten into Bowdoin

and Bates, two prestigious Maine schools,

but they had been far too expensive and my

financial aid hadn’t been enough to cover it.

Too bad, so sad.

When she finally emerged from her lab,

Renee reeked of formaldehyde, but she had

a crazy gleam in her eye. She must have

gotten to dissect something.

“Have fun?” I said, as I got to my feet.

My back was crazy stiff from all the sitting

I’d done.

“We got to cut into a fetal pig. It was

awesome,” she said, as if she was talking

about seeing the latest girlie movie to hit

theaters with a hunky vampire in it.

“Sometimes I wonder if we’re related,” I

said as the rest of her class poured out.

They didn’t seem nearly as enthusiastic as

Renee was.

“I’ve been asking myself that very

question for years,” she said as we headed

toward the Student Union for lunch. Unlike

some people who wouldn’t be able to eat

after a fetal pig dissection, Renee got

herself a bacon cheeseburger and inhaled it

like she hadn’t seen food for weeks. I went

with a strawberry walnut salad and picked

at it.

“So I have to do a three-hour shift at the

hospital tonight,” she said after she

disposed of the burger and was attacking

the fries. How she stayed so thin was

beyond me. I usually had to watch what I

ate to keep myself thin, or at least thin-ish.


“And you’re coming with me, so I hope

you have something to do with yourself.

Like maybe getting that transfer paperwork


I’d rather have my teeth drilled, but the

look on Renee’s face told me I didn’t have a


“So you’re my jailer now, is that it?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have to be if you’d just

follow the damn rules, Joscelyn.” God, she

sounded like Mom. Way too much like

mom. She even had the same “I’m

disappointed in you” face.

“Fine. Am I allowed to go to the

bathroom, or do you need to come with me

to hold the cup while I pee?”

“Cute,” she said as I got up and headed

for the bathroom.

I spent the rest of the day watching

Page 5

movies on my computer.

I threw in movie reviews every now and

then on my blog just to spice things up.

They usually got quite a few hits, especially

if they were classics from the eighties.

There’s something so comforting about

watching a movie you’ve seen a ton of

times. I started out withSixteen Candles,

and then because I was in a John Hughes

kind of mood, I moved on toFerris

Bueller’s Day Off,and thenPretty in Pink,

which took me almost to the end of Renee’s

shift at the hospital.

I was camped out in one of the lounges,

and for a hospital it was pretty quiet except

for the occasional squeak of a nurse’s shoes

on the linoleum, or a restless kid fussing, or

a monitor going off. I’d had dinner at the

cafeteria, but that had been a few hours

ago, and I was in need of munchies.

Renee had showed me a vending

machine down the hall, so I fished in my

bag for some quarters and paused the


“Yes,” I said as I saw that they had both

M&M’s and Skittles. I couldn’t eat one

without the other. It was something I’d

started doing as a kid, and it was one of

those things I’d always done that had never


My M&M’s came out fine, but the stupid

Skittles bag got stuck. Great. The universe

was out to screw me. I banged on the

machine, trying to shake the candy loose.

Luckily, there was no one around. I didn’t

want to get busted for destruction of

hospital property. That would most

definitely be against Renee’s rules.

I turned my shoulder and shoved the

side of the machine, trying desperately to

get the bag of candy to fall from the

clutches of the machine.

“Come on, you son of abitch,” I said,

ramming my shoulder into the machine.

“You have to put your hips into it,” a

voice said, making me look up from my

assault of the vending machine.

“What?” A guy wearing a baggy hoodie

and equally baggy jeans over torn-up

high-tops was looking at me like I was

something he’d never seen before. He had

darkish skin, cropped black hair, but the

most astonishing green eyes.

Unlike mine, which shaded toward blue,

they were almost goldish. They popped in

his face, especially since they were fixed on

me. He jerked his chin at the machine.

“You have to put your hips into it. Here,”

he said, glancing over his shoulder to make

sure no one was watching before motioning

to me to move aside. “The key is to thrust

your whole body into it. Not just your


Was it just me, or did he make that

sound sexual on purpose? I gaped at him

and he laughed. Nope, wasn’t just me.

It was one of those laughs that made

you want to laugh, too, like a reflex. I was

barely able to hide the smile that

threatened to spread on my face.

“On three,” he said, putting his hands on

the machine next to mine. Up close, his

eyes were even brighter. They almost


“One. Two. Three,” he said, and we both

shoved at the machine, which moved a hell

of a lot more than when I’d been the only

one pushing it. I heard a satisfying clunk of

the Skittles falling. The guy went around the

front of the machine and pulled the bag


“Mission accomplished.” He winked as

he held it out to me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking the bag and

making sure to avoid touching his hand. I

was about to turn around and leave when

he made a sound, like he was going to say


I stood there, waiting.

“I should get back,” I finally blurted out

to break the uncomfortable silence that

stood between us.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course, of course,” he

said, shaking his head as if he’d forgotten

something and just remembered it.

He smiled and stuck his hands into his


“Okay. Well, ’bye.” I gave him a little

wave and turned around. What a weirdo.

“Don’t forget. Put your whole body into

it next time, Red,” he said, making me turn

back around. He was grinning again. Red?

Like I hadn’t heard that one before. At least

he hadn’t called me Carrots.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.”

For the last time, I spun around and

walked back to the lounge, his laughter

echoing behind me.

The lounge was still empty when I got

back, and all my stuff was still there, so I

settled back in to finish another movie.

Next thing I knew, someone was shaking

my shoulder.

“Hey, Jos. Time to go,” Renee said, her

voice softer than I’d heard it in a long time.

It was the voice she probably used with

patients. I’d fallen asleep on the couch. I

couldn’t even remember it. My computer

was dark; it, too, had gone to sleep.

Renee sat down next to me, pulling my

feet into her lap and letting out a heavy


“So what did you do?”

“Nothing,” I said, tilting my neck back

and forth to work out some kinks. “What

time is it?”

“Ten. You ready to go home?” Home.

Was that what her place was now?

“Yeah.” I swung my feet over and sat up.

“I see you raided the vending machine,”

she said, picking up the empty candy bags.

“You freak and your candy combinations.”

She crumpled them up and found a trash

can as I packed up all my stuff.

“Did you get to do anything

interesting?” she said as we walked back

down to her car.

Other than the interaction with the

Vending Machine Hero? I was about to tell

her about that and changed my mind.

“Nope,” I said around a yawn. Maybe I’d

sleep tonight.

Usually I got to a point where I was so

exhausted that my body just shut itself

down. This felt like one of those times.

“You know, you should call Mom.” I

didn’t want to. I knew it would just end up

in another yelling match, and I was too tired

to deal with that right now.

“I will.” Renee was about to say

something, but changed her mind.


Everyone was deep in study mode when

we got back to the house. Paul had taken

up almost the entire dining room table with

something that, at a glance, looked far too

complicated to even begin to understand.

Taylor and Hunter had the living room,

and both had their heads buried deep in

textbooks. Darah was at a little desk that

was tucked next to the stairs, and I

suspected Mase was also around

somewhere. Nine months ago, I would have

been right there with them. Now I thought

they just looked like a bunch of people

wasting their time.

“Little Ne,” Mase said, coming down the

stairs, a textbook in hand, big surprise.

“How’s life?”

“Peachy,” I said, putting my bag down

on the bench by the front door. The sound

of the door closing seemed to rouse

everyone else, and they descended on us.

There were just so many of them. It was

overwhelming. Plus the happy.

That was equally overwhelming. Paul

came over and gave Renee a kiss, and she

went to sit with him at the dining table to

catch up.

“I’m going down to my…room,” I said,

catching myself before I could saycave.It

wasn’t really a cave. Or, if it was, it was the

nicest cave ever. With Wi-Fi and everything.

“Are you sure? This house is yours now.

You don’t have to stay down there,” Hunter

said. “We’re not that scary, are we?”

He turned to Taylor, whose eyes were

pretty glazed over.

“What? I’m still thinking about

suffragettes.” He gave her a look and shook

his head.

“Seriously, Jos, this is your home.” It

wasn’t really, but it was nice of him to say


“I’m just really tired. I’m going to bed.” I

said good-night to everyone, including


“Not planning any nocturnal activities?”

she said.

“Nope,” I said, popping my lips on thep.

“Well, just in case, I’m watching you,”

she said, making a gesture with two fingers

to her eyes and then pointing them at me.

“Whenever you think I’m not there, that’ll

be when I show up.”

“Jesus, enough with the third degree. I

got it. Message received. Mission

accomplished.” I stomped down the stairs

and banged the door shut.

Ahh, peace and quiet.

The rest of the week went pretty much

like that first full day, with the exception of

Renee letting me go to the admissions

office by myself to sign up for all my classes

and get everything transferred over from

UNH. Since my first year grades were so

high, even with the shitty grades I’d gotten

last semester, they were still willing to let

me in.

When it came to classes, I just picked

whatever. I’d decided to stick with my

major, political science with a prelaw minor,

since it seemed easier than picking a new


I’d thought transferring would be a pain

in the ass, but it was relatively easy, and

before the end of the week I was officially a

UMaine Black Bear, with an official decal for

my car and a copy of the school song, the

“Stein Song.” I was sure I wasn’t the first

person who found it ironic that a college

had a drinking song as their official school

song. What kind of message did that send?

I’d only really missed the first week of

classes, so I was going to be able to catch

up no problem, according to all the

professors who had emailed me on my new

UMaine account to send me the syllabi

from their classes.

Renee wasn’t around to take me to get

my textbooks, because of a meeting of her

nursing club, so the task fell to Hunter and

Taylor, who drove me to campus on


They fought about what music to play

the whole way there.

“I think that Jos should pick,” Taylor

finally said when we were practically driving

onto campus.

“I don’t care.”

“The rule is that the driver gets to pick,”

Hunter said, skipping a song that Taylor had

picked out.

“Uh, no, the rule is that I get to pick.”

“Since when?”

“Since you put this swell ring on my

finger,” she said, holding up the amazing

ring that Hunter had gotten her when

they’d first started dating. It was fucking

huge, and nearly blinding when you looked

at it. Yet another show of his wealth. It was

just wrong that some people had so much

money and others had less than nothing.

Not that Renee and I were poor, but we

definitely got our fair share of financial aid,

what with our parents having so many kids

between them.

“That ring does not give you totalitarian

radio powers,”

Hunter said, taking her hand and kissing


“Thank God,” I said under my breath as

he found a parking spot by the performing

arts center, which wasn’t too far from the

bookstore. They continued to argue as we

walked into the Union and then went

downstairs to the bookstore.

I was about to tell them that I could just

find my books myself when Hunter grabbed

my list from my hand and started grabbing


“Hold up, dude,” Taylor said, poking him

in the stomach and snatching the list. “Not

all of us can just pick out whatever books

we want.” She gave me a sympathetic


Hunter had pulled all new books off the

shelves, ones that were still wrapped in

plastic. There was no way I could afford

those. I’d have to get used ones, and even

then it was going to be tight.

Taylor started pulling books off the

shelves, all with that bright yellow USED

sticker on them. She flipped through to

make sure they didn’t have strange stains,

Page 6

or missing pages.

“This one okay?” She held one up and I

flipped through it. Only a few of the pages

were bent, and the spine was fine.

I nodded and she put it into the basket

Hunter was holding.

Who knew getting textbooks would turn

into an exercise of humiliation?

“Why don’t you go see if you can find

these?” She tore the list in half and shoved

him toward the next shelf. Once he was

gone she gave me a smile.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said,

staring at the books as if I was looking for

one when really, I didn’t even know what

the titles said.

“No, it’s fine. I know how it feels, believe

me. Been there, done that. How’s this

one?” She handed me another used book

and I found a mysterious brown stain on

one of the back pages.

“I don’t even want to speculate what

that is,” she said, holding the book in the

tips of her fingers and putting it back.

We got the rest of my list and filled the


“Now this is one of those times when it

really does pay to have a strong guy

around.” We’d both tried to lift the basket,

but it wasn’t happening. As if she’d said his

name, Hunter came around the corner with

another equally full basket that he carried

with no problem.

“Did my ears deceive me? Did you order

a strong man?”

he said with a cocky grin. Yep, Renee

hadn’t been exaggerating. He was a


“Shut up and carry this for me.” She

kicked the basket toward him. Hunter

looked over his shoulder.

“Hey, Dusty, you wanna give me a hand,


“Sure,” a guy said, coming around the

corner. “Hey, Tay,” he said, smiling at

Taylor. “And…Red, we meet again,” he said

with an even wider smile for me. Seriously?

“You two know each other?” Taylor said,

giving me a look. I knew what that look

meant, and I knew what it implied, and I

had to shut that down before it went any


“No,” I said at the same time the guy,

who was apparently named Dusty, said,


“We’re acquainted,” Dusty said with

another wink. Jesus, he thought he was

God’s gift, didn’t he?

“We met. Once,” I tried to clarify.

“Where?” Taylor said. Hunter hadn’t

said anything, but he was looking at Dusty

and then looking at me, and I could feel my

ears getting hot. One of the major

downsides of being a redhead is that when

you get uncomfortable or embarrassed, you

broadcast it to the world. Which was what I

was currently doing. Dusty seemed to get a

kick out of it. D-bag.

“It was at the hospital the other night.

So, um, I think that’s everything. We should

probably go,” I said, leaning down to pick

up the basket. I was determined to get it

myself. A set of arms beat me to it.

“Let me get that, little lady,” Dusty said

as I looked up to find our faces only inches

apart. He laughed a little under his breath

and I stood up so fast the blood rushed to

my head.

“I don’t need your help.”

He looked like he was going to make a

snappy comeback, but he just ducked his


“Well, you’ve got it anyway.”

“Okay, then. Ready to go?” Taylor said,

taking my arm and steering me toward the

checkout counter. I heard Hunter and Dusty

talking behind me and I distinctly heard

Hunter tell Dusty my name. Like it was any

of his business.

After I checked out and gave the

UMaine bookstore a good chunk of my bank

account, we carried the books back to

Hunter’s car. Of course, being the

always-helpful guy he was, Dusty had to

come, too.

“So Hunter tells me you’re enrolling

here,” he said as we put the books in the

trunk. Taylor and Hunter were deep in

discussion, probably about me.

I just nodded.

He leaned against the car. “Look, I

appreciate you’ve got this whole ‘don’t

touch me, don’t look at me, don’t even

fucking think about me’ thing going on, but

I’m just trying to be nice. You could, you

know, thank me for it.”

“Thank you,” I said, giving him a

completely fake smile.

Yes, I knew I was being a complete

asshole to this guy, but there was

something about him that just made me grit

my teeth. There was also something

familiar that had gotten under my skin and

was itching like crazy.

He shook his head.

“Okay, fine.” He started to walk away.

“Hey,” I said, and he stopped. “I’m sorry

I’m such an asshole. It’s kind of my thing.” I

laughed at the truth of it.

“No, I don’t think it is,” he said, looking

at me intently with those green eyes that

seemed to see everything. “See you

tomorrow, Hunter?”

“Right,” Hunter said, as if he’d just

remembered something. “Tomorrow.”

“’Bye, Red,” Dusty said, walking

backward with his hands in his pockets.

“’Bye,” I said, closing the trunk of the


“What in the hell was that?” Taylor said,

crossing her arms and giving me a look that

was almost exactly like Renee’s. Damn,

those two had rubbed off on each other.

“Nothing,” I said, trying to get into the


“You guys hungry?” Hunter said, in a

blatantly obvious way of trying to divert


“I don’t know what you’re making such a

big deal of,” I said, getting into the

backseat. “We met at the hospital for, like,

five seconds. End of story. Am I not allowed

to talk to people now? Is that part of the

unwritten rules my sister didn’t tell me


Hunter gave Taylor a look, and she

shook her head.

“Never mind. I overreacted. I have a

tendency to do that, just so you know,” she


“No, really?” Hunter said, and she

smacked him and turned on the music,

leading to another argument about song


What were the chances that I’d

encounter Dusty all that much, anyway? I

mean, he and Hunter were friends,

obviously, but UMaine was a huge campus.

Besides, if he ever came to the house, I

could just hide in the basement if I had to.

Or escape somewhere, if Renee would let

me. She had to loosen the reins at some

point. And who really cared if I saw him

again? It wasn’t like he affected me or


He was just a guy.

Just a guy.

Sunday was chore day at Yellowfield

House. Lovable control freak as always,

Darah had added the list of chores and

everyone got their fair share, including a

rotational schedule so no one had to do the

same thing over and over. The funny thing

was that they all followed it without


Like she was their mom and giving out

gold stars and higher allowances for each

one they completed.

“I figured you’d need another week to

settle in, but next week you’re on the list,”

Darah said, as if she was offering me a plate

of those amazing snickerdoodles.

“Great,” I said with a smile that was

totally forced. Not that I wanted to be a

mooch, but they seemed to have everything

in hand. I kept my room and bathroom

clean and helped with the dishes. They kept

trying to integrate me into the machine of

the house, and I didn’t want to be a part of

it. I wasn’t a part of it, not really.

They were all helping pay for the house.

I was just an inconvenience that had been

pushed on them. The annoying kid sister.

By late morning all the chores were

done, and the already-spotless house was

even more spotless. I did my first load of

laundry, and everyone settled into their

own activities. Renee was having a “Call of

Duty” tournament with a few of Hunter and

Mase’s friends, Dev and Sean, and Darah

was catching up on homework and Taylor

was reading some vampire book on her

e-reader while Hunter played his guitar.

Renee had told me he was some kind of

musical genius who could play practically

any song. At the moment he was playing

anything that Taylor yelled out, including

Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Seal and

Matchbox Twenty.

I changed my laundry over to the dryer

and was about to sit back down and watch

the “Call of Duty” battle when we all heard

the doorbell ring.

“Got it,” Hunter said, getting up and

rushing to the door as if he was trying to

beat everyone else. No one else had even

gotten up. Weird.

“Hey, man, you know you don’t have to

ring the bell. It’s always open.” He stepped

aside to let the person in, and I glanced at

the doorway.

“I know, but I have this thing for

doorbells,” a familiar voice said before a

familiar person walked through the door.


I was surprised to see him, but he didn’t

seem surprised at all.

“Red,” he said, giving me a little bow.

“Nice to see you again.” I looked at Hunter,

who was trying not to look at me.

Something clicked in my brain. Dusty had

said he’d see Hunter tomorrow. Well, that

day was today. Hmm, Hunter hadn’t said

anything about Dusty coming over. Wonder

why that was?

“Hey, Sharp!” Mase yelled as something

exploded and Dev groaned and threw his


“Hey,” Dusty said, coming in and sitting

down on the couch as if he’d done it a

million times before. He was also sitting in

my spot. “‘Call of Duty’ again? How bad are

you losing?”

Mase grumbled as I looked at Hunter.

He stepped around me and went to sit back

on the recliner. I had no choice but to go

and lean against the arm of the couch.

“Oh, Dusty, this is my sister Jos,” Renee

said, barely glancing up from the game. She

had a one-track mind when she was playing.

“We’ve met,” he said, glancing over his

shoulder at me and then back to the game.

“When?” Renee said, moving her whole

body as she moved the controller, as if that

would make some difference. I’d always

threatened to video her while she was

doing it for future blackmail use.

“I can’t quite recall. Where was it that

we met?” I couldn’t glare at him with

everyone watching, so I had to settle for

clenching my teeth. He knew very well

where we had met.

He was totally screwing with me in front

of everyone. Oh, two could play that game.

I wasn’t a redhead for nothing.

“That’s right. It was at the hospital, and

you needed to know the way to the

pharmacy. Has the itching on your junk

finally gone away?” I stage-whispered the

last part and motioned in the general area.

Dusty’s eyes went wide for just a second

before they narrowed and a grin spread

across his face. Everyone else started

laughing nervously, wondering if I was being

serious or not.

They didn’t know me well enough yet.

Of course Renee just rolled her eyes.

“TMI, dude,” Mase said, shaking his

head, and Dev tried to slide away from

Dusty on the couch.

“Well played, Red. Well played.” He

started a slow clap while he laughed. “Yes,

my junk is now itch-free.” He shifted on the

couch, adjusting his pants. Seriously, how

did his pants stay up? It was one of those

mysteries science had yet to solve.

Like where your missing socks went

when you put them in the dryer. He cleared

his throat when he caught me staring at his

pants. Jesus, he probably thought I was

trying to check out his junk. Not that I could

even see it…

“On that note,” Hunter said, clearing his

throat and giving me a look before grabbing

his guitar again. “Okay, requests are now

open from anyone but Taylor.”

“Hey!” she protested, glancing up from

her book.

“Sorry, Miss, it’s time for someone else

Page 7

to abuse my musical genius.”

“Fine,” she said, going back to her

e-reader, but she gave him a little wink

before she did it. Everyone else seemed too

wrapped up in what they were doing, or

was busy trying to think of a song.

“‘Sunday Morning,’” I blurted out. It was

the first thing that came to mind.

Hunter looked up from the guitar.

“Maroon 5?”

“Yeah.” He smiled and looked over at

Dusty. “Can you give me a beat on that?”

Dusty nodded and sat up. After thinking for

a second, he started making sounds with his

mouth. Not just sounds. Beat boxing.

Hunter listened for a second and then

started strumming as Dusty layered on

more sounds until it was like he was

creating an entire percussion section for the

song with only his mouth.

I couldn’t stop my eyebrows from rising,

but no one else seemed surprised. Dusty

turned his head, and I made my face

neutral, but he still sort of grinned at me

anyway. Cocky much? Hunter started

singing, and I tried to find a comfortable

way to lean on the arm of the couch while

also pretending to be interested in the

explosions and chaos happening on the

television. I would rather set my hair on fire

than ask Dusty for his seat, or give him the

satisfaction of going to the dining room to

get a chair. Should have just stayed in my


Okay, so Dusty wasreallygood at beat

boxing, not that I was an expert, by any

means. He made sounds with his mouth

that I didn’t know a human could make. So


There were a million people online who

could do the same thing. It wasn’t anything

special. It wasn’t anything to swoon over.

He wasn’t anything to swoon over.

They finished the song, and Dusty did a

fancy noise that sounded like a cymbal

crash and reverberation.

“Good enough for you?” Dusty said,

turning to face me.

“Meh,” I said, shrugging one shoulder

and turning back to the television as Renee

screamed and jumped up and down and all

the guys groaned and threw their

controllers down.

“Take that, bitches,” Renee said,

pointing at them. “In your face.” She started

doing a dance that was somewhere

between slutty club dancing and a weird

touchdown dance hybrid. The guys all

booed and threw things at her. I just shook

my head. That was my sister.

“I’m hoping those moves are genetic,”

said a voice so close that I slid off my perch

on the arm of the couch. Luckily, I was able

to catch myself before my butt hit the floor.

Everyone else was too distracted by

Renee’s victory dance.

“You know it’s rude to sneak up behind

people,” I said, turning to face Dusty, who

had somehow managed to get off the couch

and creep up behind me.

“You know it’s rude to tell everyone that

a fellow has a rash on his dick when he

doesn’t.” He crossed his arms and leaned

down, challenging me. “So what do you

have to say to that, Red?”

Yeah, should have stayed in my cave.

“Nothing. I have nothing to say to you.”

Fortunately, Mase interrupted us.

“Little Ne, you want to take a turn?” The

video-game-master gene seemed to have

skipped me and just been concentrated in

Renee. I turned away from Dusty. Hunter

was watching us with fascination. Ugh, that

was the last thing I needed.

“No, I’m good,” I said, stepping around

Dusty and taking the seat he’d vacated on

the couch and claiming it as mine.

I shot him a smile, and he just pretended

to clap again before going to the kitchen

and dragging in one of the dining room


Renee was still kicking ass when my

phone rang with a call from Mom. Just what

I needed. I got up from the couch and

headed for my cave. No way I was talking to

her in front of everyone.

“Hey, Mom.” I heard screaming in the

background, but that was par for the

course. Mom always called me when she

was doing a million other things.

“Hey, Jos.” Her voice was tense, but less

tense than it had been earlier in the week.

We’d somehow made our way onto

less-shaky ground, but that didn’t mean she

was any less pissed at me. “You ready to

start classes tomorrow?” A shriek meant

that she was probably taking something

away from one of the twins.

“As I’ll ever be.” I didn’t have a choice.

They wouldn’t even let me drop out when

I’d suggested it as a potential solution to my

academic implosion. I could get a place and

a job and then they’d get off my back. I

wouldn’t waste their money—or the

government’s. Win-win situation. Or so I’d

thought. Mom had acted like I’d just told

her I’d brutally slaughtered a bunch of

people, and Dad just hung up on me when I

pitched it to him after striking out with her.

And Renee had threatened to strangle me

for even mentioning it.

“Well, I want a full report when you get

back, you hear? I swear, if I get a call from

your sister telling me that you’ve skipped,

there will be hell to pay.”

“I know, I know.”

“Okay, then. No, you cannot have

cookies for dinner.

How many times do I have to tell you

that?” I waited for her to be done yelling at

whichever of my siblings had the audacity

to want cookies for dinner.

“Listen, I’ve got a tantrum brewing here,

and Chuck is working late, so I’m on my

own. Can I call you later?”

“Yeah, sure.” She never would.

“’Bye, Jos. Say goodbye to Jos,

everybody!” She must have held the phone

up, and I heard a chorus of my siblings

saying goodbye.

“’Bye, everybody,” I yelled back. Then

the chaos resumed and then the call died.

So much for that. I put my phone back in

my pocket and went up the stairs.

Hunter and Dusty were going crazy with

a rendition of “Everybody Talks” by Neon

Trees. Dusty was also banging out the

rhythm on his chair. The video game had

been abandoned, and everyone else was

humming along, including Renee. I stood

back and hovered, not wanting to bust into

the musical bubble. The song ended and

Renee gave me a look. She probably wanted

a play-by-play of the conversation with

Mom. It wasn’t really anything

earth-shattering, so I just sat back down on

the couch as they finished the song.

“Okay, my turn. ‘Scream,’ Usher. Go,”

Dusty said before starting a set of vocal

gymnastics that were even more impressive

than what I’d heard already. Okay, okay,

you’re talented. We get the message. As

soon as Hunter started singing, Mase

jumped up and started dancing. Dev

hopped up and they somehow managed to

dance in the small space without breaking

anything. I would have thought Darah

would have been tweaking out about the

possibility of one of the carefully arranged

pictures or vases or any of the other really

nice things being smashed by her

boyfriend’s sick dance moves, but she just

smiled and watched with her chin in her


Idiots. They were all idiots.

The singing went on for a while and then

someone mentioned food and then that

was all anyone could talk about, so the

group reached a consensus that a night out

was in order.

“Yeah, we never got to celebrate the

new member of the Yellowfield House

family,” Taylor said while everyone yelled

out suggestions. That made everyone turn

to me, including Dusty.

“So, you get to pick the place,” Taylor

said. Even though she was not that much

older than me, when she talked everyone

seemed to listen. She was the shortest one,


“Um, I don’t even know what’s around

here.” I’d wanted to go out and see what

was around Bangor, but Renee had been

totally down on that. I might actually have

fun, and that was definitely against the


And then they all started talking at once,

each pitching for their favorite place, telling

me which had the best steaks or pizza or

bread sticks. Jesus, they were loud.

“Whoa, hold up,” I said. “I can’t think

straight when you’re all yelling at me. We

need to, like, do this democratically.”

Darah piped up.

“How about everyone writes their

choices on pieces of paper and then Jos will

pick one?”

That made everyone but Dusty burst

into raucous laughter.

“Yeah, because it worked out so well

before,” Taylor said, poking Hunter in the

chest. He just grabbed her hand and kissed


“Pretty swell, I’d say.”

I gave Dusty a look, because he was the

only other person who wasn’t enjoying the

inside joke.

“Okay, then,” Dusty said, ripping a piece

of notebook paper out of one that someone

had been doing homework in earlier. “My

choice is Sea Dog. Who’s next?” He wrote

down everyone’s choices and then tore the

slips in equal pieces, folded them up and

tossed them in one of Mase’s hats.

“Do the honors, Red,” Dusty said,

bowing and holding the hat out as if he was

bestowing a great gift.

They all waited with anticipation like I

was choosing something that would affect

the rest of their lives. I grasped a piece of

paper, unfolded it and read it out.

“Sea Dog it is.” Dusty winked at me. Of

course I’d picked his choice. Everyone else

agreed that it was a nice place and started

to get their stuff together.

“Need a ride, Red?” He’d sidled up

behind me again as I’d gotten my coat.

“I swear, one of these times you’re

going to get a faceful of my fist if you sneak

up on me, Dustin.”

“You coming, Jos?” Renee said as Paul

helped her on with her coat and everyone

else piled into their cars. I decided to seize

my opportunity to get out from under her

radar, even if I’d have to spend a few

minutes with Dusty.

“I’m going to ride with Dusty.” He

looked surprised for a second but then

smiled. Did he just…smile all the time?

Was it a reflex?

Renee looked like she was going to

protest and then Paul said something in her

ear. They had a quick argument and Renee

threw up her hands.

“Fine. See you there.” I didn’t know

what she was making such a big deal about.

The restaurant was just down the road.

“Ladies first,” Dusty said, pointing

toward a black VW Golf that had more than

a few dings. “By the way, I wrote Sea Dog

on all of them,” he whispered.

Of course he did.

“Wow, sneaky,” I said, pretending to

sound impressed. He shut the door for me,

and I resisted the urge to call him out on it.

Matt, my ex, was big on door opening, and

I’d always liked it. Yeah, I knew that it was

against feminism or whatever, but it was

still nice. Matt was big on things like that.

Flowers on holidays and pulling chairs

out and wearing ties.

His ambition was to be president, and

he always said if you wanted to be

president the first step was looking like one.

Granted, I’d also dressed very differently

then. Yes, I’d had skirts and blazers and

pumps and even brooches for my neck

scarves. I’d boxed all of it up and left it at

Mom’s house when I’d moved into my

dorm room this year. No need for any of

that anymore. I’d quit all the clubs I’d been

in, even Student Council, much to the

dismay of nearly everyone there. Mostly

because I kept the minutes and no one else

wanted to do it.

“So what’s your story, Joscelyn Archer?”

Dusty said as he pulled out behind Taylor’s

Charger. “Have you always had that chip on

your shoulder, or is it new?”

Why the hell did he care?

“What’syourstory, Dustin Sharp?

Renee’s never mentioned you before.”

Instead of turning on the radio, he made his

own music by tapping on the steering wheel

and making snare drum sounds with his

mouth. I was beginning to think he had

ADHD. It would explain a lot.

“I bet yours is more interesting than

mine,” he said, turning to look at me. I

stared out the window, pretending to be

fascinated with the houses that passed by.

“Okay, fine. You win,” he said when I

didn’t answer. “Let’s just say I wasn’t always

this good-looking and talented. I, uh, got

myself into a lot of trouble when I was

younger, if you can believe that.” Could I?

You bet.

“And I screwed up a lot and then

something happened to me to…yeah, this

part sounds lame, but something happened

to put things in perspective, you know? And

I stopped screwing around, and I started

Page 8

actually giving a shit about what I wanted to

do with my life.”

“And how did you become buddies with

Hunter?” That was what I was most curious


“I met Hunter in one of my classes, and,

for lack of a better, more masculine term,

we formed a bromance. We see each other

all the time now, since he changed his

major. So, yeah. That’s my rambling and

completely weird story.”

It wasn’t what I’d expected, but before I

could answer he was pulling into the

parking lot.

“So, on the way back it’s your turn,


This time I opened the door myself

before he could get around the car.

Dinner was…interesting.

Everyone—except me and Dusty—greased

their wheels with the wide selection of beer

on tap.

Even though Taylor wasn’t of age,

Hunter just ordered two glasses at a time

and handed her one when the waiter

wasn’t looking. I didn’t even bother to try

that, because Renee’s eyes were on me the

entire time. She kept herself to one beer,

but I knew from experience that she could

pound them back when she wanted.

The more alcohol the group consumed,

the dirtier the stories got. Renee kept trying

to shush them, as if they were going to

poison my precious ears. Like it wasn’t

anything I’d heard already. I’d been in

college before. I also had the sneaking

suspicion they’d been on their best

behavior with me in the house.

“Oh, my God, do you remember that

time I walked in on you in the shower?”

Mase said to Renee.

“No, I cannot recall,” she said, becoming

really interested in the half-devoured onion

blossom. “But even if I did, that doesn’t

mean it’s the kind of story one would tell in

front of one’s impressionable younger

sister.” Her words were sharp as knives and

I think Mase and everyone else got the


Then there was one of those silent

moments where everyone is super

uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to

say. It stretched out until Dusty cleared his

throat loudly and then made a whistling

sound like an airplane diving and then

crashing in a giant explosion. It was pretty

accurate-sounding and made everyone

laugh nervously. Our waiter chose that

moment to come over and ask if anyone

wanted more drinks. I got myself another

Dr Pepper and Dusty got another Mountain


“You’re going to be up all night if you

keep drinking that stuff,” I said. Of course

we’d been the last people to arrive at the

restaurant, so we’d gotten the last two

chairs at the end of the table, so of course I

was next to him.

“Maybe that’s my plan. Maybe I don’t


All I could think of were supernatural

creatures. “Vampire, werewolf or zombie?”

“All of the above,” he whispered and

winked at me. Why was I talking to him


I stole a glance down the table at Renee,

but Paul was telling her something and she

was laughing. Thank you, Paul.

I caught his eye and gave him a


“Your sister is, um, protective,” Dusty


“It’s a recent development.”

He waved his hand for me to elaborate.

“Due to…”

I rolled my eyes.

“None of your business.” I wasnotgoing

into my life story with him even though

he’d shared his. I didn’t ask him to.

I didn’t care.

“I think we need to have a toast,” Darah

said, raising her glass. I knew she wasn’t

much of a beer drinker, but she seemed to

have changed her mind. “To our new

resident, Jos.”

“May her life decisions be much wiser

than ours,” Mase finished for her. Glasses

were raised and clinked and there was

some minor beer sloshing as my ears turned

red and I tried not to make eye contact with

anyone. Yeah, my life decisions weren’t

anyone’s business but mine.

I hate it when people say “seize the

day.” Seizing sounds so violent. How about

“love the day” or just “live the day”?

Live the day.

A pair of fingers snapped in front of my

face, making me jump.

“Come back to earth, Red. You were

orbiting somewhere else. That’s dangerous,

you know.” I turned toward him and a

retort formed on my lips, but I let it die. He

wasn’t worth it. He didn’t understand. So I

just gave him a sweet smile and imagined

dumping the glass of Mountain Dew on his

head. It would have been so satisfying, but I

would have made a scene.

“Okay, okay, it’s time for some of us to

go home because some of us have class

tomorrow,” Renee said.

“She means me,” I said in a stage

whisper to the entire table. They laughed,

some more than others, but that was

probably because of the beer and not

because I was that funny.

“I can drive her,” Dusty said as everyone

tried to figure out the bill and how much

they should tip. Most of the guys did their

guy thing and refused to let the poor

delicate females even consider paying. After

a few lectures about feminism and the

increasing popularity of going Dutch, the

guys won the battle and the ladies left the

tip. Paul ended up paying for me, mostly

because I was broke as shit.

“But then you’d have to go to our house

and drop her off and then drive back. It’s no

big deal—I’m fine to drive,” Renee said.

“It’s not a big deal. I forgot my phone at

your place anyway.” He was totally lying. I’d

seen it in his pocket, but I kept my mouth


“If you don’t mind…”

“It’s no big deal, Ne,” he said. So I guess

everyone was calling her that these days.

She’d always hated it when Paul called her

“Nene,” but I guess she was over it. You can

only fight a nickname for so long before

everyone just decides to use it with or

without your permission.

What if I call you…Josie? Jo? Jojo? Lyn?

He’d finally agreed to call me Jossy,

which was the only suggestion I could live


“You went away again, Red. You have a

habit of doing that?” Dusty said, bringing

me back again.

“None of your business.”

He laughed as we walked, and some of

us stumbled a bit, out of the restaurant.

“You sound like a robot when you say

that. Means I’ve hit on something you’d like

to keep hidden. You’re one of those onion


“Onion girls?” I had a brief visual of a girl

wearing an onion costume. “Are you saying

I smell like an onion?”

We got to the car and I let him open the

door, standing back and folding my arms.

Damn, it was fun screwing with him. He was

about to open it but pulled his arm back at

the last second and walked around to his

side of the car. I wrenched it open, got in

and fastened my seat belt.

“No, I mean that you’re one of those

girls with layers. You know, you’re more

than just a pretty face. Plus, you don’t have

to scrape through a layer of makeup to get

there.” While it was true that I didn’t wear a

lot of makeup, I used to, back when I wore

skirts more often than pants and had to

look good for any photo opportunity. I used

to get up early every single day and

straighten my hair and line my eyes just so.

I had the cat eye thing down to a

science. I honestly didn’t know where my

eyeliner was. I definitely hadn’t seen it in

months. Renee had probably stolen it.

“Is that a nice and slightly weird way of

saying I look like crap?”

“Jesus, do you take everything

negatively? Man, kick a guy for trying.” He

shook his head and started making drum

noises. “Your turn.”

“I’m not telling you my life story, Dusty.”

“I’m not asking for your life story.

Just…give me something.”

“Why? What do you want from me?”

He shook his head, a different kind of

smile on his face.

It was almost shy. If anything about him

could ever be considered shy.

“Nothing, Red. Absolutely nothing.”

And by the time I could think of

something to say, we were back.

“I know you didn’t forget your phone,

you liar. Is something burning?” I pretended

to sniff the air as we walked up the front

steps. “I think your pants are on fire, dude.”

“Ha-ha, you’re so funny.” He reached

out and rang the doorbell. I raised my

eyebrow. I would have just walked in.

The bell dinged and then donged and

Dusty made the exact same sound with his

mouth. Somehow. The door opened, and

Hunter gave both of us a look before

holding the door open to let me in.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said to Dusty, but

it sounded like a question. He tapped two

fingers to his forehead and then flicked

them upward in a little salute/wave. Yeah,



Hunter was still looking at Dusty. Hmm. I

was distracted from watching the two of

them by a retching sound coming from the

upstairs bathroom and then Mase yelling

that he needed a hand. There was a sound

like a herd of stampeding models as Renee

and Taylor clacked their way up the stairs to

take care of their fallen comrade.

“Jos, can you bring me up a glass of

water?” Renee said over her shoulder as

the puking sounds got louder. Lovely.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on it,” I said, giving

her a thumbs-up and walking toward the

kitchen. I set the glass in the sink, turning

the water on, and tiptoed back to where I

could hear Hunter and Dusty, but they

couldn’t see me.

“So, I’ll see you at Steiner’s tomorrow?”

Hunter said.

“Yeah. I might be late, but I let Kent

know.” Dusty walked into the living room,

and I could hear him rustling about “looking

for his phone.”

“Found it. See you tomorrow, man.

Thanks for inviting me.”

“Thanks for coming.” I heard them

slapping hands or fist bumping or

performing some type of guy-bonding ritual

and then the door closed and I realized the

glass of water was overflowing. I went back

to the sink and turned it off.

Bromance indeed.

My alarm shattered the calm of sleep

the next morning so completely that I woke

up cursing. Stupid fucking school. I rolled

out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. I

was just taking care of business when a fist

slammed on the door and Renee’s voice

penetrated my morning fog.

“You’d better not be late your first day.”

“Thanks,Mom,but it would be nice if I

could pee without being interrupted.”

“Just get your ass upstairs in ten

minutes, or I’m coming back down and

dragging your ass to class, no matter what

you look like.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” I muttered under my

breath. I couldn’t even remember my

mother being this wound up about taking

me to kindergarten.

“Hurry up,” she said, rattling the

doorknob for good measure. I had half a

mind to walk upstairs stark naked and say I

was ready, just to see the look on her face.

But I didn’t fancy being naked in front of all

the guys, so that plan was out.

Eight minutes later I was shoving an egg

and cheese sandwich that Taylor had made

in my face and shoving notebooks in my

new messenger bag. Back in my “before”

life, I’d carried a designer handbag just like

all the other girls. Of course I also had a

small clutch purse that went with it for all

my makeup and tampons and such. Now I

had a black messenger bag with lots of pins

and buttons on it that I’d collected.

I’d thrown my red hair back in a braid,

put on my luckiest jeans and called it good


Since everyone’s schedules were

different, I was finally allowed to take my

own damn car. Renee had gotten me a

Page 9

parking pass and handed me back the keys

she’d stolen when I moved in on the

condition that I didn’t get into any

shenanigans. I’d been completely

shenanigan-free ever since I’d gotten here,

but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone.

They were all still watching me, waiting for

me to screw up. Maybe I should, just to put

them out of their misery.

I said goodbye to everyone, promising

I’d come back in one piece later.

I blasted Ingrid Michaelson on my drive

to campus and sang at the top of my lungs.

It took a few times of driving around the

football field for me to find a free

commuter parking spot. Apparently they

were real asshats about parking in areas

that weren’t designated for you to park in.

Finally, I found one, even though I had

to squish in between a minivan and a huge

truck and slide sideways to get out. I had

ten minutes to get to my first class, Intro to

American Law. I’d thought about changing

majors, but I knew I could pretty much

sleep through most of my poli-sci classes, so

I stuck with what I knew.

The class was full of clones of the

students I’d left behind. I even saw a few

girls with the exact same bag I had shoved

in a box back at my mom’s house. Since it

was a sophomore-level class, most of the

nonserious people had been weeded out,

but there were still a few people who

looked like they wouldn’t make it through

four years of this. And, of course, since this

was New England, there were the token

Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-smelling

weirdos who were going to spend their time

protesting whatever the trendy cause of the

day was.

They were almost worse than the

buttoned-up, straitlaced kids. They just had

to be so self-righteous about every. Damn.

Thing. They also loved to hear the sound of

their own voices.

Fortunately, I’d brought my

headphones, and since they liked to talk so

much, they’d take up plenty of class time,

leaving that time for the rest of us to do

whatever. I booted up my laptop and

listened as the professor, a guy in a nice

button-up and tie—big surprise—droned on

about Marbury vs. Madi-son. Been there,

done that.

I kept one ear open and the other

covered as I listened to some new music I’d

found the other day on low volume. I’d also

bought some new albums that I needed to

review, so I switched to those. The first was

a ska group that was way more punk than

ska and didn’t have a whole lot going for

them. It wasn’t even bad in a craptastic way

that made you want to listen to it anyway.

They definitely weren’t Street-light

Manifesto, or Reel Big Fish.

I made a few notes about some of the

songs and moved on to the second album

that had more of a folky/bluegrass feel.

That one was much better, and I found

myself transfixed by the complex melodies

and haunting lyrics. I didn’t think there was

anything else like music for having the

ability to transport you to another place,

even when you were sitting in a class full of


Finally, the class was over and

homework was assigned.

I’d managed to get a seat in the back

and had avoided making eye contact or

speaking with anyone, so I called the first

class a total win.

I wasn’t so lucky for my second,

American State and Local Government. It

sounded like a total yawner of a class, but

when I got into the room everyone was

talking and laughing like it was a social

gathering instead of a class. I sat in the

back, closest to the door and with at least

two seats in between me and anyone else,

and I thought I was set until a girl rushed in

and sat with one seat between us.

“Am I late?” she said, not even looking

at me and frantically searching through her

bag. All I saw was a huge quantity of very

blond, very curly hair that she had tried to

shove into an elastic band without much


I looked around, but there was no one

else to respond to her, so it was up to me.

“Um, there’s still a few minutes.” She

was up to her elbows in her bag, and she

finally emerged, holding a bag of Skittles. I

opened and closed my mouth a few times

as she ripped the bag open with her teeth

and then held the bag in my direction.

“Want some?” I finally looked at her

face and then wished I hadn’t. One half was

perfect white skin, and the other was

mangled with what looked like a severe

burn. “Do I have something on my face?”

she said, her eyes getting wide as her hand

flew to her face. “Oh, yeah, I do. Duh.”

She dropped her hand and grinned at

me. Somehow her eyes had remained

unharmed, but the side of her mouth and

the rest of her face going all the way to her

ear were shiny and had a weird pattern on

them. It extended down her neck, and

though her arm was covered, I could see it

on the back of her hand, as well.

“So I’m going to tell you my name and

also tell you that you can stare if you want.

I’m Hannah, and it’s okay to stare.”

She flicked some of her hair back, and I

tried my best to look into her eyes, which

were a deep brown, in contrast with her

pale hair and skin.

“Jos. I’m Jos,” I said, because what else

was I going to do?

“Nice to meet you. And if you choose to

sit on the other side of the room next class,

I won’t, like, hate you or anything. I’m a

people repeller. It’s kind of my thing. For

obvious reasons.” She giggled a little, and I

turned to the front of the class, where an

extremely tall woman in a charcoal skirt and

jacket was writing things down on the

numerous whiteboards. She looked like she

just stepped out of a Senate meeting. When

she was done writing what looked like half

of a novel, she turned around and clapped

her hands.

Everyone shut up.

“Okay, I see you all made it here for

another week of mind-broadening.

Congratulations on being sober enough to

drag yourselves here.” Everyone else

laughed, and I sort of joined in. She picked

up a clipboard and read our names off. Of

course, since my last name began with the

first letter of the alphabet, I was the second

person called.

“Joscelyn Archer?”

“Here,” I said, listening to my voice echo

in the large room.

She looked up from the clipboard and

searched me out.

“You’re new to us, yes? Transfer?”

“Uh, yeah.” I could feel the blood

rushing to my face and ears.

“Do you go by Joscelyn, or is there a

nickname you’d prefer?”

“Um, Jos is fine.”

She smiled, showing the most perfect

set of probably real teeth I’d ever seen.

“Jos. Lovely. Nice to have you with us.”

She moved on to the next name, and I

slumped down in my seat.

“I hope you’re not going to do that all

the time. She’ll call on you more if she

knows how much you hate it,” Hannah

whispered as someone else said, “here!”

“Great. Just fantastic.”

Hannah was right. Since I was new, the

teacher, who went by Pam, didn’t call on

me, but everyone else was fair game.

She fired questions out like bullets, and

if you answered too slowly, she’d move on

to someone else. There was a lot of

stuttering, a lot of red faces and a lot of

people shooting their hands in the air to be

called on so they could show everyone just

how freaking smart they were.

And then there were some, including

Hannah, who gave the answers when called

and didn’t elaborate unless Pam asked

them to. Everyone sort of turned to look at

Hannah when she talked, and I could see

that more than a few people’s gazes

skittered away from the burned side of her

face, but she didn’t seem to notice or care.

I didn’t get out my headphones the

entire class. It was just too interesting. How

she could make something as potentially

boring as Colonial government riveting was

beyond me.

When the class was over, we all sort of

walked out like we were in a trance.

“Is it always like that?” I couldn’t help

myself from asking Hannah as she crumpled

up the empty Skittles bag.

“Pretty much. Awesome, huh?”

“It probably will be less awesome when

she starts calling on me.”

“Just do the reading. You seem like the

kind of person who doesn’t have her head

up her ass, so you should be fine.

So, where did you transfer from?”


“Boo, hiss. Don’t say that too close to

anyone connected with hockey, or else you

might get your ass handed to you.”

So I’d heard. The hockey rivalry between

the University of Maine and the University

of New Hampshire had been going on for as

long as they’d been playing hockey. I’d

never gone to a game, but campus pretty

much shut down so everyone could go to

the games, and I bet UMaine wasn’t any


I had some time before my next class,

and I was already starving, so I headed

toward the Union.

“Do you have another class right now?”

Hannah said as we got to the doors.

“Because, although that bag of Skittles was

totally satisfying, I could go for something

else. Why does this sound like I’m asking

you out? I’m totally not.” She shook her


“Um, no. I’m available. For eating. Not

the dating.”

Her dark eyes went wide. “Because I like

boys. I swear.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

We shared one of those nervous giggles

that turns into full-on laughter, and by the

time we got to the Union, I was wiping tears


“I swear, I’m not normally this weird,”

she said as we joined the lunchtime throng

and descended into the food court. Only a

second later she said, “Okay, that’s a

complete lie. I am normally this weird.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I whispered as we

scoped out what was available. The longest

lines were for pizza and burgers and the

pseudo “Taco Bell,” so we headed to get

wraps since those were the quickest. I

happened to be on Hannah’s “good” side,

but I was more than aware of the stares she

got. It was one of those things. You saw her,

realized there was something different

about her, did a look again to check and

then couldn’t look away.

She just smiled and giggled and acted

like a normal girl. She got a hummus wrap

and I ordered the special, known as the

“Winslow,” which was basically a chicken

caesar wrap with the addition of crushed

croutons, which was such a brilliant idea

that I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t

thought of it sooner.

Finding a seat turned out to be a

challenge, but we found a table for the two

of us in a corner. I was about to say

something, but Hannah beat me to it.

“So, in light of wanting to get things out

in the open, yes, it’s a burn. It happened

when I was a kid and it’s a long story and I’d

rather not go into it because it’s a bit of a

downer and a bit of a conversation killer

and usually after I tell it I never see whoever

I told it to again. Which is my weird way of

saying that I don’t want to make you

uncomfortable this early in our relationship.

Wow, why do I keep doing that?

I am so sorry.”

“No big,” I said, unable to stop laughing.

“How about you tell me something else?

Where are you from?”

She chewed and swallowed before she

spoke. “Up north.

The boondocks. The sticks. The butthole

of Maine. Whatever you want to call it. I

couldn’t afford to go out of state and this

was the biggest school in Maine. Great

place to get lost in, you know?”

I did.

“What’s your major?” she said after

taking another bite of her wrap.


“Me, too. Although, that’s only because

it sounded better than history and I’m a bit

of a law junkie. I have no idea what I want

to do, but I figured it was as good as

anything else. Plus, in the upper level

classes we get to debate and that’s kind of

one of my favorite things. You?”

“I used to want to be president, or a

senator or something,”

I said. I hadn’t decided quite what yet. I

figured I’d start out in local government and

work my way up.

“Used to?”

“Another one of those long stories that’s

a bit of a downer that I’d rather not tell.”

Hannah nodded. Honestly, the burn

wasn’t that bad once you’d been looking at

it for a while. You got used to it, and the

fact that Hannah didn’t seem bothered

Page 10

about it helped.

“I hear you, girl.” We finished our lunch

and talked more about the class, and

Hannah told me that as long as I did the

reading and had a reasonable grasp of the

current political cli-mate, I’d be fine. I

wasn’t so sure, but I took her word for it.

“Are you on campus?” she asked as we

dumped our trays and made our way

upstairs to the Starbucks. Hannah said she

needed her next caffeine fix.

“No. I live in a house in Bangor with my

sister and a bunch of her friends.” Hannah

let out a dreamy sigh.

“That sounds awesome. I’m stuck on

campus. Yay, scholarship.” She sounded so

enthused. “I’ve only lived with my

roommate for a few weeks, and she’s

already stopped talking to me. Luckily, she

has a boyfriend with an apartment, so she

usually stays there.”

Once again, been there, done that.

“It’s awesome if you feel like having

three sets of parents always watching your

every move.” I hadn’t meant to share so

much about myself, but I couldn’t help it. I

hadn’t talked to anyone like this in a while,

and there was something about Hannah. I’d

known her less than a few hours, but it was

like we’d met before, even though that was


“That sucks,” she said as she got in line. I

decided to get my second round of tea just

for the heck of it. The line was crazy long

with everyone jonesing for their next fix like

a bunch of junkies standing in line for

methadone. Actually, the methadone was

probably cheaper.

By the time we got our drinks and found

a table crushed in a corner and two seats, it

was almost time for my next class. I downed

my tea and told Hannah I’d see her on


We hadn’t talked about the rest of our

class schedules, but the chances of me

seeing her in another of my classes were

actually pretty good, and I had the feeling I


I was searching for Neville Hall, which

housed my English class, when someone

tapped me on the shoulder.

“Fancy seeing you here, Red.” I pivoted

and found the ever-grinning face of Dusty

Sharp. He pulled a set of headphones nearly

identical to the ones I had off his ears and

let them rest around his neck. His wardrobe

of baggy everything hadn’t deviated, and I

found myself wondering, once again, how

his pants stayed up.

I wanted to say something snarky, but

instead a question came out of my mouth.

“Do you know where Neville Hall is?”

Someone yelled hello, and his eyes briefly

left my face to wave hello and call out to


“Sure. Follow me. I’m going there, as

well. What class do you have?”


“Me, too.”

Jesus, if he and I were in the same class,

that would just suck beyond suckage.

He must have seen the horror on my

face. I hadn’t really tried to hide it.

“Just messing with you, Red. I have calc.

Would being in the same class with me be


I didn’t answer as we crossed the road

and I saw a building with the wordsNeville

Hallon it. I could have found it if I’d looked,

but then I probably would have been late.

He held the door for me and a few

people coming in behind me.

“Thank you,” I said.

We paused in the lobby.

“I’m on the second floor,” he said,

pointing toward the stairs.

“I’m on the third.”

We walked up two flights and he gave

me that little two-fingered wave again.

“See you later, Red.”


I joined a few other people and plodded

my way up to the third floor.

I hadn’t fulfilled my English

requirements yet, so I was stuck taking

Creative Writing. When I walked in, there

were only about ten other people there.

That did not bode well for being able to

hide and listen to music. Great. I found a

seat in the back and close to the door and

looked around. I felt pretty young; most of

the people looked like they were quite a bit

older than me.

I’d gotten a decent grade in my English

comp class at UNH, but only because I’d

been one of the few students who turned in

assignments. I liked to read, but writing

those insipid papers where you had to

analyze what some dude who had died

hundreds of years ago had meant by writing

about rain or some such crap was pretty

much the worst thing ever.

Luckily, the more you seemed to

bullshit, the better grade you got. Maybe I

could do the same in this class.

A few more people trickled in until there

were fifteen of us. The professor was the

last one there, and he was everything a

teacher of English should be. He even had a

tweed jacket with those weird elbow

patches and horn-rimmed glasses.

He called attendance and when he got

to my name he asked me what I wanted to

be called. I went with Jos again as he

introduced himself as Greg and explained

how the class would go. I’d skimmed the

syllabus, but hadn’t really paid attention to

it. As he explained what we’d be doing, my

heart sank. We’d have to write something

every week, and during at least one class

period a week. And we had to read what

we’d written. Out loud. And, if that wasn’t

enough, he’d make copies of what we’d

written and we’d all have a class discussion.

Welcome to your nightmare, Jos Archer.

Once again, since I was new, I didn’t

have to do much, but this was going to be

another class in which I was required to

participate, even if I didn’t want to. At least

half of the class looked like they’d rather be

getting a lobotomy than be there, so at

least I was in good company.

I suffered my way through and then I

was finally done with classes for the day. I

scurried away from Neville Hall as fast as I

could before I could bump into Dusty again,

and checked my phone. There were several

missed texts from Renee, asking how

classes were going, and one from my

mother and another from Darah that was

just a smiley face.

I could have gone back to the house, but

I wanted to savor this time I had without

anyone watching my every move. It wasn’t

too cold, so I did a walk around campus,

finding the rest of my classes for the next

day and watching the other students go

about their lives, wondering what it was like

to be them.

When my legs started to get numb,

despite the walking, I went back to my car.

My instructions were to go right home, but I

didn’t. I’d been dying to go to Bull Moose in

Bangor, so I headed toward the mall. Bull

Moose was pretty much the best music

store in all of New England. I’d discovered

them when I went to UNH and I was over

the moon when I realized there was one

close to UMaine.

It took some maneuvering and

lane-switching to find the place, but I did.

The great thing about Bull Moose was

that they had not only CDs, but records and

old movies, and all the people who worked

there knew what they were talking about.

When I walked in, I let out a breath I hadn’t

known I’d been holding. Ah. I loved the

comforting rows of cases, all ordered by

genre and artist. Yes, most music could be

purchased online, but you couldn’t

duplicate the experience of going to a store

and browsing yourself.

“Can I help you, little lady?” Jesus. H.

Christ.I paused with my hand on a

Radiohead CD that I didn’t currently own

and turned to make sure he wasn’t a


“No, thank you. I can pick out my own

music.” That was a lie. I’d recently

discovered The Black Keys, and I was hoping

to find more bands like them, but I was

never going to ask Dusty. Not in a million

years. “Are you stalking me? Because,

seriously, it’s getting ridiculous.”

“Maybe you’re the one who’s stalking

me.I was here first.

You came intomystore.” I finally

noticed he had a lanyard around his neck

like the other guys who worked here.

“Oh, so this isyourstore? Do you own


“Nope, but I do work here. And I’ve

been going to Yellowfield House longer than

you, too. So I was here first.”

“I don’t give a shit,” I said, putting the

CD back. Even my music sanctuary had been


“So you’re into music,” Dusty said,

straightening some of the CDs, as if he was

pretending to work. “What kind?”

“Taylor Swift,” I said, just to throw him.

Granted, I had listened to plenty of her stuff

and some of it wasn’t so bad.

But he didn’t know that.

“Well, we have a wide range of T Swift’s

music for your listening pleasure.” He

gestured toward the pop section. “I’m

partial to her earlier work, but her newest

album is getting great reviews.” I waited to

see if he was being sarcastic.

“Can you just let me browse without

being harassed? I get it enough at Renee’s,

and I don’t need it from everyone else.”

Wow, I did not mean to be that honest.

What was it with me today? I seemed to be

vocalizing everything I was thinking

whether I meant to or not.

“Wow, easy, Red.” He put his hands up

as if I’d held a gun to his head. “Just trying

to be a good employee and help a

customer, but if you want to be left alone,

you got it.” He turned around and left

before I could say anything else. I saw him

talking to a few of the other guys and

pointing at me.

What fresh hell was this?

He came back a few minutes later as I

was searching through the alt-rock section.

“Okay, so I’ve told everyone not to

approach you unless you approach them

first, so the store is yours, Joscelyn.” He

waved his arms to indicate everything.

“Thanks.” It sounded like a question.

“Anytime.” One last grin and he was

gone, off to the back of the store and

through a door marked Employees Only.

And I was left alone for the rest of my time

in the store.

I found a couple CDs, but didn’t look as

close as I wanted because I felt like all eyes

were on me, even though every time I

looked up, one or more of the employees

were giving me looks like I was going to run

over and stab them or something. God only

knew what he had told them so they’d

leave me alone. Then again, I probably

didn’t want to know.

When I got back from my little Bull

Moose trip, there were several cars parked

in the driveway, so I had to settle for

parking in the street.

“Hey, Miss


Renee’s voice was the first thing I heard

when I walked through the door and hung

my coat up. Renee hopped up from the

couch and came over to glare at me.

“I was busy.”

“Doing what?” She crossed her arms and

leaned against the wall. I pushed past her

and went downstairs to put my stuff away.

Of course she followed me.

“Look, Renee, I know you find this hard

to believe, but I didn’t do anything bad. I

went to class, I had lunch, I went to Bull

Moose and I came back here. That’s all.

Besides, how can I do anything with you

riding my ass at every turn?”

Instead of yelling at me she just tossed

her hands in the air and then banged them

on her thighs.

“Why are you being like this, Jos? What

happened to my little sister who never, ever

swore? I don’t feel like I know you


“Maybe you didn’t know me before.

Maybe that girl was a lie.” She had been a

lie. That girl had a metal rod shoved so far

up her butt she was choking on it. That girl

was so afraid of stepping out of line or

making any waves that she never did

anything. Never broke curfew. Never got


Never did anything that could be

construed as wild, or out of control, or free.

She was so fucking uptight that she

barely ever laughed. Or smiled. Or had any

fun of any kind. That girl never would have

just sat in a dark room and listened to music

without it having a purpose. Being that girl

was exhausting, but no one knew.

“I just don’t know what to say to you

anymore, Jos. You’re my sister and I feel like

you’re a complete stranger. What am I

supposed to do?” For the first time, I heard

the hopeless-ness in her voice. Renee didn’t

get hopeless. She didn’t get weak. She was

always tough as nails; she had to be with

our crazy parents.

“You don’t have to do anything.

Just…give me some space.

Page 11

I can’t breathe.” I sat down on my bed

and she came and sat next to me.

“I never thought that I would be this

worried about you.

You’re the good one. You made the rest

of us look like losers. It was hell when our

report cards would come out and you’d

always have A’s and the rest of us had to

compete with that. It sucked, by the way.”

She bumped my shoulder with hers.

“I’m sorry?”

“No, I just wish I had been the one who

could have set the good example. You

know, I’m supposed to be the oldest and all

that. I tried, but you were always better.”

Was. Past tense.

She touched my hair. “Are you ever

going to tell me what happened last year?”

I shook my head. “I just decided that life

was worth living, and I hadn’t been.”

“All of a sudden? Carpe diem?”


“Something like that.”

I ran into Hannah in my bio 202 class the

next day. It was cruel, but the university

required that we have at least six credits in

science, and I only had three. Once again, I

figured bio would be the way to go since it

would be a huge class and I could probably

show up or not show up and no one would


“Hey, stalker,” Hannah said as I sat next

to her. The classroom was one of the larger

on campus, with what looked like stadium

seating. Too bad we’d all be falling asleep

and learning about ribosomes instead of

watching an awesome movie, or a rock


“Maybe you’re stalking me.” There were

quite a few empty seats around her, and I

hoped they stayed that way.

“Told you, I’m a people repeller,”

Hannah said, leaning back in her seat.

“Skittles?” She had another fresh bag and

held it out to me.

“No, thanks. I can’t eat Skittles without


“You serious?” She tossed a handful into

her mouth and a few clattered to the floor.

“Yeah. It’s not crazy, if you think about

it.” I’d explained this quite a few times.

“Skittles are like fruit, right? And M&M’s

are chocolate. So it’s like chocolate-covered

fruit. You should try it. Could change your


Hannah gave me a dubious look and

munched her Skittles.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

The class filled up and the seats nearest

us were the last to be filled by stragglers.

Hannah and I spent most of the class

writing notes back and forth because,

honestly, it was boring as hell. I somehow

managed to stay awake, but that was

mostly due to Hannah. My second class of

the day, something called the Nature and

Language of Math, was equally boring and


I went right back to the house after class

and found it pretty quiet. Since there were

so many people living in the house and

everyone had something going on, Darah

had made a chart on a whiteboard so

everyone could write where they were

when. I erased the wordsat classand wrote

homenext to my name.

Taylor and Mase were the only ones

home. I heard the washing machine going

and some loud music coming from the man

cave downstairs. Guess I couldn’t go to my


Instead, I threw myself on the leather

sofa and sighed.

“That sounded like a heavy sigh.”

Taylor’s voice pierced the quiet. I sat up to

find her leaning against the stairs.

“It wasn’t, really.” She came and sat on

the recliner, leaving me the entire couch.

“So what do you think of UMaine? Is it

everything you expected?”

I shrugged.

“It’s college. Pretty much like any


“Still. Everything going okay?”

She was fishing and not doing a very

good job of it.

“Renee tell you to talk to me?” I grabbed

the remote and turned on the massive

television, flipping around until I found

something decent. And by decent I meant a

marathon ofBehind the Musicon VH1.

“If I say no, you’ll know that I’m lying, so

yes. She’s just worried about you.”

“Well, she’s got lots of company in that


“I know things are kind of crazy for you

right now, but I swear, they will get better.

And lashing out feels good when you do it,

but living with the consequences kind of

sucks. I should know. I punched Hunter

when I first met him. He’s got a hell of a

hard face.” Renee hadn’t told me that story.

“You did?”

She smiled as if it was a fond memory

and shook her head.

“Yeah. He kind of cornered me, and I

have a bit of a claustrophobia issue. To be

fair, he totally deserved it.” I could imagine

him provoking her. It seemed to be one of

his favorite things to do.

“I bet he did. How did you go from that

to…being disgustingly in love?”

She laughed.

“He’s persistent. And has a high

tolerance for me being mean and shoving

him away.”

“Huh.” Sounded familiar.

She kicked out the footrest on the

recliner and squinted at me, as if she was

deciding something.

“I was nearly raped, when I was

younger. It was my sister’s older boyfriend,

Travis, and he tried to rape her, too.

She got over it and I never did. Hunter

was the first guy that I let touch me. There

was something about him that made me

feel safe in a way I’d never felt safe before. I

trusted him, even when I told myself not to.

I let him in before I even knew that’s what I

was doing. Sometimes you meet people like

that. By the time you realize you’ve let

them into your life, it’s too late, and usually

by that point you can’t see life without


I knew exactly what she was talking

about, and I found myself twisting the

elephant charm on my bracelet. Yeah, I

knew what she was talking about. But

sometimes, those people get taken from

you, and there’s nothing you can do to get

them back.

Even if she and Hunter broke up—which

I couldn’t see happening—he was still alive.

She could wake up every morning and know

that, even if she didn’t see him, he existed

in the world somewhere.

“So yeah, that’s my story, the abridged

version, and now things are…really good.”

Yeah, I could see that. She stared down at

her ring and twisted it on her finger.

“Has anyone even stopped to think that

I wasn’t okay before, and I am now? Just

because I looked like I was keeping things

together and was this perfect person

doesn’t mean I was doing okay. Maybe that

was my master plan, to make everyone

think that.” Taylor thought about that for a


“Like reverse psychology? Wow, you are

smart. I wish I would have thought of that

instead of just being a bitch to everyone.

That probably would have worked a lot

better than violence.” Footsteps sounded

on the stairs, and Mase emerged from the

basement, his face with a sheen of sweat on

it and his arms busting from the thin tank

top he was wearing.

“What are you doing down there? If I

didn’t know that Darah was at work, I’d

swear you guys were going at it,”

Taylor said.

Mase smiled and went to grab a bottle

of water from the fridge.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither

were these arms.”

He flexed and his arms bulged. They

were, like, the size of my neck. “Gotta do

some maintenance to keep them nice for


“One of those crazy workout videos

again?” Taylor said, pretending to punch

him. He collapsed, pretending she’d

wounded him.

“You’re welcome to join anytime.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not. Kickboxing all the

way.” He gulped down some water and

wiped his face on her sleeve.

“Ugh! You are disgusting!” She

screamed and he chased her around the

living room as the door opened.

“Someone want to explain?” Hunter

said, setting his bag down and watching as

Mase growled at Taylor and she dived

behind the recliner. “Dude, you are my

family, but if you’re going after my girl, I will

have to pound your ass,” Hunter said, but

he wasn’t serious.

“Aren’t you coming to rescue me? Isn’t

that your job?”

Taylor squealed as Mase dragged her

out and tried to put her head under his

sweaty armpit.

“Oh, no, baby, you’re on your own. It’s

all you, Miss. I’m just enjoying the view.”

“Douche bag!” She managed to pinch

Mase’s side and wiggle out from under his

arm and rush toward Hunter.

“See if I do anythingnicefor you

anytime soon.” It didn’t take a genius to

figure out she was talking about sexual

favors. Disgusting.

“How was your day, Little Ne?” Mase

moved my feet and sat down next to me. I

hoped he wasn’t going to wipe his sweat on

me. Not that it would be any different than

being at home with my siblings who often

used my jeans and shirts as tissues.

“Same as yesterday. It will probably be

the same tomorrow.”

“Wow, don’t sound so depressed. Most

people your age would love to be living in

this house. I mean, what more could you

want?” He gestured to the beautifully

furnished house.

Freedom to do what I wanted. Freedom

from being watched and criticized. But

Mase wouldn’t understand that.

“Nothing, I guess. You can ignore my

bitching if you want,” I said.

“Please tell me you won’t sync your

period with the rest of the ladies in the

house. It’s bad enough, and now the guys

are outnumbered,” Mase said.

“I’ll give it a shot, but no promises.” He

held his fist out and I bumped it with mine

and then we exploded at the same time and

I couldn’t help but laugh. Hunter sat down

on the recliner and Taylor sat in his lap.

“So, I’ve got a performance this

weekend. You guys in?” he said.

Mase nodded. I was missing something.

“Performance?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m in this a cappella group, the

Steiners. God, that still sounds lame when I

say it out loud. I was sort offorcedto join

after someone saw a poster for auditions,”

Hunter said, staring at Taylor.

“I’m someone,” Taylor said, raising her

hand. “And you should come. It’s actually

really cool. Dusty’s in it, too. He’s their beat


I wasn’t even surprised. Dusty Sharp was

destined to show up in my life. I might as

well accept it.

“We might even do a certain song that I

think you’d like.

I can put in a request,” Hunter said.

“Sure, why not? It’s not like I have

anything better to do.” I needed to get a job

soon, but I hadn’t talked to Renee about it

yet. The plan was to find something, get

myself hired and then tell her about it later

so she couldn’t say anything about it.

My first inclination, when I found out

that there was a Bull Moose close to

campus, was to try there, but now that I

knew Dusty was there, that was out. I just

wanted to do something that wouldn’t suck,

but the chances of that happening were

pretty slim. Still, I’d have to start looking.

Maybe Hannah would have some ideas.

“Awesome. You’ll like it, I swear,” Taylor

said, tracing Hunter’s number seven tattoo.

Paul was the only guy in the house without

any ink. I’d considered getting some myself,

especially now. I wanted something on my

body that reminded me of him. Something

that would make me think of him and what

little time he’d been in my life that would

influence me. That was what I missed the

most, second to him. It was his influence.

But I knew Renee would have a litter of

two-headed kittens if she found out I was

even considering getting inked.

I’d have to wait until she’d stopped

Page 12

watching me like a hawk.

It was something to think about.

Soonish. Soon everyone was home and the

dinner-making commenced. It was Renee

and Paul’s turn and they opted for pasta

again, since they could make a ton of it and

different sauces and satisfy everyone. I

lurked in the kitchen, feeling crappy about

the conversation I’d had the night before

with Renee. I was pretending to work on my

homework for the next day, but I couldn’t

focus on it.

She was busy informing Paul the correct

way to cook pasta, and he was taking it in

stride. He was a saint, I swear.

I couldn’t understand why he put up

with her, except that he must really love

her this time.

“My God, Paul, it’s not rocket science,

which you happen to know.”

“I’m not a rocket scientist,” he said,

leaning back and giving me a look.

“Clearly not,” she snapped.

“I’m going to go…be somewhere else,”

he said, heading for the living room, where

the rest of Yellowfield House was engaged

in homework warfare. Renee put her hand

on her head as if she had a headache when

he left.

“I swear, he gets on my last nerve

sometimes.” She turned off the pasta pot

and leaned back against the counter. “It’s a

lot, you know? Living together.”

“Do you regret it?”

“No, definitely not. It’s just…sometimes I

wonder if we moved too fast. Getting back

together and then the house and

everything. But that’s none of your

business. I’m fine. How was school today?”

My mother had never been the one to ask

me that when I got home every day. It was

always Renee who wanted to know about

my assignments and so forth.

“It’s fine. Pretty much the same.”

“Are you still okay with your major?”

“Yeah. It’s fine.”

She shook her head as if she couldn’t

believe what I was saying.

“I never thought you would say that. I

remember when we were kids and you

snuck out of bed to watch the election

results. I used to think you were a robot, or

that there was at least something seriously

wrong with you.”

Yeah, I remembered that little girl. She’d

grown up, and now she was gone.

“Pasta’s getting cold,” I said, using my

pen to point at the large pot. Renee seemed

to snap herself back into place and

remember that she was in the middle of

making dinner. She went back to the sink

and drained the pasta as I took my

unfinished homework downstairs. I’d deal

with it later. I had at least done the reading

and made notes for Pam’s class. No way I

was looking like a moron in that class.

Dinner was pretty quiet. Darah was at

work, so there was one less member, and it

felt weird to not have her there, getting on

everyone about putting their elbows on the

table and using napkins and not damaging

the finish on the table.

Renee and Paul seemed to be okay

again. I caught him whispering in her ear

and giving her a hug. He always knew the

right things to say to her. Most often, the

best thing to do with Renee was to make

her think she’d gotten her way and give her

some space to realize that she didn’t know

everything. She’d come around and

apologize and promise never to do it again,

even though she’d do it again in two hours.

“At the risk of sounding like I’m asking

you out, do you want to come to this thing

I’m going to this weekend?” I said to

Hannah before class the next day.

“What kind of thing?”

“One of the guys I live with is in the

Steiners and they’re doing a show at the

Union and everyone in my house is going.”

“Wow, you know one of the Steiners?

It’s crazy hard to get into. Plus, guys who

can sing are super hot.”

“He is pretty hot, but he’s taken.”

She sighed and got out her bag of

Skittles. She must have a case of them in

her dorm room or something. “The good

ones usually are.”

“Still, you could meet my pseudo family.

If you wanted to.”

“Sure, why not? Beats sitting in my dorm

room and watching a bunch of episodes of

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“I’ve never seen that show,” I admitted.

It never really appealed to me when it was

originally on.

She shook her head sadly. “I’ll make you

a deal. I’ll come to see the Steiners with you

if you come and hang out and watch two

episodes of Buffy with me on Sunday.”

Renee would be pissed if I said yes

without asking permission.

“Deal,” I said, holding out my hand.

Pam called the class to order and I

snapped my head forward. She called roll

and seemed pleased that I was still here.

And of course I was the first one she

called on, but I was freaking ready. She fired

questions around the room like Ping-Pong

balls and you had to think fast. Hannah got

a few tough ones, but she volleyed with the

best of them. Pam seemed satisfied with

both of our answers, and I was glad I’d

survived by the end of it.

“Bravo, girl. You did good.” We didn’t

talk about getting lunch—we just sort of

walked toward the Union anyway. I heard a

girl walk by and gasp when she saw

Hannah’s face.

“Take a picture. It lasts longer, bitch,”

she said under her breath. “I know I seem

all Zen about this.” She waved her hand to

indicate her burn. “But sometimes, I just

want to wear a fucking mask or scream at

people or something. I mean, at least in the

olden days I could have joined a freak show

and made some money or something.”


She yanked open the door and didn’t

hold it for the person coming in behind us,

who muttered under his breath.

“Suck it,” Hannah said in response, but

not loud enough for him to hear.

We got our food and found a table.

“It’s just like, yes, I have a burn, but it’s

not like I’m dis-abled or mentally

challenged. Also, I’m not deaf. I can hear it

when people are talking about me, and it

pisses me off.

But you know what would happen if I

freaked out and yelled at people? Fucking

nothing. So why waste the words?” She

exhaled slowly. “Okay, I’m done. Pity party

over. I’ve shut it down.” She made a

slashing motion with her hand.

“Keep going if you need to. It doesn’t

bother me.” At least she had something to

actually be pissed about. Unlike some

people who couldn’t breathe without

bitching about something that didn’t need

to be bitched about.

“Nah, I hate going to that place. It just

gets me down sometimes, but I swear, I’m

back.” She smiled and picked up her burger.

“So none of the guys you live with are


“Nope. Not one. There are three

couples…and me. It’s a bit like living in a

weird reality show.”

“It sounds kind of awesome, not going

to lie.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Sensing my reluctance, Hannah switched


“So, you found any man candy?”

“Not if you count my other stalker,” I

said, picking up a French fry I’d dropped on

the floor.

“Um, details?” She snapped her fingers.

“It’s not even anything worth talking

about. He’s just this guy who keeps popping

up. He’s friends with one of my roommates.

Actually, you’ll get to see him on Saturday.

He’s a Steiner.”

“Oh, really?” She raised and lowered her

eyebrows suggestively. Wow, she was

reading way too much into this.

“It’s seriously not like that. It’s not

anything. I shouldn’t have even brought him

up.” Why had I brought him up?

“What about at UNH? Did you have a

guy there?”

Oh, fun. The ex talk. “Yeah, I did. We

broke up this spring.”

Hannah’s eyes lit up.

“Sounds like there is a story there.”

There was, but I wasn’t going to share it

with her.

“Not really. He was in love with a girl I

wasn’t. Took both of us a while to realize it,

but eventually he did.”

“Did you love him?”

“Yeah, I did.” I couldn’t lie about that. I

had loved Matt, but that love was part of

that other girl, and when I let go of her, I let

go of that love. It was easier than it should

have been. “And what about you? How

about we talk about your love life?”

Hannah laughed.

“Yeah, that’s a really short story. It can

be summed up like this…” She held up her

hand, making a circle. She peered at me

through the hole in the middle. “That’s it.

There aren’t a whole lot of guys lining up to

fuck the freak.”

Jesus, she was blunt. I liked it.

“I usually have to get them good and

drunk first, but by then they usually can’t

perform, so I end up leaving them to sleep

it off.”

Was she serious?

She burst out laughing.

“I am totally screwing with you, and the

look on your face was totally worth it. I

haven’t really done the boyfriend thing.”


“I spent my high school prom at home

with my cat, so that pretty much gives you

an accurate picture of my dating history. I’m

not bitter about it—don’t get me wrong. I

guess I’m just old-fashioned, at least when

it comes to that. I don’t want to waste my

time on a guy that I’m not going to spend

my life with, you know? I don’t see the

point in dating a bunch of losers just for the

chance of finding out one of them might be

decent. I trust my instincts when it comes

to people. Haven’t been wrong yet.” She

winked at me and stole a fry from my plate

and popped it into her mouth.

I wished I had her confidence in my own

instincts. Right now, I didn’t trust them at


“Brought you something.”

Dusty was standing in the lobby of

Neville Hall when I opened the door to go to

English that afternoon. He had his

trademark smile in place and a bag of

Skittles in one hand and a bag of M&M’s in

the other and was holding them out to me

like he was very pleased with himself.

“Okay,” I said, looking at him and then

back down at the candy. I really wanted it,

but I didn’t want him to know that I wanted


“I’m going to pretend you said thank

you. You’re welcome, Red.” He shoved the

candy at me, and I had to catch it so that it

didn’t fall on the floor. “Are you always this

rough on people when they try to get to

know you?”

“If it’s so hard, then why are you doing

it?” I needed to hurry my butt to class, but I

wasn’t letting him have the last word.

“Maybe I like a challenge,” he said, but

he wasn’t grinning.

I saw something else on his face.

Determination. Yes, Dusty Sharp was a guy

who was used to getting what he wanted;

anyone could see that. He even walked with

a swagger that broadcast it to the world,

but instead of leaning toward the cocky

douche-bag side, he just seemed confident.

Self-assured. A lot of women found that


“I have to get to class. Thank you for the

unnecessary candy. It was…sweet of you.”

“I’m a sweet guy.”


“Shall we?” he said.

We walked together up the stairs, and I

left him on the second floor.

“Later, Red.” There was that wave again.

I copied him and he laughed. “’Bye,


My first assignment in my creative

writing class was to write a two-page paper

about something I had never done before.

Greg gave us our assignment with the

attitude of Santa presenting orphans with

shiny presents.

How the hell was I supposed to write

about something I’d never experienced?

Seriously, how?

Everyone else seemed just as perplexed

as I was, and a guy sitting near me was

muttering under his breath and most of the

Page 13

words weren’t complimentary. We had the

entire class period to complete the

assignment, so I got out my notebook and a

pen and tried to figure something that I

could write so I could just complete the

damn thing.

Well, the first thing I could think of to

write about was completely out of the

question. My still-intact virginity was a relic

from my other life. I’d been way too

focused on school and other things, and it

didn’t mesh well with my political


There was also something romantic, I’d

thought at the time, about saving that

milestone in my life for marriage.

My ex had been completely on board

with it; in fact, he’d been more for it than I

was. We’d done things here and there, but

every time it got heated one of us stopped

it, citing our vows of chastity. The funny

thing was, it never really got all that heated.

The kissing was fine, but I never found

myself wanting to just rip his clothes off like

in some horny teenage fantasy. There was

probably something wrong with me. I had

no problem getting myself off, so my sex

drive wasn’t broken, but I never fantasized

about getting hot and heavy with Matt. He

wasn’t a hot-and-heavy kind of guy.

Honestly, I didn’t care anymore. It was

low on the list of things I was concerned

about. Right above floods and right below

zombie apocalypse.

I tried to think of something to write

that would fill two pages with my small

handwriting. Some of my classmates were

already writing away, but others were just

as stuck as I was.

Music. I wanted to write something

about music.

The only thing I could think of was that

I’d never performed onstage, at least not

outside of a late-afternoon fantasy. I’d

actually never really sung in public. I’d been

in choirs in school, but had never tried out

for anything where I had to sing a solo.

I wrote a sentence, and then another,

and then another.

I described the stage and the lights and

the fluttery feeling of captivating everyone

in the audience with just my voice and

maybe a guitar.

Before I knew it, I had filled three pages,

front and back.

“Okay, everyone. Just hand in what

you’ve got and I’ll go make copies. Don’t

worry about neatness or spelling. That’s not

the point of this exercise. The point is just

to write what comes to your mind, to

stretch it and see what happens.”

Greg left and people broke out talking,

mostly complaining about the assignment

and how lame it was and that they’d

bullshitted their way through it. Yeah, like

Greg wasn’t going to see right through that.

At least I’d been honest about mine.

No one talked to me, for which I was

grateful. Greg came back with a huge stack

of papers and handed them to each of us.

“Okay, so your assignment for next time

is to read everyone else’s and make at least

three comments on each paper.

Got it? You’re dismissed.” He waved his

hand, and I wondered if he’d been British in

a past life. He certainly talked like it, even

though he didn’t have an accent.

I was freaking about everyone else

reading my paper because it was so

personal. I hadn’t meant it to be, but the

words had sort of come out of nowhere.

Nothing I could do about it now.

I pulled the Skittles and M&M’s out of

my bag and tore them open, pouring an

equal amount into my hand before folding

the bags back up and putting them back.

You and your weird snacks. Sometimes

I wonder if there’s something wrong with

your taste buds, Jossy.

I cracked an M&M’s between my teeth

and chased it with a Skittles.

That night I finally got around to

updating my music blog.

I’d gained ten followers that week,

which made me want to dance for joy. It

didn’t sound like a lot, but for being

relatively new, I was gaining followers

pretty steadily. My happy was taken down a

notch when I saw how many stupid spam

comments I had to delete.

“Jos!” Renee yelled from upstairs. I had

my headphones around my neck and my

music on low, so I was able to hear her over

my new Lenka CD.

“Yeah?” I yelled back.

“What are you doing down there?”

“Nothing.” This was ridiculous. I went to

the top of the stairs. “Why?”

“You’ve just been down there forever.”

“Well, I’m not setting my hair on fire or

slitting my wrists, if that’s what you were

worried about.” I leaned in the doorway.

She was killing my blog-updating


“No, I just think it’s silly for you to be

down there alone.”

The living room was full of people, as

usual, and also full of half-done homework,

open books and too many highlighters.

Darah had a thing for using different colors

for each class.

“Maybe I like being alone.”

She didn’t have an answer to that.

Renee hated being alone. Being raised with

so many siblings had had the opposite

effect on me.

“Oh, come on, Little Ne. Why would you

want to be alone when you can hang out

with us?” Mase was twisting Darah’s hair

around his fingers, and she was trying to

concentrate on a textbook open in her lap.

They weren’t going to leave me alone,

so I went downstairs, got my laptop and

came back up. Mase moved over so I could

squish next to him on the couch.

“See how much more fun this is?”

Hunter and Taylor were sharing her

e-reader and he kept yelling at her for

skipping to the next page too fast. Once she

was sure I was within her eyesight and not

doing anything bad, Renee went back to her

books and Paul did the same.

Just another night at Yellowfield House.

I turned my music back on and put my

headphones over my ears. With them on, I

couldn’t hear any conversation around me,

even if I wanted to, so it was kind of like

being alone, except for when Hunter stole

the e-reader and Taylor chased him around.

She eventually got a hold of his ear and

twisted it until he gave it back.

“You play dirty, Miss. I might have to

punish you for that.”

I was mentally gagging.

“Shh, that’s the kind of thing we don’t

talk about in front of everyone,” Taylor said,

sitting back down on the couch.

I had no doubt that they normally talked

like that, but me being there put the kibosh

on the sexy talk.

“You guys know that I am aware that

you all have sex with each other. I mean,

not at the same time, because that would

be super creepy, but I’m not an idiot.” All

eyes turned toward me. “I can hear you

when I’m down there.”

Ha. They all looked sheepish. Even


“I’m not saying that I care. I’m just

saying that I’m aware of it. I mean, Taylor

and I are nearly the same age. You guys

have to stop treating me like a child.”

Mase cleared his throat.

“You’re right, Jos. I think it’s that we all

sort of went into protective mode when you

came here.”

“I wonder where you got that idea

from,” I said, glaring at Renee.

“What am I supposed to do? You are my

little sister. I’ll always think of you that way,

even when we’re old and gray.”

I was a bit uncomfortable talking like

this with everyone watching, but it was

bound to happen sooner or later.

“I know that.”

“You could loosen up a little, Ne,” Paul

said. I was surprised. He never usually

provoked Renee if he could help it.

I’d have to thank him later.

“Okay, everyone gang up on me—that’s

awesome.” She got up and stormed up the

stairs. Yup, I could have called it.

“Sorry, Jos. I was trying to help,” Paul

said, getting up and going after her.

“I know. Thanks, Paul.”

“I don’t get what she’s so bent out of

shape about,” Mase said. “I mean, I know

you’ve only been here for a short time, but

you don’t really seem like

juvenile-delinquent material. No offense.”

“None taken. It’s just…complicated.” I

was shocked Renee hadn’t given them

every gory detail.

“Most relationships are. Complicated, I

mean,” Mase said, looking at Darah. “But

the complications can be the best part.

Right, Dare?”

Darah nodded and he kissed the side of

her head.

I texted Hannah and told her I could pick

her up at her dorm and walk down to the

Union with her, and she took me up on my

offer. Taylor and Hunter had gone over

earlier because he had to be with the

group. She also mentioned meeting her

friend Megan, who I had yet to become

acquainted with.

Hunter had been acting really weird that

morning, and everyone had noticed. He

tried to play it off that he was nervous

about the performance, but I was pretty

sure Hunter had never been nervous about

anything like that in his life.

He oozed confidence, so clearly he was

either up to something, or he’d done

something stupid. Or both.

“I’m going to meet a friend,” I said to

Renee as I downed my second cup of

Lemon Zinger. I’d really gotten addicted to

that stuff, and I even had my own corner of

the cabinet now for my stash.

“Who?” I hadn’t really mentioned

Hannah in great detail to Renee since she

had been so pissy the night before. I didn’t

know why. I guess I just didn’t want to get

into it with her.

She’d want to know all about her, and I

didn’t want to share Hannah with other

people. She was my friend.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get to meet her.

She’s coming to Hunter’s thing. I’m just

picking her up on my way.”

She looked suspicious, but seriously,

that was what I was doing.

“Okay. I’ll meet you there, then. Drive

safe.” Wow, that was the first time she’d let

me out of the house without a massive

lecture. I met Paul’s eyes and mouthed,

“thank you.”

He nodded back.

I parked in front of Oxford Hall,

Hannah’s dorm, and sent her a text to say I

was ready. She came down a few minutes

later, her hair loose and all over the place.

“Hey, girl. What’s up?”

“Not a whole lot. You?”

“Nope. Just normal roommate drama,

but I’m over it. I would have invited you up,

but she’s there, and I don’t want to provoke

her any more than I already do by existing

in her space. Plus, she’s a major bitch.” She

clicked her seat belt and gave me a rueful


I found a spot in the commuter lot right

across from the Union.

“Do you mind if I stop for a little

pick-me-up?” Hannah said.


Hannah filled up on caffeine from the

Starbucks and I marveled at how empty the

Union was when classes weren’t in session.

It was a ghost town. It wasn’t until we got

out to the walkway that crossed over to the

other side of the Union that we looked

down and saw all the people waiting in

front of the bookstore on the lower level.

The Steiners were easy to spot because

they all had black T-shirts that said Steiners

and were standing in a tight group.

I spotted Hunter mostly because his arm

tattoo was so visible. Dusty was also easy to

spot because of his sagging pants.

I leaned over the railing and squinted.

Huh. He had some ink, too, peeking out

from the edge of his T-shirt sleeve.

His tattoo was impossible to read from

my angle. Not that I was trying, or really

cared that much about it.

“Who are we staring at?” Hannah said in

my ear, making me jump. She sipped on a

giant cup of iced something-or-other and

leaned next to me.

“No one in particular,” I said, standing

Page 14

back up.

“Uh-huh,” she said in a tone that said

she didn’t believe me one little bit. Yeah, I

didn’t believe me, either. I looked away

from the guys and found Taylor’s blond

ponytail and then I saw the rest of the

household joining her.

“So,” I said, facing Hannah. “You wanna

meet the crazies I live with?”

She took a long sip from her straw.

“Lead the way.”

The space in front of the bookstore grew

increasingly crowded as more people

arrived to see the show. Hannah and I

threaded our way through, and I caught

Renee’s eye as she searched for me.

“There you are,” she said, holding Paul’s

hand. “And you must be Hannah.” Renee

barely even looked at Hannah’s scars. I’d

expected that; nothing phased Renee, least

of all something like a scar.

“I must be,” Hannah said, shrugging.

“I’m going to take a wild guess and say

you’re Renee.”

“Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner,”

Renee said, laughing.

“This is Paul,” I said, motioning to him.

He nodded and smiled at Hannah. I whistled

and Mase turned his head.

He’d been deep in conversation with

Darah. You could set a tornado around

those people and they wouldn’t even be

aware of it.

“Hey, nice to meet you. Any friend of

Jos’s is a friend of ours.”

Then Taylor introduced her friend

Megan, a fellow redhead, and her fiancé,

Jake, and I liked her instantly and not just

because we were hair comrades.

I went through the rest of the

introductions and pointed out Hunter, who

was busy chatting with some of the other

guys as they got ready.

“He’s freaking out,” Taylor said,

watching him.

“He doesn’t look like it.” He was smiling

and laughing.

“He’s tapping.” I looked down and saw

that he was tapping his hand against his leg.

One, two, three, four, five times in a row.

“He always does that when he’s freaking

out. I have no idea why—this isn’t his first

show. I swear, the minute I think I

understand him is the minute he decides to

surprise me.” She nibbled on a hangnail and

I noticed her ring was missing.

“Where’s the rock?”

“Hunter’s lawyer, Joe, wanted to get it

appraised or something so they could take

out insurance on it, or something? I feel

crazy not having it. You’d be surprised that

you can get used to wearing something like


Megan coughed and Taylor gave her a

look. Huh. Wonder what that was about.

“Um, spoiler alert, but that guy over

there is trying to eye fuck you,” Hannah

said, her voice just a little too loud.

I didn’t even need to look up to see who

it was.

“Shh, keep your voice down. I’m fully

aware of him.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, sucking the last few

drops of her rink into her straw and then

tossing it in the nearest trash can. “He’s

pretty sexy.” She turned her head sideways

and then to the other side.

“You should totally hit that. He looks like

he’d be…good.”

Like either of us would know.

I finally decided to look in Dusty’s

direction. While he was talking with one of

the other guys, his eyes were definitely

turned my way. He caught me staring and


My eyes traveled down his arm, trying

to make out the tattoo, but it was mostly

covered by his sleeve.

“Stop ogling,” Hannah hissed in my ear.

One of the guys cleared his throat and

stepped forward as the rest of the Steiners

formed a line.

“Hello, everyone, my name is Kent, and

we are The UMaine Steiners. Guys, you

wanna introduce yourselves?”

One by one, the guys stepped forward

and said their names.

There were twelve of them in total, and

at least half were very good-looking, which

was a higher amount than I would have


Kent snapped his fingers to make a beat

and counted.

Dusty came in first, laying down a

drumbeat, and then the rest of the group

started the song. “One More Night” by

Maroon 5. I caught Hunter’s eye and he

pointed at me. The guys traded off who

would sing lead, and Hunter got a turn.

Dusty got totally into his beat boxing,

even dancing a little with it. The other guys

also danced, a few even making a little joke

of it as everyone laughed.

They finished the song, and Dusty made

the cymbal crash sound again. Everyone

cheered and clapped and the guys

regrouped and started another song. This

time it was an old one, Hoobastank’s “The

Reason,” followed by a mash-up of a bunch

of Queen songs that got everyone humming

along and had plenty of awesome dance

moves, and then “P.Y.T.” by Michael


“They’re really good,” Hannah said in my

ear. “And your beat boxer is beyond sexy.

I’m just imagining all of the things he could

do with that mouth.”

I ignored her comments as the group

took a quick break and had some water.

Hunter stepped forward.

“Hello, everyone. I’m Hunter, and I’m

going to have to beg for your attention for a


“What the hell is that boy doing?” Taylor

said under her breath.

“You see, I love this girl over here.” He

pointed to Taylor, and her face turned red.

“Yeah, you, Taylor.” He held his hand out,

and she stepped forward. “Music has

always been a part of our lives. I sang to her

on our first real date. I sang to her the first

of many times I screwed things up, and so I

thought it was only right that I sing to her

for this. So, here goes.”

One of the other guys brought out a

chair for Taylor, and Hunter forced her to sit

in it. She looked like she wanted to sink into

the floor and kept ducking her head so she

couldn’t see everyone staring at her.

I had a feeling I knew where this was

going, and everyone else was whispering

the same thing around me.

“Oh, my God, he isn’t,” Renee said.

“I think he is,” Paul responded.

This time it was Hunter’s turn to start

the song. Dusty set a slow beat that was

soft and romantic. It took a few seconds,

but I recognized the song, and I knew what

was going to happen.

I watched Taylor’s face as he started

singing “I Can’t Wait”

by Runner Runner. The second he sang

the wordwife,she put her hands to her

mouth and started to cry. The crowd sighed

in unison as Taylor shook her head and

wiped tears as Hunter held her hand and

sang to her. I caught Dusty’s eye and he

smiled at me and I smiled back. You

couldn’t help it.

Such an open and beautiful expression

of love had that effect.

Hunter was left singing the last note by

himself, holding it and then letting it fade

before he reached into his pocket as he got

down on one knee. My eyes were more

than a little moist, but I wasn’t the only one.

The surrounding crowd held their collective


“Taylor Elizabeth Caldwell, you are the

only song I want to sing for the rest of my

life and I love you more than the stars. Will

you marry me?”

She only paused for a second before she

whispered it, but somehow that whisper

carried through the whole room.


The crowd erupted as Hunter yanked

her off the chair and swung her around, and

she laughed and cried, oblivious now to

everyone watching her. The rest of the

Steiners broke out singing “Chapel of Love”

by The Dixie Cups and a sing-along broke

out as everyone clapped and sang with the


Kent stepped forward and asked for

quiet after everyone finished.

“Yeah, yeah, enough of that.” Everyone

booed. “Just kidding. We have one last song

for you.” Hunter put his arm around Taylor

and pulled her back to stand with the group

as Dusty started another beat and they

launched into “Walking on Sunshine.”

Taylor was so giddy that she sang along and

her voice melded with the rest of the group.

“Thank you, everyone! And let’s have

another round of applause for the happy

couple!” Everyone clapped and then started

heading back to wherever they came from.

Renee and Darah and Megan let out

shrieks that sounded like they belonged to

long-extinct dinosaurs and launched

themselves at Taylor, and lots more

screaming and carrying-on ensued. Hunter

and Mase gave each other back-banging

hugs, and Mase gave one to Taylor that I

was pretty sure crushed her ribs.

“Congratulations,” I said, giving both of

them hugs. “Now you’re really, really

family. No escaping us now.”

“Nice proposal, dude. Well done,”

Hannah said to Hunter, holding her fist out.

He looked at her for a second, perplexed.

“Hunter, this is my friend Hannah.”

“Oh, of course, didn’t mean to leave you

hanging there.”

He bumped her hand. I could tell Taylor

had a hard time not staring at Hannah’s

face, but after Hannah gave her a huge

smile and a hug everything was fine.

“I saw you crying.” I really needed to

stop being surprised when Dusty sneaked

up behind me. He’d done it enough times.

“And you are?” Hannah said, swooping

around and getting right in front of him.

Dusty didn’t look twice at her face before

he smiled.

“Dusty Sharp, at your service.” He

bowed. Hannah didn’t look impressed. Five

seconds ago, she’d been talking like she

wanted to jump him. Jesus, this girl was

going to give me whiplash.

“Hannah Gillespie. And you, dude, have

been staring at my friend Jos, here.”

His smile faltered for just a second and

then he raised his hands as if she’d pointed

a gun at him.

“Guilty as charged. But can you blame


“Maybe,” Hannah said, narrowing her

eyes. I had to put a stop to this.

“Hey, Hannah, do you want to come

shopping with me?

Like, right now?” I grabbed her arm and

tried to drag her away. I’d been planning on

going on my job search, but he didn’t need

to know that.

“Can I come?” Dusty said, following us.

No, idiot, the point was to get away from


“Uh, no,” I said. “You wouldn’t want to

come with us.

We’ll be buying things like tampons and

yeast infection cream and…other things for

our lady parts and sparkly earrings and lots

and lots of pink.”

“Sounds like fun.” Ugh, could anything I

say turn this guy off?

“Why don’t we do something a little

less…um, disgusting? Do you live on

campus?” Hannah directed her question to


“No, I have my own place in Old Town. I

would invite you there, but I’m pretty sure

the mold growing in my bathroom is

becoming sentient and would murder you

when I turned my back.”

“Ew,” Hannah and I said at the same


“Yeah, I keep trying to get my landlord

to do something about it, but no dice. Can’t

get anywhere when you’re poor as shit.”

“Amen. You speak my language, dude.”

Hannah nodded.

Oh, now she was cool with him again.

They’d bonded over their shared financial


Somebody called out to Dusty to remind

him of plans next week or something.

“Actually, I have to get to work.

Sorry, ladies. Rain check?”

“Sounds good,” Hannah said.

“But, Red, I will see you on Sunday. The

guys have sort of planned a little surprise

party for Hunter and Taylor, and all the

members of Yellowfield House are invited,

of course.

And you, Hannah Gillespie, are also


“Sweet,” she said. “I have nothing else

to do.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Renee called my name.

“We’re going out to celebrate. Are you


So much for job hunting. “Yeah, sure.”

“Am I invited?” Hannah yelled.

“Of course,” Renee, Mase and Hunter

yelled back.

It was scary how well she was fitting in

with us.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye, then. I’ll

see you tomorrow.

Red, Hannah Gillespie.” He nodded at

both of us, grabbed his bag and waved

goodbye to the other guys from the group

and took the stairs two at a time.

“He is…something else,” Hannah said,

staring after him.

“My thoughts exactly.”

The only topic of conversation when we

went out to eat at Pat’s Pizza was Hunter

and Taylor’s plans. Megan was in the midst

of planning her own wedding and was busy

giving tips and so forth, and Hunter didn’t

seem to be nearly as intimidated as I

expected him to be.

“Did he ask your father?” Renee said,

Page 15

her pizza mostly untouched.

“Actually, I did,” Hunter said, earning a

look of approval from Renee.

“You did?” Taylor said. “When?”

“Christmas. Planned it all out and

everything.” Taylor had recently

reconnected with her father, and had even

gone down to see him in Connecticut during

the break and taken Hunter with her.

“Brilliant,” Mase said, giving him

another fist bump. “I thought you were

crazy, man, but best of luck. I’m happy I can

officially call Taylor a member of the family.

Oh, my God, have you told Harper yet?

She’s going to be over the effing moon.”

“Let’s call her right now.” I knew a little

bit about Mase’s sister Harper, who had

cerebral palsy and was wheelchair bound.

There were more than a few pictures of her

in the house, and he’d said she was coming

to visit with his parents at some point.

Hunter got out his phone and put it on


“Who are they calling?” Hannah

whispered as the phone rang.

“Mase’s little sister. She and Hunter are

really close,” I said.

“Hello?” A little girl’s voice answered.

Seriously, the kid had her own phone?

Typical rich people.

“Hey, Seven! What’s shaking?” Hunter

said, a huge smile on his face. It was clear

from the way he talked about her that he

was completely in love with her. It was

really sweet.

“Hunter! I got an A on my story. Wanna

hear it?”

“Sure, Seven, but I called because I want

to tell you something. Taylor’s here, too.”

“Hi, Harper!” Taylor said.

“When are you coming to see me?”

“Soon, princess. I swear. But guess


“What?” Harper said.

“Hunter and I are going to get married.”

“You are?”

Taylor looked at Hunter and smiled.

“Yes, we are.”

A little-girl scream exploded from the

phone, and Hunter picked it up and took it

off speakerphone.

“She has never made that sound

before,” Mase said, shaking his head. “I

think she’s more excited about that than

she was about the Taylor Swift tickets she

got for Christmas.”

Hunter continued to talk to the excited


“So you guys going to get hitched right

away?” Hannah asked Taylor as she stole

the uneaten pizza crust off my plate and

munched on it. I guess our friendship had

progressed to the food-stealing stage.

Taylor snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think so.

We both want to finish school first, and it

seems…I don’t know, weird to get married

while we’re still in college. I mean, I don’t

want people to think I’m knocked up or


“Are you?” Hannah said. I almost died.

“Not that I know of,” Taylor said. “I just

really don’t want to deal with that now. We

have too much to do. But someday.”

Hannah nodded, and Renee went back

to grilling Taylor about her perfect wedding.

“You okay?” I was in the kitchen having

a cup of tea that night. Everyone else had

gone to bed, but I couldn’t sleep.

Renee’s voice made me jump.

“Yeah, fine. What are you doing up?”

“I guess I was just excited about

everything. I can’t believe he actually did

it.” She grabbed a glass from the dish

drainer and filled it with water. “When he

first got her the ring I thought he’d

proposed, but then the ring was on her

right hand. It was only a matter of time,

though. Those two are destined for each


“You jealous?” She gave me a look like

I’d said something completely outlandish.

She snorted some of the water and

choked. “Of them getting married? Hell, no.

I amnotready to get married.”

“But you’re living with Paul. I mean, it’s

not exactly the same thing, but it’s close.”

She laughed.

“Oh, my dear sweet little sister. There is

a world of difference between living with

someone and marrying them.”

“But you would marry Paul. Eventually, I


“Yeah, years down the road when we

both are out of debt and have more than

two nickels to rub together. I don’t want to

spend a shit ton of money on a wedding if

we can’t even afford to pay for our health

insurance or a place to live. Besides, I want

a huge-ass wedding, and I’m only going to

do it once. Why not do it right?” She had

valid points, rational points. I wondered

how Paul felt about it. Not that it mattered.

Renee wore the pants, the shirts and

everything else in their relationship. She

had him by the balls, but he never seemed

to mind.

“So what was with you and Dusty?”

“What do you mean?” Shit, I did not

want her to get on my case about him.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading

too much into it.”

“I’m not interested in him,” I said for the

millionth time.

“I didn’t think you would be. I mean, he

issonot your type at all.” Wasn’t. I didn’t

have a type anymore.

“I can say this now that you’re not with

him, but I never liked Matt. He was always

so… I don’t know.” She waved her hand,

trying to come up with the right word.

“Uptight?” I supplied. Yeah, so was I.

“No, it was something more than that. I

always felt like he was judging me and

found me wanting. But he treated you right,

and I saw that he loved you, so I kept that

to myself.” Not really. I could tell the whole

time I’d dated Matt from high school to

college that Renee hadn’t liked him.

She was pretty bad at hiding when she

didn’t like someone, but I would never tell

her that.

She drained the glass of water. “Okay,

well, I’m going back to bed. Night, little

sister.” She held her arms out for a hug and

I held mine out too and we hugged like we

used to.

“Night, big sister.”

I took the rest of my tea and went back

down to my cave and turned my music on.

Ingrid Michaelson’s voice filled

my ears, feeling weirdly appropriate for

late-night listening.

“Here, listen to this one,” he said,

handing me one of his ear-buds. I fitted it to

my ear as an unfamiliar voice sang about

lovingsomeone, but feeling like a freak in

comparison. When I’d told himI didn’t really

listen to music, he’d taken it as a challenge.

Eachday, he would bring me a new song.

Pop, rock, country, rap, old-ies, whatever.

He’d listen to pretty much anything. “As

long as it’sgood,” he said.

“Music says what words can’t. Add

words to music and you saytwo things at


I missed him, but I still couldn’t talk

about him, out loud.

Not to Renee, not to anyone. I couldn’t

explain it. He’d been the first real friend I’d

ever had. He’d been the friend that made

me realize that all the other people I

thought were my friends really weren’t.

I hadn’t been in love with him, not that

way, but I’d loved him all the same. I’d

heard something somewhere that said guys

and girls couldn’t be friends without at least

one falling in love with the other, but it

wasn’t true. There were just different kinds

of love, that’s all. He’d been like the brother

I never had, and he’d treated me like a

sister. A part of me was gone, taken with

him when he…

I turned off the music. It made me think

of him, and I knew what he would have said

if he knew I was moping about him.

Just smile, Jossy. The world isn’t that

bad. Besides, you have tohave the bad

parts so you recognize the good ones when

they comealong.

“Wow, this show is ridiculous.” I was

sitting with Hannah on the futon under her

lofted bed, watching my second episode

ever ofBuffy the Vampire Slayer.“It’s so

weird. Those computers are, like, gigantic,”

I said.

“I know, right? Like, in the best way. Just

wait until the third season.” Hannah had

her trusty bag of Skittles and I’d brought

some M&M’s from the vending machine in

the basement of her dorm and I was mixing

them in an empty Solo cup. “You know, a

lot of the problems on this show could have

been resolved by cell phones. But then you

wouldn’t have such an entertaining show,

so I guess it’s fine the way it is.”

I held my cup out and she poured some

more Skittles into it.

“Heard from Dusty?” she said, eyes on

the screen.

“Uh, no. He doesn’t have my number, so

that’s a negative.”


“Do you want me to have heard from

him? Because you were acting really weird


“Oh, that? I was just being the

protective friend. I wanted to see how he’d

respond. A lot of guys get intimidated by a

protective friend, and then there’s always

the ones you need to watch out for, the

guys that are threatened by a girl having


“Have you known a lot of guys like


“A few. Here and there.” Yeah, there

was much more to that story. An asterisk

and a lot of footnotes in tiny print. I didn’t

think we had passed the friendship

milestone where I could interrogate her

until she told me about it, so I let it go.

“And the verdict on Dusty?”

“He seems like a nice guy. Cocky, and he

might have a dark past he’s trying to hide,

or maybe he’s a closet fan ofLord of the

Rings,or a hoarder, or obsessed with

something weird, but I don’t think he’s a

bad guy. Didn’t get that bad-guy vibe.

Bad-boy vibe, yes.”

“What’s the difference?”

She paused the show and sighed,

brushing her hair away from her face.

“Okay, a bad boy is one that makes you

all, like, tingly.

He’s dangerous in a good way. A way

that makes your heart race and want to ride

a motorcycle or go skinny-dipping. A bad

guy is one who hurts you, or makes you feel

worthless, or isolates you from your friends.

He’s just dangerous. Those are the guys to

stay away from.”

“Oh.” She seemed to have it all figured

out, and I could tell she’d spent a lot of time

thinking about bad guys as opposed to bad


“So Dusty is a bad boy.”

“Definitely. Unless you see any red flags.

Then you run in the opposite direction.”

“I’m pretty sure if there were any red

flags, my sister and the rest of the people I

live with wouldn’t let him near me. Hunter

wouldn’t be friends with a bad guy.”

“Still. You never know. People aren’t

always what they seem. You spend years

thinking they’re one way and then

something happens and they reveal who

they really are.”

“But you can’t go through life thinking

that everyone is bad.”

“I don’t. I told you—I trust my instincts.”

We weren’t going to agree, so I dropped

it and we went back to watching the show,

but I thought a lot about what she’d said

about people being bad or good, and trying

to tell the difference.

I didn’t think I’d ever met a really bad

person. Even my ex and my ex-friends

weren’t bad people.

I’d been just like them, and I didn’t think

I was a bad person. That guy, Travis, the

one who had hurt Taylor, he was a bad guy.

I didn’t need to meet him or know anything

else about him to know that. But did that

mean he would always be bad? Could

people change?

I’d changed.

I had so many thoughts running through

my head I almost forgot about the

engagement dinner and found the house in

chaos when I got back from Hannah’s.

Mase was on his hands and knees in the

living room, along with Hunter and Darah.

Page 16

“What do they look like again?” Hunter

said, patting his hands on the floor.

“They’re little gold studs. Remember,

Taylor gave them to me?” Darah said,

closing one eye and putting the side of her

face on the floor.

“Right,” Hunter said.

“Found it!” Mase held his hand out to

Darah, and she gave him a kiss.

“Thanks, baby.” She stood up and

brushed off the front of her black dress and

put the earring in her ear.

Both Hunter and Mase had nice dress

shirts on and nice pants with dress shoes.

“Where have you been?” Renee said,

slipping her heel into her shoe and walking

down the steps at the same time.

Paul was just behind her, making sure

she didn’t take a dive down the stairs. She

had one of her best dresses on; green with

swirls of black on the hem. Paul was also

wearing a green shirt. Oh, no. They’d

become one of “those” couples.

“You’re not wearing that,” she said,

pointing to my torn jeans and gray thermal


“I’m sorry. I completely forgot. I’ll go

change.” Shit, what was I going to wear?

Everything nice was packed away. “I don’t

have anything,” I said, biting my lip.

“Are you serious? You used to wear

dresses and skirts more than pants.” She

put her hands on her hips.

I shrugged. “I don’t have any.”

“Okay, let me think.” She put her fingers

to her temples.

“I think I have something that you can

wear. Come on.”

She lunged out, grabbed my arm and

dragged me upstairs.

I bumped into Taylor on her way down

from the third floor. She had a baby-blue

dress that looked like it could have

belonged to Audrey Hepburn and her hair

was loose around her face.

“Hey, Jos!”

“Wardrobe crisis,” Renee said before

yanking me into her room and throwing her

closet doors open. Taylor followed, and

Darah was right behind her.

A flurry of activity followed, where I

wasn’t allowed to talk or say anything.

Much like a mannequin.

They held things up to me and messed

with my hair.

Darah had the best hair skills, so she

braided it, starting above my ear on one

side of my head and going to the other,

making a sort of crown. Back in my previous

life, I’d been a big fan of buns, and had

slicked my hair back so people could see

that I was put together and meant business.

Darah let my hair wisp out around my face

and pulled a few strands loose.

“There,” she said, putting a few bobby

pins in place.

Renee and Taylor were tossing dresses

on the floor and finally settled on a sparkly

gold party dress with a flared skirt.

“I’m not wearing that,” I said as they

started undressing me. “Jesus, can I have

some privacy?” I ducked into the closet and

pulled the door semishut. I didn’t care

about Renee seeing me mostly nude, but it

felt weird having the other girls there.

The dress had enough going on the top

so it covered my bra, which was good. I

adjusted it a little and tried to zip it up in

the back, but my arms didn’t move that


“Um, can somebody give me a hand?”

Renee hauled me out of the closet and

zipped the dress up.

“Perfect!” she said, hooking the clasp at

the top of the dress so the zipper wouldn’t

come down and cause a wardrobe

malfunction. That would be just fantastic.

She spun me around and the other two

shoved earrings in my ears and started

applying stuff to my face.

“I am not a Barbie,” I said as Taylor

swiped something on my eyelids. I was too

busy concentrating on not getting poked in

the eye to see what color it was.

“You are right now, my dear,” Taylor

said, smudging some of the color. Renee

was busy looking through her makeup to

find a color that would work on me and

found some pink lip gloss.

“Yes. Here we go.” She put it on my lips

as Taylor tried not to jab my eye out with


“Isn’t this unsanitary?” I said. “Shouldn’t

you be disinfecting that before you stick it

near my eye?” Renee was a big proponent

of hand sanitizer and disinfecting things and

coughing in your elbow.

“Are you saying that you don’t want to

share my germs? I mean, you are my sister.

Are you saying you’re too good for my

germs?” She pretend-glared at me.

“Fine, fine. Am I done yet?” I really

wanted to see what they’d done to me. I

hoped it wasn’t like when one of my little

sisters decided to play dress up and used

my face to practice their makeup skills on.

“Just about,” Taylor said, spritzing me

with some of Renee’s perfume. Was that a

subtle way of telling me that I smelled bad?

“Done,” Renee said, straightening one of

the straps of the dress.

“Uh, shoes?” I was still barefoot.

Through some miracle of genetics, Renee

and I had identical-sized feet, so she shoved

some black ballet flats on my feet. I was out

of practice when it came to wearing heels.

I’d probably fall on my face if I tried.

“Okay, now you’re done,” Renee said.

I turned and looked at myself in Renee’s

full-length mirror. I looked like before me,

only not. I never would have worn this

dress, or done my hair this way, or put that

much eye shadow on. Taylor had given me

a sultry look that I was pretty sure I could

never pull off, but it made me look older

and mysterious. That illusion would be

shattered the second I opened my mouth.

“What are you doing up there?” Mase

yelled up the stairs.

“Making my sister sexy,” Renee yelled

back. I gave her a look. “Oh, come on. I

couldn’t let you go to a party in your frumpy

wear. We should definitely go shopping.” I

hated shopping. I’d always pretended to

like it back when it had been a social

obligation. I was actually thrilled that I

didn’t have to do it anymore.

“Yeah, maybe.” I probably wouldn’t

have a choice. She’d force me to do it as

some sort of sister bonding and attempt to

get me back to the way I was. It would take

a lot more than putting on my old clothes.

Or new clothes that would have worked on

the old me.

“Can we go now?” I said, uncomfortable

with attention already.

“Let’s go, bitches,” Renee said,

whooping. “We have some shit to


Renee, Paul and I drove to campus to

pick up Hannah. I was so glad she’d agreed

to go, because I figured a lot of the people

there would be upperclassmen that I didn’t


“Damn, you clean up good, girl,”

Hannah said as she swept into the car,

wearing a black shift dress. It was the first

time I’d seen her arms bare, and I saw that

the burn traveled down her neck and over

her arm, as well.

“It’ll be too dark, and most people will

be too drunk to notice,” she said, turning

her arm back and forth as if she was looking

at it for the first time. “Plus, I love this dress

and I’m not going to let anything stop me

from wearing it.”

She was awesome.

The party was at a house just outside of

campus that several of the Steiners rented

together. There were already quite a few

cars there when Renee pulled up.

“Okay, here’s how this is going to go. If I

see a drink in your hand, it better be soda. If

I see you talking with any weird guys,

someone will step in. You have a lot of eyes

on you and this night is about Taylor and

Hunter, okay? No shenanigans.”

“Yes, yes. I got it.” I was kind of offended

that she’d think that I would try to ruin their

special night.

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep her out of

trouble,” Hannah said.

“I’ve got my eye on you, young lady.”

We were the same freaking age.

Renee looked at Hannah and then back

at me. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”

The house was already full of people,

none of whom I knew, which made me

beyond grateful that I at least had Hannah.

Hunter and Taylor were being

bombarded with hugs and congratulations

and bits of semisober unsolicited advice.

Renee and Paul went to join them in the

living room along with Megan and Jake as a

few of the Steiners serenaded the rest of

the room with dirty versions of popular


“Man, I wish I could drink without

pissing your sister off. She scares the crap

out of me, by the way,” Hannah said.

“Yeah, she has that effect on people.” I

scanned the room, looking for anyone that I

might know.

“You look nice.” As per usual, Dusty

Sharp had sneaked up behind me. I spun

slowly, preparing myself for his snarky

comments at the change in my attire. What

I wasn’t prepared for was to make him

momentarily speechless. His eyes widened

and scanned me up and down. Twice. He

swallowed and made a kind of stuttering

noise. Well, that was a first.

“Keep your eyeballs in your head, dude,”

Hannah said, stepping in front of me.

“And you look ravishing as well, Hannah

Gillespie.” He waved his arm to indicate her


“Nice recovery,” she said, patting his

chest. Dusty didn’t look too bad himself. His

pants almost fit him and he had a button-up

on that was definitely a little tight in the

chest region. Not that I paid any attention

to it. Or the fact that the shirt clung to his

arms, as well. They were…pleasant arms.

Very nicely shaped and muscled. The

kind of arms that you’d feel safe in, if you

tripped. You knew they’d catch you… .

“You okay there, Red?” Dusty peered at

me as if I’d been staring at him. Shit. I

probably had been. No, I definitely had

been. “How about I get you ladies

something to drink. Nonalcoholic, I


Dusty saw my hesitation. I didn’t accept

drinks from anyone unless I’d poured or

opened them myself.

“Trust me, Red. I’ll bring you unopened

cans. Tamper proof. Be right back.”

“Smart. I never trust anyone at a party.

Not that anyone would want to drug me,”

Hannah said. She sounded disappointed,

which was a little crazy.

Dusty came back a few minutes later as

Hannah and I were trying to figure out a

good place to park ourselves.

“A can for you and a can for you and a

can for me.” He handed out sweating cans

of Coke. “They didn’t have Dr Pepper,

sorry.” How did he know I liked Dr Pepper?

“I saw you drink it at the house, and at the

Sea Dog.” The question was, why did he

remember that?

“Now how do I know that you didn’t

shake this?” I said, pausing before I popped

the top.

“Because I wouldn’t dare do anything to

that stunning dress. And I know how you

redheads are when you get angry.”

I wanted to shake the can and open it in

his face.

“That is a common misconception,” I

said through clenched teeth. If I’d heard

one redhead joke, I’d heard them all, but

everyone seemed to live under the delusion

that I’d never heard them before.

“Oh, really? Because I can picture you

getting all…fiery.”

He stepped closer and I caught a whiff of

his cologne. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of

those that guys seemed to think it was okay

to douse themselves in. It was nice. He also

smelled faintly of clean laundry.

Hannah popped her can and took a huge


“You don’t seem like a soda kind of

guy—what’s up with that?” she said,

pointing at the soda in his hand. He opened

it, being sure to point it away from me. How


“Been there, done that. It wasn’t pretty,

that’s for sure.” He wouldn’t look at me

when he said it. “More fun, though.”

He gazed at the crowd, who was

definitely having a good time. Some sort of

drinking game was going on in the middle of

the room. It was too cramped to play beer

pong, but they had cooked up some


Hannah was studying Dusty with her

head to the side. I caught her eye and she

shook her head. If she was trying to tell me

something, I wasn’t speaking her language. I

finally opened the can of soda and took a


The Steiners put together a little

performance, and everyone watched and

sang along. Hannah spotted a girl from one

of her classes, but didn’t seem to want to

go over and talk to her, so we stayed in a

corner, talking to Dusty. He left us to go and

sing, but always came back, even though

several of the guys tried to drag him away

or ply him with drinks.

For some reason, he turned them down

and talked with us instead. I couldn’t help

Page 17

but laugh as he told us stupid stories about

random things. Dusty was one of those

infectious people that made you feel good

when you were around them. It was easy to

see that everyone adored him, and easy to

see why he and Hunter had formed their


Hunter was like that, too.

“I think he’s into you,” Hannah said

during one of the songs when Dusty had left

us. “Like, really into you.”

“Well, that doesn’t matter because I’m

not into him. At all.”

“Funny, because you’ve been staring at

him like you want to finish him like the last

piece of cake.” I stared at her and she

wiggled her eyebrows. “Tasty, tasty man

cake covered in sex frosting.”

“You are disgusting.”

“Or maybe I’m just right.” I had to shush

her as Dusty rejoined us.

“So what do you think about those two

crazy kids getting hitched?” He pointed

toward Hunter and Taylor, who hadn’t let

go of each other pretty much the entire


“Are you asking me about my feelings

on marriage, Dusty?” I said.

“Whoa, Red. Easy there. Just making


“I think it’s lovely. I mean, they’re

obviously perfect for each other. Some

people are like that. Made for each other,”

I said.

“Some people are,” Dusty said, but he

was looking at me, and I could feel my

stupid face and ears going red. I wished

sometimes I could wear a hat that would

cover my ears so people couldn’t see them

broadcasting my emotions.

The marriage conversation was dropped

as one of the Steiners started taking bets on

if he could sing random songs that people

shouted out without making any mistakes.

If he made a mistake with a lyric, he had to

drink. And everyone else got to drink if he…

Well, the rules weren’t really clear.

Everyone seemed pretty gone at that

point, so it made sense to them, but not to

us sober folks.

Dusty sighed and stared into his soda


“I don’t think anyone’s going to arrest

you if you have a beer,” I said.

He shook his head. “No, but I made

someone a promise, and I have to stick to


“You go to AA?” Hannah said, laughing

as the guy singing got a lyric wrong and

everyone called him on it. God, you could

make anything into a drinking game.

“No, just took some advice someone

gave me to heart. Made a change.”

“Is this supposed to be an

improvement?” I said.

He held his hand on top of his chest,

over his heart.


I was saved from replying by Renee

stumbling into the wall and Paul barely

catching her. Little hypocrite. I knew she

drank, having gotten more than one drunk

text and a few drunk voice mails from her.

Paul caught my eye and nodded.

“Excuse me,” I said to Hannah and


“I’m not drunk, I swear,” Renee said,

althoughswearcame outschwear.“I only

had—” she counted on her fingers, but it

wasn’t working very well “—three drinks?”

It definitely sounded like a question.

“Good job, Paul. Way to keep her

sober.” I patted him on the shoulder as

Renee slumped against him and hummed

an off-key song.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he said,

holding her up. “I’m going to take her

home. I can come back and get you, if you


“I can give Jos a ride. I haven’t been

drinking at all.” If there were an award for

lurking and sneaking, Dusty Sharp would

have won it hands down.

“Thanks, man,” Paul said as he shoved

Renee’s arms into her coat and she


“Put her to bed and tell her she’s a

terrible example. Not that she’ll remember

it,” I said.

“Hey, little sister!” Renee leaned and

smacked a kiss on my cheek. “Why are you

so sad?”

“I’m not sad, Ne. Go home.”

“But you are sad. Sooooo saaaaddddd,”

she sang as Paul dragged her out the door.

“I love how she gets drunk after giving

me the third degree,” I said, shaking my

head. I was going to giveherthe third

degree the next morning when she was

good and hungover so it had the biggest


“Are you?” Dusty said, laughing a little at


“Am I what?”

“Sad?” Someone yelled, and Dusty

pulled me to the side as a guy barreled by

us yelling about something or other. In

addition to lurking and sneaking, he had

very good reflexes.

“No, I’m not sad,” I lied.

He tilted his head a little. “You seem


I looked away from his searing green

eyes. “Um, thanks.

I barely know you. I don’t really think

you’re qualified to make judgments on my

level of sad.”

“Okay, fine. Just let me know when you

and Hannah are ready to go.” With that he

turned around and dived into the fray,

heading toward the kitchen and the

makeshift bar.

“How are you doing?” Darah had

unstuck herself from Mase’s side to come

see me.

“Fine. Did you see Renee?”

Darah rolled her eyes.

“She always thinks her tolerance is way

higher than it actually is. You’d think she

would have learned by now.” Mase came

over and put his arm around her.

“What’s up, Jos? Having a good time?”

He was clearly a little buzzed. He held out

his fist as if he expected me to give him a

bump. So I did and he cheered.

“Yeah, great party.” I gave him a

thumbs-up. It would be so much better if I

wasn’t sober.

Why do you need to drink to have fun?

Drinking just dul s yoursenses. Why would

you want to dull the beautiful intensity of


An arm snaked around my shoulder and

I jumped. “Hey, girlfriend, you abandoned


I turned to find a grumpy Hannah

leaning on me. Some of her hair floated into

my mouth and I brushed it away.

“Do you wanna go?” I said.

She removed her arm and shrugged.

“I’m cool with whatever.” Her eyes kept

skipping around the room, as if she was

looking for someone.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing,” she said, smiling at me. “So

I’m guessing some guy is going to drive us

home now? Some guy named Dusty?”

Another hand descended on my

shoulder, but it wasn’t Hannah’s this time.

“You would be correct, Hannah Gillespie.”

“You know, one of these times you’re

going to do that and I’m going to think

you’re trying to kill me and I might kick you

in the junk.”

“My junk would be honored,” he said,

removing his hand.

I saw that he had my and Hannah’s coats

in the other.

“You guys are going home?” Darah said.

“Yeah, I think so. I still have some

homework to do.”

That was a lie. I had some blogging to

do. I’d decided that I was going to get ahead

on posts and schedule them ahead of time

so I wouldn’t always be behind. It was a

great idea, in theory, but I wasn’t sure how

it would work in practice.

“See you at home, Little Ne!” Mase

called as Darah waved to us. How she was

going to handle that monster of a guy was

beyond me, but she’d done well so far.

“I’ll tell Taylor and Hunter you went

home,” Darah called after us.

“Ladies,” Dusty said, handing us our

coats. We put them on as he led us out of

the house. His car was parked in an

interesting spot, and he ended up

maneuvering it out before we could get in.

“You can have shotgun,” Hannah said in

my ear.


Hannah and Dusty chatted about

random things as he drove to her dorm.

“See you tomorrow, girl. Thanks for the

ride, Dusty.”

“Anytime,” he said with that signature


Once Hannah departed, she appeared to

have taken all the air out of the car with

her. What was wrong with me?

I’d been alone with him in the car

before. Why was this different?

“So what do you really think about

Taylor and Hunter getting married?”

“Why do you care?” I reached out to

play with the radio for something to focus

on, other than Dusty.

“Here,” he said, reaching across, grazing

my boob and opening the glove box and

pulling out a battered iPod. He plugged it

into the cigarette lighter and changed the

radio station before handing me the iPod.

“Skip whatever you don’t like.”

An unfamiliar song came out of the

speakers, so I skipped to the next one.

Another unfamiliar song. I clicked to his

library and scrolled through. Damn, the

thing was jammed.

He had all sorts of stuff in there. I settled

on Beastie Boys, just to watch his face when

“Fight for Your Right” came on.

I was not disappointed.

“Interesting choice, Red. I approve.” He

nodded, and I could see his teeth flashing in

the headlights of the oncoming cars.

“What, do I not look like a girl who

would listen to the Beastie Boys?”

“No, it’s not that. I just didn’t think

you’d choose that.”

We listened to the rest of the song and

then I switched it to Death Cab for Cutie. He


“You are an interesting girl, Red. I’m

never bored when I’m with you.”


“You know, if you ever want to talk

about anything, I have pretty good listening


“Are they better than your lurking skills?

Because you’re pretty good at that,” I said.


“Yeah, you always seem to sneak up

behind me, and I never hear you coming.”

“It’s a skill. Honed over years of having

to get away quietly.”

“Get away from what?” Let’s see how he

liked getting asked personal questions.

“Nice try, Red. Those doors are shut and

they’re not going to open. Not even for a

cute little thing like you.” He was trying to

distract me, but it wasn’t going to work. I’d

just let him think that. I had other means of

prying into his life.

“Fine, fine.” I scrolled through some

more songs. Huh. He had Ingrid Michaelson.

That was a surprise. I put on “The Way I

Am” and waited for his reaction. He

laughed softly, and I could almost hear him


“If you tell anyone I have Ingrid on here,

I will… I don’t know.”

“What, would listening to her ruin your

image?” I put air quotes aroundimage.

“I am perfectly confident in my image,

thank you very much.” He couldn’t even say

it with a straight face, so I started laughing.

“You are so full of shit.”

“Yeah, Red. I am. You shouldn’t believe

a word I say.”

“I don’t.”



He tried to stop smiling but he couldn’t

and I threw my head back and laughed like I

hadn’t in a long time. He pulled up in front

of Yellowfield House and turned off the car.

“Here you are,” he said.

“Here I am.”

It was one of those moments that, if this

were a movie, he would have leaned over

and given me a good-night kiss.

But because it wasn’t a movie, we just

sat there and I tried to think of something

that I could say that would give me a

graceful exit.

“Thanks for the ride.” Yeah, that wasn’t


“Anytime. Anytime you need anything,

just…let me know.” That would be kind of

hard to do, since I didn’t have his number.

But yeah, I wasn’t going to ask him for it.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” It was times like

these when I wish I had a script.

“I’m not into you like that, Red. If that’s

what you’re worried about.” Well, the script

didn’t matter if he went off book.

“I wasn’t.”

“Okay. Because I know I joke around,

but it’s not serious.” He seemed to be trying

really hard to be convincing.


“Okay, then. I guess I’ll…see you

around.” There seemed to be nothing else

to do but get out of the car, so I did and

started walking toward the house. I heard

the creak of the window crank and then his


“Jos?” The sound of my actual name

made me turn around by reflex.

“I…” I’d never seen him at a loss for

words, but he seemed to be nothing but

tongue-tied tonight. He whispered

something that I didn’t hear.


He looked through the windshield and

not at me. “Sorry, nothing.”

“Well…I’m going to go in the house


“You should do that. It’s too cold to be

standing outside.”

“Right. Here I go.” I started walking

backward and he laughed.

“Don’t trip, Red.”

I kept going backward until I got to the

porch and he watched me the whole time.

Page 18

It wasn’t until I had opened the door,

waved and closed it again that I heard his

car drive away.

What a freak that boy was.

Renee was slumped over at the dining

table the next morning when I came up for

breakfast. I’d heard Paul talking softly to

her in their room the night before when I

went to check on her and figured he had it

under control. The rest of the crew crashed

in quite late. For people who were

academically inclined, drinking on a Sunday

night didn’t seem to be the wisest choice.

“How you doing, big sister?” I said, going

to grab a mug so I could make some tea.

The residents of Yellowfield House were big

on breakfast, but no one had made any yet,

so I grabbed some waffles from the freezer.

“Shut. Up.”

“Hey, you’re the one who’s supposed to

set a good example. I didn’t force you to


“Please, just…later.” She couldn’t even

form a complete sentence.

I waited for my waffles to cook as the

other inhabitants of the house stumbled

downstairs and went for the coffeepot.

If I were a complete bitch, I could have

gotten up early and made a crap ton of

noise. The idea had been tempting, but

I hadn’t acted on it.

“Alcohol bad,” Renee said as Paul came

in the front door holding bags of greasy fast


“Hangover cure,” he said, holding them


“I would cheer, but I don’t want to,”

Renee said as Darah leaned against Mase.

Taylor raised her fist hesitantly.

“That’s the best I can do,” she said as

Paul distributed the bags and everyone dug

in, plates be damned.

“I got you an egg and cheese, if you

want it,” Paul said, holding a bag out to me.

“I’m set with waff les, but thanks.” He

shrugged and handed the sandwich over to

Mase, who inhaled it in three bites.

Breakfast was a quiet affair and over

because everyone was late for whatever

they were supposed to be doing.

I’d thought some of them would skip,

but they all got their butts out the door


“So how hungover is everyone in your

house right now?”

Hannah said when I sat next to her for

Pam’s class. We had an unspoken

agreement that she would always have

Skittles, but I would have to supply my own

M&M’s, so I made sure to stop and grab

some from the machine in the Union,

enough to last me the week.

“It’s pretty epic. I was feeling bitter

about it last night, but now I’m grateful I

stayed sober.”

“Well, there is a solution to not being

hungover,” she said, flipping her notebook


“Not drinking?”

She popped a Skittle into her mouth.

“Never being sober.”

“Valid point.”

Pam started the class and I had other

things to think about for the next hour.

“You know, your sister keeps you on a

tight leash,” Hannah said as we ate lunch.

“What did you do?”

What hadn’t I done? I’d been the poster

child for destructive behavior last summer.

You name it, I’d done it. Staying out late,

partying, drinking, whatever. I’d done what

I wanted, when I’d wanted to do it and

hadn’t cared what anyone said or tried to

do about it. It was fun. For a while. Even

though I’d gotten most of it out of my

system, I’d burned too many bridges and it

was going to be hell to reconstruct them.

“Let’s just say I went through my

wild-child phase.”

“You don’t seem like that now.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve gotten wiser in my old


She snorted in disbelief. “Dude, how old

are you?”

“Eighteen. I started college when I was

seventeen. My birthday’s in a month and a


“Baby. I’m already nineteen, so I am

both older and wiser.”

“So what advice do you have for me, oh

wise one?”

“Always drink less than you think you

can, trust your gut, and the next time you

see Dusty Sharp, you’d better make a

move.” She gave me a big smile.

“That’s not really what I meant.” I hadn’t

told her about the little moment, if that’s

what you could call it, that Dusty and I had

last night in the car. It was so minor I would

have felt stupid bringing it up.

We’d talked. We’d both been awkward.

The end.

“I am going to have to have an

intervention with you two, I swear. He likes

you…you like him. The equation is pretty

simple, and I kind of suck at math. You plus

Dusty equals…”

She waved her hand in a circle,

searching for the right word.

I was pretty sure it wasdisaster.

She snapped her fingers.


“Really? You spent all that thinking and

that’s what you came up with?”

“You’re just mad that you know I’m right

and you don’t want to admit it.”

“I am not, and you’re not. Right, that is.”

“Oh, sure, sweetie. I believe you.” She

patted my arm. I chucked my straw wrapper

at her, and she laughed. Her smile fell as

she saw someone across the dining room.


“Nothing.” Her demeanor had

completely changed. I searched and saw a

table of guys looking over at us. They

weren’t even being stealthy about it. They

could definitely take some lessons from

Dusty. One of the guys said something to

the others and they all laughed. Well, it

didn’t take a genius to put those two things

together. Most of them didn’t look familiar,

but I’d definitely seen at least two of them

at the party.

Hannah tipped her head forward and

her hair fell in front of her face like a mane

on a depressed lion.

“So I need your help,” I said, turning so I

blocked Hannah from the view of the other

table, and blocked her view at the same


“With what?” She kept her head down. I

wished I could get the whole story from her,

but I knew if I pushed she’d close up like a

steel trap. I knew that because I’d do the

same thing.

“I really want to get a job, but I don’t

want something that’s going to suck, so I

need help thinking of a job I could have that

wouldn’t make me want to slit my wrists.”

“I think I’m up to that challenge,” she

said, finally lifting her head. I had no idea if

the guys were still looking and laughing, but

Hannah raised her chin and flipped her hair

back so her scar was completely visible. It

was a totally “suck on that” moment. Yes,

there was a reason I was friends with her.

We spent the rest of our time

brainstorming ideas. Some were ridiculous,

like selling my organs online, or finding a

potato chip that looked like the Virgin Mary,

but some weren’t. The campus radio station

had paid positions, I knew, as did the

student newspaper. The library was another

option, and I already had connections

because Taylor and Hunter worked there.

“They pay ten dollars an hour for nude

modeling in the art department. It’s not

really that bad,” Hannah said, as if she was

commenting on the weather.

“You’ve done it?” I nearly walked into

the trash can as we left the Union.

She nodded.

“Here and there. I’m not ashamed of my

body.” Her words were sharp, as if she

wanted to pull them out of her mouth and

hurl them like knives at the group of guys

who had been so obviously talking about

her. I bet she could if she wanted to.

“Well, I don’t know if I’m that destitute,

but I’ll put it in the maybe column.” It

seemed like a weird note to leave on.

“You know, if you ever want to come

over to hang out or study, or whatever,

you’re welcome. I have, like, a whole man

cave right outside my room.”

“Sounds good. I’ll text you, okay?”

“See you in bio.”

She walked away, her shoulders a little

hunched, but that might have been because

of the cold.

Dusty’s Golf was parked outside when I

got home that afternoon, along with

Hunter’s rust bucket. The other cars were


“Hey, Jos!” Hunter said when I walked in

to the sounds of his guitar and Dusty’s beat


I wrote that I was home on the chart

and set my bag down, noticing that the girls

had writtenouton the chart. “Hey, Hunter.

Where is everyone?”

“Um, I think Renee kidnapped Taylor

and Darah to go look at wedding stuff. Or

something. I sort of tuned it out.

Mase is at the gym and Paul had a lab.”


“Hey, Jos,” Dusty said, giving me a sort

of half smile. It wasn’t his full-on grin, and I

didn’t know what to make of it.

“Hey. What are you doing here?” I went

to the kitchen and grabbed an apple.

“Just thought I would swing by and see

how everyone was recovering.”

Hunter looked a hell of a lot better than

he did in the morning.

“I’m shocked they went shopping even

though they were all hungover,” I said,

sitting down on the opposite end of the

couch from Dusty.

“They bounce back pretty quick. They’re

young,” Hunter said with a smile as he

strummed his guitar. “Requests?”

I shrugged.

Hunter put the instrument back on the

little stand he had in the corner of the

room. “Something wrong?”

“Not really. Just… I don’t know.” I risked

a look at Dusty, and he had his hands in his

pockets. “Did Hannah seem weird last


“No, why?” Dusty said.

“I don’t know. She was acting weird, and

then today I saw some of the guys from the

party at the Union, and it was almost like

they were laughing at her or something. I

may be just reading too much into it, but

she got very…un-Hannah-like afterward.”

“Did somebody say something to her?”

Hunter leaned forward, ready to get to his

feet and go after whoever it was.

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me. I

probably should have kept it to myself.

Please don’t say anything to her.”

Dusty and Hunter nodded and shared a

look. I could just picture the two of them,

grabbing their swords and saddling up their

white horses. They were cut from the same


“Who’s in charge of dinner?” I said to

change the subject.

“Well, that’s also why I’m here,” Dusty

said, clearing his throat. “Hunter has

informed me that it’s your turn for dinner

and I just happen to have volunteered my

culinary skills to assist you. If you will have


I had no idea if he could cook at all, or if

he was just screwing with me. I also had no

idea what was really behind him being here,

because he obviously had a reason.

“Don’t you have your own home?”

“Yeah, a shitty apartment. Why would I

want to be there, when I could be here at

the Ritz?”

Yellowfield House was pretty nice. Oh,

who was I kidding? It was freaking sweet, as

houses went. I mean, not only was it nice,

but it was so damn clean. Darah was like a

fairy godmother who flitted around and

made sure there were absolutely no

cobwebs or dirt or anything that resembled


But still. Why was Dusty here all of a

sudden? I mean, how stupid did they think I

was? I mean, you wouldn’t even be able to

put this past a six-year-old.

“Fine. You can help me, but we’re

making what I want, and if I tell you to get

out of my way and let me do something,

you do it. Understood?”

Dusty looked at Hunter, who looked like

he was holding back a laugh.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said as we moved into

the kitchen.

I’d planned on making lasagna, since I

had everything for it. I’d never gotten to

cook when the house was so empty, so it

would have been nice, but I had a tall and

lurky shadow.

“What can I do, oh kitchen goddess?” He

Page 19

held out his hands as if he was waiting for

me to put something in them.

“First of all, you can get out of my way.”

He moved aside as I assembled the

ingredients. I was going to make it with

pepperoni, but figured I could skip it and

then Taylor wouldn’t have to worry about

trying to find the pepperoni-free sections

after I’d baked it.

“Here. Chop.” I handed him a knife and a

bag of fresh spinach. I figured he could at

least do that much.

“Cutting board?” I got it out and handed

it to him as I mixed the rest of the cheeses


It was clear after a few seconds that

Dusty had only rudimentary culinary skills.

Jesus, he couldn’t even hold a knife.

Once again, if this were a movie, I’d

come up behind him, put my hand over his

and show him how to properly use it.

During which he would turn slowly, the

knife would clatter to the floor and he

would sweep me up in a passionate


What really happened was that I started

laughing at him as he mangled the spinach.

“I can hear you laughing at me,” he said,

not turning, but putting down the knife.

“I’m sorry. I’m used to either ordering out

or nuking something in the microwave. This

is not in my wheelhouse. At all.” He stared

at the spinach as if it was out to get him.

“Then why did you agree to help?”

He turned around and faced me.

“Because I wanted to spend time with you.”

“You did.” It wasn’t a question.

“Believe it or not, Red, I enjoy your

company.” He gave me a smile as if to say,

what do you make of that?

“Even when I’m constantly insulting


Pushing himself away from the counter

and toward me, he said, “I especially like


“I thought you said you weren’t into

me.” When did swallowing become so hard

to do?

That stopped him from his advance

across the kitchen.

“I’m not. Can’t I just want to hang out

with you? Are you one of those girls who

think that guys and girls can’t be friends

without one of them falling for the other?”

“No, actually, I’m not.” I’d already

proved that not to be true.

He nodded. “Neither am I. So, with that

said, would you please finish this so I can

stop screwing it up?”

I rolled my eyes and went to take the

knife from where he’d set it on the counter.

“I can’t believe you don’t know how to

chop. You’re hopeless.”

“But now I have you to teach me, Red.”

I put the knife in my hand, showed him

how I gripped it and chopped a few pieces.

“It’s like a teeter-totter. Back and forth.”

I held out the knife to him and supervised

him from a few feet away until he had it.

Sort of. Once he was done with that, I

tossed the spinach in the bowl with the

cheese mixture and made him use those

arms to good advantage by opening the jars

of sauce.

I let him layer the noodles and sauce

and then it was time to shove the thing in

the oven.

“Do you seriously not cook?” I said as I

set the timer.

“I seriously don’t.” He hopped up on the

counter and started making a drumbeat

noise. He was like Hunter with his tapping.

Nervous, the pair of them.

“Well, if the zombie apocalypse

happens, I guess you’re going to have to


“That’s only if my cooking skills are

needed. It’s far more likely my

zombie-slaying powers would be needed.”

Okay, he had a good point, and he knew


I just rolled my eyes again and went to

the fridge to get the garlic bread. It was

premade, so I only had to stick it in the oven

with the lasagna at the end so it would get


We needed a side dish, but we were out

of lettuce, so I found a bag of broccoli in the

freezer and put it in a bowl to steam in the


“Well, if you keep coming here more

often, I’m sure Taylor or Darah would rope

you into helping with the cooking or baking.

They’re big on baking.” Taylor didn’t let a

week go by without some form of delicious

something getting put in the oven, and

Darah was just as bad. They took domestic

to a whole new level.

“Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered

after dramatically looking around the room.

Yes, we were still alone.

“Yeah, sure.” I needed something to do,

so I wiped down the already-spotless


“You promise to never, ever reveal this

information to anyone at any time for any

reason?” He was making a big deal out of


“Cross my heart,” I said, making a

crossing motion over my chest. It wasn’t my

imagination that his eyes went to that area

when I did it and lingered longer than they

should have.

He hopped off the counter and crooked

his finger at me to lean in. I crossed my

arms over my chest and turned my ear

toward him.

“I’ve never baked anything in my life,”

he said, and I almost jumped out of my skin

because he was so close to me.

His cologne messed with my senses and

overwhelmed the smell of the baking


My brain stuttered like a freezing car

engine in January.

“I—I won’t tell anyone,” I said, stepping

away from him and pretending I had

something really important to do in the


“So I think the first time I bake

something, it should be special. With

someone I trust. I don’t want to bake with

just anyone.” Why did I have the feeling we

weren’t talking about baking anymore?

I knew when I turned around from

rinsing the sponge in the sink I would find

him there, and I was right.

Even though my hands were wet, he

grabbed both of them and knelt in front of

me. Jesus H. Christ.

“Will you, Joscelyn Archer, be my first?”

I was so, so glad he couldn’t hear what my

heart was doing, because it definitely

wasn’t beating in a normal fashion.

“Baking, you mean?”

Rising to his feet, but not letting go of

my hands, he started to smile.

“What did you think I was talking about,


Not baking, that was for sure.

Why wouldn’t he let go of my hands?

Also, why were his so big? They completely

encompassed mine.

The door slammed and Dusty dropped

my hands like they were on fire.

“What smells so good?” Renee said, her

arms weighed down with bags from the

mall. Darah and Taylor were right behind

her, equally as burdened.

“Lasagna,” Dusty said, since I seemed to

have lost the ability to form words with my

mouth. I swallowed a few times and


“Clearance sale?” I finally said.

“Yeah, sure,” Renee said, her eyes not

meeting mine. Um, what?

“Why are you being weird?” I said,

moving away from Dusty. “Are you hiding

something from me, big sister?”

“Absolutely not,” she said, hiding the

bags behind her back. “Be right back.” She

dashed up the stairs and the other two

followed. Hmm. If I had only one guess, I’d

say it had something to do with my

upcoming birthday, but maybe I was just

being too self-centered.

They came down a little while later, and

Paul and Mase were home a few minutes

after that. No one seemed surprised to find

Dusty with me in the kitchen, which also led

me to the conclusion that the reason he

was here was some sort of weird way to

distract me while they all went out


My birthday had never been a huge

deal, being from a family with a lot of kids.

It was bigger when I was younger, but of

course I didn’t remember a lot of those

birthdays. They only existed now in


Maybe Renee felt shitty about being so

strict with me so she was throwing me a

birthday party to make up for it? It didn’t

make a whole lot of sense, but I couldn’t

think of any other reason she’d be hiding

things like this from me, or why Dusty had

suddenly decided to cook dinner with me,

seeing as how he couldn’t cook at all.

But of course, I pretended that I didn’t

notice anything out of the ordinary. I’d play


Dusty stayed for dinner and I was also

shocked to discover that he’d brought

homework, as well. Call me crazy, but he

just didn’t seem like the kind of guy who

would do homework. I mean, he’d have to

because he’d managed to make it through

one and a half years of college already, but I

just couldn’t picture it.

Everyone claimed a piece of real estate,

and I ended up sitting on the floor of the

living room with my laptop on the coffee

table and my books on the floor.

“Is this area taken?” Dusty parked

himself next to me and set a stack of books

on the table.

“I guess it is now. It’s kind of catch as

catch can around here for study space.”

“I see that,” he said as everyone else

spread themselves out in various places and

positions. I skimmed the titles of the books

he’d set down and was a little surprised.

Calculus, music theory and several that

looked like they were for education.

“Music education, like Hunter,” he said

to my unanswered question. “Surprised?”

“I knew that already.” Not exactly, but I

could put two and two together.

“Hey, Hunter, do you still have that

Praxis study guide?”

Hunter had taken the first set of the

tests he needed to pass to become a

teacher a couple of weeks before and was

still waiting for his results since he had to

pass the first test to take the second part. It

sounded like the SATs only way worse.

Hunter looked up from whatever he was

immersed in, his eyes taking a second to


“Yeah, sure. You want to borrow it?”

“Just the practice tests. I just want to

make copies, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, no problem.” Hunter went and

got the book from upstairs and brought it

down. “I didn’t fill in the answers, so you

can’t cheat off me.”

“Well, I’d rather pass the test, so I think

I’ll take my chances.” Hunter chucked the

book at Dusty, and he caught it as I ducked.

“No throwing books,” Taylor said from

the couch. “They can’t protect themselves.

You should know better, Hunter Zaccadelli.”

“I hate to be that person, but I have a

huge anatomy test and I have, like, a billion

pages to read, so can you guys flirt later?

Like, in your room? Quietly?” Renee said,

glaring at us all like a pissed-off librarian.

“Sorry, Ne,” Taylor said, ducking her

head and going back to her book.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hunter said, his accent

creeping in.

Dusty gave me a look before he

whispered, “You’re not going to yell at me,

are you?”

“I’m still hearing talking,” Renee said,

turning a page of her book.

I pretended to zip my lips and pointed at

Renee and then made a slashing motion

across my throat and then pointed to him. I

hoped he got the message. He gave me a

look and flipped the book Hunter had given

him open, and I went back to working on

my studying for Pam’s class. I always did it

first so my brain was at its most fresh and

able to absorb the information.

For a guy who made a lot of noises with

his mouth, Dusty was really good at

focusing. I kept looking up from my book

and seeing if he was really studying or only

pretending to, but he was always absorbed

in whatever he was doing. He never even

looked up, even though I was looking at him

and we were sitting so close. It was like he’d

shut the door and was in his own room that

none of us could get into.

I shook my head and went back to my

work and read until I finished everything I

absolutely had to finish and then started

working on my blog. I was thinking about

doing a new design, but since I knew next to

nothing about HTML, I was kind of limited. I

should just learn code. Maybe I could find a

used book about it in the bookstore or


“What’s that?” I turned my head the

tiniest bit and found Dusty’s face almost

resting on my shoulder. I slammed my

laptop shut, startling everyone out of their

study stupors.

“Oh, my God, I think I just died a little,”

Taylor said, holding on to her chest.

“Sorry. Sorry.” I glared at Dusty, who still

had his face way too close. As far as boys

went, he definitely smelled a lot better than

the ones I’d encountered. A lot of them

covered up the fact that they didn’t shower

too often with that nasty body spray that

was probably toxic and slowly killing them

Page 20

with black lung disease. I tried not to close

my eyes and lean into him and imagine him

hanging up a fresh load of laundry, shirtless,

of course, outside on a sunny day.

Dear Jesus, what was I doing?

He’d already said he wasn’t interested,

and I wasn’t interested, so why did he keep

doing things that made it seem like he was

interested, and I kept thinking things like

him hanging up laundry without a shirt on?

I scooted away from him and turned my

laptop so he couldn’t see the screen. He

settled back in his position with the smallest

of sighs and went back to taking notes. Or

at least that’s what I thought he was doing,

but then a paper airplane landed in my lap.

Seriously? How old was he? Although, I had

to give him points. Note passing was a lost

art in the world of texting and Facebook

messaging and tweeting your every vapid

thought out to the world whether the world

needed to know it or not.

I didn’t look back at him as I unfolded

the note.

What didn’t you want me to see? Were

you looking at porn? If yes, may I join you?

If no, what were you doing?

I turned and gave him a disgusted look

before setting the note on the coffee table

and scribbling an answer.

You are a pig and it’s none of your


I refolded the airplane and chucked it

over my shoulder, not bothering to aim as I

went back to working on my blog. I couldn’t

really focus, though, because I thought that

any moment he was going to stick his head

over my shoulder again.

My blog was mine. I didn’t post my real

name, and there were no pictures of me so

no one would ever know it was mine. My

blog was…private. It was mine and no one

knew about it. This was probably what

Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne felt. Only,

you know, their secret identities were more

awesome than my secret blogging identity. I

could say anything I wanted, be anything I

wanted on my blog. That girl that I was

didn’t matter. No one knew her. And

besides, the blog wasn’t about me. It was

about the music.

A little while later, people started

packing it in for the night. I expected Dusty

to get up and leave, but he didn’t.

He also didn’t pass the note back, either,

and when I stole a glance at him, he was

back to being focused. Weirdo. I was about

to turn and ask him if he was going to stay

all night when I heard a book close behind


“Well, I should probably get back to my

shack.” He got to his feet and everyone who

was still downstairs mumbled their

good-nights. He looked down at me as if he

was expecting something. Was I supposed

to walk him out?

Hold up. Did he think this was a date?

Was this a date?

Why would this have been a date? Sure,

dinner had been involved, but only because

he’d been here when we were making and

serving it.

“See you later,” I said, and it sounded

just as lame as it sounded in my head, and I

felt as lame as I had the night before in his


He opened his mouth, changed his mind

and then made one of his drum sounds to

cover it up. “’Bye, Red.”

I gave him one of those two-fingered

waves, and he did one back with a smile on

his face.

It wasn’t until after he was gone that I

realized he’d taken the paper airplane note

with him.

“So I know your sister is, like, super

down on parties, but I got an invite to one,

and I can’t go on my own. Also, if you don’t

want to come with me, I will hurt you. So,

you’re coming,” Hannah said after bio the

next day.

“My sister is never going to go for it.”

“I figured, which is why I thought I could

talk to her and convince her.”

I almost started laughing. That was

never going to work, and it was cute that

she thought it would.

“It isn’t going to happen, Hannah.

You’ve seen my sister in action.” Besides, I

didn’t know if I’d really want to go anyway.

“Oh, I have powers of persuasion.”

Hannah didn’t seem like the type who

would be all over going to a party, so I really

wanted to know why she was into it.

“Why do you want to go so much? Is it a


“No, it’s not a guy. I just feel like I want

to get the whole college experience, and

that includes going to a frat party at least

once. It’s on the college bucket list. I


I wondered what else was on that list,

because I’d probably taken care of most of

it already. She was being weird about it,

and I knew that it was another thing she

wasn’t telling me about. In some ways I felt

so close to Hannah, but in others I felt like

she had all these secrets that she would

rather die than share with me.

“I’m not taking no for an answer,” she

said, and I recognized determination on her

face. For whatever reason, she had decided

that this was a thing she was going to do,

and I was going along with it. Hannah had

never made any demands on me as a

friend, and I was so used to it from my

former friends that I felt like a bitch for

saying no.

“I might have a lead on a job that

wouldn’t suck. If you agree to go, I’ll tell you

about it.” It was like one of those game

shows where they put a mystery box in

front of you.

I could win, or I could lose big. But it

might be nice to go out and let loose, for

real this time.

“I will only say yes if you can convince

Renee. Because I’ve already gotten myself

into hot water enough, and she’s just

starting to loosen up on me and let me do


Hannah put her hand out.

“Deal. I have complete faith in my ability

to convince her.” She was confident, that

was for sure. “So I’ll be over this


“If you want to come for dinner, you

can. We always make plenty, and you

wouldn’t be the first person who’s invited

themselves over.” Crap, I hadn’t meant to

mention Dusty coming over. I knew she’d

want to overanalyze it and read more into it

and say things that would totally mess with

my head.

“I don’t even need to ask who it was. I

can figure it out based on the fact that you

mentioned it and that you clearly don’t

want to talk about it.”

Well…maybe Hannah would turn out to

be a sympathetic ear. I only paused for a

second before launching into the story of

Dusty helping me make dinner and then the

airplane note.

Of course, I left out the part about my

own feelings. She was smart enough to

figure them out anyway.

“So I’m just…confused and I don’t know.

He’s so…complicated.” I remembered Mase

saying something about the complications

being the best part of life.

“Is that code for ‘sexy’? Because he is so

into you.”

“Then why does he tell me that he

isn’t?” I made a frustrated sound that made

a few people walking in front of us turn and

give me a look like I was crazy. I was going

to be late for math, but I didn’t care. It was

the kind of class that you didn’t have to

attend to get a good grade in. Hell, the tests

were open book, and I’d heard the TA

would point you to the right answers if you

asked nice enough.

“Look, I have to go, but we will pick this

up later. What time should I come over?”

she said.

“Around six?”

“See you later, girl,” she said, taking off

for her next class, which was clear across

campus. She was going to have to book it to

get there.

I went to math and spent the entire

hour and fifteen minutes listening to

Maroon 5. They were one of those groups

I’d loved for so long, and their music was

the equivalent of a hug, or a bowl of

chicken soup. Warm and comforting.

I drove back to Yellowfield House in a

daze and was less-than-surprised to see

Dusty’s car parked on the street.

“Honey, I’m home,” I called as I shucked

my shoes off and set my bag down in the


“How was your day, dear?” Dusty called

from the living room, where he was hanging

out with Mase.

“Are you moving in now?” I said,

grabbing a can of soda from the fridge. “Do

you want one?” I would have felt like a jerk

not asking.

“Nope, I’m good,” he said right behind


“I swear to God, the next time you do

that…” I couldn’t think of what I was going

to do. “You know what? I won’t tell you

what I’m going to do. The anticipation will

just kill you, waiting for the moment. I

would enjoy that.”

“Easy, Red.”

“Seriously, why are you here? Because I

know you have a little bromance, but one

half of that isn’t here right now, so it can’t

be Hunter. And it can’t be because you love

to cook. And it can’t be that you really,

really love the house.

So what is it?”

I leaned on the fridge. I knew I was

asking a question I wasn’t going to like the

answer to, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I

wanted to know the truth, whether I liked it

or not.

“Maybe it is something else that keeps

me coming to this house. Maybe…maybe

I’ve been waiting for the right moment to

say it out loud.” He wouldn’t look at me,

which meant that he might have been

telling the truth. I was really tired of him

always trying to change the subject, or

making a joke out of things.

“I really come here because I’m crazy

about…this coffeepot.” He moved around

me and stood by the fancy coffeepot that

Hunter had probably bought and that cost

more than my entire textbook budget for a


“I mean, I really, really love it.” He

leaned down and pretended to hug it and

stroked it fondly.

“Are you shitting me?”

He stood up, his smile faltering for a


“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just…nothing.” He’d done that

on purpose to screw with me, and I wasn’t

going to give him the satisfaction of

knowing that he totally had. I walked past

him back into the living room. Mase was

busy with a textbook and a highlighter.

“What’s up, Jos?”

“Nothing.” I turned on the television and

flipped around.

Dusty made sure he entered the room

and sat down in the recliner loud enough so

that I’d hear him. Jerk.

I purposely settled on an annoying girlie

reality show that he would probably never

watch in a million years. I turned up the

volume. Mase didn’t seem to mind. He was

known for his deep focus when he was


We sat in silence as the girls went out

shopping and to clubs and fought and made

up with their boyfriends. I waited for him to

beg for me to change the channel, or get up

and leave. Maybe this was the way to get

rid of him. Drive him away. I should start

playing Nickelback, or that really angry

Russian girl-band music I’d randomly found

on the internet.

I should start talking about menstrual

cramps and yeast infections and other girlie

shit he wouldn’t want to hear about.

But then I would probably repulse the

rest of the males n the house, and I didn’t

really want to ruin their lives. Just Dusty’s.

What was it about him that made me so


He started softly making drum noises in

the chair. Now he was messing with me. I

turned the show up and he started making

louder noises. I still wouldn’t look at him.

“Can we take the volume down a notch?

I’m going deaf over here, and I’m a big fan

of standing near speakers at clubs,” Mase

said, grabbing the remote and turning the

volume down. “Are you okay, Little Ne?

You’re being kind of…not you.”

Page 21

“I’m fine.”

I was saved from further explanation by

the arrival of Darah and a few minutes later

Taylor and Hunter and then Renee.

“So, Hannah’s coming over for dinner. I

hope no one minds.”

Everyone chimed in with how they

didn’t, and they’d be more than happy to

have her whenever she wanted to come

over. Yellowfield House was like a sponge,

soaking up random people, and I was one of

them. Pretty soon they’d have to add a

fourth level, or turn the basement into a

dorm. I could just picture it with bunk beds

lining the walls.

Taylor and Hunter were on for dinner,

and they were doing pizza, since everyone

could choose what they wanted for

toppings and we could make them

individually. Hannah showed up just as we

were flattening out our individual crusts. Of

course Dusty was staying. I wanted to ask

him if he was going to just move in, but I

was kind of giving him the silent treatment

for the thing about the coffeepot.

“Hey, girl. And everyone,” she said,

walking through the front door without


Hannah got a warm welcome. I saw the

same look in her eyes that I’d seen earlier

when she’d told me about making me go to

the party.

“Pull up a ball,” Hunter said after she’d

washed her hands.

He gave her a ball of dough and a plate

to roll it out on. “You just flatten it out as

much as you can, and then put it on the pan

here and we’ve got sauce and toppings. I

recommend using the toppings to make

your name, so you remember which one is

yours and there’s no confusion. Okay?”

“Got it, chief,” she said, giving him a

salute and banging down the dough with a

little too much force.

Everyone made their pizzas, and we

somehow fit them all in the oven at once.

Darah and Mase shooed us all out of the

kitchen as they cleaned up, so we had music

sex in the living room, with Dusty doing

backup drums for Hunter. I kept waiting for

Hannah to make her move, but she just sat

back and kept yelling out ridiculous song

suggestions that made everyone laugh.

It wasn’t until we were all stuffing our

faces and Darah and Renee were recounting

memories from one of the parties they’d

gone to when they were freshmen.

“Speaking of parties,” Hannah said.

“There’s this really cool one happening at

the Kappa Sigma house and I got an invite

and I need a wing woman.”

Her pronouncement was met with

silence at first.

“You want to go to a Kappa Sig party?”

Hunter said, skeptical.

“Well, I feel like my college experience

won’t be complete without going to a frat

party. It’s not that I want to go…it’s that I

feel obligated to go. And I really shouldn’t

go alone, so I need someone to escort me.

Hey, Jos, what are you doing on Saturday

night?” Was this her master plan? Because

it wasn’t very masterful.

“Absolutely not,” Renee said, practically


“Well, how about this? How about you

all come with us? Then we can all go and

have a good time and you can supervise us

and I can fulfill my dream. Win-win.”

Dusty coughed.

“You okay there, bud?” Hannah

happened to be sitting next to him, so she

banged him on the back.

“Fine,” he choked out, taking a gulp

from his water glass.

“So,” Hannah said, turning back toward

Renee. “Are you in?”

All eyes were on Renee.

She put her hands up. “Why do I have to

be the deciding one? Someone else say yes

or no. I don’t care either way.”

“Could be fun,” Taylor said.

“Right?” Hannah said, latching on to

Taylor. Hunter shrugged.

“I guess.”

“What about you, Dare?” Mase said.

“I’ve already been to one, and it wasn’t

that bad.”

Hannah smelled a victory.

“I’ll come, too. Keep you girls in line.

And you could use some extra muscle on

your side,” Hunter said.

“Agreed,” Mase said, nodding.

“I’m in if you’re in, Nene.” Props to Paul

for using the nickname at a time like this.

“Well, I guess I have no choice,” Renee

said, getting up and putting her plate in the

sink. I knew this was going to happen. Now

my sister was mad, and I was going to have

to try to patch it up. Renee could stay mad

for a while; I knew that from experience.

I gave Hannah a look, but she just smiled

triumphantly. I shook my head and stood

up, following Renee to the sink.

“I told her I didn’t want to go. I have no

idea why she wants to go, but she does. I’m


“It’s okay, Jos. It’s fine. I’m just… I don’t

like being the bad guy. I hate being in that

situation. I want to be your older sister, not

your mom, and sometimes I cross the line

and feel like I have to be your parent.”

“I’m sorry.” Now I felt like absolute shit

and I was kind of pissed at Hannah. If she

hadn’t been so intent on going to this

stupid party, which would probably turn out

to be nothing and totally not worth it,

Renee wouldn’t be mad at me.

“I’m not mad at you. I know it’s not your

fault, Jos.” She turned on the sink and

everyone else started bringing their dishes


“It’s our turn,” Darah said as she picked

up the soap and squirted it on one of the


“No, it’s fine. I’ve got it,” Renee said.

“Babe, come on,” Paul said, taking her

hand. I knew my sister well enough to know

that she was on the verge of tears.

He took her hand and led her upstairs

and I heard the door to their bedroom shut.

“Can I talk to you, Hannah?” I walked

toward the downstairs and jerked my head

so we could go down into the cave and have

a chat.

“I am so sorry. I had no idea that would

happen,” she said as I shut the door and

walked down the stairs.

“What did you think was going to

happen? That you’d just suggest that her

underage sister should go into a snake pit

filled with alcohol and boys who want to

touch me and things that I was all wrapped

up in this summer and she’d just go along

with it? Seriously, Hannah?”

We’d been friends such a short time

that this was our first fight, and it felt like


Her eyes were wide, her usually sassy

demeanor deflated.

“I’m so sorry. I just… I’m so sorry.”

“Why did you want to go so bad?”

She walked the rest of the way down the

stairs and sat down on the second to last

one. I sat a few steps above her.

“It’s so stupid. You’re going to think I’m

a moron.”

“Tell me and we’ll find out,” I said. I just

wanted people to stop lying to me, or

changing the subject. I wanted the truth, for


The truth is the most beautiful thing

there is, because it’s themost real.

I didn’t believe him when he’d said that,

and I wasn’t sure if I believed it now. The

truth sucked a lot of the time.

“Okay, so you remember at the party on

Sunday that I was being weird? And then

we saw those guys in the Union?” I knew it

had something to do with that. I just had no

idea to what extent, or how.

“So, this guy came up to me and he

pretended to flirt with me, invite me to the

party and then he went and told all his

friends that he’d flirted with a freak. It was

some sort of stupid dare or something. I

was pissed, of course, but whatever, you

know? But then I saw them again and they

just pissed me off. I’m not fucking Gandhi. I

can’t deal sometimes. So I had this plan to

go to the party and fuck them over

somehow. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was

going to do it. I was going to wait until we

go there and, like, pull a Carrie, only, like,

get the bad guys this time. You know?”

“Were you planning on bringing a

bucket of pig’s blood with you?”

“Obviously not. That was more of a

metaphor than an actual plan. I was kind of

hoping you’d help me out with it.”

“You are one of the single weirdest

people I have ever met.”

“That is not the meanest thing anyone’s

ever said to me.”

I could imagine.

“Are you mad?”

“A little.” I slid down a step so I was one

closer to her.

“You could have just told me that’s why

you wanted to go instead of orchestrating

this crazy plan. Or I would have just told you

that those douche bags weren’t worth it

and averted this whole thing.”

“I know you’re right. I have this

tendency to only trust myself and think that

everyone else is going to screw me over.

Probably because lots of people have

screwed me over.

I’d tell you how many times it has

happened, but you might not believe some

of my stories.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” I had stories,


She put her head down on her knees.

“I’ve messed things up, haven’t I?”

“It’s okay. You’re allowed. And it’s not

like you did it to be mean, or for some

malicious reason. I mean, not a malicious

reason against people who hadn’t already

been assholes to you.” I wasn’t much for an

eye for an eye, but getting those guys back

seemed like a valid plan. “But would

messing with those guys make you feel


“At first.”

“Have you ever done this to someone

who’s been like this in the past?”

She finally lifted her head up and I saw a

glimmer of her smile.

“There was this girl who used to call me

freak face and would move away from me if

I was ever near her. She used to say a lot of

other horrible things, and this one day, I’d

just had enough and snapped.” She moved

up and there was only one step between us.

“So every morning she used to get these

giant frozen coffees from the Starbucks,

right? I mean, they were huge. I’m pretty

sure they were the only thing she ever

consumed. I can’t remember seeing her eat.

I’m pretty sure they were her bitch fuel.

Anyway, so I started buying the exact drinks

she got and putting them in her locker. So

she’d open her locker and they’d just spill

over all her shit. Wow, that sounds so much

worse when I say it out loud. It was funny

that week when every time after lunch

she’d open her locker and one would come

flying out at her. She never figured it out.”

I had to admit it was pretty good.

“And you know what? I bet that girl is

probably screwing some ridiculously hot

guy at some awesome college in Florida or

something. Bitch,” she said.

“Or maybe she got knocked up the

summer after high school and her parents

made her marry him and she had a super

ugly baby and she waits tables at a horrible

diner and her boss is always grabbing her

ass, but she can’t say anything because she

can’t afford to lose her job because her

baby daddy is an alcoholic who just sits in

his recliner and drinks all day.”

She stared at me as if I’d grown an extra

head and then burst out laughing.

“Girl, you have a hell of an imagination.

You should be a writer.” She wasn’t the first

person who’d said that to me. In English,

Greg had written comments on my first few

prompts that were all positive, and he’d

singled me out more than once for

recognition. Of course I’d turned into a

human fireball every time, and I wished

he’d stop doing it.

And because Hannah had told me about

one of her little secrets, I decided to share

one of mine.

“Hold on a sec.” My laptop was in my

room, so I grabbed it and turned it on,

clicking on to the internet browser and

pulling up my blog. I handed the computer

to Hannah without saying anything.

“Okay,” she said, scrolling through my

blog. “What is this?”

“It’s mine. My blog. This is my secret

identity. My name is Joscelyn Archer and

I’m a music blogger.”

Her eyes went wide and she stared at

the blog more intently.

“No shit, this is yours? Oh, my God.” I

watched her eyes race over my latest album

review and then she clicked on some of the

tabs and looked at some other things. I

waited for the verdict.

“This is so freaking awesome! Why

didn’t you tell me about this?”

I shrugged.

“I don’t know. I guess it was just such a

personal thing that I was putting out there. I

didn’t mind sharing it with strangers

because they would never know me or

meet me, but sharing it with people I know

is something different. What if they thought

it was weird? And what if I was bad at it? I

mean, I get sucky comments from

Page 22

strangers, but it would be awful if one of my

friends or something said it. I don’t know.” I

tried to take the laptop away as I felt my

ears getting red.

Hannah wouldn’t let me have it.

“No way. You shared this with me and

I’m going to take it all in. I told you that you

were a good writer, and you are. You’re

really, really good. Why are you not an

English major?”

Shit. I didn’t know showing her my blog

would lead to a rehash of things I didn’t

want to talk about.

“Because I don’t fancy working in food

service for the rest of my life or ending up

living in a refrigerator box on the street.”

Hannah smacked me on the arm.

“You would never end up in a box on the

street. Hello?

Do you see where you are living right

now? Your sister and all her friends would

never let that happen. You have a whole

fucking houseful of people that care about

you and you can’t even see it.”

What was that about?

“I’m not ungrateful. Do I seem


She sighed and gave my computer back.

“No, that’s not what I meant. That was

just my little jealousy monster rearing his

incredibly ugly head. Just forget it.”

“You have people who care about you. I

care about you,”

I said, putting my arm around her. “Once

again, I totally sounded like I was into you.

But you knew what I meant, right?”

“Totally. And I care about you, too.”

We shared a completely not awkward

hug and then started laughing.

“So, a frat party, huh? Did you ever think

that the best revenge is living well? I read

that somewhere, and I think it would work

in this situation. We’ll get you a killer dress

and the ladies of Yellowfield House can

make you up and then we can go and you

can shove it in their faces. If they think they

got to you, they win. If you show them you

don’t give a shit, then you win,” I said.

She shrugged one shoulder.

“It’s not as good as dumping buckets of

pig’s blood on them.” Thinking about Carrie

reminded me that Stephen King lived right

down the street. I told Hannah and I

thought her eyeballs were going to fall out

of her head.

“I knew he lived in Bangor, but I didn’t

know where.”

“Yeah, we can drive by or something

sometime. We could even creepily walk by.

But we’d probably get arrested. He’s got

security cameras and stuff.”

We both walked back up the stairs and

found everyone sitting in the living room,

pretending they weren’t waiting for

us—except Renee and Paul.

“We didn’t kill each other, and we didn’t

devolve into a girl fight of hair-pulling and

eye-gouging, if anyone was worried about

that,” Hannah said, slinging her arm over

my shoulder. “See? All good.”

Everyone seemed to sigh in relief.

“But I think I owe your sister an apology,

so I’m going to go do that,” Hannah said,

heading for the stairs as if she’d been in the

house a hundred times.

I didn’t know if that was a good idea, but

I wasn’t going to stop her.

I sat down on the couch next to Taylor,

and she leaned her head on my shoulder.

“You know, I’ve never been to a frat

party, either. I was a bit curious about the

experience, as well.”

Hunter made a grumbling noise.

“What, you don’t think I can defend

myself against a few drunk frat guys? I

defended myself pretty good against you,”

she said.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed at

her. “Touché, Missy. Touché.”

Dusty seemed to be watching me. Why

hadn’t he gone home yet?

“I’m going to go check on them,” he said

suddenly, popping to his feet. “I’m not sure

who my money would be on in a fight

between Hannah and Renee.” He jogged up

the stairs, his pants sliding lower and lower.

One of these days I was going to ask him

how they stayed up. But he’d make some

weird comment and then I’d blush and that

wouldn’t be fun. I didn’t need to give him

any more fuel.

“I always wished I had red hair,” Taylor

said, running her fingers through mine. Hers

was so pretty, though. It did that

beachy-wave thing that I could never pull

off. My hair just sort of…hung on my head.

“So you’d have an excuse to fly off the

handle?” Hunter said, picking up his guitar

again. It seemed to be his go-to in times of


“Ha-ha, you wish,” Taylor said.

We sat for a few more minutes as Mase

turned on NESN and checked the sports

stats. Both Hannah and Dusty had been

gone for longer than I was comfortable

with, but it was nearly silent upstairs.

I got up and went for the stairs. I heard

the rest of them talking behind me, but I

didn’t care.

Being careful to walk quietly and

carefully, I approached Renee and Paul’s

room. The door was cracked just a bit.

Dusty’s voice was the one I heard first.

“She’s going to have so many people

watching her, she won’t be able to sneeze

without one of us saying ‘bless you.’ Trust


“Why should I trust you?” That was


I leaned closer and maybe a little too

far, catching myself off balance and banging

into the door, which slammed open and

banged off the wall. Not the most graceful

of entrances I’d ever made.

“Sorry, I just came up to see if

everything was okay. I didn’t hear anything

downstairs, so I was hoping I wasn’t going

to come up and find a pile of bodies and

one of you holding a knife or something,” I

said, trying to save myself.

“Where would someone get a knife in

my bedroom?”

Renee said, recovering first from being

burst in on.

“You do have that really pointy nail file,”

Paul said, chiming in. Dusty was composed

but Hannah was a little red faced.

I wanted, desperately, to know what

Dusty’s answer to Renee’s question would

have been, but I couldn’t admit that I’d

been listening.

“Sorry I flew off the handle,” Renee said,

sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“No, it’s okay. Mom would have done

the same thing,”

I said.

“But I’m not your mom. Even though

you’ve made some bad decisions in the

past, you’ve been doing really great lately,

and I haven’t given you enough credit. I’m

proud of you.”

The praise was going right to my ears,

and I could feel them heating up. She

couldn’t have done this when we were


I mean, I didn’t care if she did it with

Paul around, because he was practically

family, but with Dusty and Hannah there, it

was embarrassing.

Dusty cleared his throat and moved

toward the door, shoving his hands into his


“I think that’s my cue to go home. I’ll see

you all…at some point. Okay, good night.”

He was out of there quicker than you could

say “saggy pants.”

“Sometimes I have an issue picking up

on social cues, but this isn’t one of those

times. I will see you tomorrow, Jos.

Thanks for understanding, Renee. ’Bye,

Paul.” Hannah scurried after Dusty, and I

was left with Renee and Paul.

“I think I’m going to give you two a

minute.” Paul left and closed the door

quietly behind him. I sat down next to

Renee on the bed.

“So what were you talking about when I

made my awesome entrance?” I said.

“Nothing. Hannah was just explaining

her reasons for wanting to go to the party. I

swear, ninety percent of guys are complete

and utter douche bags.” She closed her

eyes and flopped backward.

“If that’s true, then how is it possible

that we have three non–douche bags living

in this house? I mean, those are, like,

Powerball odds.” I joined her and let myself

fall backward and we stared at the ceiling.

“I don’t know. But I’m thinking we

should start buying more scratch tickets,”

she said.

The comforter was bunched up under

my head, so I smoothed it out.

“You ever take that thing off?” She

reached for my bracelet, fingering the

elephant charm.

“No.” I let her play with it for a second

longer and then turned on my side,

propping my head on my hand. She did the

same. It felt like when we were little and

used to build forts out of pillows and sheets

in the living room with all the chairs from

the dining room. That was before a lot of

our siblings entered our lives. All I could

remember was that it was pretty quiet back


“Sometimes I feel so old,” she said.

“How so?”

“Just between everything with Mom and

Dad and with our family being so crazy. Do

you remember that time when Mom forgot

us at school and we had to hitchhike?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Which time?” It had happened often in

our youth.

“It’s a wonder the two of us even

managed to turn out relatively normal.” I

tapped the side of her head.

“Relatively? Speak for yourself.”

“Hey, ‘relatively normal’ is a compliment

for you,” she said, grabbing a pillow and

whacking me with it.

“What the hell?” I dived and got a hold

of one and smacked her back. And then,

because we were sisters, we had a pillow

fight. Renee didn’t have down pillows, so

there were no feathers, but it got pretty

ridiculous anyway.

By the time both of us were out of

breath, we had an audience. One of the

guys must have heard us yelling and

carrying on and thought we were killing

each other, but they found us collapsed and

laughing in exhaustion.

“So, you’re good, then?” Mase said.

“Because you could, you know, keep doing

that. I wouldn’t complain.” He grinned, and

Darah made a disgusted sound.

“I think the odds are going down,” I said

to Renee and she laughed.

“What odds?” Hunter said.

“Never mind,” we both said at the same


Hannah was more reluctant to go

shopping than a virgin being led to the

sacrificial altar.

“You agreed to this plan. It will be okay, I

swear,” I said as I drove us toward the

Bangor Mall. She kept changing the radio

stations and it was driving me mad. I finally

reached out and turned off the radio.

I drove around a few times and found a

parking spot near the Dick’s Sporting Goods

store. I got my purse and was about to get

out of the car when Hannah’s hand reached

out and stopped me.

“Okay, so you know how we’ve been

sharing stuff lately, and I have to tell you

that I haven’t been shopping in, like, two

years.” She bit her lip and shrugged.

I sat back in my seat in shock.

“For serious?” I said.

“I mean, not like food shopping, but

clothes shopping.”

This was astounding, because she

always looked cute, in a punk/vintage kind

of way. She’d wear something that looked

like it belonged in a 1950s period piece with

something that had spikes or grommets or

leather. “I buy everything online. I know

which major retailers make their shirts

small and don’t even get me started on


“Why do you hate shopping so much?”

She gave me an icy look that told me she

thought it was more than obvious and I

should know without having to ask. “I

mean, is that it?”

“Is that it? Do you have any idea what

it’s like to go into a changing room and have

the attendant look at you like a leper? It’s

like they’re afraid I’m going to ruin the

clothes. And then the other people stare

and those horrible lights make you look

awful. It’s just an experience that I decided I

didn’t want to participate in anymore. Nude

modeling is one thing, but shopping is

completely different.”

“Then why did you say okay?”

Page 23

“Because I had hoped that this time

would be different. In addition to being

really good at sensing people, I’m also an

eternal optimist. Deep down inside. But

don’t tell anyone. I don’t want that to mess

with my image.”

“I won’t tell anyone if you agree to not

tell anyone about my blog.” We got out of

the car and she started whistling.

“Hannah? Did you hear me?”

“Um, yes? The thing is, I kind of already

did.” She squinched up her face as if she

was preparing for a blow.

“What!” She nearly hit me when she

opened the door.

“Uh, yeah. Remember how I said I was

going to help you with the job thing? Well,

it just so happens that I have a contact, of

sorts, at the campus newspaper and I

showed him your blog. He’s been looking

for someone to start writing a music

column, and I gave him your name and your

email, so he’ll probably be contacting you.”

She said it all in a rush.

I stopped walking and grabbed her arm

to make her face me.

“Why did you do that? I told you I

wanted it to be a secret.” I could feel the

panic building in my chest. I honestly didn’t

know why it freaked me out so much, but I

was definitely freaking.

“I know, but, like I said, you’re really

talented. I don’t think you belong in poli-sci.

You belong at a magazine or writing for a

newspaper or, since those are all dying out,

working for music promotions. I don’t know

that much about it, but I know that you are

wasting your talent.”

“And you know all that from reading a

few blog posts I wrote?” The music industry

was vicious, and there were thousands of

other blogs out there. I didn’t have

thousands of followers, or even close to

that. I was one drop in a vast ocean of other

people doing the same thing, and a lot of

them doing it better than me.

“I know it because I know you. Once

again, creepy, but I feel like you don’t even

see yourself sometimes. I know you’ve got,

like, baggage and shit and that someday

you will share it with me, but you don’t

have to now. But that baggage is standing in

the way of you doing something awesome.”

She started walking toward a Deb shop,

which was where we were most likely to

find something for her to wear. They

already had the prom dresses out, even

though prom was months away. I couldn’t

explain because she wouldn’t understand,

so I just followed her into the store.

Almost an hour later, Hannah had

rejected nearly all of my dress suggestions.

I’d tried everything; short, long, in between.

Red, green, blue, black, gold, pink. She and

found a reason for every rejection. It was no

wonder she hadn’t been shopping in two

years. She was so freaking picky.

“What about this?” I’d gotten fed up

with trying to help her, so I was picking out

ridiculous things. I held up a tube dress that

was in a shade of violent fluorescent yellow

and looked like something a cheap

streetwalker would wear.

“Do I have to list the things that are

wrong with that dress?”

I sighed and put it back.

“Jesus, Hannah, you’re harder to shop

for than the Queen.”

“The Queen doesn’t do her own

shopping. She has people,” she said,

walking along a rack and running her hands

over the dresses. “Oooh,” she said, pulling

one out. It was the first time she’d showed

interest in anything, so I was shocked.

It was a one-shouldered red dress with

black embroidery along the hem that would

probably hit right above her knees.

It also had a black belt around the waist

with a silver buckle.

“I’m trying this on,” she said, and

without any more fuss, she marched toward

the dressing room.

I followed in her wake, stunned.

The attendant was absent, so Hannah

just walked into the first room that was


“Hold my bag?”

“Sure,” I said as she handed her purse

under the door.

I waited as she shucked her shoes and

clothes off and then heard the sound of the

zipper on the dress. She turned back and


“Well? Does it fit?” The door slowly

opened halfway and she let me in.

“You tell me.” She shrugged and turned

in a circle and the skirt flared out.

“You are a knockout, Hannah.” It was

true. The belt made her look like the perfect

hourglass, and the length made her legs

look like they went on forever. The bare

shoulder happened to be on the side with

her scars, but really, I wasn’t looking at


“I think we have a winner,” I said, taking

her hand and twirling her under my arm.

She crashed into the wall because there

really wasn’t enough room for twirling, and

we both laughed.

“Okay, now it’s your turn. Go pick

something and get back here, bitch.” I had

just planned on borrowing the gold number

again, but once again, Hannah wasn’t going

to take no for an answer.

She shoved me out the door and I went

back to the front of the store where the

dresses were. I’d seen a few that I thought

were cute, but I’d been so focused on

Hannah I hadn’t even thought about it. I

quickly looked through, trying to find

something that wasn’t too short or too

long, or a bad color.

I rejected anything red or pink or

orange. I also didn’t want black because it

tended to wash me out at the same time it

made my freckles stand out way too much. I

found a drapey gray number that

shimmered a little when I held the fabric

under the light. It also looked like it would

be comfortable and cover everything I

needed covered. It wasn’t as conservative

as what I would have worn in my old life,

but it was a good middle ground kind of


I brought it back and saw that Hannah

was back in her other clothes and had the

red dress draped over her arm.

“Very pretty. Now get naked and put it

on.” I was shoved into the room and she

slammed the door behind me. There were

only a few other people in the dressing

room, and I bet they didn’t know what to

make of Hannah.

I stripped down and put the dress on. I

got the zipper almost all the way up.

Hannah’s foot was tapping impatiently on

the other side of the door.

“Can you zip me up?” I unlocked the

door before she busted it down. I turned

my back and she finished zipping me before

she wrenched me back around. I didn’t

think she knew the meaning of the word


“It makes your boobs look great.” Of

course, this was an important

consideration. “Gorgeous. If I had a dick, I’d

totally do you.”

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever

said to me,” I said, touching her shoulder.

“Okay, so now we both have dresses,

can we get out of here?”

“Sure, just let me get changed.”

Hannah couldn’t get out of that store

fast enough. I reminded her that we needed

accessories for our dresses, so she dragged

me into Claire’s for earrings and such, and

then we went and got shoes. By the time

we had everything for our outfits, we were

both starving, so we decided to be done for

the day. I invited Hannah to dinner and she


“By the way, what were you and my

sister talking about for so long last night?” I

said as we shoved our purchases into the

backseat of my car.

“I was just apologizing profusely for my

lack of tact. It took a while. I also had to go

into the whole story about the guys and

outline my reasons for wanting to go. After I

told you, it seemed stupid that I was trying

to keep it a secret in the first place.”

“That was it?”

“Yeah, why?” I looked at her, but her

eyes were wide and innocent. I’d

underestimated her lying skills, apparently,

based on past experience.

“No reason. Just curious.” I dropped it.

My next stop was Dusty to see what his

version of the story was.

I didn’t have long to wait to interrogate

Dusty because he was at the house when

we got back, sitting on the couch with his

headphones on as if he was the king of the


He pulled them off his ears and left

them around his neck when he saw me and


“Should we add your name to the list?” I

said, pointing to the chart with everyone’s

name on it. “Or maybe you should just

move in. You could sleep on the recliner.” It

happened to be the ugliest chair in the

history of chairs, but Taylor refused to get

rid of it, and would never say why. Some

sort of weird sentimental value. I honestly

didn’t want to know.

“Pass. I’m just here because Hunter is

helping me study for the Praxis. Or actually,

he’s showing me hownotto study for the


“Did you get your scores yet?” I asked


“Not yet. But they should be in by

tomorrow. If not, I’m going to let Taylor call

and rip them a new one. She’s much better

at yelling and getting her way than I am.”

This was true. I’d seen it in action.

“I’m sure you did fine,” I said, going to

take my bags down to my room, Hannah

following. Hunter was really smart—in fact,

the entire house was freaking smart, just in

different ways. It was more intimidating

than when I’d been competing with my

classmates in high school and last year for

the highest GPA.

I tossed my bags on the floor and went

to check my email, my heart pounding a

little bit. Yup, there it was. An email with

the subject line: Writing for The Maine

Campus, from someone named Brett Evans.

I clicked it open and scanned it. He’d read

my blog and loved it and was wondering if

I’d like to have my own column in the

Entertainment section where I’d review

bands, CDs and so forth. He did mention

that he’d gotten my name from Hannah, so

it didn’t seem like he was contacting me out

of the blue. He also mentioned that the

paper paid per article, but if I liked it

enough, he was looking for an assistant

editor for his section, and he would love to

talk to me, and it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a

journalism major.

“Let me guess. Brett emailed you.”

Hannah had been silent the entire time I’d

been reading the email. Probably because

she knew that’s what I was doing.

“Yeah. He wants to give me a column,

and he said he needed an assistant editor.”

“Holy crap, that’s awesome! Good job,


I felt less-than-enthusiastic. “But,

Hannah, I’ve read the paper, like, once, and

I’m not a journalism major. I’m not even a

writing major.”

She scoffed.

“Doesn’t matter. Brett’s a new-media

major. There are lots of people who work

there that aren’t in journalism. Besides, it’s

not like it’s theNew York Times.It’s just a

school paper. Not a big deal.” Why did it

feel like such a big deal?

“So you’re going to do it, right?”

It was money, which I didn’t have, and it

was something I loved to do.

Live the day, Jossy.

“Yeah, I’m going to do it.” The second

the words were out of my mouth, Hannah

tackle-hugged me and we both fell back on

the bed. “I swear, I think you’re more

excited about it than I am.”

“Awesome. Fuck, I’m starving,” she said,

putting her hand on her stomach and sitting

up. She held out her hand and pulled me to

my feet.

“How do you know this guy, anyway?”

Hannah never really talked about other


She sighed and rolled her eyes toward

the ceiling. “It’s kind of a long story. We

were sort of friends in high school, and I

was madly in love with him. I never told him

and eventually I got over it, but we’re still

sort of friends. It’s one of those weird

relationships where you never really know

where you stand, you know? But he’s a

good guy, I swear.”

Okay, the story wasn’t that long. My

next question was automatic.

“Is he cute?”

She smiled a little. “Not in the

conventional way. He’s sort of band-geek

chic. You’ll see what I mean when you meet


Hannah kept my new job quiet at

dinner, like I asked her to, and ended up

staying with us for homework time.

“You know, I said we needed to build a

library instead of a stupid man cave and

look at us now,” Taylor said as every

available surface, including the f loor, was

taken up with books and people and

computers. “I told you I wanted one of

those bookcases with the ladder that rolls

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