Read No place to fall Online

Authors: Jaye Robin Brown

No place to fall

DEDICATION

For all the small-town girls,and for Raven,who showed me how to fly

CONTENTSDedicationChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyChapter Twenty-OneChapter Twenty-TwoChapter Twenty-ThreeChapter Twenty-FourChapter Twenty-FiveChapter Twenty-SixChapter Twenty-SevenChapter Twenty-EightChapter Twenty-NineChapter ThirtyChapter Thirty-OneChapter Thirty-TwoChapter Thirty-ThreeChapter Thirty-FourChapter Thirty-FiveChapter Thirty-SixAcknowledgmentsAbout the AuthorCreditsBack AdCopyrightAbout the PublisherGuideCoverContents1iiiivv123456789101112131415161718192021222324252627282930313233343536373839404142434445464748495051525354555657585960616263646566676869707172737475767778798081828384858687888990919293949596979899100101102103104105106107108109110111112113114115116117118119120121122123124125126127128129130131132133134135136137138139140141142143144145146147148149150151152153154155156157158159160161162163164165166167168169170171172173174175176177178179180181182183184185186187188189190191192193194195196197198199200201202203204205206207208209210211212213214215216217218219220221222223224225226227228229230231232233234235236237238239240241242243244245246247248249250251252253254255256257258259260261262263264265266267268269270271272273274275276277278279280281282283284285286287288289290291292293294295296297298299300301302303304305306307308309310311312313314315316317318319320321322323324325326327328329330331332333334335336337338339340341342343344345346347348349350351352353354357358359360CHAPTER ONE

The man talking on thelocal news has it out for me. Through the screen door, I watch Mama, remote control in hand, mouth gasping like a banked fish with each new tale of murder and woe. Every single day, morning and evening, she convinces herself the world beyond our doorstep is a Very Bad Place. I've managed to sneak off in plain sight all summer long, but I never know when she might decide an ax murderer is lurking in the woods and keep me home.

Devon's Jeep barrels around the curve in the road. I stand up, wiping the dust off my jean shorts. He parks and makes his way across our overgrown yard, guitar slung over his shoulder, foil-wrapped plate in his hand.

“Ready?” I say. “Mama's working herself into a scare.”

He peers past me into the house. “Hey, Mrs. Vaughn.”

“Hello, young'un.”

I groan as Mama walks toward the screen door.

“You've got your cell phones? You won't be out too late now, will you?” Mama has her hand on the door pull but doesn't open it. “Devon, you look after Amber. Sometimes there are hikers from who knows where out on those trails.” She looks at the plate and his guitar. “What? No salamander hunting today? Y'all meeting somebody?”

“No, ma'am,” I lie. “Just us, going to go sing up on the overlook, and we may try and find us a hellbender or two.”

That's been our story. That we're on the hunt for the elusive hellbender salamander. That we spend our long teenage hours in the woods, alone, digging under rocks, trying to find a slimy amphibian. The reality is we're headed to the hiker barn. Again.

A twinge of guilt burbles in my gut. If Mama knew what I was up to it'd destroy her. But the thing is, Mama only sees what she wants to see. Even when I come home, lips swollen, with stars in my eyes and a hickey on my neck, she'll look at me all maternal and say, “Did you have a nice time, sugar?” She's as clueless about me as she is about my sister, Whitney, and her drug-dealing husband.Or about Daddy and hisovertime.I wonder if the faithful are meant to be so blind.

Devon and I tell her good-bye, assuring her six ways to Sunday we'll call if we run into trouble, and cut across the back pasture toward the trail.

We traipse past Whitney's faded gray trailer and head for the tree line. Sammy, my sister's husband, is outside washing their car, his shirt off, his pale blond hair long on his back.

“Hey.” Sammy leers at me and starts playing air guitar on the garden hose.

“What?” I spit the word at him. Whitney may still be in love with him, but I see him for what he is. A low-life loser who'd rather sell oxy than do what it takes to make an honest living. He's a total idiot, but hecanplay the guitar.

Sammy sticks the hose between his legs, spraying water in our direction. “Have a good time—salamander hunting.”

I flip him the bird. “Go to hell, Sammy.”

Devon ignores him and whistles his favorite Lady Gaga song, keeping his eyes straight ahead until Sammy's hidden by the trees.

Devon's funny. Smart. He moved to town at the start of ninth grade, right around when Whitney abandonedme for Sammy, and we clung to each other like rabbits in a storm. Unfortunately, despite what Sammy may think, Devon's not into girls. It's a crying shame, too, because he's dark-haired, boy-band cute, and although our taste in music runs toward polar opposites—me, bluegrass and ballads; him, Lady Gaga and pop divas—he loves playing the guitar and singing as much as I do.

But most of all, he gets me. Devon understands my burning desire to get the hell out of Sevenmile, North Carolina, which is a seemingly impossible prospect, given my mama's stalwart belief that her flock should settle within a couple of hundred feet of her back door. But Devon's willing to help me try to figure it out.

He jumps into the middle of the trail, tall stickweed shuddering as his guitar hits the leafy branches, and puts his hands on my shoulders. “This is it, Amber Plain and Small, our last night of reckless endangerment.”

I hate the nickname. Devon says he's doing me a favor to distinguish me from the other two Ambers in our grade. The two we lovingly refer to as Cheerleader Amber and Amber-o-zia.

Devon ignores my look. “We are going to make the most of this bonfire night with the through-hikers, a final salute to the bad girl that lurks inside of you. Or maybe, might you find . . .” He mock gasps. “Love?”

A part of me bristles as he says it. I mean, yes, he's right. I guess on some level loveiswhat I'm looking for. Not necessarily the love of someone, but ofsomething. The something that will help me rise above, make me special, make me feel like somebody. Like singing at a music festival or auditioning for one of those television music shows. What would it be like to go somewhere, to do something big? Hell, just to have the guts to sing in front of people besides Devon, my family, and my church. But I can't tell him. He'd tease the hell out of me.

Devon hits a chord and starts singing, “You're beautiful. . . .”

I roll my eyes and turn as he serenades me. We're walking in the middle of an overgrown logging road back behind Pastor Early's farm. The road takes us to the Appalachian Trail and then to the hiker barn. Our destination. The place where I've entertained myself all summer long with interesting boys who don't know my family's reputation.

I've met hikers from as far away as Europe and as close as Johnson City, Tennessee. I'm marking the towns on the map in my bedroom. I know on a certain level that meeting all these people doesn't really count as having been to the places they come from, but it's the closest I've ever gotten. I heard about a jazz festival in New Orleans. Abluegrass festival in Telluride. I even heard from a Tennessee boy about a big festival outside of Wilkesboro where you can camp and play music all weekend long.

This summer has been different that way. The magic of the hiker barn lets me fly as far as I want in my imagination.

Whitney is the one who showed the barn to me first.

She'd taken me there the spring of her junior year, my last year of middle school, before she started dating Sammy. I'd noticed the carvings right away. On every board were names and dates and places. They said things like “Wooly Bear, passing through, June 2002” and “Mark and Joni, honeymoon hikers, Boston to Maine to Georgia, 1997.” I'd pored over those carvings, imagining what it would be like to be the kind of person who could pick up and walk away from home like that.

“Through-hikers, from all over the place,” Whitney had said. At the question on my face, she'd explained, “The Appalachian Trail is just up that path. There's a sign pointing the hikers to this barn. The property owners let them use this place as an overnight shelter.”

I remember thinking my sister was wiser than Jesus. Like she'd opened my eyes and the door to the rest of the world was right here, practically in my own backyard.


Page 2

CHAPTER TWO

I hold up my hand.Devon stops behind me.

We creep up the spur trail. The big barn is just around the bend.

I can already hear the murmur of voices and bursts of laughter. The smell of camp smoke swirls on the breeze.

We sneak closer and I see sleeping bags hanging out on lines. A hose has been rigged from the creek to wash the hikers' stuff and the tail end of a bright August sun is drying earth-colored clothing.

I feel Devon at my right shoulder. “Are you ready?” he asks.

I see a group of dreadlocked hikers, two guys, one girl.

Another guy, a little older.

There are more bags on the line. That means more hikers. Either in the barn or down at the creek.

“Ready,” I say. “The dread guys are kind of cute.” It's still hard to believe how easy this has been. Sliding in by the campfire, talking, singing. The first time we showed up I was nervous, but each visit since has been easier. Especially since they've all been so nice, and so eager to hang out with anyone new and different.

Devon purses his lips and gives me his best Marilyn Monroe. “All right, darling, let's go find us a man.”

We walk into the clearing. The dreadlocked cluster looks up. The older guy is more suspicious, glancing at us sideways. I sigh under my breath so only Devon hears. He knocks me with his elbow and whispers, “Say your greetings.”

“Hi, how you'uns doing?” My voice sounds extra tangy with a side of hillbilly as it bounces down the path.

Devon elbows me again.

“I mean, how are y'all doing?”

“Tired.” The boy with the dark dreadlocks smiles up at me, but the girl, super-pretty despite being fresh off the trail, instinctively wraps her arm snug around his waist. I guess hippies get jealous, too.

“Long day on the trail?” I look at the blond dreadlocked boy. He raises his arms behind him, cradling hishead as he leans against the barn's exterior. His eyes linger on my face before doing a quick trip up and down the rest of me. I don't really mind. He's definitely hiker cute.

“Yeah.” He pauses, a wry grin settling at the corner of his lips. “Long day. Y'all just sightseeing or did you actually bring a little trail magic for some tired hikers?”

The dread girl speaks up. “Basil, be nice. Anybody that arrives at camp with a guitar and something in foil wrapping is all right by me.” She smiles at me. “What's in there?”

Devon points to the tray. “Brownies. Plain or Secret Ingredient.”

The girl smiles and turns to Basil. “See, Basil. Secret Ingredient brownies, your favorite.”

The older guy speaks up. His voice is nasal and his words are clipped. Yankee. “You two live around here?”

I nod.

“Curious or Good Samaritans?”

I figure honesty is the best policy. “Both. We've met people from all over the place this summer.”

He smiles and even though he's bound to be at least twenty-eight, he has kind eyes. “Well, pull up a log. We've got a little stone soup cooking. My buddies hitched a ride to the store for some supplies.” He looks at Devon. “Can you play?”

Devon sits down and pulls the guitar around. He starts with “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

“Righteous.” The dread girl's boyfriend lays out long on the dirt and pulls her in to his side. Basil comes and sits next to me. He smells like he's been in the woods for days.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Eighteen,” I lie and unwrap the foil. I point to the ones that Devon's older brother, Will, baked. “I think you might want one of those.”

Devon says Will's in an experimental phase, one that's intended to piss their judge daddy off. But Will claims his dad won't find out and besides, his pot-infused butter is worth it. Better than smoking. Not that I do much imbibing of any sort during the school year. It's too big of a risk. The whole town's already seen my sister's fall. All I need is everyone assuming I'm headed down the same path.

The foil crinkles as the hikers gather around and take brownies. The girl reminds them to save a few for the guys who hitched to the store. I notice the older guy takes a plain old sugar-and-butter variety.

Devon finishes his song. “So, what are your trail names? Where are you from?”

I take a bite of one of Will's brownies—it is the last hurrah of summer after all—and wait to hear the answers.

Dread girl says her trail name is Whiskers, somethingto do with a rogue hair that sprouts when she doesn't have a mirror to pluck it. She, her boyfriend, and Basil are all from Athens, Georgia.

The Yankee guy laughs. “Mine's Cheese Steak. Because I'm from Philadelphia. But most folks on the trail just call me Philly.”

“What would our trail names be?” Devon asks them. It's a question we've asked every group of hikers.

Philly laughs and the sound is more melodious than his speaking voice. It makes me wonder if he can sing. Basil edges closer to me.

Philly points at Devon. “We've only just met, but let's see. I think we'll call you the Picker.”

Devon rolls his eyes. “Idohope you're referring to my guitar.”

“And her,” Philly says, winking at me, “we'll call her Pixie, because of that haircut and her impish grin.”

I giggle, the brownie already taking effect.

Basil is close enough I feel the warmth of his leg on mine. I glance sideways at him. He might be really handsome without all that nappy hair. I wonder if he's in college, taking the summer off to hike the AT. He shifts slightly, the hair on his arm brushing mine. I look down as a shiver rises on my skin. When I look up, he's staring at me.

Basil arches one eyebrow and stretches his leg out longso that it nudges me in the process.

I look away but feel the flare rise to my cheeks and a tickle jump in my belly.

Philly throws logs on the fire and Devon cranks up his guitar again, slipping into Johnny Cash mode. He plays “Jackson” and I sing the June Carter Cash parts. Basil, Whiskers, and her boyfriend all squeeze in on me as we raise our voices. Then, Devon switches to “Poker Face” and we're laughing and singing and making crazy faces at each other, the brownies a good half hour into our system. Philly watches us with laughter in his eyes. I'm definitely stoned, but tonight I don't care.

A group of guys walks up the logging road from the direction of the old Whitson house. Hikers, two who look like they belong with Philly, and one younger, surprisingly clean, loner. They're loaded down with bags of groceries and a case of beer.

“Beer!” Basil jumps up from his spot next to me and rushes the approaching hikers. He grabs two bottles and returns, twisting the caps, then passes one my way. “Here you go, Pixie.” He loops his arm over my shoulder. I should move out from under it—he's probably too old for me and I've just met him. But it's not like I'm ever going to see these people again.

“You know, you've got a great voice.” Basil's voice islow and conspiratorial, like he's telling me a secret.

I take a sip, the rim of the bottle cold on my lips. “You think?” My heart rate picks up a beat or two, and I fight the urge to move out from the heat of his arm across my shoulder.

“I do,” he says. “Come on, I want to hear you sing something else.” His arm drops but he grabs my hand instead.

I let him pull me back toward the campfire.

CHAPTER THREE

The new hikers settle aroundthe fire. Two sit near Philly, and the loner guy sits next to Devon, across from me and Basil.

“Hey, man.” He holds out his hand to Devon. “I'm Kush.”

“Devon.” Devon grabs the guy's hand and pumps the hell out of his forearm.

I try not to laugh.

Kush retrieves his hand. “Whoa, some grip. Y'all from around here?” His glance skips between us. He sounds close enough to be local, but he doesn't look like anybody I know. Shoulder-length black hair. Big sleepy eyes the color of goldenrod in the fall. Bronze skin. I think he must be part Indian.IndiaIndian, not Native American.

Devon's gone all tongue-tied. “Right here in Sevenmile,” I say, speaking for him.

Kush nods like he already guessed. He points at the foil in Devon's hands. “Can I have one?”

“Oh, right, sure.” Devon recovers and squares his shoulders. His voice drops an octave. “Here you go.” He doesn't point out there are two varieties, and Kush takes one of Will's doctored delights.

Basil casually slides his arm behind me before nodding at Kush. “They do things different here than in Georgia. Am I right?”

“You can say that again. There is nothing out there.” Kush points beyond the trees.

I guess Kush is from Athens, too. It surprises me they're hiking together. Basil and his other friends seem granola crunchy compared to Kush, but what do I know?

Philly and one of his friends leave our circle and start seasoning burgers over by the charcoal grill.

Basil leans in. “So, you going to sing for us, or what?” The thumb that had been casually touching the side of my thigh lifts up and explores the hem of my shorts.

Devon inclines his chin so slightly in my direction I almost miss it. Then he purses his lips.

I shrug. He knows, like I know, that after this week, our fun is over. It's back to school and homework and lifeas usual. But I also know Devon won't judge me. What happens at the hiker barn stays at the hiker barn. And so what if I hook up with Basil? It's not like I'm going to marry him or have his baby. I'm not Whitney.

“Well, what do you want to hear?” I clutch the beer bottle in my hands.

Basil leans closer. “Sing something hot.”

Kush snort laughs. Then Devon starts giggling. Pretty soon we're all laughing and Basil's taken his hand off of me and is waving it in the air for us to stop. “All right, all right. I get it.” He nudges me. “Sing what you're good at.”

“Play ‘Amazing Grace,'” I say.

Devon pulls his guitar around and hits a chord. His eyelids are hanging low and he's wearing this goofy sort of half smile. I wonder if I look as stoned as he does.

He starts strumming the guitar and I pretend I'm in our family pew at my church, Evermore Fundamental. It's the place I feel safe singing it loud. My voice rises up. I open my mouth and the notes fly to the trees and swoop up and down and around our little party. It's almost like I can see them up there, glistening with promise. Tiny sound bursts that sparkle and fall. When I finish, everyone is silent. Basil has his eyes shut and he's smiling.

Devon strums absently on the guitar.

Kush stands and stretches out his legs. He pushes hishair back from his face and shakes his head. “Man, that was a downer. That's seriously what you like to sing?” He runs his hand down the sides of his mouth, and then reaches for a beer.

Basil puts his hand protectively around my shoulder. “Dude, don't. That was tight.”

Kush shakes his head. “Church music. It's what all these people up here are into. That and country.”

Blood rushes into my face, and I press my lips to keep from calling him an asshole. I'm about ready to walk on home when Philly calls out from the grill. “One more song and dinner's ready.”

Devon nudges Kush's foot with his own. “So what doyouwant to hear?”

“Can you play anything real?”

Devon hits the opening chords for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

One night last year, we were messing around and came up with a bluegrass version of it. Even Will, who usually never has time for us, joined in on his banjo. It sounded great. For real, great, and I've been wanting to play it again like that ever since.

But tonight Devon plays it regular, and I go ahead and sing, growling out the lines. I'll show this city boy church music. I'm high enough that I grab someone's walkingstick, turning it into a make-believe microphone. I even swing my beer bottle in my other hand, taking swigs when Devon plays guitar solos.

When I finish, I bow and let Basil pull me toward him in a hug. “Girl, you ripped that.”

It's then that I get a little self-conscious. What do these people see when they see me? A country girl with a twang and no future, or do they see me as someone who really might be able to fly?

Philly calls us to dinner. His buddies pass out plates and we all fall silent. I eat another one of Will's brownies and say yes to the second beer Basil hands me.

Philly's friends spin tales about the trail. They crack us up with their interpretation of the speed hikers and the crazy hermits that shun the company of others out in the woods.

Devon starts playing good old James Taylor sing-alongs and even Kush doesn't complain.

Basil is next to me again, and I notice he leans in when we laugh, and gives me a little nudge with his arm. It doesn't feel all that bad.

“So, Kush?” Devon asks. “You're from Athens, too?”

“Atlanta,” Kush says. “The city. Nothing like this place.” The way he rolls his eyes and tilts his head in thevague direction of town puts me off.

I remember when Devon first moved here from Raleigh. He'd do the same thing. Roll his eyes. Make fun of us. Like if you weren't from a city, you couldn't possibly be a worthy human being.

Philly's friend, Larry, yawns and starts gathering up the pots and pans, mumbling about an early start and cleaning up. It's a good break, so I jump up to help.

“Hey, man,” Basil says to Larry. “We got that. Go on to bed. I'll leave your things by your pack.” Basil smiles and walks over next to me, piling dishes in his arms.

What's the harm? It's just dishes, after all. Isn't this why I'm here? To meet new people?

Basil sings along to the song Devon is playing as we traipse down the skinny track through the woods.

He slows until I'm walking next to him. “So, Pixie, you ever think of taking off up that trail? Why don't you come with us?”

Because I'm barely sixteen, my mama's a fundamental Baptist, and my daddy has a thirty-aught-six rifle. Though lately, he hasn't seemed to care too much about what I'm up to.

What I say is, “Not this year.”

“Too bad.” He hip-checks me. “Gets sort of lonely outthere, when you're hiking with a couple.”

Before I know what's happened, he's leaned in and kissed me, real quick.

“Uh, I've gotta pee.”

“That's not usually the effect I have on girls.” He laughs.

We reach the stream and I put down the dishes I'm carrying. “No, really. Be back in a sec.”

From the woods, I can hear him singing and washing dishes. I squat and realize just how buzzed I am and place my hand on a tree trunk to steady myself. What am I doing? I'm acting like Whitney. But what does it matter? They'll all be down the trail in the morning anyway, and with school starting next week, it's back to plain old me. I stand and pull my shorts up.

Basil smiles as I walk back. We wash the remaining dishes while I hum the tune to “Pretty Saro.” It's my favorite old Appalachian ballad.

When we're done, Basil takes my hand and leads me to a grassy spot near the bank. “Will you sing that? For me?” He pulls me to sit next to him. I recognize where this is going and picture my map, with a new thumbtack stuck on Athens, Georgia.

I take a deep breath and feel the notes resonate in mybelly. I close my eyes, then press my hand against the dirt to steady myself, before bringing up the first words.

“Down in some low valley in somelonesome place,

Where small birds to whistle theirnotes do increase . . .”

I keep singing with my eyes closed, only catching my breath when I feel Basil's fingers tickling the skin on the back of my neck.

When I finish, I open my eyes and he's there, waiting for me with a kiss. I turn so I'm facing him and put my hand on his shoulder. We kiss for a minute and then he pulls back. “You know, you're really good.” Basil pushes short wisps of hair behind my ears.

“Thanks.”

“No, I mean, like,reallygood. You should let somebody record you.”

I shake my head and blush. “No, it's only for church and hanging out with my friends.”

Basil moves his hand down to the side of my neck. His expression is earnest. “I'm not punking you, Pixie. I don'tknow that much about it, but I'd guess you have near perfect pitch. You ever watchAmerican Idol?”

I giggle at his suggestion. Singing in front of crowds is my dream—and my biggest fear. But I'll never get to that level. I'm just a girl who sings at church and around a campfire.

His eyes focus in on mine, and then he pulls my mouth to his. At first, he's real gentle.

But his kisses get more urgent, and he parts my mouth with his tongue.

He tastes like chocolate and beer. My head buzzes but my tongue meets his, circling and tasting. His lips press harder against mine and I kiss him back.

I could tell him to stop and head back to the rest of the group. But I don't.

A groan escapes his lips and he leans against me, his arms easing me toward the ground.

I lie back getting lost in the feeling of his mouth on mine.

His hand eventually works its way under my tank top, unhooking my bra. “You're so beautiful,” he whispers. “One day, when I see you singing at some amphitheater, I'm going to remember this night, my brush with fame.” He kisses down my stomach.

I gasp as every feeling in my body settles between mylegs. I'd come prepared for something like this. Devon and I'd planned all summer about what it'd be like to hook up for real—the ultimate hookup. It'd been easy to get a condom. All I had to do was rummage deep in the glove box of Daddy's truck. Tonight could be it. Basil could be the one. Lord knows I wouldn't let it happen with someone from here. Sevenmile's gossip train has a loud whistle.

Basil's dreads scratch my skin, as he reaches to push down my shorts.

“Wait.” I put my hands on his arms.

“No, baby,” he moans.

I hold his arms tight.

“Seriously, wait.” I move my hands to his head and lift his face up.

His eyes meet mine and I guess he sees I'm serious about stopping. “No fucking way.” He groans and rolls off of me. He lies there for a minute before getting up and gathering dishes.

“Sorry,” I say.

He shrugs and waves me off.

As he disappears up the trail, I look through the leaves at the stars.

American Idol. Now that'd be something.


Page 3

CHAPTER FOUR

Sunday morning and Mama isyelling at me to hurry up. “We're gonna be late to church, Amber Delaine!”

I grab my church skirt and blouse out of the closet and slip them on. Good enough. It's not like there's going to be anyone at church to make a fuss for anyway.

Downstairs, Coby is in his high chair, his bib covered with Cheerios.

“Hey, buddy, you finished?” I ask him.

“BerBer.” My nephew grins and waves his chubby fists.

Mama waddles into the farmhouse's kitchen and I jump out of the way. Daddy says she's two ax handles worth of love. That means her rear end is as wide as twoax handles. I hate when he says it, but Mama acts like she doesn't care.

You don't want to get in Mama's way on church day. “Well, don't just stand there. Get that baby out of his chair and clean him up.”

“Where's Whitney?” I huff as I say it, but I know the answer. Running late because she and Sammy were out till God knows when. But my sister knows better than to skip church, even if it means showing up halfway through the sermon looking like death warmed over.

I get Coby cleaned up and head out to the yard.

Fog is settled into the folds of the valley and I hear Daddy walking over from the cow barn. “August fog means . . .”

“A snowy day this winter,” I say.

Daddy sheds his coveralls to reveal his Sunday slacks and shirt. I've never seen him in a tie, ever. But that doesn't stop half the women in Sevenmile from noticing him. Coby toddles over and holds up his hands. Daddy obliges, hoisting him onto his hip.

Daddy looks me over. “Amber, girl, I don't know why you don't let your hair grow long. Wear some nice heels. You might be as pretty as Whitney if you did. Might even get yourself a boyfriend.”

My mind flashes to the hiker barn. Girls don't need tolook like Whitney to get guys to notice them. Basil didn't seem to care that my hair's short and I don't wear fancy clothes. He thought I was interesting. He liked to hear me sing. I roll my knuckles against my thigh and ignore Daddy.

The porch railing creaks as Mama grabs it and takes the three stairs down to the yard. “You haven't started that truck yet, Herman?”

“Hold your britches. I'm going.”

Daddy cranks the engine while Mama pulls herself up into the passenger seat. I strap Coby into his car seat in the back.

At church, Pastor Early stands on the front stoop greeting the early parishioners. We are always there first. Mama thinks it will somehow make up for our sins.

I take Coby to the toddler room in the parish hall and linger. Deana May, the babysitter, goes to my school. Even though she's right up there with Mama on the devout-o-meter, I've always liked her.

She comes through the door leading the youngest of her five siblings. “Hey, Amber,” she says when she sees me. “You going to sing today?”

“Hey, Deana May. Yeah, Mrs. Early expects me to. Ready to start junior year?”

She shrugs and tightens her ponytail. “I guess. I'm in the baby class this fall.”

I laugh. “You'll definitely get an A, then.” The baby class is this stupid class where the teacher assigns everybody a robot baby. If you manage not to kill it from neglect or shaken baby syndrome, you get an A. With five younger siblings, it'll be a cakewalk for Deana May.

“Hey, did you hear?” Her pretty blue eyes go wide.

“No, what?”

“Some new family's moved in and they have sons. High school age.”

“Really? Where'd they come from?”

Deana May leans in because if there's one thing about her, she loves a good story. “I'm not sure. But the father is a Whitson. My papa knew his father. Said the family moved off for work but now the son is moving back in to reclaim the old property.”

The hiker barn sits at the edge of the Whitson land. Is that the property she's talking about?

The church bell rings and I say good-bye to Deana May before heading inside the sanctuary to our family pew.

Sammy and Whitney show up late and squeeze in. Sammy lets his legs splay open, so he's pressing against me. It's embarrassing, but it used to give me a thrill when he'd notice I was around. He was the ultimate bad boy, a musician, and I was only one degree of separation away, beingWhitney's little sister. But now it's just annoying. And weird. I scoot closer to Mama, but there's not a lot of room.

Pastor Early starts preaching and at first he holds my attention with talk of family and community. But then the slender beam of sunlight illuminating the pulpit's crimson carpet disappears and he switches gears. Before long I'm tuning him out. Blah, blah, blah, sinner. Blah, blah, blah, darkness. I slink down the wooden pew so my head rests on the back of it.

Mama hisses at me. “Sit up, girl.”

Mrs. Early, the preacher's wife, the choir director, and my high school's guidance counselor, smiles a sweet-tea smile at me from her place up front and motions for me to stand. She raises her arms and hums the opening notes of “River of Jordan.” As I sing my solo, I don't think about Pastor Early's condemnations, or the way that hiker, Kush, curled his lip at me. All I think about are the notes and how they purify me. Make me whole and wash me clean of anything but the sound of my voice.

“I'm on my way to the River of Jordan,

Gonna walk right in, in the rushing waters,

I'm going down to the River of Jordan,

And let the cool waters cleanse my soul.”

The folks in our congregation, no more than a hundred, look up and nod when I'm finished. They're the only audience I've ever really had, besides Devon, sometimes his brother, my family, and the hikers this summer.

Mrs. Early motions for me to sit down on the last note with a smile.

When I sing, I'm free.

Sammy decides it's a good time to drape his arm across the back of the pew and lean over. I smell the strange mix of his wintergreen Skoal and my sister's sour apple shampoo. “I need to talk to you.”

I glare at him and put my finger to my lips. “Shhh.”

Whitney leans forward and stares at us, then latches on to Sammy's arm.

I flip open the prayer book and bow my head, praying loud, ignoring the pressure from Sammy's leg. Mama pats my other leg and whispers, “That's right, honey, give it all to the Lord.”

If only it were that simple.

After church, Sammy follows me to the nursery to get Coby, while Whitney helps Mama set up refreshments in the fellowship hall.

Before we get there he pulls me into a darkened Sunday school room.

“Sammy, what are you doing?”

“Listen.” He pulls the door shut behind him and I look around for a light switch. He takes a step closer. I back up, bumping a wooden chair onto the floor.

He laughs. “Careful. You might bruise something.”

I find the switch and flick it on. “You're being weird. What do you want?”

Sammy gathers his hair, still damp from a shower, and flips it onto his back. “Don't be like that. Aren't I still your favorite guitar player?”

“Please, the only place you play anymore is around the console of your Guitar Wars game.” Sammy's guitar's been gone for months. Whitney told me they'd pawned it to invest in their “business.”

Sammy licks his finger, presses it against his forearm, and makes a sizzling sound. “That burned, baby sister.”

“So? Truth hurts.”

“But, see, that's what I have you in here for. I'm thinking of forming a new band. I met a drummer and another dude who plays bass.”

“Great.” I try to push past him toward the door, but he grabs my arm.

“Not so fast, I'm not finished.” Sammy pulls me close enough that I feel uncomfortable.

“Then finish. Coby's waiting for us.”

Outside in the hallway, I hear the sound of children's voices as parents gather them up for Sunday lunch.

“Please, Sammy, hurry up. What do you want?”

“I want you to be our backup singer.”

My head snaps up and I meet his eyes. “What?”

“You heard me. I know you've got a rock singer in there somewhere. Besides, if you're in on it, then Whitney won't give me grief.”

I'm stunned. Two years ago, I would have given the moon for Sammy to ask me to play in his band. But now, he's a burnout and a drug dealer and there's no telling who his other so-called band members are. Sure, I want to sing, but with Sammy? He's got to be kidding.

“No way.”

“Aw, come on.”

“Forget it, Sammy.” I push past him and fling open the door. “Deal with Whitney yourself.”

As I hurry down the hall, curiosity sneaks around the edges of my thoughts. The first band Sammy played in was pretty good. The old drummer moved to Nashville and picked up session gigs. He isn't famous, but he's living a real music life. Maybe this could be the start of something.

Inside the nursery, Coby's rolling a truck across thewindowsill. He looks up and grins at me. “Ber.”

No. That drummer made it on his own. He didn't need Sammy. Sammy can't even pick up his own kid from the nursery without thinking of himself first.

That's not my dream. It's not my music. No matter how bad I want an audience.

CHAPTER FIVE

Thank God for school startingand thank God for Devon's daddy.

That's all I can think as I hear the horn beep out front and appreciate that Devon has the Jeep. Which means I don't have to take the bus on the days Daddy can't drive me. I give myself one more glance before heading out the door. First-day attire: fitted Carolina T-shirt, baggy overalls with perfectly placed knee holes, a black crocheted pair of Toms shoes—Mama about had a cow when I told her I wanted fifty-dollar shoes that we had to order off the internet, but Daddy said yes, since they were feminine—and black hoop earrings. Devon had fought me on the overalls, but theyaremy trademark.

I give Mama a kiss and grab a package of Pop-Tarts and a bottle of water. “Bye, Mama, love you.”

She shifts in her seat and waves her hands at me, like she's conducting a symphony. She gets all misty, her first-day-of-school ritual, and I wait for it. “Come give me a hug.”

I wrap my arms around her. People may make fun of fat people, but I like having a squishy mama. She's comfortable.

“I can't believe you're a junior. Lord, two short years and you'll be graduating. I hope you won't be in a hurry to grow up as fast as your sister did.”

I cringe. Mama doesn't get it. Though I might like to go out and have fun like my sister, I don't plan on getting pregnant, or picking a guy anything like Sammy. I want to travel, hike the trail, and maybe even go to college.

“I gotta go, Mama.”

She hangs on tighter. “You be a good girl.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Devon honks again.

“Mama, I gotta go.”

She releases me and wipes a tear from her eye. “Have a good day, sugar.”

I fly out the front door and down the steps. Devon is beaming from the front seat of his Jeep. I slide intothe passenger seat. A plush soccer ball dangles from the rearview mirror. Devon's our team's goalie and he's pretty good for a mountain kid. Most boys around here are into football or baseball. But then again, he's a hybrid, what with his mama being from off and his daddy, the judge, only returning with his family two years ago when he got a wild hair to run for a district court seat. I still marvel that Devon picked me to hang out with.

Devon lowers the rim of his aviator glasses, checking me out from head to toe. “You know, Amber P & S, you could work it a little more.”

I shake my feet for him. “I've got cool shoes. Ordered them online.”

He smiles at my feet. “I can't believe you talkedyourparents into putting their credit card number into a computer.”

“Right? Daddy's got an eBay addiction now. Hunting up old Clinchfield Railroad stuff.”

Devon laughs hard and backs out of the yard.

It takes about ten minutes to drive to Mountain High and park.

Devon loops his arm through mine after we get out of the Jeep. “You ready to kill this year?”

“Let's kill it,” I say. But there isn't any of the excitement I felt this summer, when Devon and I hit the hiker barn.

We trudge up the hill from the parking lot and slide into Mountain High's commons. Groups of kids are already forming, and there's nothing new, except the clothes and haircuts.

I glance around to see if I can spy the new boys Deana May told me about. “Did you hear about the new kids?” I ask.

Devon's Adam's apple bobs. “Oh, yeah, about that.”

“About what?”

Will, Devon's brother, interrupts us. “Hello, young subjects,” he crows, throwing his arm over Devon's shoulder. Will and Devon are the same height, even though Will's a year older. Today, he looks effortlessly cool in his loose “My Grass Is Blue” T-shirt, a pair of hiking shorts, and faded trail runners. It's sweet, I guess, the way Will's always hovering, making sure nothing bad happens to Devon. He doesn't usually pay much attention to me, but when he does, my palms sweat a little.

“Hey, Will. I like your shirt,” I say, looking up at him. I stand with my hands by my sides, then in my pockets, then back by my sides.

It's stupid how nervous I get around him, but there are reasons. One, Will's as cute as Devon, but straight. Two, he hangs out with the cool seniors, and by that I don't mean the cheerleaders and jocks. I mean the artsykids—once they're gone, they're going to have a life. Three, hanging out with Will involves the likelihood of getting suspended—he's irreverent. And four, I always feels like he's making fun of me. Like he knows that if it weren't for me being friends with Devon, I'd just be some random girl at his school.

“You are looking fashionably unfashionable as always.” Will raises one brow and grins at me. “And I mean that in the best way possible.”

Then I hear the voice of Amber Rose Slagle. Amber-o-zia. “Will.Thereyou are.”

Amber-o-zia is our school fashion plate. She's part Cherokee and has perpetually tan skin, long, gorgeous dark hair, always wears makeup, and, according to Devon, hooked up with Will two weeks ago at a party out on the lake.

“Dahling . . .” Will, suave even when he's kidding, turns and holds out his arms, and Amber-o-zia tucks into them. He kisses her right there in the commons. I see Amber-o-zia's hand slip into the back pocket of his jeans. Territory established. An odd couple—Amber-o-zia's about as straight arrow as Deana May—but she and Will look good together.

I wipe my hands on my overalls.

“Come on.” Devon pulls me toward the double doorsand the soccer crowd. “There's someone we need to say hello to.”

“Amber. Devon. Hey! Wait up!” Cheerleader Amber, or C.A., untangles herself from a cluster of burgundy-ribboned girls decked out for the opening-day pep rally. “I need y'all to do me a favor.”

“C.A., we're right here.” Devon pokes his fingers in his ears.

“Sure. Whatever.” C.A. directs her request to me. “We need juniors to win opening-day spirit. Can you get them to yell a little louder?” C.A.'s hands are on her hips, her face serious.

“Sure, C.A.,” I say.

“Thanks!” She clasps her hands and bobs her head like she's just finished a cheer. She turns to go, then stops and speaks to me. “You taking art, again, Amber?”

“Yep, Devon's in, too. You?”

Last year, C.A. and I forged a surprising friendship over silk screen prints. Devon had been in a different block, but this year we'd be together.

“Yeah, but I hear the new teacher is a bitch.”

Before I can respond, C.A.'s friends have pulled her back into the squad and Devon's tugging on my arm. “Amber, I need you to listen to me.”

“What?” I look at my cell phone. Bell's about to ring for opening assembly.

“You know we had our first soccer practice a couple of days ago.”

“Yeah . . .”

“Well, we've got a new player.”

I see Principal Hedges walking in our general direction and I quickly slip my phone in my pocket.

“That's great. Is he any good?” Mountain High's soccer record is abysmal.

We're walking in the direction of the soccer team and the girls that hang out with them.

“No, it's not about that, it's . . .”

“Shit.” I stop dead in my tracks. Ahead of me, surrounded by the team and soccer groupies, is Kush, the guy from the campfire. Why did I assume he was a through-hiker? He must be one of the new boys Deana May was talking about.

I can feel Devon's crush energy radiating off of him. Me, all I feel is mortal embarrassment. I acted like Whitney out there. Making out with Basil, getting high. All I need is for the new guy to start spreading rumors about me and for them to get back to Mama and everyone else in Sevenmile.

And then he's standing across from us, shouldering a first-day book bag.

Devon's practically giddy. “Amber, you remember Kush? Kush Whitson? He moved here. From Atlanta. Isn't it awesome?”

I look at Devon, look at Kush, then look at my feet. “Hey,” I mumble. I'm torn between feeling sorry for the guy, and feeling a little freaked out he's going to run his mouth. And now he's hanging out with us?

The bell rings and the shuffle starts toward the gym.

I grab Devon's arm. “Um, sorry, Devon, I forgot I told Deana May I'd sit with her for assembly.”

“Wait, what . . .”

But I ignore him, and push my way into the crowd, leaving him, and Kush, behind.

I never do find Deana May in the gym, but instead, I settle smack dab in the middle of the burnout crowd.

“Hey, Amber.”

“Hey, Frog.”

Anthony Speller has been Frog as long as I can remember. He's actually sort of cute in a moppy hair, stoner sort of way.

“You met Sean yet?” Frog asks me.

I look past Frog and see another new boy. His hair is a light brown razor-cut mess, sticking up in the back. Hiseyes, which are a pretty blue, seem hidden behind clouds.

Sean lifts his chin. “What's up?”

“Hey. Are you new?”

“Yeah, me and my cousin.” He points several rows below us at the soccer team. “The dark-haired dude down there.”

“Oh.”

So,thisis the other Whitson. Sean looks nothing like Kush. And it's weird they're not hanging out on the first day. If I were at a new school, I'd be clinging tight to the people I knew.

“Where's your homeboy?” Frog asks me.

I point in the same direction Sean had. Devon's sitting next to Kush and waving his hands while he talks.

Sean glances my way. “Your boyfriend?”

“No. He's my best friend, though.”

“I never have understood why you two don't date, Amber.” Frog tilts his head.

Frog is clueless, but so is most of Mountain High.

“I don't know. We make better friends.”

“Friends are good,” Sean says quietly.

I glance over at him and see him twisting the bottom of his T-shirt. I hear my mama's voice expounding on the virtues of being welcoming and generous.

“Do you play?” I ask.

“What?” Sean asks.

“Your shirt. It says ‘Fender.' Do you play the guitar?”

Sean pulls out the shirt and looks down at it. It takes a minute for him to answer. “I got it at a thrift store. Thought it was cool.”

“Oh.” I slump back against the bleachers.

Cheerleader Amber, newly promoted to cocaptain of the squad, bounces out on the gym floor and tries to whip the junior section into a frenzy.

“Come on, y'all.” I stand up halfheartedly, remembering my promise to help bring on the spirit.

C.A.'s nodding her head in little choppy up-and-down movements in time to the clapping of her hands. Her mascaraed eyes twinkle. She points at me and gives me a thumbs-up.

I watch Devon get the whole soccer team and their friends up, even Kush, and pretty soon they're screaming and fist pumping and chest flailing. I turn to my ragtag section of the bleachers. “Spirit, y'all. Come on. Get up.”

Frog groans and stands, pulling Sean to his feet. A few more kids stand and clap limply.

I look down and see that Devon has the soccer team doing the wave.

My group is pathetic. I elbow Frog and whisper, “Mountain Highhigh, y'all,” and air toke. He grins andholds out a fist. I bump mine against his and he takes over for me. Frog gets the section laughing, and soon they're all on their feet screaming, “Mountain Highhigh, y'all.”

Soon, Principal Hedges comes out onto the center of the gym floor and tries to settle us down, but he's laughing as he does it. Seniors win spirit, of course. They always do. Then, Vice Principal Smoker (no joke) comes out for her yearly lecture on how to be a model Mountain High citizen. She plays bad cop to Principal Hedges's good cop, and just as we're wondering why we even bothered coming back to school, she switches gears and gets all sparkly like she loves us so much, and throws MHHS pencils into the crowd.

I watch Kush grab a pencil in flight. Devon must pick up on my vibe because he turns, searching the bleachers till he finds me. He looks at who I'm standing with and asks a question with his raised eyebrow. I shrug. I know he'll tell me I'm being paranoid, and I am, but the last thing I need is a new kid telling people how hard I was partying this summer.

After the assembly, I push down the stairs, elbowing past a group of huddled, wide-eyed freshmen. The surge of the student body pushes me out into the commons and I start looking for Devon.

He finds me first. I see his hand shoot up from near the windows, waving me over. I cut through the crowd to him.

“Who's the new guy?” Devon asks in a low voice, nodding past my shoulder.

I turn around and Sean's right behind me. I'm surprised Devon doesn't know who he is yet. I grab Sean's elbow and pull him into the conversation.

“Um. Kush's cousin? Sean? You haven't met?”

“No.” Devon looks sideways at Kush as he joins us. “Hey, man, why'd you leave your cousin hanging? You should've brought him out to practice.” He turns to Sean. “I'm Devon, by the way.”

Sean stuffs his hands into his pockets. “It's okay. I'm not so into sports. Besides, I'm only a sophomore.”

Devon rolls his eyes. “Like that matters? We'll take any live body.” He looks again at Sean. “I'm surprised, though. I would have guessed you for older.”

Kush pushes a strand of hair behind his ear. “Heisolder. He should be a junior.”

Sean doesn't say anything, just looks away from us.

“Hey,” I say. “Come on, Sean. I can show you where your classes are. Let's see your schedule.”

His eyes meet mine and he exhales. “Thanks.”

I turn to Devon. “See you in art?” I don't bother saying good-bye to Kush.


Page 4

CHAPTER SIX

After I show Sean hislocker and his classrooms, I catch up to C.A. on our way to art. She links her arm through mine. “So, Amber Vaughn, tell me all about that bed-headed boy you were showing around. And how'd you get to him so fast?” She licks her glossed lips for emphasis.

“You did not just lick your lips.”

“Yes, I did. He looks like he could use a scrub behind the ears, but he's cute, and he was all eyes on you.”

“Only because I was being nice to him.”

She bumps me with her hip. “All I'm saying is he's cute. Go for it, girl.”

Devon catches up to us in the hall. “Go for who?”

“Bed-head boy,” C.A. says, turning to look at Sean again.

“She means Sean,” I clarify for him. “Anyway,” I say to C.A. “I've got my main man right here.” I pat Devon's hand. We've never directly said that we're together, but it never hurts that some people jump to conclusions. Let them believe what they want to believe.

C.A.'s not fooled for a minute, though. “Right. Uh-huh.”

We walk into the art room and sit at the same table we did last year, but everything's totally different. Gone are the piles of old canvases and plastic toys for still lifes. Instead, the room is tidy and neat, with bright arrangements of fresh flowers in place. My favorite box of crumpled acrylic tubes has been replaced with neat plastic watercolor trays. I'm not sure I like the change.

The bell rings and Ms. Thomas, the new teacher, starts taking attendance. She's interrupted by Vice Principal Smoker leading Kush in. “I found you a lost little lamb, hon. Don't mark him tardy. He's new.”

Kush does look sheepish. “Sorry,” he mumbles, and sits near the door.

C.A. whispers, “Cherokee Boy's pretty damn cute, too.”

I glance over at Kush again. She's right. Cute, reallycute. But Mama always says, pretty is as pretty does. And so far this Kush boy may have Devon fooled into thinking he's some big-city wunderkind, but I'm not convinced.

“I'm pretty sure someone in his family is from India. You know, the country?” I say.

“Ohh. But his last name's Whitson?” C.A. peers behind me to get a better look.

Devon leans in to whisper to me and C.A. “His mom is, indeed, Indian. But she grew up in Atlanta.” He sounds so smug when he says it I stick out my tongue.

Ms. Thomas shushes us and hands out the syllabus for Art II.

No way. Drawing. Pen and ink. Watercolor.

Where's the recycled sculpture, the printmaking, and the mud painting? Where's the fun stuff?

It doesn't take long to figure out that, for me, Art II is not going to be fun. We will do a watercolor landscape. We will draw from the right sides of our brain. We will create the perfect contrast of positive and negative.

What we won't be doing is exploring our inner landscape like we did with our old art teacher, Mr. Cottrell.

“Fuck,” I say under my breath, but still louder than I should.

“Did you say something, Miss Vaughn?” Ms. Thomas asks me, meeting my eyes.

“No, ma'am.” Surely she couldn't hear me.

“I'm pretty sure you did.” Ms. Thomas leans over and scrawls on the top of a familiar pink pad of paper. She rips the slip off the top and hands it to me. “Go see Vice Principal Smoker. Explain it to her.”

Did I just get written up in my first class on the first day of school for dropping an F bomb under my breath? Apparently, I did, because Ms. Thomas is standing with her hand on her hip, pointing to the door.

C.A. mouths, “Good luck.”

I hate new teachers.

Smoker keeps me waiting for my lecture till right before lunch. Apparently, I have been chosen as the poster child for how not to behave this school year, because I get a day of in-school suspension. I am the beacon, the first-day warning for the entire student body.

When she finally sends me on my way, I slam through the office doors and head for the lawn outside the cafeteria. My eyes burn with held tears. Mama's going to kill me.

Devon sees me first. “What happened?”

“Smoker gave me a day of ISS.”

“Noway.” He gives me a hug. “You going to tell Donna?”

“I guess I have to. Save me a spot, will you?” On prettydays we always eat outside on the lawn.

The cafeteria line snakes around one wall and it's moving slow. People don't have their accounts set up yet and the lunch ladies have to make change. I stand in the line for a second, before I say screw it and head for the vending machines.

I have to pass by the it-girl table, where Will's sitting with Amber-o-zia. I wonder how many wine coolers it took to makethathappen. Not that he's the kind of guy who gets a girl drunk to hook up. Or that he's not hot. But I don't get it—they seem so different.

At the vending machine I fumble with my dollar bill and try to ignore the laughter from Amber-o-zia's table. I hit G-5 and watch as a package of strawberry Pop-Tarts drop. Nothing like a breakfast do-over.

“You tried the cinnamon roll flavor?”

I look behind me. It's Sean, holding a tray of food, hair still sticking up. He's biting at the corner of his lip, but his bright eyes make him look happier than they did at assembly. His nervousness is almost as cute as his smile.

“No. My mom always buys frosted blueberry. Are they good?” Are we really talking about Pop-Tart flavors?

Sean nods. “Yeah. My mom used to buy them sometimes.”

“You want to sit with us outside?” I point out thewindow to where Devon and the other soccer players, Kush included, gather under the trees.

“Nah, it's okay. But I wanted to tell you something.”

Sean talks so deliberately that you have to really listen. I wait, trying not to be impatient. Finally, I say, “Okay?”

He blushes and nods down to his shirt. “I play. Wish I could play more, but I had to sell my guitar.”

I can hear it in his voice—the sound I hear my heart make when I think about not being able to sing. I look out the window. Devon's thrown his head back, laughing, and Kush gestures wildly beside him. They seem fine without me.

I hold up my lunch in one hand and point toward the door. “Hey, why don't we go sit out back, by the band room? It's quiet there. I'd love to hear about your playing.”

Sean's eyes meet mine. They're Carolina blue with a few flecks of gray. “Really?”

I glance back at Will. He's pinching tots from Amber-o-zia's lunch tray. When he sees me looking at him, he grins and sticks out his tongue, a tot balanced on the tip.

I turn my head quickly, not sure if I should laugh or blush.

Sean's still waiting for my answer.

“Yeah, really,” I say.

CHAPTER SEVEN

That afternoon, I walk outto the parking lot to look for Devon. I hadn't seen him again since lunch. But it's Will who finds me, zipping up to the curb in his black Honda. The window rolls down and Will leans over it, grinning at me. “Amber Vaughn, as I live and breathe! Devon asked if I'd give you a ride. He's got soccer practice.” Will's hair's grown out over the summer, and it flops over his eyebrows. He brushes it away and unlocks the door.

I quickly shut my mouth before it drops all the way open, and try and play it cool.

“Yeah. Sure, thanks.” I open the door and climb in next to him. I notice that the seats are leather, with that new car smell. The McKinneys aren't mansion-rich, butthey do well enough for two brothers to have their own cars even though they go to the same school.

I drop my book bag onto the floor at my feet. Will's got an Avett Brothers sticker on his dashboard. “You like them?” I ask, rubbing my fingers across the gloss of the decal.

Will checks his mirrors and pulls out of the parking lot onto the road. “Yeah. Got to see them earlier in the summer.”

“Really?” I ask with a lilt in my voice that I hope doesn't sound like jealousy.

Will looks over at me. “You like them?” He sounds surprised. “I thought you were into the music Devon likes. That's all y'all are ever playing when I'm around.”

I'm a little disappointed he doesn't remember our front porch Nirvana bluegrass session last year. But Devon does pretty much take over when it comes to the music we play, for the most part. “No. I'm into a lot of different kinds of music.”

Will looks at me a little longer this time, and then turns his eyes back toward the road. “Cool. I didn't know. Hey, Devon said you got called down today.”

“Yeah. The new art teacher. It was like she needed to piss on some trees or something.”

Will laughs and slows the car down a little. “You ready to go home?”

I groan. “No. I dread telling my mama about the suspension.”

Will zips past the turnoff for the long country road where my house is and heads north.

“Um, where are we going?” I ask, peering over at him.

Will's eyes follow the turns in the road, but there's a wry smile crinkling around their edges. “You said you weren't ready to go home. I figured we could go burn one up on the bald. Got to admit, it's a gorgeous day.”

It's true. I'm not ready to go home. I look over at Will. His fingers tap on the steering wheel in time to the song blasting from his speakers. He has the same thick, dark eyelashes over liquid brown eyes that Devon does, but Will's face is sharp and lean where Devon's is softer. A tiny scar slices across Will's cheek, and I wonder how he got it.

He shifts gears and slows down a bit, looking over at me. “Do you need to go home? Can you hang out?”

“No, I don't have to go home. But, why?”

“Why, what?”

“Why do you want to hang out with me?”

We pass the Franklin house. Mr. Franklin is out front mowing, and the dirt-tangy smell of fresh-cut grass blows in through the window.

Will cuts his eyes toward me. “What, my brother is good enough to hang out with you, but I'm not?”

I shake my head. “I, it's . . .” That's not it at all, but I lose my words, and Will doesn't wait for my answer. He just guns his car around the curve and turns up the music.

This is strange, but after today, I'm ready to take it as it comes. I relax into the leather seat and turn my face toward the wind. The iPod switches to a local Southern rock band, Flat Trucker, and I sing along.

“Those guys would kill to have you in their band,” Will says loudly over the music.

I blush. “No way.”

Will's car hums around the curves. “No. Seriously, you're really good. I can't believe you're not already in a band, or at least in the chorus or something.”

I didn't think Will knew I even existed, other than being the girl who's always taking up half the sofa in his family's TV room, eating his parents' popcorn, and singing his brother's favorite songs on command.

“It doesn't matter. My mama would never let me be in a band. She thinks singing's only for church and baking.”

“What do you think?”

“I don't know. I don't think about it much.” I'm surprised at my own answer. I mean, of course I've thought about it. I thought about it Sunday when Sammy asked me to be in his band. I thought about it down by the creekwhen Basil was talking aboutAmerican Idol. I think about it all the time.

I glance at him. “I think I'd be too scared to sing in front of crowds like that.”

He opens his mouth and scoffs, then nudges my shoulder with the flat of his hand. “I bet you'd get over it.”

Will's taking the switchbacks at close to thirty miles an hour, way too fast, but I'm not scared. He's a good driver. I've got my hand out the window making swimming motions against the wind.

We come around the next curve and almost kiss headlights with a faded burgundy Ford truck.

“Whoa!” Will corrects the car but doesn't slow down.

Whoais right. That was my daddy's truck. I twist around to see if he noticed me. My answer to what he's doing way out here is in the wink of red taillights and a flounce of blonde hair right up next to my daddy. I pull my hand out of the open window and cross my arms over my chest, squeezing.

“Wasn't that your dad's truck?”

“Yeah. So?” I press my fingers into my sides.

“Doesn't he work for the railroad?”

My reply is fast. “Yeah, he does.” Then I lie. “But he promised to pick up his foreman's wife for an appointment. I heard them on the phone last night.”

I don't know who was in his truck, but it wasn't my mama. My mama's at the house, probably making homemade corn bread for his supper. I've known about Daddy's “habit” for a couple of years, but I still don't like seeing it. That woman was as far from the passenger side as she could get, and from the look of it, practically in Daddy's lap.

I scrunch down into the seat. I take a shovel and open up my heart and pour in load after load of grief and anger until everything is level and I can plant nice pretty green grass on top.

When the pain is good and buried, I pull my knees to my chest and clear my throat. “Where'd you get the scar?”

Will's voice is perfectly even as he says, “Fight with an alligator.”

I crack up and smile out at the road.

Will parks at the turnoff, shuts off the car, and jumps out, grabbing his banjo from the hatchback. I follow him, and we walk out among the rhododendrons, their blooms long since gone, and head up off trail to a rock outcropping. From up here, we can see the whole valley. It is beautiful—every color of green mixed with a tinge of blue here, a tinge of gold there. Red and gray barns stamp the sides of silver snaking roads. If I looked long enough, I could find theroof of my own house hidden under the big sugar maples. It's easy for lies to get buried when you're surrounded by so much beauty.

Will settles into the grass at the edge of the rock and lights up a pipe. The burnt-sugar smell of green drifts on the air. “So, Amber Vaughn, you like the new kid?”

I fold cross-legged into the grass next to him. “Which one?”

“I don't know. Either.”

“I guess they're nice enough.”

“You know what I mean.” Will pokes me with his foot.

Of course I know, but why does he care? “Does it matter?” I ask.

He passes me the pipe. “It doesn't, particularly. Just making small talk.”

I take a small hit, despite my only-for-summer rules. When the smoke clears my lungs, I exhale and cough a little. “I think Kush might be sort of stuck-up.”

“He's all right.”

“How do you know him?”

“He's come over and hung out with Devon a few times this past week.”

Devon and I have talked. We've texted. Why didn't he mention Kush was KushWhitson, and not a hiker, until I was standing in the hall staring at him?

“Devon likes him.” I say it out loud to justify why Devon might not have told me everything.

“I doubt that will ripen.” Will knows all about Devon. “I think Kush is a ladies' man.”

I take another hit when Will hands me the pipe. I ignore the voice telling me to lay off and the smoke settles in my chest.

I can't believe Devon. We talk about everything. I press my knees to my chest and lean against the big rock.

Will picks up the banjo and starts plucking aimless patterns. The sun is blazing, so I unhook the top part of my overalls and roll up the legs and lay back on the rock, soaking it in. I hum the melody to the song we were listening to in the car. Will finds the tune and plays along. No sense in wasting the afternoon. Summer days like this fade as quick as they come in the mountains.

“What about you? And Amber-o-zia?” I ask, during a pause.

Will shrugs and puts down the banjo. He takes off his shirt, wadding it up under his head for a pillow, and lies down in the sun. “She's good-looking. Nice enough.” He shades his eyes with his hand and looks at me.

Will is miles above the high school scene. Cool and self-assured. Funny and nice, but always a bit removed. I can't imagine him ever settling for one of us. Before I canstop myself, I ask him, “But not good enough for you?”

Will rolls over to face me. My eyes wander to where his hip bones jut out above his shorts. He's slender, and looks like one of the guys on the Appalachian Trail with his Columbia shorts and trail runners. I resist the urge to reach out and touch his hip.

“What doesthatmean?” His eyes narrow.

“Come on, Will.” Some boldness within me takes over. “You know you're biding your time till you can leave all of us behind. Go out and follow in your judge daddy's footsteps. Move to Raleigh or somewhere big. I think I know what you think of us from-heres.”

Will flashes a goofy smile and props his head up on his elbow. “I'm not like that.”

“Yes, you are.” But then I smile and without thinking, reach out to touch the scar on his face before rolling over onto my back again and staring at the sky and trees above us.

We lie there, not talking, listening to the wind and the sound of the birds, taking in the smell of rich earth and summer hanging in the air. Far off in the distance I can hear the sound of cars.

I can also feel the energy from Will's arm, parallel to mine. Will starts humming the tune to a country song about a city girl and a country boy that the radio plays allthe time. After a minute, I join in with the words, quietly at first. And then I sing a little louder, belting it to the clouds. Will's humming is in perfect tune.

Just before the song ends, I feel Will move his hand to touch mine, tracing circles with his fingertips onto my skin. And I think to myself, Will has a girlfriend, sort of. Will is Devon's brother, definitely.

But I don't pull my hand away. I don't know why, but I can't. Instead, I turn to face him when we finish the song. He's staring at me, and I break our sudden eye contact to notice the way his upper lip forms a perfect cupid's bow. Will leans forward and places his lips on mine. A worried voice tells me I might be making a mistake, but I silence it. I hear his hesitant intake of breath. I answer with my tongue.

A new melody starts to circle in my brain and I let it stay as I explore Will's mouth and his lips with mine. A fine spray of stubble wraps the edge of his jawline, and I let my thumb rub against it. Will's hand slides over my hips and he softly pulls me toward him as our legs spaghetti through each other's. He sighs and moves his hand underneath the back of my shirt. I like the way he fits. I move my hand to his shoulder blade to pull him closer. He kisses my face, my eyelids, the corners of my mouth.

Every now and then I think, I'm kissing WillMcKinney. Will McKinney is making me feel this way. It doesn't matter, though, because I'm reading sheet music. Will's jawline, Will's ear, the hollow of Will's throat. The song I'm singing silently doesn't want to fade. Its chorus grows so loud I take off my shirt so I can feel Will's warm skin against mine. Will's lips trace the pattern of my ribs and raise goose bumps on the surface of my summer-tanned stomach. Once, a voice of reason tries to insert itself into my song, one that saysstop right now, but it fades away as I let the melody soar to the top of my range.

“Are you sure?” Will whispers, his eyes even with mine. But his hands and his mouth play a different tune, and I don't let him stop.

Somewhere far overhead a hawk circles and screams. I can smell the crush of earth and rock beneath us. Then it's nothing but song and skin and the warmth of a boy against me and it's all I can think about. Will's all I want to think about. And then, almost as soon as we started, it seems like it's over.

Will lies down close to me and traces the tip of my ear with his finger, his eyes bright. “Wow.”

I hide my face in his chest.

The ultimate hookup. It wasn't exactly what I expected. Or how I expected it to happen. Definitely not with who I thought it would be. My best friend's older brother.

He lifts up my chin. “Are you okay?”

“You've got a girlfriend.” I put my hand on his chest and hope he's going to tell me it's just a rumor or that, as of right now, it's over.

Instead he just sighs. “Yeah.”

He doesn't try to say anything else, and I bite back my disappointment. “And you're Devon's brother.”

“Yeah.”

He's acting so nonchalant that I figure I should act that way, too. “So, I guess that's out of the way,” I say with a smile. The joy I'd been feeling only moments before gets replaced by something else. Something that feels kind of like grief.


Page 5

“Yeah.” Will laughs and searches my face for something. I guess he finds what he's looking for when, after a few seconds, he kisses me again. “You're cooler than I thought, Amber Vaughn.”

No. I am not cool.

I am an idiot.

On the ride home, I sink into the passenger seat. Will's drumming on the steering wheel like it's a normal school day afternoon for him, and I pull my knees up to my chest. “Nobody can know, Will.”

“Right. Girlfriend, remember.” Will looks over at meand smiles, but I notice his knuckles go white as he grips the steering wheel.

“Right.” But it hurts a little when he says it.

Will turns onto my road and after a mile or so, we pass the Whitsons' place. Kush and Sean's house.

“So, do you think they're going to keep letting the hikers stay in their barn?” he asks.

I tense and glance his way. Will's biting on his lower lip.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I mean, from what I heard from Kush and Devon, sounds like it was a nonstop party out there this summer. It'd be a shame for it to end.”

My knuckles dig into the side of my thigh, twisting against my overalls. What had Devon told him? I am so stupid. I should have known when he just happened to be carrying condoms. How he only hesitated one second before he decided to have sex with me. And I can't decide who I'm madder at. Devon, for spilling our secrets. Will, for taking advantage of knowing them. Or me, for letting it happen.

But I don't have time to dwell on it, because as Will corners the curve before my house, we're greeted with the flashing blue lights of a sheriff's cruiser, parked right between our big maples.

Will slams on the brakes and slows to a crawl.

In the front yard, in fading daylight, a cop guides my sister into the backseat of his police car. It looks like Sammy's already in there. Mama's on the porch holding a crying Coby, his face bunched in a tight knot, talking to some lady with a clipboard and a skirt. Daddy's not around.

Will stares at the crime scene in my front yard. “How about I let you out right here.”

“How about,” I say and step out onto the weed-choked lawn.

CHAPTER EIGHT

I've got Coby in my lap,trying to get him to eat applesauce. He's sensitive, always picking up on our feelings. It's hard for anyone to stay calm with Mama pacing the kitchen.

Daddy shows up around six, coated with grime from his job fixing and checking the train tracks for CSX. The blonde must have been a late lunch break.

“Herman, did you not get my messages?” Mama's holding back a shriek so the sound comes out funny, like a bleating calf. I watch, waiting for my daddy's response. For the lie.

“Donna, don't get your panties in a wad. Left my phone in the truck and the battery died. Nothing morethan that.” Daddy heads straight for the jug of sweet tea in the fridge. I watch his face, looking for a tell, a tic in his cheek, anything that might indicate he held a sliver of guilt. But there's nothing more than my normal daddy at the end of a long day of work.

“My panties arenotin a wad, but our daughterisin jail.” Mama's mottled red cheeks give away her anger.

Daddy's hand stops mid-reach. Then he goes ahead and pulls out the glass jug, and gets a glass from the cupboard. I watch the amber liquid fall from one container to another. When he rights the jug, the painted lemons on the side of the glass look brighter.

He drains the glass in one long draw and sets it down on the counter. Mama taps her foot and waits.

Finally, he speaks. “Whitney's in jail.”

He doesn't even say it like a question. We've all pestered, lectured, and fussed, hoping Whitney would see what Sammy was doing to her, to us, to himself. But nothing's changed. And this arrest? I suppose it's the thing we've all been waiting for.

Mama spills over, talking so fast you'd think the devil was after her words. “The sheriff was here. Said they'd set up some sting operation, undercover or some such, and Sammy and Whitney are suspected of selling prescription medications. Not only that, Sheriff Cliff says he's out toprove they've been breaking into houses to get the drugs. Possession, intent to distribute, breaking and entering. Good Lord, he was naming off charges so fast my head was spinning. They could get up to ten years in prison. And if that weren't enough, some woman from Social Services shows up here in the midst of it all to see about Coby. Started talking some nonsense about taking him from the home when his grandparents and aunt are right here to take care of him just fine and . . .”

Daddy clears his throat. “You say someone from Social Services was here?”

“Yes, that's what I said, but I gave her a earful and sent her packing. Poor Coby was in hysterics with all the goings-on. And the neighbors, Herman. All out in their yards, or driving by real slow. I imagine tongues are already wagging all over Sevenmile. I'm surprised Pastor Early hasn't shown up on our doorstep already to see about us.”

Daddy walks to me and takes Coby, then settles in his recliner in the kitchen nook. “I don't know what happened to your mama, little fellow. She was the prettiest girl.” Coby tries to grab the CSX pen from Daddy's pocket, but Daddy takes it back and keeps talking. “Kept that honey hair of hers long to her waist. Boys flocked around my Whitney. She could have had her pick. And now . . .” Hisvoice trails off as he stares out to the trailer at the back of the yard.

“Well, what are we going to do, Herman?” Mama is shrieking now.

“Call old Bud Phillips. Guess she's gonna need a lawyer. He'll help us figure out bail. I ain't worried about Sammy. Let his own folks figure him out.”

I cook up some Hamburger Helper and mash some potatoes. There's a little coleslaw left over in the fridge so I put that on the table, too. When I reach up to scratch my face, I catch the lingering smell of Will, pipe smoke, and the dirt scent of granite. Up there, the air felt clean. I felt free, like it didn't matter who I was or what I did. I was like a current in the air, flying, swirling, traveling. From up there, this place looked beautiful, but from down here . . .

“Sugar, aren't you sweet.” Mama steps through the doorway and kisses me on the cheek.

Daddy piles his plate high and leaves for the big television in the den. I watch him walk away, fighting the urge to run after him, punching. If I were him, I'd be out back loading Sammy's crap into a pickup truck and driving it somewhere two or three states away. Instead, it's like he lets Whitney get dragged down.

Mama sits down with a heavy sigh at the kitchen table and picks at her plate.

“I'm sorry, Mama.” And I mean it. Sorry I don't have the guts to tell her what I know about Daddy, sorry that Whitney's life is such a mess.

But I'm not sorry Sammy's been arrested. Maybe it'll knock some sense into him. Or better yet, maybe Whitney will divorce him.

Mama hugs me. “Lord, child, this ain't your fault. Your big sister's just looking for something in all the wrong places. She wanted to find herself but found Sammy instead. She'll figure herself out. Jesus is going to help her.”

I wish I had Mama's faith. It's not that I'm a nonbeliever or even a doubter, but I like to put my hands on the steering wheel. Mama believes Jesus will take the wheel for us.

“Did Coby go to sleep?”

“Yes, the day wore him out. He's up in your bed. Hope you don't mind.”

I picture Coby, his golden curls, lighter than mine or Whitney's, curled up in bed, his sweet-bread smell filling my room. “That's fine.”

Mama eats another bite or two, then snaps her head up. “Oh, sugar, I am so sorry. In all this I've plumb forgotten to ask you how your first day of school went.”

Now there is a loaded question.

I could say,Fine, Mama. This boy I thought was athrough-hiker is really a local. Which would be no big deal, except I acted kind of wild in front of him. Oh wait, maybe I am wild now? Because, after school, I had sex for the first time with Will McKinney—you know, Devon's brother. But it's not like he's going to be my boyfriend or anything. He already has a girlfriend. Oh, and on that note, I also saw Daddy riding around town with some blonde in his lap. And I almost forgot, I got written up for swearing and have a day of in-school suspension. So all in all, I'd say it was a blue ribbon day.

Instead I smile and say, “Better than yours, Mama.”

She smiles a weak smile. “That's good, sweetheart.”

My phone buzzes in my pocket. Devon.

—Is it true?

Shit. Is he talking about Whitney? Or Will? I don't answer, and in a few seconds, Devon texts again.

—Is Whitney really in jail?

—What's it to you? Plan on spreading it around?

So maybe I'm crazy pants for thinking he'd tell everything to Will. But Will and I hadneverhung out before without Devon, and hardly ever hung out when Devonwasthere. The worst part is, I can't tell Devon what happened today. There's no one I can talk to about it.

—???? What's with the 'tude?

I text back.

—Look, never mind. It's true about Whit. I've got to take care of Coby. TTYL

Around ten, I hear Daddy's truck in the driveway. A little later on, Whitney comes into my room and crawls into bed with Coby and me. She smells like cigarettes and her hair looks lank and clumped, like she hasn't washed it in days. But I don't say anything, just scoot closer and wrap my arms around her while Coby nestles between us.

“I love you, Whit.”

She doesn't answer, but I can feel her tears as they hit my arm. I hope they're going to lock her husband up for a good long time.

CHAPTER NINE

Turns out Whitneybeing arrested has given me a perfect cover for acting weird in front of Devon. Normally, he'd notice my silence and my nervous fingers and be all over me. “What's wrong, something's up, what are you not telling me?” But today, he just figures it's because my sister got arrested.

When we walk into the commons, Will is laughing and talking with a cluster of the cool seniors. Amber-o-zia's standing next to him, hand in his back pocket. Typically, Devon always acknowledges Will and vice versa. I wonder if today will be different.

Will's playing it cool, though. “Greetings, earthlings,” he says, leaning over to us just as Devon and I walk past.He looks at me and I look at him, and if there's anything different that passes between us, I sure don't see it, so I doubt anyone else does either.

Is that how hooking up works? You just do it and then things go right back to the way they were before? I look around at the other girls in the commons. How many other not-special looks have been passed today?

I stand up as tall as I can and walk past him without shame. So I was definitely impulsive, maybe stupid, but I don't have to fold in on myself.

I stop and turn and cock my hip. “Hey, Will?”

His shoulders stiffen, like he's worried I'm about to blow his cover with Amber-o-zia. “Yeah?” His smile hovers, waiting.

“May the Force be with you.”

His smile cracks and he starts to laugh. “May the Force be with you, Amber Plain and Small.” Then he winks.

Now I can walk away and hold my head up. Because while he may have used me, maybe I used him, too.

“You are such a geek,” Devon says, grabbing my arm and hurrying me away toward our morning hangout down the hall.

“Whatever.” I've told Devon nearly everything for two years, and me and Will falls into the giant news category. Everything about not telling him feels wrong.

So when Kush comes walking up to us, I use it as an excuse to slip away.

“Hey, Devon.” I nudge him and point toward Kush. “I'll see you later for that program?”

Every year, the first week of school, colleges come and set up tables for the juniors and seniors in the gym. It's our first year to attend and I'm excited, not only to get a free tote bag and a water bottle, but to see for myself what opportunities are out there that I don't know about.

Devon swallows and whispers, “Really, you don't mind?”

“No. It's cool. I'll see if I can find C.A.” I push him toward Kush. “Talk to the boy.”

While I'm standing there watching Devon walk away with Kush, Sean walks up.

“Hi, Amber.” He's wearing a guitar pick on a leather cord around his neck like a necklace.

“Hey, Sean.”

He nods in the direction of Devon. “You going to their game Thursday?”

“Yeah, probably. I try to go to all the home games. You?”

“Yeah. No choice. My aunt Aneeta said I have to stay, she's going out shopping that afternoon.”

“You can't go home on the bus?”

Sean looks away, then looks at the floor. “She doesn't want us home alone unless someone else is there.”

I wait for him to say more. Like why his aunt won't let them be at home alone. When he doesn't, I start to head toward class.

He clears his throat. “So, um, maybe I could sit with you?”

“Oh, I have an assembly today, it messes up lunch schedule for juniors and seniors.”

“No. Not at lunch.” He scratches his head. One crazy sprig of hair flops over like a broken cornstalk. “I meant at the game.”

Behind me, I hear Will's laugh. I want to turn around and find him, but I don't.

Sean slips his hands into his jeans pockets waiting for my answer.

“Yeah. Sure.”

Sean's smile is shy and sweet. “See you then.”

On the way to art, I hear a few snickers from a group of girls walking out of the girls' bathroom. It's Lila Cliff and her posse. Lila's only a freshman, but she's the sheriff's daughter. She catches my eye and arches her brows. “Hey. Got any oxy?” Then she whispers to her friends and they break into peals of laughter.

This town is too damn small. Everyone thinks theyknow who you are now and who you're going to be down the road. I don't want any of these girls thinking they can get to me, but they do.

Just then, I feel a hand on my arm.

Cheerleader Amber. “Come on, biscuit. Don't let the gossip girls get you down.”

“You'rea gossip girl,” I say, nudging her with my arm.

“Yes, but I'm one that's made out of fairy dust and unicorn fur.”

When we step into the art room, the first thing I see is Kush at our table. In my chair.

“Who's made out of unicorn fur?” Devon asks, lifting his head up.

C.A. twirls. “Why,me.” She puts her hand on her heart, then points to me. “And this Amber, she's made out of sugar and spice and everything nice.”

“You're in my chair,” I say to Kush. But Kush is slung back in my seat like he owns it.

Kush pushes the chair back on two legs, balancing against the wall behind him. “And?”

I stare at him, then at Devon. Devon swallows and looks away.

Ms. Thomas interrupts us. “Class, settle down. I need to take quick attendance, then we're headed to the gym for College Access Day.”

I keep glaring at them, but slump into the chair next to C.A.

Ms. Thomas's pencil bumps against air as she points, then marks in her book. I have to hand it to her, she's nailed our names on the second day. When she's done, she has us line up at the door like elementary school students.

“Really?” I turn to Devon ready to mock her, but he and Kush are talking about last year's World Cup playoffs and line up like ducklings.

C.A. bounces from flip-flop to flip-flop. Her toenails sport hot pink polish with a Hello Kitty painted on each big toe. “College boys. I can'twaitto go to college.”

“Do you know where you want to go already?” I ask.

“Of course. East Carolina. Cheer squad and an hour from the beach. What could be better?”

I think about it. I'd like to study music. Maybe learn to play an instrument. But neither Mama nor Daddy went to college. I've never even been on a real college campus.

Ms. Thomas leads us down the hallway and into the gym. It's a propaganda center for a bunch of local colleges and universities, from Chapel Hill to NC State, full of tables covered with pamphlets, peppermints, and free stuff that everyone's scooping into recycled tote bags. It's unlikely I'll go anywhere other than the local community college, if that, but I'll talk to them. Dreaming is free.

C.A. runs off to the ECU table and Kush drags Devon away to the table for a private liberal arts college that he claims has a top-rated soccer team. I wander around until I find a table for a nearby technical college that has vet tech information. I nab some brochures for Whitney. She'll probably just throw them in the trash, but it's worth a try.

Across the gym and the crowd of students, I see Will at the East Tennessee State table in animated conversation with a grizzled-looking guy who reminds me of Daddy's second-favorite country singer, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash being the first. Amber-o-zia's by his side, looking bored as she holds up strands of her hair and inspects the ends.

I feel a twinge of guilt. Amber-o-zia's never done anything to me. I could have stopped things yesterday, but I didn't. If I'm honest with myself, I'd sort of hoped hooking up with Will like that might have knocked Amber-o-zia out of the picture. But is that what Daddy's blonde thinks about my mama? I put my hands over my eyes and press.

Just as I'm about to sink, C.A. appears at my side. “Come on, I found the goods.”

She drags me to a booth manned by a blue-haired guy with a lip ring. Kush is standing with him, chatting like they're old friends.

“Here.” C.A. winks at Blue Hair and scoops up a handful of drawing pencils, sliding them into my bag. “These are free, andthisis Troy.”

Kush rolls his eyes at C.A.

“How do you two know each other?” I ask, tilting my head toward Troy and Kush.

Troy goes into sales mode, gathering school literature as he talks. “I used to intern for Kush's dad when I was in high school. Before I started working for North Carolina School of the Arts.”

“Intern?” C.A. asks.

“Yep. Y'all didn't know Kush's dad is a famous potter? Eric Whitson?”

C.A. and I both shake our heads.

“Kush, my man.” Troy mock punches Kush's shoulder. “You've been holding back key information from the ladies.”

“Troy, the stuff these ladiesdon'tknow would fill a lecture hall at NCSA. I don't have that kind of time.”

“Seems like you have as much time as the rest of us now.” I cross my arms over my chest, tired already of Kush's digs.

Troy clears his throat.

C.A. grabs my hand. “Amber, you rocked at clay inArt I! Maybe Kush's dad would let you intern for him.” She glares at Kush. “Then maybe she'd be at thefrontof a lecture hall at NCSA one day.”

I want to hug her.

Troy clears his throat and holds out canvas-covered sketchbooks for us. “Are either of you considering a future in the arts?”

C.A. immediately grabs the sketchbook. “Maybe.”

“She's really talented,” I add.

“Are you seniors?” Troy asks.

“Juniors,” we say in unison.

“Well, here.” He digs under his table and pulls out a glossy folder filled with papers. “Do you know about NC-Arts, our feeder school?” He's still awkwardly holding out my sketchbook.

We shake our heads.

“It's a public school, just like this one, but focused on the arts. It's in Winston-Salem.”

C.A. plants her hand on her hip. “Do they have a football team to cheer for?”

“No.” Troy laughs. “But they have an awesome show choir that's always looking for dancers. It's a boarding school for talented students in dance, theater, music, along with visual arts, of course.”

I edge closer to the table. A high school where I could focus on music?

He stops and flips through the pages, his finger tracing down the text. “The next portfolio deadline is October first, and if you know any musicians, dancers, or drama geeks, the closest auditions are in Boone, in about a month.”

“No thanks, but thanks for this.” C.A. takes the sketchbook he's been holding out for me and tucks it under her arm.

But I take the folder he's holding in his other hand. As I slide it into my bag, my chest fills with nerves. But not the kind that make me want to gasp for air. These feel like anticipation and birthday surprises. Like the opening notes of a hymn I've been waiting for too many Sundays to sing.

Kush says, “Right. You're a singer.”

“Oh, yeah?” Troy asks, suddenly interested in me.

“Yeah,” Kush says. “She's a real gospel girl.” The corners of Kush's lips turn up slightly. “Sean says she has big dreams.”

What he's saying isn't all that bad. But the way he's saying it, smirky and all-knowing, drawing out Sean's name, pisses me off. We had a common language, that's all. It's Kush who's suddenly turning it into something more.

I'm about to tell him to shut the hell up when Devon walks up behind us and grabs the glossy folder out of my tote bag.

“What's this?” He props his elbow on Kush's shoulder and casually flips through the pages. Kush crosses his arms and looks with him.

C.A. nudges me and grins. “Only the beginning of Amber Vaughn's singing career.”

Devon looks at the cover and peers over it at me. “Are you going to apply?”

I shove my hands in my pockets, twirling a piece of loose string around my index finger. “I don't know. It's probably stupid.”

I don't want to talk about it in front of Kush. If I open my mouth, I'm worried butterflies are going to fly out.

“What do you mean? Can't you at least audition?” C.A. asks me.

I shrug and take back the brochure from Devon, sliding it carefully into the bag. “My mama would never let me go to a boarding school so far away from here.”

C.A. looks at Devon. “Canyoutalk some sense into her?”

Devon glances at me and answers her. “Mama Vaughn is pretty protective of Amber.”

“So? I bet we can convince her.” C.A. claps her hands. “I amawesomewith mothers.”

That's when Will and Amber-o-zia walk up to us. Will looks around and asks, “Convince who of what?”

I open my mouth to say something, but all that comes out is a lone butterfly only I can see. On its wings I see the wordsing.


Page 6

CHAPTER TEN

Thursday afternoon, Seanmeets me on the path leading up to the soccer fields. He's sitting on a low cement wall, staring off at the mountains.

“You ready?” I ask.

He flinches like I caught him off guard. “Yeah. Hey.” He hops down and drags his book bag to his shoulder.

“Dang. What are you taking?” His bag is solid and stretched to full-size.

Sean blushes. “Nothing special.” Pause. “The library here . . . is better than my old school's.”

I'm glad I've had a lifetime of listening to my slow-talking great-uncle Jim. I've learned sometimes, you have to slow down and listen hard to find out what you want to know.

Sean drops the pack to the road and unzips it. Inside is what looks like every graphic novel on our library shelves. “See?” he says.

“I'm not a huge reader,” I say. “But let me know if one of those is really good, and I'll read it.”

“Okay.” Pause. “Sure.”

Mrs. Early's manning the ticket booth today.

“How's your mama, Amber?” Mrs. Early's wearing a MHHS polo over crisp guidance counselor khakis. On Sundays, she tends to go for floral patterns.

I appreciate her not coming out with the details of the question she's really asking. “A little overwhelmed right now,” I answer.

She nods and tears off tickets when we hand her our money. “Tell her to stop in if she needs a friendly ear.”

“I will.”

Mrs. Early looks at Sean. “Young man, how are your first couple of days going?”

Sean tugs at the hem of his shirt. “Pretty good, I guess,” he says quietly, and looks at the ticket counter.

Mrs. Early sizes him up. When she notices the guitar pick around his neck, she asks him, “Do you sing? I could always use more boys for chorus.” She pivots her head toward me and taps her index finger on the counter. “And more girls.”

It's been a sore point between us. I'll sing for her at church, but hanging out with my preacher's wife at school is a whole different kind of inbred. You start bringing all your friends and acquaintances together into every part of your life and soon you've gone all cross-eyed and you can't breathe. Plus, it's an extra hour and a half of school every day.

Sean hunches his shoulders. “No, ma'am. I can't carry a tune. I just play the guitar.”

“Well, band, then?” Mrs. Early asks.

“Yes, ma'am, I'm taking it.”

She smiles, and I notice that this time, Mrs. Early has Sean's attention. “Good. I'm glad to hear it.”

As Sean and I walk toward the stands, I see Will sitting with Amber-o-zia out of the corner of my eye. I try not to look at him, but I can't help it. He's sprawled out against the risers, arms spread wide. His hair's falling in his eyes and he's laughing, like always. Amber-o-zia turns around to say something to him with her hands waving and he lifts his chin and smiles at her. What does she have that makes her good enough to be Will's real girlfriend?

C.A.'s waiting for us in the stands, and I'm surprised to see her sitting with Frog.

“Hey, girl!” C.A. pats the bleacher seat next to her. Then her voice softens slightly. “Hey, Sean.”

“Hey,” he mumbles. But he never looks at her directly.

“Sit here,” I say, and point next to C.A. I sit on the other side of him.

C.A. shakes her head no and I shake my head yes. Sean seems clueless and sits down where I pointed.

“Are y'all watching this?” Frog says as he stares at the field.

Devon's in the goal box, his hands on his knees, waiting. I'm kind of surprised, because normally he's always swarmed with the other team. He has to work hard to make up for the lack of defense out on the field. But today it's different. It's the away team's goalie who's working overtime and it's Kush who's handling the ball like a pro.

“Damn. Would you look at that?” I sit up.

“I know, right?” C.A. starts cheer clapping. “If they keep it up, we may just need a soccer squad.” Her eyes light up. “I know. You could cheer this year!”

I roll my eyes. “Not going to happen, C.A.”

“You don't want to be a cheerleader?” Sean asks.

I start to explain that I'm sort of a klutz when I hear Amber-o-zia laughing loudly at something. I look her way to see Will leaning in, whispering something in her ear.

“Booyah!” Frog yells, and starts jumping up and down.

We all turn to look at the game unfolding on the field.

Kush runs away from the opponent's goal box, hishands over his head. The other guys on the MHHS team are jumping and slapping his hands. Unbelievable. Our soccer team scored a goal. Devon's doing an Egyptian strut and screaming something about “doing it right” on the far end of the field.

At halftime, Devon comes up to where we're sitting, high in the stands. “Oh my God, can you believe it?” He stretches his calf muscles on the concrete benches and points at the scoreboard.

Kush climbs up behind Devon, then Will comes over to us, loudly humming the theme toThe Beverly Hillbillies. He throws his arm around his brother's shoulders and croons,

“Come and listen to a story about

a team that was dead,

Barely had the strength to kick the ball

above the other players' heads,

But then one day they met this dude named Kush,

Who hit the goalie's net with a great big whoosh.

City boy, soccer star!”

Sean smiles down at the ground.

Kush rolls his eyes and looks around at us. “Seriously?”

Will, still hanging onto Devon, lifts his brows andsmiles. “Yeah, what's wrong with it? That was a sick tune.”

Kush shrugs. “You'd be laughed off stage with that rhyme in Atlanta.”

“What? Are you our poet laureate now or something?” Will's laughing, but it's awkward.

Sean laughs under his breath.

Kush starts to run in place, snapping his knees to his hands, and glares at Sean. “I might pen a rhyme or two, punch out a rap,” he says, breaths coming unevenly.

“Oh?” Will asks.

Devon punches Will and stands taller, shaking Will's arm off his shoulders. “What's wrong with rap?” Then he looks at Kush and nods his head like a dashboard bobble head. “Rap's cool.”

I look at Will and raise my eyebrows. Devon's got it bad. Will flutters three fingers over his heart and I try to keep from laughing, too. The moment feels almost normal, like Monday afternoon never happened.

“Coach is signaling for us. You coming?” Kush looks over at Devon.

“Yeah, man,” Devon says.

I watch them barrel down the stairs to the field.

C.A. stands up. “I've got to give Frog a ride home, and Mom will kill me if I don't get home soon. Thursday is our movie night and she rentedSleepless in Seattle.” She crooksher finger to motion for me to come closer, then whispers in my ear, “He likes you. Not me. I see what you're trying to do.”

I glance over my shoulder. Will and Sean are laughing, coming up with anotherBeverly Hillbilliesrhyme. Maybe I should tell C.A. the truth. That I slept with Will. That I think I like him, not Sean. Lord knows, I'm dying to tell somebody.

But then, Amber-o-zia climbs the stairs. “Will, come with me to the concession stand.” She flips her hair and smiles at us. “Hi, Ambers.” Around Amber-o-zia's neck is a goldAon a delicate chain. She's wearing a fitted orange camisole, skinny jeans, and three-inch wedge heels that make her already long legs look even longer. She's the kind of girl Will can take home as his girlfriend.

“Yeah, we're going, too. I have to get home. We'll walk with you.” C.A. motions for Frog and they all take off, leaving me with Sean alone on the bleachers.

I'm tempted to fill the silence, but I don't. Eventually Sean speaks. “Kush isn't as bad as he seems.”

I can't help myself and snort.

Sean smiles. “Yeah. I know.”

We sit for another minute. “So, what's your story? Why are you living with your aunt and uncle? If you don't mind sharing.” I cross my legs.

Sean rubs his knees. “No. I don't mind. It's a simple story.”

It's probably the longest thing I've heard him string together without pausing. I wait.

Sean clears his throat and runs his hands through his messy hair. “My mom left Georgia when she was seventeen and pregnant. She tried to make an honest life and failed.” He tucks his fingers under the riser and leans forward before adding in a quiet voice, “She's in jail right now for possession and solicitation.”

I put my hand on his forearm. “It's okay, you don't have to tell me anything else. And you don't have to worry about me gossiping. My family's pretty messed up, too.”

Sean takes his arm out from under my hand. “No, I want to tell you.”

He looks at the field. The soccer players are filing back out, high-fiving, ready to start the second half. “Our neighbors saved my life.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

Now I see Sean's fingers dancing on his knee and I realize he's playing it, like a guitar.

“They lived in the apartment down the hall. Arthur and his wife, Virginia, fed me, took me in when I left the apartment scared shitless because of whatever guy my mom had brought home that day.” Sean looks up at thesky, then at me. “Arthur was the one who taught me to play. Found me my guitar and made me do stuff like take out the garbage to pay him back. Virginia made sure I never went hungry.”

“They sound like great neighbors,” I say.

He swallows hard. “I'd hoped I could live with them, but the state couldn't look beyond the difference in our skin color, and Arthur had a felony from when he was in his twenties. Then they moved to Florida.” He pauses. “But I had my guitar. Playing it was my lifeline. Let me block out the pain.” He picks a fleck of paint off the riser and flicks it down a row. “And the sound.” Sean looks up and meets my gaze. His mouth settles into a line and his eyes narrow. “Then my mom sold it. Not long afterward, she got locked up.” There's something hollow in his voice. A gaping hole left by his lost instrument.

Tears well up in my eyes. “Wow, Sean. I'm so sorry.”

He shrugs and glances skyward. “Arthur died last year. Cancer.”

I feel the punch in my gut. A tear rolls down my cheek. I wipe it off before Sean notices.

We sit and watch the game silently.

“Sorry to lay all that on you,” Sean says after a bit.

I want to wrap my arms around him and hug him, pull his head to my shoulder and stroke that crazy hair, tell himeverything's going to be all right. Instead I grab his hand and squeeze it.

Sean looks down at my hand on his and smiles.

“Thanks,” he says and tentatively squeezes back.

I let go when I see Will and Amber-o-zia return to their seats. Sean leans forward with his elbows on his knees and taps his fingers together. We watch the game for a while in silence, and then Sean starts to fidget.

“Do you smoke?” he asks me.

“What?”

“Cigarettes. I really need one. Is there someplace I can smoke without getting caught?”

I look around. There are a few teachers down near the field, but they seem occupied by the game. I'm not in a big hurry to get caught in the smoke hole, but after the way Sean opened up, I figure I can at least help him out.

“Come on, I'll show you.”

We slip down the stairs, past the concession stand, behind the concrete bleachers. There's a little nook hidden by bushes in front of the maintenance room door.

Sean lights up and takes a long draw. I take a step back away from the smoke. He takes a few more draws, then throws the cigarette to the ground. Before he can stomp it out with his foot, I hear a familiar voice.

“Who's back there? I can smell you.” Vice PrincipalSmoker. Where the hell did she come from?

“Shit,” Sean says. “My aunt's going to crucify me.”

I look at him and see terror in his eyes. Like he's going to get way more than a week of being grounded.

Smoker's face pops into view over the bushes. “Miss Vaughn. Mr. Whitson.” She looks down and the cigarette lies between us, a curl of smoke rising up in the air. “Do you care to explain yourselves?”

Sean starts to open his mouth but I take my arm and whack it across him like Daddy used to do to me when he came to a stoplight. “I'm sorry, Mrs. Smoker. I tried to wait till I got home but I couldn't. Sean was only keeping me company.”

Mrs. Smoker looks at me over the bridge of her glasses, weighing my words. “Miss Vaughn. This seems to be a new development over the summer. Your in-school suspension for Friday is now out-of-school. This is a tobacco-free campus, young lady. I'll be calling your mother.” She lifts her nose and gives Sean the inquisition eye. “And I'll be keeping an eye out on you.”

Sean stands next to me with his mouth hanging open and edges closer.

“Do you have a way to get home?” Mrs. Smoker asks me.

“I'll give her a ride,” Sean says.

“Good.” Smoker glances between us once more. “I think it's time for both of you to leave campus.”

“Yes, ma'am,” we say together.

She follows us out from behind the bleachers. A real executioner's march. Sean excuses himself to jog over to the fence where the team waits to go on the field. I see the coach call time-out and Kush runs off the field to the fence.

Sean says something to him and Kush's face goes even redder than it already is from playing. He says something back, his hands gesturing like he's telling Sean off. Then he looks in my direction.

I don't meet his eyes. When I look up, Kush is fishing keys out of his gym bag. He throws them to Sean before running back onto the field.


Page 7

The shrill cry of the coach's whistle cuts across the evening.

Sean pulls up to the front of my house and three points the car around so he's facing back in the direction of his aunt and uncle's house.

“I still don't understand why you did that for me.” His hand rests on the top of the steering wheel.

Sean's uncle's truck is cluttered like my dad's. But instead of smelling like a stranger's perfume, it just smellslike dirt. Streaks of clay mark the vinyl on the interior doors. It's an old one, with roll-down windows and hand-operated locks. It suits Sean.

“Me neither.” I look toward the lights in the house. I sigh. “I'll be okay, though. Mama will for sure ground me for the F bomb, but she'll probably cut me some slack for helping you. She knows I don't smoke and you'll get a free pass.”

“I don't want her not to like me. We're neighbors.”

I reach for the handle. “You don't know my mama. She's the world's most forgiving person.” I turn to push the door open and let out a yelp when Sammy's head appears in the window.

“Hey, baby sister.” He smells like he wallowed in a still. “Who's this?”

I groan. Sammy's family must have figured out a way to pay his bail. “You're out. Great.”

He pushes his arm in the truck, reaching across me to shake Sean's hand. “Hey, man. I'm Sammy.” Then he notices Sean's shirt. “Guns N' Roses. Hell, yeah.” He stumbles back a step and starts ripping the air, playing an imaginary guitar, then straightens.

Sean nods. “Yeah. Rock and roll, man.”

Sammy leans back in. “Did you know this little girl has one of the sweetest singing voices in all of Sevenmile?” He opens the car door and sits on the edge of the seat, makingme scoot over closer to Sean. “Come on, Amber, sing with me. Show your new boyfriend what you can do.”

“Sammy, stop, you're being an ass.”

“I'm not moving till you sing for him. I want to see his face when he hears you. I want you to see it so you know what it'll be like when all those boys line up to hear our band and hear your sweet voice.” Sammy burps.

“Sammy, I told you no.”

“You think I listened? I need you, Amber, and you know we'll be great.”

Sean nudges me. “I wouldn't mind hearing you sing.”

Sammy's resting his chin on my right shoulder, whispering, “Sing.”

“Fine.” I lean forward and flip through a box of cassette tapes on the floor.

Sammy reaches past me and grabs one of the tapes. “Play that one.” He hands the cassette to Sean, who shoves it in the player.

I drop my forehead into my hands and tilt my head toward the house. Hasn't someone in there heard the truck idling out front?

Sean turns up the volume and I hear the intake of breath on the tape, then the slow guitar start. I sing along, and when I fade off from the first chorus and the guitar solo starts I feel like I'm trapped between bumper cars.They're both jamming, their fingers crawling across invisible frets. I reach forward and hit stop on the tape. “Enough. Sammy, let me out.”

Sean's laughing. “Sorry, Amber. But he's right. You do have an amazing voice.”

That softens me for a second. “Thanks.”

“So y'all are starting a band?” Sean asks.

At the same time Sammy says yes, I say no.

I reach across Sammy, push open the door, and then push him out. He falls onto the grass. From his prone position, he yells up to Sean. “Yeah, man. A band. You should play with us.”

I get out, careful to avoid stepping on Sammy. “See you, Sean. Thanks for the ride.”

Sean leans over and says, “No problem. And thank you. Again.”

He drives away, and I walk toward the house. I'm halfway there when Whitney's Chihuahua mix, Giant, meets me. My sister has a thing for wounded and stray animals. Giant's no exception, his leg crippled from a long-ago fight with somebody bigger and tougher. “Hey, buddy.” I lean down and scoop him up. “What are you doing out of your fence?”

Sammy catches up to us and grabs me from behind. “Amber, go get Whitney for me.”

I manage to get Giant to the ground without droppinghim, but Sammy ends up knocking me down. He's so drunk he can barely stand.

I try to get up but he flops down next to me and grabs my hand.

“Sammy, get up. You're freaking me out.”

He starts giggling like a madman and looks at my face. Then he pushes my hair off my forehead.

“Jesus, Sammy.” I squirm away from him and sit up.

Sammy lunges for my wrist, holding it tight before letting it go. “Tell your parents to send mywifeandchildback out to our house.”

I pick up Giant, my arms trembling, and clatter up the stairs. Maybe Daddy will come to the door and send Sammy off with a shotgun greeting.

But it's Whitney who meets me on the porch, with eyes red-rimmed from crying. I can hear Mama and Daddy screaming in the kitchen.

“What happened?” I ask shakily.

“Phone,” she says, with a shrug. “Got cut off.”

Well, that's one thing that's gone my way. We won't get a call from the school now about my suspension tomorrow.

“What's Giant doing out?” Whitney starts to take him out of my arms and I move to block the open door, but it's too late.

“Sammy,” Whitney whispers. “Oh, baby, you're home.”Her voice cracks and her hands fly to her heart, then she pushes me out of the way. She runs down the stairs into the yard and throws herself into Sammy's arms.

I can hear Mama shrieking about money and Daddy telling her to shut her yap, that he's working his ass off and why doesn't she go and get a job. Coby toddles over from the den, where he was watchingBlue's Clues, and grabs my leg. “BerBer,” he says and reaches up.

I put down Giant and swing Coby to my hip.

In the front yard, Sammy and Whitney are on their knees, hugging and crying. I can hear him apologizing, then Whitney's, “It's okay, baby. It's okay.”

“Come on, Coby.” He buries his face into my neck. I whistle for Giant. He may as well escape with us, too. The stairs creak as I climb to the bedroom Whitney and I used to share. I shut the door, waiting for the click, then turn on the public radio station to classical music.

The three of us—me, Coby, and tiny Giant—huddle under the blankets, blocking out the sounds from downstairs. I make up a story about a singer who rides a magical bird and performs for kingdoms far and wide.

As we fly out of the window and up into the night sky, my voice stops working.

Because, honestly, I can't see how I'm going to get out of here.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The first thing I thinkabout when I wake up the next morning is Sean. I've never even heard him play, but I know, from the sound of his voice, from the look in his eyes, that the guitar is the thing that keeps him together. My instrument is part of me, and I'll never lose it. Nobody can sell it out from under me.

The smell of bacon floats up the stairs. Mama's downstairs frying up eggs and pouring juice. I roll over on my pillow, not yet ready to open my eyes. I could fake sick. I could meet Devon like normal, then have him drop me off somewhere for the day.

I open one eye and stare at the map on the wall. Winston-Salem jumps off the paper in bold print, like awarning. If Mama catches me in a lie, I'll be in way worse trouble than just coming out with the truth. The folder from NC-Arts lies on my bedside table. All I've been able to bring myself to do is stare at the cover. It's a dream. Opening it and figuring out the requirements for getting in, that's reality. And right now, the dream's as real as it gets.

I sit up and jam my feet into the slippers Whitney and Coby bought me for my birthday. Coby loves them. He claps and screams, “Boo feet!” when he sees me wearing them.

I pick up my phone and text Devon.

—Suspended. Don't need a ride.

—I heard. Sucks. Talk later?

—Game?

—Won! 4–1

—!!!

I tug the belt of my robe tight around my nightshirt and head for the stairs. Better get this over with.

Downstairs, Daddy sits in the recliner drinking a cup of coffee. “Morning, caboose.”

I sit on the couch across from him and tuck my feet underneath me. He's staring at the television. His profile is handsome. His hair is still thick and only a little darker than mine and Whitney's. There's a little gray shiningfrom the stubble of his beard. He rubs his face, then holds out his coffee cup. “Get me another cup, will you?”

Get him another damn cup of coffee? Is that all we are to him? Howdarehe cheat on Mama?

When I don't immediately take the cup, he turns and looks at me. “Is there a problem?”

I don't say anything, just look at him.

“Is this about the phone? Not you, too. I paid the bill online last night, and it should be coming on any second.”

Sure enough, the phone jangles on the table next to him like it was waiting for the word.

“Hello?” Daddy cradles the phone against his ear.

My anger drains as it rises on Daddy's face. He's saying “Uh-huh,” and “Is that right?” and staring at me all the while. I sink back into the sofa cushions. When he hangs up, he yells, “Donna, get in here!”

Mama trundles through the doorway from the kitchen holding the pot of coffee. “Who was on the phone?”

Daddy holds out the cup. Mama fills it. Daddy takes a sip before answering.

“That was the school. Seems our Whitney's not the only one kicking up some dust.”

After my parents' explosion, the dust settles around my feet. I can clearly see a week of purgatory. No Friday nightat Devon's. No hiking. No television. No cell phone. I am at school, at home, or at church. End of story.

Even though Mama believed me about the smoking, both of my parents are convinced I was taking advantage of the phone being cut off. They're madder than hornets they had to find out from a phone call from the school and not from me, no matter how much I protest I really was about to tell them.

“Can I at least talk to Devon about tonight? It'd be rude for me not to show up at his house when he's expecting me.”

By this time, Daddy's gathering up his keys and his tool bag.

“Herman?” Mama's voice is a question.

Daddy looks at me. “The McKinney boy?”

I nod.

Both Mama and Daddy like our friendship. They think me being in with the judge's son is good for our family. He nods at Mama.

“One phone call,” she says.

I wonder if this is how Whitney felt in jail.

I shut the door to my room and pull the quilt over me. It's raining outside, which makes me feel less dreary about being stuck inside. The North Carolina School of the Artsbrochure's slick surface shines from the lamplight spilling over it. One piece of paper sticks out a tiny bit. I can see the wordsAdmissions Requirementsat the top. I turn on the radio to the local AM station as a distraction.

Sandwiched between the swap and shop listings and the lost pet announcements, the station plays beautiful gospel, ballads, and the bluegrass I love. I was raised on this music and it feels as soothing to me as a piece of Mama's spice cake. I like other music, but these songs, they are my heart.

I sing along as the rain falls out my window. Drops of water gather on the windowpanes like a shimmering audience. I play with my voice, testing out my range, creating new sounds, trying to both imitate the radio singers and to be myself. Finally, I can't stand it anymore. I roll over and grab the folder.

The list of requirements is long. Transcripts. A long application. Two letters of recommendation, at least one from someone who has been your instructor in your art form. An artist's statement. An audition. The applicant must perform three pieces from the following list. My eyes scan the options. I push the paper back in the folder and shove the whole thing under the bed. I don't even know what half of that music is. I ball the quilt up under my chin and scoot deeper under the sheets. Mama would never have let me go anyway.

That afternoon Mama gives me my cell phone so I can call Devon. “Hey,” I say.

“Hey.” He sounds breathless.

“I won't be coming over tonight.” I wait for Devon's dramatic outburst, knowing it will make me feel better. Instead, he just says, “Okay.”

I hang on the line, waiting for more. Finally I say, “Okay?”

“Well, you know you're grounded and all.”

“You don't sound disappointed.” I hear Whitney's and Coby's voices downstairs.

“I . . .” Devon hesitates. “Of course, I'm upset, but it might be better this way.”

Panic beats in my chest. “Better?” I ask. Did he find out about me and Will?

“Yeah. Look, I'm sorry I didn't talk to you first, but last night, after the game, I gave Kush a ride home, and I might have suggested he come over so we could work on some beats.”

My panic turns into something red. “You invited Kush! Friday nights areournights and you don't even like rap.”

There's silence on the other end of the line. Then Devon speaks low into the phone. “People can change, Amber. I don't appreciate you putting me, or Kush, in a box.”

“Wow. Okay.” My hand starts to tremble. I've never had a fight with Devon before. “Sorry, Devon, I just . . . I'm surprised, that's all. Do you really like him?”

Devon exhales and sounds more like himself again. “Enough to try to write some sick rhymes. Plain and Small, don't be mad. We have room to expand, right?”

“I'm not mad,” I say, then pause. “Devon?”

“Yeah?”

“Why'd you tell Will about the hiker barn this summer? He made a crack about it when he dropped me off on Monday. Did you tell him how wild I was all summer?”

“Amber. God! Of course not.”

“Did you tell Kush?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?” I squeeze the phone tight in my hands.

“Why would Idothat?” Devon asks. He sounds innocent. But Will knew about the hiker barn. And Kush is everything the rest of us aren't. Worldly. Different. Interesting. New. Devon might be glad to have someone new to swap stories with.

“Sorry. I'll see you Monday.” Then, “Have fun, Busta Rhymes.”

Devon laughs and the phone goes dead, beginning my weekend of exile.


Page 8

CHAPTER TWELVE

Whitney opens the door tomy room after lunch on Saturday. “Daddy says you need to go scrub the water troughs.”

“Why me? All I did was get suspended for cursing. Seems like you're the one who should be getting hard labor.”

Whitney rolls her eyes. She looks like shit. Actually, she looks high.

“What are you on?” I ask.

She walks over and flops backward on my bed. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

She rolls over on her stomach and reaches her handsdown to the floor. “I took half a Valium. Want the other half?”

“Whitney.”

“God, don't get all preachy on me. I'm really stressed out.”

I pull on my work jeans and an old T-shirt and don't say anything.

“Hey, what's this?” Whitney pulls the NC-Arts folder out from under the bed.

“Nothing. Give that to me.” I try to grab the papers from her. She rolls across the bed, holding it out of my reach, and reads the cover. “North Carolina High School of the Arts.” She rolls back and stares at me. “Have you shown this to Mama?”

“No. I told you, it's nothing. Are you done?”

She sits up cross-legged and flips through the folder. “Are you going to apply?”

I fall onto the bed. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because.” I shove the audition page into her hands. “This.” I point at the list of audition choices and name a few off. “An aria from the seventeenth or eighteenth century, an English art song, and a German lied, sung in German! Do you know what any of this is?”

“No.” She lies back on the bed and reaches her fingersup to the ceiling. “But I bet Mrs. Early does.” Then Whitney starts laughing. “Look at you, Miss Dreamy Face. Do you really think a place like that would take someone like us?” She closes her eyes and starts humming.

I shove the paper in the folder.

Then I pull it back out.

The next morning, Mama doesn't let up until she gets everybody ready for church. It's the six of us, spit-shined and polished, showing up at the doors of Evermore Fundamental. I can feel eyes looking at us every way I turn.

Today's opening hymn is “Amazing Grace.” The organ swells in my chest and I breathe deep into my diaphragm. If I'm really going to try to audition for NC-Arts, I better get used to folks watching me. I leave our pew and walk to the front of the sanctuary and turn to face my family and our neighbors. They quiet down, their expressions expectant.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.”

It's a song I never get tired of. The sanctuary reverberates with sound and I close my eyes. As I sing, I don't have time to daydream. But when I finish, in those seconds before I return to our pew, I picture myself on the stage ofa mega-church like you see on TV. There are thousands of parishioners and their hands are all waving back and forth. I feel larger than life, larger than the sum of my family, larger than Sevenmile.

In the receiving line after the service, I watch Mrs. Early purse her lips as I approach.

“I understand school got a little rocky this week.” She clasps my hands.

“Maybe,” I mumble. I want to ask Mrs. Early about the songs on the NC-Arts audition list, but I don't want Mama to hear. “Mrs. Early?” My voice is a whisper. “Do you know what an oratorio aria is?”

“I do,” she says. She smiles and I smell peppermint on her breath. “Why do you ask?”

“I was hoping you might have some sheet music,” I say.

“Why don't you join my after-school chorus? That way your mama won't have to worry about you hanging around with the wrong friends, getting into trouble, and I can teach you all about arias.”

I look up at this. “Sean's not trouble.”

I hear Pastor Early say his final “We'll pray for you, hon,” and Mama is standing next to me.

“Donna, dear, how are you? Amber and I were just discussing my after-school chorus.”

“Oh?” Mama's voice is hopeful. She's bugged me tojoin since I started high school.

I talk fast. “I'm sure it's too late. My schedule's all set.” Which I know is lame—chorus won't affect my other classes at all. The thing is, I do want Mrs. Early's help, just not in front of other kids. The ones who will think it's a joke I'm even trying to get into an arts magnet school by auditioning.

Mrs. Early pats my hands. “It's no problem. I'll get you added tomorrow morning, first thing.” She looks at Mama. “We even have a chorus bus, if pick-up is a problem.”

Mama is radiant. “Amber?” Mama looks at me, her eyes full of light.

I don't say anything, but shrug my shoulders.

Mama kisses my cheek, then wipes off the smudge of her Sundays-only primrose pink lipstick. She grabs Mrs. Early's hand. “Oh, thank you. I don't know how you finally convinced her, but there's nothing like hearing my baby sing.”

I sure hope she keeps smiling once I tell her why I'm joining.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Devon picks me up Mondaymorning.

“I've missed you,” he says, and holds out a travel mug of mocha his mom made using the McKinneys' new espresso machine.

I take a sip. “Oh, delicious goodness. Why can't Sevenmile even have a coffee place?” I ask lightly, trying to tread carefully, “How was your date?”

Devon shrugs. “Okay.” Devon sighs. “I can't read his meter. I think I was wrong.”

“Are you going to give up?” I try to keep my voice from sounding hopeful.

“I dropped some boy-on-boy hints into our stupid rhymes and he didn't react. But it could just be becausehe's from the city and his dad's an artist.”

“Devon. You should tell him how you feel.”

“I can't. What if he starts talking? I need to live under the radar here.”

I hold the travel mug up as Devon navigates his Jeep around the pothole they refuse to fix in front of our house. “What if you, I don't know, have a party or something? Get him a little drunk.”

Devon starts laughing. Then he turns to me and asks, “What if you got C.A. to kiss him?”

“What?”

“It's the perfect solution. Boys who like girlslikeher.”

“Ouch,” I say.

“Oh, come on. I didn't mean it like that.”

“Uh-huh.”

Devon blows out an exasperated sigh. “Stop. You're beautiful.”

“But not enough for a guy to want to kiss.”

“Really?” Devon asks, throwing his head back in mock irritation. “Are we going there? Because I have an entire summer I can catalog for you. Besides, you can't stand Kush. But if you want to be the one, go for it.”

I laugh. “True.”

“So? Will you ask her?”

I look down at my feet. “I'll ask, but Devon, I don'tthink she's going to agree to it. And if she does, and he kisses her back, then what are you going to do?”

“Then I can stop wondering. The mystery is making me crazy.”

In the commons, I'm surprised to find Sean and Kush standing together.

When we join them, Sean reaches into his backpack and hands me a mix CD. “Sorry you got grounded. I thought you might like these songs.”

Kush blows out a breath of irritation before I can thank Sean. “What?” I ask. “I did get him out of trouble, didn't I?”

“Yeah. You did,” Kush says. “Everybody's always saving Sean.” He looks at Devon. “I promised Coach I'd stop by his office. Are you coming?”

“What? You're captain now?” I ask him.

“Yes.” Kush slings his backpack onto one shoulder and looks down at me with his catlike eyes. “You got a problem with that, too?”

I hold up my hands. “No. I'm just surprised, that's all.”

“Why? Because I'm not from here?”

I glance at Devon. I've stepped into something deep and I'm not sure what it is. Devon shrugs.

“Sorry, Kush. I didn't mean anything by it.”

Devon leans over and grabs my arm. “See you in art, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” I watch them walk away together, heads close in conversation, and I wonder if I've been as much of a jerk to Kush as I think he's been to me.

Sean steps closer and says, “He's spoiled.” His voice is so quiet I barely hear him. “He was an only child, until I moved in a year ago. He's still learning how to share.”

“His friends?” I ask, with a small smile.

Sean shakes his head. “It's more complicated than that.”

Just as I'm about to ask what Sean means, C.A. bounces up to us. “So, are y'all coming to the game Friday night?” Though the question's directed to both of us, she's looking right at Sean.

Sean stutters. “I, um, football's not my thing.”

She slugs him. “Not for the football, silly. For the dance. They're actually kind of fun.” Her eyes go wide. “Iknow. You two could go together.”

“Um,” I sputter. I've thought more than once about C.A.'s suggestion, but I'm still not sure I'm ready to make a move. Or that it's the right one.

“Younevercome to any dances, Amber.” C.A. taps her foot. “And I want you both there.”

“I usually go to Devon's on Fridays.”

Devon reappears with Kush right before the bell and sticks his head into our little conversation. “What are y'all talking about?”

“Friday night,” I answer—and then I think of a plan, for me, and for Devon. “C.A., can you drive me home on Friday?”

“Well, I have to get ready before the game, but yeah, I can come over for a little while.”

“Great. I need you to help me. You know, with the thing.”

She clasps her hands and nods. “Oh.” She draws it out. “Thething.”

“Thething?” Devon asks.

I know what he's asking—is thethingthekiss. The thing is actually C.A. helping me convince my mom to let me audition. But I say, “Yes, the thing,” because Friday after school will be as good a time as any to talk to C.A. about Devon's favor.

Devon flushes.

“Then we'll come to your house, Devon. We can have a pre-party before the football game and the dance.” Daddy has a stash of apple brandy out in the barn I can bring. Kush won't miss a chance to brag to his friends back in Atlanta that the country kids he's hanging out with really do drink moonshine. And once that's fired up Kush'ssystem, Devon might be able to find out what he's dying to know.

Will chooses that moment to walk over, sans Amber-o-zia, to ask us, “Did I hearparty?”

“At your house,” C.A. answers, swiping the baseball cap off his head and handing it to him with a flourish. “Before the game.”

Will looks to Devon. “What say you, bro?”

Devon pumps his fist. “I say par-ty, yo!”

The bell sounds in agreement.

At the end of the school day, I head to chorus, still riding the high of my plan from this morning. Mrs. Early greets me with a clap of her hands. “Amber,sonice to see you!”

The list of audition song options is tucked inside my book bag, but I figure I'll wait to talk to Mrs. Early about them until Mama's on board.

She points me to a chair in the soprano section. A motley assortment of students filters in. Chorus seems to be a combination of the devout, church-singing crowd and fringe kids who play in bands or want to.

Then, Will McKinney walks through the door. His dark hair flops over his forehead and now that it's afternoon, I can tell he didn't shave this morning. I watch him walk across the room in his faded Levi's, a vintage plaid shirt, andred Converse. All that's missing is his banjo.

He sees me and pauses before walking toward the bass section. As he passes me, he whispers, “How's it going, oh Forceful one?”

A slice of hot lightning bolts straight to a point below my belly button. I shift in my chair. I can't let him see how he gets to me. “It's goingnowhere,Will.”

He ducks his head, but not before I see a flash of color on his cheeks. “Too bad. I'd be more than happy to give you another ride home.”

But I can't find the words for a snappy comeback, because when I look up at him, his eyes look open and sincere.

Mrs. Early claps twice and I'm startled out of my thoughts. “Ladies and gentlemen, let's get started. As you can see, we have a couple of new additions to the chorus.” She gestures toward me, then Will.

I lean over my book bag as an excuse to sneak a glance in his direction. Will's all focused on Mrs. Early. I'd even venture to say he looks excited. For some reason, seeing his face so open, like he's waiting to be filled, fillsmewith happiness. Like I don't care if he knew what I was up to this summer, or if the moment between us never happens again. Because what I care about is singing, and I liked singing with Will.

Mrs. Early passes out sheet music. The song they've been working on is called “Shenandoah.”

I figured school chorus would be an extension of church music, but I can already tell that I was wrong. The song is hard. So is working with a group of kids all trying to sing together. But Mrs. Early is good at what she does, and by halfway through the hour and a half, we're at least all coming in on the right parts.

After chorus is over, I rush out of the room. It's Will's voice I couldn't stop hearing over the others' in there. Will I imagined singing with onstage. I've got to get him out of my head.

Outside, on the circle, a car horn honks.

I look. Whitney's there in her dented Chevy Cavalier. Coby's sleeping in his car seat.

I slide into the front.

“You dating that guy?” she asks me.

“What? Who?”

“That one.” She points.

I look over to see Will standing on the curb, waving his sheet music at me.

“No.” I say it too quickly.

Whitney smiles. Even under her new pallor of popping pills and stress, my sister is still beautiful to me. “Too bad.He's hot.” She starts the car. “You know, I gave you all those old clothes of mine. You ought to work it more. Youarepretty.”

“Thanks.” It feels good to hear Whitney say it, even if I don't always believe I am, compared to her.

Whitney drives down Main Street and turns on Reserve Road.

Maybe she's visiting a friend. Or maybe she's picking up something for Coby. But everyone in town knows Reserve Road is a hangout for users. “Where are we going?” I try to keep the panic out of my voice.

Coby wakes up in his car seat and starts fussing.

“Just give him his sippy cup and don't worry about what I'm doing.”

“Whitney, they'll revoke your bond if you get caught dealing. Mama and Daddy had to put a lien on the house to get you out.”

Whitney pulls up to a dirty white trailer in Reservoir Hills. An old trampoline frame stands guard next to a Toyota truck up on blocks, its tires long gone. I hear the yapping of small dogs.

“Look.” She turns toward me, eyes exhausted. “I need to do this. Sammy needs the money.”

My sister is out of the car before I can ask why. Sheglances around, then climbs the rickety wooden steps. Her long hair is tied up, and her T-shirt hangs out over old sweatpants.

The door cracks and I see a weathered, dark-haired woman peek her head out. Whitney disappears into the trailer.

The apple juice is perking Coby up and I'm torn between making faces at him and keeping an eye on the door Whitney vanished behind. I look around for the law. They cruise this place regularly. I know because Frog lives over here and he tells stories. And the sheriff is bound to know Whitney and Sammy's car now.

Finally, Whitney reappears, tucking bills into her shirt.

She gets in the car and turns around. “Hey, baby boy.”

Coby reaches out his hands to his mama and Whitney leans over and grabs them, kissing his fingers.

How can she do this? How can she think that she can sell pills, get caught, and still keep selling pills, and not have Coby taken away from her?

“I've got to run to the store. Sammy needs a six-pack and Coby needs diapers.” Whitney's voice is I've-got-a-bra-full-of-cash bright.

It's out before I stop myself. “That's what Sammy needs the money for? Beer?” I slam my hand against the dashboard. “Are you an idiot? You know Mama and Daddywould help you with diapers. You don't need to make money this way!”

Whitney's hands grip the steering wheel. “Lay off, Amber. There's more to it than that.”

“Thenwhat? Explain it to me. We weren't raised this way, Whitney.”

She doesn't talk, just drives. Her lips are set and her fingers drum on the steering wheel. After she picks up what she needs at the store, she pulls in to Eddie's Pawn. “Are you coming?” she asks.

“I'm coming.” I pull Coby out of his seat and carry him with us inside.

A guy I'm guessing must be Eddie slides off the stool behind the counter. The display at the front of the store is an assortment of DVDs, jewelry, power equipment—and musical instruments. I can't believe I've never been in here before. My hands brush over a beautiful black mandolin, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

“That's a nice one,” he says.

I flip over the tag. Nine hundred dollars. I put my hands in my pockets.

Whitney hands him a ticket. “I need to get this out.”

He gives her a hard look. “You were about out of time.”

“I've got the money,” she snaps. “We took out a loan, didn't pawn it to you.”

Eddie disappears behind a mirrored wall. I'm guessing he can see us from the other side. As Whitney pulls bills out of her bra, I jostle Coby on my hip and look at all the guitars on the wall. I'll have to tell Sean about this place.

Eddie comes back and I recognize Sammy's Strat.

“That's what the money's for?” I ask.

Whitney nods and I see her, seventeen, beaming from the front of the stage at a younger, guitar-playing Sammy. I feel a pang of guilt. Maybe he is going to try and clean up his act.

Coby starts crying and Whitney takes him. I grab Sammy's guitar and start to follow her, but I turn around.

Eddie's stuffing Whitney's drug money into one of those zip bags from the bank.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“Is one of those guitars a Gibson? Les Paul?”

When Sean and I had eaten lunch together that first day, he'd told me what kind of guitar he'd played. Before I knew his mom had sold it.

Eddie looks up and stares at me. When I don't lose eye contact, he grunts and points toward a reddish orange guitar hanging above his head. “Got a Studio. Six hundred fifty dollars. Cash.”

“Thanks,” I say and walk out to the car.


Page 9

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Friday afternoon, C.A. and Ileave school together to initiate Operation Convince Mama Vaughn. Devon's on his way home to get ready for the party. It's not really going to be much of a party—just Kush, Sean, me, Devon, Will, Amber-o-zia, and C.A.—but it's more exciting than our usual Friday night.

I follow C.A. out to the parking lot to her battered old Subaru. The first time I saw her car, I was surprised. C.A. carries herself like one of the county's have-a-lots, but even though we'd gone to school together since kindergarten, I didn't know much about her life off campus.

“Don't diss the Sue-Bee,” she says, like she can hear my thoughts. “My mother pays for my insurance so I had tohave liability-only, which meant a beater car.” She throws herself across the hood and hugs the dull gray metal. “My darling Sue-Bee cost me five hundred dollars' worth of baby-sitting money.”

“At least you have a car.”

She breaks into a grin and flips over, looking at the sky. “I know. Freedom. I love it.”

“So what do your parents do?” I ask.

“Mom's a dental hygienist.” C.A. flashes her pearly white teeth. “My dad left us when I was nine.”

I remember a different C.A., one who would sit next to Mrs. Rafferty at every recess and cry if anyone picked on her, in fourth grade. At least Daddy never left us.

We climb in the car. C.A. follows my directions and pulls in behind Mama's rarely used minivan.

“Iloveyour house.” Amber looks up at the big maples in the yard. “It's like something out of a book.”

“It's just an old farmhouse.” I try to see what she does, but all I notice is the paint peeling off the clapboards.

“But it's two stories, and I bet it has an attic, a big one. Are there ghosts?” C.A.'s face is bright with questions.

“Come on.” I get out. “I'll take you to the attic and you can see if the spiders tell you anything.”

Her face goes pale. “Spiders.”

“Spiders live in attics.”

“Maybe I'll skip the attic today.”

I shake my head. “So you're not afraid of ghosts, but you're afraid of spiders?”

Amber shuts her car door and follows me. “Girlfriend, have you not been reading all those new paranormal romances in the library? There are somereallyhot ghosts.”

Mama pulls the door open. I'm glad to see she's put on pants and a blouse for company, instead of wearing her normal housecoat. “Hello, girls, how was school?”

I kiss Mama on the cheek and smell spice cake.

“Great, Mama. This is Amber Douglas, well, C.A.”

C.A. holds out her hand and smiles big. “Hi, Mrs. Vaughn.”

“Another Amber. And a pretty one, too. You girls put your things down and come on back to the kitchen. I made a cake. You can have a piece now and then you can take it on over to Devon's house.”

“Thanks, Mama.”

I lead C.A. up the stairs to my room. “Holy princess!” C.A. shouts as she walks in.

“Really?” Again, I try to see my room through her eyes. “You think?”

“Um. Yes. Look at this cool, old antique furniture, and your room is so light and sunny. Hardwood floors.” She throws herself on my quilted double bed. “All I've got isa teensy apartment box bedroom with a window to the parking lot.” She points to the mountains. “You, you've got infinity.”

“Yeah, I guess it's pretty nice.” I lean against the wall.

C.A.'s off the bed and heads straight for the thumbtacked map on the wall opposite me. “What's this?” Her finger bounces from point to point.

“Hometowns of people I've met. Cities where there are supposed to be cool music festivals. Places I want to go.”

“Do you have a color coding system or something?”

If I tell her yes—blue for hiker boys, green for music festivals, red for the afternoon with Will—she's sure to ask me to explain it.

“No, it's random.” My palms start to sweat as C.A. studies the thumbtacks.

“Where areyourtacks?” C.A. holds her hand out.

“What?”

“You're missing one.”

I hand her the clear plastic box of thumbtacks and watch as she fishes one out. Red.

“Here.” C.A. sticks the tack directly on Winston-Salem. “Let's go talk to your mama.”

One whole piece of spice cake in, and C.A. and I still haven't convinced Mama of anything.

Mama settles deeper into her kitchen chair and sighs. “I don't understand why in the world you would want to bother with an audition. Amber, sugar, you know I'd be irresponsible if I let you run off to school in some big city. You're only sixteen.”

C.A. smiles and says, “Mrs. Vaughn, this is the best cake I've ever eaten in my life. May I please have another slice?”

Mama eases the knife through the moist cake, creamy frosting wrinkling on the blade.

C.A. starts talking fast. “Mrs. Vaughn, an audition is great for self-esteem, and Amber, you know with her joining chorus and all, may just earn a solo. And then she'll have to sing in front of all of Sevenmile, because you know how everyone comes out for those things. If she can get through the pressure of a closed-door audition in front of people who really know their stuff, well, she'll be able to sing in front of anyone. Even Sevenmile's finest.”

Mama looks at her hands. “You say it's in Boone?”

“Yes, ma'am,” C.A. garbles through a mouthful of cake, licking her lips and moaning for effect.

Mama's smile is nervous, but it's something else that spills from her eyes as she turns in my direction. “Well, I reckon I can take you, even though I'm not much of a driver.” She looks at C.A. again. “You think it will help my Amber shine?”

C.A. chews, smiling with her mouth closed, and nods.

I'm lost in Mama's hopeful expression.

Mama looks at the ceiling. “Oh Lord, help me drive to Boone.” Then she looks at me. “I'm only agreeing to the audition, sugar. Nothing more.”

“Yes, ma'am. I know.”

And I know something else now, too. That my singing, my asking about this audition, lit something up inside my mama. Something I haven't seen on her face since Whitney was married, and Coby was born. Her face, for half a second, was proud. And it was because of me.

I picture that second red tack on my map. Maybe red isn't what I thought it had to be for at all. Maybe red is for love.

C.A. goes crazy digging through Whitney's old clothes and helps me pull together an outfit for the dance.

Soft corduroy miniskirt, purple shirt with a draping neckline, perfectly worn cowboy boots. It's not as sexy as some of the getups C.A. first suggested, but it's more formfitting than the overalls and T-shirts I normally wear.

C.A. steps back. “You dress up good, girl.”

I look in the mirror and turn from side to side. Maybe I should give Whitney's wardrobe another chance.

C.A. has applied pink blush to my cheeks and lipstickto my puckered lips and black eyeliner to the tops of my eyes. I look like a lazy cat. A lazy, sexy cat.

Whitney's sitting at the kitchen table with Coby when we go downstairs. It looks like she's been crying, but I don't have time to stay to ask why. Her tears are usually about Sammy.

I kiss Coby on the top of his head. “Bye, Mama, we're going.”

“Let me look at you.” Mama stands up from beside Whitney and holds me an arm's length away from her, a hand on each shoulder. I see a flash of something likeOh, my baby's growing upcross her face. “Simply beautiful.”

“Thanks, Mama.”

“Hey, nice clothes. Glad somebody can fit in them.” Whitney's definitely upset about something.

I stiffen and decide not to say anything. I look over at C.A.

“What, you got your rich friend and now you're too good for me?”

I cringe, noticing the glaze over Whitney's eyes.Please don't let her make a scene.

“Sorry, C.A. Come on.” I start walking toward the front door, torn between bursting into tears and shouting something ugly at my sister.

“You can't run away from me. Why the hell is everyonerunning away from me?” Whitney's voice cracks. I hear one last comment before we're out of the house. “You got a condom, Amber? You look like you might need one.”

Mama fusses as the door shuts behind us.Oh my God.I can't believe Whitney. Why would she do that to me?

C.A. opens her car door and whispers at me over the roof of the Subaru. “Are you going to hook up with Sean?”

“No!” I yank the passenger door open, wishing she hadn't heard Whitney's last barb.

“Sorry.”

“It's okay.” I take a deep breath, willing my hands to stop shaking.

C.A. has seven Hello Kitty charms hanging off her key ring. They jumble against one another as she starts the car.

“Sorry about Whitney.” I hesitate. “I think she was high.” Might as well put it out there. It's not like the whole town doesn't know anyway.

“Oh.” C.A. looks over at me, her eyes wide and head tilted in empathy.

“That stuff she said, she didn't really mean it. She used to be so fun. You would have liked her.” Something hollow settles in my chest when I think about how my memories of the old Whitney are getting as dull as the gray on C.A.'s car.

“Yeah, I remember her from our freshman year. So, she got pregnant, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I won't let that happen.”

“Me neither.” I start to relax.

“So . . . are you going to hook up with Sean?” C.A. asks again as the car hits the pothole and we both rocket forward in our seats.

“Watch out,” I say, too late, then, “I don't think so.”

“Why not?” C.A. asks me.

I could share my secret, tell someone else about what happened with Will.

But instead I say, “He's just a friend, that's all. Are you dating anybody?” I check my lipstick in the mirror.

“There are a few senior guys I wouldn't say no to.” She rattles off their names and I see their faces in my mind. Out of curiosity I ask her about Will.

“Will McKinney? No. I'm not into the whole cooler-than-thou thing. And, he's taken.”

I'm torn between relief that C.A.'s not into him, the instinct to defend him, and the hard reality of Amber-o-zia.

“What about Kush?” I ask. I need to get my mind off Will, and back to Devon's favor.

“Please. That guy is so insecure and out of his element. I mean, yeah, he's gorgeous, but I think he may be like Devon.”

I freeze. “What do you mean, like Devon?”

“Devon's totally gay.” C.A. smiles as we turn into the McKinneys' driveway.

She pushes my shoulder when we stop. “What? Did you think I didn't know? Oh, don't worry about it. I don't care. Come on, let's go inside.”

“Wait.” I grab her arm.

“Yeah?”

“Devon asked me to ask you for a favor.”

C.A. cocks her head and her long ponytail flips over her shoulder. “NowI'm curious.”

“Devon wants you to kiss Kush to see if he's straight.” Knowing C.A. is wise to Devon makes explaining easy.

C.A.'s mouth slowly falls open. “He wants me towhat?”

“I know, I told him it was stupid, and you wouldn't do it.”

She flips down the rearview mirror and reapplies her lipstick. “Itisstupid. But I'll try, I guess.” She caps the lipstick. “But it's only for Devon. Not because I'm into Kush. And only if it works out.”

“Fair enough,” I say.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Will opens the door. “Look who's here. Gorgeous junior girls!” He gives me a careful once-over and holds out his hand as if he wants to shake mine. “I don't believe I knowyou.”

“Stop it, Will McKinney.” C.A. pushes him aside.

But he's still checking me out, from my boots to my lined eyes. “I like ogling the Ambers,” he says, smiling.

C.A. rolls her eyes and pushes past him. I follow her, so I'm on her heels and Will's on mine. I can feel the tension, an invisible cord tugging my body, Will on the other end. Even though I don't want to like it, even though I shouldn't like it, I do.

The hall opens into the large family room at the backof the house. Kush and Devon are dancing in front of the big-screen TV, their hands above their heads doing some kind of cobra dance. Women in saris and men in turbans twirl in perfect Indian show-tune synchronicity to loud Bollywood music as the boys try to match their steps.

C.A. whispers to me, “Um? I'm supposed to kiss that? Likethat'sgoing to work.”

She has got a point.

Kush and Devon turn around at the same time. Kush immediately drops his hands, but Devon cobras over and dances around me in a circle. “Hey, Amber. Bollywood, baby! You lookhot.”

Kush is looking everywhere but at me or C.A.

“You think?” I cobra my hands and bob my head back at Devon, handing him the pint jar of brandy I snuck out of the barn.

He drops his hands and grabs my waist, jumping me around in a circle, before taking the jar. “Kush brought over all of his mom's old Bollywood movies. They are freaking amazing!”

C.A. interrupts us by placing her hands on our shoulders. “I'll see y'all after the game, 'kay?”

“Wait, you're leaving?”

She nods. “I told you, I could only stay for a minute. I meant that literally.”

She leaves with a wave. I glance into the kitchen, but don't see Sean.

“Where's Sean?” I ask Kush.

“Helping my dad. He'll be at the dance later.”

Will throws himself across the couch. “Amber-o-zia ditched me forshopping.” He makes tear fists against his eyes.

“And Kush and I aren't going to the game,” Devon announces.

I look from Will to Devon to Kush and back to Devon. “What? I thought this would be our Friday night.”

“Amber. You know I hate football. I only likefútbol.” His accent would be cute if he weren't trying to sound all sophisticated for Kush.

Kush adds, “Yeah, I'm not that into it either.”

“Are y'all at least coming to the dance later?” I hear the whine in my voice.

“Sean and C.A. will be there. You won't need us.” Devon's face is sending me a million signals that all say the same thing.Just go and leave me and this cute boy alone.

Fine, then. It's not like we've spent almosteveryFriday night together since the beginning of high school. “Whatever.”

Devon pouts.

“I said fine. It's okay.” I pat the pout off his cheeks.

Then, when I think it can't get any worse, Devon turns to his brother and asks,

“Will, you can give Amber a ride, can't you?”

“So . . .” Will's voice draws out theoas he turns his key in the ignition, the sports car roaring to life.

“So?” I smooth my hands down the sides of my skirt, which is shorter than I remember it being when I got dressed.

He turns on the stereo, and casually loops his arm over the back of my seat.

“Will.”

“Yes.”

“Stop it.”

“Haven't started. Besides, I need to back down the driveway.” He pulls his hand away and shifts the car into reverse. “Seriously, though.” He glances at me, returning his arm to the back of my seat, his eyes wicked with mischief. “Don't you want to kiss me?”

“Will!”

I may act outraged, but he's right. I decide to not say anything else.

Will's voice breaks into my thoughts. “Going to be a wet night.” Fat raindrops hit the windshield, picking up time with the speed of the car. It's already getting dark.

“You think they'll still play?”

“Oh, they'll play.”

Great. I don't have a raincoat or an umbrella.

Will whistles a birdsong, then sighs. “I hate football games in the rain.”

“Me, too. Actually, I pretty much hate them no matter what.” Against my better judgment, I ask, “Do you think people will be hanging out somewhere else?”

Will's face splits into a wide smile. “I thought you'dneverask.” He pulls over in the Self Suds car wash parking lot and turns to look at me. “Listen, don't say no until you hear me out.”

My stomach jumps.

I watch a man pull into the wash bay. The end of his cigarette glows red through the windshield as he fumbles around, I guess looking for change.

Will clears his throat. “Let's go over the state line to Erwin and see some friends of mine for a couple of hours.”

The burning end of the cigarette leaves red in my vision as I turn my head sharply toward Will's face. “Erwin? Tennessee? Tonight?”

When I said let's go somewhere else, I was thinking Dash-n-Burger, somewhere other MHHS kids would be. People that would keep me from kissing Will or Will from kissing me. There are so many things wrong with this alternative. Mama, most of all. If she knew I was thinkingof crossing the state line to go to some party, she'd have my hide. Rather, she'd have the audition I just got hold of.

“Will, I can't.”

He pouts his full lips. “Oh, come on, please. Erwin. Forty minutes up. An hour there. Forty minutes back. We'll be right in time for the dance. Nobody will know. And you'll be doing me a favor, because I want you to come with me. Sean and C.A. won't care if we miss the game.”

Something dangerous streaks through my gut. Going to Erwin right now is bound to be an Even Worse Idea than just catching a ride with Will.

The rain drums on the car roof. Football games are never canceled. But seriously, who wants to sit out in this?

I watch the guy get out of his car and put quarters into the wash controller.

“We'll be back for the dance?” I ask, my eyes unmoving.

“Cross my heart,” Will says.

The hose surges to life and jumps out of the guy's hand, dancing across the concrete. He races after it, doing a funny little hop and jump till he gets it in his hands. He turns toward our idling car, laughing, and then gives us the thumbs-up, like everything's under control.

I blow out a deep breath. “Well, I guess we better get going.”

Will grins wide and turns the car onto the dark highway.


Page 10

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Will drives over the mountain. At the top, we pass the oldWELCOME TO TENNESSEEsign. I'm humming along to the southern rock he has playing on the radio and wondering what it would be like to have a car and the freedom to go wherever you wanted. I close my eyes and imagine it's me driving, not stopping, and going far away from Mama and Daddy, from Whitney and Sammy and the whole congregation of Evermore Fundamental.

Will is probably headed to Chapel Hill next fall. He'll find friends from all over, maybe pledge a fraternity, and probably end up in law school and be a lawyer or a judge like his dad. I open my eyes when I feel his hand on thegearshift hovering near my leg. “So, Not So Plain and Small, have you thought about me at all?”

I push his hand away, but the warmth lingers. “Not at all.”

“Not once?” He sounds incredulous.

“Not once.” I cross my arms over my lap.

“I don't believe you.”

I scoot toward the door. “Believe what you want, Will McKinney.”

He grabs the gearshift. “Okay, then. I believe that you, Amber Vaughn, are an enlightened woman, far above the petty gossip of Mountain High and small mindedness, and that if you'd allow yourself, we might have fun together.”

I let his words settle in. No rumors have gotten back to me. It doesn't seem like Will's talked to anybody. It would be nice to have his help for my audition, actually. Especially since he's in chorus, too.

I glance over. “Okay. Maybe I thought about you once.”

He laughs and reaches over me, pulling his pipe out of the glove box. “Friday night lights?”

“Will, that's what you did last time. Got me stoned and . . .”

Will shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut for just a second. “Fine then, put it away. I shouldn't have it anyway. But if my memory serves me, you seemed to beenjoying yourself quite a bit that day.”

I uncross my arms, confused by the hurt in Will's voice. “Where are we going?”

“To see friends.”

He pulls onto the interstate and we drive past a few exits before winding into one of the trashed rental neighborhoods occupied by university students. In front of a brick ranch house surrounded by vacant wooded lots, Will parks his car behind an old Ford Explorer plastered with bumper stickers. A few other vans and cars are parked along the street. The sound of electric guitars and guys shouting escapes from the shaded windows.

Will bangs on the front door and I stand behind him. The night is getting chilly. I wrap my arms around myself in a hug.

A bearded guy a little older than us pulls the door open. “Dude.” He clobbers Will on the shoulder and gives me the once-over. “Is she cool?”

“Yeah, man.” Will introduces me. “Amber, this is Sizz.”

“Hi.” I raise my hand in a shy wave and peer past Will.

There's a band set up in the den. A bunch of college-aged guys and a couple of girls are gathered in small groups on couches and chairs or standing around a plywood stage. I hang back.

Will steps behind me and puts a hand on each of myhips, steering me inside. When he loops one hand around my waist, I let it stay, nervous and excited in this room full of people I don't know.

Will leans in. “You want something to drink?”

“Sure.” I let him guide me to the kitchen.

He rummages in the fridge and emerges with two beers. If anyone smells alcohol on our breaths at the dance later, we'll be suspended for sure, but one beer won't hurt. I take the cold can from him.

“What is this place?” I ask, looking around.

“My friend Sizz's house.”

A tall, thin brunette around Whitney's age slides into the kitchen and gives Will a look I'm not sure what to make of. “You singing tonight, baby boy?” She looks over at me. “Who's your friend?”

“Nicole. Amber. Amber, this is Sizz's girlfriend.”

She smiles and instead of a handshake, offers the glowing red joint pinched between her fingers. “You the girl he told us about?”

I wave it off. “No thanks, and no, I don't think so.”

Will rests his hand back on my waist. “Yeah, she's the one. I'm hoping I can convince her to sing with me.”

“What?” My body goes rigid, and I turn to him. “What are you talking about, Will?”

Will's eyes snap with excitement. “Remember that dayin the car, when I told you any band would kill to have you sing with them?”

I step out of Will's loose hold. “Yeah.”

“Well, a couple of the guys from Flat Trucker come over on Fridays, when they're not gigging, to hang out and play with Sizz. I've been trying to figure out a way to get you over here, ever since that . . . well, ever since that day we sang together for the first time. I tried to talk to you about it after chorus, but you keep running off before I can ask you.”

Terror teases its way into my legs and arms. The songbird I've thought was so trapped goes still inside her cage, the open door more frightening than the cage itself. I whisper, “Will, I can't. I don't know these people and there are like . . .” I look around. “Twenty of them or something.”

Nicole puts her arm around my shoulder, all warm and friendly like Whitney used to be. “Sure you can, honey. You look amazing. Don't you want to feel that rush of being onstage? It's not like an audition or anything, we're just hanging out, having a good time.” She takes another hit.

“Come on.” Will grabs my hand. “We'll just go watch for a while, then you can decide. No pressure.”

In the den, Will sits in the last chair and pulls me toward his lap. I pull away, looking for another chair, butmy only other option is an open spot on the couch between two guys wearing camouflage.

Will grins as I give in and perch lightly on his knees, trying hard not to mold into him like I want to. But Will wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me closer, despite my attempt to be proper. In a conspiratorial whisper, he says, “See, isn't this nice? You. Me. A rock-and-roll band.” He makes a game-show gesture to the room at large.

This makes me laugh, and I turn around to look at his face. “Yeah, a mother's worst nightmare.”

Will's face goes still. And I feel mine go still, because right now, right here, there is nothing more I want to do than put my lips on his.

Then, the band wraps up its jam and Sizz hauls Will out from under me and onto the makeshift stage.

They take a few minutes to tune guitars and adjust microphones. Will rubs his hands on his jeans and gives me a thumbs-up. I curl my legs underneath me and take a sip of the cold beer. Then the guitar and bass player start with the opening chords, and Will steps onto center stage. He puts both hands on the microphone stand and closes his eyes as the guitars come to life behind him. Then, Will steps closer, his mouth barely brushing the silver of the microphone.“From the bright lights of Memphis . . .”

His voice, deepened to a low growl, is perfect for thesong they're playing. He hangs onto the stand with his foot, letting it pivot on the floor when he pulls his shoulders to his ears or leans forward on a phrase. Every now and then he reaches out sideways with his hand and grabs some invisible note, or pushes his bangs off his forehead only to have them flop over his eyes again.

Onstage, Will is completely transformed.

I always thought music was a deep hobby for Will, something for Friday nights on the front porch. But looking at him up there, hanging on to the microphone, letting his voice play with the song, I know I was dead wrong. Will McKinney loves this as much as I do.

I glance around the room, feeling braver as the beer goes down. Twenty or so people. How hard would it be to get up in front of them and sing? I could pretend I'm at church like I did at the campfire this summer. I notice two girls whispering and looking at Will, batting their eyes. I glance back at him. He's oblivious, howling into the microphone. When the music stops, one of the girls unfolds her long college legs and slithers up to the stage. I hold my breath. But Will doesn't even see her, and jumps off the stage in front of where I'm sitting.

“What'd ya think?” he asks, settling on the arm of the chair, before tugging on a strand of my short hair.

“I think you may have a music career, Will McKinney,”I say, poking him in the ribs, even though what I really want to do is pull him into my lap.

Will grimaces and pulls his hand away from my hair, before pushing his own sticky mop off his forehead. “Yeah, right.”

“Why not?” I look at him, noticing once again, like I always do, Will's perfect, kissable lips, the scar, the veins running down his tanned, masculine hands, the way his dark lashes tilt up over his eyes just so.

“The judge,” Will says quickly.

Judge McKinney? “What do you mean?”

“Don't worry about it. Come on, they're playing one just for you.” Will leads me onstage and adjusts the microphone to my height. A few of the boys catcall me, and I start to sweat, but I notice Nicole giving me a wink from behind them. Will whispers, “Don't be scared. Just close your eyes and feel the music.”

I grab his arm, panic beating in my chest. “Wait, don't go. What am I singing?”

Will grins. “A song you know, but we're going to play it like you've never heard it. I'll be standing right over there with my banjo.”

He leaves me standing there and walks a few feet away to the edge of the small stage. I feel like a geek, my arms slack and nervous by my side, my eyes not knowing whereto land, my feet twisting in my boots. I wonder if all these people can see my heart pumping under my suddenly too-tight shirt. Then, the drummer picks up a beat, and a bass joins in. The electric strains of the guitar break into a faster “I'll Fly Away.” Somebody's brought Will's banjo in for him, and I hear his unmistakable style.

I know this song. I could sing it in my sleep, we sing it so often in church. My hands move away from my sides and find the microphone. I pull it closer and wait, closing my eyes so the only senses I have are the sound of the music and the smells of smoke and sweat swirling in the air. My feet start to tap in rhythm to the beat. Someone whistles.

When I open my mouth, the bird surprises me. She's not scared one little bit. It's like she knows she's been waiting for this moment her whole life. She opens her wings and heads for the sky, soaring higher and higher with each note, and I forget that I'm in front of people. I forget about Will. I forget about Daddy and Whitney. I am free. Nothing is holding me to the earth but the sound of the song, the music, and my voice pouring out of me.

When the music stops, I'm breathless. Exhilarated. Transformed. I am not Herman and Donna Vaughn's daughter, Whitney Vaughn's sister. I am all Amber. I am somebody and these people like me. I hear the drummer mumble behind me, “Damn, that girl can sing.”

I open my eyes, and Will, his eyes bright with something I think looks like pride, is in front of me, holding his arms out.

I jump into them and wrap my hands around his neck, then throw my head back laughing. When I catch my breath we both take half steps back to look at each other. He starts to say something but I stop him with my lips before he can ruin this gift of a moment. I feel him start to pull away, but I want Will, and I want this. It'smyturn. I press my hands to his hips and walk him backward into the kitchen, the band cranking up into the next song.

“Amber, wait, what . . .”

“Shut up, Will,” I say, and let my tongue slip into his mouth when we reach a dark corner of the kitchen.

Will's hands slide from my shoulders down my back, as he leans against the counter, pulling me with him. I don't want the feeling of exhilaration to end, and besides singing, there's only one way I know. I don't say a word as Will's hand slips under my skirt, just relish the feeling of his skin on mine. I press my lips harder, pushing against him, feeling him want me the way the crowd did before, just a minute ago.

It's like this, Will and I slung up against a stranger's kitchen counter, when I hear a horrible, familiar voice.

“Well, look what we have here.”

I freeze and then turn toward the voice as Will's hand slides out from underneath my skirt.

Sammy's leaning in the door frame, fingers hooked in his belt loops, grinning all bright-eyed, like he just won the lottery.

“Your mama know you're here?” he asks, lifting one eyebrow.

I step away from Will. From the other room, I hear the band starting up again.

Sammy laughs, a sound sort of like a bark, and sidles up next to us at the counter. “Yeah, that's what I figured.” He claps Will on the shoulder. “What's up, judge's boy?”

Will looks at me. “Youknowhim?”

Sammy drapes his arm over Will's shoulder. “Of course sheknowsme. I'm her big brother.”

I interrupt. “Brother-in-law.”

Will knocks Sammy's hand off his shoulder.

Sammy chuckles. “Come on now, man, you're not still mad at me, are you?”

Now it's my turn. I look at Will. “YouknowSammy?”

Sammy grabs a beer out of the fridge. “Of course he knows me. We did a little business and he's still pouting because his name got mixed up with mine, scared his daddy would take away his toys.”

The sound of the beer tab opening cracks through thekitchen. Sammy chugs the beer. He looks at me. “So, little sister, first practice is this Wednesday at five o'clock. Bring that other fella of yours.”

I open my mouth to protest. Sammy twitches his forefinger back and forth like an elementary schoolteacher. “Ah-ah-ah. I wouldn't say a word, little darling.” He grins wide before hooking the beer can into the garbage bin. He whispers in my ear, loud enough for Will to hear. “That way, I won't say a word to your mama about where you've been.”


Page 11

As he strolls out of the kitchen, whistling, the band breaks into “Runnin' with the Devil.”

Just great.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Will is silent as wewalk back to his car. The gravel crunching beneath our feet is the only sound. On the short stretch of interstate before we take the exit to the drive back across the mountain, he turns the music up too loud to talk over. He doesn't even sing along, just stares ahead at the road.

Finally I crack. I can't take his cold shoulder, especially since I'm not sure what happened. “Did I do something wrong? Is it because I kissed you?”

He sighs and pushes his fingers through his dark hair. “No, Amber. I mean, yeah, we shouldn't have done that. Technically, I'm dating a different Amber.”

Technically? An hour ago, my heart might have donea backflip for “technically.” But now, unlike when Will suggested going to Sizz's in the first place, unlike the way we were together onstage, unlike when we kissed, Will is distant.

“What did Sammy mean about your other ‘fella'?” Will looks at me for the first time since he started the car. It's a quick glance, then his eyes are back on the road.

“Well,technically, I haveno‘fellas.' But I believe he was talking about Sean. He gave me a ride home the other night, and Sammy met him.”

Will turns onto the access road to our school. “Look, Amber. If you don't mind, I'm going to just drop you off. I'm not so into football game dance nights, and I think I'd rather go home.”

My pulse gets faster. Just because Sean gave me a ride home one time, and my sister is married to Sammy, Will wants to go home? There's some stupid irony.

“Sean's only a friend, Will.” Does he think all of my rides home end up like the one he gave me on the first day of school?

Will pulls up to the curb, his hands locked on the steering wheel. He slumps forward and lets out a breath. “No, not because of Sean. I mean, who am I to say if you like the guy or not? Remember?” He points to himself. “Girlfriend.”

“I don't . . .” I realize my voice is uneven, so I breathe in and repeat myself. “I don't like him.”

“It's not about Sean, Amber. It's about me. And my dad.”

“Your dad?”

“My dad will crucify me if he finds out I've been hanging out with dealers. Tonight was fun, and you're a great singer. Really great.” He pauses and looks at his hands.

I feel my face getting hot. “But I didn't invite Sammy! He showed up at Sizz's on his own. He would've showed up, whether or not you took me.”

Will stills his hands. “I know that. But things are complicated.”

A couple of girls walk past the car toward the cafeteria doors. They look excited, grabbing on to each other's arms and giggling. I recognize one of them from Amber-o-zia's table at lunch.

I reach for the handle, open the door wide, and step out onto the curb, watching them disappear inside the school. “Yeah, I got it,” I say. “Complicated.”

He starts to say something else, but I shut the door and walk away.

When I hear him drive off, I turn around and follow the side of the building until I slip into a window alcove. Inside the cafeteria, colored lights refract off a tiny disco ballhanging from the ceiling. Blue, green, hot pink, and white beams bounce around the silhouettes of awkward dancers. I slide down the wall, pulling my knees to my chest.

I press my forehead against them and sit for a while. The music shifts and I stand up to watch the dance through the window. We must have won the game because I can see burgundy bobcat stickers on everybody's cheeks. I spot C.A. laughing, dragging Sean out onto the dance floor. He's dressed in his normal T-shirt and jeans, hair flying everywhere, but there's the shyest smile flickering around his lips.

C.A. bounces on the balls of her toes, egging him on, and when she finally gets him moving, I can tell he's not a half-bad dancer. I watch them. C.A.'s dancing around him, and Sean's keeping up. There's no sense in me going in there. My dance rhythm is nonexistent and my mood would only bring them down. I pull out my cell phone and call Daddy's phone. It goes to voice mail.

I sit for another second, staring off at the black mountains. Some asshole's defied the ridgetop laws and built a house right on top of one. The lights look unnatural shining out from the black.

My phone rings. Daddy.

“Can you come and pick me up?” I ask him.

“Now?” Daddy asks. There's country music playing inthe background and I hear a sudden, sharp sound, like ice hitting glass.

“Yeah. I'm ready to go home.”

I hear Daddy whispering. He never whispers to Mama. Then he gets back on the line. “Give me about thirty minutes.”

“Okay.” I hang up and stare at the lights near the ridge again. It's bound to be a vacation home. I wonder what those people think of us. The wife probably stood in the middle of a tangle of rhododendrons, a wild wind at her back, and held her hands out in a tiny square. “Oh look, honey,” she might have said. “We can put a picture window right here.” Because that's the thing. The folks that move in, they don't care so much about the actual view. Life looks too real back in the holler.

The rumble of Daddy's diesel, followed by a quick blow on the horn, draws me out of my hiding place.

Daddy grins as I climb into the truck. “Evening, Amber girl.”

He's whistling Rosanne Cash's “My Baby Thinks He's a Train” with a big smile.

“What? Did you get a promotion? Win something from a scratch-off ticket?” Daddy's good mood is infectious, but I'm skeptical.

“Nah, just a good day, baby girl, just a good day.” He stretches his arm over and gives my shoulder a squeeze.

Gross. Lilac.

“Did you get a new air freshener?”

If he knows I've figured out he smells like perfume, maybe it will knock some sense into him. But Daddy doesn't even blink before answering.

“Might've, I pick those things up so often, I forget what's what. Hey, look down there, I got an old farmer's almanac calendar in the mail today from eBay.”

I pull the yellowed, musty calendar out of the padded envelope—1932. There's a picture of the Clinchfield Railroad engine on the upper part. “Cool, Daddy.”

“Yep, I thought so. Going to frame it for the train room.”

I'm struck with an urge to be Daddy's little girl again. To act like Mama and just blind myself to the obvious. While Whitney was my daddy's princess, I was his train girl, always up for heading to the tracks to lay pennies down or count the cars. I used to love going with him to the depot and listening to the engineers tell ghost stories. But now that I know how he really is, how can I ever be that girl again?

Like with so many other revelations in my adolescent years, Whitney made the Daddy situation crystal clear.About three years ago, we'd gone to eat at the Fish House, just Daddy and his little girls. The hostess had flushed and looked everywhere but at Whitney or me. Daddy called her sugar and put his hand on her arm, and the lady had gone all red and silly. I remember asking Whitney why the lady acted that way, and she'd said, “That's Daddy's girlfriend.” At first I didn't understand. Boys could have friends who were girls. Couldn't grown men?

Whitney had stood up, glaring down at me. “Grow up, Amber,” she'd said. “It means they're screwing.” I sat for a long time that night, just staring, watching the bats swoop in and out from the barn through the maple leaves, wondering if this meant Daddy didn't love us anymore.

The next morning, later on, when I'm sure she'll be awake, I walk the acre back to Whitney's trailer. Giant barks and jumps behind the chain-link fence Daddy put up for Whitney's ever-rotating foster animals.

“Hey, big man,” I say to the tiny dog. It's Sammy's only redeeming quality, his acceptance of Whitney's animal obsession. Left to his own devices, he'd probably be as neglectful as the folks she rescues them from. I slip in through the gate and knock on the door. Nothing. I knock louder.

Sammy pulls it open. “Amber.” He hangs on the door frame, bare chested with his Strat strapped across his shoulders.

I want to scratch his eyeballs out, but I can't. And if I renege on his stupid practice, he'll tell Mama I was at a college party in Tennessee. And if she gets wind of it, the speech will go exactly like this: “If I can't trust you at home, how can I trust you in some far-off city?”

I hug my arms closer. “Where's Whitney?”

“In the shower. Come on in. She'll be out in a minute.”

“I'll wait outside.”

“I said come inside. Wouldn't want my wife thinking I'd left her sister out on the porch, would I?”

I step in, but stand near the door.

Sammy cranks up the amp and starts tweaking his guitar strings. I look around. No matter how Whitney tries to add nice touches to their trailer, Sammy takes over. Electronics magazines, speaker parts, half-filled cans of Mountain Dew, which you have to be careful not to ever pick up because they double as spit cups. Even Coby's colorful toys look dull in here.

“Hey.” He breaks for a second. “You ever got any friends that get sports injuries or surgery, whatever, and have leftover pain meds, hook me up. I'll pay for leftover scrips. I'm trying to buy a van for the band.”

“Sammy, didn't you just get arrested? What the hell's the matter with you?”

“Ain't no big thing, it'll blow over. Once I start gigging again, legit money will be rolling in. But I've got to get there first.” He goes back to playing, and I press against the wall.

Whitney walks out of the back, toweling off her hair, holding Coby on her hip.

“BerBer!” Coby reaches out his hands and I take him.

Whitney glances at Sammy, then at me. “What's up, Amber? Does Mama need something? She could have just called.”

“No, you got a minute?”

We leave Sammy to his solo and go out and sit on the stoop. Fall swirls around under the air of fading summer. A soft breeze rustles the leaves on the trees. In the pasture, one of Daddy's cows lows soft and melodious. Coby toddles off to chase Giant.

“So?” Whitney pulls a comb through her long, wet hair. “You pissed off at me for last night?”

“It wouldn't kill you to apologize.”

Whitney stops breathing for a second, then blows a big breath out. “I'm sorry. Tell your friend I'm not usually a bitch like that. It's just . . .” She hesitates. “I think Sammy's running around on me.”

“Really?” Sammy is six or seven kinds of bad news, but I've never questioned his loyalty to Whit.

She stretches her legs out in front of her. “Maybe. I don't know. It's just this music thing again.” She looks down at her body. “I'm not really looking like a hot groupie anymore.”

“Sammy wouldn't cheat on you.” Then I remember why I walked back here in the first place. “But I think Daddy's got a new girlfriend.”

She doesn't even flinch. “I figured. You're a fool to think he'd ever quit. I doubt it's even a new girlfriend.”

“I'm not a fool, I just . . .”

“Oh, get over yourself, Amber. Not one of us is perfect. Not even you, anymore.”

“What are you talking about?”

“How arrogant you're getting. Running around with that judge's kid. He's just using you, you know.”

She can't be talking about Will. Unless Sammy told her.

“What do you mean?”

“He's swishy, isn't he? You two have been hanging out for years and he's yet to make a move.”

“Don't say that, Whitney. It's rude. It's like somebody calling you and me poor white trash.”

She shrugs. “If it fits.”

“Besides, he's not using me. We're actually friends.”

But her words let in a ghost of doubt. I know it's not right, but I can't help but think that Devon might've been waiting for someone more interesting to move to town. Someone like Kush.

Coby bounds across the yard, then falls. Giant moves in and licks his ears until Coby's giggles are louder than Sammy's guitar. Whitney and I smile, watching them. After a second, she whistles and Giant moves away.

“Mama's perfect,” I say. Even though I know it's not entirely true, she's the closest we've got.

“No, she's not. She hides behind God. Figures if she prays enough all of her problems will go away, but it doesn't work that way.” Whitney talks like she's holding back a deep hurt.

“What do you mean?”

“Life. Just. Is. I've got Sammy, Daddy's got Mama, and Mama's got Daddy. And you, you've got a wild dream that's going to do nothing but disappoint you.”

Coby crawls into Whitney's lap and snuggles against her. She strokes his back and stares off at the mountains.

“You think I'm stupid for dreaming?” It shouldn't matter what Whitney thinks, but it does. She's still my big sister.

Whitney's quiet for a while. “No.” She looks at me.“I don't want you getting hurt, that's all. Do me a favor, okay?”

“What?”

She inclines her chin toward Coby and throws her head back toward the door and Sammy behind it. “Don't be in the kind of hurry to grow up that I was.”

It's the first time I've ever heard Whitney admit that her life might not be turning out exactly as she'd planned.

“You don't regret having Coby, do you?” I grab his chubby fingers and wiggle them.

“Of course not. And I can't wish that I'd waited. What's done is done. But I wish I'd figured out a way to still go to vet tech school.”

“It's not too late,” I say. “If you'd stop selling . . .” And using.

The door pulls open. Sammy looks down at us. He's pulled his pale blond hair into a bun and his jeans are slung low, exposing that slice of skin and hip bone Whitney once told me was her own personal heaven. “Hey, Whit, I just got a call. You coming?”

Advertising Download Read Online