Allison Smith has a practically perfect life: she’s thick as thieves with her widowed dad, loves her circle of friends, and is reasonably confident she’ll be able to pay for college with the help of a scholarship or two.
But that’s how everything changes: her scholarship applications set off the alarm bells that end life as she knows it. Because she’s not really Ally Smith. Her name is Amanda. And if her first seventeen years have been built on a lie, what does that mean for everything that comes after?
Check out our exclusive reveal of Past Perfect Life‘s perfect cover, then take a peek at the first chapter…
I don’t …
I can’t …
This can’t be happening.
This has to be a horrible joke. Some sick prank.
While I have the capacity to comprehend the meaning of every word coming out of Sheriff Gleason’s mouth—I can break down what he’s saying into nouns, verbs, and adverbs —none of it makes sense. It’s as if he’s talking about somebody else. The names and locations he’s including are foreign to me. Yet I am the subject.
How can that be possible?
Numbness overtakes me as he continues to list names I’ve never heard before. Places he says I’ve been. He seems convinced he’s speaking sense, but there’s no way this is real.
I finally glance at Dad, who looks like his entire world has been shattered: his posture is crumpled, tears stream down his face, his eyes gaze blankly at the floor.
No. This is simply a nightmare.
Because if what the sheriff is saying is true, my entire life has been a lie.
Describe a significant event in your life and how it has influenced you.
Seriously? I can’t believe that years of hard work, studying, and planning has come down to having to answer these kinds of questions.
Okay. I can do this. I’ve written fifteen hundred words on how prehistoric drawings influenced how we communicate today. I can certainly wrangle up something about myself to persuade a scholarship committee to give me money.
Yeah, no pressure or anything.
What do they even mean by “significant”? I’m seventeen. Getting a huge pimple right before class photos is a major life event. Being called on in class when you don’t know the answer is a big deal. Let’s be real: when our small town got a second screen added to the movie theater, it was front-page news for weeks. So my idea of significant might be a tad underwhelming to anyone else.
I get they probably mean something truly momentous. That right there is the problem. I have a pretty quiet life. I do really well in school and stay out of trouble. My life is the opposite of significant. It’s…my life.
I live in the tiny town of Valley Falls, Wisconsin. Nothing here really changes, and I like that. Dad and I had lived in five different cities before we finally settled here eight years ago. It’s a great life, but that doesn’t help me answer this essay question.
Has my existence truly been unremarkable?
Seventeen years and nothing to show for it.
“Well, Baxter, I give up,” I say to my brown Boston terrier sitting on my twin bed. I stand from my desk and collapse next to him. Baxter replies by licking my cheek.
At least Baxter sees me as a significant person. He does rely on me for food and walks, so probably not the most unbiased source. If only scholarship committees could be as loving and dependable as a dog.
Baxter jumps off the bed and twirls around in a circle. He barks twice at me and then runs into the hallway. Which means one thing: Dad’s home.
The front door opens as I take a step out of my bedroom and into our living room. “Hey.”
“Ally! How was school?” Dad asks as he takes off his work boots and hangs his tool belt on one of the hooks near the door.
“School was good.” I try to give him a convincing smile, although I know he’ll see right through it.
“Uh-oh.” Dad tilts his head at me. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, really.” I plop down on our worn dark gray couch. “Did you know that I’ve not had one single significant event in my life?”
Dad pauses for a moment, then holds up a grocery bag. “I would disagree. It’s Taco Tuesday.”
“Ah, yes. That does take a little of the sting out,” I say. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it looks like Taco Tuesday is now Scholarship-Planning Tuesday. In fact, all fun events have been canceled until I’ve successfully applied to every scholarship available in the state of Wisconsin.”
Dad walks over to stand in front of me. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Ally Bean. Plus, I got hard and soft shells, so win-win!”
“Did you also pick up answers to these impossible essay questions?” I ask, to which he looks around in his bag like he might pull out a completed essay. “They’re all about accomplishments and life goals. It’s making me feel a little…unaccomplished.”
“Unaccomplished? My daughter? My pride and joy?” He sits down and puts his arm around me. “I need names. I need contact information. How dare they make my brilliant daughter feel less than. They will not get away with this injustice.” He nudges me and continues until I crack a smile.
“It’s a lot,” I admit. I made myself a list of all the scholarships I’m eligible for. If I do four a week, it’ll take a month to apply to them all.
“Maybe you should only apply to the ones that ask you about the person who has had the biggest influence in your life. That one will practically write itself.” Dad clears his throat loudly and points both thumbs at his chest.
I groan, even though he’s speaking the truth. I know it’s cheesy when someone says their parent is their best friend, but that’s who my dad is. It’s just been the two of us for as long as I can remember. He’s the one I can tell anything to, the one who knows how to put a smile on my face when I’m feeling down or under a lot of pressure.
Especially when I’m being overly dramatic about one silly scholarship essay.
“You’re right,” I admit.
Dad puts his hand up to his ear. “I’m sorry, what was that? I need it repeated. Loudly. Actually, wait. Let me get this on video.” He reaches into his back jeans pocket and removes his outdated flip phone. “This is the only time I wish I had one of those newfangled gadgets you kids can’t get enough of.”
A laugh escapes my throat.
“There’s my girl.”
I lean into him. I know what comes next: one of Jason Smith’s patented pep talks.
He rubs his light brown stubble thoughtfully. “You know that any college would be lucky to have you.”
I don’t know about lucky, but I’ve got the grades and ACT scores to get into any state school.
“And you’re going to get that Academic Excellence Scholarship,” he states confidently.
“That’s not guaranteed.”
The state of Wisconsin gives a scholarship to the top student of each graduating class for tuition at most state schools. My plan is to attend the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, and major in education. The scholarship would make a nice dent in the tuition. I’m currently in the lead, but Dana Harris is only one-tenth of a GPA point away from tying.
I don’t excel in sports, I’m not particularly artistic. All I have is my brain and its ability to comprehend whatever my teachers throw at me.
So getting accepted may not be a problem, but the money to pay for it will. I need as much scholarship money as I can get. Dad works in construction, and there are sometimes weeks when he isn’t working. I babysit whenever I can and save every cent. We live modestly in this small, slightly dated one-story, two-bedroom house that Dad rents from our next-door neighbor. Our rent is reduced because Dad does odd jobs for our landlord.
We get by.
Wait, that’s not entirely true. We more than get by. Sure, looking at our house, it isn’t much. Some of the furniture is old and shabby. The kitchen hasn’t been updated in decades. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but it’s ours. Every trinket is a memory. Every rip in the upholstery and stain on the rug is a story.
Over eight years, Dad and I have accumulated a life here out of practically nothing. We knew no one. We had very little. But here we are now.
And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I know that look.” Dad smiles at me, and the corners of his brown eyes crinkle. “You’re thinking of something.”
“Perhaps it’s possible my life hasn’t been that tragically boring and uneventful,” I reply.
“Well, thank God for that.” He stands up and wipes his calloused hands on his flannel shirt. “I’m hungry. Let’s get dinner ready.”
We walk into the kitchen, which overlooks the living room. Dad starts handing me items from the shopping bag to prepare. He takes out a frying pan and turns on the gas stove, while I put my collarbone-length wavy brown hair up in a ponytail. One time, and I mean one time, there was a piece of my hair in our food and he’s never let me forget it.
“Smart move”—he gestures at my hair—“I wasn’t in the mood for a side of hairball with our tacos. Now cue up some music, please. And I must specify, proper music.”
“You mean old people’s music,” I fire back as I turn on his favorite classic rock station.
As Dad starts browning the ground turkey, I prepare all the fixings for Taco Tuesday. “Wait a second, I thought we didn’t count iceberg as a green?” I start cutting up the lettuce. Dad and I have an agreement that we have to have a fruit or vegetable with every meal, and one green thing with dinner. You know, healthy living and all that.
“Listen, we’ve got onions and salsa—which is made up of tomatoes and other vegetables. We’re more than doing our due diligence.”
“We’re the epitome of good health.”
“We should write a cookbook or go on one of those cooking competition shows. We’d dominate, as long as the challenge involves making tacos or heating up a pizza. Oh, don’t forget all the calcium we’ll be consuming.” He hands me a bag of shredded cheddar cheese.
“Yes, I’m a growing girl.” I get a bowl out for the cheese but can’t help but put a few pieces in my mouth. Maybe more than a few. “I can verify that the cheese is at its top cheesiest.”
“I should probably also check, to be safe. I need to be a good parent.” He opens his mouth, and I put a few shreds in. “Oh, you’re right.”
“I’m sorry, can you say that again? I need to get this on video.” Then I pull out my own outdated phone. While mine is not of the flip variety, it’s not a smartphone. It’s actually pretty dumb, but it texts so that’s all I need.
“Since I’m being a model father, I should probably make sure you’ve finished all your homework.” He backs up from the stove and starts playing air guitar to whatever song is on the radio. Such the model father.
“It’s all done. I even read ahead in English since I have to go to the Dorns’ tomorrow after school to babysit.”
Dad pauses his solo. “Really? How late are you going to be? Will you just be missing the pizza portion of pizza-and-bad-movie night or the whole thing?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll find out.” I get out the plates and silverware. “We can always watch the movie on Saturday before Lee’s birthday party.”
“Sounds like a perfect way to prepare yourself for the royal family. Let them eat cake!” Dad says with a flick of the spatula.
“That’s Marie Antoinette.”
“Well, then…Off with their heads!”
“That’s from Alice in Wonderland,” I say with a shake of my head.
Dad lifts his eyebrow. “Shakespeare did it first.”
“Of course he did.”
“See, your pops can still teach you a few things! Now on to more pressing issues to discuss.” He takes the shells out of the microwave. “What’s your prediction: Is Josefina going to run off with the priest? Or is she going to save her family’s farm by marrying el jeffy?”
“It’s jefe,” I correct him. “You forgot that Josefina’s sister has blackmail material that might get them out of it.”
“But will she get there in time.” He grabs me by the shoulders. “Will she? I need to know!” He then sucks in his breath as he puts his hand to his heart. “Dios mío!”
My hand flies up dramatically to my forehead. “Mi corazón!”
Dad stops the overacting. “My head?”
“My heart. Head is cabeza.”
“Ah, see, I’m learning. Before you know it, I’ll be muy fluent.” He bobs his head to the new song playing.
“Aha! But who relentlessly teased me when I started watching telenovelas?”
“Now, now, I was just being the thoughtful and concerned parent that I am. Add selfless to that. And excellent browner of meat.” He takes the skillet off the stove and begins filling our taco shells.
“You truly are so selfless,” I tease, although I like that we started watching these shows together.
Last year for extra credit in Spanish class, we had to watch Spanish-language programs without subtitles. While scrolling through streaming options, I decided to watch a program called Mi Amor, Mi Vida (My Love, My Life), about a couple torn apart by a family rivalry. Dad would occasionally walk by and comment on the overacting, but then he’d start asking questions about what was going on. I’d tell him of the crazy plot twists and how everybody was connected. One week he sat down to watch with me.
It’s been one of our traditions ever since. Along with stuffing our faces full of delicious tacos.
We both settle on the couch with our plates as we start to watch our current telenovela obsession, which we decided is a female version of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with the Mexican drug cartel. At least that’s what we think it is. Sometimes Dad and I start making up our own backstories for the characters, so we get a little sidetracked.
Dad sinks back in his seat, a wistful expression on his face. “This is how I like my Tuesdays: good food and good company.”
“I think you mean the best company,” I correct him.
“Obviously. And now for the only way I like my drama: in television form.”
“Hear, hear!” I clink my glass with his.
Past Perfect Life goes on sale July 9, and is available for preorder now.