In her small Kansas town, at her predominantly white school, Kanchana doesn’t look like anyone else. But at home, her Thai grandmother chides her for being too westernized. Only through the clothing Kan designs in secret can she find a way to fuse both cultures into something distinctly her own.
When her mother agrees to provide a home for a teenage girl named Shelly, Kan sees a chance to prove herself useful. Making Shelly feel comfortable is easy at first—her new friend is eager to please, embraces the family’s Thai traditions, and clearly looks up to Kan. Perhaps too much. Shelly seems to want everything Kanchana has, even the blond, blue-eyed boy she has a crush on. As Kan’s growing discomfort compels her to investigate Shelly’s past, she’s shocked to find how it much intersects with her own—and just how far Shelly will go to belong…
Praise for The Darkest Lie
“Heartbreaking and heroic. You won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough!” --Romily Bernard, author of the Find Me trilogy
“A twisty, fast-paced thriller that kept me guessing to the end.” —Shannon Grogan, author of From Where I Watch You
“This one will tug your heart and leave you breathless!” --Natalie D. Richards, author of Six Months Later
“A headlong rush into the shadows of secrets that should not be kept.” –Michelle Zink, author of Prophecy of the Sisters
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Girl on the Verge
By Pintip Dunn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Pintip Dunn
All rights reserved.
Four years later ...
I brush my newly straightened hair off my shoulders. Eight hours at the hair salon, and the skin around my hairline is singed with chemical burns. But it was worth every minute. I never dreamed I could have hair like this. Straight, straight, straight as a board. A waterfall of silk from my scalp to my shoulder.
I love how the hair skims along my cheeks. I love how all I have to do is run a comb through the silky strands. I love how I no longer have to wear a ponytail. Every. Single. Day.
I love how I now look like all the girls in Thailand, even if I'm at school in America.
"Oooohhh, Kan, check you out!" Lanie calls from across the hallway. "Looking good, girlfriend. Very exotic."
Just like that, I wilt. I slam my locker door closed, my good mood evaporating.
God, I hate that word. Exotic means different. Unfamiliar. Originating from a distant and foreign land. And I'm none of those things. I'm just me.
"Kan always looks good," my best friend, Ash, says loyally. She's standing next to Lanie and, as always, is dressed as though she's walked off a modeling runway. "And I don't think she's exotic at all. I think she's about as normal as someone as gorgeous as her can be."
"Of course," Lanie says, flushing. "That's what I meant."
I shoot Ash a grateful look and smile at Lanie to let her know I'm not offended. And I'm not. Not really. Lanie's been my friend since we were kids, and I know she means well. She was just trying to pay me a compliment. I'm being too sensitive. But damn it. I wish she'd just left off that last word. She never would've said it to Ash or Izzy or any of our other friends.
Exotic, however, is a step up from ugly. And if I've graduated to that, I suppose I should take it.
I'm about to join my friends when Ethan Thorne turns down the locker corridor. I freeze. Fellow junior and ballroom dancer extraordinaire, he's blond and blue-eyed and so handsome you can't believe he belongs to a small town like Foxville, Kansas.
He glances up. Oops. I'm staring like I'm totally crushing on him. And maybe I am. But no one else has to know. I'm about to avert my eyes when he nods — a slight, almost imperceptible movement of the head. But a nod nonetheless.
Say hello, you fool. At least smile at the guy.
Before my stupefied muscles can obey, however, he's halfway down the hall, his signature black pants and T-shirt jumping out at me in the mass of students.
I drift to the cluster of girls standing across the hall. The pungent scent of tangerine perfumes the air. Probably somebody's lip gloss, since they're all freshening their makeup now that the school day's over. Ash is telling the others how Brad Summers asked her out, but Izzy bumps her shoulder against mine. "Setting your sights a little high, Kan? The best of us have tried and failed to get Ethan Thorne's attention."
She should know. She waged a full-out campaign to date him last fall, with no success.
"Oh." I fidget with the strap of my backpack. Is it so obvious I'm interested? "It's not that. He works at Miss Patsy's dance studio, like me, and, um, I was thinking I should say hi. Since we work at the same place and all."
She raises a freshly waxed eyebrow. I can still see the red marks on her eyelid. "Are you friends? Did he say hello to you?"
"Well, no," I admit. "We've never even talked. But he always smiles at me when he sees me. And sometimes, he holds the door for me if we're leaving at the same time...."
His actions had seemed so significant in my head. But now that I say them out loud, I sound pathetic. Like I've built up this grand friendship over a few smiles and a couple of head nods. Clearly, Izzy agrees.
"Don't worry, Kan." She might as well pat me on the head. "I'm sure you'll meet the man of your dreams before we graduate. Maybe a new guy will transfer in midsemester. And you know what the best part is? Maybe he'll be Asian, just like you!"
My lips feel like rubbery chicken. Izzy doesn't mean it like that, I try to tell myself. She's not saying the only way a guy would be interested in you is if he were Asian. She doesn't mean that you have no shot with blond, blue-eyed Ethan.
But as I look at her narrowed eyes and her mean little smirk, I get the feeling she knows exactly what she's saying. And exactly how it's making me feel.
Like the sixth-grade girl I used to be, with poofy hair and glasses. Like the time the school photographer yelled, "Open your eyes!" when they were already open. Like when Walt Peterson snuck a gong into school — and rang it every time I entered the room.
I feel like the girl who will never, ever belong.
* * *
Later that afternoon, Ash and I are at Miss Patsy's dance studio.
"Me first! Me first!" yells a little girl with tiny braids and the most adorable button nose.
"No, me!" Another girl, equally adorable, but with blond hair instead of black, shoves the first girl out of the way. "I want to be first!"
My lips tug. I can't help it. At four years old, even bad behavior is kinda cute.
Ash claps her hands over her head. I could see her as a schoolteacher in a few years' time. "Girls! Everyone will have a turn. Please form a line!"
They form a crooked, meandering line, and I mouth thank you to my best friend over the girls' heads. As always, Ash is saving my butt. She doesn't have to be at Miss Patsy's, but she's hanging out with me for the company — and so she doesn't have to go home.
Her parents have been fighting lately, the tension between them so thick it saturates the air. Ash is certain that a separation between them is imminent, and she's been so down, even if she won't show it to anyone but me. Her characteristic glow is missing, and her eyes pull down at the corners. I wish there were more I could do for her.
The first girl hops onto the wooden block, and I take her measurements for the costumes I'm making for the upcoming dance recital. There are places in this country, I'm sure, where parents have no problem shelling out a hundred bucks for their preschoolers' dance recitals. Foxville, Kansas, isn't one of them.
That's where I come in. Miss Patsy provides the materials, and I get invaluable experience, another entry on my résumé, and the feel-good glow of hearing these little angels squeal.
If I can keep said angels from combusting while they wait their turn.
"How about a song?" Ash suggests desperately. "Or a game. Maybe you could draw on these coloring pages Kan brought? They have ballerinas, just like you! Here are a bunch of crayons. ..."
She might as well not have spoken. They turn up their super cute button noses and continue to wreck havoc. (God! All their noses are cute! How is that possible? I never had a nose like that. Mine is flat and flares at the bottom.) One girl tosses my scraps of fabric in the air, while another attempts to climb the musty curtains.
Ash rushes over, pulling the girl down before she can fall on her head, and I glance at the clock. I only have fifteen more minutes to get them measured before class, and I've only finished one girl. What am I going to do?
And then the door opens, and Ethan walks into the dance studio. The girls run to him like he's a rock star. I don't blame them. He looks kinda like a musical sensation with his tight black shirt and pants. Most of the guys at school wouldn't be caught dead wearing clothes like that, but they suit him. Involuntarily, my eyes travel over his six-pack and the long, lean muscles of his thighs. Oh, yeah. They suit him, all right.
He glances around the room, taking in Ash, who's picking up the scraps of fabric, and me, with the measuring tape around my neck.
"Want to play duck, duck, goose?" he asks the girls.
Like magic, they shriek and arrange themselves in a circle on the floor.
My mouth drops open, and I exchange a look with Ash. Are you kidding me? How on earth did he do that?
He looks up to catch me watching and winks.
I duck my head. My fingers shake as I measure the next girl. It was a wink, for god's sake. Just a wink.
"No wonder you like working here." Ash drifts over to me. "He's enough to convince me to give ballroom dancing a try."
"Shhh!" I say furiously. "He'll hear you."
But he's completely immersed in the game, his movements exaggerated as he taps a girl's head and then tries valiantly to avoid being tagged. His arms pump the air, and his legs fly all over the place. And yet, the girls catch him every time, to gales of giggles.
Once, the girl with the tiny braids slips and falls. Her hopes of tagging Ethan seem to evaporate, but when he reaches the open spot, he performs a victory dance, which involves a lot of butt shaking and fingers pointing in the air. As the other ducks roar with laughter, the girl picks herself off the floor and tags him out.
The smile spreads across my face like dye seeping through fabric, and even Ash's nudges can't erase it. Ethan. Ethan Thorne. I've always known who he is, of course, although we've never been friends. You don't go to a school like mine, in a town like Foxville, and not know all 120 kids in the graduating class. Hell, I was in the same kindergarten classroom with almost a quarter of my classmates.
The next girl gets on the block, and I wrap the measuring tape around her waist, making sure it's not twisted. All the while, I run through everything I know about Ethan. He's a ballroom dancer. There's no high school circuit in our state, so he's a member of the community college dance team and travels to competitions nearly every weekend. He's not part of the in-crowd — he's a little too different for that — but he's a cool and well-liked guy. I've heard some of the boys ribbing him about his dancing, but he just shrugs like the jokes roll right off his well-muscled back.
I finish measuring the last girl, and Miss Patsy, the dance teacher and head of the studio, strides down the stairs. Ethan ushers his ducks into the empty classroom.
Ash gives me a hug. "I have to go. I can't avoid my house forever." She rolls her eyes. "Thanks for letting me hang out."
"Thank you. I never would've gotten those girls measured without you."
"Nah. You've got your knight in black knit swooping down for the rescue." She waggles her eyebrows, and I give her a shove. We both erupt into giggles.
I promise to call her later and then retreat into a quiet classroom. All thoughts of Ethan fly out of my head. I sketch two different designs, one in ice blue and the other in hot pink, with lots of ruffles and flounces. And, of course, stiff tutus. Both designs are gorgeous. As I sketch, I wish I were a little girl again, so that I could wear these creations, too.
When I finish, I realize the dance studio is deserted. Crap. I check my watch. It's only seven, but these days, it gets dark early. I hadn't realized it was so late. But no matter. This is a small town. Nothing ever happens in small towns. Right?
Wrong. Nothing interesting ever happens in small towns, but crimes? Murders? Rapes? We're no more immune than the urban areas. Just last week, a woman was assaulted as she jogged through the park at sunrise.
Goose bumps erupt on my arms, and my heart crashes against my ribs. Ridiculous. I'm only nervous because it's so quiet that you could hear a ballerina rise to en pointe.
Still, I take out my car key and hold it with the sharp, metallic edge poking through my fist. Taking a deep breath, I cross the darkened studio. I am almost at the exit when Ethan emerges from the gloom.
I jump. The key slides from my fingers and clanks against the floor. "Ethan! You're still here?"
Instead of responding, he picks up my key, hands it to me, and holds open the door. Not only is it dark outside, but the wind's picked up, swirling bits of litter round and round the parking lot. The trees are shadowy skeletons, reaching their long, thin fingers toward me.
I shiver. Small town. Nothing ever happens in a small town. I repeat the words to myself firmly and then turn to Ethan, who is locking the door.
"Were you waiting for me?" I blurt out. "You didn't have to do that. Miss Patsy gave me a key; I could've locked up."
"Not a problem." He flashes a smile, one that seems as natural to him as breathing, and without another word walks to his car.
I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding. Maybe he wasn't waiting for me. Maybe he was busy with work, too, and it's only a coincidence we happened to be leaving at the same time. At least I feel safe now, even if he's thirty feet away in his battered Camry.
Slowly, I make my way to my tangerine VW Bug. My dream car, even if it is secondhand and has a gazillion miles on it.
The engine of the Camry ignites, and the headlights flicker on. But the car doesn't leave. I get into my Bug and take a moment to slide my sketchbook securely into my backpack. Ethan is still there, still waiting. Only when I turn on the engine and drive out of the parking lot does his car follow, flashing its lights twice before turning in the opposite direction.
I blink, staring at Ethan's taillights too long in the rearview mirror. Huh. Maybe he was waiting to see me off safely, after all.
You never know what can happen, small town or not.CHAPTER 2
I walk into my house to the smell of my favorite meal. Nam phrik ka pi. Sliced eggplant dipped into beaten eggs and then fried, paired with a spicy sauce made from tamarind, chilies, lime, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. There's no mistaking the scent because it smells like nothing else in this world.
My mouth waters, and instantly, the Asian boy conversation with Izzy, Ash's parents' fighting, and Ethan's chivalry disappear from my mind. A plate of hot rice and fried eggplant always makes me feel like everything's going to be okay.
I burst into the kitchen, my hair swinging against my shoulder blades. My grandmother is ladling slices of eggplant out of a pot of boiling oil and transferring them to a colander lined with paper towels. The slices are perfect. Fried to a golden brown, bits of egg curling around the edges. I snag a piece, bouncing the still-hot slice against my palm before taking a bite.
Yum. The egg is crisp and savory, the eggplant center soft and mildly sweet.
"Khun Yai, it's like you read my mind." I place a kiss on her cheek. "Are you sure you weren't a fortune-teller in a previous life?"
But she doesn't smile, and she doesn't call me luk lak. She doesn't bat my hand away, and she doesn't ask me if I have homework. Instead, she looks at me the way she did during the first few months after my father's death.
"I was cleaning your room," she says in Thai. Even though her English is more than passable after four years in this country, this is how we always talk — her in Thai and me in English. And yet, we still manage to communicate perfectly. "I found an application for the Illinois Institute of Art." She waves her spatula at the offending form on the kitchen table.
Fear flashes across my stomach, and the eggplant lodges in my throat like a ball of packed rice. "You don't need to clean my room," I mutter. "None of my friends' parents do that. Over here, kids pick up after themselves."
"Do not change the subject, Kanchana."
Uh-oh. My formal name. Not one of her endearments, not even my nickname, Kan, which my dad came up with himself in an attempt to create an American name. That's probably the only reason I didn't nix the name long ago: It's one of the few reminders I still have of my Por. Too bad he didn't know my elementary school years would be marked by my classmates elbowing each other and snickering. "Hey, Kan, did you use the can yet today? I drank a whole chocolate milk at lunch. Boy, do I need to use the can."
"It's Kan," I would say between clenched teeth. "Rhymes with Ron."
This, somehow, made them laugh even harder.
"I thought you were going to apply to medical school next year. Follow in your mother's footsteps." Khun Yai turns off the stovetop and moves the pot of boiling oil to a cool burner. "We even decided on the list of twenty schools you would consider. This art institute wasn't on the list."
"No, you decided," I say, wondering how far I should go. How much I should confess. She's already found the application. Is she ready to hear the truth — or at least part of it? "You can get a bachelor's degree in fashion design there. And I ... never wanted to be a doctor, anyway. The sight of blood makes me sick."
She lifts her eyebrows, adding lines to her already lined forehead. "Really? How come you never told me?"
Maybe this time, she'll understand what it's like to be me, a girl straddling two worlds and fitting into neither. Maybe I should admit I've been designing clothes in secret for years. That my job at Miss Patsy's is not as assistant/first aider but as seamstress /costume designer. Maybe she'll see into my heart, where my hopes and dreams lie....
Excerpted from Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn. Copyright © 2017 Pintip Dunn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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