Nineteen-year-old Josh Mitchell had a different ticket out of Creek View: the Marines. But after his leg is blown off in Afghanistan, he returns home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be.
What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise—a quirky motel off California's dusty Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into an unexpected friendship and soon, something deeper.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I'll Meet You There
By Heather Demetrios
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Heather Demetrios
All rights reserved.
The Mitchells' backyard was packed, full of recent and not-so-recent grads in various stages of party decay. The girls leaned against one another, wilted flowers that looked on while the guys got louder, sweatier.
I craned my neck and scanned the crowd for Chris, but my wingman had disappeared.
"Shit," I muttered.
Like I needed any more confirmation of my loner status. I moved purposefully through the crowd, on a mission. The last thing I wanted was to have some drunk dude notice I was alone and try to hit on me.
A girl to my right stumbled, spilling her beer on my All Stars. I had to reach out an arm to steady her before she stabbed me in the toe with her stilettos. I sighed and shook my foot.
"Thanks!" she said, more to the air than me, as she turned back to the knot of girls beside her.
I turned around—Chris was over by the keg. When I raised my arms like, WTF, he turned over his empty cup, then made a sad face and pointed to the line of red-faced guys in front of him. Obviously he hadn't taken me very seriously when I'd said, Let's get out of here as quickly as possible.
I pulled out my phone and started texting Dylan while I made my way to Chris. Knowing her, she was probably in the back seat of her boyfriend's beat- up Chevy Malibu, but I wanted Brownie points for coming out at all. Really, I was only here to see Josh Mitchell, this Marine I used to work with who had just come home from Afghanistan. I could have waited to see him some other time, but it seemed like a dick move; someone comes back from fighting a war, you go to their homecoming party.
U still here? Looking for Josh.
People stumbled through the Mitchells' back door, probably looking for the bathroom or somewhere to hook up. Every now and then, someone would wander out grinning stupidly from Reggie Vasquez's hastily rolled joints. Linkin Park blared inside the house, and I wondered what the night would feel like if someone switched the soundtrack from angry kick-the-shit-out-of-stuff to Ben Harper or the Chili Peppers.
I stopped by the doorway when I saw a flash of long blond hair, but it wasn't Dylan so I backed away, ignoring the what's she doing here looks people were shooting at me. They weren't mean-girl looks—I just didn't belong. Didn't want to.
Drunken laughter erupted from groups of partiers at regular intervals, but not because anything was funny. It was like laughter was just something you were supposed to do. I scanned the faces around me: the usual crew of locals from my high school. There were also a lot of slightly older faces—Josh Mitchell's friends, partying with the teenagers, doing the same thing they had done every Saturday night since they were in junior high: Drink. Smoke. Screw. Repeat.
Chris walked toward me, sipping on his frothy beer as he picked his way across the lawn. He was wearing the shirt I'd given him for graduation, the words mathematician and ninja under the heading CAREER GOALS. He held out a can of Coke like a peace offering.
"Dude, you never, never leave your wingman," I said. "Didn't you learn anything from Top Gun?"
I had this thing about Top Gun—it was my dad's favorite movie, and I'd been obsessed with it since I was six.
"I told you I was getting a beer! I thought you were behind me when I made the turnoff at the kitchen." He gave me the puppy-dog eyes that always got me laughing, and I grabbed the Coke, trying to keep my lips from turning up.
"Well, thanks for this." I hit the can against his plastic cup. "To graduating," I said.
"Hell, yeah, to graduating!"
It had only been three hours since the ceremony ended, but it looked like any normal Creek View night. I shouldn't have expected it to feel different. I knocked the Coke back like it was eighty proof, keeping my eyes peeled for Josh Mitchell.
It'd been no surprise when Josh joined the Marines two years ago. Like most of the guys in Creek View, his choices had been limited: the military, truck driving, or crappy part-time jobs along the highway. We lived in a blink town—blink and you'll miss it—off California's Highway 99. It was just a trailer park, a few run-down houses, a couple of businesses that barely made enough to keep their doors open, and the Paradise Motel (aka my part-time job).
Though we'd worked together at the Paradise and I'd grown up around him, I'd been weirdly shy when Josh came up to me in his uniform, his head all shaved, calling me ma'am. I'd asked if he was scared, and he said no, that this was as good as it would get for him. He couldn't wait. For a minute we'd just looked at each other and then I kissed his cheek—which surprised both of us—and told him good luck. Then he was gone.
"Have you seen Josh yet?" I asked.
Chris shook his head. "No, but I wasn't going out of my way to hang out with a jarhead the night of my graduation."
Chris snorted. "Josh Mitchell is a dick. I'm only here for the free booze."
"That's pretty much why everyone's here," I said.
"True that. Listen, since we're stuck in this backyard until the American hero graces us with his presence," Chris said, "I vote we get shit-faced and freak out the squares. We can tell our grandkids how we got all crazy when we were youngsters."
This was our little joke, calling the Creek View kids squares when I'd never had a sip of alcohol in my life and we were probably the only virgins over the age of sixteen in our zip code.
"I bet you'll look good with bifocals and a walker," I said. "Grandpa Chris." A smile sneaked onto my face.
"You having a moment?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm having a moment."
I'd been like this all night; we'd be doing whatever and then I'd remember we were finally getting out of Creek View. Hopefully for good. And I'd get these mini joygasms, like, yes. Even the girl throwing up into an overflowing trash can a few feet away couldn't really kill the buzz of satisfaction that had been humming inside me all day.
I took another sip of my Coke, then set it on a broken lawn chair. "But me getting sentimental doesn't mean I want to waste any more of my life at this party. Josh has gotta be here somewhere."
"Mitchell!" a voice yelled over the crowd. "Hook me up!"
Blake, Josh's brother and my sort-of ex, was walking through the back gate, a twelve-pack of Bud on his shoulder and another one dangling from his hand.
Why, why, why had it seemed like such a good idea to hook up with Blake after an entire adolescence of pretty much zero boy action? And Blake, of all freakin' people!
As if reading my thoughts, Chris patted me on the back. "Hey, you could have done worse. Imagine if you'd spent spring break making out with Josh instead of Blake? You chose the better brother by far."
I glared at him. "Not comforting."
It was still hot, but a cool breeze swept through the party, and I rubbed my arms to erase the goose bumps that scattered across my skin. California tricks you like that—a scorching hot day, and you still need a sweater once the sun goes down.
"This is the most anticlimactic graduation night in the history of graduation nights," I said.
"What's up, bitches?"
I turned around: Dylan was dancing her way toward us, shaking her hips to the music. Whoever was playing DJ had switched from Linkin Park to hip-hop.
"Hey, Mama." Chris whistled, and Dylan did a little pirouette as she got closer.
"Hey, hey," she said.
"Where's Seanie?" I asked, my eyes automatically straying to Dylan's left hip.
Sean was Dylan's six-month-old. I'd been helping take care of him, insisting on Dylan doing her homework so that we could graduate together, on time.
"The little man is with his grams—probably watching so much CSI he's gonna become the youngest serial killer in the history of murder, but whatever. This mama had to get out."
A stab of sadness shot through me at the thought of saying good-bye to Dylan at the end of the summer. Dylan had been my neighbor since we were little, but she became family after she punched someone in the face for calling my daddy a drunk. That someone had been our Sunday school teacher. I'll never forget how nine-year-old Dylan had rolled her eyes at the blood spewing from our teacher's nose, then turned to me and said, "She puts the trash in white trash, huh?" It was a favorite saying of her mother's.
I didn't want to think about days without Dylan's brassy commentary on everything from tamales to tampons. I had the urge to grab her in a bear hug, but I didn't know how to explain missing her while she was standing right next to me.
Dylan looked over her shoulder, then leaned forward. "Did you hear about Lisa?"
I shook my head, but Chris just stared fixedly at Dylan's forehead, avoiding looking at her chest with the same concentration he'd applied to his AP Calculus homework.
"Dylan, you are super boobalicious. You should cover those things up—they've got to be illegal in all fifty states," I said.
Dylan laughed and shook her chest. "Hey, I'm enjoying the perks of motherhood. Besides, it's just Chris."
"Thanks," he muttered.
If she knew he'd been in love with her since the days we played with Power Rangers and Barbies, she might not say shit like that.
"Okay, so check it out." Dylan lowered her voice even though someone had just turned the music up even higher—some dude rapping about how I needed to bend over. God.
"Lisa eloped with Raul right after graduation, and her dad is, like, freaking out. He's all, 'If I see that wetback, I'm going to cut off his—'"
"Yo," said Chris. "Brown boy standing right here."
"Christopher, I'm quoting the racist bastard," Dylan snapped. "Hello? My son's half Latino."
"Just call it the W-word," Chris said. "How hard is that?"
"Anyway," said Dylan, rolling her eyes, "you guys are lucky to see me alive. Her dad was at Ray's, literally waving around a butcher knife. I refused to take his order. I was like, I'm too young to die, you know?"
"Dylan!" someone shouted.
She looked across the yard: Jesse Hernandez, aka Dylan's baby daddy, was waving her over. "Gotta go get some," she said.
Chris's hand tightened around his red cup. "One baby's not enough?"
Dylan patted the pocket of her skirt. "Oh, we learned our lesson. I came prepared." She looked back over her shoulder and began edging away. "You guys hanging around?"
"Do we ever?" I asked.
"There's a first time for everything." She fluttered her eyes at me. "Remember what we talked about."
"Dylan!" I swatted at her, but she was already too far away. She was currently making it her life's mission to get me to third base before I went off to San Francisco State.
Chris stared after her until she was lost in the crowd.
I socked him in the arm. "Eyes on me, amigo."
"You know what. Why do you torture yourself like that?"
A thick pair of arms came from behind me, and I started as they wound around my waist.
"Hey, you," whispered a low voice, lips against my ear. I knew who it was—I'd spent a week drenched in that smell. I swear to God, Blake must have poured on half a bottle of Curve just before the party.
"Blake," I said, "go hug your girlfriend if you're feeling sentimental."
I tried to maneuver out of his grip, but he had the strength of a man who'd already downed a six-pack. There's nothing worse than getting affection from drunk people. It's almost as bad as if someone had paid them to be nice to you.
"But I want to hug you," he said.
Chris snorted, and I gave him a look loaded with dire promises. He just rolled his eyes and took a long drink of his beer.
"Blake, I'm, like, two seconds away from using self-defense on you," I said.
He laughed, soft, and loosened his hold just a little. "I miss you."
I gripped his arms and pulled them off me. "That's your Budweiser talking. We lasted a week—you can't miss me after seven days. Besides, I'm sure Alexis loves when you're all up on other girls."
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed his girlfriend staring at us, her glossy lips turned into a frown.
"Sky," he said, as if I were being unreasonable. Then he grinned, like we had a secret, which we didn't.
He caught sight of Chris and raised his hand for his half of the obligatory fist bump. "What up, dude?"
Chris hesitated, then hit his knuckles against Blake's. "Hey, man."
"Fuckin' graduation, huh? I'm glad that shit's over." Chug, chug, chug: half his beer down his throat in seconds.
Chris and I proceeded to have an eye conversation that went something like this:
What the hell did you see in him?
Nothing, I don't know, shut up.
I pled temporary insanity to Dylan and Chris after that week of ill-advised hooking up, even though I knew better. It'd had nothing to do with Blake.
"Hey, is your brother around?" I asked. "We wanted to say hi, see what's up with him."
Blake wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and looked around the yard. "Yeah, somewhere. Probably inside or something."
"When does he have to go back?" I asked.
Blake shrugged and started peeling the label off his bottle. He wouldn't meet my eyes. "Not sure."
Chris elbowed me, and I elbowed him back. I thought we were having another secret conversation about Blake, but then he elbowed me again and whispered, "Sky."
I looked in the direction Chris was staring.
"Hey, Skylar. Long time no see."
The voice was familiar, but I barely recognized the person in front of me. In the dark, all I could make out was a shaved head and gaunt face, but then I saw the eyes. Those were what tipped me off. They were Van Gogh eyes—swirls of dark and light blue. All the Mitchells had them.
He smiled, but there was nothing behind it. His eyes were glazed over, two bottomless wells that reflected the kitchen lights but held none of their own.
"Yeah, if you can believe it."
I looked at Blake, almost for confirmation, but he'd gone back to peeling the label off his bottle, his shoulders hunched and lips set in a hard line. The place between expectation and reality had instantly become so wide that I couldn't see to the other side of it. There weren't any words I could build a bridge with. Words didn't mean shit.
"Welcome home," I whispered. At least, I think I did. I felt my lips move.
Josh opened his arms for a hug, but as he moved forward, his body jerked to the side in an awkward limp. I looked down and choked on the air.
His leg. He'd lost his leg.
* * *
Fuck. God, God, fuck.
"Like it? It's my souvenir from the Taliban," Josh said, giving a slight kick with the metal cylinder that used to be his left leg.
All I could think was: Josh squatting by the Paradise pool, his bare feet leaving wet footprints on the concrete; Josh on the roof of the motel, looking out over the orchard and saying, Dare me to jump?; Josh walking toward me, tall and proud in his uniform but trying to be cool, like it was no big deal.
"Now I can be a goddamn pirate or something, right?" he said. "Got the peg leg and everything."
"Shit." Chris breathed.
Josh shrugged. "Shit happens."
I had to tear my eyes away from the metal pole that began somewhere under Josh's khaki shorts and ended inside a tennis shoe. I was like those drivers out on Highway 99 who felt compelled to slow down and stare when there was an accident. Lookie-Loos. The more gruesome the wreck was, the slower the Lookie-Loos drove, their eyes drawn to the thick pools of blood and shimmering shards of glass that spread across the asphalt like a Jackson Pollock painting.
I lurched forward and hugged him, holding my breath as his arms went around me. He reeked of whiskey, weed, and rank sweat. It was a stiff, graceless hug—me trying not to accidentally kick his leg, him trying to stay balanced. I wanted to kill someone. Whoever had done this to him, his parents for telling him he should go, the president. It was the sickest thing I'd ever seen, this man-boy whose whole life was screwed.
"This is so fucked up," I whispered.
His breath caught, and he let out a raspy "yeah."
We stayed like that for a few more seconds, then I pulled away. Chris was staring at Josh's leg, and I hoped I didn't look like him, so shell-shocked. Blake was still pulling at the label on his empty bottle, letting the torn pieces flutter to the dead grass at his feet.
"So you're home now? I mean, for good?" I asked.
"Don't know." Josh frowned. "What about you? How's the motel?"
"Same, same," I said.
It seemed like those long days working together at the Paradise were a million years ago.
"I believe it." He turned to Chris, as if he'd noticed him for the first time. "What about you, faggot? You still playing with computers and shit?"
Chris's eyes flashed, and he opened his mouth to reply, but then Josh clapped him on the back.
"I'm just fucking with you, man. You're all right."
I could almost see the debate in Chris's head: is it, in fact, morally reprehensible to deck a one-legged dude who's been fighting for his country?
It got quiet then, the air oozing awkwardness. All I could think about was that leg, blown to bits.
Excerpted from I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios. Copyright © 2015 Heather Demetrios. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: June,
Part Two: July,
Part Three: August,
Also by Heather Demetrios,
About the Author,