They think I'm next. That I'll be the seventh kid to step in front of a train and end my life. With the rash of suicides at my school, Mom's shipped me off to my dad's Wyoming ranch for "my own safety." They think I'm just another depressed teenager whose blood will end up on the tracks. They don't know my secrets...or what I've done.
I wasn't expecting Dad to be so sick, for the ranch I loved to be falling to bits, or for Jake-the cute boy I knew years ago-to have grown into a full-fledged, hot-as-hell cowboy. Suddenly, I don't want to run anymore, but the secrets from home have found me...even here. And this time, it's up to me to face them-and myself-if I want to live...
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Paint My Body Red
By Heidi R. Kling, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Heidi R. Kling
All rights reserved.
It's two weeks after high school graduation, and I'm not much more than a monster of madness when my mom drops me off at San Francisco International Airport. It feels more like a life flight than a vacation.
"You don't have to walk me in," I mumble.
It's easier to lose myself in the darkness of my life when I'm alone.
My mother's impeccably manicured hands flutter against my shoulder like she's trying to help me with my bag, so tentatively, she might as well be wearing a HAZMAT suit. She can't wait to get me on that plane.
"I'm eighteen, Mom. I can carry my own bag."
"You'll always be my baby, Paige."
Her baby. Right. Babies are innocent, pure, harmless. I'm the opposite.
The official reason I'm leaving town is to see my sick dad — the father I barely know, the man who hardly knows me — but mom and I both know the real reason I'm being sent away: to avoid being Dead Kid #7. To see if I can be saved.
The dirty secrets we don't talk about — they're the reason I'm leaving. Not the obvious things that everyone else sees: not the yellow tape screaming caution, not the blood on the tracks, not the deaths — but everything in between — everything that happened during, before, since. It's the empty space that screams between my ears at night, shrill and violent, lurking beneath the silence. It's his voice — seductive, thrilling, menacing — that haunts me. Ghostly, but permanent. Ty's unescapable threats.
"Seriously," I snap while she hovers, wanting to touch me, wanting to be a good mother. "You don't have to wait with me."
Her eyebrows pinch. She's hurt. I hurt her. Again. She stops reaching and lets her hands fall to her sides. I feel bad for a second, but then I remember why I'm here. Where they are sending me. And most importantly why. And I'm angry all over again. At them. At him. At her. But mostly him.
Anger, the second stage of grief. Anger is easier than the suffocating blanket of black I'm treading under. The unrelenting sadness I was drowning in before.
"If you're sure ..." She wipes the corner of her eye with her sleeve, streaking the pale yellow cashmere black with mascara.
On the street, taxis whiz by, cars honk. I hug my arms and wince. I wasn't always like this. I wasn't even remotely like this. I was an easy kid. An easy teen. I did what I was told: got good grades, had nice friends, cleared my plate after supper.
I have no idea who I am anymore. The Paige I used to be wouldn't have done any of the things I did.
But I did do them. And I can't take them back.
Above us, the monorail rumbles by, and I jump. Even though it looks like a harmless Disneyland ride, my eyes are glued to the tracks, knowing what it could do. I remember the article I read about the conductor driving the train — how he hears the sound of 400 tons of metal hitting the body off the tracks at 40 mph; how the thud haunts his sleep.
The monorail's speakers warn the passengers in a monotone voice, "Terminal B. Next stop, Terminal B. Stay back from the closing doors. Move away from the tracks."
I feel sick. At least the scream stays trapped in my head.
Mom looks at me like I'm an open wound. "You sure you have your ticket?"
My wallet is clenched in my sweaty hand.
"A car will be there to pick you up in Wyoming. If you don't see it right away, call me immediately. If you don't have cell reception, use the land line in the gift shop."
"Shouldn't I, like, hail a horse instead?" Sarcastic humor. Another "defense mechanism" I use. Unfortunately, the words come out sounding panicked instead.
Her eyebrow arches.
"It was a joke." And maybe it'll feel like one, eventually.
My mother swallows a deep breath of foggy, smoggy Bay Area air and lets it out slowly in a poof. This is a response I'm used to. Lucky for her, she won't have to deal with me anymore.
The next monorail slows to a stop, hardly making a sound, but I hear horns blasting, distant screams. I see bare feet sticking out of a yellow sheet that looks like a rain slicker.
It isn't raining.
My mother cups my head in her hands, forcing my eyes away from the tracks and onto her. "Stop. Paige, you just have to stop."
Despite the fact that my mother's body language screams don't even try, despite the fact that I know I need to go — that there's no way, after everything that's happened, that I can possibly stay — I still want to beg her to let me. I want to dive back into her unbearably perfumed car, have her ruffle my hair, and suggest we have a girls' afternoon of lunch and a matinee like we did before I grew up too fast and she stopped asking. I want to find a reset button on her BMW's dash and start this year over like it's one of Ty's video games instead of my life, because everything about this moment screams Game Over.
With hard edges and perfect hair, she reaches out to hug me. I shrug her off harder than I intend. I can't stand being touched anymore, even by my mom who isn't trying to hurt me.
"Sorry," I say, and I am — for not letting her help me, for not letting her touch me, for leaving her with a mess too big to clean up, and most importantly for the secrets floating around her perfect house, leaving a layer of filth she'll never be able to scrub off.
"It's fine." She shakes her head sadly. "Do you have your pills?"
"Did you take a Xanax?" She looks around, ensuring our privacy. God forbid some random tourist heading to Alcatraz hears the perfect CEO's daughter is taking medication for anxiety.
"A half, yeah," I lie. I don't want to take my newly prescribed pills. Addiction runs in my family — even the people I'm not biologically related to. That's the last thing I need.
"Maybe you should take a whole one before the flight."
She bites her lip. "You don't look fine. You look pale. You didn't eat anything this morning."
"It's not a magic bean, Mom. It's not going to fix anything."
I look down at my shoes. My legs are so thin now they flop over the bench like a stuffed scarecrow's limbs. I lost weight ... after. I try to eat, I do, but my appetite is non-existent. I know I'm pale, that my hair is a mess. I know she thinks I've given up, but I haven't. It's the opposite. All I want to do is run. Run away. Run far away. It's that surge of energy that keeps me going.
It's why I agreed to leave.
I tilt my head up and stare into the foggy sky — After spending nearly the entire month in my bedroom staring at the ceiling, being outside is scary enough.
"Seriously, I'm okay, Mom. You don't have to wait with me."
She hesitates. "I do have that meeting with the VCs ..."
Venture capitalists. They are to the Silicon Valley what stockbrokers are to New York City: the money, the big numbers my mother loves chasing. "You don't want to keep VCs waiting," I say.
My mother gestures toward my new designer carry-on suitcase and matching leather laptop bag. "This isn't forever, sweetie. Just until ..."
Her words disappear into the mucky sky.
Until it's safe to come home?
Until I'm safe to come home?
Until I stop thinking about him?
Until I leave for Wesleyan in the fall?
All around us busy travelers are rushing through the swivel doors into the airport.
"Excuse us," a lady says. She's pushing a stroller carrying a raisin-eating toddler. She glances back at her husband who is wrestling a little boy's backpack onto his small shoulders. He tells him it's his responsibility to carry his own toys onto the plane. He scoffs at the idea and then ends up nodding.
Responsibility. When did I stop claiming it?
My stomach clenches. I can't remember the last time I've eaten, but I might puke right here on the sidewalk. "I need to go," I think I say out loud.
The traffic control lady scoots up behind us dressed in polyester pants and an orange crossing guard vest. She motions for us to get moving, to move the black BMW, engine still running, hazard-lights on, leaning against the red NO STOPPING AT ANYTIME curb.
My mother, who isn't used to others telling her what to do, peers at her over her glasses as if to say, You ask me to move it before I'm ready, I'll run you over with it. She follows up the glare with the straight-up-pointy-French-manicure finger, which means, I'll deal with you in a sec.
"I love you," Mom says, her expression melting some when she faces me. Her icy voice cracks like I'm her broken baby bird leaving the nest. She feels guilty for pushing me out before I'm ready to fly. But she's going to do it anyway. "Call me if you need anything. I'll come right away."
Uh-huh. Right. "You hate Wyoming. You hate Dad. Besides, you can't leave Phil."
She blinks. A good mom would come. She's always wanted to be a good mom, but she was much better at being CEO of an influential startup and serving her own agenda, whether it was tearing down a large section of our house to make new offices for her and Phil or ripping me out of my dad's arms all those years ago as I cried and screamed.
I'm right — she won't come — but she argues anyway.
"I certainly do not hate your father. Do I find it ironic he's suffering from ALS and not from alcohol-induced liver failure? I do. But most importantly, I love you. Give him my —" Something — guilt? — spider webs across her face as she struggles over what message to convey to my father, the ex-husband she left in an ugly fashion and hasn't seen in years. "Give him my best, okay?"
I can't help defending him. "He's been sober for years, hasn't he? But okay."
Her eyes widen, and I know what she's thinking: Do you really want to get into anything personal right now? No. I don't. In fact, that's the last thing I want. I'm not in a place to do any chastising anymore. Not about my father. Not about anything. And though we don't say it out loud, we both know it. I equal parts love and despise her, ironically similar to the way I feel about her stepson.
When she moves in close enough to give me an awkward pat on the back and grazes my cheek with a kiss that feels more like a sting, she smells like taxi exhaust and a new scent I don't recognize. She looks like my mom but smells like a stranger, and I'm certain she feels the same way about me.CHAPTER 2
When I arrive at Jackson Hole's pincushion of an airport and stumble down the narrow metal stairs, immediately it hits me, flooding my senses — air so dry and pine fresh it ought to star in its own commercial. After months of holding my breath, stomach clamped awaiting the next disaster, I inhale in quiet desperation as my lungs fill with this once familiar air. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe a fresh start will be the pill that finally works. No one to stress out over, no death, no responsibilities, no one's life to endanger simply by existing — just a couple months of breathing in and out.
I can do that.
I can do that if I can breathe. After years of living at sea level, breathing mountain air feels like sucking air through a straw.
I don't realize I've stopped walking until my suitcase rolls into the back of my calves and tips over. The Grand Tetons unfold before me, cragged and magnificent. The mountain range rears up like a lioness of rock defending her territory. I like that I'm so small in comparison. It'll be easier to disappear this way, pretend I'm not even here. The summer months will slip by, and if I'm still around by September, I'll slip off to college to disappear again.
And the sky above me, the blue, blue, cloudless sky — the color of sapphires — I tilt my head back and just look.
Tourists breeze past me, chattering on their way to their ranch and national park vacations. No one is paying attention to me, and I like that, too. Even though caffeine makes my anxiety worse, when I finally tear my eyes away from the blue sky, I buy a latte at a small stand in the lobby with the intention of drinking it while I wait for my ride. A woman with three carry-ons smashes past me, and before I've taken a sip, the hot liquid splashes all over my black T-shirt. Pissed off, I find some wet-wipes in my bag and mop some of it up, but the shirt is essentially trashed. I can't see my dad after all this time looking like this, so I stumble into the tiny gift shop and flip through the sale rack.
As expected, everything is cheesy tourist junk. I narrow it down to an extra-large blue moose T-shirt with Christmas lights on its antlers that says "Welcome to Moose, Wyoming" which would delight an eight-year-old boy, or an extra-small pink tank top that reads "Cowgirl" in glittery silver letters. I appreciate the irony of the latter as I'm about as much a cowgirl now as I am a pillar of sanity, so I toss it onto the counter.
An old-timer with a big gut tucked into blue jeans and under an even bigger belt buckle makes small talk while giving me my change. "You going to check out Old Faithful while you're here?"
"I doubt it. I'm visiting family," I say vaguely.
I don't want to give an inch of personal information but he's staring at me, waiting. "My dad," I finally say.
"Ah! Who's your old man?"
"You probably don't know him — Gus Mason?"
His face molds into an expression I've seen too many times: a funeral face. I'm confused when he offers up a bleak, "Give him my best."
Uncomfortably done with me, the man shifts his attention to a customer asking about Old Faithful up in Yellowstone an hour or so from here. She's wondering about the chances of it going haywire and killing everyone in the vicinity. Can't even count on Old Faithful anymore, I guess. You better go home then.
In the bathroom stall, I rip off my wet black T-shirt and shove it into the sticky metal feminine products dispenser. I want to rip off my white city jeans — my bra and panties, too, for that matter — but I don't have replacements for those yet. I remember the man's strange expression when I mentioned my dad. What's his deal? Old enemies? Or is Dad not doing well? Mom would've told me, right?
When I wash my hands, my face in the mirror isn't me anymore than this Cowgirl shirt is me. My once-bright eyes are one-percent milk, and once-silky hair is old straw. I squeeze my cheeks to bring up blood and bite my lips to paint them red.
A half hour later, I'm still waiting at the curb, my arms getting burned in the high altitude sunshine. I don't miss the fog, but the dry heat will take some getting used to. Sweating, I'm about to give up and call the ranch for a ride when I spot a Jeep with Eight Hands Ranch written on the side in bold Western-style black letters sitting in the middle of the small parking lot.
Dad's is called Six Hands Ranch. I wondered if somebody copied it? Might as well go check it out; I have nothing else to do. My nerves shake like a bottle of soda in the hands of a toddler as I get closer. Six has clearly been painted over and replaced by Eight. A bolt of anxiety shoots through my veins, an instinctive cue of something minor meaning something much bigger — the same feeling I got when the gift shop clerk shot me that funeral stare. Something's up.
It's so still and quiet that I don't think anyone is in the driver's seat until I'm almost at the Jeep. The driver's seat is leaned way back, and I'm startled to find a lanky cowboy snoozing away in a pair of country-boy jeans — dirt-stained and well-worn. Above an unbuttoned collar of an equally dirty plaid shirt, a brown riding hat tips over the guy's eyes, exposing the smooth, square jaw of a young cowboy maybe a little older than me. Again I check out the door. EIGHT HANDS RANCH and sure enough it's our family's icon — a silhouette of a mustang rearing up in front of the Grand Tetons.
"Excuse me?" I ask, carefully. My request cracks through my desert of a throat, reminding me I haven't spoken louder than a mumble since I got on the plane.
Excerpted from Paint My Body Red by Heidi R. Kling, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2015 Heidi R. Kling. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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