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Chapter 1 1
JUNE, SOPHOMORE SUMMER
We went to the party because Ret insisted. I was perfectly happy right where we were: lying on our backs in Jenni’s sprawling front yard, building our best-ever summer playlist, telling time by the dandelion clocks until the sky was a white haze of down. We were idle and airy. We had perfected the summer loaf.
But Ret was bored with our listless and lovely string of afternoons. Always the four of us—Ret, Jenni, Bex, and me. Always at Jenni’s big and typically parentless house. Always the same.
I liked it that way.
Ret was there. I was there. Did the setting really matter?
Jenni ran back and forth between the lawn and kitchen, bringing us a container of oil-cured olives, then a loaf of carrot bread to try while I scoured Spotify, the iPad raised above my head like a sunshade. The Ramones (“Rockaway Beach”), The Smiths (“Ask”), and Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), just to see if anyone was paying attention. Ret lounged back next to me, half watching Bex rehearse the newest dance team combination on the porch. I pressed play and put the iPad down in the grass. Five slender fingers threaded their way through my own. Ret squeezed. You are mine.
I wanted only this, the four of us together, but Ret said nothing ever happened, and Ret Johnston was the sun. Hot, bright, at the center of our universe. That we revolved around her was simply a fact. Ret said the whole sophomore class would be at Dave Franklin’s party, which was exactly why I didn’t want to go. But Ret was sitting up, latching and relatching the buckles on her tall black boots, and I was the one with a car.
“Who cares about some boring party?” Jenni plopped down next to us and plucked a fuzzy globe from the grass, puffing out her cheeks. Jenni Randall was the Earth, the gravitational force anchoring us to her yard, to her house, tempting us to stay. She was also Ret’s oldest friend, a fact she made sure I’d never forget. “What does Dave Franklin have that we don’t?” she asked.
“A bathtub full of coke,” Ret answered. She swiveled around until she was kneeling behind us, then gathered Jenni’s thick red hair between her fingers and began to braid.
“You know that’s crap.” Bex squinted at the three of us across the porch railing, which she’d been using as a ballet barre. Her torso and arms formed one long arc, all smooth lines and taut muscle. “Are you seriously considering crashing Dave’s?”
I shrugged and popped an olive in my mouth, then waved the container toward Jenni. If Ret was set on going, I guess you’d call my consideration serious. “The coke stuff’s just a rumor,” I said, but really, who knew.
“No, it’s true,” Ret insisted, her fingers deftly pulling lock after lock into place. Jenni sat still and let her hair be tamed. “I heard you can get a contact high from licking the walls in Dave Franklin’s bedroom, and I plan to find out. Anyway, we’re not crashing. Dave invited me.”
Invited Ret, not me. But if Dave asked Ret, the rest of us were part of the package. Dave knew that. Everyone knew.
“Just watch out, okay?” Bex hopped off the porch and settled down next to Jenni, grabbing the olives. “Something’s up with that guy. I said ‘hey’ in the Starbucks lot last week, and he literally jumped. I swear he was hiding a dead body in his trunk.”
“Finally, something newsworthy on the West Shore. What are we waiting for?” Ret released Jenni’s hair, letting the half-finished braid fall heavy against her back, and motioned toward my car with her chin.
“Yeah, no thanks,” Bex said. “Rich people’s houses freak me out. Besides, our playlist needs some serious work.” Her eyes flickered across the abandoned iPad, the three songs I’d managed to add in the past hour. She was a transplant from Montreal and the newest addition to our solar system. French on her dad’s side and Moroccan on her mom’s, Bex was our Venus: headstrong and free willed, rotating opposite the rest of the planets. Opposite Ret.
“Suit yourself, but don’t blame me if you die an old maid.” Bex didn’t flinch, and Ret turned to Jenni and me. Her eyes were a liquid, lapis lazuli kind of blue. You could fall down those eyes like a well. No return. “Ladies?” she asked.
“Pass.” Jenni threw us a look that said she had feelings about the afternoon’s development. The only parties Jenni liked were the ones she hosted herself, and she wasn’t happy about me taking Ret away. Which was clearly how she saw things, even though this plan was all Ret’s. Her back stiffened as she reached around to tuck a stray strand of hair into her braid.
I groaned and pushed myself up off the grass. “Let’s order Rosa’s for dinner?” I asked, angling to keep the peace. “Just the four of us.”
Jenni’s shoulders visibly relaxed. “Taco night,” she agreed. “Get your asses back by seven if you expect chips and queso.”
Bex glanced up from the iPad. “Have fun, dears.”
Ret ignored her and ran toward my car, leaving me to follow in her wake. Then we climbed inside my dad’s old Subaru and left the others behind.
I could have said no. I could have let the sweetness of carrot bread melting on my tongue and the lull of the breeze on my face keep me anchored to the grass. I could have let the trill of the iPad drown Ret out. Everything that came next might have been different.
No Matthias. No lies. No hot, bright surge of rage that flung us all apart, lodging galaxies between us by senior year until we were planets orbiting no one. Ret, Jenni, Bex, and me.
But that day I was the moon, dark and cold without the sun’s light. Ellory Holland—constant satellite. So I went. Ret went, and I followed.
It was about a mile and a half between Jenni’s and Dave’s. We all lived on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River, home to Panera and Starbucks and the Crestview Mall. Like everywhere else along the Rust Belt, the capital took a nosedive after the factories shut down, and my parents were part of the wave of people who moved across the river, to the suburbs. And there we stayed. Most of us West Shore kids had the same story to tell.
On the other side of the river, across the Market Street Bridge, the East Shore was the compressed gleam of our tiny downtown, the government buildings, and then not a whole lot beyond them. Downtown quickly faded into auto lots and the crappy mall and little houses hemmed in by chain-link fences. You went to the East Shore to paw through the same tired selection at the same two record shops and go thrifting at Salvation Army. You got dinner with your parents on the three blocks of Second Street we called “restaurant row” because it was the only strip of restaurants in town. It was hardly a thrilling departure from the West Shore, but anything beat the mall. Or parties at Dave’s.
I glanced over at Ret next to me in the passenger’s seat. I wondered how long it would take her to notice if I turned the car around, headed toward the bridge. She had the window all the way down, her ear pressed against the headrest, her face turned into the wind. Ret was never happier than when she was in motion. And I was happiest when I was with Ret. She turned to me, catching my gaze.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—”
It was our call and response, the famous line from the Frost poem our whole English class had memorized freshman year. It started as a joke because Maria Hidelman flubbed it when it was her turn to recite, saying, “I took the one more traveled by,” which was pretty much Maria Hidelman in a nutshell. Over the next week, Ret and I made up wilder and wilder call-back lines, one-upping each other. I took the one to the darkest corners of your heart. I took the one to heaven’s gate. I took the one to the deep end of the Arctic Ocean. More than a year later, we were still going. Whoever didn’t start it had to finish. It was like a dare; you had to come up with something new each time.
“I took the one to Dave Franklin’s giant-ass house because Her Majesty wished to make an appearance among the commoners.”
Ret scowled, but her lips soon turned into a smile. I held my hands steady on the wheel and kept driving toward Dave’s.
Ret and I found each other in freshman English, in the weeks before Robert Frost. My best friend—the only girl who knew all my secrets, who’d been my other half since second grade—had moved that summer to the middle-of-nowhere, Georgia, and I’d been floating through the first weeks of ninth grade without her. How dare she leave me to face high school alone? But then Ret appeared like an angel in red lip gloss, flannel, and vintage Betsey Johnson, and I was saved.
She started talking to me one day like we knew each other. I was wearing my new Nirvana T-shirt, which I’d just ordered online. “I like your shirt,” she’d said. “But it’s a knock-off. See?” Her finger traced a line across my back, and I wondered if she could feel me shiver. “Their slogan should be here, that stuff about being corporate rock whores? It was half celebration, half call-out after the band signed with Geffen in ninety.” I swiveled back to face her, turning red. This girl was the real thing, and I was an imposter.
But the look she gave me was curious, kind. She didn’t see a fake. Beneath the knock-off T-shirt, the red cheeks, the lost look in my eyes, somehow she saw down to the real Ellory. The girl hidden beneath layers of ninth-grade insecurity, itching to be set free.
“I’ll lend you mine, if you want. One hundred percent Kurt approved.” She’d said it like it was no big deal, like we were already friends. And then we were. Her taste was impeccable—personally tailored to what she knew I would like, who she knew I longed to be. She made me playlists: The Ramones. Dead Kennedys. Blondie. She encouraged my metalworking (it was hard core) and steered me clear of black-and-white photography (so passé). Little by little, she drew me to the surface.
Soon Ret’s world was my world, her friends my friends. It was like it had always been that way. Everything Ret touched felt electric, exciting, a little bit dangerous. Including me.
Before Ret, I was basically invisible.
With Ret, I was somebody.
Ten minutes later, I maneuvered into a sloppy but passable parallel parking job across the street from Dave’s and killed the engine. Ret was right, as she was about most things. The whole Pine Brook sophomore class did seem to be there, along with some enterprising freshmen and a few upperclassmen too. Technically, we still had three more days of school next week, but they were half days, finals. Classes were over and no one was studying. Everyone was crushing cans of Narragansett and PBR into the Franklins’ impeccably manicured lawn and testing out the first cannonballs of the season in the pool around back.
The thought of making small talk over a clove and a Solo cup made my chest feel tight. I longed for the safe monotony of Jenni’s, the familiar circle of our friends. Ret could talk to literally anyone, but parties made me feel naked, exposed. All I wanted was Ret and me. The rest was just noise, and this party was sure to serve up an especially obnoxious roar.
“We could still go back.” My voice came out loud and choked with nerves. I flinched, waiting for Ret to pounce.
“Ellory May. You’re not serious.” Ret had a way of telling, not asking. She also had a way of invoking my middle name to make a point, an infuriating practice she’d picked up from my mother.
“Margaret.” Her name rolled off my tongue in three fully enunciated syllables. Two could play at the mother game. “We are not friends with these people.”
Ret screwed up her lips and glared at me. “I hate it when you call me Margaret.”
In the moment I’d been looking away, she had applied a fresh coat of gloss, something called Three Alarm Fire she’d picked up at CVS. She was not about to turn back.
“We will mingle. We will expand our nascent adolescent horizons. Tonight may even be Dave Franklin’s lucky night. Now come on.” She needed me, but she needed all this too. To make an appearance, to be seen. So I gave in, like I always gave in to Ret, and unlatched my seat belt.
“One hour. Tops.”
“All right, Ellory. Don’t have a good time or anything.”
Ret threw open the car door and stepped into the street. She looped her arm through mine, and just like that, we were fused again, two girls against the world. We took off toward Dave’s lawn and our bracelets—matching black enamel bands I’d made in shop earlier that year—flashed in the sun. We were night and day. Her firecracker to my liquid gold. As we walked, I could feel the flutter of my hair down my back, yellow waves against my blue dress. Next to me, Ret was fierce and petite, all sharp black bob and Ultra Violet streaks in her bangs. We were Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Serena and Blair. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one with Ret.
For a moment, I felt powerful. I took a deep breath.
Inside, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. The Franklins lived in one of the new developments, the West Shore’s own little enclave of wealth. Stainless steel appliances gleamed from the kitchen. A universal sound system blasted Tupac or maybe Dre into each room. Everything was expensive looking and probably breakable.
Ret pulled off her shades and placed the red plastic frames on top of her head. We walked into the kitchen, where a few guys from the lacrosse team lingered around a keg. Everyone else was out front or out back, enjoying the late afternoon heat. One of the boys waved a cup in our direction, but Ret turned up her nose. She liked her guys edgy, older, and tragically flawed. Or maybe just rich and flawed, in Dave Franklin’s case.
“Let’s check out the scene at the pool.”
“I’ll meet you out there in five,” I promised. I didn’t want to leave Ret’s side, but the thought of going anywhere near that pool—and possibly ending up in it, because isn’t that what happened at this kind of party?—was making my stomach churn. “I need to find a bathroom.”
“You’d better not bail on me, Ellory May.” I watched her fingers close around her bracelet. Our bracelet. She needed me as much as I needed her. Or maybe she just wanted me to think so.
“Scout’s honor, okay? I just need a few.”
“If I’m not at the pool, check Dave’s room.” Ret grinned. A minute later, she had disappeared through the sliding glass doors that led onto the deck. Ret would be fine. Ret could handle herself.
It was me that I needed to worry about.
I turned away from the kitchen to check out the rest of the downstairs. Maybe I could find an empty room to hide out in for a while. I folded my arms across my chest and tried to look small, which is not so easy when you’re all arms and legs and sharp angles everywhere.
I took my time walking down the hall, deeper into the house. The Franklins had a series of family portraits hanging on the wall, Dave and his little brother front and center in every one, flashing the same winning grins. Dave’s hair got longer and his face got gaunter frame by frame, the latter either a product of puberty or too much coke. If you believed Ret. I’d probably never exchanged more than ten words with Dave at school. I could hear the slurred shout of his voice from the pool, something about Kylie Jenner and Jägerbombs. It was weird being alone in his house, but it would be much weirder to go say hi. I’d let Ret take care of that for both of us.
At the end of the hall, I stepped through a wide arch into a big, sunny room. It was nice in there. Peaceful. So far, my classmates had managed to leave the drapes untorn and the carpet stain free. The boy sitting on the couch was so quiet that at first, I almost didn’t notice him.
If I hadn’t, I might have kept walking.
If I hadn’t, I might have turned back around, toward Ret.
Somewhere, there’s an alternate reality version of Ellory. She never fell in love, or she met a different guy. She’s surrounded by friends, happy, naive. I think about that girl sometimes, until the wanting gets too big, and I have to stop. In my reality, there’s only the aftermath, the nights when all I can hear are the scraps of his voice. I’m sorry, Ellory, over and over. I’m so sorry, like a Jeff Buckley song forever snared on the same damaged note.
In my reality, I noticed him. Against the wall, in front of the big window, Matthias Cole was sitting alone on the couch. He looked tousled and tired—and seriously beautiful.
“I was looking for the bathroom,” I blurted. Not that he’d asked. Not that he cared. I started to turn back toward the hallway.
“You probably want to skip the one down here,” he suggested. “There is another, shall we say, more hygienic option on the second floor.”
I froze. Matthias Cole was talking to me. The time he asked if there were curly fries in the cafeteria freshman year did not count as conversation. But I still remembered. He’d touched my elbow. He’d asked me like my answer really mattered. And that was it. Yes, there were curly fries. No, we never spoke again.
After all this time, I knew just three solid facts about Matthias:
- His hair was a color exactly between dark blond and light brown, and he wore it either flopping down over his eyes or combed up into a messy peak.
- He worked as a line cook at a Thai restaurant downtown, which was way more professional than everyone else’s after school jobs at Panera or the mall.
- He was always dozing off during Comparative Religions, the one class we shared sophomore year.
It wasn’t a lot to go on. About once a week, I tried to talk myself into waking him up, or passing him my notes, or asking what kept him up so late at night that he couldn’t keep his eyes open by fourth period. But I never had the guts.
“You’re still here.”
Still standing frozen in the middle of the living room, at least thirty seconds later. Well-played, Ellory. Very smooth
“I guess I don’t really need to find a bathroom,” I admitted. “It just seemed like a good excuse to avoid the pool.”
“Then I think we can combine forces in that mission. Because I have absolutely no intention of leaving this couch. And I can tell you right now that there is nothing worth seeing out by the pool. Unless you count the Smurf’s bare ass, because he is lousy at strip poker and loves to show off for the ladies.”
The Smurf was Steve Murphy, a generally lovable doofus and the third star in the Matthias-Dave-Smurf constellation. That Steve would be there was basically a given. But I hadn’t taken Matthias for the house party type, even if the house in question was Dave’s.
“I think I’ll take a rain check on the strip poker action.” I smiled, picturing Ret accepting an offer to deal her in. Ret never could turn down a dare.
He hovered an empty hand above the seat cushion next to him. “What do you say, Ellory Holland? Sit?”
My breath caught. “I didn’t know you knew my name.”
“We have fourth together.”
“You’re always asleep,” I countered.
For a second, I thought I’d pushed a button, pushed too hard. But then his face broke into a wide, easy smile.
I sat next to Matthias on the nice white couch in the Franklin’s living room, and I was feeling everything all at once. His breath barely stirring my hair. The faint mix of bar soap and mint lingering around his clothes and skin. All the scuff marks on his loafers, because that’s where my eyes were fixed until he put his hand lightly, hesitantly on top of my hand on the couch.
For a moment, it was like everything shut down and then kind of rebooted. There was a giant splash and shouting out by the pool, but it sounded really far away. In there, it was just me and Matthias, at our own private party.
“You okay?” He was looking at me, his head tilted to one side.
I breathed in and I breathed out, and I was still there. Still at a random house party, on a random day at the end of sophomore year. Sitting next to Matthias Cole. I thought about Ret. She was going to be pissed, but this was worth it. Matthias was worth it.
“You know, I was actually thinking about you the other day.”
“Yeah?” I kept my voice casual.
“I was in a store downtown with my sister. She’s in this ankle bracelet phase. Anyway. They had a necklace in the display case, big metal triangles with that shiny coating?”
“Yeah, enamel. It reminded me of that bracelet you always wear, and your earrings with all the colors sort of melted together.”
He’d noticed my earrings. He’d seen
“You do work in the metal shop, right? For Mr. Michaels?”
“Yeah, that’s me. After school, five days a week. Mostly cleaning and stuff, but I get to use all the equipment. I’m into sculpting too. I’m trying this new thing where I paint on the scrap when it’s still hot from the kiln. Kills the brushes, but it looks awesome.”
“That is seriously amazing, Ellory.” He looked straight into my eyes. “You should show me sometime.”
My insides melted, lead under a butane torch.
Then I pulled myself together and we kept talking. Metal shop, school, the guys Matthias worked with in the kitchen at Fit to Be Thai’ed. What we talked about didn’t really matter. What mattered was that we were there, together. What mattered was that I was laughing, and then he was laughing, and then his fingers were laced through my fingers. Our hands were the beginning of a spectacular, bright promise.