The upcoming novel from Kathleen Glasgow, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces, will most likely make you cry, and will most definitely make you feel the feels.
Karen M. McManus, author of One of Us Is Lying, called it “rare and powerful.”
Jennifer Niven, author of All the Bright Places, called it “breathtaking and heartbreaking.”
We can’t wait for this beautiful novel to finally be out in the world on April 9, 2019, so we are giving you a sneak peek. Start reading today!
I FIND THE BILLS BY accident, stuffed underneath a pile of underwear in the dresser my mother and I share. Instead of clean socks, my hands come away with a thick stack of envelopes marked Urgent, Last Notice, Contact Immediately.
My heart thuds. We don’t have a lot, we never have, but we’ve made do with what my mom makes as the county Bookmobile lady and from helping out at Bonita’s daycare. Come summer, we’ve got the Jellymobile, but that’s another story.
You don’t hide things in a drawer unless you’re worried.
Mom’s been on the couch since yesterday morning, cocooned in a black-and-red wool blanket, sleeping off a headache.
“Mom,” I say, loudly. “Mommy.”
No answer. I check the crooked clock on the wall. Forty minutes until zero period.
We’re what my mom likes to call “a well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine.” But I need the other half of my machine to beep and whir at me, and to do all that other stuff moms are supposed to do. If I don’t have her, I don’t have anything. It’s not like with my friend Cake, who has two parents and an uncle living with her. If my mom is sick, or down, I’m shit out of luck for help and companionship.
And rides to school.
“Mom!” I scream as loud as I can, practically ripping my
throat in the process. I shove the bills back beneath the stack of underwear and head to the front room.
The scream worked. She’s sitting up, the wool blanket crumpled on the floor.
“Good morning to you, too,” she mumbles thickly.
Her short hair is matted on one side and spiky on the other. She looks around, like she recognizes nothing, like she’s an alien suddenly dropped into our strange, earthly atmosphere.
She blinks once, twice, three times, then says, “Tiger, baby, get me some coffee, will you?”
“There’s no coffee.” I use my best accusatory voice. I have to be a little mean. I mean, come on. It looks like we’re in dire straits here, plus, a couple other things, like Kai, are currently burning a hole in my brain. I need Mom-things to be happening.
“There’s nothing,” I say. “Well, peanut butter. You can have a big fat hot cup of steaming peanut butter.”
My mom smiles, which kills me, because I can’t resist it, and everything I thought I might say about the stack of unpaid bills kind of flies out the window. Things will be fixed now. Things will be okay, like always.
We can beep and whir again.
Mom gets up and walks to the red coffeemaker. Coffee is my mother’s drug. That and cigarettes, no matter how much Bonita and Cake and I tell her they’re disgusting and deadly. When I was little, I used to wake up at the crack of dawn, ready to play with her, just her, before she’d drag me to the daycare, and I always had to wait until she had her first cup of coffee and her first cigarette. It was agony waiting for that stupid machine to glug out a cup while my hands itched with Legos or pick-up sticks.
She heaves a great sigh. “Shit,” she says. “Baby! I better get my ass in gear, huh?” She’s standing at the sink, trying to turn on the faucet, but nothing is coming out. “The water’s still crappy? I was hoping that was just a bad dream.” She nods to the faucet.
“Pacheco isn’t returning my calls,” I say. Mr. Pacheco is our
landlord and not a very nice one.
She murmurs, “I guess I’ll have to deal with that today, too.” I’m silent. Is she talking about the bills? Maybe I should—
Mom holds out her arms. “Come here, baby. Here. Come to me.”
I run so fast I almost slip on the threadbare wool rug on the floor and I go flying against her, my face landing just under her collarbone. Her lips graze the top of my head.
Mom trembles. Her shirt’s damp, like she’s been sweating. She must need a cigarette. “I’m sorry,” she whispers into my hair. “I don’t know what happened. What a headache. Bonita leaving, the daycare closing. I just . . . it was a lot all at once, and I guess I stressed. Did you even have any dinner last night?”
I had a pack of lime Jell-O, and my stomach is screaming for food, but I don’t tell her this. I just keep nuzzling her.
My mother pulls away and laughs. “Grace,” she says. Hearing my real name makes me cringe. “Gracie, that pajama top doesn’t quite fit you anymore, baby doll.”
I pull defensively at the hem of the T-shirt and cross my arms over my chest.
My mom sighs. I know what’s coming, so I prepare my I’m bored face.
“Tiger,” she says firmly. “You’re a beautiful girl. I was just teasing, which I shouldn’t have done. You should never hide you. You’re growing into something wondrous. Don’t be ashamed.”
Wondrous. She and Bonita are crazy for the affirmation talk. Cake likes to say their mission in life is to Build a Better Girl Than They Were. “You know,” she said once, “their moms probably put them on diets of cottage cheese before prom and told them to keep their legs closed around boys.”
I roll my eyes and groan. “You have to tell me those things,” I answer. “You’re my mom. It’s in your job description.”
Her face softens and I feel guilty. Once I overheard her say to Bonita, “I try to tell Tiger all the things I never got to hear, you know?”
And I always want to know, what didn’t she get to hear? Because she’s tight-lipped about her early, non-Mom, kidlike days. Her parents died when she was in college, and she doesn’t like to talk about them.
My mother rummages around in the cabinets and somehow, somewhere, finds a lone can of Coke, even though I scoured the cabinets last night for spare eats. She takes a long, grateful sip and then wipes her mouth. She fishes in her purse for a cigarette.
“Go get dressed, Tiger. I’ll drop you at school and then I’ve got a lot of things to do. Today is going to be one hell of a day, I promise. Food, Pacheco, the works. I’ll make up for being out of it, okay?”
Mom heads out in the backyard to smoke and I hit my bedroom, where I frantically try to find something suitable in my closet of mostly unsuitable clothing. My mother thinks finding clothes in boxes on the side of the road is creative and fun and interesting and environmentally conscious (“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure!”) and not actually a by-product of our thin finances, but sometimes I wish I went to school dressed like any other girl, in leggings and a tee, maybe, with cute strappy sandals to highlight pink-polished toenails. Instead, I mostly look like a creature time forgot, dressed in old clothes that look like, well, old clothes.
I drag on a skirt and a faded T-shirt and jam a ball cap on my head, because the water in the shower is starting to look suspicious, too, so a shower is out of the question. I brush my teeth like a demon in the bathroom and splash water on my face.
Then, like I always do, I allow myself a minimum of three seconds to wonder: Who the hell is that? Where did she come from?
Because the dark and straight hair is nothing like my mother’s short, light mop. My freckles look like scattered dirt next to her creamy, blemish-free face.
So much of me is from The Person Who Shall Not Be Named. So much of me is unknown.
But here I am, and for now I need to get my mother in gear, get to school, make it through zero period and the little five- day-a-week shit-show I like to call “The Horror of Lupe Hidalgo,” which, if I survive, leads to Bio, and to Kai Henderson, the very thought of whom makes my heart start to pound like a stupid, lovesick drum, and who is one of the things I need to talk to my mother about.
In the car, she fiddles with the radio dial. My empty stomach is blaring like a five-alarm fire, so I scrape some Life Savers from the bottom of my backpack. Maybe lint and dust have some calories and I can last until lunch.
I’m sucking away when my phone buzzes. Cake.
Yes! In car.
Thank God! You tell her yet?
I glance over at Mom. She’s muttering, trying to tune the radio in our ancient Honda, a car partially held together by duct tape and hope.
She looks tired. Maybe her head still hurts after all. Maybe it’s the bill thing. Maybe I should get a job, help out. I could bag groceries at the Stop N Shop. Or bus tables at Cucaracha.
Not yet, I type.
Just do it. Rip off the Band-Aid, Tiger. Then you can flee the vehicle and not have to deal with her until tonight.
I don’t answer. This is going to be a complicated issue, the Kai thing.
My mother is a little overprotective.
She is not going to be happy about me going to the Eugene Field Memorial Days Dance with Kai Henderson. Not because she doesn’t like him, because she does. She’s known him since he was a scrappy kid at Bonita’s with bruised knees and a yen for butter cookies. She just doesn’t like me . . . well, not being with her.
“Aha!” She grins. “Here’s a good one.”
She turns up the volume. Another song from years ago, nothing new, nothing I ever get to pick. She wrinkles her nose at the songs Cake and I play in our band, Broken Cradle, calling it a lot of experimental noise. It’s possible I’m the reason it sounds “experimental,” since I mostly bang away on the drums with no idea what I’m doing. I’m only there to back up Cake, who’s basically a musical prodigy. And Kai, who looks dreamy and sweet, plucking his bass, his brow furrowed, like one of my novels might say.
Maybe it’s the fact that I suddenly feel like my mother is always drowning me out that I blurt, “I’m going to Memorial Days with Kai Henderson.”
As soon as I say it, I both regret it and relish it. I mean, what is she going to do? I’m sixteen. I can go to a dance like everybody else for once.
She turns down the music. “What?” Her voice is slow. “Since when? When did this . . . happen?”
I take a deep breath. “A couple weeks ago. He asked me. I’m going. It’s going to be fun. Cake’s going, too. Everybody’s going.”
“Wait,” she says, again. “Kai? As in Kai Kai? Our boy with his
head permanently buried in a medical textbook?” I sigh. “Yes.”
Silence. My heart drops. I knew it. I can almost count the seconds, so I do: ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .
“I don’t know, Tiger. This is so sudden and we haven’t talked about it. I mean, there’s the drinking thing, probably an after- party—”
I interrupt her. “I don’t drink, I don’t party, I don’t smoke. No one has ever felt my boobs except that one gross doctor, and I just want to go to a dance and dance like everybody else. For once.”
“Do you . . . Is this . . . Is he your boyfriend now? Has that been going on?”
I can feel her eyes on my face. A blush creeps up my neck. “No.”
I mean, not yet. Maybe. Someday. Like, after the dance, maybe. Isn’t that how things work? You kind of slide into something? All I know is from books and movies and watching other kids at Eugene Field and remembering how it was with Cake and the boy from Sierra Vista. I mean, what do I ever do without my mom anyway? Nothing. I go to school, sometimes I watch the skaters at The Pit, I come home, I read, I . . .
I sit in our small life. Watching everybody else. A bug in a jar.
In the distance, kids flood the parking lot and front lawn of Eugene Field High School. If I can just hang on until we get there, I’ll have seven hours Mom-free. My stomach makes an unseemly rumble from hunger. I feel faint and dejected.
Why does one stupid normal thing have to be so hard?
“It’s only a dance,” I whisper. Tears form behind my eyes. My nose prickles. I’m starting to buckle, just like I always buckle. I buckled when she acted like gymnastics was too expensive, even though it was just a few classes at the dinky community center on half-worn mats. I buckled when Cake wanted me to take dance with her, when I had a chance to join after-school chess, all of it. The only thing I ever had was skateboarding, and that was four years ago, and then she took it away.
“I’m going to the dance with Kai Henderson,” I say, my voice suddenly steely. “And you can’t really stop me. And it would be wrong if you did.”
My mom pulls into the lot, narrowly avoiding Mae-Lynn Carpenter, weighted down with her giant backpack. She glares at us before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mae-Lynn smile.
“Grace,” my mother says. “We should talk about this later. It’s a big thing. It’s not as small a thing as you think.” She puts her hand on my arm.
“No,” I say, and then it happens. Tears, springing from my eyes. “It’s exactly as small as I think. It’s streamers and spiked punch and cheesy music and a party after. Something kids have done since the beginning of time, but never me. Not until now.”
“Tiger, please,” she says, but I’m already out the door, hoisting my bag over my shoulder, keeping my head down so no one can see me cry.
As soon as I take my seat in zero period, the texting starts, my phone buzzing insistently inside my backpack, starting a little war with the chaos happening in my unfed stomach. Those Life Savers weren’t very lifesaving after all.
The noise alerts Lupe Hidalgo, much like the smell of tiny, frightened humans alerts sleeping giants in fairy tales.
Lupe Hidalgo sighs. Lupe Hidalgo stabs the point of her sharp, sharp pencil into the table. Lupe Hidalgo’s legs are jiggling, the soles of her boots pumping against the black-and-white-tiled floor of zero p.
She glances at me, coldly, and then down at my backpack.
There’s some quick eye-to-eye action between me and the three other kids at our homeroom table. Tina Carillo looks at me; I swipe my eyes to Rodrigo; Rodrigo stretches his hands behind his head and rolls his eyes to Kelsey Cameron, who doesn’t look at anyone, because she’s too busy looking at herself in her phone and angling her head for a selfie.
Lupe tap-tap-taps the pencil. She bends her head to the right. She bends her head to the left. Her sleek black ponytail bounces against her back.
This is the signal that she’s about to let loose on someone. The only time Lupe can focus is on the softball field. She’s a senior headed to the U of A next fall on a full scholarship. The ability to throw a ball so fast and hard it’s rumored her catcher, Mercy Quintero, ices her hands for hours after a game. The ability to nail a line drive into the soft stomach of an unsuspecting girl from Flagstaff.
Lupe Hidalgo is so good at softball it’s like she’s the only one on the team. I mean, I know I’ve seen other girls traipsing along the halls of Eugene Field with high ponytails and striped kneesocks on game day, their black-and-gray team shirts open and flowing, the fetching white fox mascot slinking along the game day T-shirt underneath, curling among the letters of Zorros, but for the love of God, I have no idea who they are.
Lupe Hidalgo is an eclipse. She slides over everything like a glamorous shadow, and even though you know it’s going to hurt, you look anyway.
And I accidentally do.
In an instant, my heart is in my shoes. My stupid, dirty white Vans that I’ve markered up with stars and moons and a little facsimile of a cradle cracked in half, in honor of our band.
Lupe slides her glistening eyes up and down my body. Instinctively, I fold my arms across my chest. You never know when somebody, usually a guy, but sometimes a girl, is going to make a crack about your breasts.
You have a beautiful body, Mom always says. Stop slumping.
It’s easy enough for her to say. Her boobs are like tiny over- turned teacups on her chest, delicate and refined.
I force my mother from my brain. Our fight in the car didn’t leave me feeling as triumphant or heroic as I’d have liked. Mostly, now, I feel sick, hungry, and kind of scared. I resolve to not think of her any more today.
On cue, my phone buzzes. It’s like my mother knows I’m trying to X-Acto knife her from my day.
I cannot believe I have sixteen million nerve-racking, day- killing things happening all at once.
Silently, I will Ms. Perez to stop bumbling around the front of the classroom and start already, but she remains obstinately unaware of the hell that is about to be unleashed on me and keeps shuffling papers around her desk.
Tina Carillo murmurs, “Here we go,” and shrugs at me. Lupe finishes giving me the once-over and growls, “Girl, what the fuck you wearing today?”
My body stiffens. The source and fact of my clothing has been an obsession of Lupe’s since she rubbed mashed potatoes into my Hello Kitty tee in the third grade at Thunder Park Elementary. “Stupid cat,” she’d said. “Dumb shirt.”
Next to me, Rodrigo snorts and pulls out his phone.
“I mean, for Christ’s sake, who do you think you are? Stevie fucking Nicks?”
Now, you might not be aware of the golden goddess of seventies music, the muse of a weird band called Fleetwood Mac, one of the strangest and most ethereal singers ever to float across a stage in six-inch heels, layers of velvet, and shimmers of lip gloss and fairy dust, but here in hot-as-hell Arizona, birthplace of our golden girl, we all know who Stevie is.
Lupe takes the hem of my unicorn-bedazzled T-shirt between her forefinger and thumb and leans close to my face. Her makeup is smooth and perfect, eyeliner spreading toward her temples like black wings.
“Girl,” she breathes. I hear the slight pop of gum far back in her mouth. “Just . . . no.”
Kids around us giggle. One girl, whose name I can never remember, but whose face always looks like she just sucked a lemon, snaps a photo of me.
Super, now I’ll be a laughingstock worldwide: #geek #weirdo #highschoolfreak #unicornloser.
My face burns, an instant heat that I know everyone can see. I’m awful at not blushing or being embarrassed, or not showing that I’m furious or frustrated. Mom calls this “a passion for life,” but then again, my mother is the reason I’m being mocked at 7:25 a.m. in Room 29 at Eugene Field High School in Mesa Luna, Arizona.
Every day I go to school dressed like a miracle ticket hopeful from a Grateful Dead concert, and if you don’t know who that is, look it up, and you’ll see lots of confused people in tie-dyes and velvety skirts with bells at the hem trying to see a band made up largely of stoned dudes in dirty T-shirts and holey jeans who look like they haven’t washed their hair since the sixties, when they started this nonsense in the first place. My wardrobe consists of old band tees, the aforementioned hippie skirts, men’s pants, old suit jackets, and sometimes a hand-knit scarf, for “flair,” my mom says.
I look away from Lupe and down at my clothes. I can’t even pick my own damn clothes.
My phone vibrates. Instinctively, I kick at my bag, like that’s going to make the buzzing, and my mother, stop.
Lupe looks at me and shakes her head. “Aw, your mama checking up on you again?”
She makes this sound like Mm-mn-mm-nooooo, and holds up her hand, flipping her wrist. Kelsey Cameron laughs. I glare at her, semi-betrayed. We aren’t friends—I just have Cake—but still! We share this table with the demon that is Lupe Hidalgo. That should count for something.
Sorry, Kelsey mouths.
Lupe sighs and gestures in my direction. “I can’t sit next to this. What if it rubs off on me? On this?” She glides her hands down her body, like she’s a game show hostess. Lupe Hidalgo is mean and beautiful and even though she’s wearing just a white T-shirt and black jeans and those boots, she’s a shimmering, dangerous goddess.
I just don’t understand how two girls can both be teenagers and yet one girl seems so adult, and knowing, and sexy, and the other, me, is like this piece of lumpy dough.
It’s like a memo went out and only some girls got it.
I raise my eyes. Mae-Lynn Carpenter is across from me at another table, bent low over her notebook, the end of a pencil jammed sloppily in her mouth. The back of her shirt rises above her pants, revealing a downy patch of skin. Beside her, two girls are snickering at the bright white underwear peeking over the elastic waistband of Mae-Lynn’s pants.
Girls like me and Mae-Lynn definitely did not get that memo.
I can feel tears brimming, because Lupe’s got everyone’s attention now, everyone except Ms. Perez, who’s now writing something on the board.
If Cake was here, she’d have something snarky to say, but she isn’t, and a thousand times a day, in situations like these, I think, What would Cake do? And I like to joke that I should get one of those bracelets, only it would say WWCD instead of WWJD, but Cake laughs that off. “You just need to yell more,” she says. “Mouth off. Live up to your name.”
Everyone loves Cake. Everyone admires Cake. She’s five feet ten inches of awesomeness, bravery, and black and purple hair coiled in perfect Princess Leia buns. She’s a bona fide rock star in the making and the sole reason I haven’t been completely relegated to Nowheresville on the Eugene Field High School Lad- der of Desolation.
I look at Mae-Lynn Carpenter again. She is the last stop on the High School Ladder of Desolation. They should probably just name it after her.
Mae-Lynn is wearing a pink sweatshirt with a kitten on it. A kitten with actual fur and an embossed pearl necklace. I swallow hard. At least I’m not that low. My unicorn might be bedazzled, but at least it isn’t furry.
I adjust my T-shirt so that it’s not riding up my belly as much. Lupe tsk-tsks.
My phone buzzes again. My stomach yelps. Lupe looks down at my bag, curious. “What is so important? I wonder. Did baby girl forget her lu—”
“Lupe Hidalgo and Tiger Tolliver, are you ready to learn today or do I need to send you both down to Principal Ortiz?”
Finally. Ms. Perez’s voice booms from the front of the class- room. In an instant, you can hear the shuffle of phones being slid under tables, makeup bags being zippered, the clearing of throats. Ms. Perez, once she gets going, does not fuck around, even with only one month left in the school year.
Lupe tosses her head, her ponytail swinging, and swivels to face the front of the classroom, so her back is to me. Her shoulder blades press against her T-shirt, straining like wings beneath the cloth.
Lupe Hidalgo is so beautiful it hurts to look at her, so I look away, at the clock high on the wall, and begin my countdown to Bio, and Kai Henderson.
KAI HENDERSON IS READING the Your World and You textbook like nobody’s business when I slide onto the rickety stool next to him in Biology. His “brow is knitted,” as they might say in one of the books we read last fall in Lit class. I learned a lot of cool words in that class, like provenance and skulduggery and
I’ve barely cracked the Bio textbook all year, though. I don’t fail my classes, or ditch, but I’m not a gold star kind of girl, either.
I have known Kai Henderson since we were eight years old, and everything was fine until that one day last November, in this very room, on the very same lopsided stool next to him, when he was pointing something out to me in that same stupid textbook, and somewhere in between epicardium and myocardium, he suddenly raised his head and our eyes met and It happened.
And when I say It, I mean IT. The thing you read about in books or see in movies. I always thought that it would involve something hokey like moonlight. Or fingers accidentally touching inside a popcorn bag in a crowded movie theater, buttery skin on buttery skin.
I did not think it would happen in a Biology lab room that still stank of the cows’ eyeballs we’d dissected a few days before. Cows’ eyeballs are surprisingly springy and full of fluid, which spurts everywhere. In case you didn’t know.
But it did. Something happened when I met his eyes. Suddenly they were no longer just brown; they were instead a gemlike and transfixing shade of beyond brown with dazzling tints of mesmerizing yellow. Suddenly the smear of acne across his jawline wasn’t something I was embarrassed for, for him, but something I found tender, and wanted to touch. I mean, I hadn’t not noticed that over the past year or so he’d kind of filled out, not a lot, just a bit, so that he wasn’t quite like a bendy straw anymore.
He said, “The heart’s really cool, isn’t it? Like this beautiful and weird engine,” and his breath had just a touch of mint toothpaste and he smiled this contented smile. Education is Kai’s happy place.
His warm breath fluttered across my cheek, and for God’s sake, I suddenly wanted to taste it. I mean, I had serious thoughts about those lips, and my whole world detonated in the space of three seconds.
And the thing is, the thing that makes me shivery, is that he started to feel the same way, too, because things got slightly different between us after that. Like, he got kind of quiet if Cake left the garage during our Broken Cradle band practice. He became very interested in adjusting his amp, like he even knew how to do that, because he doesn’t, he can barely remember the chords Cake is always tossing his way, and there I was, just sitting behind the drums, tapping the sticks against the skins and trying not to blush as Kai looked everywhere but at me.
And when he walks me home from The Pit, and it’s that time of night that has its own special kind of stillness, with just a couple of coyotes off somewhere howling? And when the skin of our hands kind of brushes every once in a while? I think I know he’s thinking what I’m thinking, but we are both, as Cake has taken to telling me, “chickenshit.”
Cake said, “Who better to have your first kiss with than one of your best friends, right? You know he’s aces, you know there’s nothing dark or creepy in Kai, the Movie, so why not kick back and enjoy?”
Cake even left us alone on her couch last week, saying she had to go water the plants for her mom, and there we were, suddenly afloat on the couch of panic. It was spectacularly hot and we were sweaty after sitting at The Pit earlier in the day, watching the skateboarders. We held cold glasses of grape Kool- Aid in our hands. It felt like hours as he leaned forward and carefully put his glass on the floor and then leaned back and said, “So . . .”
His breath smelled sugary from the Kool-Aid. That seemed right to me, that my first kiss might taste sweet and perfect. I could barely hear myself think, my heart was beating so loud.
And then Cake’s Uncle Connor stumbled into the room, kicking over Kai’s glass and collapsing next to him in a haze of weed, his socked foot resting in the oozing purple puddle of Kool-Aid.
He blinked at the television, and then at us, and said, “Scooby Doo is still fuckin’ on TV? That is crazy, dudes. It’s been like forty years.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Velma and the gang solve mysteries, along with Cake and her uncle, who never took his foot out of the Kool-Aid.
Now things are even more complicated, because Kai found out a few weeks ago that he’s leaving at the end of the summer for some year-long schlepp in Germany, where he’ll become a completely different person and probably fall for some completely cool and super-confident German girl with blunt-cut blond hair and red lips and bigger boobs than mine who will kiss him like it’s no big deal. Ja.
My face flames like a wildfire.
Kai looks up. “Hey, whoa, you’re red.”
And then, “Please don’t tell me Broken Cradle is practicing today. You guys are killing me. I don’t know how much more I can take.”
I suck in a deep breath, forcing my voice to sound normal and not all love me.
“I’m sorry. You have to stay. If we don’t have a guy in the band, people will assume we’re socialist feminist lesbians—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and we’ll lose a key demographic in our quest for world domination.”
“You don’t need me for world domination. You have Cake.”
“We need your sensitive backing vocals and awkward posturing. Your shoe-gazing and furrowed brow bring us the all-important cute-nerd-girl contingent.”
Kai fiddles with his pencil, not looking at me. “I don’t think the band has a problem with the cute-nerd-girl thing.”
“You guys.” The drone is Taran Parker, who has wheeled around on his stool, carrying a whiff of pot smoke.
There’s a weird triangular dusting of hair on Taran’s chin, like he’s deliberately trying to look like the spawn of Satan. I have pretty much hated Taran and his twin brother since the day they moved here three years ago from Phoenix. They stood in a lanky lump at the front of seventh-grade English as the teacher introduced them and Taran’s eyes immediately zeroed in on me and he blurted out, “Dang, those titties!” Causing the boys in the class to erupt in laughter and me to slink down as far as I could go in my seat. If the floor could have absorbed me, I’d have been eternally grateful. So grateful I probably would have even agreed to just rename myself Floor. Floor Tolliver.
It doesn’t have such a bad ring to it.
“You and you.” He points a chewed-up pencil at us. “Kai- Kai and Tiger-Girl. Get a room already. You’ll have a summer of sweet, sweet liebe before smarty-pants departs for Deutschland.” I grab his pencil and throw it at him, but it sails over his head and hits Laizure, our Bio teacher, smack in his blue-plaid chest as he comes in the door, loaded down with his giant 7-Eleven coffee, briefcase, and seventeen thousand pencils in his shirt
pocket. He gives Taran an annoyed look.
“Ding, ding, ding!” Laizure sings out, ambling to the front of the room. Ever since the school bell broke last fall, Laizure has delighted in doing the ding-ding-dinging to announce the start of first period himself. “You know what I like when we have a mere four weeks left of school and a dance to look forward to? I like pop quizzes. Let’s go, my little diploids! Let’s hop to it. Let me give you something wonderful to remember me by, all summer long.”
Kai whispers, “So, everything is cool about the dance and stuff? You said you were going to tell her.”
Our faces are so close. If I leaned in just a bit more . . . My stomach makes an unattractive gurgle.
I rear back, startling us both. My stomach is all over the place, a hot little ball of hunger and heat. “Yes, absolutely,” I whisper to Kai, trying not to invoke Laizure’s wrath. He already thinks I’m lazy about learning, which I’m not.
“I’m tepid,” I once told him.
“Nope,” he said, handing me back yet another test with a big red D. “You’re lazy, Tolliver. I can tell. I’ve been in this business a long time. You can’t fool me.”
“Absolutely,” I tell Kai again. I mean no, of course, because of the fight this morning, but he doesn’t need to know about that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. I’m going to this dance with Kai, whether my mother likes it or not.
I want this summer to be different, the beginning of new things for me, even if Kai is leaving in the fall for another country. He’s a chance, a tiny, bedazzled chance for me to be someone different. Step away from my mom. Even if it’s just at a dumb dance with crinkly streamers and lights hung sloppily from the rafters of a smelly old gym.
I concentrate on the quiz sheet in front of me, relieved to have the distraction.
“Hey,” Kai whispers, nudging me with his elbow. “Meet you at The Pit later? Hang out at Thunder?”
I know it’s dumb and cliché, but my heart soars when he says that. I nod. Yes, yes, yes.
I look back down at the quiz, filled with anatomical illustrations, all valves and arteries and tubes here and there and coils of things that seem vaguely disgusting, and I don’t even care that I’m going to fail.
I don’t understand the body and how it works, at all, but right now I know my heart is like a giant, colorful bird, flying right out of my chest and into the world.
Cake is waiting for me at our table in the cafeteria, nodding her head to the music on her earphones as she spreads her lunch out on the table.
The minute I sit down, she drags off her earphones and leans forward. “Did you tell her? She freak?”
I hold up my phone. Four missed calls and nine texts. Cake whistles. “Damn. That’s some serious momming.”
She pushes a sandwich toward me. Then a baggie of apple slices. Then a baggie of hard Cheetos, because she hates the soft ones.
Cake always brings extra food for me. We don’t even talk about it anymore.
Sometimes I’m so grateful for Cake I could burst. I bite into the sandwich. Cream cheese and strawberries. Not bad. Her mom is an A+ sandwich maker.
Cake says, “You’ve been crying.”
I swallow a hunk of sandwich. “We kind of fought in the car about the dance. And then I saw Lupe, so the morning wasn’t swell.”
“At least it’s done. Now you can move on. Now you can focus on other stuff. Right? Focus.” Cake is big on goals. She has schedules for band practice, personal practice, when to research music schools, when to do homework.
On the table, my phone buzzes. Cake and I look at it, and then at each other.
She says, “Throw her a bone and answer it.”
I feel a surge of defeat. “I was going to try to go the whole day.”
Meep—meep, says my phone.
Cake shakes her head. “No, baby steps. It’s been four hours since the fight. You have to answer it.”
I sigh. My mouth is practically watering for the food in front of me. It’s like my mom won’t even let me eat.
“You do it. You check and tell me what she’s saying.”
Cake frowns and peers at the phone. Her expression goes from resigned to curious to . . . horrified. Her mouth drops open.
“Oh my God, what is it?” I ask. “Is it that bad?” My stomach starts to squeeze.
Cake takes a deep breath. “Tiger. It’s . . . she . . .”
She flips the phone in my direction. “She bought you a dress.
For the dance.”
My mother bought me a dress.
I stare at the photo. At a dress draped over the back of our couch.
It’s a monstrosity. It’s a cross between Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie and Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. Ivory and lace, a high neck, and a sash.
A goddamn sash.
My mom’s text reads, It’s so beautiful! I couldn’t resist! Don’t hate me! Cake says, “If we splattered it, and you, with cherry food coloring and then dumped a bunch of crushed watermelon on you, you could be a cool nineteenth-century zombie in that dress for Halloween, but for just going to a school dance? This is a hard no.”
Two girls next to us lean over. “Oh my God, what is that?”
One says, “Gross. Are you actually going to let that touch your body? It’s like a thousand years old.”
“No!” I angle the phone away from them.
She didn’t even ask. We didn’t even talk about it. I don’t even understand how we went from fighting about a dance to her buying a dress for the dance.
The phone starts ringing. I feel so angry it’s kind of like I almost feel nothing, like I’m floating on a river of fire but I can’t feel it. My stomach hurts from hunger so much I’m dizzy.
I swipe the answer button.
My mom’s voice is very, very loud, and yet, to me, it sounds like she’s calling from very far away, that’s how angry I am. I’m embarrassed and alone on a little island.
The kids around us are watching me curiously, waiting. Breathlessly, my mom says, “Thank you for finally answering! Listen, I’m sorry, but it’s so beautiful, Tiger! It really spoke to me. You’ll look so lovely and authentic at the dance, not all glossed up and plastic-y. And if we put your hair up—”
“I can’t believe you did this to me.” My voice trembles with anger. I can’t help it.
Cake shakes her head at me, like, No, no, not now.
“What? Wait, what? Honey. I was just trying to—”
“You can’t let me do one thing by myself. I can’t do anything without . . . without you getting your fingers in it. Not even picking out my own stupid dress for a stupid dance.”
Silence. Then her voice again, still loud, but a little cracked. “Baby, listen, it was just my way of saying I’m sor—”
“Why can’t you ever just fucking leave me alone?”
It comes out too loud. Maybe even louder than too loud, because it hurts even my ears, and it hurts me somewhere deep inside, too. In fact, I think I screamed it.
My mother’s voice says softly, “Grace.”
I drop the phone from my trembling hands. The kids in the cafeteria have gone eerily silent and are staring at me.
Cake bites her lip. “Tiger. That was . . . not good.”
I scrape the phone into my backpack and stand up, hitting my hip against the table. I keep my eyes down. I don’t want to look at anyone. I just want to get out of here.
“Wait,” Cake says. “You’re not okay. I’ll come with.” She gathers our lunch baggies.
“I have to go,” I tell her. “I just have to get out of here. I’ll see you later.”
I rush out of the cafeteria with my head down, like I always do around here, hoping no one will notice weird June Tolliver’s weird daughter.
And then I find the bathroom and cry in a stall until fifth period starts.
My phone doesn’t ring again.
I work my library shift after school, part of my student contract, which is something they make certain kids at Field do if they don’t have the most stellar grades. I think it’s supposed to make you feel more invested in your education or something, having to work in the office answering phones, or in Shop, cleaning up wood shavings and making sure your fellow students don’t sever an arm on a saw.
I’d like nothing more than to rush through this and get to The Pit and see Kai, but I don’t, because I do like it here, sorting the collection, pushing the squeaky cart up and down the stacks. We have some books here that are so ancient they still have those little cards where the librarian hand-wrote the name of the person checking the book out and then ink-stamped the due date. The books even have slots to fit the cards, which I think is very cool. I like sliding the cards out and looking at the names and dates and thinking stuff like, Well, whoever Tammy Frimpong was, she really liked Island of the Blue Dolphins. She checked it out thirteen times in one year.
I’m not very smart at school, but I do like books, and reading, and maybe I get that from my mom, since she was a librarian before she had me. She was the special kind, though: an archivist, which is a person who figured out the history of things from old stuff found in boxes. She worked six floors underground at a university in Albuquerque, fitting spare pieces into stories. “You might see just a postcard, a photo, and a matchbook from a bar,” she told me once. “But if I put those things together and do some research, I could find a love affair between famous writers, or political intrigue.”
My mom was good at putting the stories of strangers together, even as she was refusing to tell me any details about hers. Like the identity of my dad: The Person Who Shall Not Be Named. The person I think about all the time.
Like when I fix my hair in the morning and she comes into the bathroom and stands behind me, resting her chin on top of my head and smooshing up her short blond hair in the mirror, and there I am, pulling a brush through my boring, straight hair, so different from hers. Or the freckles that careen across my face, while her face is an unmarked sea of perfection. Does my dad have a planetary system of freckles across his face, too? Is he where I get my dark hair, my broad shoulders?
I think Monty Python and old stand-up comedy from the seventies is funny, and my mother thinks both of those things are tiresome and misogynistic, and yeah, I agree, but also, still funny.
If The Person Who Shall Not Be Named was shown a clip of “Confuse-A-Cat” or had to sit through George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” monologue, would he laugh? Is a sense of humor a viable component of DNA? How about avocados and kiwis? One I like, the other I despise.
These are the things that often consume me as I stroll the stacks at the library.
That and kissing Kai Henderson, of course. Cake texts me. Are you okay?
Not really. Yes. No.
That sounds about right. I looked for you! I was in the stall.
Ah, the crying stall. Where tears are shed in silence and shame.
That’s the one. Tell me again about the kissing thing. Distract me. I think it might happen later.
YES. I mean, what do I have to lose now? True, says Cake’s phone.
Hold on. Let me take a break. Cake has band in the afternoons. I can hear them, way, way across the school, an eerie cacophony of stumbling horns and tubas, interspersed with the occasional tinkling of a triangle.
I text, We’re meeting at The Pit. Thunder after. That’s when it will happen.
Plush. That’s the same word she used a few weeks ago, as she leaned back into the velvety pillows on her futon, holding her pink stuffed unicorn against her shirt. She’d put a black spiked collar around the unicorn’s neck, Magic-Markered a heart on its fluffy white chest.
Cake’s eyes turned dreamy as she thought about it, and then became a little sad, because she was still getting over that guy Troy, from Sierra Vista. Troy was not, as Cake’s mom Rhonda liked to say, “a gem.”
I don’t know what to do with my hands, I type.
It’ll be okay, she answers. Just remember to breathe, and to relax, because kissing is a fun and essential part of your adolescent development.
It’ll be a whole new you after this. You’ll want to kiss everyone. Even Laizure! That’s gross and also illegal.
It’s plush. You just fit, somehow. It’s warm, and you feel like you’re falling, but in a good way. Your body kind of figures things out for you. Don’t worry.
Last year, my mother took me and Cake to the dollar theater in Tucson to see a movie about a girl and boy who both have cancer. They go to Amsterdam to see a famous writer, but they really go to Amsterdam to have sex. Afterward, my mother took us to Bookmans, which is this huge and great used-book store, and I bought three books for less than ten dollars, which is a lot for us, and one of them was the book they based the movie on. We went for carrot cake and coffee after, and my mother said, “Girls, you don’t have to go to a whole other country to have sex. Just do it on the couch when your parents go out for groceries, okay? And use protection.”
I blushed, and I think Cake might have, too, even though she’d already had sex, though I’m not sure my mother knew about that and I wasn’t going to tell her, because if I did, then she’d be all “Are you going to have sex?” And I’d never hear the end of it.
I read the book when we got home, all at once, in three hours. I cried. Even though they were both hurt, and sick, in the same, and different, ways, the boy and the girl seemed nice and tender to each other, and I liked that.
To this day, when Cake and I see a cute guy, one of us will joke, “I’d go to Amsterdam with him.”
Okay, I type. I am definitely not ready for Amsterdam with
Kai, but plush might be a nice place to start.
Okay. I have to go back. We’re butchering “Rolling in the Deep” right now.
Can you tell?
I smile. A little. It sounds cool, though. Text me right after you get home!
I slide some books onto the shelf, my heart beating as deeply as the timpani across the school as they barrel through Adele’s song.
My mom is not going to be happy about the mean thing I said, or that I’m ignoring her texts, or that I’m planning to come home late, without even checking in, but I need some space to breathe. And to kiss. I hope.
THE LATE AFTERNOON IS my favorite time in Mesa Luna. It’s when the sky starts ever so gently changing its colors, shifting into the prettiest thing I think I’ll ever see in the world. Here, the world around me is messily alive. You haven’t seen a sky until you’ve seen our moon hanging at night. It’s how we got our name, in fact. A couple of miles out of town proper, there’s a flat mesa, and if you’re driving, or just out and about walking, on the right night, it looks like the moon is resting on the edge of the mesa, like a white plate on its rim on a table. Our big, white, beautiful moon hangs so low in the sky it’s like you
could reach out and touch it.
It’s not nighttime yet, though. The day is still bright and hot and dusty enough when I get to The Pit, which is what we call Grunyon’s emptied pool and the three home-built half-pipes on the land behind his house. His parents, Louise and Mary, run a coffee shop/diner/bookstore in a series of interconnected Airstreams on the property, which is probably highly illegal, but no one cares, because coffee.
There’s an old eight-room motel there, too, that I think Louise and Mary are hoping to fix up someday, though I’m not sure who would want to stay in Mesa Luna. Tucson is better and not too far, and Sierra Vista has the Golden Corral buffet. We’ve got the moon, though, and The Pit, where I like to hang out and watch the skaters.
Grunyon and Boots and Chunk aren’t at Eugene Field anymore. Boots and Chunk didn’t graduate, but Grunyon did. They’re trying to start a moving company called We Haul All. In the meantime, they skate and get high.
I bury my phone in my backpack. I did take a peek while I
walked here: two missed calls, two texts, but I’m determined not to respond for a good couple of hours.
Grunyon pops up over the lip of the pool, blond curls springing from beneath his helmet. “Is today the day, Tiger T? You coming in? Or are you gonna spend another day buried in a book?”
Perched on a rock, I watch skaters rise and fall behind him, a smooth and beautiful wave of bodies. Even the sound of wheels on old pool plaster is cool: a little scrapey, a little promising. Grunyon sinks back down, disappears, pops back up.
“Well?” he says, grinning.
“Not today,” I say with a shrug, like I always do.
Grunyon sighs. He’s teetering on the lip of The Pit, bucking his board a little to stay up and not slip back down. “It’s been years, T. That old arm is for sure healed by now.”
Four years ago, my mother had a boyfriend named Andy. Andy was skinny and funny and I thought things I never should have thought, like whole family and dad. He bought me a skateboard and brought me here and my mom was weirdly okay with it for a while. It’s like maybe she was playing whole family and dad, too.
I don’t really like thinking about Andy, and what happened, and how he left.
I’ve never forgotten how free I felt, those moments I was lost in the air, before my board smacked down on plaster again. Before the very last time, when I landed and my arm shattered.
Lightly, I tell Grunyon, “Books are good. I can live life safely and without peril in a fictional universe.”
“I think your boyfriend’s here.” Grunyon tips his head. “I’ll get you back in this pool someday, Tiger Tolliver.”
My heart does a little jump as Kai sits down next to me. “Hey,” he says, shading his eyes from the sun. “I’ve got bizcochitos. You wanna walk to Thunder and hang out?”
I think I might see the tiniest hint of a blush creeping up his neck.
I think I might feel the tiniest hint of a blush creeping up mine.
I push my book in my backpack. “I’ll go anywhere for cookies. You know me.”
KISSING KAI HENDERSON IS exactly like Cake said it would be.
Kai Henderson and I have been kissing for at least one billion hours under the white and perfect stars of Mesa Luna, leaning against the tentacled beast of a playground structure we all call the Command Center. It sits right smack in the middle of Thunder Park Elementary and has tube slides shooting out in eight different directions and a kind of high gazebo in the middle that you can hide in. Cake and I used to like to huddle up there together and tell each other stories while the other kids ran around at recess.
It took a little bit, and he was more awkward and shy than I would have liked, but I finally just kind of did it myself, because I remembered some girls in the bathroom at Field this one time, huddled up against the sinks winging their eyes with liner, asking each other why girls always wait for guys to kiss them first, to make the first move. And one girl, I think her name was Bettina, gave a sharp laugh and said, “’Cuz if a girl moves first, she’s a horny sluuuuuuuut,” and the way she dragged it out made the other girls laugh. One girl sighed, “Yeah, but if the dude goes first, he’s all that, right?”
Maybe there was a dance that night, or a party somewhere, because another girl said, “Fuck that. Ima go get it myself tonight, am I right?” And they all fived down low, by their butts, and bumped hips. They weren’t that much older than me, but they seemed so much more comfortable in their bodies.
I thought of those girls as Kai kind of weaved back and forth in front of me, his hands shoved way down in his jean pockets, and I got a little mad at him, and myself, for always waiting for other people to start doing the thing I want to be doing, like I have to ask permission, so I took matters into my own hands.
I did blurt out, “Can I kiss you?” to be on the safe side, and when I saw his face slide into relief, and start to lean down to mine, well, welcome to Plush Life.
I went out and got it myself.
His lips tasted like sugar from the cookies, which seemed perfect, and the way a first kiss, and all the kisses after, should taste. I’ve figured out where to put my hands, how to press against him slightly, how to breathe, all of it.
I never want to open my eyes again or come up for air. I want to spend the whole summer kissing him. Here, at Thunder Park Elementary.
There are things happening inside me that I don’t even have words for, and I usually have words for everything, even if I don’t say them out loud.
A shiver suddenly breaks us apart. A sharp chill rushes through me, when just a second ago, I was warmer than I’d ever been. My teeth start chattering.
Kai breathes heavily, his eyes unfocused. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “You okay?”
“Fine, I guess. Cold. Weird.” I wrap my arms around myself, but it feels odd, not so much cold, after all, as . . . well, weird.
The next shiver runs through me so hard it knocks the breath out of me.
I gasp. “Whoa,” Kai says. He steadies my shoulders, his eyes crinkling in concern. “What was that?”
I try to catch my breath. “I don’t know,” I say, wheezing. “Maybe I should go home.”
Maybe it is time to go home and make up with my mother.
It’s been all day and most of the night, after all. I mean, I’m not wearing that dress, ever, but still.
I lean down and paw through my backpack for my phone. Four missed calls from my mom, the last one just as we were starting to walk here from The Pit. Two calls from Cake, which is weird, since she usually texts. She didn’t leave messages, which, also weird.
I listen as my mom’s phone rings and rings. Finally, her voice mail picks up. “June here! Tell me something good, or don’t say anything at all.”
“Hi, Mom.” I take a breath. “I’m sorry. I am. I’ll be home soon, and you can yell at me all you want, okay?” I slip my phone into my backpack. Done. I’ve had my freedom. We can go back to our beeping, whirring machine now.
Kai’s phone buzzes. It’s been sounding on and off since we got here, but he’s been ignoring it. He takes off the flannel shirt he’s wearing over a T-shirt and wraps it around me. “Here. Just in case.”
He kisses me gently, then pulls the phone from his back pocket.
I turn away, touching my lips with my fingers. I can still feel the heat of his lips on mine. I feel like people do in old books, you know, like when the writer says, “She was stirred by his actions,” or some such thing.
I feel stirred by Kai Henderson. Plush and Stirred. That sounds like the name of a Victoria’s Secret panty line or something. I make a note to mention that to Cake; she’ll think it’s funny.
I blow into my hands. It shouldn’t be this cold in Mesa Luna in May. Maybe I’m getting sick. Maybe that means Kai will get sick, too, and we can lie around together, huddled under blankets, reading magazines, snuffling together, only I don’t know where we’d do that, since my mom is so difficult—
Behind me, Kai makes a weird sound, like someone’s punched him in the gut.
His face isn’t like it usually is, open and goofy and smiling, all Kai-like, glasses slipping down his nose, hair in his eyes.
His face looks like he’s seen a ghost, or been told a terrible secret.
He says my name, and then he says three awful, horrible words that cut through me, make me cry out.
I beat his chest as hard as I can, until my fists start to ache, but I can’t stop making him say those words.
I don’t understand how he can say such cruel words to me, after what we were just doing, after all the plush-ness of us.
Out in the desert, the coyotes start up, one by one, howling and wailing, lonely in the dark, and they do not stop. They don’t stop.
They never stop.
CJtheReaderJun 6, 2019
Fault in Our Stars reference, anyone?