“Sorry, John Green fans, but McDaniel’s been making us cry . . . for decades,” says Bustle.com. Now, in her latest novel, as three high school seniors are in the midst of planning their futures, they must face present-day circumstances that force them to grasp what it means to truly become an adult.
Lani Kennedy has dreamed of becoming a nurse since her cousin Arie died of leukemia. Nothing will stop her from getting into the local nursing program.
Dawson Berke hasn’t dealt with his mom’s death, and he’s angry at his dad for forcing them to move right before his senior year.
Sloan Quentin knows that her band is her ticket to fame and fortune. When she discovers that her boyfriend—the band’s lead guitarist—is cheating on her, she finds comfort—and revenge—in someone else’s arms.
As the lives of Lani, Dawson, and Sloan become entangled in unexpected ways, reality hits harder than anyone could have imagined, and life-altering decisions are faced.
“For fans of romance tinged with tragedy . . . this latest offering will resonate.” —SLJ
When Alana Kennedy was thirteen, her beautiful cousin, Arie Winslow, tragically died from the leukemia that had stalked her most of her life. Arie was twenty-one, too young to die, but there was nothing her doctors could do to save her. Relatives rallied around Arie, promising to be at her side every minute of her last days to bring whatever comfort they could. Alana--Lani to all--and her mother, Jane, a teacher at Windemere Elementary, were on the schedule twice a week. Lani’s sister, Melody, was away at Vanderbilt Law School but kept in constant touch and came home to visit whenever time permitted.
At first Lani balked, not wanting to become part of a vigil on what she called Arie’s “death watch.” What thirteen-year-old kid would?
“It’s what we can do to help,” Jane told her. “It’s a way to express our love. Please just trust me, honey. You’ll be sorry if you check out of coming with me.”
So no matter how much it hurt to watch Arie waste away, Lani went. Through the last weeks of her cousin’s life, Lani read to her, combed tangles out of her hair, soothed her dry, cracked lips with ice chips and moisturizing salves, and spoon-fed her bites of ice cream that numbed painful mouth sores. Lani was at Arie’s bedside on the spring night when Arie’s beautiful spirit drifted away, with her loved ones touching and whispering goodbyes.
But knowing the inevitable and witnessing it were two un-related things for Lani, and she had been inconsolable. She fell into such a depression that her parents grew worried, and when the school year ended, her dad bought her a horse, something she’d wanted since she was a little kid. The palomino, named Oro del Sol, was stabled at Bellmeade, Ciana Beauchamp Mercer’s farm outside town. Lani rode Oro, groomed him, hugged his golden neck, and wept for the loss of one as lovely as Arie. The horse never seemed to mind her tears, standing patiently until her crying spell was over. And slowly, over those summer days between eighth and ninth grade, Lani felt her heart healing and her sense of loss lessening. And through the experience of helping and losing Arie, Lani found something she had never expected.
She found purpose. She decided that she would become a nurse. Jane had hugged Lani, saying, “Something good often comes out of something bad.” Her parents, always supportive, oozed with enthusiasm, just as they had when, at four, Lani had told them she wanted to become a mermaid. Lani thought that discovering she wanted to become a nurse was a poor trade-off for Arie’s dying, but she kept it to herself.
She began her senior year three years later in a steamy August heat wave with a mix of new and former students, many displaced from area schools trashed during a tornado. And although the storm had leveled sections of the town and surrounding farmland, Windemere’s old brick school building had escaped the vicious winds unscathed. Go figure.
That August another kind of heat hit Lani smack in her heart, when Dawson Berke transferred in as a senior. He was tall and lean, with a shock of straight dark hair spilling across his forehead and eyes the color of rich dark chocolate. She later learned he’d moved with his father, a physician, from Baltimore, a city far from the lazy, hazy rural world of middle Tennessee. His height made him easy to see in the halls, and his body language made him easy to read. He wore anger like a suit of armor. It was obvious to Lani he didn’t want to be there. She’d worn the same defensive armor after Arie’s death when nosy friends asked impossibly dumb questions with no answers.
“How are you?” (I’m terrible! How do you expect me to be?) and “Don’t you miss Arie? Her funeral was too sad. I cried for days!” (Hey, it’s not about YOU!) and “Let’s build a memorial for her at school.” (No! Why would I want to look at a memorial of dead flowers and stuffed animals? My cousin’s gone forever!)
Lani felt sorry for Dawson, recognizing he’d been ripped from one world and dropped into this one, a world far different from the one he’d left. She’d grown up in Windemere, never traveling farther west than Nashville, nor farther south than Birmingham, and she knew she wouldn’t have been happy if it had happened to her.
Lani’s gaze somehow found him in the crowded halls like a compass needle locating north. Each time, she quickly turned away, hoping he never caught her staring at him like a doe-eyed calf. Lani might have been a good student, a hard worker full of school spirit and friendly to all, but she wasn’t one of the school’s elite. She would never register on Dawson Berke’s radar. The pretty, popular girls would flirt and charm their way through his armor and change his attitude. Lani felt certain that their worlds, hers and Dawson’s, would never collide.
She was wrong.
Sloan Quentin was destined for greatness. At least, that was what she grew up telling herself. The fact that she was only now seventeen and trapped by circumstance in Windemere, Tennessee, living in a run-down trailer park with a single mother who drank and often “entertained” men, was beyond her control. Her circumstances might be cliché, but she was poised to shed present reality like a snake shed its skin because she held an ace--she was the lead singer in Jarred Tester’s Southern rock garage band, and when they performed and she sang . . . well . . . everyone listened.
She started her senior year in the dog days of August, when the parched farm fields were being held hostage by lack of rain and the heat was so suffocating she could hardly breathe. She walked from the trailer park’s roadside entrance, where the school bus had dropped her, to the trailer where she lived. As she went inside, she expected coolness from the AC unit. Instead, waves of warm, stale stagnant air swamped her. She hit the light switch. Nothing. She blinked in the gloom and realized that the electricity had been turned off. Again.
“Ma!” she shouted. No answer. Sloan swore. How hard is it to keep the electric bill paid? But Sloan already knew the answer. Her mother, LaDonna, was “between male friends,” and her government subsidy check wouldn’t come for another week. LaDonna kept a part-time job in the hair and nail salon, but her earnings and tips went mostly for incidentals, like vodka.
Sloan dug in her backpack for her cell phone and punched in LaDonna’s number, knowing that their cells would work because LaDonna always kept the cell service paid. What if a new man tried to reach her? When LaDonna picked up, Sloan blurted, “We don’t have any electricity.”
“I’m working to fix that.”
“It’s hot as hell in here!”
“Electric company’s giving me a hard time. They want last month’s bill paid too. I don’t have that kind of money!”
“What about me, your child? I’m sweating to death.”
“Go outside. Go see a friend.”
“How? You have the car!”
“Get off my back! I’m busy.”
Sloan bit back a flood of angry words. Swearing at her mother would get her nowhere. Never had. “Don’t you get it? I’m hot and stranded.” She kept her comeback brief, her tone brittle.
“Customer. Gotta go.” LaDonna hung up.
Sloan squeezed her phone hard and screamed in frustration, but with no one to hear her but the trailer walls and a sink full of dirty dishes, what good did it do? Once she turned eighteen in June, she would leave for good with Jarred and the band like they planned. She just had to hang on until then.
Jarred Tester had started the band in the eighth grade with three friends--Bobby Henley playing bass guitar, Hal Wehrenberg on drums, Calder Wells playing keyboard, and Jarred on lead guitar. Jarred wrote music and did some singing, but it wasn’t until he added Sloan, with her take-no-prisoners voice that could hammer a rock song like an air gun or bend a ballad into soft summer smoke, that the band started getting noticed. They played everything from area parties to the county fair, and depending on their audience, Anarchy could shift from classic rock to edgy metal because of Sloan’s voice. She also played acoustic guitar, but her voice was her true instrument. And she saw the band as her ticket out.
She called Jarred. “Can you come get me?”
“Now? I’m in the zone, baby, writing new stuff.”
“Ma didn’t pay the electric bill. I’m dying out here. What if I go hoarse?” He was silent while she stewed. Whenever Jarred wanted togetherness--sex--nothing stood in the way. Their almost-three-year hookup was volatile, a roller-coaster ride of hormones and musical chemistry. She had fallen hard for Jarred, never wanting to be like her mother, who lurched from one pathetic loser to another. LaDonna was an embarrassment. Sloan and Jarred were a team. A couple. And the band was her future.
“I got a new song I want to fly past you.” Although it wasn’t exactly true, she knew it would get his attention. “Come on! Just get me out of here.”
He remained silent, obviously thinking it over. “I guess we could go over some things before our Labor Day show.”
It wasn’t exactly their show. The town’s picnic, horse show, and softball tourney at the fairgrounds was an annual event. Sloan had no horse and hated softball, but once the sun set, bands and singing groups would take to a platform stage. Most were local, from area churches, “band wannabes,” according to Jarred, but some came from Murfreesboro and Nashville because the picnic brought in big crowds.
“Give me twenty and be waiting out by the road,” he said, sounding put out.
She wanted to scream at him but again held back. If she pissed him off, he wouldn’t come at all. She hung up feeling like excess baggage, dismissed by her mother, dragged curbside by her boyfriend. Sloan picked up her guitar case, swearing to herself that once she was rich and famous, no one would ever tell her what she could and couldn’t do!
Dawson Berke was pissed, gut-level angry over the turn his life had taken. This wasn’t how his senior year was supposed to be. His father had no right, no right, to drag him halfway across the country to this backwater town, taking him from his friends, his girlfriend, his school, his lifelong home in Baltimore.
Sweat poured off his skin as he ran along the gravel shoulder of the rural Tennessee road. He’d already run five miles, and he wasn’t the least bit winded, a by-product, he figured, of pent-up fury.
Months before, Dawson had come home from school to the sight of his dad, Franklin, sitting at the kitchen bar. His dad never came home in the middle of the day. Alarmed, Dawson dropped his book bag. “What’s up? What’s going on?”
Franklin had looked into Dawson’s eyes and without preamble said, “I quit the practice today. Told the partners I’ve taken a new job. Today was my last day.”
“What? Are you kidding? Why?”
Dr. Franklin Berke was a partner in one of the busiest pediatric medical offices in the area. Dawson had never known his father when he wasn’t helping and healing kids. Over the years, such emergency calls frequently trashed the Berke family’s own plans. Perils of being a doctor, one Dawson often resented while growing up. Yet now his dad had called it quits! Turned out he’d only quit in Maryland.
“A former colleague, a doctor, contacted me a few months ago. He’s at a small hospital in Tennessee and it’s rebuilding. He needs someone to head up their pediatrics department. He thought of me. Maybe you remember that tornado hitting middle Tennessee last year? Blasted the town of Windemere, lots of devastation.”
Dawson stood dumbstruck and unable to move under the weight of his father’s words. And their implication.
Franklin waved his hand. “No matter. I put our house with a realtor yesterday. I told my friend we’d be there as soon as school’s out.”
Every word felt like rocks hitting Dawson. Hadn’t their lives been enough of a nightmare during the last few years? When he’d been in seventh grade, ovarian cancer had finally claimed his mother, sucking her away after five years of suffering and fruitless treatment. Her funeral on a summer day was scarred across Dawson’s memory, but he and his dad had picked up the pieces and carried on. Now he was facing another looming nightmare.
“We? What are you saying? We can’t leave! I’ll be a senior in the fall.”
“I’m sorry, but we have to go, son. I’ve promised. The opening won’t wait.”
“B-but-- My senior year. And what about the track team? They’re counting on me!”
“Can’t be helped. I’m sorry. Please understand. You’ll start at Windemere High in August. It’s a decent school. You can go online--”
“I won’t go! I’ll be out of here next year. You can move then.”
“I. Can’t. Ever since Kathy--”
Dawson watched his father’s expression twist with anguish and tears fill his eyes. Was his father going to cry? Dawson had never seen the man cry, not even at the funeral. Thirteen-year-old Dawson had cried like a baby, but not his dad. Franklin Berke was a fortress, a walled city. Seeing tears in his dad’s eyes made arguments die. A wad of emotion logjammed his throat.
His dad gathered himself and said, “I see her in every corner of this house, in every piece of furniture we picked out together, in every shadow. I can’t even sleep in our bed.”
Dawson thought back to all the mornings he’d come downstairs and found his father on the sofa in the den. In the month before his mother’s death, his dad had slept on a cot in their bedroom beside their bed so she’d be more comfortable and he’d be near if she needed him. Since his mother’s death . . . Too many nights, too many mornings of seeing him on the den’s worn sofa, he now realized. “Y-you never said . . . I never thought . . .”
“I should have told you, been more honest.” Franklin cleared his throat. “But you were hurting too. I thought I needed to be strong for you. Well, I can’t be strong anymore. I’m falling apart. I can’t concentrate on my patients. I need a fresh start. We have to leave.”
Dawson panicked. “Wait! I can rent a room from one of my friends. Tad has a ton of space in his house! His sister’s in college. You can move and I’ll come for Christmas. I know his parents will--”
“No,” his dad said quietly. “I need you with me, Daw. You’re all that’s left of her. All that’s left of her and me--of us.”