PROLOGUE
Amelia

Summer 2016

What would an aspiring writer wear? I never know. I’m kind of always tempted to go with a black pants suit, designer heels, and a sharp black handbag, but that’s too boring. I’m not a regular writer. I write children’s stories. Not books—films.

Bits of dialogue I write end up getting delivered by animated frogs and, on occasion, dancing rainbows. At the summer internship after my freshman year of college, I worked for Nickelodeon. I was sitting at the writers’ table on a show that hadn’t launched yet, helping make the pilot. Late one night, one of the animators needed someone to wear a long, stick-on tail and pretend to fall into a toilet—so he could train the camera on the person and then use it as a model for his animated monkey.

Yep, you guessed it. I was volunteered. I had to put on a giant rain boot and stick my foot into a toilet for about two hours, between the hours of two and four a.m.

I thought about that experience today—two years later—as I picked out the outfit for the first day of my summer internship at Imagine Luxe. I ended up going with a funky, sky blue, designer skirt suit, peep-toe heels, and a headband with a unicorn horn.

As I extend my hand to shake with a pretty, slightly older blonde girl, I wonder if the horn was too much.

“Hi Amelia, I’m Carrie.” She nods slightly, showing me the pointed ends of her pixie cut.

“Hi.” I give her my best I’m-not-insane smile, and she returns it.

“Great to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.” I get dumb and super unfunny when I’m nervous.

“I’m one of the writers—er, story artists—” she says, doing air quotes— “on your team this summer. Our team lead asked me to come meet you and give you a quick tour.”

“Thanks.” I can’t help tilting my head back again, casting a look around the vast, round lobby. The Imagine headquarters, near Broadway in downtown Nashville, is a giant, gold dome that looks like something right out of a children’s film. The ceiling is peppered with windows, streaming light into the lobby. Which is a good thing, because in the middle of the lobby, there’s a tiny grove of willow trees.

“As you can see, we have a geodesic building,” Carrie says. “The elevators are back this way,” she says, sticking her thumb back over her shoulder, so it points toward a set of elevator shafts. “There are a couple of financial offices on this floor, supplies on floor two, marketing on three, screening on four, and pre- and post-production on floors five and six, with executive suites on seven and eight.”

I blink. There is no way I’m going to remember that, so I just nod.

“Oh wait, I forgot, there’s a cafeteria behind the elevators. Do you see it?” She takes a few steps to her left, so we can see around the elevators. I spot a couple of awnings set up like a mall food court, with metallic-looking picnic tables scattered in the middle.

“They’re open at all times, and there are two little rooms off every studio with cots and everything. It’s weird, the way we work here. It’s really immersive. You’ll see.”

She waves me toward the elevators, and we walk under an array of sparkling, colored metal butterflies, strung from the ceiling.

“The layout here is kind of weird,” she tells me as we step onto the elevator. “Every floor is one big circle, as you can see. We’ll be getting off on five, where a lot of the studios are. There’s a vending area up there, plus two exercise areas, plus a butterfly exhibit. It’s for the animators working on Herald, the one that’s coming out in August—about the butterfly. It’s beautiful.”

I make a face. “Butterflies are kind of awful. Have you seen those things up close?”

She smiles, but I swear, I think her eyes bug out. “I’ll have to look.”

Perfect. So I’m going to be the weird one. Why am I not shocked?

“Anyway,” she continues, brushing a palm over her short, spiky hair, “I think you’ll like the team they’ve thrown together. Pairing summer writing interns with permanent staffer animators, and intern animators with staff writers, is something Imagine has been doing for a while now—way before the Disney merger last year. Our team’s lead animator is from Disney, actually. He’s here from Burbank, just for this. They take the interns seriously because, obviously, in just another…”

“Year,” I offer.

“In just another year, you could be working here fulltime. I’ve gotta be honest with you, too, I think our top dog, Sara Blaise, kind of likes to make the permanent staff submit to the whims of an intern. Keeps us humble.”

“So how does it work?” I ask as we step off on floor five. I blink at the brilliant purple carpet, which forms a ring around the elevators and spreads across a bridge that leads to the circular hallway Carrie mentioned.

“You’re technically the lead writer—story artist—yes, and hot guy from Disney is our lead animator.” She snaps her fingers. “I’ll remember his name. He is hot as hell. All muscle-y and tan, and I just love a guy with glasses.”

“Ooooh.”

“Oh yeah.” I follow her toward the circular hallway, which is done in various textures of sharp white, so that the floors and walls gleam in the sunlight coming from the windows at the top of the dome. “So yeah, we work as a unit. Four writers, three animators, one or two assistants… I forgot the rest. We’re a small unit, since we’re only producing a single reel of film. Eleven minutes, if you didn’t know.”

“I worked at Dreamworks last summer.”

“Fancy pants.” She smiles, and I decide she’s trying to be nice rather than condescending.

“Oh, totally. I spent two hours once with my foot in a toilet bowl, serving as a computer model for a monkey.”

Her hand goes up to her mouth. “In that movie The Jungle Train?” She laughs.

“Actually, yeah. I was the model for Alicia, the little sister monkey.”

“Sweet.”

I laugh, too. “Right? It’s very glamorous, this line of work.”

“Oh yes. Especially when we have to be here at all hours, eat downstairs and sleep on the cots. You might say,” she quips, “it’s a barrel of monkeys.”

Okay, so this girl is just plain cheesy. I can roll with that. God knows, some of my lame jokes are no better.

I follow Carrie around the circular hallway of floor five, trying to pay attention as she points out the exercise rooms, a tiny hall of vending machines, a room for pets to poop in, and a row of super tiny thinking rooms, “Where you go if everyone else on our team is driving you nuts, and you need to think in silence,” she explains.

I’m more intrigued by the pet poop rooms.

“You can bring a pet to work, yeah. But only if you’re working in one of the bigger production rooms. We’re in a tiny room.”

“Oh, pooh.”

“What kind of pet do you have?” she asks.

“I don’t actually have one.”

She gives me a weird look, and I can’t help laughing. “It’s the possibility,” I tell her.

“Yeah, yeah. No, I get it.” She lowers her voice. “Just wait until you see our lead animator. Possibility,” she whispers, winking.

“Mmm, I could use some good eye candy. Having a bit of a dry spell,” I confess, also in a whisper.

She grins. “Good, because here we are.” She nods to her right, where there’s a sleek, white door and a thin, vertical window done in pebbled glass—for privacy, I guess.

She gives two swift knocks, then pushes the door open, holding it so I can get a look inside. The room is rectangular, with light boards—lit-up desks—lining three walls and a giant screen stretched across a fourth. In the middle of the room, there is a giant, circular work station, kind of like a cubicle city. Wide, sometimes multi-stacked computer monitors rise up over the little semi-walls that divide work spaces. My eyes fly around the studio, taking in several new faces: three girls and two guys. I step inside and hold a hand up in greeting.

Then, from behind the circle of desks, an office chair turns slowly to face us.

And Dash is in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE
Amelia

March 2001

 

 

I moved to the woods of Chatham Hills when I was six.

During my preschool years, my daddy’s sculptures took the world by storm. Art museums courted him and fought for showing rights. The New York Times Magazine featured him on their cover, his red hair wild around his handsome face, his hands covered in clay. Even Saturday Night Live celebrated Oliver Frank, showcasing a parody sculpture of Bill Clinton on their Weekend Update segment.

Between the time I was born and the time I started kindergarten, my dad became a household name, rocketed to stardom by a stint as the host of a popular art-themed travel show on PBS; by his marriage to my mother, an award-winning author; and by his own pedigree as the son of a famous poet and a beloved landscape photographer.

By the time I started first grade, he had so many private commissions, he rarely slept. The night of Mama’s wreck, he’d fallen asleep at 3 a.m. in his studio at Little Five Points; I was sleeping in our Uptown penthouse, under the watchful eye of my nanny, Miss Arlen.

Three days after Mama’s funeral, my dad had Miss Arlen dress me, pull my hair into a bow, and walk me to the lobby of our building, where Daddy met us, wrapping one hand around my tiny, chubby one and the other around the handle of a suitcase I hadn’t noticed before.

After a stop at my favorite ice cream parlor, a superhero-themed joint I associated more with Daddy than Mama, we drove out of central Atlanta, winding our way through suburbs while my dad listened to the Rolling Stones and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.

Ice cream dripped onto my dress as I polished off my cone, but unlike my fastidious Mama, Daddy didn’t even blink. We exited in Sandy Springs, a colorful residential area where my father drove into a ballpark, idled his new Porsche Boxster under some oak trees, and pointed to a cement dais between some batting cages and a baseball field.

“This is going to be the site of a fountain someday soon, Amelia. One I’m making. How would you like it if the little girl at the center of the water looks like you?”

I clutched my Dora the Explorer cup and nodded slowly. “Yes,” I whispered.

“Good girl.”

Daddy made a circle around the parking lot and drove off again, still drumming the steering wheel as we passed golf courses, gated neighborhoods, strip malls, and a little shopping district. I could tell from awnings and signs that these were our sort of shops, the kind of boutiques where you could buy a floppy, polka-dotted shade hat or a rocking wooden frog instead of the regular horse.

This, I thought with a knot in my throat, was the sort of area my Mama would have loved. I rubbed my fingertips over the sequins on my sundress, wondering what she might have bought me had she taken me here. Probably a new purse, I decided. My eyes swam with unshed tears as I remembered the white, leather clutch she’d bought me just a few weeks ago, to match her own white Prada clutch.

“One for you, and one for me.”

I could almost hear her saying that. Tears dripped down my cheeks, and I looked out my window so that Daddy wouldn’t see.

He’d told me she wasn’t coming back, but I didn’t believe it. If Santa and Rudolph could fly around the world in one night and Jesus could come back from being pinned up on a cross, I felt sure my mom—a woman who once grew a lemon tree inside our sunroom, who sewed my injured baby dolls up faster than I could finish a TV show, who regularly pulled a penny out of her elbow or my nose—could come back from being dead.

I would find a way to get her back.

Maybe I would have to keep it secret. I would find some kind of magic, even a witch spell, like how the Little Mermaid makes that deal with Ursula, and I would go to the little marble drawer where Mama was sleeping at the cemetery. I would find the key to it, and I would bring her out and make her move around and talk to me again.

Love was the most powerful thing in the universe. She had told me that. I knew she loved me, and I loved her desperately. Love could bring my Mama back.

I needed to remember to check out magic books at my school’s library. Until then, I’d have to “hang tough” like my Aunt Helen told me the day of the funeral.

I clenched my hands in my lap, pretending one of them was my Mama’s hand, and I looked out the window again as Daddy drove us out of town, into the lush, green hills, past stables where people kept their horses, fields where cattle grazed, into the woods: thick, Southern pine forest graced by smatterings of mossy oaks and sometimes cut through by pecan orchards.

Out here, they made the houses extra big and framed them in with picket fences. Mom had told me once that all of the South was trying to be “country chic,” like in Gone With the Wind. When I asked her what Gone With the Wind was, she told me I would have to wait till I grew up to read it.

I wondered what “country chic” meant as Daddy slowed on the highway, then turned slowly onto a narrow asphalt road choked by trees and guarded by a tall, curving iron fence. He rolled down his tinted window and leaned out, punching something into a keypad that lit up blue. A cool breeze tossed my hair into my face as he rolled his window up and the gate crept open, framing the small road like a scene at the beginning of a Disney movie.

The road was thick, dark, fresh-poured asphalt, with no lines on it. As far I could see were oaks: great, regal trees with squiggly gray moss that dressed up every limb and fluttered in the chilly breeze.

The grass was green, so vibrant I asked my dad if it was real.

“It’s real,” he told me. “It’s called rye grass.”

We rolled past driveways—cement, stone, and asphalt. Beside each driveway was a mailbox, most of them tiny towers of brick or gothic-looking, wrought-iron things. We would see a driveway but sometimes no house, and then the woods again for intervals, as if the road led nowhere but a magic forest.

The houses we did see flashed between tree trunks. These were fancy houses, even fancier than anything I’d seen in Uptown. For one thing, they were larger, sometimes looking more like bed and breakfasts than real houses people lived in. One looked like a castle. Two others were what my Daddy said was Greek revival style, with thick columns and, in one case, a driveway made of red brick. We passed what my mom called a wedding cake house: white and dressy, with a flat roof and columns on a big front porch.

Mansions. These country houses were real mansions.

Rather than a normal forest floor, that shock of rye grass rolled between the trees. These impeccable lawns were dotted with iron benches, stone bird baths, and gazebos. Great oaks donned tree-houses and rope swings. Almost every house had a pool. Not just regular pools, but ones with water shooting up into the sky and big, plastic slides and diving boards.

In between the houses, there were trails, not made of dirt, but gently pressed-down grass. Once, as we passed the grounds between a brick, columned home and one made of gray stone, I saw a boy about my age riding a four-wheeler.

“Is this the Hundred Acre Wood?” I asked my dad, thinking of Winnie the Pooh.

He shook his head absently and didn’t speak again until we pulled into the circle-drive in front of a smaller, two-story, non-mansion house with walls made out of gray wood shingles.

He walked around and opened my door, and I wriggled out of my booster seat, the soles of my Mary Janes clapping gently on the cement of the driveway.

“How would you like to live here, Amelia?” He pointed toward the house’s roof. “Up there in the top, with those big windows?”

“No.” I shook my head.

The Uptown house had Mama’s clothes. Her smell. Her green toothbrush still in the cup by mine. The floral placemats I had helped her pick at Nordstrom just a few weeks back.

Daddy crouched down in front of me, the rips in his paint-stained jeans exposing hair-dusted knees and shins.

“Amelia, baby, Mom’s not there. She’s not in our house. She’s out here.” He stood up and held his arms out. “Feel the wind blow? That’s your Mama. Look up at the sky. At night we’ll see the stars here. She’s up there watching you. She didn’t want to go, but sometimes we don’t have a choice. When you see the stars twinkle, you’ll know she’s thinking about you.” He crouched down by me again, his brown eyes red and damp.

“You’ll see your Mom again one day, sweetheart. But first, she wants to watch you ride your bike and swing and play at school. She wants to see what you’re gonna do. And when you’re really old, you might get married and have kids of your own. You’ll be their mom. She’ll be so proud of you. Anything you do, she’ll be so glad to see you. She wants you to have lots of fun, like we could have out here. It’s going to be summer soon, and we’ll be able to hear beetles singing at night. And maybe even see some lightning bugs. They glow, remember? You and me…we’ll have a good time here.” He pressed a fingertip gently on the tip of my nose. “What do you say, cowgirl?”

Seeing Daddy’s cheeks wet made me feel like I was going to explode. My chest was warm and hot, my eyes aching with pressure.

“No!” I yelled, and for reasons unknown now, I bolted.

All around the house were grassy meadows. In late March, spring had sprung. I remember wildflowers batting my sandaled feet as I tore toward a row of trees I thought would offer me some cover.

As I ran, I listened for my father’s harder footfall. Nothing. When I noticed that, the painful rock inside my chest shattered, blurring my eyes and splattering all over my thick glasses. When crying didn’t feel enough, I screamed bloody murder, and it felt so good to scream and run, the air around me bright and cool, the flowers tucked against the pine grove out in front of me a cruel reminder of how beautiful the world had seemed till Mama left.

I ran into the woods, spurred faster by the quiet behind me. If Daddy didn’t want me, I would run away and never come back. Never ever.

Maybe he really didn’t, I realized, as the trees rose up around me and the shadows shifted on the muddy ground. My dad worked a lot. His studio had a bed and a refrigerator, even a secretary during the day. It was nowhere near here. Maybe he was banishing me, like a fairy tale girl locked in a castle tower.

Through the tear-splattered lenses of my glasses, everything was smeary—and besides, my head was spinning. I didn’t notice that the woods were ending, giving way to a new field, until I found myself in wildflowers again. Then a big, gray bird flew overhead, and my gaze lifted toward the sky.

I’ll never know exactly how it happened. One minute, I was shifting my gaze from the bird to something I had noticed on my right: an unfinished house, it seemed, with wood planks rising toward the sky, no roof yet. The next second, I hit something hard and cold. I must have opened my mouth to scream, because water filled my throat and nose. I realized as I flailed and choked that I was in a pool.

I tried to scream and panicked when I couldn’t, when I couldn’t get un-choked. That’s when I felt the hands on me.

I was so scared, I couldn’t process anything but hands squeezing my shoulders, the sensation of being pulled through the water by someone larger.

“Grab onto the side,” he ordered, and I grappled for it.

I’d lost my glasses, and without them, I was blind. Which meant when he climbed out and pulled me up onto the deck, I couldn’t see his face. Just rich brown hair and suntanned skin, smeared by movement as he hovered for a moment in front of me and then started slapping my back. His voice cut through the sound of my choking.

“Breathe! C’mon, you have to keep on coughing!”

I pulled air into my wet lungs painfully, between violent coughing. Moments later, I heard my father’s shouts.

“She’s okay,” the boy called.

I felt his hand on my back, rubbing slowly, and I realized I could breathe again. Flooded with panic, I started crying. Before my dad could reach us, the boy pulled me up against him and, after a second’s hesitation, wrapped both arms around me.

“It’s okay. You’re okay. What’s your name?” he asked me gently.

I could only sob.

“You know… You’ve got red hair, I think, but I’m going to go with Dove. I saw you watching one when you were running. That’s what you were doing when you tripped into the pool. I told my dad the other day we need a gate around it. They built the pool before the house, so we come swimming here sometimes. Me and my sister.”

“Hey…” That was a girl’s voice, young like me.

In the seconds that followed, my dad arrived, yanking me into his arms and fussing at me before noticing my tears. The boy must have fetched my glasses, because Daddy slid them on my face. I blinked and realized we were standing on a pool deck. Then I turned to look over my shoulder, and I saw them.

A tall boy with messy brown hair and sun-kissed skin, and a smaller girl beside him. She had jet black hair that sat above her shoulders in firm ringlets. Both of them had big, olive eyes. Their mouths were different, I noticed. Hers was frowny. His was soft and kind, one corner tugged up in a kind of pre-smile.

His gaze was holding mine, unblinking, as if his eyes could talk and he wanted to tell me something important. “My name is Dash,” he said.

The girl stepped closer to Daddy and me, tossing her hair back and jutting one shoulder out as she smiled and stuck out her arm, waving her tiny hand like a pageant princess. “I’m Alexia.”

Daddy patted my wet head. “These are your new neighbors.”

 

 

 

 

TWO
Amelia

August 2010

 

 

It’s after midnight, and I’m lying on the door side of Alexia’s bed in Cowboy Bebop pajamas I ordered from Japan, my red hair fanned around my made-up face, staring at a ceiling I can’t see because I set my glasses on the bed side table. All the better for feigning sleep.

We were going to stay up all night, Alexia and I, so we’d be up to send Dash off at 4:30 in the morning. So we’d be up at 3:34 when the International Space Station glides over Georgia, glowing like the brightest star, a pod of humans with real hopes and hearts right over us, hundreds of miles away in space.

Dash had mentioned wanting to see it, and this summer, climbing out onto the roof was sort of our thing. Alexia and me, up late watching movies in the Frasiers’ home theater. Dash stumbling in from a night of parties. He would pass the spiral staircase outside his and Alexia’s bedroom doors and hear us, climb upstairs to the third floor and tease us. Lex the Biddie and Ammy Dove, he’d call us.

He’d come in and sit with us, his big feet propped up on the seat in front of him, munching popcorn, half-drunk, critiquing our chick flicks. The more nights I spent here, the more solid this routine became. Then one night we went to sleep before Dash got home, and sometime after midnight, we awoke to a knock on Alexia’s window.

Going out onto the roof became our ritual. Almost always, it was all three of us, but on the couple nights Lex didn’t want to, Dash would say, “C’mon, Dove, don’t leave me out here by myself”—as if he was forced to stay out on the shingles—so I eased onto the slanted rooftop with just him.

We talked about everything: the moral implications of killing flies and house spiders (there were probably some, we agreed); whether it’s better to send a bunch of troops to another country to try to help people like the Iraqis and risk messing things up more, or just to stay “home” and let the situation play out (neither of us knew); the likelihood of past lives (likely enough to be good conversation fodder); whether dogs can really save their owners in a house fire (Dash thought so, and planned to get a dog in college); and whether dead people like my mom could look down on us (I thought so, but wasn’t sure if I was only being hopeful; Dash told me he thought so too).

A few weeks ago, I came over in the afternoon like Lexie asked me to, and she wasn’t here—but Dash was. I found him in the home theater watching an animated show about futuristic space criminals, a funky Japanese show, set to jazz music: Cowboy Bebop. It’s anime, like the Miyazaki films he likes so much, the ones Alexia and I watch with him even though Lexie says they’re weird. I sat down beside him, and we watched Cowboy Bebop until my stepmom Manda came looking for me close to nine.

That night, I ordered these pajamas online. I read some of the myths relating to the constellations, hoping to impress Dash the next time we went out on the roof. But in the last week, he hasn’t been around much. When he has, he’s seemed distracted. Distant.

Tonight’s my last chance to spend time with him before he leaves for college.

I don’t hear him tromping down the hall. I hear his knock on the window, as if he walked straight from his truck onto the roof. Then I hear the window open.

“Pssst!”

I try to wake Lex, but she moans. “No…”

“Are you sure? It’s his last night, Lexie.”

“Shut up.”

I feel a pinch of worry: Lexie got into her parents’ wine cellar earlier. She does it to be funny, but she usually ends up getting sick and crying. Honestly, I think it’s kind of weird. It makes me worried.

“Anybody in there?” Dash calls, leaning into the window.

“Lex, come on.”

“I’m tired!”

With one last look at Lexie’s curvy form under the blankets, I crawl outside. Dash’s hand comes down on my shoulder, steadying me while I push my hair out of my face. The night is breezy. Strands rise up around us. Dash’s hands smooth them down.

I giggle. “Thank you.”

“Can’t have you taking flight on me, big D.”

Big D is one of Dash’s nicknames, but sometimes he turns it back around on me—I guess as an abbreviation of Dove. It’s something he called me the first day we met, but I think it stuck because my friends picked up on it. I’m the peacemaker in our clique, and doves are supposed to be peaceful birds.

Dash glances behind me, and when Lexie doesn’t leave the bed, he crouches down beside me.

“Hey…” He tugs on my pants-leg. “What’s this now? Is this what it looks like?” I can see him grinning. My heart pit-patters.

“Of course.” I feign smugness.

“Where’d you get them?” he asks, still rubbing the fabric of my pants.

“Online.”

“Sweet.”

“I know,” I say, crouching beside him on the slanted roof. In the dark, I grin. “I’m pretty much the coolest person you know.”

I run my eyes along his crouching form, startled as I always am by his nearness, by the width of his shoulders and the beauty of his face. His hazel eyes seem tired, and his luscious mouth looks relaxed tonight, like maybe Lexie’s not the only one who’s been drinking.

He looks once more at the window and then bumps my arm with his. “Just you and me, Dove.”

He stretches out on his back, his long legs bent at the knee, his arms behind his head. I shift onto my butt beside him.

For a few electric moments, everything is quiet except the crickets’ song, the gentle rumbling of thunder in the distance.

Then he softly says, “I’m gonna miss this place.”

“Georgia?”

He shakes his head. “The roof.”

I smile. “Just the roof.”

“Not just the roof. But there’s a lot of shit I won’t miss, too.”

“Like what?”

I see him arch one thick, dark eyebrow. “Homeroom at seven-thirty every morning.”

I rub my fleecy pajama bottoms, tracing the spot Dash’s finger had touched. “When’s your first class at college?”

“Tuesday and Thursday, ten. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, twelve.”

“Wow. That’s amazing.”

“I thought so.” He smiles.

“What did you do tonight?”

“Not much. Just said bye to everybody. Drank too much.” He rubs his head, and even though he’s right beside me, I feel like he’s gone already. It’s been that way this last year: heady moments where I feel like Dash and I are really friends, and then small instants when he seems like he’s outgrown this place—and me—completely.

“I can’t believe you’re driving to Rhode Island by yourself.”

He shrugs. “I’m kinda looking forward to it. Gonna listen to my music.” He winks. I cringe at the memory of the classical music that filled his car too often on the drive to school.

“Better you than me.”

“One day. I’ll win you over.”

I snort. “With what? Not Mozart, that’s for sure.”

He laughs, shaking his head.

“What?”

“Your bad taste,” he smiles. “It’s just so…flagrant.”

“Oooh, five-dollar word. Aren’t you special?”

“I am special,” he says.

“A special snowflake.”

“A snowflake who likes good music.”

“A snowflake who likes noise.”

Dash sits up, knees spread, forearms atop them. He grins at me. “Ammy, Ammy, Ammy. What am I going to do with you?”

“I think the question is, what are you going to do without me? Cry while listening to a piano concerto?”

“Cry while listening to a fugue.”

I wrinkle my nose. “You get those fugues and take them all to Rhode Island.”

Dash puts his hand over his heart, still giving me a crooked smile. “Are you telling me to just be gone?”

“Be gone.” I push him, teasingly.

He wraps his hand around my wrist, his thumb and middle finger meeting loosely. “I’m hurt.”

“Hi, Hurt. I’m Amelia.”

“Hi, Amelia.” He laces his fingers through mine, squeezing lightly as I almost die of joy. I try to arm-wrestle him, needing to do something so the closeness of our contact doesn’t make me loopy.

“You’re very mean,” he says.

I giggle. “No I’m not. I’m the nicest person in Atlanta.”

“You are,” he murmurs.

“Who else watches all your favorite shows with you? And actually likes them?”

“Touché.” His fingers tighten their grip on mine. “Are you saying my shows aren’t likeable?”

I squeeze his hand. “Far from. I’m saying only the coolest people like them.”

“How did you get so cool, Amelia?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think it was my influence,” he says.

“I think the opposite.”

“You think you were a good influence on me?” His eyes on mine are hot, as if he sees right through me, to my poor, racing heart.

I nod.

“Do you now?”

I keep on nodding. “I introduced you to our favorite gum.”

“Oh, that’s right. Trident—”

“Minty Sweet Twist,” we say at the same time. Dash’s brows are raised. I’m grinning.

“I’m chewing it right now,” I whisper.

“I need some.”

His hand in mine is way too hot, so I let go of it to dig around in my pajama bottoms pocket.

“Here.” I hold a piece out to him.

Dash sinks back down onto the roof, lying on his back again as he chews.

“Best part of this year,” he teases, giving me a funny, sort-of smile.

“Being out here with me? Why thank you. Wait—the gum?” I stick my tongue out at him. “How much longer now?”

He looks at his phone. Silence swims between us for a moment.

“Jerk, don’t check your texts.”

He gives a guilty smirk. “Eleven minutes.”

I want to make a snarky comment while he lies there texting someone, but my heart is beating so hard, I’m not sure I can find words. Dash and I have always teased, but lately it feels different. Every word between us has this…echo. Like there’s more to what we’re saying than what we’re saying. Hard to explain…

I lie on my back beside him and look up at the stars. I can see the big and little dippers, but not a whole lot else. Purple clouds cover one swatch of the sky. The giant trees between the Frasiers’ home and mine block some of the rest.

Dash puts his phone away. “You have my undivided attention, Ammy. Are you happy?”

“Couldn’t be happier.”

“I’m glad to know I make you happy.” He smiles warmly.

“Are you?”

“Of course.”

“Well in that case, you make me sad.”

He blinks, and I take the plunge. “Savannah has a school of art and design, you know. Right here in Georgia.”

My eyes fill with tears, even as I try to fight them back. I see the moment Dash notices them. His own eyes widen and his mouth goes soft.

“Aw, Dove.” He reaches out to swipe a tear from my cheek. “Damn. Don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying. This is hate sweat. It comes out the eyes.”

He smiles a little. “So you hate me now?”

“I hate me.” I wipe my eyes, inhaling deeply. “I don’t need you here. I’ll sit out on the roof with somebody else.”

Dash sits up, then takes my hands and pulls me up to sit facing him. His fingers squeeze mine. “C’mon, Ammy Dove. I can’t have you crying.”

The tears sliding down my cheeks and off my chin won’t stop. Especially not now that Dash’s hands are on mine, and he’s rubbing my knuckles. Oh, what it must feel like to be one of his girlfriends. To have these hazel eyes trained on you all the time.

“I’m not crying,” I whisper.

“But you are.”

I look down at my lap, because I can’t bear to look him in the face, not with his hands around mine.

“Ammy—look at me.”

“There’s something interesting down here,” I murmur. My voice sounds dumb and thick, making me feel more childish than I always do around Dash.

“Am…” He sighs. “I couldn’t stay.”

I glance up. “Why?” I try to sound casual. Like the answer to it isn’t everything and then some.

His hands in mine feel hot. He wraps them more tightly around mine. “It’s…hard to explain.” His eyes shut, just for a moment. Then he lets go of my hands. His palms are on his knees, his shoulders rising as he inhales slowly.

“Just trust me. I’ve got my reasons for not staying close. It’s not that I didn’t think about it, that I didn’t—you know…want to.”

“You wanted to stay close but you decided to go? Don’t tell me that.” I swat at him. “That just makes me want to scream.”

“I know,” he says. “I know.” He hangs his head.

“It’s going to suck without you here.”

He smirks, glancing up at me before the corners of his mouth tug downward and he shifts his gaze back to his lap. “That’s what they tell me.”

“Your many admirers,” I tease.

“No…”

“You know it’s true. You like to be a player. That’s just how you roll.”

“No. I don’t. I’m just…” He shrugs, and for a moment, he looks terribly uncomfortable. “How do you do this, Amelia?”

“Do what?”

He shakes his head. “I just…tell you things.”

“Well, you have to tell me now. Now I’m in suspense. What are you going to tell me?”

He presses his lips flat. “Stress.” He heaves out a long breath. “I get fucking stressed out. And…I like to be distracted.”

My imagination springs into overdrive, painting a picture of Dash on his burgundy silk sheets, naked and covered to his hips, hard under the covers, stressed out and needing assistance.

My face blazes as blood rushes to my cheeks.

He’s confiding in you. Say something. I inhale quickly. “Why are you stressed out? Just…like…everything?”

He nods, then sighs. “Am, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay,” I say softly.

He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a bandana. It’s tie-dyed, bright blue and orange and yellow. “Would you— Ammy, can you wear this? I started smoking.”

“What?”

“I want to smoke. A cigarette. But I don’t want you to breathe it, so…I brought you this. I stopped by the studio space one last time. I grabbed it for you.”

My mind is a whirring blur of ecstasy and puzzlement and joy. He thought about me in advance. Not Alexia; me. Followed by, He’s smoking.

I can only nod.

Dash ties the bandana around my head, positioning it so it covers my mouth, as if I’m some kind of bandit.

Then he turns his wide eyes on me, digging again in his pocket. He’s frowning as he brings out a pack of Marlboros and a small, green lighter.

“I’m sorry,” he says, taking a cigarette out of the pack.

“Tell that to your lungs, hombre.” I reach for him, brushing my fingertips over his forearm. “Don’t say sorry to me.”

He lights up and inhales deeply, blowing the smoke away from me. The wind carries it further in that direction. I watch as his taut, tense shoulders slowly sag.

“Fuck. I understand…why people get addicted.” I watch his chest expand as he inhales again.

“You have to quit.” I hold my hand out. “Leave these with me when you go.”

“Your dad would flip if he found them.”

“That’s true, but I won’t let him find them. I’ll get rid of them.”

He looks at me, then at the pack, before handing it to me, reluctance written in the frown lines on his face.

“Wait, though. Are you going to feel like crap if you don’t have them on the drive?” I fish into the pack, the firm smoothness of the filters strange against my fingertips. “Here.” I hold one out. “If you feel crappy when you get to your new campus, maybe you could bum one. But only one.” I kiss the filter. “Make this your last one from a pack that’s yours. You promise?”

I watch the furrow in his brow as he flicks ashes on the roof. He lifts his gaze to mine. “Promise.”

He inhales again, shutting his eyes. “Fuck.” He blows the smoke out. “You don’t know how it feels…” he tells me with a small, tired smile.

“To smoke one?”

He nods, face tilted to the sky.

“What’s it like?”

“Just…freeing.”

“Yeah?”

He nods. “Like a vacation from your brain.”

And that, he’s telling me, is what he needs. Freedom. A vacation. My mind whirrs, devouring information about Dash, then spinning outward, searching for an adequate reply. “Maybe moving will give you that. Do you think?”

“I don’t know.” He sounds pessimistic as he stubs the cigarette out. “Places aren’t that different really. I don’t think there’s anything special up in Providence.”

“Why’d you pick there, then? Why, why?”

“It’s a good art school,” he hedges.

“Yeah, but there’s a ton of good schools. Like the one here in our freaking state.”

“Yeah, I know.” He blows his breath out.

“I’m teasing. I’ll leave you alone.”

He pulls one big knee up, rests his forehead on it. He looks so tired, after a moment I scoot closer to him. My hands are itching to touch his hair. To comfort him, the way he’s soothed me probably a million times since I moved next door. Still, I tell myself I can’t. That when he lifts his head, I need to have my greedy hands folded safely in my lap. I’m so worked up, I start to count the seconds. When I get to seventy, I take a halting breath, then slowly wrap my arm around his shoulders.

I want to say something—something helpful; something meaningful—but I find my throat won’t work with Dash so close: his muscled back and shoulders firm and warm under my arm.

I can feel his lungs expand and then relax, can feel the micro-motions of his skin: as if he’s shivering.

“I feel like you’re…not happy. I’ve thought that for a while,” I whisper. “Seems like something’s wrong…”

I feel him exhale, long and slow. Then he lifts his head and meets my eyes. “Not everyone is meant to be happy, Amelia.”

His words hit me like an anvil. I’ve seldom heard such dramatic statements, at least outside the books I read, and Dash…well… All my life he’s seemed so happy. Carefree, easy-going, witty, fun. He’s Dash. Everyone likes Dash.

I take a moment to absorb the weight of his statement before shaking my head. “I disagree. Everyone deserves to be happy. Especially you.”

He leans against my arm, still wrapped around him. “You’re too good, Am. That’s why you don’t get it.”

“I’m not good. I’m just normal. Remember that time you made your parents throw a joint birthday for you and Hollis Smith?”

“We have the same birthday.”

“Oh, c’mon…” Hollis Smith has some kind of rare syndrome, and he can’t speak or walk. He can’t even understand what someone tells him, at least not in the usual way. “What you did for him was really nice.”

“I was twelve.”

“I know. That’s the point I’m making.”

“I didn’t do it again, did I?”

“You’re always vacationing on your birthday.”

“Not always.”

“Almost always.” Dash is a New Years baby. I lean my head against my shoulder, which, with my arm still around him, is kinda propped on him, and I try to think about Dash being sad.

I could feel it—before now. Had found him over and over again at the periphery of my mind, wandering those fields with a strange blankness on him. I sift through my recent memory, searching for some event or conversation… a clue of what went wrong. What and when?

I tighten my arm around him, letting out a big breath of my own. I feel his back flex underneath my arm. Maybe I should move my arm, but…I don’t want to. Not yet.

I look up at the sky, surprised to find tears gathering in my eyes again. He’s leaving in the morning, and after that, things will never be the same. He’ll move on, and I’ll get older; I’ll move on myself. All these years will go into the vault of memory, locked, collecting dust: a relic I can’t touch again.

I want to tell him how important he is. How just as Alexia is like my sister, Dash is like my brother. How I love him like a brother. How I want him to be happy. The party for Hollis is just one of a million reasons I love Dash.

Once, when I was in middle school, deeply embarrassed over my thick glasses and obsessed with both Rainbow Brite and pencil erasers, he ordered me a huge box of vintage Rainbow Brite erasers, then bribed the ladies in the office for my locker combo, broke in after school, and left them for me to find the next morning.

For my whole life—at least the years I remember—Dash has walked up onto the diving board with me when I was scared to jump by myself, ripped off chunks of the aloe plant for my sunburn, paddled beside me when I was learning to water ski, told me what books to read, and even, one time, when I’d had my tonsils out in fifth grade, climbed into my window at night to give me painted rocks he made.

I love the way he makes ridiculous pancakes, with whipped cream and chocolate syrup and bananas. He always smells like gum—either sweet mint or actual bubble gum flavored gum. He uses pink princess toothpaste because he loves the taste and still takes good care of his colossally old, decrepit turtle he rescued from the road when he was nine and I was six. Shakespeare is for real his favorite author—Macbeth his favorite story—and even though he’s smarter than almost anyone, and a seriously incredible artist, he doesn’t see himself that way.

I move my arm off Dash’s back, because being near him is making me so sweaty I’m afraid he’ll feel it.

Dash stretches out on his back again, seeming to take up the entire roof. “I think we missed the space station.” He gives me a smile, one that makes me feel…wanted. Like he wants my company. It’s a feeling I don’t have that often.

I smile back, then scoot over nearer to him. I think of lying on my back, too, but I think the position will make my nightshirt cling to my chest, and I’m suddenly self-conscious.

I watch as Dash shuts his eyes and lets out a long breath.

“Are you sleepy?”

“Kind of. Not enough to sleep.” The words sound heavy.

With my heart coiled in a ball inside my throat, I touch his soft hair. “You’re going to like it up there, I think. Up in Rhode Island. We’ll miss you here, but I think you’re going to be happy there. You’ll see. Just write me letters, okay? Or emails. I want to know how you’re doing. It’s going to be amazing, though. Everyone else at your school is an artist, too, right?”

He nods, and I can feel him turn his forehead slightly toward my stroking hand. The fingers are shaking, but since I don’t think he can see, I keep on sifting through his hair, my heart beating staccato, my body lit up like a forest fire.

“And real winter. Won’t that be awesome? To see the snow. You can drink hot chocolate when it’s cold and not feel like a fraud because it’s really only fifty-five degrees.” I smile down at him. “You’ll need at least one scarf, maybe even two, because this isn’t vacation, it’s real life. I think you should buy a Keurig and drink coffee while you study. When you get your dog, you should get one with lots of hair, so he or she won’t be too cold. Although if they were, I think they make doggie shoes and scarves!”

He laughs.

“I’m serious. Your dog is going to need some winterwear. I can tell. And Kermit the Turtle…well, I guess he’ll be right at home as a cold-blooded creature. Is he riding in the front seat of your truck during the drive?”

“He is.”

“That’s great. I’m sure he likes ole Mozart more than I do.”

“Yeah,” Dash says. It’s almost murmured. His eyes are still shut, his lips turned up a little at the corners, so I keep my hand moving in his hair.

“Think about fall, too. All those pretty red leaves. I like all fall leaves, but the red ones are the best. They don’t make that color anywhere else. Well, I mean, I guess in paint they do, but it’s not a normal color red. There’s something special about it, maybe a pink kind of undertone. Anyway, all those leaves are going to be yours. There’s a harbor there too, right? Because it’s on the ocean. Near the ocean. It’s going to smell like ocean. I’m not sure why you haven’t visited before now, but I think it’s safe to say you’re going to love that ocean smell. Think about the term ‘divine providence.’ I just have a feeling about this move. I think it’s going to be a good one for you.”

That’s when I notice Dash’s face is slack and still. His chest rises and falls in steady rhythm. Because he’s asleep. Dash is asleep, spread out here on the roof like boy buffet, with my hand in his pretty, soft, Dash hair.

I shut my eyes for just a second, sending up a prayer of thanks to the god of girls’ obsessions. He might be leaving soon, but for now he’s right here, and he’s all mine.

I can’t help admiring him as he rests. In the last few years, Dash has grown tall. Six feet tall, to be exact, and probably still growing. Compared to me, at five-foot-three, Dash is a giant. I’ve always secretly thought his body was beautiful, but it’s become even more so in the last few years. His calves, on display right now since he’s wearing shorts, are thick with muscle, his legs long and tan and hair-dusted. His arms are shaped…well. Just well-shaped. Something in the dimensions of them is elegant and clean. His neck is strong and thick, his throat smooth enough to run my tongue down.

Except I can never do that, because Dash is like my brother.

A brother that I love.

I close my eyes so I can stop my thoughts. I didn’t ask for them, don’t even really know when they started.

If I was stranded on a desert island…

If I had to be a child bride…

If we were on the Oregon Trail and I had to marry off at fifteen…

Dash.

It’s only Dash for me.

And who could blame me? Who wouldn’t want this strong, kind boy—well, sort of man now, I guess. Who wouldn’t grab onto him with both hands and hold him if they could?

I know I would.

I know I never can.

So I just hope he’s happy. It’s going to hurt like hell when he pulls out of the driveway in a few hours, but that’s my problem. It’s my secret crush. Since I started nursing it, I knew I was doing myself no favors. Feelings like these burn bright in darkness. It’s my secret. One I know I’ll probably carry to my grave.

So I sit there, and I stroke his hair. When he flexes his shoulder and shifts onto his side, I whisper, “Do you want to put your head in my lap?”

When, to my surprise, he mumbles, “yeah,” I try to turn my mind off and just feel: my arms around his body, the width and weight and strength of him.

At our school, there’s a girl who’s evangelical and they put oil on people’s foreheads when they pray. If I had oil, I’d smear some on him right now.

But I don’t. I only have my childish tears.

And so, as Dash sleeps in my arms, I tell myself the only thing I can to ease the pain. When Dash is gone, I will grow up. I’ll be pretty, stronger, smarter when he comes back home. He might not want me while I’m still so young, but one day, we’ll be older. I’ll be Dash’s equal.

He’s an artist. I’m a writer. I know it might sound silly, but I really am. Writing is the only thing I do well. I’ll write books like my mom did, and Dash will paint.

I sit there, quiet and still until he wakes up—and it’s close to four. We climb inside his window. When our feet touch down on Dash’s carpet, he pulls me into a long, tight hug.

“I love you, Ammy Dove. Please take care, and be safe. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t like. You promise?”

“Yeah. I won’t.”

“Good.” His eyes are strange, as if there’s something burning bright behind them, but it’s so quick, just there and gone, and then Lexie has heard us, and she’s up. We’re all talking, hauling Dash’s last few things out to his truck and taking dark-blurred pictures by his U-Haul, with its Tennessee plates and image of Elvis on the side.

Alexia is hugging her big brother, crying, still half-drunk, and I’m pressing my lips together, blinking too much, waiting for the time when he gives me a last hug, too. He does, of course, and it’s perfection.

Perfect things don’t last, and so he goes.

 

 

 

THREE
Amelia

August 2011

 

 

“Blow doesn’t work on me. No effect whatever. I have ADHD, so coke calms me down. If I wanna have a good time, I gotta roll or pop an Oxy. That or pot. You ever smoked?”

I shake my head.

My date’s eyebrows arch. “Never?”

“Never.”

“But you’re Alexia’s friend.”

“We’re not as close as we used to be. I’m too boring for her.”

Michael Kisner, a junior who just moved here from New Jersey, drops his jaw, shaking his head slowly, like I just told him I kill kittens for fun.

I offer a small shrug, choosing to give him the most honest answer rather than blaming my weak, preemie lungs. “I just…don’t really like altered reality that much.”

“Altered reality!” His wide eyes widen further in outrage. “We’re talking about mary-jo-ana here. What you’re saying sounds like… like a video game or something!”

“Video games. I do like those…”

“No.” He shakes his buzz-cut head. “Amelia, that won’t do.”

“No video games?”

Michael and I are sitting on a leather couch inside a massive sunroom on the back side of a massive lake house. The room is crowded with so many potted plants, it feels a little like a jungle. In between the giant plants are gorgeous, stained-glass windows depicting nature scenes. Over our heads, palm frond ceiling fans twirl slowly, dangling from exposed wood beams.

The home is owned by the McVays, one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. The only reason I’m here at their lakeside palace with Michael, enduring my very first—and, heaven help me, possibly also last—real date is because The Gin Rangers are playing a private concert.

Yes, as in the Grammy-winning Gin Rangers.

The McVay family has some connection to the band. Alexia is semi-dating Lambert McVay, a senior at our school. And since tonight is Lambert’s eighteenth birthday bash, our whole posse is here at midnight, living it up.

How I got stuck with Michael, I’m not really sure. He’s gotten friendly with Lamb, and Lexie vouched for him, describing him as “really cool.” Michael called me yesterday, acting really nice and offering to pick me up.

I had no idea he’d be quite so…intense.

I cast a longing glance out several sets of glass and mahogany doors on the back of the sunroom, looking past the torch-lined pool to see the Gin Rangers rock it on the lawn between the pool and lake.

Toward the back of the pack, I see Lexie’s metallic gold dress glint in the moonlight. I can’t see Lambert, only Lexie and her glowing dress, moving easy to the music. Probably because she’s high. Which, come to think of it, is probably why she told me Michael I-Can’t-Do-Cocaine Kisner is “really cool.” He’s obviously a druggie.

Why did I listen to Lex? Why did I take Michael’s suggestion to go inside for beer and a breather?

“I can’t believe it,” he’s saying now. “I smoked my first joint when I was like, seven years old.”

I’m stifling a laugh when he leans closer. “Woman, you’ve gotta try it.”

I shake my head, inhaling deeply. Since Michael is wearing nine gallons of cologne and is also bathed in vodka, the inhalation makes my eyes sting.

“Probably never, but definitely not tonight,” I tell him. “I just want to hear the Gin Rangers.”

“Abso-fucking-lutely tonight! You can’t put this off, Amelia. Can I call you Lia? So damn hot. See, it sounds like Leia. Tell me you’ve at least seen Star Wars.”

“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” I quote. (Vader).

Michael’s eyebrows rumple. He tilts his head a little, like a puzzled puppy.

“Darth Vader.” I give him what I hope is a patient smile, causing him to look doubly confused.

“You calling me Vader?” he asks, looking offended.

“No.” I laugh. “Just—never mind.”

“So, back to the MJ!”

I sink into the couch, running my hands over the flowy, semi-sheer green dress I’m wearing over my bikini and listening to the Gin Rangers as Michael rattles off the many benefits of marijuana. I’ve got nothing against pot, I’m just not a risk-taker. If I ever did decide to toke up, I’d rather be at my own house.

I nod repeatedly, re-gloss my lips, and adjust my glasses as Michael talks about decreasing brain inflammation and lowering bad cholesterol. When I can break eye contact, I flick my gaze around the room, praying I’ll spot one of my friends. Any excuse to escape.

Since I don’t see anybody, I let my mind wander. It goes where it often does: to Dash. Now there’s something to think about while Michael yammers. Except I’m not sure I want to think about Dash. Not sure thinking about him would do me any good, even though most of the time, I can’t seem to stop myself.

I wish I knew where he is and how he’s doing.

Since summer started, I heard he’s texted his mom a few times and Alexia once, telling them only that he’s traveling. “Cheaper than college,” he texted Lex, as if money matters at all to the Frasiers. Mr. and Mrs. Frasier work all the time, both as producers in the music industry.

I press my lips together, holding in a sigh, and continue nodding while Michael extols the virtues of marijuana. I want to kick myself for agreeing to a date with someone I didn’t know. With someone Lexie recommended. I hate it that it’s true, but I’m trusting her less and less.

When the marijuana talk winds down, Michael leans against the back of the couch, surprising me by taking my hand. He looks me in the eyes and then looks down at our joined hands.

“Look how much darker my hand is than yours,” he says, rubbing my knuckles. “And all those freckles on your fingers.” He squeezes my fingers with his own. “I’ve got a redhead fetish. Always have. We had a nanny when I was a kid, and she had red hair.”

My eyebrows arch before I can censor my face. “Fetish?”

He grins. “You know what I’m saying.” A dimple appears beside his mouth. “You’re the prettiest one I’ve ever been able to call mine.”

“Mine”? Does he think I’m his? His own personal fetish come to life? I pull my hand away from his, even though I worry that it’s rude, because I can’t help it. I manage a bland smile, then stand, rubbing my stomach.

“I’m not feeling very well. I think I need some water.”

It’s not entirely untrue. I’ve had a queasy sort of stomachache all night, the kind of stomachache that’s brought on by a screaming conscience: in this case, screaming that Michael is a D-bag. An oblivious, probably harmless D-bag, but a D-bag still.

I take one last look out the patio doors at the Gin Rangers, surrounded by a thick swarm of bodies, and the sparkle of the lake behind them, then take off down the long hallway leading deeper into the house. As I move, the din of conversation crackles into fragments:

“Did you hear that Betsy…”

“…told her ‘fuck that’…”

“…latched arms and then we tried to…”

“…amazing tits.”

I smell barbeque, drifting inside on a summer breeze. Shoulders bump mine as I search the bodies pressed around me for one of my friends. I don’t see them, or even anyone I know.

The Gin Rangers launch into “Magic Mountain” and I turn back toward the sunroom. Maybe I should go back outside. My feet are killing me from the two hours before I followed Michael inside, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—not to mention the reason I sneaked out past my bitchy stepmother, asleep in the living room recliner, earlier tonight.

“Where are you going?” she’d snapped, when I thought I’d gotten to the front door safely.

I jumped, glancing back.

“Your dad’s asleep.”

“…I know,” I whispered.

“That dress makes you look like rain forest Barbie. Go on, though.” She waved her arm. “Give me some peace.”

Manda’s always like that: acting like I put her out, even though I try my best to tip-toe in her presence. She’s a gymnastics instructor, and ever since I quit taking her classes when I was ten, I’ve been pretty sure she hates me.

As I look back toward the Gin Rangers, distracted by the thought of Manda telling Dad about tonight, Michael catches my eye and starts to stand.

I turn on my heel and book it down the hallway. After passing half a dozen doors, I try one, opening it to an empty bedroom. I step inside, noting the antique, oak bedroom set and two oil paintings I recognize as the work of Mary Nelson Sinclair, one of my dad’s artist friends.

A minute or two later, I think I hear Michael’s voice in the hallway.

The room I’m in has two closed doors: one small, like a closet door, and one larger, like a bathroom door. I wrap my hand around the knob of what I think is the bathroom door, hoping to hide out until my date gets distracted, then slip outside, listen to the Gin Rangers while I text my non-high friend Lucy, and head home. It’s running away, but it’s justified, I think, as I pull the door open.

A second later, the sight before my eyes hits me like a boot to the gut. Standing before me, in a doorway directly opposite the one I’m in, across a bathroom done in shades of green, is Dash.

Real Dash.

Dash whom I haven’t laid eyes on in nearly a year.

His hair is shorter, body bigger, face more chiseled—but it’s him. His pants hang down around his hair-dusted shins, exposing rumpled boxer-briefs, which gather close around his package.

My gaze is on him for no more than half a second before his hazel eyes pop open wider, and one of his arms jerks up toward his face.

“Ammy?” His mouth opens. “What the fuck?”

“Oh my God!”

His eyes peel even wider, then he whirls around and steps into the room from whence he came. It’s a slightly larger bedroom, done in some dark color I can’t process because my own wide eyes are glued to Dash’s back: the pert ass wrapped in gray cotton, his wider-with-age shoulders clothed in what looks to be a light blue t-shirt.

“Dash?” From the back, I see his head hang lower.

My heart races as adrenaline floods me, making my skin tingle and burn. It’s then that my senses process perfume. And something else. A scent that makes me think of flesh, hear the echo of moans.

Sex.

I’m smelling sex.

Dash turns to face me more fully, his big hands jerking his pants up. He fastens them, then lifts his head, revealing eyes that remain slightly widened, and totally unreadable. “What are you doing here?”

It’s all I can do to stand beside him. It’s a miracle I choke out, “Gin Rangers.”

Dash is here! He’s here, he’s here!

All his features twist up in what looks like pain.

“Lamb goes to our school, you know,” I babble. “My—your sister—she’s having a thing with him this summer. So he invited her. And all our friends.”

Dash takes a slow step in my direction. For a long moment, he’s quiet while his gaze laps up and down me, followed by the slightest little furrow of his dark brows. “Are you drinking, Amelia?” His voice is husky. Low.

All this time, and that’s what he asks me? Am I drinking?

“Have you been?” Dash told me one time that his favorite was the Irish Car Bomb, and though I doubt he had one of those here, I know that when he’s out, he always goes for whiskey.

I inhale again, because I’ve barely got my breath. The shock I felt on seeing him is morphing into panicked agitation: that he’ll disappear again. That…I don’t know what. And yet—even as I yearn to grab onto him, hold on, I also want to lash out. I feel my upper lip curl. “You smell like a bottle of Jameson.”

My voice sounds high.

My throat feels tight.

“Who are you with?” I can’t resist asking, even though I hate myself for being such a ninny.

I watch as his face locks down, masking any feelings I might read on his familiar features. “Who brought you here?” he asks me grimly.

“Why do you care?” Fury simmers in me. Disappointment masquerading as pure rage. “Dash, what the hell? Do you know how many letters got returned to me? I emailed all year. You left and you…you just left.” I fold my arms, fisting both my shaking hands.

His face flickers, and I can see emotion in the hard line of his brows, in the tightness of his jaw. “Am, why don’t you let me take you home. You don’t belong here at this time of night.”

I look him up and down again, stunned silent by his firm, authoritative tone, by the strangely patriarchal formality of his words. I realize that he seems in motion even though he’s still. Because I’m in motion, I notice. My breaths are hard and heavy as I take him in. “I don’t understand. Dash… Where did you come from?”

“Where do you think?” He sounds exhausted. His eyes are downcast as he runs his hand over his short, dark hair.

I want to throw myself at him. I need to touch him. Shock and disappointment have me frozen like a tranq dart. My voice quavers. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard a word from you.”

From the second Dash left in his Elvis U-Haul, I wrote him all the time, every other day at first, and then twice a week. At first, I figured he was busy and he’d call or write back soon. When September turned into October and no one had heard from him—at least not Alexia or me—I started writing more instead of less, pouring little pieces of my soul into the words I wrote him.

In November, about a week before Thanksgiving, I got a package with no return address. Inside it: a pointy maple leaf, suspended between two thick sheets of glass, flawless and furiously red.

I took it as a sign he would be home, so when he wasn’t, my entire body felt leaden with disappointment. Who could I complain to? Lexie? She was as confused as I was, and, by that point in the school year, distracted by the Adderall she was snorting.

I wrote him more letters, and mailed fewer. In early December, every single letter I had written was returned, bound in a thick blue rubber band. Stamped on the front of each: “Undeliverable.”

Panic clawed me.

What did it mean?

In mid-January, I got an emailed photo of Dash posing with a gorgeous painting of a Mourning Dove. I devoured every pixel, noting his soft grey beanie; worn, plaid button-up with a t-shirt peeking out under the collar; the brand new scruff on his jaw and the slightly dreamy tilt of his lips. That was Dash’s smile: the sweet smile I remembered from the first day I met him and Alexia.

I replied: Oh God, there you are. It’s beautiful. Where have you been?

Crickets.

I emailed him again in late February. Missing you, D. Saw it’s snowing up your way. Hope you’re drinking coffee with your dog and hope the dog is wearing a sweater.

Crickets—and the sound of my poor heart, starting to crumble.

In March, Alexia told me she’d asked her parents about Dash. She was surprised to find he’d been intermittently texting their mother.

“He seems okay?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Mom said he’s having fun.”

In May I got another unmarked package: a vivid, nighttime photo featuring a blazing milky way, and in the middle, a bright orb that had to be the international space station.

Alexia told me Dash was traveling this summer. I would have asked her more questions, but now I only see her once or twice a week, usually out at parties where she’s drunk or high.

Dash has become my neurosis. At least one or two nights per week, I sit out on my own roof, staring at the stars, with one eye turned toward the Frasiers’ driveway. How is it possible that he wouldn’t come home? What was wrong? I knew something was. I could feel it.

“So…where were you?” I repeat. Sweat is gathering between my breasts and tickling my hairline. My chest is so tight, I feel like I might pass out. “Where were you, Dash?” It’s rasped.

He shrugs, and it’s clear he’s holding up a wall between us. His eyes and face are distant, as if we haven’t known each other our whole lives.

“Around,” he finally says. The word is slow and soft, deceptive in its nonchalance. For a long second, his eyes hold mine; I know him well enough to see he’s trying to act normal. “Did some traveling.” Another shrug. “Worked a little here and there to get some money. Painted.”

“Did you finish this year? Are you a sophomore now?”

“Of course.” He folds his arms in front of his chest.

“Why didn’t you call? I sent these letters, and they all came back…”

“Maybe you had the wrong address.” But I can hear it in his voice: the rush. As if he had the words already earmarked and he forced them out, quick as he could.

“You didn’t call.” The words are breathy, just the faintest protest as my heart hammers and sweat rolls down my scalp.

The look Dash gives me hits me like an anvil. It’s skeptical, as if to say why would I call you?

For a too-long heartbeat, I can’t get my breath. I hope the stinging in my eyes will stop before it turns to tears. I hope that in this last year, Dash forgot me as much as it seems like he did, so he won’t see that as the seconds tick by, I feel more and more like I’m going to throw up the Blue Moon churning in my stomach.

Why is he acting this way? Like he doesn’t know me. Like he doesn’t care at all.

I can see him read my mind: the way his eyes widen fractionally before his whole face locks down, and I get the apathetic look again. The one he used to use on his parents, the pervy gardener who gawked at Alexia and I in our swimsuits, a guy at our school who picked on Hollis Smith.

He saw the dismay on my face just now, and his reaction—the one he wants to give me, anyway—is fuck you.

I stare into his eyes for just a moment longer. Then I release the breath I’ve been holding. “You know, never mind, Dash. Just forget this.”

I whirl toward the bedroom door with tears falling. “I’ve got a date,” I mutter as I push out it.

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