This book was my first foray into the YA contemporary genre. While it felt different in some ways, in many more ways, it felt like home.
Thank you to my literary agent, Beth Miller, for encouraging me to try a contemporary storyâwithout you, this book may never have been written. You are amazing in so many ways, I can't list them all. But I appreciate every single one of them.
My heartfelt thanks to my editor, Mercedes Fernandez, for the brilliant insights into character and story. This book is so much better because of your input, and it has been a true joy to work with you. Thank you to Kristine Mills and Wild Empress Photography for the beautiful cover. Thank you, as well, to my publicist, Lulu Martinez, and the rest of the team at Kensington for turning this book from a manuscript into a reality. Thank you to my new editor, Alicia Condon, and my outside publicist, Jen Halligan.
Thank you to my wonderful critique partners, Kimberly MacCarron, Vanessa Barneveld, Denny Bryce, Danielle Meitiv, and Holly Bodger. I value your thoughts on my writing so much, but I value your friendship even more. Meg Kassel and Stephanie Winklehake, we may be flung to different corners of the world, but your friendship is always constant, always true. To the rest of the DoomsGirlsâRomily Bernard, Natalie Richards, and Cecily Whiteâthank you for being here. Thanks to Michelle Monkou, and thanks to the Waterworld MermaidsâMasha, Carlene, Alethea, Kerri, Dana, and Susan.
I'd like to thank my other writing groups for being SO supportive. Seriously, you guys blow me away with your collective awesomenessâthe Firebirds, the YA Story Sisters, Waiting on 2016, and the Writers House Army.
Special shout-out to my Dream Weavers. Back when it was titled
Carlie in Crisis,
this manuscript was a finalist in RWA's 2014 Golden Heart contest. Because of this, I met my Dream-Weaver sisters and also connected with my wonderful editor, Mercedes. So, thank you, RWA, and the other local chapters of which I'm a member: WRW, MRW, YARWA, and TGN.
I adore taking writing classes to improve my craft, and I'd like to thank Laura Baker for her input and guidance. I conceived of the idea for this book on the morning her “Turning Points” class began, and that is where I brainstormed the initial outline. Thank you, as well, to Margie Lawson, whose lecture packets I read while writing this book.
Thank you to the Star Vista Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Center, in San Mateo, California, where I volunteered as a call counselor.
I've said this before, and I'll say it again: I have the best, most supportive, most wonderful family and friends in the world. I am truly blessed to be surrounded by so much love. You have moved me to tears with your thoughtful gestures that go soaring miles above what is necessary.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Anita, Sheila, Aziel, Mahira, Kai, Bo, Peter, Francis, Amy, Josh, Grace, J. D., Aruna, Nick, Steph, Gaby, Shani, and Monique.
My family. I don't even know where to begin. Among them, they have bought enough of my books to open a small bookstoreâand that's a mere example of the love and support they show me every day. Thank you to my dad, Naronk, who is without doubt my biggest champion. Thank you to the rest of the Hompluems: Uraiwan, Pan, Dana, Lana, and P. Noi. I would be lucky to have any one of youâto have all of you is like winning the family lottery. Thank you to the Dunns: Donald, Catherine, Chantal, Franck, Quentin, and Natasha. I'll never be able to express how much I appreciate each of you.
Thank you to the joys of my life, Aksara, Atikan, and Adisai. You taught me what unconditional love truly means.
And finally, to Antoine. Without you, none of this would be possible.
It's time to view the body. Family first.
Well, technically, me first. There was always only three of us in the nuclear unit, and Dad's been locked in the den for the past seventy-two hours. I've only seen him once, when he shuffled upstairs like a pajama-clad zombie and asked me if I'd eaten.
That was it: Did you eat?
Not: I prefer the cherry wood casket. Or: Let me make your grandma's travel arrangements. Or even: I know this was Mom's favorite dress, but isn't the neckline a little . . . low?
Did I eat?
Yes, Dad. I had soup from the can and microwaved pizza rolls and a bowl of cereal. The food sloshes in my stomach now as I walk down the runner to the casket I picked out because of its mauve tint.
Calla lilies pile in urns around the viewing room, and the air-conditioning wars with the sweat along my hairline. My mom smiles at me from a portrait erected behind the casket. Her eyes are hesitant and a little wary, as if she knew, somehow, some way, she would wind up here. Lifeless. Pumped full of formaldehyde. About to be gawked at by a town full of gossips.
This was only going to end one of two waysâwith Tabitha Brooks dead or in jail. I never thought I'd say this, but I'd give anything to see my mother behind bars.
I wade through the dense, chilly air and stop a few feet from the body. Behind me, my grandmother and aunt sit, a box of tissues between them, blowing their noses like it's a sport. They're the only relatives we have. Mom's parents have both passed, and Gram's husbandâmy grandfatherâtook off when my dad was a kid.
“Look at our Cecilia,” Gram sniffs. “So brave. Not a single tear shed.”
If she only knew. I'm not brave. Fifteen minutes ago, I was retching into the toilet bowl. Five minutes from now, when the doors open for the visitation, I'll be long gone, leaving Gram to shake people's hands and deal with the bit lips, the knowing eyebrows, that inevitable speaking-in-a-funeral-parlor whisper. I can hear the titters: “Is it true? Tabitha's heart stopped while she was boffing the high school quarterback? Why, she must've been twenty years his senior!”
Twenty-three years, to be exact, and a high school English teacher to boot. But she didn't actually die during sex. Instead, a few days after Tommy Farrow came forward with their affair, my mother took her own life.
What could be a clearer admission of guilt? She might as well have been caught in the act. The investigation was shut down before it even began.
I take a shuddering breath. Two more minutes. A hundred and twenty seconds and then I can leave. I steel my shoulders and walk the final steps to my mother's body.
Oh god. It's even worse than I thought.
The room whirls around me, and nausea sprints up my throat. My hands shoot out to grab the casket, stopping short of actually touching the corpse.
This . . . this thing . . . can't be my mother. She never smiled like that, all serene and peaceful-like. She never wore this much makeup; her red hair was never chopped so closely to her head. My mother was chaos and passion, devastation and joy. Dad used to say you could reach deep into her eyes and pull out a song.
Well, her eyes are closed now, and I'm not sure there'll be any music in my life, ever again.
I stumble backward, tripping over a ripple in the carpet. So that's why they call it a “runner,” I think hysterically. For all those brides fleeing the altar. And me.
Sorrow drags at me, the current threatening to pull me under. My limbs feel weighed down by rocks; my throat floods with tears. One way or the other, I'm going to drown.
I barrel out of the room and through the tasteful lobby, with its startling white sofas and oversized flower arrangements. As if grief can be subdued by clean furniture lines. My knee smacks into the coffee table, knocking the decor out of alignment, and I burst out the back door into the alley beyond.
I'm not alone.
A huddle of teenage boys breaks apart. For a moment, we all freeze, like someone's pressed the “pause” button on a video.
The boys, perhaps because they mistake me for a crazed mortician.
Me, because I'm looking at the broad shoulders and square jaw of Tommy Farrow.
I become aware of each and every compression of my heart. Notice the graying mortar between the bricks, the Dumpster that smells of embalming chemicals, the fists shoved into the boys' khaki pants.
“What . . . what are you doing here?” I stammer.
“I'm sorry,” Tommy says, running a hand through his boyish curls. “I had no idea it would turn out like this. If I did, I never would've . . .”
“What?” My voice is as dry as sandpaper. And just as harsh. “Slept with my mother? Or came forward with the truth?”
His mouth opensâand stays open. As if he can't come up with an answer. As if all rationality, logic, and reason fled with my mother's death. And maybe they did. Because I haven't been able to make sense of a single thing since I found out she's gone from this world.
Least of all the boy in front of me.
I take off down the alley, my feet spraying up gravel, my heart pumping like a metronome. Every step takes me farther from the boys. Every stride puts more distance between me and her.
How could she do this to me? Take her own life, sleep with that boy. The mother I knew would never do those things. The mother I knew converted her office into a studio so I could sketch my portraits in natural light. She set her alarm for three a.m. the entire week before my big art show, so she could keep me company during my bouts of insomnia.
But maybe I never knew her, after all.
I run out of the neighborhood, skirt around the park, and head to the lake for which our town is named. I run until my legs melt like butter and my lungs whistle air. And when I finally collapse, a heap of bones in a graveyard of buried grass and muddy shore, a single thought worms its way to the surface. A thought that's been niggling at the corner of my heart ever since the police officer rang our doorbell, his cap clasped against his chest.
If this is who my mother really was, I'm not sorry she's dead.