Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Heather Smith Meloche.
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Ebook ISBN 9780698406315
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover photographic elements courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Cover digital illustration by Tony Sahara
For my husband, my Jack. You have truly changed my world.
And to Mom. For the many hours you read to me while I sat in your lap. Thank you for nurturing my love for
I'm in a stranger's bed. A college guy from the cigar shop at the mall. He smells like tobacco, tastes like mints. He pulls my shirt over my head, then presses me against him. And I get the same thought. Every time.
I shouldn't be here.
But the bedroom is dark. Warm. So far from everything I hate. His lips find my neck. The heat from his breath melts me. His fingers run up my spine, rest at the base of my skull, bury in my hair.
I shouldn't be here.
I move a leg toward the edge of the bed.
“You're so beautiful, Tessa.” His voice soaks into my ear. And I pause, close my eyes, float above it all. Watch it like a photo shoot, like a scene with a girl who is more than I am. Her hair beautiful. Her body perfect. And she smiles. Like she's oblivious to her lame grades. Her lukewarm existence. The cut-downs from her stepdad. Her grandmother's demands. The raw absence of her real father.
“God, I want you,” Tobacco Shop Guy whispers. And the rush surges. Blood and adrenaline and a wave of power. With eyes
closed, I visualize the stretch of his bare back, my pale stomach sliding against his darker one. I imagine the thought inside his handsome head, loud and solidâ
I can't live without this girl.
Then my cell on the corner table chimes, yanking me back to reality.
“Who is it?”
I glance quickly at the phone's screen, but I already know. “My boyfriend.”
He waits for me to answer it. To decide between him and the voice in the phone. But I'm too far gone to choose.
He nods, twines his fingers in my long hair, pulls me to him. I drop the phone onto the shag rug. Close my eyes again, my body close to numb, but my mind, my emotions hyperelectric as I draw him against me. Shove away the warning in my brain.
I shouldn't be here.
And grip and arc and rise back up to the image of the girl who is more than I will ever be.
It took forty mega-large boxes of Cheerios to fill Brian Wassick's 2008 Jaguar XJ while he and his girlfriend were in the theater watching a movie.
I know I shouldn't have done it. Especially now that I'm sitting in this chair in this dark bedroom, watching my mom sleep to be sure she's not making any wrong moves.
I mean, I'm smart enough to know that picking up our crumbling life in Hallend and dropping it twelve miles over to Pineville isn't going to change a damn thing. Both Pineville and Hallend are pretty much the same. Both Detroit suburbs with their share of rich snobs and dirt poor. And despite being here now, Mom is still going to be unpredictable. And I'm still going to get the urge to fuck with people who deserve it.
Just like I did a couple of hours ago.
“Brian Wassick's a conceited ass-hat,” Carver Malowski had said in the theater lot, pointing at the parked Jag as we walked by. “The prick gave me the finger in the school parking lot last week before cutting me off with his lame freaking car.”
I actually thought the car was pretty cool. But my mind was
already working on inventive ways to attack it. Because I do this. I envision a dozen pranks a day worthy of execution. In Hallend, I pulled off a good percentage of the ones I thought up. But I'd promised myself I was going to try here in Pineville to play it cooler. For Mom's sake. To make it easier on us. That promise didn't last long.
“Cheerios,” I'd said. Then explained to Sam and Carverâmy newly acquired Pineville friendsâwhat I meant.
“Cheerios. Hell yeah!” Carver had said. “Screw seeing a movie. Let's do Jack's thing.” His whole bodyâfrom his Vans to his board shorts to his unbrushed blond hairâquivered with nervous energy. He looked like a surfer rejected by the ocean and spit into the middle of Michigan.
I glanced at Sam Kearns. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest. But after hanging with these guys for the past week, I knew not to be deceived by Sam's clean-cut hair, expensive yacht shoes, or the skeptical expression he was giving Carver. Sam could pull pranks with the best of them. And love every destructive second.
“C'mon,” Carver pushed. “Wassick totally deserves it.”
So we broke into the car with a coat hanger, hot-wired the Jag to power the windows down, then dumped the forty boxes of cereal Carver rushed to buy from the bulk food store through the open windows, laughing and coughing the whole time through the oat dust. And now Brian Wassick will be pulling Cheerios out of his ass for months.
With the deed done, all my focus is now back on Mom. Four feet from me, she mumbles in her bed, shifts from one side to the other. I tense in my chair, waiting for her to wake and waiting to find out if whatever has gone haywire and whacked out in her
brain will fire up tonight and make her do something crazy. But she settles. Her breathing evens out.
And I think for a split second of the easy out waiting for me. I could go be with my dad and live in his awesomely huge spare bedroom. He's always begging me to move in with him in his house in Canfield, just under an hour's drive away. I could be eating well. Not worrying as much. Not working as much.
But I can't desert Mom. I can't leave her alone. And I know watching over her like this might be a waste of my time and effort since she's spinning more and more out of control, but whatever. Right now, in this new town, in this tiny house we can hardly afford to rent, I'm going to sink back in this worn-out chair and make sure Mom remains still. Stays safe. And keeps her schizophrenia just between us.
“Where were you last night?” My boyfriend Seth's question is expected, but my pulse races when it hits me.
“When?” I force my eyes to stay locked on his. The early fall breeze bats against us as we walk down Main Street. The buildings rise tall on either side, boxing us in.
“When I called around eight thirty,” he says.
A million sensations flash through meâI smell the Tobacco Shop Guy, taste him, feel him all over me. The guilt burns like acid.
Seth, Pineville High's starting quarterback, thinks I'm solid. Decent and honest. Someone worth his time. We met months ago at Bigger Blooms Nursery, where we both worked summer jobs. He said he'd never noticed me before. Not until he watched me sketching pictures with my fingertip in the loose topsoil on the checkout counter. Not until he saw me with daisies tucked behind my ear.
“You're like this hot, creative granola girl,” he'd said. “Only you wear makeup and smell good and actually shave your armpits.” He laughed loosely, like nothing held it back. He was tall. Wore
khakis and designer sunglasses. He was as handsome as a clothing model. He was everything I knew I should like.
Eventually, he kissed me against the greenhouse wall. His fingers looped through my hair and behind my ears. His tongue was soft and gentle, like he was truly into me.
But even then, I only showed Seth my daisies and lip gloss. I flashed him smiles I rarely felt. He didn't see the dirt falling into my shoes, crawling under my nails, burrowing into my hair and ears.
He thinks I'm clean.
And I wish I could be. I need him to believe I am.
“Hmm. Where was I at eight thirty last night?” I say, fakethinking. I shove down the taste, touch, smell of Tobacco Shop Guy. “Oh, yeah. I remember.” I grab Seth's faceâAugust-tanned skin splashed with faint freckles, charcoal pupils floating in sky-blue irises, the chiseled confidence of the college-bound athlete he is. I kiss him until his dimples show, then say, “I was at the library. For an annoying social science report due tomorrow.” (The one I finished by five thirty.) My smile never falters.
He nods. Trusting. Then drapes his arm around my shoulders. His hip knocks like a pool ball against mine as he leads me past Pineville's downtown storefronts. He talks about football practice, how us being seniors is totally cool, how Central Michigan wants him so badly, they won't stop sending him crap-loads of welcome letters and promises for a football scholarship. He says his police officer dad and his E.R. nurse mom are so proud, they're already working on plans for a huge graduation party for him in the spring.
As I watch him, I imagine the photo I'd take of him. His handsome face angled at forty-five degrees while he looks down a
stretch of football field, his end zone easily in sight. I would put his picture on canvas and surround it with torn paper of shiny turf and smooth city concrete, words and phrases from diplomas and well-paying job descriptions. And from his forehead, I would paint a thick, bright spotlight streaming toward his future.
I practically shake my head to erase the image.
Since forever, I've dreamed of going to an art collegeâphotographing, painting, and collaging the world into how I see it. But instead, I've been forced by my wealthy grandmother, Ms. Spencer Diane Leighton, to “not throw away my future,” “think bigger,” “aspire to be more.”
My grandmother's never really looked at my art. She was always “too busy” when it was on display at district art shows. But since she's going to pay for my college education, she likes to tell me how my life is going to go.
“You can have it all,” she said last winter after deciding what my next five to seven decades will look like. She's even worked Seth into the picture since I brought him along on a lunch visit to the Hallend Steakhouse last month. “I like that boy, Tessa.” She pointed at me with her manicured nail. “Keep him.”
And truly, I need Seth with me. I mean, we don't have deep conversations or anything, but I love how he's super-sweet to me. Not all ego, like a lot of guys. Or snobby. He lives in an average house with parents who work hard. I love the way he smiles every time he sees me. And him wrapping his arm around me in the halls of Pineville High keeps me feeling stronger and just better about myself. It makes people see me as the nice, upstanding girl Seth chose. But sometimes, like today, when yet another lie about who I really am sits sharp and jabbing inside me, I loathe myself. And I'm sure I'm not worthy of him at all.
Seth squeezes my hand in his. “So you're decided on the University of Michigan?”
“For sure.” I smile for effect. “U of M is awesome. I'd love to go there.” This bit of untruth pokes at me with the others. The University of Michigan is my
choice for me. But when I mentioned to Seth that Grandma Leighton wants me to study business there so she can groom me to take over her family company, Leighton Custom Homes: Building Michigan Since 1919, he was way impressed. So I tell him it's my dream, too, and that U of M is cramming my mailbox full of letters asking me to attend.
But the truth is my B+ average, my mediocre SAT scores, and my lack of extracurriculars would absolutely
get me into U of M. As proof, I haven't gotten a single letter from the university wooing me to come there. And the stress I'm under from my grandmother's expectations for me is staggering.
Seth stops us near the coffee shop, five shops down from the Star Family Diner, where I've just snagged a waitressing job now that Bigger Blooms has cut back on the number of employees for the fall. He nods toward the diner. “So what's your new work schedule?”
“Usually a weekend shift and one or two nights during the week,” I tell him, thinking again how I should work more and save to pay my own way through college. Then I could study art. I've thought about getting loans, but being a fine artist doesn't exactly pay well. I'd be in debt for life. And my mom and stepdad say they don't want me to have to work as hard as they do, that I should focus on school and try to get into U of M. They say Grandma Leighton's offer to pay will make things easier on me.
But nothing about my grandmother is easy.
“Are you working tomorrow?” Seth cups my chin with his palm, and something deep and hungry inside me claws up to meet it. He tickles his thumb over my cheekbone, sending sweet shivers through my stomach.
“Nope,” I tell him.
“Coming to my football game tomorrow night, then?” His handsome face hovers like a hot sun above my own.
“Of course. I'll be there.”
“Cool.” He gives me a genuinely happy smile, then wraps his solid arms around my shoulders. I lean against him, do everything I can to soak up the heat. From his body. From his popularity. From all that confidence and success that radiates from him like gamma rays.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Friday night, and Seth's game is in an hour. I stand on my bed staring out the high window in my room, waiting for Juliette's car to pull up at the end of my long dirt drive. Off to the right, a small clump of woods butts up against the tiny square houses lining the road. When I was younger, I used to hang with these trees all the time. Every day and into the night. Loved the way the branches cocked at odd angles. How the roots shot up above the ground and then wound their way back down again. All random and free.
I made rooms with swaying vines for beds and rotting leaves for carpets. Stole my mother's loom thread, abandoned after her teaching job left no time for weaving, and plotted out my own personal space by winding the thread around the trunks of trees. Every wall in my forest house was as wide and as tall as I wanted it to be.
But eventually, I had to stop playing house and live in my parents', where I have very little choice about anything.
Juliette's red sedan glides to a stop at the end of my driveway, and she waits there, like I've asked, instead of coming up to the house to get me.
I hop off my bed, stumble against a stack of my mixed-media artwork glued to rectangles of foam board. I lean to restraighten the stack, and that dark sadness returns as my fingers run over the fringe of a winning art show ribbon sticking out from a bottom board.
Halfway down the stack, part of Laney Freyer's sepia-toned face stares up at me. I took her picture without her knowing. She was at the mall being the school's biggest gossip, like always. And I couldn't help it. I grabbed her image with my battered secondhand Canon. Turned her mouth into a dark cave with ink and built butterflies whipping past her lips. I filled their wings with all these slanderous words Laney likes to let looseâ
WHORE, CHEATED, FAIL, LIAR
. Then I set those poor insects on fire.
I got an A when I turned it in. My art teachers have given me As on
project. All except for one.
My self-portrait, which I've pulled from the rest and shoved onto the floor of my closet. I'd covered my photographed face with paint splashes, pasted torn strips of college apps through my limbs like nerves. And inky hands grope for me, touching me all over, until you can't see a single part of me. The day it was due, I decided not to turn it inâmy only failing grade ever in art.
My art teacher last spring, Mrs. Gretta, had said, “Self-portraits are very difficult, Tessa.” But mine was impossible. Overwhelming. Like I was being strangled every time I tried to work on it. “If you ever finish it,” Mrs. Gretta had said, “I'd love to see it.” But I can't touch it. Instead, it hides in my closet, in the dark, where it belongs.
Juliette honks. I grab a thick sweater pooled on the floor, drape it over the stack of artwork so I don't have to see it when I come home. Then I head out.
I pass my mom at the kitchen table frantically grading English essays for her classes at Worton High, the other high school in Pineville. When I was younger, she would never let me walk by her without grabbing me for a hug. But now it seems like she spends every waking moment focused on her job. Every year, public school funds shrink and good teachers are laid off. Mom's always trying to prove she's worthy enough to keep. She says if she can survive in the district until she gets tenure, she might actually make enough money for us not to worry so much about things like food and clothes and paying all our bills.
Willow, my younger half sister, sits next to Mom swiping polish across her toenails. It's orange. My least-favorite color.
“Tessa,” Mom says without looking up. Her red pen hovers over unnecessary commas and dangling modifiers. “Can you take care of the laundry and make sure the living room is clean?”
Guilt streaks through me. “I'm going out, remember?”
Mom lifts her head, squinting at me like I'm too blurry to identify. Then she smiles. “Oh, sorry. Football game, right?”
Willow looks up from her toes. “Does that mean she doesn't have to do chores?” she asks, all snotty.
“I'll do them tomorrow,” I say quickly.
Mom's lips, oval and full like my own, tighten. “It will have to be early, Tess. Your grandma Leighton is coming over around noon.”
My stomach drops with the mention of my grandmother's
name. My mom grips her red pen harder, like her gut just tumbled, too.
“Awesome.” Willow smiles and layers her big toenail with glittery orange for the millionth time. “I hope she brings me a new outfit.”
“She's my grandmother, Will, not yours,” I say.
Willow raises an eyebrow. “Then why does she buy me more clothes than you?”
“Willow.” Mom shakes her head in warning. She knows this whole subject makes my insides hurt. My biological father took off when I wasn't even a year old. “Made a mistake,” he said to Mom, and bolted. He started up a new family on the East Coast and only calls me on birthdays and occasional holidays because Grandma Leighton threatens to take away his inheritance if he doesn't.
“FYI, Will,” I say, “I told
grandmother not to buy me anything because my style's not like hers.”
“Clearly,” Willow murmurs.
Grandma Leighton is high fashion, old money, plastic surgery, and country clubs, whereas I'm cutoffs, T-shirts, and all kinds of introversion.
But I asked my grandmother not to buy me clothes mostly because my parents already owe her more than they will ever be able to repay. I don't want to get us in any deeper than we already are with her.
I come up behind my mother, put my arms around her. “I'll finish the chores first thing tomorrow.”
“Whatever,” Willow mumbles.
Mom pats my arm. “Have fun, sweetie.”
“Thanks.” As I pull away, I spy a pile of unopened bills next to her stack of ungraded essays. I consider for a nanosecond staying home to help her clean, to make things easier with my grandmother's visit tomorrow. But Mom interrupts my thought.
“Tess.” Her face is buried in her work as she talks. “I have an evaluation in a couple of weeks. It's a big deal.” Wrinkles dig into her pale forehead. “Your principal at Pineville High is on the tenure board, and I'm up for review this year. I know I don't have to tell you this, but please behave tonight.”
“I always behave.” The words shoot out quick. Because I need her to believe they're true. Even if they aren't. Because I work so hard to make everyone at home, in school, in public think I'm the most decent girl on the planet. But when nobody's watching, in my weakest moments, I fall so far outside the lines, I disgust even myself.
I wait for Mom to agree, confirm I'm the perfect child. But she's back to staring at the papers in front of her, her focus on me totally lost. The urge to leave hits me harder.
I rush through our living room full of ratty, pea-green furniture, scratched brown walls, and worn carpet. No matter how much cleaning we do, everything in our house always looks dirty and old. When I slip out the front door, I glance around, all cautious. I want to avoid my stepdad on my way to Juliette's car.