Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
“That's not part of the game.”
“Fine.” She lets out a frustrated sigh. “What if you were doing something wrong, what would you be thinking?”
“Okay. Better,” I say, still not sure how to approach this one. “I'd be thinking about a whole lot of things.”
“Not a fair answer. Be specific.”
Annoyance streaks across her face. “You know, wrong. Like
not good. Bad. Shouldn't be doing it. Could get arrested. Or piss people off. Et cetera, et cetera.”
“Nice definition.” I clear my throat. “First, I think about the safety of whatever I'm doing. I want to make sure no oneâwell, at least no one
âis going to lose an eye, a finger, a testicle.”
“A testicle?” She looks stunned.
I shrug. “It could happen. So then, I think about the strategy of whatever I'm doing. Making sure it all plays out the way it should. Like the bleacher thing. I gave that one an eight out of ten for accuracy and finesse.”
“You rate your pranks?”
“Everyone likes kudos, Tessa.”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine. What else do you think about?”
I shrug. “I guess, after all that, I stop thinking. And I start feeling.”
She casts me a sideways glance. “What do you feel?”
I suck in a breath, realize I'm about to verbalize something I've never said out loud. Probably because it's a scary and pathetic truth. “I feel powerful.”
Silence sprawls between us for a long moment. Then Tessa veers her car into a Hallend neighborhood. She stops on some random street and turns to me, her features all displaced and screwed into confusion. “You feel powerful when you're pulling one of your pranks?”
When she says it like that, it sounds stupid and backward. “Um, yeah. I guess I do.” I run my tongue along my lip ring. Then say, “I don't know, it's like things are always upside down and inside out and slippery.”
Her full attention is on me now. And now that I've started to
talk, I want to tell her this. I want to say it out loud and have someone understand. Because no one ever really listens to me. Not like Tessa is now, like what I'm saying is worth hearing.
“When I pull a prank, I not only get a sweet ego boost, but I also get this rush of power that I don't get any other time. Because, from beginning to end, I own that prank. I orchestrate it the way I want. I know how to talk myself out of any trouble I'll get into. It's all mine. All me. And not a single human being can take that from me.”
She doesn't comment. Doesn't debate it. She just nods for a long moment. Which, for some reason, is the perfect thing.
Her eyes move to the clock on her dashboard and she startles. “Where's your car? I'll drop you first.” She rummages in her tote bag and pulls out a slip of paper with an address on it.
“It's at the cemetery.”
She looks up, past me, to the Cornish Street sign and then to the houses, kept up pretty well despite being small.
“But, like I said,” I tell her, since she looks totally preoccupied and paler every second, “I can just get out and walk. I appreciate the ride to town.”
Tessa looks down the street. The paper shakes in her hands. “You know,” she says, sounding small, “I just have to do one thing. Then I'll take you to your car.”
“Okay.” I watch her put the car back into drive. Her breaths puff out in shallow beats as she moves slowly down the road, stopping in front of a house I know well.
I've never been inside, but every kid in Hallend knows this house. Because it draws a constant stream of addicts. I'm told the dudes who live there started out like spoiled trust-funders whose parents got sick of their shit and kicked them out. Now, with their
high-stakes business, they probably have guns shoved in the cracks of their Pottery Barn sofas.
Tessa's trembling. And she should be. I ought to stop her right now, but she seems determined. Her nostrils flare, and her lips are pursed as she looks past me in the passenger seat and stares at the house, freshly painted dark gray and with a “Welcome” sign hanging crookedly by the door.
“Everything all right?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says. Then with a deep breath, she clutches her tote bag, opens her car door, and gets out. Before closing the door, she leans down and says, “Stay here. Don't come in. Just stay. Sit, I mean. JustÂ .Â .Â . I shouldn't be long. Stay here.”
“Okay,” I say.
She moves robot-like up the porch steps. And it takes every ounce of my willpower not to get out of the car and drag her back. She shouldn't be here. No self-respecting person should. But Tessa must have a damn good reason to do whatever she's doing, because she's about to enter one of the biggest drug dens in this county.
I didn't expect to drag Jack with me on this illegal task of mine, but I'm really frazzled by my grandmother showing up at my school, and I'm afraid to do this alone. Just having Jack in the car, even if he has no clue what's going on, gives me some relief. I mean, what if I'm attacked inside? What if I have to kick my way out of there and bolt? Jack would be here. Waiting.
I stare at the windowless door. Inside, I imagine smoke. Guns. Syringes. People slumped in corners. My heart pounds so hard in my throat, I think I might puke.
And just standing on this porch makes me feel like a criminal. I'm sure sirens will blare any second, police will pull up, raid the place, drag me away in handcuffs. I'll get charged with possession or dealing and my grandmother will freak. Then everything my stepdad says when he yells at meâ
âwill be true.
And maybe he's right. Maybe I deserve to have everything crash in on me. I can't stop sneaking off with guys. I'm not smart enough to get into the school my grandmother wants. I'm just not as good as everyone wants me to be.
I cast a glance back at Jack in the car. He's watching me, his lip
ring glinting. The pencil-long strands of his hair all lifted up and wild, like he just ran his hand through them. He looks confused. Or maybe concerned.
I consider one more time not going in, telling Ty I couldn't go through with it. But then Ty will tell everyone what he saw. And like dominoes, one by one, I'll lose my boyfriend, maybe my best friend. If any of the school staff find out, they could tell my mom. Who will tell my stepdad. And what if my grandmother somehow finds out? I can't even imagine how she'll look at me.
The thought is more terrifying than what could be inside this house. So I raise my fist, let my knuckles rap three times on the door. Close my eyes as I hear it swing open and brace myself for what I'm about to do.
The smell of weed hits me first. I open my eyes. The guy at the door has long dishwater-blond hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, a tight-fitting T-shirt on. Two other college-age guys have spilled their long, lanky jean- and T-shirt-clad bodies into a plump red chair and a matching couch. Through red-rimmed lids, all three guys eye me up and down. Cigarettes burn in ashtrays. An open bottle of vodka sits on a low coffee table.
It's like my smoke-filled, beer-clinking garage I do everything to avoid when my stepdad's friends are over. Only there is no laughter. No light. I need out of here.
So I stop thinking. Start moving. With Olympian speed, I bolt in, rummage through my tote bag, toss the baggie of drugs down on the coffee table. “Ty told me to bring this to you.”
I turn to leave, take two broad steps toward the still-open door. But the blond-haired guy grabs my arm. Too tight. Panic pricks and flashes.
“Hey, doll, chill out.” He smiles, not letting go of me. “You
can't leave yet. Ty will be one pissed-off dealer if I don't give you some money.”
He releases my arm, heads into a back room. I stand like a statue, stare at the floor, wait. Each second like an hour.
“I know you,” a deep voice says.
My gaze jerks to the guy on the couch, with his scraggly brown tufts of hair sticking out from beneath his Tigers baseball hat. I know him, too. He's from Gifford Plains, the town past Hallend. I saw him at a pool hall in Gifford where I went with a guy I hooked up with over the summer. He was friends with my hookup. Wore the same hat then. Talked to me a lot. Leaned into me in the darkness of the gaming room, the pinball and video games bleeping and plinking. He was interested.
Hat Guy stumbles to standing, but then moves to hover as tall and thin as a coat tree next to me. He's got a divot in his chin. Like Jack's, but this guy's face is wide, square, his jaw angling into his ears. His eyes are shadowed by the rim of the hat, and I can tell his brown hair is super-dirty, shiny with grease.
I remember thinking he was cute when I first met him. Now I just want him to look the other way, don't like that he saw me with some random guy I slept with once, the loose connection we have making what I'm doing now even more uncomfortable.
“Your hair is longer.” He fingers a strand of blond trailing against my shoulder.
I nod. Can't talk. Don't think he'll hurt me. But can't breathe here.
“And you're still super-hot.”
I have nothing to say to that. There is so much ugliness around me, on me right now. I feel filthy.
The blond, ponytailed guy comes back into the room, an
envelope in his hand. “Here, doll. Give this to Ty.” He presses the envelope, thick with bills, into my palm. “Tell him Big Q”âhe pounds his chest lightly to show me that's himâ“said he always comes through for us. He's a good dude.”
I nod again. Feel my swollen tongue, the pressure building in my head, behind my eyes. I twist away, run to the cool safety of my car. And Jack.
When I slip into the seat, everything seems coated in the dingy darkness of that houseâlike a thick, icky film I know I won't ever be able to scrape away. I'm covered in it. And I don't know how to feel or what to do next or who I am now that I've gone and done this thing that seems so way beyond anything else I've done.
“That place is so gray.” I shove the envelope into my bag and start the car.
Jack might be nodding beside me, but I only vaguely register him because I'm drowning in the ugliness of it all.
“It's justÂ .Â .Â . I can'tÂ .Â .Â . I mean, it's like this fucked-up self-portrait in my closet. Because I used to be, like, an artist. Or maybe I still am. Or never was. I don't fucking know.”
“Um, okay,” Jack says, but I don't acknowledge him. Don't even look at him. I talk for myself. My thoughts bubbling up like thick tar from some pit in my brain.
“I can totally paint other people. I mean, no problem. Right? I take their photo and I might have to search really hard for the color that fits them, but somehow, I find it.”
I work to control my breathing, work to give the car the gas it needs to pull away from the curb.
“But, I don't know, I can't find the colors for me. I mean, I used to be able to see tons of colorsâafter my biological dad ditched us and took off, and my mom and I lived alone in this tiny house
on a street called Lemon Lane, and I was, like, way too small to remember. But I do. I remember all this bright, vibrant, crazy color even though I was only three.”
I press harder on the gas, focusing on the end of the street up ahead.
“I mean,” my voice cracks, “my room had tangerine walls, and I used to love orange before I knew about cigarettes or fire or certain types of clay that won't come out of clothes. And our living room had a forest-green carpet. The horses in the field next door were buttermilk and burnt sienna. Our compact car was sky blue. Everything was really colorful. And I loved my sandbox and my dolls and my life.”
My Civic keeps moving. Jack stays silent. I watch the houses streaming by until we're off Cornish Street, out of the neighborhood, headed toward Hallend's Main Street.
“But then my mom got remarried to my stepdad, and the color started draining away, just started to up and freaking leave. Like in my memories and in everything. I don't even remember as much, you know, just these weird gray flashes of things, and I try to remember the color of cars and houses and flowers and rooms. But most of the time, I just can't.”
I shake my head. “And that portrait of me, it started out a color photograph, and I'm sure it had this pinky-peach flesh and wheat-stalk-blond hair, but then I started layering it and layering it until my face was covered and my skin and my whole body and every layer got grayer and then grayer. And that's the way it is. Everything about me is. So. Fucking. Gray now. When I try to remember it or see it or think about it or photograph it or draw it, there's no color. I can't find the color. I can't. It's gone. I can't find it. I can't.”
“Tessa, stop the car.” Jack's voice is firm beside me.
I look at him, but he's distorted. And I realize I'm crying.
“Stop the car. Now,” he says.
I pull into the first place I see, a half-empty parking lot belonging to a family restaurant. A neon sign in the window flashes “Coney Dogs!” I park.
Jack gets out of the car and comes around to my side. He lifts me out of my seat, wraps his arms around me. I bury my face into his chest. His pine-cedary scent cuts through the residue of weed in my nose. His heartbeat is regular, even. Like a metronome that helps me breathe. Relax. Stop crying.
“Are you okay?” he asks without letting me go.
“I don't know.”
“You can tell me what's wrong.”
“No,” I say. “I can't.”
Still he doesn't let me loose. I don't let go of him either. Just stand, and breathe. Until my cell phone chimes in my coat pocket. Then chimes again.
I pull my phone out to see Seth's name on the screen. I can't let him know anything is wrong. My finger plunges against the “Accept Call” button.
“Hey.” I force a smile into my voice.
Just inches above me, Jack winces.
“Hey, Tess. How was that tour Juliette had you do?”
“Fine.” I wipe my face with my jacket sleeve, the slick of tears cold against my cheeks. “The tour was easy. Oh, and my grandmother, she, well, whatever. She wants us to come for dinner at her house.”
Jack takes a large step away from me.
“Great,” Seth says. “I'm free a couple nights next week.”
“So what are you up to now?” he asks.
“Just homework.” I clear my throat, try to sound normal.
“All that math from hell?”
I force a laugh. “Yep. Hellish math. My least favorite.”
Jack stares at the passing cars on the street. His tongue glides along his lip ring, his shoulders hunched and tight.
“Well, give me a call before you go to bed tonight, okay?” Seth says.
“Okay. I'll call later.” I hang up. The passing cars
into the silence. Jack doesn't turn back to me.
“We should go get your car,” I say, wiping away the last trace of my tears.
He gives me a critical look. “Your boyfriend wouldn't be too happy if he knew you were in Hallend?”
His question makes me scowl. “That's none of your business.”
He shrugs, sighs. “Okay. But you won't share with him that you were a crying wreck two minutes ago?”
I shake my head. “He's got a lot going on. He doesn't need to worry about me.”
“Huh.” Jack lifts an eyebrow. “Word is you've been dating him for a couple of months now.”
“Yeah. So what?”
“So you two are getting close, then?”
“Well, yeah,” I say. “He's really sweet.”
Jack steps closer until there's only a foot between us. His face holds the trace of a smile. “Sweet? Really? Do you know, Tessa, how you should describe a person you've got an intimate relationship with?”
His breath beats against my nose. His woodsy scent lifts from his skin and clothes, stunning me to silence.
“Let me tell you.” His blue eyes hold mine. “You should use words like
.” His gaze slides down to my lips. “And
.” Then his focus drops farther, stopping not-so-subtly on my chest. “And
I swallow hard. “
isn't a word.”
“It is with the right person,” he says softly. We're an inch from touching, and I can feel my need for him biting and clawing. I want him to just grab me, kiss me, push into me, and erase everything bad that's happened today and every day before.
But Jack steps away, leaving me shaking my head to regain control. He sniffs, then holds his hand out. “Give me the keys. I'll drive. I know exactly where the cemetery is. I'll get us there faster.” He says it like nothing just happened between us. Like he wants to get away from me.
I hand him my keys, head to the passenger side, staring at his profile as he moves us out onto the road. And I suddenly wonder, with Hallend being Jack's old hometown, if he understands what I'm doing here.
“Had you ever been to that house on Cornish before?” I ask.
Jack opens his mouth. Then shakes his head. “I've never been inside.”
But just because he's never gone inside doesn't mean he doesn't know
inside. Panic prickles. “Jack, please don't tell anyone where I was today.”
Jack doesn't look at me. He keeps his face stony and his voice curt. “Tessa, what you do is your business.”
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Just before we pull up to the cemetery, my phone pings with a text from Willow.
I need a ride home from the library. Mom's grading. Dad said to call you to get me. Where are you?
“Shit!” I mutter, texting that I'm on my way.
Jack glances at my phone. “Your boyfriend demanding your attention again?”
“My sister demanding my attention.” I take a deep breath. “And my stepdad.”
The crease in Jack's forehead smooths, and he nods.
He pulls my Civic onto a dirt drive filled with potholes that we wobble and rock over until we stop next to a 1970s-looking car painted bright orange. It's the last car I'd choose to own, but it's unique. It stands out. A car befitting Jack S. Dalton.
A rusted wrought-iron fence surrounds the graveyard, ending in a pair of giant gated doors standing straight in front of us. In the arch above the entrance is a sign, jagged with corrosion, reading “Porter Cemetery.” We get out of the car, and I make my way to the driver's side again. Jack pulls keys from his messenger bag and opens his car to toss the bag onto the backseat.
“Do you know someone buried here?” I ask.