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Underneath the Sycamore Tree

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It happened in stages.⁣ My father left.⁣ My twin sister died of an incurable autoimmune disease.⁣ My mother started breaking down.⁣ Then I was diagnosed with the very thing that took my other half from me.⁣ That was when I realized Mama’s eyes turned gold when she cried.⁣ So I moved in with my father and his new family—new wife, new son, new stepbrother.⁣ Kaiden Monroe made me feel normal.⁣ Hated. Cared for. Loathed. And … loved.⁣ Somewhere along the way, I’d found solace in the boy with brooding eyes.⁣ But everything happens in stages.⁣ And nothing good ever lasts.⁣
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i cried my eyes out through out this book & iam still grieving ?
03 August 2021 (00:29) 
LMFOAOAAOO bless you, im still yet to read this so um, good luck to me too ig and hopefully i cry as much as madita on tiktok
16 November 2021 (07:26) 

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Underneath the Sycamore Tree

B Celeste





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41


Author’s Note

Where The Little Birds Go Sneak Peek


About the Author

This Book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, duplicated, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Underneath the Sycamore Tree Copyright © 2019 by B. Celeste

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Cover Artist: RBA Designs Interior by: Micalea Smeltzer

Published by: B. Celeste

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author


This book is for the chronically ill.

For the people who fight every single day for relief, belief, and a cure.

This book is to fear.

Fear that drives us to keep fighting whether we know the outcome or not.

This book is for anybody who feels they aren’t heard, seen, or believed. I hear you, see yo; u, and believe you.

Oh, and to Aliana, who said she’ll stab anyone who tries claiming Kaiden.



In My Blood – Shawn Mendes Nobody’s Home – Avril Lavigne You Are My Sunshine – Elizabeth Mitchell i hate u, i love you – Gnash Late Thoughts – Hanx

Team – Noah Cyrus & Max How You Remind Me – Nickelback Goodbyes – Post Malone ft. Young Thug My Immortal – Evanescence Soon You’ll Get Better – Taylor Swift


Mama’s eyes are golden when she cries. Not like mine, which are a murky shade of dirty pool water—not fully green or brown, but a mixture of the two. Though when I was just shy of ten years old and saying goodbye to my sister, Mama told me that my glassy gaze was speckled with emeralds just like Daddy’s.

But Daddy wasn’t at Lo’s funeral. Not when the pastor spoke the eulogy to the half-empty church, or when the slow toll of cars paced the streets to the cemetery, or even when they lowered the kid-sized white coffin into the ground. Mama and I watched every step of the way. Her eyes trained on the half of her heart sinking into the dark soil, never to be seen again, while mine stared off into the distance waiting for Daddy’s familiar face to appear.

Looking back now, Lo had suspected the end of our parent’s marriage long before Daddy packed his things and left. She always knew it’d end that way.

I wondered what else she knew.

Mama wipes a stray tear from her eye, hoping I won’t notice how they glisten in the fluorescent lighting of the drab white room. I want to tell her I’m all right, that everything will be fine. But the weak attempts of comfort would roll off her tense shoulders in disbelief.

When Lo was diagnosed with lupus it was too late to save her. The disease had eaten away at every piece of her—body, skin, and organs. No matter how hard Mama tried controlling the disease, it couldn’t be fought.

Logan died in her sleep.

Everything was different now. Mama is cautious, always keeping a close eye on the things she blamed herself for missing in the past—the sunburns, constant napping, and aches. Despite Grandma telling her not to feel guilty over the unknown, Mama’s eyes dull into empty pits every time they swipe over a picture of Logan.

They do the same thing when she looks at me, because Logan Olivia Matterson was my twin. Every feature on our fair faces were identical, down to the button nose and full lips. We shared the same silver-blonde hair and green eyes that we got from Mama, although I always thought Lo’s were prettier.

Mama tries being strong for me, but I see her break apart a little more each day since that sunny August afternoon we laid Lo to rest. There were no clouds or gray skies to match the mood of the moment. No rain or thunder to match the hammering of our broken hearts. It was beautiful. Peaceful. Birds were quiet, the breeze was light, and the sun kissed our skin in comforting caresses. There’d been a bright rainbow in the distance, and I knew it was Lo’s last gift to me because it hadn’t rained in days.

Mama’s wavering composure next to me makes the too-clean room we sit in much smaller. She holds my hand, squeezing it as the doctor with salt and pepper hair explains the results from the labs they ran last week.

Counting the little brown freckles speckled across Mama’s hand, I take a deep breath.

The doctor’s words fade until silence greets the room. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Emery?” His voice is deep and a mixture of soft sympathy and firm curiosity, trying to pinpoint my level of recognition.

I just wish he’d call me Em. I prefer it over my full name, just like Logan liked Lo. But the doctor keeps calling me Emery and Mama Mrs. Matterson even though she changed her name after Daddy left. She’s Ms. Keller now.

Does the doctor see a scared little girl when he studies me? Or does he see what’s behind the mask I wear—the one I wear every day. The very mask I wear when I’m at home with Mama and Grandma wanting Mama to look at me without being sad. The one that covers my features as I take another frame of Logan from the mantle to ease Mama’s heartbreak a little more. All the pictures of Lo litter the room I once shared with my twin, stuffed away in my closet, hidden under my bed, covering the bookshelf, anywhere she won’t see them.

I doubt the doctor sees that girl at all though. So, I lie and tell him I understand. He can interpret my bleak distance any way he wants. I just stare at Mama, watching a second tear slide down her flushed cheek at my reply.

It’ll be okay, Mama.

I don’t dare breathe the words.

Chapter One

There’s a dead clump of caramel hair resting in the palm of my porcelain hand. I run my chipped yellow nails over the once-silky strands and stare long and hard like I can somehow reattach them.

Two months ago, I tried dyeing it. The evidence of my failed attempt rests in my hand, a mixture of brown and blonde undertones. It was a summertime project that Mama told me not to bother with. She insisted my hair was too brittle.

Like always, Mama was right.

Like always, I was too stubborn to listen.

Not only did my tender scalp burn from the dye, but my hair fell out minutes after applying the color. It left my blonde strands in patches that Mama helped me rinse out.

Wrapping the evidence of my abnormality tight in my grasp, I stare at my reflection in the large mirror that hangs over the vanity. I see paleness. Baggy, glassy green-brown eyes. Narrowed cheekbones tinted pink but not from the expensive blush like Mama wore once upon time. Mine is from my body’s internal war on itself.

I’ve filled out since starting new medication last month. The doctor told me it should help regulate my system, so I stop losing weight. My cheekbones aren’t as prominent anymore, nowhere near as hollow and sickly. Instead of the three pills I was taking before leaving Bakersfield, I take nine. It’s worth it, I suppose, to not look so skeletal.

Usually I keep my head down while I go about my morning routine. It’s easier than seeing the way my collarbones stick out and hair thinly frames my face. I hate seeing my reflection because I don’t recognize the girl staring back.

Today I force myself to look. Dropping my fallen hair onto the granite countertop, I study what the mirror shows from the waist up. A sliver of my lean stomach peaks out from the blue tank top I sleep in. Travelling my gaze upward, I notice slim arms, narrow shoulders, all the way up to thin, chapped lips. Nothing about me is particularly beautiful, yet I still see Mama in my frailty.

For the longest time, she wouldn’t look at me for more than a few seconds. Her eyes would find mine as she told me good morning or wished me a good day at school, but then they would quickly go anywhere else. Grandma would pat my hand and tell me not to let it get to me. It wasn’t that easy though.

When Mama looked at me, she saw Logan and the possibility of another early funeral. I was always going to be a reminder that one of her daughters was dead, and for all she knew, I was mere steps behind.

So, I called Dad.

Grandma told me I didn’t have to move, but I knew it was for the best. I didn’t want to know that Mama’s eyes turned gold when she cried. They were always golden when I was around.

The mirror in front of me is bigger than the one in my old house. Unlike that old stained beige bathroom with chipped tiles, this one is light gray with hardwood floors and all new fixtures. Instead of a walk-in shower, I’ve got a large bathtub that could fit two sets of twins in it if necessary, and the amount of shelf space would have made Lo jealous.

A knock at my bedroom door pulls me away from my assessment. Brushing the loose hair into the white garbage can by the counter, I walk into the main room and hear Dad’s voice on the other side of the door.

“Are you up, Emery?” His voice is gravelly and hesitant, a tone he’s held since he helped unpack what little I brought with me from Mama’s house to this one across the state.

Truthfully, I’m not sure why either he or Mama agreed. I only ever heard from him on my birthday and Christmas and the conversation never lasted more than ten minutes if he could help it. He’s remarried with a gorgeous wife who’s the exact opposite of Mama in both looks and personality, and a stepson who’s broody and evasive no matter how hard I try getting to know him.

His life here was perfect.

Until me.

I open the door and give him a sleepy smile, which he returns easily. He tries to make me comfortable. His wife, Cam, has been nothing but sweet and her son Kaiden, despite his typical avoidance, could be worse. They’ve been welcoming since I arrived a month and a half ago, giving me anything I needed. A new doctor, a chance to decorate my room how I want, and space. Lots of space.

Dad works at a pharmaceutical company now. I don’t remember much of him from when I was little, just the suits he wore and the way he would give Mama a chaste kiss if we were around or a simple nod if he thought we weren’t looking. I never realized how unhappy they both looked then.

This man doesn’t look like the one I remember. His dark brown hair is peppered with gray, especially around the ears, and his hairline is receding. The natural tan skin I’ve always been jealous of is slightly wrinkled, and his eyes have a dull to them that I don’t recall seeing in the past. Is that from age or circumstance?

“Cam has breakfast cooking.” He rubs his arm, covered by a navy blazer, and gives me a weary look. “If you aren’t up to going today…”

Today. The first day at a new school. It’s my junior year even though I should be a senior like Kaiden. After missing too many classes from hospital admissions, I was held back.

“I’ll be fine.” It’s a weak reassurance that neither of us truly believes. It isn’t a lie though. I won’t be walking into a shark cage bleeding, so there are worse things to experience.

His gaze lingers, his eyes a light shade of brown with the same specks of emerald Mama told me I have. I don’t see it when I look in the mirror though.


I stand there, gripping the doorknob in my hand until my fingers hurt, waiting for him to say something.

He clears his throat. “Happy birthday.”

Today. My eighteenth birthday.

The way Dad looks at me is like he’s trying to see someone else. Maybe he wonders if Logan would have looked the same. It’s been nine years since she passed, ten since he left.

What does he remember of her?

Instead of asking, I swallow my inquiry and force a tight-lipped smile. “Thank you.”

I told him I didn’t want a party or even a special dinner. When I was younger, he and Mama would ask what we wanted for our birthdays—the meal was always our choice. Lo would always ask to go out, while I always asked to stay in. The cake was the same. Red velvet with white buttercream frosting. Honestly, there was nothing I wanted from Dad now besides temporary shelter.

No homecooked meal.

No red velvet cake.

Part of me feels like wanting anything from Dad is somehow cheating on Mama. Like forgiving him means I don’t care that he left or hurt her or us. No matter what, he abandoned us when we needed him. When Lo needed him.

He tips his head, pauses, and then turns toward the downstairs. Kaiden’s room is down the hall from mine, but he doesn’t bother him. I wonder if he’s already up and ready, an early riser. Sometimes I’ll hear him leave his room late at night and watch him sneak out of the house.

I wonder where he goes. Or if Cam knows. Or if Dad does. It isn’t my place to ask, so I leave it be.

It takes me fifteen minutes to throw on a pair of blue jeans with one of the knees ripped out and an oversized black sweater that falls off my shoulder. Running a brush through my tangled hair and leaving it loose, I note that it’s finally passing my shoulders again. Mama would probably be happy to hear that, she always loved when Lo and I kept our hair long.

Slipping into a beige pair of Toms that have pineapples all over them, I grab my new black and white checkered backpack and head downstairs. Dad is finishing up his breakfast because he has to leave for work, but Cam and Kaiden are both still working on theirs.

Cam greets me with a gentle smile, Kaiden doesn’t look at me at all, and Dad gives me a head bob before getting up and rinsing his plate off in the large stainless steel sink.

Their house is huge—two stories, plus a fully-finished basement that’s mostly used for storage. The outside is painted white, the windowsills on the bottom floor all have flowerpots attached with pink and purple plants, and the backyard stretches far enough to have a fire pit, garden, and grill area.

It isn’t anything like the house I grew up in, especially inside. There’s so much space to walk around in without tripping over furniture or people. Everything smells floral and fresh, and the modern matching style throughout every room differs from the rustic thrift store finds that litters Mama’s house.

But I like Mama’s house more.

It may have been small, but it made things more intimate. We could joke about tripping over the coffee table, which all of us had at some point. There was a bright green coat rack by the door that stuck out like a sore thumb against the pale yellow wallpaper that had little white and yellow stripes decorating the bottom half, and an orange bowl that keys, receipts, and other odds and ends always found their way in.

Mama’s house is colorful, quaint.

Dad’s house is…normal.

I never understood normal.

I’m playing with the scrambled eggs and bacon on my plate when Dad kisses Cam goodbye and tells Kaiden and I to have a good first day of school. Since I’m without a car, Kaiden is supposed to drive us and show me where the office is since Dad couldn’t get time off to bring me to the school early and show me himself.

Cam tried getting Kaiden to take me last week to familiarize myself with the campus layout, but I didn’t want him to feel obligated, so I lied and told her it was fine. Truth is, my heart is pounding so hard in my chest from nerves that I worry I’ll die from a heart attack long before my disease does me in. If the room gets any quieter, they’d probably hear it drum an uneven tune.

I’m halfway done with my breakfast before I glance at the clock and then at Cam. She knows my worries and gives me a small smile before passing me a granola bar, money for lunch, and a signed piece of paper with Dad’s name on the bottom.

For school records, she tells me.

Slipping everything into my bag, I ask Kaiden if he’s ready. His response is nothing more than a grunt before he pushes away from the table, grabs his bag and car keys, and then gestures toward the front door.

He doesn’t tell Cam goodbye.

She doesn’t wish us a good day.

She just smiles sadly as we leave.

I want to ask Kaiden why he’s so angry and won’t talk. Cam seems like a nice woman, so I don’t get why he acts so dismissive around her. I know better than to pry in other people’s business. Then they’d have a right to pry into mine.

When we get to the school, I follow Kaiden inside from the student parking lot already packed with cars. He simply points in the direction of the office and shoots me a sarcastic good luck over his shoulder before disappearing into a crowd of people who slap his back and greet him with big smiles while completely ignoring my existence.

Happy birthday to me.

There’s a decorative brick wall behind the principal’s desk that matches the exterior of the building. It doesn’t necessarily match the white walls or rest of the classy decor, though I haven’t had time to explore yet.

The dark-haired man sitting in front of me is young and burly, probably late thirties, and doesn’t seem to be particularly organized based on the way he searches through papers for my file. He seems flustered. I’m sure if I looked hard enough I’d see sweat dot his brow.

He gives me an apologetic smile before rifling through a different stack. “The guidance counselor usually handles this.”

I’m not sure why he tells me that, so I just nod. I could ask him on the counselor’s whereabouts, but I’m not sure I care. If Mama were here she’d keep conversation going easily by asking about the school’s history or why Exeter High is home of the Wildcats and not something more fitting of the purple and gold colors.

She’s not here though.

Neither is the counselor.

Neither is Logan.

Principal Richman, according to the nasally secretary who guided me to his chaotic workspace, finally lifts a manila folder off his desk and looks at me triumphantly.

“Emery Matterson.”

At this rate I won’t make it to class until third period. Participation in Government, or PIG as my last school referred to the civics course, isn’t exactly what I want to start my day with, but it’s better than math. I’ll miss first period Geometry and second period Phys Ed. Nothing to cry over, that’s for sure.

His dark eyes scan the contents of my file before tugging on the collar of his white button-down. Clearing his throat, he reads over the paper I gave him with my father’s signature.

“Right.” He nods, setting down the papers and giving me a quick onceover. “Well, Ms. Matterson, it looks like you were mailed the schedule and school policies already, and you’ll receive textbooks in your classes today. Your schedule should list your locker number, which you’ll get the lock and combination to from the Phys Ed teacher. Your father mentioned setting you up with weekly check-ins with our guidance counselor and nurse. Our counselor won’t be back until next week, but I can take you to Ms. Gilly in the nurse’s office before I have someone show you to your locker.”

Wait a minute. “Why would I do weekly check-ins with the counselor and nurse?”

He hesitates, brows furrowing for a moment before locking his hands together on his desk. “Typically, we have transfers meet the counselor about the transition to ensure they’re comfortable during the first few weeks. Most students have been in the district their entire lives, so they know the whereabouts. We understand new schools, especially for later admitted students, can be difficult to adjust to.”

My jaw ticks. “And the nurse?”

He shifts uncomfortably in his chair until it creaks under his weight. “I assumed your father would have spoken to you about it. Students with extensive medical problems tend to build relationships with nursing staff early on. It’s our understanding that you’ve had some issues in the past…”

Issues. What exactly has my father told the school? I’m sure the file transferred from my old one says plenty about me without his influence. My twin died, I missed too many days because of the same disease that killed her, and now I’m here. But did Dad emphasize that I’m better than I was in their apparent conversation about me?

My spine straightens. “My father must have forgotten to mention it to me. But it’s not something I need to do, so—”

“All due respect, Ms. Matterson—”

“It’s Emery or Em.”

He nods once. “Emery,” he corrects, “I agree with your father that it’s of the utmost importance you get comfortable with the nurse here. Things happen despite medication and self care. If there’s an emergency, it’s best Ms. Gilly knows what to do.”

Like call 911?

Biting back the retort, I force myself to nod because arguing with the principal doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. I’ve never gotten in trouble before and don’t plan to start now.

“If you don’t mind me saying, the guidance counselor also does sessions for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Perhaps you’ll find a friend in her as well.”

I’m sure he means well by the suggestion, but it doesn’t sit well with me. “Principal Richman, my sister died nine years ago. I may never move on from that, but I have learned to cope all on my own by now.”

He flattens his already pristine shirt. “I won’t force you into anything, then. Come on, I’ll show you to the nurse’s office.”

Before we make it to his door, the nasally secretary with box dyed blonde hair and thick glasses calls out his name. “The new high school English teacher is here for your meeting.” The way she eyes me has me narrowing mine before glancing at the half empty hallway.

Principal Richman sighs and gives me an indecisive stare. Shifting from one foot to the other, I grip the strap hanging on my shoulder. “I can find my way. I brought the map that came with the schedule.”

There’s still time to make it before second period, so I’m thankful when his expression turns from reluctance to relief over my suggestion. I’m sure he doesn’t want to give the new student a tour anyway.

“The high school classrooms are all on the eastern wing of the second floor, separated from the new middle school wing, just up the spiral staircase down the hall. I’m sure if need be, we can get your stepbrother to show you around.” He clears his throat for what seems to be the thirtieth time. “Kaiden Monroe, if memory serves, correct?”

I nod.

He purses his lips. “Well then, you best be off. Welcome to Exeter High, Ms. Matterson. We’re happy to have you.”

I don’t bother correcting him on my name.

Logan would have.

Chapter Two

There’s a freckle on my wrist that keeps my full attention during last period. It’s been a quiet, uneventful day and I’m glad. Minimal staring, no trouble getting a table at lunch, and nobody to ask me to recite fun facts about myself.

I’ve made mental notes to myself throughout the day. There’s no time to stop by your locker in between the morning periods, so just carry your bag. The lunchroom is like a mosh pit scattered with rectangular and circular tables, with no particular cliques like the high schools in movies. UGG boots are making a comeback.

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about any of those things. My shoulder aches from carrying my backpack on it all morning, the lunchroom was too loud from the chatter, and UGG boots have always been hideous. Then again, my pineapple Toms get just as much judgmental glances.

What strikes the most interest to me is watching Kaiden interact with his peers—boys in letterman jackets and girls who twirl their hair and bat their lashes at them. He’s popular here, an entirely new person. He talks and jokes and argues. People seem to love him despite equally seeming to envy him.

I wonder why he isn’t that way at home. Does his mother know how he acts at school? I heard a pink-haired girl tell her friend at lunch that he’s going to take the lacrosse team to the national championship this year. She said it’ll be his farewell, his sendoff before graduation. Does Cam go to his games? Dad mentioned he played, but never said if they attended any events.

Brushing the thoughts off, I focus back on my surroundings. Ninth period. Two twenty-five. There’s twenty-three minutes left until my first day at Exeter is complete. Only two hundred and sixty-nine more to go until junior year is over.

Advanced English drags. Between exhaustion seeping into my bones from first day jitters, to the noise level of the packed classroom, it puts me on edge and keeps me glancing up at the black clock on the wall off to the side. I swear barely five seconds pass each time. I can feel a flare forming, which hopefully a nap before dinner will ease before it gets worse.

Instead of focusing on the mindless conversations Mr. Nichols, a young twenty-something fresh out of grad school, lets us have after he explains class expectations at the beginning of the period, I look at the artwork littering the colorful walls. They’re scenes from books, I realize. By the looks of it, each wall is a different novel ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Hunger Games.

Someone drops into the seat beside me, scraping the metals legs against the tile floor. I peel my gaze off the walls to see Kaiden staring at me with indifference. The redheaded boy that occupied the chair before is now across the room, staring wide-eyed in our direction.

“What are you doing here?” A few onlookers are invested in the exchange between us, peering back and forth between me and him.

“I’m in this class.”

Advanced English for juniors must mean regular English for seniors. I was stuck in an Advanced Biology class full of freshman last year and felt like the dumbest kid in class.

I don’t answer him. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice him when I came in. When I saw how swamped it was, my main focus was on finding an empty seat, not examining who was occupying the others. When Mr. Nichols did roll call, I obviously didn’t pay attention to names until I heard mine.

My eyes go back to the wall and focus on the mixture of greens and blues. I wish I could paint. Mama used to spend a lot of time in the spare room painting pretty pictures of still lives and landscapes. Sometimes, she would paint Lo and I. After Lo…she stopped painting altogether.

“They did a vote on what books to put on the walls a few years back,” he explains, catching me off guard. “People were miffed that the majority choice didn’t make it because of some bullshit that happened in the book.”

My nose scrunches. “What book?”

“Hell if I remember.”

The brunette girl sitting in front of me turns around after dutifully ignoring me the entire period. “It was the Jodi Picoult book about the sick girl who needed a transplant to survive.”

Wetting my bottom lip, I nod. My Sister’s Keeper was one of Lo’s favorite movies to watch because the ending didn’t match the book. It was sad because the sick girl didn’t survive, but happy because her pain no longer made her suffer.

“Anyway, the student counsel nixed it because there was a girl who was going through the same thing and they wanted to be considerate of her feelings,” the girl explains, flipping her brown hair over her shoulder.

I blink in disbelief. “That’s why they didn’t go through with it?”

She shrugs. “Plus, it’s sad.”

One of my brows twitches. “The Hunger Games is literally about kids killing other kids for sport. How is that not sad?”

Kaiden snorts as the girl rolls her eyes at me like I’m the one being ridiculous. “That isn’t real. Duh.”

Not sure what to say, I shake my head and stare back at the wall. People hate realistic stories like Picoult’s because they could happen to anyone. People die—of cancer, accidents, there’s no discrimination in death. I guess wearing rose-colored glasses is easier than dark shades.

The girl goes to speak, but Kaiden cuts her off. “You might want to stop talking, Rach. You’re not coming off very intelligent. Plus, you know what I told everyone.”

I gape at his blunt statement.

Rach, presumably Rachel, glares. Giving me a quick once over, she rolls her eyes before glancing back at him. “You don’t have to be a dick, Kaid. I’m just telling her what happened.”

He leans forward. “Funny, you didn’t seem to mind me being a dick earlier when you begged me to screw you in the locker room.”

Her cheeks turn pink.

…and so do mine.

Clearing my throat, I sink into my seat and pull out a notebook to doodle in until the bell rings. Kaiden and Rachel leave me alone, though their staring contest doesn’t go unnoticed by me because Rachel looks like she wants to stab him with the pen she’s holding.

When the bell chimes, I stuff my belongings back in my backpack and stand up. Everyone files out of the room in fifteen seconds flat, ready to leave for the day until they’re forced back tomorrow. Kaiden hangs behind, which seems suspicious to me. Reluctantly, I walk over to where he stands by the door with crossed arms.

“Your shoes are hideous,” he states.

Glancing down at my Toms, I click my heels together. After a few seconds, I lock eyes with him again. “So is your attitude.”

He grins. “Ready?”

His lack of denial is semi-endearing. At least he knows it, accepts it, and doesn’t pretend he has manners. Although, it may be nice not to be on the receiving end of his insults.

He nudges my shoulder as we walk down the hall. “Don’t look so sad. I’m like this with everyone. Can’t play favorites just because your dad is boning my mom.”

I stop and stare at him.



“What’s the point of bullshitting?”

I’m not sure.

“Way I see it, we’re stuck together. I’m not going to hold back what I think to save you from getting your feelings hurt.” He starts walking, causing me to follow close behind. “If it makes you feel better, I told your dad the same thing. He’s not my biggest fan.”

“Seems mutual,” I murmur.

He grins again. “Doesn’t seem like you’re his biggest fan either from what I’ve seen.”

I don’t answer.

“Daddy issues can be hot.”

My eyes narrow. “Stop talking.”

He chuckles and shoves the front doors open, not bothering to hold them for me as I quicken my pace to catch up to his long strides.

The students that hang around talking and joking in the lot don’t spare us a glance. It’s like outside the high school doors, Kaiden is a different person and everyone knows it. And me? I’m no one.

Our ride home is in blissful silence.

When we get there, he ignores everyone.

The week goes by in welcome monotony. Most people wouldn’t like living the same routine, but I find it peaceful. There were too many days in my past that I couldn’t predict.

Would I be able to get out of bed?

Could I go to school?

Would I be able to make it throughout an entire day without tearing up because my body aches so brutally?

Chronic illness gives little wiggle room for peace of mind. Having “good” days doesn’t mean the pain isn’t there, it just means that it’s not as noticeable—like a limb that’s sort of falling asleep but still functioning. Days where I have energy can end abruptly for no reason other than fate playing games with me.

Like oncoming hip pain that feels like you continuously slammed your hipbone into a wall. Or finger pain that feels like you’ve shut your fingers into a door until they’re so swollen you can’t straighten them. I’ve nodded off in the middle of a class more times than I can count, not because the material is dry, but because my body is tired of fighting its own cells. Inside the sad shell of my agonizing existence is a battlefield, and I’m on both sides holding trigger-ready guns waiting for the bullets to leave the barrels.

Yet, I feel lucky. I’m still breathing.

There are a few girls who sit by me at lunch that also share classes with me throughout the day. Sometimes they’ll ask me questions, but usually they leave me alone and talk about the teachers and classmates, like Mr. Nichols and Kaiden. Thankfully, I don’t think they know who I am to Kaiden. I’m sure they’ve seen me get out of his car, even sure I’ve seen a few guys stare and make jokes when Kaiden leaves me behind as soon as the ignition is off.

Nobody says a thing about it.

Knowing that people view him as Exeter High royalty, thanks to one of the lunch table inhabitants, makes it better that they don’t associate us. Then again, it’s a smaller school. Dad told me it only has a little over eight hundred students total, which means that it’s not much bigger than my old district in Bakersfield. We may live in an urban area, but it’s not big enough to keep secrets for long. Not when Kaiden is involved.

Like when one of the girls gives me the briefest looks before leaning into her friends and mentioning some person named Riley. I don’t know who he is, but apparently he no longer attends Exeter. Why they look at me in relation to him, I have no interest in asking. If they wanted me to know, they would have included me in their conversation.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Nichols asks me to stay behind while everyone else leaves the room. Mentally, I go through a list of possible reasons. I turned in homework, did the readings, and even participated twice in class. I’ve done nothing warranting trouble.

Unlike Monday, Kaiden doesn’t wait up for me at the door. He’s been hanging out in the parking lot with his buddies, who I learn are on the lacrosse team with him. They’ll joke around and shove each other and hit on the girls that linger until I make it out of the front doors. Kaiden always shoos them away, and like loyal followers, they obey without complaint.

Mr. Nichols smiles from where he sits behind his desk. I can see why girls always giggle and gossip about him. His face still screams youth, which isn’t a surprise. He told us on the first day that he only just graduated with his Master’s, putting him somewhere in his mid-twenties. His eyes are a chocolate brown, his hair a dirty blond and chopped short, and his body is in physically good shape highlighted by the button-up shirts he wears with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and pressed dress pants that seem to emphasize long legs. It’s hard not to notice a cute teacher like him.

“I won’t keep you long, I’m sure you’re eager to start the weekend like everyone else,” he promises lightly.

Shrugging, I readjust my bag strap over my shoulder. “It isn’t like I have any exciting plans. Did I do something wrong?”

He straightens. “Not at all. I’m sorry if I worried you. I actually wanted to talk to you about the paper you turned in.”

On the second day of class, he assigned a short paper for us to write about our favorite novels. It made most people groan to have an assignment so soon in the semester, but I didn’t mind. During my worst days, I’d stay in bed with a book by my side. There’s always two on my nightstand waiting to be loved.

When he told us that we had to explain why we chose the specific book, it seemed like an easy assignment. It was informal and we got to talk about literature in a way that’s personal to us. Yet, I learned based on the muttered complaints and protests that reading isn’t a common hobby among my peers. Another reason why I have yet to make any friends here.

He rests his hands on his desk. “I noticed that you didn’t just choose one book. You like reading, don’t you? The ones you talked about said as much.”

Wetting my lips, I manage a nervous head nod. Maybe I should have just chosen one, but he never said we couldn’t write on more than that.

“The ones you chose,” he says, “they all seem to have a common theme. I’m curious as to why you selected them.”

He knows about my condition. School policy states that teachers must be made aware of all students with chronic illnesses that can impact their attendance and performance in school. Personally, I think it’s an invasion of privacy. Dad and Cam think it’s a good idea though.

You’ll have people in your corner, Dad told me in comfort.

I wanted to say, Like you?

Hostility gets us nowhere though.

“You told us to pick our favorite,” is my reply. It’s quiet and unsure, like I’m not sure what he wants me to say.

“And those are?”

Another nod.

He studies me for a long moment. “They all seem to question mortality. I wonder if it’s a reflection on personal matters. We tend to hold onto stories when we relate to them.”

I shift on my aching feet. “If you’re going to suggest I see a counselor, I already turned down the idea when Principal Richman insisted.”

Despite Dad telling me I had no choice, I never made an appointment with either the counselor or nurse. When I told him that setting aside a free period just to tell the counselor that school is fine is a waste of time, he saw my point. The nurse…not so much. He’s insistent that Ms. Gilly will be a handy ally here.

I told him I didn’t need an ally.

Nichols’ smile widens, making him look even more boyish. “I was actually going to suggest joining Book Club.”

Taken by surprise, my lips part. I didn’t even know there was a book club here. It’s not on the school’s list of activities students can join. Cam convinced Dad I should consider looking into different options to make friends faster. I only looked to get them off my back.

He takes my silence as consideration of his suggestion. “We meet every Thursday after school, usually around three thirty. It’s held in the library, although sometimes it’s moved to the classroom.”


“I’m the faculty supervisor.”


He feels the need to explain when I make no move to say I’ll come. “The last English teacher was responsible for it, so I agreed to take over for her when I met with her before the year started. It seemed like a passion project of hers that she wanted to see remain. It’s small, the list is only about ten people long. You should consider joining if you love to discuss books. They’re seeing if it’ll last past this semester, and if it does—” He shrugs. “—then great.”

Pressing my lips together, I glance down at my shoes. Another pair of Toms, except these are light purple cloth with a big brown button off to the side. They look handmade according to Cam. Maybe that’s why I like them so much, they’re unique like me.

Mr. Nichols brings my attention back to him. “Just think about it, okay? Your paper was very well written, and I think you’d make a great addition to the club.”

I give him a timid smile and start to turn to the door. He calls my name before I make it, causing me to glance at him once more.

His head tilts. “Which of the ones you spoke of is your favorite? I couldn’t tell.”

“My Sister’s Keeper.” He doesn’t ask why, yet I find myself explaining anyway. “I find that the books with the saddest endings are the best because it makes us feel. We don’t always get a happily ever after no matter how hard we work for it.”

I think Lo always knew that.

His smile is genuine. “Have a great weekend, Emery.”

I murmur a you too before grabbing my jacket from my locker. It’s been raining on and off throughout the week, nothing unusual for upstate New York’s early fall season. With summer fading into the distance, the transition from sunshine and warmth to clouds and cold hasn’t been a fun one. Especially not with my sensitivity to abrupt weather shifts that has me hunkering down in layers.

Dad put a small electric space heater in my room when the sixty-something temperature turned into fifty-something with the nonstop rain showers. My fingertips turned blue until I’d have to walk around with winter gloves on. Cam would frown and ask if I want the heat turned up, but nobody else has the same problem as me so I always tell her no.

The heater is a peace offering, a way to tell me that it’s okay to ask for help. I think it was Cam’s idea, though Dad must have thought it was a good one since I watched him set it up and show me the different controls on the tiny remote. When Kaiden saw it in the corner of my room, he stared with furrowed brows before leaving without a word.

When I walk outside, jacket zipped up all the way and shoes hitting the tiny puddles, I see Kaiden all alone leaning against his car. It’s new, probably made in the past few years, and a polished black. Dad mentioned he’d look into getting me my own if I wanted since Kaiden will start going to practices soon. Lacrosse doesn’t start until the spring, but he trains for the season with his friends. Dad tells me it’ll be easier if I don’t have to depend on Kaiden for rides.

Kaiden pushes off the car as I approach him. I note the empty parking lot before walking toward the passenger side of his Audi A6. Until a few days ago, I didn’t know what it was. Just that it had to cost a pretty penny. One of his jock friends, the one with moppy brown hair like Kaiden’s, was begging to take it out for a spin with his leggy girlfriend. Kaiden’s response was the usual bluntness, something about not wanting to get it back with a stained back seat. I stopped listening to the conversation after that.

Just as I’m opening the door, he taps on the top of the car. “You can’t screw Nichols, you know.”

Halting with the door half-open, I stare wide-eyed at him. His expression gives nothing away, as if stating something like that is no big deal, much less offensive.

“Excuse me?”

I think he shrugs, but the car hides his body from my view because of the height difference between us. He’s at least six foot to my five-four. Between that and the car separating us, all I see is his indifferent features.

“All the girls at school seem to think they can stay after class and flirt their way into his attention,” he replies casually. “The guy seems smart enough to not fall for their tricks. I’m just saying, he won’t sleep with you.”

I’m gaping, trying to gather a reply. There’s a lot I could say, could call him, but nothing gets past my lips besides a squeaky noise that he laughs at.

“I think I’ll call you Mouse.”


He grins. “You’re quiet like one.”

Stunned speechless, is more like it.

“Mouse,” he repeats, nodding. He taps the hood of the car again and gestures toward the interior. “Get in, I want to go home. Got shit to do, people to see.”

Climbing in after he does, I drop my bag on the floor by my feet and buckle up. “Doesn’t seem like you like it there.”

“Doesn’t seem like that’s your business.”

I glance out the window as he pulls out of the parking space and toward the exit. “Your mom seems nice. I like her.”

No response.

“You should talk more at home.”

“Mouse isn’t a fitting nickname if you insist on talking,” he informs me, turning onto the road heading home.

My jaw ticks.

He sighs. “Cam and I have an understanding that you wouldn’t get.”

I shift toward him. “You call your mom Cam?”

He grunts.

“But she’s your mom.”

He looks at me. “You call Henry, Dad, yet I can tell you don’t want to. It bothers you to label him for what he is. That’s where you and I are different. I don’t have to call Cam anything that I don’t want to.”

Why is on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow the question. He won’t answer it. And if he does, it’ll lead to some snarky remark that I don’t have the energy to dissect, so what’s the point?

The ride home is quiet. I watch the scenery pass, the patches of evergreens and sycamores changing into developments that look identical to each other. Lo and I used to want to live in houses just like these right next to each other. Mama would tell us that it’d change when we got older because we’d be two different people, but neither of us believed it.

Mama probably wishes she could see us live out that old dream. Identical twins living in identical houses, raising families together and being happy. Coffee dates on Sundays. Our children on swings in a park somewhere. Lots of smiling and laughter.

She hasn’t called since I moved. Sometimes she’ll text me and ask how I am but when I respond, I’ll only ever get a one-word reply back. Even through the screen I can feel her sadness. It seeps into the words and I picture her typing each letter with glassy, golden eyes.

I don’t realize we’re home until Kaiden asks if I’m getting out. He doesn’t say it in a rude way, but I grab my bag and slip out of the car without so much as looking at his expression which I only assume is unreadable as ever. Sometimes it would be nice to have someone close by who gets me like Lo used to.

That’s asking too much now.

Nobody could get me like Lo did.

Chapter Three

Saturday is quiet. Dad and Cam went to a farmer’s market in the morning. I pretended to sleep so they wouldn’t ask me to go, and then listened to them leave before pulling out a book and curling under my warm blankets.

Kaiden left a little before noon, not saying a word when he saw me making a sandwich in the kitchen. He grabbed an apple and stared at the pajama shorts I wore before grabbing his keys and leaving. I went back to making lunch before closing myself in my bedroom and cranking up the heater.

Glancing at all the furniture in the room has me comparing everything to my old one. Here everything is white and gray. The bedding is white and fluffy and warm, the sheets a deep gray, the pillows a mixture of the two that match the patterned curtains. In the corner is a full-length mirror trimmed with white with dangling lights in shapes of stars. I keep them on at night in case I need to get up, that way I don’t trip on the shoes I kick off in the middle of the floor.

When I saw the stars, I immediately thought of when Lo and I begged Dad to take us out to watch the night sky. He told us once that he and Mama went stargazing on their first date. Did he put them there to remind me that he thinks about it too? How we all laughed and pointed and made up names for the constellations because none of us knew what they were called?

The room is huge, and almost everything is new. It’s the exact opposite of the one I shared with my sister. Cam said she had a lot of fun decorating it by adding canvas art on the walls with quotes and images—flowers, animals, people. Dad said she always wanted a daughter.

By midday, my body starts aching. It begins in my wrists, a telltale sign for more to come. I struggle holding my book, so I decide to rest after taking some Motrin. An hour nap only settles the pain in my elbows and shoulders, and when I try getting up for some water I cringe at the dull pang in my hips.

Pushing past the feeling, I force myself to walk out to the living room. Both Dad’s and Cam’s cars are in the driveway and I hear them talking from the backyard. When I glance out the window, I notice them in the garden together.

Since when does Dad garden?

Cam laughs and brushes dirt off Dad’s face, only smearing it worse. He smiles and says something before looking up and noticing me. Cam glances too, waving at me with a bulky beige glove covering her hand.

I open the glass door and stand at the doorway. My feet are bare, my legs exposed by my sleep shorts, and my body still sore from the oncoming flare. Instead of showing them, I give a tiny wave back.

Dad helps Cam up and helps brush dirt off her pants. He gives my attire a once-over, clearly wanting to say something. They walk to me, Cam ditching her glove and putting it on the picnic table. When they stop in front of me, Dad lets go of her hand.

He frowns at my pajamas. “Don’t you want to change into actual clothes? It’s a bit late to be wearing those.”

Instead of frowning like I want to, I tug on the hem of my tee. “I’ve just been lounging. Why bother dirtying regular clothes if I’m going to stay in all day?”

Cam pats my arm and I try not to wince at the ache radiating from my joints and muscles as she does it. “Your father and I were thinking about taking the family out to dinner tonight. How about we all get cleaned up and get ready?”

Shifting my weight, I debate on telling them I’d rather stay in. If I do that, they’ll ask questions. Dad will shove pain relievers in my hand, Cam will ask if I need to go to the hospital, and Kaiden will glower like I’m an inconvenience—like his mother’s attention toward me is pathetic.

I wonder what Cam’s eyes look like when she cries.

“Kaiden isn’t here,” is my weak attempt to back out of the dinner. Going out when I don’t feel well is too much of a hassle. Pretending to be okay for the sake of others is a draining act to an already underpaid show.

Cam waves her hand in dismissal. “He’ll meet us there. Let’s go inside. The Cantina isn’t a formal restaurant, so jeans and a blouse will be fine to wear.”

The Cantina sounds an awful lot like it serves Mexican food. Considering Dad said he did some research on my disease, something tells me dietary habits isn’t something he google searched.

I don’t say anything. Cam seems excited and Dad seems happy because Cam is, so I walk into my room and slip into a pair of black leggings and slide on a loose long sleeve shirt. Slipping into the pineapple Toms that Kaiden called ugly, I make my way back out to the living area.

Dad is cleaned up and wearing a new pair of jeans and a black button-down, like his version of casual only half exists. Cam is in a sundress with her dirty blonde hair pulled back and she looks a lot like Kaiden. Same tan complexion, same round eyes, and same plump lips. Their hair and eye color are different though, and where her features are soft and inviting, his are hard and repellant. It makes me wonder if he got his brown hair and eyes and rough personality from his father. Where is he?

Cam grabs her purse from the counter. “I know you’ll love the food, Emery. They have the best nachos. In fact, they make everything from scratch! How many places can say they do that?”

Not many, I admit. Still, the idea of fried, spicy food has my stomach churning already. It doesn’t sound appealing, and I doubt this place has many salad options that aren’t coated in the type of stuff that’ll trigger a bigger flare.

Internally sighing, I get into the back of their car and pull out my cell from where it’s tucked under my leg. No text messages. No calls. Nothing from Mama.

I stare out my window in silence.

Grandma put a lot of money into getting me seen by dieticians to formulate a special diet that would limit any food inflammations. Honestly, it’s not a plan I follow as closely as I should. I limit the amount of dairy and gluten I eat, but cheese pizza is my weakness just like any other person, and carbs are my one true soulmate.

Mama used to make me bland meals with no taste and high iron and protein because that’s what the dietician told her to do. But I know Mama hated the food as much as me, and her on again off again employment made it hard to keep buying the type of foods that were better for me. She lost her fulltime job as a pediatric nurse because she was taking too much time off bringing me to appointments and tending to my every need.

It’s why I told her I didn’t need special organic brands or gluten free snacks or lactose free alternatives. I think she believed me because she was desperate to see the truth in it. She didn’t want to let her unemployment impact me any more than it had, but she didn’t understand my guilt over her situation.

She struggled because of me.

She hurt because of me.

Pain comes in countless forms. The worst is seeing what your suffering does to everyone around you. Mama is my biggest victim.

But I’m also hers.

When we arrive at the restaurant, I paint a bright smile on my face. Maybe I’m an artist after all. The Picasso of the modern era.

The restaurant is dimly lit and playing soft instrumental music from the speakers. It’s a cute little eat-in that’s small and intimate. People talk amongst themselves, some louder than others, and the servers come over donning big smiles and warm welcomes.

Everything is dark wood, like the color of espresso—the chairs, the tables, the booths. There’s no cloth or cushions to soften the seats, which makes my tailbone hurt. Every time I shift, the seat creaks and Dad and Cam stare at me like I’m weird for fidgeting so much.

Kaiden hasn’t shown up yet. Cam insists she knows what he’ll want, so Dad waves over our waitress and they start ordering. I’ve been staring at the menu for fifteen minutes, stalling by ordering water and sending them away to decide between the lightest options. At this point, a taco salad is the best I can do.

A few minutes after we order, Dad and Cam talk about work and school. They ask me how I like my classes, if I made any friends, and if I’ve heard from Mama.

Dad cringes when Cam brings Mama up. I don’t see why, it’s been a decade since he had to deal with her. Maybe he feels bad for me, like digging up my departure will hurt my feelings. I don’t think that’s it though.

Thankfully, Kaiden arrives just before I’m forced to answer. I don’t want to talk about Mama with any of them, especially Dad. He left us and couldn’t even bother to care when Lo got sick. He never checked in when I told him how Mama acted or how bad Lo was getting.

Dad doesn’t deserve to know anything.

Cam’s eyes bulge when she sees Kaiden drop into the only seat available next to me. At first, I don’t know why she looks so freaked. Then I turn and notice Kaiden’s eye is all red and puffy, and his cheek is colored an off blue. It makes the usual tan tone even darker, and his eyes hold a type of smoke in them from a fire he clearly extinguished. Except he did so with his fists based on their puffy nature.

His signature don’t-give-a-shit smirk returns despite his mother’s reaction to the shiner he’s sporting. “What’d I miss?”

Dad clears his throat. “Emery was just about to fill us in on how things are going. How is your mother doing?”

My lips part. Are they really going to ignore his face like they don’t see anything wrong?

I won’t. “What happened to you?”

Cam makes an audible noise.

Kaiden’s smirk vanishes and jaw ticks like he can’t believe I asked. If our parents won’t, someone should. I’m not exactly used to this commonality if it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Unlike them, I need answers.

Apparently, so does he. “I wouldn’t want to keep Daddy Dearest waiting on that answer. Tell us, Emery, how is your mother doing?”

My nostrils flare.

His lips twitch upward as if he enjoys my reaction, so I push my emotions away. “I don’t think that matters when you show up bruised after being gone all day.”

He leans forward, crowding my space with his confidence. “Aw, what’s wrong, Mouse? Did you miss me?”

Dad murmurs a questioning, “Mouse?” before glancing between Kaiden and me. Neither of us offers an explanation on the nickname.

“Your eye,” I repeat.

“Had an accident,” he says plainly.

Something tells me it was no accident at all. Fists must have been involved based on the mark it left behind. Part of me wonders what the other guy looks like.

Cam tries drawing us back together, but the smile she offers is distant. “I ordered your favorite, Kaiden. I even asked them to put hot sauce on the side for the fajitas.”

Kaiden peels his gaze from me to his mother, lips pinched. “I wish you’d stop assuming I like the food here. Did you even ask Emery if she liked Mexican?”

While I appreciate his point, I don’t like being used as a means to verbally attack his mother. She’s trying. “It’s really—”

His eyes cut to mine. “Do you?”

Dad intervenes. “Emery loves Mexican food. She used to demand it all the time when she was little.”

My heart cracks when I realize he’s talking about Logan. She used to demand we order Mexican food. It was her who always wanted tacos for dinner and nachos for dessert.

“That was Lo,” I say quietly.

Kaiden snorts. “Who the hell is Lo, and what kind of ridiculous name is that?”

The crack in my heart expands a little wider. “Who’s…?” My eyes slowly lift to Dad’s in question, like I misheard Kaiden’s rude question regarding the existence of my other half.

Cam gasps. “Kaiden!”

“Dad?” I whisper brokenly.

His shoulders tense. “Emery…”

“Don’t you talk about her?”


“Why doesn’t it surprise me that you wouldn’t say anything about her?” Pushing back against the table, I go to stand right as Kaiden opens his big mouth again.

“What’s crawled up your ass?”

Cam covers her mouth with her palm and tears prick my eyes. Jerking the chair so it scrapes loudly against the floor and causes people to stare, I stand up.

Dad mimics me. “Sit down, Emery.”

“Don’t bother to start telling me what to do now just because your image looks bad. I mean, that’s probably why you left. Right? You were afraid what having a sick kid would do to the squeaky clean family-man reputation you have going on.”

“Emery,” Dad warns under his breath.

Cam reaches out. “Henry—”

I grab my phone from the table. “It must really suck that you weren’t happy stuck in an imperfect family. I wonder what your old coworkers thought when they found out Lo died. Did they know she was sick? You never took time off when the doctor appointments started. Mama told you something was wrong, and you always said you had to work like having a career meant more than having a daughter.”

Kaiden swears.

Anger bubbles through me. “You want to know how Mama is doing, Dad? She’s terrible. She hasn’t verbally spoken one word to me since I moved, which isn’t much different than how it was when I lived with her and Grandma. She wasn’t the same when we buried Logan. Whenever she sees me…”

She sees a dead girl.

Tears threaten to spill, so I shake my head and walk around my chair.

“Where are you going?” Dad calls out.

Yet, he doesn’t move to stop me.

I laugh sardonically but don’t answer.

I’m halfway down the street when I hear tires slowing down behind me. Part of me is shocked Dad would chase me down. I remember all the times I was younger and he never made an effort. He’d miss dance recitals and family dinners and everything in between because of work. His coworkers never met us, especially not when Lo started acting funny, and Mama never went out with him to work functions. He was ashamed of us. Maybe still is.

When a car stops beside me, it isn’t Dad’s. My steps falter when I see Kaiden leaning down to see me from the open passenger window. He pushes on the door.

“Get in.”

I blink. A car honks from behind him before passing, visibly irritated as they give us the finger like Kaiden isn’t pulled off to the side of the road.

“Emery, get in the fucking car.”

Glancing back at the faded restaurant behind us, I wonder if Dad and Cam are cancelling our food or waiting for it to go. Are they even going to come out? To go home? To search? It’s doubtful.

Not knowing what else to do, I slip into his car and close the door. Walking home would cause me twice as much pain. There’s no way I’d be able to get out of bed tomorrow.

He tells me to buckle up before pulling away, not even giving me one look. It’s fine by me, because I’d prefer staring out the window so he can’t see the tears dampening my cheeks. Wiping them away is no use because the more I replay what just happened, the more that fall.

Dad never told them about Lo.

About his dead daughter.

Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt like Grandma told me to give Mama. I know that everyone grieves differently, but Dad acts like nothing even happened. How could he pretend as though Lo never existed?

When we get closer to the house, he doesn’t take the turn. Instead, he goes straight and stays on the main road leading out of the small city. There’s no music, only the sound of the wind against the car and the distant sound of traffic filling the silence.

“Where are we going?”

“Not home.” He pauses. “Yet.”

I want to tell him that’s a bad idea, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s exactly what we need. At least me. I’m still not sure what Kaiden needs, and I think he likes staying mysterious.

I watch as the buildings and houses fade into the tree lines the further we drive away. Dad came this way when he brought me into Exeter. On the outskirts is a large cemetery on a hill and not much else other than various trees and fields.

It’s a strange mixture of urban and rural here. We’re not near the big city, but not too far away. It’s almost like the area can’t decide if it’s trying to evolve or stay the way it’s been for decades.

In a way, it’s comforting. Seeing fields, hills, and trees reminds me of home. Lo and I would go exploring in the woods behind our childhood house, the one Grandma had to move into after Dad left before we lost it to the bank. We’d spend hours climbing trees and playing hide and seek. Lo always won.

To my surprise, Kaiden turns onto a narrow road leading into the cemetery. It should probably scare me, make me nervous, something, but it doesn’t. After all, he saved me from walking back to a home that doesn’t feel like home at all.

We get to a large fenced-off clearing and he puts the car in park and shuts it off. Shoving open his door, he gestures for me to follow him out. Hesitantly, I obey, unbuckling and stepping out onto the paved path we’re pulled off to the side of. He starts walking past the fence, jumping over it like it’s nothing, but waiting expectedly for me to do the same.

Blinking, I stare between him and the chain fence separating us, noting the rust on the top and the odd and end holes throughout the rest of it. There isn’t an opening big enough for me to crawl through.

“Well?” He crosses his arms.

I blush. “I can’t jump that high.”

He sighs like I’m a burden despite bringing me here on his own free will. “Can you climb and get at least on leg over?”

Swallowing, I study the fence. I used to be part of the cheer squad at my old school. Flexibility and strength never used to be a problem for me until the past couple of years. But, I’m curious about where he wants to take me.

Nodding, I pull myself up on the fence. It hurts my tender palms and arms, and my hip pops loudly when I swing my leg over, but I pretend it doesn’t bother me when I balance on top.

I yelp when I feel two strong hands on my waist, lifting me up and setting me down on the ground like I’m a toddler and not eighteen.

“You really should have eaten dinner,” he notes, giving my body a thorough once-over with narrow eyes before shrugging and walking away.

I catch up with him and tug my shirt closer to my body when the wind starts picking up. Without any buildings, there’s nothing to block the assault of cool air against us. I refuse to use Kaiden as a wall because I think he’d snark if I even tried getting closer.

We walk for what feels like forever until I see a large sycamore tree in the middle of a field of purple flowers. It seems out of place, yet perfectly set at the same time.

Kaiden walks over to it and sits down, leaning his back against the thick trunk. He seems at peace, which is a new look for him. His body is eased as he stretches his long legs out without a care in the world.

I stare. Not just at him, but at the tree. It’s huge with its long branches and bright green leaves transitioning into yellow and orange and red that give the space a beautiful kind of life. Lo would have loved this spot. She would have dragged me out and stayed here until Mama called our names in frantic worry. Lo always wanted to be free, out in the open, surrounded by trees and plants and animals.

Suddenly, the tears that had finally stopped falling on the way over begin building again until everything blurs. Bottom lip trembling, I hear Kaiden’s heavy sigh.

“What’s wrong now?”

I answer silently what my emotions won’t let me speak aloud.

Lo was buried under a sycamore tree.

Chapter Four

Kaiden’s eyes burn my face as I feebly attempt to contain my tears. Closing my eyes and palming my lids with the heels of my hands, I suck in a deep breath and think positive things to distract my mind from Lo’s image. No matter how hard I try thinking of sunshine, good weather, and how pretty the purple flowers beneath my feet are, all I see is Lo’s headstone.

The last time I went to visit her, there’d been bird droppings and grass shavings all over her stone. I cried and worked hard under the punishing sun until it was spotless and shiny. Then I’d fallen asleep in the shade beneath the sycamore, pretending Lo was right beside me.

It was Grandma who’d found me. Not Mama. When she got me in her car, I asked where Mama was. She told me she was resting. Part of me was glad I hadn’t worried her. Another part of me hated her for not noticing I’d left to begin with.

“You need to breathe, Mouse.”

His gruff words pull me out of my memories. Cracking my eyes open, I see his blurry image where it still rests against the tree. Despite the buildup of tears, I see his frown perfectly clear. Even seemingly angry, he looks gorgeous.

“Why do you look mad?” Blinking rapidly to dry my eyes, I force myself forward until I’m next to him. He doesn’t invite me to sit or make any move, just stares up at me with pursed lips.

“Don’t do well with crying.”

Most men don’t. Like when Mr. Wilson, the man who acted like a father figure to us after Dad left, looked uncomfortable at Lo’s funeral. His face was pale as he stared at her coffin and he left before the service was over.

I sit beside Kaiden, drawing my knees to my chest. Resting my chin against the top of them, I blow out a long breath until the ache in my chest lightens. Suddenly, breathing doesn’t seem so hard, so I close my eyes and let the wind and shade caress me into calmness.

“Your father is an asshole,” he says.

I don’t argue with him.

“Sorry about … shit, you know.”

My lips twitch upward. I guess he doesn’t do well with apologies either. “She was my best friend,” I tell him.

I’m not sure he cares, but I need to tell someone about her. If not today, someday. Not talking about Lo would do her memory injustice.

I lean against the tree trunk and exhale a slow breath when I feel the scratchiness against my back. The discomfort eases me into a familiarity of summer afternoons with Lo in the woods. “Did my Dad really not say anything?”

He clears his throat. “No.”

Pressing my lips together, I nod.

What I said back in the restaurant is probably true. I’ve thought about all the reasons he left, theorized what made him stay away, and hated him a little more each day for it. Normally I wouldn’t say a thing, but it’s been years of bottling up every thought and feeling toward the man who couldn’t even support us when Lo died.

“I’m not sure why he took me in.”

The doubt is making sure its presence is known and it’s justified. Dad couldn’t waste more than mere minutes on me before now, so I have no clue why he bothered picking up the phone when I reached out for a very last minute unexpected third call of the year. I never thought he’d say yes to moving in with him.

Finally, I glance over at Kaiden. He watches me with something sparking in his eyes. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad because he gives nothing away.

Swallowing, I shake my head. “I found out he was remarried through a friend of the family. This older woman was gossiping at the grocery store when I went to pick up paper plates.” I surprise myself by laughing. “Weird that I remember what I was getting, huh? I was in the aisle trying to choose between the off brand or name brand with little blue flowers on the edges of both. Then I heard Mrs. Wallaby tell someone in the next aisle that she heard about Dad getting married to a ‘pretty young woman with a son of her own.’ She said it must be nice to get a fresh start and new chance at a family.”

My lips pull down at the corners. Mrs. Wallaby turned the corner and saw me staring with tears flooding my cheeks. She didn’t try to apologize, just stood frozen and guilty when she realized I must have heard.

Kaiden shifts next to me, visibly uncomfortable by my story. “I don’t usually come here to talk.”

What does he do then?

Thinking of the possibilities, my cheeks tint at the probable answers. “Oh.”

He chuckles. “I come here to think.”

Double oh.

I can see why he’d come here for that. It’s quiet, isolated. The perfect spot for someone to sort through their thoughts if they needed to.

The conversation isn’t the best one to have with him anyway. I’m not angry at him. I’m angry at Dad. Plus, Kaiden didn’t ask for me to invade his space. I bulldozed my way into their home—the home they’ve been building for years just the three of them.

“What really happened to your eye?” I ask in a soft voice.

His tongue clicks. “Got into a fight with someone over some shit talking. No big deal.”

Knowing it’s all I’ll get from him for now, I nod. “Who’s Riley?”

His entire body freezes. “Where did you hear that name?”

His voice is rough, like it’s a subject I shouldn’t have changed to. Cursing myself, I nibble my bottom lip. “Some girls were talking about him at lunch. It just seemed like something had happened, because I’ve heard his name a lot lately.”

In the halls on the way to class.

In the cafeteria.

Riley is a hot topic.

“Riley is a girl,” he murmurs after a stretch of time that I figured he’d use to talk his way out of answering. “She doesn’t go here anymore. Left after some rumors spread.”

I frown. “What rumors?”

His jaw ticks. “People kept giving her shit about her body type. Had an eating disorder or something and got caught throwing up in the bathrooms. Rumors got pretty bad. She … it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t go here anymore.”

“So she transferred out?”

He hums.

I think about all the times people glance at me before saying her name, like we’re connected somehow. But I don’t ask Kaiden about it anymore because he’s clearly shutting down. I’m shocked I got as much as I did as is.

Kaiden draws one leg up, so it’s bent at the knee. He drapes his arm over it and looks at me with distant eyes. “I am curious about something.”

I hold my breath.

He grins. “Which paper plates did you buy?”

A relieved laugh bubbles from my lips.

“I didn’t buy either.”

We fall back into silence.

At some point I fall asleep. I only know this because I’m pressed against a warm wall of hard muscle that smells faintly like cedar and cinnamon. Christmas trees and cookies. Kaiden grumbles as we near his car, but I can’t make out the words. I’m tired—too tired to tell him to put me down. I close my eyes and nuzzle into the warmth, feeling him tense.

The next time I come to, we’re passing street lights. The yellow color casts shadows on Kaiden’s tight expression, which I get a perfect view of from where he put me in the back seat. His jaw is hard, but the way it moves is like he’s grinding his teeth.

My head feels too weak to pick up, so I lay there and watch him. The radio is playing a rap song I’m unfamiliar with, but I listen to the lyrics and try to stop staring at Kaiden like a weirdo.

He glances back when the car slows for a stop sign, seeing my tired eyes on his. “Would have been nice if you’d woken up before I had to carry you.”

How did he get over the fence at the cemetery? I ask him as much and he grumbles and starts driving again.

“Had to walk the long way around.”

“Oh.” My voice is tiny.

He doesn’t say anything for a long moment. We just sit there until the song ends and a new one begins. “We’re almost home.”

I force myself to sit up, yearning to cry over how my body reacts to the movement. Dizziness sweeps over my vision and everything around me blurs until I almost fall down.

Kaiden, unfortunately, notices. “Have you eaten anything today?”

Thinking back, I realize the last thing I ate was a sandwich late this morning. It’s going on nine o’clock now. “Not since you saw me making something earlier.”

He curses and pulls into the driveway. I frown when he turns to me with an irritated expression on his face. “You have to eat, Mouse. You’re too skinny as it is.”

My jaw ticks at the comment. “What has my father told you about me?”


I scoff. “Let’s just go inside.”

He sighs and gets out, surprising me by opening the back door. “What? Do you have an eating disorder or some shit? You could be prettier if you just gained some fucking weight.”

Not wanting him to see me cry, I slide out of the car and storm to the front door. Maybe the Riley conversation triggered something beyond my knowledge, but it’s no reason for him to treat me like trash.

There aren’t any lights on, but the front door is unlocked. As soon as we’re inside, Kaiden stops me from going anywhere.

Biting my lip to contain the yelp of his grip on my wrist, I glare at him. “Let go of me, Kaiden.”

He does. “Go to the kitchen.”

“Don’t tell me—”

“Christ, Emery. I’ll make you dinner.”

I’m speechless at his words. This is only the second time he’s used my name. And the sound of it rolling off his tongue…

I swallow. “I’m sure they brought back the food they ordered. I’ll eat that.”

He crosses his arms on his chest, causing his shirt sleeves to hug the biceps I shouldn’t be staring at. “You don’t even like Mexican food.”

“I ordered a salad.”

“You need protein.”

“I’m sure there are beans on it.”

He scoffs. “Just get your ass into the kitchen. I’ll make you eggs or something.”

My brows rise.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” he informs me coolly. “I want an omelet, so I’ll make you something too. I won’t be your bitch boy again.”

For some reason, I follow him into the kitchen and sit at the island. The stools are cushioned, so I’m not uncomfortable as I watch him pull things out of the fridge.

“What do you want?”

“Scrambled is fine.”

He gapes. “You need more than scrambled eggs. Will you eat bacon if I make it? Toast? Cheese, for the little Mouse?”

“Stop calling me that.”

He waits for an answer.

“Fine. Yes, I’ll eat those too.”

He smiles victoriously.

While he gets to work, I peer around the empty kitchen. The fridge is littered with pictures and random magnets, there’s a calendar with dates circled and bill payments in sharpie on it, and the dishtowels are all the same shade of blue that match the placemats on the table.

There’s no noise, but I know Dad and Cam are here. Their cars are in the driveway indicating as much.

“Where are our parents?”

“They know to leave me alone when I leave for a while,” is his terse reply.

I play with an orange from the fruit bowl placed strategically in the center of the counter. Everything about how Cam decorated the home is with a plan—the exact opposite of Mama’s house. There, nothing matched. It was organized chaos.

“They don’t know that about me.”

He shrugs. “You were with me.”

“How could they know that?”

“Because I told them I’d get you.”

Nothing but the butter sizzling in the pan fills the silence. He cooks effortlessly, like he cooks his own meals all the time. He’s rarely at dinner, but almost always eats breakfast with us.

By the time he’s finished, he sets a steaming plate full of eggs sprinkled with cheese, bacon, and a slice of buttered toast down in front of me. My mouth waters at the sight and smell as he passes me silverware.

He cleans up his mess, hands me a bottle of water from the fridge, and leaves the room.

He never made himself an omelet.

Chapter Five

I’m out of school Monday after waking up Sunday in my worst flare yet. When Cam found me in bed with swollen arms and a tear-stained face, she made Dad call my rheumatologist. Since I refused to go to the emergency room, the doctor suggested staying in bed and resting.

I nearly laughed when he also advised me to try avoiding stress. Life is stressful. While I attempt to minimize putting myself in situations that can cause flareups, they happen. Since moving in with Dad, new stresses have presented themselves—his actions toward me, Mama’s silence…

Early Tuesday morning, I’m sporting fuzzy yellow pajama bottoms and a sunflower tee when Kaiden shows up in my room. He doesn’t knock before opening up, so I’m thankful that I’m just curled up with a book beside me.

He takes one look at me and frowns. “I take it you’re not going to school again?”

I shake my head. The exhaustion is still bone deep, but the pain is nowhere near as bad. Besides a migraine I’ve been battling since yesterday afternoon, everything else has been tolerable to deal with. Yet, the judgment in his tone doesn’t make me want to continue the conversation.

He gestures toward my pajamas. “Aren’t you hot in those? It’s like eighty outside and probably just as warm in here.” Walking over to the space heater, he shakes his head at the setting I have it on.

I heard him ask Cam yesterday why I’ve been in bed. It’s one of the few conversations I’ve heard him have with her. The others usually end in a fight with him storming out and her clamming up. I want to feel bad for Cam, but I’m still not over how dinner went down over the weekend.

From what I overheard, Cam never told Kaiden what’s wrong with me. In a way, I’m grateful for that. When people hear you’re sick, they have three reactions—they either pity you, refuse to come near you, or don’t believe you at all. None of those situations are worth my time, not the fake sympathy of people who pretend they understand what I go through, not the people who think I’m contagious and stay ten feet away, and certainly not the people who refuse to accept invisible diseases are a thing.

I’ll always remember the doctor appointment that led to me breaking down in the passenger seat of Mama’s car. As soon as the doctor walked in and realized I was the patient, his mind was set. I was “too young” to be sick. I was like any other young girl who liked to “exaggerate” for attention.

My tears had streamed silent down my cheeks, but Mama was no fool. She pulled over and coaxed me into looking at her. What she saw, I’m not sure. Probably someone flawed and broken—someone utterly defeated.

It didn’t matter that there was a family history of medical problems. If doctors can’t find one single element that stands out the most physically, they think you’re overreacting because that’s what young people are known for.

As if children don’t die from cancer.

As if Logan didn’t die from lupus.

He must have seen the note in my file.

Sister: deceased

Cause: systemic lupus, kidney failure

He didn’t care. None of them did. I wasn’t showing any physical symptoms. I was in pain. I was tired. I was…young. Just young.

Nowadays, there’s no denying I’m sick. Just like Lo, you wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong at first. I wasn’t rail thin, my hair wasn’t falling out, and I looked healthy. Inside, my immune system was waging war against itself until every part of me was drained from the fight.

I’m glad Kaiden doesn’t look at me any differently than before. Cam never mentioned that what I have is lifelong, or that I could suffer the same fate as Logan. Since I barely said anything about her the day he took me to the sycamore, I haven’t divulged any further information about my best friend.

Sometimes I’ll find little post-its of pictures in different places though. Pictures of paper plates with blue flowers, and trees with endless green leaves. I save every single one I find in places only I would be.

The way he watches me with eyes full of irritation doesn’t put me at ease. While I don’t want his pity, I also don’t want his unwarranted hatred either. Sometimes, I wonder if coming here was a mistake. Like moving in was an act against him for space and attention. Although, he doesn’t seem like he wants any attention when he’s here.

He gets his fill at school.

“Are you going tomorrow?”

I sit up so my back is against the frame of my bed. It is white metal bent into an intricate design that I don’t get. But it’s pretty, prettier than the boring wood frames that Lo and I had in our old bedroom.

“I plan to,” I answer quietly.

He nods once but doesn’t move. I’m not sure what he’s thinking, but he acts like he wants to say something. Instead, he shakes his head and leaves, almost angry. I’m reeling as to what I said or did to make his lips pinch that way before he slams my door closed behind him.

Realizing it isn’t worth my time, I curl up on my side and open my newest book. Dad checked on me before leaving for work. He’s been going earlier the past few days, probably so he doesn’t have to deal with me. I can tell my illness makes him uncomfortable, like he doesn’t know how to deal with or treat me.

I don’t either, but I can’t tell him that because then we’ll have common ground. I’m not sure I want to have any with him. I don’t hate him, but in many ways, I don’t love him either. We’re stuck at an impasse—a merry-go-round of unspoken feelings and questions.

Why did you leave?

Why did you barely call?

Why didn’t you love us?

Forcing the thoughts out of my head, I lose myself in my novel. It’s better than thinking about reality. Reality is ugly and painful and full of the kind of heartache that some books help you forget exist for a short period. I get to fall in love thousands of times over, a feat I’m afraid I’ll never accomplish if my illness brings me to Lo instead of my future husband.

I fall asleep wondering if Lo is watching over me.

When Lo and I were young, Mama always sang You Are My Sunshine to us when she was in a good mood. I remember days in the kitchen when she’d sing and make chocolate chip cookies, our favorite, splitting up some dough for us to share while she baked the rest.

To this day, I love the song. It reminds me of Mama when she was happy. When I saw the rainbow at Lo’s funeral, it made me think of the tune. I even started humming it until Mama walked away from us. Grandma told me it was okay, but I still feel guilty.

The song is one that I play on my bad days. It gets me thinking about all the good times I had growing up. My childhood wasn’t sad, not until Lo passed. Mama and Dad would take us on long rides every Sunday where we’d stop for snacks and sodas. They’d take us to waterparks where we’d ride every single ride until we were sunburnt and sore. Dad leaving was only step one into the roller coaster of hell, but up until that point we were fine.

When I get out of bed to an empty house, I’m reminded that it’s no longer like that for us. The family outings I used to look forward to are nothing but distant memories. When Dad and Cam leave, they don’t always ask if Kaiden or I want to go. They assume we won’t want to, and it makes me want to ask if he remembers the Sunday rides and little vacations like I do.

School tomorrow will be a nice distraction from here. I can bury myself in homework instead of thinking about what once was. Staying in the past means halting the future. I may not get one, so I want to at least try making the most of the present.

After pouring myself a bowl of cereal, I sit on the couch in the living room and turn on the television. It isn’t often I watch anything because Dad and Cam like to watch the news at night after work, so I leave them to the depressing reports on twenty-first century racism, sexism, and shootings. The few times I do watch TV, I indulge on my two guilty pleasures—soap operas thanks to Grandma and reality shows thanks to Mama.

It’s ironic, really. Mama would always tell Grandma how ridiculous soap operas are because they’re not real. Yet, any reality show I’ve watched is the same. It’s all fake drama focused on one-upping people in extravagant ways, highlighting the type of lives that people like us fantasize about having. Mama likes getting lost in a life she doesn’t live, just like Grandma loves losing herself in drama that isn’t her own.

They just have different motives. Mama doesn’t want to think about Lo. Grandma doesn’t want to think about Mama’s denial.

And me? I just like the posed fights.

I’m surprised when three o’clock rolls around and the front door opens. I’m still binging episodes of The Bachelor with my bare feet perched on the couch when Kaiden strolls in. A few feet behind him is Rachel.

Her high pitch giggle makes me cringe as Kaiden closes the door behind her. She’s got a huge pink purse dangling from her elbow as she brushes against Kaiden’s arm. I feel awkward staring, but it doesn’t seem to faze her.

Kaiden notices what I’m watching and makes a face. “You actually watch this shit?”

I blush. “I used to watch it with Mama.”

Rachel glances at the screen. “Oh! I love this show. This season has been amazing.”

Kaiden snickers. “See, you I’m not surprised over.”

The insult seemingly goes right over her head, because she smiles at him like he just complimented her. I stifle a giggle and cover it with a cough. Kaiden catches on, grinning at me from beside her.

“Aren’t we going to your room, Kaid?” Rachel practically purrs the words at him. Suddenly, I feel awkward for being here and blush over what I may hear if they do disappear behind closed doors.

My eyes widen when he grabs her bag and pulls something out. “We brought you some homework. Figured you’d want to catch up on some shit before tomorrow.”

Hesitantly, I accept the papers.

Rachel whines. “Kaiden—”

“Head up. You know where it is.”

When she turns, he smacks her butt. My cheeks burn. Trying to play it off, I glance over the homework to see what I’ve missed.

“Thanks for getting this.”

He doesn’t answer.

I look up at him. He’s watching me with a tilted head and curved lips. “You might want to put some music on. Rach gets loud.”

My jaw drops as he winks and heads for the stairs. Not knowing what to do with that, I grab my phone, earbuds, and backpack, before heading outside. It’s nice out, not too hot or cold, and settle at the picnic table with my schoolwork.

When You Are My Sunshine pops up on the screen at random shuffle, I get the answer to my question earlier.

“I love you, Lo,” I whisper to the wind.

Chapter Six

During lunch on Wednesday, I choose the furthest empty table from the others and pick through my salad. A dull headache still resides in my temples, which does nothing for my appetite. I force myself to nibble on some lettuce since I skipped breakfast this morning despite Cam’s insistence on eating my eggs.

The morning flew by. I handed in my late assignments and caught up on class notes. Teachers told me I could see them during free period if I need help, but I have no intention of doing that. Once I get home, I’ll close myself in my room and go through what I missed. Thankfully, nobody bothers me there, so there’s no excuse as to why I can’t study.

I’m playing with a crouton when a chair across from me is pulled back, the legs scraping noisily against the tile floor. Wincing at the noise, I glance up to find Kaiden there. Brows arched, I sit in silence waiting for him to tell me why he’s graced me with his presence.

As weird as I find our lack of communication during school hours, I’ve gone along with it. If he doesn’t want to engage with me in the halls or before class, fine. It isn’t like we have much to say anyway.

He eyes my salad. “You should really eat something more than that. They’ve got other stuff to choose from.”

They have a buffet of inedible looking food choices, none which looked half as appetizing as the limp lettuce mix. At least I knew what the contents were, because the chicken they offered looked more like meatloaf.

“I like salad.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

I’ve barely eaten more than a few leaves of lettuce. Most of it rests untouched in the plastic container I bought it in. When I get headaches, the nausea makes my stomach churn. The smell of whatever they’re overcharging for doesn’t help.

“I’m just saying, you need to eat more.”

My teeth grind. “Stop telling me what to do. Just because everyone else at this school blindly follows you doesn’t mean I will.”

The tables around us get quiet. Biting the inside of my lip and glancing at the stares I warrant from the simple statement, I realize I just made a big mistake. People don’t say anything about what Kaiden does to people who talk back, because nobody is dumb enough to do it.

Shrinking down, I stare at my lunch.

“You know,” he replies casually, “the reason why people do what I say around here isn’t some power play. It’s all about tactic.”

My eyes lift to meet his. He reaches over and plucks a crouton from my salad, rolling it in his fingers before popping it in his mouth with a crunch to fill the short lived silence.

Wiping his hands, he crosses his arms on his chest. “They know I don’t come from a powerful family. My mother is just some love struck fool who married a man that, as far as I’m concerned, is more pathetic than any other human I know, and my father is a deadbeat who isn’t worth my time. The people here know who to follow because it benefits them. They want popularity? They make me happy. They want to be left alone? They stay out of my way. And you know something, Mouse?”

I’m silent.

“They do what I tell them to.” The threat is there, but my gut tells me it’s an empty one. I don’t believe he’d make them do anything to me. After all, it’s been a week since I arrived and not one person has bothered me. Though if they didn’t know about my involvement in their leader’s life, they probably do now. The possibility of their fake interest after this leaves me a little uneasy.

He grabs my salad and tosses it behind him, letting the contents scatter across the floor. My lips part in shock when I see my lunch laying wasted in between the tables of peers surrounding us.

I will not cry.

Locking my jaw to keep me from saying a word, I watch him reach into his pocket and throw five dollars down on the center of the table. He stands up and gives me a displeased once over before shaking his head.

Ignoring the mess he made, he turns around and calls out, “Go buy some fucking pizza,” before leaving the room.

Refusing to meet people’s stares, I stand up and leave the five-dollar bill behind before exiting through the glass side door. Maybe someone else could use it to buy lunch.

When the sun hits my face, I wish I had my sunglasses to protect my sensitive eyes. They’re in my backpack which is stuffed in my locker. Sitting in the shade beneath a sad looking oak tree in the courtyard, I listen the distant chatter of students who are probably talking about the little cafeteria showdown that just occurred.

Frowning, all I can think is, screw you, Kaiden Monroe.

Shortly before my diagnosis, I’d dropped twenty-five pounds without meaning to. Besides cheer, I didn’t do much else for exercise. Sometimes the squad ran the track at school or used the weight room, but I ate more than any of them. They always envied how tiny I stayed.

Weight has been a sore subject since. One of the doctors I went to made Mama step out of the room before telling me it was a safe space to admit what I was doing. He thought I wouldn’t say I had an eating disorder if she were around. He didn’t believe me, just like the string of other doctors that didn’t.

Mama wrapped me in her arms as soon as we had gotten home. She was worried and sad for me, and angry at the doctor. That was before she shut down, grieving for Lo too much to care about anyone else.

After being diagnosed with lupus, it was like Mama gave up on me because she thought there was nothing left to do. I suppose I gave up on her just as much, pushing her away on the rare occasion she did reach out. When Grandma calls and asks how I’m doing, I’ll always divert the conversation back to Mama.

Tell her I’m not dead yet is how I ended our last conversation when she told me Mama would come around in her own time.

Someone sits beside me on the ground and drops a five-dollar bill in my lap. Looking up expecting to see Kaiden glaring, I’m surprised by the long locks of chestnut brown hair instead.

Rachel isn’t looking at me. “I think we both know it isn’t a good idea to ignore him. At least pretend you bought something with it.”

I stare down at the crisp bill. “Why are you talking to me?”

“Because Kaiden’s an idiot.”

My eyes widen.

She sighs. “He only did that because Danny Walsh from the lacrosse team commented on how tiny you are and then got the guys talking about what they’d do to your body. One guy said he could wrap one hand around your waist while he screws you from behind.”

My cheeks prickle with heat as I look to the ground. “I don’t see why he felt the need to cause a scene like that all because boys were talking about me. That’s just…”

“It’s what Kaiden does.” She says it in an exasperated tone. “He threatened the guys in the locker room and then made a point in the cafeteria that he’s the only one allowed to mess with you.”

Am I supposed to be thankful?

She shakes her head. “He just gave you his protection. You should be glad.”

High schoolers shouldn’t need protection from each other. Then again, look at Riley. Nobody has said anything more about her since Kaiden told me what happened, so I wonder if their silence was another royal decree.

I extend my legs out in front of me. “I’m not sure why you’re telling me any of this. What’s in it for you?”

Her laugh is airy. “I know everyone thinks I’m a total moron, but you know what? It’s easier to be a fly on the wall when people don’t think you’re capable of listening in.”

I blink in surprise.

She grins at me. “I like Kaiden. He and I have been on and off for a long time. The more popular he gets the more girls want him. But he keeps me around.”

“He insults you.”

“He’s Kaiden.”

If that’s supposed to justify how he talks to her, I’m not sure what to say. I don’t know Rachel, but anyone deserves better than that. Even if he has his own methods of keeping control of people, it isn’t right.

“Anyway,” she disregards, “I don’t have to worry about those girls. He isn’t interested in them. And, frankly, I’d like to think he isn’t into you, but I can’t be too sure.”

I gape at her. “Our parents are married.”

She rolls her eyes. “Don’t you get it? If anyone gets what they want no matter the situation, it’s Kaiden. He could feed you to the sharks if he wants to, but he hasn’t yet.”

Yet. Wonderful.

“So, I’ll play nice. For now.” She shrugs casually, like there’s no threat behind her words. I’m not sure what she’d do if she thought I was somehow in her way.

“I don’t like Kaiden,” I state firmly.

She stands up and glances down at me with a smile painted on her face. “I believe you, Emery. However, Kaiden has a way of getting under people’s skin one way or another. And, unfortunately, he’s willing to take on an entire sports team for you.”


She flips her hair over her shoulder. “I guess we’ll just see how long it takes before things change. He wouldn’t even sleep with me when I came over the other day. I was bored out of my mind.” Pointing toward the money next to me, she adds, “You might want to go to the vending machine or something. He won’t care if it’s not pizza you get as long as you eat.”

When she starts walking away, I call out her name. “You never really said why you’re talking to me. I get that you like Kaiden, but if he wants everyone to leave me alone, then why warn me about him?”

She adjusts her purse on her arm. “If Kaiden likes you that means you’re competition.”

It won’t matter what I say to her about what I am to him. She already thinks I’m someone to look out for because of him standing up for me. If it means having enemies over, I’ll be sure to tell him to throw me to the sharks. I’d rather go down on my own terms anyway.

Rachel leaves without another word, and from the hallway window, I see Kaiden staring. He doesn’t look angry. He looks…amused. I’m afraid to find out what’s so funny.

When I meet him at his car at the end of the day, I get in, buckle up, and drop the five-dollar bill onto his lap.

He stares at me.

“I wanted my salad.”

Chapter Seven

Thursday Book Club is small and intimate, a circle of upholstered armchairs setup in the quiet section of the library. Most of the seats are occupied by girls, and when I see them ogling an oblivious Mr. Nichols, I shake my head and take one of the last chairs.

At three-thirty, Mr. Nichols welcomes all of us and explains the general idea behind the afterschool club. It’s seems obvious that reading and discussing books is the reason we’re here, but then I’m reminded by the Little Mermaid wannabe next to me that’s not true when she asks silly questions to get Nichols’ attention.

For the duration of the meeting, we talk about selecting different novels for the year. I’m interested when he pulls out a glass bowl, small pieces of paper, and a handful of pens from his bag. He tells us we’ll each write a book down on the paper, fold it, and put it in the bowl. He’ll write down the order of books we’ll read and discuss throughout the term as they’re pulled out by us.

I’m eager to write down mine but can tell the others aren’t as interested. A brown-haired girl with pretty caramel highlights raises her hand and calls Nichols over, asking him questions about how to choose a book. He’s nice in his reply, as any teacher should be, but I can tell even he is exasperated by their lack of understanding of something simple.

I stifle a giggle when I see him shake his head on the way back to his own seat. My eyes widen when he looks up knowingly at me, giving me a soft smile as if he gets my humor.

Maybe he’s not oblivious after all.

It takes the girls fifteen minutes to write a title down, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Twilight pops up more than once. I saw the blonde with huge eyes glancing at the shelf next to her like she was just going to write down the first title she saw. Then again, half the books are ones I haven’t read yet so I wouldn’t mind.

Mr. Nichols mixes up the folded papers before passing me the bowl. “Choose one, Emery.”

I reach in and pluck one out, reading it off so he can jot down the title and author into his notebook. Admittingly, I’ve never heard of the book before.

As we go around the room, I struggle to keep quiet when Twilight pops up twice. Mr. Nichols suggests us choosing a different book in replace of one of them, but nobody speaks up.

Until Nichols calls on me. “Emery, why don’t you think of something? I know you’ve got an arsenal of ideas.”

Little Mermaid glances at me with a scrunched nose before turning to Nichols. “How come she gets to choose?”

“Nobody else spoke up, Aria.”

Aria. Ariel. Same difference.

Clearing my throat, I shift until I’m angled toward the girls. “If you want something similar to Twilight, we can read a John Green book. He writes young adult literature.”

The blonde tilts her head. “Isn’t he the one who wrote about the dying chick? I think I saw the movie with my ex-boyfriend.”

I wonder if she threw in the ex for Mr. Nichols as if he’s supposed to care. “Um, sort of. He has other books that aren’t as well-known as that one.”

“Who wants to read about dying kids?” The brunette scoffs. “That sounds depressing.”

“She finds love,” the blonde defends.

Nichols intervenes. “It can be a group decision for next time. Until then, we’ve got the title to our first book, which we’ll discuss starting next week. Be sure to have a copy before then.”

After he dismisses us, I gather my things and get ready to go before Nichols calls my name. A few girls glance back at us, whispering amongst themselves, before turning around and heading out of the library.

“You were quiet,” he notes, packing up his own belongings. “Those girls aren’t exactly here to have deep conversations about literature. I have a feeling you’ll pull a bulk of the load.”

My lips twitch. “You don’t say?”

He chuckles, zipping his messenger bag and draping it over his shoulder. “This club has the potential if we have the right people in it.”

“And you think that’s me?”

“And Annabel.”


“She was the other quiet one,” he muses.

Oh. There was a black-haired girl he called Anna. I vaguely remember her from one of my classes—Global Studies, not English. I think she suggested we read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Someone mentioned how morbid that was, and Anna didn’t say a word. I should have told her I was excited to read it.

He gestures toward the doors, so I follow him out of the library. “I’ve always been interested in literature. I love reading it, talking about it, everything. You remind me of me.”

My brows raise as we walk side by side toward the spiral staircase that leads toward the front doors of the school. “Because we like books?”

He lets me go down the staircase first because of the narrow structure. “Because we like them more than reality. It’s easier to lose yourself in fiction, right?”

We stop at the end of the stairs. There’s noise coming from the high school gym down the hall—practice for some sport maybe. It helps lessen the awkwardness of standing here next to my English teacher while he waits for my response.

He smiles at me. “We all have something we want to escape from. That doesn’t mean some of us aren’t still in tune with reality even when it’s…”

“Shitty,” I murmur. My eyes widen over what I said, shooting up at his amused features. I’ve never sworn in front of a teacher. “I’m sorry, Mr. Nichols—”

He laughs. “School is over, Emery. I can’t hold you accountable for what you say. I also can’t say I agree with you.” Readjusting the strap of his bag, he tips his head and begins walking away. “Can’t say I disagree with you either.”

Waving goodbye, he tells me he’ll see me tomorrow and then leaves. I stand there for a minute before genuinely smiling. Gripping my bag and slipping it on my back, I turn to head to the side exit.

Kaiden told me he wouldn’t wait for me. I didn’t want to complain, so I just nodded. There’s a late bus that boards by the loading dock off the middle school wing at five. I can wait another thirty minutes.

After fifteen, I go outside and sit on the brick half wall. My legs dangle over and the sun hits my face mixed with a gentle breeze. There’s a book in my backpack I want to read, and I’m about to pull it out when a car pulls up.