• WORDS FROM AN AUTHOR •
This suit jacket suffocates me, which is ironic since I already feel like I can’t breathe.
Popping the top button doesn’t give me any relief. With shaky hands, I undo the rest, but still can’t find the will to take a full breath. This is enough to make me wish I was the one in the coffin.
The lengthy line grows by the minute, and everyone has me in their sights. They’re here to pay their condolences. She was my girlfriend, my high school sweetheart. I hate seeing the pity in their eyes, the way they aren’t certain how to react. Some say, “I’m sorry,” while others latch onto me like leeches. The thing is, there’s nothing left of me for them to take.
Mia took it all with her last breath.
“Hey, Coach,” I say, finally daring to lift my head.
For the first time in the years I’ve known Coach Barnes, he tugs me in for a hug. His wife stands close behind him and does the same once he’s moved on to Mia’s parents.
“That girl loved you more than anything, Nick. When it gets really hard, close your eyes, and you’ll feel her. I promise,” Mrs. Barnes whispers, pulling away to join her husband.
Her words feel like lies as they soak in. I won’t feel her anymore. She’s gone.
Their daughter, Hannah, Mia’s best friend, is next, tears eager as hell to drop down her pink cheeks. Seeing others sad makes me angry, like I’m the only person who loved her, or something. That’s not the case, though. Look at this place. Every single person is here for her.
“I can’t do this shit,” I mutter under my breath, leaving the line of black to get fresh air. I push through the side doors of the church and step out to the parking lot.
People come and go. Some don’t bother giving me the time of day as they pass. I appreciate their lack of etiquette. That’s the realest reaction they can give me. What does one say or do when a seventeen-year-old boy loses the girl he thought was his everything?
The world likes to believe kids our age don’t understand what it means to love someone, but I sure as hell beg to differ.
They moved in down the street when we were in sixth grade, and she swept me away the moment she smiled at me. All curls and bones, my father used to say. For the first week, she sat on her front porch, and every once in a while, she looked up and smiled as I dribbled by. Sometime during the second week, she finally stepped down, snatched the basketball from my hands, and shot a basket. We didn’t have a conversation that day. It was just two kids living harmoniously together in her driveway.
Our friendship came easy. Our love, not so much. It took some time. On her part, not mine. I think I always knew she belonged with me. She wasn’t so sure, which I was fine with. Convincing her was half the fun.
Mia was insistent on us only being friends, but I knew deep down she felt what I did. There were moments when I would catch her watching me, and she quickly looked away, like I caught her doing something she thought she shouldn’t. She could deny it all she wanted, but the blush on her cheeks always told a different story. I loved those early moments between us. The innocence of our affection is something I’d give anything to have back.
Life isn’t like that though. We move out of those early stages so quickly and into what we believe is forever. Years tick by, and time doesn’t seem to matter anymore, because there’s too much of it on our hands. It’s when that clock slows that we begin to understand what we have found in another person.
Mine and Mia’s time has been cut short. Something I’ve always thought I’d have is a future with the girl of my dreams. Everything has been mapped out. She’d follow me to college, under the pretense that wherever I went would allow her to follow her own dreams, and then I’d be drafted into the NHL after that. We’d get married in a barn because Mia was obsessed with Joanna Gaines, whatever that means, eventually have kids, and we’d grow old together. That’s always been the plan.
Funny thing about plans is they’re bullshit.
Everyone has them, and unfortunately, not everyone gets to see theirs playout. If they’re like me, their future is stolen from them at seventeen.
Thinking about her hurts. It’s a stinging in my chest I can never get relief from. The moment Mia’s parents told me she was gone, that ache settled in. It’s a part of me now, a reminder of her, and I’ll hold it there if it means I can keep a piece of her with me.
“Nick!” Kellan yells from the door. “It’s time, man.”
What if I refuse to walk into the church, stand my ground, and say, “No, today is not the day to bury her?” Will it change anything?
Just inside the church, Mia’s mom clutches her dad. Damn, I’m being selfish. I have no other option but to walk in with my head held high.
I tell myself I’m not going to break down. As I sit next to my parents, my mother grasps my hand, reminding me I’m not alone. Lately, it happens too often. I’m starting to think she believes I’ll float off if she doesn’t check on me.
The pastor stands at the front, talking about loss and love, the world we are left in now that Mia is gone. He reminds us of different scriptures, and I’m desperate to stand up and yell, “fuck you.” It’s a load of shit. She was seventeen years old. There is no way in hell the world is cruel enough to take a life unlived.
“She loved fiercely.” A sweet voice pulls me from the darkness. Hannah stands behind the podium, nervously clutching a piece of paper. She sets it down, tucking her blonde hair behind her ears. Her eyes wander to the large photo of Mia, taken before she got too sick. At the end, she refused to be photographed. “Mia, she was the kind of girl who couldn’t help herself but to have such an open heart. Friendship came easy to her. At the end”— Hannah sniffles, tears desperate for an escape— “she was the best kind of friend to me. She sat and listened to me tell her things I’ve been holding on to for years. She didn’t judge when she had every right to. That’s the kind of friend she was. Selfless. That’s how I’ll remember her. Always.”
Hannah steps down and joins the rest of us in the parish. Kellan comes forward to speak. I didn’t know all of us were doing this. Mrs. James had asked me to say a few words, and I didn’t feel brave enough at the time to tell her yes.
“Mia helped me in the end. She was supposed to be the one in need, and every time I came to sit with her, she managed to move it back around to me. The girl didn’t have cancer. She never allowed it to possess her. Mia lived until the very last breath, and I often wonder how she did it. Mia taught us all what it meant to live, and I’ll keep living for you, Sis.” Kellan steps down, looking at the ceiling like he’s actually talking to Mia, and joins his parents. His eyes lock on mine, and he nods, this mutual understanding rolling between us.
Nicole, Mia’s other best friend, stands and pauses for a second. Her shoulders roll back, and she approaches the podium. Her hand reaches up and touches the frame of the photo.
“How does one explain Mia? It’s what I’ve been trying to figure out, this impossible puzzle I feel like I’ve been tasked with. She had this way of making you believe anything was possible. She’s the reason I’m not afraid to be myself, unashamed, even when the world is more than likely going to turn its back on me at some point.” Her eyes shift from her hands on the podium to Mia’s family. Her stare lingers heavily on Kellan. “She was a sister, daughter, a friend, and girlfriend.” Nicole’s eyes shift to me. “She loved you most, and I promised her I wouldn’t let you give up. So, in front of everyone today, I need everyone to promise not to let her death be the end of anything for you.” She swallows her tears. She and I both know the promise isn’t meant for all of us. It’s only meant for me. “Everyone say, ‘I promise, Nicole’.”
“I promise, Nicole,” the congregation says at once. A few chuckles echo among us.
Kellan smiles at me through his hurt. He can’t hide it. The same pain coursing through him is surging through my body. “Leave it up to Nicole to make demands at my sister’s funeral.”
“It’s why Mia loved her so much. Called her unapologetic.” Even saying her name hurts.
“She’s right, man. My sister loved you.” With those words, he returns to watch Nicole move into the crowd. Their eyes meet, and she offers a small smile. So much passes between them in an instant.
Everything they’ve said is true. Anyone who has spent a minute in the presence of Mia knows the kind of person she was. Selfless and unwavering. Kind and tender. She didn’t know what it meant to meet a stranger, because immediately, they’d hit it off. She was my opposite, and still somehow, she always found the good inside of me.
“Nick, would you like to say a few words?” Mr. James says. His wife sits beside him, sadness dripping from her eyes.
Fuck. I’m not sure I can do this.
What could I possibly say?
“Sure,” I say, wiping my hands on my khaki-covered thighs. Why didn’t I say no? No one would have blamed me.
My mom’s hand grips mine as I pass her in the pew. “You don’t have to, Nicholas.”
She’s wrong though. I do have to do this. For her.
I walk closer and closer to that damn podium they’ve stood behind, telling stories and little antidotes about Mia. If I had a box of matches and kerosene, I’d light this motherfucker on fire and walk away. Since my pockets are empty, and I’m too pretty to go to prison for arson, I step behind it like everyone else and look out among the town. There isn’t an empty seat, with crowds standing in any available square of carpet.
“Mia James is my girlfriend.” Breathe, Man. You got this. “She was my girlfriend, and I don’t think I’ve allowed that reality to settle in until right now, seeing all of you with tears in your eyes, looking at me with such sadness.” Don’t do it. You’re going to regret this. “Standing before you is a seventeen-year-old boy with the world at his fingertips. You already know I have a scholarship to any Division One university of my choosing, great friends and family, enough charm to dazzle anyone in this room, and yet, a boy stands before you, angry and ashamed, because I get to live this amazing life”— I beat on my chest— “a life he had planned to spend with her. And now, I’m making fucking promises to continue life in tribute to her death. If I’m being honest, I want to say fuck you to whatever kind of greater power has dealt this empty life to me.”
I ease around the podium and place my hand on the casket. Tears don’t settle on my cheeks; they pour down like rain on a rooftop, spilling over the edge. All eyes are on me, and not a single breath is taken. What will I do next, they wonder?
My attention strays to the enlarged photo. Her cheeks aren’t sunken in. Her eyes are full of a playful spark. This is Mia. Not that girl in the casket.
I grab it off the easel and hold it under my arm. This belongs to me now.
“Nicholas,” my mother calls as I pass down the middle aisle.
Fuck this church.
Fuck all their pity.
Fuck having a dead girlfriend.
“I’m out of here,” I say, not really caring if anyone actually hears me.
I hit the pavement, and the sun beats down on my skin. A quick glance shows no one’s followed me. Not that it would matter if they had. I’m taking this damn photo, and I’m going home. I can’t watch them lower her into the dirt.
With her portrait next to me, I drive through town. It’s like a snapshot of everything that reminds me of her. The diner where we had our first date. The movie theater where we shared our first kiss. The park she ran to after our first big fight. Everything in this damn town reminds me of her.
“Fuck!” I yell, banging my fist against the steering wheel.
I half-ass park my car in the middle of the driveway, race inside with the portrait under my arm, and fall onto the center of my bed. The metal frame bangs against the headboard. I see the edge of her brown hair from where I lie and imagine what it felt like to run my fingers through it.
The sky shifts from clear and blue to dark like the flip of a switch. In my mind, I know it isn’t possible. Not a second has passed where I didn’t watch the time change on the bedside clock. Numbers tick by so slow, and yet, time seems to pass by so quick.
Doors close outside, and I know they’re home. Mia’s parents had held a dinner afterward for those closest to her. There isn’t a world where I would have survived being stuck under the same roof as them.
“We missed you. Everyone did,” my mother says. She’s standing in the doorway, probably too afraid to come in. My actions today scared her I’m sure.
I roll onto my back and catch her eyes shifting down to the portrait of Mia. My Mia.
“It’s not fair, Mom.” I sit up, looking to her for answers I know she doesn’t have. No one does. Not a single person knows what to say to me to make it hurt a little less. “It’s just not fucking fair.”
“You’re right. It’s pretty damn cruel.” She perches on the edge of the mattress, not saying another word, just being with me in the silence.
I’ll no longer hear her goofy laugh, the way it hitches up in the end like she has to gasp for a breath. She won’t be there in the stands at all my hockey games or get to graduate high school. It’s all settling in now. The day leading up to the funeral, I’d had the privilege of ignoring the inevitable, but not anymore.
“She doesn’t get to have a future. She was seventeen years old, and that’s all she’ll ever be.” I fall back, covering my eyes with my forearm.
“No, she doesn’t have a future, but you do, Nicholas. Allow yourself to be sad. Do whatever you feel like you need to do, but at some point, you’ll have to dig yourself out of this hole I know you’ll be in.” She pats me on the leg like she always does when she’s trying to fling some motherly advice on me.
Once she’s gone, I pick up the portrait and lean it against my dresser.
Just outside of my room, my mom cries softly, and my father reassures her I’ll be okay.
Will I be okay, though?
It sure as hell doesn’t feel like it right now.
Straighten your spine.
Wipe that nasty scowl away.
Smooth the front of your dress.
This is the poisonous venom my mother has spewed at me tonight. Not one compliment. Not a sliver of a tender smile. No, those are reserved for my baby sister, Sarah Beth. My inner voice is bitter as hell, and there is no shame in admitting I’m desperate for a little bit of positive attention from my mother. Some would say I have mommy issues, and they’d be damn right.
“I’m parched.” My mother fans her flushed cheeks. Her expression contorts before my eyes. Years of anger are hurled in my direction with one single glare.
She actually hates me.
We’ve only been standing in this processing line for an hour, and she’s already managed to make me hate my newfound status in town.
A sharp poke hits my hip, and I peek down through my eyelashes at Sarah Beth’s hilarious, yet sweet smirk. All her bright, white teeth are on display like she’s won the blue ribbon in life.
Perhaps she has.
“She isn’t talking to me,” my witty little sister whispers. Even at nine years old, she knows who pulls rank under our roof, and it isn’t me.
“Aren’t you adorable?” I tousle her curled hair, checking over my shoulder to make sure my mother doesn’t catch me ruining all the hard work she’s done to make Sarah Beth the picture of perfection. She’s spewed hatred for much less. “Coming right up, Mother,” I singsong, bouncing from the reception line as if I’m pleased with running around at her beck and call.
My father, Dax Callahan, is officially the mayor of our quaint, nosy town. Once the other opponents heard The Great Dax Callahan was running, they pulled their hats out of the race, which made voting simple for the great citizens of Belle Meade.
‘The powerful stay powerful’ has been his mantra the past few months. Before he took office, he ran a multibillion-dollar corporation. What do they do there? The way he lines his pockets is never discussed. He refuses to reveal how we’ve always been privileged, clothed in diamonds and the finest furs. I have my own suspicions, and none of them are legal.
Still, here I am acting like the dutiful daughter, fetching water for the thirsty, and smiling until my cheeks feel like they’ll split in half.
“Having a good time?” Amilee Kingsley, one of my best friends, slips in line beside me. Her beautiful copper hair lays loose over one shoulder, held back by a barrette made of diamonds, no doubt real, in the most hypnotizing formation. She’s tall, lean, and every reason why girls immediately feel the flood of jealousy in her presence. Remarkable is how I’ve heard her described.
“What do you think?” I lean my hip against the impeccably decorated table.
Nothing but the best for the Mayor’s Ball. Although it’s tradition and always grand, my mother has taken it to the next level. I can only imagine how lavish the masquerade will be this year.
“You coming to the forest tonight?” Amilee reaches past me, grabbing a cup of water. As she takes a slow sip, she scans the room over the rim. When her stare lands on Dylan, he slyly grins. They do a silent dance, and Amilee waves to me as she walks to him.
“Do I look like I’m going to the forest tonight?” I run my hands over the ball gown I’ve practically been sewn into.
“We won’t be picking you up until eleven, and this shit show should be done by nine-thirty at the latest, so there is no real excuse for you to try to use on me,” she says tactically, twirling a single finger in the air.
Hannigan Forest is sort of a rite of passage in our town. Generations have used it as a means of escape. Parties inside the thick foliage essentially go unseen, which is the perfect set-up for eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids.
My mother’s heel tap, tap, taps the tiled floor, gaining my full attention. With a snap of her fingers, she points to the empty space in front of her where she believes I should already be.
Chill out, woman. You won’t die. Unfortunately.
“I better deliver this to her, or heads will roll,” I say when I pass Amilee and Dylan.
Amilee’s chuckle rises over the pomp and circumstance, and only because she knows I’m not kidding. My mother’s reputation as a ball buster is well known. Children cross the road to avoid her icy stare, and adults nod respectfully in agreement to everything she says. It’s how it’s always been, and I’m sure how it will remain.
“Here you go, Mother.” I hand her the beveled glass.
She places her flawlessly lacquered lips on the edge, devouring the water as if she’s lost in the desert and never thought she’d moisten her tongue again.
“Took you long enough,” she barks, setting the glass on the table behind her.
“I can never do anything right, can I, Mother?” I wink at my little sister.
Sarah Beth is the good daughter, while I make it my mission to torment our mother for my own amusement.
“Now, ladies, please, can we get along?” my father interrupts. He’s regal and assertive on any given day. Perhaps that’s how he’s become successful. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and those around him tend to bend at his whim.
“Yes, Dad,” I answer, returning a hostile stare at my mother. She hates that I call him Dad and only offer her the basic courtesy of Mother. I might as well call her a bitch to her face, which has the same meaning as far as I’m concerned.
“Tonight’s about you, honey. My apologies.” My mother kisses him on the cheek. She keeps a close eye on me as she runs her hands through the back of his silvery hair.
Someone should remind her gaining his attention isn’t a competition.
I’m his daughter, you sick fuck.
My mother is right about one thing. Tonight’s festivities are about Dax Callahan. The Mayor’s Manor is only open to the town twice a year. A gala and masquerade ball are thrown every year in his or her honor.
Hence why I’m stuck in a blush pink gown and ridiculous excuse for shoes with four-inch heels. I’d trade them for my black combat boots any day, but I’m expected to dress the part. Glitter sparkles in my hair, and my cheeks appear softer, lip-cracking smile and all.
Like a needle through delicate fabric, a soft lullaby strums through the room until it suddenly stops. Everyone is well aware of the absence of the music. The segment of silence is replaced with a haunting tune. A group of young men in tuxedoes out of a gothic fairytale, and women wearing cascading ball gowns made of silks and lace, step onto the dance floor. Their movements are antiquated, but hypnotizing.
As I watch, enthralled by the spectacle, a woman strolls onto the dance floor, not affected by the entertainment. As if the dancers understand her importance, they waltz around her, allowing her a clear path direct to my family.
There’s an air about this woman. Confidence rolls off her bare shoulders, down her lace dress, to the tips of her toes peeking out of the stilettos blessed to adorn her feet. Her hair is dark like a cloudy, midnight sky, and she has eyes that glimmer like diamonds.
Who is she? And what does she want from me?
Her harsh maroon lacquered lips loosen, though her shoulders tell me the truth. She’s uptight but trying to come across as refreshing and easy going.
“You must be Lennox.” The tall goddess talks directly to me, but she stands with her shoulders squared to my mother. They measure each other, a silent duel to see who holds the upper hand. Why they feel the need is beyond my understanding. She twists on her heels and offers her hand to me. “I’m Gail Blackstone. We’re new in town, and I heard the mayor had a daughter around my son’s age.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” A warm shock runs through me as her hand touches mine, and I jolt back. “Welcome to Belle Meade.”
“This is my son, Garrison.” The well-dressed woman shifts to the side, and a well over six-foot-tall heart throb comes forward to introduce himself.
Garrison extends his hand and does this romantic flip with his dark, devilish hair. The same warm spark runs through me again when we touch. He leans forward, his palm pressing mine, and his lips brush my earlobe. “Can I have this dance?”
His mother and my family watch, and suddenly, I’m stuck under Garrison’s thumb. There are ramifications for telling him no, and I’m not sure what my punishment would be.
I nod and allow him to escort me to the dance floor. The lights above us twinkle like stars in the desert, leading us through the dance. His hand rests low on my back, his fingertips dangerously close to my ass. The other holds mine between our bodies. He leads me, effortlessly, around the floor, our movements slow and rhythmic. I watch our feet, surprised how lightweight I feel in his arms.
Garrison’s fingers tip my chin, forcing us eye-to-eye. His skin is pale, but not sickly. All of his life stares back at me. We sway and spin. The dance floor is suddenly empty, and a crowd gathers around the perimeter.
“Don’t think too hard about them,” he instructs. “They’re jealous.”
A deep and amused chuckle rumbles in my chest. “You think awfully high of yourself, Garrison.”
“They’re jealous of me.” His voice rumbles and drips with sex. He leans down, his tongue practically skimming my earlobe. “They don’t get to hold you in their arms like I do.”
“One dance does not equate to a lifetime of endless love.”
“No, but one single kiss, if profound enough, can give you no other choice but to bend at my feet for eternity.” Garrison offers a knowing smirk. He’s playing me.
With a curtsy, I twirl to leave the dance floor. All of them are watching me. Some are skeptical, others enchanted. Mrs. Blackstone has a pleased, satisfied smile on her face, while my mother seethes beside my dad. I pass by them, and my mother takes a step toward me. My dad’s hand high on her bicep is the one thing keeping her from chastising me in front of our guests.
The ladies’ room may be my only hiding spot tonight. Once we’d moved into the mansion, my mother demanded restrooms be installed on the main floor, for the simple fact she couldn’t possibly share the same wash room with a bunch of commoners twice a year. Now, the manor is split into two sections; the living space and where we entertain. No one is ever allowed beyond the public areas. Armed guards are put in place during events to ensure noses aren’t poked where they don’t belong. We can’t possibly let them catch a glimpse of our real lives.
It’s where our weakness is held.
I ignore the watchful eyes of my father’s minions and scurry into hiding to collect my thoughts. What just happened? Garrison captivated the hell out of me. Being stuck under someone’s spell isn’t a good feeling when I’m used to being in full control.
“Can we talk for a second about how hot that guy was?” Emerson Saville, one of my other best friends, bursts into the room, swaying a bit on her heels.
“Someone cracked open daddy’s liquor safe,” I say, removing the light pink lipstick. I toss the tissue in the trash and replace the color with something much more me.
“Your mother will kill you if she sees that.” Emerson’s sinful grin warns me in the mirror when I glance up.
“We’ll see.” I rub my lips together, smoothing the burgundy shade.
“Now, back to the hot guy who looked seconds away from proposing to you in the middle of the dance floor.”
“No, he was not.” I take the spot beside her, and wishing for sleep, my head falls to her shoulder.
Emerson’s most skeptical glance meets mine in the mirror.
“I can read you like a manual, Lenny. Spit it out.” Emerson leans forward, forcing me to stand straight. What she can do is stop glaring as if she can see right through me.
“His mom, when we shook hands . . .” I stop myself, not having given myself enough time to process what had happened out there.
“What, were they abnormally soft or sweaty?” Emerson chuckles.
“I don’t really know. It felt off, if that even makes sense.”
“You’re going to need to give me more than that,” she says.
“I’m not exactly the intuitive type, but her intentions, although admirable, weren’t exactly sincere.”
“And you picked all that up from a simple handshake?”
If I didn’t love her, I’d smack the smirk off her face.
“A shock ran through her body into mine, literally felt as if it grabbed ahold of me and held me under her spell.” A searing headache embodies my weary accusations of Mrs. Blackstone. No amount of massage can ease the ache in my forehead.
“No offense, but . . .” Emerson holds up her hands, silently begging me not to knock her on her ass.
“Whenever there’s a but, it’s usually followed by some sort of insult.”
“Oh, it was going to.”
“It doesn’t make any sense, and I feel slightly insane even thinking it, okay?” I circle my finger around my temple, then abruptly stop, because even though I feel a touch off base with my suspicion, I refuse to look the part as well. “Let’s keep my crazy between us, okay?”
“Whatever you need, Lennox.” She smiles kindly.
After we leave the bathroom, the night continues exactly as I expect. We shake hands, express our gratitude for all of the townspeople’s support, and act as if we are a completely normal family. Behind the beautiful costumes—because that’s exactly what we wear—is a family full of deceit and lies. We smile and prance around as if all is well in the Callahan family. Our charade is for one reason only.
To deceive any outsider.
What no one sees is a mother who’s more worried about the white powder in her antique pill box, and a father who is too busy screwing anything in a skirt to care. They don’t see two young girls simply getting by, making their best attempt to blend into the wallpaper for fear of gaining their mother’s attention. No, they smile upon us with pride for simply allowing them in our presence. It’s much easier than knowing the cold, hard truth.
That’s the problem with the world. We assume we know things before we have all the information. First impressions are what we go on, without bothering to see past all the bullshit. We are wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
Once the last guest exits, I hike up my dress and head to the stairs.
“I’m going out with friends.” To avoid an argument, I don’t give her a chance. It’s not necessary since I feel her disappointment stabbing at my neck. “I did what you asked. I shook their hands. I smiled. The least you can do is not bat an eyelash when I leave, Mother.”
“Tomorrow is your birthday,” she says, matter of fact, like I don’t know. “I’ll need you home without the whore color on your lips.”
“And home, I’ll be.” I roll my eyes for my own satisfaction. I’ve mastered the act at this point. “Let me guess.” I stop on the top landing, high above her, looking down on her figuratively and quite literally. “A photo op? Another way to showboat me around town? Let them see how perfect we are, right?”
“It’s a day you’ll never forget,” she sneers at me, her teeth bared, and a wisp of happiness twinkling in her glare.
“Nineteen is not that big of a deal,” I say.
As I walk down the hallway, her whisper floats to me. “We’ll see about that.”
With the help of my foot, the door to my bedroom slams closed as I pass under the archway. When I’m alone, the dress draws my attention to the mirror. My hands skim the floral details on the bodice and the iridescent belt cinching my tiny waist. The sharp edge of my nails catch on one of the beads, and I pull at the string, destroying a cluster of flowers. I hate to admit how much I relate to this dress. Something beautiful, pulled in one direction until it begins to unravel. As I stare in the mirror, even with new imperfections, it’s still immaculate, a vision to bestow. The way the blush fabric cascades down my length is mesmerizing. The color is a clear contrast to my dark, long hair. Beautiful isn’t a word I’d use to describe myself, but even I have to admit, I’m some sort of dream in this dress.
Once I start to see flaws, I change my clothes for something more forest appropriate. My phone rings as I close the button of my jeans. Emerson’s name and picture flash across the screen. The silly girl is sticking her tongue out and holding up a peace sign. She’d snapped the picture without my knowing and programmed it to display whenever she calls.
“Yes?” I say.
“Get your skinny ass out here,” she slurs.
“Jesus, please tell me you aren’t driving.” I swipe my clutch off the dresser, stuffing my lip gloss and some cash into the interior, and hurry down the stairs, bypassing my mother without a backward glance.
“Don’t be out too late!” she hollers as I walk out the front door.
Without caring if she sees me or not, I flip her the middle finger.
“Do I look stupid?” Emerson giggles in my ear.
I open the back door of Dylan’s SUV, push end on the conversation, and address Dylan. “How much has she drunk already? It’s only ten.”
“Don’t point fingers. She was in this condition when I picked her up,” Dylan argues. “Now shut the goddamn door, so we can get going.”
“Oh, because we can’t be late to the forest,” I scoff, slumping against the cool black leather in his Denali. “Heaven forbid.” I wiggle my fingers, unimpressed.
“Do explain why you hate it so much,” Emerson says, twisting to face me, her legs tucked under her ass.
“It just freaks me out, okay?” I cross my arms in defiance, refusing to think about how scary that place is. “But for you, I’ll go.” Emerson’s soft skin tickles the back of my hand as I brush her cheek. “We picking up Amilee?”
“Do any of you ever go anywhere without each other?” Dylan jabs. Emerson and I giggle, and he sneers, unamused with us. “Yes, we’re picking her up.”
I lean forward, resting my forearms on the back of his seat, and whisper, “Dylan, why are your panties in a twist?”
“He’s all wound up because Amilee rejected him last night,” Emerson announces, a giggle short on her tongue when he glares over at her. “What? It’s the truth.”
“Amilee just doesn’t know what she’s missing yet,” Dylan says as we pull into Amilee’s driveway.
The girl in question bounces down the walkway, and the three of us watch in awe. Her curls whip in the light wind, and he moans. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think we’ve just witnessed a bit of disappointment and admiration, colliding into each other, deep in his soul. Amilee is a force to be reckoned with, and she’s fully aware of her power over people.
“What’s up, bitches?” she cheers, sliding inside the back, then immediately reaching forward to crank the radio up, her face close to Dylan’s. She inspects him and grins like she’s just caught the biggest fish in the lake.
“Do you have to torment him?” I whisper, leaning into her when she’s settled into her seat. “You know he has a thing for you.”
“Now, what would be the fun in that.” Amilee winks.
The three of us sway to the music and belt the lyrics at the top of our lungs, until we park on the shoulder near the Bridge Street entrance. Expensive sports cars, SUVs, and trucks line the road. Just another typical Saturday night in Belle Meade.
Outside the window is darkness. As I climb out of the Denali, my soles sink into the loose soil. Fireflies twinkle in the distance, blinking then disappearing. Their freedom stirs up a sense of jealousy deep in my heart.
“You coming, Lennox?” Amilee calls from just inside the tree line, moonlight framing her face.
“I’ll be right there.” I glance around the perimeter of the forest. A chill runs over my body, tickling the hair on the back of my neck. I pull my ponytail down, shaking the tangles out until it shields my neck. I hate the way it feels here. There’s something forbidden about stepping into these woods. We aren’t meant to be in here.
As I enter the forest, a brisk wind blows through the leaves, rattling me to my bones. I’ve been here a handful of times, but this time the forest feels different. Frantic, I twist, searching for whatever has goose bumps dancing across my skin.
“You okay?” Dylan’s light grip on my elbow startles me, and I shrug him off. His hands dart up in defense like I’ve slapped him. “My bad, Lennox.”
With a shake of my head, I suppress the strange sensation racing through my veins. “No, I apologize. I just had this weird feeling like . . .”
“Like what?” he asks, pulling me in front of his body, shielding me. The gesture is sweet, and I smile in appreciation for his quick reaction. He inspects the forest.
“It’s nothing.” I step around him and quicken my pace to catch up to Amilee and Emerson.
“I thought you’d bailed,” Amilee jokes, nudging me in the side.
“I thought about it.” I tuck my hands into my jacket, not eager to continue this night.
Every time I walk to one of the coolers, I sense eyes on me. At first glance, the scene around me spells it out perfectly. There’s nearly fifty people here. One or two, hell, maybe even three could be leering in my direction. Wouldn’t surprise me. The mayor’s daughter is meant to be on her best behavior and acting responsibly.
The longer we’re here, the stronger my unease grows.
“I’ll be right back,” I inform Emerson, whispering in her ear.
She nods before turning her attention back to Gregory, her latest boy-toy. He’s the all-American high school football player who’s gearing up to play for the University of Tennessee this coming season.
Sticks crack as I trek around the small circle of trees where everyone busies themselves with mundane conversation. The girls are dying for the attention they lack from their fathers, and the boys are capitalizing on an opportunity. It’s basic science in Belle Meade. The girls are easy, and the boys, well, the boys are easier.
Against my better judgement, I walk away from my friends.
There’s a pull in the air, and as I take every step, I know I’m headed straight for it. Out in the woods somewhere, something wants to be seen. Call it intuition. My fear drives me over and under limbs. An owl howls in the distance, and I stop dead in my tracks. A tingle runs the length of my spine, and immediately, I know I’m not alone.
“Hello?” I call, frozen in my own skin. Panic aches in my chest. Show yourself. “Hello?”
A quick rotation proves my instinct wrong. I’m alone.
My legs spring into action. As I race, twigs smack my face and arms, scraping the shallow depths of my skin. Shadows bounce around in the faint trace of moonlight. I pivot but see no one. My pace slows when I realize I’m not running back to my friends, but toward the entrance. As I see the shiny black paint on Dylan’s SUV, crackling reverberates in my ears, and I spin to find where the noise comes from. My body slams into a tree, and my back hits the ground. Specks of light dance in front of me.
“Ow, that hurt.” I rub the tenderness in my elbow as my vision adjusts. To my surprise, the object isn’t a tree. Not unless oaks and pines have thick, sculpted legs and brooding smiles. “You’re not a tree,” I say, scooting back like a kindergartner doing the crab crawl in gym class. A stranger in the woods never brings anything good into a young girl’s life. I’ve seen plenty of horror movies to know this is a fact.
“No, I’m not.” The stranger chuckles.
His hand extends between us, and I accept it, even though everything tells me not to. Our skin touches, and a shock races through my palm, and up my arm, strong enough to give me no choice but to jump back from him.
“Whoa! Are you okay?” His eyebrows shift up toward the night sky.
“You didn’t feel that?” I help myself up the rest of the way, dusting the dirt from the back of my pants while keeping a close eye on the boy in front of me. There’s something different about him, a strange disposition I feel connected to in some way, but know for certain I should be afraid of. “I felt you running directly into me.” His eyebrow perks up, mocking me.
“Why are you in the woods?” My fists pinch into my hips. Pretending to be unaffected by the way his eyes canvas my body is impossible, when all it does is cause tugs and twists inside of me. If he’s here to murder me, then I want to go out with a fight.
“I could ask you the same exact question. I’m Edric, by the way.” He reaches out to me again. Instead of being polite as taught, I leave his hand lingering between our bodies, refusing to chance the same shock he’d delivered moments before. “Okay, then.” My hint finally received, he slides his hands into the tight pockets of his jeans.
“That’s nice,” I say. He shrugs and turns to leave. “Wait, where are you going?” My voice is filled with desperation, and I don’t know why. He’s nobody to me, and yet, I’m not ready to say goodbye. “Not that I care, I just . . .”
“Why, are you going to miss me?” Glancing over his shoulder, Edric smiles, his mouth spread wide enough, it nearly takes up the bottom half of his chiseled face.
He seems familiar, like I’ve met him before.
“That’s not what I meant.” I run after him, forgetting all the rules I’ve been taught since I was young. “You clearly aren’t from around here, so why are you wandering in our woods?”
“Your woods, huh? You own the property?”
I reach out, grabbing his arm to stop his leaving. Instead of the expected shock, a thrill races through me like I’m on my first rollercoaster ride. He turns on his heels, stepping into me. I hiss in a breath, exhilarated by our closeness.
“Well, no, but . . .” I stutter, barely recognizing the gravel tone in my voice. My odd behavior confuses me.
“Then perhaps I have every right to be here.” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, and if it weren’t for the tree beside me, I would have fallen to the forest floor. “And if my presence here depends on being a resident, then consider me a neighbor, because we just moved to Belle Meade. Looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.” He backs away as he speaks, turning and crossing out of the forest onto the main road.
“Hey, where are you going?” I yell.
“I know when I’m not wanted.” He spins to face me, continuing to walk backward.
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to.” He holds up two fingers and taps his temple.
His playful wink does a hell of a lot more to me than anything else a boy has ever done to get my attention. Why am I so worked up over this guy? I don’t like it. Never once in my life have I felt out of control, but Edric, he makes me believe, maybe this time, I could lose the upper hand I’m accustomed to having.
“See you around, Lennox!” he yells as the thick foliage across the road swallows him.
Baffled by the odd encounter, I almost miss his use of my first name. I didn’t introduce myself when he did. Another chill dances up my spine.
“Lennox!” Emerson yells. “Where are you?” Her drunken giggles make me smile.
“I’m over here!” I shout, waving my hand in the air.
Emerson, Amilee, Dylan, and Gregory walk into a circle of moonlight.
“What are you doing out here, lady?” Emerson runs into my not-so-open arms. The motion of her body hitting me full speed is almost as painful as me running into the human tree moments ago.
“I see no one stopped her from drinking more,” I say, leering over Emerson’s shoulder at the other three. “How are we supposed to get her back inside her house without her mom knowing?”
They shrug, each avoiding my disapproval.
“You ready to go?” Amilee asks. “A fight broke out, and Dylan and Gregory swooped us up and ushered us out before we got swarmed by the masses.”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” I say, my attention straying to the space Edric occupied minutes ago. Too confused for conversation or questions, I don’t mention the dark stranger.
As we pile into Dylan’s car, they clamor on about this supposed fight and all the other drama the forest always brings. It’s like people shift into animals the moment they cross the threshold.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow night.” I practically jump from the car before it even stops in my driveway.
In the top window, a shadow crosses between the curtains. The person shuts them before I can see who it is. Either my mother is waiting up for me, or my father is finally attempting the parenting thing.
The front door screeches as I open it. With care, I close it to ensure it doesn’t slam. I head up the staircase and come face-to-face with my father.
“Oh, god,” I whisper-shout, my hand flying to my chest. “You scared me.”
“My apologies,” he says.
“Is everything okay?” I lean against the railing, unsure if I should pass him and hide in my room.
We don’t have conversations. At least nothing too serious, and by the darkness in his eyes, I’d say this is going to be a doozy.
“Yes, sweetheart.” He smiles. “Tomorrow, you’ll be nineteen.”
“I will?” I deadpan.
“Nineteen is sort of a big deal, don’t you think?”
“Honey, tomorrow, everything is going to change. Your mother . . .” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “Well, your mother didn’t want to warn you, but I need you to be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” I question.
“Tomorrow marks the beginning of your reign,” he whispers.
Wait, what did he just say?
“Dax!” My mother’s sharp tongue spits out his name. “That’s enough for tonight.” She stands at their bedroom door, her flowy night robe billowing at her ankles.
My father glances between the two of us. He leans toward me, kisses me on the forehead, and whispers, “I wish there was more I could’ve done. It’s out of my control now.”
“It’s okay,” I answer, not really understanding what I’m dismissing.
“Get some sleep, Lennox,” my mother barks. Her silk pajamas sway as she goes into her bedroom. “You have a big day tomorrow.”
Exhausted, I drop onto the mattress, tossing my boots to the floor. Tomorrow will be here before I know it. Up until this point, my nineteenth birthday has felt like any other day, and now, I’m not sure what the future will entail.
With my father’s solemn expression burned into the inside of my eyelids, I drift off to sleep.
I hope you love what you've read so far!
Read the rest on Dec. 6th, 2018!!!!