Two Years Ago
“You sure she won’t figure out I’m here?” my boyfriend, James, murmurs into my ear. His warm, minty breath fans strands of my long chestnut brown hair, making me shiver. Tilting my head, I glance back into his gray eyes and see the flash of pleasure because of my reaction to him. There’s a definite note of apprehension there, too, thanks to his odd fear of my mom—she’s too scared to kill a spider, much less come after him with a weapon for being inside my bedroom. “Evie? I’d f**king hate for her to start shooting at me.”
“My mother doesn’t own a gun, but she does keep a butcher knife from kitchen cutlery set under her bed.” His blond eyebrows knit together, and I’m sure his head is now full of images of my delicate PTA mother getting all stabby with a dull Bed, Bath, & Beyond utensil. I snort and roll my eyes. “Calm down. She’s got one of her book club meetings tonight. She’s probably down there Googling spoilers so her friends won’t realize she hasn’t picked up a book in weeks.” Flipping over onto my stomach, I prop myself up on my forearms and give him the most serious look I can muster. “I promise, promise, you’re safe.”
From the skeptical look he’s wearing, he doesn’t fully buy my words, but he forces himself relax, linking his fingers together behind his head. He lies back on my pillows. “Not going to lie, I’m still nervous as hell.” He dips his smooth chin toward the iPod dock on the dresser on the other side of the room. “Maybe you should turn that up a little more. Just in case.”
A laugh rumbles deep in my chest as I push myself up. “You are a chicken shit.” As I make my way over to the sound system, I swing my h*ps in rhythm to the Kings of Leon song that’s playing. I am definitely not a dancer, but I hear James’ sharp intake of air as he studies my movements. After I adjust the volume so there’s no way my mom will be able to hear anything other than my “Relaxation” playlist, I spin around to look at him, noting the appreciative glint in his eyes that’s taken precedence over any fear that was there before.
“I’ve missed you,” he mouths. “Get over here.”
Without warning, I jump onto the bed beside him, the mattress sinking a little at the sudden motion. I squeal when James tackles me and pins my wrists to the mattress. “Now who’s being loud?” I demand, releasing a soft noise from the back of my throat when his lips touch mine. After he draws away—much to my disappointment because he hasn’t kissed me like this in almost two weeks—I start,
“What time do you have to be—” But the sound of my phone blaring on the nightstand beside the bed interrupts my thought process. Both of our heads turn to where the phone is buzzing fiercely on the antique white wood. “I’m not answering that stupid thing.”
“It might be important.” James’ lips twitch. “But, to answer your question, I told my mom I’d be home by seven. I parked a mile away, so you’ve got me all to yourself for”—he looks at my alarm clock, and tilts his head to the side like he’s calculating how long it will take him to sprint to his car and get home before his mom starts worrying—“another hour and a half.” When my phone starts up, he lifts his eyebrows. “You should answer it, might be Lily again. Or your other boyfriend?”
“Don’t care if it is her.” Still, I grab my phone and check the number on the screen. “And I’m too lazy to manage another boyfriend.” I flash the phone in his face, wiggling it around so he can see the smiling face of one of my friends. “It’s Sophie.”
Letting out a low whistle, he moves his head to each side. “God, you hold a grudge. Hard to believe y’all have been fighting this long. Usually you kiss and make up after a few days.”
He’s referring to the epic fallout I had with my sister two weeks ago. When my mom had woken up in the middle of the night after a bad dream only to find that I was nowhere to be found, she’d automatically confronted Lily. Being the worst liar, a born worrier, and a natural avoider of confrontations, Lily had accidentally revealed that I might be with James. Mom had freaked out, and when I finally made it home shortly after three AM, there was a cop car in our driveway. Although Dad had only suggested a week without car privileges, Mom upped it to a month. Then she’d thrown in a teen pregnancy movie marathon to try to scare the hell out of me along with a strict no James without parental supervision policy for good measure.
Obviously, I’ve managed to get around at least one of those punishments, but since my mother came down on me, I’ve only said a handful of words to my sister.
“I’ll get over it when I get my keys back,” I inform James. When he rolls off of me, I grab the pillow closest to me and hug it to my chest. His eyes search my face until I finally groan. “Okay, I’ll talk to her and apologize tonight. Happy?”
His answer is muffled by the sound of my mom frantically yelling my name from downstairs. “Great,” he whispers, his gaze darting to the door. “Maybe I should go.” He starts to get up, but I press my palm against his chest, shoving him back down.
“Calm the hell down.” I push myself upright, swing my long legs over the side of the bed and hop off. “If she thought you were up here she would already be in here telling you what a manwhore you are. Since she’s not, I’m going to run down there before she gets worked up enough to come get me.”
Grabbing my hairband off the nightstand, I fist my hair into a high ponytail and pile it on top of my head. Once again I dance across my room, winking at James when he gives me another longing look.
“Thanks for being a tease.” He hurls the pillow I was just holding in my direction, but I easily catch it before dropping it on my computer desk. “Hurry back.”
My mood is the best it’s been in weeks as I jog downstairs, grinning and humming Fuel’s “Shimmer,” which I can hear coming from inside my bedroom. That feeling of invincibility, however, takes a backseat when I reach the landing. My mother’s standing at the front door, her shoulders sagging forward and her hand gripping the doorframe for support. Curling my bare toes against the hardwood floor, I let my gaze slip past her to stare out at the early autumn evening. And to come face-to-face with the cop standing on the front porch.
“Mom, what’s going—”
Slowly—so slowly that I have a difficult time managing to breathe while I wait—she turns to me. This is when I notice that she’s trembling, the yoga body that she’s absolutely proud of shaking so violently I’m surprised she doesn’t fall over. When I squint, I realize that she’s crying. She lifts her hazel eyes, and as I register how wide and terrified they are, I know something awful has happened. Suddenly, all thoughts of James upstairs in my bed disappear and gnawing panic sets in.
I try to force my body to move, to finish walking down the stairs to get to her, but I’m frozen in place, my legs bogged down by some invisible force.
I’m scared to death of whatever she’s about to tell me.
“Mom?” I whisper brokenly. I look from her stunned eyes, to her speechless lips, to the solemn face of the police officer and then back again. “Is it Dad?”
But somehow I know it’s not, even before she tells me in the calmest voice possible that she needs me to give my father a call at the car dealership he owns and tell him to get to Bristol Regional, the local hospital, NOW.
I know what she says next. The name is already racing through my mind, shattering all my control to bring me crashing to my knees. For some reason, though, I don’t hear her say it because the only thing I can hear is my erratic breathing and the last thing I said to my sister. “You’ll be fine.”
I was wrong.
Last night, I dreamt of my sister. Lily. It was the second time since I lost her two years ago.
She looked the same as she did the last time she talked to me, with her straight, golden-brown hair pulled into a taut ponytail at the nape of her neck, her red and white track windbreaker partially unzipped and exposing her white t-shirt, and the corners of her chocolate brown eyes crinkled because she was wearing a big, cheesy smile. Lily was always, always smiling. That single expression had been what everyone else loved about her the most, and yet it frustrated the hell out of me while she was still here.
My sister was an eternal optimist.
I’d been too much of a bitch to appreciate that. Even after I realized just how much I lost the day she was ripped away from me, I was too selfish not to feel sorry for myself. That was me. Always, always selfish.
But that messy and screwed-up part of me never seemed to bother Lily, and in my dream, she’d flung my tie-dyed bedspreads off of my body and onto the carpet before jumping on the bed next to me. “Get up, and get it over with, Evie,” she sang, her typically quiet voice booming. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stared me down, her ponytail swishing as she twisted her face into a dramatic scowl.
“Look, I don’t care if you’re still mad at me. Get up. You’re gonna thank me when your lazy ass graduates. So, come on before you completely wreck your day.”
Before everything changed, she’d said the same thing to me nearly every morning—well, minus the part about me being mad at her, which was something that was sprinkled in whenever we had an argument. Just like then, I got out of bed. The only difference was that for once it wasn’t begrudgingly, and when I opened my eyes, my sister was gone. With reality now facing me, sleep was an option that could go screw itself.
Wiping cold beads of perspiration from my forehead with a towel I found balled up on the floor beside my bed, I slid my feet into a pair of worn flip-flops. I crept silently downstairs, taking care not to bump into any of the boxes and suitcases in the dark foyer waiting to be toted off to my new college in the morning—the second school in less than twelve months.
In the kitchen, I downed a glass of OJ, cringing at the citrusy burn in the back of my throat as I slid down on the floor beside the fridge. For the longest time I sat there, the hardware from one of the cabinets digging into my back, and the blinking light on the stove directly across from me causing the edges of my vision to blur. I sat there with my regrets and memories of my sister tumbling through my brain.
“Don’t worry,” I finally promised aloud, the sound of my voice in the empty kitchen slowly piercing my chest. “I won’t screw up this year. I won’t. I will not wreck things this time.”
Now, several hours and a lonely drive from Bristol to Richmond later, that mantra pings sharply through my mind, a slight distraction to the task at hand—getting to my academic advisor’s office for our four o’clock meeting. Telling myself that I wouldn’t screw up seemed to help during summer break. I hadn’t purposely gone out of my way to see how far I could push myself away from everyone I knew, everyone who was left. Of course, the fact I had exiled myself to my parents’ house all summer couldn’t exactly be described as progress.
Still … this year is going to be different.
If I don’t tell myself that every day, I’m just giving myself permission to mess it all up.
Shuffling across the grass and into the courtyard teeming with students back from summer break, I squint down at the campus map. I’d picked it up this morning during the mandatory student orientation I attended, along with the rest of the residents of Campbell dorm’s seventh floor. Once I commit the shortcut to the music department to memory for the third time since leaving my room, I fold the paper into an uneven square and shove it into the side pocket of my crossbody purse.
This campus is at least four times bigger than the one I attended last year and, to be honest, this morning was the first time I ever laid eyes on the place. It was also the first time I’ve ever even stepped foot into Richmond. I’ll never tell anyone here that, though, especially not my new roommate Corinne, who’s already spent most of the afternoon drilling me with question after question.
I’d applied last minute without visiting, letting the photos on the website and my aunt’s enthusiastic claim that this was the best school in the history of all colleges act as my guide. The fact that I was accepted despite my awful grades from last year—well, that was a definite plus.
The biggest draw, however, is being four hours away from my former college, and nearly five hours away from Bristol, where everyone I know lives.
Because nobody here knows me.
Smiling to myself and fussing with my hat and hair, I jog up the back steps to cut across the dining hall; only to jerk to a stop a moment later when I ricochet off a tall, incredibly toned masculine body attempting to leave the building.
I know it’s my fault. My thoughts and actions have been all over the place since last night, but that doesn’t stop me from hurling out the first thing that comes to mind as I try to regain my footing. “Holy shit, watch—”
The Body’s quick apology, murmured in a slight Southern accent, brings my angry words to a jolting halt. “You all right? Sorry ‘bout that.”
Holy shit is right.
I haven’t seen his face, but there’s one thing for certain about this person who nearly knocked me on my ass: his voice is sexy—baritone and more than a little intoxicating.
A few years ago, I’d picked up my mom’s copy of A Literate Passion, her book club’s flavor of the month, and flipped through it, pausing briefly on the line about voices reverberating against bodies like a caress. I knew what it meant, but hearing that voice speaking to me now, asking me once again if I’m all right—I understand Anaïs Nin’s words that much more. That voice is just enough to make me want more of him.