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The Revenge of Seven (Lorien Legacies #5) Night of Cake & Puppets (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2.5)

My hand rocked, giving her more friction with the wand.

Hissing between my teeth, I immediately refilled and drank again.My friend’s eyes burned into me.

Demon Mistress (Otherworld/Sisters of the Moon #6)

I wanted him to leave, but he wouldn’t. He’d never given me room to mope in my past, and he sure as hell wouldn’t now. He believed I’d grown up; lost my diabolical need to hurt. What he didn’t know was I was better at negotiating deals with the monster living inside me. Those needs weren’t gone. The anger and rage at the filth of the world hadn’t faded. If I could trade places with one of the mercenaries I’d hired and kill a few traffickers with my bare hands, I would. I wasn’t growing soft in my old age. I was growing more and more lethal.It was yet another reason why I’d condemned myself to this future. Because the alternative was too fucking terrifying to contemplate.Have you told her yet? Frederick refilled his glass, keeping pace with me. Thank hell the helicopter was on standby to take me home because we would be over the limit within minutes.

The Rogue Not Taken (Scandal & Scoundrel #1)

Last night, I’d restrained myself. I’d had the strength to soul search and compartmentalize what I needed to say to Tess. Tonight was about giving myself some freedom.If Frederick wanted to drink with me, then fine and fucking dandy. No.

I shrugged, taking another shot.

You have to get it out in the open, Q. You’ve never kept any secrets before. He massaged his neck from working all day. Besides, she’s already guessed. She said she’d seen the paperwork. She’s smart.It’s not a bad idea. I’m not sure how much he can see in the darkness, but a little makeup wouldn’t hurt. I’m raising the mascara wand to my lashes when I’m struck by how . . . not smart this is. Applying makeup. For someone who isn’t my boyfriend. I settle for just a cherry-flavored lip gloss, but as soon as the scent hits me, I’m shaking. Cherry flavored. Tea leaves. First love. I return to my bedroom, wiping the gloss off on my hand, as there’s a CLANG against my window. And then I see what he’s about to do. Oh God! No, Cricket, don’t! It’ll hold my weight. Just grab onto that side, okay? Just in case? I clutch it tightly. He’s removed one of his closet shelves, the thick wire kind that’s coated in a white plastic, and he’s using it as a bridge between our bedrooms. Careful! I shout too loudly, and the bridge shakes. But he smiles. It’s okay. I’ve got it. And he does. Cricket scoots across quickly, right to where I’m holding it. His face is against mine. You can let go now, he whispers. My hands throb from gripping it so hard. I step back, allowing him room to enter. He slides down, and his legs brush against mine lengthwise. My body jolts. It’s the first time we’ve touched in ages. He’s so tall that his heart beats against my cheek. His heart. I falter backward. What were you thinking? I hiss, feeling all kinds of anxious. You could have fallen and broken your neck. I thought it’d be easier to talk face-to-face. He keeps his voice low. We could’ve met on the sidewalk, gone for another walk. He hesitates. Should I go back? No! I mean . . . no. You’re already here. A knock on my door startles us even farther apart. Lola? Nathan says. I heard a crash. Are you all right? My eyes widen in panic. My parents will KILL me if they find an unexpected boy in my room. Even if it is Cricket! I push him on the floor behind my bed, where he can’t be seen from my door. I jump in and pray Nathan doesn’t question the sound of bedsprings. I fell out of bed, I say groggily. I was exhausted. I was having a nightmare. A nightmare? The door opens, and Nathan peeks his head in. It’s been a long time since you’ve had one of those. Do you want to talk about it? No, it was . . . stupid. A wolverine was chasing me. Or a werewolf. I dunno, you know how dreams are. I’m fine now. Pleeeeease go away. The I really don’t want to have this conversation in front of Cricket. Dad— Is it Norah? I know things haven’t been easy since she got here, but— I’m fine, Dad. Good night. Is it Max? Or Cricket? You turned strange when you saw him tonight, and I didn’t mean to embarrass you when I said— Good night, Dad. PLEASE STOP TALKING. He sighs. Okay, Lola-doodle. But take off your glasses. I don’t want you to crush them. I set them on my bedside table, and he leaves. Cricket waits until the footsteps hit the landing below. His head pops up beside my own, and even though I know he’s there, it makes me jump. My dad was talking about . . . I struggle for a nonincriminating answer. I saw you come home, and it was at the same time Norah was telling us about this awful client. I must have been making a terrible face. I hate myself. He’s quiet. So . . . now what? I ask. Cricket turns away from me. He leans his back against the side of my bed. If you want me to go, I will. Sadness. Desire. An ache inside of me so strong that I don’t know how I believed it had ever left. I stare at the back of his head, and it’s like the oxygen has disappeared from my room. My heart has turned to water. I’m drowning. No, I whisper at last. You just got here. I want to touch him again. I have to touch him again. If I don’t touch him again, I’ll die. I reach toward his hair. He won’t even notice. But just as my fingertips are about to make contact, he turns around. And his head jerks backward as I nearly poke out an eye. Sorry! I’m sorry! I whisper. What are you doing? But he grins as he lunges to poke out mine. I grab his finger, and then—just like that—I’m holding on to him. My hand is wrapped around his index finger. But he zeros in on my rainbow Band-Aid. Is that where you cut yourself? It was nothing. I let go of him, self-conscious again. I was doing the dishes. He watches me wring my hands. Cool nails, he finally says. They’re black with a pink stripe down the center of each nail. And then . . . I know how I can touch him. Hey. Let me paint yours. I’m already getting up for my favorite dark blue polish. Somehow, I know he won’t protest. I carry it to the floor, where he’s still leaning against my bed. He sits up straight. Will this hurt? he asks. Badly. I shake the bottle. But try to keep your screams low, I don’t want Nathan coming back. Cricket smiles as I reach for my chemistry textbook. Put this on your lap, I’ll need a steady surface. Now place your hands on it. We’re close to each other, much closer than we’ve been while working on my dress. I’m going to take your left hand now. He swallows. Okay. Cricket holds it up slightly. Tonight the back of his hand has a star drawn on it. I wonder what it means as I slide my hand underneath his fingers. His hand twitches violently. You’ll have to hold it steady, I say. But I’m smiling. Contact. I paint his nails Opening Night blue by the light of the moon. Our grips relax as I focus on my work. Slow, careful strokes. We don’t talk. My skin and his skin. Only a book between my hand and his lap. I feel him watch me the entire time—not my hands, but my face—and his gaze burns like an African sun. When I finish, I lift my eyes to his. He stares back. The moon moves across the sky. Her beams hit his eyelashes, and I’m struck anew that I’m alone, in the dark, with a boy who once shattered my heart. Who would kiss me, if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Who I would kiss, if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Who I want to kiss anyway. I bite my bottom lip. He’s hypnotized. I lean forward, moving the curves of my body into the slender shadow of his. The air between us is physically hot, painfully so. He glances down my shirt. It is very, very close to his line of vision. I part my lips. And then he’s stumbling away. I want to, he croaks. You know I want to. He tests the bridge for firmness and springs onto it. Cricket Bell doesn’t look back, so he doesn’t see the tears spilling down my face. The only thing he leaves behind is a smudge of blue polish on my window frame. Chapter twenty-four Loooo-laaaa. Beautiful Lola. Franko’s eyes are red and dilated. As usual. I dig through the box-office drawers, throwing dry pens and dusty instruction manuals to the floor. Have you seen the ink cartridges for the tickets? No, but have you seen the popcorn today? It’s so . . . aerodynamically inclined. I think I might’ve eaten some. Do I have kernels in my teeth? No kernels, I snap. I think I have kernels in my teeth. Like, right between my front teeth. He stands, and his tongue explores his own mouth in a disgusting form of self–French kissing. The strings are beautiful tonight. Sure. The strings. I mean, I wouldn’t cut one, but if I did, I’d say . . . that’s a beautiful string. Seriously, if he doesn’t shut up soon, I’m strangling him. My patience is at an all-time low. I wave my arms at St. Clair, who is ripping tickets tonight. There’s no one around, so he strolls over. For the love of God, you two have to switch jobs, I say. You’re beautiful, St. Clair, Franko says. Everyone is beautiful to you when you’re high. He sits in Franko’s seat. Scat. Franko lumbers away. Thank you, I say. I just . . . can’t handle that right now. He gives me a full-bodied shrug. Right now or for the entire month of November? Don’t even, I warn. But it’s true. Since my complete and total humiliation with Cricket two weeks ago—and his subsequent disappearance from my life—I’ve been extremely unpleasant. I’m hurt, and I’m angry. No, I’m furious, because it’s my stupid fault. I threw myself at him. What does he think of me now? Obviously, not much. I’ve called him twice and sent three apology texts, but he’s ignored them all. So much for Mr. Nice Guy. Mr. Nice Guy? St. Clair asks. Who’s that? Oh, no. I’m talking out loud again. Me, I lie. Mr. Nice Guy is gone. He sighs and checks the clock on the wall. Fantastic. I’m sorry. And I mean it. My friends—Lindsey, Anna, and St. Clair—have all been patient with me. More than I deserve. I told Lindsey what happened, but St. Clair, and through him, Anna, must have heard some version of something from Cricket. I’m not sure what. Thank you for taking Franko’s place. I appreciate it. The European shrug again. We work quietly for the next hour. As the minutes tick by, I feel more and more guilty. It’s time to change my attitude. At least around my friends. So, I say during the next customer lull. How did it go with Anna’s family? Didn’t her mom and brother visit for Thanksgiving? He smiles for the first time since coming in here. I wooed them off their feet. It was an excellent visit. I grin and then give him a nod with exaggerated formality. Congratulations. Thank you, he says with equal formality. They stayed with my mum. That’s . . . weird. Not really. Mum is cool, easy to get along with. I raise a teasing eyebrow. So where did YOU guys stay? Where we always stay. He stares back solemnly. In our very separate dormitories. I snort. What about you? he asks. Did you spend Thanksgiving with the boyfriend? Uh, no. I stumble through an explanation about Norah being difficult and Max being busy, but it sounds hollow and forced. We’re silent for a minute. How do you . . . I’m struggling to find the right words. How do you and Anna make it work?You make it seem easy. Being with Anna is easy. She’s the one. The one. It stops my heart. I thought Max was the one, but . . .

there’s that other one. The first one. Do you believe in that? I ask quietly. In one person for everyone? Something changes in St. Clair’s eyes. Maybe sadness. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, he says. But, for me, yes. I have to be with Anna. But this is something you have to figure out on your own. I can’t answer that for you, no one can. Oh. Lola. He rolls his chair over to my side. I know things are shite right now. And in the name of friendship and full disclosure, I went through something similar last year. When I met Anna, I was with someone else. And it took a long time before I found the courage to do the hard thing. But you have to do the hard thing. I swallow. And what’s the hard thing? You have to be honest with yourself. Lola. You look . . . different. The next afternoon and I’m on Max’s doorstep, sans wig and fancy makeup. I’m wearing an understated skirt and a simple blouse, and my natural hair is loose around my shoulders. Can I come in? I’m nervous. Of course. He moves aside, and I enter. Is Johnny here? No, I’m alone. Max pauses. Do your dads know you’re here? They don’t have to know where I am all the time. He shakes his head. Right. I wander toward his couch, pick up the Noam Chomsky book on his coffee table, flip through the pages, and set it back down. I don’t know where to begin. I’m here for answers. I’m here to find out if he’s the one. Max is staring at me strangely, about something other than my sudden presence. It makes me even more uncomfortable. What? I ask. What’s that look? Sorry. You . . . look a little young today. My heart wrenches. Is that bad? No. You look beautiful. And he gives me that gorgeous half smile. Come here. Max collapses onto his beat-up couch, and I climb into his arms. We sit in silence. He waits for me to speak again, aware that I’m here for a reason. But I can’t form the words. I thought being here would be enough. I thought I’d know when I saw him. Why is the truth so hard to see? I trace his spiderwebs. Max closes his eyes. I lightly brush the boy in the wolf suit in the crook of his elbow. He releases a moan, and our lips find each other. He pulls me onto his lap. I’m helpless against the current. Lolita, he whispers. And my entire body freezes. Max doesn’t notice. He lifts the edge of my shirt, and it’s enough to wake me up. I yank it back down. He startles. What? What’s the matter? I can barely keep my voice steady. Which one, Max? Which one, what? He’s unusually dazed. What are we talking about? Which Dolores Nolan are you in love with? Are you in love with me, Lola? Or are you in love with Lolita? And what is that supposed to mean? You know exactly what it means. You call me Lolita, but you get weird when I’m not dressed up, when I look my age. So which one? Do you like the older me or the younger me? A worse thought occurs. Or do you only like me because I’m young? Max is furious. He pushes me off his lap and stands up. You really want to have this conversation? Right now? When would be a better time? When, Max? He swipes up his lighter from the side table. I thought we’d been over the age thing. I thought it was something that bothered other people. I just want the truth. Do you love me? Or do you love my age? How the HELL can you say that? Max throws his lighter across the room. In case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you. You chased ME down. I didn’t want this. What you mean you ‘didn’t want this’?You didn’t want me? That’s not what I said! he bursts out. Oh, I wanted you. But guys like me aren’t supposed to go after girls like you, remember? Isn’t that what we’re talking about? Jesus. I don’t know what you want me to say. It sounds like every answer I give you will be the wrong one. The truth hits me with a vicious punch to the gut. Every answer is the wrong one. You’re right, I whisper. Damn right, I’m right. A pause. Wait. Right about what? There’s no right answer. It doesn’t exist. There’s no way this can end well. He stares me down. For several moments, neither of us speaks. You’re not serious, he says at last. I force myself to stand. I think I am. You think you are. His jaw hardens. After your parents. After Sunday brunch? Do you have any idea what I’ve put up with to be with you? But that’s just it! You shouldn’t have to ‘put up’ with— Did I have a choice? Max closes the distance between us. Yes. No! I don’t know . . . I’m shaking. I’m just trying to be honest. Oh. His nose is an inch from mine. You’re ready to be honest. I swallow hard. Honestly, he says, I don’t know who you are. Every time I see you, you’re someone different. You’re a liar, and you’re a fake. Despite what you think, despite what your dads have told you, there is nothing special about you. You’re just a little girl with a lot of issues. That is what I think about you. And then . . . my world goes black. Love, I blurt. I thought you loved me. I thought I did, too. Thank you for making things so clear. I stumble backward in horror. For one crazy moment, I want to throw myself at his feet and beg for his forgiveness. Promise to be someone else, promise to be one person. Max crosses his arms. And then . . . I want to hurt him. I step back into him, my nose against his. Guess what? I hiss back. I am a liar. I do like Cricket Bell. You’re right. I’ve been hanging out with him this whole time! And he’s been in my bedroom, and I’ve been in his. And I want him, Max. I want him. He’s shaking with rage. Get. Out. I grab my purse and throw open his front door. I never want to see you again. His voice is deathly low. You are nothing to me. Do you understand? Yes, I say. Thank you for making things so clear. Chapter twenty-five I’m dizzy. Seeing spots. Stumbling. Walk or bus? Walk or bus? I’m walking. Yes, I’ll walk home. But then I see the bus and somehow I’m on the bus and I’m sobbing my guts out. A hipster with an ironic mustache shifts down a row. An elderly man in a baseball cap knits his brows at me, and the woman with the quilted jacket looks as if she actually wants to say something. I twist away and continue weeping. And then I’m pulling the cord and I’m off the bus and I’m staggering uphill. Toward home. It feels like someone is clawing at my stomach, my chest, my heart. Like my insides are being ripped from my body and stitched to my skin for the world to ridicule. How could he? How could he say those things? How could my life change so drastically, so quickly? One minute we were fine. The next . . . oh God. It’s over. I want to crawl into bed and disappear. I don’t want to see anyone. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to think or do anything. Max. I clutch my chest. I can’t breathe. Get inside, Dolores. You’re almost there. I’m only two houses away when I see them. The Bell family. They’re wrapped in a heated discussion in the center of their small driveway. Mr. Bell —tall and slender like the twins, but with sandy hair—is shaking his head and gesturing at the road. Mrs. Bell—shor ter, but with the twins’ same dark hair—is rubbing her fingers against her temples. Calliope’s back is to me, hands on her hips. And Cricket . . . he’s staring straight at me. He seems shaken, no doubt by both my sudden appearance and how I actually appear. The rest of his body turns to face me, which reveals another surprise. There’s a baby on his hip. I hide my face with a curtain of hair and run up the stairs to my house. The Bells have stopped talking. They’re watching me and listening to my choked sobs. I glance over as I’m opening the front door. Alexander is there, too. The twins’ older brother. I didn’t see him because he’s standing behind Cricket, several inches shorter. The baby. Right. Aleck’s daughter, Abigail. Max. His name strikes again like whiplash, and the Bells are forgotten, and I’m slamming the door and racing into my bedroom. Nathan hears my pounding footsteps and chases after me. What is it, Lola? What’s going on, what happened? I lock my door and fall against it. I collapse. Nathan is knocking and shouting questions and soon Andy and Norah have joined him. Betsy’s tail thumps rapidly against the wall. MAX AND I BROKE UP, OKAY? LEAVE ME ALONE. The last word is cut off as my throat swells and blocks it. There’s an agitated murmuring on the other side. It sounds like Norah is pulling away my parents, and I hear Betsy’s jingling dog tags follow everyone back downstairs. The hall is quiet. I’m alone now. I’m actually alone. I throw myself into bed, shoes and all. How could Max be so cruel? How could I be so cruel back? He’s right. I’m a liar, and I’m a fake, and . . . I’m not special. There’s nothing special about me. I’m a stupid little girl crying on her bed. Why does my life keep cycling back to this moment? After Cricket, two years ago. After Norah, almost two months ago. And now, after Max. I’ll always be the little girl crying on her bed. The thought makes me cry harder. Lola? I’m not sure how much time has passed when I hear the faint voice outside my window. Lola? Louder. He tries a third time, a minute later, but I don’t get up. How convenient of Cricket to appear now, when I haven’t seen him in two weeks. When he hasn’t returned my calls. When my soul is bluer than blue, blacker than black. I’m a bad person. No, Max is a bad person. He’s difficult, he’s condescending, he’s jealous. But I’m worse. I’m a child playing dress-up, who can’t even recognize herself under her own costume. Chapter twenty-six The rational side of me knows that I need some kind of release. But I can’t cry anymore. I’m empty. I’m drained. And I can’t move. Not that I’d want to. Because that’s the thing about depression. When I feel it deeply, I don’t want to let it go. It becomes a comfort. I want to cloak myself under its heavy weight and breathe it into my lungs. I want to nurture it, grow it, cultivate it. It’s mine. I want to check out with it, drift asleep wrapped in its arms and not wake up for a long, long time.I’ve been spending a lot of time in bed this week. When you’re asleep, no one asks you to do anything. No one expects anything of you. And you don’t have to face any of your troubles. So I’ve been dragging myself to school, and I’ve been dragging myself to work. And I’ve been sleeping. Max is gone. And not just gone as in he’s not my boyfriend anymore, but gone as in he’s gone. I asked Lindsey to retrieve a textbook I’d left at his apartment, and his roommate said he left the city on Tuesday. Johnny wouldn’t say where Max went. He finally ran away. Without me. I wish it didn’t hurt to think about him. And I’m not upset because I want to be with him, I don’t, but he was so much to me for so long. He was my future. And now he’s nothing. I gave him everything, and now he’s nothing. He was my first, which means I’ll never be able to forget him, but I’ll fade from his memory. Soon I’ll just be another notch on his bedpost. I didn’t know it was possible to simultaneously hate and ache for someone. I thought Max and I would be together forever. No one believed me. We were going to prove them wrong, but we were the ones who were wrong. Or maybe I’m the only one who was wrong. Did Max think of me as forever? The question is too painful, either way, to consider. My parents are worried, but they’ve been leaving me alone so that I can heal. As if it were possible to ever heal from heartbreak. It’s around midnight—not quite Friday, not quite Saturday—and the moon is full again. Traditionally, farmers called the December full moon the Cold Moon or the Long Nights Moon. Both feel appropriate tonight. I opened my window to better absorb her coldness and longness, to use it feed it to my own, but it was a dumb mistake. I’m freezing. And I had another long shift at the theater, and I’m exhausted, and I can’t find the energy to shut it. But I can’t sleep. The silk fabric of my Marie Antoinette gown, draped across my sewing table, shimmers with a pale blue glow in the moonlight. It’s so close to completion. The winter formal is still a month and a half away, there was plenty of time. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not going. And I don’t even care about not having a date. It’s the idea of showing up in something so ridiculous, that’s what hurts. Max was right. The dance is stupid. My classmates wouldn’t be impressed by my dress; they’d be merciless. I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at its folds when a yellow light flicks on outside my window. Lola? A call through the night. I close my eyes. I can’t speak. I know you’re in there. I’m coming over, okay? I stiffen as the CLUNK of his closet-bridge hits my window. He called out to me once more last weekend, but I pretended that didn’t hear him. I listen to the creak of his weight against the bridge, and a moment later, he drops quietly onto my floor. Lola? Cricket is on his knees at the side of my bed. I feel it. I’m here, he whispers. You can talk to me or not talk to me, but I’m here. I close my eyes tighter. St. Clair told me what happened. With Max. Cricket waits for me to say something. When I don’t, he continues. I’m—I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was angry. I told Call about that night in your bedroom, and she went ballistic. She said she’d warned you to stay away from me, and we got into this huge fight. I was angry with her for talking behind my back, and I was angry with you for not telling me. Like . . . you didn’t think I could handle it. I cringe and curl into a ball. Why didn’t I tell him? Because I didn’t want him to realize that her accusations were true? Because I was afraid that he’d listen to her words over mine? I’m such a jerk. As fearful of Calliope as she is of me. But . . . this is coming out backward. I hear him shift on his knees, agitated. What I was trying to say—what I was getting at—is that I’ve been thinking a lot about everything, and I’m not actually angry with you at all. I’m angry with myself. I’m the one who keeps climbing in your window. I’m the one who can’t stay away. All of this weirdness is my fault. Cricket. This is not your fault. It comes out in a croak. He’s silent. I open my eyes, and he’s watching me. I watch him back. The moon is bright tonight, he says at last. But it’s cold. The tears have found me again. They fall. Cricket reaches out and brushes my neck. He traces upward, along my jaw, and then my cheek. I close my eyes at the unbearable sensation of his thumb drying my tears. He presses down gently. I turn my head, and it becomes cradled in his hand. He holds the weight for several minutes. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I talked with Calliope, I whisper. He pulls away, carefully, and I notice another star drawn on the back of his hand. I’m only upset that she spoke with you in the first place. It wasn’t any of her business. She was just worried about you. As the words spill out, I realize that I believe them. And she had every right to be worried. I’m not exactly a good person. That’s not true, he says. Why would you say that? I was a terrible girlfriend to Max. There’s a long pause. Did you love him? he asks quietly. I swallow. Yes. Cricket looks unhappy. And do you still love him? he asks. But before I can answer, he says in one great breath, Forget it, I don’t want to know. And suddenly Cricket Bell is inside my bed, and his torso is flattening against mine, and his pelvis is pressing against mine, and his lips are moving toward mine. My senses are detonating. I’ve wanted him for so long. And I need to wait a little longer. I slide my hand between our mouths, just in time. His lips are soft against my palm. I slowly, slowly remove it. No, I don’t love Max anymore. But I don’t want to give you this broken, empty me. I want you to have me when I’m full, when I can give something back to you. I don’t have much to give right now. Cricket’s limbs are still, but his chest is pounding hard against my own. But you’ll want me someday? That feeling you once had for me . . . that hasn’t left either? Our hearts beat the same wild rhythm. They’re playing the same song. It never left, I say. Cricket stays through the night. And even though we don’t talk anymore, and even though we don’t do anything more than talk, it’s what I need. The calming presence of a body I trust. And when we fall asleep, we sleep heavily. In fact, we sleep so heavily that we don’t see the sun rise. We don’t hear the coffeepot brewing downstairs. And we don’t hear Nathan until he’s right above us. Chapter twenty-seven Nathan grabs Cricket by the shoulders and throws him off my bed. Cricket scrambles into a corner while I flounder for my closest eyeglasses. My skin is on fire. What the hell is going on in here? Did he sneak in while— Nathan cuts himself off. He’s noticed the bridge. He stalks up to Cricket, who shrinks so low that he almost becomes Nathan’s height. So you’ve been climbing into my daughter’s bedroom for how long now? Days? Weeks? Months? Cricket is so mortified he can hardly speak. No. Oh God, no. Sir. I’m sorry, sir. Andy runs into the room, sleep disheveled and frenzied. What’s happening? He sees Cricket cowering beneath Nathan. Oh. Do something! I tell Andy. He’ll kill him! Murder flashes across Andy’s face, and I’m reminded of what Max said ages ago, about how much worse it was dealing with two protective fathers. But it disappears, and he takes a tentative step closer to Nathan. Honey. I want to kill him, too. But let’s talk to Lola first. Nathan is terrifyingly still. He’s so angry that his mouth barely moves. You. Out. Cricket lunges for the window. Andy’s eyes bulge when he sees the bridge, but all he says is, The front door, Cricket. Out the front door. Cricket holds up both hands, and in the daylight, it’s the first time I see that there are still scattered shreds of blue paint on his nails. I just want you to know that we didn’t do anything but talk and sleep—sleep sleep, he quickly adds. Like with eyes closed and hands to oneself and dreaming. Innocent dreams. I would never do anything behind your back. I mean, never anything dishonorable. I mean— Cricket, I plead. He looks at me miserably. I’m sorry. And then he tears downstairs and out the front door. Nathan storms out of my room, and the master bedroom door slams shut. Andy is silent for a long time. At last, he sighs. Care to explain why there was a boy in your bed this morning? We didn’t do anything. You have to believe me! He came over because he knew I was sad. He only wanted to make sure I was okay. Dolores, that’s how boys take advantage of girls. Or other boys, he adds. They attack when your guard is down, when you’re feeling vulnerable. The implication makes me angry. Cricket would never take advantage of me. He climbed into your bed fully aware that you’re hurting over someone else. And we didn’t do anything but talk. Andy crosses his arms. How long has this been going on? I tell the truth. I want him to believe me so that he’ll also believe Cricket is innocent. There was only one other time. But he didn’t stay the night. He closes his eyes. Was this before or after you broke up with Max? My head sinks into my shoulders. Before. And did you tell Max? It sinks farther. No. And that didn’t make you wonder if there was something wrong with it? I’m crying. We’re friends, Dad. Andy looks pained as he sits on the edge of my bed. Lola. Everyone and their grandmother knows that boy is in love with you. You know that boy is in love with you. But as wrong as it was for him to be here, it’s so much worse for you to have led him on. You had a boyfriend. What were you thinking? You don’t treat someone like that. You shouldn’t have treated either one of them like that. I didn’t know it was possible to feel any worse than I already did. Listen. The look on Andy’s face means he’d rather eat glass than say what he’s about to say. I know you’re growing up. And as hard as it is, I have to accept that there are certain . . . things you’re doing. But you’re an intelligent young woman, and we’ve had the talk, and I know—from this point on—you’ll make the right decisions.

Always On My Mind (The Sullivans #8)

Oh God. I can’t look at him. But you have to understand this part is difficult for us, especially for Nathan. Norah was your age when she ran away and got pregnant. But you can talk to me. I want you to talk to me. Okay. I can barely get the word out. And I don’t want to find a boy in your room again, you hear me? He waits until I nod before standing. All right. I’ll talk to Nathan and see what I can do. But don’t for a second think you’re getting out of this easily. I know. He walks to the door. Never. Again. Understand? What . . . what about when I’m married? We’ll buy a cot. Your husband can sleep on that when he visits. I can’t help it. I let out a tiny snort of laughter. He comes back and hugs me. I’m not kidding, he says. The punishment arrives in the afternoon. I’m grounded through the end of my upcoming winter break from school. Another month of grounding. But, honestly, I don’t even care. It’s the other half of the punishment—the unspoken half—that makes me feel terrible. My parents no longer trust me. I have to earn it back. Throughout the day, I try to catch Cricket at our windows, but he never goes inside his bedroom. Around three o’clock, I see his figure dart past his kitchen window, so I know he’s still at home. Why is he avoiding me? Is he embarrassed? Is he angry? Did my parents call his parents? I’ll die if they called Mr. and Mrs. Bell, but I can’t ask, because if they haven’t, it might give them the idea. I’m a wreck by the time Cricket’s light turns on. It’s just after eight. I throw aside my English homework and run to my window, and he’s already at his. We open them at the same time, and the misty night air explodes . . . with wailing. Cricket is holding Aleck’s daughter again. I’m sorry! he shouts. She won’t let me put her down! It’s okay! I shout back. And then I realize something. I slam my window shut. Cricket looks startled, but I hold up a finger and mouth ONE SECOND. I rip out a page from my spiral notebook and scribble on it with a fat purple marker. I hold the message against my window. MY PARENTS!!! TALK LATER? WHEN NO BABY!!! He looks relieved. And then panicked as he slams his own window shut. The next minute is rife with tension as we wait for my parents to tear into my bedroom. They don’t. But even with our windows closed, I hear Abigail’s cries. Cricket bounces her on his hip, pleading with her, but her face remains contorted in misery. Where is Aleck? Or Aleck’s wife? Shouldn’t they be taking care of this? Calliope bursts through Cricket’s door. She takes Abigail from him, and Abigail screams harder. Both of the twins wince as Calliope thrusts her back into Cricket’s arms. The baby grows quieter, but she’s still crying. Calliope glances in my direction. She freezes, and I give a weak wave. She scowls. Cricket sees her expression and says something that causes her to stalk away. Her bedroom light turns on seconds later. He’s turning back toward me, still bouncing Abigail, when Mrs. Bell enters. I yank my curtains closed. Whatever is going on over there, I don’t want his mom to think I’m spying on it. I sit back down with my five-paragraph essay for English, but I can’t concentrate. That familiar, nauseating feeling of guilt. When I saw the Bells in their driveway last week, they were clearly in distress about something. And I never asked Cricket what it was about. He was in my bedroom for an entire night, and I didn’t even think to ask. And he’s always concerned about what’s happening in my life. I’m so selfish. A new kind of truth hits me: I’m not worthy of him. His light turns off, and the sudden darkness acts as a confirmation of my fears. He’s too good for me. He’s sweet and kind and honest. Cricket Bell has integrity. And I don’t deserve him. But . . . I want him anyway. Is it possible to earn someone? He doesn’t return for nearly two hours. The moment he’s back, I raise my window again. Cricket raises his. Exhaustion has settled between his brows, and his shoulders are sagging. Even a lock of hair has flopped onto his forehead. I’ve never seen Cricket’s hair fall down. I’m sorry. His voice is tired. He keeps it low, conscious that the parental threat has not passed. For last night. For this morning, for tonight. Your parents didn’t come up, did they? I’m such an id— Stop, please.You don’t have to apologize. I know. Our rule. He’s glum. No. I mean, don’t apologize for last night. Or this morning. I wanted you there. He raises his head. Once again, the intensity of his eyes makes my heart stutter. I—I’m the one who’s sorry, I continue. I knew something was going on with your family, and I didn’t ask. It didn’t even cross my mind. Lola. His brow deepens farther. You’re going through a difficult time. I would never expect you to be thinking about my family right now. That would be crazy. Even when I’m in the wrong, he puts me in the right. I don’t deserve him. I hesitate. Earn him. So . . . what’s going on? Unless you don’t want to tell me. I’d understand. Cricket leans his elbows against his windowsill and looks into the night sky. The star on his left hand has faded from washing, but it’s still there. He waits so long to answer that I wonder if he heard me. A foghorn bleats in the distance. Mist creeps into my room, carrying the scent of eucalyptus. My brother left his wife last week. Aleck took Abby, and they’re staying here until he figures out what to do next. He’s not in great shape, so we’re kinda taking care of them both right now. Where’s his wife? Why did he take the baby? She’s still at their apartment. She’s going through . . . a lifestyle crisis. I wrap my arms around myself. What does that mean? She’s a lesbian? No. Cricket pries his eyes from the sky to glance at me, and I see that he’s uncomfortable. She’s much younger than Aleck. They married, got pregnant, and now she’s rebelling against it. This new life. She stays out late, parties. Last weekend . . . my brother found out that she’d cheated on him. I’m so sorry. I think about Max. About Cricket in my bedroom. That’s awful. He shrugs and looks away. It’s why I finally came back. You know, to help out. Does that mean you’re still fighting with Calliope? Maybe. I don’t know. Cricket runs his fingers through his dark hair, and the part that had flopped down sticks back up. Sometimes she makes things so difficult, more than they have to be. But I guess I’m doing the same thing right now. I allow the thought to hang, and my mind returns to Max. It fills with shameful, retired fantasies about our future. Do you think . . . did Aleck’s wife do that because she got married too young? No, they got married too wrong. The only person in my family who thought it would last was Aleck, but it was clear she wasn’t the one. The one. There it is again. How did you know? That she wasn’t the one for him? Now he’s staring at his hands, slowing rubbing them together. They just didn’t have that . . . natural magic.You know? It never seemed easy. My voice grows tiny. Do you think things have to be easy? For it to work? Cricket’s head shoots up, his eyes bulging as they grasp my meaning. NO. I mean, yes, but . . . sometimes there are . . . extenuating circumstances. That prevent it from being easy. For a while. But then people overcome those . . . circumstances . . . and . . . So you believe in second chances? I bite my lip. Second, third, fourth. Whatever it takes. However long it takes. If the person is right, he adds. If the person is . . . Lola? This time, he holds my gaze. Only if the other person is Cricket. Chapter twenty-eight Cricket isn’t the only thing I have to earn. I have to earn back my parents’ trust. I’m a good daughter, I am. I have plenty of faults, but I keep up with my homework, I do my chores, I rarely talk back, and I like them. I’m one of the few people my age who actually cares what her parents think. So I’m dressing like someone responsible (all black, very serious), and I studied like crazy for my finals, and I’m doing whatever they ask. Even when it’s awful. Like taking Heavens to Betsy for her late-night walk when it’s forty degrees outside, which, by the way, I have done every night this week. I want my parents to remember that I’m good, so they’ll also remember that Cricket is good. Better than good. He came over to formally apologize to them, though I don’t think it helped. His name is still banned from our household. Even after Mrs. Bell told Andy what was happening with Aleck, and my parents were tut-tutting for the family over dinner, they skipped over Cricket’s name. It was, Calliope and . . . hmph. At least Mr. and Mrs. Bell don’t know what happened. My parents didn’t call them. I probably have Andy to thank for that, maybe even Norah. She’s been surprisingly cool about all of this. Give them time, she says. Don’t rush anything. Which is what I know I need anyway. Time. The memory of Max is still bitter and strong. I didn’t realize it was possible to have such an ugly breakup when you were the one who did the breaking up. And I’m pretty sure I’m the one who did the breaking up. At least, I did it first. And then he did it better. I feel terrible about how it ended, and I feel terrible for not being honest with him while we were together. I want to apologize. Maybe it would get rid of these bad feelings, and I’d be able to move on. Maybe then it wouldn’t sting whenever my mind summons his name. I’ve left several messages on his voice mail, but he hasn’t called me back. And he’s still gone from the city. I even went to Amoeba to ask Johnny. Max’s last words haunt me. Am I nothing to him? Already? I’m not ready for Cricket, and his hands are full anyway. With Aleck too depressed to give Abigail his attention, she’s decided that Cricket is the next best thing. He’s home for winter break— we’re both on winter break—and I rarely see him without Abby hanging from his arms or wrapped around his legs. I recognize that feeling, that need, inside of her. I wish there was someone I could hold on to. Lindsey helps. She calls every day, and we talk about . . . not Max. Not Cricket. Though she did guiltily announce that she’s attending the winter formal. She asked Charlie, and of course he said yes. I’m happy for her.A person can be sad and happy at the same time. I’ve moved my Marie Antoinette dress and wig and panniers into Nathan’s office, aka Norah’s room. I don’t like looking at them. Maybe I’ll finish the dress later, for Halloween next year. Lindsey can wear it. But I’m still not going to the dance, and at least I know that was the right decision. The last few weeks of school were miserable. Who died and turned you Goth? Marta sneered, turning up her nose at my all-black ensemble. Her friends, the trendiest clique at Harvey Milk Memorial, joined in, and soon everyone was accusing me of being a Goth, which—even though it’s not true—would have been fine. Except then the Goth kids accused me of being a poseur. I’m not a Goth. And I’m not in mourning, I insisted. At least my new wardrobe helps me blend into my neighborhood. In the winter, the Castro turns into a sea of trendy black clothing. Black helps me disappear, and I don’t want to be seen right now. It’s amazing how clothing affects how people see—or don’t see—you. The other day I waited for the bus beside Malcolm from Hot Cookie. He’s served me dozens of rainbow M&M cookies, and we’re always debating the merits of Lady Gaga versus Madonna, but he didn’t recognize me. It’s odd. Me, the real me, and I’m unknown. The few people who do recognize me always ask if I’m feeling okay. And it’s not that I feel great, but why does everyone assume something is wrong because I’m not costumed? Our usual bank teller went so far as to mention his concern to Nathan. Dad came home worried, and I had to assure him, again and again, that I’m fine. I am fine. I’m not fine. What am I? The blinking Christmas lights and flickering menorahs in the windows of the houses, hardware store, bars and clubs and restaurants . . . they seem false. Forced. And I’m unnaturally aggravated by the man dressed as sexy Mrs. Claus handing out candy canes in front of the Walgreens and collecting money for charity. I spend my break working at the theater—I take extra shifts to fill my spare time—and watching Cricket. Throughout the day, I can usually spot him through one of the Bells’ windows, playing with Abigail. Abby has sandy-colored hair like her father and grandfather, but there’s something sweet and pure about her smile that reminds me of her uncle. He bundles her up and takes her on walks every day. Sometimes, I grab a coat and run after them. I’ve gone with them to the park for the swings, to the library for picture books, and to Spike’s for espresso (Cricket and me) and an organic gingerbread man (Abby). I try to be helpful. I want to earn him, deserve him. He always bursts into a smile when he sees me, but it’s impossible to mistake the silent examination that follows. As if he’s wondering if now I’m okay. If today is the day. And I can tell by his expression, always a little confused and sad, that he knows it’s not. I wish he wouldn’t look at me like that. I’ve become his difficult equation face again. In the evenings, after Abby has gone to bed, I’ll see him tinkering in his bedroom. I can’t tell what he’s making, it must be something small, but the telltale signs of mechanical bits and pieces—including objects opened and stripped for parts— remain scattered about his desk. That’s making me happy. Christmas passes like Thanksgiving, without a bang. I go to work—movie theaters are always packed on Christmas Day— and Anna and St. Clair are both there. They try to cheer me up by playing this game where we get a point every time someone complains about the ticket price or yells at us because a show is sold out. Whoever has the most points at the end of the day gets the unopened bag of gummy lychee candy St. Clair found in theater twelve. It’s not a great prize. But it helps. The managers bought Santa hats for everyone to wear. Mine is the only one that’s hot pink. I appreciate the thought, but I feel ridiculous. I get yelled at the most. I win the lychee candy. New Year’s Day. It’s cold, but the sun is out, so I take Betsy to Dolores Park. She’s sniffing out places on the hillside to leave her mark when I hear a tiny, O-la! It’s Abby. I’m flattered she spoke my name. At one and a half years old, her vocabulary isn’t immense. She tears toward me from the playground. She’s dressed in a tiny purple tutu. Cricket walks in long strides behind her, hands in his pockets, smiling. I get on my knees to hug Abby, and she collapses into my arms, the way really little kids do. Hi, you, I say. She lunges for the turquoise rhinestone barrette in my hair. I’d forgotten to take it out. Norah—NORAH, of all people—snapped it in at breakfast. It’s the New Year, she said. Sparkles won’t kill you today. Cricket pulls off Abby before she can rip out the barrette. All right, all right. Abigail Bell, that’s enough. But he’s grinning at her. She grins back. You’ve made quite the new best friend, I say. His expression turns to regret. Children do have questionable taste. I laugh. It’s the first time I can remember laughing this week. Though she has great taste in hair accessories, he continues. Betsy rolls onto her stomach for him, and he scratches her belly. His rainbow bracelets and rubber bands shake against her black fur. The back of his entire left hand, including fingers, is crammed with mathematical symbols and calculations. Abby leans over hesitantly to pet my dog. It’s nice to see you in something sparkly again, he adds. My laughter stops, and my cheeks redden. Oh. It’s stupid, I know. It’s New Year’s, so Norah thought . . . Cricket frowns and stands back up. His shadow stretches, tall and slender, out for infinity behind him. I was being serious. It’s nice to see a little bit of Lola shining through. The frown turns into a gentle smile. It gives me hope. And I can’t explain it, but I’m on verge of tears. But I have been me. I’ve been trying hard to be me. A better me. He raises his eyebrows. On what planet does Lola Nolan not wear . . . color? I gesture at my outfit. I have this in white, too, you know. The joke falls flat. He’s struggling not to say something. Abby bumps into his left leg and grips it with all of her might. He picks her up and sets her on his hip. Just say it, I tell him. Whatever it is. Cricket nods slowly. Okay. He collects his thoughts before continuing. He speaks carefully. Being a good person, or a better person, or whatever it is you’re worried about and trying to fix? It shouldn’t change who you are. It means you become more like yourself. But . . . I don’t know this Lola. My heart stops. I feel faint. It’s just like what Max used to say. What? Cricket is alarmed. When did he say that? I flush again and look down at the grass. I wish I didn’t talk out loud when I’m distressed. I haven’t seen him again, if that’s what you mean. But he said . . . before . . . that because I dressed in costume, he didn’t know who I really was. Cricket closes his eyes. He’s shaking. It takes me a moment to realize that he’s shaking with anger. Abby squirms in his arms. It’s upsetting her. Lola, do you remember when you told me that I had a gift? I gulp. Yes. His eyes open and lock on mine. You have one, too. And maybe some people think that wearing a costume means you’re trying to hide your real identity, but I think a costume is more truthful than regular clothing could ever be. It actually says something about the person wearing it. I knew that Lola, because she expressed her desires and wishes and dreams for the entire city to see. For me to see. My heart is beating in my ears, my lungs, my throat. I miss that Lola, he says. I take a step toward him. His breath catches. And then he takes a step toward me. Ohhhh, Abby says. We look down, startled to discover that she’s still on his hip, but she’s pointing into the winter-white sky. San Francisco’s famous flock of wild parrots bursts across Dolores Park in a flurry of green feathers. The air is filled with beating wings and boisterous screeching, and everyone in the park stops to watch the spectacle. The surprising whirl disappears over the buildings as swiftly as it arrived. I turn back to Abby. The unexpected explosion of color and noise and beauty in her world has left her awed. Chapter twenty-nine It’s the Sunday night before school resumes, and my parents are on a date. I’m hanging out with Norah. We’re watching a marathon of home decorating shows, rolling our eyes for different reasons. Norah thinks the redesigned houses look bourgeois and, therefore, boring. I think they look boring, too, but only because each designer seems to be working from the same tired manual of modern decorating. It’s nice to see you looking like yourself again, she says during a commercial break. I’m wearing a blue wig, a ruffled Swiss Heidi dress, and the arms from a glittery golden thrift-store sweater. I’ve cut them off, and I’m using them as glittery golden leg warmers. I snort. Yeah, I know how much you like the way I dress. She keeps her eyes on the television, but that familiar Norah edge returns to her voice. It’s not how I would dress, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you for who you are. I keep my eyes on the television, too, but my chest tightens. So, I say a few minutes later as the show recaps what we’ve already seen. What’s happening with the apartment? Has Ronnie set a move-in date yet? Yep. I’ll be gone by the end of the week. Oh. That’s really . . . soon. She snorts. Her snort sounds like mine. Soon can’t come soon enough. Nathan’s been suffocating me from the moment I arrived. And there’s the ungrateful Norah I know. Suddenly her impending departure is welcome. But I only shake my head, and we watch the rest of the episode in discontented silence. Another commercial break begins. Do you know the secret to fortune-telling? she asks, out of the blue. I sink into the couch cushions. Here we go. Norah turns to look at me. The secret is that I don’t read leaves. And palm readers don’t read palms, and tarot readers don’t read cards. We read people. A good fortune-teller reads the person sitting across from them. I study the signs in their leaves, and I use them to give an interpretation of what I know that person wants to hear. She leans in closer. People prefer paying when they hear what they want to hear. I cringe, sure that I don’t want to hear whatever’s coming next. Say a woman comes in, she continues. No wedding ring, tight shirt, cl**vage up to her chin. Asks about her future. This is a woman who wants me to say that she’s about to meet someone. And, usually, if the shirt is tight enough and with confidence gained from a good fortune, guess what?

She’ll probably meet someone. Now, it may not be the right someone, but it still means her fortune came true. My frown deepens. I stare at the television screen, but the flashing commercials are making it hard to focus. So . . . when you looked at me, you saw someone who wanted arguments and confusion and partings? And you wanted it to come true? No. Norah scoots even closer. You were different. I don’t have many chances to talk to you when you might actually listen to what I have to say. Reading your leaves was an opportunity. I didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear. I told you what you needed to hear. I’m confused and hurt. I needed to hear bad things? She places a hand on mine. It’s bony, but somehow it’s also warm. I turn to her, and her gaze is sympathetic. Your relationship with Max was waning, she says, using her fortune-teller voice. And I saw that you had a much more special one waiting right behind it. The cherry. You did know how I felt about Cricket back then. She removes her hand. Christ, the mailman knew how you felt about him. And he’s a good kid, Lola. It was stupid of you to get caught with him in bed—you know your parents are strict as hell about that shit—but I know he’s good. They’ll come around to it, too. And I know you’re good. I’m quiet. She thinks I’m a good person. Do you know my biggest regret? she asks. That you turned into this bright, beautiful, fascinating person . . . and I can’t take credit for any of it. There’s a lump in my throat. Norah crosses her arms and looks away. Your fathers piss me off, but they’re great parents. I’m lucky they’re yours. They care about you, too, you know. I care about you. She’s silent and stiff. I take a chance and, for the first time since I was a little girl, burrow into her side. Her hard shoulders melt against me. Come back and visit, I say. Once you’ve moved. The lights of the commercials flash. Flash. Flash. Okay, she says. I’m in my bedroom later that night when my phone rings. It’s Lindsey. On second thought, she begins, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. What? Her unnaturally disturbed tone gives me an instant chill. Tell me what? A long, deep breath. Max is back. The blood drains from my face. What do you mean? How do you know? I just saw him. My mom and I were shopping in the Mission, and there he was, walking down Valencia. Did he see you? Did you talk to him? What did he look like? No. Hell no. And like he always does. I’m stupefied. How long has he been back? Why hasn’t he called? His continued silence means that he must have been telling the truth: I’m nothing to him anymore. Lately, I’ve gone several hours—once, an entire day—without thinking of him. This is a fresh dig into my wounds, but somehow . . . the blow isn’t as crushing as I thought it would be. Perhaps I’m becoming okay with being nothing to Max. Can you breathe? Lindsey asks. Are you breathing? I’m breathing. And I am. An idea is quickly mushrooming inside of me. Listen, I have to go. There’s something I need to do. I grab a faux-fur coat and my wallet, and I’m racing out my door when I hear a faint plink. I stop. Plink, my window says again. Plink. Plink. My heart leaps. I throw open the panes, and Cricket sets down his box of toothpicks. He’s wearing a red scarf and some sort of blue military jacket. And then I notice the leather satchel slung over his shoulder, and this blow is crushing. His break is over. He’s going back to Berkeley. His arms slacken. You look incredible. Oh. Right. It’s been a month since he’s seen me in anything other than black. I give him a shy smile. Thank you. Cricket points at my coat. Going somewhere? Yeah, I was on my way out. Meet me on the sidewalk first? Would your parents would mind? They’re not home. Okay. See you in a minute? I nod and hurry downstairs. I’ll be back in an hour, I tell Norah. There’s something I have to do. Tonight. She mutes the television and raises an eyebrow in my direction. Does this mysterious errand have to do with a certain guy? I’m not sure which one she means, but . . . either is correct. Yeah. She studies me for several excruciating seconds. But then she un-mutes the television. Just get back here before your parents do. I don’t wanna have to explain. Cricket is waiting at the bottom of my stairs. His willowy figure looks exquisite in the moonlight. Our gazes are fixed on each other as I walk down the twenty-one steps to my sidewalk. I’m going back to school, he says. I nod at his bag. I guessed as much. I just wanted to say goodbye. Before I left. Thank you. I shake my head, flustered. I mean . . . I’m glad. Not that you’re going. But that you found me before leaving. He puts his hands in his pockets. Yeah? Yeah. We’re quiet for a minute. Once more, I smell the faintest trace of bar soap and sweet mechanical oil, and my insides nervously stir. So . . . which way? He gestures in both directions down the sidewalk. Where are you going? I point in the opposite direction from where he’ll go to catch his train. That way. There’s, uh, some unfinished business I have to attend to. Cricket knows, from my hesitation, what I’m talking about. I’m afraid he’ll tell me not to go—or, worse, ask to escort me—but he only pauses. And then he says, Okay. Trust. You’ll come home soon? I ask. The question makes him smile. Promise you won’t forget me while I’m gone? I smile back. I promise. And as I walk away, I realize that I have no idea how I’ll manage to stop thinking about him. The dread doesn’t hit until I arrive at his apartment and see the familiar brown stucco walls and pink oleander bush. I glance up at Max’s apartment. The light is on and there’s movement behind the curtain. Doubt creeps in like a poisonous fog. Was it wrong of me to come here? Is it selfish for me to want to apologize if he doesn’t want to hear it? I climb the dark stairwell that leads to his front door. I’m relieved when he opens it, and not Johnny, but my relief is shortlived. Max’s amber eyes glare at me, and the scent of cigarettes is strong. No spearmint tonight. I—I heard you were back. Max remains silent. I force myself to hold his stony gaze. I just I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for lying, and I’m sorry for the way things ended. I didn’t treat you fairly. Nothing. Okay. Well. That was it. Bye, Max. I’m on the first step back down when he calls out, Did you sleep with him? I stop. While we were together, he adds. I turn and look him in the eye. No. And that’s the truth. We didn’t even kiss. Are you sleeping with him now? I blush. God, Max. Are you? No. And I’m leaving now. But I don’t move. This is my last chance to know. Where have you been for the last month? I called. I wanted to talk with you. I was staying with a friend. Where? Santa Monica. Something about the way he says it. As if he wants me to ask. A . . . girl? A woman. And I did sleep with her. Max slams his door. Chapter thirty Max has always known what to say—and when to say it—to make it hurt the worst. His words stung, but it only took a moment for me to realize why. It’s not because I care that he’s been with another woman. It’s because I can’t believe that I ever loved him. I viewed Max in such a willfully blind way. How could I have ignored his vindictive side? How could I have committed myself to someone whose knee-jerk reaction was always anger and cruelty? I apologized. He reacted in his typical fashion. I went to his apartment for absolution, and I got it. Good riddance. Winter break comes to an end, and with it, so does my grounding. School resumes. I’m surprised when three of my classmates—three people I don’t know well—approach me the first day and say that they’re happy to see I’m dressing like myself again. It makes me feell. . . gratified. Appreciated. Even Lindsey sits taller and prouder, a combination of Charlie and his friends (who have joined us at lunch) and seeing me colorful again. It’s nice to have more people around. The hard part is waiting for the weekend. I miss that chance of seeing Cricket at any moment. The pale blue glass of my window looks dull without him on the other side. Friday is the longest school day in the history of time. I watch the clock with eyeballs like Ping-Pong balls, driving Lindsey crazy. It’ll come, she says. Patience, Ned. But as the last bell rings, my phone does, too. A text from NAKED TIGER WOMAN: Not coming home this weekend. Unexpected project. On the first week! This sucks. My world caves in. But then a second text appears: I miss you. And then a third: I hope that’s ok to say now. My heart is cartwheeling as I text back: Miss you, too. Miss you even more this weekend. !!!!!!!!! = chirping crickets + ringing bells We text for my entire walk home, and I’m floating like a pink fluffy cloud. I let him go so that he can work, and he protests for several texts, which makes me even happier. Throughout the night, my phone blinks with new messages—about his roommate Dustin’s hideous friends, about being hungry, about not being able to read his own notes. I fill his phone with messages about Norah repacking her boxes, about Andy’s seasonal clementine pie, about accidently leaving my math book in my locker. In the morning, my parents are taken aback when I wake up early and materialize downstairs while they’re still eating breakfast. Andy examines the calendar. I thought your shift didn’t start until four. I’d like to go to Berkeley. Just for a few hours before work. My parents trade an unsettled glance as Norah shuffles into the room behind me. Oh, for God’s sake, let her go. She’ll go anyway. They give me permission. Hourly phone-call check-ins, but I gladly accept. I’m bouncing out the door when a split-second decision has me returning for something tiny that I keep stashed away in my sock drawer. I slip it into my purse. I stop by New Seoul Garden, and Lindsey packs a bag of takeout, which causes the entire car—on both of the trains it takes to get to Berkeley— to smell. Whoops. I decide to be brave this time and call him when I reach his dormitory gates, but someone is leaving as I’m arriving, and it’s not necessary. I pass through the landscaped courtyard and the other doors just as easily.And then I’m at his door. I lift my hand to knock as a girl laughs on the other side. My knuckles land against the wood in a tremble. Is that Jessica? Again? The door pops open, and . . . it’s Anna. Hey, space cowgirl! She’s already taken in the silver fringe dress and my red cowboy boots. For one nightmarish second, I’m consumed by suspicion, but the door swings back and reveals St. Clair. Of course. He and Cricket are sitting against the side of Cricket’s bed. And then Cricket Bell sees me, and the atmosphere lights up. My soul lights up in response. Hi. He springs to his feet. Hi, he says again. I was worried that you wouldn’t have time to eat lunch today. I hold up the takeout as I notice a spread of empty Chinese boxes on the floor. Oh. Anna gives me a gap-toothed grin. Don’t worry. He’ll eat what you’ve brought, too. His stomach is quite tall, St. Clair says. And yours is so wee, Anna says. He shoves her legs from his place on the floor, and she shoves his back. They’re like puppies. Cricket gestures me forward with both arms. Here, come in, sit down. I glance around. Every surface is covered. Uh, hold on, he says. There’s a mound of school papers spread across the surface of his bed, which he bulldozes aside. Here. Sit here. We should go, Anna says. We just stopped by to feed Cricket and grill him about the Olympics. Did you know they’re in France this year? She sighs. I’m dying for a visit. Her boyfriend bites a pinkie nail. And I’m trying to convince her that if Calliope makes the team, we should consider it a sign and take the holiday. I smile at Anna. Lucky you. St. Clair turns toward Cricket and points an accusing finger. I’m counting on you to ensure your sister wins at Nationals next weekend, all right? My heart selfishly plummets. Next weekend. More time away from Cricket. She only has to get one of the top three spots, Cricket says. But I’ll take out an opponent’s kneecap if I have to. Anna prods St. Clair’s shoulder. Come on. Weren’t you gonna show me that thing? What thing? She stares at him. He stares back. She cocks her head toward Cricket and me. Ah, yes. St. Clair stands. That thing. They rush out. The door shuts, and St. Clair shouts, Lola, Cricket wants to show you his thing, too-oo! They’re laughing as their feet echo down the hall. Cricket hastily looks away from me and places the carton of Bibimbap in his microwave. Oh. I got something beef-y for you, I say, because he’s heating the vegetarian dish first. He shrugs and smiles. I know. I saw. I smile, too, and sit on the edge of his bed. So all three of you are going to France, and I’m staying here? Talk about unfair. I’m only half kidding. You should come. I snort. Yeah, my parents would definitely be cool with that. But Cricket looks thoughtful. You know, Andy loves figure skating. If you had a free ticket, he might bite. And where, exactly, would I find a free ticket? He sits beside me. Courtesy of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Graham Bell, the world’s richest liar? I stop smiling. Cricket. I could never accept that. He nudges one of my cowboy boots with one of his pointy wingtips. Think about it. My foot tingles from the shoe-on-shoe contact. I nudge his shoe back. He nudges mine. The microwave beeps, and he hesitates, unsure if he should get up. I reach out and take his wrist, over his rubber bands and bracelets. I’m not that hungry, I say. Cricket looks down at my hand. I slide my index finger underneath a red bracelet. My finger brushes the skin of his inner wrist, and he releases a small sound. His eyes close. I twine my finger in and out of his bracelets, tying myself against him. I close my eyes, too. My finger guides us onto our backs, and we lie beside each other, quietly attached, for several minutes. Where’s Dustin? I finally ask. He’ll be back soon. Unfortunately. I open my eyes, and he’s staring me. I wonder how long his eyes have been open. That’s okay, I say. I came here to give you a late Christmas present. His eyebrows raise. I smile. Not that kind of present. I untangle my finger from his wrist and roll over to grab my purse from his floor. I rummage through it until I find the tiny something taken from my sock drawer. Actually, it’s more like a late birthday present. How . . . belated of you? I roll back toward him. Hold out your hand. He’s smiling. He does. I’m sure you don’t remember anymore, but several birthdays ago, you needed this. And I place a tiny wrench into his palm. Lindsey and I went everywhere to find it, but then . . . I couldn’t give it to you. His expression falls. Lola. I close his fingers around the gift. I threw away your bottle cap, because it killed me to look at. But I never could throw away this. I’ve been waiting to give it to you for two and a half years. I don’t know what to say, he whispers. I’m almost full, I say. Thank you for waiting for me, too. Chapter thirty-one The doorbell rings early the next Saturday. It wakes me from a deep slumber, but I immediately fall back asleep. I’m surprised when I’m being shaken awake moments later. You’re needed downstairs, Andy says. Now. I sit up. Norah? She was kicked out already? Calliope. It’s an emergency. I tear out of bed. An emergency with Calliope can only mean one thing: an emergency with Cricket. We’ve been texting, so I know he planned to come home before leaving for Nationals. But his light was off when I got back from work last night. I couldn’t tell if he was there. What if he tried to come home, and something happened along the way? Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God. I throw on a kimono and race downstairs, where Calliope is pacing our living room. Her normally smooth hair is unwashed and disheveled, and her complexion is puffy and red. Is he okay? What happened? Where is he? Calliope stops. She cocks her head, muddled and confused. Who? CRICKET! No. She’s momentarily thrown. It’s not Cricket, it’s me. It’s . . . this. Her hands tremble as she holds out a large brown paper bag. I’m so relieved that nothing is wrong with Cricket—and I’m so upset for thinking that something was wrong—that I snatch the bag a bit too harshly. I peer inside. It’s filled with shredded red gauze. And then I gasp with understanding. Your costume! Calliope bursts into tears. It’s for my long program. I carefully remove one of the shimmering strips of torn fabric. What happened? Abby. You’d think she was a dog, not a child. When Mom came down for breakfast, she discovered her playing in . . . this. I’d left my costume downstairs for cleaning. Who would’ve thought she could rip it? Calliope’s panic grows. I didn’t even know she was strong enough. And we’re leaving tomorrow! And my seamstress is out of town, and I know you can’t stand the sight of me, but you’re my only hope. Can you fix it in time? As intriguing as it is to be her only hope, there’s no hope to be had. I’m sorry, I say. But I can’t fix this period. It’s ruined. But you HAVE to do something. There has to be something you can do! I hold up a handful of shreds. These are barely big enough to blow your nose on. If I sewed them back together—even if I could, which I can’t—it’d look terrible.You wouldn’t be able to compete in it. Why can’t you wear one of your old costumes? Nathan interrupts. Andy looks horrified. She can’t do that. Why not? Nathan asks. It’s not the outfit that wins competitions. Calliope shudders, and that’s when I remember her second-place curse. She must have already been racked by nerves, and then to add this on top of it? I do feel sorry for her. No, she says. The word barely comes out. I can’t do that. She turns to me with her entire body, an eerily familiar gesture. Please. I feel helpless. I’d have to make a new one. There’s no— You could make a new one? she asks desperately. No! I say. There’s not enough time. Please, she says. Please, Lola. I’m feeling frantic. I want her to know that I’m a good person, that I’m not worthless, that I deserve her brother. Okay. Okay, I repeat. Everyone stares at me as I stare at the tatters. If only I had bigger pieces to work with. These are so small that they wouldn’t even make a full costume anymore. It hits me. About those old costumes— Calliope moans. No, listen, I say. How many do you have? She gives me another familiar gesture, the parted mouth and furrowed brow. The difficult equation face. I don’t know. A lot. A dozen, at least. Bring them over. They don’t all fit anymore! I can’t wear them, I won’t— You won’t have to, I reassure her. We’ll use the parts to make something new. She’s on the verge of hysterics again. You’re Frankensteining me? But I feel calm now that I have a plan. I won’t Frankenstein you. I’ll revamp you. She’s back in five minutes, and she returns with . . . Cricket. Their arms are piled high with stretchy fabric and sparkly beads. His hair is still sleep-tousled, and he’s not wearing his bracelets. His wrists look nak*d. Our eyes meet, and his thoughts are just as exposed: gratitude for helping his sister and the unmistakable ache of longing. The ache is reciprocated. I lead them upstairs to my bedroom. Cricket hesitates at the bottom, unsure if he’s allowed to go up. Andy gives him a prod on the back, and I’m relieved. We’ll definitely find something in all of this, I tell Calliope. She’s still on edge. I can’t believe my stupid niece did this to me. My facial muscles twinge, but I’d say the same thing if I were in her situation. Let’s spread out the costumes and see what we have. Spread them out where?

I almost lose my cool, when I look at my floor and realize she has a point. Oh. Right. I shove the piles of discarded shoes and clothing into corners, and Andy and Cricket join in. Nathan waits in the doorway, eyeing the situation—and Cricket— warily. When my floor is clear enough, we lay out her costumes. Everyone stares at the spread. It’s a little overwhelming. What’s your music? Andy asks. Our heads snap to look at him. What? He shrugs. We need to know what she’s skating to before Lo can design the right costume. What’s her inspiration? Nathan blinks. I smile. He’s right. What are you skating to, Calliope? It’s a selection from 1968’s Romeo and Juliet. No idea what that sounds like. I point her to my laptop. Download it. I can do better than that. She sits in my chair and types her own name into a search engine. One of the first entries is a video from her last competition. Watch this. We gather around my computer. Her music is haunting and romantic. Fraught with drama and strung with tension, it collapses into sorrow, and ends with a powerful crescendo into redemption. It’s beautiful. Calliope is beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her perform, and I had no idea what she’d become. Or I’d forgotten. Or I’d forced myself to forget. Calliope moves with passion, grace, and confidence. She’s a prima ballerina. And it’s not only the way she skates—it’s the expressions on her face, which she carries into her arms, hands, fingers. She acts every emotion of the music. She feels every emotion of the music. No wonder Cricket believes in his sister. No wonder he’s sacrificed so much of his own life to see her succeed. She’s extraordinary. The clip ends, and everyone is silent. Even Nathan is awed. And I’m filled with the overwhelming sensation of Calliope’s presence—this power, this beauty—in the room. And then . . . I’m aware of another presence. Cricket stands behind me. The faintest touch of a finger against the back of my silk kimono. I close my eyes. I understand his compulsion, his need to touch. As my parents burst into congratulating Calliope, I slide one hand behind my back. I feel him jerk away in surprise, but I find his hand, and I take it into mine. And I stroke the tender skin down the center of his palm. Just once. He doesn’t make a sound. But he is still, so still. I let go, and suddenly my hand is in his. He repeats the action back. One finger, slowly, down the center of my palm. I cannot stay silent. I gasp. It’s the same moment Mrs. Bell explodes into my bedroom, and, thankfully, everyone turns to her and not me. Everyone except for Cricket. The weight of his stare against my body is heavy and intense. What’s the progress? Mrs. Bell asks. Calliope sighs. We’re just getting started. I spring forward, trying to shake away what has to be the most inappropriate feeling in the world to have when three out of our four parents are present. Hi, Mrs. Bell, I say. It’s good to see you again. She tucks her cropped hair behind her ears and launches into a heated discussion with Calliope. It’s like I don’t even exist, and I’m embarrassed that this hurts. I want her to like me. Cricket speaks for the first time since entering our house. Mom, isn’t it great that Lola is helping us? His fingers grasp at his wrists for rubber bands that aren’t there. Mrs. Bell looks up, startled at his awkward intrusion, and then scrutinizes me with a severe eye. I make her uncomfortable. She knows how I feel about her son, or how he feels about me. Or both. I wish I were wearing something respectable. My justrolled-out-of-bed look makes me feel trashy. This is not how I would choose to represent myself to her. Mrs. Bell nods. It is. Thank you. And she turns back to Calliope. Cricket glances at me in shame, but I give him an encouraging smile. Okay, so we need to work on our parents. We’ll get there. I turn around to grab a notebook, and that’s when I catch Nathan and Andy exchanging a private look. I’m not sure what it means, but, perhaps, it holds some remorse. I feel a surge of hope. Strength. I step forward to work, and things become crazy. Everyone has an opinion, and Mrs. Bell’s turns out to be even stronger than her daughter’s. The next half hour is hectic as arguments are had, fabric is trod upon, and garments are ripped. I’m trying to measure Calliope when Andy bumps into me, and I crunch against the sharp edge of my desk. OUT, I say. Everybody out! They freeze. I’m serious, everyone except Calliope. I can’t work like this. GO, Calliope says, and they scatter away. But Cricket lingers behind. I give him a coquettish smile. You, too. His smile back is dazed. Nathan clears his throat from the hallway. Technically, you aren’t even allowed in my daughter’s room. Sorry, sir. Cricket tucks his hands in his pockets. Call me if you need anything. He glances at Calliope, but his eyes return to mine. If either of you need anything. He leaves, and I’m grinning all the way down to my glittery toenail polish as I resume taking her measurements. She picks up an eyelash curler from my desktop and taps it against her hand. Why isn’t my brother allowed in your room? Oh. Um, I’m not allowed to have any guys in here. Please. Did Nathan catch you doing something? NO. Yuck. Don’t tell me. I yank the measuring tape around her waist a little too hard. Ow. I don’t apologize. I finish my work in silence. Calliope clears her throat as I write down the remaining measurements. I’m sorry, she says. It’s nice of you to do this for me. I know I don’t deserve it. I stop mid-scratch. She slams down my eyelash curler. You were right. I thought he knew, but he didn’t. I’m confused. Knew what? That he’s important to our family. She crosses her arms. When Cricket was accepted into Berkeley, that was when I decided to return to my old coach. I wanted to move back here so that I could stay close to him. Our parents did, too. It looks like Calliope has more to say, so I wait for her to continue. She lowers herself into my desk chair. Listen, it’s not a secret that I’ve made my family’s life difficult. There are things that Cricket hasn’t had or experienced because of me. And I haven’t had them either, and I’ve hated it, but it was my choice. He didn’t have a choice. And he’s accepted everything with this . . . exuberance and good nature. It would’ve been impossible for our family to hold it together if we didn’t have Cricket doing the hardest part. Keeping us happy. She raises her eyes to meet mine. I want you to know that I feel terrible about what I’ve done to my brother. Calliope . . . I don’t think . . . Cricket doesn’t feel that way. You know he doesn’t. Are you sure? Her voice catches. How can you be sure? I’m sure. He loves you. He’s proud of you. She’s silent for a minute. Seeing such a strong person struggle to hold it together is heartbreaking. My family should tell him more often how remarkable he is. Yes, he is. And, yes, you should. He thinks you are, too. He always has. Calliope looks at me again. I’m sorry I’ve held that against you. And I’m too astonished by this admission to reply. She rests her hand on the ruffled costume beside her. Just answer this one question. My brother never got over you. Did you ever get over him? I swallow. There are some people in life that you can’t get over. Good. Calliope stands and gives me a grim smile. But break Cricket’s heart? I’ll break your face. We work together for a half hour, picking out pieces, throwing ideas back and forth. She knows what she wants, but I’m pleased to discover that she respects my opinion. We settle on a design using only her black costumes, and she collects the others to take home. So where’s your dress? she asks. I have no idea what she’s talking about. What dress? The Marie Antoinette dress. I saw your binder. You what? Cricket was carrying it around at one of my competitions, practically fondling the damn thing. I teased him mercilessly, of course, but . . . it was interesting. You put a lot of work into those pages. He said you’d put a lot of work into the real thing, too. She looks around my room. I didn’t think it was possible to hide a giant-ass ball gown, but apparently I was wrong. Oh. Uh, it’s not in here. I stopped working on it. I’m not going to the dance. What? WHY?You’ve been working on it for a half a year. Yeah, but . . . it’s lame, right? To show up alone? She looks at me like I’m an idiot. So show up with my brother. I’m thrilled by her suggestion—permission!—but I’ve already considered it. The dance is next weekend. He’ll still be on the other side of the country for Nationals. Nationals are a full week. Practice sessions, acclimation to the ice and rink, interviews with the media, two programs, plus an additional exhibition if she medals. Cricket will be staying with her the entire time for support. Oh, she says. Besides, it’s stupid anyway. I stare at the notes for her costume, and I tug on a strand of hair. You know, big dance. Big dress. What’s the point? Lola. Her tone is flat. It’s not stupid to want to go to a dance. It’s not stupid to want to put on a pretty dress and feel beautiful for a night. And you don’t need a date for that. I’m quiet. She shakes her head. If you don’t go, then you are stupid. And you don’t deserve my brother. Chapter thirty-two I work all day and night on Calliope’s costume—seamripping the old ones, stitching new pieces together, adding flourishes from my own stashes— only stopping for a quick break at my window around midnight. Cricket joins me. He leans forward, elbows resting against his windowsill. The position looks remarkably insectlike with his long arms and long fingers. It’s cute. Very cute. Thank you for helping my sister, he says. I lean forward, mimicking his position. I’m happy to. Calliope leans out her window. STOP FLIRTING AND GET BACK TO WORK. So much for my break. Hey, Cal, he calls. She looks over as he removes a green rubber band from his wrist and shoots it at her head. It hits her nose with a tight snap and falls between our houses.Really mature. She slams her window shut. He grins at me. That never gets old. I knew you wore those for a reason. What color would you like? I grin back. Blue. But try not to aim for my face. I would never. And he swiftly flicks one into the space beside me. It lands on my rug, and I slide it onto my wrist. You’re good with your fingers. And I give him a pointed look that means, I am not talking about rubber bands. His elbows slide out from underneath him. Good night, Cricket Bell. I close my curtains, smiling. Good night, Lola Nolan, he calls out. The rubber band is still warm from his skin. I work for the rest of the night, finishing the costume as the moon is setting. I collapse into bed and fall asleep with my other hand clasped around the blue rubber band. And I dream about blue eyes and blue nails and first-kiss lips dusted with blue sugar crystals. Where is it? Mmph?! I wake up to the frightening vision of Calliope and her mother hovering above my bed. People have GOT to stop doing this to me. Did you finish? Where is it? Calliope asks again. I glance at my clock. I’ve only been asleep for two hours. I roll out of bed and onto my floor. Iss in my closet, I mumble, crawling for the closet door. Needed to hang it up pretty. Mrs. Bell reaches the closet first. She throws open the door and gasps. What? What is it? Calliope asks. Mrs. Bell takes it out and holds it up for her to see. Oh, Lola. It’s gorgeous. Calliope grabs it from the hanger and strips down in that way only beautiful, athletic girls can do—without shame and with a crowd. I look away, embarrassed. Ohhh, she says. I look back over. She’s standing before my full-length mirror. The black costume has long, slender, gossamer sleeves— delicate and shimmering and seductive—but they’re almost more like fingerless evening gloves, because they stop at the top of her arms, allowing for an elegant showing of shoulder skin. The body has a skirt to echo this feeling, but the top ends in a halter, and I added a thin layer to peek out from underneath, so it’s multistrapped and sequined and sexy. The overall effect is romantic but . . . daring. Calliope is in awe. I was afraid you’d give me something crazy, something Lola. But this is me. This is my song, this is my program. And even with the insult thrown in, I glow with happiness. It’s better than your original, Mrs. Bell says to Calliope. You really think? I ask. Yes, they both say. I pick myself up from the floor and inspect the costume. It could use some altering, here and here—I point to two loose places—but . . . yeah. This should work. Mrs. Bell smiles, warm and relieved. You have a special talent, Lola. Thank you. She likes me! Or at least my sewing skills, but I’ll take it. For now. There’s a knock on my door, and I let in my parents. They ooh and aah, and Calliope and I are both beaming. I mark the costume for quick alterations, which I can do in an hour. Which I have to do in an hour, because that’s when they leave for the airport. I shoo everyone away, and as I’m stitching, I glance again and again at Cricket’s window. He’s not there. I pray to an invisible moon that I’ll see him before he leaves. Sixty-five minutes later, I run into the Bells’ driveway. Calliope and her parents are loading the last suitcases. Aleck is there with Abby on his hip. He looks as sleep-deprived as I feel, but he jokingly offers out Abby’s hand to hold the new costume. Calliope does not find the joke funny. Aleck and Abby are staying while everyone else goes. The time alone will hopefully force him back into motion, but Andy and I have secret plans to check up on them. Just in case. I’m opening my mouth to ask about Cricket, when he races from the house. I’m here, I’m here! He comes to an abrupt halt six inches from me, when he finally notices there’s someone else in the driveway. I look up. And up again, until I meet his gaze. Get in the car, Calliope says. We’re leaving. Now. You’re still wearing the rubber band, he says. I’m still wearing everything you last saw me in. And then I want to kick myself, because I don’t want it to sound like I forgot I was wearing it. I am CRICKET. This time, Mr. Bell. I’m filled with a hundred things I want to say to Cricket, but I’m conscious of his entire family watching us. So is he. Um, see you next week? he asks. Good luck. To your sister. And you. For . . . whatever. CRICKET! Everyone in the car. Bye, we blurt. He’s climbing in when Aleck leans down and whispers something in his ear. Cricket glances at me and turns red. Aleck laughs. Cricket slams his car door, and Mr. Bell is already pulling away. I wave. Cricket holds up his hand in goodbye until the car turns the corner and out of sight. So. Aleck ducks his head out of reach from Abby’s grabbing hands. You and my brother, huh? My cheeks flame. What did you say to him? I told him your loins were clearly burning, and he should man up and make a move. You did not! I did. And if he doesn’t, then I suggest you jump his bones. My brother, in case you haven’t noticed, is kind of an idiot about these things. Cricket has left a new message for me in his window. It’s written in his usual black marker but with one addition—a crayon rubbing of my name, imprinted from the sidewalk corners on Dolores Street. The sign reads: GO TO THE DANCE DOLORES I am going to the dance. I heard about Calliope, Norah says on Friday night. Sixth place? I sigh. Yep. In her post-short-program interview, Calliope was quiet but poised. A professional. I’m disappointed, she said, but I’m grateful to have another chance. That’s a shame, Norah says. It’s not over yet. My voice is sharp. She still has a shot. Norah gives me a wary look. You think I don’t know that? Nothing is ever over. My family, Lindsey, and I are gathered around the television. Everyone is working on my Marie Antoinette gown. The last few decorative details are all that remain, and I appreciate the help as we wait for Calliope’s long program to begin. The ladies’ short program was two nights ago. We saw the end from the beginning, in the moment the camera cut to Calliope’s first position. It was in her eyes and underneath her smile. Fear. The music started, and it was clear that something was wrong. It happened so quickly. Her most difficult sequences were in the beginning—they usually are, so that a skater has full strength to perform them— and the commentators were in a tizzy over her triple jump, which she hadn’t been landing in practice. Calliope landed it, but she fell on the combination. The expression on her face—only for a moment, she picked herself up instantly—was terrible. The commentators made pitying noises as she bravely skated to the other end of the rink, but our living room was silent. An entire season’s worth of training. For nothing. And then she fell again. It’s not all about talent, the male commentator said. It’s also about your head. She’s not been able to do what people have expected of her, and it’s taken its toll. There’s no greater burden than potential, the female commenter added. But as if Calliope heard them, as if she said enough, determination grew in every twist of her muscles, every push of her skates. She nailed an extra jump and earned additional points. Her last two-thirds were solid. It’s not impossible for her to make the Olympic team, but she’ll need a flawless long program tonight. I can’t watch. Andy sets down his corner of my Marie Antoinette dress. What if she doesn’t medal? In Lola’s costume? This has been bothering me, too, but I don’t want to make Andy even more nervous, so I give him a shrug. Then it won’t be my fault. I only made the outfit. She’s the one who has to skate in it. The rest of us abandon my dress as the camera cuts to her coach Petro Petrov, an older gentleman with white hair and a grizzled face. He’s talking with her at the edge of the rink. She’s nodding and nodding and nodding. The cameraman can’t get a good shot of her face, but . . . her costume looks great. I’m on TV! Sort of! You made that in one day? Norah asks. Nathan leans over and squeezes my arm. It’s phenomenal. I’m so proud of you. Lindsey grins. Maybe you should have made my dress. We went shopping earlier this week for the dance. I’m the one who found her dress. It’s simple—a flattering cut for her petite figure—and it’s the same shade of red as her Chuck Taylors. She and Charlie have decided to wear their matching shoes. You’re going to the dance? Norah is surprised. I thought you didn’t date. I don’t, Lindsey says. Charlie is merely a friend. A cute friend, I say. Whom she hangs out with on a regular basis. She smiles. We’re keeping things casual. My educational agenda comes first. The commentators begin rehashing Calliope’s journey. About how it’s a shame someone with such natural talent always chokes. They criticize her constant switching of coaches and make a bold statement about a misguided strive for perfection. We boo the television. I feel sadness for her again, for having to live with such constant criticism. But also admiration, for continuing to strive. No wonder she’s built such a hard shell. I’m yearning for the network to show her family, which they didn’t do AT ALL during the short program. Shouldn’t a twin be notable? I called him yesterday, because he’s still too shy to call me. He was understandably stressed, but I got him laughing. And then he was the one who encouraged me to invite Norah today. She’s family, he said. You should show encouragement whenever you can. People try harder when they know that someone cares about them. Cricket Bell. I smiled into my phone. How did you get so wise? He laughed again. Many, many hours of familial observation. As if the cameramen heard me . . . HIM. It’s him! Cricket is wearing a gray woolen coat with a striped scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. His hair is dusted with snow and his cheeks are pink; he must have just arrived at the arena. He is winter personified. He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

The camera cuts to Calliope, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from shouting at the television to go back to Cricket. Petro takes ones of Calliope’s clenched hands, shakes it gently, and then she glides onto the ice to the roar of thousands of spectators, cheering and waving banners. Everyone in my living room holds their breath as we wait for the first clear shot of her expression. And would you look at that, the male commentator says. Calliope Bell is here to fight! It’s in the fierceness of her eyes and the strength of her posture as she waits for her music to begin. Her skin is pale, her lips are red, and her dark hair is pulled into a sleek twist. She’s stunning and ferocious. The music starts, and she melts into the romance of it, and she is the song. Calliope is Juliet. Opening with a triple lutz/double toe, the female says. She fell on this at World’s last year . . . She lands it. And the triple salchow . . . watch how she leans, let’s see if she can get enough height to finish the rotation . . . She lands it. The commentators drift into a mesmerized hush. Calliope isn’t just landing the jumps, she’s performing them. Her body ripples with intensity and emotion. I imagine young girls across America dreaming of becoming her someday like I once did. A gorgeous spiral sequence leads into a dazzling combination spin. And soon Calliope is punching her arms in triumph, and it’s over. A flawless long program. The camera pans across the celebrating crowd. It cuts to her family. The Bell parents are hugging and laughing and crying. And beside them, Calliope’s crazy-haired twin is whooping at the top of his lungs. My heart sings. The camera returns to Calliope, who hollers and fist-pumps the air. No! Go back to her brother! The commentators laugh. Exquisite, the man says. Her positions, her extensions. There’s no one like Calliope Bell when she’s on fire. Yes, but will this be enough to overcome her disastrous short program? Well, the curse remains, he replies. She couldn’t pull off two clean programs, but talk about redemption. Calliope can hold her head high. This was the best performance of her career. She puts on her skate guards and walks to the kiss-and-cry, the appropriately nicknamed area where scores are announced. People are throwing flowers and teddy bears, and she high-fives several people’s hands. Petro puts his arm around her shoulders, and they laugh happily and nervously as they wait for her scores. They’re announced, and Calliope’s eyes grow as large as saucers. Calliope Bell is in second place. And she’s ecstatic to be there. Chapter thirty-three The wig comes on, and I’m . . . almost happy. There’s something wrong with my reflection. It’s not my costume, which would make Marie Antoinette proud. The pale blue gown is girly and outrageous and gigantic. There are skirts and overskirts, ribbons and trim, beads and lace. The bodice is lovely, and the stays fit snugly underneath, giving me a flattering figure—the correct body parts are either more slender or more round. My neck is draped in a crystalline necklace like diamonds, and my ears in shimmery earrings like chandeliers. I sparkle with reflected light. Is it the makeup? I’m wearing white face powder, red blush, and clear red lip gloss. Marie Antoinette didn’t have mascara, so I felt compelled to cheat there. I’ve brushed on quite a bit over a pair of false eyelashes. My gaze travels upward. The white wig towers at two feet tall, and it’s adorned with blue ribbons and pink roses and pink feathers and a single blue songbird. It’s beautiful. A work of art. I spent a really long time making it. And . . . it’s not right. I don’t see me, I say. I’m gone. Andy is unlacing my buckled platform combat boots, preparing to help me step inside of them. He gestures in a wide circle. What do you mean? ALL I can see is you. No. I swallow. There’s too much Marie, not enough Lola. His brow furrows. I thought that was the point. I thought so, too, but . . . I’m lost. I’m hidden. I look like a Halloween costume. When don’t you look like a Halloween costume? Dad! I’m serious. My panic rapidly intensifies. I can’t go to the dance like this, it’s too much. Way too much. Honey, he shouts to Nathan. You’d better get in here. Lola is using new words. Nathan appears in my doorway, and he grins when he sees me. Our daughter said—Andy pauses for dramatic effect—it’s too much. They burst into laughter. IT’S NOT FUNNY. And then I gasp. My stays crush my rib cage, making the outburst labored and painful. Whoa. Nathan is suddenly beside me, his hand on my back. Breathe. Breathe. I was already nervous about going to the dance and seeing my classmates. At least I won’t be alone—I’m meeting Lindsey and Charlie there— but I can’t go like this. It’d be humiliating. I need Lindsey here; she’d take control. But she’s in the middle of a murder-mystery dinner party, and Charlie has wagered a month of school lunches that he’ll solve the mystery before she does. It’s important to Lindsey that she wins. Phone, I pant. Give me my phone. Andy hands it to me, and I dial Cricket instead. I’m sent directly to his voice mail, like I have been all afternoon. He called this morning to make sure I was going to the dance, but we haven’t talked since. I keep fantasizing that we can’t get in touch because he’s on an airplane, planning to surprise me by magically appearing at my school during the first slow song, but it’s most likely a snowstorm wreaking havoc with his connection. Tonight is the Exhibition of Champions, and Calliope is performing in it. He has to be there. But tomorrow . . . he’ll be home. The thought temporarily calms me. And then I see my reflection again, and I realize that tomorrow helps nothing about tonight. O-kaaaay. Andy pries the phone from my death grip. We need a plan. I have a plan. I tear at the pins holding the wig to my head. I’ll take it apart. I’ll do a modern reinterpretation of it in my own hair. I’m flinging the pins to the floor like darts, and my parents step back nervously. That sounds . . . Nathan says. Complicated, Andy says. I rip off the wig and throw it onto my desk. Are you sure you want to— Nathan’s words die as I wrench the pink roses from the wig. Half of them tear, and Andy clamps a hand over his mouth. The songbird is yanked off next. It’s fine, I say. I’ll put them in my own hair, it’ll be fine. I push the rest of the wig to the floor, look up, and cry out. My hair is matted and tangled, bushy and flattened. It’s every bad thing that can happen to someone’s head, all at once. Andy gingerly removes another stray pin as I try to tug a brush through the disaster. Careful! he says. I’M BEING CAREFUL. The brush snags in my hair, and I explode into tears. Andy spins around to Nathan. Who do we call? Who do we know who does hair? I don’t know! Nathan looks blindsided. That queen with the big order last week? No, she’d be working. What about Luis? You hate Luis. What about— I’ll wear the wig! I’ll just wear the wig, forget it! I feel my black mascara trailing through my white face powder as I trip backward, and my right foot lands on the wig. The chicken wire structure underneath it smashes flat. My parents gasp. And the last remaining vision I had of entering my winter formal as Marie Antoinette disappears. I pull at my stays, forcing room to get air inside my chest. It’s over. There’s a thud beside my window as someone drops into the room. Only the wig is over. I lunge toward him instinctively, but my dress is so heavy that I crumple face-first into my rug. My gown falls around me like a deflated accordion. I didn’t realize it was possible to die of embarrassment. But I think it might actually happen. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Cricket drops to his knees. His grip is strong as he helps me sit up. I want to collapse into his arms, but he carefully lets go of me. What . . . what are you . . . ? I left Nationals early. I know how important the dance is to you, and I wanted to surprise you. I didn’t want you to have to walk in alone. Not that you couldn’t handle it, he adds. Which is gracious of him, considering my current status. But I wanted to be there, too. For your big entrance. I’m wiping rug burn and mascara from my cheeks. My big entrance. My parents are frozen dumbstruck by the sudden appearance. Cricket turns to them apologetically. I would have used the front door, but I didn’t think you’d hear me. And the window was open. You’ve always been . . . full of surprises, Andy says. Cricket smiles at him before swiveling back around to me. Come on. Let’s get you ready for the dance. I turn my head. I’m not going. You have to go. He nudges my elbow. I came back so that I could take you, remember? I can’t meet his eyes. I look stupid. Hey. No, he says softly. You look beautiful. You’re lying. I lift my gaze, but I have to bite my lip for a moment to keep it from quivering. I have mascara clown face. My hair screams child- eating storybook witch. Cricket looks amused. I’m not lying. But . . . we should clean you up, he adds. He takes my arms and begins to help me stand. Nathan steps forward, but Andy grabs one of his shoulders. My parents watch Cricket rearrange the skirt of my dress to get me safely to my feet. He leads me to the bathroom attached to my bedroom. Nathan and Andy follow at a careful distance. Cricket turns on the sink’s tap and searches the bottles and tubes on my countertop until he finds what he’s looking for. Aha! It’s makeup remover. Calliope uses the same kind, he explains. She’s been known to need this after particularly brutal performances. For the, uh,—he gestures in a general way toward my face—same reason. Oh God. I blink at the mirror. It looks like I’ve been vomited on by an inkwell. He grins. A little bit. Come on, the water is warm. We scoot around awkwardly until I’m positioned in front of the sink, and then he drapes a towel over the front of my dress. I— very difficultly—leanover. His fingers slide through my hair and hold it back while I scrub. His physical presence against me is soothing. The face powder, mascara, false eyelashes, and blush disappear. I dry my face, and my eyes find his in the mirror. My skin is bare and pink. He stares back with unguarded desire. Nathan clears his throat from the doorway, and we startle. So what are we going to do about your hair? he asks. My heart falls. I guess I’ll wear a different wig. Something simple. Maybe . . . maybe I can help, Cricket says. I do have some experience. With hair. I frown. Cricket. You’ve had that same hair your entire life. Don’t tell me you style it that way yourself. No, but . . . He rubs the back of his neck. Sometimes I help Call with hers before competitions. My eyebrows raise. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said it was a seriously embarrassing skill for a straight guy. You’re the best, I say. Only you would think that. But he looks pleased. It’s in this moment that I finally register what he’s wearing. It’s a handsome skinny black suit with a shiny sheen. The pants are too short—on purpose, of course—exposing his usual pointy shoes and a pair of pale blue socks that match my dress exactly. And I totally want to jump him. Tick tock, Nathan says. I scooch past Cricket, back into my bedroom. He gestures to my desk chair, so I lift my skirts up and around the back, and I find a way to sit down. And then he finger-combs my hair. His hands are gentle and quick, the movements smooth and assured. I close my eyes. The room is silent as his fingertips untangle the strands from roots to tips and run loose throughout my hair. I lean back into him. It feels like my entire body is blossoming. He leans over and whispers in my ear, They’ve gone. I look up, and, sure enough, my parents have left the door ajar. But they’re gone. We smile. Cricket resumes his work, and I nestle into his hands. My eyes close again. After a few minutes, he clears his throat. I, um, have something to tell you. My eyes remain shut, but my eyebrows lift in curiosity. What kind of something? A story, he says. His words become dreamlike, almost hypnotic, as if he’s told this to himself a hundred times before. Once upon a time, there was a girl who talked to the moon. And she was mysterious and she was perfect, in that way that girls who talk to moons are. In the house next door, there lived a boy. And the boy watched the girl grow more and more perfect, more and more beautiful with each passing year. He watched her watch the moon. And he began to wonder if the moon would help him unravel the mystery of the beautiful girl. So the boy looked into the sky. But he couldn’t concentrate on the moon. He was too distracted by the stars. I hear Cricket remove a rubber band from his wrist, which he uses to hold a twist of my hair. Go on, I say. I hear the smile in his voice. And it didn’t matter how many songs or poems had already been written about them, because whenever he thought about the girl, the stars shone brighter. As if she were the one keeping them illuminated. One day, the boy had to move away. He couldn’t bring the girl with him, so he brought the stars. When he’d look out his window at night, he would start with one. One star. And the boy would make a wish on it, and the wish would be her name. At the sound of her name, a second star would appear. And then he’d wish her name again, and the stars would double into four. And four became eight, and eight became sixteen, and so on, in the greatest mathematical equation the universe had ever seen. And by the time an hour had passed, the sky would be filled with so many stars that it would wake his neighbors. People wondered who’d turned on the floodlights. The boy did. By thinking about the girl. My eyes open, and my heart is in my throat. Cricket . . . I’m not that. He stops pinning my hair. What do you mean? You’ve built up this idea about me, this ideal, but I’m not that person. I’m not perfect. I am far from perfect. I’m not worth such a beautiful story. Lola. You are the story. But a story is just that. It isn’t the truth. Cricket returns to his work. The pink roses are added. I know you aren’t perfect. But it’s a person’s imperfections that make them perfect for someone else. Another pin slides into place as I catch sight of the back of his hand. A star. Every star he’s drawn onto his skin has been for me. I glance at my doorway to make sure it’s still empty, and I grab his hand. He looks at it. I trace my thumb around the star. He looks at me. His eyes are so painfully, exquisitely blue. And I pull him down into me, and I plant my lips against his, which are loose with surprise and shock. And I kiss Cricket Bell with everything that’s been building inside of me, everything since he moved back, everything since that summer, everything since our childhood. I kiss him like I’ve never kissed anyone before. He doesn’t move. His lips aren’t moving. My head jerks back in alarm. I’ve acted rashly, I’ve pushed him too quickly— He collapses to his knees and yanks me back to his lips. His kiss isn’t even remotely innocent. There’s passion, but there’s also an urgency verging on panic. He pulls me closer, as close as my dress and my chair allow, and he’s gripping me so tightly that I feel his fingers press through the back of my stays. I pull back, gasping for breath. Reeling. His breath is ragged, and I place my hands on his cheeks to steady him. Is this okay? I whisper. Are you okay? His reply is anguished. Honest. I love you. Chapter thirty-four Moonlight shines into my bedroom and reveals his fragile state. I didn’t say it so you’d say it back, he says. Please don’t say it if you don’t mean it. I can wait. I rise and detach my gown from the chair. And then I help him stand, and I place his hands around my waist. I lean onto my tiptoes, rest my fingers against the back of his neck, and kiss him gently. Slowly. His tongue finds mine. Our hearts beat faster and faster, and our kisses grow hotter and hotter, until we burst apart from breathlessness. I smile, dizzily, and touch my swollen lips. These are not the kisses of a sweet, wholesome boy next door. I draw him closer by his tie and whisper into his ear, Cricket Bell, I have been in love with you for my entire life. He doesn’t say anything. But his fingers tighten against the back of my bodice. I ache to press my body into his, but my dress is making full contact impossible. I wiggle into a slightly better position. He glances down and notices that I’m still wearing a certain blue something, and, this time, it’s his index finger that wraps underneath my rubber band. I shiver wonderfully. I’m never taking it off. Cricket brushes the delicate skin of my wrist. It’ll fall off. I’ll ask you for another one. I’ll give you another one. He smiles and touches his nose to mine. And then he spasms violently and pushes me away. Someone is coming upstairs. Cricket grabs the songbird off my desk and shoves it into my hair as Andy pops his head in. My dad gives us a look. Just making sure everything is okay. It’s getting late. You should get going. We’ll be down in a minute, I say. You’re not even wearing shoes. Or makeup. Five minutes. I’m timing it. Andy disappears. And it’ll be Nathan up here next, he calls out. So what do you think? Cricket asks. You’re good. Very, very good. I poke his chest, giddy with the knowledge that I can touch him now whenever I want. How did you get so good? It’s safe to say that you’re the one who brings it out of me. He pokes my stomach. But I meant your hair. I’m beaming as I turn toward the mirror, and . . . OH. The updo looks professional. It’s tall and splendid and elaborate, but it doesn’t overwhelm me. It complements me. This is . . . it’s . . . perfect. You will never tell anyone I did that on pain of death. But he’s grinning. Thank you. I pause, and then I look down at my pale blue fingernails. You know that thing you said about someone being perfect for someone else? Yeah? My eyes lift back to his. I think you’re perfect, too. Perfect for me. And . . . you look amazing tonight.You always do. Cricket blinks. And then again. Did I black out? Because I’ve daydreamed those words a thousand times, but I never thought you’d actually say them. THREE MINUTES, Andy calls from downstairs. We break into nervous laughter. Cricket shakes his head to refocus. Boots, he says. Socks. I point them out, and while he finishes prepping them, I mascara my lashes, powder my face, and gloss my lips. The makeup is dropped into my purse. I have a feeling I’ll need retouching before I come home. Cricket sweeps me up by my waist and carries me to the bed, and I’m lifting my skirts as he sets me down on the edge. His eyes widen, but it turns into more laughter when he sees how many layers are underneath. I grin. There’s more than panniers under here. Just give me your foot. From downstairs: ONE MINUTE. Cricket kneels and takes my left foot into his hands. The sock comes on too fast. My boot squeaks as he slides it over my leg. His careful, quick fingers lace it all the way up to my knee, where they linger ever so slightly. I close my eyes, praying for the clock to stop. He tugs and tightens the buckles. And then he repeats everything on the other side. Somehow, this is the sexiest thing that has ever happened to me. I wish I had more feet, I say. We can do this again. He tightens the last buckle. Anytime. There’s a knock against my door frame as Betsy eagerly bounds toward us. My parents are both here. Cricket helps me stand. Nathan’s expression softens into astonishment. Wow. I hesitate. Good wow? Standing ovation wow, Cricket says. The way everyone is staring makes me nervous again. I turn toward the mirror, and I see . . . a magnificent gown and beautiful hair and a glowing face. And the reflection smiling back at me is Lola. One more, Andy says. From the side, so we can see the bird in your hair. I turn my head to pose for another picture. This is the last one. Did you get a shot with the boots? Nathan asks. Show us the boots. I lift my hem and smile. Tick tock.

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