Chapter ONE

 

RIGHT BEFORE the deluge started, we passed a group of deer on the side of the road. Once the rain came, most of them bolted into the woods near the highway. The smallest of the group finished eating the grass with measured chews. Driving by, I swore our eyes met, and something passed between us. Not necessarily a connection, but an understanding: we were both beings surviving the best way we knew how.

Every day I was in survival mode, fighting not to not give in and find another way to close my eyes and never wake up.

I would have hung my face out the window, catching the wind, but those times were now in the past. Plus, Dad rolled up the windows just as a puddle of rain doused the car. He had kept the windows down for most of the drive even though it was a sticky and humid August afternoon.

“I’ll turn on the air conditioner so we’re cooler.” He turned it on without waiting for me to agree. I hadn’t been comfortable with any type of weather or temperature for over a year.

I rubbed my left wrist where I had once worn my charm bracelet. I stopped wearing it ever since that horrific night last May. When my belongings were returned to me after I left the hospital, my charm bracelet was there but stained with blood. I had worn the bracelet since I was ten, after Mom died of lupus. Dad had given it to her as an engagement gift after she accepted his proposal, along with her diamond ring. A few months after my seventeenth birthday, I threw it at him. I didn’t want to wear it any longer. Mom didn’t watch from heaven, even though she promised me she would. She swore she would always protect me. She had failed the night my innocence was taken away. I rejected her in return.

Speaking of rejection, I would now live with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a different state until I started my senior year of high school in a few weeks. I was three hours away from my hometown and moving to Pennsylvania to escape my recent past.

Dad gave me the side-eye when I scratched my wrist. It wasn’t the one with the faded white line, the lasting evidence of my failed suicide attempt nine months ago. But that hadn’t been planned—it was a sudden thing. Spotting my reflection in the bathroom mirror had made me do something unforgivable, which forced me back into the hospital for a week.

I twisted around to face him while he squinted through the downpour. We used to talk a lot before my assault. Now we barely stomached one another. My time as Daddy’s Little Girl had come to an abrupt, bitter end.

“Wrong wrist, Dad.” I curled my fingers around the scar to hide it. The cold air from the vent hit my face, drying the sweat there, leaving behind a chill that made me want to hug myself. Instead I hunched down in my seat, watching the windshield wipers push aside the rain.

He opened his mouth, then closed it, at a loss for words, as usual. Better to shock him than have him pity me with his silent stares and judgment because I wouldn’t discuss my feelings every moment of the goddamn day. It ate him up inside, how he blamed himself for my trauma. His graying hair that had been slowly spreading up his temples now painted his entire head. His worry lines and dark shadows also told the tale.

He turned on the radio to some soft-rock station instead of responding. Deflecting was the name of the game for the Wycherleys, the once close-knit father-and-daughter duo.

“If you’re nervous about staying with your aunt Eloise and uncle Abe, don’t be. They’re happy to have you.” He smiled, although pained and awkward.

“I know. You’ve told me already. Jo texted a bunch of times this week to say how excited she is.” I would sleep with my cousin in her room, since her older sister Tris went to Maison University and her bed was vacant. As vice president of her sorority, Tris stayed at the sorority house.

“That’s great. Jo can help you get situated at your new school,” Dad said.

Aunt Eloise was included in the mix. She was the school’s guidance counselor. Lucky me.

The rain lessened as Dad took the exit off the highway. Soon enough we’d reach our final destination. It would be a fresh start—not only for me, but for Dad, who was leaving the country because he couldn’t handle what I’d become. But he had been given an incredible opportunity. My incredible opportunity was still in the air, but readily available due to the huge bank account set up in my name.

I trembled as flashes of that night and the days after walloped me. Goose bumps pimpled my arms. But I couldn’t tell if it was my rising panic or the cool interior of the car. Having trouble breathing, I opened the window to inhale clean air.

Dad slowed the car. “Do you need me to pull over? Are you going to be sick?”

I squeezed the flesh between my thumb and palm. A reflexology move my best friend Matilda taught me. She explained how tapping into our own bodies and finding pressure points stopped headaches and panic attacks. I also practiced deep breathing as another precaution just in case I started hyperventilating.

“Charlie?” Dad parked on the side of the road and then touched my shoulder. I wanted to ask him for a hug. But my arms were frozen around my waist, as if they could protect me.

I pressed my forehead on the metal of the door, the rain dampening my face. The sound of it hitting the trees and grass was calming. I’d always enjoyed listening to the rain. That hadn’t changed, even though I was a different person.

Even with the window open, Dad’s tension was as thick as the air outside. I didn’t want him to suffer like this. I had suffered enough for both of us. It wasn’t fair to him that his eighteen-year-old daughter was damaged beyond repair.

Rolling my head toward him, I loosened my grip around my body. The pressure in my head vanished. “Did you tell Aunt Eloise and Uncle Abe how I sometimes… escape inside my head like I just did?”

Dad blinked in confusion. He probably expected me to break down or have a crying fit, but I was all tapped out from crying. I had shed enough tears for two lifetimes. There was nothing left inside me to flush out.

“They know. I—”

“You warned them. Makes sense.”

He dropped his hands on his lap. “Charlie, maybe we should rethink the plan.”

He wanted to have a plan for everything. He hated surprises. Unfortunately for him, I had become one big hellish surprise that made his life incredibly difficult.

“Rethink what? You moving to Canada for your new job or me living in Pennsylvania?” I was the one responsible for uprooting our lives since we couldn’t live in Underwood any longer. So many happy memories there now discarded because of me.

“You can always come with me and take more time to figure out what you want to do,” he said, rehashing an old argument.

If I took more time to “heal,” I could be twenty by the time I graduated high school. The other option would be a GED, which would make me even more of a loser. Also, it would be too hard to get into a good college. At least if I went to school this fall as a senior, I would only graduate a year late. Even though so much had been taken away from me, I didn’t want to hide any longer. I needed to move on with my life and concentrate on the here and now.

“I don’t want to live in Canada. I want to go back to school, graduate, and hopefully get into college. I’ll be okay even with you hundreds of miles away,” I said, bringing the discussion to end.

He dropped his hands on the steering wheel. “I want the best for you. That’s why I made you take—”

“You didn’t make me take anything.” My head started pounding again. I didn’t want to gulp down those special pills to stop the pain. They made me too loopy and depressed. But Dad’s harping on the past, over the deal we’d made to help me heal, didn’t do anything for my well-being.

“I don’t want you to have another attack like you did in November after you signed the papers.” His voice cracked with strain.

November and December had been bad. We hadn’t celebrated Thanksgiving or even Christmas because of how I’d reacted to accepting the huge settlement Mr. Petrus had offered on behalf of his rapist son instead of going to trial. It had been my decision not to pursue legal action. I’d ended up in the hospital a second time from self-inflicted wounds and more damage to my already shaky emotions.

“Stop worrying. I’m not going to do anything that will land me in the hospital again.” I reached over to turn on the ignition. “We’re running late. You should drive before it starts pouring again.”

I didn’t give him much of a choice. He had talked with me over and over, thinking discussing my issues would help. It never did, not even when I’d tried therapy. He thought I’d given up. I let him believe it.

I wasn’t giving up on life just yet. I still needed time to find my balance again and take back what was stolen from me.

 

 

THE REST of the drive was relatively short. We passed streets with local businesses that included restaurants and clothing stores. We also drove by the Maison campus where my older cousins—Tris and Paul, fraternal twins—attended. Eventually we ended up in a suburban neighborhood that reminded me of my street back in Underwood. A wave of nostalgia hit and then vanished. I might not see my house again for a very long time. Brushing that depressing thought aside, I viewed the colonial houses and well-maintained lawns and sidewalks until we drove up a longer driveway than most to a white house with a wraparound porch.

Dad shut off the car, staring at the house as if seeing it for the first time. “Here we are.”

“Took us less than three hours, even with the rain.” I didn’t mention our sudden pit stop.

He grabbed an umbrella out from under the seat. “Ready?”

I made a dash for it, running up the front steps and under the jutting roof. Dad followed me with his huge umbrella that covered him well enough, even with the rain slashing sideways and the wind knocking into him.

As he closed the umbrella, I rang the doorbell. A preteen boy answered. It was my cousin Beau, the youngest of the four Dryden children.

“Hey, guys!” He opened the screen door to let us enter.

Looking past Beau, I spotted an older man and woman. My uncle Abe and aunt Eloise, my dad’s sister. Next to them was Jo. They all wore big smiles.

Dad moved past me and greeted everyone with hugs and kisses while I pasted on a smile and dug my nails into my palms.

 

 

THREE BOXES and two pieces of luggage held all my belongings. They crowded around a twin-size bed under a window facing the backyard. Faded purple tulip wallpaper covered the walls. A lilac patchwork bedspread and matching pillows made up the bed.

“Want me to help you unpack?” Jo sat on the edge of her bed. Her side of the room was more lived-in, with posters of celebrities lining her wall and her desk covered with papers and books. Too many shoes to count lay on the floor, and her closet exploded with color. Her love of bright things showed not only with her clothes but through her personality. She was always bubbly and energetic. Her hair, a riot of corkscrew curls, fit her perfectly.

“Nah. I’m good.”

We had always been opposites, even before my world had fallen apart last year. I’d kept my hair strawberry blonde, highlighted and layered to the middle of my back, mainly to impress Larissa, the most popular girl at my school. She’d been a secret crush that had become the real deal. Almost two years of hidden meetings and rushed kisses and embraces, which had all come to an end one night in May during her brother’s graduation party. I’d ended up chopping my hair off, right under my ears, and dying it a dark mahogany to spite her and everything we had shared. It was more of a bob now, with jagged ends. I would never grow my hair long again, giving someone the opportunity to twist their hands around it to imprison me, or to play with it while they kissed me, as if I were the most precious thing in their world.

Jo shifted, the mattress springs making me aware of my surroundings again. She tilted her head at me, staring wide-eyed, clear of any questions or confusion, unlike my father. But I still felt on display. I lifted a suitcase onto the bed and opened it to give me something to do.

“You don’t mind me sharing your bedroom? It must be strange after having the room all to yourself for the past two years.” I took out the folded clothes on top and placed them on the bed.

She sat back on her elbows and swung her legs. “Tris sometimes sleeps over on the weekend when she wants to get away from the sorority house.”

I couldn’t believe Tris was a sorority chick, let alone second-in-command of the organization. She had been a bit of a geek in high school, dedicated to causes and constantly spewing facts about social issues. Completely different from her twin, Paul, who had also been involved in school but more interested in sports and creative-focused groups. He was also in a fraternity, holding some type of PR position.

“She stays at the sorority house even though she could live here full-time and not pay room and board?” I scanned the bedroom, a big enough space for two people to sleep comfortably and not walk on top of each other.

“Both Tris and Paul have scholarships. They’re both running for president of their houses next year, so if they win the spot, they get a big discount on their living expenses,” Jo pointed out. The bed squeaked under her as she stood. “They’re fixing up their houses for the new semester. Next Saturday the Alpha Gamma Pi and Lambda Rho houses are hosting a party together, mainly for the incoming freshmen and new students to scope them out. It should be a lot of fun.” She came up beside me. “We’re invited.”

I shifted away as she invaded my space. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything. She inspected my clothes, mostly T-shirts and jeans. I hadn’t brought any dresses or skirts because I didn’t want to show off my legs. Nothing too formfitting either.

“You have to spruce up your wardrobe.” She lifted one of my long-sleeved tees.

Her purple tank top sparkled, and her white shorts rose up high on her thighs. Jo had been a late bloomer and had just recently come into her body. She had the boobs and the butt to drive the boys wild. Her stomach bulged out slightly from under her tank, but it wasn’t too noticeable—unlike me, who had lost so much weight that my stomach had started to cave in.

“Why would we be invited? We’re just seniors in high school,” I said, trying to keep my anxiety at bay. I hated staying back a year. I should be a college freshman and unpacking in my dorm room, not borrowing someone else’s bedroom and bed.

Trying to ignore the wave of despair encroaching, I nudged aside the piles of clothes, not caring if they wrinkled, and sat down on the bed. Jo joined me but with enough space between us that we didn’t touch.

“I’m allowed to go to the party because of Tris and Paul. They want you to come too. Their houses are very involved in the community, including at my high school, because some of their members graduated from there.” Jo turned toward me with one leg curved on the mattress. “Albee High has a zero-tolerance policy against bullying and an active LGBTQ group. The same goes for Maison University. You don’t have to worry—”

“I don’t have to worry how? Not being bullied or attacked because I’m gay?” Frustration churned in my stomach. Everyone assumed I was raped because I was gay. The real reason had been much simpler—jealousy. Byron had wanted what I wasn’t willing to give him, which I had freely given to his sister, Larissa. Even if I hadn’t been gay instead of straight, he would have still found a way to take what he wanted from me by force, after he’d caught me and Larissa naked at their pool house two weeks before he graduated high school. But the golden boy of Underwood High and future MLB first-round draft pick hadn’t suffered too much afterward, unlike me. At least he was in college on time—and with a paid ride, since his father, the honorable Judge Petrus, was an alumnus of his college and generous with donations to his alma mater.

Taken aback by my anger, Jo’s smile disappeared. “I’m just saying you don’t have to be afraid and hide your true self. Things will be different here. You’ll see.”

I bent over my knees and locked my hands behind my head. I wanted to scream. I had hidden the truth about myself for so long I didn’t know who I was. The problem wasn’t my sexual orientation. I’d found that side of me as soon as I hit puberty. But I’d lost myself the moment I started crushing on Larissa, letting her shape me into the type of person she wanted down to my hair and clothes. She would have fit in with Jo’s easy-breezy summer style, making me dress the same. But her influence didn’t matter any longer. I would find the true self I had lost so long ago, even if it meant wearing boring shirts and jeans in order to discover those missing parts of myself.

Jo set her hand on my back. I flinched but didn’t jerk away. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I ran my palms down my face, easing back the tension in my jaw. I also took a few deep breaths to calm the storm inside me. “You didn’t upset me. Sometimes things set me off. It’s a repercussion of what happened last year. But you don’t have to worry about finding me in some corner rocking and babbling. I’m past that.” I took her hand. “I’m sick of being a victim.”

She turned over my hand and traced the lines on my palm with her finger. “You staying here and going back to school proves you’re no one’s victim.”

“I have nightmares, really bad ones. Just a warning,” I said, now not minding her soft touch.

She nodded and twisted my hand from left to right. “I’ve been learning to read palms. I can read yours if you want.”

I pulled my hand away and stuck it under my leg. She laughed.

“I can’t figure out your secrets from reading your palm.” She checked the alarm clock near her bed. “We should go downstairs. Dinner’s probably ready.”

I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I would eat. The least I could do was sit there with the family and act normal. “Sounds good.”

Jo rose and stretched, giving me a strange look.

“What?”

She took one of her curls and brushed it over her mouth. “There’s one thing about you I don’t have to read your palm to figure out.”

“What’s that?” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“Your hair color is all wrong. You should go back to your original color.” She flicked away her curl.

I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t going through another makeover because someone else wanted to improve me. Never again.

If she expected a response from me, she never got one. Aunt Eloise called us down for dinner, saving me from commenting.