Read Chapter One
Ping! I raced into my bedroom, still dripping from the shower, trying to keep the towel pulled up around me. My hands fumbled as I grabbed the phone off the bed, nearly dropping it on the hardwood floor. It wouldn’t do to break another phone. If I were smart, I’d invest in a phone case, but that was me — too cheap to buy something practical. Better to waste my money on hair dye or another piercing, right, Mom?
I slid my index finger across the screen and tapped the notification. Up popped a message from Brad: Hey babe, whats up?
Relief and annoyance flooded through me in equal parts. Hey yourself. Y didnt u txt earlier?
I glared at the screen for the next minute, willing it to give an answer. It’s crazy how long sixty seconds can feel when you’re doing nothing but waiting and watching the clock. When no reply came, I sighed and tossed the phone back onto my bed. It was late — after eleven. Nana had gone to bed two hours ago and would be up before the rooster — if there were a rooster around here.
I returned to the bathroom, towel-dried my hair, swept it up in a messy bun, and put on an oversized T-shirt. Hope at hearing from my nearly nonexistent boyfriend died when the screen remained blank of notifications, so I turned the thing to silent and got into bed. I was done with today.
I woke to the smell of herbal tea and Nana’s yoga video in the living room. Groaning, I sat up in bed, and like the slave-to-my-phone that I was, I reached for the infernal thing, only to come away disappointed that there was no message from Brad. Maybe he was sleeping in. It was a Sunday, after all, and Sunday morning meant —
“Ari, are you up yet?” came Nana’s chipper voice up the stairs.
“Yeah, I’m up, Nana.”
“Are you coming to church?”
I groaned again. This habit was becoming old fast. In only four weeks, it was amazing in a bad way how predictable Sunday mornings had grown.
“No, Nana. I have to work today, remember?” And I wasn’t interested in sitting in some hard pew and listening about how God was still at work in the world today. Church was all fine and dandy for Christmas Eve and Easter, but that was about it.
“Well, all right. I still don’t like it that the mall is open on Sundays. When I was your age–”
“Yes, Nana, I know.” I stepped out into the hallway to find my nana dressed in workout clothes. Despite her age, she was remarkably flexible and in good shape. “When you were young, nothing was open on Sundays.”
Nana smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Well, I’d better finish up and get ready for church if I’m to be on time. There’s some turkey bacon and egg whites on the stove if you want. I got them for you.”
“Thanks.” I sighed as I slid into another pair of black pants and a simple black top. While we didn’t have uniforms for work, we pretty much had to wear all black. Accessorizing was the only way around it, but with my hair and my jewelry, I didn’t need to add anything else to my look, whatever I was going for.
I checked my phone again. Nothing.
The thought of Nana’s health food turned my stomach, so I did my makeup, went downstairs, and poured a bowl of bran flakes and — ugh — soy milk. She’d been kind to buy food she thought I’d eat, as she was vegan, but I wanted real bacon and the yolks. I brewed my own coffee, hoping again that Nana would invest in single-serve machine. She was only into herbal teas, claiming that caffeine was the antiChrist or something equally ridiculous and dramatic. I wondered what she would say if she knew I used to smoke until two years ago. That was one good thing about Brad — he’d convinced me to stop smoking, but it was only because he said it made my breath smell.
The phone followed me wherever I went. So when it pinged and vibrated as it sat on the kitchen table, I nearly jumped out of my seat.
Sorry babe, was busy with the fam ya no? N-e-way im back now if ya wanna catch up. 2nite?
I bit my lip. OK, 2nite works. Time?
Can u come here? 8ish?
Yeah sure, 8 it is. C u then.
It was pathetic that I did whatever Brad asked. Come here, babe. Okay, let me bend over backwards and do ten flips like an Olympic gymnast. You want sex 24/7? Sure, that’s what I’m made for, Brad. You want real Belgian chocolate from Belgium? Yep, I’ll just hop on a plane and get you some.
Plane. I sighed and pushed most of the uneaten cereal away. Standing, I tossed my phone into my overflowing purse, dumped the cereal down the drain, and left the bowl in the sink.
“Bye, Nana!” I called and was out the door because she could reply.
In the driveway sat my ten-year-old Focus. I dropped into the driver’s seat and turned the car on, cranked up the radio, and rolled the windows all the way down. On the drive to work, I mentally bemoaned my broken air conditioning, but every penny earned as the salon receptionist was supposed to go toward beauty school. Well, wait — the payout. I could afford to fix the AC after all. That was something, but I digress. I was only three months in with both my job and beauty school. If I stopped and was honest with myself for one minute, I would have to say the future of doing hair was looking less appealing by the day. When I pulled into the parking lot, I sighed. Plenty of time to figure out my life, right? Lots of young people still lived at home or were in college.
The sun was already beating down on me as I left the car in the mostly empty lot and crossed the asphalt to the side entrance. The mall wouldn’t be opening for another half hour, so at least I could avoid the crowds. A few elderly people walked the inside of the mall before it opened. I nodded and smiled politely at a few. I liked old people. Most of them were kind like Nana, but even the ones who were grumpy had a certain sort of charm. I figured they could act however they wanted because they’d lived long enough and had been through enough to do whatever they wished.
When I reached the salon, Gwen scowled at me as she stood behind the desk. Her eyes shifted to the clock.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re two minutes late.”
“Really? You care about two freaking minutes?” I wanted to ask. Instead, I painted on a plastic smile like many of the workers and said, “My apologies, Gwen. It won’t happen again.”
As I walked past her to punch in, she said, “It better not. And I had better not see you on your phone again, either, Arianna.”
Or what? You’ll fire me?
In the back room, I exchanged hellos with a few of the beauticians. Kelly, a girl about my age, with platinum blonde hair and trendy glasses, said, “Hey, Arianna. Some of us are thinking of going out for drinks after work. You wanna join us?”
Kelly was nice, the sort of person who tried to make friends with everyone. When I gazed at the other girls and the two guys standing around her, I knew I wouldn’t be welcome. I didn’t fit in with their idea of beauty.
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve got a date tonight.” That wasn’t completely untrue, if you could call going to Brad’s house a date.
“Maybe another time.” Kelly smiled and looked at the girl next to her — Brandy, I think.
“Yeah, maybe. I gotta get to the desk. Gwen, you know…”
Kelly laughed. “Yeah, don’t I know it.”
As I walked away, I heard the murmurings of the crowd as the door shut. I took up my place at the front desk and turned on the computer, looking over the appointments for the day. Summertime and weekends were busy for the salon. Every hairdresser was booked. The spa was also packed to the brim. That didn’t bode well for walk-ins. I wanted to take down the sign that claimed “Walk-ins Welcome.” How many times did I need to hear, “What do you mean you can’t fit me in?” or “Why do you say ‘walk-ins welcome’ if it isn’t true?” or “All I want is a lip wax. That’ll take five minutes.”
No point in belaboring the reality of the situation. I pulled out my compact and checked over my makeup and hair. It wouldn’t do to frighten the customers too much.
Gwen was upon me again. “You know, Arianna, while we do encourage creativity and differences in style here, I must say that your facial piercings are, shall we say, distracting.”
“Why? Has somebody complained?”
“Not as such, no, but this alternative look you’ve got going isn’t really the image we wish to project. I would prefer you remove them.”
“I can’t. Well, at least not some of them. They’re too new. The holes will close up.”
“Are you saying you’re planning on keeping those– those things?”
“So what if I am?”
Gwen leaned on the desk and lowered her voice. “Look, I know you’ve, um, been through a lot recently, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but you can’t keep that face of metal.”
“I thought you just preferred I remove them?”
“This isn’t coming from me. I don’t care one way or the other if you want to look like a pincushion, but Jeanine herself said it wasn’t appropriate.”
“I see. And if I don’t remove them?”
“That isn’t up for discussion.”
Gwen turned away, leaving a chilly breeze in her wake. I glared at the back of her too-perfect figure. Then the first customer came in, and I had to do my job. Before I knew it, I was busy checking people in and out, making reminder calls, and answering the phone. I worked until 5:00 and was glad to be back in the stifling heat in my car a few minutes later.
I turned on the car and down went the windows. As much as I wanted to sit there and just mentally detox for the next hour, I couldn’t. Nana would be expecting me for dinner. Ever since moving in with her, I think she liked having someone to cook for besides herself. While her tofu creations and endless vegetables weren’t my first choice, I forced the food down every evening.
On the drive home, I passed McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Both sounded better than whatever tasteless meal was waiting for me at home.
When I arrived home, Nana was upon me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “How was work, Ari?”
I waved her off. “Fine.”
“Anything exciting happen?”
“You know, talking to you most of the time is like talking to your mother when she was a teenager. I was lucky to get one or two words out of her whenever she came home from school.”
The words were out of her mouth before she must have realized what she said. One look at my face, and Nana’s face softened. “I’m sorry. Ari, you do look like your mother, though.”
“Do you need any help?” Distractions worked wonders.
“No, everything’s on the table.”
I dropped into my usual seat. “You know, Nana, maybe I could do your hair one day soon. I’m getting decent at dyes.”
Nana chuckled. “Thanks, but no thanks, dear. I’ll stick to my natural color.”
I wondered if she thought she would come out with bright red hair like mine, but didn’t push it. “Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
Nana laughed more. “I will be sure to do that, but I don’t imagine I’ll be changing my mind, Ari. Do you have any big plans for tonight?”
“I thought I’d head over to Brad’s house. He’s back from vacation.”
“Oh? Where did they go again?”
“Florida. Some west coast beach. You know his dad owns that company and goes on a trip every year. They take the sales guys who had the most sales last year, but Mr. Watson always takes the whole family.”
“Well, tell Bradley I said hello and not to be a stranger. I wouldn’t mind having him over for more than five minutes. All I ever see of that boy is the back of his head as he goes out the door or waits outside for you.”
“I’ll do that, Nana.”
The sad truth was that Brad wanted about as much to do with my nana and her house as a mouse does with a cat. He hated that she called him “Bradley.” He certainly wouldn’t touch her cooking.
We finished up dinner, and I helped Nana clean up. Once the dishwasher was loaded, I went to my room to change out of my stinky work clothes. I slipped into a pair of faded jean shorts and a dark red tank top. Nana was sitting in the living room watching the evening news as I slid into my sandals and kissed her goodbye.
“Don’t wait up for me,” I called and was out the door.
Five minutes later, I pulled into Brad’s driveway — well, his parents’ driveway. While Nana lived in the same cozy bungalow her mom and dad had owned, Brad’s neighborhood boasted mansions in the true sense. I parked my dented up, old car in their wrap-around driveway and stepped out to the sound of the fountain spray. Every bit of landscaping was sculpted and the lawn perfectly manicured. I guessed if Nana could afford to have someone do her yard, it would look just as nice. Nice was all it was. I couldn’t call it beautiful, for it was too perfect. Just like everything on the outside of that three-storey brick house was too perfect. The mansion hailed back three generations of Watson men. Brad was supposed to be in the process of being groomed to be the next Mr. Bradley W. Watson and taking over his dad’s company when he retired. They made golf equipment.
I pushed the doorbell. Voices inside were arguing, but they were muffled. Heavy footsteps mixed with lighter, faster ones. A minute later, one of Brad’s younger sisters, Dora, answered the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Hi, Dora. It’s me, Arianna. Is Brad around?”
“Arianna? Wait.” Dora, who could have been Mandy Snyder’s twin, studied me in the dying sunlight. “I didn’t recognize you. What’s up with your hair?”
“Change, Dora. Change is good. Now, is Brad there?”
Brad appeared at Dora’s side a second later and bumped her out of the way with his side. “Move it or lose it, sis.”
Dora scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She walked away.
“Sorry about her,” he said, looking at me.
I half-smiled. “Sure. Um, can I come in?”
“I thought we’d walk outside. It’s a nice night.” Before I could say anything, Brad stepped outside and closed the door.
“Okay,” I said, drawn-out.
One of the things that annoyed me about Brad was that he made almost all the decisions in our relationship. He didn’t run anything past me and just assumed I’d be okay with whatever he picked. I didn’t mind at first, but after two years of this, it was getting tiresome.
I also had a strong hunch that Brad’s family was fighting — with words, but fighting nonetheless. Sitting in his house wasn’t so perfect. Most of the time, his two younger sisters, parents, and Brad hardly said two words to each other. Family meals were uncomfortable affairs whenever I attended. They had someone to cook for them and serve the food and then clean it up, but I didn’t think anyone could clean up their family’s problems. Everyone was too busy staring at their phones, or his dad was on a conference call or the computer, usually locked away in his home office. Mrs. Watson often holed up in her bedroom, where she chain-smoked and binge-watched Netflix. If she wasn’t in her room, she was out spending the Watson fortune on more stuff they didn’t need.
When the family did interact, voices raised by the decibel within seconds of starting. I wondered if the only reason Brad’s parents were still married was because of Mr. Watson’s empire and fat checkbook.
“So, uh, how was your trip?” I asked.
Brad snorted. “Oh, a blast. Mom pretty much spent the time drinking with the sales guys’ wives or girlfriends while Dad did likewise with his employees. My sisters laid out on the beach for hours and flirted with a bunch of idiot college guys.”
“What did you do?”
“Had to go with the old man to some of the dinners, just to keep up appearances, you know. The drinks aren’t bad, but those guys all have their heads so far up my father’s ass, each one’s nose is browner than the one before.”
“Sounds like a good time.”
“My dad’s an idiot. He thinks I’m gonna follow in his footsteps.”
“Hell no. Why should I?”
“So, what do you wanna do?”
“I dunno. We’re young, right? We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, Arianna.”
Our whole lives, exactly. And what was Brad doing with his but milking his parents? He barely finished college this past spring, taking two extra years to get his degree in business. He had yet to hold down any sort of job for more than a few weeks. Most of the time, he just lazed about his house and played games on his phone. Then, again look at me. I wasn’t exactly the role model for finishing school with a superior grade point average and taking on the world as a young professional-something or other. The thing was, I wanted something better with my life, but Brad didn’t seem to care. It was easy to throw away time and effort when you had all the money in the world. Yet again, I now had money from the payout from the crash and from my inheritance, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Brad had been raised with riches. I was all new money. But going back to video games…
“You’re a genius when it comes to designing video games, Brad. Why don’t you do something with that?”
“My parents think it’s a waste of time. Yeah, maybe I’ll do that, but I’m happy to live at home right now.”
“Really? You’re happy to live with your family arguing?”
“Well, not really happy about that, but I’ve got a big enough room and my own bathroom. I can tune them out whenever I wish. Just slip on my headphones and boom, there ya go.”
“Hmm, well, it seems like it can’t last forever.”
If we were more romantic, we might have been strolling through the Watson gardens holding hands. Instead, we’d just spent the past few minutes standing next to my car. Brad’s arms hung loosely at his sides, and mine were crossed over my less than impressive chest.
“I’m not saying it will.” Brad looked at me. I mean, really look at me for the first time since stepping outside. “What’s the matter?”
I dropped my pretense as a long sigh brought my arms to my sides. “Why didn’t you text, Brad? Or call? It would’ve been nice to hear your voice for maybe five minutes this past week.”
Brad shrugged. “Busy, you know? I told you–”
“Yeah, I got the part about having to hang out with Daddy and all his cronies, but what were you doing that was so important that you couldn’t take, I dunno, five seconds to text me a simple ‘Hi, how are you?’”
Now I’d gone and done it. Brad’s mouth twisted as he narrowed his eyes. I’d seen that look a hundred times whenever he started up with one of his family members. I knew what was coming.
“Arianna, what the hell? I told you I was busy. It was a week, a lousy, frickin’ week. What, do you need to keep tabs on me like one of those possessive girlfriends? You know I hate that.”
“Brad, I never said that. Don’t put words in my mouth. But now that you bring it up, I do have to wonder. You said your sisters were all over a bunch of guys in Florida. What’s to say you didn’t find some hot girl of your own while you were down there?”
“What? You’re serious?” Brad scoffed. “You’re paranoid, you know that? Delusional.”
“Actually, I think it’s a completely reasonable thing. What are we doing here, Brad? Because I sure the hell don’t know anymore. It feels like all we ever do is start fighting if I speak up to you. You want everything your way. You’ve got your family eating off your pinky finger, and you don’t care at all about what you’re doing to them or with your life.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Brad’s face was turning red, aided by the setting sun.
“What it means is, haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve said this past month? You turned me conveniently off when you went on your trip because you didn’t wanna hear it. I just lost my parents, Brad! Have you been living with your head in a hole?”
“God, Arianna, I’m sorry, okay? What do you want me to do, hold you and let you cry your eyes out?”
“Yes, actually, if that’s what I need.”
“Well, no, but maybe I did.”
“I went to the funeral. I was there.”
“Yeah, you were there, but you weren’t there for me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You complained that you had to miss that stupid NBA draft because the funeral fell on the same day, and then you turned your nose up at the food at the dinner afterward. You kept checking your phone for updates on the draft the whole time. It was like my parents dying was a freaking inconvenience to you.”
“Jeez, sorry!” Brad held his hands up. “I’m not good at that sorta stuff. You know that. I hate funerals.”
“Well, no one likes them, but you go to pay your respect. You show up to support those you care about. Do you care at all about us anymore? Because I’ve gotta be honest, I don’t know the last time we even said ‘I love you’ to each other.”
“Is this because I didn’t send you a freakin’ text?”
I groaned, caught between wanting to hit myself in the head or deck Brad. “It’s more than that, much more. You’re clueless if you think you have all the time in the world, Bradley. The way you treat your parents, the way you’re wasting your life — you’re lucky to be able to have parents, to have the time to waste. You know what it took me to realize that I was throwing my life away? My parents died, Brad. They aren’t coming back. And now I think I’m finally realizing that I can’t just keep going on like I’ve been. Because…because if I do, I’m gonna die, too.”
“You suicidal or something?”
Tears of frustration leaked from my eyes. “I’m sorry, Brad, but I just can’t do this anymore. I didn’t come here tonight thinking it was over, but standing here in front of you now, I know it is. Whatever girl you date next, be better to her than you were to me. Don’t just expect her to come running to you whenever you wanna get some. Take her to the freaking beach to see the sunset. Buy her cheesy cards and cheap flowers. Just don’t take her for granted.”
“You breaking up with me?” Brad sounded incredulous, not the least bit heartbroken.
“Yes, Bradley Watson. I’m saying goodbye. You know, Dora noticed my hair. You didn’t say a word. You never did, though, did you? You never noticed me.”
I got into my car and left Brad standing there without looking back. As I drove away, I hated every tear that fell. Why was I crying over this? Brad was no loss. I had chosen this. Finally, I had taken control in a relationship that had been falling apart for months. That should’ve felt liberating, and yet, as I drove away, all I hoped was that Brad felt a tenth of the brokenness I was.