×

Beach Read / (by Emily Henry, 2020) -

/

Beach Read /    (by Emily Henry, 2020) -

Beach Read / (by Emily Henry, 2020) -

, , . . . , . , . , , . - , . . . , , , , , . ?

:
: 381
:
Beach Read / (by Emily Henry, 2020) -
:
2020
:
Emily Henry
:
Julia Whelan
:
:
, ,
:
upper-intermediate
:
10:13:05
:
64 kbps
:
mp3, pdf, doc

Beach Read / :

.doc (Word) emily_henry_-_beach_read.doc [1.17 Mb] (c: 9) .
.pdf emily_henry_-_beach_read.pdf [1.63 Mb] (c: 8) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Beach Read

:

( , ).


1 The House I HAVE A FATAL flaw. I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when Im writingbuilding my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and cant let go of, even when it stops serving them. Maybe, for example, you didnt have much control over your life as a kid. So, to avoid disappointment, you learned never to ask yourself what you truly wanted. And it worked for a long time. Only now, upon realizing you didnt get what you didnt know you wanted, youre barreling down the highway in a midlife-crisis-mobile with a suitcase full of cash and a man named Stan in your trunk. Maybe your fatal flaw is that you dont use turn signals. Or maybe, like me, youre a hopeless romantic. You just cant stop telling yourself the story. The one about your own life, complete with melodramatic soundtrack and golden light lancing through car windows. It started when I was twelve. My parents sat me down to tell me the news. Mom had gotten her first diagnosissuspicious cells in her left breastand she told me not to worry so many times I suspected Id be grounded if she caught me at it. My mom was a do-er, a laugher, an optimist, not a worrier, but I could tell she was terrified, and so I was too, frozen on the couch, unsure how to say anything without making things worse. But then my bookish homebody of a father did something unexpected. He stood and grabbed our handsone of Moms, one of mineand said, You know what we need to get these bad feelings out? We need to dance! Our suburb had no clubs, just a mediocre steak house with a Friday night cover band, but Mom lit up like hed just suggested taking a private jet to the Copacabana. She wore her buttery yellow dress and some hammered metal earrings that twinkled when she moved. Dad ordered twenty-year-old Scotch for them and a Shirley Temple for me, and the three of us twirled and bobbed until we were dizzy, laughing, tripping all over. We laughed until we could barely stand, and my famously reserved father sang along to Brown Eyed Girl like the whole room wasnt watching us. And then, exhausted, we piled into the car and drove home through the quiet, Mom and Dad holding tight to each others hands between the seats, and I tipped my head against the car window and, watching the streetlights flicker across the glass, thought, Its going to be okay. We will always be okay. And that was the moment I realized: when the world felt dark and scary, love could whisk you off to go dancing; laughter could take some of the pain away; beauty could punch holes in your fear. I decided then that my life would be full of all three. Not just for my own benefit, but for Moms, and for everyone else around me. There would be purpose. There would be beauty. There would be candlelight and Fleetwood Mac playing softly in the background. The point is, I started telling myself a beautiful story about my life, about fate and the way things work out, and by twenty-eight years old, my story was perfect. Perfect (cancer-free) parents who called several times a week, tipsy on wine or each others company. Perfect (spontaneous, multilingual, six foot three) boyfriend who worked in the ER and knew how to make coq au vin. Perfect shabby chic apartment in Queens. Perfect job writing romantic novelsinspired by perfect parents and perfect boyfriendfor Sandy Lowe Books. Perfect life. But it was just a story, and when one gaping plot hole appeared, the whole thing unraveled. Thats how stories work. Now, at twenty-nine, I was miserable, broke, semi-homeless, very single, and pulling up to a gorgeous lake house whose very existence nauseated me. Grandly romanticizing my life had stopped serving me, but my fatal flaw was still riding shotgun in my dinged-up Kia Soul, narrating things as they happened: January Andrews stared out the car window at the angry lake beating up on the dusky shore. She tried to convince herself that coming here hadnt been a mistake. It was definitely a mistake, but I had no better option. You didnt turn down free lodging when you were broke. I parked on the street and stared up at the oversized cottages facade, its gleaming windows and fairy tale of a porch, the shaggy beach grass dancing in the warm breeze. I checked the address in my GPS against the handwritten one hanging from the house key. This was it, all right. For a minute, I stalled, like maybe a world-ending asteroid would take me out before I was forced to go inside. Then I took a deep breath and got out, wrestling my overstuffed suitcase from the back seat along with the cardboard box full of gin handles. I pushed a fistful of dark hair out of my eyes to study the cornflower blue shingles and snow-white trim. Just pretend youre at an Airbnb. Immediately, an imaginary Airbnb listing ran through my head: Three-bedroom, three-bath lakeside cottage brimming with charm and proof your father was an asshole and your life has been a lie. I started up the steps cut into the grassy hillside, blood rushing through my ears like fire hoses and legs wobbling, anticipating the moment the hellmouth would open and the world would drop out from under me. That already happened. Last year. And it didnt kill you, so neither will this. On the porch, every sensation in my body heightened. The tingling in my face, the twist in my stomach, the sweat prickling along my neck. I balanced the box of gin against my hip and slipped the key into the lock, a part of me hoping it would jam. That all this would turn out to be an elaborate practical joke Dad had set up for us before he died. Or, better yet, he wasnt actually dead. Hed jump out from behind the bushes and scream, Gotcha! You didnt really think I had a secret second life, did you? You couldnt possibly think I had a second house with some woman other than your mother? The key turned effortlessly. The door swung inward. The house was silent. An ache went through me. The same one Id felt at least once a day since I got Moms call about the stroke and heard her sob those words. Hes gone, Janie. No Dad. Not here. Not anywhere. And then the second pain, the knife twisting: The father you knew never existed anyway. Id never really had him. Just like Id never really had my ex Jacques or his coq au vin. It was just a story Id been telling myself. From now on, it was the ugly truth or nothing. I steeled myself and stepped inside. My first thought was that the ugly truth wasnt super ugly. My dads love nest had an open floor plan: a living room that spilled into a funky, blue-tiled kitchen and homey breakfast nook, the wall of windows just beyond overlooking a dark-stained deck. If Mom had owned this place, everything wouldve been a mix of creamy, calming neutrals. The bohemian room Id stepped into wouldve been more at home in Jacquess and my old place than my parents. I felt a little queasy imagining Dad here, among these things Mom never wouldve picked out: the folksy hand-painted breakfast table, the dark wooden bookshelves, the sunken couch covered in mismatched pillows. There was no sign of the version of him that Id known. My phone rang in my pocket and I set the box on the granite countertop to answer the call. Hello? It came out weak and raspy. How is it? the voice on the other end said immediately. Is there a sex dungeon? Shadi? I guessed. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder as I unscrewed the cap from one of my gin bottles, taking a swig to fortify myself. It honestly worries me that Im the only person who might call you to ask that, Shadi answered. Youre the only person who even knows about the Love Shack, I pointed out. I am not the only one who knows about it, Shadi argued. Technically true. While Id found out about my fathers secret lake house at his funeral last year, Mom had been aware much longer. Fine, I said. Youre the only person I told about it. Anyway, give me a second. I just got here. Literally? Shadi was breathing hard, which meant she was walking to a shift at the restaurant. Since we kept such different hours, most of our calls happened when she was on her way into work. Metaphorically, I said. Literally, Ive been here for ten minutes, but I only just feel that I have arrived. So wise, Shadi said. So deep. Shh, I said. Im taking it all in. Check for the sex dungeon! Shadi hurried to say, as if I were hanging up on her. I was not. I was simply holding the phone to my ear, holding my breath, holding my racing heart in my chest, as I scanned my fathers second life. And there, just when I could convince myself Dad couldnt possibly have spent time here, I spotted something framed on the wall. A clipping of a New York Times Best Sellers list from three years ago, the same one hed positioned over the fireplace at home. There I was, at number fifteen, the bottom slot. And there, three slots above mein a sick twist of fatewas my college rival, Gus (though now he went by Augustus, because Serious Man) and his highbrow debut novel The Revelatories. It had stayed on the list for five weeks (not that I was counting (I was absolutely counting)). Well? Shadi prompted. What do you think? I turned and my eyes caught on the mandala tapestry hanging over the couch. Im led to wonder if Dad smoked weed. I spun toward the windows at the side of the house, which aligned almost perfectly with the neighbors, a design flaw Mom would never have overlooked when house shopping. But this wasnt her house, and I could clearly see the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the neighbors study. Oh, Godmaybe its a grow house, not a love shack! Shadi sounded delighted. You shouldve read the letter, January. Its all been a misunderstanding. Your dads leaving you the family business. That Woman was his business partner, not his mistress. How bad was it that I wished she were right? Either way, Id fully intended to read the letter. Id just been waiting for the right time, hoping the worst of my anger would settle and those last words from Dad would be comforting. Instead, a full year had passed and the dread I felt at the thought of opening the envelope grew every day. It was so unfair, that he should get the last word and Id have no way to reply. To scream or cry or demand more answers. Once Id opened it, thered be no going back. That would be it. The final goodbye. So until further notice, the letter was living a happy, if solitary, life in the bottom of the gin box Id brought with me from Queens. Its not a grow house, I told Shadi and slid open the back door to step onto the deck. Unless the weeds in the basement. No way, Shadi argued. Thats where the sex dungeon is. Lets stop talking about my depressing life, I said. Whats new with you? You mean the Haunted Hat, Shadi said. If only she had fewer than four roommates in her shoebox apartment in Chicago, then maybe Id be staying with her now. Not that I was capable of getting anything done when I was with Shadi. And my financial situation was too dire not to get something done. I had to finish my next book in this rent-free hell. Then maybe I could afford my own Jacques-free place. If the Haunted Hat is what you want to talk about, I said, then yes. Spill. Still hasnt spoken to me. Shadi sighed wistfully. But I can, like, sense him looking at me when were both in the kitchen. Because we have a connection. Are you at all worried that your connection isnt with the guy whos wearing the antique porkpie hat, but perhaps with the ghost of the hats original owner? What will you do if you realize youve fallen in love with a ghost? Um. Shadi thought for a minute. I guess Id have to update my Tinder bio. A breeze rippled off the water at the bottom of the hill, ruffling my brown waves across my shoulders, and the setting sun shot golden spears of light over everything, so bright and hot I had to squint to see the wash of oranges and reds it cast across the beach. If this were just some house Id rented, it would be the perfect place to write the adorable love story Id been promising Sandy Lowe Books for months. Shadi, I realized, had been talking. More about the Haunted Hat. His name was Ricky, but we never called him that. We always spoke of Shadis love life in code. There was the older man who ran the amazing seafood restaurant (the Fish Lord), and then there was some guy wed called Mark because he looked like some other, famous Mark, and now there was this new coworker, a bartender who wore a hat every day that Shadi loathed and yet could not resist. I snapped back into the conversation as Shadi was saying, Fourth of July weekend? Can I visit then? Thats more than a month away. I wanted to argue that I wouldnt even be here by then, but I knew it wasnt true. It would take me at least all summer to write a book, empty the house, and sell both, so I could (hopefully) be catapulted back into relative comfort. Not in New York, but somewhere less expensive. I imagined Duluth was affordable. Mom would never visit me there, but we hadnt done much visiting this past year anyway, apart from my three-day trip home for Christmas. Shed dragged me to four yoga classes, three crowded juice bars, and a Nutcracker performance starring some kid I didnt know, like if we were alone for even a second, the topic of Dad would arise and wed burst into flames. All my life, my friends had been jealous of my relationship with her. How often and freely (or so I thought) we talked, how much fun we had together. Now our relationship was the worlds least competitive game of phone tag. Id gone from having two loving parents and a live-in boyfriend to basically just having Shadi, my much-too-long-distance best friend. The one blessing of moving from New York to North Bear Shores, Michigan, was that I was closer to her place in Chicago. Fourth of Julys too far off, I complained. Youre only three hours away. Yeah, and I dont know how to drive. Then you should probably give that license back, I said. Believe me, Im waiting for it to expire. Im going to feel so free. I hate when people think Im able to drive just because, legally, I am. Shadi was a terrible driver. She screamed whenever she turned left. Besides, you know how scheduling off is in the industry. Im lucky my boss said I could have Fourth of July. For all I know, hes expecting a blow job now. No way. Blow jobs are for major holidays. What youve got on your hands is a good old-fashioned foot job quid pro quo. I took another sip of gin, then turned from the end of the deck and nearly yelped. On the deck ten feet to the right of mine, the back of a head of curly brown hair peeked over a lawn chair. I silently prayed the man was asleepthat I wouldnt have to spend an entire summer next door to someone whod heard me shout good old-fashioned foot job. As if hed read my mind, he sat forward and grabbed the bottle of beer from his patio table, took a swig, and sat back. So true. I wont even have to take my Crocs off, Shadi was saying. Anyway, I just got to work. But let me know if its drugs or leather in the basement. I turned my back to the neighbors deck. Im not going to check until you visit. Rude, Shadi said. Leverage, I said. Love you. Love you more, she insisted and hung up. I turned to face the curly head, half waiting for him to acknowledge me, half debating whether I was obligated to introduce myself. I hadnt known any of my neighbors in New York well, but this was Michigan, and from Dads stories about growing up in North Bear Shores, I fully expected to have to lend this man sugar at some point (note: must buy sugar). I cleared my throat and pasted on my attempt at a neighborly smile. The man sat forward for another swig of beer, and I called across the gap, Sorry for disturbing you! He waved one hand vaguely, then turned the page of whatever book was in his lap. Whats disturbing about foot jobs as a form of currency? he drawled in a husky, bored voice. I grimaced as I searched for a replyany reply. Old January would have known what to say, but my mind was as blank as it was every time I opened Microsoft Word. Okay, so maybe Id become a bit of a hermit this past year. Maybe I wasnt entirely sure what Id spent the last year doing, since it wasnt visiting Mom and it wasnt writing, and it wasnt charming the socks off my neighbors. Anyway, I called, Im living here now. As if hed read my thoughts, he gave a disinterested wave and grumbled, Let me know if you need any sugar. But he managed to make it sound more like, Never speak to me again unless you notice my house is on fire, and even then, listen for sirens first. So much for Midwestern hospitality. At least in New York, our neighbors had brought us cookies when we moved in. (Theyd been gluten-free and laced with LSD, but it was the thought that counted.) Or if you need directions to the nearest Sexual Fetish Depot, the Grump added. Heat flared through my cheeks, a flush of embarrassment and anger. The words were out before I could reconsider: Ill just wait for your car to pull out and follow. He laughed, a surprised, rough sound, but still didnt deign to face me. Lovely to meet you, I added sharply, and turned to hurry back through the sliding glass doors to the safety of the house, where I would quite possibly have to hide all summer. Liar, I heard him grumble before I snapped the door shut. 2 The Funeral I WASNT READY TO look through the rest of the house, so I settled down at the table to write. As usual, the blank document stared accusingly at me, refusing to fill itself with words or characters, no matter how long I stared back. Heres the thing about writing Happily Ever Afters: it helps if you believe in them. Heres the thing about me: I did until the day of my fathers funeral. My parents, my family, had been through so much already, and somehow we always came through it stronger, with more love and laughter than before. There was the brief separation when I was a kid and Mom started feeling like shed lost her identity, started staring out windows like she might see herself out there living life and figure out what she needed to do next. There was the kitchen-dancing, hand-holding, and forehead-kissing that followed when Dad moved back in. There was Moms first cancer diagnosis and the wildly expensive celebratory dinner when she kicked its ass, eating like we were millionaires, laughing until their overpriced wine and my Italian soda sprayed from our respective noses, like we could afford to waste it, like the medical debt didnt exist. And then the second bout of cancer and the new lease on life after the mastectomy: the pottery classes, ballroom dancing classes, yoga classes, Moroccan cooking classes that my parents filled their schedules with, like they were determined to pack as much life into as little time as possible. Long weekend trips to see me and Jacques in New York, rides on the subway during which Mom begged me to stop regaling her with stories of our pothead neighbors Sharyn and Karyn (not related; regularly slid informational Flat Earth pamphlets under our door) because she was afraid she was going to pee herself, all while Dad debunked the flat Earth theory under his breath for Jacques. Trial. Happy ending. Tribulation. Happy ending. Chemo. Happy ending. And then, right in the middle of the happiest ending yet, he was just gone. I was just standing there, in the foyer of his and Moms Episcopalian church, in a sea of black-clad people whispering useless words, feeling like Id sleepwalked there, barely able to recall the flight, the ride to the airport, packing. Remembering, for the millionth time in the last three days, that he was gone. Mom had slipped into the bathroom, and I was alone when I saw her: the only woman I didnt recognize. Dressed in a gray dress and leather sandals, a crocheted shawl tied around her shoulders and her white hair wind-tossed. She was staring right at me. After a beat, she swept toward me, and for some reason, my stomach bottomed out. As if my body knew first that things were about to change. This strangers presence at Dads funeral was going to wrench my life off track as much as his death had. She smiled hesitantly as she stopped in front of me. She smelled like vanilla and citrus. Hello, January. Her voice was breathy, and her fingers twirled anxiously through the fringe on her shawl. Ive heard so much about you. Behind her, the bathroom door swung open and Mom walked out. She stopped short, frozen with an unfamiliar expression. Recognition? Horror? She didnt want the two of us to talk. What did that mean? Im an old friend of your fathers, the woman said. He means meant a lot to me. Ive known him all my life, just about. For quite some time, we were thick as thieves, andhe never shut up about you. Her laugh tried for easy, missed it by a light-year. Im sorry, she said, hoarse. I promised I wouldnt cry, but I felt like Id been shoved off a building, like the dropping would never end. Old friend. That was what she said. Not lover or mistress. But I knew, from the way she was cryingsome funhouse mirror version of Moms tears during the funeral. I recognized the look on her face as the same one Id seen on mine this morning while I tapped concealer under my eyes. Dads death had irreparably broken her. She fished something out of her pocket. An envelope with my name scrawled across it, a key resting atop it. A tab hung from the key with an address scribbled in the same unmistakable handwriting as the chicken scratch on the envelope. Dads. He wanted you to have this, she said. Its yours. She pushed it into my palm, holding on for a second. Its a beautiful house, right on Lake Michigan, she blurted. Youll love it. He always said that you would. And the letter is for your birthday. You can open it then, or whenever. My birthday. My birthday wasnt for another seven months. My dad would not be there for my birthday. My dad was gone. Behind the woman, Mom unfroze, moving toward us with a murderous expression. Sonya, she hissed. And then I knew the rest. That while Id been in the dark, Mom had not. I closed the Word document, like clicking that little X in the corner would shut out the memories too. Looking for a distraction, I scrolled through my inbox to the latest email from my agent, Anya. It had arrived two days ago, before I left New York, and Id found increasingly ridiculous reasons for putting off opening it. Packing. Moving things into storage. Driving. Trying to drink as much water as I could while peeing. Writing, heavy on the scare quotes. Drunk. Hungry. Breathing. Anya had a reputation for being tough, a bulldog, on the publishers end of things, but on the writers end, she was something like Miss Honey, the sweet teacher from Matilda, mashed together with a sexy witch. You always desperately wanted to please her, both because you had the sense that no one had loved and admired you so purely before and because you suspected she could sic a herd of pythons on you, if she so chose. I drained my third gin and tonic of the night, opened the email, and read: Helloooo, you beautiful and miraculous jellyfish, angelic artist, money-maker mine, I know things have been SO crazy on your end, but Sandys writing againreally wants to know how the manuscripts coming slash whether it will still be ready by the end of the summer. As ever, Im more than happy to hop on the phone (or instant message, or a Pegasuss back as need be) to help you brainstorm/hash out plot details/WHATEVER it takes to help bring more of your beautiful words and unparalleled swoon into the world! Five books in five years was a tall order for anyone (even someone with your spectacular talent), but I do believe weve reached a breaking point with SLB, and its time to grin and birth it, if at all possible. xox, Anya Grin and birth it. I suspected itd be easier to deliver a fully formed human baby out of my uterus at the end of this summer than to write and sell a new book. I decided that if I went to sleep now, I could pop out of bed early and crank out a few thousand words. I hesitated outside the downstairs bedroom. There was no way to be sure which beds Dad and That Woman had partaken of. I was in a funhouse of geriatric adultery. It mightve been funny, if I hadnt lost the ability to find anything funny in the last year spent penning rom-coms that ended with a bus driver falling asleep and the whole cast going off a cliff. Its SUPER interesting, I always imagined Anya saying, if I were to actually send in one of these drafts. I mean, I would read your GROCERY list and laugh-cry doing it. But its not a Sandy Lowe book. For now, more swoon and less doom, babycakes. I was going to need help sleeping here. I poured myself another GandT and closed my computer. The house had gotten hot and stuffy, so I stripped to my underwear, then circled the first floor opening windows before draining my glass and flopping onto the couch. It was even more comfortable than it looked. Damn That Woman with her beautifully eclectic tastes. It was also, I decided, too low to the ground for a man with a bad back to be climbing on and off of, which meant it was probably not used for S-E-X. Though Dad hadnt always had a bad back. When I was a kid, hed take me out on the boat most weekends that he was home, and from what Id seen, boating was 90 percent bending over to tie and untie knots and 10 percent staring into the sun, your arms thrown wide to let the wind race through your swishy jacket and The ache rose with a vengeance in my chest. Those early mornings, on the man-made lake thirty minutes from our house, had always been just for the two of us, usually the morning after he got back from a trip. Sometimes I didnt even know he was home yet. Id just awake to my still-dark room, Dad tickling my nose, whisper-singing the Dean Martin song hed named me for: Its June in January, because Im in love Id jolt awake, heart trilling, knowing it meant a day on the boat, the two of us. Now I wondered if all those precious chilly mornings had been literal guilt trips, time for him to readjust to life with Mom, after a weekend with That Woman. I should save the storytelling for my manuscript. I pushed it all out of my mind and pulled a throw pillow over my face, sleep swallowing me like a biblical whale. When I jerked awake, the room was dark, and there was music blasting through it. I stood and ambled, dazed and gin-fogged, toward the knife block in the kitchen. I hadnt heard of a serial killer who began each murder by rousing the victim with R.E.M.s Everybody Hurts but I really couldnt rule out the possibility. As I moved toward the kitchen, the music dimmed, and I realized it was coming from the other side of the house. From the Grumps house. I looked toward the glowing numbers on the stove. Twelve thirty at night, and my neighbor was blasting a song most often heard in dated dramedies wherein the protagonist walks home alone, hunched against the rain. I stormed toward the window and thrust my upper body through it. The Grumps windows were open too, and I could see a swath of bodies lit up in the kitchen, holding glasses and mugs and bottles, leaning lazy heads on shoulders, looping arms around necks as the whole group sang along with fervor. It was a raging party. So apparently the Grump didnt hate all people, just me. I cupped my mouth around my hands and yelled out the window, EXCUSE ME! I tried twice more with no response, then slammed the window closed and circled the first floor, snapping the others shut. When I was finished, it still sounded pretty much like R.E.M. was playing a concert on my coffee table. And then, for a beautiful moment, the song stopped and the sounds of the party, laughter and chatter and bottles clinking, dipped to a static murmur. And then it started again. The same song. Even louder. Oh, God. As I pulled my sweatpants back on, I contemplated the advantages of calling the police with a noise complaint. On the one hand, I might maintain plausible deniability with my neighbor. (Oh, twas not I who called the constable! I am but a young woman of nine and twenty, not a crotchety old spinster who loathes laughter, fun, song, and dance!) On the other, ever since Id lost my dad, Id had a harder and harder time forgiving small offenses. I threw on my pizza-print sweatshirt and stormed out the front door, marching up the neighbors steps. Before I could second-guess myself, Id reached for the doorbell. It rang out in the same powerful baritone as a grandfather clock, cutting through the music, but the singing didnt stop. I counted to ten, then rang it again. Inside, the voices didnt even waver. If the partygoers heard the doorbell, they were ignoring it. I pounded on the door for a few more seconds before accepting no one was coming, then turned to stomp home. One o clock, I decided. Id give them until one before I called the cops. The music was even louder in the house than I remembered, and in the few minutes since Id shut the windows, the temperature had risen to a sticky swelter. With nothing better to do, I grabbed a paperback from my bag and headed for the deck, fumbling for the light switches beside the sliding door. My fingers hit them but nothing happened. The bulbs outside were dead. Reading by phone light, at one in the morning, on the deck of my fathers second home it was! I stepped out, skin tingling from the refreshing chill of the breeze coming off the water. The Grumps deck was dark too, except for a lone fluorescent bulb surrounded by clumsy moths, which was why I nearly screamed when something moved in the shadows. And by nearly screamed, I of course mean definitely screamed. Jesus! The shadowy thing gasped and shot up from the chair where it had been sitting. And by shadowy thing, I of course mean man whod been chilling in the dark until I scared the shit out of him. What, what? he demanded, like he expected me to announce that he was covered in scorpions. If he had been, this would be less awkward. Nothing! I said, still breathing hard from the surprise. I didnt see you there! You didnt see me here? he repeated. He gave a scratchy, disbelieving laugh. Really? You didnt see me, on my own deck? Technically, I didnt see him now either. The porch light was a few feet behind and above him, transforming him into nothing but a tallish, person-shaped silhouette with a halo ringing his dark, messy hair. At this point, it would probably be better if I managed to go the whole summer without having to make eye contact with him anyway. Do you also scream when cars drive past on the highway or you spot people through restaurant windows? Would you mind blacking out all our perfectly aligned windows so you dont accidentally see me when Im holding a knife or a razor? I crossed my arms viciously over my chest. Or tried to. The gin was still making me a little fuzzy and clumsy. What I meant to saywhat the old January wouldve saidwas Could you possibly turn your music down a little bit? Actually, she probably wouldve just slathered herself in glitter, put on her favorite velvet loafers, and shown up at the front door with a bottle of champagne, determined to win the Grump over. But so far, this was the third-worst day of my life, and that January was probably buried wherever they put the old Taylor Swift, so what I actually said was Could you turn off your sad-boy-angsting soundtrack? The silhouette laughed and leaned against his deck railing, his beer bottle dangling from one hand. Does it look like Im the one running the playlist? No, it looks like youre the one sitting in the dark alone at his own party, I said, but when I rang the doorbell to ask your frat brothers to turn down the volume, they couldnt hear me over the Jell-O wrestling, so Im asking you. He studied me through the dark for a minuteor at least, I assumed that was what he was doing, since neither of us could actually see the other. Finally, he said, Look, no one will be more thrilled than me when this night ends and everyone gets out of my house, but it is a Saturday night. In summer, on a street full of vacation homes. Unless this neighborhood got airlifted to the little town from Footloose, it doesnt seem crazy to play music this late. And maybejust maybethe brand-new neighbor who stood on her deck screaming foot job so loud birds scattered could afford to be lenient if one miserable party goes later than shed like. Now it was my turn to stare at the dark blob. God, he was right. He was a grump, but so was I. Karyn and Sharyns vitamin-powder-pyramid-scheme parties went later than this, and those were on weeknights, usually when Jacques had a shift at the ER the next morning. Sometimes Id even attended those parties, and now I couldnt even handle Saturday-night group karaoke? And worst of all, before I could figure out what to say, the Grumps house went miraculously silent. Through his illuminated back doors, I could see the crowd breaking up, hugging, saying goodbyes, setting down cups, and putting on jackets. Id argued with this guy for nothing, and now Id have to live next to him for months. If I needed sugar, I was going to be shit out of luck. I wanted to apologize for the sad-boy angst comment, or at least for these goddamn pants. These days, my reactions always felt outsized, and there was no easy way to explain them when strangers had the bad fortune of witnessing them. Sorry, I imagined myself saying, I didnt mean to transform into a crotchety grandmother. Its just my dad died and then I found out he had a mistress and a second house and that my mom knew but never told me and she still wont talk to me about any of it, and when I finally came apart, my boyfriend decided he didnt love me anymore, and my career has stalled, and my best friend lives too far away, and PS this is the aforementioned Sex House, and I used to like parties but lately I dont like anything, so please forgive my behavior and have a lovely evening. Thank you and good night. Instead, that knife-twisting pain hit my gut, and tears stung the back of my nose, and my voice squeaked pathetically as I said to no one in particular, Im so tired. Even silhouetted as he was, I could tell he went rigid. Id learned it wasnt uncommon for people to do that when they intuited a woman was on the verge of emotional collapse. In the last few weeks of our relationship, Jacques was like one of those snakes that can sense an earthquake, going taut whenever my emotions rose, then deciding we needed something from the bodega and rushing out the door. My neighbor didnt say anything, but he didnt rush away either. He just stood there awkwardly, staring at me through the pitch-dark. We faced off for easily five seconds, waiting to see what would happen first: me bursting into tears or him running away. And then the music started blaring again, a Carly Rae Jepsen banger that, under different circumstances, I loved, and the Grump startled. He glanced back through the sliding doors, then to me again. He cleared his throat. Ill kick them out, he said stiffly, then turned and went inside, a unanimous cheer of EVERETT! rising from the crowd in the kitchen at the sight of him. They sounded ready to hoist him up into a keg stand, but I could see him leaning over to shout to a blonde girl, and a moment later, the music fell silent for good. Well. Next time I needed to make an impression, I might be better off with a plate of LSD cookies. 3 The Pete-Cute I AWOKE, HEAD THROBBING, to a text from Anya: Hey, babycakes! Wanted to make sure you got my email re: your glorious mind and the summer deadline we chatted about. That period reverberated through my skull like a death knell. Id gotten my first true hangover when I was twenty-four, the morning after Anya sold my first book, Kiss Kiss, Wish Wish, to Sandy Lowe. (Jacques had bought his favorite French champagne to celebrate, and we drank it from the bottle as we walked the Brooklyn Bridge, waiting for the sun to rise, because we thought it seemed hugely romantic.) Later, lying on the bathroom floor, Id sworn Id fall on a sharp knife before I let my brain feel like an egg frying on a rock in the Canc?n sun again. And yet! Here I was, face pressed into a beaded throw pillow, brain sizzling in the saucepan of my skull. I ran to the downstairs bathroom. I didnt need to throw up, but I was hoping that if I pretended I did, my body would fall for it and evacuate the poison in my gut. I threw myself onto my knees in front of the toilet and lifted my eyes to the framed picture that hung from a ribbon on the wall behind it. Dad and That Woman were on a beach, dressed in windbreakers, his arms wrapped around her shoulders, the wind pulling at her pre-white blonde hair and pushing his only-just-graying curls flat against his forehead as they grinned. And then, in a more understated but equally hilarious joke from the universe, I spotted the magazine rack beside the toilet, which contained exactly three offerings. A two-year-old Oprah Magazine. A copy of my third book, Northern Light. And that damn The Revelatoriesa hardcover with one of those shiny AUTOGRAPHED stickers, no less. I opened my mouth and retched heartily into the toilet bowl. Then I stood, rinsed out my mouth, and turned the picture frame around so it faced the wall. Never again, I said aloud. Step one to a hangover-free life? Probably not moving into a house that drives you to drink. I would have to find other coping mechanisms. Like nature. I went back to the living room, fished my toothbrush from my bag, and brushed at the kitchen sink. The next essential step for me to go on existing was a coffee IV. Whenever I drafted a book, I pretty much lived in my illustrious give-up pants, so aside from a collection of equally terrible sweatpants, Id packed pretty lightly for this trip. Id even watched a handful of lifestyle vloggers videos about capsule wardrobes in an attempt to maximize the amount of looks I could build from a pair of Daisy Dukes I mostly wore when I was stress-cleaning and a collection of ratty T-shirts with celebrities faces on themremnants from a phase in my early twenties. I pulled on a somber black-and-white Joni Mitchell, stuffed my booze-bloated body into the denim cutoffs, and put on my floral-embroidered ankle boots. I had a thing about shoes, from the very cheap and tacky to the very expensive and dramatic. As it turned out, this thing of mine was fairly incompatible with the whole capsule wardrobe concept. Id only packed four pairs, and I doubted anyone would consider my sparkly Target tennis shoes or the over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots Id splurged on to be classic. I grabbed my car keys and was heading out into the blinding summer sun when I heard my phone buzzing from within the couch cushions. A message from Shadi: Made out with the Haunted Hat, followed by a bunch of skulls. As I stumbled outside again, I typed back: SEE A PRIEST IMMEDIATELY. I tried not to think about last nights humiliating face-off with the neighbor as I jogged down the steps to the Kia, but that just freed up my mind to wander to my least favorite subject. Dad. The last time wed gone boating together, hed driven us to the man-made lake in the Kia and told me he was giving it to me. It was also the day he told me I should go for it: move to New York. Jacques was already there for medical school, and we were doing the long-distance thing so I could be with Mom. Dad had to travel a lot for work, and even if I ultimately believed my own storythat our lives would always, ultimately, work outa big part of me was still too scared to leave Mom alone. As if my absence would somehow make room for the cancer to creep back in a third time. Shes fine, Dad had promised as we sat in the frigid, dark parking lot. It could come back, Id argued. I didnt want to miss a second with her. Anything could happen, January. That was what hed said. Anything could happen to Mom, or me, or even you, at any point. But right now, nothing is. Do something for yourself for once, kiddo. Maybe he thought my moving to New York to live with my boyfriend was, at its core, the same as him buying a second house to hide away with his mistress. Id given up grad school to help take care of Mom during that second round of chemo, put every cent I could toward helping with medical bills, and where had he been then? Wearing a windbreaker and drinking pinot noir on the beach with That Woman? I pushed the thought away as I slid into the car, the leather hot against my thighs, and pulled away from the curb, cranking down the window as I went. At the end of the street, I turned left, away from the water, and headed into town. The inlet that reached down along the right side of the road threw slivers of sparkling light against my window, and the hot wind roared in my ears. For a minute, it was like my life had ceased to exist around me. I was just floating past hordes of scantily clad teenagers milling around the hot dog stand on my left, parents and kids lined up out the door of the ice cream shop on my right, packs of cyclists riding back toward the beach. As I cruised down the main drag, the buildings clumped closer until they were pressed shoulder to shoulder: a tiny Italian restaurant with vine-covered terraces flush with a skate shop, pressing it into the Irish pub next door, followed by an old-fashioned candy shop, and finally a caf? called Petes Coffeenot to be confused with Peets, though the sign looked, actually, like it was specifically trying to be confused with Peets. I pulled into a parking spot and ducked into the sweet chill of Pete Not Peets air-conditioning. The floorboards were painted white and the walls were a deep blue, speckled with silver stars that swirled between tables, interrupted by the occasional framed platitude attributed to Anonymous. The room opened directly into a well-lit bookstore, the words PETES BOOKS painted in that same auspicious silver over the doorway. An elderly couple in fleece vests sat in the half-collapsed armchairs in the back corner. Aside from the late-middle-aged woman at the register and me, they were the only people here. Much too nice of a day to be inside, I spose, the barista said, as if reading my thoughts. She had a gruff voice to match her blonde crew cut, and her tiny gold hoop earrings winked in the soft lighting as she waved me forward with a set of pale pink fingernails. Dont be shy. Were all family at Petes. I smiled. God, I hope not. She slapped the counter as she laughed. Oh, familys tricky, she agreed. Anyway, what can I get you? Jet fuel. She nodded sagely. Oh, youre one of those. Where are you from, honey? New York most recently. Ohio before that. Oh, Ive got family in New York. The state, not the city. Youre talking about the city though, arent you? Queens, I confirmed. Never been, she said. You want any milk? Any syrup? Id do some milk, I said. Whole? Half? One-sixteenth? Surprise me. Im not picky when it comes to fractions. She threw her head back and laughed again as she moved lackadaisically between machines. Who has time to be? I swear, even North Bear Shores moves too fast for me most days. Maybe if I took up drinking this jet fuel of yours itd be a different story. Having a barista who did not drink espresso wasnt ideal, but I liked the woman with the tiny gold earrings. Honestly, I liked her so much that it sent a little pang of longing through me. For the old January. The one who loved throwing themed parties and coordinating group costumes, who couldnt go to the gas station or stand in line at the post office without winding up making plans to grab coffee or hit up a gallery opening with someone I just met. My phone was riddled with contacts like Sarah, the anchor bar, cute dog and Mike, runs that new vintage store. Id even met Shadi in a pizza shop bathroom when she came out of the stall wearing the best Frye boots Id ever seen. I missed feeling that deep curiosity about people, that spark of excitement when you realized you had something in common or admiration when you uncovered a hidden talent or quality. Sometimes, I just missed liking people. But this barista, she was thoroughly likable. Even if the coffee sucked, I knew Id be back. She tucked the plastic lid on the cup and plopped it down in front of me. No charge for first-timers, she said. I just ask that you return. I smiled, promised I would, and stuffed my last dollar bill into the tip jar as she went back to mopping up the counters. On my way back to the door, I froze, Anyas voice running through my head: Heeeeeeey, sugar cube! SERIOUSLY not trying to overstep, but you know, book clubs are your DREAM market. If youre literally IN a small-town bookstore, you should pop over and say hey! I knew Imaginary Anya was right. Right now, every sale mattered to me. Plastering a smile on my face, I passed through the doorway into the bookstore. If only I could travel back in time and choose to put on any outfit besides the 2002 Jessica Simpson music video extra costume I was sporting. The store was small oak shelves along the outside walls and a hodgepodge labyrinth of shorter bookshelves tunneling back and forth between them. The register was unattended, and as I waited, I glanced toward the trio of braces-wearing preteens in the romance section to make sure it wasnt one of my books they were giggling over. All four of us would be irrevocably traumatized if the bookseller led me over to sign stock only to discover a copy of Southern Comfort in the redheads hands. The girls gasped and tittered as the redhead clutched the book to her chest, revealing the cover: a topless man and woman embracing as flames leapt around them. Definitely not one of mine. I took a sip of the latte and promptly spit it back into the cup. It tasted like mud. Sorry about the wait, hon. The scratchy voice came from over my shoulder, and I spun to face the woman zigzagging toward me through the crooked rows of shelves. These knees dont move like they used to. At first, I thought she must be the baristas identical twin, sisters whod opened the business together, but then I realized the woman was untying her gray PETEs apron from her waist as she made her way to the register. Do you believe I used to be a roller derby champion? she said as she dropped the wadded apron on the counter. Well, believe it or not, I did. At this point Id hardly be surprised to find out youre the mayor of North Bear Shores. She gave a rattling laugh. Oh, no, cant say that I am! Though maybe I could get some shit done around here, if theyd have me! This town is a nice little pocket of progressivism here in the Mitten, but the people with the purse strings are still a bunch of pearl-clutching golf bags. I fought a smile. It sounded so much like something Dad wouldve said. The ache seared through me, fire-poker sharp and hot. Anyway, dont mind me and my O-PIN-YUNS, she enunciated, lifting her thick ash-blonde brows. Im just a lowly entrepreneur. What can I do you for, sugar? I just wanted to introduce myself, I admitted. Im a writer, actually, with Sandy Lowe Books, and Im here for the summer, so I figured Id say hi, sign stock if you have any. Ohhh, another writer in town! she cried. How exciting! You know, North Bear brings in a lot of artist types. Its our way of life, I think. And the college. All sorts of freethinkers over there. A beautiful little community. Youre going to love it here The way her words dropped off suggested she was waiting for me to insert my own name at the end of her sentence. January, I chimed in. Andrews. Pete, she said, shaking my hand with the vigor of a green beret whos just said, Put er there, son! Pete? I said. Of Petes Coffee fame? The very same. Legal names Posy. What kind of a name is that? She pantomimed gagging. Seriously, do I look like a Posy to you? Does anyone look like a Posy? I shook my head. Maybe, like, a baby wearing a polyester flower costume? Soon as I could talk, I set that one straight. Anyway, January Andrews. Pete stepped up to the computer and plugged my name into the keyboard. Lets see if weve got your book. I never corrected people when they said singular book rather than plural books, but sometimes the assumption dug under my skin. It made me feel like people thought my career was a fluke. Like Id sneezed and a romance novel came out. And then there were the people who acted like we were in on some secret joke together when, after a conversation about Art or Politics, they found out I wrote upbeat womens fiction: Whatever pays the bills, right? theyd say, practically begging me to confirm I didnt want to write books about women or love. Looks like we dont have any in stock, Pete said, looking up from the screen. But I tell ya what, youd better believe Im ordering them in. Thatd be great! I said. Maybe we could host a workshop later this summer. Pete gasped and clutched my arm. Idea, January Andrews! You should come to our book club. Wed love to have ya. Great way to get involved in the community. Its Mondays. Can you do Monday? Tomorrow? In my head, Anya said, You know what made The Girl on the Train happen? Book clubs. That was a stretch. But I liked Pete. Mondays work. Fantastic. Ill send you my address. Seven PM, lots of booze, always a hoot. She pulled a business card from the desk and passed it across the counter. You do email, dont you? Almost constantly. Petes smile widened. Well, you just shoot me a message and well make sure youre all set for tomorrow. I promised her I would and turned to go, nearly colliding with the display table. I watched the pyramid of books tremble, and as I stood there, waiting to see if theyd fall, I realized the entire thing was made out of the same book, each marked with an AUTOGRAPHED sticker. An uncanny tingle climbed my spine. There, on the abstract black-and-white cover, in square red letters, beneath The Revelatories, was his name. It was all coming together in my mind, a domino trail of realizations. I didnt mean to say it aloud, but I might have. Because the bells over the bookshop door tinkled, and when I looked up, there he was. Olive skin. Cheekbones that could cut you. Crooked mouth and a husky voice Id never forget. Messy, dark hair I could immediately picture haloed in fluorescent light. Augustus Everett. Gus, as Id known him back in college. Everett! as Pete was calling affectionately from behind the desk. My neighbor, the Grump. I did what any reasonable adult woman would do when confronted with her college rival turned next-door neighbor. I dove behind the nearest bookshelf. 4 The Mouth THE WORST PART of being college rivals with Gus Everett? Probably the fact that I wasnt sure he knew we were. He was three years older, a high school dropout whod gotten his GED after spending a few years working as a literal gravedigger. I knew all of this because every story he turned in our first semester was part of a collection centering on the cemetery where hed worked. The rest of us in the creative writing program were pulling fodder from our asses (and childhoods: soccer games won in the last instant, fights with parents, road trips with friends), and Gus Everett was writing about the eight kinds of mourning widows, analyzing the most common epitaphs, the funniest, the ones that subtly betrayed a strained relationship between the deceased and the person footing the headstones bill. Like me, Gus was at U of M on a slew of scholarships, but it was unclear how hed gotten them, since he played no sports and hadnt technically graduated from high school. The only explanation was that he was atrociously good at what he did. To top things off, Gus Everett was stupidly, infuriatingly attractive. And not the universal kind of handsome that almost dulls itself with objectivity. It was more of a magnetism he emanated. Sure, he was just barely on the tall side of average, with the lean muscle of someone who never stopped moving around but also never intentionally exerciseda lazy kind of fit that came from genetics and restlessness rather than good habitsbut it was more than that. It was the way he talked and moved, how he looked at things. Not, like, how he saw the world. Literally how he looked at things, his eyes seeming to darken and grow whenever he focused, his eyebrows furrowing over his dented nose. Not to mention his crooked mouth, which shouldve been outlawed. Before she dropped out of U and M to become an au pair (a pursuit soon abandoned), Shadi would ask me nightly at dinner for updates on Sexy, Evil Gus, sometimes abbreviated as SEG. I was minorly besotted with him and his prose. Until we finally spoke for the first time in class. I was passing out my latest short story for critique, and when I handed it to him, he looked me dead in the eyeshis head tilted curiouslyand said, Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again. I wasnt writing romance yetI didnt even realize how much I loved reading romance until Moms second diagnosis two years later, when I needed a good distractionbut I was definitely writing romantically, about a good world, where things happened for a reason, where love and human connection were all that really mattered. And Gus Everett had looked at me with those eyes, deepening and darkening like they were sucking every bit of information about me into his skull, and hed determined that I was a balloon in need of popping. Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again. We spent the next four years taking turns winning our schools writing prizes and contests but managed to barely speak again, unless you counted workshops, during which he rarely critiqued anyones stories except mine and nearly always showed up late without half his stuff and asked to borrow my pens. And there was one wild night at a frat party where wed not quite talked, but definitely interacted. Frankly, we crossed paths constantly, partly because he dated two separate roommates of mine and plenty of other girls on my floorthough I use the term dated loosely. Gus was notorious for having a two-to-four-week dating shelf life, and while the first roommate had started things up with him hoping to be the exception, the second (and plenty of the others) went in fully aware Gus Everett was just someone you could have fun with, for up to thirty-one days. Unless you wrote short stories with happy endings, in which case you were apparently far more likely to spend four years as rivals, pass another six occasionally Googling him to compare your careers, and then run into him here while dressed like a teen cheerleader at a car wash fundraiser. As in, here. Now. Walking into Petes Books. I was already planning what I would text Shadi as I power walked down the side of the store, chin tucked and face angled into the shelves like I was casually browsing (whilst practically jogging, as one does). January? Pete was calling. January, whered you go? I want you to meet someone. Im not proud to admit that when I froze, I was looking at the door, judging whether I could make it out of there without responding. Its important to note that I knew for a fact there were bells over the door, and I still couldnt make an immediate decision. Finally, I took a deep breath, forced a smile, and stepped out from between the shelves, clutching my god-awful latte like it was a handgun. Hiiiiiiiiii, I said, then waved in a distinctly animatronic way. I had to force myself to look directly at him. He looked just like he did in his author photo: all sharp cheekbones, furiously dark eyes, and the leanly muscled arms of a gravedigger turned novelist. He was wearing a rumpled blue (or faded black) T-shirt and rumpled dark blue (or faded black) jeans, and his hair had started streaking through with gray, along with the just-past-five-oclock shadow around his crooked mouth. This is January Andrews, Pete announced. Shes a writer. Just moved here. I could practically see the same realization dawning on his face that had just crashed down on mine, his eyes homing in as he pieced together whatever bits of me hed caught in the dark last night. Weve met, actually, he said. The fire of a thousand suns rushed to my face, and probably my neck and chest and legs and every other exposed inch of my body. Oh? Pete said, delighted. Hows that? My mouth fell open silently, the word college somehow evading grasp, as my eyes shifted back to Guss. Were neighbors, he said. I believe? Oh, God. Was it possible he didnt remember me at all? My name was January, for shits sake. It wasnt like I was a Rebecca or a Christy/Christina/Christine. I tried not to think too hard about how Gus could have forgotten me, because doing so would only take my complexion from overcooked lobster to eggplant. Right, I think I said. The phone beside the register began to ring, and Pete held up a finger excusing herself as she turned to answer it, leaving us alone. So, Gus said finally. So, I parroted. What sort of thing do you write, January Andrews? I did my best not to glance sideways at the stadium of Revelatories curling around the table behind me. Romance, mostly. Guss eyebrow arched. Ah. Ah, what? I said, already on the defensive. He shrugged. Just ah. I folded my arms. That was an awfully knowing just ah. He leaned against the desk and folded his arms too, his brow furrowing. Well, that was fast, he said. What was? Offending you. One syllable. Ah. Pretty impressive. Offended? This isnt my offended face. I look like this because Im tired. My weird-ass neighbor was blasting his crying soundtrack all night. He nodded thoughtfully. Yeah, mustve been the music that was making it so hard for you to walk last night too. Hey, if you think you might have a music problem, theres no shame in getting help. Anyway, I said, still fighting a blush. You never told me what you write, Everett. Im sure its something really groundbreaking and important. Totally new and fresh. Like a story about a disillusioned white guy, wandering the world, misunderstood and coldly horny. A laugh barked out of him. Coldly horny? As opposed to the very artfully handled sexual proclivities of your genre? Tell me, which do you find more fascinating to write: love-struck pirates or love-struck werewolves? And now I was seething again. Well, its not really about me so much as what my readers want. Whats it like writing Hemingway circle-jerk fan fiction? Do you know all your readers by name? There was something sort of freeing about new January. Guss head tilted in that familiar way and his brow knit as his dark eyes studied me, the intensity of them making my skin prickle. His full lips parted as if he was about to speak, but just then Pete hung up the phone and slipped into our circle, cutting him off. What are the odds, eh? Pete asked, clapping her hands together. Two published writers on the same little street in North Bear Shores! I bet you two will be shooting the shit all summer. I told you this town was full of artists, didnt I, January? How do you like that? She laughed heartily. No sooner had I said it than Everett marches right in! The universe is on my side today, looks like. The ringing of my phone in my pocket saved me from having to answer. For once, I scrambled to answer the call, eager to escape this conversation. I was hoping for Shadi, but the screen read ANYA, and my stomach sank. I looked up to find Guss dark eyes burning into me. The effect was intimidating. I glanced toward Pete. SorryIve got to take this, but it was lovely meeting you. Back atcha! Pete assured me as I retreated through the maze of shelves. Dont forget to mail me an email! See you at home, Gus called after me. I answered Anyas call and slipped outside. 5 The Labradors SWEAR YOU CAN do this, January, Anya was saying as I zoomed out of town. If I promise Sandy a book by September first, we have got to have a book by September first. Ive written books in half that time, I shouted over the wind. Oh, I know you have. But were talking about this manuscript. Were talking specifically about the one thats now taken fifteen months and counting. How far are you? My heart was racing. She was going to know I was lying to her. Its not written, I said. But its planned. I just need some time to hammer it out, no distractions. I can do no distractions. I can be the Queen of Not Distracting You, but please. Please, please, please, dont lie to me about this. If you want a break I dont want a break, I said. And I couldnt afford one. I had to do whatever it took. Empty the beach house so I could sell it. Write a romance despite having recently lost close to all faith in love and humanity. Its coming along great, actually. Anya pretended to be satisfied, and I pretended to believe she was satisfied. It was June second and I had just under three months to write a book-like thing. So of course, rather than heading straight home to work, I was driving to the grocery store. Id had two sips of Petes latte, and it was three sips too many. I dumped it in the trash can on my way into Meijer and replaced it with a giant iced Americano from the Starbucks kiosk inside before stocking up on enough drafting food (macaroni, cereal, anything that didnt require much prep) to last me a couple of weeks. By the time I got home, the sun was high, the heat thick and sticky, but at least the iced espresso had softened the pounding in my skull. When Id finished unloading the groceries, I carried my computer onto the deck, only to realize Id let the battery die last night. I went back inside to plug it in and caught my phone buzzing on the table. A text from Shadi: No WAY. Sexy, Evil GUS? Did he ask about me? Tell him I miss him. I typed back, Still sexy. Still EVIL. I will NOT tell him as I will NOT be speaking to him again, for as long as we both shall live. He didnt remember me. Shadi answered immediately. Hmmmm, there is LITERALLY no way thats true. You are his fairy princess. His shadow self. Or hes yours or whatever. She was referring to another humiliating Gus moment Id tried to forget. Hed ended up in a general math class with Shadi and mentioned that hed noticed we were friends. When she confirmed, he asked her what my deal was. When she asked him to elaborate on what the hell that meant, hed shrugged and mumbled something about how I acted like a fairy princess whod been raised by woodland creatures. Shadi told him I was actually an empress whod been raised by two very sexy spies. Seeing him in the wild after all this time was horrifying, I told her. Im traumatized. Please come nurse me back to health. Soon, habibi, she wrote back. I was aiming to write fifteen hundred words that day. I only made it to four hundred, but on the bright side, I also won twenty-eight consecutive games of spider solitaire before I stopped to stir-fry some veggies for dinner. After Id eaten, I sat in the dark, folded up at the kitchen table, with a glass of red wine caught in the glow of my laptop. All I needed was a bad first draft. Id written dozens of those, spat out faster than I could type and then painstakingly rewritten in the months following. So why couldnt I just make myself write this bad book? God, I missed the days when the words poured out. When writing those happy endings, those kisses in the rain and music-swelling, knee-on-the-ground proposal scenes had been the best part of my day. Back then, true love had seemed like the grand prize, the one thing that could weather any storm, save you from both drudgery and fear, and writing about it had felt like the single most meaningful gift I could give. And even if that part of my worldview was taking a brief sabbatical, it had to be true that sometimes, heartbroken women found their happy endings, their rain-falling, music-swelling moments of pure happiness. My computer pinged with an email. My stomach started flipping and didnt stop until Id confirmed it was just a reply from Pete, with the address for her book club and a one-sentence message: Feel free to bring your favorite drink or just yourself :))) I smiled. Maybe some version of Pete would make it into the book. One day at a time, I said aloud, then swiped up my wine and wandered to the back door. I cupped my hand around my eyes to block the glare on the glass and peered toward Guss deck. Smoke had been pluming out of the firepit earlier, but it was gone now, the deck abandoned. So I slid the door open and stepped out. The world was cast in shades of blue and silver, the gentle rush of the tide breaking on sand made louder by the silence of the rest of the world. A gust of wind blew off the treetops, making me shiver, and I tightened the robe around me, draining my wineglass, then turned back to the house. At first, I thought the blue glow that caught my eye was coming from my own laptop, but the light wasnt coming from my house. It shone from the otherwise dark windows of Guss place, bright enough that I could see him pacing in front of his table. He stopped suddenly and bent to type for a moment, then picked a beer bottle up off the table and began to pace again, his hand running through his hair. I recognized that choreography well. He could love-struck pirates and werewolves me all he wanted, but when it came down to it, Augustus Everett was still pacing in the dark, making shit up like the rest of us. PETE LIVED IN a pink Victorian on the edge of the college campus. Even in the thunderstorm that had whipped off the lake that Monday evening, her home looked sweet as a dollhouse. I parked along the curb and stared up at its ivy-encroached windows and charming turrets. The sun hadnt totally set yet, but the soft gray clouds that filled the sky diffused any light to a dim greenish glow, and the garden that sprawled from Petes porch to her white picket fence looked lush and magical beneath its shroud of mist. This was the perfect escape from the writing cave Id been hiding in all day. I grabbed the tote bag full of signed bookmarks and Southern Comfort quote-pins from the passenger seat and jumped out of the car, pulling my hood up as I bolted through the rain and eased the gate open to slip in along the cobbled path. Petes garden was, quite possibly, the most picturesque place Id ever been, but the best part mightve been that, over the rumble of thunder, Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd was playing so loudly that the porch was shivering as I stepped onto it. Before I could knock, the door swung open and Pete, very full plastic blue wineglass in hand, sang out, Jaaaaaaaaaaaaanuary Andrews! Somewhere behind her, a chorus of voices sang back, January Annnnnndrews! Peeeeete, I sang in response, holding out the bottle of chardonnay Id grabbed from the store on the way over. Thanks so much for having me. Ohhhh. She accepted the bottle of wine and scrunched up her eyes as she examined the label, then chuckled. It was called POCKETFUL OF POSIES, but Id scratched POSIES out and written PETES in its place. Sounds French! she joked. Which is the Dutch word for fancy! She waved for me to follow her down the hall, toward the music. Come on in and meet the girls. There was a pile of shoes, mostly sandals and hiking boots, arranged neatly on a rug by the door, so I kicked off my heeled green rain boots and followed the barefoot trail Pete cut down the hall. Her toenails were painted lavender to match her fresh manicure, and in her faded jeans and white linen button-up, she struck a softer image than she had at the store. We swept past a kitchen whose granite countertops were crowded with liquor bottles and stepped into the living room at the back of the house. Normally, we use the garden, but normally God isnt bowling a perfect game overhead, so inside will have to do tonight. Were just waiting on one more. The room was small enough to feel crowded with the five people total inside it. Of course, the three black Labradors snoozing on the couch (two of them) and armchair (the third) didnt help. Bright green wooden chairs had been dragged in, ostensibly for the humans to sit in, and arranged to form a small semicircle. One of the dogs jumped up and wandered, tail wagging, through the sea of legs to greet me. Girls, Pete said, touching my back, this is January. January brought wine! Wine, how lovely! a woman with long blonde hair said, sweeping forward to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. When the blonde pulled back, Pete passed her the bottle of wine, then edged around the room toward the sound system. Im Maggie, the blonde said. Her tall, willowy stature was made more striking by the sea of drapey white things shed dressed herself in. She smiled down at me, equal parts Galadriel Lady of the Golden Wood and aging Stevie Nicks, and the wrinkled corners of her brown eyes crinkled sweetly. So lovely to meet you, January. Petes voice came a bit too loudly as the music dropped out from under it: Shes Mrs. Pete. Maggies serene smile seemed to be a version of an affectionate eye roll. Just Maggie will do. And this is Lauren. She opened an arm to make room for me to shake hands with the dreadlocked woman in the orange sundress. And back there, on the couch, is Sonya. Sonya. The name hit my stomach like a hammer. Before Id even seen her, my mouth went dry. My vision fuzzed at the corners. Hi, January, That Woman said meekly from under the snoring Labradors. She forced a smile. Nice to see you. 6 The Book Club WAS THERE A dignified way to happen upon your dead fathers lover? If so, I imagined it wasnt blurting I have to pee, jerking free the bottle of wine youd handed your host, and running back down the hall in search of a bathroom. But that was the best I could come up with. I twisted the top off the wine and poured it down my throat, right there in the nautical-themed bathroom. I considered leaving, but for some reason, that seemed like the most embarrassing option. Still, it occurred to me that I could walk out the door, get into the car, and drive to Ohio without stopping. Id never have to see any of these people again. I could get a job at Ponderosa Steakhouse. Life could be grand! Or I could just stay in this bathroom, forever. I had wine; I had a toilet; what else did one need? Admittedly, it was not my good attitude and strength of spirit that got me out of the bathroom. It was the shuffle of steps and conversation moving down the hallway, the sound of Pete saying, Oh, youre sure you cant stay? in a voice that made it sound much more like What the hell, Sonya? Why is that weird little girl afraid of you? and of Sonya saying, No, I wish I could, but I totally forgot this work callmy boss wont stop emailing until Im in the car and on my Bluetooth. Bluetooth shmootooth, Pete was saying. Indeed, I said into my wine bottle. The chardonnay was hitting me fast. I thought my way backward through my day, recounting my meals in an attempt to understand my immediate tipsiness. The only thing I could be sure Id eaten was the fistful of mini marshmallows Id grabbed on my way to a much-needed pee break. Whoops. The front door was opening. Goodbyes were being said over the pitter-patter of rain against the roof, and I was still locked in a bathroom. I set the bottle on the sink, looked at myself in the mirror, and pointed fiercely at my small brown eyes. This will be the hardest night you have all summer, I whispered. It was a lie, but I totally bought it. I smoothed my hair, shrugged out of my jacket, hid the wine bottle in my tote bag, and stepped back into the hallway. Sonya had to dip out, Pete said, but it sounded more like What the hell, January? Oh? I said. Thats too bad. But it sounded more like Praise be to the Bluetooth Shmootooth! Indeed, Pete said. I followed her back to the living room, where the Labradors had rearranged themselves, along with the ladies. One of the dogs had moved over to the far side of the couch, Maggie having taken the vacant spot left behind, while the second one had relocated to the armchair, mostly on top of the third. Lauren was sitting in one of the high-backed green chairs, and Pete gestured for me to take the one next to her as she slid into a third. Pete checked the time on her leather watch. Should be here any minute. Mustve gotten caught in the storm! Im sure well be able to get started soon. Great, I said. The room was still spinning a bit. I could barely look toward where Sonya had been curled on the couch, willowy and relaxed with her white curls piled on her head, the opposite of my tiny, straight-banged mother. I took the opportunity to dig through my bag (careful not to upend the wine) for the bookmarks. Someone knocked on the door, and Pete leapt up. My heart stuttered at the thought that Sonya mightve changed her mind and doubled back. But then a low voice was scratching down the hall, and Pete was back, bringing in tow a damp and disheveled Augustus Everett. He ran a hand through his peppered hair, shaking rain from it. He looked like hed rolled out of bed and wandered here through the storm, drinking from a paper bag. Not that I was one to judge at this precise moment. Girls, Pete said, I believe you all know the one and only Augustus Everett? Gus nodded, waved. Smiled? That seemed too generous a word for what he was doing. His mouth acknowledged the room, I would say, and then his eyes caught on mine, and the higher of his mouths two corners twisted up. He nodded at me. January. My mind spun its feeble, wine-slick wheels trying to figure out what bothered me so much about the moment. Sure, there was smug Gus Everett. There was stumbling upon That Woman and the bathroom wine. And The difference in Petes introductions. This is January was how a parent forced one kindergartner to befriend another. The one and only Augustus Everett was how a book club introduced its special guest. Please, please. Sit here, by January, Pete said. Would you like a drink? Oh, God. Id misunderstood. I wasnt here as a guest. I was here as a potential book club member. Id come to a book club that was discussing The Revelatories. Would you like something to drink? Pete asked, looping back to the kitchen. Gus scanned the blue plastic glasses in Lauren and Maggies hands. What are you having, Pete? he asked over his shoulder. Oh, first round at book clubs always White Russians, but January brought some wine, if that sounds better. I balked both at the thought of starting a night with a White Russian and at the prospect of having to shamefully fish out my purse-wine for Gus. I could tell by the huge grin on her face that nothing would delight Pete more. Gus leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. The left sleeve of his shirt rose with the motion, revealing a thin black tattoo on the back of his arm, a twisted but closed circle. A M?bius strip, I thought it was called. A White Russian sounds great, Gus answered. Of course it did. People liked to imagine their favorite male authors sitting down at a typewriter with a taste of the strongest whiskey and a hunger for knowledge. I wouldnt be surprised if the rumpled man sitting beside me, the one whod mocked my career, was wearing dirty day-of-the-week underwear inside out and living on Meijer-brand cheese puffs. He could show up looking like a college juniors backup pot dealer (for when the first one was in Myrtle Beach) and still get taken more seriously than I would in my stuffy Michael Kors dress. I could get author photos taken by the senior photo editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and he could use his moms digital camera from 2002 to snap a shot of himself scowling on his deck and still garner more respect than me. He might as well have just sent in a dick pic. They wouldve printed it on the cover flap, right over that two-line bio theyd let him shit out. The shorter, the fancier, Anya would say. I sensed Guss eyes on me. I imagined he sensed my brain tearing him to pieces. I imagined Lauren and Maggie sensed this night had been a terrible mistake. Pete returned with another blue wineglass full of milky vodka, and Gus thanked her for it. I took a deep breath as Pete slid into a chair. Could this night get any worse? The Labrador nearest to me audibly farted. Okay, then! Pete said, clapping her hands together. What the hell. I slid my purse-wine out and took a gulp. Maggie giggled on the couch, and the Labrador rolled over and stuffed his face in between the cushions. Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club is now in session, and Im dying to hear what everyone thought of the book. Maggie and Lauren exchanged a look as they each took a slurp of their White Russians. Maggie set hers on the table and lightly slapped her thigh. Heck, I loved it. Petes laugh was gruff but warm. You love everything, Mags. Do not. I didnt like the man spynot the main one, but the other one. He was snippy. Spies? There were spies in The Revelatories? I looked over at Gus, who looked as puzzled as I felt. His mouth was ajar and his White Russian rested against his left thigh. I didnt care for him either, Lauren agreed, especially in the beginning, but he came around by the end. When we got the backstory about his mothers ties to the USSR, I started to understand him. That was a nice touch, Maggie agreed. All right, I take it back. By the end, I sort of liked him too. I still didnt care for the way he treated Agent Michelson though. I wont make excuses for that. Well, no, of course not, Pete chimed in. Maggie waved her hand lightly. Total misogynist. Lauren nodded. How did you all feel about the twin reveal? Honestly, it bored me a bit, and Ill tell ya why, Pete said. And then she did tell us why, but I barely heard it because I was so absorbed in the subtle gymnastics Guss expression was performing. This could not possibly be his book they were talking about. He didnt look horrified so much as bemused, like he thought someone was playing a prank on him but he wasnt confident enough to call it out yet. Hed drained his White Russian already and was glancing back at the kitchen like he was hoping another might carry itself out here. Did anyone else cry when Marks daughter sang Amazing Grace at the funeral? Lauren asked, clutching her heart. That got to me. It really did. And you know my heart of stone! Doug G. Hanke is just a phenomenal writer. I looked around the room, to the credenza, the bookshelves on the far side of the couch, the magazine rack under the coffee table. Names and titles jumped out at me from dozens, if not hundreds, of dark paperbacks. Operation Skyforce. The Moscow Game. Deep Cover. Red Flag. Oslo After Dark. Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club. I, January Andrews, romance writer, and literary wunderkind Augustus Everett had stumbled into a book club trafficking primarily in spy novels. It took some effort to stifle my laughter, and even then I didnt do an amazing job. January? Pete said. Is everything all right? Spectacular, I said. Think Ive just had too much purse-wine. Augustus, youd better take it from here. I held the bottle out to him. He lifted one stern, dark eyebrow. I imagined I wasnt quite smiling but managed to look victorious nonetheless as I waited for him to accept the two-thirds-drunk chardonnay. Ive thought about it some more, Maggie said airily. And I think I did like the identical twin twist. Somewhere, a Labrador farted. 7 The Ride THANK YOU SOOOO much for having us, Pete, I said as I pulled her into a hug in the foyer. She patted my back. Any time. Any Monday, especially! Heck, every Monday. Red, White Russians, and Blue could use fresh blood. You see how things get stale in there. Maggie likes to humor me, but shes not much of a fiction person, and I think Lauren comes for the socializing. Shes another faculty wife, like me. Faculty wife? I said. Pete nodded. Maggie works at the university with Laurens husband, she answered quickly, then said, How are you getting home, dear? I wasnt feeling the wine nearly as much as I wouldve liked to at that point, but I knew I shouldnt risk driving anyway. Ill take her, Gus said, stern and unamused. Ill Uber, I said. Uber? Pete repeated. Not in North Bear Shores, you wont. Weve got about one of those, and I doubt hes out driving around after ten oclock! I pretended to look at my phone. Actually, hes here, so I should go. Thanks again, Pete. Really, it was extremely interesting. She patted my arm and I slipped out into the rain, opening the Uber app as I went. Beneath the rain, I heard Gus and Pete exchanging quiet goodbyes on the porch behind me, and then the door shut and I knew he and I were alone in the garden. So I walked very fast, through the gate and down the length of the fence, as I stared at the blank map on my Uber app. I closed the app and opened it again. Let me guess, Gus drawled. Its exactly as the person who actually lives here says: there arent any Ubers. Four minutes away, I lied. He stared at me. I pulled my hood up and turned away. What is it? he said. Are you worried its a slippery slope from getting into my car to going down the Slip N Slide on my roof and competing in my heavily publicized Jell-O wrestling matches? I folded my arms. I dont know you. Unlike the North Bear Shores Uber driver, with whom youre quite close. I said nothing, and after a moment, Gus climbed into his car, its engine sputtering awake, but he didnt pull away. I busied myself with my phone. Why wasnt he leaving? I did my best not to look at his car, though it was looking more appealing every moment I stood there in the cold rain. I checked the app again. Still nothing. The passenger window rolled down, and Gus leaned across the seat, ducking his head to see me. January. He sighed. Augustus. Its been four minutes. No Ubers coming. Would you please get in the car? Ill walk. Why? Because I need the exercise, I said. Not to mention the pneumonia. Its like sixty-five degrees out, I said. Youre literally shivering. Maybe Im trembling with the anticipation of an exhilarating walk home. Maybe your body temperature is plummeting and your blood pressure and heart rate are dropping and your skin tissue is breaking up as it freezes. Are you kidding? My heart is positively racing. I just sat in on a three-hour-long book club meeting about spy novels. I need to run some of this adrenaline off. I started down the sidewalk. Wrong way, Gus called. I spun on my heel and started in the other direction, back past Guss car. His mouth twisted in the dim light of the console. You do realize we live seven miles from here. At your current pace that puts your arrival at about never. Youre going to walk into a bush and quite possibly spend the rest of your life there. Thats actually the perfect amount of time Ill need to sober up, I said. Gus pulled slowly down the road alongside me. Besides, I cannot risk waking up with another hangover tomorrow. Id rather walk into traffic. Yeah, well, Im worried youre going to do both. Let me take you home. Ill fall asleep tipsy. Not good. Fine, I wont take you home until youre sober, then. I know the best trick for that in all of North Bear Shores. I stopped walking and faced his car. He stopped too, waiting. Just to be clear, I said, youre not talking about sex stuff, are you? His smile twisted. No, January, Im not talking about sex stuff. Youd better not be. I opened the passenger door and slid onto the seat, pressing my fingers to the warm vents. Because I carry pepper spray in this tote. And a gun. What the fuck, he cried, putting the car in park. Youre drunk with a gun flopping around in your wine bag? I buckled my seat belt. It was a joke. The gun part, not the killing you if you try something part. I meant that. His laugh was more shocked than amused. Even in the dark of the car, I could see his eyes were wide and his crooked mouth was tensed. He shook his head, wiped the rain off his forehead with the back of his hand, and put the car back into drive. THIS IS THE trick? I said, when we pulled into the parking lot. The rain had slowed but the puddles in the cracking asphalts potholes glowed with the reflection of the neon sign over the low, rectangular building. The trick for sobering up is donuts. That was all the sign said. For all intents and purposes, it was the diners name. What did you expect? Gus asked. Was I supposed to almost drive off a cliff, or hire someone to fake-kidnap you? Or wait, was that sex-stuff comment sarcastic? Did you want me to seduce you? No, Im just saying, next time youre trying to convince me to get in your car, youll save a lot of time if you cut right to donuts. Im hoping I wont have to coax you into my car very often, he said. No, not very often, I said. Just on Mondays. He cracked another smile, faint, like hed rather not reveal it. It instantly made the car feel too small, him a little too close. I tore my gaze away and got out of the car, head clearing immediately. The building glowed like a bug zapper, its empty, seventies-orange booths visible through the windows along with a fish tank full of koi. You know, you should consider driving for Uber, I said. Oh? Yeah, your heat works great. I bet your air-conditionings decent too. You dont smell like Axe, and you didnt say a word to me the whole way here. Five stars. Six stars. Better than any Uber driver Ive had before. Hm. Gus pulled the smudgy door open for me, bells jangling overhead. Maybe next time you get into an Uber, you should try announcing that you have a loaded gun. You might get better service. Truly. Now dont be alarmed, he said under his breath as I stepped past him. What? I turned back to ask. Hello! a voice called brightly over the Bee Gees song crackling through the place. I spun to face the man behind the illuminated display case. The radio sat there on the counter, producing at least as much static fuzz as crooning disco. Hi, I replied. Howdy, the man said with a deep nod. He was at least as old as my parents and wire-thin, his thick glasses held to his face with neon-yellow Croakies. Hi, I said again. My brain was caught in a hamster wheel, the same realization playing over and over: this elderly gentleman was in his underwear. Welllll, hello there! he chirped, apparently determined not to lose this game. He leaned his elbows on top of the case. His underwear, thankfully, included a white T-shirt, and he had mercifully opted for white boxers rather than briefs. Hi, I said one last time. Gus sidestepped between my open jaw and the counter. Can we just do a dozen day-olds? Shore! The underwear-baker grapevined down the length of the display and grabbed a to-go box from the stack on top of it. He carried it back to the old-school register and tapped out a couple of numbers. Five dollars flat, my man. And coffee? Gus said. Cant in good conscience charge you for that stuff. The man jerked his head toward the carafe. That shits been sitting in there sizzling for three good hours. Want me to make you the new stuff? Gus looked to me pointedly. What? I asked. Its for you. What do you think? Free and bad? Or a dollar and He couldnt bring himself to say good, which told me everything I needed to know. That shit was always sitting in there, sizzling. Free, I said. Five flat, then, as discussed, the man said. I reached for my wallet, but Gus headed me off, slapping five dollar bills down on the counter. He tipped his head, gesturing for me to accept the foam cup and box of donuts the man was holding. To fit twelve into this box, theyd been compacted into one box-shaped mash of fried dough. I grabbed them and plopped into a booth. Gus sat across from me, leaned across the table, and pried the box open. He stared down at the donut guts between us. God, those look disgusting. Finally, I said. Something we agree on. I bet we agree on a lot. He plucked a mangled maple-nut donut out and sat back, examining it in the fluorescent light. Such as? All the important stuff, Gus said. The chemical composition of Earths atmosphere, whether the world needs six Pirates of the Caribbean movies, that White Russians should only be drunk when youre already sure youre going to vomit anyway. He managed to fit the whole donut into his mouth. Then, without an ounce of irony, he made eye contact with me. I burst out laughing. Fffwaht? he said. I shook my head. Can I ask you something? He chewed and swallowed enough to answer. No, January, Im not going to tell this guy to turn his music down. He reached over and snatched another donut clump from the box. Now I have a question for you, Andrews. Whyd you move here? I rolled my eyes and ignored his question. If I were going to ask you to encourage this guy to make one small change to his business practices, it would definitely not be the radio volume. Guss grin split wide, and even now, my stomach flipped traitorously. I wasnt sure Id seen him smile like that before, and there was something intoxicating about it. His dark eyes flitted toward the counter and I followed his gaze. The underwear-clad man was positively boogying back and forth between his ovens. Guss eyes came back to mine, hyperfocused. Are you going to tell me why you moved here? I stuffed a donut chunk into my mouth and shook my head. He half shrugged. Then I cant answer your question. Thats not how conversations work, I told him. Theyre not just even trades. Thats exactly what they are, he said. At least, when youre not into foot jobs. I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed, even as I said, You were extremely rude to me, by the way. He was silent for a minute. I flinched as his rough fingers caught my wrists and tugged my hands away from my face. His teasing smile had faded, and his brow was creased, his gaze inky-dark and serious. I know. Im sorry. It was a bad day. My stomach flipped right side up again. I hadnt expected an apology. Id certainly never gotten an apology for that happily ever after comment. You were hosting a raging party, I said, recovering. Id love to see what a good day looks like for you. The corner of his mouth twitched uncertainly. If you removed the party, youd be a lot closer. Anyway, will you forgive me? Ive been told I make a bad first impression. I crossed my arms, and, emboldened by the wine or his apology, I said, That wasnt my first impression. Something inscrutable passed across his face, vanishing before I could place it. What was your question? he said. If I answer it, will you forgive me? Not how forgiveness works either, I said. When he began to rub his forehead, I added, But yes. Fine. One question, he said. I leaned across the table. You thought they were doing your book, didnt you? His brows knit together. They? Spies and Liquified Pies, I said. He pretended to be aghast. Do you perhaps mean Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club? Because that nickname you just gave it is an affront to literature salons everywhere, not to mention Freedom and America. I felt the smile break out across my face. I sat back, satisfied. You totally did. You thought they were reading The Revelatories. First of all, Gus said, Ive lived here five years and Petes never invited me to that book club, so yeah, it seemed like a fairly reasonable assumption at the time. Secondlyhe snatched a glazed cake donut from the boxyou might want to be careful, January Andrews. You just revealed you know the title of my book. Who knows what other secrets are on the verge of spilling out of you? How do you know I didnt just Google it? I countered. Maybe Id never heard of it before. How do you know that your Googling me wouldnt be even more amusing to me? Gus said. How do you know I wasnt Googling you out of suspicion you had a criminal background? Gus replied, How do you know I wont keep answering your questions with other questions until we both die? How do you know Ill care? Gus shook his head, smiling, and took another bite. Wow, this is terrible. The donuts or this conversation? I asked. This conversation, definitely. The donuts are good. I Googled you too, by the way. You should consider getting a rarer name. Ill pass that suggestion along to the higher-ups, but I cant make any promises, I said. Theres all kinds of red tape and bureaucratic bullshit to go through. Southern Comfort sounds pretty sexy, he said. You have a thing for Southern boys? No teeth and overalls really rev your engine? I rolled my eyes. Im led to believe youve never been to the South and possibly couldnt locate south on a compass. Besides, why does everyone try to make womens writing semiautobiographical? Do people generally assume your lonely, white, male Coldly horny, Gus inserted. coldly horny protagonists are you? He nodded thoughtfully, his dark eyes intent on me. Good question. Do you assume Im coldly horny? Definitely. This seemed to amuse him and his crooked mouth. I glanced out the window. If Pete wasnt planning on using either of our books, how did she just forget to tell us what the book clubs pick was? I mean, if she just wanted us to join, youd think shed give us a chance to actually read the book. This wasnt an accident, Gus said. It was an intentional manipulation of the truth. She knows theres no way I wouldve come tonight if Id known what was really happening. I snorted. And what was the end goal of this nefarious plan? To become an eccentric side character in the next Augustus Everett novel? What exactly do you have against my books, which you have allegedly not read? he asked. What do you have against my books, I said, which you have certainly not read? What makes you so sure? The pirate reference. I dug in to a strawberry frosted covered in sprinkles. Thats not the kind of romance I write. In fact, my books arent even shelved as romance, technically. Theyre shelved as womens fiction. Gus slumped against the booth and stretched his lean olive arms over his head, rolling his wrists to make them crack. I dont understand why thered need to be a full genre thats just books for women. I scoffed. Here it was, that always-ready anger rising like it had been waiting for an excuse. Yeah, well, youre not the only one who doesnt understand it, I said. I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what youd get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, Ive eliminated half the Earths population from my potential readers, and you know what? I dont feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed. That people like you will assume my books couldnt possibly be worth your time, while meanwhile you could shart on live TV and the New York Times would praise your bold display of humanity. Gus was staring at me seriously, head cocked, rigid line between his eyebrows. Now can you take me home? I said. Im feeling nice and sober. 8 The Bet GUS SLID OUT of the booth, and I followed, gathering the donut box and my cup of sizzling shit. It had stopped raining, but now heavy fog hung in clumps. Without another word, we got into the car and drove away from DONUTS, the word glowing teal in the rearview mirror. Its the happy endings, Gus said suddenly as he pulled onto the main drag. What? My stomach clenched. They all live happily ever after. Again. Gus cleared his throat. Its not that I dont take romance seriously as a genre. And I like reading about women. But I have a hard time with happy endings. His eyes cautiously flashed my way, then went back to the road. A hard time? I repeated, as if that would make the words make sense to me. You have a hard time reading happy endings? He rubbed at the curve of his bicep, an anxious tic I didnt remember. I guess. Why? I asked, more confused than offended now. Life is pretty much a series of good and bad moments right up until the moment you die, he said stiffly. Which is arguably a bad one. Love doesnt change that. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief. Besides, can you think of a single real-life romance that actually ended like Bridget fucking Jones? There it was, the Gus Everett I knew. The one whod thought I was hopelessly naive. And even if I had some evidence hed been right, I wasnt ready to let him trash the thing that had once meant more to me than anything else, the genre that had kept me afloat when Mom relapsed and our whole imagined future disappeared like smoke on a breeze. First of all, I said, Bridget fucking Jones is an ongoing series. It is literally the worst example you could have chosen to prove that point. Its the antithesis of the oversimplified and inaccurate stereotype of the genre. It does exactly what I aim to: it makes its readers feel known and understood, like their storieswomens storiesmatter. And secondly, are you honestly saying you dont believe in love? I felt a little desperate, like if I let him win this fight, it would be the final straw: thered be no getting back to myself, to believing in love and seeing the world and the people in it as pure, beautiful thingsto loving writing. Guss brow furrowed, his dark eyes flashing from me to the road with that intent, absorbing look Shadi and I had spent so much time trying to put into words. Sure, love happens, he said finally. But its better to be realistic so shits not constantly blowing up in your face. And love is way more likely to blow up in your face than to bring eternal happiness. And if it doesnt hurt you, then youre the one hurting someone else. Entering a relationship is borderline sadomasochistic. Especially when you can get everything you would from a romantic relationship from a friendship, without destroying anyones life when it inevitably ends. Everything? I said. Sex? He arched an eyebrow. You dont even need friendship to get sex. And what, it never turns into more for you? I said. You can keep things that detached? If youre realistic, he said. You need a policy. It doesnt turn into more if it only happens once. Wow. The shelf life had shortened. See? I said. You are coldly horny, Gus. He glanced sidelong at me, smiling. What? Thats the second time youve called me Gus tonight. My cheeks flushed. Right, Everett seemed to be his preference these days. So? Come on, January. His eyes went back to the road, the twin spears of the headlights reaching over the asphalt and catching blips of the evergreens whipping past. I remember you. His gaze settled on me again, his eyes nearly as solid and heavy as if they were hands. I was grateful for the dark as heat rushed to my face. From? Stop. It wasnt that long ago. And there was that one night. Oh, God. We werent going to talk about that one night, were we? The only night wed talked outside of class. Well, not talked. Wed been at the same frat party. The theme had been a very vague Classics. Gus and his friend Parker had come as Ponyboy and Johnny and spent the night getting called Greased Lightning by drunk frat boys. Shadi and I had gone as truck-stop Thelma (her) and Louise (me). Guss girl-of-the-hour, Tessa, had gone home for the weekend. She and I lived in the same student apartments and wound up at a lot of the same parties. She was the latest reason Gus and I had been crossing paths, but that night was different. It was the beginning of the school year, not quite fall. Shadi and I had been dancing in the basement, whose cement walls were sweating. All night, Id been watching Gus, fuming a little because his last short story had been so good and he was still ridiculously attractive and his criticism was still on point and I was tired of him asking to borrow my pens, and furthermore, hed caught me staring at him, and ever since, Id feltor thought (hoped?) Id felthim watching me too. At the makeshift bar in the next room. At the beer pong table upstairs. In the kitchen at the keg. And then he was standing still in the throng of bodies jumping and spastically dancing to Sandstorm (Shadi had hijacked the iPod, as she was wont to do), only a few yards away from me, and we were both staring at each other, and somehow I felt vindicated by this, sure that all this time, hed seen me as his competition after all. I didnt know if Id made my way to him, or if hed made his way to me, or if wed met in the middle. All I knew was that wed ended up dancing with (on?) each other. There were flashes of memory from that night that still made me buzz: his hands on my hips, my hands on his neck, his face against my throat, his arms around my waist. Coldly horny? No, Gus Everett had been all hot breath and sparking touches. Rivalry or not, it had been palpable how much we wanted each other that night. We had both been ready to make a bad decision. And then Shadi had saved the day by shaving her head in the bathroom with clippers shed found under the sink and getting us both kicked out and banned from that particular frats parties for life. Although we hadnt tried to go back in the last few years and I suspected frats had a rather short memory. Four years, max. Apparently, I had a much longer memory. January? I looked up and startled at the dark gaze Id been remembering, now here in the car with me. Id forgotten the tiny white scar to the right of his Cupids bow and now wondered how Id managed it. I cleared my throat. You told Pete we just met the other night. I told her we were neighbors, he allowed. Eyes back on the road. Eyes back on me. It felt like a personal attack, the way he kept looking at me then away after just a second too long. His mouth twitched. I wasnt sure you remembered me. Something about that made my insides feel like a ribbon being drawn across scissors until it curled. He went on: But no one calls me Gus except people I knew before publishing. Because? I asked. Because I dont like every whack job next-door neighbor Ive ever had to be able to Google me and leave me scathing reviews? he said. Or ask me for free books. Oh, I dont need free books, I assured him. Really? he teased. You dont want to add a fifth level to your shrine? Youre not going to distract me, I said. Im not done with this conversation. Shit. I honestly didnt mean to offend you, he promised. Again. You didnt offend me, I said uncertainly. Or maybe he had, but his apology had caught me off guard yet again. More so, I was baffled. I just think youre being silly. Wed reached our houses without me even noticing, and Gus parked along the curb and faced me. For the second time I noticed how small the car was, how close we were, how the dark seemed to magnify the intensity of his eyes as they fixed on mine. January, why did you come here? I laughed, uncomfortable. Into the car you begged me to get into? He shook his head, frustrated. Youre different now. I felt the blood rush into my cheeks. You mean Im not a fairy princess anymore. Confusion rippled across his face. Thats what you called me, I said, back then. You want me to say you were right. I got my wake-up call and things dont work out like they do in my books, right? His head tilted, the muscle in his jaw leaping. Thats not what I was saying. Its exactly what you were saying. He shook his head again. Well, its not what I meant, he said. I meant to say You were always so He huffed. I dont know, youre drinking wine out of your purse. Im guessing theres a reason for that. My mouth jammed shut, and my chest tightened. Probably Gus Everett was the last person Id expect to read me like that. I looked out the window toward the beach house as if it were a glowing red emergency exit sign, a savior from this conversation. I could hear waves breaking on the shore behind the houses, but the fog hung too thick for me to see anything. Im not asking you to tell me, Gus said after a second. I just I dont know. Its weird to see you like this. I turned toward him and folded my legs up on the seat as I studied him, searching his expression for irony. But his face was serious, his dark eyes narrowed and his brow pinched, his head doing that particular half tilt that made me feel like I was under a microscope. The Sexy, Evil stare that suggested he was reading your mind. Im not writing, I said. I wasnt sure why I was admitting it, least of all to Gus, but better him than Anya or Sandy. Im out of money, and my editors desperate to buy something from meand all Ive got is a handful of bad pages and three months to finish a book someone other than my mom will spend US dollars on. Thats whats going on. I batted away thoughts of my tattered relationship with Mom and the conversation wed had after the funeral to focus on the lesser evil of my situation. Ive done it before, I said. Four books, no problem. And its bad enough that I feel like Im incapable of doing the one thing Im good at, the thing that makes me feel like me, and then theres the added fact that Im totally out of money. Gus nodded thoughtfully. Its always harder to write when you have to. Its like the pressure turns it into a job, like anything else, and you might as well be selling insurance. The story suddenly loses any urgency to be told. Exactly, I agreed. But youll figure it out, he said coolly after a second. Im sure there are a million Happily Ever Afters floating around in that brain. Okay, A, no, there arent, I said. And B, its not as easy as you think, Gus. Happy endings dont matter if the getting there sucks. I tipped my head against the window. At this point, it honestly might be easier for me to pack it in on the upbeat womens fiction and hop aboard the Bleak Literary Fiction train. At least it would give me an excuse to describe boobs in some horrifying new way. Like bulbous succulents of flesh and sinew. I never get to say bulbous succulents of flesh in my books. Gus leaned back against the drivers side door and let out a laugh, which made me feel simultaneously bad for teasing him and ridiculously victorious for having made him laugh yet again. In college, Id barely seen him crack a smile. Clearly I wasnt the only one whod changed. You could never write like that, he said. Its not your style. I crossed my arms. You dont think Im capable? Gus rolled his eyes. Im just saying its not who you are. Its not who I was, I corrected. But as youve pointed out, Im different now. Youre going through something, he said, and again, I felt an uncomfortable prickle at him seeming to x-ray me like that, and at the spark of the old competitive flame Gus always ignited in me. But Id wager youre about as likely to churn out something dark and dreary as I am to go all When Harry Met Sally. I can write whatever I want, I said. Though I can see how writing a Happily Ever After might be hard for someone whose happy endings usually happen during one-night stands. Guss eyes darkened, and his mouth hitched into an uneven smile. Are you challenging me, Andrews? Im just saying, I parroted him, its not who you are. Gus scratched his jaw, his eyes clouding as he recessed into thought. His hand dropped to rest over the steering wheel and his focus shifted sharply to me. Okay, he said. I have an idea. A seventh Pirates of the Caribbean movie? I said. Its so crazy it might work! Actually, Gus said, I thought we could make a deal. What sort of deal, Augustus? He visibly shuddered at the sound of his full name and reached across the car. A spark of anticipationof what, I wasnt surerushed through me. But he was only opening the box in my lap and grabbing another donut. Coconut. He bit into it. You try writing bleak literary fiction, see if thats who you are now, if youre capable of being that personI rolled my eyes and snatched the last bite of donut from his hand. He went on, unbotheredand Ill write a Happily Ever After. My eyes snapped up to his. The fringes of the porch light were making their way through the fog now, brushing at the car window and catching at the sharp angle of his face and the dark wave that fell across his forehead. Youre kidding. Im not, he said. Youre not the only one whos been in a rut. I could use a break from what Im doing Because writing a romance will be so easy it will essentially be a nap for you, I teased. And you can lean into your bleak new outlook and see how it fits. If this is the new January Andrews. And whoever sells their book firstwith a pen name, if you preferwins. I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. I closed it and tried again. Wins what? Guss brow lifted. Well, first of all, youll have sold a book, so you can pay your bills and keep your purse stocked with wine. Secondly He thought for a moment. The loser will promote the winners book, write an endorsement for the cover, recommend it in interviews, choose it when guest judging for book clubs, and all that, guaranteeing sales. And thirdly, if you win, youll be able to rub it in my face forever, which I suspect youd consider nearly priceless. I couldnt come close to hiding the smile blooming across my face. True. Everything he was saying made at least some sense. Wheels were turning in my headwheels that had been out of order for the past year. I really did think I could write the kind of book Gus wrote, that I could mimic The Great American Novel. It was different with love stories. They meant too much to me, and my readers had waited too long for me to give them something I didnt wholeheartedly believe in. It was all starting to add up. Everything except one detail. I narrowed my eyes. Gus exaggeratedly narrowed his back. What do you stand to gain here? I asked. Oh, all the same things, he said. I want something to lord over you. And money. Moneys always helpful. Uh-oh, I said. Is there trouble in Coldly Horny Paradise? My books take a long time to write, Gus said. The advances have been good, but even with my scholarships, I had a lot of student loans, and some old debt, and then I put a lot into this house. If I can sell something quick, it will help me out. I gasped and clutched my heart. And you would stoop to peddling the sadomasochistic American dream of lasting love? Gus frowned. If youre not into the plan, just forget it. But now I couldnt forget it. Now I needed to prove to Gus that what I did was harder than it looked, that I was just as capable as he was. Besides, having Augustus Everett promote a book of mine would have benefits I couldnt afford to pass up. Im in, I said. His eyes bored into me, that evil smile climbing the corner of his top lip. You sure? This could be truly humiliating. An involuntary laugh sprang out of me. Oh, Im counting on it, I said. But Ill make it a little easier on you. Ill throw in a rom-com crash course. Fine, Gus said. Then Ill take you through my research process. Ill help you lean into your latent nihilism, and youll teach me how to sing like no ones listening, dance like no ones watching, and love like Ive never been hurt before. His faint grin was contagious, if overconfident. You really think you can do this? I asked. He lifted one shoulder. You think you can? I held his gaze as I thought. And youll endorse the book? If I win and sell the book, youll write a shiny pull quote to slap on the cover, no matter how bad it is. His eyes were doing the thing again. The sexy/evil thing where they expanded and darkened as he lost himself in thought. I remember how you wrote when you were twenty-two, he said carefully. It wont be bad. I fought a blush. I didnt understand how he could do that, bounce between being rude, almost condescending, and disarmingly complimentary. But yes, he added, leaning forward. Even if you give me a novelization of the sequel to Gigli, if you sell it, I will endorse it. I sat back to put some distance between us. Okay. So what about this? We spend our weekdays writing, and leave the end of the week for education. Education, he repeated. On Fridays, Ill go with you to do whatever research you would usually do. Which would include I gestured for him to fill in the blank. He smiled crookedly. It was extremely evil. Oh, all sorts of riveting things, he supplied. And then on Saturdays, well do whatever you usually do for researchhot-air balloon trips, sailing lessons, two-person motorcycle rides, candlelit restaurants with patio seating and bad cover bands, and all that shit. Heat spread up my neck. He had just nailed me, again. I mean, I hadnt done the two-person motorcycle rides (I had no death wish), but I had taken a hot-air balloon ride to prepare for my third novel, Northern Light. The corner of his mouth twitched, apparently delighted by my expression. So. We have a deal? He held out his hand to me. My mind spun in dizzying circles. It wasnt like I had any other ideas. Maybe a depressed writer could only make a depressing book. Okay. I slid my hand into his, pretending not to feel the sparks leaping from his skin straight into my veins. Just one more thing, he said soberly. What? Promise not to fall in love with me. Oh my God! I shoved his shoulder and flopped back into my seat, laughing. Are you slightly misquoting A Walk to Remember at me? Gus cracked another smile. Excellent movie, he said. Sorry, film. I rolled my eyes, still shivering with laughter. A half laugh rattled out of him too. Im serious. I think I got to second base in the theater during that one. I refuse to believe anyone would cheapen the greatest love story involving Mandy Moore ever told by letting a teenage Gus Everett cop a feel. Believe whatever you want, January Andrews, he said. Jack Reacher risks his life every day to guarantee you that freedom. 9 The Manuscript WHEN I WOKE, I did not have a hangover, but I did have a text from Shadi, reading, He has a whole RACK of vintage hats!!! And how would you know that? I texted back. I climbed off the couch and went into the kitchen. While I still hadnt gathered enough courage to go upstairs, or even start sleeping in the downstairs guest bedroom, Id started to find my way around the cupboards. I knew the rose-speckled kettle was already on the burner, that there was no coffeemaker in the kitchen, and that there was a French press and grinder down in the lazy Susan. This, I had to assume, was one of Sonyas contributions, because Id never seen Dad drink anything but the Starbucks Keurig cups Mom bought in bulk or the green tea she begged him to have instead. I wasnt a coffee snob myselfI could get behind flavored syrups and whipped toppingsbut I started most mornings with something drinkable enough to have it black. I filled the kettle and turned the burner on, that warm, earthy smell of gas leaping to life with the flame. I plugged the grinder in and stared out the window as it worked. Last nights mist had held out, cloaking the strip of woods between the house and the beach in deep grays and blues. The house had chilled too. I shivered, pulling my robe tighter. As I waited for the coffee to steep, my phone vibrated against the counter. WELL, Shadi began, a bunch of us went out after work, and AS USUAL, he was totally ignoring me EXCEPT whenever I wasnt looking and then I could feel him just absolutely staring at me. So eventually he went to the bathroom and I also had to go so I was back in the hallway waiting and then he came out and was like hey shad and I was like wow, I honestly thought you didnt speak until this moment and he just like shrugged. So I was like ANYWAY I was thinking about leaving. And he was like oh, shit, really? And he was just like, obviously disappointed, and then I was like, Well, I was thinking about leaving with you. And he was SO nervous!! And like, excited like, Yeah? That sounds good. When do you want to go? and I was like Duh. Now. And as you can see, the rest is history. Wow, I typed back. Its a tale as old as time. Truly, Shadi responded. Girl meets boy. Boy ignores girl except when shes not looking. Girl goes home with boy and sees him hang his haunted hat on a crowded rack. The timer went off and I pressed the coffee and poured some into a mug shaped like a cartoonish orca whale, then took it and my computer out onto the deck, mist pleasantly chilling every bare inch of my skin. I curled up in one of the chairs and started to make a mental checklist for the day, and for the rest of the summer. First and foremost, I needed to figure out where exactly this book was going, if not in the direction of a feel-good summer romance with a single father. Then I needed to plan out Saturdays romantic-comedy scenario for Gus. My stomach flipped at the thought. Id half expected to wake up in a panic about our agreement. Instead I was excited. For the first time in years, I was going to write a book that absolutely no one was waiting for. And Id get to watch Gus Everett try to write a love story. Or I was going to make a huge fool of myself and, far worse, disappoint Anya. But I couldnt think about that right now. There was work to do. Aside from working on the book and scheduling the (actual only) Uber driver to take me to get my car from Petes, I decided Id conquer the second upstairs bedroom today and divide whatever was in there into throwaway, giveaway, and sell piles. I also vowed to move my stuff into the downstairs bedroom. Id done okay on the couch the first few nights but had awoken this morning to some serious kinks in my neck. My gaze wandered toward the swath of windows along the back of Guss house. At that precise moment, he walked into his kitchen, pulling a (shocker!) rumpled, dark T-shirt over his head. I spun back in my deck chair. He couldnt have seen me watching him. But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that I mightve stared for a couple of seconds before looking away. I could vividly picture the curves of Guss arms as he tugged the shirt over his head, a flat length of stomach framed by the sharp angles of hip bones. He was a little softer than hed been in college (not that it took much), but it suited him. Or maybe it just suited me. Well. I had definitely stared. I glanced back quickly and started. Gus was standing in front of the glass doors now. He lifted his mug as if to toast me. I lifted mine in response, and he shuffled away. If Gus Everett was getting to work already, I also needed to. I opened my computer and stared at the document Id been picking at for the last few days. A meet-cute. There werent meet-cutes in Augustus Everett novels, that was for damn sure. What was there? I hadnt read either of them, not Rochambeau and not The Revelatories, but Id read enough reviews of them to satiate my curiosity. People doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. People doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Only getting what they wanted if it would ultimately destroy them. Twisted, secretive families. Well, I had no experience there! The ache shot through me. It felt like the first few seconds of a burn, when you couldnt tell whether it was heat or cold burrowing into your skin but knew either way it would leave damage. The memory of my fight with Mom after the funeral rose up like a tidal wave. Jacques had left for the airport the second the service was over to make it back for work, missing the showdown with Sonya entirely, and once shed fled, Mom and I didnt stick around for long either. We fought the whole drive back to the house. No, that wasnt true. I fought. Years worth of feelings Id chosen not to feel. Years of betrayal forcing them out. How could you keep this from me? Id shouted as I drove. She wasnt supposed to come here! Mom had said, then buried her face in her hands. I cant talk about this, shed sobbed, shaking her head. I cant. From then on, anything else I said was answered with this: I cant talk about this. I cant talk about him like this. Im not going to talk about it. I cant. I should have understood. I should have cared more what Mom was feeling. This was meant to be the moment that I became the adult, hugging her tight, promising everything would be okay, taking her pain. Thats what grown daughters did for their mothers. But back in the church, Id torn in half and everything had spilled out of me into plain view for the first time. Hundreds of nights Id chosen not to cry. Thousands of moments Id worried about worrying. That if I did it, Id make things worse for my parents. That I needed to be strong. That I needed to be happy so I wouldnt drag them down. All those years when I was terrified my mother would die, Id tucked every ugly thing out of sight to transform my life into a shiny window display for her benefit. Id made my parents laugh. Id made them proud. Id brought home solid grades, fought tooth and nail to keep up with Gus Everett. Id stayed up late reading with Dad and gotten up early to pretend I liked yoga with Mom. Id told them about my life, asked them endlessly about theirs so Id never regret wasting time with them. And I hid the complicated feelings that came with trying to memorize someone you loved, just in case. I fell in love at twenty-two, just like they had, with a boy named Jacques who was the singularly most beloved and interesting person Id met, and I paraded our happiness past them as often as I could. I gave up on grad school to be close to them but proved I hadnt really missed out on anything by publishing at twenty-five. Look! Im fine! Look! I have every beautiful thing you wanted for me! Look! This hasnt affected me at all! Look, they all live happily ever after. Again. Id done everything I could to prove that I was okay, that I wasnt worrying. I did everything I could for that story. The one where the three of us were unbreakable. On the drive home from the funeral, I didnt want to be okay anymore. I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to scream, to slam doors, to yell, I hate you! Youre ruining my life! like I never had. I wanted Mom to ground me, then sneak into my room later and kiss my forehead, whisper, I understand how scared you are. Instead, she wiped away her tears, took a deep breath, and repeated, Im not going to talk about this. Fine, I said, defeated, broken. We wont talk about it. When I flew back to New York, everything changed. Moms calls became rare, and even when they did happen, they hit like a tornado. Shed cyclone through every detail of her week, then ask how I was doing, and if I hesitated too long shed panic and excuse herself for some exercise class shed forgotten about. Shed spent years preparing for her own death without any time to brace herself for this. For him to leave us and for the ugly truth to walk into his funeral and tear all our pretty memories in half. She was in pain. I knew that. But I was in pain too, so much of it that for once I couldnt laugh or dance any measure of it away. I couldnt even write myself a happy ending. I didnt want to sit here in front of my laptop outside this house full of secrets and exorcise my fathers memory from my heart. But apparently Id found the one thing I could do. Because Id already started typing. The first time she met the love of her fathers life was at his funeral. MY LOVE AFFAIR with romance novels had started in the waiting room of my mothers radiologists office. Mom didnt like for me to go in with hershe insisted it made her feel senileso Id sat with a well-worn paperback from the rack, trying to distract myself from the ominous ticking of the clock fixed over the sign-in window. Id expected to stare at one page for twenty minutes, caught in the hamster wheel of anxiety. Instead Id read 150 pages and then accidentally stuffed the book in my purse when it was time to go home. It was the first wave of relief Id felt in weeks, and from there, I binge-read every romance novel I could get my hands on. And then, without any true plans, I started writing one, and that feeling, that feeling of falling head over heels in love with a story and its characters as they sprang out of me, was unlike anything else. Moms first diagnosis taught me that love was an escape rope, but it was her second diagnosis that taught me love could be a life vest when you were drowning. The more I worked on my love story, the less powerless I felt in the world. I may have had to ditch my plan to go to grad school and find a teaching job, but I could still help people. I could give them something good, something funny and hopeful. It worked. For years, I had a purpose, something good to focus on. But when Dad died, suddenly writingthe one thing that had always put me at ease, a verb that felt more like a place only for me, the thing that had freed me from my darkest moments and brought hope into my chest in my hearts heaviesthad seemed impossible. Until now. And okay, this was more of a diary written in third person than a novel, but words were coming out of my hands and it had been so long since that had happened I wouldve rejoiced to find ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY filling up the Word document a thousand times over. This had to be better than that (????): She had no idea whether her father had actually loved That Woman. She didnt know whether hed loved her mother either. The three things she knew, without doubt, that hed loved were books, boats, and January. It wasnt just that Id been born then. Hed always acted like Id been born in January because it was the best month and not the other way around. In Ohio, Id largely considered it to be the worst month of the year. Oftentimes we didnt get snow until February, which meant January was just a gray, cold, lightless time when you no longer had a major holiday to look forward to. In West Michigan, its different, Dad had always said. There was the lake, and the way it would freeze over, covered in feet of snow. Apparently you could walk across it like it was some Martian tundra. In college, Shadi and I had planned to drive out one weekend and see it, but shed gotten a call that their sheltie had died, and wed spent the weekend watching Masterpiece Classic and making smores on the stove top instead. I got back to typing. If things had been different, she mightve gone to the lakeside town in winter instead of summer, sat behind the wall of windows staring at the white-capped blues and strange frozen greens of the snowy beach. But shed had this uncanny feeling, a fear shed come face-to-face with his ghost if shed shown up there at just the right time. I wouldve seen him everywhere. I wouldve wondered how hed felt about every detail, remembered a particular snowfall hed described from his childhood: All these tiny orbs, January, like the whole world was made out of Dippin Dots. Pure sugar. Hed had a way of describing things. When Mom read my first book she told me she could see him in it. In the way I wrote. It made sense. Id learned to love stories from him, after all. She used to pride herself on all the things she had in common with him, regard the similarities with affection. Night owls. Messy. Always late, always carrying a book. Careless about sunblock and addicted to every form of potatoes. Alive when we were on the water. Arms thrown wide, jackets rustling, eyes squinting into the sun. Now she worried those similarities betrayed the terrible wrongness that lived in her. Maybe she, like her father, was incapable of the love shed spent her life chasing. Or maybe that love simply didnt exist. 10 The Interview ID READ SOMEWHERE that it took 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. Writing was different, too vague a something for 10,000 hours to add up to much. Maybe 10,000 hours of lying in an empty bathtub brainstorming added up to being an expert on brainstorming in an empty bathtub. Maybe 10,000 hours of walking your neighbors dog, working out a plot problem under your breath, would turn you into a pro at puzzling through plot tangles. But those things were parts of a whole. Id probably spent more than 10,000 hours typing novels (those published as well as those cast aside), and I still wasnt an expert at typing, let alone an expert on writing books. Because even when youd spent 10,000 hours writing feel-good fiction and another 10,000 reading it, it didnt make you an expert at writing any other kind of book. I didnt know what I was doing. I couldnt be sure I was doing anything. There was a decent chance Id send this draft to Anya and get an email back like, Why did you just send me the menu for Red Lobster? But whether or not I was actually succeeding at this book, I was writing it. It came in painful ebbs and desperate flows, as if timed to the waves crashing somewhere behind that wall of fog. It wasnt my life, but it was close. The conversation between the three womenEllie, her mother, and Sonyas stand-in, Lucymightve been word for word, although I knew not to trust memory quite so much these days. If memory were accurate, then Dad couldnt have been here, in this house, when Moms cancer came back. He couldnt have been because, until he died, I had memories of them dancing barefoot in the kitchen, of him smoothing her hair and kissing her head, driving her to the hospital with me in the back seat and the playlist hed enlisted me to help him piece together playing on the car stereo. Willie Nelsons Always on My Mind. Mom and Dads hands clasped tightly on the center console. Of course I remembered the business trips too. But that was the point. I remembered things as Id thought theyd been, and then the truth, That Truth, had ripped the memories in half as easily as if they had been images on printer paper. The next three days were a fervor of writing, cleaning, and little else. Aside from a box of wrapping paper, a handful of board games, and a great deal of towels and spare bedding, there was nothing remotely personal in the upstairs guest bedroom. It couldve been any vacation home in America, or maybe a model home, a half-assed promise that your life too could be this kind of generically pretty. I liked the upstairs decor significantly less than the warm boho vibe downstairs. I couldnt decide whether I felt relieved or cheated by that. If there had been more of him, or of her, here, shed already done the heavy lifting of scrubbing it clear. On Wednesday, I photographed the furniture and posted it on craigslist. On Thursday, I packed the extra bedding, board games, and wrapping paper into boxes for Goodwill. On Friday, I stripped all the bedding and the towels from the racks in the second upstairs bathroom and carried them down to the laundry closet on the first floor, dumping them into the washer before sitting down to write. The mist had finally burned off and the house was hot and sticky once again, so Id opened the windows and doors and turned on all the fans. Id gotten glimpses of Gus over the last three days, but theyd been few. As far as I could tell, he moved around while drafting. If he was working at the kitchen table in the morning, he was never there by the time I poured my second cup of coffee. If he was nowhere to be seen all day, hed appear suddenly on the deck at night, writing with only the light of his laptop and the swarm of moths batting around it. Whenever I spotted him, I instantly lost focus. It was too fun imagining what he could be writing, brainstorming the possibilities. I was praying for vampires. On Friday afternoon, we lined up for the first time, sitting at our tables in front of our matching windows. He sat at his kitchen table, facing my house. I sat at my kitchen table, facing his. When we realized this, he lifted his bottle of beer the same way hed mock-toasted with his coffee mug. I lifted my water glass. Both windows were open. We couldve talked but we would have had to scream. Instead Gus smiled and picked up the highlighter and notebook beside him. He scribbled on it for a second, then held the notebook up so I could read it: LIFE IS MEANINGLESS, JANUARY. GAZE INTO THE ABYSS. I suppressed a laugh, then fished a Sharpie out of my backpack, dragged my own notebook toward me, and flipped to a blank page. In large, square letters, I wrote: THIS REMINDS ME OF THAT TAYLOR SWIFT VIDEO. His smile leapt up his face. He shook his head, then went back to writing. Neither of us said another word, and neither of us relocated either. Not until he knocked on my front door for our first research outing, a steel travel mug in each hand. He gave my dressthe same itchy black thing Id worn to book cluband boots one slow up-and-down, then shook his head. That will not work. I look great, I fired back. Agreed. If we were going to see the American Ballet Theatre, youd be perfect. But Im telling you, January, that will not work for tonight. ITS GOING TO be a late night, Gus warned. We were in his car, heading north along the lake, the sun slung low in the sky, its last feverish rays painting everything to look like backlit cotton candy. When Id demanded he pick out my new outfit and save me the trouble, Id expected him to be uncomfortable. Instead he followed me into the downstairs guest room, looked at the handful of things hanging in the closet, and picked out the same denim shorts Id worn to Petes bookstore and my Carly Simon T-shirt, and with that wed set off. As long as you dont make me listen to you sing Everybody Hurts twice in a row, I said, I think I can deal with a late night. His smile was faint. It made his eyelids sink heavily. Dont worry. That was a special occasion I let a friend talk me into. Wont happen again. He was tapping restlessly against the steering wheel as we pulled up to a red light, and my eyes slid down the veins in his forearms, up along the back of his bicep to where it met his sleeve. Jacques had been handsome like an underwear model, perfectly toned with a winning smile and golden-brown hair that fell the same exact way every day. But it was all of Guss minor imperfectionshis scars and ridges, crooked lines and sharp edgesand how they added up that had always made it hard for me to stop looking at him, and made me want to see more. He leaned forward to mess with the temperature controls, his eyes flicking toward me. I jerked my gaze out the window, trying to clear my mind before he could read it. Do you want to be surprised? he said. My heart seemed to trip over its next beat. What? About where were going. I relaxed. Hm. Surprised by something disturbing enough that you think it belongs in a book. No thanks. Probably wise, he agreed. Were going to interview a woman whose sister was in a suicide cult. Youre kidding. He shook his head. Oh my God, I said through a shock of laughter. All at once, the tension Id imagined dissipated. Gus, are you writing a rom-com about a suicide cult? He rolled his eyes. I scheduled this interview before our bet. Besides, the point of this outing is helping you learn to write literary fiction. Well, either way, you werent kidding about staring into the abyss, I said. So the point of this lesson is basically Everything sucks, now get to work writing about it? Gus smirked. No, smart-ass. The points of this lesson are character and detail. I faux-gasped. Youre never going to believe this crazy coincidence, but we have those in womens fiction too! You know, youre the one who initiated this whole lesson-plan element of the deal, Gus said. If youre going to make fun of me the whole time, Im happy to drop you off at the nearest suburban comedy club open mic and pick you up on the way back. Okay, okay. I waved him on. Character and detail. You were saying Gus shrugged. I like writing about outlandish scenarios. Characters and events that seem too absurd to be real, but still work. Having specificity helps make the unbelievable believable. So I do a lot of interviews. Its interesting what people remember about a situation. Like if Im going to write a cult-leading zealot who believes hes an alien consciousness reincarnated as every great world leader for centuries, I also need to know what kind of shoes he wears, and what he eats for breakfast. But do you really? I teased. Are the readers honestly begging for that? He laughed. You know, maybe the reason you havent been able to finish your book is that you keep asking what someone else wants to read instead of what you want to write. I crossed my arms, bristling. So tell me, Gus. How are you going to put a romantic spin on your suicide-cult book? His head tilted against the headrest, his knife-edged cheekbones casting shadows down his face. He scratched his jaw. First of all, when did I say this interview was for my rom-com? I could just as easily set aside all my notes from this until I win our bet, then get back to work on my next official novel. And is that what youre doing? I asked. I dont know yet, he admitted. Trying to figure out if I can combine the ideas. Maybe, I said doubtfully. Tell me the specifics. Ill see if I can help. Okay. So. He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. The original premise was basically that this journalist finds out his high school sweetheart, a former drug addict, has joined a cult, so he decides to infiltrate it and take it down. But while hes there, he starts moving up through the ranks really quickly, like waaaay past the woman he went there to save. And as he does, he starts seeing all this stuff, this proof, that the leaders right. About everything. Eventually, the girl was going to get scared and try to back out, try to talk him into leaving with her. So Im guessing, I said, they leave, honeymoon in Paris, and settle down in a small villa in the south of France. Probably become winemakers. He was going to murder her, Gus said flatly. To save her soul. I hadnt decided if that was going to be what finally brought the cult downgot all the leaders arrested and everythingor if he was going to become the new prophet. I liked the first option because it feels more like a closed loop: he wants to get her out of the cult; he does. He wants to bring the cult down; he does. But the second one feels more cyclical in a way. Like every damaged person with a hero complex could end up doing exactly what the original leader of the cult does. I dunno. Maybe Id have a young man or woman with a drug habit show up at the very end. Cute, I said. Exactly what I was going for, he answered. So. Any ideas for the not-terrible version of this book? I mean, I liked that south-of-France pitch. That shits fire. Glad you see things my way. Anyway, he said. Ill figure it out. A cult rom-com does sound like a thing. What about you? Whats your book? I pretended to puke in my lap. Cute, he echoed, flashing me a grin. Speaking of fire, sometimes his eyes seemed to be reflecting it, even though there wasnt any. The car was nearly pitch-black, for Gods sake. His eyes shouldnt be allowed, physically or morally, to glint like that. His pupils were disrespectful to the laws of nature. My skin started burning under them. I have no idea what my book was, I said when he finally looked back to the road. And little idea what it is. I think its about a girl. He waited for me to go on for a few seconds, then said, Wow. I know. There was more. There was the father she adored. There was his mistress and his beach house in the town he grew up in, and his wifes radiation appointments. But even if things between Gus Everett and me had warmed (the fault of his eyes), I wasnt ready for the follow-up questions this conversation might yield. Why did you move here anyway? I asked after a lengthy silence. Gus shifted in his seat. Clearly there was plenty he didnt want to talk to me about either. For the book, he said. I read about this cult here. In the nineties. It had this big compound in the woods before it got busted. There was all kinds of illegal shit going on there. Ive been here about five years, interviewing people and researching and all that. Seriously? Youve been working on this for five years? He glanced my way. Its research heavy. And for part of that time I was finishing up my second book and touring for that and everything. It wasnt like, five uninterrupted years at a typewriter with a single empty water bottle to pee in. Your doctor will be relieved to hear that. We drove in taut silence for a while before Gus rolled down his window, which gave me permission to roll mine down. The warm whip of the air against the open windows dissolved any discomfort from the silence wed fallen into. We couldve just been two strangers on the same beach or bus or ferry. As we drove, the sun vanished inch by inch. Eventually, Gus fiddled with the radio, stopping to crank up an oldies station playing Paul Simon. I love this song, he told me over the wind cycloning through the car. Really? I said, surprised. I figured youd make me listen to Elliott Smith or Johnny Cashs cover of Hurt the whole way. Gus rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. And I figured youd bring a Mariah Carey playlist with you. Damn, I wish Id thought of that. His gruff laugh was mostly lost in the wind, but I heard enough of it to make my cheeks go warm. It was two hours before we got off the highway and then another thirty minutes of ice-damaged back roads, lit only by the cars brights and the stars overhead. Finally, we pulled from the winding road through the woods into the gravel lot of a bar with a corrugated tin roof. Its glowing marquee read, THE BY-WATER. Aside from a few motorcycles and a junker of a Toyota pickup, the lot was empty, but the windows, illuminated by glowing BUDWEISER and MILLER signs, revealed a dense crowd inside. Be honest, I said. Did you bring me here to murder me? Gus turned off the car and rolled up the windows. Please. We drove three hours. Ive got a perfectly good murder spot back in North Bear Shores. Are all your interviews at spooky dive bars in the forest? I asked. He shrugged. Only the good ones. We climbed out of the car. Without the fifty mph wind, it was hot and sticky out, every few feet punctuated by a new cloud of mosquitoes or fireflies. I thought maybe I could hear the water the bars name referred to somewhere in the woods behind it. Not the lake itself, I didnt think. A creek, probably. I always felt a bit anxious going to neighborhood spots like this when I wasnt a part of the neighborhood, but Gus appeared to be at ease, and hardly anyone looked up from their beer or pool tables or trysts against the wall beside the old-school jukebox. It was a place full of camo hats and tank tops and Carhartt jackets. I was extremely grateful Gus had encouraged me to change my outfit. Who are we meeting? I asked, sticking close to him as he surveyed the crowd. He tipped his chin toward a lone woman at a high-top near the back. Grace was in her midfifties and had the rounded shoulders of someone whod spent a lot of time sitting, but not necessarily relaxed. Which made sense. She was a truck driver with four sons in high school and no romantic partner to lean on. Not that that matters, she said, taking a sip from her Heineken. Were not here to talk about that. You want to know about Hope. Hope, her sister. Hope and Grace. Twins from northern Michigan, not quite the Upper Peninsula, shed already told us. We want to talk about whatever you think is relevant, Gus said. She wanted to be sure it wasnt for a news story. Gus shook his head. Its a novel. None of the characters will have your names or look like you, or be you. The cult wont be the same cult. This is to help us understand the characters. What makes someone join a cult, when you first noticed something off with Hope. That sort of thing. Her eyes glanced off the door then back to us, an uncertainty in her expression. I felt guilty. I knew shed come here of her own volition, but this couldnt be easy, scraping the muck out of her heart and holding it out to a couple of strangers. You dont have to tell us, I blurted, and I felt the full force of Guss eyes cut to me, but I kept my focus on Grace, her watery eyes, slightly parted lips. I know talking about it wont undo any of it. But not talking about it wont either, and if theres anything you need to say, you can. Even if its just your favorite thing about her, you can say it. Her eyes sharpened into slivers of sapphire and her mouth tightened into a knot. For a second, she was stock-still and somber, a midwestern Madonna in a stone piet?, some sacred memory cradled in her lap where we couldnt quite see it. Her laugh, she said finally. She snorted when she laughed. The corner of my mouth inched up but a new heaviness settled across my chest. I love when people do that, I admitted. My best friend does it. I always feel like shes drowning in life. In a good way. Like its rushing up her nose, you know? A soft, wispy smile formed on Graces thin lips. A good way, she said quietly. Then her smile quivered sadly, and she scratched her sunburned chin, her sloped shoulders rising as she set her forearms on the table. She cleared her throat. I didnt, she said thickly. Know anything was off. Thats what you wanted to know? Her eyes glossed and she shook her head once. I had no idea until she was already gone. Guss head tilted. How is that possible? Because. Tears were rushing into her eyes even as she shrugged. She was still laughing. WE WERE SILENT for most of the drive home. Windows up, radio off, eyes on the road. Gus, I imagined, was mentally sorting the information hed gotten from Grace. I was lost in thoughts about my dad. I could so easily see myself avoiding the questions I had about him until I was Graces age. Until Sonya was gone, and Mom too, and there was no one left to give me answers, even if I wanted them. I wasnt prepared to spend my life avoiding any thought of the man whod raised me, feeling sick whenever I remembered the envelope in the box atop the fridge. But I was also tired of the pain inside my rib cage, the weight pressing on my clavicles and anxious sweat that cropped up whenever I considered the truth for too long. I closed my eyes and pressed back into the headrest as the memory surged forward. I tried to fight it off, but I was too tired, so there it was. The crocheted shawl, the look on Moms face, the key in my palm. God, I didnt want to go back to that house. The car stopped and my eyes snapped open. Sorry, Gus stammered. Hed slammed the breaks to avoid plowing into a tractor at a dark four-way stop. Wasnt paying attention. Lost in that beautiful brain of yours? I teased, but it came out flat, and if Gus heard, he gave no indication. The more animated corner of his mouth was twisted firmly down. You okay? he asked. Yeah. He was quiet for another beat. That was pretty intense. If you want to talk about it I thought back to Graces story. Shed thought Hope was doing better than ever when she first fell in with her new crowd. Shed gotten off heroin, for one thinga nearly insurmountable challenge. I remember her skin looked better, Grace had said. And her eyes. I dont quite know what about them, but they were different too. I thought I had my sister back. Four months later, she was dead. Shed died by accident, internal bleeding from punishments. The rest of the trailer compound that was New Eden had gone up in flames as the FBI investigation was closing in. Everything Grace had told us was probably great for Guss original plot line. It didnt leave a lot of room for meet-cutes and HEAs. But that was sort of the point. Tonights research had been for me, to take my brain down the trails that led to the kind of book I was supposed to be writing. I couldnt understand how people did this. How Gus could bear to follow such dark paths just for the sake of a story. How he could keep asking questions when all Id wanted all night was to grab Grace and hold her tight, apologize for what the world had taken from her, find some wayany wayto make the loss one ounce lighter. Have to stop for gas, Gus said, and pulled off the highway to a deserted Shell station. There was nothing but parched fields for miles in every direction. I got out of the car to stretch my legs while Gus pumped the gas. Night had cooled the air, but not much. This one of your murder spots? I asked, walking around the car to him. I refuse to answer that on the grounds that you might try to take it from me. Solid grounds, I answered. After a moment, I couldnt hold the question in any longer. Doesnt it bother you? Having to live in someone elses tragedy? Five years. Thats a long time to put yourself in that place. Gus tucked the nozzle back into the pump, all his focus on twisting the gas cap closed. Everybodys got shit, January. Sometimes, thinking about someone elses is almost a relief. Okay, fine, I said. Let me have it. Guss eyebrows lifted and his Sexy, Evil mouth went slack. What? I folded my arms and pressed my hip into the drivers side door. I was tired of being the most delicate person in the room. The girl drunk on purse-wine, the one trying not to tremble as someone else poured their pain out on a high-top in a crummy bar. Lets hear this mysterious shit of yours. See if it gives me an effective break from mine. And now Graces, which weighed just as heavily on my chest. Guss liquidy dark eyes slid down my face. Nah, he said finally, and moved toward the door, but I stayed leaning against it. Youre in my way, he said. Am I? He reached for the door handle, and I slid sideways to block it. His hand connected with my waist instead, and a spark of heat shot through me. Even more in my way, he said, in a low voice that made it sound more like I dare you to stay there. My cheeks itched. His hand was still hanging against my hip like hed forgotten it was there, but his finger twitched, and I knew he hadnt. You just took me on the worlds most depressing date, I said. The least you could do is tell me a single thing about yourself, and why all this New Eden stuff matters to you. His brow lifted in amusement and his eyes flickered in that bonfire-lit way. Wasnt a date. Somehow, he managed to make it sound filthy. Right, you dont date, I said. Why is that? Part of your dark, mysterious past? His Sexy, Evil mouth tightened. What do I get? He stepped a little closer, and I became hyperaware of every molecule of space between us. I hadnt been this close to a man since Jacques. Jacques had smelled like high-end cologne by Commodity; Gus smelled smoky and sweet, like nag champa incense mixed with a salty beach. Jacques had blue eyes that twinkled over me like a summer breeze through chimes. Guss dark gaze bored into me like a corkscrew: What do I get? Lively conversation? My voice came out unfamiliarly low. He gave a slight shake of his head. Tell me why you moved here, and Ill tell you one thing about my dark, mysterious past. I considered the offer. The reward, I decided, was worth the cost. My dad died. He left me his beach house. The truth, if not all of it. For the second time, an unfamiliar expression flutteredsympathy? Disappointment, maybe?across his face too fast for me to parse out its meaning. Now your turn, I prompted. Fine, he said, voice scratchy, one thing. I nodded. Gus leaned in toward me and dropped his mouth beside my ear conspiratorially, his hot breath pulling goose bumps up the side of my neck. His eyes flashed sideways across my face, and his other hand touched my hip so lightly it couldve been a breeze. The heat in my hips spread toward my center, curling around my thighs like kudzu. It was crazy that I remembered that night in college so vividly that I knew hed touched me just like this. That first touch when we met on the dance floor, featherlight and melting-point hot, careful, intentional. I realized I was holding my breath, and when I forced myself to breathe, the rise and fall of my chest was ridiculous, the stuff of Regency-era erotica. How was he doing this to me? Again? After the night wed had tonight, this feeling, this hunger in me shouldnt have been possible. After the year Id had, I hadnt thought it was anymore. I lied, he whispered against my ear. I have read your books. His hands tightened on my waist and he spun me away from the car, opened the door, and got in, leaving me gasping at the sudden cold of the parking lot. 11 The Not Date I SPENT FAR TOO much of my Saturday trying to choose a perfect destination for Guss first Adventure in Romance. Even though Id been suffering from chronic writers block, I was still an expert in my field, and my list of possible settings for his introduction to meet-cutes and Happily Ever Afters was endless. Id pounded out another thousand words first thing in the morning, but since then Id been pacing and Googling, trying to choose the perfect place. When I still couldnt make up my mind, Id driven myself to the farmers market in town and walked the sunny aisle between the stands, searching for inspiration. I picked through buckets of cut flowers, longing for the days when I could afford a bundle of daisies for the kitchen, calla lilies for the nightstand in the bedroom. Of course, that had been back when Jacques and I were sharing an apartment. When you were renting in New York by yourself, there wasnt much money for things that smelled good for a week, then died in front of you. At the booth of a local farm, I filled my bag with plump tomatoes, orange and red, along with some basil and mint, cucumbers, and a head of fresh butter lettuce. If I couldnt pick something to do with Gus tonight, maybe wed cook dinner. My stomach grumbled at the thought of a good meal. I wasnt big on cooking myselfit took too much time I never felt like I hadbut there was definitely something romantic about pouring two glasses of red wine and moving around a clean kitchen, chopping and rinsing, stirring and sampling tastes from a wooden spoon. Jacques had loved to cookI could follow a recipe okay, but he preferred a more intuitive, cook-all-night approach, and kitchen intuition and food-patience were both things I sorely lacked. I paid for my veggies and pushed my sunglasses up as I entered the enclosed part of the market in search of some chicken or steak and fell back into brainstorming. Characters could fall in love anywherean airport or auto body shop or hospitalbut for an anti-romantic, it would probably take something more obvious than that to get the ideas going. For me, the best usually came from the unexpected, from mistakes and mishaps. It didnt take inspiration to dredge up a list of plot points, but to find that momentthe perfect moment that defined a book, that made it come alive as something greater than the sum of its wordsthat required an alchemy you couldnt fake. The last year of my life had proven that. I could plot all day, but it didnt matter if I didnt fall into the story headfirst, if the story itself didnt spin like a cyclone, pulling me wholly into itself. That was what Id always loved about reading, what had driven me to write in the first place. That feeling that a new world was being spun like a spiderweb around you and you couldnt move until the whole thing had revealed itself to you. While the interview with Grace hadnt given me any of those all-consuming tornadoes of inspiration, I had awoken with a glimmer of it. There were stories that deserved to be told, ones Id never considered, and I felt a spark of excitement at the thought that maybe I could tell one of them, and like doing it. I wanted to give Gus that feeling too. I wanted him to wake up tomorrow itching to write. Proving how difficult it was to write a rom-com was one thing, and I was confident Gus would see that, but getting him to understand what I loved about the genrethat reading and writing it was nearly as all-consuming and transformative as actually falling in lovewould be a different challenge entirely. I was too distracted to write when I got home, so I put myself to better use. I twisted my hair into a topknot, put on shorts and a Todd Rundgren tank top, and went to the guest bathroom on the second floor with trash bags and boxes. Dad or That Woman had kept the closet stocked with towels and backup toiletries, which I piled into donation boxes and carried to the foyer one at a time. On my third trip, I stopped before the kitchen window facing into Guss house. He was sitting at the table, holding an oversized note up for me to see. Like hed been waiting. I balanced the box against the table and swiped my forearm up my temple to catch the sweat beading there as I read: JANUARY, JANUARY, WHEREFORE ART THOU, JANUARY? The message was ironic. The butterflies in my chest were not. I pushed the box onto the table and grabbed my notebook, scribbling in it. I held the note up. New phone who dis? Gus laughed, then turned back to his computer. I grabbed the box and carried it out to the Kia, then went back for the rest. The humidity of the last few days had let up again, leaving nothing but breezy warmth behind. When Id finished loading the car, I poured myself a glass of ros? and sat on the deck. The sky was bright blue, an occasional fluffy cumulus cloud drifting lazily past, and the sunlight painted the rustling treetops a pale green. If I closed my eyes, shutting myself off from what I could see, I could hear squeals of laughter down by the water. At home, Mom and Dads yard had backed up to another familys, one with three young kids. As soon as they moved in, Dad had planted a grove of evergreens along the fence to create some privacy, but hed always loved that on late summer nights, as we sat around the firepit, wed hear the screams and giggles of the kids playing tag, or jumping on the trampoline, or lying in a tent behind their house. Dad loved his space, but he also always said he liked to be reminded that there were other people out there, living their lives. People who didnt know him or care to. I know feeling small gets to some people, he had once told me, but I kind of like it. Takes the pressure off when youre just one life of six billion at any given moment. And when youre going through something hardat the time, Mom was doing chemoits nice to know youre not even close to the only one. Id felt the opposite. I was harboring a private heartbreak. About the universe, about Moms body betraying her again. About the life Id dreamed of dissipating like mist. Id watched my U of M classmates over Facebook as they went on to grad school and (mysteriously funded) international travel. Id watched them post doting Mothers Day tributes from far corners of the world. Id listened to the kids who lived behind my parents house shriek and giggle as they played Ghost in the Graveyard. And Id felt secretly heartbroken that the world could do this to us again, and even worse because I knew saying any of that would only make things harder for Mom. And then shed kicked it the second time. And Id been so grateful. More relieved than I knew a person could feel. Our life was back on track, the three of us stronger than ever. Nothing could tear us apart ever again, I was sure. But still, I was mourning those years lost to doctor visits and shed hair and Mom, the do-er, lying sick on the couch. Those feelings didnt fit with our beautiful post-cancer life, I knewthey added nothing helpful or goodso Id tamped them down once more. When I found out about Sonya, theyd all sprung out, fermented into anger over time, like an overzealous jack-in-the-box pointed straight at Dad. Question. I looked up and found Gus leaning against the railing on his deck. His gray T-shirt was as rumpled as everything else Id seen him wear. His clothes very likely never made it from the hamper to drawers, assuming they made it to the laundry in the first place, but the muss of his hair also suggested he could have just rolled out of a nap. I went to stand against the railing on my side of the ten-foot divide. I hope its about the meaning of life. That or which book is first in the Bridget Jones series. That, definitely, he said. And also, do I need to wear a tuxedo tonight? I fought a smile. I would pay one hundred dollars to see what a tuxedo under your laundry regimen looks like. And Im extremely broke, so that says a lot. He rolled his eyes. I like to think of it as my laundry democracy. See, if you let something inanimate vote on whether it wants to be washed, its not going to answer. January, are you taking me to a reenactment of the Beauty and the Beast ball or not? Im trying to plan. I studied him. Okay, Ill answer that question, but on the condition that you tell me, honestly, do you own a tuxedo? He stared back. After a long pause, he sighed and leaned into the railing. The sun had started to set and the flexed veins and muscles in his lean arms cast shadows along his skin. Fine. Yes. I own a tuxedo. I erupted into laughter. Seriously? Are you a secret Kennedy? No one owns a tuxedo. I agreed to answer one question. Now tell me what to wear. Considering Ive only seen you in almost imperceptibly different variations of one outfit, you can safely assume I wouldnt plan anything requiring a tuxedo. I mean, until now, when I found out you owned a tuxedo. Now all bets are off. But for tonight, your grumpy bartender costume should do. He shook his head and straightened up. Phenomenal, he said, and went inside. In that moment, I knew exactly where I was going to take Gus Everett. WOW, GUS SAID. The carnival Id found eight miles from our street was in a Big Lots parking lot, and it fit there a bit too easily. I just counted the rides, Gus said. Seven. Im really proud of you for getting that high, I teased. Maybe next time see if you can aim for ten. I wish I were high, Gus grumbled. Its perfect, I replied. For what? he said. Um, duh, I said. Falling in love. A laugh barked out of Gus, and again I was a little too proud of myself for my own liking. Come on. I felt a pang of regret as I handed over my credit card at the ticket booth in exchange for our all-you-can-ride bracelets, but was relieved when Gus interrupted to insist on buying his own. That was one of many horrible parts of being broke: having to think about whether you could afford to share sucked. That wasnt very romantic of me, I guess, I said as we wandered into the throng of bodies clustered around a milk can toss. Well, lucky for you, that is pretty much my exact definition of romance. He pointed to the teal row of porta potties at the edge of the lot. A teenage boy with his hat turned backward was gripping his stomach and shifting between his feet as he waited for one of the toilets to open up while the couple beside him hardcore made out. Gus, I said flatly. That couple is so into each other theyre making out a yard away from a literal row of shit piles. That juxtaposition is basically the entire rom-com lesson for the night. It really does nothing to your icy heart? Heart? No. Stomach, a little. Im getting sympathy diarrhea for their friend. Can you imagine having such a bad time with your friends that a porta potty becomes a beacon of hope? A bedrock! A place to rest your weary head. Were definitely looking at a future existentialist. Maybe even a coldly horny novelist. I rolled my eyes. That guys night was pretty much my entire high schooland much of collegeexperience, and somehow I survived, tender human heart intact. Bullshit! Gus cried. Meaning? I knew you in college, January. That seems like the biggest in a series of vast exaggerations youve made tonight. Fine, I knew of you, he said. The point is, you werent the diarrhea-having third wheel. You dated plenty. Marco, right? That guy from our Fiction 400 workshop. And werent you with that premed golden boy? The one who was addicted to studying abroad and tutoring disadvantaged youth and, like, rock climbing shirtless. I snorted. Sounds like you were more in love with him than I was. Something sharp and appraising flashed over Guss eyes. But you were in love with him. Of course I was. Id met him during an impromptu snowball fight on campus. I couldnt imagine anything more romantic than that moment, when hed pulled me up from the snowdrift Id fallen into, his blue eyes sparkling, and offered his dry hat to replace my snow-soaked one. It took all of ten minutes as he walked me home for me to determine that he was the most interesting person Id ever met. He was working on getting his pilots license and had wanted to work in the ER ever since hed lost a cousin in a car accident as a kid. Hed done semesters in Brazil, Morocco, and France (Paris, where his paternal grandparents lived), and hed also backpacked a significant portion of the Camino de Santiago by himself. When I told him Id never been out of the country, he immediately suggested a spontaneous road trip to Canada. Id thought he was kidding basically until we pulled up to the duty-free shop on the far side of the border around midnight. There, he said with his model grin, all shiny and guileless. Next we need to get you somewhere theyll actually stamp your passport. That whole night had taken on a hazy, soft-focus quality like we were only dreaming it. Looking back, I thought we sort of had been: him pretending to be endlessly interesting; me pretending to be spontaneous and carefree, as usual. Outwardly we were so different, but when it came down to it, we both wanted the same thing. A life cast in a magical glow, every moment bigger and brighter and tastier than the last. For the next six years, we were intent on glowing for each other. I tucked the memories away. I was never with Marco, I answered Gus. I went to one party with him, and he left with someone else. Thanks for reminding me. Guss laugh turned into an exaggerated, pitying awh. Its fine. I persevered. Guss head cocked, his eyes digging at mine like shovels. And Golden Boy? We were together, I admitted. Id thought I was going to marry him. And then Dad had died and everything had changed. Wed survived a lot together with Moms illness, but Id always held things together, found ways to shut off the worrying and have fun with him, but this was different. Jacques didnt know what to do with this version of me, who stayed in bed and couldnt write or read without coming apart, who slugged around at home letting laundry pile up and ugliness seep into our dreamy apartment, who never wanted to throw parties or walk the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset or book a last-minute getaway to Joshua Tree. Again and again he told me I wasnt myself. But he was wrong. I was the same me Id always been. Id just stopped trying to glow in the dark for him, or anyone else. It was our beautiful life together, amazing vacations and grand gestures and freshly cut flowers in handmade vases, that had held us together for so long. It wasnt that I couldnt get enough of him. Or that he was the best man Id ever known. (Id thought that was my dad, but now it was the dad from my favorite 2000s teen drama, Veronica Mars.) Or that he was my favorite person. (That was Shadi.) Or because he made me laugh so hard I wept. (He laughed easily, but rarely joked.) Or that when something bad happened, he was the first person I wanted to call. (He wasnt.) It was that we met at the same age my parents had, that the snowball fight and impromptu road trip had felt like fate, that my mother adored him. He fit so perfectly into the love story Id imagined for myself that I mistook him for the love of my life. Breaking up still sucked in every conceivable way, but once the initial pain wore off, memories from our relationship started to seem like just another story Id read. I hated thinking about it. Not because I missed him but because I felt bad for wasting so much of his timeand minetrying to be his dream girl. We were together, I repeated. Until last year. Wow. Gus laughed awkwardly. Thats a long time. Im really regretting making fun of his shirtless rock climbing now. Its okay, I said, shrugging. He dumped me in a hot tub. Outside a cabin in the Catskills, three days before our trip with his family was scheduled to end. Spontaneity wasnt always as sexy as it was cracked up to be. Youre just not yourself anymore, hed told me. We dont work like this, January. We left the next morning, and on the drive back to New York, Jacques had told me hed call his parents when we got back to let them know the news. Moms going to cry, he said. So is Brigitte. Even in that moment, I was possibly more devastated to lose Jacquess parents and sistera feisty high schooler with impeccable 1970s stylethan Jacques himself. A hot tub? Gus echoed. Damn. Honestly, that guy was always so self-impressed I doubt he could even see you through the glare off his own glistening body. I cracked a smile. Im sure that was it. Hey, Gus said. Hey, what? He tipped his head toward a cotton candy stand. I think we should eat that. And here it finally is, I said. What? Gus asked. The second thing we agree on. Gus paid for the cotton candy and I didnt argue. No, thats fine, he teased when I said nothing. You can just owe me. You can just pay me back whenever. How much was it? I asked, tearing off an enormous piece and lowering it dramatically into my mouth. Three dollars, but its fine. Just Venmo me the dollar fifty later. Are you sure thats not too much trouble? I said. Im happy to go get a cashiers check. Do you know where the closest Western Union is? he said. You could probably wire it. What sort of interest were you thinking? I asked. You can just give me three dollars when I take you home, and then if I ever find out I need an organ, we can circle back. Sure, sure, I agreed. Lets just put a pin in this. Yeah, we should probably loop in our lawyers anyway. Good point, I said. Until then, what do you want to ride? Ride? Gus said. Absolutely nothing here. Fine, I said. What are you willing to ride? Wed been walking, talking, and eating at an alarming rate, and Gus stopped suddenly, offering me the final clump of cotton candy. That, he said while I was eating, and pointed at a pathetically small carousel. That looks like it would have a really hard time killing me. What do you weigh, Gus? Three beer cans, some bones, and a cigarette? And all the hard lines and lean ridges of muscle I definitely hadnt gawked at. Any number of those painted animals could kill you with a sneeze. Wow, he said. First of all, I may only weigh three beer cans, but thats still three more beer cans than your ex-boyfriend. He looked like he did nothing but chew wheatgrass while running. I weigh easily twice what he did. Secondly, youre one to talk: youre what, four feet and six inches? Im a very tall five four, actually, I said. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head at me. Youre as small as you are ridiculous. So not very? Carousel, final offer, Gus said. This is the perfect place for our montage, I said. Our what now? Youngextremely beautiful and very tall for her heightwoman in sparkly tennis shoes teaches fearful, party-hating curmudgeon how to enjoy life, I said. Thered be a lot of head shaking. A lot of me dragging you from ride to ride. You dragging me back out of the line. Me dragging you back into it. Itd be adorable, and more importantly itll help with your super romantic suicide-cult book. Its the promise-of-the-premise portion of the novel, when your readers are grinning ear to ear. We need a montage. Gus folded his arms and studied me with narrowed eyes. Come on, Gus. I bumped his arm. You can do it. Be adorable. His eyes darted to where Id bumped him, then back to my face, and he scowled. I think you misunderstood me. I said adorable. His surly expression cracked. Fine, January. But its not going to be a montage. Choose one death trap. If I survive that, you can sleep well tonight knowing you brought me one step closer to believing in happy endings. Oh my God, I said. If you wrote this scene, would we die? If I wrote this scene, it wouldnt be about us. Wow. One, Im offended. Two, who would it be about? He scanned the crowd and I followed his gaze. Her, he said finally. Who? He stepped in close behind me, his head hovering over my right shoulder. There. At the bottom of the Ferris wheel. The girl in the Screw Me, Im Irish shirt? I said. His laugh was warm and rough in my ear. Standing this close to him was bringing back flashes of the night at the frat house Id rather not revisit. The woman working the machine, he said in my ear. Maybe shed make a mistake and watch someone get hurt because of it. This job was probably her last chance, the only place that would hire her after she made an even bigger mistake. In a factory maybe. Or she broke the law to protect someone she cared about. Some kind of almost-innocent mistake that could lead to less innocent ones. I spun to face him. Or maybe shed get a chance to be a hero. This job was her last chance, but she loves it and shes good at it. She gets to travel, and even if she mostly only sees parking lots, she gets to meet people. And shes a people person. The mistake isnt hersthe machinery malfunctions, but she makes a snap decision and saves a girls life. That girl grows up to be a congresswoman, or a heart surgeon. The two of them cross paths again down the road. The Ferris wheel operators too old to travel with the carnival anymore. Shes been living alone, feeling like she wasted her life. Then one day, shes alone. She has a heart attack. She almost dies but she manages to call nine-one-one. The ambulance rushes her in, and who is her doctor but that same little girl. Of course, Ferris doesnt recognize hershes all grown up. But the doctor never couldve forgotten Ferriss face. The two women strike up a friendship. Ferris still doesnt get to travel, but twice a month the doctor comes over to Ferriss double-wide and they watch movies. Movies set in different countries. They watch Casablanca and eat Moroccan takeout. They watch The King and I and eat Siamese food, whatever that may be. They even watchgasp!Bridget Joness Diary while bingeing on fish and chips. They make it through twenty countries before Ferris passes away, and when she does, Doctor realizes her life was a gift she almost didnt get. She takes some of Ferriss ashesher ungrateful asshole son didnt come to collect themand sets out on a trip around the world. Shes grateful to be alive. The end. Gus stared at me, only one corner of his very crooked mouth at all engaged. I was fairly sure he was smiling, although the deep grooves between his eyebrows seemed to disagree. Then write it, he said finally. Maybe so, I said. He glanced back at the gray-haired woman working the machinery. That one, he said. Im willing to ride that one. But only because I trust Ferris so damn much. 12 The Olive Garden THERE WAS NO montage. It was a slow night on the warm asphalt, under the neon glow and screeching metal of cheap rides. Hours of eating deep-fried food and drinking lime-infused beer from sticky cans between visits to each of the seven rides. There was no dragging in and out of lines. There was just wandering. Telling stories. Gus pointed at a pregnant girl with a barbed wire tattoo. She joins the cult. She does not, I disagreed. She does. She loses the baby. Its awful. The only thing that starts to bring her back to life is this rising YouTube star she follows. She finds out about New Eden from him, then goes for a weekend-long seminar and never leaves. Shes there for two years, I countered. But then her little brother comes to get her. She doesnt want to see him, and securitys trying to get him out of there, but then he pulls out a sonogram. His girlfriend, May, is pregnant. A little boy. Due in a month. She doesnt leave with him, but that night She tries to leave, Gus took over. They wont let her. They lock her in a white room to decontaminate her. Her exposure to her brothers energy, they say, has temporarily altered her brain chemistry. She has to complete the five purification steps. If she still wants to leave after that, theyll let her. She completes them, I said. The reader thinks theyve lost her. That shes stuck. But the last line of the book is some clue. Something she and her brother used to say. Some sign that she kept a secret part of herself safe, and the only reason shes not leaving yet is because there are people trapped there she wants to help. We went back and forth like that all night, and when we finally stopped, it was only because riding the scrambler left me so nauseated I ran from it to the nearest trash can and vomited heartily. Even as the recently eaten chili dog was rushing back up, I had to think the night had been some kind of success. After all, Gus grabbed my hair and pulled it away from my face as I retched. At least until he grumbled, Shit, I hate vomit, and ran off gagging. Hate, I found out on the ride home, was a less embarrassing way to say fear. National Book Award nominee Augustus Everett was vomit-phobic, and had been ever since a girl named Ashley in his fourth grade class puked on the back of his head. I havent puked in easily fifteen years, he told me. And Ive had the stomach flu twice in that time. I was fighting giggles as I drove. In general, I didnt find phobias funny, but Gus was a former gravedigger turned suicide-cult investigator. Nothing Grace said in our interview had made him bat an eye, and yet cheap rides and puke had nearly bested him. God, Im sorry, I said, regaining control of myself. I glanced over to him, slumped back in my passenger seat with one arm folded behind his head. I cant believe my first lesson in love stories actually just unearthed multiple traumas for you. At least you didnt end up also you-know-what-ing I didnt say the word, just in case. His eyes flashed over to me and the corner of his mouth curled. Trust me, I got out in the nick of time. One more second and you wouldve gotten Ashley Phillipsed. Wow, I said. And yet you held my hair. So noble. So brave. So selfless. I was teasing, but it actually was pretty sweet. Yeah, well, if you didnt have such nice hair, I wouldnt have bothered. Guss eyes went back to the road. But I learned my lesson. Never again will I try to be a hero. My parents met at a carnival. I hadnt meant to say it; it had just slipped out. Gus looked at me, his expression inscrutable. Yeah? I nodded. I fully intended to drop the subject, but the last few days had loosened something in me, and the words came pouring out. Their freshman year, at Ohio State. Oh, not The Ohio State University, he teased. Michiganders and Ohioans had a major rivalry I often forgot about due to my total ignorance of sports. Dads brothers had lovingly referred to him as the Great Defector, and hed teased me with the same nickname when I chose U of M. Yes, the very one, I played along. We fell into silence for a few seconds. So, Gus prompted, tell me about it. No, I said, giving him a suspicious smile. You dont want to hear that. Im legally obligated to, he said. How else am I going to learn about love? An ache speared through my chest. Maybe not from them. He cheated on her. A lot. While she had cancer. Damn, Gus said. Thats shitty. Says the man who doesnt believe in dating. He ran a hand through his already messy hair, leaving it ravaged. His eyes flickered to me, then back to the road. Fidelity was never my issue. Fidelity across a two-week span isnt exactly impressive, I pointed out. Ill have you know I dated Tessa Armstrong for a month, he said. Monogamously? Because I seem to remember a sordid night in a frat house that would suggest otherwise. Surprise splashed across his face. Id broken up with her when that happened. I saw you with her that morning, I said. It probably should have been embarrassing to admit I remembered all this, but Gus didnt seem to notice that. In fact, he just seemed a little insulted by the observation. He mussed his hair again and said irritably, I broke up with her at the party. She wasnt at the party, I said. No. But since it wasnt the seventeenth century, I had a phone. You called from a party and dumped your girlfriend? I cried. Why would you do that? He looked my way, eyes narrowed. Why do you think, January? I was grateful for the dark. My face was suddenly on fire. My stomach felt like molten lava was pouring down it. Was I misunderstanding? Should I ask? Did it matter? That was almost a decade ago, and even if things had gone differently that night, it wouldnt have amounted to anything in the long run. Still, I was burning up. Well, shit, I said. I couldnt get anything else out. He laughed. Anyway, your parents, he said. It couldnt have been all bad. I cleared my throat. It could not have sounded any less natural. I might as well have just screamed I DONT WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY SAD PARENTS WHILE IM THINKING FIERY THOUGHTS ABOUT YOU and gotten it over with. It wasnt, I said, focusing on the road. I dont think. And the night they met? he pressed. Again, the words came gushing out of me, like Id needed to say them all yearor maybe they were just a welcome diversion from the other conversation wed been having. They went to this carnival at a local Catholic church, I said. Not together. Like, they went separately to the same carnival. And then they ended up standing in line next to each other for that Esmeralda thing. You know, the animatronic psychic-in-a-box? Oh, I know her well, Gus said. She was one of my first crushes. There was no reason that shouldve sent new fireworks of heat across my cheeks, and yet, here we were. So anyway, I went on. My mom was the fifth wheel on this, like, blatant double date trying to disguise itself as a Casual Hang. So when the others went off to go through the Tunnel-o-Love, she went to get her fortune. My dad said he left his group when he spotted this beautiful red-haired girl in a blue polka-dot dress. Betty Crocker? Gus guessed. Shes a brunette. Get your eyes checked, I said. A smile quirked Guss lips. Sorry for interrupting. Go on. Your dads just spotted your mom. I nodded. Anyway, he spent the whole time he was in line trying to figure out how to strike up a conversation with her, and finally, when she paid for her prediction, she started cussing like a sailor. Gus laughed. I love seeing where you get your admirable qualities from. I flipped him off and went on. Her prediction had gotten stuck halfway out of the machine. So Dad steps up to save the day. He manages to rip the top half of the ticket out, but the rest is still stuck in the machine, so Mom cant make sense of the words. So then he told her shed better stick around and see if her fortune came out with his. Oh, that old line, Gus said, grinning. Works every time, I agreed. Anyway, he put in his nickel and the two tickets came out. Hers said, You will meet a handsome stranger, and his said, Your storys about to begin. They still had them framed in the living room. Or at least, when I was home for Christmas, they were still up. That deep ache passed through me. It felt like a metal cheese slicer, pulled right through my center, left there midway through my body. Id thought missing my dad would be the hardest thing Id ever do. But the worst thing, the hardest thing, had turned out to be being angry with someone you couldnt fight it out with. Someone you loved enough that you desperately wanted to push through the shit and find a way to make a new normal. I would never get a real explanation from Dad. Mom would never get an apology. Wed never be able to see things from his point of view or actively choose not to. He was gone, and everything of him wed planned to hold on to was obliterated. They were married three months later, I told Gus. Some twenty-five years after that, their only daughters first book, Kiss Kiss, Wish Wish came out with Sandy Lowe Books, with a dedication that read To my parents, Gus said. Who are proof of fates strong, if animatronic, hand. My mouth fell open. Id almost forgotten what he had told me at the gas station, that hed read my books. Or maybe I hadnt let myself think about it, because I was worried that meant hed hated them, and somehow I was still competing with him, needing him to recognize me as his rival and equal. You remember that? It came out as a whisper. His eyes leapt toward me, and my heart rose in my throat. Its why I asked about them, he said. I thought it was the nicest dedication Id ever read. I made a face. Coming from him, that might not have been a compliment. Nicest. Fine, January, he said in a low voice. I thought it was beautiful. Is that what you want me to admit? Again my heart buoyed through my chest. Yes. I thought it was beautiful, he said immediately, sincerely. I turned my face to the window. Yeah, well. It turned out to be a lie. But I guess Mom thought it was a nice enough one. She knew he was cheating on her and she stayed with him. Im sorry. For several minutes, neither of us spoke. Finally, Gus cleared his throat. He made it sound so natural. You asked why New Eden. Why I wanted to write about it? I nodded, glad for the topic change, though surprised by his segue. I guess He tugged at his hair anxiously. Well, my mom died when I was a kid. Dont know if you knew that. I wasnt sure how I would have, but even if I didnt outright know it, it fit with the image of him Id had in college. I dont think so. Yeah, he said. So, my dad was garbage, but my momshe was amazing. And when I was a kid, I just thought, like, Okay, its us against the world. Were stuck in this situation, but its not forever. And I kept waiting for her to leave him. I meanI kept a bag packed with a bunch of comic books and some socks and granola bars. I had this vision of us hopping on a train, riding to the end of the line, you know? When his eyes flashed toward me, the corner of his mouth was curled, but the smile wasnt real. It said, Isnt that ridiculous? Wasnt I ridiculous? And I knew how to read it because it was a smile Id been practicing for a year: Can you believe I was so stupid? Dont worry. I know better now. A weight pressed low in my stomach at the image: Gus, before he was the Gus I knew. A Gus who daydreamed about escape, who believed someone would rescue him. Where were you going to go? I asked. It came out as little more than a whisper. His eyes leapt back to the road and the muscle in his jaw pulsed, then relaxed, his face serene once more. The redwoods, he said. Pretty sure I thought we could build a tree house there. A tree house in the redwoods, I repeated quietly, like it was a prayer, a secret. In a way, it was. It was a tiny piece of a Gus Id never imagined, one with romantic notions and hope for the unlikely. But what does that have to do with New Eden? He coughed, checked his rearview mirror, went back to staring down the road. I guess a few years ago, I just sort of realized my mom wasnt a kid. He shrugged. Id thought we were waiting for the perfect time to leave, but she was never going to. Shed never said she was. She could have taken us out of there, and she didnt. I shook my head. I doubt it was that simple. Thats why, he murmured. I know it wasnt simple, and when I talk about this book, I tell people its because I want to explore the reasons people stay, no matter the cost, but the truth is I just want to understand her reasons. I know that doesnt make sense. This cult thing has nothing to do with her. No matter the cost. What had staying cost his mother? What had it cost Gus? The weight in my stomach had spread, was pressing against the insides of my chest and palms. Id started publishing romance because I wanted to dwell in my happiest moments, in the safe place my parents love had always been. Id been so comforted by books with the promise of a happy ending, and Id wanted to give someone else that same gift. Gus was writing to try to understand something horrible that had happened to him. No wonder what we wrote was so different. It does make sense, I said finally. No one gets looking for postmortem parental answers like I do. If I watched the movie 300 right now, Id probably find a way to make it about my dad. He gave me a faint smile. Great cinema. It was so obviously a Thank you and a Lets move on now. As different as Id thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens whod stumbled into each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language. We should have a film club, I said. Were always on the same page about this stuff. He was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. It really was a beautiful dedication, he said. It didnt feel like a lie. Maybe a complicated truth, but not a lie. The warmth filled me up until I felt like a teakettle trying hard not to whistle. When I got home, I turned on my computer and ordered my own copy of The Revelatories. AND HERE CAME the true montage. I did surgery on the book. I ripped it up and stored the pieces in separate files. Ellie became Eleanor. She went from being a down-on-her-luck real estate agent to a down-on-her-luck tightrope walker with a port-wine stain the shape of a butterfly on her cheek, because Absurdly Specific Details. Her father became a sword swallower, her mother a bearded lady. They moved from the twenty-first century to the early twentieth. They were part of a traveling circus. That was their family: a tight-knit group who ended every night smoking hand-rolled cigarettes around a fire. It was the only world shed ever known. They spent every moment with each other, but somehow told each other very little. There wasnt much time for talking in their line of work. I renamed the file, from BEACH_BOOK.docx to FAMILY_SECRETS.docx. I wanted to know whether you could ever fully know someone. If knowing how they werehow they moved and spoke and the faces they made and the things they tried not to look atamounted to knowing them. Or if knowing things about themwhere theyd been born, all the people theyd been, who theyd loved, the worlds theyd come fromadded up to anything. I gave them each a secret. That part was the easiest. Eleanors mother was dying but she didnt want anyone to know. The clowns everyone believed to be brothers were actually lovers. The sword swallower was still mailing checks to a family back in Oklahoma. They became less and less like the people I knew, but somehow, their problems and secrets became more personal. I couldnt put my father or mother down on paper. I could never get that right. But these characters carried the truth of the people Id loved. I was particularly fond of writing a mechanic named Nick. I loved knowing that no one except me would ever recognize the skeleton of Augustus Everett Id built the character around. Gus and I made a habit of writing at our respective kitchen tables around noon, and most days we took turns holding up notes. They became more and more elaborate. It was obvious that while some were spontaneous, others were plannedwritten out earlier in the day, or even the night before. Whenever inspiration struck. Those written in the moment especially became nonsensical as writing-madness took us over. Sometimes I would laugh so hard Id lose muscle control in my hands and be unable to write any more notes. Wed laugh until we both laid our heads down on our tables. Hed snort into his coffee. Id nearly choke on mine. It started with platitudes like IT IS BETTER TO HAVE LOVED AND LOST THAN TO HAVE NEVER LOVED AT ALL (me) and THE UNIVERSE SEEMS NEITHER BENIGN NOR HOSTILE, MERELY INDIFFERENT (him) but usually ended with things like FUCK WRITING (me) and SHOULD WE JUST DITCH THIS AND BECOME COAL MINERS? (him). Once he wrote to tell me that LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES. YOU REALLY DONT KNOW WHAT YOURE EATING AND THE CHOCOLATE MAP IN THE LID IS FUCKING ALWAYS WRONG. I wrote to tell him that IF YOURE A BIRD, IM A BIRD. He let me know that IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM, and I wrote back, NOT ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST. Going through Dads stuff fell to the back burner, but I didnt mind procrastinating. For the first time in months, I wasnt flinching every time my phone or laptop pinged. I was making progress. Of course, a lot of that progress was research, but for every new factoid I gleaned about twentieth-century circus culture, it seemed like a new plot light bulb illuminated over my head. At night, Gus and I sat on our separate decks, having a drink and watching the sun slide into the lake. Most nights wed talk from across the gap, mostly about how productive we had or hadnt been, about the people we could see from our decks and the stories we could imagine for them. Wed talk about the books (and movies) wed loved (and hated), the people wed gone to school with (both together at U of M and before that: Sara Tulane, who used to pull my hair in kindergarten; Mariah Sjogren, who broke up with sixteen-year-old Gusa full three months into their relationship, he was way too proud to tell mebecause he smoked a cigarette in the car with her and kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray). We talked about our terrible jobs (my part-time car wash position in high school, where I regularly got sexually harassed by customers and had to scrub down the tunnel before I could go home at night; his call-center job at a uniform manufacturer, where he got yelled at for incorrect embroideries and delayed shipments). We talked about the most embarrassing albums wed owned and concerts wed been to (redacted for the sake of dignity). And other times, wed sit in silence, not quite together but definitely not alone. So what do you think? I asked him one night. Are romance and happiness harder than they look? After a moment, he said, I never said that they were easy. You implied it, I pointed out. I implied they were easy for you, he said. For me, theyre about as challenging as Im sure youre imagining. The possibility hung in the air: at any time, one of us could have invited the other over, and either of us would have accepted. But neither of us asked, and so things went on as theyd been. On Friday, we left for our research excursion a bit earlier than we had the week prior and headed east, inland. Who are we meeting this time? I asked. Gus answered only, Dave. Ah, yes, Dave. Im a big fan of his restaurant, Wendys. Believe it or not, different Dave, Gus said. He was lost in thought, barely playing along with our usual banter. I waited for him to go on but he didnt. Gus? His gaze flinched toward me, as if hed forgotten I was there and my presence had startled him. He scratched at his jaw. His usual five-oclock shadow had stretched closer toward a seven-oclock dusk. Everything okay? I asked. His eyes bounced between me and the road three times before he nodded. I could almost see ithim swallowing down whatever hed been considering saying. Dave was part of New Eden, he said instead. He was just a kid back then. His mother took him out of there a few months before the fire. His dad stayed behind. He was in too deep. So his father Gus nodded. Died in the fire. We were meeting Dave at an Olive Garden, and on the way in, Gus warned me that Dave was a recovering alcoholic. Three years sober, Gus said as we waited at the host stand. I told him we wouldnt be drinking anything. Wed beaten Dave to the table and put in an order for a couple of sodas. Wed had no problem talking in the car, but sitting across from each other in an Olive Garden booth was a different story. Do you feel like your mom just dropped us off here before homecoming? I asked. I never went to homecoming, he said. I pretended to play a violin, at which point I realized I had no idea how a person actually held a violin. Whats that, Gus said flatly. What are you doing? I think Im holding a violin, I answered. No, he said. No, I can safely say you are not. Seriously? Yes, seriously. Why is your left arm straight out like that? Is the violin supposed to balance atop it? You need that hand on the neck. Youre just trying to distract me from the tragedy of your missed homecoming. He laughed, rolled his eyes, scooted forward on his bench. Somehow, I survived, tender human heart intact, he said, repeating my words from the carnival. Now I rolled my eyes. Gus smiled and bumped my knee with his under the table. I bumped his back. We sat there for a minute, grinning at each other over a basket of Olive Garden breadsticks. I felt a little bit like there was water boiling in my chest. At once, I could feel his calloused hands gathering my hair off my neck as I puked into a carnival trash can. I could feel them on my hips and waist, pressing me closer as we danced in the sweaty frat house basement. I could feel the side of his jaw scrape my temple. He broke eye contact first, checked his phone. Twenty minutes late, he said without looking at me. Ill give him ten more before I call. But Dave didnt answer Guss call. And he didnt answer Guss texts, or his voice mail, and soon we were an hour and twenty minutes into the bottomless breadsticks, and our server, Vanessa, had started seriously avoiding our table. Sometimes this happens, Gus said. They get spooked. Change their minds. Think theyre ready to talk about something when theyre really not. What do we do? I asked. Should we keep waiting? Gus opened one of the menus on the table. He flipped through it for a minute, then pointed to a picture of a frozen blue drink with a pink umbrella sprouting out of it. That, he said. I think thats what we do. Well, shit, I said. If we drink our frozen blue things now then Ill have to totally rethink my plan for tomorrow night. Gus lifted an eyebrow. Wow, I was living the lifestyle of a romance writer all along and I didnt even know it. See? You were born for this, Augustus Everett. He shuddered. Why do you do that? What? he said. I repeated, Augustus Everett. His shoulders lifted, although a bit more discreetly this time. That. Gus raised the menu as Vanessa was trying to bound past and she screeched to a stop like Wile E. Coyote at the edge of a cliff. Could we get two of these blue things? he asked. His eyes were doing the sexy, intimidating X-ray thing. Color rushed into her cheeks. Or maybe I was projecting what was happening to me onto her. Sure thing. She sped away, and Gus looked back at the menu. Augustus, I said. Shit, he said, flinching again. You really dont like sharing things about yourself with other people, do you? Not particularly, he said. You already know about the vomit-phobia. Anything more than that and youll have to sign a nondisclosure. Happily, I said. Gus sighed and leaned forward, forearms resting on the table. His knee grazed mine beneath the table, but neither of us moved away, and all the heat in my body seemed to focus there. The only person who called me that was my father. He shrugged. That name was usually said with a disapproving tone. Or screamed in a rage. My stomach twisted and a sour taste crept across the back of my mouth as I grasped for something to say. I couldnt help searching his pupils for signs of the history hed been piecing together for days. His mother had stayed with his father, no matter the cost, and part of that had been her son learning to hate his own name. Guss gaze lifted from the menu. He looked calm, serious. But it was a practiced look, unlike the alluring openness that sometimes overtook his face when he was deep in thought, working to understand some new information. Im sorry, I said helplessly. That your dad was an asshole. Gus gave a breathless laugh. Why do people always say that? You dont need to be sorry. Its in the past. I didnt tell you so youd be sorry. Well, you told me because I asked. So at least let me be sorry for that. He shrugged. Its fine. Gus, I said. He looked me in the eye again. It felt like a warm tide rushing over me, feet to head. His expression had shifted to open curiosity. What were you like? he said. What? You know enough about my childhood. I want to know about baby January. Oh, God, I said. She was a lot. His laugh vibrated through the table, and my insides started fizzing like champagne. Let me guess. Loud. Precocious. Room full of books, organized in a way that only you understood. Close with your family and a couple of tight-knit friends, all of whom you probably still talk to regularly, but casual friends with anyone else with a pulse. A secret overachiever, who had to be the best at something even if no one else knew. Oh, and prone to juggling or tap-dancing for attention in any crowd. Wow, I said a little stunned. You both nailed and roasted methough the tap lessons were my moms idea. I just wanted the shoes. Anyway, you missed that I briefly had a shrine to Sin?ad OConnor, because I thought it made me seem Interesting. He laughed and shook his head. I bet you were an adorable little freak. I was a freak, I said. I think being an only child did that. My parents treated me like a living TV. Like I was just this hilarious, interesting baby genius. I seriously spent most of my life delusively confident in myself and my future. And that no matter what else, home would always be a safe place, where all three of us belonged. A burning sensation flared in my chest. When I looked up and met Guss eyes, I remembered where I was, who I was talking to, and half expected him to gloat. The bright-eyed ingenue with all the happy endings had finally gotten chewed up, the rose-colored glasses ground to dust. Instead, he said, There are worse things to be than delusively confident. I studied his dark, focused eyes and lax, crooked mouth: a look of complete sincerity. I was more convinced than ever that I wasnt the only one whod changed since college, and I wasnt sure what to say to this new Gus Everett. At some point the frozen blue cocktails had appeared on the table, as if by magic. I cleared my throat and lifted my glass. To Dave. To Dave, Gus agreed, clinking his plastic cup to mine. The greatest disappointment of this evening by far, I said, is that they didnt actually include the paper umbrellas. See, Gus said. Its shit like this that makes it impossible for me to believe in happy endings. You never get the paper umbrellas you were promised in this world. Gus, I said. You must be the paper umbrellas you wish to see in this world. Gandhi was a wise man. Actually, I was quoting my favorite poet, Jewel. His knee pressed into mine, and heat pooled between my legs. I pressed back. His rough fingertips tentatively touched my knee, slid up until he found my hand. Slowly, I turned my palm up to him, and his thumb drew heavy circles on it for a minute. When I slid it closer, he folded his fingers into mine, and we sat there, holding hands under the table, pretending we werent. Pretending we werent acting sixteen years old and a little bit obsessed with each other. God, what was happening? What was I doing and why couldnt I make myself stop? What was he doing? When the check came, Gus jerked back from me and pulled his wallet out. I got it, he said, without looking at me. 13 The Dream I DREAMED ABOUT GUS Everett and woke up needing a shower. 14 The Rule ID HAD SATURDAY planned for three days, which freed me up to spend the morning working on the book. It was slow going, not because I didnt have ideas, but because it required such painstaking research to confirm that each scene was historically possible. Id started working at eight and had managed to write about five hundred words by the time Gus came to sit at his kitchen table, facing mine. He wrote his first note of the day and held it up. I squinted to read. SORRY I GOT WEIRD LAST NIGHT. My notebook and marker were already ready. They always were. I didnt know exactly what he meant, but I imagined it had something to do with being adults who werent dating but were holding hands under a table at Olive Garden. I fought a sinking feeling in my stomach. Yes, it had been weird. I had also loved it. From watching Shadis love life, I knew how relationship-phobes like Gus Everett reacted when boundaries broke down, when things went from friendly to intimate, or from sexual to romantic. Guys like Gus were never the ones to pump the brakes when the emotional-entanglement train started moving, and they were always the ones to jump out and roll clear of the tracks once they realized theyd reached top speed. I needed to keep my head straight and eyes clearno romanticizing allowed. As soon as things got complicated, Gus would be gone, and in this moment, I was realizing how not ready for that I was. He was my only friend here. I had to protect that. Besides, there was the bet, which I couldnt fully benefit from if he ghosted me before I even won. I wrote back: DONT BE RIDICULOUS, GUS. YOU WERE ALWAYS WEIRD. The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. He held my gaze for a beat too long, then turned his focus back to the notebook. When he held it up next, it showcased a series of numbers. I recognized the first three as the local area code. My stomach flipped. I scribbled the numbers down small at the top of the page, then wrote my own phone number much larger beneath it, followed by, IM STILL GOING TO WRITE THESE NOTES. Gus replied, GOOD. I wrote another five hundred words by three thirty in the afternoon, at which point I drove over to Goodwill to drop off the load of boxes Id filled from the upstairs guest room and bath. When I got back, I scrubbed the upstairs bathroom clean, then padded back downstairs to shower in the bathroom Id been using for the past two weeks. The picture of my dad and Sonya still hung on the wall, photo facing inward. Id felt too guilty to destroy it, but I figured it was only a matter of time until I worked up the courage. For now it was a bleak reminder that the hardest work was still ahead of me: the basement I hadnt even peeked into and the master bedroom Id thoroughly avoided. I still hadnt really been down to the beach, which seemed like a shame, so after Id made a pot of macaroni to tide me over until tonight, I picked my way down the wooded trail to the water. The light bouncing over the waves from the setting sun was incredible, all reds and golds blazing over the lakes back. I slipped out of my shoes and carried them to the edge of the water, gasping out a swear as the icy tide rushed over my feet. I scrambled back, laughing breathlessly from the sheer shock of it. The air was warm but not even close to hot enough to make the chill pleasant. Most of the people left on the beach had pulled sweatshirts on or wrapped themselves in towels and blankets. Everyone, all those wind-beaten and sunburned faces, all that lake-tangled hair, those eyes squinting into the fierce light. Looking at the same setting sun. It made me ache. I felt suddenly more alone than ever. There was no floppy-haired, romantic Jacques waiting for me in Queensno one to cook me a real meal or whisk me away from the computer. No missed calls or Was just thinking about Karyn and Sharyn and almost peed again texts from Mom, and no way for me to send her a picture of the sunlight dripping onto the lake without opening the wound that was the lake house. Id only seen Shadi twice since the funeral, and with her work schedule, most texts from her came in long after Id gone to bed, and most of my replies went out long before shed wake up. My writer friends had stopped checking in too, as if sensing that every note from them, every call and text, was just one more reminder of how terribly far behind I had fallen. Was falling. Every moment of every day, I was tripping backward while the rest of the world marched forward. Honestly, I even missed Sharyn and Karyn: sitting on their colorful rag rug drinking the nasty-ass bathtub moonshine they were so proud of while they hawked homemade essential oils that smelled great, even if they didnt actually cure cancer. My world felt empty. Like there was no one in it, except sometimes Gus, and nothing in it except this book, and the bet. And no matter how much better this book felt than every iteration of it that had come in the last twelve months, it wasnt enough. I was on a beautiful beach, in a beautiful place, and I was alone. Worse, I wasnt sure Id ever stop being alone again. I wanted my mom, and I missed my lying dad. I sat down in the sand, folded my legs to my chest, rested my forehead against my knees, and cried. I cried until my face was hot and red and soaking wet, and I wouldve kept crying if a seagull didnt shit on my head, but of course, it did. And so I stood and turned back to the path only to find someone frozen in the middle of it, watching me ugly cry like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. It was like something out of a movie, the way Gus was standing there, except that there was nothing romantic or magical about it. Even though Id been sobbing about being alone, he was one of the last people I wouldve chosen to see me like this. Momentarily forgetting the pile of bird excrement on my head, I wiped at my face and eyes, trying to make myself look more something. Sorry, Gus said, visibly uncomfortable. He glanced sidelong down the beach. I saw you come down here, and I just A bird pooped on my head, I said tearily. Apparently there was nothing more to say than that. His look of painful empathy cracked under a soundless laugh. He closed the gap between us and pulled me roughly into a hug. The action seemed uncomfortable, if not painful, for him at first, but even so it was something of a relief to be held. You dont have to tell me, he said. But just so you know you can. I buried my face in his shoulder, and his hands clumsy patting against my back settled into slow, gentle circles, before they stopped moving at all, just curled in against my spine, easing me closer. I let myself sink into him. The crying had stopped as fast as it had started. All I could think about was the press of his hard stomach and chest, the sharp ridges of his hips and the almost smoky smell of him. The heat of his body and his breath. It was a bad idea to stand here like this with him, touch him like this, but it was also intoxicating. I decided to count to three and then let go. I got to two before his hand slid into my hair, cradling the back of my head, then jerked suddenly clear as he took an abrupt step back. Wow. Thats a lot of shit. He was staring at his hand and the goop dripping off of it. Yeah, I said bird but it very well could have been a dinosaur. No kidding. I guess we should get cleaned up before we take off for the night. I sniffed and wiped the residual tears away from my eyes. Was take off an intentional bird pun or ? Hell no, Gus said, turning back toward the trail with me. I said that because I assumed we would be taking a helicopter ride over the lake. A ripple of timid laughter went through me, breaking up the residual knot of emotion and heat in my chest. Is that your final guess? He looked me up and down, as if weighing my outfit against some widely recognized helicopter-date uniform. Yeah, I think so. Sooo close. Really? he said. What is it, then? Tiny airplane over the lake? Tiny submarine under the lake? Youll have to wait and find out. We parted ways between our houses, agreeing to meet at my car in twenty minutes. When Id washed my hair for the second time that day, I threw it into a bun and put the same (poop-free) outfit back on. Id packed most of the supplies for our trip earlier that day, so all I had left to do was grab the rest out of the fridge and stuff it into the cooler Id found on one of the kitchens bottom shelves. It was 7:30 when Gus and I finally set out and 8:40 when we finally pulled in to Meg Ryan Night at Big Boy Bobbys Drive-In. Oh my God, Gus said as we drove up to the booth to hand over the tickets Id bought online. This is a triple feature. He was reading the glowing marquee to our right: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and Youve Got Mail. Arent half of those Christmas movies? The attendant raised the gate and I pulled through. Half of three is one and a half, so no, half of these movies arent Christmas movies. Have I mentioned that Meg Ryans face pisses me off? I scoffed. One, no. Two, thats impossible. Her face is adorable and perfect. Maybe thats what it is, Gus said. I couldnt tell you, and I know its not logical, but I just cant stand her. Tonight thats all going to change, I promised. Trust me. You just have to open your heart. If you can do that, your worlds going to be a much brighter place from now on. And maybe youll even stand a chance at writing a sellable rom-com. January, he said solemnly as I backed into an open parking spot, just imagine what youd do to me if I took you to a six-hour-long Jonathan Franzen reading. I cannot and I will not, I said. And if you choose to use one of our Friday nights in such a way, theres nothing I can do to stop you, but its Saturday and thus Im the captain of this ship. Now come help me figure out where we can buy the Big Bobby Ice Cream Surprise I read about online. According to the website it is SOOO Worth It! It had better be. Gus sighed, climbing out of the Kia to join me. As the previews flashed clunkily across the screen, we made our way through the field to the concession stands. I beelined for the wooden sign painted to look like an ice cream sundae, but Gus touched my arm, stopping me from getting in line right away. Will you just promise me one thing? Gus, I wont fall in love with you. One more thing, he said. Please just try your hardest not to puke. If I start to, Ill just swallow it. Gus cupped his hand over his mouth and gagged. Kidding! I wont puke. At least not until you take me to that six-hour reading. Now come on. Ive spent all week looking forward to eating something other than cold Pop-Tarts. I dont think this is going to be the vitamin- and nutrient-rich smorgasbord you seem to be imagining. I dont need vitamins. I need nacho cheese and chocolate sauce. Ah, in that case, you planned the perfect night. Because Id bought the tickets, Gus paid for the popcorn and the Ice Cream Surprises ($6 each, decidedly un-worth it), and he tried to buy us sodas before I completely indiscreetly cut him off, doing my best to signal that we had other options in the car. When we got back, I opened the tailgate and put the middle seats flat, revealing the setup of pillows and blankets Id packed earlier, along with the cooler full of beer. Impressed? I asked Gus. By your cars trunk space? Absolutely. Har-har-har, I said. Har-har-har, Gus said back. We climbed through the open trunk and I turned the car on, tuning the radio to the right channel to pick up the movies audio before settling in beside Gus just as the opening credits began. Despite what hed said about trunk space, the Kia wasnt exactly big. Lying on our stomachs, chins propped up on our hands, we were very nearly touching in several places, and our elbows were touching. This position wouldnt be comfortable for long, and rearranging with both of us in the car was going to be a challenge. Being this close to him was also going to be a challenge. As soon as Meg Ryan appeared onscreen, he leaned a little closer and whispered, Her face really doesnt bother you? I think you should see a doctor, I hissed. Thats not a normal reaction. As soon as I got my first book advance, Id bought Shadi and myself both like twenty Meg Ryan movies so we could watch them together long-distance whenever we wanted, starting them at the same exact moment so we could text about what was happening in real time and pausing whenever one of us had to pee. Just wait until you hear how Meg Ryan pronounces horses when she sings Sleigh Ride, I whispered to Gus. Your life will be irrevocably changed. Gus gave me a look like I wasnt helping my case. She just looks so damn smug, he said. A lot of people have told me I look like her, I said. Theres no way thats true. Okay, they havent, but they should have. Thats ridiculous, he said. You look nothing like her. On the one hand, Im offended. On the other, Im relieved you probably dont loathe my face. Theres nothing to loathe about your face, he said matter-of-factly. Theres nothing to loathe about Meg Ryans face either. Fine, I take it back. I love her face. Does that make you happy? I turned toward him. His head was propped in his hand, his body angled toward me, and the light from the screen just barely caught his eyes, drawing liquidy slivers of color in them. His dark hair was as messy as ever, but his facial hair was back under control, and that smoky smell still hung on him. January? he murmured. I maneuvered onto my side, facing him, and nodded. It makes me happy. His knee bumped mine. I bumped his back. A shadow of a smile passed over his serious face, there and gone so fast I mightve imagined it. Good, he said. We stayed like that for a long time, pretending to watch the movie from an angle where neither of us could possibly see more than half the screen, our knees pressed into one another. Whenever one of us rearranged, the other followed. Whenever one of us could no longer bear the discomfort of one position, we both shifted. But we never stopped touching. We were in dangerous territory. I hadnt felt like this in yearsthat almost painful weight of wanting, that paralyzing fear that any wrong move would ruin everything. I glanced up when I felt his gaze on me, and he didnt look away. I wanted to say something to break the tension, but my mind was mercilessly blank. Not the blinking-cursor-on-a-white-screen blank of trying to concoct a novel from thin air. The color-popping-in-darkness blank of scrunching your eyes shut. Of staring at flames too long. The pulsing blank of feeling so much youre incapable of thinking anything. The staring contest stretched an uncomfortable distance without either of us breaking it. His eyes looked nearly black, and when the light from the screen hit them, the illusion of flames sparked in them, then vanished. Somewhere deep in my mind, a self-preservation instinct was screaming, THOSE ARE THE EYES OF A PREDATOR, but that was exactly why nature gave predators eyes like that. So dumb little rabbits like me wouldnt stand a chance. Dont be a dumb bunny, January! I have to go to the bathroom, I said abruptly. Gus smiled. You just went to the bathroom. I have a really tiny bladder, I said. Ill go with you. Thats okay! I chirped and, forgetting I was in a car, sat up so fast I slammed my head into the roof. Shit! Gus said at the same time I hissed out a confused, WHAT? He bolted up and shuffled on his knees toward where I sat, clutching my head. Let me see. His hands cradled the sides of my face, tilting my head down so he could see the crown of my skull. Its not bleeding, he told me, then angled my face back up into his, his fingers threaded gently through my hair. His eyes wandered down to my mouth, and his crooked lips parted. Oh, damn. I was a bunny. I leaned toward him, and his hands went to my waist, drawing me onto his lap so that I was straddling him where he knelt. His nose brushed the side of mine, and I lifted my mouth under his, trying to close the gap between us. Our slow breaths pressed us into each other and his hands squeezed my sides, my thighs tightening against him in reaction. One time one time one time was all I could think. That was his policy, right? Would it really be so bad if something happened between us, just once? We could go back to being friends, neighbors who talked every day. Could I do casual, this one time, with my college crush turned nemesis, seven years after the fact? I couldnt think clearly enough to figure it out. My breathing was shaky and shallow; his was nonexistent. We hovered there for a minute, like neither of us wanted to accept the blame. You touched me first! Id say. You leaned in! hed fire back. And then you scooped me into your lap! And you lifted your mouth toward mine! And then His mouth dragged warm breath across my jaw and then up to my lips. His teeth skated across my bottom lip, and a small hum of pleasure went through me. His mouth quirked into a smile even as it sank hot and light against my mouth, coaxing it open. He tasted like vanilla and cinnamon left over from the Ice Cream Surprise, only better than the dessert itself had. His heat rushed into my mouth, into me, until it was flooding through me, racing like a river current baked hot by the sun. Want dripped through me, pooling in all the nooks that formed between our bodies. I reached for a handful of his shirt, feeling the warmth of his skin through the thin material. I needed him closer, to remember how it felt to be pressed against him, to be wrapped around him. One of his hands swept up the side of my neck, his fingers curling under my hair. I sighed into his mouth as he kissed me again, slower, deeper, rougher. He tipped my mouth up to him for more, and I grabbed for his ribs, trying to get closer. He leaned into me until my back met the side of the car, until he pressed hard against me. A stupid gasp escaped me at the feel of his chest unyielding against mine, and I ground my hips against his. He braced one hand on the window behind me, and his teeth caught my bottom lip again, a little harder this time. My breaths came fast and shaky as his hand swiped down the car window to my chest, feeling me through my shirt. I raked my hands through his hair, arched into the press of his hand, and a low, involuntary groan lifted in his throat. He leaned away and flipped me onto my back, and I greedily pulled him over me. A pulse went through me at the feeling of him hard against me, and I tried to will him closer than clothes allowed. That sound rasped out of him again. I couldnt remember the last time Id been this turned on. Actually, I could. It was seven years ago in a frat house basement. His hand slipped up beneath my shirt, his thumb scraping up the length of my hip bone and seeming to melt it as he went. His mouth grazed hot and damp down my neck, sinking heavily against my collarbone. My whole body was begging him for more without any subtlety, lifting toward him as if pulled by a magnet. I felt like a teenager, and it was wonderful, and it was horrible, and He tightened over me as light hit us, as cold and sobering as if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on us. We sprang apart at the sight of the surly middle-aged woman with the flashlight aimed our way. She had a frizzy triangle of gray hair and a bright blue track jacket screen printed with the BIG BOY BOBBYS logo. She cleared her throat. Gus was still propped up over me with one hand tangled in the hem of my shirt. This is a family establishment, the woman hissed. Well, youre doing a great job. Guss voice was thick and husky. He cleared it again and gave the woman his best Evil smile. My wife and I were just saying we should bring the kids here sometime. She folded her arms, apparently immune to the charms of his mouth. Must be nice. Gus knelt back onto his heels, and I tugged my shirt down. Sorry about that, I said, mortified. The woman jerked a thumb down the dark, grassy aisle between cars. Out, she barked. Of course, Gus said quickly and jerked the tailgate closed, shutting us off from her. I burst out in humiliated, deranged laughter, and Gus turned toward me with a faint smile, his lips bruised and swollen, his hair disastrous. That was such a bad idea, I whispered helplessly. Yeah. Guss voice slipped back into its dangerous rasp. He leaned forward through the dark and caught me in one last viciously slow, dementedly hot kiss, his fingers spanning the side of my face. Wont happen again, he told me, and all the sparks awake in my bloodstream fizzled out just a bit. One time. That was his rule. But did this count? My gut twisted with disappointment. It couldnt. It had done nothing to satisfy me. If anything, it had left me worse off than before, and from the way Gus was staring at me, I thought he must feel the same way. The woman banged on the back window, and we both jumped. We should go, Gus said. I scrambled from the back of the car into the front seat. Gus got out the back door and back into the passenger seat. I drove us home, feeling like my body was a heat map and everywhere hed touched, everywhere he looked when he glanced over from the passenger seat, was glowing red. GUS DIDNT APPEAR at the kitchen table at noon on Sunday. I figured that was a bad signthat what had happened had destroyed the only friendship I had in this town. Really, one of only several friendships I had the world over, since Jacques and my couple of friends, it had turned out, had no use for Just Me. I tried to put Gus out of my mind, to work on the book with singular focus, but I went back to jumping every time my phone buzzed. A text from Anya: Hey, love! Just wanted to check in. The house would really like to see some initial pages, to give some input. An email from Pete: Hello! Good news! Your books will be in stock tomorrow. Is there a day this week you could stop by to sign? An email from Sonya, which I did not open but whose first sentence I could see: Please, please dont let me scare you off from book club. Im totally happy to stay home on Monday nights if youd like to keep A text from Shadi: January. Help. I cannot get ENOUGH of that haunted hat. Hes come over the last THREE nights and last night I let him STAY. I texted her back, You know exactly where this is going. Youre INTO him!! I HATE falling in love, she replied. Its always ruining my bad-boy reputation!! I sent her a sad face. I know, but you must persevere. For the good of the Haunted Hat and so I can live vicariously through you. Memories from last night flashed across my mind as bright and hot as fireworks, the sparks landing and burning everywhere hed touched. I could feel the ghost of his teeth on my collarbone, and my shoulder blade was a little bruised from the car door. Hunger and embarrassment raced through me in one twisted braid. God, what had I done? I should have known better. And then there was the part of me that couldnt stop thinking, Am I going to get to do it again? It didnt have to mean anything. Maybe this was it: I would finally learn how to have a casual relationship. Or maybe the deal was off and I would literally never hear from Gus Everett again. I was out of both cereal and ramen, so after Id painfully churned out three hundred words, I decided to break for a grocery trip and, on my way out the door, saw that Guss car wasnt in its usual spot on the street. I forced the thought from my head. This didnt have to be a big deal. At the grocery store, I checked my bank account again, then wandered the aisles with my phone calculator open, adding up the price of Frosted Mini-Wheats and cans of soup. Id managed to put together a decent haul for sixteen dollars when I rounded the corner to the checkout and saw her there. Curly white hair, willowy frame, that same crocheted shawl. Panic coursed through me so fast I felt like Id gotten an adrenaline shot in the heart. I abandoned my cart right there in the aisle and, head down, booked it past her toward the doors. If she saw me, she didnt say anything. Or if she did, my heart was pounding too loud for me to hear it. I jumped back into my car feeling like Id robbed a bank and drove twenty minutes to another grocery store, where I was so shaken up and paranoid about another run-in that I barely managed to get anything. By the time I got home, I was still shaky, and it didnt help that Guss car hadnt reappeared. It was one thing to have to dodge Sonya in my bimonthly grocery trips. If I wound up having to avoid my next-door neighbor, I was pretty sure Plan B: Move to Duluth would have to take effect. Before I crawled into bed that night, I peeked out the front windows one more time, but Guss car was still missing. Dread inflated in my chest like the worlds least fun balloon. Id finally found a friend, someone I could talk to, whod seemed to want to be around me as much as I wanted to be around him, and now he was just gone. Because wed kissed. Anger reared up in me, forcing my humiliation and loneliness out of the way for just a while before they buoyed to the surface again. I thought about texting him, but it seemed like the weirdest possible time to start, so instead I went to sleep, a sick, anxious feeling coiled in my stomach. By Monday morning, he still wasnt back. Tonight, I decided. If his car wasnt along the curb tonight, I could text him. That wouldnt be weird. I put him out of my mind and pounded out two thousand fresh words, then texted Anya: Going well (actually (seriously (I mean it this time!))) but Id like to get a little more done before anyone reads the partial. I think its going to be hard to tell where Im going with this without the complete picture and Im afraid if I jump forward to outline it will kill all momentum Ive finally built up. Next, I replied to Pete: Great! How does Wednesday work? The truth was, I couldve come in on Sunday when I got the email, or on Monday when I sent the reply. But I didnt want another invitation to the Red Blood, White Russians, and Blue Jeans Book Club. Putting off my stop at the bookstore until Wednesday eliminated one more potential week of that whole experience without having to reject the invitation. By eleven that night, Guss car still wasnt back, and Id talked myself into and out of texting him five times. Finally, I put my phone in the drawer of the side table, clicked off the lamp, and went to sleep. Tuesday I awoke soaked in sweat. Id forgotten to set my alarm, and the sun was streaking through the blinds in full force, baking me in its pale light. It had to be close to eleven. I slid out from under the thick duvet and lay there for another minute. I still felt a little sick. And then a little furious that I felt sick. It was so dumb. I was a grown woman. Gus had told me exactly how he operated, exactly what he thought about romance, and hed never said or done anything to suggest hed changed his mind. I knew that no matter how attracted to him I occasionally felt, the only place our relationship could go was through a revolving door in and out of his bedroom. Or the back of my deeply uncool car. And even if things had gone further that night, it wouldnt have precluded him from disappearing for days. There was exactly one way that I could theoretically have Gus Everett, and it would leave me feeling sick like this as soon as it was over. I needed to get him out of my head. I took a cold shower. Or, at least, I took one second of a cold shower, during which I screamed the f-word and almost broke my ankle lunging away from the stream of water. How the hell were people in books always taking cold showers? I turned the water back to hot and fumed as I washed my hair. I wasnt mad at him. I couldnt be. I was furious with myself for wandering down this path. I knew better. Gus wasnt Jacques. Guys like Jacques wanted snowball fights and kisses at the top of the Eiffel Tower and sunrise strolls on the Brooklyn Bridge. Guys like Gus wanted snarky banter and casual sex on top of their unfolded laundry. In the back of your deeply uncool car at a family establishment. Although I couldnt be sure that hadnt been my idea. It was conceivable that Id thrown myself at him. It wouldnt be the first time I was seeing through rose-colored glasses, assigning meaning where there was none. I was being stupid. After everything with my dad, I should have known better. Id just barely started to heal, and Id run right out and gotten a crush on the one person who was guaranteed to prove right every single fear I had about relationships. I needed to let this go. Writing, I decided, would be my solace. It was slow going at first, every word a decision not to think about Gus disappearing, but after a while I found a rhythm, almost as strong as yesterdays. The family circus wound up back in Oklahoma, close to where Eleanors fathers secret second family lived. A week, I decided. The bulk of this book was going to take place over the week the circus was parked in Town TBD (Tulsa?), Oklahoma. Writing in a different era presented a completely new challenge. I was leaving a lot of notes to myself like Find out what drinks were popular then or Insert historically accurate insult. What mattered, though, was that I had a vision. All the secrets were going to come to the surface, almost win out, and then theyd be packed back down neatly. That was how an Augustus Everett novel would go, wouldnt it? He would say it had a nice cyclical quality when I told him. (If I got the chance to tell him.) I wanted the readers to be cheering, begging for Eleanors found family to tell the truth by the end, while watching through their fingers, afraid of how the situation would implode. Someone needed a gun, I realized, and a reason to have a hair-trigger reaction. Fear, of course. I needed to pressure-cook the situation. Build and build, only to tamp it back down in time for the characters to move along to their next destination. Eleanors father would owe money to dangerous men back in his hometownostensibly the reason hed left in the first place, why hed abandoned his family. Eleanors mother would have the gun. It seemed only fair to give her something to fight with. But with it, shed have to shoulder the weight of some PTSD, remnants of an old employer who liked to get violent with the girls who worked for him. She needed to be wound tight, ready to snap, like Id been feeling this past year. Like I wanted Mom to be after the full extent of Dads lies came to light. Eleanor, for her part, was going to fall in love with a local. Or at least fancy herself having done so, the night of their first performance in Tulsa. She would spend the week moving closer to escaping the life shed grown up in, only to have a horrible last-minute revelation that no matter how she might sometimes despise this world, it was the only one in which she belonged. Or maybe she would realize the world shed lusted after, the one shed watched from behind circus tents and atop tightropes, that filtered past while she was hard at work, was as much an illusion as the one she knew. The boy would fall in love with someone else, just as quickly as he had with her. Or the boy would leave for college, the military. Or his parents would find out about Eleanor and persuade him of his recklessness. It would be an anti-romance. And I was entirely capable of writing it.

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame /     (Disney, 2012) -   The Hunchback of Notre Dame /
  • Toy Story 2 /   2 (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story 2 /
  • The Little Mermaid. Ariel And The Prince /  .    (Disney, 2012)    The Little Mermaid. Ariel And
  • Love Story /   (by Erich Segal, 1996) -    Love Story /

, , .

  • .

  • ,