Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
My parents love this old song where the girl knows down to the hour how long her lover has been gone. I’d never come close to feeling that way about some dude, but I had the same tragic energy as I missed my best friend.
It’d been twenty-two hours and thirty-six days since I’d last seen Brianna. Two hours and thirty days since she’d last responded to my texts—not that I was painfully aware of the time to the minute or anything.
But second after lonely second had passed, and somehow it was another Saturday night in our small town—or, I should say, my small town. Brianna Hoffman had moved across the country to Seattle, so it wasn’t like Saratoga was “ours” anymore. Yet it was still a summer weekend, and I had plans.
I was acting like a saddo at a house party.
All around me girls shouted elaborate toasts before spilling shots down their gullets. Future frat boys showed off their flip-cup skills in the dining room, hoping for the girls to notice them. Guys who were way too old for high school parties creeped in the corner of the living room. And in the kitchen, a crowd was celebrating someone eating a full can of whipped cream in record time.
It was the worst place on earth to be sad.
But I’d gone in with a mission.
It just wasn’t working out.
I stood alone by the sliding-glass door, nursing the contents of my red Solo cup while repeatedly scanning the party. The mystery green punch tasted like apples and aftershave, but the liquor had made taking a duck-faced selfie marginally bearable. I’d posted it online in a pathetic attempt to say: Look how I’m having fun without you! Like Brianna was even going to check my socials.
“Oh em gee, we should do karaoke!” some girl screeched. Like that. Like the letters—O. M. and, you guessed it, G.
“Hell yeah!” was the reply.
I tossed my cup and slid out into the backyard. I could handle only so much in my fragile state. It was dark, but it wouldn’t be too dark to wander the few blocks home. Crushing loneliness aside, it was a perfect night. The humidity had dropped, and the late August air held the crispness of the impending fall.
I paused on the deck and let out a long exhale, both glad to be free and bummed my plan had been a resounding failure. I’d even tried to look cute—like my headband/sundress combo was going to clinch it with Teagan, my other former friend. We’d been friends through Bri, and I’d also lost her when Bri left. But I figured Teagan would be so wowed by my fashion sense that we’d be friends again and she’d immediately tell me why she and Brianna had ghosted me.
It was foolproof.
All right, it was more wishful thinking than a plan, but I was running low on options. I’d tried messaging, calling, a hyper-aggressive unsolicited FaceTime, Snaps, and commenting on every one of Bri’s Instagram posts, and none of it had worked.
I started to move again and was almost to the edge of the deck when I felt the vibration of my phone. I rummaged around my purse, missing my cell over and over again in the small bag.
Was it Bri? Please be Bri.
My hands shook as I tried to unlock the screen, overeagerness getting the best of me. I cursed my lack of text previews and was on my second attempt to unlock my phone when my foot missed the top deck stair.
The thing about top steps is, they’re crucial. Miss that one and the others don’t matter much. So I went tumbling on down, only instead of hitting the ground, my fate was worse: I slammed into the broad chest of Eric Mulvaney Ortiz. And then we fell into a rosebush.
All six-foot-two of the star quarterback of our mediocre football team and all five-foot-one of my should-be-valedictorian-so-at-least-I-have-that got tangled up in an enormous rosebush.
“What the—” he said.
“Where did—” I said.
We paused a breath away from each other, noses almost touching. Eric smelled like charred wood and cologne with a touch of smugness. I smelled like lilacs and, I don’t know, probably pariah.
I locked eyes with him, adrenaline coursing through my body. His heart was also beating fast, thumping through his T-shirt.
After an uncomfortable amount of time, he looked away and cleared his throat. “Oh, it’s you,” he said.
It was the kind of greeting you’d give a ladybug you don’t want in your house but you won’t kill because it’d be bad luck. I should mention here that we’d been rivals since kindergarten and not to throw around the word “nemesis” but… accurate.
We both tried to get up, but between my limbs, his, and the branches, we were hopelessly enmeshed. Eric fans from our high school would’ve killed to have been in my shoes, with him on top of me. I, however, just wanted out.
“Let me—” he said.
“If you would just—” I huffed.
Again I moved, but he shifted at the same time. He pulled my long hair, and I elbowed him in the ribs (“accidentally”), and we both stopped. Everything hurt and was only getting worse between the thorns and his heavy-ass limbs.
Eric was perennially in my way. As rising seniors, he was the one thing standing between me and a clear path to valedictorian. Of course he couldn’t have been a brainless piece of muscle. Nooo. One, my life wasn’t that easy, and two, our school didn’t have any of those. Funded by eccentric billionaire Jim Carver, Carver Preparatory High School, one of the best in the nation, was tuition-free but you needed a 93 average in middle school just to be invited to apply. Eric and I had easily qualified with 100s from Saratoga Public Intermediate School. Then we’d ended junior year with 99.89s. Both of us.
I know…. Intolerable on many counts.
“Look, I’m going to stand and then I’ll help you up,” he said.
I didn’t trust him. At all. But what choice did I have in the rosebush? The last thing I wanted was one of his football bros discovering us and snapping a pic. In a flash I saw the social media post of a Korean girl (me) making a doughnut-hole surprised mouth and his rumpled Irish-Dominican good looks with a #CaughtInTheAct type sticker.
No way. Death before dishonor.
I nodded and Eric managed to stand. As promised, he extended his arm and helped me to my feet. Once we were upright, we flung our hands apart and checked our phones.
Although I would’ve sworn on my little sister’s life that I’d gotten a text, I had no new messages. From the look on Eric’s face, whatever he’d expected wasn’t there either. Probably his eight thousandth unneeded scholarship offer. Even though we were only juniors, the contest of who could get the most merit scholarships had already begun, as it did for upperclassmen every year.
Eric slid his phone into his pocket and smoothed himself out. We both had little scrapes on our arms and legs and bigger cuts on our hands. He sighed and pulled a tissue out of his pocket. Yes, Eric was a teenage boy who carried around a pack of Kleenex—like my grandma Mimi.
“Do you want one?” he asked.
I could’ve used one, but I shook my head no.
“Put some Neosporin on your hand when you get home,” he said.
I doubted he actually cared about my risk of infection, but he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to impart medical wisdom.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
We idled in three seconds of awkward silence.
“What are you doing here, Miller?” he asked. Aside from Mr. Broadsword, our AP US History teacher, Eric was the only person who called me by my last name.
“Oh, you know, just waiting to sack the Hero of Carver,” I said.
After the team barely won half their games last fall, the local newspaper still had the nerve to do a spotlight piece on Eric. They called him the “Hero of Carver”—hands down the most obnoxious thing I’d ever seen. And I had to see it every time I went in for a checkup since his doctor dad had laminated and framed it. In two spots in the waiting room.
Eric rolled his eyes at me. “I meant you’re not usually at these types of things. Or dressed like that.”
“Are you keeping track? I’m touched.” I pointed to my chest and batted my eyes.
“Good talk,” he said.
He turned but didn’t step away, and for some reason I was relieved he lingered. Which was too weird because I hated him. HATED. But loneliness and the need to talk to someone… anyone who really knew me was rewiring my responses. Despite the soul-crushing unfairness of it all, Eric and I did know each other. Living in the same school district, we’d been in every class together since kindergarten and our parents were friends.
“I thought Teagan would be here,” I muttered.
He raised his eyebrows and blinked a couple of times, like he couldn’t imagine me speaking to him.
“She was earlier, but she bounced, like, half an hour ago,” he said.
I gritted my teeth. So Teagan had come, and either she’d avoided me or me and my bad luck had missed her. Fabulous. Yet somehow I managed to have Eric all to myself, and that guy was never alone. Wait, why was he by himself?
“Were you hiding in the rosebush?” I asked.
“I wasn’t hiding in the…” He sighed in a long, suffering way. “I was checking my phone and didn’t see you.”
“Nah, it’s cool. If you want to lurk like a creeper in a kiddie park, who am I going to tell?” I said.
That drew another sigh. He ran his nonbleeding hand down his face. My mom liked to say he had “classic bone structure.” I didn’t understand what that meant, but he had a straight nose, a smooth forehead, and a square jaw. He hadn’t even had an acne stage. Which… what kind of unfair bullshit was that? I used to have pimples on my nose with their own gravitational pull.
“I was looking for a message from my girlfriend,” Eric finally said.
Ah, the girlfriend. The one who looked like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones. I knew all about her, even though she didn’t go to Carver. Eric was the favorite subject of the school rumor mill, and he and some girl no one had met were suddenly dubbed the power couple over the summer. His girlfriend was a year older than us, an Instagram model with like a hundred thousand followers, and she was going into her freshman year at UPenn.
Note: I wasn’t entirely convinced she was a real person. Even her name, “Jessica Lovelace,” sounded fake, but whatever. If he wanted to have an imaginary girlfriend, that was his business.
“Oh,” I said.
We locked into another conversational pause and both returned to our phones. To save you the suspense: I didn’t have any new messages.
“How’s Bri doing?” Eric asked.
Her name made my heart contract, and pain leaked through the hole in my chest created by her absence. I stared at him, trying to figure out if he was intentionally jabbing at me, but he seemed like he was genuinely asking.
“I don’t know.” The words tasted like sand in my mouth.
He looked puzzled for a second, squinting one of his hazel eyes. “She must be busy with settling in and all that. I can’t imagine moving cross country and switching schools with one year left.”
“Well, neither can I,” I blurted out. “She hates me and won’t talk to me.”
Eric’s eyes widened, and I regretted opening my mouth. I hadn’t meant to kick off a little heart-to-heart with him, but I was exhausted. After a month of missing my other half, I wasn’t at my best.
Then again, it wasn’t like I was telling him anything top secret. School would pick up in a week and a half, and the rumor mill would eat up my excommunication from her and Teagan’s friendship. I was surprised the news wasn’t out already since there was no such thing as privacy at Carver, but maybe Eric had missed it since he’d been away at camp. Because he was eighteen and still went to sleepaway camp.
He shook his head like he hadn’t heard me right. “Brianna Hoffman hates you?”
“Everyone hates me lately.”
“Why?” he asked.
That was the million-dollar question. I didn’t know. One night I’d gone to bed having a best friend, and the next day I didn’t have one. I kept going over things in my head and couldn’t figure out the answer. The last time I hung out with Bri was at her going-away party, and everything had been fine. For the most part. Plus, we’d texted for days after that, so it couldn’t have been anything from the party. Yet once Bri landed in Seattle, it was like she and Teagan had been waiting to cut me off because I hadn’t heard from either since. I needed to know what had happened, but neither of them would talk to me and that was as hurtful as it was frustrating.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
Eric stared at me for what felt like an eternity. With each creeping second, I felt more and more foolish. Why had I unburdened myself to him? He was the last person in the world who’d care. He’d snickered during my salutatorian speech in middle school. He’d spiked a volleyball at my head in freshman-year gym. He’d secretly requested extra-credit assignments to try to edge me out of the top GPA in sophomore year (before I learned to do that too). Yeah, we’d known each other since we were little kids, but he wasn’t a friend or confidant. I was just desperate.
But not this frigging desperate.
I took a step to go around him. He put his muscular arm out, a yard from touching me, yet stopping me nonetheless. His fingers splayed, then he balled his hand in a fist and dropped it at his side. I looked up at him.
“Jessica hasn’t messaged me since the day I came home from football camp,” he said. “Almost three days now.”
He spoke in a voice so low, I wasn’t even sure I’d heard him. But then it sank in. If my eyes could’ve bulged out of my head, they would’ve. Someone (other than me) didn’t want Eric Mulvaney Ortiz? Seriously? His fan club was, like, 499 strong—and there were 500 students at Carver.
“She ghosted you?” I said.
The second the words were out of my mouth, I knew they were the wrong ones. Obviously he’d been ghosted, but it would’ve hurt to hear it.
He stood straighter and his expression changed.
“Never mind.” He shoved both hands in his pockets.
Despite my general desire to stick it to Eric whenever I could, that was mostly at school and generally academic. I scrambled for words to smooth things over. I was overly familiar with how much it sucked to be ignored.
“I… I won’t tell anyone,” I said.
He shook his head. “Appreciate it. But it’s not that I’m ashamed or anything. I’m worried about her.”
I skewed my face. “Why?”
“UPenn is a lot, and she gets anxious. I think she pulled away because she’s overwhelmed, but I can’t help her because I can’t reach her. I wish… I wish I could just see her to know she’s okay, you know?”
I had no idea why he was telling me all that, but I did a hundred percent know that feeling.
“You and me both,” I said. “I mean about Bri. I don’t really care about your girlfriend—no offense.”
I exhaled. “I check Bri’s socials to see what she’s doing and to know she’s alive and I never used to have to do that. We’d pick out filters and backgrounds together before she even posted anything. It’s awful being on the outside when I was in the inner circle my whole life.”
“Since kindergarten,” he said. Because of course he had to correct me.
I stomped my foot. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” he said with a surprising amount of sincerity. “I look at Jessica’s Insta all the time. I’m now overly familiar with the UPenn campus.” He grimaced and stared at the patio paving stones.
“Well, according to her feed, Bri’s visiting there next week,” I said. “Hey, we should show up with roses for each of them.” I reached out and touched the bush we’d seriously damaged.
I laughed, but he didn’t. It wasn’t surprising. Eric had the sense of humor of a moldy turnip. But his eyes took on a startling intensity. His lips parted, but I couldn’t hear him because he was cut off by an owl hoot. Not a real owl. We’re the Carver Owls (a wise bird and the worst mascot in history), and it was one of his teammates.
“Yo, Ortiz, where you at?” Ricky called from down the path.
That was my cue to leave.
“Well, it’s been real,” I said with a little soldier salute. “See ya around, Elmo.”
Eric hated being called Elmo—the initials for Eric Lewis Mulvaney Ortiz. That’s why I called him that. A lot.
He did a little chin raise movement and with that I was dismissed. His swarm of friends enveloped him in their nonsense, and he went back to easy smiles, like he didn’t have a care in the world. It was a thin façade, but no one else seemed aware of it.
As I walked toward the backyard fence, I shook off our conversation, but I was left with a distinct feeling someone was watching me. I looked over my shoulder as I swung the gate open, and although other people were talking to him, Eric was still staring at me. It was strange, but this whole night had been weird, so I let it go.
Turns out, that was a mistake. One of many to come.