Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I’VE SPENT MORE HOURS THAN I can count lying awake, finding hidden pictures in the random patterns of my popcorn ceiling.
A rack of antlers with asymmetrical drop tines. A bundle of tulips gripped tight by spindly fingers.
Most of them I’ve found before. After all, there’s only so much to discover on a ten-by-twelve ceiling. But sometimes I see something new. Like Mom’s old schoolmate Mrs. Lassam’s thick-rimmed glasses, which I’ve been staring at for the past hour. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her since she walked out of Sunday Mass with us this morning.
The question she asked me was simple enough. What are your plans now that you’ve graduated? It should’ve been an easy answer, the same bullshit story I tell everyone, but I’ve been spending so much time thinking about my real plans that I almost told her the actual truth. I covered it, of course, but I could’ve ruined this whole thing. I need to be more careful the closer it gets.
One wrong word to the wrong person in the wrong place, and our plan will be blown to hell.
The truth is I hate keeping secrets. I always have. All they really do is tear people apart.
This is different.
Because this particular secret is the only thing keeping me whole.
She is the only thing keeping me whole.
I know it might sound a little extreme, but sometimes it feels like she’s the only one I can be myself around, like she’s the only thing holding my feet to the ground and without her, I might just forget who I really am and float away.
She’s so much more than just a secret. She’s everything to me.
For my own eye health, I force my attention away from Mrs. Lassam’s glasses and flip over onto my stomach to snag my phone off the corner of my bed. 3:17 a.m. The screen lights up with a photo of me, which I’m sure looks slightly egotistical or at least super weird from the outside. But when I look at this photo, I don’t see myself. I see what I’m smiling at: the photographer.
I see Nora.
Instead of my long, dark-chocolate hair, I see her dirty-blond, chin-length cut, which she’s forever regathering into a mini-ponytail at the back of her head. Instead of my sharp jawline and bony shoulders, I see her two dimples, set deep into the freckled cheeks of her round face, and her strong arms.
Even though every part of her is forever carved into my mind, tonight, after what almost happened after Mass, it’s not enough to just imagine her. I need more.
I slide out from underneath my blue-and-white-striped comforter and tiptoe silently across the carpet to my desk. Somewhere along the top shelf is a thin orange granite rock, lodged in the gap between two sections of wood. Slipping it out, I crouch down on the floor and stick an edge into one of the screws holding the metal vent over the air duct. They take longer to unscrew than they used to. After being taken out about a million times, the little crosses are almost stripped down to perfect circles. Honestly, I should probably replace them with fresh ones soon so they don’t draw any attention.
Quietly, I set the vent cover on the floor beside me, then carefully reach inside the duct to remove an orange shoe box. Without fail, the familiar worn corners and peeling Scotch tape send my heart pounding. I glance back at my closed bedroom door before turning on my flashlight and removing the lid. Inside is a mess of handwritten letters and photographs but also things that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone other than the two of us.
The blue-and-yellow tassel off Nora’s graduation cap from Wyatt High, the local public school that’s about ten minutes from the Catholic school I attended. An empty movie theater popcorn bag from when we drove into the city to go on our first real date. The stretched-out yellow hair tie she gave me off her wrist the first time we had sex, all arms and legs in the backseat of my Volvo, tucked deep into the woods on her family farm. A winning lottery ticket we found in a deserted parking lot the other night and vowed to cash in once we finally get out of here at the end of summer, when we can be together.
This box. It’s the only physical evidence I have of our two-year relationship, everything precious to me. If someone found this, they’d know everything, which is exactly why it needs to stay hidden for the next two months.
At the very bottom of the pile, I find what I’ve really been looking for: my favorite photo of Nora. It’s a small rectangular Polaroid, shot in black-and-white so it seems fifty years older than it actually is. We decided when we first started dating almost two years ago that it would be safer for us to only capture memories via Polaroids. No digital evidence for someone to find on either of our phones.
In the photo Nora’s treading water, shoulder-deep in the crick when it flooded last spring. Her wet hair is hanging down around her face in messy tangles, and her mouth is open just enough to see the teeny-tiny gap in her front teeth. She looks sexy. You’d never guess her mouth is open because she’s about to announce the gnarly wedgie she has.
I hear the creak of my parents’ bed and jerk my head up to the wall we share. I freeze for a second, listening, but no other sounds escape their room, so it’s probably just one of them rolling over. Even so, time to put this stuff away. I drop the photo hastily into the box and place it back in the duct behind the vent, then wiggle the rock back into my desk, like nothing is there, nothing happened at all.
I hurry back to my bed, my heart beating in my ears. What if that wasn’t just one of them rolling over in bed? What if one of them had walked in here and seen me? I just keep replaying different scenarios in my head and the longer I lie here, the worse the reactions become.
I can’t do this anymore tonight. I need sleep if I’m going to make it through another long day of holding this all in. And I know there’s only one thing that’s going to calm me down enough to get there. I just hope she doesn’t mind. This’ll be the second time in the past week that I’ll be calling and waking her up.
I dial Nora’s number, my fingers automatically gliding over the screen as if I’m entering my passcode. I burrow deep under my covers, then stick my phone between my ear and the mattress.
“Hey, babe.” Her voice sounds after a few rings, extra raspy from being woken up, and extra cute. “Can’t sleep, huh?” she asks, even though she knows I can’t answer, not with my parents on the other side of my paper-thin walls. Luckily, she doesn’t have to worry about that, because her bedroom is all the way up in the attic of her oversized farmhouse. Not that I’ve ever actually seen it.
“You know how I’ve been on that environmental documentary kick?” she asks rhetorically.
I nod to myself, feeling slightly guilty for not having watched the two she sent me… but not guilty enough to actually watch them.
“Okay, well, I just watched this one about meat and it was so mind-boggling…” She goes on, telling me all she’s learned about the meat industry’s effect on the environment. “Anyway, I’m thinking about going vegan,” she finishes, and I can’t help but let out the quietest laugh at that.
“I know. I know.” She giggles. “Says the girl whose mom runs the biggest beef farm in the county. That’d probably be more of a blow to her than…” She laughs again, but this one sounds different, forced.
She goes back to the documentary, telling me all the little details about it. She talks and I just listen.
One thing I love about Nora is that she oozes passion. Pure unfiltered passion, for all kinds of things. It’s easy to get excited when you’re around her, even about stuff you never cared about before.
Sometimes if I really can’t sleep, she’ll talk to me like this for hours on end, and somehow, she always manages to find things that are worth saying.
Despite how much I like listening, her soothing voice manages to melt the tension I’ve been holding in my muscles all night, and after half an hour or so, my eyelids finally begin to grow heavy. And even though Nora would never admit it, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind being able to go back to sleep right now.
“And don’t get me started on deforestation. That’s a whole other—” She stops midsentence when I softly clear my throat into the phone.
“Okay. Good night, Stevie. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She pauses; then, ever so softly, she whispers, “I love you,” as if she’s saying it into my ear. She doesn’t just sling it around like she’s said it as many times as she actually has. She says it like she means it, each word encased in her whole heart.
I want to say it back to her. I want to say it so badly my throat aches, but I know I can’t.
Not even in a whisper.