Chapter One One
I’M ELBOW-DEEP IN some dead lady’s clothes when a customer bowls a perfect game.
Hidden from view, I’m kneeling behind the register as I finish cataloging my latest estate-sale finds, but I can hear the players whoop and holler. I take a deep breath, and the smell of Chanel No. 5 mixed with lavender-scented mothballs tickles my nostrils.
My shift ends in five minutes, but now I have to run interference with a cocky high scorer asking for a free game and his name on the wall of fame. Okay, fame is pushing it, but people love having their name displayed for the world to see. Normally not an issue, right? Except a bowling alley like Bigmouth’s can’t go comping games. I sweep the vintage threads into the garbage bag and pop up just as the winner, a regular named Marty, saunters over from the lanes.
I drop-kick the bag beneath the counter. “Congrats on the three hundred.”
“Thanks. Sign says perfect games are on the house.” He slaps down the scored transparency. Three feet of counter stretch between us, yet my eyes water from Marty’s stale nicotine breath and criminal lack of deodorant. Ah, the aroma of Bigmouth’s remaining patrons.
I side-eye the sign hanging crooked on the wall beside me. We really should’ve taken that down years ago, because Marty isn’t wrong. The refund is for the winning player’s entire group, which is a problem. My brain churns for another option because there’s not enough in the register to cover the sixty-two dollars the men paid for their games and shoes.
Thursdays are league night at Bigmouth’s, but they’re only the second group of customers we’ve had all day. Before his break, Dad grabbed money from the register’s drawer for dinner. A lowly twenty-dollar bill remains in the drawer.
Bigmouth’s is hemorrhaging cash.
“We can give you a voucher for a free game next time,” I offer, grinding my molars. Technically, a voucher is an option. Not the most lucrative one. But Marty’s a regular, and I cross my fingers that he’ll just take the voucher.
“That’s not what the sign says. Look, can you comp our game or not?”
Well, at least I tried. To buy time, I rustle through a stack of forms. “Sure thing. Why don’t you fill this out with your info so your name can be added to the wall?”
This occupies Marty long enough for me to duck to the floor and grab my wallet from my carpetbag purse. I only have forty dollars, which I crumple into my sweaty fist. Goddammit, Dad. When I unload the register, I slip my four tens in with the lone twenty.
“Here you go.” I fork over sixty dollars even.
Marty doesn’t count the bills. Doesn’t notice the missing two dollars.
“Thanks, Chuck,” he replies, pocketing the money.
When they leave, I rip the sign off its hook and toss it in the trash. I kick the trash can, my big toe throbbing through my patent-leather flats, and press my fingertips against my eyelids. I take a scrambled, aching breath, itching for a sense of calm. What would’ve happened if I hadn’t had cash on me? Beyond the sheer embarrassment factor, we can’t afford to upset or lose our dwindling customer base.
Thankfully, tonight is my last shift before spring break, a week of glorious freedom and fashion. Dad promised me a bowling-free vacation. No clunky register or used shoes or the clang of pins hitting oiled alleys. I’ve jam-packed my break with estate sales—they’re a treasure trove of history and cheaper than the overpriced thrift stores in the city. Plus a vintage showcase and a college tour of San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising on Saturday.
The bell above the door jingles and Dad walks in, carrying a sweating take-out bag. “Caroline! Did I miss the rush?” he jokes, and I find his cheerfulness grating. Our lack of customers isn’t a laughing matter.
“Nope,” I reply, flinching the way I always do when Dad uses my full name, “but Marty bowled a three hundred after you left.”
Dad fails to hide his grimace. The to-go bag of food swings against his legs. “Ah, I see. You comp him?”
“Yep. He wants his name up there,” I add, jerking my thumb to the stretch of wall above the lanes where we’ve immortalized our high-scoring customers. Benjamin O’Neill, my maternal grandfather, who opened Bigmouth’s, is the first name on the leaderboard.
“How’d you refund him?” Dad slides the form off the counter and pockets it without a glance.
I fixate on a drooping cobweb hanging from the ceiling. “I used some of my money. It’s fine.”
“I’ll pay you back, Caroline. I promise.”
The sentiment is nice, but I sincerely doubt I’ll see that forty bucks again. Annoyance flares, lightning quick, before I can tamp it down. Why is it up to me? Why am I helping Bigmouth’s stay afloat? I work for free—running the register and hosing off bowling shoes with disinfectant. Now I’m comping games with the money in my purse?
The stress lines around Dad’s mouth ease somewhat. Bigmouth’s is struggling, but his pride would take a serious hit if the customers found out just how badly we’re doing.
“Don’t worry about it.” Annoyed as I am, it’s a small price to pay for my dad to be happy. Unstressed. “Hey, did you order wontons?”
He sets the food down and attempts a smile. “Want one?”
I pluck a wonton from the Styrofoam container and pop it in my mouth. “Do you still need me around? My shift ended fifteen minutes ago.” I nudge the trash bag of clothes from underneath the counter, ready to dart toward my freedom. A week far from Bigmouth’s.
“Honey,” Dad says. “I heard from Pete and he, um, he quit.”
That small slice of freedom slips from my grasp. “He what?”
I groan and drop my forehead to the counter for a dramatic moment before looking up and saying, “But you promised.”
Dad tucks his hands into the pockets of his knee-length cargo shorts. “I know, I know, but I don’t have many options. Help your old man out.”
All my weight rests on my elbows as I slouch against the countertop. Helping him out is all I do. “So I’m working spring break after all.”
“Until I get the shifts figured out.” His fingers tap and twitch. I swear there’s an air of relief over Pete quitting—one less salary we can’t afford to pay. Other than me—child labor laws be damned—he was our only employee.
The tension webbed between my shoulder blades refuses to relax, and my throat aches. Resigned, I slouch on my stool. “Sucks Pete quit.”
“Ah, it’ll be okay. Thanks for your help, hon.” He slides his phone from his pocket, glancing at the time. “Can you stay until seven? Jesset’s coming by, and I need someone manning the front desk.”
A visit from the landlord is never good. “Sure thing, boss,” I say, unable to bite back my sarcasm.
Dad winces his smile. “Things are gonna change, Caroline. I promise.” Before I can respond, he takes his dinner and disappears down the hallway toward his office.
Change. The word turns and tumbles in my head. What kind of change?
The comment—and its implications—rattle me. I don’t love working here, but Bigmouth’s is a family business, and I’d do anything to help Dad. But the annoyance lingers over having my spring break hijacked. Not to mention losing my forty dollars. When Dad’s office door clicks shut, I grab my headphones and plug them into my phone.
Goodbye, spring break; hello, Hellmouth.
No estate sales. No vintage showcases. And the worst part? No FIDM college tour. I’m missing out because of Dad. Because of Bigmouth’s. Because of bowling. There will be other tours, other chances to explore my future in fashion design, but spring break is turning into a serious bust. And it hasn’t even started yet.
The city, with its dour skies and chilly air, beckons me from outside the tinted glass doors. Every April is the same; I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore. Spring is disappointing, the fog soupy and the sky weeping well into June. This is my city, and I thrive in it. The hipsters. The hippies. Our not-so-golden bridge. San Francisco may house eight hundred thousand people, but it’s mine.
I haul the trash bag onto my lap and unearth the vintage James Galanos I scored at my last estate sale. Break might be beyond saving, but at least I have my music and my endless sewing projects. There’s something soothing and methodical about mending ruined clothes. The Galanos dress’s hem is ragged, so I pull out my travel sewing kit to mend whatever disaster befell the once-glorious yellow silk creation.
Carefully angling the needle along the original seam, I tuck my bottom lip between my teeth in concentration. My time with a needle and thread began in middle school, when I worked on costumes for the theater department. I’m no talented thespian, but once I taught myself how to sew, I became an asset behind the scenes. Over the past few years, I’ve become addicted to renovating old clothing, mining gold from estate sales and reinventing them.
My mother also had an affinity for vintage, but I prefer to avoid the psychological implications of our overlapping interests.
Something heavy slams onto the countertop and my hand slips, the needle piercing my forefinger. Blood wells. I pop my finger in my mouth and glance at the cardboard box of food—our weekly delivery. But when I peer around the box, whatever semblance of a smile I might’ve had slips away.
Beckett Porter stares at me expectantly from the opposite side of the register behind a curtain of soft brown curls.
I blink once, twice, three times. How much blood did I lose from that needle prick? I must’ve passed out because there’s no way this is reality. A hallucination is more likely, because Beckett hasn’t stepped foot in Bigmouth’s since sophomore year.
When I make no move to acknowledge him, he mimes headphone removal, eyebrows raised in expectation. And that’s all it takes for my surprise to morph into annoyance. More than anything, I want to return to my dress as if I never laid eyes on him. But Dad expects a certain level of professionalism at work.
“Beckett.” I say his name lightly, but those two syllables are laced with distaste. “I’d say I’m happy to see you, but we both know that’d be a lie.”
“Always a pleasure, Chuck.” He points to the Schulman’s Delivery logo on his polo’s breast pocket. “Schulman’s put me on your route.” Since I’ve lost the ability to read him, I can’t tell what he’s thinking right now. Or what he’s doing here.
Until this very moment, there was only one place I had to avoid Beckett Porter. With a school as large as Castelli High, it was no problem. But Bigmouth’s? What am I supposed to do? Duck and cover beneath the counter whenever he has a delivery?
Schulman’s has delivered Bigmouth’s food supplies since before I was born, and I had no idea he worked for them. How—and why—he finagled his way into this situation is beyond me. We’re not friends anymore. We don’t talk. And we certainly aren’t going to interact on a weekly basis when he drops off deliveries.
Beckett taps the cardboard box with a pen. “So, yeah, I have a delivery. Can you sign?”
“Nope.” Only Dad can sign off. I’ve been forbidden from signing off on any deliveries after being held responsible for a missing shipment years ago. My free hand is full of sunshine-colored gossamer, and I flick my fingers toward the office.
Beckett sighs and his cinnamony coffee breath hits me in the face. “Mind walking me back? I don’t want to get lost.”
Lost? Yeah right.
I roll my eyes so hard my ocular muscles cramp. In another life, he used to spend as much time here as I did. What is this? A weird attempt at inconveniencing me? I round the register and snatch the signature clipboard from him.
He trails behind me as I stroll across Bigmouth’s lobby. Our feet smack on the red-and-white checkered flooring, and the air is heavy with Febreze and stale fried food. We pass framed photos of my grandpa on opening day in the seventies, stills from tournaments and parties: days when, you know, bowling was a sport.
Beckett smacks his gum between his teeth. “Excited for spring break?”
I glance sideways at him. What’s up with the small talk? “No. Working.”
Roughly a hundred things bother me about Beckett Porter, but one of my top annoyances is how he’s never, ever upset or disgruntled. Once, I liked this about him. He was mellow and easygoing. The direct opposite of my reactive personality. You could force the guy to greet the Queen of England in the nude, and he’d grin the entire time.
Mental face-palm. Do not think of Beckett Porter naked. Because unfortunately, while Beckett’s a pain in my ass, he’s a mildly attractive pain in my ass. Except I’m not attracted to him. I’ve forced myself to become immune to Beckett Dylan Porter. But the heat in my cheeks begs to differ.
Beckett wears a delivery uniform—short-sleeved collared shirt, faded jeans, loafers—and his tawny-brown curls hit his narrow shoulders. I hate to admit it, even in my head, but since he grew his curls out, he has ridiculously nice hair. My hair isn’t that nice, and I maintain it. He probably rolls out of bed looking like that.
When he’s not watching, I discreetly flare my nostrils, sniffing for a familiar drugstore brand. Something to prove Beckett doesn’t come by luscious curls naturally. Nothing. A year ago, he never used conditioner, and it’s unlikely things have changed. I doubt he knows what conditioner is, let alone applies weekly keratin masks.
I rap my knuckles against the door with the metal nameplate marked OFFICE and lean my hip against the wall.
Beckett clicks and unclicks the pen over and over. “What were you working on back there?”
I look him in his steel-gray eyes and lift an eyebrow.
“Just trying to be polite.” He sighs audibly and shoves the pen into his pocket. Huh. Maybe he’s not so unflappable after all.
“Well, knock it off.” I push open the office door, but Dad’s nowhere to be seen. The accounting books are splayed across the desk. “He’s probably out back.”
When Dad meets with Art Jesset, Bigmouth’s landlord, it’s usually in his office. But judging from Dad’s twitching hands, he was dying for a cigarette. I ease the hallway’s emergency exit open and stick my head into the alleyway alongside Bigmouth’s. Whatever sunlight we had this afternoon is gone. The fog this city is so famous for hangs heavy in the air. If you watch closely, it moves across the pavement, disembodied and a little ghostly.
“There he—” I stop. Dad’s talking to a slender guy with smooth blond hair. Jesset. From their gestures and spiking voices, I can tell the conversation is heated. I rock onto my heels. Do I interrupt? Walk away? Eavesdrop?
Beckett pauses behind me, the heat of his body narrowing the half foot of space between us. He drops his voice to a whisper. “Are we spying on your dad?”
“Shut up.” I inch outside, if only to get away from him.
“Okay, fine, but I didn’t dress for spying.”
The dumpster is large enough to hide me from view. To my horror, Beckett follows, and I grab him by the collar, pulling us both into a crouch behind the dumpster before Dad or Jesset notice. It’s dark out, but a huge light glows above the exit. Moths bounce and burn against the glass.
Jesset’s car is parked in the alley’s entrance, and he leans against the hood as my dad paces. If I listen hard enough, I can overhear their words slipping through the mist.
“I thought we had an arrangement,” Dad’s saying, his voice thin and watery.
“Jack,” the landlord replies, “I’m sorry, but I already gave you extra time. If you can get me that eight grand in back rent before the lease ends on the thirtieth, then we can talk.…”
Eight thousand dollars? I glance at Beckett, and from his face I can tell I heard Jesset right.
“I understand,” Dad says, but his hands worry through his hair.
“I hate doing this, but I have no other choice.” From the tone of Jesset’s voice, this doesn’t sound hard for him at all. In fact, it’s effortless, like he could be placing his morning-coffee order. Jesset’s breezy tone makes me want to punch him; there’s nothing casual about this conversation.
Deep down I know we’ve been struggling with Bigmouth’s rent, but Dad never gave me a reason to doubt that we were square with the landlord. From this conversation, it’s obvious he hasn’t been paying the whole rent for the last few months if we owe an extra eight grand. That’s an entire month’s rent.
“Asshole,” I say, and shift forward to get a better view.
“What’d I do this time?” Beckett jokes, knees folded awkwardly to his chest as he balances on his heels.
I almost smile, but catch myself. “I meant Jesset, but now that you mention it, yes, you’re an asshole.”
“That’s a bold claim.”
“Well, I have a lot of evidence to back me up.”
“Do you hear yourself talk?” His tone has hardened, and he brings a hand to his mouth, exhaling harshly between his fingers. “You are such a hypocrite, Chuck Wilson.”
I’m the hypocrite? If we weren’t hiding, I’d push him on his ass. Instead, I ignore him and focus solely on my dad. Because that’s why I’m out here: figuring out what’s going on with Dad. Not making hostile small talk with Beckett Porter.
Dad’s shoulders slump forward and his hand shakes as it brings a cigarette to his lips. Jesset looks at his phone, like he has better places to be. All I want is to give Dad a hug, comfort him, but I stay hidden.
“Sorry, bud,” Jesset says, and pats my dad on the shoulder. “You’re my favorite tenant, but if you can’t come up with the money, take this as an official notice of your eviction.”
Dad mumbles something too quiet for me to hear, and Jesset dismissively shakes his hand before ducking into the car and driving off. Dad stands there for a second, sucking on his cigarette, head tilted backward as if he’s praying to the foggy skies or trying not to cry. Maybe both.
When he turns and walks toward Bigmouth’s back door, Beckett tugs on my arm and snaps me into motion. I smack his hand away, but we hurry inside, and I slump onto the stool, all my energy zapped. My headphones sit on the counter, the music still playing.
Beckett hovers, his face a mash-up of confusion and pity.
“Don’t you dare say anything. To anyone.”
The menace in my voice does the trick, because Beckett’s eyes widen and he holds both hands up in surrender. “I won’t say a word.”
I nod, even though I don’t trust him, not one bit. Beckett doesn’t have the best record when it comes to keeping my secrets. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I mutter to myself, my mind spiraling to the worst possible scenarios. Lingering on Dad’s comment earlier about change.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Besides, I never thought you liked it here.”
“If Bigmouth’s closes”—I wave my hands to encompass the bowling alley—“then we leave San Francisco. So pardon me for panicking.”
Beckett just stares at me, but before he can respond, the back door closes with a creak and a slam. I school my expression before Dad enters the lobby. His despondence is gone. The Wilsons are masters at faking it until we make it.
“Wow, it’s brisk out there,” Dad says, rubbing his arms. “Makes a man long for warmer climates. Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace, Caroline?”
I press my lips together, tethering the haphazard swirl of panic brewing behind my sternum. Like I was explaining to Beckett, if Bigmouth’s finally kicks the bucket, Dad will move us to Arizona. Hell, also known as Arizona, will have to freeze over before I leave San Francisco.
Then Dad spots Beckett, and a megawatt smile lights up his face. “Beckett Porter! What’re you doing here?”
“Beckett’s works for Schulman’s now. Isn’t that just great?”
“It’s wonderful!” Dad replies, not picking up on my sarcasm. “We’ve missed you around here.”
“Thanks, Mr. Porter,” Beckett says with a super-annoying grin.
“You’ve missed him,” I clarify, handing the clipboard to Dad, “not me.”
Beckett’s smile droops, and he clears his throat. “Where do you need these?” He gestures to the boxes of—I tilt my head to read the label—nacho cheese. Yuck.
Dad signs the clipboard and then claps his hands together. “Storage room should suffice. Not like this stuff needs refrigeration,” he adds with a laugh, and leads Beckett down the hall.
He’s so smiley that if I hadn’t witnessed him with Jesset, I’d suspect nothing was wrong. Here’s the thing—if we can’t comp a game, there’s no way we can afford eight grand in back rent. Dad knows it. I know it. Hell, even Beckett Porter knows it.
Bigmouth’s is like an ancient relative you never want to visit because they smell like death and pinch your cheeks until your face bruises, but that doesn’t mean you’d be happy if they died. I practically grew up here, and memories are layered into the dust that’s settled over the ancient trophies and wobbly-legged ball racks. But with every passing birthday, the bowling alley lost its fanciful charm. I finally see Bigmouth’s for what it truly is: our family’s failure. The problem is, Bigmouth’s Bowl is all Dad has left. And without it, we won’t stay in San Francisco.
I pick up the yellow silk dress and needle and try losing myself in the mindless work of fixing the hem. With each stitch, I can’t help but think: We’re screwed.