Read on for chapter one of Forever & Always and a giveaway for a Kindle e-reader, a $100 Amazon GC and more!
SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
~ EVER ~
My twin sister Eden rode in the seat next to me, listening to music, the volume turned up so loud I could make out the lyrics, tinny and distant but totally audible. In the front seat, Dad was chattering into his cell phone as he drove, discussing whatever a Chrysler senior executive discussed at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning. Something more important than his daughters, clearly.
Not that I would have wanted to talk to him, even if he’d been off the phone. Well, that wasn’t completely true; I would have wanted to, but I wouldn’t have known what to say to him if he’d been willing to hang up the phone for ten seconds. He’d always been a workaholic, always on the phone or on his laptop, in his office at home or at the Chrysler headquarters. But up until last year, he’d spent time on the weekends with us. He’d taken us to dinner or to the mall. Movie night once a month, Sunday evening, on the big home theater screen in the basement.
It was understandable, I reasoned. He’d lost her too. None of us had been prepared—no way to prepare for a freak car accident. But after we’d buried Mom, Dad had thrown himself into work more obsessively than ever.
Which left Eden and me to fend for ourselves. Of course, he’d done the parentally responsible thing and gotten the three of us individual therapy sessions twice a month, but I had quit going after a few weeks. There hadn’t been a point. Mom was gone, and no amount of talking about the stages of grief would bring her back.
I had found my own way of dealing with the loss: I’d found art. Photography, drawing, painting, anything hands-on that let me shut down my mind and my heart and just do. Currently, I was into oils on canvas, thick glops of vivid colors on the matte white surface, spread around with a bristly brush or bare hands. It was cathartic. The reds would smear like blood, the yellows would blot like sunshine through a window; greens were delicate and crusted like sap-sticky pine needles, blues like cloudless skies and deepest ocean and oranges like sunsets and tangerines. Color—and the creation of something beautiful from emptiness.
In my more philosophical moments, I thought maybe painting appealed to me because it represented hope. I was a blank canvas, no thoughts, no emotions, no needs or desires, just a square of white floating through a loud, chaotic world, and life would paint me with color and substance, smear and spread and colorize me.
I found myself needing more tactile sensations, though. Just before I’d packed for this three-week summer camp up at Interlochen, I’d spread newspapers on the floor of my art room over the garage, laid a huge twenty-by-twenty canvas over them, and tossed mammoth blobs of paint down. I’d used my hands to spread it around it arcs and whorls and streaking lines, then added another color and another, mixing and daubing, smashing gouts together with my palms and tracing delicate lines with my fingertips and aggressive sunburst rays with my palms.
I didn’t know or care if I was any good on an objective level. It wasn’t about art or expression or any of that. It was avoidance at best, if Dr. Allerton’s therapy speak could be believed. Apparently the staff at Interlochen thought I was something special, because they’d been enthusiastic about having me in the program for the summer.
As long as I had plenty of time to paint, I didn’t really care what they wanted from me, or for me.
Lost in my thoughts, I tuned out Dad’s incessant chatter and Eden’s sullen, plea-for-attention silence, wondering if I’d get a chance to try ceramics or sculpture at Interlochen. My junior high’s art program had been pathetic at best. I may have been only fourteen—fifteen as of yesterday—but I knew what I liked, and handfuls of cracked old watercolor paints and hopelessly mixed-up oil paints weren’t it. They didn’t even have access to clay, much less a kiln. I couldn’t even get lessons on stretching my own canvases.
Being more mature than your age kind of sucked, I reflected. People either overestimated you and didn’t give you any room to be a kid, or they ignored what you were really capable of and treated you like a child. I’d begged to go to a private arts academy for high school, but so far Daddy was putting his foot down, insisting Eden and I go to the same school, and Eden was set on going to the local high school because their strings program was one of the best in the state, and apparently Eden was some kind of cello virtuoso. Whatever.
I’d demand private lessons, then. Or an art tutor. For now, Interlochen would have to do.
After an interminable drive, Daddy pulled the Mercedes SUV to a gentle stop in front of rows of rustic cabins, finally ending his phone call with a touch to his earpiece.
Eden cast a glance out the window and snickered. “That’s where you’re going to stay for three weeks?”
I followed my twin’s gaze to the cabins. They were tiny…nothing but little wooden huts in the forest. Did they even have indoor plumbing? Electricity? I shuddered, and then stuffed it down, putting on a game face. “Apparently so. It could be worse,” I said. “I could be stuck at home all summer, doing nothing.”
“I’m not doing nothing, Ever,” Eden snapped. “I’m taking private lessons with Mr. Wu and fitness training with Michael.”
“Like I said, stuck at home.” I tried to hold on to the hauteur, even though I didn’t entirely feel it. I was going to miss my sister, and I knew I’d be homesick within days. But I couldn’t say any of that. Talking about one’s emotions wasn’t the Eliot way, not before Mom’s death, and certainly not after.
“At least I’ll have plumbing, and cell service.”
“And no life—”
“Ever. Enough.” Dad’s voice, raised in irritation, silenced us both. He hit the button to pop open the hatch.
Eden’s gaze reflected her own conflict. She wanted to hold on to the argument, because it was easier to snipe and bicker than to admit how scared she was. I could see that in her and feel it in myself. Our identical green eyes met, and understanding was achieved. Nothing was said out loud, but after a moment, I hugged Eden and we both sniffled. We’d never been apart before, not more than an hour or two a day in our entire lives.
“You better not let Michael make you skinnier than me,” I said.
“Like that’ll ever happen.” She groaned. “He’s gonna try to kill me, not that it’ll make a difference.”
Eden was slightly heavier than I was, not by much pounds-wise, but enough so that it resulted in a much curvier shape, and she was sensitive about it. Being mercilessly teased all of eighth grade hadn’t helped much, so she was determined to get fit over the summer and show everyone in ninth grade how different she was. I had argued that the other girls were just jealous because Eden had tits and ass and they didn’t, but it had fallen on deaf ears. She’d convinced our father to hire her a personal trainer for the summer. Never mind that she was only fourteen and far too young to worry about bullshit like slimming down, but neither Dad nor I had been able to change Eden’s mind.
It was part of Eden’s grief, I knew. I painted and drew and took pictures, Eden played the cello. But it was deeper than that for Eden. We were nearly identical images of our mother, dark hair, green eyes, fair skin, fine features, beautiful. I was closer to looking like Mom, slim and willowy, while Eden had gotten more of Daddy’s genetics—he was short and stocky, naturally muscular. Eden wanted to remember Mom, to be more like her. She’d even taken to bleaching her hair, the way Mom had.
“We’ll miss you, Ev,” Dad said, twisting in the seat to meet my eyes. “It’ll be too quiet around the house without you.”
Like you’d notice, I wanted to say, but didn’t. “I’ll miss you too, Dad.”
“Don’t be a hooligan,” Eden said, an inside joke of ours, referring to our maternal grandfather’s favorite phrase.
“You either. And seriously, don’t go too crazy with this Michael dude. You’re not—”
Eden stuck her fingers in her ears. “LA-LA-LA-LA…I’m not listening!” she sing-songed. Removing her fingers, she said, “And seriously yourself, don’t start.”
I sighed. “Fine. Love you, ass-head.”
“You too, butt-face.”
Dad frowned at us. “Really? Are you two teenage girls or teenage boys?”
We both rolled our eyes, and then embraced one more time. I leaned forward and hugged Dad from between the seats, smelling the coffee on his breath. Then I was out of the car and opening the trunk hatch and trying to juggle my purse and suitcase while closing the hatch. With a final backward wave, Dad and Eden were gone and I was alone, completely alone for the first time in my life.
A few feet away, a boy my own age was standing in the swirling, left-behind dust. He had a huge black duffel slung over one shoulder, and he was standing with his spine as straight as the pine tree trunks rising all around. One hand was shoved into his hip pocket, and he was toying with the strap of his bag with the other hand. One boot-clad toe was digging in the dirt, twisting and scuffing as he peered at the rows of cabins.
I couldn’t help sneaking a second look at him. He wasn’t like any boy I’d ever seen before. He looked to be about my own age, fourteen or fifteen, but he was tall, already almost six feet, and he was muscled more like an adult than a teenager. He had shaggy black hair that needed cutting, and the fuzzy scruff of a teenage boy hoping to grow a beard.
Until that moment, I’d never really had a crush before. Eden talked about boys all the time, and our friends were always going on about this boy or that boy, gushing about first kisses and first dates, but I had never really gotten too into all of that. I noticed cute boys at school, of course, because I wasn’t dead or blind. But painting took up most of my time. Or, more accurately, waking up each day and not missing Mom took up most of my time, and painting helped that. I didn’t have much brain space left for thinking about boys.
But this boy, the one standing six feet away from me, looking as nervous and out of place as I felt. There was something different about him.
Before I knew what was happening, my traitorous legs had carried me over to stand in front of him, and my traitorous voice was saying, “Hi…I’m Ever Eliot.”
He turned his eyes to mine, and I almost gasped out loud. His eyes were pure amber, rich and complex and piercing. “Um. Hi. Caden Monroe.” His voice was deep, although it broke on the last syllable. “Ever? That’s your name?”
“Yeah.” I’d never been self-conscious about my name before, but I wanted Caden to like my name as much as I liked his.
“It’s a cool name. I’ve never known anyone with a name like that before.”
“Yeah, it’s unique, I guess. Caden is cool too.”
“It’s Irish. My dad’s name is Aidan, and my Gramps’s name is Connor, and Great-Gramps’s name was Paddy. Patrick. Irish names all the way back to my more-greats-than-I-can-remember Gramps, Daniel.”
“Was he, like, an immigrant?” I flinched at the way I had unconsciously used “like” as a filler. So much for sounding smart.
“Well, all of our families were immigrants at some point, right? Unless you’re Indian, that is. Native American, I mean.” He rubbed the back of his neck, and his cheeks flushed red. Which was sinfully adorable. “But yeah, Daniel Monroe was the first Monroe to come to America. He came over in 1841.”
I racked my brain for the significance of that date. I’d learned about it in my World History class last year. “Wasn’t there this big thing in the 1840s? With Irish people coming to America?”
Caden set his duffel on the ground. “I think it was something about potatoes. A famine, or something.”
A long, awkward silence stretched out between us.
Caden broke it first. “So. Ever. What do you…do?”
He shrugged, then waved at the cabins and the campus in general. “Art-wise, I mean. Are you a musician, or…?”
“Oh. No, I’m an artist. I guess they’d call it a visual artist. Painting, mostly. For now, at least. I like all sorts of stuff. I want to get into sculpture. What about you?”
“Same, although I draw more than anything.”
“What do you draw? Comic books?” I regretted that last part as soon as it came out of my mouth. It sounded judgmental, and he didn’t seem like the comic book type. “I mean, or—animals?” That was even worse. I felt myself blushing and wishing I could start over.
Caden just looked confused. “What? No, I don’t draw any one thing. I mean, I do, just…it’s whatever I’m working on. Right now I’m trying to figure out hands. I can’t seem to draw hands right. Before that it was eyes, but I got those down.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—I’m an idiot sometimes, I just—” I was only making it worse now. I grabbed my suitcase by the handle and lugged it around, facing away from him. “I should go. Find my cabin.”
A sun-browned hand took the suitcase from me and lifted it easily, which was ridiculous, since it weighed at least fifty pounds and I could barely move it. He had his duffel bag on his shoulder and my suitcase in one hand. “What number are you?”
I reached into my purse and unfolded my registration printout, even though I knew the cabin number by heart already; I didn’t want to seem too eager. “Number ten.”
Caden glanced at the numbers on the nearest cabins. “This way, then,” he said. “I’m in twenty, and these are four, five, and six.”
I cut my eyes to the side, watching the way his bicep tensed as he walked with the heavy suitcase. “Isn’t my suitcase heavy?”
He shrugged, which made his duffel bag slip, and he hiked it higher. “A little. Not too bad.”
After a too-short walk, we came to cabin number ten. I couldn’t figure out how to delay him without sounding clingy or desperate, so I let him set my suitcase just inside the squeaky screen door, then waved as he shouldered his bag and strode off, rubbing the back of his neck in a way that made his bicep stand out.
I watched him go, and then realized several girls were clustered around the screen door as well, ogling him. “He’s hot!” one of them said. They asked me who he was.
I wondered if the strangely possessive feeling in my gut was jealousy, and what I was supposed to do about it. “His name is Caden.”
For the first time in a long time, my mind was occupied with something other than painting.
That afternoon there was a get-to-know-you thing, which was stupid, and then dinner and some free time, all of which passed in a blur. I didn’t see Caden again that day, and as I slid into the thin, uncomfortable bunk bed, I wondered if he was thinking about me like I was him.
Somewhere out there, maybe a boy was thinking about me. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean, but it felt nice to imagine.
Jasinda will be giving out 1 kindle e-reader, 1$100 Amazon GC and signed paperbacks of Forever & Always and After Forever.