Excerpt Pretty Reckless by LJ Shen

May 082019
 
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Pretty Reckless Excerpt by LJ Shen:

Prologue

It started with a lemonade
And ended with my heart
This, my pretty reckless rival, is how our screwed-up story starts

Age Fourteen.

Daria

The tiles under my feet shake as a herd of ballerinas blaze past me, their feet pounding like artillery in the distance.
Brown hair. Black hair. Straight hair. Red hair. Curly hair. They blur into a rainbow of trims and scrunchies. My eyes are searching for the blonde head I’d like to bash against the well-worn floor.
Feel free to not be here today, Queen Bitch.
I stand frozen on the threshold of my mother’s ballet studio, my pale pink leotard sticking to my ribs. My white duffel bag dangles from my shoulder. My tight bun makes my scalp burn. Whenever I let my hair down, my golden locks fall off in chunks on the bathroom floor. I tell Mom it’s from messing with my hair too much.

But that’s BS, and if she gave a damn—really gave one, not just pretended to—she’d know this, too.
I wiggle my banged-up toes in my pointe shoes, swallowing the ball of anxiety in my throat. Via isn’t here. Thank you, Marx.
Girls torpedo past me, bumping into my shoulders. I feel their giggles in my empty stomach. My duffel bag falls with a thud. My classmates are leaner, longer, and more flexible. Backs rod-straight like an exclamation mark. Me, I’m small and muscular. A question mark. Always unsure and on the verge of snapping.

My face is not stoic and regal. It is traitorous and unpredictable. Some wear their hearts on their sleeves—I wear mine on my mouth. I smile with my teeth when I’m happy, and when my mom looks at me, I’m always happy.
“You should really take gymnastics or cheer, Lovebug. It suits you so much better than ballet.”
But Mom sometimes says things that dig at my self-esteem. There’s a rounded dent on its surface now, the shape of her words, and that’s where I keep my anger.
Melody Green-Followhill is a former ballerina. She broke her leg at eighteen, on her first week attending Juilliard.

Ballet is what has been expected of me since the day I was born. And—just my luck—it’s also what I’m exceptionally bad at.
Enter Via Scully.
Also fourteen, Via is everything I strive to be. Taller, blonder, and skinnier. Worst of all, her natural talent makes my dancing look like an insult to leotards all over the world.
Three months ago, Via received a letter from the Royal Ballet Academy asking her to audition. Four weeks ago—she did.

Her hotshot parents couldn’t get the time off work, so my mom jumped at the chance to fly her on a weeklong trip to London. Now the entire class is waiting to hear if Via is going to study at the Royal Ballet Academy. Word around the studio is she has it in the bag. Even the Ukrainian danseur Alexei Petrov—a sixteen-year-old prodigy who is like the Justin Bieber of ballet—posted an IG story with her after the audition.
Looking forward to creating magic together.
It wouldn’t surprise me to find out Via can do magic. She’s always been a witch.
“Lovebug, stop fretting by the door. You’re blocking everyone’s way,” my mother singsongs, her back to me. I can see her reflection through the floor-to-ceiling mirror. She’s frowning at the attendance sheet and glancing at the door, hoping to see Via.
Sorry, Mom. Just your spawn over here.
Via is always late, and my mother, who never tolerates tardiness, lets her get away with it.
I bend down to pick up my duffel bag and pad into the studio. A shiny barre frames the room, and there’s a floor-to-ceiling window from which downtown Todos Santos is splayed in all its photogenic, upper-crust glory. There are peach-colored benches gracing tree-lined streets and crystal blue towers that sparkle like the thin line where the ocean kisses the sky.
I hear the door squeaking open and squeeze my eyes shut.
Please don’t be here.
“Via! We’ve been waiting for you,” Mom’s chirp is like a BB gun shooting me in the back, and I tumble over my own feet from the shockwave. Snorts explode all over the room. I manage to grip the barre, pulling myself up a second before my knees hit the floor. Flushed, I grasp it in one hand and slide into a sloppy plié.
“Lovebug, be a darling and make Via some room,” Mom purrs.
Symbolically, Mother, I’d love for Via to make my ass some room, too.
Of course, her precious prodigy isn’t wearing her ballet gear today, even though she has Italian-imported leotards other girls can only dream of. Via clearly comes from money, because even rich people don’t like shelling out two hundred bucks for a basic leotard. Other than Mom, who probably figured I’ll never be a true ballerina, so the least she can do is dress me up like one.
Today, Via is wearing a cropped yellow Tweety Bird shirt and ripped leggings. Her eyes are red and her hair is a mess. Is she even trying to make an effort?
She throws me a patronizing smirk. “Lovebug.”
“Puppy,” I retort.
“Puppy?” She snorts.
“I’d call you a bitch, but let’s admit it, your bite doesn’t really have teeth.”
I readjust my shoes, pretending that I’m over her. I’m not over her. She monopolizes my mother’s time, and she’s been on my case way before I started talking back. Via attends another school, in San Diego. Says it’s because her parents think kids in Todos Santos are too sheltered and spoiled. Her parents want her to grow up with real people.
Know what else is fake? Pretending to be something you’re not. I’m a prissy princess. I own up to it. Sue me (Please do. I can afford really good legal defense).
“Meet me after class, Vi,” Mom quips, then turns around back to the stereo. Vi (Vi!) uses the opportunity to stretch her leg, stomping on my toes in the process.
“Oops. Looks like you’re not the only clumsy person around here, Daria.”
“I would tell you to drop dead, but I’m afraid my mom would force me to go to your funeral, and you legit aren’t worth the time.”
“I would tell you to kiss my ass, but your mom already does that. If she only liked you half as much as she likes me. It’s cool, though, ’least you have money for therapy. And a nose job.” She pats my back with a smirk, and I hate, hate, hate that she is prettier.
I can’t concentrate for the rest of the hour. I’m not stupid. I know my mother loves me more than she does Via. I also know that it’s because she’s genetically programmed to do so.
Centuries tick by before class is dismissed. All the girls sashay to the elevator in pairs.
“Daria darling, do me a favor and get us drinks from Starbucks. I’m going to the little girls’ room, then wrapping something up real quick with Vi.” Mom pats my shoulder, sauntering out of the studio, leaving a trail of her perfume like fairy dust. My mom is the kind of person who would donate all of her inner organs to save one of her students’ fingernails. She smothers her ballerinas with love, and me with jealousy.
I grab Mom’s bag and turn around before Via and I have a chance to exchange what Daddy calls ‘unpleasantries’.
“You should’ve seen her face when I auditioned.” Via stretches in front of the mirror behind me. She’s as agile as a contortionist. Sometimes I think she could wrap herself around my neck and choke me to death.
“We had a blast. She told me that by the looks of it, not only am I in, but I’m also going to be their star student. It felt kind of…” She snaps her fingers, looking for the word.

I see her in the reflection of the mirror but don’t turn around. Tears are hanging on my lower lashes for their dear lives. “A redemption, or something. Like, you can’t be a ballerina because you’re so, you know, you. But then there is me. So at least she’ll get to see someone she loves make it.”
Daddy says there’s a green Hulk living inside of me, and that he gets bigger and bigger when I get jealous, and sometimes, the Hulk blasts through my skin and does things the Daria he knows and loves would never do. He says that jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius, and that I’m no mediocre girl.
Let’s just say I disagree.
I’ve always been popular, and I’ve always fought hard for a place in the food chain where I can enjoy the view. But I think I’m ordinary, and that Via is extraordinary. That she glows so bright, she burns everything in her vicinity. I’m the dust beneath her feet, and I’m crushed, and bitter, and Hulky.
Nobody wants to be a bad person. But some people—like me—just can’t help themselves. A tear rolls down my cheek, and I’m thankful we’re alone. I turn around to face her.
“What the hell is your problem?”
“What isn’t?” She sighs. “You are a spoiled princess, a shallow idiot, and a terrible dancer. How can someone so untalented be born to the Melody Green-Followhill?”
I don’t know! I want to scream. No one wants to be born to a genius. Marx, bless Sean Lennon for surviving his own existence.
I eye her pricey pointe shoes and arch a mocking eyebrow. “Don’t pretend like I’m the only princess here.”
“You’re an airhead, Daria.” She shakes her head.
“At least I’m not a spaz.” I pretend to be blasé, but my whole body is shaking.
“You can’t even get into a decent first position.” She throws her hands in the air. She isn’t wrong, and that enrages me.
“Again—why. Do. You. Care!” I roar.
“Because you’re a waste of fucking space, that’s why! You have a place in this class because your mother is the teacher, while I’m busting my ass.”
This is my chance to tell her the truth.
That I’m busting mine even harder, precisely because I wasn’t born a ballerina. Instead, my heart shatters like glass. I spin on my heel and dart down the fire escape, taking the stairs two at a time. I pour myself out into the blazing Californian heat, and any other girl would take a left and disappear inside Liberty Park, but I take a right, into Starbucks, because I can’t—won’t—disappoint my mom more than I already have. I look left and right to make sure the coast is clear, then release the sob that has weighed on my chest the past hour.

I get into line, tugging open Mom’s purse from her bag as I wipe off my tears with my sleeve. Something falls to the floor. I pick it up.
It’s a crisp letter with my home address on it, but it’s the name that gives me pause.
Sylvia Scully.
Sniffing, I rip the letter open. I don’t stop to think that it isn’t mine to open. Via’s mere name above my address makes me want to scream until the walls in this place fall down. The first thing to register is the symbol at the top.
The Royal Ballet Academy.
My eyes are like a wonky mixed tape. They keep rewinding to the same words.
Acceptance Letter.
Acceptance Letter.
Acceptance Letter.
Via got accepted. I should be thrilled to have her out of my hair in a few months, but instead, the acidic taste of jealousy bursts inside my mouth.
She has everything.
The parents. The money. The fame. The talent. Most of all—my mother’s undivided attention.
She has everything, and I have nothing, and the Hulk inside me grows larger, his body so huge it presses against my diaphragm.
A whole new life in one envelope. Via’s life hanging by a paper. A paper that’s in my hand.
“Sweetie? Honey?” The barista snaps me out of my trance, with a tone that suggests that I’m not a sweetie nor a honey. “What would you like?”
For Via to die.
I place my order and shuffle to the corner of the room so I can read the letter for the thousandth time. As if the words will change by some miracle.
Five minutes later, I take both drinks and exit out onto the sidewalk. I dart to the nearest trash can to dispose of my iced tea lemonade so I can hold the letter without dampening it. Mom probably wanted to open it with Via, and I just took away their little moment.
Sorry to interrupt your bonding sesh.
“Put the drink down and nobody gets hurt,” a voice booms behind me, like liquid honey, as my hand hovers over the trash can. It’s male, but it’s young. I spin in place, not sure I heard him right. I can’t see his face clearly because he’s wearing a Raiders ball cap that’s been worn to death, his chin dipped low. He’s tall and scrawny. Almost scarily so. But he glides toward me like a Bengal tiger, like he’s found a way to walk on air and can’t be bothered with mundane things like muscle tone.
“Are we throwing this away?” He points at the lemonade.
‘We’? Bitch, at this point there’s not even a you to me.
I motion to him with the drink. He can have the stupid iced tea. Gosh. He is interrupting my meltdown for a lemonade.
“Nothing’s free in this world, Skull Eyes.”
I blink, willing him to evaporate from my vision. Did this jackass really just call me Skull Eyes? At least I don’t look like a skeleton. My mind is upstairs with Via. Why does Mom receive letters on her behalf? Why couldn’t they send it directly to Via’s house? Is Mom adopting her ass now?
I think about my sister, Bailey. She’s only nine, but is showing promising signs as a gifted dancer. Via moving to London might encourage Mom to put Bailey in the Royal Ballet Academy, too. Mom had talked about me applying there before it became clear that I could be a Panera bagel before I’d become a professional ballerina. I begin to glue the pieces of my screwed-up reality together.
What if I’d have to migrate to London to watch both girls making it big while I swam in my pool of mediocrity?
Bailey and Via would become BFFs.
I’d have to live somewhere rainy and gray.
We’d leave Vaughn and Knight and even Luna behind. All my childhood friends.
Via would officially take my place in Mom’s heart.
Hmm, no thanks.
Not today, Satan.
When I fail to answer, the boy takes a step toward me. I’m not scared, although…maybe I should be? He’s wearing dirty jeans—I’m talking mud and dust, not, like, purposely haphazard—and a worn blue shirt that looks two sizes too big with a hole the size of a small fist where his heart is. Someone wrote around it in a black Sharpie and girlie handwriting, is it a sign? – Adriana, xoxo and I want to know if Adriana is prettier than me.
“Why are you calling me Skull Eyes?” I clench the letter in my fist.
“Because.” He slopes his head so low all I can see is his lips, and they look petal-soft and pink. Feminine, almost. His voice is smooth to a point it hurts a little in my chest. I don’t know why. Guys my age revolt me. They smell like pizza that sat in the sun for days. “You have skulls in your eyes, Silly Billy. Know what you need?”
For Mom to stop telling me that I suck?
For Via to disappear?
Take your pick, dude.
I shove my free hand into my mom’s wallet, plucking out a ten-dollar bill. He looks like he could use a meal. I pray he’ll take it before Mom comes down and starts asking questions. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, much less strangers who look like they are dumpster diving for their next meal.
“Sea glass.” He thrusts his hand in my direction, ignoring the money and the drink.
“Like, the stuff you get on Etsy?” I huff.
Great. You’re a weirdo, too.
“Huh? Nah, that shit’s trash. Orange sea glass. The real stuff. Found it on the beach last week and Googled it. It’s the rarest thing in the world, you know?”
“Why would you give a total stranger something so precious?” I roll my eyes.
“Why not?”
“Um, hello, attention span much? Weren’t you the one who just said nothing in this world is free?”
“Who said it’s going to be for free? Did you get all your annual periods today at once or something?”
“Don’t talk about my period!”
“Fine. No period talk. But you need a real friend right now, and I’m officially applying for the position. I even dressed the part. Look.” He motions to his hobo clothes with an apologetic smile.
And just like that, heat pours into my chest like hot wax. Anger, I find, has the tendency to be crisp. I really want to throat punch him. He pities me? Pities. The guy with the hole in his shirt.
“You want to be my friend?” I bark out a laugh. “Pathetic much? Like, who even says that?”
“Me. I say that. And I never claimed not to be pathetic.” He tugs at his ripped shirt and raises his head slowly, unveiling more of his face. A nose my mom would call Roman and a jaw that’s too square for someone my age. He’s all sharp angles, and maybe one day he will be handsome, but right now he looks like an Anime cartoon character. Mighty Max.
“Look, do you want the lemonade and money or not? My mom should be here any minute.”
“And?”
“And she can’t see us together.”
“Because of how I look?”
Duh.
“No, because you’re a boy.” I don’t want to be mean to him, even though, usually, I am. Especially to boys. Especially to boys with beautiful faces and honey voices.
Boys can smell heartbreak from across a continent. Even at fourteen. Even in the middle of an innocent summer afternoon. We girls have an invisible string behind our belly button, and only certain guys can tug at it.
This boy…he will tear it if I let him.
“Take the sea glass. Owe me something.” He motions to me with an open palm. I stare at the ugly little rock. My fist clenches. The paper hisses.
The boy lifts his head completely and our eyes meet. He studies me with quiet interest, like I’m a painting, not a person. My heart is rioting all over. I have the dumbest thought cross my mind. Ever notice how the heart is literally caged by the ribs? That’s insane. Like our body knows that it is so easily broken, it needs to be protected. White dots fill my vision, and he’s swimming somewhere behind them, against the stream.
“What’s in the letter?” he asks.
“My worst nightmare.”
“Give it to me,” he orders. I do. I don’t know why. Most likely because I want to get rid of it. Because I want Via to hurt as much as I do. Because I want Mom to be upset. Marx, what’s wrong with me? I’m a horrible person.
His eyes are still hard on mine when he tears the letter to shreds and lets the pieces float like confetti into the trash can between us. His eyes are dark green and bottomless. A thickly fogged forest. I want to step inside and run until I’m in the depth of the woods. Something occurs to me just then.
“You’re not from here,” I say. He is too pure. Too good. Too real.
He shakes his head slowly. “Mississippi. Well, my dad’s family. Anyway. Owe me something,” he repeats, almost begging.
Why does he want me to owe him something?
So he could ask for something back.
I don’t relent, frozen to my spot. Instead, I hand him the lemonade. He takes it, closes the distance between us, pops the lid open, and pours the contents all over the ruined letter. His body is brushing against mine. We’re stomach to stomach. Legs to legs. Heart to heart.
“Close your eyes.”
His voice is gruff and thick and different. This time I surrender.
I know what’s about to happen, and I’m letting it happen anyway.
My first kiss.
I always thought it was going to happen with a football hero or a pop star or a European exchange student. Someone out of the small borders of my sheltered, Instagram-filtered world. Not a kid with a hole in his shirt. But I need this. Need to feel desired and pretty and wanted.
His lips flutter over mine, and it tickles, so I snort. I can feel his warm breath skating across my lips, his baseball cap grazing my forehead and the way his mouth slides against mine, lips locking with uncertainty. I forget to breathe for a second, my hands on his shoulders, and there’s something inside me that begs for me to dart my tongue and really taste him. We’re sucking air from each other’s mouths. We’re doing it all wrong. My lips open up for him. His open, too. My heart is pounding so loud I can feel the blood whooshing in my veins when he says, “Not yet. I’ll take that, too, but not yet.”
A groan escapes my lips.
“What would you have asked of me if I took the sea glass?”
“To save me all your firsts,” he whispers, somewhere between my ear and mouth, his body brushing away from mine.
I don’t want to open my eyes and let the moment end. But he is making the choice for both of us. The warmth of his body leaves mine as he takes a step back.
I still don’t have the guts to open my mouth and ask for his name.
Ten, fifteen, twenty seconds pass.
My eyelids flutter open on their own accord as my body begins to sway.
He’s gone.
Disoriented, I lean against the trash can, fiddling with the strap of my bag. Five seconds pass before Mom loops her arm in mine out of nowhere and leads me to the Range Rover. My legs fly across the pavement. My head twists back.
Blue shirt? Ball cap? Petal lips? Was I imagining the whole thing?
“There you are. Thanks for the coffee. What, no iced tea lemonade today?”
After I fail to answer, we climb into her vehicle and buckle up. Mom sifts through her Prada bag resting on the center console.
“Huh. I swear I took four letters from the mailbox today, not three.”
And that’s when it hits me—she doesn’t know. Via got in, and she has no idea the letter came today. Then this guy tore it apart because it upset me…
Kismet. Kiss-met. Fate.
Dad decided two years ago that he is tired of hearing all three girls in the household moaning “Oh, my God,” so now we have to replace the word God with the word Marx, after Karl Marx, a dude who was apparently into atheism or whatever. I feel like God, or Marx—someone—sent this boy to help me. If he were even real. Maybe I made him up in my head to come to terms with what I did.
I open a compact mirror and apply some lip gloss, my heart racing.
“You’re always distracted, Mom. If you dropped a letter, you’d have seen it.”
Mom pouts, then nods. In the minute it takes her to start the engine, I realize two things:
One—she was expecting this letter like her next breath.
Two—she is devastated.
“Before I forget, Lovebug, I bought you the diary you wanted.” Mom produces a leather, black-cased thick notebook from her Prada bag, handing it to me. I noticed it before, but I never assume things are for me anymore. She’s always distracted, buying Via all types of gifts.
As we ride in silence, I have an epiphany.
This is where I’ll write my sins.
This is where I’ll bury my tragedies.
I snap the mirror shut and tuck my hands into the pockets of my white hoodie, where I find something small and hard. I take it out and stare at it, amazed.
The orange sea glass.
He gave me the sea glass, even though I never accepted it.
Save me all your firsts.
I close my eyes and let a fat tear roll down my cheek.
He was real.

***

Penn

Question: Who gives their most precious belonging to a girl they don’t know?
Answer: This motherfucker right here. Print me an ‘I’m-with-stupid’ shirt with an arrow pointing straight to my dick.
Could’ve sold the damn thing and topped off Via’s cell phone credit. Now that ship’s sailed. I can spot it in the distance, sinking quickly.
The worst part is that I knew nothing would come out of it. At fourteen, I’ve only kissed two girls. They both had enormous tongues and too much saliva. This girl looked like her tongue would be small, so I couldn’t pass up trying.
But the minute my lips touched hers, I just couldn’t do it. She looked kind of manic. Sad. Clingy? I don’t fucking know. Maybe I just didn’t have the balls. Maybe watching her three times a week from afar paralyzed me.
Hey, how do you turn off your own mind? It needs to shut up. Now.
My friend Kannon passes me the joint on my front porch. That’s the one perk of having your mom live with her drug-dealing boyfriend. Free pot. And since food is scarce these days, I’ll take whatever is on the table.
A bunch of wannabe gangsters in red bandanas cross our side of the street with their pit bulls and a boom box playing angry Spanish rap. The dogs bark, yanking on their chains. Kannon barks right back at them. He’s so high his head might hit a fucking plane. I take a hit, handing Camilo the joint.
“I’ll land you fifty so you can make the call,” Camilo coughs. He is huge and tan and already has impressive facial hair. He looks like someone’s Mexican dad.
“We don’t need to call anyone!” my twin sister yells from the grass next to us. She is lying facedown, sobbing into the yellow lawn. I think she is hoping the sun will burn her into the ground.
“Are y’all deaf or something?! I didn’t get in!”
“We’ll take the money.” I ignore her. We have to call the ballet place. Via can’t stay here. It ain’t safe.
“I love you, Penn, but you’re a pain in the ass.” She hiccups, plucking blades of grass and throwing them in our direction without lifting her head. She’ll thank me later. When she is famous and rich—do ballerinas get rich?—and I’m still sitting here with my dumb friends smoking pot and salivating over lemon-haired Todos Santos girls. Maybe I won’t have to stand on street corners and deal. I’m good at shit. Sports and fighting mainly. But Coach says I need to eat more protein for muscle and more carbs to get some basic body fat, but that’s not happening anytime soon, since most of my money is spent on buying Via’s bus tickets to her ballet classes.
“I thought you said your sister’s good? How come she didn’t get in?” Kannon yawns, moving his hand over his long dreads. The sides of his head are shaved, creating a black man-bun. I punch his arm so hard he collapses back on the rocking chair with a silent scream, clutching his bicep, still hardy-har-harring.
“I think a demonstration is in order. Chop-chop, Via. Show us your moves.” Cam puts “Milkshake” by Kelis on his phone, balling a gum wrapper in his hand and throwing it on the back of her head.
Her sobs stop, replaced with catatonic silence. I turn around, scrubbing my chin before twisting back to Camilo and swinging a fist at his jaw. I hear it unlock from its usual place and him humphing.
Via darts up from the grass, running into the house and slamming the door behind her. I’m not sure what business she has sitting in the living room when Rhett is home, yelling that he is tired and hungry. She will probably get into a screaming match with him and return to the porch with her tail between her legs.

My mom is too high to interfere. When she does, she chooses her boyfriend’s side. Even when he uses Via’s leotards, which her teacher buys for her, to shine his shoes. He does that often, to get a rise out of her. On days she shows up to class in her torn leggings and hand-me-down shirts, she spends the bus ride sobbing. Those are usually the days when I rub his briefs on public toilet seats in Liberty Park.
It’s incredibly therapeutic.
“Hand me the fifty.” I open my palm and turn to Cam, who slaps the note into my hand obediently. I’m going to buy myself and Via burgers the size of my face, then top the credit on her phone so she can call Mrs. Followhill.
I charge down my street to In-N-Out, Camilo and Kannon trailing behind me like wind. Our street is cracked concrete and murals of dead teenagers wearing haloes. Our palm trees seem to hunch down from the burden of poverty, leaning over buildings that are short and yellow like bad teeth.
But twenty minutes later, the satisfaction of clutching a paper bag filled with burgers and fries, dripping oil, is overwhelming. Via’s gonna forget all about her meltdown when she sees it. I push the door to my house open and the first thing I see makes me drop the food to the floor.
My mother’s boyfriend is straddling my sister on the couch, his jiggling belly pouring out on her chest. He pummels her face, his sweaty, hairy chest glistening and his arm flexing every time he does. His ripped jeans are unbuttoned and his zipper is all the way down. She is wheezing and coughing, trying to breathe. Without thinking, I dash toward them and unplaster him from her. Her face is bloody, and she’s croaking out weak protests, telling him that he’s a cheap bastard, and he keeps yelling that she is a thieving whore.

I grab Rhett by the collar of his shirt and pull him from her, and he swings with the momentum, falling on the floor. I punch him so hard in the face, the sound of his jaw cracking echoes around the room. His head hits the floor. I spin back to Via, and all I see is her back as she slips over her own blood, tripping to the door. I grab her wrist, but she wiggles it free. Something falls between us with a soft click. I pick it up, and it looks like a tooth. Jesus fucking Christ. He knocked her tooth out.
“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice muffled with blood. “I’m sorry. I can’t, Penn.”
“Via!” I cry out.
“Please,” she yells. “Let me go.”
I try to chase her, slipping on the trail of blood she leaves behind. My hands are covered with it now. I stand up and start for the still-open door. A hand snatches me back and throws me on the couch.
“Not so quick, little asshole. Now’s your turn.”
I close my eyes and let it happen, knowing why Via has to run.
Geography is destiny.

***

It’s been three days since Via ran away.
Two and a half since I’ve last managed to stomach anything without throwing it up (Pabst counts, right?).
With Rhett beating her up after finding out she stole his phone and tried to call London, I’m not surprised she ain’t back. I know better than to fuck with Rhett. Via is usually even more cautious with him, because she’s a girl. It was a moment of weakness on her behalf. One that cost her more than she was willing to pay.
On Friday afternoon, I find myself loitering outside of her ballet class, hoping she’ll appear. Maybe she’s crashing at her teacher’s house. They seem close, but it’s hard to tell since Via puts on a mask every time the bus we board slides into Todos Santos’ limits. The fact she hasn’t touched base yet makes me heave when I let myself think about it. I’m telling myself she has her reasons.
At six, pink-wearing girls start pouring out of the building. I dawdle by the shiny black Range Rover, hands in pockets, waiting for the teacher. She comes out last, waving and laughing with a bunch of students. There’s another girl beside her. The girl I kissed, to be exact. The girl I’ve been obsessing about for a year, to be super-exact. She is beautiful like the shit that’s hung up in museums. In a really sad, distant, look-but-don’t-touch way. I trek toward them and they meet me halfway. The girl’s eyes widen and she looks sideways to see if anyone else is here to witness us talking. She thinks I’m here for her.
“Hi.” She tucks hair behind her ears, her gaze traveling to Mrs. Followhill in a silent I-swear-I-don’t-know-this-guy plea.
“Hey.” I kill the butterflies in my stomach, because now’s not the place and definitely not the time, then turn to the teacher. “Ma’am, my sister, Via, is in your class. I haven’t seen her in three days.”
The teacher’s eyebrows pinch together like I just announced I’ll be taking a shit on the hood of her vehicle. She tells the blonde girl to wait inside the giant Range Rover, then tugs at my arm heading toward an alleyway. Sandwiched between two buildings, she sort of forces me to sit down on a tall step (dafuq?) and starts talking.
“I’ve been calling her five times a day and leaving messages,” she whispers hotly in my face. “I wanted to let her know that she’d been accepted to the Royal Academy. I had a funny feeling about the letter, so I checked. Everything is in motion now. As I said before, you needn’t worry about the tuition. I’ll be paying the fee.”
My nostrils flare. All this in her future, and she could be lying in a ditch right now. Goddamn Via. Goddamn all pretty, volatile, fourteen-year-old girls.
“Well, ma’am, thank you for the gift she’ll never be able to cash in on since we can’t find her,” I respectfully mock her. But we is just me. Mom is out of it—she never really bothered bouncing out of her first drug binge some years ago—and Rhett is probably happy he has one less mouth to feed. When the truancy officer called from school earlier, I told him Via went to my aunt’s, something my mother later confirmed when he showed up at our doorstep. Mom, wild-haired and sucking on a cigarette like it was an oxygen mask, never once asked if it was true.

If I call the police, they’ll dump both our asses in foster care. Maybe together, but probably not. I can’t let that happen. I can’t not-be with Via.
Mrs. Followhill stares at me with a face like she just realized she caught a stomach bug. She is probably wondering how I dare speak to her like that. Usually, I’m a bit more user-friendly. Then again, usually, I don’t have to deal with a missing sister. I clean my mother’s puke from the walls and close the bathroom door on Rhett when he falls asleep on the toilet seat. I don’t look at grown-ups with the same air of reverence her daughter does.
“Whoa,” is all Mrs. Followhill says.
“Thanks for the insight. Have a nice life.” I stand up and swagger toward the street. She catches my arm and yanks me back. I twist around to face her.
“My daughter…” She licks her lips, looks down, looks guilty. The girl is leaning against the Rover, staring at us, chewing on her thumbnail. “My daughter and Via haven’t been getting along. I tried to encourage them to communicate, but the more I pushed them together, the more they seemed to dislike one another. I think I had a letter go missing last week. A letter that could have been…important.”
The flashback crashes into my memory.
The paper that hissed in her little fist.
Me taking it from her.
Tearing it apart.
Throwing it into the trash can, watching her face blossom into bliss.
Pouring the lemonade on the remains for good measure when her blue eyes twinkled the request.
Setting my sister’s dreams on fire.
Kicking this entire nightmare into motion.
My jaw flexes, and I take a step back. I throw one last glance at the chick, filing her into memory.
Archive under: Shit List.
Revisit document: When I’m in a position to ruin her.
“So Via’s not with you?” My voice hardens around the words. Like tin. I’m desperate. I have no lead. I want to rip the world apart to find her, but the world is not mine to rip. The world just continues turning at the same pace, because kids like Via and me, we disappear all the time and no one notices.
Mrs. Followhill shakes her head. She hesitates, touching my arm. “Hey, why don’t you come with me? I’ll drop Daria off at home and we can look for her.”
Daria.
I turn around and stalk toward the bus station, feeling stupid and hateful and alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt. Because I want to kill Daria. Daria, who made everything fade into the background the first time I saw her, and while I was busy admiring, everything around us burned.
You look like you could use a friend, I told her. Stupid, boyish faith. I mentally throw it onto the ground and stomp on it on my way to the bus sliding to the curb.
Daria was right. I was pathetic. Stupid. Blinded by her hair and lips and sweet melancholy.
I make a beeline to the bus station, Mrs. Followhill yelling my name behind me in the distance. She knows my name. She knows me. Us. I don’t know why it disturbs me. I don’t know why I still give a fuck that this girl knows I’m poor.
I hop into the first available bus, not sure where it will take me.
As far away from the girl, but not far enough from myself.
The burn in my chest intensifies, and I feel the hole around my heart growing bigger, and my grandmother whispering in the back of my head.
Skull Eyes.

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