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Most college freshmen love the newfound freedom of living on campus, but none of them craves it like Beth Caplan. One ill-fated night when she was fifteen left her locked in a posh prison of private tutors. It’s for the best, everyone said, and maybe it was. But after years of hard work and healing, the one person who never thought of her as broken could be the one to break her all over again. And Beth can’t seem to stay away now any more than she could all those years ago.
As soon as David March learned his best friend’s little sister was enrolling at his school, he promised to look after her, and promised himself he’d keep a safe distance. But the sweet little girl he’d grown up with has transformed into a gorgeous young woman, and she’s attracting attention from people she shouldn’t-like the ex who nearly destroyed her and a strange new student with a disturbing habit of showing up wherever Beth goes. But for David, the most troubling discovery is realizing that he doesn’t just want Beth to be safe. He wants her to be his.
The front door slams shut, the sound echoing through the house, underscoring its emptiness.
It’s nothing new. I’m used to it—the emptiness. It lives inside me, and I feel most at home when my world reflects it.
When there’s no one around, there’s no one to pretend for.
My brother’s car engine starts, idles, and then off he drives, the faint crunch of gravel fading into quiet. Then…nothing but the crickets.
I like the silence. It matches the emptiness. It fits, and I let it blanket me, wondering what ever appealed to me about things like conversation and laughter.
A soft crack reverberates off my bedroom window and my pulse takes off like a rocket ship.
Is he here?
I move to the window that overlooks my backyard, violently wrestling the heavy drapery out of the way to search for him in his usual spot.
Or what used to be his usual spot.
The emptiness burgeons and billows. There’s no one there.
I curl my fingers into a fist and grind it into my sternum. It doesn’t relieve the build up of pressure. The emptiness is more palpable than any tangible substance, and it’s finally stretching the bars of its cage, seeking new territory to conquer.
It’s nothing if not determined.
I make my way over to my vast walk-in closet and kneel in the back right corner, reaching into the old duffel I’d used for my two-summer stint at sleepaway camp. I dig around until I find my stash, pull out a tiny bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and down it in two swallows. I don’t even taste it. I repeat the action with a second mini-whiskey, then stow the drained bottles in an otherwise empty Tory Burch shoebox hidden in plain sight on my shoe rack.
But my olfactory senses aren’t as lucky as my taste buds, and the ominous, pungent scent of alcohol—one I recognized by the time I was five, that used to warn me the switch inside my father was in danger of flipping—overtakes me. Memories flash, unbidden: the esteemed, professional façade he wore for the world shattering in a flash—shouting and shoving, my mother’s shrieks, my brother’s cries. Their bruises…even blood. And me, cowering in a corner somewhere, waiting for a reprieve that would only ever be temporary.
But still…I never wanted him to leave.
Too bad my brother felt differently; he kicked our father out of our house and our lives the minute he was big enough to hit back. And too bad my father didn’t care enough to come back for us. For me.
After he left, I started to suspect that mine wasn’t the normal kind of sadness other kids felt. That not everyone experienced the lost, hopeless sense of emptiness that, at times, threatened to crush me like a boa constrictor strangling its prey. I was just barely eleven.
The emptiness has only grown more and more persistent since then, and while I used to be able to find temporary refuge in simple things, like friendship and family and fun, losing Brian changed everything. Just like when my father left, my break up fed the emptiness like some kind of magic fertilizer, sending its thorny brambles climbing and twisting, until it resembled something out of Little Shop of Horrors—a monstrous weed intent on consuming even the most fledgling buds of happiness in my life.
The emptiness is a greedy bastard.
I used to wonder how far it would spread, what it would do when I had nothing left for it to feed on. I’d imagine it bursting free of my body, escaping the confines of its own wreckage. I picture the familiar image now—a torrent of melancholic colors, dark and murky, finally too much for the body that created it, exploding and escaping, destroying its shell. Free. And I imagine the relief. It’s positively palpable.
Because I know how close it is.
I startle when my phone buzzes with a text. It’s my brother.
Just got to Coop’s. People asking for you. Let me know if you want me to come back and get you, ok? 9:36 PM
I sigh, but don’t send a reply. Sammy tried everything to get me to come out with him tonight. To show Brian I’m over it.
It’s ironic, really. A year ago my brother had scoffed at my suggestion he take me to a party with him.
But it’s been weeks since I’ve been to a party. In fact, it’s been weeks since I’ve done any socializing at all, and I don’t even miss it. I only miss him. Still, the last place on earth I want to be is the home of Brian’s friend, at a party he is almost certainly attending, pretending to be indifferent when he acts like I don’t exist.
And, anyway, I have my own plans tonight.
The look my big brother gave me before he left—the hurt, sad bloodhound eyes, the concern and the love—it gave me the resolve I need to move forward. Because I can’t see him look like that anymore. I can’t be the cause of everyone’s pain. I won’t.
A muffled crack reaches my ears and I freeze. It’s not him, I tell myself. It’s never him anymore.
But I tentatively make my way back to the window, anyway. Just in case.
And there, past the flagstone patio, in the shadows of the white cedar gazebo, is a dark form.
My heart skips and hops all over the place, stumbling to gain its footing.
He’s really here!
I check myself in the full-length mirror and I’m taken aback by my ghastly appearance. I look like utter shit. My hair is disheveled, unwashed and limp, and I’m not wearing an ounce of makeup. My once bright, flawless skin is marred by blemishes from every day I’ve been too tired to wash my face, and the sweats I haven’t changed in days are wrinkled and dirty.
I should change. I should put on makeup. Really I should shower, but surely by then he’d be gone, and then he might never come back.
I check my phone to see if he called or texted to say he was coming, but all I find are the last several texts from our year-long chat—all from me, all unanswered.
He must have wanted to surprise me. To tell me he was wrong, that we can make it work long distance, that he misses me. I don’t care what he tells me at this point, just as long as he speaks to me.
Like the first warm spring breeze after a long, frosty winter, my frigid heart thaws the slightest bit, and I recognize a feeling he stole from me when he broke my heart. Hope.
But a blast of cold grips my chest before it even can fully take shape—the thought of looking Brian in the eye faltering my steps. My belly rolls with nausea as unbearable regret lances through me, and I nearly double over. Could he ever forgive me?
I force it out of my mind. I have to get to him before he changes his mind about wanting to see me.
I rush down the stairs and through our foyer, nearly slipping on the marble tile. I take the quickest route outside—through the great room and out the French doors—only mildly aware that I’m barefoot. I hurry across the patio and around the pool, and down the two stone steps until my soles meet the dewy grass. And still, I run. I make a beeline for the gazebo—our gazebo.
“Bri?” I call out.
He doesn’t respond.
“Bri, are you here?”
I search through the shadows, seeking out his familiar form. But it’s too dark. We always leave the lights off in the gazebo. He may or may not know Sammy is at his friend Cooper’s party, but he doesn’t know my mother is in the city for the weekend, so surely he’s sticking to our protocol for sneaking around. Brian is closer to my brother’s age than mine, a grade above him, in fact, and only weeks shy of eighteen. Sammy was less than thrilled about us from the start, so we’ve always taken caution to keep our private life private.
Brian isn’t in the gazebo, a fact I realize before I step onto the wood-planked floor, so I sit on the bench that lines the walls, waiting for him to reveal himself. But when he still doesn’t emerge from the trees a minute later, I know.
He isn’t here.
He was never here.
I’ve become so desperate that even my mind has begun to betray me, conjuring visions of things that were never real, not even when they were real. Maybe tangibly, but not truly. Or I wouldn’t be alone in this gazebo right now.
The emptiness swells, the hopelessness surges, and I’m finally ready to set it free. There’s no other choice.
I slowly make my way back into the house. I’m in no rush—I’ve timed it perfectly. Sammy is staying at his best friend Tucker’s tonight, and my mother won’t be home until Sunday evening. I can’t let anyone mess things up, or make me second-guess something I’m sure of.
My feet track dew-damp spots through the house, but they’ll be long dry before anyone comes home to find them. I step back into my bedroom, and I pause to really take it in. The memories are suffocating.
Smiles and giggles as my mother painted my toenails right there on my stark white eyelet bedspread. My dad’s tickle attacks and dramatic readings of Harry Potter—awful British accent and all—but only on weekends, if he happened to be home for my bedtime. Sammy and his friends Tucker and David unapologetically manipulated by their six-year-old hostess into the tea parties and dance parties I loved so much.
But although those happier memories are greater in number, it’s the other, more potent memories that monopolize thoughts of my childhood.
I slip my hand between my mattress and box spring, to the small cardboard box that will fix everything.
I remember the moment my father handed it to me on my eighth birthday—how my eyes lit up as I opened the white box with the gold-lettered logo from the popular, local jewelry shop, to reveal a second, black velvet case. I reach unconsciously for the chain dangling from my neck, fingering the hand-shaped white-gold charm with the diamond eye in the center. A “hamsa,” traditional to his Jewish heritage, meant to keep away the evil eye. To bring luck.
Worthless piece of shit.
I tear it from my neck, not bothering with the clasp, and empty the current contents of the box into my palm, slipping the necklace back into its original home. I replace the cover, and slide it back under my mattress, pushing it deep, where no one will find it.
I close my hand around the forty or so small, football-shaped white pills I’ve pilfered from my mother’s medicine cabinet over the past two months, always fearful she’d notice. She never did.
I sit on the edge of my bed, and grab the water bottle off of my nightstand.
Should I leave a note? Maybe text my brother and mother that I love them? But I don’t want them to know something’s up—to give them time to thwart me. I pick up my phone. Maybe I can leave an unsent email for them to find later…
I jump as it buzzes in my hand, as if it knows what I’m planning.
Or whoever’s texting me does.
I know I shouldn’t look—that it’s probably Sammy again, worrying as usual lately. But against my better judgment, I click on the home-screen and open the text.
My heart leaps into my throat.
It’s Sammy’s friend David.
Hey kid. Thought you’d finally be out tonight. 9:51 pm
I shouldn’t respond. David is a wildcard. He makes me feel things. He always has. Things even Brian never did. But Brian returned my affections; David never could. He’s my brother’s oldest friend, after all.
Not feeling up to it I guess. 9:54 pm
I shoot back the quick reply and stare idly at the phone in my palm for a few beats, before my other hand squeezes its contents, reminding me that this is not a moment for chatting with my childhood crush. Even if once, for one fleeting moment, I thought maybe, someday, he could possibly be something more. Because I’m holding a handful of guarantees that that’ll never happen.
I startle again.
Again I look, despite warning myself not to. Because just the fact that he gives half a shit has me acting like a stupid, boy-crazy schoolgirl again.
Fuck that. Fuck HIM. Let me come get you. You need to roll up in here and show him you don’t give a fuck. 9:55 pm
But I do give a fuck. I give all of them.
Come on, Bea. You’ve always been too good for that dipshit. We can go somewhere else if you want. Just get out of that fucking house, okay? 9:57 pm
Bea, not kid. My chest swells and my heart races. My lips almost twist into some semblance of a smile, but I catch myself.
Because I’ve put too much thought into this to be swayed by some false hope and a pet name that once meant the world to me, and nothing to him. Story of my life.
Maybe tomorrow. 9:58
The lie comes easily enough in its digital form. Because there will be no more tomorrows. Not for me.
Another buzz from my phone, but this time I just power it off.
David. He’s the one thing causing that whisper of doubt I really don’t need right now.
I sit on the edge of my bed, and I down the pills. Every last one.
I wait for that moment of panic, of regret, but it doesn’t come. Only certainty and relief.
I lie back on my bed, wondering how long they will take to work.
And then, I cry. Not for myself, but for the few people in this world who love me. Because I know that tomorrow they will be hurting beyond measure, but I also know that in the long run, they will be far, far better off.
Present Day (Three years later)
I take my seat in the enormous lecture hall, settling in for an hour of tedium. If you thought Psych 101 would be interesting, you’d be wrong. Or at least, the lectures aren’t especially interesting, but I suppose that’s more the fault of Professor Fawning than the actual subject matter.
The class itself is a mixed bag. Freshman and sophomore psych majors, like me, sit in the first few rows, intent on succeeding in a course that will be the foundation of our studies here at Rill Rock University. But there are also plenty of upperclassmen just looking to get an elective out of the way—something they’d hoped would offer easy credits. Which it probably will. It’s only the third class of the semester, but so far it doesn’t seem especially difficult.
My eyelids droop, threatening to lead me into an inconvenient nap, so I straighten my spine, abandoning the comfort of my seat-back.
I was up late. Not partying, like most of the other students half-asleep right now, but manically trying to finish the first assignment for my Shakespeare class.
I peek at my watch. Professor Fawning will cut off his droning any minute now, and it can’t come soon enough. I need to get my legs moving to ward off this late-morning lethargy.
“There he is, like fucking clockwork,” my roommate, Elana, murmurs from beside me, never one to miss an opportunity for a well-placed expletive. “Your sexy-as-fuck bodyguard.”
But I already knew he was there. I’ve always had an inexplicable kind of sixth sense for his proximity, and I glance over to the doorway, where he casts a towering shadow into the room.
I can’t help but roll my eyes. David isn’t here out of his own interest, or even concern. He cares about me, sure, in his own big-brotherly way, but that isn’t the reason he’s here. My brother’s oldest friend is outside my psych class, waiting for me like he did on Tuesday and last Thursday before that, because he promised Sammy he’d look out for me. And, it would appear, he’s taken that to mean babysitting.
But I don’t need a damned babysitter. Or bodyguard, as Lani put it.
Fawning dismisses us, and I dutifully march over to my de facto on-campus big brother, Lani keeping step beside me. I barely meet David’s eyes as he hands me an iced coffee. They’re too disarming, and they still affect me in ways no big-brother type should.
“You don’t have to keep checking up on me,” I grumble.
I don’t know if Sammy actually asked him to look after me outright—though I suspect he did—or if David just took it upon himself as his implied duty, but I’ve survived freshman orientation and the first week of classes intact, so I’m hoping he’ll back off soon. There’s something about the luster of his company that’s always been dulled by knowing that it’s only out of obligation.
“You can check up on me, anytime,” Lani suggests, her lashes batting dramatically.
That’s her. No poise, no guile. She thinks David is hot, and she wants him to know it. Not that he could miss it.
“No sweat, kid,” he replies, ignoring Lani’s comment as he slings a friendly arm around my shoulders, and we fall into step toward the building’s exit, sipping our coffees as we head in the direction of the student union—or Stu-U, as David calls it.
“You know, I like coffee,” Lani interjects, refusing to be ignored. “I like toned and inked-up arms around me, too.”
I can’t help my laugh. David does have fantastic arms. The tattoos are mostly new—a few older than the rest—an array of religious symbols, admired figures, and quotes.
“Don’t you have your own friends, gnat?” David murmurs absently to Lani.
I wince inwardly. I don’t like that he’s given her a pet name. Even one that implies she’s annoying and unwanted. Because she’s the kind of girl guys want. She’s freaking beautiful. All deep red waves and chocolate eyes, curvy in all the right places…Yeah, she knows what guys see when they look at her, which is why she takes David’s teasing in stride.
“Friends, yes. My own personal bodyguard? Not since I ditched my last mistake, but I’m in the market for my next one,” she says cheekily.
I let out another laugh. She really is something else. Fortunately for me, though, David ignores her.
I probably should have said something to her about him earlier, back when I first noticed her interest. Or maybe I should have anticipated it. David is the kind of guy who attracts crushes—he always has been. But now, he’s something different. Something more.
I didn’t follow David to school here, and I’m glad no one has ever noticed my crush enough to presume otherwise. RRU is a state school here on Long Island, where we all grew up, and though it isn’t big, it is renowned for its School of Arts and Sciences, which includes the psychology and social work program that brought me here. After everything I’ve endured in my short lifetime, I know what saved me, and I want to be that—to do that—for other kids someday.
David, on the other hand, is here for the creative writing program. Words have always been his thing, though he’d always kept his passion mostly to himself. In fact, I doubt even his closest friends—my brother included—knew all that much about his interest or talent before he won that national short story competition their sophomore year of high school.
But I knew. I knew a long time ago. Because he told me, and I can’t help but wonder if he even remembers. I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. It feels like a lifetime ago. Back before the world got so complicated—when the worst kind of heartache was a schoolyard crush, the angsty sting of unrequited love. Turns out, love gets far more dangerous when it’s actually returned.
I try not to be so affected by David’s arm around me, reminding myself of my place with him—which is his best friend’s kid sister at least, and a friend at best—but when you’ve carried a torch this long, it doesn’t take much to spark its flame.
“So, kid, no morning classes tomorrow, right?” he asks.
I narrow my eyes, wondering where he’s going with this. “Not until noon,” I confirm warily.
“Perfect. BEG’s hosting its first party of the year, and you’re my guest of honor.”
“What in the actual fuck are you talking about, David?” Looks like a week of living with Lani has started to rub off on me.
David startles vaguely at my colorful response, and I barely catch the amused smirk that tugs at his mouth. Before he can answer me, however, Lani’s enthusiasm bubbles over.
“Uh, yes. Yes, yes, yes! We accept your generous invitation to be your guests of honor!” She emphasizes the plural, and again I laugh. This time David also cracks a smile, and deep in my belly the vicious snake of jealousy lifts its ugly head.
I urge it back to sleep. “A frat party? Really, David?” I arch a skeptical brow. David’s in Beta Epsilon Gamma, a fraternity notoriously filled with athletes—and decidedly different kinds of players. But he doesn’t live in the house—not his style, he told me.
He hooks his arm further around me so he can turn me to face him, and we all stop walking. “Bea…Come.” His eyes—a green-and-honey hazel that have fascinated me for years—grab hold of me, seducing and imploring.
“Why?” I breathe.
David sighs. “You need a fun night out, where you don’t have to worry about anything, or anyone.”
“And you think a frat house is the place to do that?” My skepticism returns. I’m not naïve. I know what goes on in places like that. And David knows me well enough to know my social anxiety gives me more than just the usual reasons to be leery of a frat party.
“My frat house, kid. With my brothers. And more importantly, me.” He looks at me meaningfully.
I look away, my eyes inadvertently landing on his defined bicep, and I notice ink I haven’t seen before peeking out from beneath the hem of his short sleeve. My fingers reach out to stroke it before I can stop myself. A quote in beautiful black script, matching the others.
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
“Hamlet.” It’s one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays—more words from the master to add to David’s collection.
“Shakespeare, really?” Lani says.
He cocks an eyebrow. “You got a problem with the Bard?” he retorts, but he’s looking at me. They’re the exact words he said to me after he got that first quote inked into his skin—also from the Bard, back in high school.
My eyes automatically shoot to his T-shirt, envisioning the ink over his left pectoral muscle, engraved into his skin back when he was legally too young to even get one. It made him seem like a real badass, even though it was a quote from Shakespeare.
But it’s this new one that’s got me thinking. Because there is more to life than I can learn in a classroom; I know that.
“Beth’s taking a Shakespeare elective this semester—maybe she can study off of your body,” Lani smirks. We both ignore her.
“Look, Bea, college isn’t only about academics, okay?”
Bea. Not kid.
“And I’m not saying you need to make up for lost time all in one night. Just to try and keep an open mind and have some fun. You trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” My answer is instant and honest.
And the thing is, part of me knows David is right. I missed out on a normal high school experience in part because I never knew how to find any balance. When I wasn’t surrendering to social anxiety—or the debilitating emptiness that flared more and more—I was diving into a relationship I was ill-prepared for, experiencing too much, too early on. I can’t pretend I haven’t wondered what it would have been like to feel young and carefree like everyone else my age. To drink a little too much, smoke an occasional joint, or engage in a hookup that had no greater meaning. I’ve still only ever slept with one guy, and that was over three years ago.
“Great. Show up at nine.”
And I will. Because David called me Bea
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- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages