Bitter End


By Jennifer Brown

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He told me he loved me and I believed him.

When Alex falls for the charming new boy at school, Cole — a handsome, funny sports star who adores her — she can’t believe she’s finally found her soul mate . . . someone who truly loves and understands her.

At first, Alex is blissfully happy. Sure, Cole seems a little jealous of her relationship with her close friend Zack, but what guy would want his girlfriend spending all her time with another boy? As the months pass, though, Alex can no longer ignore Cole’s small put-downs, pinches, and increasingly violent threats.

As Alex struggles to come to terms with the sweet boyfriend she fell in love with and the boyfriend whose “love” she no longer recognizes, she is forced to choose — between her “true love” and herself.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Perfect Escape

A Preview of Thousand Words

Copyright Page

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If I had to describe my best friend, Bethany, in one word, it would be persistent. Or maybe unrelenting. Or, if I were writing her into a poem, I might use importunate, because words like importunate impressed Mrs. Moody, and when I used them she told me I was a born poet, which was kind of cool.

Doesn't matter; all of those words mean the same thing—determined—and Bethany was nothing if not determined.

It was one of the things I liked best about her. She always had a clear sense of where her life was going, or, more accurately, where she was steering it. For all the ways we were totally alike, that was one of the ways we were different, and it was part of why I liked hanging out with her. I think I kind of hoped her importunateness might rub off on me and someday I'd find myself behind the steering wheel of my own life, certain where I was going to end up.

Sometimes Bethany's persistence could be a little hard to ignore. It didn't matter that we were just recovering from lunch rush and that I was busy wiping a mountain of trays taller than myself, or that my manager, Georgia, was standing right next to me. Bethany marched into The Bread Bowl in her untied high-tops, her giganto-purse bouncing against her hip, and sat down at the dirtiest table in the dining room.

"Psst!" she hissed, pulling a handful of papers out of her purse and waving them at me. I ignored her, keeping my eyes glued on the tray I was holding. So she did it again. "Psst!" And then she cleared her throat elaborately.

"I think someone sprang a leak over there," Georgia said, pulling a wad of twenties out of the cash register drawer and then shutting it with her hip. "Or a lung, from the sound of it." Bethany's persistence was no stranger to Georgia, either. Georgia liked Bethany and often joked that Bethany would for sure be the first female president.

I stacked the tray I'd been wiping and dropped the wet rag on the counter. "I think I've got a table to clean," I said.

"Looks like it," Georgia mumbled. She headed toward the office, turning all of the twenties so they were facing the same direction. "And with her spitting all over it like that, it's getting dirtier every minute." Then she added over her shoulder, "And get that customer a drink. Might help her with that throat problem."

"You're all about the humanitarianism, Gee," I responded, grabbing an empty cup on my way.

Cleaning the dining room was probably my least favorite duty at The Bread Bowl. People could leave some really disgusting trash behind. Sometimes, though, if Bethany happened to be hanging out at The Bread Bowl, having cleanup detail wasn't so bad. That way she and I could talk while I picked up shredded pieces of napkin and half-eaten sandwiches, trying to look a lot busier than I actually was.

"Look at this," Bethany said as soon as I plunked a Diet Dr Pepper in front of her and got to work on her table. She bumped my leg lightly with her knee. "Hot tub!"

I straightened and grabbed the stapled stack of papers out of her hand and scanned the top one, which included a grainy photo of a twelve-person Jacuzzi.

"Oh, man," I said, reading down the list of amenities: hot tub, indoor pool, fitness room with cardio machines. It sounded like bliss. Expensive bliss. "This is amazing. No way we can afford it. You think we can actually afford it?"

I flipped the page over and started to read about nearby attractions. Across the room, Georgia cleared her throat. I glanced up. She was stacking take-out menus next to the register. She shifted her eyes meaningfully to Dave, the owner of The Bread Bowl, or Granite-Ass, as he was not-so-lovingly called by some of the line cooks. For some reason Dave had been hanging around lately, which put a real damper on everyone's mood, not to mention my ability to drool over hot tubs and hotel fitness rooms with Bethany.

I thrust the papers back at her and resumed picking up crumpled sandwich wrappers and stuffing them into a cup.

"Oh, and look!" Bethany was saying, totally ignoring both my question and Georgia's not-so-subtle warning. "It has a huge fireplace in the lobby. I bet you could get hot cocoa and sit there celebrity-watching all day long. Just think, we could end up making out in the snow with a star." She gasped, slapping my shoulder with the papers. A handful of napkins fluttered out of the cup and back onto the table. "We could end up in a tabloid!" She held her hands up in the air as if she was envisioning a title. "Who Are the Mystery Beauties on the Slopes Breaking Boy Band Hearts?"

I giggled. "More like, 'Who Are the Mystery Klutzes Who Broke Boy Band Legs by Falling into Them on a Ski Slope?' "

"Well, I wouldn't mind breaking a leg if it meant a hottie broke my fall."

"Uh-uh, I get dibs on the broken hottie," I said.

"No way, I thought of it first."

Georgia cleared her throat again. Now she was starting to sound like Bethany. Dave had moved into the dining room and was standing with his hands on his hips, assessing it slowly with his eyes. The last thing I needed was to get on Dave's bad list. I most liked Dave when he pretended I didn't exist, which was 99 percent of the time. He reminded me of my dad that way. I was used to being ignored by the men in my life. "Listen, can we talk about broken boy bands and tabloids later? I've gotta clean this up."

Bethany sighed. "Work, work, work."

"Yep. And if I get fired, you'll be ordering cocoa for one, one, one."

Bethany eyed Dave and gave a frustrated grunt. "Sure. Okay. Call me, though. I want to see what you think about restaurants. Zack and I've been researching."

Zack. Our other best friend. If I could describe him in one word, it would be… well, you just can't sum up Zack in one word. He was like an overprotective big brother, pervy uncle, and annoying little cousin all in one. He was a traveling comedy show. A musical genius. An amazing friend. If I was being completely honest, Zack was probably the only reason Bethany and I weren't relegated to "too nerdy to notice" status at school. The enviro-nut and the poet—invisible and invisible. But it was impossible not to notice Zack. Everybody adored him. However, we adored him best, and we adored him first, so we were okay by association.

If I were to write Zack into a poem, I'd definitely use the word sanguine.

Bethany stood up and tossed her empty cup in the trash before coming back for her things. I knew she was going to go home, flop on the couch with her laptop, and scan every restaurant listing in the state of Colorado until I called. It's all she'd done since we came up with the idea for this trip.

"Oh!" She snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot. Guess what idea Zack had?"

"I can only imagine," I said, patting the last of the trash into the cup and straightening the salt and pepper shakers. Bethany picked a piece of lint off the bottom of her shirt.

"Tattoos," she said.

"Tattoos?" I repeated.

She nodded, biting her lower lip as she smiled. "Yeah, he thinks we should get matching tatts while we're there. Like a mountain or… or I don't know… something sexy."

"You do know what Zack's interpretation of 'sexy' is, don't you?" I imagined us all leaving Colorado with half-dressed, big-boobed women in stilettos permanently emblazoned on our bodies.

I picked up the cup and headed for the farthest trash bin—the one by the front door—nonchalantly tugging Bethany's shirtsleeve so she'd follow me.

"Well, yeah, but…" She paused as I leaned over to throw away the trash. "I don't know. It could be fun."

"And painful," I reminded her. "And permanent."

"And fun," she repeated.

Dave's voice cut through the restaurant. He was griping at someone in the kitchen, which reminded me that I needed to get back to work before he turned on me, too.

"I'll call you," I said. "We can talk later."

Bethany dug out her car keys. "You better," she said, pushing through the glass doors.

Pressing my fingers lightly against the necklace under my shirt, I scurried back behind the counter and resumed wiping trays, daydreaming a little about Colorado.

Bethany and Zack and I had been planning this trip since we were eight years old, back when Zack's mom still called us the Terrible Three. It started out as my idea—go to the place my mom was headed when she died and see if I could figure out what was there that was so important to her that she would leave her family the way she did.

But it wasn't long before Bethany and Zack wanted in on the plan. Partly because they were my best friends and they knew how important it was to me. But mainly they wanted in because the trip sounded fun. And glamorous, like something people do in a movie. Best-friend cross-country mystery-solving road trip. Does it get more feature-film than that?

We decided that the trip was going to be our graduation gift to ourselves, and ever since the last day of junior year, Bethany had been practically obsessed with planning it. She talked about it constantly and even instituted a standing Vacay Day, where we'd get together to go over details every Saturday (Bethany's idea). Rotating between our houses (my idea). Complete with pizza and video games and lots of crude jokes featuring female body parts (Zack's idea). We'd been meeting all summer, and so far all we'd managed to accomplish was inhaling about fifteen large pepperoni pizzas and beating level nine of some zombie video game Zack had gotten for his birthday.

Truth be told, I didn't care about hot tubs and ski gear and restaurants. All I cared about was Mom and what happened to her. Which Dad didn't seem to care about at all. When I told him after our first Vacay Day meeting that I was going to Colorado after graduation, he made a noncommittal noise but didn't even look up from the newspaper he was reading at the breakfast table.

"I'm going because of Mom," I said, standing in the kitchen doorway, staring at his back, as usual.

"What's your mother got to do with it?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "That's part of why I want to go." I took two steps into the room and then stopped and crossed my arms over my chest. The room always felt lonely when Dad was in it. Lonely and chilly. "I want to know why she was leaving. What was so great about Colorado?"

He stood abruptly, closing the paper with one hand and picking up his coffee mug with the other. "You want to go, that's fine with me. But we don't have the money for it. With your sister's college tuition and no second income…" he said, setting his cup in the sink. But he never finished, and before I could ask another question, he was out the door.

Ever since my mom died, it seemed as if my dad always talked in open-ended sentences like that—especially when she was the subject. "You know what your mom would've said…" or "Your mom would've thought your behavior right now…" or "If only your mom were here…" He always looked so sad and meek when he said it.

It was the Big Mystery of my life. My mom. My dad. What happened between them and why we didn't talk about it. Sometimes it seemed as if I was the only one in the house who even cared.

The only time I'd ever heard Dad say anything real about our mom was when I was eight. He drank a six-pack at a block party, and then he came home and sat at the kitchen table, with a shoe box of old photos in front of him. That night he said our mom was "crazier than goosehouse shit," whatever that meant.

My baby sister, Celia, and I had giggled nervously when he said that, not sure if it was some sort of joke, imagining our mom as a white and goopy puddle, stuck to someone's windshield or a fence post, eyes rolling around insanely. Neither of us remembered our mom. We were really little when she left.

But Shannin, our older sister, was there when Mom left, and she didn't laugh.

Dad had gotten up, taken the shoe box, and tossed it into the garbage, muttering something about being an old fool. After he left the mudroom, though, I crept in and pulled the shoe box out, took it up to my bedroom, and hid it under the bed. I didn't know why, but saving that box just felt like something I had to do.

Later that same night, when we were alone, Shannin took us into her bedroom and told us the Real Story. How she'd awakened one night to the phone ringing. How she'd crept out of her room and into the hallway to look around the corner, crouched against the wall with the skirt of her nightgown pulled over her legs. And then how the phone rang again and how Dad's voice sounded really upset when he answered it.

"She's gone off the deep end this time, Jules," Dad had said. "I don't know. I don't know where she's gone."

Shannin told us about how, just as Dad hung up the phone, the front door banged open and Mom barged through it, saying something about going to Colorado—to the mountains. Dad had pulled on her elbows, saying she was drunk, and begged her to stay, to "see someone," and Mom argued that she was already "seeing someone," just not how he meant it.

And then later, after Mom had left and Dad had disappeared into the kitchen and the smell of coffee started to fill the air, Shannin had gone back to bed. And in the morning Shannin found out that while she slept, the police had come to the door and told Dad that Mom had wrapped her car around a light pole and died. Just like that.

"Knocked her brains out onto the road," Shannin whispered as Celia and I sat cross-legged on her bed, clutching each other's hands and shivering. "That's what Dad told Aunt Jules at the funeral. Mom's brains were knocked out onto Forty-first Street, and they had to shut it down until they could get a hose and wash it off. And Aunt Jules patted Dad's shoulder and said she knew he loved Mom a lot and that he should never have had to hear something like that, and Dad cried and said, 'I know, and now I can't forget it.' "

After Shannin told us the story, I went back to my room and locked the door. I pulled out the box of photos of Mom and Dad and dumped them onto my bed, flipping through them carefully and secretively, as if I were doing something wrong just by looking at them.

I stared at those pictures for hours. I'd look at Mom, so happy and thin and glowing, and would imagine her being drunk and crazy like Shannin said. It didn't seem to fit.

There were dozens of them. A photo of high school graduation. Two of a birthday party. One of their wedding day.

I had my favorites. Ones I'd look at over and over again.

A photo of them at a party. Dad sitting in a folding chair, Mom in his lap. Her hair was very short, and she was wearing a vest over a button-down shirt. His hands were looped across her belly and clasped together. She had her hands resting on his and a big smile on her face.

Another one, of the two of them sitting in a mossy space between two trees. Each of them was barefoot and cross-legged, facing each other with their knees touching. Their faces were shadows. They looked like they were telling secrets.

And another one, Dad and Mom standing in Grandma Belle's kitchen, wrapped in a kiss. Dad had Mom in a deep dip toward the floor. Her arms were hanging limply at her sides. The back of the photo read: First day back. Reunited!

One after another, the photos telling a story. Only it was a story with no ending because Mom left and Dad never told us why, and the ending we knew just didn't make sense when I looked at the photos.

The Mom in the photos looked so gentle. The Mom who left us must have been a whole different person.

When I was little, I'd ask Dad about it. Why was she going to Colorado? We didn't know anyone out there. We'd never even been there. But Dad would just mumble that Mom "wasn't in her right mind and didn't know where she was going." Once he said something about Mom being "too trusting for her own damn good." But something in his eyes when he said it told me he wasn't telling the whole story. There was something more to Colorado for Mom. There was something important there. I wanted to shout at him, You heard about her brains on the road, Dad, and you said you couldn't forget it, but you have! You have forgotten it!

Eventually Shannin told me to stop asking about it because it upset Dad too much to think about Mom. So I did. But I couldn't forget the story. It haunted me. Literally.

That year, I had nightmares. Always, they were the same. Dad screaming into a pillow, Mom standing at the top of a mountain cackling, her face soft and sweet, her hair billowing out behind her. In the dream, she dangled me over the jagged mountain edge.

"This mountain is mine," she said, puffs of smoke billowing out of her mouth. "I don't want you here. I don't want you at all, Alexandra."

She laughed as I kicked and thrashed and begged to be let go.

"Oh, Alexandra," she jeered. "Stop making such a fuss. Just think, they'll have to shut down traffic while they find a hose to wash your brains off the street. Isn't that exciting?"

And always, just as she opened her hand and let me fall, I woke up.

It got so bad I refused to go to bed at night. Dad eventually took me to a therapist, who said some stuff I didn't understand about "closure" and "healing" and suggested that Dad give me something of my mother's to help me feel closer to her.

Dad came into my room that night clutching a folded yellow envelope.

He cleared his throat. "Alex, honey, I know you're having a hard time being without your, um…" His eyes filled up and he swallowed. Then he pushed the envelope into my hands. "This was your mother's. I bought it for her on our honeymoon…. It was in her purse the day she, um…"

I held the envelope in both hands, looking up at him as he swallowed and swallowed, unable to finish any sentence, it seemed, that had anything to do with my mother. He nodded at me, and I opened the envelope. Inside was a necklace—a thin leather strap with a small hoop on the end of it, a web of flossy clear thread strung inside the circle. Tiny beads dotted the delicate web; two white feathers, so small they might have come from a hummingbird's tail, dangled from the bottom of it. I gently prodded the beads with my finger.

"That's called a dream catcher," he said. "It's supposed to keep nightmares away."

He pulled the necklace out of the envelope, held it in midair to straighten it, and then carefully slipped it around my neck. It smelled oddly familiar to me—perfumey and alive, almost like a memory—and instinctively my fingers drifted to it.

Right then, at eight years old, I knew. Just as I knew I'd never take the dream catcher necklace off, I knew that someday I'd get to Colorado, where Mom had been going.

The therapist was wrong. The necklace didn't give me closure. Instead, not knowing anything more than this about my mom made me feel like a piece of me was missing, and I almost felt as though, just like Dad, I could break if I didn't fill in that piece. That there would always be a hole in my heart where Mom should have been, and if I didn't fill it in, I could end up empty and dull, like him. That I might forget hearing about her brains on the street, just as he had.

The next day as Zack and Bethany and I played on the woodpile behind Bethany's house, I showed them the necklace and told them the whole story. My mom wasn't just gone, and my dad wasn't just quiet. I told them about the photos and about Mom going crazy and dying on her way to the mountains and about my plan to go where she was going. And just like that, the trip planning officially began.

I needed to know that she was going toward something, not away from us. Not away from me. She loved me. I needed to know that she loved me.

Whenever Aunt Jules or Bethany's mom or someone else tried to tell me that my mom was an angel watching down on me from heaven, I never could envision it.

To me, my mom was in the mountains, waiting for me to arrive.


"Really, if you're not gonna be some stick-up-the-butt English teacher, who gives a crap about direct objects, anyway?" Zack said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. His toothpick—Zack's new signature look was a toothpick—rolled from one edge of his mouth to the other.

I picked up his pencil and held it out to him. "You should, that's who; because if you don't pass this class, you don't graduate." It was only the second week of our senior year, and already Zack's teachers were worried about his ability to stop goofing off long enough to earn the credits he needed to graduate.

Zack shrugged. "And your point is?"

I gave him a look. "I thought the point was pretty self-explanatory." He rolled his eyes at me. The toothpick, which had made its way to the middle of his lips, was bumping up and down as if he was flicking the other end of it with his tongue. I sighed and put down the pencil. "Fine. Whatever. Just don't come crying to me when your mom takes away the crapmobile again. And don't expect me to give you a ride anywhere, either."

Zack raised an eyebrow. "So that's how it is now? Been covering your ass since forever. Saved you more times than I can count. And you just leave me hanging out to dry. Hurts, my friend. Hurts."

I grinned. "Yeah, pretty much. I'm doing you a favor. Someday you'll thank me."

"Now you sound like my mom. What's next? You telling me this'll hurt you more than it'll hurt me?"

"Trust me, helping you can be pretty painful sometimes." I cleared my throat and began writing in Zack's notebook, which was spread out on the desk between us. "Okay, seriously. We've gotta get to work. Here, look at this sentence. What's the direct object?"

Zack uncrossed his arms. He leaned forward over the paper and studied the sentence I'd written. "God, you're a pain in the ass," he muttered around his toothpick. "Good thing you put out. That?"

I smacked his arm. "Close, but no. And you wish I put out, you perv. Okay, remember, to find the direct object, you…"

"Alex?" Mrs. Moody, the tutor lab sponsor, called from the doorway, interrupting us. She waved me over.

"I'll be right back," I said. "Why don't you write five random sentences, and when I get back we'll find the direct objects together."

"Can I use any words I want?" he said, arching his eyebrows at me deviously.

"Yes, such as 'fail,' 'forever a senior,' 'degenerate,' 'grounded for life'? Go ahead."

He made a face at me and picked up his pencil. I pushed my chair out and headed to the door, where Mrs. Moody was still standing, half-in, half-out, talking to Amanda, one of the other tutors. Mrs. Moody was pointing over her shoulder with her thumb at Zack, and Amanda was nodding. I waited, half-wondering if I'd done something wrong. Maybe she'd heard Zack and me bantering and was firing me, which would totally suck because, without the tutoring lab seventh period, I'd probably get stuck in ceramics or some other art class, in which I would, without a doubt, be a complete failure. Plus, I liked tutoring. Especially tutoring Zack. Zack was a great stress-reliever, pervy jokes included.

Mrs. Moody finished talking with the other tutor and put her hand on my shoulder. "Alex," she said with a wide smile. Mrs. Moody always smiled, even if you were in trouble. Talking to her was like talking to a cloud. She was soft, graceful. She smelled like honeysuckle and vanilla, and her clothes always drifted around her like ribbons on a breeze, giving the illusion that she was moving faster than she actually was. When she spoke, she had this even, measured rhythm to her voice that made me automatically think of bedtime stories. She was easily my favorite teacher. Hell, she was easily everyone's favorite teacher. "Come with me. I've got a new student for you."

She turned and headed down the short hallway to her office, her shirt and skirt billowing out behind her, and I followed.

"He's transferred over from Pine Gate," she said over her shoulder. "Just needs to do some catching up so he can hit the ground running in senior English. I thought you'd be the best choice for him, being our expert writer and all." She flashed me a smile as she paused at her office doorway, then stood to the side and ushered me through.

"Oh," I said. I didn't even know we had a new student from Pine Gate. But then I stepped into the office and there he was, standing next to Mrs. Moody's file cabinet, holding a little ceramic duck. He saw us come in and quickly set the duck back down on top of the cabinet, as if he was embarrassed to be caught holding it. "Hey," he said.

"Hey." There was an awkward pause between us while Mrs. Moody grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door shut. "I guess I'm your new tutor."

"Totally unnecessary," he said. "But Coach Dample disagrees, so…" He shrugged and then added, "Cole," and he stuck out his hand to shake mine. When I put my hand in his, it felt warm and strong and comfortable. And kind of weird. Like we were business partners or something.

Mrs. Moody took a seat behind her desk, and we both fell into place in chairs across from her. I sat on my hands, while Cole lounged comfortably in the chair next to mine, one foot tilted sideways and propped up on top of the other, his legs stretched out in front of him.

"Um, what about Zack?" I asked. "He really needs help with his sentence diagramming." Plus, I didn't add, we were having fun in there.

Mrs. Moody spoke up. "I've moved Zack over to Amanda for tutoring from here on out. She can handle sentence diagramming just fine. Cole, I'm sure you'll find Alex to be just what you need to get caught up and secure that spot you're looking for on the basketball team." She glanced at her watch. "We've got a few minutes before the final bell. Why don't you two go to the lab and get acquainted? You can start working on assignments tomorrow."

"Yes, ma'am," Cole said with a pleasant grin. He had a dimple, just one, on the left side. But the dimple was kind of cute. I didn't even notice I was staring.

"Do you have questions, Alex?" Mrs. Moody said, snapping me out of it. I jumped.

"Uh, no. I'll tell Zack to go with Amanda."

But Zack had already moved to Amanda's room when I got back to the lab, leaving my room completely empty for me and Cole.

I sat in the chair I'd been sitting in before, but Cole moved to the window and looked out, his hands on the sill in front of him. I gazed at the back of his letter jacket, which was so full of patches there was hardly any jacket showing.

"Wow," I said finally. "Pine Gate must really be missing you."

He turned. "Why do you say that?"

I pointed at his jacket. "Looks like you're a sports star."

He glanced down at the front of his jacket, where there were even more patches and a few medals. "Yeah. I did okay. I thought maybe you meant they were missing my sparkling personality and unforgettable good looks."

I blushed, hard, and looked down at my hands. "No, I didn't mean…" I said, mentally kicking myself for sounding like such a dork.

He laughed, crossed the room, turned around the chair Zack had been sitting in, and straddled it backward. "I'm kidding! Don't worry about it. It was just a joke."


  • * "Brown demonstrates an expert ability to handle difficult subject matter....entirely authentic. The book's power--and its value--comes from the honest portrayal of characters who simply can't figure out how to bring an ugly, evident truth to light."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "Brown's writing flows smoothly and naturally...will linger on readers' minds long after the story is completed."—VOYA, starred review
  • "Brown tackles another taboo but much-discussed topic with authority and authenticity....readers will be enthralled."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Brown creates multifaceted characters as well as realistic, insightful descriptions of Alex's emotions....A tough but important addition to the YA romance shelves."—Booklist

On Sale
May 15, 2012
Page Count
384 pages

Jennifer Brown

About the Author

Jennifer Brown writes and lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area with her family. She is the author of Hate List, Torn Away, Thousand Words, Perfect Escape, and Bitter End.

Learn more about this author