Main Broken Knight
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Knight real mother and stepfather will have a story???
02 April 2021 (21:19)
NOOOOOOO,this book broke my heart and I don't ship Dixie and Dean at all
16 June 2021 (19:18)
I haven't completed it yet I have to was I was pushing myself to continue. It is a serious case of, good for each other but toxic when together... There is always something that goes wrong and that stops them from being together... I am only left with 20 pages and they still not together...
13 July 2021 (01:06)
BROKEN KNIGHT L.J. Shen Copyright © 2019 by L.J. Shen All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. Resemblance to actual persons and things living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Dedication Synopsis Epigraph Music Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Epilogue Acknowledgements Books by L.J. Shen Connect with L.J. Shen Preview of Midnight Blue Prologue Chapter One To Betty and Vanessa V., two talented women I adore, and to all the Lunas of the world Not all love stories are written the same way. Ours had torn chapters, missing paragraphs, and a bittersweet ending. Luna Rexroth is everyone’s favorite wallflower. Sweet. Caring. Charitable. Quiet. Fake. Underneath the meek, tomboy exterior everyone loves (yet pities) is a girl who knows exactly what, and who, she wants—namely, the boy from the treehouse who taught her how to curse in sign language. Who taught her how to laugh. To live. To love. Knight Cole is everyone’s favorite football hero. Gorgeous. Athletic. Rugged. Popular. Liar. This daredevil hell-raiser could knock you up with his gaze alone, but he only has eyes for the girl across the street: Luna. But Luna is not who she used to be.; She doesn’t need his protection anymore. When life throws a curveball at All Saints’ golden boy, he’s forced to realize not all knights are heroes. Sometimes, the greatest love stories flourish in tragedy. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” —Mary Oliver “Dream On”—Aerosmith “Enjoy the Silence”—Depeche Mode “Just My Type”—The Vamps “Who Do You Love?”—The Chainsmokers feat. Five Seconds of Summer “I Wanna Be Adored”—The Stone Roses “Beautiful”—Bazzi feat. Camilla Cabello “Fix You”—Coldplay “I Will Follow You into the Dark”—Death Cab for Cutie “The Drugs Don’t Work”—The Verve “I Predict a Riot”—Kaiser Chiefs Knight, 9; Luna, 10 I drove a fist into the oak tree, feeling the familiar sting of a fresh wound as my knuckles split open. Bleeding helped me breathe better. I didn’t know what it meant, but it made Mom cry in her bathroom when she thought no one could hear. Whenever she glanced at my permanently busted knuckles, the waterworks started. It had also earned me a trip to talk to this guy in a suit every week, who asked about my feelings. My earbuds blocked out the sounds of birds, crickets, and crispy leaves under my feet. The world sucked. I was done listening to it. “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit was my designated ruin-shit anthem. Fred Durst might look like a ballsack in a cap, but he had a point. Thump. Thump. Thump. Most kids liked fighting each other. Not me. I only wanted to hurt myself. When my body ached, my heart didn’t. Simple math, and a pretty good deal. A pinecone dropped on my head. I squinted up. My stupid neighbor, Luna, sat perched outside our treehouse, bouncing another pinecone in her hand and dangling her toothpick legs from a thick branch. “What was that for?” I tore the earbuds from my ears. She motioned to me with her head to climb up. I made no move. She waved me up. “Nah.” I tried to gather phlegm, spitting sideways. She arched an eyebrow, her way of asking what my problem was. Luna was nosy, but just with me. It sucked. “Vaughn stole my bike,” I announced. I’d have beaten the crap out of my so-called best friend, Vaughn, if I wasn’t so sure I’d kill him by accident. He’d said he wanted me to lose my shit. “Get it out of your system.” Whatever that meant. What’s a system? What did he know about mine? About anger? His life was perfect. His parents were healthy. He didn’t even have an annoying baby brother, like Lev. Luna threw the second pinecone. This time I caught it, swung my arm like a baseball player, and threw it back at her, missing on purpose. “I said no.” She produced a third pinecone (She kept a stash in the treehouse in case intruders came upon us, which was honestly never.) and made a show of throwing it at me. I finally snapped. “You’re so dumb!” She blinked at me. “Stop looking at me that way!” Another blink. “Goddarn it, Luna!” I didn’t care what Vaughn said. I was never going to want to kiss this girl. God help me if she ever asked me to. I climbed on the tire swing and up to our tiny treehouse. Vaughn thought he was too cool for treehouses. Good. It was one more thing that was Luna’s and mine that he wasn’t a part of. Luna jumped from the branch. She rolled on the ground, straightening up like a ninja and patting herself clean with a satisfied smile. Then she started running toward our neighborhood. Fast. “Where are you going?” I yelled as if she was going to answer. I watched her back disappear into a dot. I was always sad to see her go. This was all so stupid, anyway. I didn’t know anyone who could talk Vaughn into doing anything. Luna couldn’t even talk, period. Plus, I didn’t need her help. I’d walked away from him because if not, I knew he’d get what he wanted from me—a dirty fight. I wasn’t like him. Pissing off my parents wasn’t a lifetime goal. Sometime later, Luna came back riding my bike. I stood up, shielding my eyes from the sinking sun. It always burned brighter when the ocean was about to swallow it. She waved at me to come down. I threw a pinecone at her shoulder in response. “Rexroth.” What? her quirked eyebrow said. She could tell me a thousand things with her eyebrows alone, this girl. Sometimes I wanted to shave them off just to spite her. “I always get even. Remember that, cool?” Cool, her eye roll huffed. “Now, come up.” She motioned toward my bike, stomping her foot. “Leave the stupid bike.” We huddled inside the treehouse. Instead of thanking her, which I knew I should, I pulled out the pages I had printed earlier and arranged them on the wooden floor between us. Our foreheads stuck together with warm sweat as we both looked down. I was teaching her profanity in sign language—the stuff her father and therapist never would. “Says here dick is a ‘d’ handshape tapping the nose,” I mimicked the picture on one of the pages, then flipped it on its back. “Oh, look. If you want to say fuck you, you can just give the person your middle finger and pout. Convenient.” I didn’t look at her, but I felt her forehead resting against mine. Luna was a girl, but she was still really cool. Only downside was sometimes she asked too many questions with her eyes. Mom said it was because Luna cared about me. Not that I was going to admit it, but I cared about her, too. She tapped my shoulder. I flicked another page. “Waving an open hand on the side of the chin, forward and back, means slut. Dude, your dad will kill me if he ever finds out I taught you this.” She tapped my shoulder harder, digging her fingernail into my skin. I looked up, mid-read. “’Sup?” “Are you okay?” she signed. She didn’t use sign language often. Luna didn’t want to talk. Not in sign, and not at all. She could talk. Technically, I mean. Not that I’d ever heard her say anything. But that’s what our parents said—that it wasn’t about her voice. It was about the world. I got it. I hated the world, too. We just hated it differently. I shrugged. “Sure.” “Friends don’t let friends get upset over small stuff,” she signed. Whoa. An entire sentence. That was new. I didn’t understand the point of speaking sign language if she was planning not to speak at all, but I didn’t want to make her feel bad and stuff. “I don’t care about the bike.” I put the page down and scooted toward our branch, leaving. She followed, sitting beside me. I didn’t even like riding my bike. It was cruel on my nuts and boring to the rest of my body. I only rode it so I could hang out with Luna. Same reason I colored. I loathed coloring. She cocked her head to the side. A question. “Mom’s in the hospital again.” I picked out a pinecone and threw it at the sinking sun, over the edge of the mountain our tree was rooted upon. I wondered if the pinecone made it to the ocean, if it was wet and cold now. If it hated me. Luna put her hand over mine, staring down at our palms. Our hands were the same size, hers brown, mine white as fresh-fallen snow. “I’m fine.” I sniffed, choosing another pinecone. “It’s fine.” “I hate that word. Fine,” Luna signed. “It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s nothing.” She dropped her head down and took my hand, gave it a squeeze. Her touch was warm and sticky. Kind of gross. A few weeks ago, Vaughn told me he wanted to kiss Cara Hunting. I couldn’t even imagine touching a girl like that. Luna put my hand on her heart. I rolled my eyes, embarrassed. “I know. You’re here for me.” She shook her head and squeezed my hand harder. The intensity of her gaze freaked me out. “Always. Whenever. Forever,” she signed. I breathed in her words. I wanted to smash my stupid bike on Vaughn’s stupid face, then run away. Then die. I wanted to die in desolate sands, evaporate into dust, let the wind carry me nowhere and everywhere. I wanted to die instead of Mom. I was pretty useless. But so many people were dependent on Ma. Dad. Lev. Me. Me. Luna pointed at the sun in front of us. “Sunset?” I sighed. She frowned. “Beach?” She shook her head, rolling her eyes. “The sun will rise again tomorrow,” she signed. She leaned forward. For a moment, I thought she was going to jump. She took a safety pin from her checkered Vans and pierced the tip of her index finger. Wordlessly, she took my hand and pricked my finger, too. She joined them together, and I stared as the blood meshed. Her lips broke into a smile. Her teeth were uneven. A little pointy. A lot imperfect. With our blood, she wrote the words Ride or Die on the back of my hand, ignoring the state of my knuckles. I thought about the bike she’d retrieved for me and smirked. She drew me into a hug. I sank into her arms. I didn’t want to kiss her. I wanted to zip open my skin and tuck her into me. Hide her from the world and keep her mine. Knight, 12; Luna, 13 I was named after the moon. Dad said I’d been a plump, perfect thing. A light born into darkness. A child my mother didn’t want and he hadn’t known what to do with. He’d said that despite—or maybe because of—that, I was the most beautiful and enticing creature he’d ever laid eyes on. “My heart broke, not because I was sad, but because it swelled so much at the sight of you, I needed more space in it,” he once told me. He said a lot of things to make me feel loved. He had good reasons, of course. My mother left us before I turned two. Over the years, she’d come knocking on the doors of my mind whenever I least expected her—barging through the gates with an army of memories and hidden photos I was never supposed to find. Her laugh—that laugh I could never unhear, no matter how hard I tried—rolled down my skin like tongues of fire. What made everything worse was the fact that I knew she was alive. She was living somewhere under the same sky, breathing the same air. Perhaps in Brazil, her home country. It really didn’t matter, since wherever she was, she wasn’t with me. And the one time she’d come back for me, she’d really wanted money. I was five when it happened—around the time Dad had met Edie, my stepmom. Val, my mom, had asked for joint custody and enough child support to fund a small country. When she’d realized I wasn’t going to make her rich, she’d bailed again. At that point, I had made it a habit to tiptoe to the kitchen at night, where Dad and Edie had all their big talks. They never noticed me. I’d perfected the art of being invisible from the moment Val stopped seeing me. “I don’t want her anywhere near my kid,” Dad had gritted out. “Neither do I,” Edie had replied. My heart had melted into warm goo. “But if she comes back, we need to consider it.” “What if she hurts her?” “What if she mends her?” Experience had taught me that time was good at two things: healing and killing. I waited for the healing part to come every single day. I sank my knees to the lacy pillows below my windowsill and cracked it open, praying the wind would swish away the memories of her. I couldn’t hate Valenciana Vasquez, the woman who’d packed up her things in front of my crib while I’d cried, pleaded, screamed for her not to go, and left anyway. I remembered the scene chillingly well. They say your earliest recollection can’t be before the age of two, but I have a photographic memory, a 155 IQ, and a brain that’s been put through enough tests to know that, for better or worse, I remember everything. Everything bad. Everything good. And the in-between. So the memory was still crisp in my head. The determination zinging in her tawny, slanted eyes. The cold sweat gathering under my pudgy arms. I’d racked my brain looking for the words, and when I finally found them, I screamed as loud as I possibly could. “Mommy! Please! No!” She’d paused at the door, her knuckles white from holding the doorframe tightly, not taking any chances in case something inspired her to turn around and hold me. I remembered how I didn’t dare blink, too scared she’d disappear if I closed my eyes. Then, for a split second, her motherly instincts won, and she did swivel to face me. Her face had twisted, her mouth parting, her tongue sweeping over her scarlet lipstick. She’d been about to say something, but in the end, she just shook her head and left. The radio had played a melancholic tune. Val had often listened to the radio to drown out the sound of my crying. My parents hadn’t lived together, but they shared custody. After Val had failed to answer Dad’s many phone calls, he’d found me some hours later in my cot, my diaper so soiled it outweighed my tiny body. I hadn’t been crying. Not anymore. Not when he’d picked me up. Not when he’d taken me to the emergency room for a thorough checkup. Not when he’d cooed and kissed and fawned over me. Not when hot tears had silently run down his cheeks and he’d begged me to produce a sound. Not at all. Since that day, I’d become what they call a selective mute. Meaning I could speak, but I chose not to. Which, of course, was real stupid, since I didn’t want to be different. I simply was. My not speaking wasn’t a choice as much as it was a phobia. I’d been diagnosed with severe social anxiety and attended therapy twice a week since babyhood. Usually, selective mutism means a person can speak in certain situations where they feel comfortable. Not me. The nameless tune on the radio that day had been burned into my brain like an angry scar. Now, it popped up on the radio, assaulting me again. I was sitting in the car with Edie, my stepmom. Rain slapped the windows of her white Porsche Cayenne. The radio host announced that it was “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. My mouth went dry at the irony—the same mouth that refused to utter words for no apparent reason other than the fact that when I’d spoken words aloud, they hadn’t been enough for my mother. I wasn’t enough. As the music played, I wanted to crawl out of my skin and evaporate into thin air. Hurl myself out of the car. Run away from California. Leave Edie and Dad and Racer, my baby brother, behind—just take off and go somewhere else. Anywhere else. Somewhere people wouldn’t poke and pity me. Where I wouldn’t be the circus freak. “Geez, it’s been a decade. Can’t she just, like, get over it?” “Maybe it’s not about the mom. Have you seen the dad? Parading his young mistress…” “She’s always been weird, the girl. Pretty, but weird.” I wanted to bathe in my own loneliness, swim in the knowledge that my mother had looked me in the eye and decided I wasn’t enough. Drown in my sorrow. Be left alone. As I reached to turn the radio off, Edie pouted. “But it’s my favorite song!” Of course it was. Of course. Slapping my window with my open palm, I let out a wrecked whimper. I shuddered violently at the unfamiliar sound of my own voice. Edie, behind the wheel, sliced her gaze to me, her mouth still curled with the faint smile that always hovered over her lips, like open arms offering a hug. “Your dad grew up on Depeche Mode. It’s one of his favorite bands,” she explained, trying to distract me from whatever meltdown I was going through now. I struck the passenger window harder, kicking my backpack at my feet. The song was digging into my body, slithering into my veins. I wanted out. I needed to get out of there. We rounded the corner toward our Mediterranean mansion, but it wasn’t fast enough. I couldn’t unhear the song. Unsee Valenciana leaving. Unfeel that huge, hollow hole in my heart that my biological mother stretched with her fist every time her memory struck me. Edie turned off the radio at the same time I threw the door open, stumbling out of the slowing vehicle. I skidded over a puddle, then sped toward the house. The garage door rolled up while thunder sliced the sky, cracking it open, inviting more furious rain. I heard Edie’s cries through her open window, but they were swallowed by the rare SoCal storm. Rain soaked my socks, making my legs heavy, and my feet burned from running as I grabbed my bike from the garage, flung one leg over it, and launched toward the street. Edie parked, tripping out of the vehicle. She chased after me, calling my name. I pedaled fast, cycling away from the cul-de-sac…zipping past the Followhill house…the Spencers’ mansion darkening my path ahead with its formidable size. The Coles’ house, my favorite, was sandwiched between my house and the Followhills’. “Luna!” Knight Cole’s voice boomed behind my back. I wasn’t even surprised. Our bedroom windows faced each other, and we always kept the curtains open. When I wasn’t in my room, Knight usually looked for me. And vice versa. It was more difficult to ignore Knight than my stepmother, and not because I didn’t love Edie. I did. I loved her with the ferocity only a non-biological child could feel—hungry, visceral love, only better, because it was dipped in gratitude and awe. Knight wasn’t exactly like a brother, but he didn’t feel like less than family, either. He put Band-Aids on my scraped knees and shooed the bullies away when they taunted me, even if they were twice his size. He’d given me pep talks before I’d known what they were and that I needed them. The only bad thing about Knight was it felt like he held a piece of my heart hostage. So I always wondered where he was. His wellbeing was tangled with mine. As I rolled down the hill on my bike, toward the black, wrought-iron gate enclosing our lush neighborhood, I wondered if he felt that invisible thread attaching us, too, if he chased me because I tugged at it. Because it hurt when one of us got too far away. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Knight screamed behind my back. Edie had caught up with him. It sounded like they were arguing. “I’ll calm her down.” “But Knight…” “I know what she needs.” “You don’t, honey. You’re just a kid.” “You’re just an adult. Now go!” Knight wasn’t afraid to get confrontational with adults. Me, I followed rules. As long as I wasn’t expected to utter actual words, I did everything by the book—from being a straight-A student to helping strangers. I picked up trash on the street, even when it wasn’t mine, and donated a selection of my gifts every Christmas to those who really needed them. But my motives weren’t pure. I always felt less-than, so I tried to be more. Daria Followhill, another neighbor my age, called me Saint Luna. She wasn’t wrong. I played the role of a saint, because Val had made me feel like a sinner. I pedaled faster. The rain slushed in sheets, turning to hail, pelting my skin with its icy fury. I squinted, passing through the gates of the neighborhood. Everything happened fast: Yellow lights flashing in my face. Hot metal grazing my leg as the vehicle tried to swerve in the other direction. A deafening honk. I felt something hurling me back by the collar of my tweed jacket with a force that almost choked me, and before I knew what was going on, I’d collapsed into a puddle on the side of the road. Just then, the sound of my bike exploding rang in my ears. The assaulting car shattered it to pieces. The seat flew inches from my head, and the frame glided in the other direction. My face hit the concrete. Dust, wet dirt, and blood coated my mouth. I coughed, rolling around and fighting what felt like the weight of the entire world to find Knight straddling my waist with his legs. The car careened to the end of the road, taking a sharp U-turn and zinging back past the gates of the neighborhood. The hail was so bad I couldn’t even see the shape of the vehicle, let alone its license plate. “Butthole!” Knight screamed at the car with ferocity that made my lungs burn on his behalf. “Rot in hell!” I blinked, trying to decipher Knight’s expression. I’d never seen him like this before—a storm within a storm. Although Knight was a year younger, he looked older. Especially now. His forehead was wrinkled, his pink, pillowy lips parted, and his soot-black lashes were clustered like a heavy curtain, damp from the rain. A drop ran its way down his lower lip, disappearing inside the dimple in his chin, and that simple image sent fire tearing through my heart. It was the first time I’d realized my best friend was…well, beautiful. Stupid, I knew, especially considering the circumstances. He’d saved me from certain death, pounced on top of me so I wouldn’t get hit by a speeding car, and all I could think of was not Val, or Edie, or Depeche Mode, or how fragile life was, but the fact that the boy I’d grown up with was about to burst and bloom into a teenager. A handsome teenager. A handsome teenager who would have better things to do with his time than saving his awkward childhood friend or teaching her how to say douchebag in sign language. I’d thought the memories of Valenciana nicked my heart, but that was nothing compared to the violent rip of it when I looked at Knight, realizing for the first time that he was going to break that piece of my heart he held hostage. Not maliciously, no, and definitely not intentionally. But it didn’t matter. Hit-and-run or struck by lightning—a death was a death. A heartbreak was a heartbreak. Pain was pain. “What the fudge?” he screamed in my face. He was so close I could smell his breath. Sugar and cocoa and boy. Boy. I still had a few years before it all started. Transfixed, I couldn’t even bring myself to wince at his anger. How had I never noticed the graceful angles of his nose? The color of his eyes—so vividly green with flecks of dark blue, a shade of viridian I’d never seen before? The regal slopes of his cheekbones, so sharp as they outlined his mischievous face like pop art inside a thousand-dollar gold frame? “Answer me, goddammit.” He punched the concrete near my face. His knuckles were as swollen as golf balls by now. He’d recently started cursing for real. Not a lot, just enough to make me cringe. I stared at him, steadfast, knowing he’d never hurt me. He wrapped a hand around his injured fist and let out a frustrated howl, then dropped his forehead to mine, panting hard. We were both out of breath, our chests rising and falling in the same rhythm. “Why?” His voice was a soft growl now. He knew he wasn’t going to get an answer. Our hair matted together, his penny brown mane mixing with my dark curls. “Why’d you do this?” I tried to wiggle my arms from out of the confines of his thighs so I could answer in sign language, but he pressed his legs against my body, locking me in place. “No,” he growled, his voice thick with threat. “Use your words. You can. I know you can. Mom and Dad told me. Tell me why you did this.” I opened my mouth, wanting so badly to answer his question. He was right, of course. I could speak. Physically, anyway. I knew because sometimes in the shower, or when otherwise completely alone, I would repeat words I loved, as practice. Just to prove I could, that I was capable of uttering them aloud, that I chose not to talk. I repeated the words, the sound of my voice sending small shudders of pleasure down my back. Old books. Fresh air (especially after the rain). Watching the moon watching me back. Seahorses. Dad. Edie. Racer. Knight. Now, for the first time, Knight was demanding my words. I wanted to say them. More than that—I knew he deserved to hear them. But nothing came out. My mouth hung open, and the only thing flashing through my mind was, You don’t just seem to be stupid, you look it, too. “Say it.” Knight shook my shoulders. The hail faded into light rain, and my visibility cleared. His eyes were red-rimmed and tired. So tired. Tired because of me. Because I always got into stupid trouble he had to pull me out of. He thought I’d tried to hurt myself. I hadn’t. I kept opening and closing my mouth like a fish, but the words wouldn’t come out. I tried to rip them from my mouth, my heart escalating, beating everywhere behind my ribs. “Ahh…I….hmm…” He stood up, pacing back and forth, threading his fingers in his thick, wet hair and tugging it in frustration. “You’re so…” He shook his head, letting the drops fly everywhere. “So…” I got up and ran toward him. I didn’t want to hear the rest of his sentence. I wasn’t keen on finding out what he thought of me. Because if he believed I’d driven straight into the car, hoping for a collision, he clearly thought I was way more screwed up than I was. I grabbed his shoulder and twisted him around. He scowled. I shook my head, frantic. “I didn’t see the car. I swear,” I signed. “You could have died,” he screamed in my face, pounding his scarred knuckles over his heart. “You could have left me.” “But I didn’t.” I used my hands, arms, fingers to reassure him. My lips trembled. This was about so much more than us. This was about Rosie, his mother, too. Knight didn’t like people disappearing. Not even for a few days, to get better in the hospital. “Thanks to you,” I signed. “You saved me.” “Remember always, whenever, forever? What happened to that bullshit? Where’s your side of the bargain?” He repeated my promise to him all those years ago, his voice dripping disdain. I opened my arms for a hug, and he stepped into it, melting into my body. We molded, like two distinct colors mixed together into something unique and true—a shade only we could paint with. Knight buried his face in my hair, and I squeezed my eyes shut, imagining him doing it with someone else. Despite the chill, my blood ran hotter. Mine. I wasn’t only thinking it. My lips moved, shaping the word. I could almost hear the word. I tightened my hold on him. “Ride or die,” he whispered into the shell of my ear. I knew he meant his promise. I also knew how unfair it was, because I didn’t know if I could save him if I had to. If someone like Knight would ever need saving. Knight was a normal kid. He talked. He was athletic, outgoing, and oozed confidence. Edie had said he was so handsome, modeling scouts stopped Rosie at the mall and thrust their business cards in her hands, begging her to let them represent him. He was funny, charming, well-heeled, and rich beyond his wildest dreams. The world was his for the taking, and I knew one day he would. I started crying in his arms. I wasn’t a crier. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d wept since Val left. But I couldn’t stop myself. I knew, then, that ours would not be a happily ever after. He deserved more than a girl who couldn’t tell him how she felt. He was perfect, and I was flawed. “Promise me.” His lips touched my temple, his warm breath sending shivers down my body. Shivers that felt different—like they filled my lower belly with lava. Promise him what? I wondered. I nodded yes anyway, eager to please him, though he hadn’t completed his sentence. My lips moved. “I promise. I promise. I promise.” Maybe that’s why he didn’t trust me. Why he’d sneak into my bedroom that night—and every night, for the next six years—and wrap his arms around me, making sure I was really okay. Sometimes he smelled of alcohol. Sometimes of another girl. Fruity and sweet and different. Oftentimes, he smelled of my heartbreak. But he was always making sure I was safe. And he always left before my dad knocked on my door to wake me up. For the next six years, before jumping through my window, Knight would drop a kiss on my forehead in the exact same spot where shortly thereafter Dad would kiss me good morning, the heat of Knight’s lips still on my skin, making my face radiate. I’d see him in school, his cocky swagger and whiplash-witty comebacks making girls drop their guard and panties. Tossing his shiny, thick mane as he showed off his pearly whites and endless dimples. There were two Knight Coles. One was mine. The other everyone else’s. And although he always spent recess with me, continuously protected me, forever treated me like a queen, I knew he was everyone’s king, and I only reigned in a small part of his life. One night, when the moon was full and peering in at us through my window, my Knight kissed the sensitive skin beneath my ear. “Moonshine,” he whispered. “You fill up the empty, dark space—like the moon owns the sky. It is quiet. It is bright. It doesn’t need to be a ball of flame to be noticed. It simply exists. It forever glows.” He’d called me Moonshine every single day since. I called him nothing, because I didn’t speak. Maybe that’s how he knew, all those years later, that I’d lied—by omission. He wasn’t nothing. He was my everything. Knight, 18; Luna, 19 “She’s not here. You can tuck your vagina back in, Cole.” Hunter Fitzpatrick yawned, flicking a red Solo cup against some tool’s head. Said douchebag turned around from his conversation with a sophomore cheerleader, ready to talk smack. As soon as he saw that it was Hunter, he bit the inside of his cheek, glowering. “Ew. Why so constipated?” Hunter growled in the Joker’s why-so-serious voice. Downing the last of my fifth beer of the night, I pulled my gaze from the front door, tucking the empty bottle into the back pocket of some girl’s jeans. She turned around and laughed when she saw it was me. I cupped and lit my joint, sucking on it as I watched the amber flickering under my nose. I passed the joint to Vaughn, releasing a plume of smoke and sinking back into the plush couch until it swallowed most of my upper body. “Suck a dick,” I told Hunter, my voice hoarse from the smoke. “Any tips from a pro?” he teased, mumbling “Sláinte” and knocking back a shot of something electric blue. “Let me call your mom and ask,” I quipped. “Friday is a busy night for her; better call Hunter’s sister.” Vaughn, who somehow still held the title of my best friend, had a profile like an eagle and a voice so low it felt like black smoke seeping into your ears. “Side note: Knight wasn’t looking at the door.” I had been. But I was also high and drunk, and a little off guard. Nothing a few harmless flirts couldn’t fix. “Sure, sure,” Hunter said in his Boston accent. I pulled him into a headlock, messing his perfectly moussed, wheat blond hair. There was just one crack in my unshakable, good-natured, billion-dollar smile, and hot-motherfucker-jock stereotype persona. A barely noticeable chip. You could see it from one angle. Only the one. And only when Luna Rexroth entered the room and our eyes met—for exactly the first half-second, before I rearranged my features back into my usual smug grin. Other than that—as far as anyone else knew, at least—you couldn’t rattle me if you tried. And, seeing as I was an untouchable legend among the mortals inside the walls of All Saints High, many people did. Often. Why I thought she’d be here was beyond my basic-ass logic. The shit I was smoking was obviously more powerful than a nice tall cocktail of bleach and antiperspirants. Moonshine didn’t frequent parties. She had no friends other than Vaughn and me, and she only hung out with us when we were riding solo, sans our harem of fangirls and shit-for-brains entourage. Maybe I thought she’d come because summer break was crawling to its inevitable end. My eighteenth birthday had come and gone, and Luna was still dragging her feet about college. Her dad told my dad he was trying to convince her to go to Boon College in North Carolina. It was highly populated with gifted students who had mild disabilities. She fit the profile perfectly. But she’d been accepted to Columbia, Berkeley, and UCLA as well. Personally, I found it damn near offensive she’d think about moving out of Todos Santos at all. There were a few academic establishments in San Diego, a stone’s throw away from us, that should do her just fine. Luckily, I knew Moonshine, and she’d never leave home, so it didn’t really matter. “I’m in the mood for some ass.” Hunter slapped my thigh, probably sensing I was spending too much time in my head. He leaned toward the coffee table to grab his beer, elbowing Vaughn in the process. “You in?” Vaughn stared at him blankly, as if the answer were obvious. With his icy, pale eyes and raven black hair, he looked like a dropout from a Twilight movie—a vibe a surprising amount of girls dug. More than anything, Vaughn had perfected the art of making you feel like a dumbass for asking him a simple question, the way he’d done to Hunter right now. Fitzpatrick swiveled to me. “Cole?” He wiggled his brows. “Bouncing chicks is my side hustle.” That was my official statement, anyway. Also that I wasn’t hung up on Luna Rexroth, who’d friend-zoned me so fucking hard even my nocturnal emissions were platonic at this point. Hunter, an Irish polo prince—too posh to play football like me and too remarkably untalented at anything to be an artist like Vaughn—put two fingers in his mouth and let out a whistle that pierced through the music. The guys around us clinked their beers, trying to bite down their excited grins. When we wanted a piece of ass, that meant they were in for a treat, too. “Ladies, line up toward the entertainment room. Make it neat. No cutting in line. Chop, chop. If you’re lovely, daring, and willing, you’re an applicant we want to see. Just be sure to remember—we won’t call you tomorrow morning, won’t follow you on social media, and won’t acknowledge your existence in the hallways. But we will carry you with us forever, like hepatitis B.” A herd of junior and senior girls scurried up the stairs of Vaughn’s mansion in pairs, whispering and giggling in each other’s ears. Vaughn threw parties every other weekend while his parents were in their Virginia castle, probably fucking the memory of their devil spawn out of each other’s minds. The girls lined up outside the entertainment room, spines rod-straight against the textured gray walls. The line started at the base of his spiral stairway, snaking all the up way to a heavy set of black doors. Vaughn, Hunter, and I strolled past them silently, lit joints clutched between our teeth. I wore white, destroyed Balmain biker jeans and a shabby I Fucked Your Girlfriend and Didn’t Even Enjoy It tee that had cost me a grand, paired with vintage Gucci sneakers and a beanie I was pretty sure was made out of real unicorn fur or some shit. Vaughn still wore his painting attire and looked just a little dirtier than a third world-based hooker looking for her next fix, and Hunter was wearing a full-blown suit, bless his Great Gatsby, weird-ass heart. Our names, moaned and whispered like a prayer among the buzzing girls, drowned in the angry tune pulsating against the walls. “A Song for the Dead” by Queens of the Stone Age vibrated in my stomach as we glided the length of Vaughn’s hallway, which was complete with Gothic, high ceilings and giant paintings of his family members. It was actually creepier than a Stephen King book: Vaughn’s scowling face staring back at you, life-sized. Let’s admit it, the fucker gave the Grim Reaper a run for his money in the menacing department. And he looked extra dead in those paintings. Extra pale. Extra cruel. Extra Vaughn. Since the girls couldn’t explicitly proposition us without staining their precious reputations—I’d always hated the double standard of guys are players, girls are sluts—they pretended to talk to each other, sipping their drinks. We stopped to examine the line. The rest of the football and polo squad were behind us, loyal and on guard, like the good puppies they were. I was captain of the All Saints’ football team, so I had that shiny quarterback title and shotgun rights. But Vaughn had the street cred of Dracula, and Hunter’s family was the fourth richest in North America, so suffice it to say, all our dicks were fool’s gold and had pussies in their cards tonight. Hunter stroked his chin, making a whole show of it. Sometimes I truly hated him, but most of the time I was indifferent to his theatrics. “You.” He pointed at a girl named Alice, with pixie blonde hair and huge hazel eyes. He curled his index, indicating for her to come closer. She exchanged looks with her friends, breathless giggles bubbling from her ample chest. One of the girls pushed her toward us, whisper-shouting, “Oh my God, Al. Just go!” “Take pictures,” a brunette coughed into her fist. Hunter jerked his chin to Vaughn. The latter ran his arctic pupils along the line, careful and methodic. He looked like he was searching for someone specific. Someone who obviously wasn’t there. “You’re choosing a fuck buddy, not a mortgage. Hurry up.” Hunter rolled his eyes, throwing an arm over Alice’s shoulder. She bathed in the attention, smiling up at him with stars in her eyes. Vaughn ignored Hunter, as he did ninety percent of the people who talked to him. I examined the line, my eyes settling on a girl named Arabella. She had huge blue eyes and tan skin. A senior, too. She reminded me a bit of Luna—when she wasn’t talking. But that was the thing about high school girls, wasn’t it? They always fucking talked…other than the one whose words I wanted desperately. No. That one never spoke a word to me. “Arabella, baby.” I opened my arms in her direction. She unglued herself from the wall to strut toward me in her high, hot pink heels and black mini dress. Vaughn finally picked a girl, though he was grunting like a caveman about it. I’d have made a mental note to ask him why, but Vaughn never talked about girls. Or feelings. Or, you know, life in general. I wanted to tell him if he didn’t feel like dipping his dick in someone tonight, no one was forcing him. But clearly, that would have been hypocritical. Not to mention false. We confiscated the girls’ phones before they walked into the room and dumped them into a fruit bowl outside the door, to be guarded by a designated freshman who wanted to fit in with the cool crowd. What happened in Vaughn’s entertainment room stayed there, too. We weren’t bad guys, despite what people might have thought. We never spoke about the ladies who entered here—not between ourselves, and definitely not to other people. If the girls wanted to brag, that was their prerogative. But there were never any pictures, any vicious rumors, any drama. The rules were simple: you got in, you had your fun, and on Monday morning, you acted like nothing happened. Because nothing really had happened, as far as we were concerned. In the entertainment room, Hunter was full-blown fucking Alice against a pool table from behind while having a civilized, flat-toned conversation with her about her summer. He’d tugged her mini dress up and gone at it, barely even bothering to slide her panties aside. Turned out she’d lost her virginity a few weeks earlier to some tool at Christian camp and needed a redo. “I just want to come,” she whined. “Then you’re not getting out of here until you do.” Her fingers were buried in the holes of the pool table, her half-bare tits dragging along the green, fuzzy surface. Hunter smoked a cigarette, his eyes drifting to Spaced, a British comedy, on the huge, flat-screen TV in front of us while fucking her. And they say guys are not good at multitasking. Vaughn, who was obsessed with Spaced, stood against the wall, letting some chick I didn’t know suck his dick. Arabella stood next to me, waiting for some action, but I just propped my shoulder against the wall, angled in front of Vaughn, ignoring the girl on her knees between us. “Hope she’ll go out-of-state,” Vaughn said, verbose, one hand holding the ashy hair of the girl beneath him, the other scrolling through his phone. He didn’t have any social media profiles and was soundly against trying to impress anyone on purpose, just like me. I’d once caught him checking some chick’s Instagram, though he’d locked his phone as soon as I noticed. I never got her name, and it was pointless to ask. Anyway, Vaughn was talking about Luna now, so that was my cue to check out. I hated talking to him about her. “Haven’t you wasted enough years on this shit?” he probed, tucking his phone into his back pocket. This shit? Oh, screw you, Spencer. “Haven’t you?” I clipped through a locked jaw. “You hate girls so much you won’t even fuck them. Blowies are as far as you can manage without being repulsed by human touch. At least I’m capable of feeling.” “I’m capable of feeling.” He lifted a cocky eyebrow, yawning. “Hate. Jealousy. Disdain.” He looked down at the girl bobbing her head up and down, the apathy in his icicle eyes confirming no one was home behind them. “Besides, unreciprocated love is like a nice Jag—one you have to carry on your fucking back instead of driving. Nice and shiny on the outside, but such a drag to manage by yourself.” “Drop dead.” I smiled cheerfully. “Eventually, and at least I won’t die a virgin,” he said blandly, running his paint-smeared, rough hands through the girl’s silky, clean hair just to taint it. I was about to knock his lights out mid-blowjob when Arabella dug her fingernails into my neck. “You look a little tense. Let me help,” she purred. “I heard you were a kinky bastard, Knight Cole. Care to compromise me?” I’d yet to pay her any attention, let alone touch her. I wasn’t stupid—she wasn’t here for me. They all came here for the story. For the glory. It didn’t matter who got them in the door as long as they were chosen. “Not in the mood. But…” I grabbed her jaw and yanked her into my embrace. She moaned as I crashed our lips together, her grunt of pleasure swallowed in my mouth. Her tongue tried to pry my lips open, but I slammed them together, ignoring the wrongness of it all. I never, ever, ever kissed girls like this, but I was too stoned to care, and besides, my resolve was thinning after years of getting slammed down by Luna. I smeared her lipstick like it was war paint, burying my fingers in her hair and messing it so it looked like she’d gotten fucked into the next decade. Then I pulled away, smirking down at her. Lipstick had smeared all over her chin, nose, and cheeks. I could only guess I looked just as wild. “Maybe some other time?” Hope flared in her eyes, her smile drunk with newfound power. “In a heartbeat, baby.” Arabella got her story. I faked mine. Twenty minutes later, we ambled out of the entertainment room, heading down to wrap up the party. I made a stop in the kitchen to grab my sixth beer and found Arabella, Alice, and Vaughn’s piece leaning against the kitchen island, giving their exaggerated versions of what had gone down to their doe-eyed friends. I knew my secret was safe with Arabella. No girl would admit that an All Saints’ legend hadn’t touched her after taking her to the room. Truth was, I didn’t want any of the other chicks to set the record straight either, and the only thing kinky about me was my fondness for watching breath-play porn (don’t judge). I swung the fridge open and looked around for the Bud Light. I was still reeling from Vaughn’s comments about Luna needing to go somewhere else. Somewhere far. The notion that I could forget her just went to show he’d never been in love. And then there was the other thing. The reason I’d drunk myself to near-death tonight. I searched the kitchen counter for vodka and took a generous swig before resuming my hunt for beer. Dear life, It’s cool. You can stop throwing shit at me. I’m already neck-deep. Yours, KJC My mind had started doing weird shit shortly after Mom’s parents, Grandma Charlene and Grandpa Paul, died in a car crash and left Mom an orphan. That was five years ago. I didn’t care about my losing them; it was Mom’s pain that killed me. That’s when I’d first started secretly drinking, and whaddaya know—I never really stopped. “Supersized burrito huge, not even kidding,” Arabella exclaimed behind me, perched against the island and looking thoroughly fucked as she fanned her face dramatically. She obviously hadn’t noticed me, or if she had, she knew I wouldn’t contradict her story. “Too huge. At first I was like—how am I going to take Knight Cole? Am I even ready for this? But he ate me out for, like, thirty minutes. When his tongue ring hit my clit, I swear I started speaking fluent Swedish.” Gasps, snickers, and intimate questions exploded in the room. I shut the fridge, turning around with a beer in my hand, and bumped into a small thing. A small, tan-skinned thing. With molten silver eyes and a constellation of freckles on her nose and cheeks—a map I knew by heart. Luna Rexroth. I could practically hear the chip in my mask cracking open before I cocked my head to the side, nudging the base of the cold bottle against her nose and watching a drop of beer sweat make its way from the tip, dropping to her luscious, full lips. I tugged at a stray curl that bounced over her eye in hello. Luna Rexroth was beautiful. Sure. But so were a lot of other girls. Difference was, Luna carried her beauty like it was something borrowed. Carefully yet casually, not making a fuss about it. She wouldn’t stand in line for anyone, anywhere. She’d stand out, glowing with quiet pride. Luna wore a white T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves, boyfriend jeans, and a pair of dirty, checked Vans. No evidence of makeup on her smooth face. Tragically, it only enhanced how much more beautiful she was than the other made-up girls. By the look on her face, I realized she’d been privy to the conversation going on behind me in the kitchen. She always gave me that disappointed look. That you-can-do-better-than-this look. But I didn’t think I could. Because the best—her—was not available to me. She’d made it perfectly clear. Three times, in fact. Three kisses. All ending in disaster. Kiss Numero Uno was a bit of a stretch, even I’ll admit. I’d been twelve, and she’d been thirteen. We’d been in a waterpark, behind a giant blue slide. We were laughing and splashing each other, and I’d just gone for it, the spontaneous fucker that I was. Up until then, the idea of Luna and me was, well, more of a fact. Roses were red. The sun rose in the east. A seahorse could move its eyes in opposite directions (Moonshine told me that herself), and Luna Rexroth was going to be my girlfriend, then fiancée, then wife. Alas, she’d turned away and let out a little gasp. Because she couldn’t—wouldn’t—talk, she’d just shook her head. Then, probably seeing the sting on my face, she’d melted, pulling me into a hug. Our hot skin had met almost everywhere. It was the first time I’d realized why I had kissed her. Boner. I’d had a boner. Which was…not great. Kiss Numero Dos occurred when I was fourteen and had a pretty good grasp of the fact that my cock liked Luna just as much as the rest of me. By then I’d learned a bunch of tricks to avoid attacking her with it, especially since we slept together every night. I’d been a freshman, Luna a sophomore. I’d been gaining popularity at All Saints High thanks to my last name and ability to throw a fucking ball, which was something the rest of the football team wasn’t so good at. Girls had been all over me, and I’d hoped Luna might’ve noticed all the notes that poured out of my locker whenever I opened it. We’d still been best friends. Nothing had changed. Well, other than me. I’d started to fill out my skin with muscles, and a few growth spurts had resulted in my reaching five-eleven seemingly overnight. It had been nighttime when I’d climbed up to her window like I’d done every single night for years after our families went to sleep. When she’d opened it to let me in, I’d pressed my lips against hers, whispering, “Take two.” Biggest fucking mistake I’d ever made. She nearly slammed the window on my fingers. It had grazed my nails before I’d pulled away. By some miracle I’d managed to hold on to her chimney, and it had taken Luna a second to realize what she’d done. Once she did, she’d pulled me back in and saved me from certain death. That night, while I’d been pretending to sleep in her bed, she’d been for-real writing me a letter of apology, in which she’d explained that she loved me, but only saw us as friends. This time, I’d accepted it. Not long-term, obviously. But I knew this was a Luna problem, not a Knight problem. I saw the way she looked at me when girls were around, when notes were passed to me, when my phone lit up with unanswered text messages. There was hunger there. Desperation—that hot, green liquid that slithered into your soul when you watched something that was yours be admired by others. And so, I continued to slip into her room every night. I got it. She needed time. Time? I had plenty. I’d decided to show her I wasn’t some kind of obsessed stalker. That I was capable of moving on. To bring the point home, I’d stopped ignoring other girls’ advances. I’d started dating, texting back, and flirting. I stayed closest to her, keeping my alliance firmly with the girl next door. But I also had a chain of girlfriends who came and went—a revolving door of glossy-lipped beauties who wore the right brands and said the right things. I paraded them around school and brought them over for family BBQs, expecting Luna to ease back into our friendship now that I wasn’t trying to suck her face every time she looked my way. Ironically, that’s what brought on kiss number three. Kiss Numero Tres happened when she was seventeen and I was sixteen. I call it The Kiss of Death, because the damage it inflicted on our relationship was huge. Even now, a year and a half later, I was still dealing with the echoes of its destruction. For instance, Luna before kiss number three would have told me she was coming to Vaughn’s party. Luna after kiss number three barely communicated with me about what she was doing or where she was going. We were still hanging out most days, but it had turned into a bad habit more than anything else. Back to that kiss. I was fooling around with a girl named Noei at the time. But I’d still cleared the day for Luna’s seventeenth birthday. I’d bought us tickets to a museum, even though the carnival was in town, because Luna hated carnivals—and zoos, and Seaworld, and anyplace where animals were captured for human entertainment. I’d had it all planned out. Luna was a vegetarian, and a vegan curry place had opened in downtown Todos Santos, right across from the museum. I’d bought her a bunch of weird-ass shit from Brandy Melville and had a seahorse tattoo inked on my spine, hoping she’d get the underlying message: that she was my backbone. Luna loved seahorses with a passion. They were her favorite animals—something about the male seahorse being the one to give birth… Mom gave me so much shit before she signed the consent for the tattoo, but she’d known it was a part of a bigger plan, so she’d let it slide. And if that wasn’t enough, I’d made Luna seventeen different birthday cards, all the while trying to downplay my excitement that we were spending the entire day together. The day had been pretty perfect, as far as birthdays go. So perfect, in fact, that when I dropped Luna back at her door, she’d taken my face between her palms and smiled up at me. I’d stared at her like an idiot, thinking, Should I or shouldn’t I? Darkness had washed over our street. Our families had been inside, probably eating dinner. No one could see us—not that anyone would have cared. It wasn’t a secret I’d chop heads and bring down the sun for Luna Rexroth. Still, I’d kept on staring at her, searching for the okay in her face. By that time, I was pretty damn good at recognizing the okay in girls’ eyes when I looked at them. But not with Luna, apparently. Every time her eyes said yes, the rest of her said no. I’d decided this time I needed more affirmation before I fucked everything up and earned an unfriendly visit to my house from Trent Rexroth, Luna’s dad, with his even unfriendlier baseball bat. She’d pressed my hand over her heart through her shirt. It was beating so fast, I’d thought she needed me to squeeze it back into her chest. My fingers had involuntarily twitched against the swell of her breast. The hint of a puckered nipple under my palm had almost made my knees buckle. Luna had worn thin sports bras. You noticed those things about a girl when you hung out with her all the time. My brain had short-circuited, refusing to come up with words to describe what was happening inside my body. I mean… My. Hand. Was. On. Her. Breast. Why’d it feel so fantastic? In my mind, we were already fucking three times a day at that point. My morning jerk-off in the shower before practice, the rub-in after I got back from practice in the afternoon, and of course, the whack before bedtime to take the edge off prior to slipping through her window. I’d imagined us doing filthy things I was pretty sure Luna would never even think about, let alone do. Meanwhile, in real life, I’d just nearly come from touching her tit. I’d been worried for my man card. Also: for my sanity when it came to this girl. “Do you feel it?” she’d signed. I’d squeezed my eyes shut and breathed slowly through my nose. Opened my eyes. “I never unfeel it, Moonshine.” The words had come out laced with pain. “Promise not to break it?” Even my dumb teenage brain understood the magnitude of the situation. Never breaking our gaze, I’d put her hand on my own heart, so she’d know, without a doubt, she wasn’t the only one whose heart had a chunk missing. “Promise.” Luna had tipped her chin up, giving me the okayest-okay in the history of the goddamn word, and I’d gone for it, still half-expecting to wake up from the dream. And that was it. My lips were on hers. Finally. Consensually. This time, she didn’t pull away. A low, guttural moan tore from my throat when our mouths met and molded. She’d poured magic into that kiss, and it had depressed me to know, after kissing dozens of girls before her, that I’d been right all along. My mom had said there were a lot of lids for every pot. But there was only one lid for this pothead. Luna. Her lips had been soft, sweet, giving—like her. She’d smelled like coconut and ocean salt and pencil shavings. Like heaven. Her wild curls had framed both our faces. I’d wrapped a lock around my finger, and it had gripped me like a live wire. I loved her hair the most, because that’s how I recognized her in the hallways. Everyone else either had flat-ironed, thin hair or a tired, in-between mane that wasn’t straight or curly. Some wore theirs in doll-like, perfect ringlets held by hairspray that made them look like fancy divorcées. But Luna looked like nature. It was like kissing the entire fucking forest from our spot in the treehouse. “Knight. Jameson. Cole!” A loud whine had cut through the air, jerking Luna’s body away from mine. I’d twisted my head, still drunk from that kiss. Noei had been standing in front of my door, mouth agape, a hand on her hip, one foot tapping on the wide step to my door. “I knew it! I just knew it! And with the school’s freak no less! I should’ve listened to Emma and Jacquie when they said so. You’re such a cheater.” No. No. No. Just…no. Pretty sure I voiced that aloud, because Noei had shouted, “Oh, hell yes!” and “I can’t believe you,” and “I thought you were the one.” Which, honestly, would have been laughable if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate situation. I didn’t even entertain the idea of explaining myself to Noei. We’d never been steady. I’d never called or texted her, though I had messed around with her in public every now and again. I’d explained to Noei that my situation was complicated. That I didn’t do relationships. That I had an endgame, and it didn’t include her. “Moonshine, wait…” I’d chased my best friend through the snaking, cobbled pavement leading to her doorstep. She’d moved quickly between the green hedges, ducking her head down so I wouldn’t see her face. She’d asked me not to break her heart, and I’d gone and done it, even before our kiss had ended. Frantic, I’d grabbed her wrist. She’d spun around, her waterfall gray eyes breathing fire I knew would leave blisters on my memory. I’d let go of her immediately. She’d raised her finger between us, warning me not to get closer, before launching into the longest speech I’d ever seen her sign: “I love you, Knight Cole. More than anything. Maybe even more than myself. But I don’t trust you with my heart. And when you hurt me like this, I feel little and vindictive. So vindictive, you shouldn’t trust me with yours. Whatever it is, we need to kill it before it kills us, you understand? We can’t be together.” “But…” “Friends.” She’d mouthed the word. I almost heard it. “Listen, Luna, it’s not what you think.” I’d tugged at my hair so hard, it occurred to me I might pull it out completely. This was bullshit. I wanted to rip something apart. Maybe my own skin. “Knight, no. Promise me.” I’d turned around and stalked back home, and that had been that. Then, I’d thought I couldn’t handle less than everything. Now, I knew that when you’re left with no choice—you can handle it. It just hurts like a thousand bitches in heat. “Moonshine. Can I get you a beer?” I blocked her way to the other girls in Vaughn’s kitchen with my huge frame, rolling my pierced tongue along my lower lip. Long gone were my five-eleven days. I was a little shy of six-three now, with the width of an industrial washing machine, hard and muscled head to toe. These girls, they hated her. She’d hung out with Vaughn and me, the most popular guys in school, until she’d graduated. Spent summer vacations and trips to the Maldives with us and with Daria Followhill, the alumna Queen Bee of All Saints High. Luna was cool as shit by association, and fuck knows she tried hard not to be. It didn’t bother me that Luna and Vaughn were tight. I trusted both of them. There was still a dull pang of pain every time she as much as breathed in the direction of a guy who wasn’t me, but I’d learned how to control it over the years. Mostly. Now, Luna flashed the girls behind me the middle finger. By their lack of reaction, they either didn’t see it or knew they’d never get away with answering her without feeling my wrath. “What brings you to the lion’s den?” I brushed my scarred knuckle over her cheek slowly, watching in awe as goosebumps broke over her neck. She took the beer from my hand, tilted it back to take a small swig, then pointed at me with the neck of the bottle. All eyes in the kitchen were on us, but I was used to the audience. Luna, not so much. “Just make sure to bring him back in time for our round two!” Arabella barked, staking her claim on me tonight. Her mini-dressed clones laughed like hyenas. Luna gave her a hard stare, then pretended to shove her finger down her throat. I bit down a smile. Luna turned back to me. “Spencers’ bedroom. Five minutes.” The Spencers’ bedroom was soundproof, which was something Hunter and I gave Vaughn a lot of shit about. Didn’t make any difference that Baron was Vaughn’s dad—it still must’ve sucked to know someone was fucking your mom so hard she needed special walls not to wake up the neighbors. Even though I couldn’t hear Luna’s tone, I knew she was pissed. I could read it in her delicate frown. Not that she had a case. Way I saw it, she’d rejected me—not once, not twice, but three times. What did it matter if I wanted to fuck every mouth in this room? We weren’t together. “Wrapping shit and coming up.” I took a sip of my drink, turning around and slapping Arabella’s ass on my way to ask Vaughn for his parents’ bedroom keys. I was being a little spiteful, but I gave myself some slack because of the extreme circumstances. Right now, my breath was goddamn near flammable. Substance abuse ran in my family, so usually, I tried to limit myself to one joint and a beer at every party. But usually I didn’t find out Mom was officially no longer a candidate for a lung transplant, which meant her team of doctors had basically given up on her. Today, I did. My mother was sick. Really sick. Rosie had cystic fibrosis. She’d been lucky to reach forty, let alone pass it by a few years. Recently, her treatments had become more intense, more frequent. She stayed at the hospital for longer periods of time. Sometimes weeks. Her lungs weren’t coping. The rest of her body wasn’t doing so hot, either. From the outside, she looked fine. Gorgeous. Vital. But inside, her liver and kidneys were collapsing. So was our family. Frankly, I was surprised Dad hadn’t ripped out his own lungs and tried to shove them down her throat when he heard about it. It had sent me on a binge this evening, and I wasn’t completely in control of what I was doing. All I knew was I needed to numb the pain of Mom not getting her lung transplant and seeing her earlier, hunched over Dad’s office desk, crying. Five minutes later, I pushed the bedroom door open, letting Luna in and locking it behind us. The Spencers had the wildest bedroom I’d ever seen. If Pimp My Ride and Buckingham Palace had a lovechild, it’d be this place. Royal navy drapes decorated floor-to-ceiling windows and a matching upholstered, California King bed filled the room. Everything else was in gold or deep, blood red, and there were self-portraits of the Spencer couple on the walls in sexy poses I was pretty sure we had no business seeing—the reason they locked this bitch whenever they weren’t home. I watched Luna slump on their bed, looking up at the ceiling and making a snow angel on their sheets. She looked faraway. Spaced-out. Perching a shoulder against one of the posters of the bed, I watched her, already on the defense. “Why do you give yourself to anyone who asks?” There was a snow globe of unshed tears coating her eyeballs when she asked this. Interesting, coming from Luna, who’d gone to extreme lengths to ignore my antics with girls this past year, as well as the fact that there was a dick attached to me in general. I cocked my head to the side, inspecting her. I wasn’t an asshole—definitely not to her, and maybe not at all. But she was seriously overstepping if she thought she had a say in what—or who—I was doing in my spare time. “Because I enjoy it.” I shrugged. She gave me a you-don’t-look-like-you’re-enjoying-it glare. “Jealous?” I smirked. She rolled her eyes. “There’s enough to go around. If this is a booty call, I’ll gladly pick up.” No fucking way I was risking another blow to my ego—a fourth one—weeks before she started her college courses and could ghost me, even from across the street. I no longer had leverage on her. The All Saints’ hero everyone was afraid of but also admired had officially retired from protecting her at school. I needed to play my cards more carefully to keep her around. “When did you become such a sexist jerk?” She narrowed her eyes. “Right around the time I was born. It’s called being a guy.” I was reducing myself to my reputation, something I knew she loathed. After all, she was the weirdo who wouldn’t talk. She knew that between the stigma and the person laid an open abyss, and in its depth, the truth. “Don’t give me credit I don’t deserve. I work full-time for my dick and take orders directly from him,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. She snorted out a sarcastic laugh, shook her head, and swung her legs to the side of the bed, darting up and making her way to the door. “Good talk, Knight.” Whoa. Back. The. Fuck. Up. What? She didn’t get to shut me down two thousand times and then get pissy when I tried to move on. Or pretended to, for that matter. I clasped her wrist and turned her around so she faced me. “You came here to throw shit at me?” There was some anger in my voice, and it made me furious with her. I tried so hard to accommodate whatever wish she had for us. When she wanted kisses, she got them. When she wanted friendship, she got that, too. What about what I wanted from her? What I needed? “Because I have nothing to apologize for. If you’re here to pick a fight, wait till I’m done with the party. I’ll climb up to your room, and we can talk shit out. Oh, wait, that’s right. You don’t talk.” “Shut up, dumbass. Shut up before you ruin eighteen years of friendship in one drunken night.” Her eyes zinged with fury, and she shook my touch off of her arm. “Why wait?” she signed. “So you can squeeze in another girl?” Her hands moved fast. Luna was still partial to not talking at all, even in sign language, so her Pissed-O-Meter was obviously dinging. “Two.” I winked at her, knowing I would regret every single word that left my mouth, but somehow unable to stop myself. “I’m a hell of a multitasker, which is something you would know, if you weren’t such a fucking coward when it came to us.” That was the beer speaking, not me. But let’s be real—the beer wasn’t wrong. I was team beer until the bitter end. Beer had more balls than I did. I heard the slap before I felt it. It was the first time a girl had ever slapped me. Up until now, I hadn’t been a player, but the fucking coach. I’d abided all the rules of the game. I never led anyone on. With the exception of Noei, who simply refused to come to peace with my terms, girls mostly understood, even if they hated the fine print. Luna took a step back, cupping her mouth. My gaze was hard on the wall behind her. I didn’t even rub my cheek. Whatever emotion it evoked in me, I didn’t show it. As I said—my mask was made out of solid gold. Nothing seeped in. Nothing poured out. I was drunk, and scared shitless by Mom’s situation. Ruining one more thing about my life wasn’t going to make any difference. I sighed theatrically. “Moonshine, baby, we’ve been through this. Next time aim for the balls. Quarterbacks are good at taking hits. Barely even felt it,” I said. She raised her hand in apology, lowering her head and squeezing her eyes shut. Luna was the type of girl who never hurt a soul—the caregiver, the nurturer of the crew. Vaughn and Daria thought she was obnoxiously sweet, but I’d take her sweetness over their black hearts any day of the goddamn decade. “Forget it.” I took her hand and kissed her knuckles. I was a fool for Luna Rexroth—incapable of being mad at her, even when she deserved it. The horror of what she’d done still played on her face as she took another step away from me, the back of her legs hitting the bed. She wasn’t scared of me, I realized. She was scared she’d do it again. “Why are you here, Luna?” I asked softly. She swallowed, looking away out the window. The Spencers’ house was a dark castle, a large, ancient-looking property that stood out in the manicured neighborhood like a sore thumb. I wondered if Luna wanted to jump out the window, like she’d jumped in front of that car all those years ago. I also wondered if it really had been by accident that she’d pedaled straight into the car. For all our years of friendship, I didn’t know what she was thinking ninety percent of the time. “I came to talk to you about college. I’m ready to make a decision.” I nodded, leaning against the wall with my arms crossed. There was no fucking way she was leaving, no matter what her dad wanted. She hadn’t even left the neighborhood for a sleepover without her family. Was it sick that I liked her frightened? Sheltered? Closed-off? Because it meant having more of her, and less competition. Yes, fucker. It is wrong on every single level, a voice in me confirmed. Still, it wasn’t any less true. I thought Trent was insane for even suggesting an out-of-state college, not to mention pushing it down her throat about a week before she had to make a decision. “So?” she asked. “What do you think?” “UCLA online.” Were we actually talking colleges right now? Our shit was faker than a Hooters waitress’ tits. “They have a good creative writing program,” I continued. “Plus, you won’t have to leave, so you’ll be here with Racer, Edie, and your dad.” And me. She nodded, turning toward a window, placing her fingertips on the glass, staring out. She’d just slapped me, after accusing me of being a manwhore. But the truth was, I needed more than a crumb of jealousy to keep me going. I’d been shut down one too many times, and I needed her to throw me a bone with at least a bit of meat before I reassured her that, yes, I was the same pathetic bastard who had loved her from day one. That I wished I weren’t, but I was hers, whether I liked it or not. And fuck knows I didn’t like it anymore. Not for a while now. “You’re drunk,” she accused. I may have had a whiskey brain, but my dick, for all intents and purposes, was sober as a priest and admiring my best friend’s feisty nature. “Okay, Saint Luna,” I threw Daria’s nickname for her in her face. “Maybe you have an underdeveloped frontal lobe. That’s why you take so many risks.” She was babbling. She hardly ever talked, let alone about fucking lobes or whatever it was. “Thanks for the medical assessment, but I don’t think there’s one thing about me that’s underdeveloped. Of course, you would rather slap me around than find out, wouldn’t you? Anything but allowing yourself to fucking feel.” My good-natured smile was on full display as I advanced to the door. I didn’t stop on the threshold like I’d wanted. The beer, or the joint, or whatever the fuck it was, took charge and told me Luna could use a taste of her own medicine. I breezed right back down to the party, my cheek still stinging from her slap. Come after me, my heart begged. I need you. Mom feels like shit. I don’t know how long she’s got. I need you. I looked behind me. Luna wasn’t there. I grabbed Arabella’s ass as soon as I reached the kitchen, dragging her toward me and slamming my groin against hers. I was rock hard, mainly because Luna had touched me, but as I smirked down at Arabella, I realized that for tonight, she’d do. “Someone’s ready for round two,” she hummed. I leaned down for a pucker, showing PDA for the first time since…ever. I didn’t kiss girls in public. It was one of the many things I didn’t do in public to be considerate of a girl who couldn’t bring herself to tell me how the fuck she felt about me. Vaughn and Hunter were right. I was possessed, and it didn’t matter that I’d grown up with her. I needed to come to terms with the fact that it was possible Luna and I weren’t going to happen. I closed my eyes, and Arabella did the rest of the job. Our open-mouthed kiss was drowned out by the sounds of her squeaking friends, deafening music, and the squealing of Luna’s sneakers as she pushed past people on her way to the door. I recognized the sound of her running away from me like it was my first language. And I vowed, that night, to stop doing the chasing. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I slapped my forehead as I dashed out of Vaughn’s house, so embarrassed I wanted to throw up. It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. I was supposed to muster up the courage to go there and tell him I wanted to stay in California. So I could be near. Near him. And Rosie. And everyone I cared about. I’d been waiting for him to bring it up all summer, but every time we talked about my college plans, Knight yawned his way into another what-are-we-eating question. There was an air of dismissal about his behavior that rubbed me the wrong way. Almost as if I was asking him if he thought I should become a space cowboy or unicorn vet—like the option of my going elsewhere for higher education was so farfetched, giving it thought was ridiculous. He’d never once said anything about us. Maybe us didn’t exist anymore. Maybe he’d finally given up on the idea of us, and I had no one to blame but myself. I’d done this. I’d pushed him away. What killed me the most was that deep down, I knew he’d been right. I hadn’t done my own thing my entire duration on this planet. I was frightened, dependent, and completely out of sorts whenever he or my parents weren’t around. I’d managed to sail through life with no friends—no human connections outside of him and our families, and minimum communication with the world. I was, for lack of better description, a glorified bubble girl. Knight was a friend, but he might as well have been my babysitter. So even though I was angry at him—for the one-night stands, for taking me for granted, for being right about my insecurities—I also couldn’t resent his dismissal. I wanted to prove him wrong. To go to Boon, just to make a point. We were growing apart anyway, going in completely different directions. He was growing upward, in full bloom, while I was developing deeper roots, chaining myself in place. Besides, what was the point of staying? We were never going to be together. He was always surrounded by girls. Girls who were nicer than me. Who spoke with real words. Some of them even had great voices. Girls who wore makeup and trendy clothes and curled and flat-ironed their shiny hair. Girls who had sex with boys and knew how to use their bodies to seduce him. Girls like Arabella. Those girls were always going to be there, swarming around him, competing for his attention. I couldn’t imagine myself being with him without being eaten alive by the notion that my competition had more to offer. Problem was, not being with him hardly made any difference. Jealousy still wrapped its green claws around my neck and squeezed every time I had a front-row seat to just how enchanting he was to others. Case in point, I’d slapped him after seeing him with Arabella. Shame and embarrassment flooded my cheeks with heat. I rushed through the Spencers’ front yard, skipping over people making out on the lush lawn. Twisting my head back to see if Knight was chasing me, I bumped into a hard chest. I stumbled backward, then looked up, and of course, it was Vaughn, propping a fresh keg on his ripped shoulder, his dirty black shirt riding up to expose his lower abs and glorious V-lines, peppered with red-lipsticked kisses. Just your luck, Luna. Vaughn shifted the keg to his other shoulder and gave me a light nudge back toward his door. His mouth, forever pressed in a disapproving scowl, twitched with a taunting smile. “What’s the hurry, Rexroth?” He waited expectantly for my response. Vaughn knew sign language and could read my lips and hands easily. All my parents’ friends’ kids had learned so they could communicate with me. Seeing as he made it a point to stress how little he cared for people in general, I was surprised Vaughn had made the effort. Then again, it was hardly an effort to him. One day his mother gave him an ASL book. The following weekend, he was fluent. He looked behind my shoulder. I instinctively followed his gaze. Through the glass door to the kitchen, Knight stared at both of us, a beer in his hand, an arm draped over Arabella’s shoulder. She kissed his neck, dragging her hand past his belt and into his…I snapped my gaze back to Vaughn, squeezing my eyes shut. “Oh, that’s the hurry,” Vaughn finished in his signature arsenic voice. I wanted to throw up. I took a step sideways, trying to get around him, but he clasped my shoulder on a dark tsk. “Now that the knight is not here to save his princess, let’s have a little talk.” He led me like a captured animal, his hand on the back of my neck—caught prey dragged through the savannah—until we were in his cobblestoned courtyard. He spat me out on a curved stone bench tucked into a darkened corner between the tall walls of his mansion, nestled between carefully clipped pink rosebushes. The Spencers didn’t have a pool at their manor. Instead, they nurtured elaborate gardens that would leave Versailles’ landscape pale in comparison. But the absolute best thing about the Spencers’ estate was the heavenly slice of lush green grass with a white gazebo, surrounded by cherry trees their landscaper treated with hysterical delicacy. Vaughn crouched before me, like a father figure would, not a friend. But he had never been either of those things to me. He was Knight’s cousin and best friend. His fondness of me—or lack of blazing hatred, more like—stemmed from familiarity and solidarity with Knight. We weren’t as close as people thought we were. I knew where his loyalties lay. He cared for me, but he’d tear me limb from limb if I hurt Knight, and would dump the rest of me like roadkill. “You haven’t picked a college yet,” he pointed out. I stared at him, waiting for the punchline. I felt like a punished kid under his scrutiny. Usually we only hung out when Knight was with us, and then Vaughn took his Vaughnness down a notch or two. Now we were alone, leaving him free to unleash the demons lurking behind his aqua eyes. “Are you waiting for a special invitation from the Queen of England?” he asked in his usual aristocratic, flat-lined manner. Privately, and only to myself, I could admit that Vaughn scared me. He seemed incapable of so many basic feelings. I’d never seen him cry, even though I’d known him since he was born. I’d never seen him laugh—fully, wholly, without abandon. He’d never had a crush, and he never spoke about, or to, girls. He was, in a lot of ways, like Lot’s wife. A hard statue, made of salt and stone, standing on a cliff, emotionless and proud after watching with glee as Sodom—or Todos Santos—was set aflame by its sinners. I couldn’t answer Vaughn’s question without looking like a complete, pathetic lunatic. I was waiting for Knight to tell me to stay. I was waiting for him to realize I could do it. I could move. I could leave him. I could, I could, I should. Signing nothing, I fingered invisible lint from my crop top. Vaughn shifted his weight to his toes, leaning forward. He pinched my chin with his free hand, tilting my head so our eyes met. His pupils pierced through mine, rummaging inside the dark forest of my mind, turning every stone and tearing every tree in search of my secrets and truths. I wanted to blink, but didn’t want to cower in front of him like everyone else. So I set my jaw, staring at him, unblinking. “What’s your game, Luna Rexroth?” he whispered. Swallowing, I arched an eyebrow. “Is it the power? Control? What’s your kick?” A cold, dead smile spread across his pink lips. “You’re never going to be with him. You don’t have the balls.” Something deep inside me screamed at Vaughn to shut up. But I couldn’t deny the truth in his words. I had no plans to be with Knight. Not when he was with everyone else. Now Vaughn was clutching my jaw, no longer gentle, but far from the realm of hurting me, either. He touched me clinically. Like a doctor would. “Move to North Carolina and get far away from here. Go to Boon, Luna,” he clipped. “End the fucking, never-ending shitshow of Luna Rexroth and Knight Cole. The cat is tired, and the mouse is diseased. It’s a fairy-tale love story that took many fucked-up turns and ended as a parody. I know the general assumption is I don’t have a heart. Perhaps it’s true. My brain, however, is fully functional, and I can see exactly where this is going. Save whatever’s left of Knight’s high school experience. He’s a senior now. Go to a place where you won’t shit on his parade every time he shows signs of getting over you. Let him move on with his life. As for you? Find out who you are. Live. Unchain yourself from your parents and him. It’s high time, Rexroth.” “But I—“ He took my hands, drawing my curled fists to his chest and coiling his long, pale fingers over them. His chest was warm. I don’t know why it surprised me. He looked cold as a tombstone. I’d always thought of him as a cold-blooded creature. A brutal, callous crocodile. “Stop,” he hissed. “You’re good, Luna. Anyone can see that from a mile away. You volunteer at shelters. You take care of your own. You’ve always done right by people. I bet if your shitty mom showed up, you’d give her a free pass, too.” I winced at the mention of Val. “He pities you.” He let the word roll across the ground. It exploded between us like a smoke bomb, and I found myself coughing. “By the same token, you should show him mercy.” I couldn’t believe what Vaughn was asking me to do. Except I could. I was frightened that if I let my guard down and truly let Knight in, he’d use me and dump me, and there’d be no escaping him, because he was everywhere. We’d grown up together, and our parents were best friends. Our families were tangled like a tight French braid, with no beginning, middle, or end. And if I stayed, it would be more of the same: us circling around one another. Always in the same universe, never on the same planet. Vaughn noticed the shift in my expression, a cunning smirk playing on his face. Boon College had a good creative writing program. He knew it was my passion and hit the final nail in that coffin. “Artists are terminally dissatisfied. With life. With love. With their work. You like being tortured, don’t you, little Luna? Sadness has a bittersweet aftertaste. Keeps us going.” He lit up his joint. “Being an artist is a miserable job. You’re pregnant with your work, only to give the baby away. An entire year of careful strokes of a brush, just to have someone else buy the painting. You can be miserable anywhere, Luna. But Knight? Knight could be happy. Right. Fucking. Here.” On one hand, I was scared to death. What if I was like the Bubble Boy of Houston? He came out of his bubble to be touched by his mother for the first time, only to die moments later. What if I couldn’t survive outside my bubble? On the other, I wanted freedom. To make my own choices. Even if just to show Knight I wasn’t a permanent feature in his life, like a piece of furniture. And to shut up arrogant, awful Vaughn Spencer. He was right, though. The only way to deserve Knight was to outgrow my need for him. “Put yourself out of your misery.” Vaughn straightened up. His clothes were holed almost as much as his heart. “Because he never will.” That night, Knight didn’t show up to hold me. To protect me. To save me. The moon shone, peeking back at me, asking why? I turned around, giving it my back, ignoring its invasive question. The sun will rise tomorrow, I reminded myself. It has to. September, one month later “She doesn’t even speak in sign language much. Dude, she doesn’t speak at all. Trust me. I’ve tried. She’s a freak. A genius freak, because hell, she hardly ever studies and apparently aces all her courses. She straight up has a seahorse poster on her wall. I can’t even tell you what insane Rain Man vibes I’m getting from her. Oops, I think there’s someone at the door. Gotta go. Bye.” April, my high-pitched roommate, swung the door open. When she saw it was me fiddling with my key, her face fell. Initially, I’d been a little worried about my multicolor-haired roommate. Dad and Edie had prepped the college prior to my arrival, so they’d roomed me with someone whose mother was deaf. April spoke sign language fluently, and was a tiny thing from Montana with eyebrows so blond you could barely see them. She liked Dierks Bentley and soul food and whistling loudly when attractive guys walked by, which I found horrifying and amusing in equal measure. “I didn’t think you’d come back so early.” She didn’t sidestep to let me in. I checked the time on my phone and shrugged, shouldering past her. My daily meeting with my counselor, Malory, had been canceled. Apparently, she’d come down with a stomach bug. But who knew? Maybe she, too, had gotten tired of trying to reach a breakthrough with me. I flung myself on my bed, opening my message box with Knight. Nothing. I didn’t know which part shocked me the most: the fact that I’d actually taken the step and gone to Boon, or the fact that Knight had disappeared from the face of the Earth since I had. I was dwelling. Obsessing. Fixating. I swung my legs sideways and perched in front of my typewriter. Dad had gotten it for me last summer after I decided to go away to school in the hopes it’d inspire me to write. Typewriters are everything laptops are not: authentic, romantic, and unforgiving when you make a mistake. If you spell a word wrong, you must start over. Dad knows I love a good challenge, but right now I was also wildly out of my element. Write. Write what you know. What’s bothering you. What you love. What you hate. Just do it. My fingers hovered over the keys. I needed an outlet. April, in my periphery, squinted as she examined me like I was a wild raccoon that had burst into her dorm room. “Right. Heading out now, Raymond. Ping me if you need anything. Not that you would, you little vampire, you.” She had compared me to Dustin Hoffman’s character and Twilight in one sentence. Awesome. I wondered if she knew just how offensive that was to both autistic people and myself. “Yo. Earth to Raymond.” That’s it. I flipped her the finger. Screw that. “Whoa. There she is. Alive and kicking. Digging it.” I stared at my blank page, waving her out. “Okay. Okay. I’m going.” I heard her on the phone as she blazed through the narrow corridor of our dorm, laughing and laughing and laughing, and I smiled to myself. April was so happy. Clearly, she wasn’t an artist. October Anxiety laced my legs like ivy, climbing all the way up to my neck. Some days, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I still attended my daily meetings with my counselor, but whatever courses I was able to switch to online, I did. One of my promises to Malory was to study at Starbucks at least twice a week. Be out and about. Let the world stain my otherwise pristine, sheltered life. Knight was still MIA. He wouldn’t answer my messages, and I wondered if he’d truly moved on, if all he’d needed was a bit of space from me. I sent an email to Edie every week, and every week I received one back, always saying the same thing: Make mistakes. Be free. Be bold. Treat teenage as a verb, Luna. Love you, E It felt like life continued without me, and my bubble hadn’t just burst… It had exploded all over my face. Malory insisted I ask April to have lunch with me. She said otherwise she’d have to report to my parents that despite my amazing grades, I was not making any real progress in the ways that mattered. She dangled that negative, lackluster report about my progress, threatening to send it to Sonya, my long-time therapist back home, too. I took April to a taco joint and ordered two of everything on the menu. Then I flashed the fake ID Knight had hooked me up with as a joke on my eighteenth birthday and got us margaritas, too. I made an effort to speak to her in sign language, because texting from across the table seemed extra weird. I even smiled. I was desperate not to go back home with my tail between my legs. So I decided to fake it till I made it. It worked. April smacked my back when we left the restaurant. “You’re cool, Raymond. Who’d have thought? Not me, that’s for sure.” I was mentally exhausted from talking. I needed to close my eyes and shut the world out for a month or two. “Hey, so my friend is throwing a party next week…” she started, and I darted my eyes to her pleadingly. I’d die if she asked me to join them. I shook my head slowly. April burst into howls of laughter. “Um, no, my little grasshopper. Redirect that thought. I was wondering if I could give you money for some beer and other liquor.” I nodded. That I could do. She grinned, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “You’ll need to lighten up eventually. You know that, right?” I didn’t, but people were starting to make it impossible for me not to. November Then there was a boy. An actual boy. With limbs and everything. A real boy. That noticed. Me. Josh: Party 2nite? “Ask him if the party’s in his pants, and if you can bring a plus one.” April peeked at my phone behind my shoulder, reading my incoming text message. “I’d climb Josh like a tree hugger saving a rainforest given the slightest opportunity.” I tucked the phone back into the pocket of my jeans, chuckling. “Come on.” She flung herself over my bed—we had bunk beds, and of course, I’d agreed to take the lower bunk on day one—kicking her socked feet in the air. “We’ve been here for months, and you haven’t gone to one party. That’s, legit, the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.” “I’m happy you’ve never had to deal with truly sad things, then,” I signed to her. I’d been doing a lot of signing lately. More than I had in years in Todos Santos. I finally got why Dad had been so desperate for me to come here. It forced me out of my shell. It broke said shell like a glass ball. Truth was, I couldn’t not sign. I needed to buy groceries. Communicate with people around me. Talk to teachers. Survive. “I have some homework to catch up on,” I lied, ducking my head to my MacBook. The typewriter next to it was getting dusty. April threw a pillow at me, laughing. “Liar, liar, thong on fire. You’re acing all your courses and flying back home tomorrow morning. You don’t have anything going on. Come. Party. Chill. And give Josh a decent chance.” Something in my gut twisted at the mention of Josh’s name. Not because I didn’t like him. The opposite, actually. He was mute—as a kid, he’d suffered trauma to his vocal cords in a car accident and could no longer produce any sound—and I felt oddly defensive about our tender friendship. I’d seen Josh on campus for the first time three months ago, in the cafeteria. He had a smooth, young face, dark skin, and striking features. He’d been clad in white jockey silk and a hoodie. A flock of girls had cawed around him, so loud against his comfortable silence. His eyes had met mine across the room, as if I’d called his name. I’d clutched my books tighter to my chest and slipped out of the cafeteria. I’d tried to convince myself he hadn’t really noticed me, that I was just so thirsty for the attention I was no longer getting from Knight, I’d started imagining things. Then, overnight, I saw Josh everywhere—on the front lawn on campus, at the local Starbucks, at the library, in three different lectures, and at the stables where I volunteered as part of my ongoing therapy with animals. No matter where I went, he was there, until we had no choice but to smile hello at each other—not because we knew one another, but because it was pointless to pretend we weren’t familiar with each other’s faces. April and her friends were gaga about him, so I found out his name and that he was teaching special needs kids horseback riding three times a week. The first time I noticed he spoke in sign language, my heart slowed, almost coming to a full stop. He hadn’t noticed me, focused instead on his conversation with April. They’d stood across the hallway from me, oblivious to my presence. He had a laid-back, confident smile, like he didn’t consider his muteness a disadvantage. He had a roommate, Ryan, who’d sometimes interpret for him, the way April did for me. And sometimes he’d type things on his phone to communicate. But he always walked with the self-assurance of someone unstoppable, inspiring me to think maybe I could feel that way someday, too. I knew with fierce certainty that our paths were bound to collide. We were both freshmen, studying in a small college in North Carolina, and both of us were mute. My instinct had proved true about four weeks after I initially saw him. I’d hurried into Starbucks to escape the drizzle, tossed my scarf and pea coat onto a table by the window, got myself hot cocoa, and had the barista, Nicole, punch the timesheet Malory had given me—testimony that I was keeping up with my twice-a-week sessions. I’d always kept my Starbucks visits as brief as possible, staying the twenty minutes Malory requested from me and dashing back home. But this time, when I’d turned around to take my seat, Josh was perched on a stool at my table, clad in his jockey outfit and a smile that could melt hearts. Nervous, but open. I’d liked that he was confident, but still not completely well-versed in his attractiveness, like Knight was. “Am I that invisible?” He’d tilted his ball cap down and signed to me, knowing I would understand him. There was something in my stomach. Not exactly butterflies, but not the usual, empty hum I usually got when guys—even handsome guys—spoke to me. I’d lifted my eyebrows. I could do it. I could answer him. I could use teenage as a verb. “You weren’t here when I came in,” I signed, poking out my lower lip. “Prove it,” he challenged, knotting his arms across his chest. He was long-limbed and lean—good looking, but not intimidatingly so. I could imagine him accompanying his mother to the mall or playing Xbox. Things Knight did, technically speaking, too, but he still looked too untouchable and beautiful to be bothered. “That’s ridiculous,” I motioned. I reminded myself to breathe. I was doing it. I was having a conversation. With a stranger. A breakthrough. “Says who?” he asked. “Says me.” I nearly snorted. “Pretty sure you’ll need to prove your case and not vice versa. I’ve been taking some pre-law courses.” “Where’s your drink, then? If you were here before, you must’ve ordered something.” I bit my lip. His eyebrows shot up to his hairline, which was buzzed close to the scalp. He sighed. “You got me. I just saw an opening to talk to you and went for it. Clearly, my plan was not bulletproof.” “Are you stalking me?” I asked, mostly joking, but I couldn’t help but feel a dash of panic, too, a familiar tug in my stomach. I was not in the best headspace. I couldn’t get Knight out of my mind, as if talking to Josh was cheating on him, though he had no claim. I’d tried Skyping Knight a dozen times since I’d been at college, but he never answered. He did text me sometimes, and I kept reading and rereading his messages, trying to decode some deeper meaning, especially after how we’d left things at Vaughn’s party. We’d never talked about the slap. I was too embarrassed to bring it up, and these days he seemed to tiptoe around me, dipping his toes in mindless pleasantries but avoiding an actual conversation. Knight: Broke my middle finger. Switching to running plays. Killing my pass percentage. I’m getting hit more. Texting less. Stay safe. x Knight: Sorry couldn’t answer. Need to rest. How’s school? Knight: Missed your call again. Sorry. x Luna: How’d you break your middle finger? Knight: Fingering the wrong asshole. Knight: JK. Practice. Luna: I miss you. Knight: xx. Luna: How is Rosie? Knight: Fine. Luna: You know how I feel about that word… Knight: Sorry. Good. Mom’s good. x I sometimes wondered what hurt more: Losing someone all of a sudden, like in a plane crash, or losing them piece by piece, like I did Knight. It was like feeling a once-warm body growing cold next to you in bed. Chills ran through my back. I wanted to throw up half the time I thought about him. “Stalking you!” Josh had thrown his arms up, feigning exasperation and commanding my attention. “For your information, yes, I did stalk you. But only a little. And only when we were both already out and about. I don’t know where you live or anything creepy like that. But I was walking on Main Street on my way to get chicken noodle soup for my sick roommate when I saw you walk in and thought, there’s my in.” I’d smiled at him. Really smiled, for the first time in a long time. He was charming and pleasant and normal. Yes. That was the part I liked most about him. “Luna,” I’d signed, offering him my hand. He took it. “Josh. Joshua. Whatever you want to call me, really. Just as long as you do.” Josh had then said he really needed to go get his roommate that soup before he got kicked out of his dorm room. “You’re here a lot,” he’d observed, flipping his ball cap backward. I couldn’t deny it, because Malory was going to make sure I’d be here, whether I wanted to or not. I shrugged. “Mind if I invite myself to tag along sometime?” I’d shrugged again, fighting the urge to shut him down. Vaughn was right. It was high time I made my own friends, and connections, and life. After that, Josh had come every day, even when I wasn’t there. I knew because the baristas told me. At the stables, I sometimes watched Josh teaching other kids who spoke sign language as I swept with a wooden broom. Sometimes, he’d buy me hot cocoa and put it outside the door, knowing how embarrassed I was to be given things. We were just friends. I’d quickly made it clear I was still hung up on a boy from home. I told Josh Knight was my ex-boyfriend. It felt less pitiful than being desperately in love with your childhood friend, who was probably screwing his way to the top of a Guinness record for being the most obnoxious, desired teenager to ever live. I’d tried to Skype Knight a few more times before completely giving up. We’d just see each other at Thanksgiving. Our parents always spent it together, so we couldn’t delay talking to each other much past that, no matter how much he dreaded it. When I returned from my lengthy trip through my thoughts, April had thrown her head back on my bed and was rolling around and moaning Josh’s name to highlight how hot he was. And he was. But he wasn’t Knight. Though I reminded myself that Knight seemed to have moved on. He didn’t have an active Instagram account, but sometimes, at night, I stalked the accounts of girls he went to school with and found pictures of him from parties and football games. He looked happy, and that made me unhappy. The fact that it made me unhappy made me even more unhappy. “Don’t tell me.” April rolled to a sitting position and blew a purple lock from her face. “You don’t want to go because then Josh might finally kiss you, and you will lose the precious notion that the idiot back home is going to get back with you.” April thought Knight was my ex-boyfriend, too. The lie had grown larger, wings bursting from its back. The more it matured, the less I was comfortable considering myself her and Josh’s true friend. “Let it go, Luna. You’re going to spend the next few years away from this dude. It’s over.” I swiveled in my chair and pinned her with a look. “That is not what it’s about,” I signed. Or maybe it was. But either way, social gatherings made me physically sick. However, I knew with Josh and April there, I wouldn’t be alone. “Before you say no to Josh, I want you to consider something.” April sprang up from my bunk and sashayed over to my laptop, hovering above me. “I didn’t want to show you this, but I guess I have no choice.” My heart jumped to my throat. April leaned down and punched an Instagram handle into the search bar, opening an account I was familiar with. It was one of the popular senior girls Knight went to school with, Poppy Astalis. He’d never mentioned her throughout our friendship, but of course, my weekly searches included her. She was an English rose, sans the thorns—all sweet, delicate, and trimmed where appropriate. Her father was one of the most well-known sculptors in the world, and after her mother had passed away, he’d agreed to take on a consulting job, assisting in opening Todos Santos School of Art, uprooting Poppy and her younger sister, Lenora, from their London residence. Poppy was pretty, but she wasn’t made from the same velvet, tainted cloth of the rich Todos Santos girls. She’d always been nice to me during the two years we’d spent at All Saints High together, and she was a straight-A student. She played the accordion, skipped most parties, but attended the important ones, and from what I’d heard, she was always the one to drive drunk girls home before they did something stupid. “Maybe this will inspire you to give up on the dickhead.” April clicked on the newest picture in Poppy’s Instagram, and my throat closed in on my heart. It was a perfect Pinterest picture: pint-sized Poppy standing on top of Knight’s helmet in an empty field, her arms wrapped around his neck, both of them lost in a deep, passionate kiss. He was still wearing his football gear, dirty and sweaty and so alive he nearly burst out of the screen. Gorgeous. Victorious. Like a god who’d descended from the sky. Friday night lights shone on the beautiful couple, highlighting his glistening, disheveled brown hair. Against the backdrop of the black night and empty bleachers, they looked nothing short of high school royalty. The caption read: We Won! #StillLikeRealFootballBetter #NoItsNotCalledSoccer #KnightColeForPresident #MineMineMine The pen I’d been chewing slipped between my fingers, and I bent down to pick it up, hitting my head on the edge of my desk. I lost my footing. I didn’t even feel the fres