메인 Pretty Reckless (All Saints High #1)
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Oh trust me, It's a book you'll not want to put down.
08 September 2020 (13:55)
Ups to the author what a great book
10 November 2020 (11:16)
I love the book not only this one but with the rest I've read you are an amazing writer and I feel in love pretty recklessly thumbs up
23 April 2021 (15:45)
I read one of your book "the devil wears black" and was forced to search for the rest.
You're one freaking genius, creating such extraordinary masterpiece.
You're one freaking genius, creating such extraordinary masterpiece.
15 May 2021 (16:57)
Amazing book, amazing author....am literally hunting down all of your book...thumbs up
29 May 2021 (22:27)
fell in love with all these series
09 June 2021 (22:51)
This book was and IS amazing... I am completely speechless I never thought I would be swept away by the book but I was, The characters, the storyline, the plot twist everything was just amazing, I couldn't stop reading
13 July 2021 (01:02)
Really great book. I especially liked Daria’s inner monologue.
“I blinked, willing him to evaporate from my vision” idk why, but that line won me over. Also, it has sprinkles of spicey scenes for those of you that are into that like me :)
“I blinked, willing him to evaporate from my vision” idk why, but that line won me over. Also, it has sprinkles of spicey scenes for those of you that are into that like me :)
05 August 2021 (21:43)
Pretty Reckless Copyright © 2019 L.J. Shen All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Dedication Synopsis Music Prologue 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 Chapter Twenty-Eight Epilogue Acknowledgements Books by L.J. Shen Connect with L.J. Shen Preview of Defy To first loves and to famous last words And to Sarah Grim Sentz, who fell in love with Penn and Daria before they had the chance to fall with each other, and Ariadna Basulto, the real California Girl. We were supposed to be best friends But turned out to be worst enemies… They say revenge is a dish best served cold. I’d had four years to stew on what Daria Followhill did to me, and now my heart was completely iced. I took her first kiss. She took the only thing I loved. I was; poor. She was rich. The good thing about circumstances? They can change. Fast. Now, I’m her parents’ latest shiny project. Her housemate. Her tormentor. The captain of the rival football team she hates so much. Yeah, baby girl, say it—I’m your foster brother. There’s a price to pay for ruining the only good thing in my life, and she’s about to shell out some serious tears. Daria Followhill thinks she is THE queen. I’m about to prove to her that she’s nothing but a spoiled princess. Everyone loves a good old unapologetic punk. But being a bitch? Oh, you get slammed for every snarky comment, cynical eye roll, and foot you put in your adversaries’ way. The thing about stiletto heels is that they make a hell of a dent when you walk all over the people who try to hurt you. In Penn Scully’s case, I pierced his heart until he bled out, then left it in a trash can on a bright summer day. Four years ago, he asked me to save all my firsts for him. Now he lives across the hall, and I want nothing more than to be his last everything. His parting words when he gave me his heart were that nothing in this world is free. Now? Now he is making me pay. “I feel like I’m drowning”—Two Feet “Too Young”—Zeds Dead “Cute Without the ‘E’”—Taking Back Sunday “Who Knew”—Pink “Solo Amigos”—Maniako “Right Above it”—Lil Wayne “Killing in the Name”—Rage Against the Machine “If You’re Feeling Sinister”—Belle and Sebastian “Tainted Love”—Soft Cell It started with a lemonade And ended with my heart This, my pretty reckless rival, is how our screwed-up story starts Age Fourteen. The tiles under my feet shake as a herd of ballerinas blazes past me, their feet pounding like artillery in the distance. Brown hair. Black hair. Straight hair. Red hair. Curly hair. They blur into a rainbow of trims and scrunchies. My eyes are searching for the blond head I’d like to bash against the well-worn floor. Feel free not to be here today, Queen Bitch. I stand frozen on the threshold of my mother’s ballet studio, my pale pink leotard sticking to my ribs. My white duffel bag dangles from my shoulder. My tight bun makes my scalp burn. Whenever I let my hair down, my golden locks fall off in chunks on the bathroom floor. I tell Mom it’s from messing with my hair too much, but that’s BS. And if she gave a damn—really gave one, not just pretended to—she’d know this, too. I wiggle my banged-up toes in my pointe shoes, swallowing the ball of anxiety in my throat. Via isn’t here. Thank you, Marx. Girls torpedo past me, bumping into my shoulders. I feel their giggles in my empty stomach. My duffel bag falls with a thud. My classmates are leaner, longer, and more flexible with rod-straight backs like an exclamation mark. Me? I’m small and muscular like a question mark. Always unsure and on the verge of snapping. My face is not stoic and regal; it’s traitorous and unpredictable. Some wear their hearts on their sleeves—I wear mine on my mouth. I smile with my teeth when I’m happy, and when my mom looks at me, I’m always happy. “You should really take gymnastics or cheer, Lovebug. It suits you so much better than ballet.” But Mom sometimes says things that dig at my self-esteem. There’s a rounded dent on its surface now, the shape of her words, and that’s where I keep my anger. Melody Green-Followhill is a former ballerina who broke her leg during her first week at Juilliard when she was eighteen. Ballet has been expected of me since the day I was born. And—just my luck—I happen to be exceptionally bad at it. Enter Via Scully. Also fourteen, Via is everything I strive to be. Taller, blonder, and skinnier. Worst of all, her natural talent makes my dancing look like an insult to leotards all over the world. Three months ago, Via received a letter from the Royal Ballet Academy asking her to audition. Four weeks ago—she did. Her hotshot parents couldn’t get the time off work, so my mom jumped at the chance to fly her on a weeklong trip to London. Now the entire class is waiting to hear if Via is going to study at the Royal Ballet Academy. Word around the studio is she has it in the bag. Even the Ukrainian danseur Alexei Petrov—a sixteen-year-old prodigy who is like the Justin Bieber of ballet—posted an IG story with her after the audition. Looking forward to creating magic together. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Via can do magic. She’s always been a witch. “Lovebug, stop fretting by the door. You’re blocking everyone’s way,” my mother singsongs with her back to me. I can see her reflection through the floor-to-ceiling mirror. She’s frowning at the attendance sheet and glancing at the door, hoping to see Via. Sorry, Mom. Just your spawn over here. Via is always late, and my mother, who never tolerates tardiness, lets her get away with it. I bend down to pick up my duffel bag and pad into the studio. A shiny barre frames the room, and a floor-to-ceiling window displays downtown Todos Santos in all its photogenic, upper-crust glory. Peach-colored benches grace tree-lined streets, and crystal blue towers sparkle like the thin line where the ocean kisses the sky. I hear the door squeaking open and squeeze my eyes shut. Please don’t be here. “Via! We’ve been waiting for you,” Mom’s chirp is like a BB gun shooting me in the back, and I tumble over my own feet from the shockwave. Snorts explode all over the room. I manage to grip the barre, pulling myself up a second before my knees hit the floor. Flushed, I grasp it in one hand and slide into a sloppy plié. “Lovebug, be a darling and make some room for Via,” Mom purrs. Symbolically, Mother, I’d love for Via to make my ass some room, too. Of course, her precious prodigy isn’t wearing her ballet gear today even though she owns Italian-imported leotards other girls can only dream of. Via clearly comes from money because even rich people don’t like shelling out two hundred bucks for a basic leotard. Other than Mom—who probably figures I’ll never be a true ballerina so the least she can do is dress me up like one. Today, Via is wearing a cropped yellow Tweety Bird shirt and ripped leggings. Her eyes are red, and her hair is a mess. Does she even make an effort? She throws me a patronizing smirk. “Lovebug.” “Puppy,” I retort. “Puppy?” She snorts. “I’d call you a bitch, but let’s admit it, your bite doesn’t really have teeth.” I readjust my shoes, pretending that I’m over her. I’m not over her. She monopolizes my mother’s time, and she’s been on my case way before I started talking back. Via attends another school in San Diego. She claims it’s because her parents think the kids in Todos Santos are too sheltered and spoiled. Her parents want her to grow up with real people. Know what else is fake? Pretending to be something you’re not. I own up to the fact I’m a prissy princess. Sue me (Please do. I can afford really good legal defense). “Meet me after class, Vi,” Mom quips, then turns back around to the stereo. Vi (Vi!) uses the opportunity to stretch her leg, stomping on my toes in the process. “Oops. Looks like you’re not the only clumsy person around here, Daria.” “I would tell you to drop dead, but I’m afraid my mom would force me to go to your funeral, and you legit aren’t worth my time.” “I would tell you to kiss my ass, but your mom already does that. If she only liked you half as much as she likes me. It’s cool, though; at least you have money for therapy. And a nose job.” She pats my back with a smirk, and I hate, hate, hate that she is prettier. I can’t concentrate for the rest of the hour. I’m not stupid. Even though I know my mother loves me more than Via, I also know it’s because she’s genetically programmed to do so. Centuries tick by, but the class is finally dismissed. All the girls sashay to the elevator in pairs. “Daria darling, do me a favor and get us drinks from Starbucks. I’m going to the little girls’ room, then wrapping something up real quick with Vi.” Mom pats my shoulder, then saunters out of the studio, leaving a trail of her perfume like fairy dust. My mom would donate all her organs to save one of her students’ fingernails. She smothers her ballerinas with love, leaving me saddled me with jealousy. I grab Mom’s bag and turn around before I have a chance to exchange what Daddy calls “unpleasantries” with Via. “You should’ve seen her face when I auditioned.” Via stretches in front of the mirror behind me. She’s as agile as a contortionist. Sometimes I think she could wrap herself around my neck and choke me to death. “We had a blast. She told me that by the looks of it, not only am I in, but I’m also going to be their star student. It felt kind of…” She snaps her fingers, looking for the word. I see her in the reflection of the mirror but don’t turn around. Tears are hanging on my lower lashes for their dear lives. “A redemption, or something. Like you can’t be a ballerina because you’re so, you know, you. But then there’s me. So at least she’ll get to see someone she loves make it.” Daddy says a green Hulk lives inside me, and he gets bigger and bigger when I get jealous, and sometimes, the Hulk blasts through my skin and does things the Daria he knows and loves would never do. He says jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius, and I’m no mediocre girl. Let’s just say I disagree. I’ve always been popular, and I’ve always fought hard for a place in the food chain where I can enjoy the view. But I think I’m ordinary. Via is extraordinary and glows so bright, she burns everything in her vicinity. I’m the dust beneath her feet, and I’m crushed, and bitter, and Hulky. Nobody wants to be a bad person. But some people—like me—just can’t help themselves. A tear rolls down my cheek, and I’m thankful we’re alone. I turn around to face her. “What the hell is your problem?” “What isn’t?” She sighs. “You are a spoiled princess, a shallow idiot, and a terrible dancer. How can someone so untalented be born to the Melody Green-Followhill?” I don’t know! I want to scream. No one wants to be born to a genius. Marx, bless Sean Lennon for surviving his own existence. I eye her pricey pointe shoes and arch a mocking eyebrow. “Don’t pretend I’m the only princess here.” “You’re an airhead, Daria.” She shakes her head. “At least I’m not a spaz.” I pretend to be blasé, but my whole body is shaking. “You can’t even get into a decent first position.” She throws her hands in the air. She isn’t wrong, and that enrages me. “Again—why. Do. You. Care!” I roar. “Because you’re a waste of fucking space, that’s why! While I’m busting my ass, you get a place in this class just because your mother is the teacher,.” This is my chance to tell her the truth. That I’m busting mine even harder, precisely because I wasn’t born a ballerina. Instead, my heart shatters like glass. I spin on my heel and dart down the fire escape, taking the stairs two at a time. I pour myself out into the blazing California heat. Any other girl would take a left and disappear inside Liberty Park, but I take a right and enter Starbucks because I can’t—won’t—disappoint my mom more than I already have. I look left and right to make sure the coast is clear, then release the sob that has weighed on my chest for the past hour. I get into line, tugging open Mom’s purse from her bag as I wipe my tears away with my sleeve. Something falls to the floor, so I pick it up. It’s a crisp letter with my home address on it, but the name gives me pause. Sylvia Scully. Sniffing, I rip the letter open. I don’t stop to think that it isn’t mine to open. Seeing Via’s mere name above my address makes me want to scream until the walls in this place fall. The first thing that registers is the symbol at the top. The Royal Ballet Academy. My eyes are like a wonky mixed tape. They keep rewinding to the same words. Acceptance Letter. Acceptance Letter. Acceptance Letter. Via got accepted. I should be thrilled she’ll be out of my hair in a few months, but instead, the acidic taste of envy bursts inside my mouth. She has everything. The parents. The money. The fame. The talent. Most of all—my mother’s undivided attention. She has everything, and I have nothing, and the Hulk inside me grows larger. His body so huge it presses against my diaphragm. A whole new life in one envelope. Via’s life hanging by a paper. A paper that’s in my hand. “Sweetie? Honey?” The barista snaps me out of my trance with a tone that suggests I’m not a sweetie nor a honey. “What would you like?” For Via to die. I place my order and shuffle to the corner of the room so I can read the letter for the thousandth time. As if the words will change by some miracle. Five minutes later, I take both drinks and exit on to the sidewalk. I dart to the nearest trash can to dispose of my iced tea lemonade so I can hold the letter without dampening it. Mom probably wanted to open it with Via, and I just took away their little moment. Sorry to interrupt your bonding sesh. “Put the drink down, and nobody gets hurt,” booms a voice behind me, like liquid honey, as my hand hovers over the trash can. It’s male, but he’s young. I spin in place, not sure I heard him right. His chin dipped low, I can’t see his face clearly because of a Raiders ball cap that’s been worn to death. He’s tall and scrawny—almost scarily so—but he glides toward me like a Bengal tiger. As if he’s found a way to walk on air and can’t be bothered with mundane things like muscle tone. “Are we throwing this away?” He points at the lemonade. We? Bitch, at this point, there’s not even a you to me. I motion to him with the drink. He can have the stupid iced tea lemonade. Gosh. He is interrupting my meltdown for a lemonade. “Nothing’s free in this world, Skull Eyes.” I blink, willing him to evaporate from my vision. Did this jackass really just call me Skull Eyes? At least I don’t look like a skeleton. My mind is upstairs with Via. Why does Mom receive letters on her behalf? Why couldn’t they send it directly to Via’s house? Is Mom adopting her ass now? I think about my sister, Bailey. At only nine, she already shows promise as a gifted dancer. Via moving to London might encourage Mom to put Bailey in the Royal Ballet Academy, too. Mom had talked about me applying there before it became clear that I could be a Panera bagel before I’d become a professional ballerina. I begin to glue the pieces of my screwed-up reality together. What if I had to migrate to London to watch both girls make it big while I swam in my pool of mediocrity? Bailey and Via would become BFFs. I’d have to live somewhere rainy and gray. We’d leave Vaughn and Knight and even Luna behind. All my childhood friends. Via would officially take my place in Mom’s heart. Hmm, no thanks. Not today, Satan. When I don’t answer, the boy takes a step toward me. I’m not scared although…maybe I should be? He’s wearing dirty jeans—I’m talking mud and dust, not, like, purposely haphazard—and a worn blue shirt that looks two sizes too big with a hole the size of a small fist where his heart is. Someone wrote around it in a black Sharpie and girlie handwriting, Is it a sign?—Adriana, xoxo and I want to know if Adriana is prettier than me. “Why are you calling me Skull Eyes?” I clench the letter in my fist. “Because.” He slopes his head so low all I can see are his lips, and they look petal-soft and pink. Feminine, almost. His voice is smooth to a point it hurts a little in my chest. I don’t know why. Guys my age are revolting to me. They smell like pizza that has sat in the sun for days. “You have skulls in your eyes, Silly Billy. Know what you need?” For Mom to stop telling me that I suck? For Via to disappear? Take your pick, dude. I shove my free hand into my mom’s wallet and pluck out a ten-dollar bill. He looks as if he could use a meal. I pray he’ll take it before Mom comes down and starts asking questions. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, much less strangers who look like they are dumpster diving for their next meal. “Sea glass.” He thrusts his hand in my direction, ignoring the money and the drink. “Like the stuff you get on Etsy?” I huff. Great. You’re a weirdo, too. “Huh? Nah, that shit’s trash. Orange sea glass. The real stuff. Found it on the beach last week and Googled it. It’s the rarest thing in the world, you know?” “Why would you give a total stranger something so precious?” I roll my eyes. “Why not?” “Um, hello, attention span much? Weren’t you the one who just said nothing in this world is free?” “Who said it’s free? Did you get all your annual periods today at once or something?” “Don’t talk about my period!” “Fine. No period talk. But you need a real friend right now, and I’m officially applying for the position. I even dressed the part. Look.” He motions to his hobo clothes with an apologetic smile. And just like that, heat pours into my chest like hot wax. Anger, I find, has the tendency to be crisp. I really want to throat punch him. He pities me? Pities. The guy with the hole in his shirt. “You want to be my friend?” I bark out a laugh. “Pathetic much? Like, who even says that?” “Me. I say that. And I never claimed not to be pathetic.” He tugs at his ripped shirt and raises his head slowly, unveiling more of his face. A nose my mom would call Roman and a jaw that’s too square for someone my age. He’s all sharp angles, and maybe one day he will be handsome, but right now, he looks like an anime cartoon character. Mighty Max. “Look, do you want the lemonade and money or not? My mom should be here any minute.” “And?” “And she can’t see us together.” “Because of how I look?” Duh. “No, because you’re a boy.” I don’t want to be mean to him even though, usually, I am. Especially to boys. Especially to boys with beautiful faces and honey voices. Boys can smell heartbreak from across a continent. Even at fourteen. Even in the middle of an innocent summer afternoon. We girls have an invisible string behind our belly button, and only certain guys can tug at it. This boy…he will snap it if I let him. “Take the sea glass. Owe me something.” He motions to me with an open palm. I stare at the ugly little rock. My fist clenches around the letter. The paper hisses. The boy lifts his head completely, and our eyes meet. He studies me with quiet interest as though I’m a painting, not a person. My heart is rioting all over, and the dumbest thought crosses my mind. Ever notice how the heart is literally caged by the ribs? That’s insane. As if our body knows it can break so easily, it needs to be protected. White dots fill my vision, and he’s swimming somewhere behind them, against the stream. “What’s in the letter?” he asks. “My worst nightmare.” “Give it to me,” he orders, so I do. I don’t know why. Most likely because I want to get rid of it. Because I want Via to hurt as much as I do. Because I want Mom to be upset. Marx, what’s wrong with me? I’m a horrible person. His eyes are still on mine as he tears the letter to shreds and lets the pieces float like confetti into the trash can between us. His eyes are dark green and bottomless like a thickly fogged forest. I want to step inside and run until I’m in the depth of the woods. Something occurs to me just then. “You’re not from here,” I say. He is too pure. Too good. Too real. He shakes his head slowly. “Mississippi. Well, my dad’s family. Anyway. Owe me something,” he repeats, almost begging. Why does he want me to owe him something? So he could ask for something back. I don’t relent, frozen to my spot. Instead, I hand him the lemonade. He takes it, closes the distance between us, pops the lid open, and pours the contents all over the ruined letter. His body brushes against mine. We’re stomach to stomach. Legs to legs. Heart to heart. “Close your eyes.” His voice is gruff and thick and different. This time, I surrender. I know what’s about to happen, and I’m letting it happen anyway. My first kiss. I always thought it would happen with a football player or a pop star or a European exchange student. Someone outside of the small borders of my sheltered, Instagram-filtered world. Not with a kid who has a hole in his shirt. But I need this. Need to feel desired and pretty and wanted. His lips flutter over mine, and it tickles, so I snort. I can feel his warm breath skating across my lips, his baseball cap grazing my forehead and the way his mouth slides against mine, lips locking with uncertainty. I forget to breathe for a second, my hands on his shoulders, but then something inside me begs me to dart my tongue out and really taste him. We’re sucking air from each other’s mouths. We’re doing it all wrong. My lips open for him. His open, too. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel the blood whooshing in my veins when he says, “Not yet. I’ll take that, too, but not yet.” A groan escapes my lips. “What would you have asked of me if I took the sea glass?” “To save me all your firsts,” he whispers somewhere between my ear and mouth as his body brushes away from mine. I don’t want to open my eyes and let the moment end. But he makes the choice for both of us. The warmth of his body leaves mine as he takes a step back. I still don’t have the guts to open my mouth and ask for his name. Ten, fifteen, twenty seconds pass. My eyelids flutter open on their own accord as my body begins to sway. He’s gone. Disoriented, I lean against the trash can, fiddling with the strap of my mother’s bag. Five seconds pass before Mom loops her arm around mine out of nowhere and leads me to the Range Rover. My legs fly across the pavement. My head twists back. Blue shirt? Ball cap? Petal lips? Did I imagine the whole thing? “There you are. Thanks for the coffee. What, no iced tea lemonade today?” After I fail to answer, we climb into her vehicle and buckle up. Mom sifts through her Prada bag resting on the center console. “Huh. I swear I took four letters from the mailbox today, not three.” And that’s when it hits me—she doesn’t know. Via got in, and she has no idea the letter came today. Then this guy tore it apart because it upset me… Kismet. Kiss-met. Fate. Dad decided two years ago that he was tired of hearing all three girls in the household moaning, “Oh, my God,” so now we have to replace the word God with the word Marx, after Karl Marx, a dude who was apparently into atheism or whatever. I feel like God or Marx—someone—sent this boy to help me. If he were even real. Maybe I made him up in my head to come to terms with what I did. I open a compact mirror and apply some lip gloss, my heart racing. “You’re always distracted, Mom. If you dropped a letter, you’d have seen it.” Mom pouts, then nods. In the minute it takes her to start the engine, I realize two things: One—she was expecting this letter like her next breath. Two—she is devastated. “Before I forget, Lovebug, I bought you the diary you wanted.” Mom produces a thick black-cased leather notebook from her Prada bag and hands it to me. I noticed it before, but I never assume things are for me anymore. She’s always distracted, buying Via all types of gifts. As we ride in silence, I have an epiphany. This is where I’ll write my sins. This is where I’ll bury my tragedies. I snap the mirror shut and tuck my hands into the pockets of my white hoodie, where I find something small and hard. I take it out and stare at it, amazed. The orange sea glass. He gave me the sea glass even though I never accepted it. Save me all your firsts. I close my eyes and let a fat tear roll down my cheek. He was real. Question: Who gives their most precious belonging to a girl they don’t know? Answer: This motherfucker right here. Print me an “I’m with stupid” shirt with an arrow pointing straight to my dick. Could’ve sold the damn thing and topped off Via’s cell phone credit. Now that ship’s sailed. I can spot it in the distance, sinking quickly. The worst part is that I knew nothing would come out of it. At fourteen, I’ve only kissed two girls. They both had enormous tongues and too much saliva. This girl looked like her tongue would be small, so I couldn’t pass up trying. But the minute my lips touched hers, I just couldn’t do it. She looked kind of manic. Sad. Clingy? I don’t fucking know. Maybe I just didn’t have the balls. Maybe watching her three times a week from afar paralyzed me. Hey, how do you turn off your own mind? It needs to shut up. Now. My friend Kannon passes me the joint on my front porch. That’s the one perk of having your mom live with her drug-dealing boyfriend. Free pot. And since food is scarce these days, I’ll take whatever is on the table. A bunch of wannabe gangsters in red bandanas cross our side of the street with their pit bulls and a boom box playing angry Spanish rap. The dogs bark, yanking on their chains. Kannon barks right back at them. He’s so high his head might hit a fucking plane. I take a hit, then hand Camilo the joint. “I’ll lend you fifty so you can make the call.” Camilo coughs. He is huge and tan and already has impressive facial hair. He looks like someone’s Mexican dad. “We don’t need to call anyone!” my twin sister yells from the grass next to us. She is lying face down, sobbing into the yellow lawn. I think she is hoping the sun will burn her into the ground. “Are y’all deaf or something?! I didn’t get in!” “We’ll take the money.” I ignore her. We have to call the ballet place. Via can’t stay here. It ain’t safe. “I love you, Penn, but you’re a pain in the ass.” She hiccups, plucking blades of grass and throwing them in our direction without lifting her head. She’ll thank me later. When she is famous and rich—do ballerinas get rich?—and I’m still sitting here with my dumb friends smoking pot and salivating over lemon-haired Todos Santos girls. Maybe I won’t have to stand on street corners and deal. I’m good at shit. Sports and fighting mainly. Coach says I need to eat more protein for muscle and more carbs to get some body fat, but that’s not happening anytime soon because most of my money is spent buying Via’s bus tickets to her ballet classes. I tag along because I’m hella worried about her riding on that bus alone. Especially in winter when it gets dark early. “I thought you said your sister’s good? How come she didn’t get in?” Kannon yawns, moving his hand over his long dreads. The sides of his head are shaved, creating a black man-bun. I punch his arm so hard he collapses back on the rocking chair with a silent scream, clutching his bicep, still hardy-har-harring. “I think a demonstration is in order. Chop-chop, Via. Show us your moves.” Cam puts “Milkshake” by Kelis on his phone, balling a gum wrapper in his hand and throwing it at the back of her head. Her sobs stop, replaced with catatonic silence. I turn around, scrubbing my chin before twisting back to Camilo and swinging a fist at his jaw. I hear it unlock from its usual place and him harrumphing. Darting up from the grass, Via runs into the house and slams the door behind her. I’m not sure what business she has sitting in the living room when Rhett is home, griping about being tired and hungry. She will probably get into a screaming match with him and return to the porch with her tail between her legs. My mom is too high to interfere, but even when she does, she chooses her boyfriend’s side. Even when he uses Via’s leotards, which her teacher buys for her, to shine his shoes. He does that often to get a rise out of her. On days she shows up to class in her torn leggings and hand-me-down shirts, she spends the bus ride sobbing. Those are usually the days when I rub his briefs on the public toilet seats in Liberty Park. It’s incredibly therapeutic. “Hand me the fifty.” I open my palm and turn to Cam, who slaps the bill into my hand obediently. I’m going to buy myself and Via burgers the size of my face, then top the credit on her phone so she can call Mrs. Followhill. I charge down my street to In-N-Out, Camilo and Kannon trailing me like the wind. Cracked concrete and murals of dead teenagers wearing halos line the street. Our palm trees seem to hunch down from the burden of poverty, leaning over buildings that are short and yellow like bad teeth. But twenty minutes later, the satisfaction of clutching a paper bag filled with greasy burgers and fries is overwhelming. Via’s gonna forget all about her meltdown when she sees it. I push the door to my house open, and the first thing I see makes me drop the food to the floor. My mother’s boyfriend is straddling my sister on the couch, his jiggling belly pouring out on her chest. He pummels her face, his sweaty, hairy chest glistening and his arm flexing every time he does. His ripped jeans are unbuttoned, and his zipper is all the way down. She is wheezing and coughing, trying to breathe. Without thinking, I dash toward them and unplaster him from her. Her face is bloody, and she’s croaking out weak protests, telling him that he’s a cheap bastard, and he keeps yelling that she is a thieving whore. I grab Rhett by the collar of his shirt and pull him from her. He swings with the momentum, falling on the floor. I punch his face so hard, the sound of his jaw cracking echoes around the room. He whips his head back, hitting the floor. I spin back to Via, and all I see is her back as she slides through her own blood, tripping to the door. I grab her wrist, but she wiggles free. Something falls between us with a soft click. I pick it up, and it looks like a tooth. Jesus fucking Christ. He knocked her tooth out. “I’m sorry,” she says, her voice muffled from the blood in her mouth. “I’m sorry. I can’t, Penn.” “Via!” I cry out. “Please,” she yells. “Let me go.” I try to chase her, slipping in the trail of blood she leaves behind. My hands are covered in it now. I stand and start for the still-open door. A hand snatches me back and throws me on the couch. “Not so quick, little asshole. Now’s your turn.” I close my eyes and let it happen, knowing why Via has to run. Geography is destiny. It’s been three days since Via ran away. Two and a half since I’ve last managed to stomach anything without throwing it up (Pabst counts, right?). After Rhett beat her up for stealing his phone and trying to call London, I’m not surprised she ain’t back. I know better than to fuck with Rhett. Via is usually even more cautious with him because she’s a girl. It was a moment of weakness on her part, and it cost her more than she was willing to pay. On Friday afternoon, I find myself loitering outside her ballet class, hoping she’ll appear. Maybe she’s crashing at her teacher’s house. They seem close, but it’s hard to tell since Via puts on a mask every time the bus we board slides into the city limits of Todos Santos. The fact she hasn’t touched base yet makes me heave when I think about it. I’m telling myself she has her reasons. At six, pink-wearing girls start pouring out of the building. I dawdle by the shiny black Range Rover with my hands in my pockets, waiting for the teacher. She comes out last, waving and laughing with a bunch of students. Another girl walks beside her. The girl I kissed, to be exact. The girl I’ve been obsessing over for a year, to be super-exact. She is beautiful like the shit hanging in the museums. In a really sad, distant, look-but-don’t-touch way. I trek toward them, and they meet me halfway. The girl’s eyes widen, and she looks sideways to see if anyone else is here to witness us talking. She thinks I’m here for her. “Hi.” She tucks hair behind her ears, her gaze traveling to Mrs. Followhill in a silent I-swear-I-don’t-know-this-guy plea. “Hey.” I kill the butterflies in my stomach because now’s not the place and definitely not the time, then turn to the teacher. “Ma’am, my sister, Via, is in your class. I haven’t seen her in three days.” The teacher’s eyebrows pinch together as though I just announced I’ll be taking a shit on the hood of her vehicle. She tells the blonde to wait inside the giant Range Rover, then tugs at my arm, heading toward an alleyway. Sandwiched between two buildings, she sort of forces me to sit down on a tall step (dafuq?) and starts talking. “I’ve been calling her five times a day and leaving messages,” she whispers hotly in my face. “I wanted to let her know she’d been accepted to the Royal Academy. When the letter never arrived, I called them to check. Everything is in motion now. As I said before, you needn’t worry about the tuition. I’ll be paying the fee.” My nostrils flare. All this in her future, and she could be lying in a ditch right now. Goddamn Via. Goddamn all pretty, volatile fourteen-year-old girls. “Well, ma’am, thank you for the gift she’ll never be able to cash in on since we can’t find her,” I respectfully mock her. But we is just me. Mom is out of it—she never really bothered bouncing out of her first drug binge some years ago—and Rhett is probably happy he has one less mouth to feed. When the truancy officer called from school earlier, I told him Via went to my aunt’s, something my mother later confirmed when he showed up on our doorstep. Mom, wild-haired and sucking on a cigarette as if it were an oxygen mask, never once asked if it was true. If I call the police, they’ll dump both our asses in foster care. Maybe together, but probably not. I can’t let that happen. I can’t be separated from Via. Mrs. Followhill stares at me with an expression as if she just realized she caught a stomach bug. She is probably wondering how I dare speak to her like that. Usually, I’m a bit more user-friendly. Then again, I don’t usually have to deal with a missing sister. I clean my mother’s puke from the walls and close the bathroom door on Rhett when he falls asleep on the toilet seat. I don’t look at grown-ups with the same air of reverence her daughter does. “Whoa.” That’s all Mrs. Followhill says. “Thanks for the insight. Have a nice life.” I stand and swagger toward the street. She catches my arm and yanks me back. I twist around to face her. “My daughter…” She licks her lips, then looks down, looks guilty. The girl is leaning against the Rover, staring at us, chewing on her thumbnail. “My daughter and Via haven’t been getting along. I tried to encourage them to communicate, but the more I pushed them together, the more they seemed to dislike one another. I think I had a letter go missing last week. A letter that could have been…important. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.” She lets out a breath, shaking her head. “I guess I just…I don’t want to know, you know? I hate the fact that my mind is even going there.” But maybe it should. The flashback crashes into my memory. The paper that hissed in her little fist. Me taking it from her. Tearing it apart. Throwing it into the trash can, watching her face blossom into bliss. Pouring the lemonade on the remains for good measure when her blue eyes twinkled the request. Setting my sister’s dreams on fire. Kicking this entire nightmare into motion. My jaw flexes, and I take a step back. I throw one last glance at the chick, filing her into memory. Archive under: Shit List. Revisit document: When I’m able to ruin her. “So Via’s not with you?” My voice hardens around the words. Like tin. I’m desperate. I have no lead. I want to rip the world apart to find her, but the world is not mine to destroy. The world just continues turning at the same pace, because kids like Via and me? We disappear all the time, and no one notices. Mrs. Followhill shakes her head. She hesitates, touching my arm. “Hey, why don’t you come with me? I’ll drop Daria off at home, and we can look for her.” Daria. I turn around and stalk toward the bus stop, feeling stupid and hateful and alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt. Because I want to kill Daria. Daria made everything fade into the background the first time I saw her, and while I was busy admiring, everything around us burned. You look like you could use a friend, I told her. Stupid boyish faith. I mentally throw it onto the ground and stomp on it on my way to the bus as it slides to the curb. Daria was right. I was pathetic. Stupid. Blinded by her hair and lips and sweet melancholy. Making a beeline to the bus stop, I hear Mrs. Followhill yelling my name behind me in the distance. She knows my name. She knows me. Us. I don’t know why it disturbs me. I don’t know why I still give a fuck that this girl knows I’m poor. I hop on the first available bus, not sure where it will take me. As far away from the girl, but not far enough from myself. The burn in my chest intensifies, the hole around my heart growing bigger, and my grandmother whispers in the back of my mind. Skull Eyes. The night before senior year I spotted you on those bleachers You looked adorable Your heart cracking for a guy Who would love to smash a foot in it and crush it into pieces Almost Eighteen. The snake pit is crowded tonight. It always is when Vaughn fights, and Vaughn always fights. He breaks noses almost as well as he breaks hearts. Breaking hearts, in case you’re wondering, is his second-favorite art. At least six girls have moved to different private schools just to run away from the misery of seeing him gliding through the hallways since he got into All Saints High. He has three more years here, and parents across town are locking their daughters up and shaking with fear. Every popular guy at All Saints High and our rival school, Las Juntas, in San Diego fights at the snake pit as a rite of passage. This is not my usual scene, but Blythe, Alisha, and Esme dragged me here on the night before school starts. They’re avid Vaughn observers. The jerk spent summer vacation in a studio in Italy sculpting and returned two days ago, so now they need their fix of his beautiful, listless face. The truth is, Vaughn is too cruel to fall in love, in lust, or even in like. This, however, is a lesson they’ll learn the hard way. I’ll have plenty of fun watching even though I’ll do the whole OMG-sweetie-he-is-so-not-worth-it act. Side note? He totally is. “How can someone so violent create such delicate art? He is fuckable to a fault.” Blythe munches on her Little Mermaid red hair as she stares down at Vaughn, who is pacing back and forth on the field, his tattered black clothes clinging to his lean muscles. Legend claims the snake pit, a deserted football field on the outskirts of San Diego, got its name after a snake plague caused it to be abandoned. The faded, chipped blue bleachers are where the guys are slumped drinking beer. We, the girls, sit with our legs crossed, sipping expensive wine from the bottle and vaping. The Las Juntas crowd sits on the bleachers opposite of us. They don’t wear Swiss brands and drive German cars. They pass half-empty bottles of tequila and rolled-up cigarettes. “Gross, Blythe, he’s a sophomore.” Alisha, part African-American, part Dutch, and all gorgeous, makes gagging noises beside me. “Shut up, you would take a full-time job as his reusable condom if he’d have you. You didn’t come here to watch sweaty nobodies get whipped.” “Who is he fighting, anyway?” I pop my fruity bubblegum, rearranging my dark green velvet minidress on my thighs. My ten shades of shiny blond hair is half-tied into a silky black bow, and I look Pinterest-ready. My winged eyeliner is on point, and my pout is red and matte, creating the perfect film noir effect. I’m Daria Followhill. Cheer Captain. Rich Bitch. Little Miss Popular. See something you like? Too bad. I don’t do boys. Men, on the other hand… “No idea, but I don’t envy him. The fights today have been brutal so far, and Vaughn is the best fighter in the pit, so they usually save him for last.” Alisha examines her manicured fingernails. “Here comes the meat,” someone hollers three rows down, and we all stand and crane our necks to check out the unfortunate soul going against the Vaughn Spencer. I rise on my tiptoes as the crowd on both sides erupts in barks, pumping their fists. The scent of sweat, alcohol, and dried blood from the previous fights lingers in the air like a cloud. The twang of human desperation hits my tongue. I see a tall, well-built figure zigzagging toward Vaughn on the dead field. He is clutching a bottle of what looks like something alcoholic, and his ear-length dark blond hair—or is it light brown? —falls across his forehead. I can’t see his face, but I don’t need to. There’s a hole in his red shirt, right where his heart is, and my hand goes straight to the small piece of sea glass hanging at my throat. Don’t faint, bitch. You’re wearing a super-short dress. For the past four years, I’ve become a pro at avoiding Penn Scully. A miracle, considering he is a star football player and I am a cheer captain at schools of the same size and in the same county. So far, we’ve played against each other twice each year. Our teams always make the play-offs, and All Saints is always on the losing end. I couldn’t face him after everything blew up with Via. Every time we had a game against Las Juntas, I either faked period cramps or slipped into my car before the game was over. “Someone pinch me.” Blythe claps her hands excitedly. She is wearing a nude-colored cropped shirt to match her pointy nude-pink nails. “Penn Scully, Las Juntas’ wide receiver, is the hottest thing in SoCal. I’ve been wanting to sit on his face for a while now, too. Tonight’s my lucky night.” “From what I hear, you’re in the business of parking your ass on anything it fits on. Just a heads-up, Vaughn doesn’t like his food fast.” Knight chuckles behind me. I twist my head to face him, arching a brow. I’m just trying to pretend seeing Penn doesn’t make my heart twist in my chest, unchaining itself from its arteries. A chick I don’t know is sitting in Knight’s lap, trying to hoover his ear into her mouth with her arms slung over his broad shoulders. His legs are spread lazily, and he is wearing a vintage Gucci jacket and white Air Jordans. His jeans are tailor-made for him, and his haircut costs more than my upmarket tote bag. Knight is gorgeous, and not only does he know it, but he would also advertise it on a billboard if it were possible. Hooded green eyes, dimples as deep as his Casanova gaze, pouty red lips, and a jaw you could cut cheese with. His chestnut brown hair is softer than medieval-themed porn, and everything about him screams hedonism. We all live on the same cul-de-sac in the same neighborhood, and our parents are best friends. Knight and Vaughn are the closest to each other, practically brothers, which is weird because they are also like fire and ice. Vaughn is a crazy artist with psychotic tendencies, and Knight is the definition of a popular jock. One is Edward Scissorhands; the other is Zac Efron’s prettier long-lost brother. “Is your girlfriend going to get pissy when she realizes you came home with crabs? They make pretty useless pets.” I bat my eyelashes sweetly at him. Luna is not his girlfriend although he would die trying. That’s why I never really liked Luna Rexroth. She is the original Via. The girl who created the Hulk inside me. The girl who Vaughn always smiled at and Knight followed blindly. Daddy once laughed that Luna is like a Sicilian nun. Once a year, the nuns appear behind lifted curtains so their families can see and adore them because they miss them so. “That’s Luna. When she appears, everything stops.” Yup. And I cease to exist. “Suck a saggy cock, Dar.” He clamps his joint between his teeth, cupping his hand over it to light it, then blows a chain of gray smoke straight into my face. “Is that an invitation? Because there’s a pill for your Q-tip of a dick.” I jerk my chin up. “Baby, my cock is too hard for you to take. The only pills you’ll be needing are three Advil to handle the aftermath of having me inside you.” “Inside me? In your dreams, Knight Cole.” “Hard no. In my dreams, I have Luna’s legs wrapped around my waist, and the rest is NC-17. No offense, Tiffanie.” He pats the girl’s ass with the hand holding his Zippo. “Stephanie.” “Don’t make it awkward, babe. I forgot you were in my lap until Elsa here pointed it out.” Knight motions to me and laughs. “Too bad you’re a sophomore, and Luna is a junior. She’ll never date you.” I’m just egging him on. I mean, Luna probably wouldn’t date him, but it’s not because of his age. She’s trapped in her own little universe. She is the sun, and he is the Earth. Always circling around her and getting an inch closer every lifetime even though the burn could ruin him. He cocks his head to the side, his smile so wolfish, his teeth look pointier than usual. “Oh brother, if you knew how many of your senior friends gave my cock mouth-to-mouth when they were juniors, you’d have a heart attack.” A loud, shrieking, “Whoa!” interrupts our banter. The crowd winces in unison, and we all snap our heads back to the field, watching Penn fall to the ground on his way to the center of the pit. My Marx. They haven’t even fought, and he’s already knocked down on his ass. He looks super drunk. Vaughn is going to kill him before he realizes where he is. I turn my attention back to Knight. “You need to tell Vaughn the fight is off.” “Look who’s got her thong in a twist. Why? You placed a bet with Gus tonight?” Knight is rubbing the girl’s ass, but he’s not into it. He never is. I go crimson, my head so hot it might explode. My hands ball into fists beside my body. I don’t want Penn to end up in a hospital tonight even though he hates me and probably wouldn’t want my concern. Guilt swirls in my stomach as the memory of him tearing up his sister’s acceptance letter plays in my mind. “Whatever. As if I’d ever talk to Gus voluntarily. But this loser is obviously drunk. Vaughn’s going to slaughter him.” “He is a huge-ass football player on a team consisting of straight-up gangsters. He can hold his own,” Knight shoots back darkly. As the starting quarterback of All Saints High, Knight’s had the dubious pleasure of playing against Scully. Rumor has it, Penn is the best in the county. Maybe even the state. Principal Prichard has tried to offer him a scholarship several times so he could join our team, but lucky for me, Penn is the loyal type. “Knight.” My voice breaks, falling off the cliff of indifference. I’m begging. The girl in his lap shoots daggers at me with her gaze. “Vaughn could get into real shit if this goes south.” His face morphs from bored to annoyed. He pushes the girl off his lap and hands her the remainder of his joint. “I’m not going to break it apart because you’re being a vagina, but I’ll go downstairs to make sure these two dicks keep it clean.” He swipes his tongue over his lips, and his tongue ring pokes out. I look back at the field, and both guys have taken off their shirts. Knight is right. Penn is a far cry from the emaciated boy who gave me the most precious thing in the world four years ago. Muscled, sinewy, and imperial, he has zero percent body fat and bulging arms. A prominent V points down to his holy grail, and by the way my fellow cheerleaders sigh beside me, they’ve noticed it, too. Vaughn is skinnier in comparison. Not that it matters. He has a feline patience you cannot help but admire, and when he’s in his element, I’ve seen him take down guys triple his size without breaking a sweat. They circle each other, quiet and deadly and serious. Vaughn is expressionless, as per usual. Stoic and calm. Penn looks out of focus, wearing a loony smile on his lips. The glass bottle slips from between his fingers and rolls on the ground, and people burst out with laughter that echoes in my heart. “Does he fight here often?” I ask no one in particular. “Nope.” Gus, our football captain who sits two rows down, takes a pull of his beer. His friends beside him are passing a clipboard with names written on it between them. They’ve been placing bets on the fights all night, and this one takes the cake. Gus snatches the clipboard and pushes it into his duffel bag, balling his varsity jacket and stuffing it on top to conceal it. Guess he still thinks it’s a secret that he runs a betting ring. Rumor has it, he makes a small fortune running these bets, and Vaughn—the guy who hates money and everything it represents—gets a cut. Everyone knows what he does with it. Saving so he can open his own studio without touching a dime of his parents’ wealth. “Penn’s not the get-drunk-and-fight type of dude, and I’ve partied with his school plenty. Something’s up.” He finishes his bottle and rubs his hands together. Something’s up. I need to stop this guilt-fest. I’m not responsible for his problems. A different girl—a brave girl—would have faced him by now. Not me. He knows what we did that day and how it led to his sister’s disappearance. I never asked for his forgiveness because—let’s be real—I don’t deserve it. My breath catches deep inside my throat as the two measure each other on the dead field, their body language a perfect mirror. Vaughn is the first to throw a punch in Penn’s face. It’s a heavy blow, and Penn’s nose bursts with blood. People shriek and suck in a collective breath. Penn stumbles backward, laughing and shaking his head as if he dodged the hit. He licks the blood on the corner of his upper lip, then pounces on Vaughn in a way I’ve never seen before. Bengal tiger. I almost forgot how quick and graceful he was. Is. Just like his sister. Penn jams Vaughn to the ground, locking his knees on either side of Vaughn’s torso, then rains sloppy fists down on his face. Some hit. Some miss. I want to throw up. The crowd is screaming. This hasn’t happened before. Vaughn has taken some serious beatings over the past couple of years, but he’s never been thrown to the ground. Vaughn knows better than to squirm and waste his energy. He learned jiujitsu before he was kicked out of three different classes for being disobedient. “Spencer! Spencer! Spencer! Spencer!” All Saints High students chant from our side of the bleachers, throwing empty cans of beer to the sidelines. Students from Las Juntas, the other school, remain silent but no less intimidating. They are less prone to public gestures, but I know better than to think they’re any less loyal to their football star. Vaughn has a busted lip and a black eye before he manages to roll on top of Penn and mount him, kneeing his ribs. Penn pushes Vaughn clumsily, and before I know it, they’re stumbling back upright again. Vaughn is toying with an obviously plastered Penn, but his fists are precise and accurate. I see Knight striding along the sidelines of the football field, running his fingers through his hair, exhaling sharply. “Let’s wrap it up, V. Asshole’s more sauced than a cliché abusive dad in a teen film, and you’re bleeding like a chick on her period.” “Which is why I’m not going to kill him and just teach him a valuable lesson. He’ll thank me.” Vaughn winks, spitting a lump of blood as he circles Penn again. He’s in a mood when he fights. Vaughn sends a roundhouse kick to Penn’s chin. Blood sprays across the dirt, shooting from his mouth like a rainbow. He falls, a beaten and bloody mess, and doesn’t move. One second. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Get up. Get up. Get up. A scream erupts from my mouth before I can swallow it down and rings in my ears. Blythe, Alisha, and Esme tug me down the bleachers. Knight enters my periphery, wrapping his arms around me quickly. Knight is hurling people left and right with his shoulders as kids pour out to the field in what looks like a massive fight between the two schools. Knight ushers me to the parking lot and shoves me into his powder blue Aston Martin Vanquish Volante. His back seat doesn’t have much space, and I’m forced to sit straight and slap a hand over my mouth so I don’t puke. He twists a bottle of water open and hands it to me. I take it, but my hands shake too hard for me to take a sip without spilling it all over. “Puke in my back seat, and it’s game over for you, Followhill.” He circles the convertible, then hops over the driver’s door into the seat without opening it. Like a summoned demon, Vaughn appears from the chain link entrance of the field, wiping his face with the hem of his black shirt. His jeans are torn, and his makeshift belt consists of his army boots’ laces. Knight throws a finger in Vaughn’s direction as his engine roars to life. “You’re high if you think you’re getting into my car looking like Carrie after the bucket scene.” Vaughn fires a paper-dry look. “Calm your tits, Cole. I’m bumming a ride with the Las Juntas crowd.” Knight’s eyebrows jump to his hairline, and his eyes widen in disbelief. “You are fucking high. Get in the car, moron.” “They jumped us on the field,” Vaughn clips as if it’s a good explanation for his decision. The scent of weed and blood makes my head dizzy. “And they’ll hand you your asses without the football team fighting on your side. Don’t do shit before I come back. I just need to cart Princess Vagina back to her castle.” Vaughn raises his leg and readjusts a piece of masking tape he plastered against the bottom of his army boot that is completely torn. “The fight tonight shouldn’t have happened.” He spits a clump of blood onto the concrete road. “Please tell me Scully didn’t break anything other than Daria’s black heart. She looks like she’s caught some feelings.” I punch Knight’s leather seat from behind. I still can’t breathe, but I’m grasping at every piece of information about Penn hungrily. “His mom died this morning.” There’s a beat of silence, in which I scream so loudly in my head, my ears ring. I look over at Knight, a guy who sees this scenario as something very real, and I’m not surprised to watch him freeze on the spot. “That’s why they started the brawl.” Vaughn exhales. “When Daria was busy having a nuclear meltdown—great form, by the way”—Vaughn pins me with a look—“some guy ran onto the field and dragged Scully out of the dirt, screaming she overdosed this morning. Consequently, on his eighteenth birthday.” “Get the fuck out.” Knight’s jaw goes slack, and he punches the steering wheel so hard, the piercing shriek of the horn lingers in the sky for a few seconds. Vaughn dips his head. “His second birthday present was his stepdad kicking him out of the house. Las Juntas’ players aren’t gonna touch me. I’m just gonna stitch him up and make sure he’s okay.” “I’ll tag along,” Knight says even though he knows it’s dangerous. His first football game is in one week, and it’s against the Las Juntas Bulldogs. They’ll break his legs without even thinking about it twice. Of course, I can’t tell him this. Last year, the outgoing seniors of All Saints showed up at Las Juntas High School in the middle of the night, took down their flag, replaced it with a pirate’s flag, and smeared the pole with Vaseline for an end-of-school prank. Going there without his crew, even with Vaughn, is not only asking for trouble, it’s begging for it. But that’s the thing about Knight. Taking risks is a hobby of his. “Just dropping Dar at home.” “Fine, whatever, I’ll come with you guys,” I huff. I know I can’t face Penn, especially considering the circumstances. I’m probably the last person he wants to see because I will only remind him of what he’s lost. And if my snotty friends hear I hung out with the Las Juntas crowd after spontaneously screaming like the world was ending tonight, they would have a field day. Still, I want to see that he is all right. Personally, I guess. “Shut up,” both Vaughn and Knight say in unison. Vaughn takes a step forward, appearing under the streetlamp. The tawny light illuminates the damage Penn inflicted on his face. Both his eyes are black, his lip and eyebrow have cuts, and there’s swelling on his forehead that will only grow worse by tomorrow morning. He’s never been beaten up so badly before. “Don’t bother, Mother Teresa. Dudebro’s not gonna hang out for long,” Vaughn says. “Yeah?” Knight asks. “Blythe Ortiz just coaxed him to go home with her afterward. Not sure how he can fuck in his state, but I guess that’s for them to discover tonight.” Both guys chuckle darkly. Blythe. Why am I not surprised? She is so boy crazy. Girl, Interrupted. By dick. It doesn’t usually faze me that Blythe is boy crazy since it actually makes me look better, but her touching Penn is just gross on so many levels because (A) he is clearly badly injured, and (B) he was my first kiss. Which in my weird mind means that no one from All Saints can touch him now. “He’s eighteen. He can fuck in any state—all fifty—even when he is physically in a coma,” Knight deadpans. There’s silence for a beat, and then he adds, “Gus is probably losing his shit. He put a lot of money on this fight, and technically, there’s no winner.” Knight strokes his chin. “Gus needs a life and a neck. Not in that order. Guy’s a douche, and I’ve met socks more sophisticated than his ass,” Vaughn replies dryly. “He’ll survive.” “You get in bed with him business-wise.” “I get in bed with anyone I can fuck over and have my way with business-wise,” Vaughn says calmly. I look down at my hands in my lap. Why do I feel so guilty? Vaughn bends over and pats my back like a big brother even though he is two years younger than me. “Don’t sulk. Scully is a tough motherfucker.” They don’t know. Not about Via, and not about Penn. Not about my sea glass necklace, and not about the green Hulk living inside me. I flip my hair and smile, but I’m not there. Not really. Even when Knight drives me home under the beautiful starless sky, the color of the night so pure, my eyes sting. The moon looks as lonely and seductive as ever, and Penn is somewhere underneath it, digesting his new reality. Knight kills the engine and gestures his chin to the entrance of my house. A Tuscan-style mansion with eight bedrooms, it has a two-story foyer, a wine cellar, a ballet studio, and a pool that looks like it bleeds into the cliff of the mountain in our in a gated community called El Dorado. My dad is in investments, and my mom…well, she invested in bagging the right man, I guess. Her former high school student. But that’s a story for later. Knight helps me to my door. He shoves his hand into my crocheted purse and fishes out my keys, kicks the door open, and punches in our security code. “You look wasted, and I look inherently guilty. Please snap out of your bullshit meltdown before we hit the second floor,” he drones, throwing my arm over his shoulder and dragging me up the stairs of the darkened foyer. There’s a huge black and white picture of my mother arabesque-ing in ballerina attire, staring ahead, her elegance casting a regal vibe on the entire house. It’s not that late, and chances are, my parents are still awake. If not, Melody will wake up when the clock hits midnight. She always sets her alarm to make sure I don’t break curfew. I don’t remember Knight tucking me in bed, but he does. I’m still wearing my dress and makeup. Time doesn’t move. It just stands still in the room like heavy furniture. Penn Scully is in trouble. Big trouble. He just lost his mom and is about to be homeless. Just a few miles away, I’m tucked in my imported queen-size bed with designer Egyptian sheets wrapped around me and an entire aquarium wall filled with pink champagne staring back at me. My actions are what got him into trouble. If it weren’t for me, he’d still have his sister around. Maybe his mom wouldn’t have gotten addicted to crack or whatever. I squeeze my eyes shut and resist the urge to cry. He gave me the rarest thing in the world, and I gave him heartache. His mom died on his birthday. There’s some relief in this pain I’m feeling. It reminds me that despite my bitchy ways, I’m still capable of hurting for someone else. The sound of bare feet padding across the hallway attacks my ears. I recognize Mel’s quiet pace and graceful movements. My door creaks open, and she tiptoes her way in. Normally, I pretend to be asleep to avoid conversation. I stopped calling her Mom and started calling her Mel shortly after Via disappeared, but I don’t even remember why. We’ve been growing apart since, and talking to each other, one on one, is kind of torture. But right now, I don’t know if I can pretend to be asleep. Melody leans over and presses a kiss to my forehead, a gesture she has repeated every night since the day I was born. Lately, she’s been hovering over my face an extra second to smell my breath for alcohol. I’m sober tonight, though I wish I wasn’t. “Good night, Lovebug. Did you have a good time at the movies?” I momentarily forget the lie I told her before I left the house tonight. I clear my throat, meaning to say yes, but the truth claws out like a scream. “I saw Penn Scully.” Her body stiffens, then she sinks down to sit on the edge of my bed. She is trying to school her expression, but her lower lip quivers, and I see it even in the dark. “How…how is he?” “His mom died today.” I’m shocked at my own words. I haven’t spoken about him…ever. No one knows what happened with Via and him. I never came clean. When Melody pressed me about it, I vehemently denied knowing anything. And I guess, in a sense, I convinced myself it didn’t really happen. Until tonight. She cups her mouth, looks down, and her shoulders begin to shudder. I scoot to a sitting position, pressing my back against my upholstered white satin headboard. “It’s his birthday,” she says. But of course, she remembers Via’s birthday. “He fought tonight.” She looks up at me. There’s so much agony in those pupils. “At Peet’s?” “The snake pit.” I roll my eyes. “Yeah.” “Is he okay?” She doesn’t even scold me for going there. “I don’t know. He’s not exactly my crowd,” I quip. I trust Vaughn not to walk away from Penn unless he’s sure he’s okay. Physically okay. Vaughn doesn’t do feelings. And Blythe? Even if he shows signs of wanting to talk about it, he’ll never make it. She’ll sit on his face before Scully can tell her how he feels. “What happened to his mom?” Mel asks. “They said overdose.” I fling my hair to one shoulder and start braiding it. Her nostrils flare, but her mouth barely moves as she speaks. “That’s horrible.” Isn’t Scully supposed to be loaded? Rich people usually don’t die from drugs. They go hug trees in fancy rehab centers in Palm Springs and come back thirty pounds heavier and thirty K poorer. Via was supposed to be swimming in it. I always thought Penn wore shitty clothes in the same way Vaughn does. To show the world he doesn’t give a crap about money. “Anyway, I just thought you should know since you were so close to Via.” Even after all these years, it still feels like death to say her name. Melody stands and looks around my room, wanting to find something specific. Maybe she is looking for Penn. Picking up strays is not my forte. Luna, my neighbor, is the one who usually saves the injured birds, frogs, cats, stray dogs, and there was even a deer once. If someone were willing to smuggle Penn through a bedroom window, it’d be her. Knowing my luck, he’d end up falling in love with her, too. “Are you, like, going to talk to him or whatever?” I ask. My heart is beating super-fast in my chest. Penn knows what I did. He could tell her, and she would hate me. She might never admit it, but she would. Hell, maybe she already does. When was the last time we talked? Really talked, like this? Mom halts at my threshold, clutching the doorframe, her head bowed down. “I’ll do what I should have done when Via was around.” I wake up late the next morning with the feeling of an impending calamity scratching at my skin with its pointy claws. Jumping out of bed, I race downstairs to get a glass of water. When I pass my parents’ bedroom door on the way back upstairs, I hear them whisper-shouting. My parents are insanely in love, sometimes to the point of gross. Nothing’s more embarrassing than having your folks hit second base on the bleachers while they cheer you on during a pep rally. More so when your father used to be a student at All Saints High, and your mom taught his senior English lit class. I know whatever they’re talking about is serious, so of course, I press my ear to their door without even considering giving them their privacy because—hello, I’m me. “Just tell me why?” Mel growls. “Because I was a teenage boy once, so I know firsthand how much I don’t want one under my goddamn roof, especially with two teenage girls around.” “He’ll behave.” “Like the way he behaved last night, busting Vaughn’s face at the snake pit? Nah, I think I’m good. Vic gave me the rundown.” Vicious is Vaughn’s dad and the deadliest mofo in the neighborhood. I crushed on him when I was five. Baron “Vicious” Spencer is still a hottie, so #SorryNotSorry. I have no idea what they’re talking about. Penn? Living here? Why? “Jackie Chan Jr. was hardly the victim here. Besides, you fought at his age, too,” Mom points out. “Exactly, Mel. I wouldn’t want teenage me anywhere near my daughters. Not in the same house, and frankly, not even on the same continent. This kid ought to have a family somewhere. Where’s his sister? We’ll buy him a plane ticket. Business class. I’ll throw in private school tuition if you just get that idea out of your pretty head.” “We’ve been anonymously covering his football costs for years, Jaime. I’ve even gone as far as talking to his stepdad once and trying to open a line of communication. He doesn’t need money. He needs love and people who care about him. If such people existed, he wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. I got off the phone with his stepdad a few minutes ago.” “Christ,” Daddy mumbles. “Guess what? The man is not even coherent, and Penn’s things are already packed.” What in the name of the Holy Spirit and Kylie Jenner’s Botox fairy is happening? I thought Penn was rich? Why would he need my parents to pay for his football? And why does it sound like Melody wants him to move in with us? I clutch my glass of water harder. “If he touches Daria…” He doesn’t need to complete the sentence. There’s a baseball bat in the basement that he named The Kissing Boot. He said he’d use it to beat the asses of guys who tried to kiss Bailey and me. “There’s too much at stake. Besides, just because they’re the same age doesn’t mean they are going to sleep with each other. I’ve never met two people more different.” Silence. I know Mel won, but I’m not sure what it means. I think I just got myself into deep shit without even realizing what I was doing. Penn Scully can’t move here because we’ll kill each other before he walks through the door. Who am I kidding? He’ll be the one doing the killing. “Nothing will happen,” Mel repeats. “But we need to contact a family lawyer first thing tomorrow morning. I just got his file from Jim Levin, his counselor. He’s no longer a minor, but there’s still paperwork.” Bitch is not wasting any time pulling strings and making things happen. I bet she bought us all matching Christmas sweaters and is already planning to take the annual photo with her adopted hot child hugging his new sisters and a Labrador puppy on the family couch. “I’ll text Vic right now. Fucker probably has half a dozen on retainer with the number of enemies he’s made in his extended family alone.” Daddy sighs. The glass slips from my hand, almost in slow motion, and I watch it crash right atop of my foot. I fight the scream wrestling out of my mouth as it crushes my bones, my foot softening the loud thud, and watch the water splash onto the carpet and the glass rolling off my toes. I bite my lip so hard, the metallic taste of blood fills every corner of my mouth. Tears block my vision, and they help with keeping the scream at bay. “Did you hear something?” Dad asks behind their door. “It’s probably nothing,” Mel retorts. Yup, I think. That would be me. While you were worried about me I fucked your friend from cheer She gave me a BJ and a beer I still hate you, make no mistake And would love nothing more than to see your pretty neck break I kick the small pile of cigarette butts aside and light a new one. Technically, I was supposed to quit smoking by the beginning of senior year. Coach Higgins threatened to kill me if he found out I broke that promise. But technically, I will no longer be playing football or get to lead my team as captain, seeing as I have nowhere to live—not even a car—so school is definitely not a top priority right now. Getting a full-time job, on the other hand, is. Now it’s just a matter of finding out which bridge I can crash under until I scrape together enough to pay for a motel. Happy fucking birthday to me. The thing about living on the wrong side of the tracks is that your friends live there, too, and they all have a good excuse why they can’t take you in. They’re too poor, their places are too small, or their stepdads are also dicks. Boo-fucking-hoo. Still beats my current situation as I sit on a stair leading to Rhett’s front porch with my duffel bag, in which he packed all my worldly possessions. I shove my bag to the side. Light as a feather. I let the lit cigarette dangle between my lips as I scroll through the contacts on my phone. Glass half full: I’m so worried about where I’ll sleep tonight, I don’t even feel my swollen face, cut lip, most likely fractured rib, and growling stomach. It’s the little things in life and so forth. Crashing at the Ortiz girl’s place again tonight is a big, fat no. For one thing, her parents are coming back from their Caribbean vacation. For another, sleeping my way to a roof over my head is bullshit. Not the actual fucking part, obviously. Just the feeling like a whore portion. I’m just about to hit the call button on Kannon’s name—his parents have a backyard shed—when a brand-new Range Rover rolls to the curb and stops in front of me. I don’t lift my head. It’s probably Rhett’s boss collecting drug money. I hear the driver’s door open, and five seconds later, a woman in a floral sundress and mud-colored hair is standing above me, staring at me through huge sunglasses. The kind that makes chicks look like flies. “Can I help you?” I squint up, billowing a cloud of smoke directly in her face just to be a little fuck. It’s high time I justify the pet name Rhett gave me. “Unlikely, but I can help you. Grab your things. You’re coming with me.” She takes her sunglasses off and looks at me as if she’s been waiting for this moment her entire life or something. I slant my head, gliding my eyes along her body. What the fuck is her deal? I probably ask it out loud because she actually answers. “We met once. My name is Melody Followhill. I was your sister’s ballet teacher. My daughter told me your mother passed away yesterday.” She then tells me that she is sorry for my loss. That she understands it seems out of left field, but she always loved my twin like she was her own kid, blah, blah, blah. Bottom line: she lost Via, and she doesn’t want another Scully kid to fall through the cracks. What a fucking saint. Mother Teresa—right behind you. A lot of things are going through my head. The first one being I don’t need her pity. The second one is that, technically, I do. The third one is I hate her daughter and taking anything from her family would feel a lot like selling my soul to the devil. The fourth is living under no roof is going to suck even more ass than sharing a house with Satan. Fighting shit is my MO right now. It’s in my system. I trust adults just a little less than I trust a drunken, crystal meth-using gambler. When given an offer or opportunity, I always look for the minefields. This woman can’t blaze into my life with her expensive ride and save my ass without expecting something. “Mrs. Followhill, have your children ever gone missing at the mall or in a park?” I call her Mrs. Followhill because if I inherited one thing from my runaway crazy-ass grandma, it’s good manners. “Of course.” “How long did it take you to find them?” She pauses before she answers because she knows where this is going. I lift a questioning eyebrow. “Twenty-five minutes,” she admits. “The worst half hour of my life.” “Then it suffices to say you didn’t love my sister like she was your own. She’s been missing for nearly four years now, and your ass showed up only two minutes ago, making grand announcements like a presidential candidate.” “Four years.” She looks around her, drinking in the torn chain-link fences, cracked concrete, and boarded windows. “You still don’t know where she is?” After the truancy officer poked Mom, Rhett finally came up with a story about Via moving in with my dad. It’s an interesting angle, considering no one knows where he is, least of all Via. Rhett went as far as faking a shit-ton of paperwork. Then he proceeded to beat my semi-unconscious mother for recklessly giving birth to kids she had no intention of raising. “As motherly as a stray cat,” he spat in her face while tromping his way out the door. The fact was, Via disappeared with zero repercussions from the system, thanks to Mrs. Followhill’s daughter. And me. “Take a wild guess.” I flash her a sardonic smile. She squares her shoulders, narrowing her eyes at me. “All right. Get up, Penn.” “Nah, I’m good.” “You’re anything but.” She shoves her outreached hand in my face. “Stand up.” I laugh at that because I can. Because I’m eighteen years old and no one but a complete stranger wants to claim my ass. Because my mother died yesterday of an overdose (I’ll give her one thing—perfect timing), yet I feel absolutely nothing. She hasn’t been present in my life for as long as I can remember. Over the past two years, we’ve barely exchanged six sentences in total. Rhett didn’t shed a tear. Just told me to pack my two and a half belongings and leave, adding that he hadn’t screwed her in a year, and I should be grateful he let me stay beyond her expiration date. “Penn, you need to come with me.” Melody is snapping her fingers in my face now. I blanked. Guess that happens when you don’t sleep for two nights straight. “I do, huh?” I don’t know why I’m smiling. I’m in so much shit even her manicured hand can’t pull me out of it. “Remind me why?” “The alternative is couch-surfing and slipping at school. By the way, today is the first day of class. If everything were fine, you’d be there. And you’re officially not the state’s problem. Even if you do find temporary places to stay, you’ll move around constantly, which will make it difficult to practice or even get a job. You will have no funds to sustain your football career—that is, if you move somewhere where they have a football team, and if they’ll even let you try out for a position. Not to mention, according to your file, you’re the team captain. Why lose your position? You’re going to get drafted to a D1 college if you keep it up. Complete your senior year while staying with us, and we’ll go our separate ways if that’s what you want. But at least give yourself the chance to succeed. Don’t turn this opportunity down because of your pride.” She knows a lot about my life, but it doesn’t surprise me. Being a kid from around here, your file gets tossed around like beer pong. “You and your sister both have more athletic talent in your pinkies than I’ve ever seen,” she adds. “So, what, I’m going to live at your place, and we’re going to play fucking house for a year?” I crack my knuckles. “We’re not going to play anything. We are a family. And you are welcome into it.” “Put a lid on it, ma’am. You sound like a This Is Us episode.” I should stop. That much I know. I’m throwing away a golden opportunity. My stupid ego will make sure I end up without a scholarship and a roof, but I’m not ready to cave in yet. I have nothing against Melody Followhill. Her daughter, on the other hand, is a different story. “We’ll make it work.” She offers me her hand again. I don’t take it. Again. She nudges her hand an inch closer to my face. “Whatever your reservations are, we can work them out. I’d like to help you find your sister.” My sister is dead, I’m tempted to say, but hell if I need another dose of pity. It’s only an assumption but an educated one. No way Via is alive and hasn’t sent me a letter, or a text, or picked up the goddamn phone in four years. “Good luck with that.” “I don’t need luck. I have money.” I inspect her to see if she is for real. She doesn’t make any apologies for being rich. I see where her daughter got the superiority complex. It stinks on Mrs. Followhill, but it positively reeks on her baby girl. “Get your duffel bag,” she commands. When I stay put, she grabs it herself and heads to her Rover. After tossing it in her back seat, she throws the passenger door open. “Fine. Stay here. You’re not getting your things back. You officially own nothing.” I finally get up and get in, not looking back at Rhett’s house. My hand hovers over the leather seats, not touching. Fuck. “You’ll kick me out in an hour,” I comment dryly. “Try me, Scully.” I dig my fingernails into the leather seats, fascinated with how beautiful the imperfect indents of my nails look on them. When she starts the engine, I light a cigarette and roll the window down. One last chance to change your mind, lady. “Those cigarettes are going to kill you.” She pushes her sunglasses up her nose and raises her chin. She’s bold, this one. “Good. The fuck are they waiting for?” I don’t know what I’m expecting. A lecture, a scowl. A punishment? Maybe some yelling. It’s been a while since I’ve been parented. But what I see in my periphery amuses me. A smile tugs at her lips. “You have sass. You and my daughter, Daria, will get along just fine.” She has no idea how wrong she is, but she sure is about to find out. You poured misery into me Let it simmer for a while And now it is time for you to taste What you’ve created I slide my journal on the edge of Principal Prichard’s desk and step back. He doesn’t raise his head from the documents he is reading, a frown stamped on his face. I rub my sweaty palms along my skirt. He licks his forefinger and flips a page in the brochure he’s reading. It’s a grown-up quirk that reminds me he is twenty years my senior. That what we’re doing is wrong. I wrote my first ever entry in my little black book the day we did what we did to Via. The day I realized I wasn’t just a mischievous kid, I was a mean girl. Since then, the notebook has become jammed-packed with entries. I take it with me everywhere like a dark cloud over my sunshine hair, and at night, I sleep with it under my pillow. It harbors my not-so-Instagram-worthy moments. Things only Principal Prichard and I know. How I cut Esme’s Disney princess hair in her sleep when we were fifteen at a sleepover. How I had my mom adopt the stray cat Luna wanted just to make her jealous. How I ruined Via’s life. “Back so soon?” His tone is ruthlessly bored. It anchors me to the ground, reminding me of how little and unworthy I am. Instead of answering, I turn around and lock his door. Behind my back, I hear the soft thud of his pen hitting the document and know he is setting his reading glasses down where the pages meet because I’ve seen this movie a thousand times before. A chill runs down my spine. Principal Prichard is attractive in the way powerful men usually are. In a symmetrical, clinical way. His hair is velvet black—almost bluish—and his nose is as sharp as a knife. A constant scowl knots his forehead like Professor Snape, and although he is not particularly tall or muscular, he is slender and well-dressed enough to pull off the James Bond look. Prichard and I, we go back. Our first encounter occurred a few days after Via disappeared when I was still in middle school. Our counselor was on her honeymoon, so when I broke down in tears, my teacher directed me to the principal’s office. Prichard was attentive, and nice, and young. He gave me tissues and water and a free pass from PE on cardio day. I told him I made a terrible mistake, and I didn’t know how to tell my mom. When he asked me what happened, I handed him my journal and twiddled my thumbs as he read it. Confessing it aloud would have made it too real. After he read my first entry, he put the notebook down. “Do your parents punish you, Daria?” “No,” I said honestly. What did that have to do with Via? She was missing, and it was all because of me. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops and take it to my grave in the same breath. I was hoping he’d push me in the right direction. “Do you have any house rules?” He drummed his fingers on his desk. I guessed I couldn’t puke in my sister’s shoes, but nothing was written or anything. I blinked at him, confused. “No.” “I think what you need more than anything else”—he stopped drumming, leaning forward—“is to be disciplined.” That’s how our story began. The Years of Daria and Principal Prichard. When I moved to All Saints High, he moved with me. For him, it was a promotion. For me, it was a relief. Principal Prichard—dubbed Prince Preach at All Saints for his regal handsomeness—is the person I turn to for my atonements. Every time I feel guilty, he makes me pay, and the pain goes away. “Turn around and face me.” His metallic voice rolls down my spine now. I do. “On your knees.” I lower myself. “Bend your head and say it.” “I am Daria Followhill, and this is my church. You are my priest, and to you, I confess all my sins and atone for them.” After my visit to the principal’s office, I splash cold water on my face in the bathroom and wonder what my chances are of looking like nothing happened. Finding out I was assigned to the class my mother taught at All Saints High was the whole reason I ran to him in the first place. It creeps me out that I wouldn’t exist if my parents hadn’t met in this place. And it makes my skin crawl that everyone around me can practically imagine my parents getting it on over Miss Linde’s desk. I don’t remember when I started nurturing the rumors about Principal Prichard and me, but I sure remember why. “Aren’t you the result of a sordid affair between a student and a teacher? Your dad knocked your mom up when he was a senior, and his mom forced him to marry her?” A senior girl who looked like Regina George cornered me in the restrooms on the first day of my freshman year. She was armed with three other goons who looked like carbon copies of the least good-looking Kmart catalog model. One of them shoved me against the wall. “Bitch, I don’t care who you think you are. Here, you’re just an accident with a skirt, and if you’re gonna walk these halls thinking you’re all that, we’ll make sure everyone knows it,” she spat out. I tilted my chin up, wiping the traces of her saliva from my face. “My parents got married before I was conceived. My grandma actually hated the idea of my mom and dad being together. In fact, she still does, and we’re not close with her. I only see her once a year even though we live in the same town. I’m telling you this, not because I think you care, but because if you’re going to be a bitch, better not be a dumb one. When talking shit, at least be factual. Not that it’s going to help you. I came here to run this place, and guess what? You’re already feeling threatened.” That earned me a slap in the face. I smiled, keeping my tears at bay. I got it. I was about to take their place. I was going to make the cheer team, whether they liked it or not, because even though I was a crappy ballerina, I was a damn good dancer. I would date their boyfriends, wear their dresses better, and drive a fancier car. No one likes to come face to face with their 2.0 version. It’s always fancier and includes all the upgrades. “Better not get comfortable, Followhill. We’re after your ass.” The brunette spat phlegm onto my powder pink lace-up heels. I realized early on that I needed armor against my parents’ reputation. The only way I could protect myself from the fire was by creating a bigger blaze. If they thought I was untouchable, they’d fear me instead of taunt me. If they thought the hard-nosed principal had my back—or had me on my back, for that matter—I would not be messed with. So I nurtured the rumors, made them grow, gave them wings, and let them fly, like butterflies from a Mason jar. I’m smart, cunning, and understated. I don’t actually tell anyone we’re dating. I just keep going to Principal Prichard’s office, and he always opens the door because whatever we are—he likes it. He likes it a whole freaking lot. Halfway through my journey down the hallway, I decide to cut myself some slack and ditch my last two periods. They’re electives, anyway. Fifteen minutes later, I park my cherry-red convertible BMW by the patio fountain in front of my house and head straight upstairs to the shower. I need to wash my hair and look presentable for dinner, during which I will feign shock when my parents tell me that Penn will be staying with us. If Mom can even convince him to live under the same roof as me. Then I’ll corner the bastard and lay down the rules. Guilty or not, I run this show. Mom’s Rover is nowhere in sight, which means the house is empty. Tiptoeing in, I confirm the coast is clear, then head to the bathroom. I dump my white mini skirt on the floor and let my baby blue cropped shirt follow suit. My phone lights up on the marble counter. Blythe: Ditching school on the first day? #savage Gus: Nice of you to stand up for the Scully kid. Wanna slum it up with a hood rat? How about try one who’s not TAKEN. Esme: Dude, your thighs look hella thick in that skirt. I know you’re a base, but there’s a limit. Abort mission or abort tacos. Your pick. :/ The hot water soothes the past twenty-four hours as it hits my body from four different showerheads. I tilt my head back, close my eyes, and moan. I can handle Penn. I’m the goddamn queen of All Saints High, and he’s just another random from Las Juntas. Whatever happened between us is water under the bridge. The kind I can’t let drown me. I step out of the shower to stand on the bathroom rug. I left my pink towel on the floor by the counter next to the door yesterday. I tramp toward it, dripping water, as the door swings open. “Bailey!” I gasp, but instead of meeting my baby sister’s big blue eyes and tiny frame, Penn is standing in front of me, up close. His body fills the doorframe effortlessly, and he looks like a venomous kiss. Dark and sinful and irresistible. His jeans ride low on his hips, and a wallet chain hangs from his right pocket. His sleeveless black tank top has a hole where his heart is because, of course, he’s an edgy asshole like Vaughn, and his arms are big, tan, and full of veins and muscle. His cuts are purple against his moss-hued eyes. And those greens are descending my body like a whip, potentially deadly, but for now, tender. I resist the urge to flinch, knowing the painful stroke is about to hit me. He drinks it all in. My breasts. My stomach. My thighs. And that private place between them that clenches hard against nothing right now. A slow smirk tugs at his cracked, heart-shaped lips. I cover my necklace—of all things—more embarrassed about it than anything else. “Oh, my freaking Marx. Penn. Get the hell out!” It’s the first time I call him by his name. Officially, I’m not supposed to know it. His face is still vacant. He is gripping the door handle, his knuckles ghostly white against his tan skin. He picks up the pink towel, throwing it at me, and I catch it with shaky fingers, wrapping it firmly around my body and tucking the sea glass into it. “Like what you see?” I flip my wet hair. My pride is beyond wounded. He just saw me completely naked and didn’t even acknowledge me. All my guilt and good intentions wash away and are replaced with a weird desperation to show him that he’s a peasant and I’m a queen. “Hate,” he corrects, rubbing his thumb over his lower lip. “I hate what I see, and plan on seeing very little of it. You’re Daria, I assume.” He is still not making a move to get out. This guy is unreal. I’m so mad, I could punch him in the face. Maybe I should. He won’t hit me back. And it would hurt him like hell since he’s already beaten to a pulp. “Don’t pretend we haven’t met.” I reach for my brush and comb my golden locks in front of the mirror. Might as well. Asshole’s not going anywhere. “We have, but we never exchanged names, just fluids,” he barbs, “which begs the question, how the fuck do you know mine?” “What fluids? You were too chicken to seal the deal,” I purr, wondering if he really doesn’t know my name. We’re both pretty big deals at our schools. I think about the sea glass necklace, watching my face turning scarlet in the mirror. Am I an idiot for taking what he gave me, turning it into jewelry, and making it my talisman? The sea glass is a functioning organ of mine now. It reminds me that good people exist. Only, I don’t know if Penn is that good anymore. I think I may have ruined him. Watching him in the steamed mirror, I lean against the vanity. I can tell when a guy is checking me out, and he’s not doing that. He’s more like assessing the damage he wants to inflict on me. I know his hatred for me runs deep because when he talks to me, every word is a blade, causing a shiver to roll down my spine. Instead of ending in my toes, though, it explodes between my legs. “This ain’t shooting the shit, Daria. You stay out of my way; I’ll stay out of yours.” “What are you doing here, anyway?” I mumble. “Shouldn’t you be at school? And don’t tell me what to do. You’re nothing but an unwelcome guest here.” I snort out a laugh. “I ditched, like you.” He runs his eyes over me as if I’m nothing. Air. “And agreed on my guest status. I’m a reluctant one, at best. But the offer was there, and I’d be stupid not to accept it. I see the way you look at me. Oh, Skull Eyes…” He throws the nickname in my face as though the past few years didn’t happen. Then he takes a step toward me, his devious grin back in full force. “This round, I’m going to fucking destroy you.” I turn to him fully, dumbfounded. I’m clutching the edge of the marble sink with one hand, not sure how or when the tables turned. He’s talking like he’s the master of the manor and I’m a pawn at his mercy. I narrow my eyes, trying to crack his façade, but alas, it remains tough as steel. Penn Scully actually believes he owns me. Me. Daria Followhill. The most popular girl at All Saints High. I need to try to remind myself that his mother just died. That he is acting out. That this morning, he thought he was homeless. “I don’t want you transferring to my school,” I hiss out. Melody would gladly file a transfer request, and Principal Prichard would salivate over the chance to snatch him up for our football team. “That won’t be a problem. You guys suck so much ass, you have shit-breath.” “Still smells better than poverty. You’re poor, right? Your sister was just bullshitting about being rich.” When someone hits me with a stick, I run over them with a tank. I’m so mean to him I want to throw up. I hate this part of being me. The striking harder at all costs part. “Just to make things clear”—I put the brush down, batting my lashes—“you’re not my step-sibling, foster brother, or a part of the family. You’re a stray dog, last of the litter, most unlikely to be adopted, and a charity case.” Penn takes a step toward me, and my heart is fighting its way out of my rib cage. The closer he gets, the more I realize that my heart might succeed. Penn’s eyes remind me of a snake. Mesmerizing but inhuman altogether. They weren’t like that before. His scent messes with my head. I want to reach out and caress his face. Kiss his wounds better. Beg for forgiveness. Curse him. Push him away. Cry on his shoulder for what we’ve done. For how it ended. For what we became afterward. Because I’m full of crap, and he is totally empty. We ruined ourselves the day of our first kiss. When Penn looks down at me, time stops. It feels like the world is losing gravity, floating into a bottomless depth in space when he clasps my chin with his thumb and finger to lift my head. I can’t breathe. I’m not sure I want to, either. My towel drops to the floor with a thud even though I secured it over my chest, and I realize that he tugged at it intentionally. I’m naked. My body, my soul, my heart. All my walls are down. Somewhere in my head, a red alarm blasts, and my inhibitions are arming, ready to fight back. I’m trying to decode his expression. He is amused, irritated, and…playful? The mixture of emotions doesn’t make sense. “Mess with me, Followhill, and I will ruin you.” “Not if I ruin you first.” I can’t hide the lust in my tone. A beat pulses between us. “Actually, you’re right. I do like what I see. Some of it, anyway.” His fingers slip around to the back of my neck, and my eyes flutter shut. My brain is screaming at me to open them. This is a hoax, the alarm screeches. He hates you. “I definitely like what I see.” His breath is sweet and hot. It caresses the tip of my earlobe, and a shudder ripples through me. My nipples pucker so hard, even the faintest brush of air makes me drip between the legs. This could go in so many directions, and I have no control over any of them. His mouth crashes against mine, and I yelp into his open lips just when his tongue invades me. He is swallowing me whole, and I’m so frustrated with my sick attraction to him. I bite his lower, bruised lip and feel his blood gushing out, warm and coppery. My hands clutch the fabric of his top, clawing to find the hole and fill it with my greedy fingers. He grabs the back of my neck and clutches like a lion taming his lioness as he deepens our kiss. There’s nothing shy or experimental or promising about our second kiss. We’re not the same kids. Not the same hopeful human beings. Our teeth clash, but we don’t laugh it off or stop. At the same time, it feels like we’ve never moved from that spot next to the trash can. We’re hungrier, and wiser, and angrier. I’ve never been kissed this way before. Not by him. Not by anyone. His mouth disconnects from mine, and it takes me a few seconds to register what’s happening. “The rarest thing in the world should not be given to a basic bitch. I hope you didn’t save me your firsts because I have no interest in taking them,” he whispers into my ear, and my eyes snap open. Penn shoves something into his back pocket, then steps back. He turns toward the door, and before I have time to tell him to go screw himself or drop dead, he coils his head over his shoulder. Those snake eyes, they speak to me. They tell me that he doesn’t want to be my friend. That he is fully prepared to be my enemy. “Nice seeing you again, sis.” He slams the door in my face. My hand jumps instinctively to my sea glass necklace, preparing to clutch it in shock. It’s gone. Like all families, mine has a mind-numbing routine that rarely changes and includes me very sparsely. When Melody picks up Bailey from school every day, they go straight to ballet, and Dad comes home from work around six. That means I have at least four more hours to avoid the jerk living under my roof, and I’m starving, thirsty, and constantly reaching out to play with the necklace before realizing it’s not there anymore. I pace my room, text Blythe and Esme, then decide to write an entry in my little black book. Entry #1,298: Sin: Snuck into Penn’s room when I heard the bastard taking a shower and stole his pencil (Who uses pencils anymore? Is he five?). Swirled the eraser around my clit and masturbated with it. Put it back in his pencil bag. Reason: Jerk walked in on me naked. On purpose. And I didn’t hate it. At all. Sometime after exchanging texts with my friends, I crash in front of Teen Mom. I wake up to a gentle knock on my door, the colors from the TV frame dancing over my bedroom walls. “Lovebug, dinner’s almost ready,” Mel singsongs from the other side. I fling an arm over my eyes. I don’t want to face him. I especially don’t want to face him after he saw me naked and kissed me and made my nipples hard and then told me he doesn’t want anything to do with me. “Coming,” I yell. I change into super short plaid shorts and a tank top. I’m going for the unaffected-by-your-bullshit look with a touch of just-because-we-kissed-doesn’t-mean-I-want-you-loser. Mel and Bailey are in the kitchen. Bailey is chopping vegetables, and my mother is marinating the chicken breasts. They’re talking ballet. I ignore the sting that accompanies being an outsider and plop on a stool by the kitchen island. It’s all cream-colored wood with dark brown granite counters. I pluck a cherry tomato from the salad bowl and pop it into my mouth. “Hey, Bails, how was school?” “Bumpin’. I have a new lab teacher, and she says I can use it after school under her supervision.” My sister flashes her braces with a smile, each band a different color, like the LGBT flag. One day, she’ll be a rose in full bloom, but for now, she is content being a wallflower. Her petals are already beginning to open, and I need to come to terms with that. “How was yours?” she asks. I think about Principal Prichard and my latest visit to his office. About my new, humiliating classroom. About the text messages burning my cell phone. “Amazeballs.” I flash a white-toothed, straight smile. My eyes are already drifting. I try to find Penn around the open floor plan. “Can you be a doll and take this to your dad? He’s on the patio.” Mel doesn’t lift her head from the chicken. I take the platter of marinated chicken from her hands and pad barefoot toward the patio, ignoring the heat spreading through my cheeks. My dad and Penn are standing over the grill, and I chuckle bitterly. She didn’t even give me a heads-up that he was here. My dad uses the tongs to flip the steaks. Each of them is holding a bottle of beer, and they seem to share an easy conversation. Dad is drinking beer with him? Great. Penn is only eighteen, but it doesn’t surprise me. My parents sometimes let me sip wine at family dinners. They firmly believe that if you make teenagers feel responsible about booze, they won’t go around getting shitfaced when they finally get their hands on alcohol. I never get drunk at parties. Sobriety equals a certain amount of boredom, which is necessary to make sure my game face remains intact. I slide the glass door open and stop to watch them. “I don’t make a habit of trusting boys with busted knuckles around my daughters, but my wife loves to fix things, and since I’m a past project of hers, I thought it would be fair to pay it forward,” my dad drawls. Penn stares at him with guarded curiosity. “I appreciate your help, sir, but I don’t need fixing. I ain’t broken.” “You’ve been through a lot,” Dad presses. “It’s okay not to have your shit together at eighteen.” “Don’t worry about my shit,” Penn retorts. “I’d appreciate if no one knows I live here. It’s not my school district, and I’m the starting wide receiver at Las Juntas. My scholarship’s on the line here.” “Graduating from a prestigious high school like All Saints would look better on your college application.” “It’s too late to transfer. I’m a captain of the rival team. There’s no way I’d fit in at All Saints High. Besides, All Saints already has a wide receiver even though he’s a total prick,” Penn says point-blank. A giggle tickles at the back of my throat, but I swallow it down. They still don’t know I’m here. I think. “Point is, you live under my roof, you do not touch my daughters. Don’t try me, boy. I have ties older than you. Word to the wise? These tongs”—Dad snaps them in Penn’s face while the latter taps an unlit cigarette over his thigh—“they’re good for more than just flipping steaks, kiddo.” “No offense, sir, but one of your daughters is entirely too young for me, and the other is entirely too Daria for me.” Penn’s voice is like black lace wrapping around my throat. I don’t think my dad noti