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           Jessica Park
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  Copyright © 2015 by Jessica Park

  All rights reserved.

  Cover Designer: The Cover Lure, www.thecoverlure.com

  Editor and Interior Designer: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing, www.unforeseenediting.com

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Visit my website at jessicapark.me

  For Tracy Hutchison, who proved to be strong, brave, loving, beautiful, and damn invincible despite the world screaming at her not to.

  Sometimes, power surfaces after the intolerable trips us up.

  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

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Other Works

  I DON’T HAVE ON A COAT as my mother flies out of the house. I’m not convinced that she told me to get in the car or that she even remembers I am here. I just chase after her and manage to jump into the backseat before she races out of the driveway.

  As we near the hospital, she throws her purse into my lap and demands that I locate her lipstick, so at some point, she has presumably decided that I exist enough to dig through her makeup bag.

  “It’s important to look your best, no matter what the occasion,” she practically shrieks. “What? No, not that one! No one wears bright pink to a hospital. Good Lord, Stella. Find me something more neutral. The brown. And put some on yourself. But don’t use mine. You look as white as a sheet. Did you bring blush? You didn’t? What on earth is wrong with you? Pinch your cheeks at least.”

  I shift my focus from worry about my father and sister and the car accident they were in and lift my fingers to my face. My cheeks soon burn with pain, but I’m reassured that I am, in fact, still here.

  The car peels out during a turn, and my head cracks against the window. It feels good, and I wish my mother would take all turns with as much vigor. But given my mother’s inattention to the road, I’m still a bit surprised that my body is not in bits all over the asphalt between home and the hospital.

  So, happy birthday to me.

  I am alive.

  My mother abandons me as soon as we enter the emergency room, and I overhear enough to know that my eighteen-year-old sister, Amy, is being examined and that my father is with her.

  On my sixteenth birthday, I sit alone in the waiting area of the hospital.

  I smell antiseptic cleaners and burned coffee. I smell chaos and misery. The truth is that I could very well be experiencing some similar crap even if there wasn’t a car accident because that is about how life in my house goes. But I’d rather be at home where at least there is familiarity. I’m uncomfortable in new situations.

  A few hours later, a nurse finds me. My father and sister are fine. The accident could have been much worse. Black ice totaled my father’s Lexus, but he and Amy walked away from the accident.

  The orange fabric on the chair that I am now sitting on is making me feel ill. It’s hideous. The lighting in this claustrophobic room is hideous. The pile of wrinkled magazines with their airbrushed movie stars and neon lettering and overabundance of exclamation points is hideous. I want to put them all through a shredder and toss celebrity confetti. I would dance and spin under a cascade of shiny paper and forget where I am.

  It’s dark outside at only four thirty, but the streetlights shine enough that I can see that snow continues to fall. Chicago winters are not exactly peaceful, but I might prefer to be out in the cold rather than in here.

  It is hours later when my mother saunters into the room, moving past me without stopping, and assesses the coffee situation. She frowns at various single-serve flavors, eventually settling on one that passes inspection.

  As the coffee maker revs to life and begins brewing her cup, she turns and leans against the counter. She looks startled. “Oh, I didn’t see you there.”

  One would never guess that my mother, Lucinda Ford, was in grave concern for her husband and daughter. There is not a wrinkle in her pantsuit, nor a hair not perfectly styled. She wears a matching jewelry set, and I glare at the green stones hanging from her earrings. I immensely dislike them, but my mother infuriatingly makes them look glamorous. Then, I notice her lipstick.

  “You’re wearing pink lipstick,” I say. “You said not to wear pink. You put on the brown lip gloss that I gave you.”

  She sighs with exaggerated exasperation. “I did no such thing. And why you are concerned with my lipstick at this moment is beyond me. It’s your fault that we’re here in the first place.” She whips around and simultaneously tears open three sugar packets before shaking them into the paper cup. With her back to me, she takes a wooden stick from a container and begins stirring her coffee. She stirs and stirs and stirs.

  I drop my head and look at my feet. My boots are too small. They barely fit when I got them two years ago, and this year, I have squished toes and blisters.

  “You do know that, don’t you?” Lucinda asks. She is calm, eerily calm, and matter-of-fact in her speech. “That this accident is your fault?”

  I can’t begin to know how to respond.

  My mother continues, “They were on their way to buy you a birthday present. My husband and my daughter. Do you get that? And they could have been killed while trying to get you”—she waves a hand in the air—“some sort of trinket to commemorate your birth.” Suddenly, she begins to cry, and she clutches her hands to her chest. “Oh, if anything had happened to them, I don’t know what I would have done. They are everything. You understand? They are my world. My family is my world. Stella, come here.”

  She opens her arms to me, and I quickly cross the floor and let her wrap my body against hers. Tentatively, I hug her back.

  She is right about the lipstick. She must have asked for pink. She’s always right.

  “I’m so sorry about today. I don’t need anything for my birthday. They shouldn’t have gone out in this weather.” Now, I shut my eyes and hold on to her more tightly. I want her to stroke my hair, to tell me everything will be all right.

  She quickly pats my back. “This could have been much worse.” Then, my mother pushes me from her hold, and her tone grows harsh. “Stop being so clingy. I need to get back to Amy. They’re discharging your father but keeping Amy overnight just as a precaution. She’s a bit batt
y and combative right now, but it’s probably a concussion of sorts, nothing permanent. Considering what the car looks like, everyone is surprised that she’s as perfect as she is. You’re lucky they are both unharmed, don’t you agree?” She smiles as she turns to pick up her coffee.

  I drop back into the orange chair as she walks out the door. I sit, unmoving, for three hours. Maybe I fall asleep. I’m not sure. But I don’t budge.

  When enough time has passed, I leave the room and wander the hospital until I find a restroom. It smells worse in here than the rest of the place. My reflection in the mirror is alarming. I gather that I have been crying because my eyes are puffy and red. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve just woken up—that is, if I did indeed fall asleep. The porcelain sink is cold against my hands as I grip it and stare at myself. My heavily streaked hair has lost its bounce from my early-morning round with the curling iron, and the blonde highlights have a green tint in this light. Sixteen is not looking very attractive.

  I don’t have my purse with me, so I can’t touch up my smeared mascara or tear-streaked complexion. I just hope that my mother doesn’t see me like this. It would only embarrass her. Running wet fingers under my eyes and over my cheeks helps a bit, so I rally as I take a deep breath and force a perfect smile.

  There. Everything is fine.

  But I lean forward and rest my head against the mirror as I think about my sister, Amy, and my father. What if I’d lost them? What if I were left alone with my mother? I squeeze my eyes tight and shake the thoughts. What horrible, selfish, ungrateful things to think.

  It’s not her fault that I am inadequate on every level. If I only listened to her and followed her lead with more skill, then perhaps I wouldn’t be such a nightmare. Sure, she has her quirks, but Amy has her affection just fine, so I am clearly doing something wrong.

  It’s true that Amy is certainly worthy of adoration though. I cannot imagine having a better sister. She’s an honors student, the vice president of her senior class, and a star lacrosse player. She dates any boy she wants, spends weekends with her girlfriends, and still makes time for me, the younger sister with little to offer.

  I smile, for real this time, as I remember how she used to sneak into my bedroom when I was little. When the lights were out and I was supposed to be sleeping, Amy would silently open the door and glide noiselessly across the floor and into my bed. There, she would tent up the covers, turn on a flashlight, and read me books until I fell asleep. After three or four stories, when my eyes would finally get heavy, she would tell me good night.

  And I always said, “I love you so mush.”

  And she always giggled and said, “Much, silly. Much. But I love you so mush, too.”

  Then, she would be gone, and I would sleep peacefully.

  I bump my head against the mirror and stand back up to look at myself. “I do not love me so mush,” I say out loud.

  The hospital hallways are a confusing maze, and I can’t find my way back to the waiting room, so I just keep going. I ride the elevator up a few floors and then more. Then, I take the stairs and walk a flight, counting the steps that take me higher. I walk another flight and then another. I continue until I reach the highest floor that I’m allowed on.

  My feet throb, and I’m winded, so I plop down on the top step to catch my breath and remove my boots. I’m bleeding through my socks. It’s disgusting. The idea of putting my boots back on is inconceivable right now, but I don’t know what to do. I am, of course, in a hospital where I’m pretty sure there might be a bandage or two to help me out, but I’m too humiliated to go marching through the hospital, leaving bloody footprints behind me. There would be no good way to explain why my winter boots were too small for me, not to mention why I was compulsively running up flights of stairs. It would not reflect well on my mother, and no one would understand that she paid for these expensive boots, and that should be enough. It was my fault for not choosing a size that would last me until my feet stopped growing.

  I will just sit here and wait for the blood to dry.

  I want to find my sister and my father, but that would mean finding my mother, and I seem to be of little comfort to her today. What upsets me more though is that my father has not sought me out today. I know he was not hurt in the accident, and I know that he’s probably been hovering over Amy…but I’m here, too.

  I look at the blood congealing on my ankles. See? I really am here. There’s proof.

  Dad is loving and funny. It’s easy with him, and he doesn’t seem to feel that I’m any sort of monumental disappointment. Or if he does, he hides it better.

  I wrap my hand around my left wrist and feel the imprint of the word engraved on my bracelet.

  My father bought this for me last year when we were at a state fair. It was the sort of thing that my mother would never attend as she deemed it low class and tacky, but Dad had taken me.

  I know that she loathes the wide leather cuff and the engraved metal plate on the bracelet that I have on at all times, and more than once, I’ve caught her wrinkling her nose at the sight of it. How the white of the leather stays white is unexplainable, but it never gets dirty. It says Adored in beautiful lettering. This bracelet is the one defiance that I allow myself, and I do not take this off because of her. I’ve developed a habit of tracing across the letters with my fingers in a near compulsiveness that I find comforting.

  A clomping sound echoes throughout the stairwell as someone walks through the lower levels. I wait for the sounds of a door opening and closing, but instead, the clomping just grows louder. I scoot over on my stair perch and lean against the wall, letting my hair fall over my eyes, while I wait for the person to pass by me. I’m good at being invisible.

  Instead, the loud footsteps stop abruptly, and I can tell the person has come to rest on the landing just below me. Perhaps I’m about to be murdered. My bloody feet will likely cause confusion during the investigation into my demise. It will appear that my ankles were savagely attacked prior to my being beaten to death in an unattractive hospital stairwell, and investigators will launch a manhunt for the ankle fetishist.

  When I lift my head to meet my fate, I see a boy about my age, or maybe he’s a bit older. I’m not good at guessing ages. His hands are tucked into the front pockets of his jeans, the hem of his white T-shirt bunching up near his wrists. A thin gold chain peeks out from under the collar, and I lift my eyes a bit more. The boy has twinkling eyes filled with mischief and happiness.

  “Hi,” he says with a smile. “Whatcha doing?”

  “Just…sitting here,” I answer dumbly.

  He takes a small hop and lands with both feet on the first step. “Know what I’m doing?”

  I shake my head.

  His head falls to the side, and he lifts up and down on his toes. “I’m counting steps. Each flight has—”

  “Eight steps,” I finish for him. “I counted, too.”

  He hops to the next step. “Aha! But did you know that the two flights between the third and fourth level only—”

  “Have seven.”

  The boy grins and hops again. He is getting closer to me. “Exactly! What does that mean? The third floor is one step shorter than all the other floors?”

  I stare at him for a moment. “Or those steps are each a bit higher, adding up to the same height as the other flights.”

  He narrows his eyes and leans forward. “Very clever. You could be right. But then, why? Was there a secret purpose? Or was it a construction error and some step builder fouled things up? Other things might be fouled up in this godforsaken building, and we might be at risk. I mean, there could be a huge structural problem with this hospital.”

  “You seem rather paranoid,” I mutter.

  “Perhaps. Perhaps it’s realistic.” He jumps the rest of the steps until his feet are near mine. Then, he pivots and drops down, so he is sitting next to me. “Hi,” he says again.

  “Hi.”

  “I’m Sam. Sam Bishop.”

 
I’m Stella Ford.”

  “What brings you to the hospital today?”

  I push my hair back. “My father and sister were in a car accident.”

  “Shit. Are they okay?”

  “Yeah, I think so, but I guess it was close. Black ice and stuff. I haven’t seen them, but my mother says they weren’t hurt. Airbags and stuff.”

  “I’m glad.”

  We sit silently for a minute, and I’m growing more and more uncomfortable with every second. My experience with boys is pretty limited, and the fact that he is undeniably cute is not making me confident. He should probably go away and leave me alone, but it would be impolite not to ask him why he’s here today, so I do.

  “Oh God, it’s ridiculous. I’m with a friend of mine. We’re in Chicago for a class trip, and he snuck off to see a girl that he’d met. Ran into some kind of trouble and got himself banged up a bit. I can’t see anything wrong with him, except that he’s being loud and annoying.”

  His smile is endearing and mesmerizing, and I have to do what I can to avoid staring for too long.

  “That’s nice of you to stay with him. Are his parents here?” I ask.

  “Nah. We’re from Maine, so they’re far away, not that they’d bother coming anyway. Not really those kind of parents, if you know what I mean.”

  I nod. “I do.” Sam doesn’t say anything else, so I add, “I’ve never been to Maine.”

  “Really? It’s awesome. My parents run a big inn, The Coastal. It’s right on the ocean in Watermark. It’s a small town that’s dead in the winter and packed in the summer.”

  “Lobsters,” is all I say, and inside, I cringe. If I could disappear right now, I would.

  “What?” For some reason, he just looks curious, not judgmental over my complete lack of social skills.

  “Sorry. It’s just, when you said you were from Maine, I immediately thought of lobsters. I’ve never had lobster, and I wouldn’t even know how to begin with the shell and stuff.”

  “So, when you come to Maine, I will show you how to tackle lobsters, okay?” His arm brushes against my pants as he peers down and points to my feet. “Yeesh. What happened?”

 

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