I’ve had a crush on the same guy my whole life. Well, not quite the entire seventeen years, but ever since he moved in next door five years ago and smiled at me. It was the only smile I’ve ever gotten from him. And even then, it didn’t last long.
When I’d handed him back his deflated football that had flown over our fence, the smile had quickly vanished. It wasn’t my fault that he’d practically enticed my dog to play fetch when his ball came barreling into our backyard.
But even as he scowled at me, something about him completely sucked me in. Maybe it was his mysterious nature and innocent, deep-blue eyes. All I know is that the attraction today is clear—his six-foot frame, unruly dark hair, and tattoos have me ogling him whenever I get the chance. But there’s no innocence captivating his eyes these days. They’re harsh, focused, and completely oblivious of me.
I take the stairs two at a time, making a beeline for my bedroom. I know his routine like the back of my hand, and right now is one of the only times knowing his routine matters.
“Mal, where did you put my—”
“Get out of the way, Grieva!” I slam the door shut in my little brother’s face and dart to the window.
Hiding behind a window frame, I peer down onto the street. The annoying OCD man in the house opposite his is mowing the lawn again. I silently scold him for ruining what is possibly the best forty-five seconds of my day. The man seems to spend an inordinate amount of time in his front yard. I glare at his back, but as he goes to turn around, I jerk my head out of the way so he can’t see me. I’ve caught him looking up here a few times, and to say it's creepy is an understatement. Though, I guess I’m the last person who should pass that judgment.
I move to the edge of the curtain and let out a breath when I see his attention has returned to his perfectly manicured grass.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I whisper-chant, flicking my gaze to the wall clock, then back out to the street below, awaiting the boy next door’s arrival.
Any minute now.
I frown when a large, flashy SUV rolls up and parks in his driveway beside mine. I’ve never seen it before. The stark contrast to the other minivans or modest run-around cars is refreshing.
A man and woman step out of the vehicle, both wearing outfits that obviously match their wealth. I don’t recognize either of them. The lady is tall, thin, and blonde. Her partner is dark-haired, stocky, and blessed with the tanned skin I often dream about. Damn. If my boy doesn’t get a move on, this dude might just take his place.
The lady abruptly jerks her head around as if she’s read my mind. Her eyes sweep my front yard then drift up to my window, connecting with mine. I freeze.
God, I hope she doesn’t narc on me for creeping. But when she smiles and turns around, I release the breath she’d taken from me. I think I just got let off the hook.
I watch as they go inside, and then something catches my eye. I lean forward so I can see the end of the street, and sure enough, my attention is held captive.
My heart kicks into gear, deciding it wants to keep up with the pace of his pounding footsteps.
He rounds the corner at full speed. At about a hundred yards away, he slows to a jog, until finally he reaches his house beside mine and stops.
His hands rest on his knees as he hunches forward, catching his breath.
I don’t know why he always pushes himself to what looks like death. Then again, I don’t know why people expose themselves to physical exercise in the first place. I’m not complaining, though.
Sweat drips off his face, causing his shirt to cling to his body.
He stands, and, as he’s stretching, he peers into the tinted windows of the SUV and frowns. I wonder if that frown is because he knows the owners of the vehicle or because he doesn’t. Then he turns and walks up his drive.
Any moment now, my heart’s about to break through its ribcage.
He grabs the hem of his shirt. Any moment. Slowly, he brings it up, torturing me as he prolongs the final reveal, and then, suddenly, I’m swallowing back the excess saliva and telling myself to calm the hell down.
Who knew sweat could be so sexy? It drips off each sculpted muscle. My mind is in a frenzy and my body even more so.
There’s been more added to his tattoo. It doesn’t just cover his whole left arm anymore, but a little over his pec, too.
I squint, trying to get a better glimpse from up here, and, if I’m right, I’d say it was a wing.
I still can’t believe he has tattoos. I know his mom isn’t around. I wonder if she were, would he have been allowed to get one? If I came home with a tattoo, I’d never see the light of day again.
He hooks his shirt into his pants as he continues up the drive.
“Mallory!” My door swings open, and I almost tumble from my perched position on the windowsill. Wow, I really am a creep.
My heart’s pounding, my palms are sweating, and the apex between my thighs is throbbing.
“What are you doing?” The little shit runs toward me. I jump up, grab my brother by the shoulders, and steer him back out of my room.
“I swear, if you pick my lock one more time, I’m going to chop off your fingers in your sleep.”
He screams and takes off down the hallway.
“Good boy. Run along now, and don’t come back!” Slamming my door, I dash to my computer, jerking the mouse until the screen wakes up. I login to chat with Nicole and click on the speech bubble, letting my fingers loose.
Me: Oh. My. God.
Me: Kill me now!!!
Nic: It’s just past 4:30, so my guess is you were just graced with his presence?
Me: How is it possible to be that hot? Like how? Christian Grey has nothing on him.
Nic: You mean Travis Maddox. *sigh*
Me: No, Mr. Darcy . . .
Nic: Jay Gatsby. Wow. We’re taking it old school.
Me: But really, boy next door . . .
Nic: Wah!! :( Why can’t I have a sexy neighbor?! All I have is an elderly couple and their annoying-ass dog that yaps all day.
Nic and I have been pen-pals for almost three years. We’ve never met in person, so for all I know she could be a he and a psychopath, but I’m kind of hoping she’s neither because I gave her my Netflix password, and she kind of knows my whole life.
Nic: You know what you need to do?
Nic: You need to wear those skimpy sports bras, tight booty shorts, and go for a run.
Me: No way! I’ll die of humiliation.
Me: But mostly lack of oxygen.
Nic: If your boobs really are as big as they look in your photos, then you HAVE to do it! He won’t be able to miss you then.
Me: That’s for sure, cause I’ll be gasping for air at the end of my driveway. He might think I need an ambulance.
Me: Although . . . There’s a thought. He might even have to pick me up.”
Nic: Lol. Do it!
Me: Nah. I’ll just happen to bump into him at school. Then my books will fall out of my arms, and he’ll have to help me. We’ll make eye contact, and then we’ll have a moment, fall in love, and be disgustingly cute forever and ever.
The social suicide of homeschooling has produced a homebody whose life has been replaced by books and romcoms. All of which are full of happily-ever-afters, which may have quite possibly ruined any chance for a healthy relationship in my future.
Nic: First of all, high school isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be. That shit doesn’t happen. Romance isn’t so cliché. It’s cutthroat, just like two-faced bitches—that’s the only part that’s real.
Nic: And second, your mom isn’t going to let you go to public school.
But she has to. I’ll be eighteen in a couple of months, and I’m sure she wouldn’t want to ruin the last bit of time she has left as an authority figure by denying me my one and only wish.
I didn’t just learn the ways of romance from devouring novels and movies; I learned the inner workings of a troubled teenager’s mind. If you don’t get your own way, rebel until you do. Top tip, if you ask me.
Me: You just wait.
Nic: I think I’ll be waiting forever.
Me: Can’t you give me a little confidence?
Nic: Sorry, someone has to slap some reality into you.
Me: I can’t help that I’ve been sheltered my entire life. #homeschoolproblems
Nic: Well, for your sake, I really do hope you can convince her because then you might wake up to the real world.
Me: Ouch. Sometimes you can be kind of bitchy.
Nic: I’m just preparing you.
Me: Sure you are. Well, I’ll keep you updated. Tonight’s the night I’m either celebrating or coming up with an evil plan to be the worst teenager alive.
Nic: See you on the other side, my friend.
I’ve heard dads are the overprotective ones, but that isn’t the case for me. My mom’s a complete hypochondriac. I blame her fussing over me for being the root cause of all of my anxieties. Okay, maybe not all.
Apparently, when I was younger, I was almost kidnapped, hence the reason I never went to public school, or even out of my mom’s sight. It’s probably the reason why I’m always looking over my shoulder too—like I’m being watched. I don’t remember almost being snatched. Clearly, it traumatized her, and me, too. I got my first panic attack after that, and then the nightmares started. I guess she has some reason to worry. But I’m almost an adult now. I very rarely have nightmares or panic attacks. If I stay home forever, I may just lose my mind completely. I need to venture out, go to high school, experience just a little bit of my teenage years before it’s too late.
The smell of Sunday roast entices my senses, and I skip down the hall. My little brother, George, aka Grieva—shortened by yours truly from grievance—walks out of his room. When he sees me, he screams and slams his door shut as I continue past him. Smiling to myself, I enter the kitchen, a little too happy with what I plan to instigate.
“Deb and Kaitlyn are coming over for tea tonight,” Mom says. And there goes the good mood.
“Great,” I mutter, taking a seat at the island opposite her. Mom looks up from chopping tomatoes. Shifting the hair that has fallen in front of her face with her forearm, she frowns at me.
No matter how much she tries to force that friendship, it just doesn’t work. Kaitlyn had been pulled out of elementary school due to being bullied and has been homeschooled ever since. She’s a year older than me, but was held back a year because she’s got a learning disability or something. We have completely different backgrounds and aspirations. She’ll stay home forever, under the wings of her mother. But not me. If I have any say in my life, I’ll be flying out of this coop in no time.
“I know she’s looking forward to seeing you.”
I give her a deadpan look. “Yippee.”
“Mallory, if you act like that, you’ll never have any friends.”
“If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll never have any friends.”
She pauses, looking up at me through her thick lashes. “Not this again.”
“Mom,” I moan. “I need to go to school.”
“You don’t need to do anything.”
Crossing my arms, I give her the dirtiest look allowed without feeling too guilty. “But I do.”
The door to the kitchen opens, and my dad walks in. Mom glances at him then back at me. “You don’t.”
“Dad,” I plead.
He stops beside me, kissing me on the head and taking a seat. “What?” He looks between us.
Now is my chance to take advantage of his soft spot for me. I smile sweetly and speak even sweeter. “Can I please go to school? It’s senior year. My last ever opportunity—”
Mom butts in before Dad can even consider what I’m saying. “You don’t know what it’s like. You won’t like it one bit.”
“I will. I’ll like it lots of bits.”
She rolls her eyes, then glances back at Dad. I can see she’s silently begging him to agree with her, but so am I.
When he sighs, his shoulders falling forward, I begin to think up my plan of attack. But he surprises the both of us by saying, “Might not be the worst idea.”
“What?!” my mother and I say in unison. I’m now out of my seat and jumping up and down while Mom gives him the death stare.
“It can’t hurt her, Beth. We’ve been through the worst of it. She doesn’t get panic attacks anymore. It might even be good for her, especially if she’s going off to college next year.”
My mom’s face goes ghostly white.
I wrap my arms around my dad’s broad shoulders, squeezing him tightly. I don’t think I’ve been this excited since I went to that Taylor Swift concert, and that was like four years ago. I didn’t even like Taylor Swift; I just wanted to get out of our small town. Heck, I just wanted to get out of the house.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I kiss him on the cheek and then take off before Mom has the chance to voice her opinion.
They can argue it out, but Dad’s already agreed, so there’s no way they can back out of it now. I hope.
I almost trip multiple times as I sprint up the stairs. By the time I slide into my desk chair, my chest feels like it’s about to cave in. And that’s why I don’t do running.
I can’t even function with how excited I am. Nic’s not going to believe it. I don’t even believe it. My fingers hit the wrong keys several times as I type too fast. But I don’t care that it doesn’t make sense, I hit send anyway.
It’s not often we use the dining room table to have sit-down dinners. Usually, it’s only when we have visitors over. Or on the odd occasion when someone wants to instigate an intervention. The dining room seems to be the place to do it.
There’s one door in the far-right corner of the room, and if you sit at the head of the table, it’s easy to block the culprit from escaping.
Not that we need to host such an event. The extent of our family drama is what Nic calls “mild.” The last family confrontation we had was when someone mixed the whites with the colors and stained Mom’s bed sheets. No one owned up to it. Really, Mom can only point the finger at Dad or me, since George is apparently too young to work the machine. In the end, the case went unsolved. But as I sit here, older and wiser by a year, I don’t know how it didn’t occur to me that the culprit was, in fact, the one who initiated the investigation in the first place.
“It was you,” I interrupt the conversation, speaking my mind. The room goes quiet. My mom is so pedantic about things—she does all the linen, including ironing the goddamn tea towels. I stay away from all of that, and I don’t think I’ve seen Dad do the laundry in about ten years.
Everyone stares at me, and Mom asks, “What are you talking about?”
I want to say: You did it. You stained your own sheets, and you were just trying to shift the guilt from your own conscience. I’m an idiot for not putting the pieces together sooner, and so is Dad, but I guess that’s just one of our similarities, being brought to light. The problem is, Mom is as transparent as a brand spanking new window; the truth would have been written all over her face. She’s terrible at hiding her true feelings, and I just wonder what she intended to accomplish by covering her tracks. Why didn’t she just own up to it? It’s not like we would care.
My mom’s eyes narrow cautiously. She knows I’m not the best at holding my tongue, but I know better than to involve outsiders in our family drama. I think they would find it quite comical, though. It’s definitely more of a dinnertime conversation than Deb talking about some Karl guy she’s been seeing over the past few weeks.
Both Kaitlyn and her mom give me a strange look. George is the only one who seems interested “in what I have to say. A huge smile is plastered on his face, and he’s leaning forward in his seat, as if waiting for me to continue. My bet is he’s probably entertained by the fact my cheeks are burning because I’m the center of attention, humiliating myself.
“Nothing. I’m sorry,” I murmur. Dad clears his throat, shifting the scrutiny, but it does nothing to ease the tightness in my chest.
Kaitlyn gives me the side eye before she looks back at her mom, who seems as if I’ve just screamed out something completely inappropriate.
“Why don’t you tell Kaitlyn what you’re doing next week?” Mom says. I can just hear the lip in the tone of her voice, the lip I roused earlier behind closed kitchen doors.
Kaitlyn jerks her head back to me, eyes widening. The inquisitiveness in her expression is probably because I don’t ever do anything, or rather, I don’t ever tell her anything. But there’s just something about her I don’t trust—not that I trust many people. In fact, I really only trust Mom, Dad, and, “strangely, a person I’ve never met in my life. I don’t even trust Grieva. I glare at him from across the table. My gaze lands on his hands, and the humor disappears, his lips turning downward.
I know Mom’s just trying to prove a point. She knows I’m already feeling vulnerable, so she wants to push it that much more in the hopes I’ll change my mind. But it ain’t gonna happen. This time when I smile, it’s not forced. It’s from genuine excitement. I place my knife and fork down and face Kaitlyn completely. There’s no fault in my voice now. “I’m going to school for senior year.” Just conviction.
Kaitlyn’s jaw drops, and Deb’s fork clatters against her plate. For some reason, it’s taboo to go to public school once you’ve committed to homeschooling.
“Why?” Kaitlyn asks. Her voice is filled more with disgust than intrigue.
I stare at her, tilting my head. I wonder if she ever thinks about having a social circle that consists of more than her mom. I’m not sending hate to my mom or my only friend, Nic, but a girl needs to have at least a group of girls she can gossip with about the boy next door. I’m not gonna lie, though; the thought of branching out into unfamiliar territory is frightening.
I shrug. “Don’t you want to experience it? School? Prom?” And everything in between?
She rolls her eyes, taking a bite of a potato, before muttering. “Oh, I’ve experienced it.”
“In elementary school.”
“Mallory!” Mom reprimands.
Kaitlyn faces me. “I went to Newton High two years ago.”
I lean forward in my seat. “You did?”
She takes another bite. “Uh-huh.”
I look at my mom, who’s chewing the inside of her cheek, then at Dad, who’s doing his best not to pay attention, and then at Kaitlyn’s mom, who’s wiping her face with a napkin and now gulping down her large glass of water.
Am I missing something here?
“Why’d you stop?”
“Kaitlyn keeps her head down, but her eyes flick to her mother before settling back on her plate.
“Are you sure you want to do that, Mallory?” Deb interrupts. Now I know something is really wrong.
My breath quickens. Under the table so no one can see, I squeeze my hands into fists and release them slowly, over and over, to try to loosen the tension taking over my body. But the longer the silence persists, the harder my heart beats. Whatever happened is serious, and that scares me. I can’t let my mom see the anxiety returning. I’m as stubborn as a mule, and even the elephant in the room isn’t going to make me give in.
“Yeah, I am,” I say.
Kaitlyn toys with her food, and for the first time ever, I feel sorry for her. She takes a deep breath, then mutters, “Bullies are real, Mal.” She moves her hand, flashing her wrist, giving me just enough time to see them. Cuts. And lots of them.
I swallow, my gaze darting to hers. How have I never noticed them before?
She jerks her hand back, resting it on her lap under the table.
“The world is a dangerous place, Mallory. And the dangers come in all shapes and forms,” Debbie says. Her words send a shudder down my spine, and my throat constricts. I shake away the approaching nerves. I haven’t had a panic attack in a long time, but I’m not about to let my mom know anxiety still affects me.
I need to do this—go to school. I need to do this for myself.
Sucking in a deep breath, I flatten the palms of my hands on my thighs and concentrate on lowering my heart rate.
I know how wrong this is, but all I have to do is think about the boy next door, and my pulse drops within seconds. His expressive dark blue eyes and unruly hair, his biceps upon biceps, and his twenty-pack of abs have my mouth watering. The anxiety passes. I cross my legs under the table, hoping it will help minimize the hot flashes.
God, if only he knew just how much I think about him, spy on him, I would be up for some sort of invasion of privacy crime.