Chapter One: May 2008
Tapping a blue pen to my chin, I stare down at the words scrawled on the notebook page in front of me before commanding the eraser to send them back into the void. I place my guitar back in its case, facing the shame of yet another morning wasted trying to pen a love song. It seems my infatuation with Austen novels and love songs have set my standards high, standards my own lazy rhymes have yet to surpass. Bending down to tie my oxfords, I overhear the sound of feet pitter-pattering up the stairs. My gaze flits over to the alarm clock on my desk. Seven o’clock, the most infamous time of day: Auden’s hour of nosiness.
My younger sister, Auden, knocks on my door. “Hey Emery, I’m done with the straightener if you need it.”
I roll my eyes, knowing her intentions. “Nah, I’m good. I braided my hair again.” Opening the door, I greet her mischievous beam with a scowl. “I’m not stupid enough to leave you alone with my diary again.”
“Dang it,” she mutters, shuffling back to her room. I’ve never understood her obsession with raiding my room for my diary key. Like she’s going to find anything interesting anyway. It’s nowhere near as romantic as Grandma’s tales of courting Grandpa.
But, if it ever were to be…
In haste, I push back my guitar case, rummaging through the mess of guitar tabs, old toys, and novels stashed under my bed in search of the book of secrets. At last, my palm grazes a rough, glittery book spine. I seize the hardcover file and the key hidden in my desk drawer, wedging them both into the space between my mattress and the bed frame. Surely Auden will never look there.
Emerging from my room, I wait outside the bathroom I share with my sister, tapping my foot as she applies mascara. Two years younger than me, Auden is the little starlet of the family, with stunning golden blonde hair and an innate taste for all things that glamor I’ve never cared for. I pull at my own beige cardigan and striped dress, patience wearing. “I thought you were ready. I don’t want to get my first tardy during my last couple weeks of junior high.”
Auden uncaps a can of hairspray, ever-so-carefully pressing the nozzle as she circles her head. “Please, Em. We’ve got like fifteen minutes.”
“Girls, are y’all about ready to go?” Daddy calls from downstairs, deflating her argument. I raise my eyebrows at her, smirking, before she playfully whacks at me with her hairbrush. In a narrow escape, I sprint into my room and grab my bookbag. Scurrying down the stairs, I find refuge in Daddy’s truck.
Auden makes her grand appearance five minutes later (after Daddy blows the horn, twice). She hops in the backseat, face brightening when her phone pings.
“Oh my gosh! Em! You know how Bentley Middleton asked for my number at youth group the other day?”
“Oh yeah,” I mumble, failing to mask my annoyance. Bentley may be in our youth group, but he’s one of those snakes Grandma warned us about. By the way he sports his on-again, off-again relationships with girls from school, I hoped Auden would see through his charming texts. But alas, a dribble of drool just fell on her phone screen.
“Well,” Auden pauses for dramatic effect, her grin wide as the Grand Canyon, “he asked me to the end of the year dance!” She squeals, kicking her legs. Daddy turns up the radio, pulling out of our driveway.
“Wow…” is all I can manage, remembering that he and… what’s her name? Meagan? Melissa?... were holding hands in the hallway Friday afternoon.
“Really? That’s all you can say?” Auden huffs, directing her attention back to her knight-in-shining-fakeness, fingers flying across the keyboard.
“Well, let’s just say I’d be happier for you if someone, um, anyone else asked you. Bentley’s got a reputation, you know.”
The heat from the glare Auden shoots my way could resort the earth to ashes in a matter of seconds. “The only reason you don’t like him is because he’s Bridgette’s brother. I swear, you find fault with every guy, Emery. At least I’m open to dating. Don’t blame me when you’re eighty, wearing that same cardigan and dissing on any guy that hits on you at the retirement home.”
“That’s enough you two,” Daddy interjects, after he turns down the road leading to our school. I bite my lip to repel the bitter comebacks I’ve conjured from escaping.
At least I’m guarding my heart. At least I listened to what Grandma said. At least I’m trying to learn from Rider’s mistakes.
Once we’re dropped off and reach the middle school hallway, Auden runs off with her pack of sixth grade friends, all of them fawning over the Bentley text. Rolling my eyes, I head to my locker, unloading my math and science books. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror hanging on my locker door does little to help my agitation. With my hair still as baby blonde as the day I was born and face clear of makeup, how should I expect a guy to fall for me when I’m fourteen going on four?
“Surprise inspection!” The locker door slams closed, revealing my best friend from birth, Ryanne McKiver.
Clutching my hand to my chest, I nearly scream from being scared out of my thoughts. “Goodness gracious, that’s just what I need on a Monday morning without coffee, a full-blown heart attack!” I arch an eyebrow her way, though she laughs it off.
“Why do you romanticize coffee so much?” Ryanne snorts, reopening my locker door to grab some sheets of notebook paper I keep there just for her. Her wild red locks tumble over her shoulders as she bends down to stuff the paper in her messenger bag decorated with pins from ‘90s cartoons.
“Probably because I’m not allowed to drink it.” I stifle a yawn. “Momma says it’ll stunt my growth. But joke’s on her. I haven’t grown since sixth grade.”
“It’s a miracle any of y’all are over 5’2”,” Ryanne teases as we head off to our first period class, Language Arts with Ms. Markovich.
Settling into our seats, Ryanne watches me with a careful eye. “Sorry Em, no offense. I’m no skyscraper either.”
“Nah, it’s not that.” I lean back in my chair, taking in the tile ceiling, spitballs plastered in various places. “Auden’s gone full-blown Lydia Bennet and accused me of being Lizzie. Which, I don’t mind, but still.”
“Plain English here please, Em. You know I don’t speak Austen.”
“Neither does she.” I exhale. “So she’s parading around dead-set on trying to win over Bentley Middleton of all people.”
“Bleh,” Ryanne spits, her brown eyes narrowing behind her black frames. “Bentley Middleton is no bueno. We’ve gotta talk some sense into her.”
“Don’t waste your breath. We’ve lost her to the dark side, Ry. It’s just a matter of time befo—”
The classroom door slams, revealing our dictator-like teacher. I puff out my cheeks at Ryanne, letting her know in our secret code that we’ll talk about this fiasco later.
Fifteen minutes into our science lecture, in the third period, my notes page has turned into a chicken-scratched chorus. Still unable to crank out a breathtaking, soul-wrenching love song, the events of this morning inspired yet another cynical tune about dating, further proving Auden’s point.
Let’s immerse ourselves in lies
Let’s call it love and not even try
Let’s let the wind blow us over
Don’t try to stand on our own
Let’s fall in lies
‘Cause it’s better than being alone
Smirking at my work, I’m drawing my signature cloud bubble around the title, “Falling in Lies”, when Mr. Pratt slams his hand down on his lab desk.
“Time to review! Miss Brooks,” he booms, his ever-present scowl zooming in on my apprehension, “please define what a stalactite is and how it differs from a stalagmite.”
“Um…” I glance down at my notes—eh, lyrics—for help. Thankfully, a memory from my childhood surfaces. “Stalactites are formations that hang from the ceilings of caves and grow down, while stalagmites grow up from the floor.”
“Excellent! The rest of you would do well to follow Miss Brooks’ example and take notes. The end of grade test is approaching, you know! Now, pull out your workbooks and turn to page two hundred-seventy-three.”
Ryanne gawks at me from across the room, to which I return with a mischievous grin. A small huff of a laugh sounds from beside me coming from my table partner, Carson Tyler.
“Nice save,” he whispers, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Mr. Pratt isn’t watching. “That sure doesn’t sound like, ‘Never mind the compatibility, we’re all stuck on the possibility’.”
“I can thank Linville Caverns for that,” I reply, feeling the weight of his soft blue eyes on me. Behind him, Ryanne gapes at us, mouthing the words “he’s cute!”. I puff out my cheeks at her again, earning a funny look from Carson. Giving an awkward shrug, I turn my attention back to my workbook.
“So, I’ve got a plan for the whole Auden, Bentley car crash of love and doom scenario,” Ryanne offers without preamble as I reach our lunch table.
Her chocolate milk mustache makes it hard to take her seriously. “And that would be?”
“We play recon!”
“Psh…” I fan the idea away, swiping crumbs off my chair before sitting down.
“No, this will work, I promise. She’ll never suspect a thing.”
“Ry, I’ve never set foot in a dance before. You and I, and she, and even President Reagan—God rest his soul—all know I don’t have a place there. She’ll know what we’re up to.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, though!” Ryanne’s grin is maniacal as she pulls out her cellphone, shoving the screen under my nose. “Look!”
I mash the right arrow key, flipping through the screens. “Why do you have five…six…nine pictures of me and Carson in science, you creeper?”
“For evidence purposes.” She grabs the phone back, zooming in on one of the shots. “The boy’s smitten with you. Look at that! It’s one of those ‘Disney prince obviously gazes at princess while she’s not looking’ stares.”
“Or,” I correct, stirring mashed potatoes around on my tray, “he mistook my lyrics for notes, thinking he could cheat off me like he always does.”
“Technicalities.” Ryanne clicks a few buttons. “But if Auden sees this, she’ll be off your case and it’ll give you an excuse to be at the dance: a chance at a budding summer romance with eighth grade heartthrob, Carson Tyler.”
“Heartthrob, huh? I guess you’re forgetting when he lost his shorts while sliding into home plate last time we played—hey! Wait, stop! Dude, I’m gonna murderize you!”
Ryanne snaps the keyboard shut, her smile triumphant. “The deed is done. Kill me if you wish, but I’m a genius.”
Strobe lights flicker through the cafeteria, highlighting neon glowstick necklaces within the crowd. My fingers ball into my clammy palms as I stand outside the entryway to the dance.
“Ryanne, you didn’t tell me we’d have to dress for the club to come to this thing,” I mumble, tilting my head in reference to a couple seventh grade girls skipping in.
“Relax, Em, it’s a miniskirt and tank top. Most girls our age idolize popstars, so that’s who they dress like. Besides, Carson already adores your Granny at Bridge Club look. No need to fret.” Ryanne snickers, dressed in her own awesome ensemble of ripped skinny jeans and a graphic tee.
I stick my tongue out at her, pulling my maroon cardigan closer around my white and rosebud printed dress. I hoped my schoolmates would take a classier approach, but I guess that’s not the case. “I don’t give a hoot about Carson Tyler, alright? I’m just here to divert Auden away from that… that sleezy rascal.”
“Spoken like a true Granny.” Ryanne groans, rubbing her temples. “Em, we’re on the verge of high school. This is our last hurrah of eighth grade. You’ve gotta learn to live a little.”
“I live plenty, thank you!” I reply, closing my eyes in indignation. When she doesn’t argue, they flutter back open to find her head bobbing as she enters the cafeteria.
Surrendering, I hustle to catch up with her. I maintain a close distance, afraid of getting sucked into the crowd. Though music will forever be my passion, I can’t dance to save my life. I toppled over an entire line of ballerinas during a recital when I was eight. From that day on, I’ve stuck to playing and writing music instead, avoiding dancing at all costs. Until tonight, now that I’m trapped in another dimension where everyone—including my little sister—can do it but me. Auden and her friends shimmy around us in a conga line, giggling.
“Have you seen Carson yet?” Auden’s tone reeks disbelief. “Bentley went to get me some punch, so I wanted to come ask.”
“He’s such a sweetheart!” a brunette with a short, bobbed haircut gushes, causing all the girls to squeal. I want to hurl.
“Not yet.” My eyes survey the crowd, attempting to pinpoint the dark-haired boy who’s supposedly wrapped around my finger. I don’t know if it’s due to the heat of a hundred or so kids in the cafeteria, but my throat goes dry. Carson may not even come to the dance. The only remorse I carry, however, is that my cover will be blown. I mentally kick myself for falling for another one of Ryanne’s hairbrained schemes.
“Oh, well maybe he’ll show up soon.” My sister winks, her pink lip gloss glistening in the lights. “You didn’t hear it from me, but a rumor’s going around that he’s been flirting with Tiffany lately, too. I’m just saying, watch out for him, Em.”
It’s all I can do to suppress an eye roll. “As with you and Bentley.”
Auden’s mouth opens wide in protest. “How can you say that? You barely know him!” She stomps away in her two-inch wedges, leaving me alone with the disapproval of her friends.
“Yeah, he’s such a sweetheart!” The brunette repeats, her eyes beady as she narrowly misses stepping on my toe.
“Yeah, he’s a sweetheart alright,” Ryanne comments, scanning the dance. Her features light up as she spots who she’s been searching for. “Aha! Caught him!”
Twisting a loose strand of hair around my finger, I follow her gaze to meet a raven-haired boy and a girl behind the half wall near the snack machines. “Are you sure that’s him?”
“Duh!” Her grin is full of mischief. She drags my arm, leading me through the dancers as a fast-paced hip hop song blares.
Ducking before I take a flailing elbow to the face, I demand, “why, may I ask, are you trying to get me a black eye?”
“Maybe you should trade all that time you spend playing guitar on a drama class. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you. Nevertheless, we’re on a mission, remember? Missions require bravery and possible bruises.”
“But we’re at a middle school dance armed with nothing but uncomfortable shoes and freshly painted nails!” My response is slick with mock enthusiasm. “How will we ever stop this foul fiend?”
“Ah, how quickly you forget, my friend. We have the most technologically advanced weapon of all!” She pulls her phone from the back pocket of her jeans.
She can’t be serious.
We reach the half wall, where she squats and presses her back against it, motioning for me to follow.
Ah, but she is. And I go along with it.
We crouch against the wall, unbeknown to all the dance-goers, minus a couple of wallflowers who give Ryanne strange looks. That, though, is a normal occurrence here at school.
Once she reaches the corner of the wall where Bentley and his latest conquest stand opposite, Ryanne peeks around the wall and whispers in my ear, “Now, when I give the signal, we expose him! You ready?”
Before I have a chance to argue, Ryanne yells, “Caught in the act!”, snapping pictures of the couple. In the dimly lit cafeteria, the flash from her cellphone camera highlights the face of the rascal in question as he pivots to meet us. A terrified scream pierces our eardrums. Tiffany’s nostrils flare as she snatches the phone from Ryanne. Which means…
“Are you two insane?” Carson growls, taking in the not-so-photogenic snapshot on the screen.
“She’s totally stalking you, Carson!” Tiffany squawks, folding her arms over her chest. “I heard from Bentley Middleton that she,”—she jabs her index finger at Ryanne—“has been taking pictures of you and Grandma Emmie in Mr. Pratt’s class.”
Bentley? How would he even know about that? That was just a prank to fool… oh. Auden. So Grandma Emmie must be me.
“Look Emmi—Emery,” Carson confirms, rubbing the spot between his eyes. “Just because I talk to you in class doesn’t mean I like you or anything. I can’t help that we have assigned seats. Y’all need to leave me alone.”
His admission, though I’ve known it to be true all along, hits me harder than imagined. The crests of my eyes tingle with tears. In my peripherals, I notice dozens of kids stand around us.
“All this doesn’t mean I like you either,” I mumble, stalking—apparently the thing I’m best at—through the crowd, escaping to the restroom across the hall. Ryanne’s Converse squeak on the tile floors as she chases me, but the slamming stall door intersects her. Perching on the toilet, I hold my head in my hands.
“Emery! Get out of there.” Ryanne huffs, knocking on the stall. The restroom remains silent as I unlatch the lock. My rigid glare speaks volumes, causing her to stagger back.
“Why? So you can take Grandma Emmie back to the retirement home?” I seethe, brushing past her to the sink. Grasping both sides of the basin, I allow myself to sneak a peek in the mirror, the granny in question staring back at me.
“Don’t listen to them. You know how dumb Tiffany is. And apparently Carson is too if he’s with her.”
“Or maybe I am.” I take in my dress, a style popular decades ago. My oxfords look as if I stole them from Grandma Adeline’s closet. “I knew I shouldn’t have come tonight. Mission or not, I don’t belong somewhere like this.”
“Look, just because you dress differently and have an old soul doesn’t mean you don’t fit—”
“I think that’s exactly what it means.” Turning away from the mirror, I ball up a handful of my cardigan in my fist. “Grandpa says Grandma Adeline was the most popular girl when they were younger. She had poise and grace. Every guy wanted to date her. All the girls looked up to her. Fast forward two generations later, and her mini-me is the laughingstock of the school.”
I pace the dirty bathroom tile, hands clasped behind my back. The truth weighs heavily on my tongue. “All I want is a love like she and Grandpa had. How is that ever gonna happen if everyone sees me this way?”
“The ones who truly know you don’t, Em.” Ryanne says, making her way back to the door. “The right guy’s gonna memorize you like a favorite song. He’s gonna play it over and over again in his mind until it’s the only song he can sing. Don’t even worry about the ones who can’t match your beat.”
She pushes open the door with her back, crossing her arms. “I’m gonna let Auden know you’re alright and then I’m good with leaving, if you want?”
“Thanks. I’ll give Momma a call.”
The door eases shut, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I turn back to the mirror, observing tears slipping down my cheeks.
Why am I letting this guy get to me? It’s not like I even had feelings for him. The memory from our conversation in science replays, a certain lyric making me cringe.
Never mind the compatibility, we’re all stuck on the possibility.
Has my dream of a love like Grandma and Grandpa’s driven me into a naïve state like other boy-crazy girls my age, stuck on the small inkling that every guy has Prince Charming potential? Well, never again. It’s better to have the chance to dry my feet of this insanity now before slipping into the depths of this pool bound to drown me.
“God, please help me,” I say into the empty restroom, words echoing off the walls. “Please help me live out Proverbs 4:23. Please help me guard my heart. Please help me to never settle for anything less than what You have meant for me.”
Momma picks us up about quarter to nine, Auden opting to call it an early night too, to my surprise.
“So, how was the dance, girls?” Momma asks as we load into the van. Ryanne shakes her head, trying to steer the conversation in another direction.
Before I can state my case, Auden slumps down in the front passenger seat, sighing like Shamu. “I’ll tell you exactly how it went. I walked away for five minutes to talk to Emery and Ryanne, and the next thing I know—”
I cover my face with my hand. Please don’t make me relive it.
“—Bentley wasn’t getting me punch like he said. I walked off to the restroom and saw him dancing with that, that stupid older woman!”
“I knew it!” Ryanne whispers to me, nudging my side.
I roll my eyes. “I’d say you were far from knowing anything, since you surely knew what the back of his head looked like.”
“What older woman?” Momma turns to Auden. “I thought I told you to stop talking to that boy.”
Now would be a good time for an “I told you so”.
“Some stupid seventh grader, Brynn Alston.” Auden hisses, kicking off her shoes. “I had Macy get her name for me. Let’s just say I plan on kicking some—”
“Alston?” Momma repeats, glancing at her. “My friend Jodie married an Alston and moved to Alabama right after high school. I wonder whatever happened to her.”
“Well if it’s the same one, she had a man-stealing daughter.”
I snort. “I would hardly classify Bentley as a man, Auden. He’s an immature boy, at best. You have plenty of time to find someone else—”
“When you’re older,” Momma cuts me off, glancing in the rearview mirror. “And that goes for both of you. I don’t know why kids these days are in such a hurry to start dating. Relationships need maturity and commitment to work. That’s nonexistent at age twelve.”
“Grandpa Amos fell for Grandma when he was twelve,” Auden whines. “It could happen with Bentley, too.”
“Are you seriously comparing Bentley to Grandpa right now?” I argue, forcing my head between their seats. “Bentley’s not even half the man Grandpa is. That’s like comparing poop to gourmet chocolate.”
“Pipe down, Grandma Emmie. No one cares what you think.”
I fall back into my seat, exasperated. “Am I the only one in school who didn’t know about that?”
“Of course, ‘cause grannies need hearing aids to—”
“Girls, that’s enough.” Momma pulls into our driveway. “I don’t want to hear another word about Bentley or boys. Y’all ain’t dating ‘til you’re sixteen. Or maybe even older than that. That goes for you too, Ryanne.”
My friend winks at Momma, mischief glinting in her eyes. “Happy to be included, Mrs. Leigh. I don’t plan on dating until college, though. Maybe not even then.”
I give her a side glare. She has plenty of guys wrapped around her finger and she doesn’t even care. She purposely shoos them away. And then there’s me, the guarded yet hopeless romantic who’s awaiting the day God will allow me to meet the guy He has in store for me… if there’s one in store for me, that is.