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Page 9

Elliott reached into his pockets, making the change inside jingle. “Are they home?”

I looked to the garage, seeing Dad’s Buick in the garage and Mama’s Lexus behind it. “Looks that way.”

“I hope I didn’t make things a lot worse for you with Presley.”

I waved him away. “Presley and I go way back. That’s the first time anyone has stood up for me. I’m not sure she knew what to do with it.”

“Hopefully she keeps it safe next to the stick in her ass.”

A loud laugh burst from my throat, and Elliott couldn’t hide his satisfaction at my response. “Do you have a cell number?”

“No.”

“No? Really? Or do you just not want to give me your number?”

I shook my head and breathed out a laugh. “Really. Who’s going to call me?”

He shrugged. “I was gonna, actually.”

“Oh.”

I lifted the gate latch, pushing my way through, hearing the high-pitched sound of metal rubbing on metal. It closed behind me with a click, and I turned to face Elliott, resting my hands on the top of the elegantly bent iron. He glanced up at the house like it was just another house, unafraid. His bravery warmed something deep inside of me.

“We’re practically neighbors, so . . . I’m sure I’ll see you around,” he said.

“Yeah, definitely. I mean, probably . . . it’s likely,” I said, nodding.

“What are you doing tomorrow? Do you have a summer job?”

I shook my head. “Mama wants me to help around the house in the summers.”

“Is it okay if I swing by? I’ll pretend not to take pictures of you.”

“Sure, barring anything weird with my parents.”

“Okay then,” he said, standing a bit taller, his chest puffing out a bit. He took a few steps backward. “See you tomorrow.”

He turned for home, and I did the same, walking slowly up the steps. The noise the warped, wooden slats that made up our porch made under the pressure of my 110 pounds seemed loud enough to alert my parents, but the house stayed dark. I pushed through the extra-wide door, silently cursing the creaking hinges. Once inside, I waited. No muffled conversation or footsteps. No hushed anger from upstairs. No whispering in the walls.

Each step seemed to scream my arrival as I climbed the stairs to the upper level. I kept to the middle, not wanting to brush up against the wallpaper. Mama wanted us to be careful about the house, as if it were another member of our family. I stepped softly down the hall, pausing when a board in front of my parents’ room creaked. After no signs of movement, I made my way to my room.

My bedroom’s wallpaper had horizontal stripes, and even the pink and cream colors didn’t keep it from feeling like a cage. I kicked off my shoes and padded through the darkness to the single-paned window. The white paint on the frame was chipping, creating a small cluster on the floor.

Outside, two stories down, Elliott came in and out of view as he passed under the streetlights. He was walking toward his aunt Leigh’s house, looking down at his phone while he passed the Fentons’ dirt plot. I wondered if he’d come home to a quiet house, or if Miss Leigh would have every light burning; if she would be fighting with her husband, or making up, or waiting up for Elliott.

I turned to my dresser, seeing the jewelry box Dad had bought me for my fourth birthday. I lifted the lid, and a ballerina began to twirl in front of a small, oval mirror set against baby-pink felt fabric. The few details painted on her face had worn away, leaving only two black spots for eyes. Her tutu was mashed. The spring she was perched on was bent, forcing her to lean a little too far over to the side as she pirouetted, but the slow, haunting chimes still pinged perfectly.

The wallpaper was peeling like the paint, drooping from the top in some places, peeled up from the baseboard in others. The ceiling was stained in one corner with a brown splotch that seemed to grow every year. My white iron-framed bed squeaked with the slightest movement, and my closet doors didn’t slide the way they use to, but my room was my own space, a place where the darkness couldn’t reach. My family’s status as the town pariahs and Mama’s anger all seemed so far away when I was within those walls, and I hadn’t felt that way anywhere else until I sat at a sticky table across from a bronzed boy and his big, brown eyes, watching me with no sign of sympathy or disdain.

I stood at the window, already knowing Elliott would be out of sight. He was different—more than just odd—but he had found me. And for the moment, I liked not feeling lost.

Chapter Two

Catherine

Catherine,” Dad called from downstairs.

I trotted down each step.

He was at the bottom, smiling. “You’re awfully chipper today. What’s up with that?”

I paused on the second to last stair. “It’s summer?”

“Nope. I’ve seen your ‘it’s summer’ smile before. This is different.”

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