All Eyes on Us
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 31
Three hours into the party, I’m tipsy on more than champagne. My mother would say that’s the feeling of power, but I think it’s the feeling of being adored. Maybe they’re one in the same. I’m standing at the top of the Shaws’ balcony staircase with Carter, allowing a roomful of eyes to wash over us from below. They’re looking because we light up the room. They’re looking because someday, we’ll run this town.
“Don’t you want to go downstairs?” Carter asks. “Graham and Adele are all alone.”
I follow my boyfriend’s eyes to our friends in the great hall below us. The Shaws live in the most venerable of Logansville’s many Victorian estates. From our vantage point on the balcony,
we have an eagle-eye view of the entire party. As always, the great hall is host to Mr. Shaw’s world-class antique art collection, and tonight, it’s teeming with Logansville’s oldest money and most auspicious up-and-comers. Graham and Adele are decked out in their New Year’s Eve finest in the baroque-era corner. He looks suave in a crisp suit and forest green tie, his tight brown curls cropped close to his head. His hand rests lightly on Adele’s back, and her bright gold tube dress really pops against the dark brown of Graham’s skin. As usual, she’s mid-brushing him off.
“Soon,” I promise Carter. “Let’s just take one more minute up here together.” I give his hand a tight squeeze. One more minute with my boyfriend. One more minute before I have to share Logansville’s golden boy with the rest of the madding crowd.
He extracts his hand from mine and trails it slowly across my back before letting it fall to the balcony rail. He’s right next to me, but his mind is somewhere distant. Somewhere I can’t go. The moment of tipsiness is gone, and suddenly I feel more exposed up here than adored. I let my eyes dance across my boyfriend’s broad shoulders, his shock of blond hair, the faraway look in his eyes that makes my skin go cold.
Carter knocks back the last of his champagne, and a college girl in a cater-waiter tux appears to replace his empty flute with a full one. He downs half the glass in one gulp. She offers me a flute as well, but I decline. I need to stay sharp. I glance around the hall, searching for our parents, not that they’d care about Carter drinking. Ever since we became a couple freshman year, they’ve basically treated us like adults. After all, we’re Amanda Kelly and Carter Shaw. We’re their legacy. The thought makes my heart skip a beat, excitement or fear rattling inside my chest.
At seventeen, Carter’s already a rising star in the community. Varsity athlete, senior class president, sharp mind for business like his father. His future is a dazzling display of success and certainty and respect. With him, so is mine.
I keep my eyes trained on the crowd until they land on Krystal, Carter’s mother, who’s talking to my mother beneath the Shaws’ masterfully restored seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry. Linda is gesturing rapidly, a stack of platinum bangles sliding up and down her too-thin arms. She pauses to take a sip of something clear from an almost-empty rocks glass. She’s probably working Krystal to secure the Shaws’ large annual contribution for the upcoming benefit. The Logansville Museum of Fine Arts is one of the organizations for which my mother sits on the board. A bangle catches on the tip of one long powder-pink nail, and it takes her way too long to unsnare it. She’s getting sloppy. Someone should probably cut her off.
I glance around, but I can’t find my father in the crowd. If he were paying attention, he’d know the exact words to say to make her reel it in. But he’s not looking. If it was me guzzling too much champagne and embarrassing myself in front of Logansville’s elite, I’d be grounded until graduation. In moments like this, I can feel the scales tip another notch, the imbalance settling like so many lead bricks across my back. Watching her like this, it feels like my mother has removed herself from the equation entirely when it comes to our family’s future. It’s like she gets a free pass because I’m going to take care of everything.
I draw in a long breath and toss back my hair. My mother should be hosting, not boozing, but I can’t tell her how to act. She leans forward and grips Krystal’s shoulder, too hard. I can
feel her grimace reflected on my own face. With my mother rapidly heading out of commission, I’ll have to do double the hosting for us.
I turn to Carter. “Okay, let’s go.” His champagne glass is almost empty again, and he’s running a finger absently along the edge of my dress, right where the delicate red satin meets the outline of my shoulder blades. His touch makes my skin tingle. From the great hall below us, we must look picture perfect. I glance over the rail, down to where one of my mother’s museum friends is waving up at us, the gesture full of fondness for the town darlings. I wave back, then raise my eyes to meet Carter’s. He’s looking right at me now, but the distance is still there, thrumming right beneath the surface. I try to blink it away.
It’s amazing how a change in perspective can transform the whole view.
Downstairs, I stop to exchange pleasantries with the Beaufords and the Steinways while Carter is absorbed into the crowd. Every so often, I catch a note of his rich, rough laugh or see a flash of those deep dimples, white teeth. Everyone wants a minute of his time—it’ll take him all night to reach Graham and Adele. I tell myself it’s fine. I have my own mingling to do. I’m in the middle of laughing at one of Mr. Steinway’s terrible jokes when the cater-waiter from the balcony touches my arm.
“Sorry to interrupt, Miss Kelly, but I couldn’t find your mother.”
I glance around. She’s right. The space below the Flemish tapestry is empty, and Linda Kelly is nowhere to be found.
“We’re running low on the Kobe and Stilton toasts and crab
rémoulade, and Carla wants to know if we should run across the street to restock now or after the ball drops.”
I’ve lived directly across the street from Carter since we moved here in second grade. The move had something to do with the fallout from the financial crisis; Dad changed jobs and my mother thought a small town would be a nice change of pace for our family. Carter and I were in school together, and our parents became fast friends. They’ve been cohosting the annual New Year’s Eve party for as long as I can remember.
The cater-waiter clears her throat, waiting for my response. It’s tradition for the Kellys to arrange the catering and host the staging area in our highly functional kitchen across the street; I don’t think anyone has actually prepared a meal at the Shaws’ since the Victorian era. Her question is minor, a detail. But I can’t screw this up. I squint up at the giant grandfather clock at the base of the stairs. The face is so intricately designed, it’s almost impossible to read.
“It’s eleven twenty,” she says, waiting patiently for my verdict. Her bow tie is slightly askew. It’s all I can do to resist straightening it out, keep my hands busy.
I take a deep breath. My mother should really be handling this. If I get it right, she’ll never notice. But if I get it wrong, I’ll never hear the end of it. “Send two staff over to the kitchen and make sure they’re back with the Kobe and crab by a quarter of. Tell Carla to keep the rest here circulating, okay?” I force my voice to stay steady. If she notices my nerves, she doesn’t let on.
She leaves to find her boss, and I excuse myself from the Steinways to look for Carter. I just need a second of his time, a quick kiss, a reminder that he cares. That he’s in this with me. Because
in a few years, Carter and I will be throwing parties like this one. In a few years, no more training wheels. The torch will be passed, and it will be our arms thrusting the bright, hot flame into the Logansville night. Together.
I’m slipping through the crowd, making eye contact and smiling, when my phone chimes. Instead of the usual message preview, the words Private Number light up the screen. I glance around, then step out of the hall and into the entryway. Perched on the lip of the Shaws’ stone fountain, my red Louboutins flashing against the blue marble floor that looks like the ocean, I open the text.
New Year, New You. Wouldn’t you look better without a cheater on your arm?
I look around, fast, but aside from the coat check girl in the corner, I’m alone out here with the fountain and marble floors. The very small circle of people who know the truth about Carter’s one bad habit are twenty steps away, right inside the party. And none of them would send a message like this. My fingers hover over the reply box, but there’s nothing to say. Someone who thinks they know something is trying to ruin my night. And I’m not about to give in to a coward hiding behind a blocked caller ID. I toss my phone back into my bag and run my fingers through my hair, smoothing the glossy strands that frame my face. When I breathe in, I’m the only one who can hear the air catch against the back of my throat. Then I walk back into the party.
“Mandy, Mandy!” Adele is grinning and waving wildly at me from the great hall’s baroque corner. Only Adele is allowed to
call me Mandy. Our mothers were Kappas together, and we’ve known each other practically since the womb. Adele’s mom was a major reason my parents chose Logansville when we relocated from Pittsburgh ten years back. So Adele gets a pass. To everyone else, it’s Amanda Kelly.
I make my way through the sea of satin, lace, and Jo Malone to my friends. Adele wraps her arms around me in a sloppy hug, practically lifting me off my feet with the force. The gold sequins on her tube dress bite into my skin, but she’s too drunk and amped up on the gleaming, beguiling promise of New Year’s Eve to notice me squirm.
“Sorry we were late getting here,” she says, releasing me from the hug and locking me into some intense, boozy eye contact. Her lashes are thick with mascara, and the long, blond streaks in her hair have been freshly touched up at the roots. Adele is always immaculately put together, and people who don’t really know her would never believe that just beneath her feminine exterior is a total firecracker with a passion for improv and a silly, brash sense of humor. “Ben’s shitty car got a flat on the way over, and we had to wait for Triple A.”
I groan and roll my eyes at Ben, who’s engaged in some full-on geekery with Graham. The words Gotham, DC, and Bronze Age rise above the peels of laughter and clink of glasses that fill the hall in surround-sound. Ben’s mouth is stretched wide into his usual dweeby grin, and he’s definitely recycling the same too-short pants and too-big jacket he wore to last month’s winter formal. It’s something I can’t quite put to words, an itch beneath my skin, but Ben brings out the worst in me. We all tolerate him because he’s on varsity lacrosse with the rest of the guys, and he’s actually
a really good midfielder, but Ben still conducts himself like we’re in middle school, like he’s not part of Logansville South’s most enviable group of seniors. If you hang with us, you represent us. And all Ben represents is a complete lack of savior faire. I suppose I should feel bad because his mom left them when we were in fourth grade and maybe he’s been lacking in fashion and life advice, but seriously.
“Why did you let yourself be shuttled here in Ben’s rattle-trap?” I hiss at Adele beneath my breath. “What’s wrong with Graham’s Escalade?”
I sound like my mother, but I can’t help it. Just watching him hook his arm around Graham’s shoulder makes the back of my neck turn hot.
Adele glances at Graham, then leans in too close to my face. “I didn’t want to give Graham the wrong impression about tonight, okay? Like he’s my date or something? So I said Ben could drive us, like a group thing.”
“Why couldn’t Graham have driven you, like a group thing?”
Adele stares at me blankly for a second. I draw in a deep breath and try to push the nastiness out. I hate when I get like this. But before I can apologize for snapping at her, Adele breaks into a slightly wobbly tap routine in her pointy heels, immediately capturing the attention of everyone around us. It’s totally inappropriate, yet absolutely charming. The guys pump fists in the air and cheer her on. This is classic Adele. Diffusing the moment, choosing comedy over confrontation. Redirecting the course of the night.
I love Adele because she’s been there for me forever. Because she’s funny as hell. Because when my mother turns the screws too
tight, Adele can just sense it, and she’s at my door with mocha caramels and the latest Vanity Fair and Vogue. I should cut her more slack when it comes to Graham, and guy stuff in general.
When she’s accepting a round of applause and tugging her dress back in place, I flash her a warm smile. “Sorry. I’m glad you’re here.”
“I love your dress,” she says, tacitly accepting my apology. “Where did you find it?”
“I picked it out on a trip to the city. There are actually a few cute boutiques on Wood Street now.”
The city is Pittsburgh, the closest place to West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle to resemble an actual metropolis. We lived there for the first seven years of my life, but I don’t really remember much before Logansville. The panhandle—that skinny strip of land nestled between Pennsylvania and Ohio—is part southern charm, part Hicksville. Logansville, naturally, brings the charm. Pittsburgh is about a forty-five-minute drive from here; my dad makes the commute every day to the investment firm where he’s newly a partner. He was already a partner at his old firm, but his job kind of fell apart along with the economy. It’s been a long climb back to where he is now, and we’re far from the top of the mountain.
I’m totally lost in thought when Trina arrives with a heaping plate of hors d’oeuvres. I raise my eyebrows.
“What, they’re for sharing.” She holds the plate out to me.
Trina is tall and model-thin, and she can eat like a horse. It’s going to catch up to her someday, but at the moment she looks amazing in a sapphire mermaid dress that only she could pull off and a new cascade of ombré hair. She had the wave put in
so her bone-straight Japanese locks would “flow like the ocean.” Her words. Trina’s beloved Canon EOS 5D is slung around her neck. The clunky camera kind of ruins her elegant silhouette, but Trina would never attend a society function without it. She would also be the first to take down any joker who makes a crack about camera-obsessed Japanese tourists. Trina may love her selfies, but she’s no hobby photographer. Or tourist. Trina’s going to be a professional.
I pluck a Kobe and Stilton toast off her plate and pop it in my mouth. The staff must have returned with the fresh round, which means it’s getting close to midnight. It also means everything’s running smoothly, not that I’ll get an ounce of credit. I close my eyes for a second, and the anonymous text message flashes across the back of my lids. Wouldn’t you look better without a cheater on your arm? I shiver. Someone is trying to shake me up, and it’s not going to work.
“Where’s Carter?” Trina asks. My thoughts exactly. I haven’t heard his laugh rising above the din since before I stepped out of the hall. I glance around at our friends. Bronson has joined Graham and Ben in the corner, although his eyes are fixed on his phone. Any money says he’s texting Alexander, his boyfriend, who goes to school across town at Logansville North. Alexander was invited tonight, of course, but he’s still in Tulum with his family. Graham makes a show of trying to read Bronson’s texts over his shoulder, and Bronson shoves his phone in his pocket and joins the conversation, which has turned from comics to skydiving, their new obsession. Only Bronson has actually jumped before; his dad’s in the military and Bronson is kind of an adrenaline junkie. The guys all want to immortalize their friendship
by jumping out of a plane together before we graduate in five months. It’s ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as Batman versus Wolverine. Anyway, Carter’s not with them.
Adele and Trina are standing on either side of me, scarfing canapés. Except for Carter, that’s all of us. I scan the rest of the room. Winston and Krystal Shaw are strategically positioned with my dad, Jack, near the entryway, should they need to greet any extra-fashionably-late guests. They’re glowing, the royalty of Logansville. My mother should be with them, but it’s probably best if I don’t spend too much time thinking about where she’s gone off to. Two years ago, I found her passed out in the gun room, her face pressed against a glass case housing one of Mr. Shaw’s many antique revolvers. Since then, the Shaws have kept their little vintage armory locked up tight during parties. I’m sure she’s found a regular bed to pass out on this time. At least she had the good sense to make an exit before she went from sloppy to fully lit.
My eyes rove through the rest of the crowd, searching for Carter. The great hall is filled with my dad’s investment colleagues and their families, many of whom drove from Pittsburgh to be here tonight; the board members from my mother’s organizations, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Northern Panhandle Land Trust; and the bigwigs from Shaw Realty, the largest, most successful corporate firm in the area. Carter’s already slated to head up sales in one of their regional markets as soon as he graduates from college.
My eyes dart back to my friends and then around the hall one more time. I squint again at the grandfather clock. It’s 11:55. I can feel my pulse spike.
“There he is.” Adele’s pointing up to the balcony. Carter’s leaning into the wall, back pressed against the ornate cream and gold wallpaper, texting furiously. His fingers pause, and he stares at the screen for a beat. Then, his face transforms into a wide grin.
My heart sinks, blood rushing to my face. I know I don’t look pretty wearing this mix of hurt and fury, but I can’t help it. It’s five minutes until midnight, and Carter’s texting with her. Again. Adele takes one look at my face and turns to Graham.
“Get Carter down here. Now.”
Graham glances at me, then follows Adele’s gaze up to the balcony. A shadow passes over his face when his eyes find Carter. He squeezes my shoulder and presses past me. “On it.”
Trina flags down more glasses of champagne, and soon everyone’s crowded around me in a tight circle, guzzling bubbly and laughing hard at something Ben says that’s not even funny, but it keeps me almost entertained until Graham reappears with Carter. I take a deep breath to clear my head. Whoever sent that anonymous text struck a nerve. But they’re wrong: Carter belongs on my arm. I belong with him.
She is just a temporary distraction. I’m forever, and deep down, Carter knows it. He squeezes through to the center of the circle and takes his place next to me at exactly thirty seconds to go until midnight, just as the whole room starts counting down.
“Sorry, babe,” he whispers in my ear. “Family stuff with my cousin. Lost track of time.”
Carter thinks I don’t know about her. I smile thinly and let the lie fade into the chant: eighteen, seventeen, sixteen . . . My fingertips glide across the gold chain around my neck until they find the small onyx heart at the end. Carter gave it to me because black is
eternally classy, and it goes with everything. Because Carter knows what I care about, knows me inside and out, knows we belong together. I repeat it over and over inside my head until I believe it. Then I draw his eyes to the heart with my fingertips, remind him that he’s here with me. He smiles, his eyes locked into mine.
Twelve, eleven, ten . . . All around us, our friends lift their champagne flutes toward the ceiling. Bronson scoops Adele up in both his arms, and she tilts back her head, letting her hair plunge down toward the floor in a sea of gold. Trina raises first her Canon, then her phone, and snaps a series of pictures. I smile wide. Six, five, four . . . Carter touches my chin and draws my face toward his. Three, two, one . . . His lips find my lips, and this is how tonight is meant to end. Carter and me, together, surrounded by cheering and glasses clinking, surrounded by our friends who are toasting the new year and toasting the two of us, together. We’re at the center of everything. All eyes on us.