Chapter 1 1
The charm bracelet feels heavy in my palm. I’ve looked at it about a thousand times, but I check it again because I know it has to be perfect, able to fix whatever needs fixing. I considered daintier, more delicate bracelets like Kimberly usually wears, but something about this one spoke to me, its silver links solid and sturdy, just like our relationship… most of the time.
A few months ago, when I ordered the bracelet, it was supposed to be a present to celebrate our graduation, not an I’m-sorry-let’s-make-up gift, but Kimberly’s been quiet lately. Distant. Just like she always gets when we’re fighting.
Even though, as far as I know, we aren’t fighting, so I’m not even sure what this should be apologizing for.
I let out a long sigh and look up at my reflection in the hotel bathroom mirror, double-checking that the bathroom stalls are empty. My eyebrows knit together as I run my fingers through my unruly brown hair, trying to smooth it down in the way Kim likes. After a couple of failed attempts, my hair and I give up and I focus my attention on the bracelet one last time.
The sparkling silver charms rattle together as I inspect it, the noise mixing with the muffled sounds of my high school graduation party on the other side of the door. Maybe when she sees it, she’ll finally tell me what’s wrong.
Or, who knows. Maybe she’ll just kiss me and tell me she loves me and the problem has nothing to do with me in the first place.
I lean closer to examine the six tiny charms, one for each year we’ve been together. I lucked out big-time when I found someone on Etsy to help me design them, since I have absolutely no artistic talent whatsoever. This is more than just a bracelet now. It’s our life together.
My thumb gently traces the pieces of our history, a few of the charms winking at me as they catch the pendant lights.
A set of teal-and-white enamel cheerleading pom-poms, nearly identical to the pair Kimberly held as cheer captain the night I asked her to officially be my girlfriend.
A little gold champagne glass, tiny diamond bubbles tracing the rim, a reminder of my elaborate promposal a few months ago. I’d snuck a bottle of champagne from my mom’s cabinet to surprise her. My mom grounded me for all eternity, but it was worth it just to see Kimberly’s eyes light up when I popped the cork.
I pause on the most important charm, resting in the exact center of the bracelet. A silver diary, complete with a real clasp.
Back in middle school, we were studying in the kitchen at her house when she ran upstairs to go to the bathroom. I snuck her pink diary out of her backpack and wrote “I U” on the first three blank pages.
She cried when she found it, tears turning to accusations.
“You read all my secrets?” she shouted, pointing her finger at me with one hand and clutching the thing tight to her chest with the other.
“No,” I said, and swiveled my stool toward her. “I just thought it’d be like… I don’t know. Romantic.”
And then she proceeded to launch herself at me. I let her wrestle me to the floor, because it was thrilling to have that beautiful face so close to mine, her annoyance finally dying down as our eyes locked.
“It was,” she said, and then her lips tentatively met mine.
Our first kiss. My first kiss.
Carefully, I open the tiny charm and turn its delicate silver pages, three in total, spelling out “I U.” We’ll probably always have our little arguments, but we’ll always love each other.
I smile at the empty links of the bracelet, just waiting to be filled with more life and more of the memories we’ll build together. One for each year we’ll spend at UCLA. And after that I’ll get her a new one to fill too.
The bathroom door flies open, smacking loudly into the stopper poking out of the wall. I quickly drop the bracelet back into its velvet box, and the charms clatter together as a group of guys from the basketball team bound inside. There’s a chorus of “Kyle, what’s up, man?” and “Class of 2020, baby!” I grin at all of them and slide the box back into the pocket of my suit jacket. As I do, my fingertips graze the flask of Jack Daniel’s tucked into my waistband, step one in my plan to convince my two best friends to ditch this school-sponsored graduation party to go to our spot at the pond and actually celebrate.
But first… I have to give her this bracelet. I head out the bathroom door, the short hallway giving way to the packed ballroom of this super-bougie hotel.
I step inside and pass under a sea of Ambrose High teal and white balloons, several of which have already broken free and are rolling along the high vaulted ceilings. In the center of the room are hundreds of streamers trailing from a huge banner reading CONGRATULATIONS, GRADUATES!
The noise moves over me in a wave, the excited WE MADE IT! energy pouring out of every corner. I get it. After this last year, I’m beyond ready to move on from here.
I make my way through a bunch of the most random clusters of people. One walk across that stage seems to have broken down all the shit that mattered so much this morning. What sport you played. What grades you got. Who did or didn’t ask you to prom. Wondering why Mr. Louis had it out for you all semester.
Suddenly Lucy Williams, the class president, is flirting with Mike Dillon, the stoner who repeated the tenth grade twice, while the math decathlon captains are working together with two of my dudes from the offensive line to swipe beer from behind the bar.
Tonight we are all the same.
“Hey, Kyle.” A hand plants a little too firmly on my bad shoulder. I try not to wince as I turn to see Matt Paulson, the nicest guy on the whole planet, which makes me feel like a dick for hating him. “Oh, sorry,” he says when he registers the shoulder his hand landed on, and he quickly yanks it away. “Did you hear I’m heading to Boston College to play football in the fall?”
“Uh, yeah,” I say, trying to swallow the familiar wave of jealousy that comes bubbling up. It’s not his fault, I remind myself. “Congrats, man.”
“Listen, if you hadn’t led the team the way you did for the start of the season, I wouldn’t have even been a blip on their radar. You were one hell of a quarterback. I wouldn’t have gotten a football scholarship if it wasn’t for everything you taught me,” he says, unintentionally rubbing salt in a still-gaping wound. “But I’m sorry it happened—”
“It’s all good,” I interrupt him, then extend my hand so I don’t seem like an ass. “Good luck next year.” I release the handshake and turn on my heel to continue my search, my feet moving fast to put as much distance between us as possible. There’s only one person I want to see right now.
I pause by the bar and crane my neck to scan the crowd for Kim, my eyes jumping from person to person with no success.
“Hors d’oeuvre?” a voice asks from next to me.
I look over to see a man holding out a tray of appetizers to me, lumpy shapes on a crisp white plate. He gives me an artificial smile that screams, I can’t wait to get off in two hours.
I catch sight of the Owl Creek logo on his shirt, the only restaurant remotely near here to be featured on the Food Network for their “hip and modern cuisine.”
Apparently, even Gordon Ramsay had a meal there and couldn’t find anything to complain about.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I say, flashing him a quick grin. I grab one, then pop the whole thing into my mouth before he shuffles off to continue his rounds.
Is this shrimp? Rubber? Why the hell is it so chewy? And why does it taste like old ham?
Clearly, Gordon didn’t get a taste of whatever lumpy meat this is.
I look both ways before quickly ducking to spit it out into the black cocktail napkin the server gave me, but a sudden flash from next to me makes me jump.
I toss up my nonshrimp hand, blinded, the black dots in my vision slowly fading and giving way to warm brown eyes and high cheekbones identical to mine. She’s in her favorite white floral dress, and I can see her big grin peeking out from behind her phone.
“Mom, don’t—” I start to say, but she taps the photo button again, and another ray of light mauls my eyeballs.
“You know, if you’re going to take embarrassing photos of me, you can at least turn the flash off. You don’t have to blind a guy.”
“Oh, the girls on the ’gram will love this,” she says, chuckling wickedly, her eyes narrowing as she taps away on her screen.
“Mom. Don’t post that,” I say as I lunge at her. I pull her into a half hug in an attempt to distract her while I try to wrestle the phone out of her grip. As I do, I see the shot, a look of horror on my face, eyes half-closed, rubber shrimp clinging to my tongue as it makes its way into the cocktail napkin.
There’s no way in hell I’m letting the “girls on the ’gram” see this. Or anyone, for that matter.
Kim would never let me live it down.
Her grip loosens slightly as she leans into the hug, and I pry the phone away to delete the picture. “You can forget it, lady.”
“Fine,” she says, faking a scowl, the soft pink of her lipstick emphasizing her turned-down lips. “Break your old mother’s heart. I can’t have anything.”
I laugh, planting a kiss on her cheek and sweeping her up into a real hug this time, careful to angle my body so she doesn’t feel the flask tucked into my waistband. “You’ve got me, don’t you?”
She lets out a dramatic sigh. “I guess you’ll do.” Her voice is muffled against the thick fabric of my suit jacket. “Hey,” she says, pulling away and grinning. “Why are you on your own? You give her the bracelet yet?”
My heart pounds, just like it used to before a football game. “I’m waiting for the right moment,” I say as I give the room a quick scan. “You seen her?”
“She was with Sam, by the terrace, a few minutes ago,” she says, nodding to the right, toward the floor-to-ceiling windows separating us from the oversize-stone terrace that overlooks the hotel courtyard.
She reaches out to gently adjust the knot of my tie, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lips. It’s a Windsor, not that I’m pretentious enough to know any other way to tie a tie, but she spent the morning of my seventh-grade formal learning the knot just so she could teach me how to do it. It was the first dance I went to with Kim.
Mom’s been there through everything.
“You really think she’ll like it?” I ask. I felt so sure when I ordered it, but now…
“Absolutely.” She gently pats my face. Reassured, I give her the phone back. Total mistake.
She grabs it and quickly snaps two more pictures, still with a flash that is now popping behind my eyes. I attempt a glare, but the crow’s-feet around her eyes wrinkle as she grins innocently at me, and my frown cracks right down the middle. Nothing will bother me tonight, not even my mom’s incessant documentation of my life.
So I cheese it up, posing for one last photo, and once she’s satisfied, I’m off to finally find Kim. I chuck the wadded-up cocktail napkin into a trash can as I make my way toward the terrace, where the sky is dark and ominous on the other side of the glass.
It usually doesn’t take me long to find her.
She’s always had this fire, this magnetism that pulls people into her orbit. At school, I usually have to wade through a crowd of people just to get to her, so I keep my eyes peeled for the largest group and a flash of that particular shade of blond that manages to hold whatever light is in the room.
It’s been like that for as long as I can remember, the color the same as it was when we fought over the last swing on the playground in third grade.
I push into the crowd, and people part to let me through, smiles and high fives coming from every direction.
“Gonna miss those articles in the sports section next year, Lafferty,” Mr. Butler, my journalism teacher, says, giving me a pat on the back as I pass by him. Another reminder of all that time sitting on the bench, writing about the games instead of actually playing in them.
Where is she?
The disco ball overhead sends out glimmers of sparkling light, making it hard to see much of anything. I’m about to pull out my phone and fire off a text when…
Her blond hair peeks past Sam’s broad shoulders as she shifts her weight ever so slightly to her left hip, her silk dress hugging her sides. She looks incredible tonight, long hair flowing around her shoulders, blue eyes bright and open, lips shiny with gloss.
But as I get closer, I see her face is serious, the familiar wrinkle in her forehead forming as she talks, like it always does when something is up. It’s a look I saw a week ago at prom and this afternoon when we were taking graduation pictures, but whenever I ask, it all gets smoothed away with a wave of her hand.
I look from her to Sam, watching as he nervously runs his fingers through his dark hair.
And that’s when I realize they must be talking about UCLA. The tension melts from my shoulders.
Kim and I have already committed, but Sam was wait-listed. Sam and I always dreamed of playing football together at UCLA, but after homecoming that was all over, thanks to me and my injury. I let the both of us down. After I was sidelined, Sam dropped so many passes and missed so many blocks, he was riding the bench almost as much as I was. When all of his football prospects dried up, his grades took a sharp dip right alongside his football career. So Kim’s been helping him send in some essays and updated supplements that’ll hopefully tip the scale in his favor.
Judging by the last few weeks, we’ll definitely need him there. Not only is he the friend that’s stuck with me through the mess of this last year, but he’s the glue that holds our trio together. He’s the voice of reason in all things, especially when Kim and I fight. He’s the one who pulls us back together when things get rough.
If he gets in, we could still all go to UCLA together. Even if we aren’t on the field anymore.
But from the look on Kim’s face, it seems like that might not be happening.
I walk over, wrap an arm around Kimberly’s waist, and lean in for a kiss. She returns it absentmindedly, her lips distracted.
“What’s up? What’s wrong?” I ask, looking from her to Sam and back again.
She leans in for another kiss, and her lips firmly meet mine this time, reassuring me, but she doesn’t answer.
I’m about to ask again, but I just shake off the weirdness instead. Everyone’s shaking off the old shit tonight, so we can too. Leave whatever this is behind for now. I came to celebrate with them, after all. I look both ways before unbuttoning my suit jacket to reveal the flask I smuggled in. “What do you say we go to the pond and—”
The words don’t even leave my mouth before lightning flashes on the other side of the window, illuminating the entire sky with electricity. The glass shakes ever so slightly with the long roll of thunder, and my reflection wobbles in it, staring back at me, but Sam’s and Kimberly’s are staring at each other.
“Nah, man,” he says, pointing to the sky. “I’m not looking to get fried alive tonight.”
“Oh, come on,” I say as fat drops of rain begin to loudly splatter against the window. “What’d you do with Sam? A little bad weather never stopped you before.” I knock the back of my hand against his shoulder. “Remember the blizzard after we won state two years ago? I think you were the one insisting we go. I’m pretty sure I still have frostbite.”
They don’t say anything. The silence makes my skin prickle with an uneasy feeling.
“What?” I ask, trying to meet Kimberly’s eyes. But she looks away at the streamers just over my shoulder instead. I’m beginning to think this isn’t about Sam’s application.
My hand slips from her waist as I pull away. “What aren’t you guys telling me?”
“I…,” she starts to say, her voice trailing off. Sam looks away.
The rain on the other side of the glass comes down even harder now.
“Tell me,” I say again as I slip my hand into hers, just like I have so many times. I look at her wrist and think of the bracelet in my jacket pocket, the pages of that small silver diary spelling out “I U.”
But then I see her start to do that fidgety thing she does just before she tells me something I’m not going to like. I brace myself as she finally straightens and looks me dead in the eyes. The downpour of rain washes out every voice in the room but hers as the truth finally comes out.
“Kyle!” I hear Kim’s voice call out from behind me as the drops loudly beat onto the metal roof of the front portico.
How could she?
It keeps repeating in my head as I make my way down the steps. I’m already handing my ticket to the valet when Kimberly comes running out after me. I ignore her.
“Wait, Kyle, please,” she says, reaching for my arm.
The instant her fingers touch me, my instinct is to lean into her, but I pull away and grab my keys from the valet as I step out into the rain. “Don’t bother. I got it.”
She follows me, trying to give me an explanation that I don’t want to fucking hear. If she really wanted to explain, she should have done it long before now instead of blindsiding me the day of our graduation.
“I should have told you, but I didn’t want to hurt you—”
Lightning cracks across the sky again and a loud clap of thunder silences her before I even have to say anything. I spin around to look at her. Her dress is soaked completely through, and her hair is now hanging dull and limp around her face.
“Didn’t want to hurt me?” I laugh. “By sneaking around behind my back? Sharing secrets with my best friend—”
“Sam’s my best friend too.”
“You lied to my face, Kimberly. For months.” I unlock my car door and rip it open so hard it almost swings back. “Consider me hurt.”
I get in the car and slam the door.
Berkeley. The word echoes around my head, every syllable a fresh stab of betrayal.
She applied and she didn’t even tell me. She sent in supplemental essays and updated transcripts, and got in months ago, and she just sat there pretending. Pretending while we picked out dorms and classes and talked about road trips home for breaks, knowing all along she was never going to go to UCLA.
She told Sam.
Why didn’t she tell me?
I’m ready to get out of here, but she slides into the passenger side before I can pull the gearshift out of park. I pause for a moment, wanting to tell her to get out, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
We have to figure this out. The bracelet is still in my pocket.
I put my foot down on the gas and we take off through the parking lot and out onto the main road, the wheels sliding on the wet ground as we turn.
“Kyle!” she says, clicking her seat belt into place. “Slow down.”
I flick my windshield wipers on to the fastest setting, but it’s still not fast enough for the sheets of rain pummeling the now-fogging glass.
“This makes no sense. We’ve been planning all year. You, me, Sam. Our plans.” I reach up, swiping at the condensation to make a space big enough to see. My fingers hit the tiny disco ball slung around my rearview mirror, sending it swinging. It does make sense, though, in a Kimberly kind of way. I think of all the times she’s changed her mind at the last minute, leaving me and Sam hanging. Like when she ditched our freshman-year formal to hang out with the varsity cheerleaders, or dropped us in the middle of a group final to work with the valedictorian instead. Moments I bury deep until we’re fighting, like now. “You just decide, ‘Screw it! I’ll do what I want.’ Just like you always do.”
There’s a clap of thunder, and the lightning that follows reflects off the glittering silver of the ball, scattering it all around the car.
“What I want? I never do what I want. If you just listen to me for five freaking seconds.” She stops talking as we whiz past the street to my house, her head turning as it fades away. “You missed the turn!”
“I’m going to the pond,” I say. I just keep thinking if I can get us there, I can salvage this night. I can salvage this.
“Stop. No, you’re not. The pond will be an ocean right now. Just turn around.”
“You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?” I ask, ignoring her. A tractor trailer barrels past us, sending a shower of water onto our windshield. I grip the steering wheel tighter, slowing down to steady the car. “You must have been. Kim, you could’ve just said you wanted to go to Berkeley, not UCLA. It’s not like I have the football scholarship anymore. I don’t care where we go, as long as we’re togeth—”
“I don’t want to be together!”
The words slap me right across the face. I jerk my eyes from the road to look at her, this girl I’ve loved since third grade. I don’t even recognize her right now.
We’ve “broken up” plenty of times in the past, but not like this. Small, dramatic fights that are over the next day like a stomach virus. She’s never said that.
“I mean…” She stops and her eyes turn away from me, widening. “Kyle!”
My head whips back to the front windshield just in time to see a blinking pair of yellow hazard lights in front of us. I hammer the brakes, and the car slides underneath us without slowing.
Suddenly I don’t have any control over the direction we’re going in.
I fight against it as I try to avoid a stalled car in the dead center of our lane, gripping the steering wheel tightly as I attempt to steer into the skid. The car miraculously regains traction just in time, and we swerve out of the way of the stopped car.
I pull onto the shoulder and carefully slow to a stop, my chest heaving.
That was close.
“I’m sorry.” I take a long, steadying breath, looking over at Kimberly to see she is pale, shaken, the sharp curve of her collarbone intensifying and receding as she struggles to catch her breath.
But we aren’t.
I don’t want to be together.
“Are we…?” I start to say, the words struggling to come out, fighting their way to the surface. “Are we breaking up?”
She turns her eyes to me, and I can see the tears lightening the blue of her irises. Normally, I would wipe the tears away and tell her everything will be okay.
But this time I need her to tell me that.
“I need you to listen to me,” she says, her voice quivering.
I nod, the near accident wiping the anger away and replacing it with something even more intense.
I tighten my jaw as she gathers her thoughts, my hand already reaching up to feel the charm bracelet inside my jacket while my heart thumps loudly in my chest just above it.
“I’ve only ever known myself as Kyle’s girlfriend,” she finally says.
I stare at her, taken aback. What does that even mean?
She sighs, taking in my incredulous expression. She searches for the right words. “When you blew out your shoulder—”
“This isn’t about my damn shoulder,” I say, hitting the steering wheel with my palm. This is about us.
“It is,” Kimberly says, matching my frustration. “It fucking is. You had so many dreams, and you were going to get them.”
Her words catch me off guard, hitting their mark. I wince as a phantom pain radiates unexpectedly across my shoulder. I see the hulking lineman barreling right at me. The number 9 on his jersey as his hands wrap around my throwing arm, flinging me to the ground. Then… the sickening crunch of my bones and the tearing apart of my ligaments as his body slams into mine. Game-winning throws and college scholarships and a blue-and-yellow jersey with my name on the back. All of those things right at my fingertips. Gone with one play.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly, like she’s seeing it too. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have it all disappear, to have the scouts stop coming, the scholarships dry up—”
I clench my jaw and focus on the rain. Is she trying to hurt me more? “Why are we talking about this? It has nothing to do with you and me—”
“Kyle. Stop. Listen.” Her voice is firm and instantly silences me. “I loved you.”
My insides turn to solid ice. Loved. Past tense.
“But when you couldn’t play ball anymore, you changed. You became… I don’t know,” she says, searching for the word. “Scared. You were scared to take chances, scared to try anything else. And I became your enabler. Your crutch. You always had to have me there.”
She has to be kidding me.
That’s what she thinks of me? Seriously? That I’m scared and pathetic? That I can’t do anything on my own?
Has she been with me all these months out of pity?
“I’m sorry you felt so burdened by me,” I say, forcing myself to look back over at her as my hand instinctively reaches for my shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to miss a few parties. I’m sorry Janna and Carly went to the Bahamas while you felt obligated to sit by my bed and feed me soup because I couldn’t lift my arm. But that’s not on me. You could have walked away at any time—”
“Could I? Would you have let me?” she asks me, shaking her head. “Seeing each other every day at school, same classes, same routines, but not together? Every time we broke up, we never even made it a day.” Would I have let her? What does that mean? We always got back together because we wanted to. Now… she’s saying this?
“So, what? You just… pretended?”
“I didn’t pretend. I just hung in there because I…”
Her voice trails off, but I already know exactly what she was going to say.
“Because you knew we wouldn’t be going to the same college,” I say, feeling like I’m going to be sick. “You’d be rid of me.”
“No,” she says, closing her eyes as she fights to get the words out. “I’m not trying to be rid of you. But—I do want to know what it’s like to turn around and not see you there.” Her voice cracks, but her spine straightens. She means this. She really means it. Her eyes hold mine, steady and sure. “I want to be me, just me, without you.”
The words throw me off-balance, but I hold her gaze. We stare at each other, the rain still falling in sheets against the roof of my car. How long has she felt this way? How long has she not loved me?
“Kyle, come on,” she continues, her voice soft. “Think about it. Don’t you want to know who you are without me?”
I stare out at the headlights flickering in the storm. Without her?
We’re Kimberly and Kyle. She’s part of me, so I can’t be me without her.
Her hand slides into mine, and her fingers gently tug against my skin as she tries to get me to look at her.
I can’t bring myself to do it, though. I look at the steering wheel and the windshield wipers and the rearview mirror, before my eyes finally focus on the tiny disco ball.
I feel it in my bones that this is my last chance to make her see. To show her that my future wasn’t just about football.
It was about us.
“I know who I am with you, Kim,” I say as I reach into my jacket. I have to show her the charms, everything we have. The empty links will remind her of what is to come. “Before you make up your mind, please, just think about everything we’ve—”
The disco ball lights up, the tiny mirrors shooting photons of light around the car.
My body is thrown forward. I feel the burn of my seat belt as it clenches around my chest, so tight it pushes the air right out of my lungs.
Everything registers slowly but in unison.
The car spinning.
The blare of a truck horn.
Headlights showering light across the windshield as we careen into an oncoming truck, a solid wall of metal that races toward us.
Time stops just long enough for me to look at Kimberly, her cheeks dotted with little freckles of refracted light, her eyes wide with horror. She opens her mouth to scream, but all I hear is twisting, shrieking metal.