Chapter One Chapter One
#1. HALF A PACK OF BIG RED CHEWING GUM
My dad chewed this all the time. One foil-wrapped stick after another starting right after his morning cup of coffee. He said it was the first thing he bought when he arrived in the Chicago airport from Greece, and the second he popped it into his mouth, he knew he’d made the right decision: any country that made gum like this knew what it was doing. He emigrated with almost nothing. Just his passport, a ratty backpack, a few hundred dollars, and a Greek accent so strong he said it took three months before he could successfully order a cup of coffee.
His philosophy for navigating the US with zero connections, zero money, and zero friends? “Jump and a net will grow.”
He was always getting American idioms wrong like that.
I’M GASPING FOR AIR. MY lungs feel like two fiery balloons. The mailboxes and trees are starting to sway in my blurry vision. And according to the fitness watch my stepdad, James, gave me for Christmas, we’ve gone only 1.32 miles.
In the tradition of the great Master Yoda: a runner I am not. And today I couldn’t even fake it.
“I need another break,” I wheezed, doubling over to rest my hands on my bare knees.
My boyfriend, Dax, slowed his jaunty pace and sighed loudly, not because he needed the extra oxygen, but because this was our third break in less than fifteen minutes. I didn’t have to glance at him to know exactly what his face looked like. Disappointed. Well, disappointed and gorgeous in that sun-kissed, fauxhawked, blue-green eyes kind of way. Because, Dax.
He rested his hand on my back, but the weight of it felt more incriminating than supportive. “Liv, we already had a break. I still have three more miles if I’m going to hit my training goal, remember?”
I did remember. And honestly, I wanted to run those three miles with him. Not only does Dax hate running alone, but last night he also accompanied me to an art exhibit in downtown Seattle that was all about the history of the Polaroid. He’d even turned off his phone so we wouldn’t spend half the night being bombarded by texts from his legions of friends. So this morning, as a thank-you, I had planned to make it through his entire run without any complaining, which I can usually at least sort of do.
But unlike every other member of Dax’s family/friend circle, I am not a runner. Or a biker. Or a cross-country skier. And I’m definitely not a morning person. I am an occasional Star Wars–quoter, a collage artist, and a friend to all houseplants, but when Dax and I first started dating, I’d casually agreed with him when he mentioned how much he loved running in the mornings, and here we were. Two years later the ruse was definitely up, but he was still dragging me along with him. He was nothing if not persistent.
Today felt extra hard. I was so sleepy.
And then the memory hit me in the face. Splashed me in the face. I’d had the dream last night. No wonder I had the stamina of an elderly sloth.
I blew the ends of my sweaty bangs out of my eyes and attempted yet another ponytail, but my chin-length hair was too short. Not even my hair wanted to complete this run. And now Dax was disappointed and hurt and… annoyed? I neatly shoved the nightmare to the back of my mind. Time to pull out SUPER! GIRLFRIEND! capable of averting all oncoming squabbles with the power of flirtatious diversion!
I abandoned my ponytail holder, instead ruffling my hair into what I hoped was mussed perfection. “Hey, Dax, do you know what would be great for your conditioning? Running with extra weight. Something like…” I looked at the sky thoughtfully, then landed my smile on him. “Something like me!”
He groaned again, but a smile slipped through, and he bent down so I could jump onto his back. We took off at a steady clip, me clinging happily to his shoulders. Dax’s shoulders were actually the first thing I noticed about him, mostly because I’d sat directly behind him in homeroom, and that first day I was so busy trying to fake the same bored look everyone else was sporting that I could barely focus on anything else.
He says my style was the first thing he noticed, which, to be honest, is the first thing everyone notices and is entirely by design. When I’d transformed from Olive to Liv, I’d scoured hundreds of style videos before finally landing on the ones that I thought I might be able to pull off—French-girl style. I’d cut off twelve inches of hair, binge-watched makeup-application videos, then spent a solid month looking for clothes that were neutral and effortlessly stylish. In the sea of Patagonia wearers, Parisian chic had made quite the splash.
And yes, I’m Greek American, not French American. But who’s keeping track? Not me.
He took off at a jog, and I sank my face into his neck. During the summer, Dax spends twenty to thirty hours a week in a pool, and he wears chlorine the way other guys wear cologne. Dax technically goes to a private school, but to be on our water polo team, he has to have dual enrollment, so he spends part of the day at my school. Or at least he used to. As of two weeks ago he is officially a high school graduate, a fact that tipped my world slightly off-balance though I’ve been working hard to conceal it. “I love the smell of hypochlorous acid in the morning,” I said.
“You smell like sweat,” he said, giving my right knee a squeeze. “I can’t run three miles with you on my back. Let’s go back to your house.”
“If you say so.” I pressed my cheek into his. “We can make chocolate chip pancakes. The breakfast of champions. Not even your new college coaches can argue with that.”
College. The muscles in Dax’s jaw tightened, and I held my breath, already regretting the conversation that was about to happen. Unless he magically decided not to bring it up?
My eye snagged on a red-cheeked garden gnome planted in the flower bed of a yard we were passing, and I found myself praying to it out of sheer desperation. Please, little garden gnome, please don’t make me have to lie to my boyfriend today—
“Did you contact Stanford about their high school day yet?” Dax interrupted. “Amelia says that’s really important to the admission process. They want to see that you’ve put in the effort before they consider your application.”
Thanks for nothing, garden gnome.
“Of course,” I said. “Hopefully I’ll hear back soon.”
My voice sounded like it belonged to a lark or a sparrow or something equally chirpy. Not only was Dax going to Stanford, but half his family had gone there too, and his older cousin Amelia worked in the admissions office. It complicated things, a lot. And by things, I mean the fact that every time I’d clicked on the link that Amelia had sent me, I’d immediately gotten that panicked-for-air feeling that I get in my drowning nightmares. So, no. I had not applied to Stanford’s high school day. But I didn’t want to tell him now. Not when it was such a gorgeous summer day. Not when we’d had that great date at the art exhibit. Not when we were galloping through my neighborhood, my arms tight around him.
Dax started to say something, but luckily, a blur of lululemon activewear suddenly appeared in the driveway next to us, stopping the oncoming inquisition I knew was about to happen.
“Dax?” It was Maya Nakamura, a girl from Dax’s graduating class, looking all kinds of sporty in her pink sports bra and leggings. Her long black hair was in a sleek ponytail, and she held a straining Labrador retriever by its leash. She was out for an actual, non-pressured run. Also, her abs were a thing to behold.
“Hi, Maya,” I said, jumping off Dax to pet her dog, who was smiling through his slobber.
I knew Maya from parties and our SAT prep class. Dax knew her from kindergarten, which was how it worked for most of the people in his prep school—I’d learned quickly that rich Seattle was small Seattle. They clung to each other like barnacles. Today I was so happy to have a distraction that I was more than willing to pretend that Maya didn’t have a raging crush on my boyfriend that had spanned a decade. In all fairness, who could blame her? He was Dax.
“Dax, I tried to call you last night,” Maya said, ignoring me like she always does whenever she thinks she can get away with it. A lot of the girls in his graduating class are like that. They hadn’t been particularly pleased when he’d started dating someone who went to (gasp!) public school. Not only had it taken him off the market, but they really didn’t like to break ranks.
Maya’s dad owned a Fortune 500 company, and she was the kind of girl who could run five miles in her sleep while also painting student rally posters and doing her hair for the homecoming dance. I’m not sure why anyone would attempt these things in their sleep, but you get it.
“Did you hear the news?”
“What news?” Dax grabbed the hem of his shirt and wiped the sweat from his glistening brow, exposing his abs. Ugh. Was he trying to torture her?
“I got into UC Berkeley! We’re going to be, like, thirty miles from each other!”
“Really?” I jumped to my feet, wiping dog drool on my shorts. Despite the fact that mine and Maya’s relationship existed primarily on Planet Awkward, I couldn’t help but be excited for her. She’d been on UC Berkeley’s waitlist for almost six months, and I’d seen how hard she’d worked on her SAT prep. This called for a celebration.
“Maya, that’s incredible! You deserve it.” I shot my elbow into Dax’s ribs. “Isn’t that great, Dax?”
He sprang dutifully into action. “Yeah, that’s really great, Maya. You worked hard for that.” He landed his arm around me. “Liv’s trying for early decision at Stanford; hopefully she’ll be there with us in a year.”
Ugh ugh ugh.
“Oh. Really? You’re thinking about Stanford?” Maya’s expression fell for a moment, but her ponytail bobbed enthusiastically. “Well, that’s great. Then you’ll be together!”
Dax’s gaze fell heavily on my face. “Maybe,” I said. “I have a few schools I’m considering, and it’s not like Stanford is easy to get into. Luckily, I have six months to decide where I want to apply. You don’t have to make decisions this early, you know?”
Now Dax’s body stiffened. But if Maya sensed the tension between us, she didn’t let on. “Liv, I’m sure you’ll get in anywhere; everyone knows your SAT scores were off the charts. Plus, you won that statewide art competition. For your, like… collage things? Right?”
Collage things. This was exactly the reason I didn’t tell people about my art life. I hadn’t even entered the contest in the first place; it was my teacher who had sent in my entry. “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” I said, doing my best to wave the whole statewide art competition thing off.
“Well, everyone else thought it was,” she added, but she was looking at Dax when she said it.
My phone dinged. Text from Mom. Olive, are you home? I need to talk to you.
My heart lurched into my throat, but it took my brain a moment to realize why. Olive. She’d called me Olive. She’d been really respectful of my decision to go by Liv, and she almost never slipped up on that anymore. Also, it was 9:37. Shouldn’t she be at work by now? Why wasn’t she at work?
I felt another jolt in my chest, and suddenly my head was swirling, my thoughts racing by so quickly I couldn’t snag a single one. Is something wrong? Nothing’s wrong. Keep it together, Liv. You’re overreacting like usual. So what if she called you by the wrong name? She’s fine—
“Liv, you good?” Dax whispered. A small crease had formed between his eyebrows.
I nodded, doing my best to smile. Fine. I was fine.
Maya was still talking, and I focused on regaining my bearings in the conversation. “I can’t wait. I wish summer was over already. I am so ready for college!” She smiled at Dax. “So, Balboa Island. You ready for senior trip?”
“We’re ready,” Dax said, slinging his arm around me again.
Maya’s eyes widened slightly. “Liv, you’re coming with us? That’s so great!”
“My mom still hasn’t decided,” I said quickly. About thirty people from Dax’s class were going to a classmate’s beach house, which sounded chaotic and fun, but also…
I don’t know. If I had to pin it down, I’d say that the ocean and I aren’t the best of friends. I mostly like to admire it from afar, but Dax was already talking to me about this rock formation he planned to swim out to, and I was already coming up with a long list of excuses as to why I would not be swimming out to said rock formation. I can swim. I’m even scuba certified. It’s just that I prefer not to drown in the depths of the murky sea. I still wanted to go. But not in the same way Dax wanted me to. It seemed to be a running theme these days.
“I’m going to make it work,” I said confidently, and Dax shot me one of his dazzling smiles. A real smile. My shoulders loosened.
Maya hesitated, her grin turning sly. “Cool. Well, I guess I’ll see you in Balboa, Couple Most Likely to Outlast High School!”
Aw. The infamous yearbook title.
“See you soon, Maya,” Dax said, looping his other arm around me.
Maya turned, and we watched her and her dog trot off into the distance while I waited for Dax’s customary denial. He didn’t disappoint.
“Nothing’s going on with her,” he said quickly.
“I didn’t say anything was going on with her.” I fell into him, so he had to catch me. “Why do you keep telling people I’m applying to Stanford? I’m only a junior.”
“Senior,” he corrected, setting me back on my feet. “In three months, you’ll be a senior. And I said you’re trying for it, not that you’re going for sure. Besides, what do you have against us going to the same school?”
“Nothing.” I shut my eyes for half a second. Because, yes, the thought of wandering around campus and dorms and parties with Dax and zero parental supervision made me want to click my heels together and sing. But something about it made me feel a swirl of panic, too. Dax’s dual enrollment meant that we only went to the same school part of the time, and already he dictated most of our social life. Maybe that had worked at first, when I didn’t know anyone at my high school. But once I began making my own friends, it had started to feel a bit… constricting. He didn’t love when I spent time with other guys (understandable), and it was hard to balance all of my own activities and schoolwork with going to his games and spending time with his school friends. Life had been so busy that I’d even had to drop soccer this year (I played goalie, of course, less running, all the social benefits) so I had enough time to balance everything.
Not that I was complaining. I was wild about Dax. Bananas about Dax. The real problem with Stanford is that it wasn’t Rhode Island School of Design.
RISD. Thinking about it made me want to swoon into a field of lilacs or burst into spontaneous song or whatever it was people did when all their dreams come true. But I needed to wait for the right moment to tell Dax, and today was clearly not it. For Couple Most Likely to Outlast High School, we sure fought a lot.
I took a deep breath, mentally prepping for a conversational U-turn, when my phone dinged again. Another text from Mom. This time a bit more aggressive. Olive, please come home NOW. I really need to talk to you.
“Who is it?” Dax asked, glancing at my phone.
I quickly tilted it away from him. “Mom.”
Dax wiped his face on his shirt again. “Thought she was at work?”
Instantly, my stomach turned to origami, and I had to force myself to relax. Worrying about my mom is an automatic reflex. That tends to happen when you lose one parent—you automatically worry more about the other one. Not that she ever gave me reason to worry. She probably needed someone to watch my little brother is all.
“Come on. Let’s go make pancakes,” I said.
I climbed onto his back again, and we were mercifully quiet for the next few minutes. We had made it to the last few feet of my driveway when Dax pointed to the mailbox. “You should check. Amelia told me they’d send out the invitations by mail.”
“Dax,” I groaned, tumbling off his back and making a big show of going boneless. I’d learned it from my five-year-old brother, Julius. He was a master at becoming an invertebrate should the situation ever demand it. “Does the mail even come on Saturday?”
“Of course it does,” he said in that authoritative tone he sometimes gets. “Let me check.” He reached for the mailbox, but luckily, a small, Julius-size ninja chose that exact moment to drop from a nearby maple tree, landing directly on Dax’s head.
“Only the ninja can defeat the ninja!” Julius yelled, clamping down hard.
“What the—” Dax yelled, spinning around, his arms outstretched. “Julius, I thought we agreed you had to give me fair warning!”
“The first priority to the ninja is to win without fighting!”
I quickly peeled Julius off Dax. Today he’d gone all out in the costume department: a mask, two plastic katanas, and our mom’s black bathrobe. “Is Mom okay?”
“She’s okay,” he said, looking at me blankly. “Why?”
My body relaxed slightly, and I put my hands on his shoulders. “Remember what Mom and James said? You aren’t supposed to ambush from trees anymore.”
“Or maybe not from anywhere?” Dax added hopefully, and Julius smiled indulgently at him. Dax had always been one of Julius’s main targets, and so far all attempts at a cease-fire had been met with resistance.
“Oh no.” I pushed Julius’s mask off his face. “Is that my new eyeliner?” His eyes were ringed with a gold shimmer that I’d recognize anywhere. Urban Decay Goldmine. I’d bought it for Dax’s graduation dinner. “Julius! That was thirty dollars at Sephora!”
“The ninja must be cloaked in secrecy!” He pointed a katana at me. “Liv, I was in the tree because Mom told me to come looking for you. You got a postcard in the mail. It’s really dirty and the writing was weird. Mom’s face got scrunched up when she saw it.”
“A postcard?” Dax whirled on me excitedly. “That must be the invitation.”
The dread hit me in an icy wave. My entire body went numb. You see! my mind shrieked triumphantly. Something is wrong!
“Let’s go look!” Dax said, grabbing my hand and lacing his fingers through mine. “Come on.”
My mom’s text scrolled across my brain. I need to talk to you.
“Let me go.… Wait here, okay? Stay with Julius?” I untangled my fingers from Dax’s and headed for the front door. I was going for brisk power walk—think mall walker on a mission—but it turned into a sprint about six steps in. I had too much adrenaline not to.
“Now you run,” Dax called from behind me.
I didn’t even try to respond. There was only one person who sent me old postcards with weird writing. Only one. And it definitely wasn’t Stanford Admissions.
I had to get that postcard and hide it before Dax or anyone else saw it.