Confession 1 CONFESSION #1
When I was ten, I started putting confession strips into a box in my closet so that if anything happened to me, people would know that I was more than just the quiet girl who followed the rules.
THE FIRST VALENTINE’S DAY
When my alarm went off on Valentine’s Day, I was smiling. To start with, I actually had a boyfriend, and he wasn’t just a meh boyfriend, either. Josh was smart and handsome and arguably the most likely student at Hazelwood High to succeed in a big way. Every time we studied together and he put on his Ivy League tortoiseshell glasses, I swore that my heart actually folded over on itself, causing the sweet pinching feeling that shot warmth through each and every one of my nerve endings.
In hindsight, that feeling was probably some sort of atrial defect caused by my steady diet of black coffee and energy drinks. But I didn’t know that yet.
I pushed back the covers and climbed out of bed, ignoring the sound of Logan’s open-mouthed sleep-breathing from the other side of the mattress. My three-year-old stepbrother liked to sneak into my room and sleep with me because he pretty much thought I was amazing.
And he was right. Because as I walked over to where my planner sat open on my desk, I felt amazing. I hummed “Lover” as I put on my glasses and consulted the day’s list.
To-Do List—February 14
Reorganize scholarship planning binder
Study for Lit test
Remind Mom to email copy of insurance card to office
Remind Dad of parent-teacher conferences and make sure he puts it on his calendar
Send email to internship adviser
Exchange gifts with Josh
Say “I love you” to Josh!!!!!!!!!!!
I lingered on the last one, picking up my pen and doodling hearts around it. I’d never said those words romantically before, and since our three-month anniversary happened to fall on THE day, it was almost as if the universe had scheduled it for me.
Filled with buzzy excitement, I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. As I stuck my hand under the stream of water to test the temperature, I heard:
“Em, are you almost done in there?”
Ugh. I rolled my eyes and stepped under the water. “I just got in here.”
“Joel needs to go potty.” Lisa, my dad’s wife, sounded like her mouth was planted on the door. “Bad.”
“Can’t he go upstairs?” I poured shampoo into my hand and rubbed it on my head. I adored the twins, but living with toddlers sucked sometimes.
“Your dad’s in there.”
Sighing, I said, “Give me two minutes.” I rushed through the rest of the shower, refusing to let the disruption ruin my mood. After toweling off and throwing on my robe, I ran past Lisa and a squirmy Joel, back to my basement bedroom. I breezed through blowing out my too-curly hair—still humming love songs—before plugging in the iron and steaming out the pesky crease on the right sleeve of my dress. I knew my best friend, Chris, would roll his eyes and tell me I was being hyper-anal, but why leave the crease when it takes a mere two minutes to get it out?
I got dressed and ran upstairs to scarf a protein bar before leaving for school. As I ripped open the wrapper, my eyes wandered over to the pie pan that was sitting beside the microwave like temptation incarnate. Yes, the leftover piece of French silk pie would taste amazing, I thought as a took a big bite of peanut butter and whey, but a slice of sugar and carbs was no way to start the day.
I looked away from the chocolate dessert and focused on chewing the dry protein bar.
“Good Lord, slow down.” My dad was sitting at the table, reading the paper and drinking coffee like he had every single day of my life. His hair was flame-red, the potent original to my watered-down coppery-brown version. He gave me a smart-ass smile and said, “No one here knows the Heimlich.”
“Isn’t that, like, a parental requirement or something? How do you and Lisa have kids and no Heimlich-ing skills?”
He stared directly at my overfilled mouth. “We foolishly assumed our offspring wouldn’t suck down food like sows.”
“You know what happens when you assume, right?”
“Yeah.” He winked and went back to the paper. “Someone’s an ass.”
“Oh, come on, you guys.” Lisa came into the kitchen with Logan on one hip, Joel on the other. “Can we please not swear around the babies?”
“They weren’t in here,” I said through a mouthful of bar, “when he said it.”
“And technically,” my dad said, throwing me another wink, “?‘ass’ isn’t a bad word. It’s a donkey.” I grinned while Lisa looked at me as if she wished I would disappear.
I’d been splitting time between my mom’s and my dad’s since they divorced when I was in elementary school, but I was still just a nomad in the way. At both of their houses. To be fair, Lisa wasn’t the stereotypical evil stepmother. She taught kindergarten, made my dad happy, and she was a really good mom to the boys. I just always felt like I was in her way.
I grabbed my backpack and my car keys, threw out a goodbye, and ran for the door.
The sun was bright even though the air was freezing, and we’d gotten a dusting of snow overnight, but it looked like my dad had already scraped my windows. I heard my phone from the depths of my bag, and pulled it out just in time to see that Chris was FaceTiming me.
I answered and there were my two closest friends, smiling at me from in front of the red lockers of the junior hallway. I smiled at my phone’s cracked screen, at my favorite faces in the whole world.
Roxane had dark brown skin, cheekbones for days, and the kind of eyelashes that suburban moms tried to emulate with extensions, and Chris had heavy-lidded brown eyes, flawless porcelain skin, and curly black hair that stuck up in the most perfect way. If they weren’t genuinely amazing humans, it’d be hard not to hate them for their good looks.
“You’re at school already?” I asked.
“Yes, and guess what we just saw?” Chris asked, waggling his eyebrows.
“I want to tell,” Rox said, moving in front of him on the screen.
“I saw, so I tell.” Chris nudged her out of the way. “Josh is already here and I saw him put a gift bag in his locker.”
I screeched and tiny-clapped before hopping into the old Astro van that my dad insisted “had character.” “Big or small?”
“Medium,” Chris said, and then Rox chimed in with, “Which is good because too big just means a crappy stuffed animal, and too small means a coupon for free hugs. Medium is good. Medium is the dream.”
I laughed. Their enthusiasm made me happy because up until lately, they’d been anti-Josh. They said he acted like he was better than everyone else, but I knew it was only because they didn’t really know know him. He was just so smart and confident that it was sometimes misconstrued as arrogance.
Hopefully this meant that they were reconsidering their opinions.
Rox’s boyfriend, Trey, popped up in the background and waved. I waved back before I ended the call, dropped the phone, started the van, and sped toward school. Finneas crooned sweetly out of the speakers, and I sang along at full volume to every single word of “Let’s Fall in Love for the Night.”
I couldn’t wait to see Josh. He’d refused to give me a hint as to what my present was, so I had no idea what to expect. Flowers? Jewelry? Even though it’d taken two full coffee shop paychecks, I bought him the Coach band he wanted for his watch. Yes, I was broke now, but seeing his face light up when he opened it would make it worth it.
My phone buzzed on the passenger seat and at the first red light I glanced over.
Josh: Happy VD. Are you here yet? And what do you want first—poem or gift?
I smiled, and the light turned to green. As I cruised through our suburban neighborhood, the song on the radio (my antiquated van didn’t even have Bluetooth capability) switched to something screamy and metal, so I started scanning for a tune worthy of the momentous day.
Billy Joel? Nope.
Green Day? Negative.
Adele? Hmmm… that might just work—
I glanced down at the dashboard to turn up the volume, then looked up just in time to see that the truck in front of me had stopped suddenly. I stood on the brake, but instead of stopping, my tires locked and I began sliding. Shit, shit, shit!
There was nothing I could do. I slammed into the back of the truck. Hard. I braced myself for the car behind me to hit, but it thankfully stopped in time.
Barely breathing, I looked through the windshield to see my hood was totally crumpled. But the person driving the truck was stepping out, which hopefully meant they were okay. I grabbed my phone, opened the door, and got out to see the damage.
“You were texting, weren’t you?”
“What?” I looked up, and there was Nick Stark, my Chemistry lab partner. “Of course not!”
His eyes dipped down to my hand, to my phone, and he raised an eyebrow.
What were the odds that I would’ve hit someone I knew? And not just someone I knew, but someone who’d never really seemed to like me. I mean, technically he’d never been a jerk to me, but he hadn’t ever been friendly, either.
On the first day of Chem, when I’d introduced myself, instead of saying Nice to meet you or I’m Nick, he’d just looked at me for a few seconds before saying “Okay” and going back to looking at his phone. When I’d accidentally spilled my energy drink on our lab table a few months ago, instead of saying It’s okay like a normal human when I’d apologized, Nick Stark had stared right at me and, without smiling, said, “Maybe you should lay off the caffeine.”
The guy was kind of an enigma. I’d never seen him around outside of school, and he didn’t really have a clique or friend group that I was aware of. Even though we were juniors, I still didn’t have enough information to figure out how to classify him.
And I hated that.
“You were the one who was stopped in the middle of a busy street,” I said.
“There was a squirrel crossing,” he replied in a near-growl.
“Listen, Nick.” I took a deep breath, found my mental mantra—You are on top of this, you are on top of this—and managed, “Don’t blame—”
His eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry. You are…?”
I crossed my arms and squinted my eyes. “Are you serious?”
“You go to Hazelwood?”
“I’m your lab partner.” Was he messing with me? The guy never really spoke other than the occasional one-syllable response, but still. “We’ve shared a table in Chem the entire year…? Ringing any bells here?”
“That’s you?” His eyes roamed over my face like he wasn’t sure if he believed me or not.
“Yes, that’s me!” I was losing my cool because I had very big plans for the day, and this surly boy was holding me up from making my perfect Valentine’s Day happen.
And also not remembering me, which… what the hell?
He said, “You have insurance, right?”
“This is unbelievable,” I muttered, looking at his old red truck that didn’t appear to look any worse in the back than it did all over. “It doesn’t look like there’s any damage. From this end, at least.”
“Insurance information, please.” He held out his palm and waited. I kind of wanted to push him for his attitude of driverly superiority, but he was a lot taller than me and had broad shoulders that didn’t look like they’d budge easily.
So instead, I leaned into the van and snatched my backpack from the seat before opening the glove box and pulling out the small binder I put together the day I got the van. I flipped to the yellow divider—the “In Case of Accident” section—and slid the insurance card out of its protective sleeve.
He took it and his eyes narrowed. “You keep it in a notebook?”
“It’s not a notebook, it’s an emergency binder.”
“And the difference is…?”
“It’s just a way to keep everything protected and organized.”
“Everything?” He looked at the binder and said, “What else is in there?”
“A list of mechanics, tow truck companies, first aid instructions…” I rolled my eyes and said, “Do you really want me to continue?”
Nick stared at me for a solid five seconds before muttering what sounded like Hell no as he pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the insurance card. After that, he insisted on calling the police when my van started smoking. I tried to insist that it was drivable—I needed to get to school and hear my poem, dammit—until the engine went up in flames and the firemen had to put it out.
Ugh, my dad was going to kill me.
And then my mom was going to pick apart my corpse until there was nothing left.
And I wasn’t going to have time for Josh’s poem until after first block.
“Here.” Nick came over from his truck and held out a coat. “I know it doesn’t match your outfit, but it’s warm.”
I wanted to say no because I blamed him for this disaster, but I was chilled. My classic pink Ralph Lauren oxford dress had been too cute to cover with a coat, but that’d been before I was standing out in the cold, watching my vehicle become a bonfire.
“Thanks,” I said as I slid into the army-green jacket that nearly went down to my knees.
Nick crossed his arms and surveyed the scene of emergency responders cleaning up the wreckage. “At least you already had a clunker.”
“I think you mean ‘classic,’?” I said, even though I hated my creeper van. There was just something about Nick’s attitude—and the fact that he didn’t recognize me—that made me want to argue with him.
He crossed his arms and said, “You doing okay here?”
I fake-smiled and bit out, “Wonderful.”
I glanced down at my phone. No notifications. Neither of my parents answered when I tried calling them, which wasn’t surprising. I desperately wanted to text Josh, but the last thing I needed to do was remind Nick that I might’ve been distracted when I hit him.
The police officer got there quickly after the firemen and was relatively nice as he wrote me the citation that was sure to get me grounded.
Nick looked at me as the tow truck disappeared with my van. “You want a ride? I mean, we’re going to the same place and you’re dressed like that.”
I looked down at my bare legs and brown leather booties, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering. “Like what?”
He actually grinned at my expression. “I wasn’t impugning your fashion choices—you look very, um, polo player’s girlfriend, don’t worry. I was merely referring to your bare legs and the fact that it’s, like, twenty degrees outside. Ride? Yes?”
I swallowed and buried my frozen nose in the coat collar. It smelled like cold and motor oil. “Um, yeah. I guess.”
“You mean thank you?”
That actually made me smile a little. “Thank you so much, my amazing savior.”
“That’s more like it.”
I climbed into his truck, slammed the heavy door, and buckled my seat belt. It rumbled to a loud start before he turned off his flashers and headed in the direction of the school. Whatever angry band he had blaring from that antiquated stereo system was atrocious and way too loud.
“What is this?” I turned down the garbage music and held my frozen fingers in front of the vents that were haltingly blowing out warm air.
“If you’re referring to the music, it’s Metallica. How do you not know that?”
“Um, because I have taste and I’m not a hundred?”
That made his mouth slide into a smirk. “What is your go-to driving album, then, lab partner?”
I was currently super into Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album but I shrugged and said, “I kind of just listen to the radio.”
“You poor, quality-music-starved girl.”
“In this instance it would be poor, unintelligible-barking-starved girl.”
“Just listen.” He cranked it back up and smiled over at me. “Their rage feels good, doesn’t it? Feel it, Bunson Burner—breathe it in.”
“I’m good.” Bunson Burner. I shook my head but couldn’t hold in the smile as the word “blackened” was grunted out by Metallica all over his truck. “I’ll just snort my own rage, thank you.”
After a minute he turned the music back down and hit his blinker as the high school approached. He moved the shifter next to the steering wheel, popping it into second gear for the turn, and I think I sounded a little too excited when I said, “This truck is three-on-the-tree?”
He crinkled his brows together. “How do you know about three-on-the-tree?”
I crossed my arms and felt kind of cool. “I know lots of things.”
His mouth went into a filthy smile. “Well, that is certainly nice to know.”
Did he think I was flirting? “I didn’t mean it like that.”
He chuckled a little huh-huh-huh laugh that was deep and rumbly.
My cheeks were burning and I said, “My dad had a car with that. Forget it.”
He pulled around to the junior parking lot. “Did he teach you how to drive it?”
“What?” I reached down and pulled my lip gloss out of my backpack.
“The car with standard transmission on the column. Did your dad teach you to drive it?”
“Nope.” I pulled down his visor and ran the wand over my mouth, remembering all the times my dad had promised to teach me but ended up getting too busy with work and the twins to actually follow through on his word.
“That’s a shame.” His truck fishtailed as he turned at the end of the first row. “Everyone should know how to drive a manual transmission.”
Yeah, they should. I flipped the visor back up and pictured the stick shift in my dad’s Porsche, the decades-old project car he’d always said would be mine when he finished it.
He’d finished it three years ago.
“By the way, did you tell your parents that your machine burned down?” He gave my phone a sideways glance, like he was waiting for me to start texting.
I looked out the window. The fact that neither of my parents had called back was nice in a way, as it postponed the immense amount of trouble I was about to be in. But it also stung a bit that they weren’t concerned about why I was contacting them when I should have been at school. Instead of explaining all those complicated emotions, I said, “No, I thought I’d save it as a surprise.”
“Good call.” He slid into a snow-packed spot, and I reminded myself that it was still Valentine’s Day. I may have lost my car and would soon be destroyed by my parents, but in a few minutes I’d be with Josh. He’d read me poetry, give me my present, I would say those magical three words, and everything else would melt away.
“Well,” I said, opening the door after he pulled to a stop and cut the engine. “Have a happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Fuck that,” Nick said, biting out the words as if I’d wished him a happy castration as he got out and slammed his door. “I fucking hate this day.”
I stepped out of the truck, took off his coat, and held it out to him when he came around. “Well, then, just have a day, I guess.”
“Sure,” he said, tossing the coat into the back of the vehicle. “Thanks.”