Chapter One ONE
The flowers are dead, I’m surrounded by orange, and a suitcase has been disemboweled in the search for a phone charger. Clothes are everywhere. I mean everywhere. Like, you wouldn’t know that underneath the scattered piles of my wardrobe is a white carpet kind of everywhere. But I have motive.
The Most Important Email of My Life (so far) could poof into my inbox at any moment before five p.m. EDT and my phone is currently lifeless.
It’s waiting for me now, for all I know.
Subject: READ BETWEEN THE LIES Cover reveal: You are NOT worthy.
Subject: We gave it to EW. Who are you?
Subject: If you think THAT’S a lot of Instagram followers …
With the toss of one last cardigan, I reveal … nothing. The suitcase is empty.
I blink. My charger isn’t here. There is literally nowhere else it could be.
I know it’s not in my purse.
I check my purse for a third time anyway.
It’s not even like I can borrow one. Deciding to be an Android in an iPhone family? Literally the worst decision ever right now. I’ve been offline for three hours and thirty-three minutes and I can think of approximately three hundred thirty-three things that could have happened in that time. My phone died its tragic death in Philadelphia mid–inbox refresh on hour ten of the twelve-hour trek from Charlotte, North Carolina, to my newest temporary home: Middleton, AKA Middle-of-Nowhere, Connecticut.
With no charger in sight, the only connection I have to anything within the realm of normal is impossible to reach. I’m stuck instead with no internet, dead flowers, an entirely unrecognizable Gramps, and orange walls.
I hate orange. After red, my rainbow skips straight to yellow.
But I chose this orange. Shortly after we arrived, I stepped into Aunt Liz’s childhood 1970s nightmare room and claimed it as mine. I know I’m going to regret this in the morning. But right now? I need this room. It’s the only place that still feels like my grandparents’ house. Every other room is remodeled and modern, all glass tables and new paint and uncomfortable cream-colored furniture. No more garden. No more pictures. No more books.
Grams would be horrified.
I look up. Ollie is at the door, waving my charger in his hand.
“No clue how it got into my stuff,” he says.
Me either. But it doesn’t matter. It’s here.
“You’re my hero.”
I grab my phone off the floor and hold my hands out, expecting Ollie to toss the cord to me. He doesn’t. Instead, my fifteen-year-old brother leans back against the doorframe, allowing his light brown hair to fall into his eyes.
“Mom is two seconds away from cry number three. Dad’s having an allergic reaction to Scout. And Gramps is ranting about the rise of fascism. He straight-up looked at me and said, ‘Do you know what fascism is?’ Like, anyone with a pulse right now knows what fascism is. I didn’t say that, obviously.”
I take a step toward him and place my hand on his arm. “Ollie.”
He exhales. “This is hard for me, too, okay? I need you out there.”
“I spiraled,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Everything looks so different,” Ollie says.
“Gramps and I have matching Nikes.”
“Maybe this was …” Ollie lets the thought trail off, incomplete.
A mistake. That’s how Ollie’s sentence ends. I know this because I’m wondering it too.
I twirl Grams’s hamsa necklace between my fingers. “It’s only been six months.”
Ollie nods. “We’ll check your email downstairs? Together?”
“Let’s go,” I say.
Ollie places my charger in my palm and I smile. Ollie knows all about my blog life. He knows how important this email is. He read the pitch I sent five times because he’s the best. He reads YA for me and I understand baseball stats for him. It’s just what we do.
I follow him down the stairs and through the living room to the kitchen, ignoring the pictureless walls and absent bookshelves. I fixate on the back of Ollie’s head and swallow the emotion that’s lodged in my throat because Grams would never take down the pictures.
All the pictures in my life live in folders on screens. At Grams’s and Gramps’s, the pictures lived on the walls. Photographs were everywhere—in the living room, on the kitchen walls, lining the staircase, in albums on the coffee table. Familiar faces. Foreign faces. Whenever we visited, we got a new story based on one of the pictures. One story per visit, that was Grams’s rule. So we had to think about, and fight for, which picture we wanted.
One day, we’d know all the stories. That’s what Grams said.
I wanted to stay in Grams’s house.
This isn’t Grams’s house.
“Found her,” Ollie says. “Lured by a phone charger.”
Dad sneezes. “Typical.”
I open my mouth to retort, but stop short at the sight of him. He’s holding Scout, Grams’s adorable maltipoo—who is definitely the source of his sudden-onset sneezing—and sitting at a glass table.
How does a person decorate cupcakes on a glass table? It’s not made for messes.
The kitchen used to be a shrine to baking, with two shelves on the wall next to the stove to display Grams’s fancy standing mixer and all her quality cupcake creation equipment. The kitchen table was solid wood, perfect for spreading out all the ingredients for a long afternoon of baking.
Now the table is glass. The shelves are gone.
Gramps is gone. I mean, I know the man sitting next to Dad is Gramps. I know this.
But he’s also not. Like, at all.
He’s skinnier. Messier, too. My Gramps was always short-haired and clean-shaven. This Gramps has a full beard and a short ponytail sticking out underneath his baseball hat. He’s wearing a graphic T-shirt and cargo shorts. And Ollie’s Nikes.
“Hi, Gramps,” I say, my voice soft.
Gramps nods. “Hal.”
His smile is forced, lips tight and no teeth, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react. I should probably hug him, right? A handshake would be weird, right? I mean, this is Gramps. My Gramps, who taught me everything I know about Johnny Cash and read picture books to me until I fell asleep on his lap. My Gramps, who always made sure to interject himself into the near-daily conversations I’d have with Grams, calls where we’d go on hour-long rants about the best books we’ve ever read, ever. Until the next best book we’ve ever read came along. Gramps would attempt to pivot the conversation toward narrative nonfiction and political memoirs. You ladies and your books, he’d say, giving up with a hearty laugh. Nothing ever put a bigger smile on my face from hundreds of miles away than his laugh. React, Halle. I’m the reason we’re here. I’m the one who’s been desperate to reconnect with Gramps in this post-Grams world. But now that I’m here, and he’s in front of me? Now that I’m about to move in with him? I don’t know what to say.
That’s the problem with words. In my head, words are magic. My thoughts are eloquent and fierce. On the page, words are music. In the clicks of my keyboard, in the scratches of pencil meeting paper. In the beauty of the eraser, of the backspace key. On the page, the words in my head sing and dance with the precision of diction and the intricacies of rhythm.
Out loud? Words are the worst.
“Gramps was just asking us about college,” Mom says.
Gramps nods. “Still NYU?”
It’s always been the plan, to follow in Grams’s footsteps.
NYU undergrad. Interning at the Big Five publishers. A publishing job offer after graduation.
“Competitive school these days,” Gramps says. “College applications are so different now.”
The corners of my mouth drop. “I know.”
I know getting into NYU isn’t easy. I think about it at least ten times a day. It’s why I’m here instead of following Mom and Dad on their next adventure—to focus on nailing AP classes, to continue growing my blog presence, to keep putting myself out there as a viable media opportunity for authors, to prove to the book world and NYU admissions that I’m meant to shout about books for a living and will thrive in publishing.
“Well I’m pretty sure since I’m destined to get drafted into the MLB, Halle can get into NYU.” Ollie says.
“I mean”—sneeze—“if it’s destined,” says Dad.
Gramps snorts. “MLB? Good luck, kid.”
Ollie isn’t bothered. He just shakes his head, smirking. “You haven’t seen me play, Gramps.”
Gramps turns his attention to Mom. “How’s preproduction going, Maddie?”
He’s the only one who can get away with calling Mad Levitt “Maddie.”
“Oh! Really good, actually. Our locations were approved—”
And just like that, before my very eyes, my parents are no longer my parents. They’re Madeline and Ari Levitt, Academy Award–nominated directors. Seriously, my parents are the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Best Documentary (Feature) category. Six nominations. Six and the Academy Award goes to [insert name that’s not my parents]. Zero Oscar dude statues.
Leo had to eat raw bison liver for his.
My parents will spend a year on a kibbutz for theirs.
“—we’ll start filming at Kinneret next week and work our way south through four different kibbutzim.”
“Wait—” Dad sneezes. “You’re saying everything is all set … before our arrival?”
“Doubtful,” Ollie and I interject.
“Allegedly,” Mom corrects herself.
Gramps looks perplexed. “Shouldn’t it be?”
Ollie pats Gramps on the shoulder. “Alas, the life of a director is unpredictable, Gramps. You’d hate it.”
Gramps nods. “I would.”
Mom shakes her head. “You’d think that, Ben. But it’s the best kind of unpredictable. It’s following—”
I take a few steps backward, toward the free plug above the countertop. Now that Mom is officially in follow the story wherever it leads you mode, I can charge my phone. Finally. I can’t make dead flowers bloom or make the kitchen look like my memories of it. But I did make small talk without bursting into tears. A small victory.
I plug my phone in and tap my fingers absentmindedly on the granite, waiting for it to come back to life. I count the seconds so they pass: 152, 153, 154 …
At last, with a series of vibrations and notifications, Kels—YA book blogger and founder of One True Pastry—is back on the grid.
It’s overwhelming, the amount I’ve missed. Forty-two new emails. Sixty-five Twitter notifications. Hundreds of DMs.
And zero messages from Ariel Goldberg’s publicist.
I exhale anxiety because I didn’t miss it.
I inhale anxiety because it hasn’t happened yet.
Grams introduced me to Ariel Goldberg, one of my favorite YA authors, when I was twelve. So it feels fitting that today is the day I find out if I’m chosen to host the cover reveal of her newest book, Read Between the Lies. Fitting, but also ten times more nerve-racking.
What if the rejection email is no email at all? What if I’m not even worth responding to? What if Ariel’s publicity team read my pitch and laughed?? Now that Ariel’s a best-selling author on her fourth book, now that her books have “critical and commercial success,” she doesn’t need my cupcakes. Hosting an Ariel Goldberg cover reveal is for sophisticated platforms now. Real magazines with subscribers. Literary reviewers. Adults.
I’m just a kid who bakes cupcakes that match book covers and has an opinion, like everyone else on the internet.
And 20K Twitter followers who care about those opinions, I remind myself.
With my elbows resting on the countertops, I work through the process of clearing my notifications. It’s calming. Halle’s reality is complete chaos; nothing feels familiar. But Kels’s world? Besides waiting for this email, it’s so wonderfully the same.
I created Kels when I was fourteen, and Kels created One True Pastry, a blog dedicated to the two greatest things on Earth—YA books and cupcakes. She’s pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Once all my notifications are cleared, I check in on the IRL conversation. Gramps is asking more questions about the documentary. Mom and Dad respond with enthusiasm, all we haven’t been to Israel since birthright and this is such a cinematic opportunity and the Academy will have to, and I am definitely okay to dip my toes into my DMs before going back.
I tap the first message I want to respond to.
w h a t ?
You’ve NEVER seen lord of the rings? like ever?
I am speechless.
Actually no I’m not. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
I hope you know that while you dropped a bomb like this and disappeared, your lord of the rings initiation marathon is already in the works. 20 hours. Extended editions. You’re not ready.
I smile. Nash picking a Lord of the Rings fight is easily the best conversation I’ve had all day. I’m so grateful for the dose of normal.
sorry, phone died. (it’s true!)
okay, so hear me out. the hobbit was assigned reading the summer before freshmen year and just? so many descriptions of rocks? idk. i DNF’d it.
The response is immediate despite my long lapse. Like he’s waiting for me.
First, you’re wrong. Second, you can’t let The Hobbit ruin the whole experience!
but it’s PART of the experience.
YES AND IT’S AMAZING TOO.
Mom’s voice makes me jump, and my phone slips out of my hand, clattering on the granite.
“Sorry. I …” I look around. The kitchen has been vacated. We’re the only two people left. “Wait. Where is everyone?”
Sometimes, being in a Nash phone zone is so intense, everything around me ceases to exist.
“Scout needed to go out.” Worry lines wrinkle Mom’s forehead. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know. I mean, I don’t think we were expecting Gramps to be so …”
I flinch. “It’s only been six months.” Mom’s trying to give us an easy out, but there is no way I’m leaving Gramps. More than ever he needs us not to bail. Mom is good at chasing down truths, but she’s not so good at witnessing the ones that find her instead.
Her expression softens. “Oh, I know, babe. Of course he’s sad, we all are. I mean, well, your dad talks to him almost every day and, well, we just thought he’d be more—together. And the house … Look, all I’m saying is I know you wanted to be here, but you can still come with us. We’ll hire the best tutors. You’ll graduate on time. This time next year, we’ll be moving you into NYU. Besides, this trip is going to be life-changing. Think about how much closer we’ll be to our culture.”
Mom doesn’t get it. We’ve always been A Levitt Family Production, whether we were investigating the ethics of cattle farming in the Midwest, examining the effects of climate change on the beaches of the Outer Banks, or exposing the realities of gentrification in major cities.
I love chasing stories with my parents, but I can’t go to Israel with them. It isn’t even about graduating on time. It’s about having a senior year that’s mine—I have big plans for OTP and building an NYU-worthy resume, a resume that screams publishing.
If I say yes, I’ll get caught up in A Levitt Family Production—distracted by long days on location, switching out camera lenses to capture the perfect headshot, proofreading interview questions—the familiar, comforting chaos of filmmaking. It’s a chaos I haven’t felt since my parents moved us to Charlotte for their raising teenagers sabbatical three years ago, devastated by Oscar loss number six. Being on location and behind a camera is the closest thing to home I’ve ever had—until Kels.
If I go, OTP will take a back seat to my parents’ demanding schedule and fitting school in.
I can’t afford to go on hiatus for a year.
My presence will evaporate. NYU will have nothing to look at. Kels will disappear.
“I’m staying. For Gramps.”
Mom nods. “I get that. It just might be harder than you think, okay?”
“Every day is already hard.”
Mom’s arms open and I fall into her embrace. She strokes my hair like I’m a little kid again. It used to be identical, our hair. Long and medium brown. Whatever Mom’s chosen hairstyle was for the day, she’d replicate it on me. If Mom braided her hair, she braided mine. Crown braid days were my favorite. Along with matching green eyes and the same small mole above our lip. Everyone on set used to call me Mini-Mad.
Now, I keep my hair shoulder-length and styled in layers.
Mom’s is still as long as ever because, quote, screw ageism.
I’m going to miss her so much.
Mom lets go first and glances at her smart watch. “We need to get going.”
Still chewing my cheek, I nod.
“Come on, the boys are all outside.”
I follow my mother’s footsteps out the back door. Mom referring to Dad, Gramps, and Ollie as “the boys” gives me flashbacks to sand between my toes and the smell of hydrangeas in bloom. Summers were always for Middleton. If we weren’t on location, we were here. But now it’s August, and there’s a whole year here in front of us.
Dad pulls me into a hug as soon as I reach him. We don’t say much, but we don’t need to. Dad isn’t a man of many words. Mostly, he speaks in cupcakes and cinematography. I can’t wait for the pictures I know he’s going to send me from Israel.
“Take care of Gramps,” he whispers in my ear.
“I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry,” Mom says, then smushes Ollie and me together into one giant group hug and promptly bursts into tears.
There it is. We’ve been waiting for it. Mom always cries in threes, and she cried twice during the road trip to Middleton. It’s like three-act structure is built in her DNA.
On that note, Gramps turns around, Scout in his arms, and retreats inside. It’s the first Gramps thing that has happened since we’ve arrived, him running away from Mom’s tears. He kind of always has.
Mom wipes her eyes. “Okay, well.” She looks back and forth between Ollie and me. “I love you. We love you.”
“We’ll love you more if you win an Oscar,” Ollie says.
“No pressure,” I say.
Mom rolls her eyes, but she’s laughing. Ollie always knows what to say like that.
“Okay, one more hug. Then we’ll go—I promise!”
After a final round of hugs, Mom and Dad get in the van and they’re off to JFK. Then onto a plane. Then halfway around the world.
I don’t realize I’m crying until they’re already gone.