Main Swear on This Life

Swear on This Life

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From USA TODAY bestselling author Renée Carlino (Before We Were Strangers), a warm and witty novel about a struggling writer who must come to grips with her past, present, and future after she discovers that she’s the inspiration for a pseudonymously published bestselling novel.

When a bestselling debut novel from mysterious author J. Colby becomes the literary event of the year, Emiline reads it reluctantly. As an adjunct writing instructor at UC San Diego with her own stalled literary career and a bumpy long-term relationship, Emiline isn’t thrilled to celebrate the accomplishments of a young and gifted writer.

Yet from the very first page, Emiline is entranced by the story of Emerson and Jackson, two childhood best friends who fall in love and dream of a better life beyond the long dirt road that winds through their impoverished town in rural Ohio.

That’s because the novel is patterned on Emiline’s own dark and desperate childhood, which means that “J. Colby” must be Jase: the best friend and first love she hasn’t seen in over a decade. Far from being flattered that he wrote the novel from her perspective, Emiline is furious that he co-opted her painful past and took some dramatic creative liberties with the ending.

The only way she can put her mind at ease is to find and confront “J. Colby,” but is she prepared to learn the truth behind the fiction?
Atria Books
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The beginning of my reading Renee Carlino books .All of her books makes me deep feeling.
13 October 2021 (08:55) 

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Praise for Before We Were Strangers



“Before We Were Strangers is as steamy as it is sweet. With two characters who are meant to be but just can’t get the timing right, Renée Carlino has mastered the missed connection. I found myself rooting for Matt and Grace at every turn and aching to crawl into the book to go back to the ’90s to join them. Evocative, tender, and satisfying, Carlino has outdone herself.”

—Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Maybe in Another Life, After I Do, and Forever Interrupted

“Powerful and poignant, Before We Were Strangers captures the magic and heartache of first love. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.”

—Tracey Garvis-Graves, New York Times bestselling author of On the Island and Covet

“I loved every single thing about this book! Nostalgia, first love, the echo of heartbreak, the rocky road to where you were always meant to be—this book has everything and then some. You can’t help but be transported.”

—Jay Crownover, New York Times bestselling author of Better When He’s Bad

“Sometimes we need a reminder that love is worth fighting for. Before We Were Strangers is a beautiful, real, heartfelt reminder.”

—Kim Holden, author of Gus and Bright Side

“I felt like I found a piece of my soul in this book. I’ve highlighted so many lines to use as a reference for daily inspiration. I was that moved.”

—Kim Jones, author of Red

“This is one of the most romantic, heartfelt and consuming books I’ve ever read. To say that I’m in love with it would feel like the biggest understatement, ever . . . I’m blessed, so insanely lucky, to have found a story that I finished reading with tears in my eyes and a more beautiful outlook on life, love and believing in second chances.”

—Book Baristas

“Exquisitely written. . . . I highly recommend this if you’re in the mood for a really great, heartfelt journey, loaded in angst and healing, all in the name of true love.”

—Maryse’s Book Blog

Praise for After the Rain

“Renée Carlino; ’s writing is deeply emotional and full of quiet power. You won’t be disappointed.”

—Joanna Wylde, New York Times bestselling author

“After the Rain tore me up in the best way possible. Sexy, sweet, and sad, all woven together with an overwhelming undercurrent of hope, Nate and Avelina’s story is one that goes straight to my list of all-time favorites.”

—Amy Jackson, New York Times bestselling author

Praise for Nowhere but Here

“There is a certain ‘magic’ or ‘spark’ or whatever you want to call it that really makes a book come to life as you read it. As a reader, I’m on a constant search for that special spark and I absolutely found it here. Nowhere but Here was a unique and beautifully written love story. I laughed, I swooned, I wiped happy tears away, and I fell in love. This book warmed my heart and left me with the most wonderful feeling. I highly recommend it for all fans of romance!”

—Aestas Book Blog

“The kind of romance that gives you butterflies in your stomach, that tingly feeling all over, and a huge smile on your face. . . . If you are looking for something emotional, where you can truly experience what the characters are feeling through the beautifully written words of an amazing author, complete with a wonderful epilogue that will give you a sense of completeness, then look no further.”

—Shh Mom’s Reading

Praise for Sweet Thing

“Sassy and sweet, Sweet Thing melts in your mouth and goes straight to your heart!”

—Katy Evans, New York Times bestselling author of Real

“Surprisingly, this is Renée’s debut novel because she writes like a pro with words flowing effortlessly and beautifully, totally hooking me from the beginning. There was something intangibly real and special about this book, which kept me reading until I finished it . . . one of my favorite stories of the year.”

—Vilma’s Book Blog

Thank you for downloading this Atria Books eBook.

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To Anthony, you’re always the just one person

1. He Found Me

In class we say That’s too on the nose when someone has written a story or a scene where exactly what you think should happen does happen. Or when the events are too perfect or precise. But in real life we have a hard time recognizing serendipitous moments because we’re not making the story up as we go along. It’s not a lie—it’s really happening to us, and we have no idea how it will end. Some of us will look back on our lives and recall events that were a bit too perfect, but until you know the whole story, it’s impossible to see the universe at work, or even admit that there is something bigger than us, making sure everything that should happen does happen. If you can surrender to the idea that there might be a plan, instead of reducing every magical moment to a coincidence, then love will find you. He found me.

“WOW, THE SEAGULLS are going crazy. I think there’s a tsunami headed this way,” I said, staring out the window of my second-story apartment as I watched the marine layer thicken over La Jolla Cove. The fog was moving fast toward my building as the storm clouds swirled in the distance.

Trevor laughed. “Such a San Diegan, overreacting to the weather.” He was sitting on the floor with his back against the overpriced leather couch that my aunts Cyndi and Sharon had bought for me when I first moved in.

“Do you think we need sandbags?”

“No, you’re being crazy,” he said.

“Crazy or cautious?”

“More like neurotic. It’s drizzling. California is still technically in a drought.”

I noticed that Trevor had put down the short story I had written so he could continue playing Angry Birds on his phone.

“Trevor . . .” I warned.

“Emiline . . .” he teased back without looking up.

I plopped onto his lap and threw my arms around his neck. “I really want you to read it.”

“I did. I read it fast.”

“What’s it about, then?”

“It’s about a girl who discovers an ancient formula for cold fusion.”

“So you got the gist. But did you actually like it?”

“Emi . . .” He paused. His eyes darted around the room. When he focused on me again, I saw pity in his face. “I liked it a lot,” he said.

“But . . . ?”

“I think you should write what you know. You’re a good writer, but this”—he held up the paper—“seems a little silly.”

“Silly? Why?” I could feel anger boiling over inside of me. Trevor was honest—it was one of the reasons I liked him—but sometimes he was blunt to the point of belittling.

“For one, it’s unrealistic.”

“It’s science fiction,” I shot back.

“It needs more character development.” He shrugged as if his statement were obvious.

“Trevor, please don’t start spewing that Writing 101 crap at me. I get enough of that in the program. I want to practice what I preach. I’m constantly telling the undergrads to forget the rules and write intuitively. Now I’m asking you for realistic feedback, from a reader’s point of view, not an instructor’s.”

“I’m trying to. I thought that’s what I was doing. You know how hard it is for me to critique your work. You can’t handle it. I didn’t connect with the characters, so I wasn’t interested in reading the rest of the story. So there. I’m just being honest.”

“There’s a nice way to be honest,” I muttered.

“I still finished the story, and now I’m trying to help you, but you’re not being receptive to it. Just tell me what you want me to say.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Are you serious right now?”

“Yes.” He got up abruptly and I toppled over onto the floor.

“You’re not a reader. I shouldn’t have asked you to read it. Are we actually fighting over this?”

“We’re always fighting over this,” he said. “And I resent you for saying that I’m not a reader, as if I’m some kind of illiterate Neanderthal.”

I had been dating Trevor since our senior year at Berkeley, so I knew exactly where this insecurity was coming from. Seven years—that’s a long time in anyone’s book. When we met, he was a superstar quarterback destined for the NFL, and I was a bookworm trying to be a wordsmith. He was Tom Brady handsome, and for so long I wondered why he was into me at all. Yet for some reason, in the beginning, it just felt right. We got along beautifully, and our relationship went on like a fairy tale—until he injured his throwing arm in the last game of the season. His professional football career was over before it even began.

He graduated unglamorously and then took an assistant offensive coaching job at San Diego State so he could be closer to me while I worked on my MFA at UC San Diego. It was a major show of dedication, but I couldn’t help but feel like a little light had gone off inside of him. He was there in San Diego with me, but sometimes I felt like he wanted to be somewhere else.

The dynamics of any long-term relationship tend to shift in subtle ways, but for us, the change was more abrupt: the moment he got injured, I wasn’t the nerdy bookworm infatuated with the star quarterback anymore. And while that never bothered me, it definitely bothered him. Even after he followed me to San Diego, we continued to live separately, and neither one of us pressed the issue, even after I finished my MFA. I told myself I was waiting for him to make the move, to own the decision, but honestly I didn’t know if I wanted to move in with him either.

So I kept living with my roommate, Cara, a fellow graduate from the UCSD writing program. She was saving money and teaching a couple of writing courses while she worked on her first novel, and I was trying to do the same. Her longtime boyfriend, Henry, was a surgical resident in New York, and she planned to move at the end of the school year to be with him. I knew I had to figure something out by then, but arguments like this made me think Trevor and I still weren’t ready to take the next step.

“I’m going for a run,” I said to Trevor as I hurried toward my bedroom to get dressed.

“What? One minute you’re worried about a tsunami and the next you want to go for a run? What the hell?” He followed behind me. “Emi, you’re going to have to deal with your shit at some point.”

“My shit? What about your shit?” I said flatly as I sat on the floor, tying my shoes. I wasn’t even looking at him. I got up and tried to move past him to leave the room. I might have been carrying around some baggage, but so was Trevor.

“You have to stop running every time I want to have a bigger conversation with you.”

“Later,” I said.

“No, now,” he said firmly.

I shimmied between his body and my bedroom door and headed toward the kitchen. I busied myself filling up a water bottle.

“We’ve been together since we were twenty, Emi.”

“Jesus, I just asked you to read a fucking story.”

“It’s not about the story.”

“What is it about, then?” I asked sharply.

He looked frustrated and defeated, which was rare for him. I felt a twinge of guilt and softened.

“Trevor, I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m having a hard time with my writing right now. I don’t want to be an adjunct creative writing professor forever. Do you get that?”

“You’re already a writer, Emi.” He seemed sincere, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear.

“All of the other adjuncts have been published in some right, except for me.”

“Cara’s been published?”

“Twice,” I said under my breath.

He hesitated before continuing. “You want to know what I think? It’s not a lack of talent, Emi. I just don’t think you’re writing what you know. Why don’t you try writing about yourself? Explore everything you went through when you were a kid?”

I felt myself getting mad again. He knew my childhood was off-limits. “I don’t want to talk about it, and besides, you’re totally missing the point.”

Pulling my hoodie up over my hair, I pushed the door open and jogged down the stairs toward the walkway as the rain pelted my face. I heard Trevor slam the door and jog down the steps behind me. I stopped on the sidewalk, turned, and looked up at him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going home,” he said.


“We still need to talk.”

I nodded. “Later.” He turned on his heel and walked away. I stood for a moment before turning in the opposite direction . . . and then I was running.

I was convinced that the years of therapy my aunt Cyndi and her partner, Sharon, had paid for guaranteed my past would always be just that. Still, I knew in the back of my mind that I hadn’t quite dealt with what happened on that long dirt road in Ohio, all those years before I came to live with Cyndi and Sharon. I was guarded and withdrawn, hiding in my relationship with Trevor, in my job as an adjunct professor, in my writing. I knew all of this, but I wasn’t sure how to get out of the rut.

After a few miles, I found myself jogging through the parking lot at UCSD, getting thoroughly soaked by massive raindrops.

“Emi!” I heard Cara call from behind me. “Wait up!”

I turned and tightened the strings on my hoodie. “Hurry, I’m getting drenched!”

Cara’s straight blonde hair clung to her cheeks, making her look even thinner than she was, as she jogged toward me. She was the opposite of me—tall, lanky, with light hair and light eyes. I had frizzy, dark hair that flew everywhere, all the time.

We took cover beneath the overhang of the building that housed the creative writing department. “Jeez, Emi, your hair.” Cara tried unsuccessfully to pat it down as we walked into the building and shook the water off our clothes. Before I could retort, we caught sight of Professor James as he was locking up his office.

“Professor!” Cara called.

He fit every possible stereotype of a college professor. He was plump, had a thick beard, and always dressed in herringbone or argyle. It was easy to imagine a pipe dangling from the side of his mouth as he talked.

“Do you have those notes on my story for me?” Cara asked.

“As a matter of fact, I do.” He shuffled through his distressed leather briefcase and handed Cara a stack of papers. “I’ve written them in the margins.”

Cara craved constructive criticism, but I never found the professor’s notes all that helpful, even when I was in the program. After I graduated, I stopped letting him read my work.

As she scanned his marginalia, Professor James looked me over. “What are you working on, Emiline?”

“Just doing scene exercises.” I looked away, avoiding his stare.

“I didn’t mean with your students. I meant with your personal projects.”

I thought idly that the only personal project I wanted to work on was plucking my eyebrows and shaving my legs. “Oh, just some short stories.”

“If you ever want some feedback, feel free to drop your work off in my office.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks, I’ll consider it.”

I glanced at Cara’s story and noticed, in bold red writing, at the top of the page, the note BRILLIANT!!

Professor James nodded good-bye and walked away. I turned to Cara. “Two exclamation points? He’s never said anything that nice about my work.”

Cara frowned. “You know what I think about that, Emi.”

“Oh man, here we go.”

“I know you don’t like to hear it, but it’s true. Maybe you’re writing about the wrong stuff.”

First Trevor, now Cara? “I’m really good at baking—does that mean I should be a baker?”

“You know that’s not what I mean,” she said.

“I know.” I looked down at my thrashed Nikes. “I’m just tired of missing the mark on these short stories. Trevor basically panned my last one.” I looked up and nodded toward the end of the hall. “Come on, let’s walk.”

We headed toward the staff room to check our mailboxes in silence.

“Maybe you could work on a memoir? Even if you don’t finish it, you might figure out what you want to explore in your short fiction. Something that’s more personal to you?”

“No, thanks,” I said, hoping that my tone conveyed how much I wanted her to drop it. She seemed to have gotten the hint and abruptly changed the subject.

“So, have you heard of this new writer that everyone’s talking about? J. Colby?”

I shuffled through papers from my staff mailbox, tossing the junk mail in the trash. “No, who’s that?”

“Columbia grad. He’s around our age. I can’t believe he’s already published. Everyone’s raving about his novel.”

“Good for him,” I said bitterly.

“Well, I’m going to read it, see what it’s all about,” she said as she jammed a sheaf of mail into her tote bag. “It’s called All the Roads Between. Don’t you love that title?”

“It’s all right, I guess. Kind of reminds me of The Bridges of Madison County or something.” I turned to her. “Okay, well, I’m done here. I’m gonna head home. You coming with?”

“I’ll see you back there—just have to run a few errands. But, hey, you know what we should do since it’s so rainy out? We should stay in, get takeout, watch trash TV, and drink until we pass out. That’ll cheer you up, right?”

“I guess. Yeah . . . that sounds good. Great, actually. Let’s do it.” Never mind that I’d told Trevor I’d watch football with him and talk. What I needed was a night in with my best friend. “I’ll pick up the wine, you get the Chinese?”

“Deal. See you at home.”

THE SUN WAS going down behind the storm clouds as I sat on the window ledge and watched the waves crash against the rocks of the cove. I thought about the story I could write. I knew I had more than pages’ worth of material. I had books’ worth. I just didn’t know if I could ever put the words to paper.

Cara came barreling through the door with a Barnes and Noble bag.

“They have Chinese food at Barnes and Noble now?” I joked.

“Our date is off! I went and got that book we were talking about, read twenty pages in the store, and could not put it down. I have to know what happens. Emiline, I’m in love with this author. I’m going to find him and make him marry me.”

“How will Henry feel about that?” I teased.

She threw the bag on the counter and poured herself a glass of wine as I watched her from the window ledge. “He’ll understand,” she said, giggling.

“So you’re bailing on me to read in your room?”

“You know how I am when I get into a book. I can’t be stopped.”

I understood exactly how she felt—I was the same way. “Fine, you’re off the hook. But you owe me.”

“Maybe Trevor can swing by with Chinese?”

I laughed. “You’re ditching me but you want my boyfriend to bring us food?”

She leaned over the couch and smiled. “Are you mad?”

“No, I’m kidding. Go, read, enjoy!”

An hour later, when Trevor showed up with Chinese, Cara came out, got a plate, and darted back into her room.

“What’s her deal?” he asked.

“She’s really into her new book.”

“Well, I guess it gives us time to talk.” We sat down side by side at the breakfast bar, opening cartons silently, waiting for someone to go first.

After a few bites, I put my chopsticks down. “You want to talk? Fine? Why don’t you ever tell me you love me?”

“I’ve told you I love you before,” he said, astonished. “And this isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

“Well, I do. You have said it but you don’t say it often. Don’t you feel like you can say it to me?”

“You never say it to me either.”

Fair point. “I don’t think we even know what it means,” I said through a mouthful of sesame chicken.

“Whatever it is you’re going through has nothing to do with me,” he said. Trevor had this way of shifting responsibility away from himself in every argument. It drove me crazy.

“People are in relationships so they can share things with each other.”

“This, coming from you? Emi, after seven years, I still barely know you. I only know what you share with me, which doesn’t include anything from your past.”

I could feel myself getting defensive. “Since we’re playing the blame game, you haven’t made much of an effort to get to know me, or to commit to me in any real way.”

Trevor’s face fell, and I could tell I’d struck a nerve.

“Are you serious? You keep saying you don’t know where you’ll end up a year from now. What does that even mean? How do you think that makes me feel?”

“Then why are you here?” I asked, simply. I didn’t want to sound callous, but I could tell that I’d gone too far. That I was cutting him too deep.

“I moved down here for you, Emi. I built my life around our relationship.” He got up from his stool. “We’re not kids anymore. I can’t deal with your fickle shit and listen to you say I won’t make a commitment to you. You’re the one who won’t commit to me.”

I felt all kinds of retorts bubbling inside of me. The only job offer you got was at San Diego State. You didn’t move here for me. I’m just the girl you’re passing time with. We both know it. Why else would you have a hard time saying I love you? Why else can’t I see our future?

I got up and headed toward my room, and Trevor followed right behind me. I turned around to face him and rested my hand on the door for a moment as he waited silently in the doorway. And then I pulled him toward me and kissed him, pressing my body against his. I didn’t want to talk anymore.

THE NEXT MORNING, as I drank coffee at the breakfast bar, Cara came skipping by. “What’s eating you?” she asked. I didn’t know how she could tell these things just by looking at the back of my head, but she could intuit moods like no one else. She poured herself a mug of coffee and leaned against the counter, facing me, waiting for my response.


“Trevor eating you?” She smirked.

“Not in a good way, pervert.” I rolled my eyes.

“Are you guys fighting again? Sounds like you made up last night.”

“We’re always fighting. Even when we’re making up.”

She straightened, as if something had just occurred to her, and then rushed off. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”

When she came back into the kitchen, she set a book down in front of me. I glanced at the jacket. All the Roads Between. “You’re finished already?” I asked.

“Stayed up all night. I loved it. You said I owed you one for bailing on you last night, and this is my repayment. I think you could use the escape.”

“Oh yeah?” I ran my hand over the cover. It was a faint image of two kids holding hands on a road. There was something familiar about the scene, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Maybe you can escape your own slightly flawed love story for a bit and get lost in something more satisfying—even if it is fiction.”

I sighed and picked it up. Maybe she was right. I grabbed my mug of coffee with my other hand and headed toward my bedroom. “Thanks, Care Bear,” I called back.


Once inside, I plopped down on my bed and cracked open the book to the first page. From the moment I read the second line in the first paragraph, my heart rate tripled. Instantly, I was sweating. By the end of the first page, I was almost hysterical.

From All the Roads Between

By the time our school bus would get to El Monte Road, Jax and I would be the only kids left. We’d bounce along past the open fields, past Carter’s egg ranch, past a whole lot of run-down houses, dust clouds, and weeds. We lived right off El Monte, at the five–point-five-mile marker, at the end of a long, rutted, dirt road, our houses preceded by two battered mailboxes askew on their dilapidated wood posts. It was a bone-shaking journey by car and almost impossible by bus, so Ms. Beels would pick us up and drop us off at the mailboxes every school day, rain or shine. Those mailboxes were where Jax and I would start and end our long journey.

Ms. Beels, a short, plump woman who wore mismatched socks and silly sweaters, was our bus driver from the time we were in first grade all the way until high school. She was the only constant and reliable person in my life. That is, besides Jax.

Every morning she would greet me with a smile and every afternoon, just before closing the doors and pulling away, she’d say, “Get on home, kids, and eat your veggies,” as if our parents could afford such luxuries. Her life was exactly the same, day in and day out, but she still put a smile on and did her job well.

When your family is reduced to nothing, you look at people like Ms. Beels with envy. Even though driving a bus in a rural, crackpot town isn’t exactly reaching for the stars, at the age of ten I still looked up to her. She had more than most people I knew back then. She had a job.

We lived in Neeble, Ohio, population eight thousand on a good day, home to ex-employees of the American Paper Mill factory, based in New Clayton. Most of the workers moved out of New Clayton just after the factory closed and brought their families to the rural, less populated towns where rent was cheap and the odd job less scarce.

My family had always lived in Neeble. My dad had grown up there, and his dad too. They would commute to New Clayton together when the factory was still running, starting and ending their days together the same as Jax and me. They were good friends and good men—at least that’s how I remember them. And we had a nice life for a while. My father called what we had at the end of that road a little slice of heaven. And it was . . . for a long time. But if there’s a real heaven here on earth, then there has to be a hell too. Jax and I learned that the hard way.

He and I weren’t always friends. In the beginning he was just a smelly boy with dirty fingernails and shaggy hair covering his eyes. In the early years, I barely heard him utter a word except for “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” He’d shuffle behind me all the way down that dusty road to where Ms. Beels would greet us. We’d climb onto the yellow Fern County school bus and hunker down for the long hour-and-a-half drive to school. I always sat in the very first seat, and he’d walk straight to the back.

As we passed through town, we’d pick up a whole bunch of kids, at least thirty of all ages, but the two I remember well, besides Jax, were world-class assholes. I was convinced that Mikey McDonald, with his blond crew cut and baggy pants, wanted to make my life hell.

“Emerson? What kind of name is that? Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

I would roll my eyes and try to ignore him. I never got a chance to ask my parents what kind of crack they were smoking when they named me.

By the third grade, Mikey had a crony: Alex Duncan. Whatever I was carrying, they would walk by and try to slap it out of my hands, and then they would sit in the seat behind me on the bus and torture me all the way home. “Maybe you can marry a book someday, Emerson Booknerd. Haha, Booknerd. That could be your last name.”

Alex had a big birthmark right on the end of his nose, like he had been sniffing shit. For so long I kept my insults to myself, but everything changed in the fourth grade. The factory had been closed for almost a year, the money was running out, and my father wasn’t doing anything but drinking and listening to talk radio. Rush Limbaugh’s Oxy-laced voice was more familiar to me than my own father’s. He was shutting down. He had stopped talking. He got mean and so . . . my mom left. She left me alone with him, without even a brother or sister to help shoulder the burden.

Everything changes when a man can’t afford to put food on the table. Some men rise to the occasion and find a way to make ends meet, no matter what it takes. Other men have too much pride to see that their life is crumbling down around them. My dad was a third-generation American Paper Mill worker, and Jax’s dad was the same. It was all they knew.

After years of torment from Mikey and Alex, I hit my breaking point when quiet, reserved Jax decided to join in on their juvenile idiocy.

I always took care to make sure my clothes were clean and my face washed. After my mom left, my dad started hanging around with Susan, a woman who worked as a maid at a nearby motel. She didn’t dress like a maid, but she always brought us those little soaps from the motel bathroom, so I guessed she was probably a maid. I had to use cheap motel soap for everything, including washing my hair, so naturally, after a few weeks of that, my bouncy brown curls became a frizzy mess. The kids on the bus called me Medusa. If only I had been that scary.

On a typically humid day in June, Jax followed me down the road and took his usual seat at the back. Halfway through the route, Mikey and Alex called Jax to come up and sit with them. They started giggling behind me.

“What, did you stick your finger in a light socket, Medusa?” Alex said.

“If I touch it, will it bite me?” Mikey taunted.

“Yeah, cool hair,” Jax said.

I turned and shot daggers into his eyes. “Oh, nice one, Fisher. Real original. You better watch it or I’ll tell your father.” I didn’t care about the other boys, but I wasn’t about to take that shit from the neighbor kid. He didn’t respond—he just stared right at me and then squinted slightly. He didn’t come back with another insult; it even seemed like he felt bad. He wouldn’t take his eyes off of mine, which was quite the statement for a fourth grader.

“Take a picture; it’ll last longer,” I said. He blushed and then looked away.

I heard Mikey say to Jax, “Will she really tell your father?”

Jax shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Alex turned his attention back to me. “We’re so scared—Poodle Head is going to tattle on us. Ruff, ruff.”

The boys continued their taunting without Jax’s help. He just kept his head down and waited until it was just the two of us on the bus and we were speeding past the mile markers on El Monte once again. I wasn’t sure if Jax was frightened of my threat or if he realized what a bunch of twerps they were being, so I turned in my seat and peered over the bus bench at him. He was looking out the window. “I wasn’t kidding, Jackson Fisher, I will tell your father.”

“That might be kind of hard, Emerson. My dad’s gone. He left.” It was the first time I had ever heard him speak my name. He enunciated it so clearly, like an adult would do.

“Where’d he go?”

“Who knows? Where’d your mom go?”

I didn’t think he even knew about my mom—I thought it was the big family secret. But then again, there’s no such thing in a small town.

“They’re not . . . you don’t think . . .” I hesitated, embarrassed. Jesus, did my mother take off with Jackson’s dad?

“No, they’re not together. I just meant they went to the same place: away from us.” He looked back out the window and stared straight ahead.

I felt sad and confused. I wanted to pinch his nose and tug on his ears for making fun of me, but I also wanted to hug him. I knew what he was feeling, and it hurt so bad it made my teeth ache. At least Jax had an older brother at home. I had no one but my books.

We didn’t talk for the rest of the ride, but we did walk shoulder to shoulder in our amiable silence down the long dirt road. Something felt different, like a truce had been made. At the end of the road, I went into my dark house and he into his. I walked past my snoring father on the couch, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I went into my room, found a pair of scissors, plopped down in front of the mirror, and slowly and methodically cut off all of my hair. I dozed off without eating dinner and woke up at three a.m. to the sound of my father’s drunken babbling. He was crashing into walls and cursing at no one. I cowered under the covers until he came stumbling through my bedroom door, my dark room filling with light from the hallway. I was terrified.

“What are you doing, Emerson?”

“I was sleeping. It’s late, Dad. I have school tomorrow.” I tried to make my voice sound small and penitent. He had food bits stuck in his mustache, and I wondered what he’d been eating. My fear was strong, but I was hungry enough in that moment to zero in on that detail.

His eyes narrowed as they adjusted to the darkness. “What in the hell did you do to your hair?”

“Nothing . . .” I reached up automatically to twirl my hair, but there wasn’t much left of it. I cursed myself for destroying the one thing I used as a coping mechanism.

“Nothing?” he screamed. “Doesn’t look like nothing!” He towered over me like a cartoonish, belligerent giant. I stood up weakly in his shadow and combed my fingers through my boyish cut. “I . . . I . . .”

“Shut up, you stupid, stupid girl. You’re just like your stupid mother.” He shook his head with such disappointment and disgust. “Get to bed.”

I didn’t know what version of my father I would get from one day to the next. At that age, it was hard for me to understand what he had gone through, losing the only job he knew how to do, and then his wife, all in rapid succession. Still, his alcoholism and rage couldn’t be justified by his bad luck.

Curling up in a pile of blankets on the floor, I closed my eyes and prayed that one of us would disappear. Him or me—it didn’t matter. When I heard him in the kitchen pouring another drink, I relaxed. He would drink until he passed out, I knew that. It was his routine, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be there when he woke up with the mother of all hangovers. I stayed awake for a while longer and listened to make sure he wasn’t coming back. Before I dozed off, I put a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the back of my pajama pants and fell asleep with my face buried in a pillow. Sometimes he would come in to spank me in the middle of the night, oftentimes for no reason. I wondered if all parents did that. I was ten, after all. I didn’t exactly go around asking people these things.

By morning, I was so tired that my bones felt dense and my brain hazy. I didn’t know how I would get through a whole school day. But the fear was too much to keep me home. School was my refuge, and books were my friends, so I got ready and headed toward the door. I tiptoed out of the house and went to sit on the short, brown fence in the front yard until Jax came out. I cried as I waited, sad that I didn’t have a mother and that I didn’t have any friends.

He came up behind me and flicked my hair. “We were joking. You shouldn’t have cut it all off.” I looked up at Jax and watched as understanding spread over his face. He knew I had been crying. That moment of sympathy was the exact moment that Jackson Fisher became my one and only friend.

“What’s wrong, Emerson?”

“I got in trouble for cutting my hair. My dad was really mean about it.”

“So you’re crying because of your dad, not what I said to you, right?”

I nodded. “I don’t want to cry anymore.” My voice was hoarse.

“I’m really sorry.” He said the words like he meant it: pained, remorseful . . . gentle. His eyes were sincere. There was unfeigned honesty in his expression, even at that age. It was a look I would never forget. “It’s not your fault your dad’s an asshole,” he said. He dug into his backpack and pulled out a Pop-Tart package. He took one pastry out for himself and then held out the other one toward me. “Hungry?” I grabbed at it like a feral animal and began chomping away. “Geez, slow down, Emerson. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

“I know, I know.”

“Come on, we better get going.”

Once we boarded the bus, Jax took the seat right behind me. When Mikey got on board, Jax said to him, “Sorry, this seat’s taken. Find somewhere else to sit.”

Ms. Williams, our fourth-grade teacher, could barely see past the first row of kids, let alone to me in the back of the classroom, so no one ever asked why I didn’t have a lunch to carry out when the bell rang. We didn’t ever have much food at home. My dad would give me a dollar here or there, and I would buy the cafeteria lunch, but most days I would just find stuff other kids threw out. That day, Jackson found me in the library as I was coming out at the end of our lunch period. He didn’t say anything, just handed me half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I said, “Thank you,” went into the bathroom, and devoured it before the bell rang.

Later that afternoon, before we parted ways at the end of the road, Jax said, “Meet me behind the shed in an hour?”

The shed housed a bunch of old tools that no one used anymore, and it was just beyond a small patch of trees where our property line met the Fishers’. You couldn’t see the shed from either one of our houses.


“Just do it.”

“No, you’re scaring me.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be scared. I cleaned it out. I go back there all the time.”

My eyes widened. “I’m not scared of the shed . . .”

“You’re scared of me?” He put his hand to his chest. “I’m trying to help you.”

“Why?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“How are you helping me?”

“I was going to bring you a plate of food. My mom leaves us casserole on the nights she has to work. I just didn’t want Brian to know.”

Brian was Jax’s older brother by ten years. Whenever their mom had to work, Brian was in charge. He was in a band and would play his guitar in the garage at all hours of the night. My dad called him a druggie. Back then I didn’t understand what that meant.


“Never mind, geez.”

“No, I appreciate it, Jax. I just don’t want you to get in trouble.”

“I won’t get in trouble. Meet me out there in an hour. If it’s dark, there’s a lantern right inside of the door on the left. Take a flashlight.”

“Thank you.”

He walked away toward his house, so I went inside mine. My father was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, holding a glass of brown liquid. The beige curtains were blowing delicately over the kitchen sink.

“It’s windy today.” I walked to the window and shut it. “It’ll get all dusty in here if we leave the windows open.”

He didn’t respond. I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, and scanned the contents. There was a jar of pickle relish, some expired salad dressing, and an open aluminum can of olives. I took the can and went to the trash to dump them out. My father glared at me as I crossed the kitchen. He waited until I dropped them in the trash can, and then he stood abruptly, scraping the chair legs over the dirty linoleum floor. Two long strides were all it took before he was towering over me.

“You got money to replace those?”

“You’re not supposed to store food in an open aluminum can.”

“Says who?”

“Mom said it can make you sick.”

“Your mother’s dead. And what I say goes.” He seethed, a drop of saliva springing onto my cheek.

I wiped it away slowly and then felt my eyes well up. “What do you mean she’s dead?”

“She’s dead to us now.” His eyes were molten, full of anger and rage, and he was gripping the refrigerator door so hard I thought it would break apart inside of his hand.

“Okay, Dad.” Very timidly I said, “Is it okay if I go next door for casserole?”

“Do whatever you want.” He slammed the refrigerator and walked away.

I went to my room and grabbed a sweatshirt and then headed out into the fading light of dusk. The shed was about a football field’s length away, and I had to walk through knee-high weeds to get there. Sticker bushes clung to my socks and pant legs, but it was worth it for a warm meal. As I walked, I thought about where my mother had gone. She was dead to my father but to me she was still alive somewhere living a better life. I didn’t hate her. I didn’t understand her, but I didn’t hate her. I just wished she would’ve taken me with her.

When I got to the shed, the narrow wooden door swung open. “Come in, hurry!” Jax whispered.

He wasn’t lying; he’d cleaned the shed out and made it into quite the pleasant little fort. There was a small table with two chairs and an old camping cot in the corner. Jax reached behind me and lifted a butane lamp onto the table. He turned the dial, opening the valve, and pressed a button to click the flint until the lamp was on. There was one window that looked out of the back of the shed to the tree line in the distance. The sky was getting dark fast.

Jax sat down and pushed a tinfoil-covered plate toward me. “There’s a fork in there too.”

I removed the tinfoil to reveal a giant mound of slop. “What . . . is this?”

“It’s tuna and noodles and soup and stuff. There’s, like, potato chips on the top. It doesn’t look good, but it is. Go ahead, before it gets cold.”

My mouth was already watering from the smell. He was right; it was delicious. In just the few months since my mom had left, I had already forgotten what homemade food tasted like. I had been living on cereal and the occasional McDonald’s cheeseburger. When my dad would bring one home for me, usually after he went to cash his unemployment check and see Susan, he would act like he’d had to battle dragons for it. Every first Wednesday of the month he would come home drunk, with a paper bag full of hotel soaps in one hand and a McDonald’s cheeseburger in the other. He’d throw them on the table and say, “Look what your dad brought you! Look how lucky you are.” If I didn’t indulge him with enthusiastic prostrations of gratitude, he would call me a selfish, spoiled little bitch.

I was more grateful for the day-old casserole inside of Jax’s tiny toolshed than a cold cheeseburger and harsh soap from the whiskey monster. It was only the beginning, though. Over the next couple of years, Jax continued walking with me to the bus stop, sitting in the seat behind me, finding me at lunch, and sharing his food. Occasionally, he’d sneak out to the shed to bring me a plate of whatever had been reheated for him and his brother. I yearned to go inside of their house but didn’t for a long time. Not until Brian’s accident. That’s when things on the long dirt road changed once again.

2. I Wasn’t Looking

When I finally stopped reading, I realized that I had been weeping the entire time. I felt like a gutted fish. I got up and went into the living room, making my way past Cara as she sat on the couch, typing on her laptop.

I turned toward her with red, puffy eyes. Her own eyes widened with concern, and she froze as she watched me walk into the kitchen, like she was waiting for me to crumple onto the floor and shatter into pieces.

“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s an emotional book. I’m just getting a glass of water.” I reached for the tequila.

She got up and followed me into the kitchen. “That’s not water.”


“It’s ten a.m.”


“You look like you’ve been crying for an hour straight . . . and you’re hitting the hard stuff at—and I repeat—ten a.m.”

“Cara, you have the most amazing powers of perception.” I looked at the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other, shrugged, set the glass down, and headed back to my room with the bottle only.

“I’m worried about you,” Cara called out as I walked away.

“I’m fine. Just gonna sit in here, read, and have myself a little mental health day.” I turned and smiled and then locked myself in my room.

“Mental health days don’t usually involve tequila at ten a.m.!” she yelled through the door.

“I’m fine!”

I heard her mumbling something, but I was too eager to get to the hard-core Facebooking and internet stalking I needed to do.

I examined the book jacket and copyright page of All the Roads Between carefully. No author photo or bio, just a website and publicity contact at the publisher. I was looking for some clue to the author’s identity, but I didn’t really need any. I knew exactly who had written this book. The only mystery to me was where the author had been for the last twelve years.

From the first line of All the Roads Between, I saw myself in J. Colby’s story. That’s because I was in his story. The long dirt road, the hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to school, the alcoholic dad, the mom who vanished, the secret lunches and meals in the shed . . . These were the details of my own life. Emerson was none other than me. And Jax? He was most definitely Jason Colbertson, the boy next door who had once been my everything . . . my first. The same person I hadn’t talked to or seen in over a decade.

I was having a mild coronary, to say the least.

Some girls might be flattered to be the source of inspiration for the protagonist of a bestselling novel, but I was too busy planning out Jase’s murder in detail. Through my homicidal haze, a million questions rose to the surface. Why did Jase write this book? Why is he telling it from my perspective? Was he hoping I would read this? Or was he hoping I wouldn’t—and just wanted to use my story for his own bestseller? I needed to find him to get the answers to these questions . . . or at least give him a piece of my mind.

I searched for “J. Colby” on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—I already knew “Jason Colbertson” wouldn’t be on any of these platforms because I’d looked before. Nothing came up; apparently both of his identities eschewed social media. Then I googled his pseudonym and clicked on “Images.”

I’m fairly certain that my heart stopped. I took a swig from the bottle. No chaser, no lime, no salt—just tequila and my angry fingers clicking on every hyperlink.

His picture was pretty much the same on every listed hit. He had grown even better-looking in the twelve years since I’d seen him. More distinguished, more chiseled. But still, there was something boyish and arrogant in his smirk. That fucker.

I knew he would do it. I knew he’d write a book before me. He was brilliant at the age of ten. Why wouldn’t he be at twenty-seven?

Another swig from the bottle, then I read a snippet about him embedded in an interview.

After graduating from Columbia University, J. Colby switched coasts and made his home just outside of Los Angeles. His short stories have been published in the New Yorker and Ploughshares. His highly anticipated debut novel, All the Roads Between, has been criticized for being soft compared to his earlier work, but Colby himself has been quoted as saying, “It’s the grittiest and most real piece of fiction I’ll ever write.” He says his novel is a complete work of fiction but credits his childhood in rural Ohio for being his biggest inspiration.

I started laughing and crying at the same time. I typed in his website URL from the book jacket, which brought me to a clean, spare site with a form box where I could submit a message to “J. Colby.”

Sweet. I would get to tell him directly what a fucking prick he was.

Dear Jason,

You fraud. I wanted to personally email you even though I haven’t heard from you in twelve long years. Not since that day when you did what you did—remember that? Well, no sense in rehashing that right now. Let’s talk about how you stole my life story and got it published. You’re a despicable human being. Why didn’t you ever contact me? You said you would find me and you didn’t. I spent an entire year looking for you, wondering what happened, where you went, why you hadn’t come looking for me yet. Don’t you feel guilty for what happened? And now you’re benefiting from my horror, my pain? You opportunistic piece of shit. I cannot believe that I ever loved you and trusted you. I cannot believe what you did to me . . .


P.S. You’re a shitty writer.

I stopped typing, deleted everything, cried, and then took another swig and began again.

Dear Jason,

I don’t understand anything. What happened to us? Where have you been? What have you been doing? Are you married?


P.S. You’re a terrible writer.

I deleted and took another swig.

Dear Jase,


I deleted, took another drink, and then cracked the book open again.

From All the Roads Between

When we were in sixth grade, the winter brought a deluge of rain, which sucked for me and Jax. He’d carry an umbrella for the both of us as we walked to and from the bus stop, but it usually wasn’t enough. The worst part about rain when you live on a dirt road is the mud—and there was mud everywhere. I’d even find it inside of my socks and between my toes and up the backs of my pant legs. There was just no stopping the mud, but we dealt with it the best way we knew how. We even played in it; we’d cake it on our faces, act like zombies, and try to scare Brian as he practiced with his band in the garage.

My hair had grown out a bit straighter ever since the hair-cutting incident, thank you Jesus. Being twelve is awkward enough without a rat’s nest on the top of your head. Jax was starting to look a little goofier, his skin a little oilier, but I never said anything to him about it. I barely understood the changes our bodies were going through.

We hung out a lot, and pretty soon the kids at school got used to seeing us together.

Everyone said we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but we didn’t care. We liked each other, so if they wanted to say those things about us, then so be it.

When we played together, we’d pretend like we were explorers on a big ship in the middle of the ocean. I’d never even seen the ocean in real life, but I saw it in my dreams. I would say to Jax, “Someday I’ll have a house on the ocean, and dolphins will swim right up to my back porch and I’ll feed them grapes.”

“Dolphins don’t eat grapes, dummy. They eat fish, and they’re better at catching it than you are, so you don’t need to worry about feeding them.”

“Where’d you learn that?”

“Discovery Channel.”

I wished we had cable, but we didn’t. My dad would always say, “That costs money. Last time I checked, you weren’t making any.”

The urge to say, “Neither are you,” was so strong in me, I literally had to cup my hand over my mouth to stop it from slipping out.

This was all during Jax’s Melville phase. He’d stand on the top of our wooden fence in the pouring rain and point and yell, “There she blows, a hump like a snow hill, it’s Moby Dick!” I would laugh and roll my eyes, but I’d still call him Captain Ahab when he was feeling down, and that would lift his spirits.

We were each other’s only friends. That year Jax’s mother, Leila, was working two jobs and his brother was always busy doing whatever to pass the time. Jax had to quit baseball since no one could pick him up after practice, which pretty much ruined his chances of ever making male friends. He was alienated, isolated, just like me. We were outcasts in every sense of the word, but as time went on, I cared less and less what everyone else thought. All that mattered was us.

We both got into books. Even at twelve, we were determined to read all of the classics. They were probably way over our heads, but we challenged ourselves anyway. Our only escape was that back toolshed among the weeds and out of earshot of my father’s drunken rages. There, we could make our own fictional world. We could be English royalty in the sixteenth century, or wizards or dragon slayers. We weren’t poor, hungry, abandoned kids at the end of a desolate road. We were superheroes and magicians and presidents of our own country.

When spring finally came, we were ready to be outside and explore again. There was a creek about half a mile behind our houses, past the tree line. Because of all the rain that year, it had become more of a river, with the strongest currents right behind where we lived. Every adult warned us to be careful; even my deadbeat dad would say, “You better use that big brain of yours and stay out of the creek. You want to go swimming, you can go to the pool in town.” But the community pool was a seven-mile bike ride away, and it cost three dollars to get in. There was no way I was going unless Leila gave us a ride, and even then, I would have to borrow the money to get in. Frankly, going to the town pool was a pipe dream. It became a myth to us, a fantasy, like Disneyland or Europe. Jax and I would try to imagine what it was like to go there.

“I bet they sell Popsicles and popcorn, and they probably have clowns too,” I said as we lay spread out in the weeds on an old sleeping bag I had found in my garage, enjoying a makeshift picnic. Jax had brought a jar of applesauce, and I had brought Fun Dip that my dad had bought for me at the 7-Eleven. We mixed the Fun Dip into the jar and took turns eating spoonfuls.

“Community pools don’t have clowns, genius.”

“How do you know?” I said.

“Because I just do.”

“I bet there’s a high dive, like fifty feet in the air.”

“Do you know how high fifty feet is? You would die hitting the water. The impact would kill you.”

“You’re such a know-it-all, Jackson. Why can’t you let a girl dream? We’re never going to that pool because no one will ever take us. Plus, it costs money, and last time I checked you weren’t making any.”

He lay back on the blanket, propped his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. “I’m not a know-it-all—I just have cable. And as soon as I turn sixteen, I’m getting a job. I’ll pay for us to go to the pool. You’ll see. It’s just a big hole with water in it.”

I took the time to inspect every inch of him as he lay there, his eyes still closed. I was so curious about his body. My own body was changing, and I was terrified of it. Jax was getting taller, and I was certain he was going to be as tall as his father, but he looked more like his mother in his coloring and features. Jax’s mom was French, and they both had this creamy skin that looked sun-kissed year-round. His brown hair and brown eyes had strands of gold running throughout them. He was letting his hair grow longer because he’d been watching some show on TV that took place in California. He said everyone in California had long hair.

I was trying to grow out my own unruly brown locks. I didn’t know why since I always wore them in a braid. Maybe a part of me thought I would go to California with Jax one day, and I wanted to look the part. We both yearned for more than weeds and corn. All the books we read gave us silly ideas, filled our heads with things that might never be.

I lay down beside him and stared directly into the sun. He turned on his side and propped his head on his elbow.

“You’ll go blind doing that,” he said in a low voice.

“Leave me alone.”

“Why are you in such a bad mood? You PMSing?”

“What do you know about it?”

“A lot.”

“I doubt that, and even if I were, it’s beyond rude to talk to me about it.” I hadn’t started my period yet, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.

In the distance, we could hear Leila calling Jax. “Shit. I better go,” he said. He grabbed the jar of applesauce and disappeared into the weeds. I lay back, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. I woke up just before dusk and realized I had been eaten alive by mosquitos. My stomach was in knots, and my head ached. When I stood, I felt a warmth between my legs. I tried desperately to clamp my legs together as I rolled up my sleeping bag.

By the time I got to my front door, I knew there was blood all the way down the back of my jeans. I closed the door as quietly as I could and tiptoed past the kitchen table into the hall.

“Emerson? Where in hell have you been?”

I tiptoed toward the kitchen, where I could see my father sitting at the table. “I was outside. I accidentally fell asleep.”

His eyes went first to the rolled-up sleeping bag and then to the crotch of my pants. He stood so fast that the force knocked his chair over. “Dad, no.”

Before I could do anything, he grabbed a handful of hair at the base of my neck and forced my head back so we were looking each other in the eyes.

“Emerson!” This time my name was like thunder in his chest. “What in god’s name were you doing?”

“D-Dad . . .” I could feel blood running down my leg at the same pace the tears were flowing. It was going to be a bad day. “I’m having my period.”

He blinked. His mouth dropped open then closed, then he blinked again, let go of my hair, and took a step back. His eyebrows furrowed. He brushed his hand down his mustache a couple of times while he stared off into space. “Go clean yourself up,” he muttered to the floor.

I ran to the bathroom, slammed the door, and turned the shower on. With my hand under the stream of water, I waited and waited and waited. Goddammit, why now? My father hadn’t paid the gas bill, so there was no hot water. Susan, my dad’s weird friend from the motel, told me a month earlier just to take a whore bath if I ever needed to. A whore bath is where you wet a towel and clean yourself with it. By that age, I was aware of why Susan knew those things. A whore bath is what I needed.

An hour later, the bathroom looked like a crime scene. My mother hadn’t even left one maxi pad on the off chance that the prepubescent daughter she had abandoned would start her period while she was at home alone with the whiskey monster.

I was sitting on the toilet in silence, wrapped up in a bloodstained towel, adding up the days in my head until I would be an adult, until I could leave this godforsaken town. Two thousand and seven days, fourteen hours, and twelve minutes until I was eighteen.

“Knock, knock.” A female’s voice came from the other side of the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s Leila Fisher. Your dad asked me to come over.”

Figures. That fucking coward.

I opened the door very slowly and scanned the hallway. She was standing a safe distance away with her arms crossed. Leila was a thin, naturally beautiful woman with plump lips and long, straight hair. Even though her husband had left her to raise two boys on her own, she still had hope in her eyes. I envied her for that.

“Are you going to help me?” I asked as I twirled my hair nervously.


I opened the door wider to let her in. “I have a change of clothes.” I held up a pair of tattered underwear. “But these won’t last long if I don’t get a pad or something.”

“I have nothing at the house. I wish I would have known.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said. I could feel the blood flowing again, so I sat back down on the toilet.

“No, I wish I would have known your mother hadn’t left anything. I would have given you some pads to keep here, just in case.”

“Well, she didn’t.”

“All right, well . . .” She stood for a moment, as if she were trying to figure out what to do, then she walked toward me and pulled out several lengths of toilet paper from the roll, winding them around and around her hand. “Put this in your underwear, get dressed, and come with me. I’ll take you to the store. Your father gave me a few dollars.”

“He did?” I was shocked.

She laughed. “Of course. He’s not a monster.”

“He kind of is,” I whispered.

“Yeah, but he loves you, Emerson. He’s still here, isn’t he?”

“He doesn’t love me. Look at me.” I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. She laughed. The mood felt lighter. “You’re a silly girl. No wonder Jax is so fond of you.”

There was silence for a few seconds. “Fond of me?” The words came out like a breath. I knew Jax and I were friends, but the way she said those words made me feel like maybe my deepest feelings, the ones I didn’t even consciously acknowledge, meant something. Everything felt lighter, like the planet had been catapulted into the cosmos and we were spinning freely through space and time. My cramps were killing me, I had blood running down my leg, but it didn’t matter: I was floating on a cloud, all because Jax was fond of me. Even though I knew it myself, to hear someone else say it validated everything for me.

“Does he know?”

“What, honey?”

“About my, um . . . um . . .” I pointed to my crotch.

“He was there when your dad came in. He was worried because your dad was in a panic.”

I was mortified. “So he knows?”

“Don’t worry. Just get dressed and meet me outside.”

I did as she asked, walking by my father as he sat at the kitchen table staring out the window.

“Be right back, Dad.”

He didn’t answer, but that wasn’t unusual. Sometimes my dad would have a human moment, like he did when he went to Leila’s. I imagined what he looked like, out of breath and asking for help. It still wasn’t enough to make me feel completely loved by him, but it was enough to make me feel some kind of love for him. Or maybe it was pity. When you’re twelve, it’s hard to know the difference.

Inside Leila’s Camaro, she blasted Guns N’ Roses. She didn’t turn it down or make an attempt to talk to me the whole way to the store.

Once we were inside the store, she threw a package of pads in the basket, along with some granola bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. “You keep these hidden from your dad, okay? Keep them in your room in case you get hungry.”

I hesitated for a moment. “You know that Jax gives me half his lunch, right?”

“I know. I’ve known for a long time. And it’s okay with me. Your dad’s just not functional. He’s in a bad way. It’s just too bad he can’t go back to that functioning alcoholic we all knew and loved.”

I paused. “You mean my dad has always been an alcoholic?”

“He wasn’t an asshole, but he was always a drinker.” She held up a chocolate bar. “I bet you’re craving one of these right about now.”

“Oh god, I would die for one.”

“I thought so.” She threw it in the basket.

“What else did Jax tell you?”

“It’s not my business. I’ve got enough to worry about myself.” Instantly, the fantasy I’d been harboring of Leila Fisher ever adopting me went poof! I thought she was perfect, that she was the kind of person who could never live with herself knowing that I was next door, neglected and starving because of my drunk father. But I realized she knew about everything—the lunches, the meals in the shed . . . and yet she had never stepped in to talk to my dad about what was going on.

Having a bunch of shitty adults constantly letting you down really kills a kid’s view of the world.

Leila grabbed a twelve-pack of Budweiser and carried our stuff to the checkout. “Pack of Camel Lights,” she said to the clerk, and then paid him in singles.

On the way back, she turned the music down. “Now that you’re a woman, you can get pregnant. You know that, right?”

“Yes. We learned it in sex ed.”

“Okay, well, you and Jax better keep your paws off each other.” The way she said that made me nauseous.

“We’re just friends.”

“You were friends ’cause you were just kids.” She glanced over at me. “You’re not kids anymore.”

Time to change the subject.

“Are you sad that Jax and Brian’s dad left?”

She popped her gum. “It’s been long enough. I don’t think about it anymore. Anyway, Brian and Jax don’t have the same dad. You didn’t know that?”

“No, how would I?”

“Jax never told you? Well, Brian’s dad passed away when Brian was two. Car accident.” She looked off into the distance. “He was a good man. Brian’s just like him.” She seemed choked up.

“Is Jax like his dad?”

“Jackson’s dad left, the fucking coward.” She turned and glanced at me, still chomping on her gum. “Sorry, sweetie, that was harsh. Let’s hope Jax is nothing like his dad. Some men can be real assholes when they want to be. It’d be wise of you to learn that now. I do think Brian is going to make a woman very happy someday.”

I was already getting stars in my eyes over Brian—what twelve-year-old girl wouldn’t? When I’d see him drive up in his old car, I’d run outside and sit on the fence. He’d always walk past me, carrying his guitar, and say, “Hey, cutie.” I was way too shy around him to respond. But I also felt sad for how Leila dismissed Jackson’s sweetness just because his father had left. My mother had left too. Did that make me just like her?

When we got to the end of the road, I noticed Susan’s car was parked in front of our house.

“That your dad’s girlfriend?”

“Yeah.” It was dark and no lights were on.

“I’m not working tonight. Come over. I’ll teach you how to use tampons for when you’re older.”

I hesitated. “I don’t want Jax to . . .”

“Oh, don’t worry. He won’t pay attention—he’s glued to the TV.”

I was nervous. In the two years that Jax and I had been friends, I’d never once been invited into his house. We either played outside or hung out in the shed. As I walked in behind Leila, I realized that Jax’s house was almost an exact replica of my own, except everything was on the opposite side, as if the houses were mirror images. It was dark, and only the light from the TV in the living room lit our path. The brown, outdated carpet was worn thin, and the whole house smelled of stale cigarettes and something else I couldn’t figure out.

All this time, I’d had this idea of Jax’s house as some pristine image from a Martha Stewart magazine. Now I could see that, despite the warm casseroles his mom made, his life wasn’t all that different from mine.

We walked through the living room, where Jax was watching TV on the couch with his back to us. As we passed, he turned and looked up at me. He shot me a sympathetic smile and then turned back to the TV.

Inside Leila’s messy bedroom, I sat at the end of her unmade bed. I picked up a small article of clothing that looked like a leather tube top and stared at it.

“It’s a skirt,” Leila said.

“This?” I held it up.

“For my work. I’ve been dancing. Didn’t Jax tell you?”

“No.” He was probably ashamed. I knew what she meant by “dancing,” but I wasn’t about to say anything.

She walked over to me and placed her hands on my thighs. She leaned in. “I take my clothes off for money because I got knocked up with Brian when I was sixteen. Ever since then, my life has been a shit show.”

I jerked back. “I’m sorry.”

“I take my clothes off for money, Emerson. How sad is that?” She stared into my eyes as she continued to work the same piece of gum she’d been chewing the whole night.

“Um . . . sad, I guess . . . but at least people want to see you naked?” I was always trying to be the silver-lining girl. In the months before my mom left, I’d trained myself to find a positive angle to every situation. I thought if I could be the happy-go-lucky girl, it would rub off on them. No such luck.

Leila wasn’t looking for acceptance, anyway. She was trying to teach me a lesson.

She stood up and crossed her arms. “Men will pay to see anything naked.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“It’s true.”

“Well, at least you stuck around. At least you’re here with Brian and Jax.” Leila didn’t deserve accolades for good parenting, but at least she hadn’t abandoned her kids.

Tears slipped from her eyes. I felt my own throat tighten at the thought of my mother living on some beach somewhere in paradise. Leila sat next to me on the bed without making a sound, but I knew she was crying.

“I could never leave these boys. They’re so precious to me.”

“You’re a good mom, even if you have to wear shit like this.” I held up the leather skirt.

THAT NIGHT, LEILA read to me from the back of the maxi pad package. She taught me how to use a tampon, which was weird, and she reminded me over and over again how hard it was to be a young mother. She talked about Brian and his musical gifts. She said he would be famous, a legend. He was ahead of his time and a natural genius on the guitar. She said he was going to save them all, travel the world, make lots of money, and rescue the family from the pits of Neeble.

Occasionally, Leila would go into the bathroom alone and say she was blowing her nose, but I knew otherwise. At about eleven p.m., we heard a knock on her bedroom door, and Brian walked in. There was a glow that followed Jax’s older brother, like he really was heaven-sent. He had longish hair and a superstar smile. I was smitten. I had been from the first time I saw Brian plucking his guitar in the garage.

“Mom? Mom?”

Leila seemed a little out of it as she sat at her tiny vanity stool, staring at her reflection. Brian gave me a small smile as he walked toward his mom, making my stomach do somersaults.

“Brian, I’m fine,” Leila said.

“You should call it a night, Mom. You have to work a double tomorrow. Emerson, I think it’s time to go.” He said it nicely, but it still made me feel embarrassed.

“Of course.”

“No, Emerson, stay. Brian, let her stay. She can read to me and then she can go.”

He looked at me first, as if to ask if this was okay with me. I nodded then he turned back to his mom. “Okay.” He headed toward the door, but as he came toward me he bent down and whispered in my ear. “Don’t let her keep you up.”

I shivered, little tingles shooting down my arms just from his breath on my neck.

“Yes . . . sir.”

He laughed. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir.’ ”

My heart bounced around inside of my chest. “Okay.”

After he left, Leila got under the covers. “Come sit here next to me.” I scooted up to the head of the bed, and she handed me a National Enquirer. “Read that, will you?”


“I always wished I had a daughter,” she said, and it made me feel good. There were actually people in the world who wished they had daughters.

I read her an article about a boozy Hillary Clinton being shipped off to rehab. “This can’t be true,” I said.

“I knew Hilary was an alkie,” Leila slurred.

“I think this is fake.” I thumbed through the rest of the magazine, past the Jesus sightings and UFO reports. By the time I finished reading all the main articles aloud, Leila was sound asleep. I crawled off the bed and headed down the hallway. I spotted Brian in his room as he smoked something out of a pipe—pot, I assumed. He threw a hand up in a motionless wave as I walked by, so I did the same.

“Hey!” he whispered.

I backed up to his doorway. “Hi,” I said timidly.

He put the pipe down. “Come in here.”

I waved smoke out of my face and walked up to where he was sitting on the bed. “What’s up?” I looked around. There were posters of rock bands on his walls, along with a calendar with mostly naked women on it.

“I’m working on a song. You want to hear it?”

“I’d love to.”

I sat on the bed next to him while he pulled an acoustic guitar onto his lap. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

It struck me that Brian was nervous, and I wondered if he saw me differently. I’d grown up overnight; I wasn’t his little brother’s playmate anymore.

“I would never laugh . . . I think . . . I think you’re amazing.” My voice was shaking with nerves.

He chuckled and then pulled his long hair into a ponytail at the back of his neck. I had the stray thought that Jax would be taller and better-looking than Brian when he grew up, but I banished the thought from my mind. I’d had a crush on Brian for years, and he was about to serenade me.

He strummed the guitar and then plucked out a complicated melody. I thought he was going to sing, but he didn’t.

“What did you think?” he asked nervously.

“It was good, but what about the lyrics?”

He laughed again and then reached out and messed up my hair like he was petting a freakin’ Labrador. “Such a goofball. I’m the guitarist in my band. I don’t write the lyrics.”

“Oh, sheesh, what do I know? Well, anyway, it was really cool.” My face was getting redder by the millisecond.

“Thanks for listening. Hey, it’s getting pretty late. You better scram, kid.”

“Okay.” I put an extra bounce in my step as I left the room, hoping Brian wouldn’t see how totally heartbroken I was that he didn’t try to kiss me. I guess that would have been pretty wrong for a guy his age.

In the living room, Jax was asleep on the couch. I put a blanket over him, and he stirred.

“What are you doing?” he murmured.

“I’m leaving. I just wanted to put a blanket over you,” I said.

He popped up to his feet, suddenly awake. “I’ll walk you.”

“Next door, doofus? You don’t have to walk me.”

“I want to.”

He yawned about five times on our thirty-yard trek. At the doorstep, he shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“You wanna play explorers out on the rocks?”

“That’s kind of a kids’ game, don’t you think, Jax?”

“Oh, right,” he said. “Well, you wanna go read by the river? My mom picked up some new books from the library for me.”

“Maybe. I have to see how I feel.”

“Of course,” he said through a yawn.

“I better go.” I searched his eyes for a sign.

He just smiled, unaware. Jax wasn’t where I was emotionally or physically, and I was too young for Brian. Damn. “Night, Em.”

“Night, Jax.”

My house was dark, and my father and Susan were passed out in their underwear on the living room floor. I had a bag of granola bars, some Fruit Roll-Ups, a package of maxi pads, and a worn-out copy of Tuck Everlasting. I went into my bedroom and stared at myself in the mirror behind my door.

For the first time, I noticed that my hips were wider and my breasts were finally larger than peanuts. I was a woman. That was the moment I started hating my mother. Even though it had been a couple of years since she’d left, the pain of her absence was searing. I had never felt her abandonment as sharply as I did the day I became a woman. Maybe it was Leila’s flawed attempt at kindness that made me miss the tenderness of a mother. My own had been kind and gentle when she was around, but she couldn’t handle the life she’d been given. Burned bread in the oven would send her into a fit of tears. I didn’t know where she’d gone, and I didn’t know any of her extended family or if she even had family. She had just vanished one day, and there was little impression of her left in our home . . . almost like she had never existed.

3. I’m Running

By one p.m., I had to stop reading. Frankly, I was drunk, emotional, and torn.

It was strange how Jase knew how I had felt toward my mother. Then again, he had been my best friend. I had told him everything. And he’d used all of that to create an emotional landscape that was strangely true to everything I remembered. The only difference was that Emerson was introspective at a young age, and I wasn’t so much. Things were happening to me back then, but only now, after reading a few chapters of Jase’s book, did I realize how I had really felt as a kid. He must have been so tuned in to me to realize I had a crush on his brother. He’d just sat there watching, taking it all in.

If I felt a tiny bit of forgiveness toward Jase, it vanished the moment I remembered that here he was making money off this story. My story. He had beaten me to the punch.

I curled up on my bed, too emotionally drained to do anything else, and fell asleep.

I WOKE UP later that evening to the sounds of Trevor and Cara making small talk in the kitchen. I put on my running gear, left my bedroom, and headed for the front door, ignoring Trevor as he stared me down from behind the kitchen counter.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“For a run,” I replied. “Want to join?”

I noticed Cara sneak off to her bedroom behind me without saying a word. Trevor and I had fallen into the habit of making people around us feel uncomfortable. I knew we were giving off weird vibes.

“I just had PT and my arm is killing me,” he said.

“You don’t use your arms to run.” I stood near the door with my hand on the knob.

“Yeah, actually, you do. Hey, will you turn around and look at me?”

I turned and leaned against the door. “What, Trevor?”

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on. I just want to go for a run.”

He laughed drily. “You have no idea how typical this is of you.”

“Do you want to start tossing insults at each other the moment we’re in a room together? Didn’t you just get here? I didn’t even know you were coming over.” He shook his head as if I were an awful person. I took a deep breath and softened my voice. “Isn’t there a game on? I’ll go for a run and get takeout and be back in a bit. You can hang out here. When I get back, we can eat and watch the game together. How does that sound?” Was it weird that I had never told him I didn’t enjoy watching football, even when he was the quarterback?

“That’s fine,” he said. He plopped down on the couch and turned the TV on.

I ran to the cove. The children’s pool, as they called it, was formed by a wall that was originally built to break the waves and create a safe swimming environment for small children. But it was roped off halfway up the beach because about two hundred seals had made it their home. I sat on the steps going down to the pool, letting the cold breeze whip through my hair. There were no people here, only seals loafing on the sand. It was exactly what I needed.

I typed Jase’s website into my phone and scanned it for details once again.

J. Colby lived in L.A., but he was currently on a book tour. There was a menu page for his tour dates and cities. I clicked the page link, and lo and behold, I discovered he was going to be in San Diego the day after tomorrow. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said out loud. One of the seals looked up and barked at me. “Sorry!”

This was all too coincidental.

I stood up, jogged up the stairs, and took off running. By the time I was out of fuel, it was dark and I was sweating profusely in the cold air, breathing so hard I knew I had to stop. I walked to a taco shop, picked up food, and headed back to my apartment, where I was grateful to see Trevor asleep on the couch with some football game blaring in the background.

I knocked lightly on Cara’s bedroom door. “Come in,” she said.

She was sitting at her desk, typing away on her laptop, as per usual. She was nothing if not a dedicated writer. I stood in the doorway and kept my voice down so as not to wake up Trevor. “How’s it going?” I asked.

She smiled. “Good. I wrote a lot today. What about you? How are you? You seemed a bit loony this morning.”

“I’m okay. Sorry about that thing with Trevor earlier.”

“No biggie. Are you still reading that book?”

I nodded.

“That fucking author’s hot,” she said. “I’ve been internet stalking him.”

I laughed. “Yeah, he is.”

“You googled him too?” she said, smiling.

“Uh, yep. Uh-huh.”

“He’s going to be in San Diego the day after tomorrow.”

“I saw that,” I said.

“Let’s go meet him and get the book signed.” Her face turned bright red.

“I don’t know. You can go.” Time to change the subject. “Hey, I left some tacos on the counter. I think I’m going to bed. I don’t feel great.”

“Oh, okay. Should I just leave Trevor out there?”

“He’s fine,” I said, and then I went into my room, shut the door, and cracked the book open again.

From All the Roads Between

At the kitchen table the next morning, I watched as my dad poured whiskey into his coffee. “Did Susan leave?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“I was just wondering.”

“Yeah, she left.”

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“Mind your business, Emerson.”

I was feeling bold that morning. Maybe because I was a woman now and I felt like I needed answers. “Where’d Mom go?”

He sat down next to me and took a deep breath. For a moment I thought we were going to have a heart-to-heart. I stared at a large brown stain on his white T-shirt as I waited for his answer.

“Your mother’s a fucking whore.”

I glanced down at my fidgeting hands underneath the table. He grabbed the whiskey bottle, poured a healthier dose into his coffee, and then slammed it on the table. “Did you hear me?! I said your mother’s a fucking whore!”

“I heard you!” I yelled. I stood and kicked my chair out. He gripped my arm so hard that it forced me to sit back down.

“I’m not done,” he seethed through gritted teeth.

“Dad, please.”

“She’s Satan.”

“You’re being irrational.”

“Big word for a twelve-year-old.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the disgusting wad of spittle forming in the corner of his mouth.

“I’m thirteen.”

“Since when?”

“Since today. Today is my birthday, Dad.” He let go of my arm. There was nothing he could say to me because he didn’t know how to be a human anymore. He couldn’t be kind because it hurt him more than it hurt me. I could see confusion and guilt in his eyes. Good, feel like shit, you bastard. You deserve it.

I slithered away quietly and went into my room and cried. The tears turned hot with anger, and soon I found myself packing a bag. I would ask Leila if she’d take me in. She’d said she’d always wanted a daughter. I could go live with them and cook and clean and help her take care of Jax and Brian.

I took extra time to make my hair look nice. I found light pink lipstick and blush in an old box of random things I had tried to preserve of my mother’s. I painted my face with her cheap shit. I cursed her in the mirror. I studied my big brown eyes, so like hers, and wondered if I would fail at life the way she had. I put on the flowered dress she had bought at a resale shop over two years ago, just before she left. She called it my “church” dress, even though there was no sign of god in any of our lives. It finally fit me right. I had breasts, albeit small ones, but enough to fill it out. I had secretly started shaving my legs with my dad’s razor, so when I looked in the mirror that day, I saw no sign of the little girl I once was. I would end my nightmare right there because I knew Brian would fall in love with me the moment he saw me. I was convinced. He would marry me and take me all over the world on tour with him. We would buy a house for Jax and Leila to live in, and we would visit them all the time. We would be rich and everything would be fine. My nightmare would be over because I would become a Fisher and leave this hell behind.

My father was in the bathroom when I snuck out the side door. Jax was sitting on the fence in my front yard.

I strutted up to him. “Is your mom home?”

Jax wrinkled his nose. “Why are you dressed like that, and why do you have that stuff on your face?”

I shrugged. “None of your business. What are you doing over here?”

“Forget it. You’re clearly still in a bad mood.” He picked something up off the ground and started to walk away.

“Wait. What is that?”


“Come here, hold on,” I pleaded.

He turned around abruptly and held up a package wrapped in brown paper. “It’s for you, for your birthday.”

“I’m sorry, Jax. I didn’t know.”

“Whatever. You should be nicer to me.” He handed the present over but kept his eyes glued to the ground as he mumbled, “Happy Birthday, Em.”

With my index finger under his chin, I forced him to look at me. I smiled and he smiled back. “Jackson Fisher, how’d you get so great?”

“I thought I was the most obnoxious boy in the world? That’s what you told me last week.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m a woman now, Jax. I have emotions, okay? You’re not obnoxious today.” I unwrapped the package to reveal a hardcover edition of Anne of Green Gables, my favorite book of all time. “Today, you’re freaking awesome.” I hugged him quickly and awkwardly. “Where did you get this?”

“I won it in the book fair drawing at school.”

“And you’re giving it to me?”

“I want you to have it.”

“Thank you.” I ran my hand over the cover and thought idly that it was the only gift I had been given in over a year, aside from hotel soap and cheeseburgers.

“What’s the bag for?”

“I was gonna see if I could stay with you guys for a while.”

“Oh . . . okay,” he said. “Let’s go talk to my mom.”

“Is Brian home?” I asked.

“His car is here. He’s probably in his room. Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering. Let’s go talk to your mom.” We went into the house, and I set my bag down in their kitchen and followed Jax down the hall. Brian’s door was cracked, so I pushed it open gently, hoping it would look like an accident. I wanted Brian to see me, but his room was empty. Walking behind Jax, I said, “Your brother’s not in there.”

He backed up and peeked in. “Bri!” he yelled. No answer.

“Keep it down!” Leila yelled from her bedroom.

“I don’t know where he is,” Jax said.

We went to Leila’s room, where she was curled up on her side at the foot of the bed.

I stood behind Jackson. “You okay, Mom?”

“Fine,” she said groggily.

“Can Em stay here for a while? Her dad’s being kind of a jerk.”

I hadn’t even told him that, but he knew.

Leila squinted and then sat up and glared at me. “You’re twelve years old.”

“Thirteen,” Jax answered for me.

“You can stay here today. Eat what you want, but you have to go home tonight. You’ll get over it with your dad,” she said, before lying back down.

“Okay, thank you.” It would be good enough for now.

We left her room. “Let’s find your brother. Maybe he can teach us how to play the guitar.”

“I know how to play a little, Em,” Jax said in a clipped tone. I followed him into Brian’s room, but the guitar was gone. “It’s not in here. He’s probably down at the river with his girlfriend.”

I tried not to think about Brian’s girlfriend as a rule. “Blah,” I said out loud.

“Let’s go play outside,” Jax said. “I mean . . . hang out,” he corrected himself.


We meandered our way toward the river, mostly silent until we got to the shore. Neither of us was in a particularly playful mood.

“Hey, there’s your brother’s guitar,” I said, pointing to his acoustic guitar lying on the ground. My heart raced with the anticipation of seeing Brian.

We walked toward it, and I noticed Jackson stiffen up. “Bri!” he yelled. “Where the fuck is he? he mumbled. “Brian!” he yelled again.

“Brian!” I shouted.

We ran up and down the shore. I wasn’t sure what was making Jax panic, but the longer we shouted, the more I realized that something was wrong. Why would Brian’s guitar be lying there on the ground all alone? He loved that thing; he wouldn’t just leave it unattended. He would at least be nearby. And yet he wasn’t answering our shouts . . .

I followed Jax as he ran through the trees to get to the footbridge, where we could cross. The whole time we were running, Jackson was shouting Brian’s name. As soon as we got to the clearing that led to the footbridge, we climbed down a little ravine where the mud met the water.

That’s where we were struck by the most horrifying sight—an image that will never, ever leave my mind.

“No!” Jackson’s cry was unprocessed, unfiltered, like a child’s. “No!” he screamed again.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I repeated over and over, but there was no god to help save Brian. His bloated body was facedown, floating near the shore.

“No! No! No!” Jax kept shouting as he moved closer to Brian’s body, reaching his arms out to grab him.

“Don’t touch him,” I said. “You can’t help him.”

He turned to me instantly and fell into my arms. I held him as we cried together. “That’s my brother.” Jackson sobbed. “That’s my brother, isn’t it? He’s dead, isn’t he?”

We didn’t need to flip his body over to see his face. We recognized the hair, the clothes. We had seen the guitar on the ground. “Yes,” I choked out.

“What happened?” Jax screamed into my chest.

I tried not to look at Brian floating behind Jax. I held him as he sobbed and sobbed. I was doing nothing, but I was doing everything at the same time, and I could feel it in how fervently he held me back.

I knew we had to get up to the house and tell Leila and call the police. I led Jackson back to the house while he continued to cry, nonstop. I went into his kitchen and dialed 911.

The emergency operator picked up. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

“My friend’s brother is dead in the creek,” I said flatly.

The rest of the conversation was a blur. Jackson was still crying audibly next to me. When I hung up the phone, we both turned around and saw Leila standing at the end of the hallway. She hadn’t made a noise. She had heard the conversation, but she was clearly in shock.

She looked at me and then back at Jax a few times before starting to cry. “Is it true?” she squeaked out.

“Yes,” Jax whimpered.

“The ambulance will be here as soon as they can,” I said quietly.

Leila dropped to her knees and pounded her fists on the floor. “No!” She made a bloodcurdling sound and then fell into a pile, screaming, crying, and writhing like she was being burned alive. That’s how I imagined losing a child would feel . . . maybe even worse.

Jax and I held each other again as he continued sobbing.

My mother had taken off, and his father had done the same, but neither one of us had ever faced the reality of death in this way. At that age, you don’t have a full grasp on mortality until you see the body of a healthy man you spoke to mere hours ago floating in the water, facedown, tethered by a broken branch to the shore, like a dead animal.

Jackson’s full-throated sobs evened out into painful whimpers. My shirt was drenched with tears and snot, but I didn’t care. In the smallest voice he said, “You’re all I have left. You’re holding my whole world together, Em.”

“But you have your mom. She loves you a lot,” I whispered.

“My mom is a shell, and she’ll be even less than that now that her golden boy is dead.”

“That’s not true, Jax,” I said, but I wasn’t sure I believed my own reassurances.

LATER ON, AFTER the EMTs, police, and coroner arrived, Jax and I sat side by side on the fence, as we’d done so many times before. Jax was sniffling, but he had calmed down a bit. We were watching Leila, who was wrapped in a blanket and sitting on a bench on their porch, speaking to an investigator.

“When she looks at me, all she sees is my dad, and she hates him. She loved Brian more than me. She’ll wish that was me in the river.”

“Stop it, Jackson Fisher. You stop that right now. You’ve been reading too much. Don’t ever talk like that,” I said.

“I guess now you can’t marry him.”

I hopped off the fence, turned, and looked at him pointedly, but I had no words. He got down too. We were face-to-face. I felt crushed, and Jackson looked tormented. I started crying again. “Don’t, Jax. Don’t do that.”

He started to cry again too, and then he hugged me and buried his head in my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He’s gone. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

That moment was followed by days of grieving. Jax and his mom sat inside of that dark, dank house, now further tainted with loss and tragedy. When the investigation was over and foul play was ruled out, Leila had Brian cremated. We all went into town for a short service at the funeral home. The cause of death was never once mentioned.

We sat in the front row while a stranger spoke from notes that Leila had written about Brian, detailing his musical achievements and how kindhearted he was. His girlfriend, who we later found out was a street kid, sobbed in the row behind us. Other than that, there were only a few people he worked with and went to high school with in attendance. The whole event made Brian seem so insignificant. I wondered how long it would take for the dirt road to end Jax or me. How long it would be before any chance at a legacy would be robbed from us.

Jackson was dressed in slacks that I knew he’d had since he was a kid because they were high-waters on him. He wore one of his brother’s black Led Zeppelin T-shirts and the wallet chain Brian had handed down to him a year before.

Leila looked like she had aged ten years. On the car ride home, she just kept mumbling, “It’s not natural.”

From the passenger seat, Jax said, “What’s not natural, Mom?”

“To bury a child.”

Later that night, Jax told me that Leila got high and drunk and said that she wished it had been him who’d drowned. We both knew it was coming. He didn’t cry like I thought he would. He said, “She’s pathetic, Em. I can’t hate her because I pity her too much.”

“You’re the smartest person I know, Jackson,” I told him, and it was true. The comment earned me one of his cute smiles. Even though he tried to act tough, I knew Leila had wounded him. I vowed never to hurt him in that way.

That week, I went home each night to my despondent father, who said little about Brian’s death except that the kid was a druggie. I thought that it was sad that my father judged Brian based on Leila’s actions. Beyond pot, Brian wasn’t a druggie at all. He was just a guy who’d lost his father young and grown up in a shit-hole town with an addict for a mother. Who knew what he could have become.

Jax and I weren’t surprised when the autopsy came back with the result that Brian had simply drowned. He was likely pulled under by the strong current created by a season of rainstorms.

No one knew what frame of mind Brian was in the night he died, or why on earth he would go swimming in the middle of the night, fully clothed, with his damn boots on. We just knew that he was gone forever, and things would never be the same for any of us.

4. Things I’ve Put Away

I was crying when Trevor came into my room in the middle of the night. He was groggy and squinting. “What’s wrong, Emi?”

I closed the book and pushed it to the side. “I’m just confused about some things.”

He flipped off the light and got into my bed. I scooted under the covers and let him spoon me.

“Talk to me,” he said gently. His voice was soothing next to my ear.

I buried my face in his arm. “On my thirteenth birthday, I found my neighbor dead, floating in the river behind my house.” Jeff was his real name and he was magical. In what felt like a single breath he was gone. His death affected Jase deeply, as well as myself.

Trevor paused for a moment, absorbing my words. “Oh Jesus, Emi. I’m so sorry. That must have been horrible for you. Is that why you never want to celebrate your birthday?”

I nodded in the darkness and told him the whole story. He just listened and held me tighter, his silence a comfort after all the fighting we’d been doing. It wasn’t long before I fell asleep in his arms.

Telling Trevor what happened didn’t heal me, but reliving that day did in some way. Jason’s insights in the book and his view of me, and what I was going through in that moment, gave me a sense of closure. His brother’s death had to have been much more traumatic for him, but he was still aware that I was experiencing the horror along with him. He was always so perceptive and compassionate.

Too bad I was so pissed off at him.

WHEN I WOKE up the next morning, Trevor was gone, but the memory of the night before lingered. I turned to his pillow to see he had left me a note. I had finally shared something from my past with him, something he’d been asking me to do for years. I wondered if the moment had meant as much to him as it did to me.

The note simply said he’d had to go to PT. Nothing else but an “xo, T” at the end.

I felt hollow, but that empty feeling was too much to confront. So I went back to the book.

From All the Roads Between

For a few years, I was the tallest kid in school, but by the summer going into ninth grade, everyone was catching up and passing me by, including Jax. His voice was changing, and he was getting hair on his face. He still acted like a five-year-old every now and then, but despite the fact that he was living with a junkie, had lost his brother a couple of years before, and had no father, Jax somehow managed to keep getting sweeter and sweeter.

I knew he was dealing with a lot, but he held it together and focused on his schoolwork. When Leila wasn’t working, she was comatose on the couch. When she’d clean up her act a little and go to work, there’d be an endless stream of sleazy men hanging around the house for days.

Jax and I spent more and more time in the shed. We both found things we could steal to make the place more habitable, like it was our own house.

“What have you been writing in that journal?” I asked. Jax was lying on the cot in the corner and scribbling notes in a black leather-bound notebook.

“I’m just outlining my novel.”

I was sitting in one of the wooden chairs with my arms wrapped around my legs, staring out the window at the swaying trees.

“The one about the ant family?”

“No, I ditched that. I’m writing about a boy and girl who become superheroes and save the world.”

“The Adventures of Jax and Em?”

“Something like that.”

“You want to go swim in the creek?” The water in the creek had settled down for the season, and one of Leila’s short-lived boyfriends had built a deck and rope swing for us. We had carved our names, along with Brian’s, in the wood. It was our memorial to him. Jackson would go down there alone a lot; I knew he was talking to his brother.

“I’m kind of busy,” he said. I got up and yanked the journal out of his hands. “No, Em. I’m serious, give it back.”

“I want to read it,” I whined.

“Please don’t.” His voice cracked, and his face was red. He wasn’t playing around.

“Why won’t you let me? You let me read the ant story.”

“Because this is different. It’s not done yet. You can read it when it’s done.”

I handed the journal back. “I’m bored. I just want to find something to do.”

“Fine, let’s go swimming.”

I went home and got my swimsuit. It was a purple, tattered one-piece that I had bought at the Goodwill for two dollars, but it did the job. By then we were on welfare and food stamps, so it felt like I was living the life. We had cereal and cheese and milk and juice all the time. My father would give me twenty dollars every month to buy the things he had too much fucking pride to buy, like tampons and dish soap.

No wonder my sad excuse for a mom had left, but why couldn’t she have taken me with her? Besides the fact that my dad was a bigot and a belligerent alcoholic, I was especially saddened when I realized I was being raised by a misogynist. Jax had taught me that word. He basically called every man Leila brought home a misogynistic creep.

“Where are you going in that?” My father spoke from the hallway as I stood facing the bathroom mirror. I didn’t make eye contact with him as I wrapped my hair in a ponytail.

“I’m going swimming with Jax.”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

I turned and faced him. His beard and hair had grown thick, and there was always a yellowish tint clouding his eyes. Was it terrible that I wished his liver would finally call it quits once and for all?

“Put a shirt over that.”

“It’s a one-piece, Dad. It doesn’t show that much.”

Smack! He slammed his hand on the wall. “Are you talking back to me?”

“No, sir,” I said, stiffening.

“I said put a shirt on. I don’t want you slutting yourself around with that boy. Why don’t you have any girlfriends? Why are you always with Jackson?”

“I don’t know.” My father knew exactly why, but he liked to make me feel bad about my life anyway. I would never bring anyone to my house, even if I did have other friends. I would never subject some poor kid to the kind of crap that went on here at the end of the dirt road. But besides that, I liked Jax more than anyone else. Our friendship was easy and we cared about each other. Even though we didn’t have the words back then, he was the only person I trusted.

“Out of the bathroom. I need to shave,” he said, finally dismissing me. But I lingered in the hall, confused. “Why are you shaving your beard off?”

“Your dad got a job, kid.”


“You didn’t think we were gonna live on food stamps forever, did you? We’re better than that.” He lathered up from an old can of shaving cream and pressed the razor to his face. Honestly, I had thought we’d be on food stamps forever, and I was kind of okay with it, but I had noticed that my dad was trying to pull things together lately. He was still a mean drunk, but it wasn’t as bad as it was right after my mom left, and he’d mellowed some with time. “Where’d you get a job?”

“Doing maintenance at the motel.”

“Did Susan get you that job?”

“No, I got me the job.”

I’d wounded his ego, so I had to flee. “Okay, I’ll be home later. I’ll put a shirt on.” As I walked away I said, “I’m glad you got a job, Dad.”

I got to the shed before Jax. When I lay down on the cot, I felt a lump under the blanket. I pulled it out from under me and saw that it was his journal. My stomach did a little flip. Just a little peek wouldn’t hurt anyone.

She sat there holding her smooth legs to her chest, staring out the window, popping her gum, bored, and saying inconsequential things. But still . . . she was the center of the universe. She could make the whole world go around without even breaking a sweat.

The wooden door swung open. I closed the journal and looked up to see Jax in the doorway, scowling at me.

“What the hell is the matter with you? Have you no respect for my privacy?” He marched up to me and tore the journal out of my hands.

“I didn’t read any of it.”

“Liar. I can tell you read it. Your face is beet red.”

“I only read one line.”

“It’s not about you.”

It’s totally about me, I thought.

He turned and headed back out the door.

“Who’s it about then?” I called after him.

“Not you. I’m going home.”

I ran after him and yanked his shoulder back and spun him around in the field of weeds. “Talk to me, Jax.”

“It’s about Desiree Banks. She’s my girlfriend. Go home, Emerson, and mind your own business.”

“We’re not little kids anymore, Jackson,” I said to his back.

“Yeah, exactly! I don’t have time for your kid games.”

My kid games? “You can tell me how you feel about me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

He said nothing, so I followed him until he went inside of his house and slammed the door. I turned around and dragged my feet home, regretting what I had done. My dad had already left to go to his new job, so I was alone, left to think about the passage Jax had written.

IN THE MORNING, I waited fifteen minutes for him to come outside, but he didn’t, so I had to run all the way down the road to catch the bus. The white Converse I had bought with my own money from my new weekend job were covered in dirt. I was pissed. When I got to the mailboxes, Jax was already there, waiting for Ms. Beels.

“Why didn’t you wait for me?”

He looked up from his book and then looked back down and said, “I don’t have to do everything with you.”

“These shoes were five Saturdays at Carter’s, and now they’re all dirty.” Jax and I had been doing odd jobs around Carter’s egg ranch on Saturdays for three dollars an hour. We were grossly underpaid, and we had to walk two miles to get there, but at least it was a job.

“That’s what you get for spending all your money on shoes.”

I stomped my foot. “Ugh! You’re not being fair.”

Still staring at his book, he said, “I’m not doing anything to you.”

“I said I was sorry. You left your dumb journal in our fort, almost like you wanted me to find it.”

“I’m not fighting with you because I don’t care, Em. I told you ten minutes earlier not to read it. You can’t even apologize the right way.”

“Sorry I’m not perfect like you.”

“Oh, and by the way, it’s not a journal, it’s a novel, and it’s going to kick ass when I’m done with it. And the fort is mine, Emerson, not ours. It’s on my property.”

I turned my back to him and stared down the road, fuming silently. When the bus pulled up, I took our normal seat at the front. Jax passed me and went all the way to the back.

“Real mature, Fisher,” I called out. We were acting like our ten-year-old selves, but we weren’t ten anymore.

The freshmen at Neeble High had their own hall, so it would be impossible for Jax to avoid me all day. And avoid me, he didn’t. Coming out of English class, I saw that he was standing in the spot he always stood to walk with me to math, except he wasn’t alone. He was leaning against a row of old lockers no one used anymore with his arm around Desiree Banks.


“Grow up,” I muttered as I passed him. Desiree shot me her best stink eye, which