LITERALLY is literally the meta-YA novel of your dreams! In Lucy Keating’s new book, a girl named Anabelle discovers that a famous author is literally writing the story of her life as it’s happening! But Annabelle doesn’t want to live a life where everything she does is already plotted out. Will she find a way to go off script and write her own story? Start reading LITERALLY now before it hits shelves on April 11!
It’s 3:02 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, and I should be cleaning my room. Not because it’s particularly dirty—it never is. Not because my parents told me to—they never would. Because my calendar says so—in yellow. Errands and necessary “upkeep” are yellow; homework blue; exercise (running on the Boardwalk, surfing with my dad) purple; appointments (teeth cleaning, haircut at The Hive) are in hot pink; and events like dinner with Ava at Papa’s Poke Shop or Nisha’s birthday party in Malibu are a bright teal. I call that one my “Friends/Fun” section. There are other categories for other things, but I won’t bore you with the details. I’m a very visual person. I get that from my mother. I am also highly organized. I get that from absolutely nobody in my family.
The problem with it being three p.m., when I should be cleaning my room, is that I am not. Instead I am lying on my stomach on the living room floor, staring into the eyes of Napoleon, who, from his place under the wheat-colored sofa, stares back at me with challenging eyes, a lone pair of my underpants hanging out of his mouth.
“Don’t do it, Napoleon,” I warn.
Ava told me the other day, after Napoleon growled at her, too, that she wasn’t offended, because it was an instinctual response. “Sometimes the body reacts in ways we can’t help, as a way of letting us know how we’re really feeling,” she told me. “Like how Nisha turns beet red whenever Ray Woods utters even a partial sentence to her. Or you always sweat in your armpits during exams. Or how I’ve barfed before almost every flight I’ve ever taken.”
“My armpits don’t sweat during exams,” I protested, and Ava just smiled. It is very like Ava to say something like that. To dwell, not so much on the fact that something is happening, but rather why it is happening in the first place. She is good at trying to see the other side. For me, it’s not so complicated. Things happen or they don’t. You make them happen or not. And I consider an unexpected, instinctual response—blushing and sweating and growling—highly inconvenient.
Slowly, I reach a hand toward Napoleon’s sofa cave, and his growl becomes a snarl. I withdraw my hand with an eye roll that I like to believe he can understand.
Napoleon is my father’s dog. He is also my mortal enemy. It’s not that I don’t like dogs. Those golden retrievers you see lying by the fire in a soup commercial, for example, doing nothing but wagging their tails. Or that bulldog who rides a skateboard, wearing sunglasses, his tongue flapping in the wind. But Napoleon is different. My father found Napoleon in an alley with a dead rat when he was only a few months old. “Poor guy,” he said. “Living in conditions like that.” But I know the truth. I know that Napoleon challenged that rat to a fight to the death, and Napoleon won.
The back door to the kitchen opens and in wanders my mother, iPad directly in front of her face as she walks, her bob of straight blond hair swinging along with her, followed by Jae, her new design intern. At least I assume it’s Jae. I can’t see his face behind the giant stack of rolled-up pieces of vellum paper, probably displaying the plans for another one of her beautiful Southern California homes. Mom’s specialty is remodeling old bungalows. She has a reputation for simplifying a house’s design, modernizing it just enough, but without losing the character of the place. With deep oak floors and heavy beams balanced by bright white walls and mid-century furniture, our house is one of her best advertisements. One of the exotic pillows she sourced from India is currently wedged under my elbows.
“What are you doing on the floor?” my mom asks, still staring at her iPad as she sets down her bag and motions Jae to drop the plans on the counter. Then she grabs two seltzers from the fridge and hands one to him.
“Napoleon has my underpants,” I explain.
“What a little pervert,” she replies.
Jae just smiles politely. “Hi, Annabelle.”
“Hey, Jae,” I say, and then I sigh. I want to ask my mother if she could maybe refrain from calling our dog a pervert in front of her intern to whom I have never spoken more than four words on one individual occasion, but I know there’s no use. My mother is unconcerned with formalities.
“How do you plan to get them back?” she asks now, finally setting the iPad down and looking over at me.
“Murder him,” I say definitively, and she snorts. I glance back at Napoleon. He has not moved a muscle.
“You’re a monster,” I whisper.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” my father says as he strolls into the kitchen, his salt-and-pepper hair in its usual bed-head state, his jeans rolled round the ankles. Nobody ever hears him coming because he is consistently barefoot. “That’s the beauty of working from home,” he’ll say if you point this out.
There’s a joke in there, if you know where to look. The joke is that my dad hasn’t “worked” in years. He was a TV writer in the late 1990s before selling a big ensemble comedy to a major network, and, after the finale in 2006, hasn’t been to an office since. He spends most mornings surfing, which he took up after retirement, and reading, which he’s always done. There’s a smaller guest house behind our house that my dad refers to as his “lair,” where he reads, screens movies, and takes an occasional meeting. Lately, he’s been spending more time out there than usual, and occasionally, I’ve noticed him coming out early in the morning. He must be onto a new idea.
“Should we take a drive?” he asks the room. I notice how wrinkly his T-shirt is. “Head up to Topanga State Beach, maybe grab an early dinner and watch the sunset? What do you say, you?”
The you is always directed to me. I know it’s kind of weird, like my own father can’t remember my name, but it’s actually the opposite. Something about the way he says it makes me feel like I am the only you there is. And that makes me feel good.
“I have plans,” I explain. “Is that the T-shirt you were wearing yesterday?”
“Forgive me!” my father exclaims, ignoring my question. “What’s on deck?”
I steel myself for a moment, considering that maybe if I talk really fast, they won’t make fun of me, and we can be done with this conversation. “Well, I have to clean my room and then I have to take a run and—”
My father shoots a glance at my mother, like How did we create this? “Maybe you should shake things up a little bit? Prove to yourself that the world isn’t going to end if you don’t clean your room this afternoon?”
I frown, contemplating his suggestion.
“What are you doing on the floor?” my brother, Sam, says as he bustles into the kitchen, grabbing an apple and taking a giant bite. “Did Napoleon steal your socks again?” he manages through muffled chews.
“Underpants,” my mother explains.
“You wanna go for a drive?” my father asks Sam. “Make a day of it? The whole family is coming.”
“I’m not available,” I say loudly. Why is it so hard for them to understand that even though they prefer to thwart general structure in their own lives, that’s not the way I choose to live?
“Right.” Sam rolls his eyes. “Maybe in between cleaning your room and taking a run you could find time to remove the giant stick from your—”
“Sam,” my father warns. But you can tell he finds it funny.
I am just about to lose my temper when Napoleon makes a break for it, his scraggly body darting out from under the couch and through the kitchen door, which Sam just left wide open.
“Catch him!” I cry, but nobody even pretends to move. I scramble out after Napoleon and into the yard, but I’ve lost his trail. I am just kneeling down to look under a hydrangea bush, insincerely cooing his name, when I hear it.
“Looking for these?” a voice says, all crackly with just a hint of smirk. I cringe, knowing to whom the voice belongs, then turn slowly to find Elliot Apfel standing in the middle of my lawn, a paper-thin T-shirt falling over his sinewy shoulders, an unreadable expression on his lightly freckled face, my thankfully clean underpants dangling between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. In his left, squirming like a mutant piglet, is Napoleon.
“Yes,” I mutter, feeling myself blush as I snatch them away, and getting more frustrated when I remember what Ava said. Then I think, if there was literally one person on this entire planet I would hope to never be standing on my front lawn holding my underpants, it’s Elliot. He will never let me live this down.
“Hot pink?” I hear him say behind me as I turn back to the house.
“Must you comment?” I call out without stopping.
“Did you really expect me not to?” I hear him call back.
Elliot is my brother’s best friend. He used to be mine, too, back when we were little. We’re the same age. Our moms went to art school together, before they diverged into photography and architecture. But then Elliot hit puberty and started acting weird and also, frankly, rude. And then he got a girlfriend and then another . . . and then another. Elliot has had more girlfriends than I have organizational colors on my calendar, which has always totally boggled my mind, since I don’t think he’s ever even heard of shampoo.
Now he has Clara, and she has lasted longer than most. Clara is the lead singer of Look at Me, Look at Me, the band that Elliot and Sam started together, the reason Sam states for why he decided to postpone college. I’m nearly one hundred percent certain the real reason is surfing, and I wonder if my parents know this, too. I wonder if, like me, they know it’s unlikely that Sam will go to college at all.
Back in the kitchen, my family is still standing around chatting, more like roommates than humans who share genes.
“Elliot!” My dad points a finger enthusiastically. “I bet you wanna go for a drive.”
“We can’t actually, Dad,” Sam cuts in. “We have rehearsal. I totally forgot.” He turns to Elliot. “Sorry.”
Elliot shoves his hands in his pockets. “We’re gonna have to postpone rehearsal for a while, actually . . . considering Clara quit the band this afternoon.” He purses his lips.
To know Clara Bernard is to know her Instagram. The entirety of my knowledge of her I’ve gleaned from there. Since she’s usually taking selfies or keeping her lips suctioned to Elliot’s face, it’s difficult to glean her true essence. But her Instagram is well curated. Lots of well-lit, California-girl pictures of her on the beach, or leaning against one of the vintage cars at Elliot’s dad’s shop, her dark brown hair falling out of some floppy brimmed hat, or writing lyrics moodily in a notebook. The only thing Clara loves more than her Instagram is her boyfriend. At least that’s what I always thought.
“She quit?” Sam asks, his eyes wide.
Elliot shrugs. “Apparently, the girl half of He/She got laryngitis and they asked her to fill in.”
“Well, she’ll be back,” Sam says a little frantically, running a hand through his thick hair. Sam has my dad’s hair, dark brown and prone to sticking out in wild directions, and I have my mom’s. So blonde it’s not even California; it’s more like snow queen. “I mean, we’re all in this together.” Sam’s voice is slowly increasing in tone and volume as he waits for Elliot to reply. “That’s the plan. And she has you.” He motions to Elliot, and the you is an actual squeak. “She’d never give up on you.”
For a split second, a shadow flashes across Elliot’s unreadable expression. Then he swallows. “Clara and I broke up,” he says.
Nobody seems to know how to respond to this statement. Everyone just watches Elliot as he nods his head repeatedly, as it to say Yes, it’s true to our unspoken questions. Even if I can’t stand him, even if he did knock a glass of water onto my laptop while skateboarding through our house a month ago, and call me an embarrassing nickname in front of the captain of the water polo team last Thursday, I have to admit I feel the tiniest bit bad for him. He may never wash his T-shirts and Clara may have the depth of a wading pool, but somehow they worked. Not to mention they’re an unnervingly good-looking couple. Were. Past tense.
Elliot exhales then, and I look down, realizing I’m still holding my underpants.
The Good Coffees
I open my eyes, like I do every morning, to the impression that palm trees are spying on me. They lean toward the second floor of our house, all gangly and awkward, big, bushy heads tipped as though they are peering into my room.
When people think of Los Angeles, they think sprawl, and they think traffic. Or mansions in Beverly Hills, hidden by ivy-colored walls and accented with sparkling black sports cars in the driveways.
That’s usually because they’ve never been to where we live: Venice. Not the one in Italy, with the canals and the drowning palazzos. My Venice has sweet little bungalows, fences lined with brightly colored bushes, vintage cars that have survived in the easy California weather, and guys riding bikes with surfboards clutched under one arm. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t many places like this, and I love it here. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I can be a little uptight, and I like to think that Venice balances me out.
Our house, though, is particularly special. It’s an original Craftsman from the days when the neighborhood was just being built. But it’s two stories, which is rare, my mom says. It’s a corner lot, making it a real presence on our street. My room is right on a corner, so I get all the magic morning light.
My parents bought the place twenty years ago, when Venice was mostly made up of artists and bohemians and a lot of people who lived out of their vans. There’s a campaign around these days called Keep Venice Weird. Old shacks are being turned into three-million-dollar moderns. An incense shop on Abbot Kinney was just turned into an artisanal donut bakery. You can’t find a coffee for under five dollars. People are afraid we’re losing our edge.
When I come downstairs for breakfast, my family is crowded around the dining room table, leaning over the Arts section of the Los Angeles Times. Someone has picked up coffee from the expensive new place on Electric Avenue, which means we are either celebrating good news or receiving bad. When I get a closer look at the paper, I see a picture of our house, smack in the middle of the front page.
“I didn’t know it would be on the front page!” I exclaim.
“Of course it’s on the front page,” my dad says, putting a hand somewhere between my mom’s shoulder and the lower part of her neck. “It’s exactly where it should be.” My mom gives a tight smile, and a funny feeling bubbles up through my chest. They used to act this way all the time. A hand on a shoulder, someone’s feet propped on someone else’s lap while they watched a movie. But I haven’t seen it in a while.
A couple months ago a woman named Mathilda Forsythe showed up at our front door. Mathilda was doing an article on The House, my mom explained, for the LA Times. She spent the afternoon trolling the floors and examining all the surfaces, asking details about where things were sourced and what was sustainable, jotting notes down in a Moleskine. Then she returned the next day with a beefy, man-bunned photographer named Silas who took a few shots of the family on the deep-blue couch in the living room, and one with my mother out on the porch, her arm resting along the railing, a smile on her face that said, Yeah, I got this.
“This is so cool,” I say now. “We have to get it framed! So meta to have an article of your house in your house.” I’m making a joke, the kind of joke we usually like, but nobody laughs, and immediately, I catch a look between my parents. My brother, too, seems to be in on whatever I am missing.
“What?” I ask.
“Here,” my dad says, pushing the coffee cup in my direction across the table. “I got your favorite; I even remembered to add the cinnamon.”
I do not make one move toward the coffee, even though it smells amazing. I now understand that these coffees are not good-news coffees. They are deceitful ones. “What’s going on?” I ask again.
“Maybe now isn’t the best time,” my father starts, but my mother stops him, her voice low but still perfectly clear to me.
“We have to, Ezra. She will hate us more later if we don’t tell her now.”
I do hate secrets. I hate ambiguity. I don’t like to wonder; I need to know. I consider reminding them of this, but the fear creeping up my throat is preventing me from doing very much.
“Your mother and I have been doing some thinking,” my dad says. “About our life here. We think it may be time for a change.” He stops for a second, and I can see he is really struggling to get the words out. My mom jumps in.
“We’d been mulling it over, and now with this article coming out, Dad talked to Aunt Sandy, and she said this is the perfect time.”
I squint at them, trying to read them better. “What are you telling me exactly?”
“They’re selling the house, AB,” Sam cuts in impatiently.
My mom sighs, and my father puts a hand over his eyes. “Thank you, Sam,” he says.
I shake my head. “Why would you do that? This is our home. And”—I jab a finger down on the Times article—“it’s famous! Why would you want to sell a house that is famous?”
A strange silence falls over the entire table. Nobody is jumping in for anybody. Neither of my parents says a word. Not even Sam pipes up.
“Aunt Sandy is a real estate agent in Florida,” I push. “What does she know?” Why does it feel like nobody is ever paying attention? Like I have to teach them how things work?
“I told you this wasn’t the best time,” my father says softly. “I told you she would have more questions.”
“Then when was, Ezra?” my mother asks curtly. “When two moving trucks pull up?”
Now my father looks at her in a way I’ve actually never seen. Like he barely knows her. It scares me, and I get the feeling this is not about the house at all. There is something bigger happening here. Maybe it’s been something I’ve been feeling for a while.
“Why would there be two moving trucks?” I ask, and it comes out in a whisper.
My father clenches his jaw, and then he says it all in one breath: “Your mom and I have decided it would make sense to live apart for a while. We really didn’t want to tell you this part now. We wanted to tell you about the house, in case any real estate agents show up this week. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.”
I look at Sam. “Did you know?”
Sam won’t look at me. Instead, he looks angrily at my dad. “I told you guys I should tell her.” Then he looks down at his plate. “I didn’t want to keep this from you, AB.”
I feel as though my world is spinning, the breakfast table tipping upside down, like I am falling down a rabbit hole. I put my hands over my eyes to steady myself. I don’t understand how this is happening. This is our family. This is our home. This is how it works.
“I am sure you are very upset, but I promise you once you go off to Columbia, your life is going to change so much, you’ll hardly even be here,” my dad explains, as if I need reminding that soon I will be moving across the entire country for college, away from everything and everyone I know.
“The point is that my life will change so much, and I will need this to come home to,” I say, my voice cracking as I struggle to hold back tears. I do not like this at all. I do not like being displaced. I do not like a disruption in the way things are.
“Well, unfortunately, honey, you don’t get to decide,” my mother says. I hate when she uses that tone with me. Like she empathizes, when really she doesn’t. I hate it especially because she always uses it when she’s actually right. “This is for your father and I to decide, and believe me, it has been devastating. But this is what needs to happen. And you’re just going to have to try to understand.”
I want to argue with her. To make some kind of threat, some ultimatum. But the scariest part is, I can’t. I don’t get to decide if they’re married or living together or whatever. There is nothing to say. And then my mother sniffs, and I realize she doesn’t want to fight about this any more than I do.
“Um, hey,” a voice says quietly, and Elliot is there in the doorway. Why is he forever showing up when I don’t want him to? He gives a swift knock against the wall. “Sorry to interrupt. . . .”
Sam sighs. “It’s okay, man. What’s up?”
Elliot throws a quick glance over at me. “Um, I brought back that AUX cable you lent me last night for my car. Thought I’d drop it on my way to school.” He puts the cord on the table and starts to back away. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says again.
I am staring at the article, clenching my teeth, when I hear my father say it.
“Elliot,” he calls just as Elliot is almost at the door and swinging his car keys around his right hand, “would you mind taking Annabelle to school today?”
“Sure.” Elliot looks confused as he glances back and forth between my dad and me.
“We can talk more later,” my dad tells me, trying to put a hand over mine. But I pull away. To Elliot he says, “Thanks, E. And it looks like we’ve got an extra coffee from Electric Café, if you’re interested.”
And then, just like that, my own father hands Elliot Apfel my latte.
“If you’re going to drive these beautiful cars, you should really make more of an effort to keep them clean,” I observe, crossing one white jean leg over the other and brushing all the sand off the sides. Elliot’s dad owns a vintage mechanic shop over on Lincoln Boulevard, where all the big movie prop designers go when they’re hired on a period drama. If he doesn’t have it, he can get it, is what he always says.
Elliot and I are cruising along Lincoln Boulevard on our way from Venice to school in Santa Monica. I know I’m in a foul mood. My world is being turned upside down. I keep thinking about what my dad said about “living apart.” What does that really mean? It sounds temporary. But selling The House? That sounds so . . . final. I sigh out the window, and Elliot doesn’t respond; he just keeps driving, a serene look stitched to his face. I have no idea why he’s being so calm, but I feel bad, so I mumble, “I love this song.”
“Hot pink?” is all Elliot says back, and I regret being nice immediately.
“Mention my underwear again and I will take a baseball bat to your windshield,” I say coolly, examining my hair in the passenger mirror. “And on a BMW this rare, it’ll cost you upward of two grand.”
Elliot snorts. “It’s so weird how you care so much about cars.”
“Why is it weird?” I ask, rearranging some things in my book bag. Everything in its proper place.
“Because you guys drive your cars into the ground. My dad’s always having to pick up one of your parents stranded on the road when whatever beat-up car they’re driving finally bites the dust. He says they couldn’t tell the difference between a Mazda and a Mercedes.”
“And what’s your point?”
“My point is, where did you come from?” Elliot asks.
I shrug. “Cars are beautiful. A perfect mix of form and function. When done right, which they haven’t been since, like, the 1980s.”
Elliot’s father’s shop has everything from a 1960s VW Beetle to a 1972 Volvo hatchback. And when a car has been sitting around a little too long, like the sparkling white convertible we’re currently sitting in, Elliot gets to drive it. As long as when he stops to park it, he puts a little for sale sign on the dash. Like at school, or in front of the coffee shop he hits every morning on his way back from surfing.
“So wait a minute, back it up. You like Paper Girl?” Elliot asks, referring to the music coming out of his speakers, and his whole expression changes from smug to utter surprise. “You. Like Paper Girl?” He has one hand on the wheel and an elbow propped up on the window. He angles his head down and toward me like it takes that much effort to believe what I’m saying.
“I can like Paper Girl,” I say. “You aren’t the only one who is allowed to like them. You don’t need a membership card to Slackers Anonymous to appreciate good music.” On the east side of Lincoln, we pass our sixth donut shop thus far. I always keep count. LA has more seedy donut shops than it has gas stations. Sam says they are probably drug fronts, but what does he know?
“You’re a real piece of work this morning,” Elliot observes, eyes still on the road.
“You always are,” I shoot back.
We pull up next to a woman in a sparkling black Lexus coup. In the passenger seat, a white cotton ball with two beady eyes and a pink bow in its hair has its paws up on the window, and it stares at Elliot intently.
“What’s wrong, Bellybutton?” Elliot coos. Bellybutton is a name he came up with for me when we were younger, and he insists on continuing to use it as a means of torture. “You get a ninety-nine point five out of one hundred on something?”
I laugh, because absolutely not. “For your information, I do have problems. My parents are probably getting divorced, and they are selling The House.” I lean down and pick at the seam of my jeans. “And the sand in your car is ruining my outfit.”
“That’s rough,” Elliot says, turning into the school parking lot. “Sam told me last night. I love your parents. They’re more my parents than . . . my parents. And that’s definitely true of your house.”
Elliot and his dad live in an apartment closer to the beach. It’s not shabby; it just lacks a certain warmth to it, since neither of them are ever home. More often than not Elliot can be found making breakfast in our kitchen, or playing drums in the garage. Or just lying on the couch in my room uninvited when my brother is late getting home, telling stupid stories when I’m trying to finish a problem set, getting Cheeto dust everywhere.
“So that’s it?” I ask. “That’s all you’ve got? My entire childhood existence is circling around the drain, and that’s rough?”
Elliot pulls into a spot and turns, his syrupy-brown eyes boring into me. “Life is rough sometimes, Bellybutton. Not for you, usually, but for the rest of us.”
“Oh, please,” I say.
His tone is patronizing, like he’s messing around, but there’s truth behind it. Elliot’s parents got divorced when he was young, and then his dad threw himself into his business. To spend any time with him at all, Elliot works part-time at the shop, while his mom lives on some artists’ commune in Hawaii. My mom says that’s why he’s so volatile. Life hasn’t been fair to him.
But right now I don’t want to think about Elliot’s problems. I have my own.
“Whatever. Thanks for the ride, I guess.” I smooth my hair and go to put my hand on the door.
“Hey, Annabelle?” Elliot says, and when I turn back he’s not looking at me, he’s leaning down to grab his phone from under the dash. “Don’t worry about the sand. Trust me.” I am just about to turn away again, but the next thing he says stops me. “In those jeans, nobody’s looking at the sand.” He glances up, his eyes meeting mine, and holds it. Elliot has this way of smiling even when he’s not, giving the impression that he’s all mischief all the time. He uses it on female authority figures, on waitresses, on girls he’s hitting on . . . and on me right now.
I wrinkle my nose. Because he’s kidding, right? Elliot doesn’t compliment my jeans. Elliot grabs the apple off my tray at lunch and keeps walking without a thank-you. He borrows my books because he never buys a copy of his own, and won’t return them until I steal the keys to his car. But the longer we sit there, the longer I realize he’s not kidding. Then he breaks into a slow smirk, and I can’t sit here any longer.
“You’re gross,” I say, getting out and shutting the door behind me, taking deliberate steps. And I don’t look back.
Senior Arts Elective is a requirement only a school as hippie-dippie as Cedar Spring would have. Before you graduate you have to pass three classes that challenge the creative mind specifically. I took pottery one year, and made a ton of mugs and plates. At least those were useful, utilitarian. Then I did an outdoor sculpture class taught by a visiting teacher where everyone got an easy A. And now I’m stuck with Fiction.
There is more irony in my hatred of creative writing beyond the fact that my father is a successful TV writer. It’s that I am actually not that bad at writing, either. I joined the school paper freshman year, and they made me editor in chief by my junior spring. Tell me you want one thousand words on potential bias on the school disciplinary committee, I’m your lady. I can have that for you in three hours. Or I can turn in a piece on what students really think about the new head of school. Or I can go more nuanced, on the pressure of getting in to the right college. I can do words when they are already there, waiting to be grabbed. I can’t do words when the story doesn’t already exist.
I tried, on the first assignment, to fake it. We were told to write one scene from four different perspectives, and I wrote about having breakfast with my family. But on the page, it was as if all the characters were just robots, staring at one another over their eggs, asking someone to pass the orange juice. I just couldn’t imagine the scene from so many angles. How could four people experience one thing that differently?
Miss Epstein suggested that I was hitting too close to home. “Nobody finds our lives more interesting than we do,” she said. “Next time, as an exercise, I want you to imagine a story that has nothing to do with your own life. A different character. A different age. A different part of the world. Try your hand at that.”
So I tried. And I still did not succeed.
Epstein plows into the classroom now, sheets of paper flying out of her arms, apologizing yet again for being late. A few students who have begun to bank on the extra ten minutes sneak in behind her, and Epstein doesn’t even see them. I clasp my hands tightly in my lap, bracing myself for what she’ll ask us to do today. A group assignment or, worse, an invitation to read aloud?
Instead, Epstein throws all her papers down on her desk, stabilizing her body with both arms as she leans across it, beaming at us.
“I know we usually spend this time creating, critiquing, editing,” she says, straightening up, her right wrist moving in a circular motion as though she’s painting her thoughts for us. “But I thought we’d take a little break from that so I could introduce a friend of mine. She’s a well-known author in the young adult genre and she’s come in today to talk about process, about publishing, and about making a career out of this temperamental beast we call writing. Class, please welcome my dear friend and MFA classmate, Lucy Keating.”
A woman appears in the doorway. She’s on the taller side, with long, wavy brown hair, red lipstick, and glasses with thick black frames. She’s in an immaculate white silk collared shirt tucked into some boyfriend jeans and chic black booties. Over her shoulder is a pale blue leather tote, and she drops it by the desk when she walks in, then turns to look at all of us with an easy smile.
“Hi.” Lucy gives a small wave. “I’ll keep my intro brief because usually people like to ask questions. I’m Lucy Keating, and I’ve written six contemporary young adult novels; all but one have been New York Times bestsellers. I majored in English at Brown before getting a job at a publisher in New York, writing at night, and eventually convincing them to publish my first novel, Maybe in Another Life. Then I did an MFA at Columbia where I met the incredible Ruth Epstein”—she pauses to smile at our teacher—“and I recently moved to LA from New York with a couple of scraggly dogs. I am loving the sunshine, but missing all the mean people.” Lucy gives a wry smile and I can see that beneath the charm there is a seriousness about her.
“Looks like we have a question already?” Lucy chuckles, then points to Maya Davis, whose hand is so high up in the air it’s like she’s trying to touch the ceiling.
“Do you plan on writing a sequel to Maybe in Another Life?” Maya asks. She’s blushing and stumbling over her words, and I realize: Maya is a fan. And now I remember from where I know Lucy’s name. Lucy is the one who writes all those sad, romantic books that always leave my best friend, Ava, in a puddle of tears. A girl and boy who fall hopelessly in love the summer before he’s deployed. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for an unattainable girl, even when her father gets in their way. More movies than I can count on one hand have been made from her books. The posters always show a couple in some kind of dramatic embrace, and usually someone is crying. I find them totally unrealistic and completely ridiculous.
“Maybe some day,” Lucy replies, and though her tone is upbeat, I detect a strain in her voice. “I did love those characters, but I got kind of tired of writing those stories. So much sadness.” Lucy looks off for a moment, distracted, then blinks. “Let’s just say I only want to write Happy Endings these days. I think my characters deserve that for a change.” She casts a glance my way, and a weird feeling takes over my body, but just like that it’s gone.
“Can you tell us what you’re working on now?” Maya says, leaning forward eagerly over her desk.
Lucy nods, and I start tuning out, staring out the window onto the quad, where Elliot is chatting up some girls during their free period. I would bet two hundred dollars that Elliot does not have a free period, though. My thoughts wander back to this morning and his weird comment about my jeans when I hear Lucy start to answer Maya’s question.
“I’ve actually become pretty inspired by my time in LA,” she says. “Right now I’m working on a story about a girl who lives in Venice Beach with her parents and older brother.”
I find myself turning back toward the room again. This gets my attention.
“Oh, and of course, their weird little dog, who is always causing trouble.” Lucy laughs.
The whole class laughs, too, except for me. Wait . . .
Lucy continues. “Her life is pretty perfect, everything is very within her control, but she begins to grow up and learn life isn’t so simple. For example, not everything is as smooth at home as she thinks.”
Now I am leaning over my desk a little bit, too, and squinting at her. My throat feels a little dry.
Lucy sits on the desk and places her hands on her knees. “And speaking of home, her parents are separating—maybe even getting divorced—and they’ve decided to sell their house. It’s a really special place, on one of the walk streets. And she’s lived there her whole life, so she’s pretty upset about it.”
A series of murmurs and thoughtful Mmmms rise up from my classmates, while my heart starts to pound in my chest. I look around, frowning. “Is this a joke?” I finally ask out loud.
At this, the whole class falls silent. “Annabelle?” Ms. Epstein asks, more as an accusation than a question. “Why would Lucy joke about her work?”
“S-sorry,” I stutter. “It’s just that . . . she’s describing my life.”
In response to this statement, Lucy watches me coolly, her head slightly tilted to one side. It makes me uncomfortable. But Ms. Epstein lets out a giggle, placing a hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “That’s why she’s such a genius! Everyone feels that in some way, she is ‘writing their life’!”
Maya’s hand shoots up again, and Lucy breaks her stare to give her a casual nod. “And what about the romance?” Maya asks. “Will there be some juicy love story?”
Lucy grins. “What do you think?”
Maya smiles broadly just as someone else appears in the doorway.
This time it’s the silhouette of a teenage boy I’ve never seen before. And the sharp decline in the chatter of my classmates lets me know that I am not the only one who finds him noteworthy. There is something about his face. The way he stands, chin up, shoulders back. Big blue, almond-shaped eyes that smile even though his mouth doesn’t. I can’t explain it, but it’s like he is a star in a movie and we are all just extras.
“Right on time,” Lucy says, which strikes me as a little odd, because he isn’t on time at all. Then she says more loudly, “Welcome!”
The boy gives a small wave, a slight jerk upward of a hand, and purses his lips. “Hey,” he says. “Hi.” The second hi is louder, like he’s getting his bearings despite being completely on the spot. Then he clears his throat before saying, “I’m Will.”
Will. I turn the name over in my brain. Classic. Solid. Cute. Intended to govern a country.
“Oh, right,” Epstein chimes in, gently smacking her forehead with her left hand and shuffling through some papers on top of her desk. “Will Hale. I’ve got you right here.” She pulls out a sheet of paper and gives it a once-over. “A transfer halfway through senior year is pretty uncommon.”
Will nods. “Yes, ma’am,” he says, and I’m surprised by his manners. “Not my decision, of course, but I’m trying to make the best of it.”
Epstein smiles, obviously charmed. “Well, go ahead and have a seat.” She motions as she fans herself lightly with her papers. “It looks like there’s a spot by Annabelle.”
No there isn’t, I’m about to say. Izzy Ross is sitting next to me. At least she was. But when I look now Izzy isn’t there; she’s in the far corner, sneaking looks at her phone beneath her desk.
I am so busy looking at Izzy that I don’t realize Will has already made his way over. I’m just glancing up when my pen goes flying off my desk, even though my hands were in my lap. What is going on?
Will dutifully crouches down to pick up the pen and hand it back to me, but when his eyes meet mine, they get even wider than they already were.
“Hi” is all he says, blinking a few times, eyes rimmed by thick lashes.
“Hey,” I say back, taking the pen. When he doesn’t move from the floor, I whisper, “What?”
Will looks a moment longer, and then he shakes his head and clears his throat. “Nothing,” he says.
“Then why are you on the floor?” I whisper back. Because why is he?
“Right,” Will answers, and attempts to unobtrusively take a seat. Which is nearly impossible to do when you are not only the new kid, but hands down the cutest guy to ever walk the halls of Cedar Spring.
Lucy Keating is just throwing her tote bag into the backseat of a vintage Volkswagen Beetle when I catch her outside.
“Nice car,” I say as I approach.
“Thanks,” she says, not the least bit surprised to see me, as though she didn’t just plot out my life story for my high school creative writing class.
I pause before I speak again, fully understanding how strange I am about to sound. But I have no choice. This is too weird. “I don’t know how or why you are doing it, but I’d really appreciate if you’d stop writing about my life,” I say, and swallow.
Lucy lets out small laugh and turns toward me, one hand on the car window and one on her hip. I expect her to tell me I am insane. But she doesn’t. “Annabelle,” she says, “I’m not writing about you. I am writing you.”
I blink a few times. “I don’t understand,” I say.
“You are in my book,” Lucy says, as though she’s explaining that today is Tuesday. “You’re a character. In fact, so is everyone.” The hand holding her car keys makes a sweeping motion over the façade of my school.
I stop and look around the parking lot, wishing someone else was here to witness this. I know authors have a reputation for being crazy—too much time spent isolated with only themselves to talk to—but this is a little much.
“Very funny. That could not make less sense,” I tell her.
“The funny thing is, it actually does make sense when you think about it,” Lucy says. “Some of my characters demand to be heard. Others just sit in a drawer, waiting for the right time.” At the look on my face, she tilts her head. “You don’t believe me.”
“Of course I don’t believe you!” I burst out. “What do you expect me to say? Oh cool, what happens next?”
“That’s okay.” Lucy shrugs and turns to get in her car. “It doesn’t really matter either way.”
I am about to argue back when a voice comes over the school loudspeaker. “Will Annabelle Burns please make her way to Dr. Piper’s office?” it says.
I sigh. Piper. What could she possibly want?
“Annabelle Burns to Dr. Piper’s office, please,” the voice says again.
“Looks like everything is right on track.” Lucy winks as she shuts her door and rolls down the window. “Have fun.” Then she peels out of the parking lot, leaving me alone and very confused.
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