Try it before you buy it! Here are the first six chapters of Sing by Vivi Greene. It’s about a pop star who flees from the spotlight by going to Maine––only to fall for a local boy and be faced with an impossible choice at the end of the summer: her new guy, or her music.
Go ahead and give it a try and tell us what you think of the first six chapters in the comments below!
92 Days Until the Lily Ross Forever World Tour
The night I get my heart broken for the last time, it’s over a bowl of soup.
The restaurant, some hip Nolita spot Jed has chosen—I would’ve been happy with takeout—is packed and the waitress tucks us into a cozy corner beneath a giant poster of Audrey Hepburn on the back of a scooter whizzing past the Colosseum. Jed is uncharacteristically quiet, but he’s leaving in the morning for three weeks of sold-out shows, so I chalk it up to stress.
Until he orders the soup.
Not soup as a starter, not soup-and-something-else, not a hearty soup, even, like bouillabaisse or bisque. Just a mug-size bowl of minestrone that, when it arrives, turns out to be tomato juice garnished with a few confused carrots.
This is Jed Monroe we’re talking about. The same Jed Monroe who eats an entire stack of pancakes when I make them for breakfast every time he’s in town. The same Jed Monroe who has “two dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts (or similar)” on his tour rider and who polishes off an entire bag of mint Milano cookies in one sitting. The first time we were photographed together, the caption read something like “Beauty and the BFG.” Everything about Jed is oversize, most of all his appetite, so the soup is definitely alarming. Which is why I spend the rest of the meal trying to decide if he isn’t eating because he’s anxious, or because he wants to fast-forward his way through dinner.
When we leave, I can feel the strained, nervous energy in his grip as he grabs for my hand, gamely smiling for fans between iPhone flashes outside the restaurant, and for the duration of the relentlessly quiet car ride home.
“I think we should talk,” Jed says as we ease into a spot across the street from my building. As if on cue, the privacy window slides slowly up. The driver’s blue eyes look disappointed in the rearview mirror before vanishing behind the clouded glass.
“Talk?” I try to keep the hurt out of my voice. I want to remind him that I’ve been talking all night. He was the one sulking into his soup. But I don’t. I take a breath, and I smile. “Sure,” I say. “Let’s talk.”
Jed stares at his reflection in the window, his perfectly pouty lips twisting to one side. I remember the night we met a year ago, at a party at my manager’s Brooklyn loft. Terry swore he wasn’t trying to set us up, but to this day I have no idea why Jed was there. I didn’t even want to be there. Sammy had dragged me out on a pity mission less than a week after we moved to New York from LA, after Caleb and I had finally called it quits. I was hovering near the sashimi bar, swearing to anyone who would listen that I’d never date another famous person again.
But then I saw him.
Jed was alone on the balcony, staring out at the city lights like they were blinking a code he was trying to decipher. His large frame was hunched over the railing, dark against the twinkling bridge. Right away, something about him seemed different, like he was above the party and its meaningless chaos, the empty small talk, the industry pressures to always be searching for the Next Big Thing. Sure, he’d been on the cover of Rolling Stone just a few weeks before, but something about him appeared almost . . . normal.
I knew I shouldn’t go out there. I knew I should stay inside, where it was warm and safe. Where I would be immune to the flop of his hair as it brushed across his forehead. The shy, crooked tilt of his smile. But I didn’t stay. I went outside and fell in love. Again.
“I don’t think this is working anymore,” Jed says now. He says some other things I’ve heard before, too, about “timing,” his “priorities,” his “career.”
I stare into his amber eyes. I know he’s in there somewhere, the one person I thought truly understood me. Understood this life, and how we’d get through it together. Jed is the first man I’ve dated. Caleb, Sebastian—they were boys. Jed’s older than they were, older than me, but it’s more than that. Being with him is so easy, because there aren’t any games. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it. I just never thought he’d stop wanting me.
“It’s . . . it’s a lot of pressure,” he tells me, his eyes suddenly hard and focused. “My fans are crazy. Your fans are really crazy.”
A sick, hollow feeling sweeps over me. “My fans?” The one thing Jed and I always agreed on is that our fans come first. They are the reason we get to do what we do, and if that makes it harder for us to buy our own groceries, or take a leisurely walk in the park, or have a quiet dinner out, that’s the price we pay. It makes having a relationship harder, but we’ve found a balance between going out and staying in, being accessible while still living our lives. It’s not always easy, but it’s worked. At least, it’s worked for me.
Jed rubs the sides of his forehead, a telltale sign that he’s feeling run-down. I try to convince myself that he’s just tired, that all he needs is a good night’s sleep. But I know Jed. Once he’s made up his mind about something, there’s no turning back. “I thought I could do it, but I can’t,” he says.
There’s a lump in my throat and I want to scream at him: Why are you giving up? We can have all of it! But a part of me, the part I try to keep hidden, knows he’s right. After all, we chose this. We get to make music and sing our songs and live our lives in front of millions of people. We don’t get to be normal.
I’m just the fool who keeps trying.
Jed holds my gaze and for a moment I see something flicker in his eyes: regret, maybe, or disappointment. But he quickly looks away, digging in the pocket of his thoughtfully distressed jeans and slipping the keys to my apartment into my palm.
There are three keys: a thick, magnetic one for the front door; one for the elevator; and one for the private stairs to the rooftop deck. They’re on an i ♥ ny keychain—a gift from Tess when I moved to the city—and when I think about how many times I’ve done this, handed over my heart, the keys to my home, to my world, I feel dizzy. Over and over again—it’s not enough. I’m not enough. The keys come back, warm from somebody else’s pocket, and I’ll stash them in the end table drawer, with the stray bobby pins and spare batteries and other orphaned objects, until I’m able to forget just how much this hurts. Until the next party when I can convince myself that it’s worth it to keep trying. To step out onto yet another balcony, where the next guy is waiting, and start all over again.
I slip out of Jed’s car in heartbroken silence, slam the door behind me, and watch his red brake lights bleed into the sea of cabs and limos on Hudson Street. I lean against my building, eyes still locked on the road. For a moment, I feel like I’m dreaming, like the real me is still in the car beside him. We’re on our way back to his apartment. We’re playing Ping-Pong and talking through his set list for tour. We’re pulling up our schedules and figuring out when we’ll be in the same city next, laughing about how crazy our lives are, how insanely difficult it can be to arrange the same nights off. We’re nestled together in his king-size bed, arguing over which bad reality show to watch while we—finally—fall asleep.
I climb the steps to my front door, waiting for the tears to spill over. But they don’t. It’s like something inside me has shifted, and all I feel is numb. Usually I’d be rushing upstairs, ready to mess around on my guitar and scribble into my journal. The louder songs would pour out first, in fits and angry starts, and then the melancholy ballads, and finally, the full-circle, girl-power anthems. I’d have an album’s worth of material jotted on napkins and notepads in less than a week, the quick-and-dirty chronicle of my latest doomed affair, from meet cute to up-in-flames to I’m-better-off-without-you.
I can already hear Sammy and Tess insisting that it’s not me. It’s him. But this time, I’m not so sure. Every relationship I’ve ever been in—from the big, sweeping romances that have spanned years and states to the little flirtations that were shorter but no less intense—has had two things in common:
The fact that they’ve ended, and
There are only so many songs a girl can write about being better off alone before she starts to believe she has no other choice.
I turn the spare keys in the lock and wedge the heavy front door open. It clicks shut behind me and I cross the lobby to the trash chute, chucking the keys inside. They clank along the sides and I wait for the satisfying sound of a final thud. But all I hear is quiet—quiet, and the bored, steady hum of the city that doesn’t care how many times you fall apart.
92 Days Until Tour
“He’s an ass.”
Tess arrives bearing Jeni’s ice cream sandwiches and a flimsy book of matches from the bodega on the corner. We’re on the roof deck, overlooking the lamplit West Village cobblestones and the dark, reflective sheen of the Hudson River.
“A giant, hairy ass,” Sammy agrees. She’s sprawled across one of the chaise longues, her long strawberry-blond hair fanned out behind her. Mom picked the patio furniture on one of her visits last fall, before I’d officially moved in. Neither of us had any idea that “patio” meant something different in New York than it did in Los Angeles. Or back home in Wisconsin, for that matter. It’s almost impossible to squeeze past the matching glass tables and rustic lanterns and stocky potted ferns without tripping.
“I mean, not that his ass is hairy,” Sammy clarifies. “Though it probably is. I just meant that his hair is big.” Between her knees is a shoebox full of cards, photographs, and other Jed-related memorabilia. She flips through a small photo book I’d had printed for Valentine’s Day. “Not big. Gigantic.”
Tess kicks Sammy from her post on one of the cushioned benches that line the perimeter of the deck.
“What?” Sammy whines, rubbing the side of her ankle. “It’s not a secret that his hair is huge. There could be an entire colony of small creatures reproducing in there and we’d never have a clue.”
I laugh, even though I don’t feel like it, which is why Sammy has been my best friend since preschool. She will do or say anything to make me smile, even if it means making herself look bad, which—given her insanely long legs, porcelain skin, and freakishly shiny hair—is nearly impossible to do.
“I’m just not sure we’ve entered the trash-talking portion of the evening yet,” Tess says flatly. She fiddles with the piercing in the soft cartilage of her upper ear, a tiny silver barbell. “We still don’t even know what happened.”
“I told you what happened.” I groan, pulling my favorite gray cashmere sweater across my bare knees. It was the first nice thing I bought for myself when I signed to my label in LA Sammy helped me pick it out in a boutique in Santa Monica, and even though the sleeves are stretched and it’s worn around the collar, I’ve kept it with me ever since.
“I refuse to believe you broke up with Jed Monroe because he ordered soup,” Sam says. “But even if you did, I’m sure he deserved it. I mean, look at these.” She pulls out a strip of photo booth shots we took at a meet-and-greet with fans a few months back. I’m making all sorts of wacky faces and Jed is pouting, his big, handsome features arranged stoically and identically from shot to shot. “Would it kill him to smile?”
I sigh. “I didn’t break up with him. Stop trying to make me feel better.”
Tess and Sammy exchange what is supposed to be an undercover look of concern. “Sorry.” Sam shrugs. She puts the photos back in the shoebox and lays the matches beside them.
“Don’t be sorry!” Tess barks. She stands abruptly, gathering her brown hair into a knot on the top of her head, exposing a newly shorn undercut that makes her look part punk, part little boy. Tess is pretty fierce about breakups, not that she’s had many of her own. When she told us she was gay the summer after high school, I was relieved, figuring she’d finally start opening up about the girls she was seeing. But she didn’t. As far as I know, she’s never had a relationship longer than a few months. Independence is her calling card, sort of the way falling in love is mine.
I shake my head stubbornly. “I don’t want to keep doing this.”
“Then let’s go out!” Sammy says, bolting upright. Let’s go out is pretty much Sammy’s mantra. If they gave out advanced degrees for partying your problems away, she would have her PhD.
“No,” I say. “I mean, this.” I wave distractedly at the shoebox. “I don’t want to keep doing this to myself. Getting dumped, and pretending to be better for it. Writing songs about how much stronger I am on my own. Because what if the truth is that there’s something wrong with me? What if I’m destined to be alone?” I bite at the corners of my thumbnail, my oldest and grossest habit.
“That’s ridiculous,” Tess says. “The only thing wrong with you is that you have terrible taste in men.”
I roll my eyes. “You loved Jed,” I remind her. “You said he was so much better than—and I quote—‘the industry douchebags’ I usually fall for.”
Tess scoffs. “Hardly a glowing recommendation,” she jokes, before turning serious. “No, you’re right. Jed’s a solid guy and a kick-ass musician. You guys, your careers . . . it all made sense. But you deserve more than a business partner. You deserve somebody who gets the real you—crazy, silly, goofy you. That’s what you’re looking for. Right?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say, stretching out my legs and looking up at the starless sky. “All I know is that I’m tired of my own battle cry. It’s boring.”
“Your battle cry is Billboard platinum.” Sammy laughs, collapsing back onto the chaise. “You can’t give up now. “
Tess kicks her again and rolls her eyes. “That’s not what she means, Samantha.”
“I don’t know what I mean,” I say with a frustrated sigh.
“I have an idea.” Tess shifts closer to me on the bench. “Let’s get out of here.”
Sammy reaches down to pull on her sandals.
“No, no, I don’t mean now.” Tess raises her thick, dark brows. “For the summer.”
“The summer?” Sam looks confused. “Like, the whole summer?”
I shake my head defiantly. “I don’t want to go back to LA. Every time I leave the house it’s like a graveyard of zombie exes.”
“I didn’t say anything about LA.” Tess flashes a sly smile. “Remember that house my dad used to rent, up in Maine?”
I nod. Sammy and I met Tess when we were twelve, at a summer camp on Lake Michigan. Every year, after camp, Tess’s father would take her back east, to a ramshackle cottage on a tiny island in Penobscot Bay. “What about it?”
“Oh, not much.” Tess shrugs playfully. “Other than I just bought it.”
“You what?” Sammy shrieks.
“You bought it?” I ask. “You didn’t tell me you were thinking about buying a house!”
Tess smirks. “Just because you pay me an ungodly sum of money to hang out with you doesn’t mean I have to consult you on every business decision I make,” she says.
My cheeks burn. Technically, Tess and Sammy are my assistants—it’s how we could justify them putting their lives on hold to keep up with mine. Sammy did a few semesters at Madison before dropping out to follow me, first to LA and then cross-country to New York. Tess was already at NYU when we got here, but it wasn’t long before she decided to take a hiatus. They both insist they wouldn’t have it any other way, and I know I couldn’t do it without them. But I hate when they talk about money—mine or theirs—even when I know they’re joking.
“It’s nothing fancy,” Tess continues, “just a tiny house in a real-life fishing village. I think maybe we could all use some real life for a change.” Tess looks at me, and I wonder for the billionth time when she got so good at reading my mind. “What do you think, Bird? Are you in?”
Bird, originally Songbird and sometimes Birdie, is the nickname Tess gave me at camp when we were kids. Over the years it has been adapted as an easy shorthand among family and friends, to differentiate from the other Lily Ross, the Lily Ross who headlines tours and cranks out albums and is forever at the center of a media cyclone and who, increasingly, has almost nothing to do with me.
I stand and lean against the roof ledge, looking out over the city. A police siren pierces the air and I feel my whole body tensing. There is nothing I would love more than to leave, to hide in some cozy corner of the world, away from photographers and interviews and studio schedules. All of it.
“It’s a nice idea,” I say wistfully. But I know this feeling, and I know it won’t last. Tomorrow it will be right back to business—there’s an album to finish, the first singles to put out, endless publicity, and in the fall, my next tour. There isn’t any time to feel sorry for myself.
“But . . .” Sammy prompts.
I smile. “You know I can’t take that much time away from work.”
Tess stares at me with her arms crossed. Sammy pretends to inspect her freshly painted, pale pink nails.
“What?” I prod. They both look like they want to say more, but don’t.
“It’s no big deal,” Tess finally huffs, waving her hand in the air between us. “We can stay.” She unpeels the wrapper from an ice cream sandwich and licks slowly around the dripping edges. “Summer in the city is delightful.”
I look out at the puzzle of inching cars and shuffling pedestrians. I moved to New York because I thought it would be a fresh start. After Caleb, LA was feeling claustrophobic, like it already knew me too well. I loved the way New York made me feel off-balance. I wanted the city to swallow me up, to consume me. And it did, for about a week.
Then I met Jed. I wasn’t looking for another relationship so soon, but it was almost a foregone conclusion. Our lives fit so perfectly together. We were so alike. And everything he was, I wanted to be. Successful, established, respected, grown-up. Right away, people loved us together. We were supposed to make it.
I wasn’t supposed to be here, again.
Suddenly, there’s an overwhelming rumbling in my chest. I turn on my heel and walk to Sammy’s chaise, standing over the shoebox. I hold out one hand and without saying a word, Tess is there with the matches. I strike one and Sam passes me the photo booth strip. I tilt the flame until it licks the photo’s glossy edge.
“It was fun, but now it’s done,” I say, the silly rhyme I stole from Sammy, the one she used to chant to get over high school breakups, back before I had any boyfriends of my own. I hold on to the burning photo, watching as Jed’s face contorts, melting into mine, until the whole thing goes up in an orange burst of flame.
91 Days Until Tour
Ray is waiting beside one of two black Escalades parked at the back entrance of Equinox. Despite the urge to stay cocooned in my bed for weeks on end, I dragged myself to my so-early-it-should-be-illegal private session with Leon this morning, intense interval training that consistently liquefies the lower half of my body. It was typically brutal, but it felt good to be distracted, and as I approach the car I even manage something that resembles a smile.
“Nice guns,” Ray teases. I lift the sleeve of my retro silk blouse to flex my wiry muscles, our post-gym comedy routine. Of the entire security team, Ray has been around the longest and is my favorite. He’s sort of like an older brother, if your older brother were an ex-Navy SEAL with biceps the size of watermelons. He holds the door open and I climb in, tossing my tote on the seat beside me.
“Hey, K2.” I nod at Kevin, the same driver I’ve had since moving to New York. Ray has another Kevin on the security team, so now we call this one K2.
“M’lady.” K2 fake-bows. Even though he’s from the Bronx, he has a habit of slipping into a phony British accent and calling my apartment “The Manor.”
My phone buzzes and I look down to see an e-mail from Terry. The studio time has officially been booked for this afternoon. I wince. I’m supposed to be putting the final touches on my new album. But that was before yesterday, before the breakup. Now the idea of spending time with those songs, songs I’ve been working on for the last six months, seems impossible. Twelve songs, each one about Jed, my missing puzzle piece, all my dreams come true.
The album is titled, unbelievably, Forever.
“I need a fix,” I tell K2, code for If there isn’t a cup of coffee in my immediate future, we’ll be approaching DEFCON red.
K2 nods and seamlessly navigates the chaos of the road. I watch his eyes flicker in the mirror, searching for the nearest Starbucks. I catch a glimpse of my own reflection. It’s not as bad as I’d imagined, but there are shallow dark circles under my eyes, and my skin looks dry and dull, despite the full face of makeup I applied after getting out of the gym shower. I look like somebody who hasn’t slept, which, aside from a few, fitful hours full of punishing dreams—dreams about Jed, about us together, as if nothing had happened—is true.
I tuck my phone back in my bag as K2 wedges us into an illegal spot on Thirty-third Street. Ray hops out to the curb and for a moment I consider sending him in with my order. I just don’t know if I have it in me to pull it together for my fans. But getting my own coffee is a thing I do, a deal I made with myself when my world started to really change, when I started hearing my own voice on every radio station: Don’t stop doing normal things.
I’m fully aware that being trailed by bodyguards and getting mobbed at every stop is nowhere in the neighborhood of normal, but for some reason it feels better than the alternative. No matter how surreal everything else gets, it’s important to believe I can still do things for myself, even if it takes an absurdly long time to do them.
I slide out after Ray and we walk into the coffee shop together. Behind us, the rest of the security team is assembling, a handful of beefy guys in sunglasses trying to blend in with the hordes of pedestrians swarming the midtown sidewalk.
Ray holds the door open and I duck inside. As always, there are a few quiet moments before the phones start flashing and the crowd descends. Sometimes, I like to imagine that I can live in these moments. Freeze them and drag them out. Today, I use them to take a few steadying breaths. I make sure that all traces of sadness are buried deep beneath an easy, carefree facade.
As I start toward the back of the line, a trio of squealing girls shuffles over from the window. Their moms follow, iPhones at the ready, and I smile and ask their names. One of them is wearing a T-shirt that says greeley gymnastics and I tell her I used to dream of going to the Olympics. “Now I can’t do a cartwheel,” I admit, and they giggle. Their moms gently guide them away after we’ve selfied in a variety of formations, and I inch my way closer to the counter.
Twenty minutes, twelve photo ops, and half an iced Americano later, I give Ray the sign—a tug on one earring—and a path is cleared toward the door. I’ve almost made it out of the frosty AC and into the sticky city heat when a girl, maybe college-age, maybe older, pops up by the counter and yells my name.
I turn to her with a warm smile, ready to sign whatever she thrusts at me, and then I see the expensive camera in her hands. She could easily be a college student studying photography, but I recognize the focused, calculating look in her eyes. Paparazzi.
“Where’s Jed?” she calls out, once, and then again. “Where’s Jed?” By now she’s practically clawing Ray’s elbow to keep me in her sight.
My skin starts to prickle and I hurry toward the door, but the girl scoots around Ray, camera thrust outward. “I heard you guys broke up! Is it true? What happened to Forever?”
There’s a pounding in my chest and the smile on my face turns stale. Confused whispers travel through the crowd and there’s a subtle change in the energy around me, like the charge in the air before a storm.
I reach out for the door but somehow misjudge the distance and lean into space, my legs still weak from this morning’s workout. I stumble against the corner of a trash can, and before I know it, Ray is at my elbow. But it’s too late: I’m going down.
The whispers turn to frenzied panic as I splay across the linoleum floor, and I feel the crowd closing in. I shut my eyes, take a deep breath, and hear the unmistakable snap of a shutter going off. I know I should get up. I know I should laugh, make a joke about being the world’s biggest klutz, but I can’t. I lean into Ray’s shoulder as he helps me to my feet, and keep my head down as I finally duck through the door and out onto the sidewalk, tumbling into the car.
K2 peels away from the curb. He makes a series of quick turns and soon we’re careening down the West Side Highway. I look out at the river on one side, the towering clump of high-rise buildings on the other. My breathing has started to return to normal, but I still feel trapped.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Usually after a breakup, I crave contact with the outside world. Being around my fans, talking to them, feeling their energy . . . it’s what gets me through. It’s what inspires me to get back to writing, to mine the heartache and make it my own. To wrestle it down and wring it out: a new song, a new album, a new experience.
But now it feels like I’m the one being wrung out.
I need a change of scenery. I need to be alone. I need to hear myself think.
I take out my phone and scroll through my messages, searching for a recent group text. Changed my mind, I type furiously to Tess and Sammy. Need a vacation. Who’s in?
90 Days Until Tour
“Where are we?”
I open my eyes and stare blurrily through the backseat window. I fell asleep somewhere around Portland, Maine, when Ray and the guys in the car ahead insisted on stopping for snacks. Now Tess is turning into a long, narrow parking lot and steering us toward the ocean. It feels like we could keep driving onto the rickety dock, over the water, and straight into the pale blue horizon. Wait until I tell Jed about this, I think, and then instantly feel the pain of losing him again. I wish I could erase him—his name, his face, his existence—from my memory.
“We’re here!” Tess announces, turning off the engine of her beloved Prius—or “the Pree” as she affectionately calls it. Tess is the only one of us who drives regularly, which is ironic given that she’s also the only one who has lived in the city her entire life. The Pree was the first big purchase Tess ever made and I’m pretty sure she’s more attached to it than she’s ever been to an actual human being.
“We are?” Sammy looks up from her phone distractedly, taking in the sleepy dock and the deserted parking lot around us. A car door slams and I see Ray loping across the pavement, looking very fish-out-of-water in his reflective Ray-Bans, black polo, and pleated khakis. He grips the inside of the passenger-side window and peers in to see me sprawled out across the backseat. “You good?”
“Just woke up.” I yawn. After years of shuttling from hotel rooms to buses to planes, I can pretty much sleep anywhere. It was hard at first, but I got the hang of it: contorting my body into compact positions, tossing a sweatshirt or hat over my face, and dozing off within seconds. I stretch and sit up, noticing a smudge of orangey powder on the collar of Ray’s shirt. “Cheese puffs?” I guess.
“Crap.” He sighs, patting the crumbs away with one enormous thumb.
I smile. “I’m telling Lori.” Ray’s wife is a nutritionist and runs a tight ship. Cheese puffs are not on the meal plan.
Ray rolls his eyes before squinting into the sun. “Where’s the boat?” The island is a forty-five minute ferry ride off the coast, which at first made me anxious. What will it feel like to be stranded in the middle of the ocean, with no team of stylists, no schedule, no events?
Now it doesn’t feel far enough.
“Guess it’s late,” Tess says, fiddling with the radio. She leaves the battery running but pushes the door open with one foot. “Gives us time to get lunch,” she says and climbs out. “This place has the best chicken salad on the planet.”
Sammy pockets her phone and gets out of the car, pulling her hair into a messy bun at the top of her head.
Tess nods toward a quiet café at the top of a small hill. “What do you think, Ray? Gluten-free bun? Hold the mayo?”
Ray crosses his arms over his broad chest and leans against the bumper, which dips perceptibly beneath his weight. “Coffee,” he grunts. “Black.”
I press my forehead against the window and look out across the water. A cluster of gulls hovers above the ocean, squawking and diving in a sort of dance. I can’t remember the last time I was this close to the sea. The beach was just a short drive from my house in LA, but the only time I ever spent there was the week we shot the “California Christmas” special for MTV. Otherwise, it was just the scenic blur of my daily commute to and from my house.
Choppy DJ chatter bursts from the car speakers and suddenly “You Are Here” comes on. It’s a song I wrote about getting lost while driving around LA with Caleb. I still feel a little jolt every time I hear the opening bars of one of my tracks on the radio. Usually, it’s a happy, heart-pumping thrill. But today it’s more of a guilty pang, like I’ve been caught doing something I shouldn’t.
Aside from my parents, I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving the city. I thought about texting Terry, but I knew he’d try to talk me out of it. I’ve decided to call him when I get to the island, explain that getting away is the only option right now. There are three months until tour, and I have to relax before then. I can’t risk another scene like yesterday. Terry won’t be thrilled to hear that I’ve temporarily relocated to an isolated island hours and a boat ride away from any trappings of civilization, but he’ll come around . . . eventually.
Out of habit, I pull my phone from the front pocket of my bag and scroll through old texts with Jed. I see my usual gushy, long-winded messages, full of kissy-face emojis and exclamation points, and his quick replies: Yup; You too; Night. I guess if I’d really been looking for it I would have noticed that he was distracted and curt. But why would I be looking for it? Just last week we’d done an all-day event together in Central Park. He was by my side through the whole thing, his arm hooked easily around my waist. I’d never felt so supported.
I stare off across the still water, willing the boat to appear and magically transport me to someplace where I can pretend to be somebody else.
Tess lugs our bags out of the trunk and plops them down on the grass beside her. I peel my legs from the sticky seat and climb out of the car as Sammy bounds up to the screen door like a dopey golden retriever.
The house is small and boxy, with missing shingles and a screened-in porch that’s patched with electrical tape. But the paint on the trim is new, and a cheery row of peonies lines the stone walkway to the steps.
“What do you think?” Tess asks. I follow her gaze toward the horizon. The house may be plain, but the setting is something out of a fairy tale. A thick fog snakes between clusters of giant evergreens. A low, grassy marsh opens into a web of tidal pools. And beyond all that is the ocean, flat and still and so blue it’s almost black.
“It’s gorgeous,” I say. The air smells sweet and salty at the same time, honeysuckle mixed with gusts of a crisp sea breeze. My grandparents live in a place like this. Theirs is a lake house in Wisconsin, but the feeling of being lost in nature is the same.
“It’s no Four Seasons.” Tess laughs, shouldering her bag and starting for the house.
Ray leans in to scoop up my luggage, but I wave him off. “I got it,” I say. “You guys go get settled. We’ll call you if we make any plans.”
Part of the deal I struck with my parents was that the guys had to stay at a B and B in town. I can handle being shadowed when we’re out and about, but there’s no way I’m spending the summer with a security team from dawn until dusk. The whole point of this trip is for me to feel normal again, and there’s nothing normal about three burly bodyguards monitoring my every move.
After a thorough inspection of the house, Ray insists on rolling my bags to the steps before climbing back into his SUV and reversing down the dusty dirt road.
I open the screen door and am immediately transported to the summers of my childhood. The windows are covered in dusty plaid curtains, and there’s a wood stove in the far corner of the living room. It even smells like my grandparents’ house, a combination of mothballs and lingering ash from the stove.
Sam and Tess are getting settled upstairs, the old wooden floorboards groaning beneath their feet. I leave my bags near the bottom step and walk through the kitchen, a bright, narrow room with linoleum tiles and wallpaper trim. Between the kitchen and the living room is a sliding glass door that opens up to a small porch. I leave my sandals on the steps and start down the trail toward the water.
Strains of Sammy’s laughter float on the breeze. I take a deep breath and feel a sharp twinge of missing home, Madison, my grandparents, and my mom and dad. I talk to them all the time, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as waking up to the sounds of Mom in the kitchen, mixing batter for pancakes, classical music playing softly from the clock radio beside the stove.
Ahead of me, the water stretches out in all directions. The trail under my feet turns from rock to tall grass, opening up to a pebbly coast. I bend down to cuff the bottoms of my jeans and burrow my toes into the dark, cool sand. The waves crash into the rocks at intervals, sending up a dramatic spray of white.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I jump. I slip it out and stare guiltily at the screen: Terry. I exhale loudly and answer the call, pressing the phone to my ear.
“Hey,” I greet him, breezy and cheerful.
“Lil, what the hell?” Terry barks. “I’ve been texting all morning.”
“I know.” I sigh, backing away from the crashing surf. “I’m sorry.”
“What was that about yesterday?” he asks. “Are you okay? I’ve already pulled a bunch of stuff down but a few photos got out. Did you fall? What happened?”
“I’m fine, Terry,” I say. “It’s just . . . Jed and I broke up. He ended it. We’re through.”
There’s a short pause. I imagine Terry pacing the stretch of carpet in front of his desk, staring through the window of his corner office and tugging at the roots of his slicked-back hair. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he says, his voice measured. “I thought you guys were—never mind, not important. What’s important now is that you stay calm. Do the work, right? Nobody processes this stuff better than you do, Lil. You’re the queen of bouncing back.”
I slump into the sand and pick up a handful of pebbles, sifting them through my fingertips. “That’s the thing,” I say softly. “I don’t know if I can do it this time.”
“What do you mean?” Terry asks. “Of course you can. We’ll put you right out there. Radio. Events. Whatever it takes to keep you busy and get ready for the fall.”
I take a deep breath. “Terry. I left,” I say. “I’m taking some time off.”
Terry laughs. “What are you talking about? Left where?” he asks, panic creeping into his voice. “What about the tour?”
“The tour is still on,” I assure him. “But I need time away. I can’t . . . I need . . . I need new songs.”
There’s another pause, this one longer. “Terry?” I ask.
“Lily,” he says, carefully, like I’m a horse he’s afraid of spooking. “I understand how hard this is. Really, I do. But I think you’re still in shock. Forever is practically in the can. It’s perfect. The first single is supposed to release in a few weeks. And besides, there isn’t time. You can’t write, record, and promote a new album in three months.”
There’s a buzzing in my arms and legs, the same whirring energy I used to get whenever somebody told me I couldn’t do something I wanted to do. “I don’t have a choice,” I say firmly. “I can’t get up there and sing those songs anymore. They’re lies, and I won’t lie to my fans. If Jed and I are done, Forever is done, too.”
“Lily,” Terry pleads.
“I have to go,” I interrupt. “I promise I won’t let you down. I just . . . I need to do this. I need to do it for me. Bye, Terry.”
I quickly end the call and stand, wiping the sand from the back of my jeans. I take a deep breath and look out at the expanse of the ocean. The air in my lungs feels new, and the water—massive and indifferent—pulses a stubborn rhythm into my veins. It doesn’t care who I am. I close my eyes, and in an instant I feel it: coming here was, without question, the right thing to do.
The phone vibrates again inside my clenched fist. Buzz buzz buzzzzzzzzz.
Before I have time to change my mind, I wind up and chuck it overhead. It spins in a smooth, high arc before slipping under the still surface, swallowed into the dark, murky bay. I wait with an empty dread for the panic to set in.
But all I feel is free.
87 Days Until Tour
The first few days on the island are a blissful blur of lazy mornings, long lunches, and epic sunsets on the beach. A side perk of tossing my phone out to sea has been that I’m not obsessively waiting for texts from Jed . . . though of course I can’t help but wonder if he’s trying to get in touch. I’ve borrowed Tess’s phone to check in with my parents, and after a few pathetic e-mails from Terry begging me to stay on top of my social media feeds, I’ve even posted the odd photo of my toes in the sand. But for the most part, I’ve managed to stay completely off the grid.
Our rhythm has already slowed to a leisurely vacation pace, though Tess insisted, over our first breakfast of granola and yogurt on the porch, that we each jot down a list of summer goals:
Tess wants to learn to surf. Yesterday morning, she rented a board from the surf shop in town and has spent the afternoon getting battered by wave after wave.
Sammy wants to read more. She picked a romance novel from the living room shelves, but so far has mostly used it as a pillow on the beach.
And I want to cook, the way I used to with Mom, before all I ate were catered meals and delivery. Something about it feels meditative, having to carefully follow so many steps. It’s as if by constructing all these meals, piece by piece, I might be able to construct a better version of myself—a stronger version, one that doesn’t shatter to pieces every time I end up on my own.
But what’s constantly on my mind, what remains unspoken between us, is what’s really on my list: to write twelve new songs by the end of the summer, a new album to replace Forever, that’s better than Forever; an album I can tour with in the fall. To see myself, my music, in a different light.
So far, it’s been slow going. Today I stared at the blank lines in my journal, scratching things out as quickly as I’d written them down. There’s still a restless energy whirring inside me, reverberations of city life. I feel like a top that hasn’t stopped spinning, as if my body hasn’t quite caught up with my head.
And so it’s back to the kitchen.
After we’ve officially overdosed on lobster rolls and clam chowder, I decide to attempt my first home-cooked dinner. Sammy and Tess hover in the kitchen, waiting for me to lose my cool. I don’t. I make honey mustard chicken and coconut rice and a salad. I even toast some bread with garlic butter. There’s an incident with a pan full of sizzling oil and a finicky smoke detector, but when the food is finally plated and largely resembles an actual, edible meal, I feel like a bona fide gourmand.
“This is not terrible,” Tess says as we take our first bites at the round kitchen table.
“Gee, thanks,” I deadpan, but I have to admit I’ve surprised myself. The last real meal I cooked was probably before I left home, when Mom made me help her in the kitchen on Thanksgiving. It’s nice to have accomplished something, even if it’s not songwriting. Anxious butterflies swarm my stomach—there are eighty-seven days until the tour, which sounds like a lot, but I can feel the hours ticking down already.
“Who wants to go out?” Sammy asks, stacking the dirty dishes after we’ve finished.
“Out?” Tess laughs. “Did you maybe get a little too much sun today? We’re on an island with three restaurants, one of which is also the post office. There is no out.”
Sammy drops the plates in the sink with a clatter, and I notice the pink lines of a burn on her neck. I feel suddenly guilty for dragging her here, where her fair skin and freckles will be at constant risk of sun damage, and where there isn’t a decent cocktail menu within a fifty-mile radius.
“There has to be something,” I insist on Sammy’s behalf. “What do people here do for fun?”
Tess leans back against the wide bay window. “You’re looking at it,” she says.
“No way,” Sammy says, turning off the faucet. “Get dressed. If there’s a jukebox in this town, I’ll find it.”
Energized by the possibility of stimulation, I grab Tess by the hand and pull her from the cushioned bench, shooing her toward the shower. I almost make it to the top of the stairs before I remember my journal, which I stashed in Sammy’s bag after the beach.
I race back downstairs and duck into the living room. The bag is slumped against the tattered ottoman, and as I pull it up by its leather handles, a magazine slides out and into my hands.
My heart drops.
There I am, in all of my clumsy glory, sprawled out on the shellacked floor of a midtown Starbucks. One arm shields my eyes but my mouth is locked in a pained grimace. In boxy white type the headline reads: Down on Her Luck: Lily’s Alone Again.
I’m in such a trance that it takes me a few moments to register the other tabloids that have tumbled out of the bag at my feet. I glance down and am assaulted with the same photo from different angles. More oversize type, exclamation points: Bruised and Brokenhearted: Lily Heads to Rehab and Where in the World Is Lily Ross?
“Shit.” I hear a voice over my shoulder. I stare at the jumbled collection of my own startled faces. Tess rushes into the room and sweeps the pile aside with one foot. Sammy stops short in the hallway behind her.
“I’m so sorry,” Sammy says. “I was trying to clean out the shelves at the grocery store. They only had a few of each . . .”
“I want to see them,” I say sternly.
Sammy bends down to scoop them up but Tess puts a hand out to stop her. “No,” she says stubbornly. “You don’t. It’s all garbage. None of it is real.”
I collect the magazines myself and walk briskly up the stairs.
“Birdie!” they call after me in unison.
I shake my head. “I’m good,” I say, my voice trembling. “Really. I just . . . I need a few minutes.”
I close the door to my room behind me and collapse onto the bed, my pulse pounding an erratic beat inside my ears. I try to count my breaths, to close my eyes and be present, but none of the usual tricks work.
This is not the first time my face has been plastered on the cover of trashy tabloids. It comes with the territory, particularly post-breakup. After my first boyfriend in LA, Sebastian, it was a circus. Word was he was cheating with one of his backup singers. Then: all his backup singers.
After Caleb, I was the one who was moving on too fast. I was “heartless” and “career obsessed” for ending things and moving to New York when my second album took off and his, well, didn’t. I could have set the record straight, done an interview and insisted that he broke up with me, but Terry was sure it would only make things worse. The best thing to do with this kind of press is ignore it. Days later, it’s always somebody else’s heartbreak, someone else’s mistake—real or fabricated—staring back at the world from the checkout racks.
But this time, somehow, I’m not prepared. Being here, away from everything, it’s easy to forget that the world is still chugging along. Jed is still touring, answering questions, being who his fans want him to be. I’m not. I’m nowhere. So I’m fair game.
I open the magazine on top and flip slowly to the center spread. It’s all there. Our last dinner date. The stupid soup. A grainy shot of me watching Jed’s car as it sped away, spare keys dangling in one hand, staring after him like an abandoned puppy.
I quickly scan the poorly written copy, quoting various “inside sources” about our relationship, how it had been stalled for months. “Lily is ready to settle down, and Jed isn’t. The pressure became too much.”
I scoff. Pressure? The only thing I ever pressured him to do was sleep in on Sundays and eat fewer carbs. Tess was right. There’s not a single kernel of truth to be found anywhere.
But as my eyes travel down the page, they land on a quote that makes my stomach drop. “Sources say that Lily’s new album, Forever, was a promise to Jed. A promise he wasn’t ready to make. ‘It was never the big, epic romance everyone wanted it to be,’ says one inside source. ‘Maybe Lily thought they were Forever, but Jed never saw it that way. Just last month she wanted him to fly home to meet her family. He pretended he was busy with work, but really he thought things were moving too fast.”
My heart feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise. It was my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. My parents had planned a surprise party at the Italian restaurant where Grandpa had proposed. Jed promised he’d come, but at the last minute a bunch of appearances were added to his schedule. I hadn’t told anyone he was coming. He had a habit of double-booking himself, and I was tired of getting everyone’s hopes up.
There’s a timid knock at the door. Without waiting for an answer, Tess and Sammy shuffle carefully into the room. “Are you okay?”
Sammy slumps beside me and rests her head on my shoulder.
“He talked to them,” I say, my voice a trembling whisper. “He had to. There are things in there . . .”
“We know,” Tess says quietly. “We’re so sorry.”
“How could he do this?” I’m genuinely bewildered. I’ve been around long enough to know there’s no such thing as an “inside source.” He talked to the press about me, my family. And why? So he could have the last word in our relationship? So he could come out on top? If he wanted to make me look pathetic, it worked. Tears burn my eyes and I fight not to let them spill over. If I felt shock and heartbreak when he broke it off, this is a thousand times worse—now I feel like a fool.
“You have to forget him,” Tess urges. “I mean it. This is exactly why we’re here.”
Sammy rubs my back. “She’s right,” she says. “It’s not worth it. This summer is for you. For us, right? Remember how fun it was, just the three of us at camp?”
“No bugs or bad food,” Tess cuts in. “But otherwise, this summer should be like a grown-up version of the way things used to be. No responsibilities. No stress. Deal?”
I wipe my eyes and smile. “Deal.”
“Good,” Sammy says. “Now . . .”
“Let’s go out, we know,” Tess singsongs, finishing her thought. “Hold your horses, party girl. I haven’t even showered.”
Tess scoops up the magazines on her way out and stuffs them under one arm. Sammy lingers in the doorway. “See you downstairs?”
I shake my head and put on a smile. “You guys go ahead,” I say. “I think I’ll do some writing.”
“No wallowing!” Tess calls from the hallway.
“No wallowing,” I promise.
Sammy looks skeptical but blows me a kiss from the door.
I grab my journal from the nightstand, my guitar from its case on the floor, and cozy up in a corner of the bed, wedging the pillows behind me.
There’s so much I want to say. I could write a dozen songs in the next three hours about all the ways Jed has hurt me. But they would still be about him. Every time I write a song it feels like I’m giving little bits of myself away. And I don’t want to give Jed—or any of the guys I’ve dated—another piece of me.
A cool breeze tickles the back of my neck. I look out the window, where the sun has just set, casting an orangey-pink light over the treetops. The water sparkles beyond the jetties, the ocean reaching out in every direction, as far as I can see. This is why I’m here. Real quiet. Real life. Real time with real people who love me, who care about me enough to buy all ten copies of the junkiest magazines on the newsstand, just so I won’t see them.
This new album needs to be different. There has to be more to me than just a girlfriend, a lonely left-behind. Before Sebastian, before LA, I’d never been in a relationship. I made it nineteen years on my own, nineteen years that I spent binge-watching The O.C. with Sammy, daydreaming about moving to California. Or spilling secrets to my journal on a Friday night, about how lonely it felt to be different, to never know how to say or wear the right thing. Those secrets turned into songs, my very first songs—the songs that got me a manager, a record deal, a life beyond my wildest dreams.
I close my eyes and imagine the summer I discover who I used to be, who I still could be, with nobody watching. The summer I write the songs I’m meant to write, songs that are more than just starry-eyed sagas or recycled broken-heart ballads. The summer I turn down all the noise and listen to the voice in the quiet, the voice I heard when I was a little girl, telling me to stop worrying so much about what everyone else was thinking. Close your eyes, the voice said.
Close your eyes and sing.
86 Days Until Tour
The car blinks and beeps and I stare at the dashboard like it’s the operating system of a spaceship. The last car I drove myself was the beat-up truck my grandfather gave me when I left Wisconsin for LA There were no tricks to getting it to start, aside from revving the engine and praying a lot until it caught. The Prius has an On/Off button that should be fairly self-explanatory but somehow isn’t.
Finally, with my foot on the brake, the keys in the ignition, a press of the button, and a whispered prayer, the Pree purrs to life. I glance quickly at the upstairs windows as I slowly back out of the driveway. I left a note for Tess and Sam on the fridge, but they were out late, and I doubt they’ll be rallying anytime soon.
I woke up craving eggs and bacon. And pancakes. So far, Sammy and Tess have gotten all the groceries at a market in town, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find it on my own. The car bumps and lurches along the winding dirt road, feathery branches scraping at the window.
I expected to feel worse this morning. Last night, after the girls went out, I sat on the back deck for hours, watching the stars blink on and thinking more about my album. I was getting nowhere and gave up around midnight, stumbling upstairs to my room and collapsing onto the creaky twin bed. I slept hard and woke up seven hours later, in the same position, fresh and rested and ready to go. Even my body felt different, as if my bones had been shifted, my muscles stretched and realigned until all the usual touring-and-traveling aches and pains were gone.
The dirt road forks off and I turn onto pavement. The trees are thicker here and the houses closer to one another and the road. There’s a small schoolhouse, and a church, and a convenience store with a single red gas pump out back. Across from the harbor is a long, low building with a swinging sign, mcconnell’s food and sundries.
I park and collect my bags from the front seat. There was a stash of canvas totes in the hallway closet, branded with logos from farms, the library, a bank. I grabbed a handful, along with a baseball cap I found hanging on a hook—faded blue with the red outline of a lobster. Now I pull my hair through the back of the cap and settle the hat low on my forehead. I dig around for my favorite comically oversize sunglasses and ease them on. The hat-and-shades routine hardly ever works anymore, but I still try.
I decide to make a list and I reach into my pocket for my phone, only to remember that I chucked it into the ocean. This morning, in a frenzied panic, I had snuck into Tess’s room and sent a quick text to Terry asking him to FedEx me a new one. Now that I’ve seen the tabloids, I feel disarmingly disconnected. It was a jarring reminder that even though Lily Ross the person is on vacation, Lily Ross the business is still chugging along. On a typical day, by the time I’ve been awake for an hour, I’ve grown numb to the endless beeping of alerts, texts, and e-mails. I’ve also talked to Terry ten times, my parents twice. No wonder I feel so clearheaded, I realize. I haven’t spent this much time alone in years.
In the market, I settle on a quick list of ingredients and begin to make my rounds. At the deli counter is a pair of girls in denim shorts, maybe nine or ten years old. They’re daring each other to do something, their eyes glancing furtively at the ice cream freezers. I stand behind them, knowing what will happen when they turn around. I brace myself for squeals, iPhones, maybe even questions about the magazines and Jed.
But the strangest thing happens. The girls look up at me and I smile. They freeze. Before I can say hello, they’re gone, giggling and scampering down the aisles and out through the chiming front door. I’m not sure if they recognized me or were simply scared that they’d been caught.
At the register, I wait behind a handsome young dad, his three little kids clamoring for more treats and hanging off the cart. He’s so preoccupied with them that he doesn’t glance in my direction. Then the middle-aged woman behind the counter swipes my card without noticing my name. I leave the store laughing, lugging the bags over my shoulder, and when my sunglasses slip off my nose, I don’t even put them back on.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
The screech of tires is still ringing in my ears as I gingerly climb from the front seat. There’s a puff of steam coming from underneath the hood of the Prius and my fingers are trembling. One minute, I was cruising through an intersection, almost home, windows down with the smell of the ocean filling up the car. The next, I was careening toward the passenger door of a pickup truck, slamming on the brakes too late and whipping against the steering wheel.
Tess is going to actually kill me. Her precious Pree, practically her third best friend, is wedged beneath the bed of a rusty old truck. The truck’s driver is angrily prying open his door and also appears ready to actually kill me. So at least when Tess finds me, I’ll already be dead.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry.” I walk around to the front of the car, squinting to see and not-see at the same time. The car and the truck are locked together like pieces of a life-size puzzle, and there’s some kind of ominous-looking fluid pooling between them on the ground. “I didn’t see you.”
“Well, that’s a relief, I guess.” The driver, a guy around my age in dirty shorts and a pale blue T-shirt, walks to the back of his truck, surveying the wreckage. “If you’d seen me or that stop sign you just blew through, I’d say you might need more than a new prescription.”
It takes me a long moment to realize he’s talking about my sunglasses, which I’d stashed on the top of my hat. “Oh.” I pull off the glasses and wave them. “These? They’re not prescription.”
We’re in the middle of an intersection, which, I now see, is a four-way stop. Another car, some kind of old-model Subaru, creeps up behind us, and the guy waves the driver on. Then he crouches between our cars, peering up at the underside of his truck, before glancing down at the puddle.
“They’re actually just sunglasses,” I explain, now wiping my lenses on the front pocket of my overalls, as if that might help. “For the sun? I got them from a street vendor in Rome.”
I hear myself still talking and want to climb under the smoking hood and stay there until he drives away or I melt, whichever happens fastest. Sunglasses? For the sun? It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are times when it’s easier to be recognized. Times like these, for example, when it would give me an excuse to stop talking, or at least start talking about something else.
“You don’t say,” the guy grumbles from the other side of the hood. He stands and scratches his upper arm, revealing a hint of one tanned tricep. I feel my face going red, which is annoying—I’m not in the mood for muscles and blushing. I glance away from him and up at the bed of his truck. It’s stacked high with long wire crates, tangles of mesh nets, and a pile of oblong buoys. Tucked between two empty traps is a long yellow surfboard, its rounded nose jutting out over the tailgate.
“You surf?” I ask as he stands, waving off the steam and lightly pressing on the bumper. “I mean, obviously. I took a lesson once. My friend wants to learn this summer. It’s on her summer bucket list. Not that she’s dying. She just . . . it’s something she wants to do.”
The guy is still carefully inspecting the hood of my car, which has finally stopped smoking. There’s a gnarly looking dent in the bumper and a pattern of scratches near the front, and I’m reminded of Tess and the whole killing-me scenario, which, given the way this conversation is going, now seems like a welcome alternative.
He holds out his hand and it takes me a minute to understand that he’s asking for my keys.
“Are you a mechanic?” I ask. I realize there’s little chance he’s going to drive off with Tess’s car, and if he did, he wouldn’t get far, considering we’re on an island. But it still seems important to establish his credibility before handing over her keys to a complete stranger.
He stares at me for a long moment, and I’m sure this is when it will happen. When he’ll finally recognize me. But I can tell by the look in his eyes—which, unfortunately, are a bright and almost breathtaking blue—that he has no clue who I am.
“No, I’m not a mechanic,” he says, impatiently running a hand over the top of his cropped light hair. “Are you?”
I drop the keys in his palm and watch as he climbs into the driver’s seat. “It’s not my car,” I call after him. “I mean, I didn’t steal it or anything. It’s my friend’s. It’s a hybrid. It’s sort of tricky to turn on. There’s this thing with a button?”
Within seconds the car is whirring to a frenzied start. He glances over his shoulder before slowly backing up. There’s a nasty-sounding crunch as the car unsticks from the undercarriage of his truck, but he doesn’t flinch. He reverses all the way back toward the stop sign, then hops out and jogs back to me.
“So what’s the bad news?” I ask as he pulls open his door and starts to climb in. “How much do I owe you?”
“Me?” The guy smiles for the first time, and my insides turn to a familiar pool of wobbly goo. According to Tess, the year-round population on the island is around two thousand. What are the chances that on my first day, I literally run into the best-looking person here? “Well, it is a work vehicle,” he says, thoughtfully tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Not to mention my only transportation, so . . .”
“Of course.” I nod solemnly.
“I’d say about fifteen grand?” he ventures. “I mean, like I said, I’m no mechanic, but that seems a reasonable guess.”
My heart clenches. Who racks up fifteen thousand dollars in damage driving on an island with four major roads and no stoplights? A boxy Jeep rolls through the intersection between us, and the driver and the guy share a wave. I duck behind my hand, imagining the next big headlines: Lily Ross in Grief-Fueled Fender Bender. Not exactly the “quiet escape” I had in mind.
“Fine,” I huff, an embarrassed whisper. “I don’t have my phone on me, so you’ll have to give me your number or something . . .”
The guy looks at me for a drawn-out beat. “I was kidding,” he says flatly. “Are you serious? Fifteen grand? This truck is older than I am. I’ll probably have to pay somebody to get rid of it eventually.”
I blink at him, flushing from the neck up. Of course he wouldn’t expect me to pay thousands of dollars for a truck that looks like it’s held together mostly by duct tape. I can tell by the smug lift of his golden eyebrows that he thinks I’m an absolute buffoon.
“Right,” I finally manage, clearing my throat. “Of course. So . . . we’re good, then?”
He smirks. “Yeah, we’re good,” he says, closing the door between us. The truck sputters dramatically as he turns the key in the ignition. He checks his rearview mirror and slowly pulls away, pausing after a few feet to glance quickly over his shoulder. “Just don’t write a song about me or anything.”
He puts on his blinker and lifts two fingers in a half wave at the mirror. I stand frozen in the intersection, a surprised smile inching across my lips, and watch as he takes the turn down another dirt road, traps and buoys and the yellow surfboard clattering in the bed behind him.
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