All break ups are awful—but break ups with your best friend? Those are by far the worst. So what if the only shot you had at winning the prize of your dreams was reunite with an ex-BFF? That’s the premise of Rebecca Barrow’s latest novel This Is What It Feels Like!
It follows three girls and former bandmates who called off their musical dreams and friendship when drummer Hana’s struggle with addiction took over her life. Since then, all three girls have managed to deal with personal issues and rebuild their lives—but their friendship never recovered. So when the contest of a lifetime comes along, the girls know their only shot to win is to reunite the band, but can they put the past aside in order to move forward?
This story has laughs, tears and romance—which we love, obviously—but what really shines here is the friendship story that takes center stage. All three main characters are flawed, confident, talented, strong female leads, and it’s so refreshing to have a realistic book about these types of characters where love lives take a backseat to the relationship they have with each other. We couldn’t help but root for all three as they struggle to fight not just for the prize, but for their reunion. It struck super close to home, and we think you’ll all love it too!
The best part? We have a sneak peek at the first five chapters of This Is What It Feels Like!
It’s hot the second the doors open. The kind of air that leaves you sticky straightaway, sweat trickling along your spine, and you almost can’t wait for the sweet relief of the cold shower awaiting you at the end of the night.
The stage is empty; music thumps out of hidden speakers instead, electro Biggie and Blondie covers and sometimes Aaliyah, because of course Aaliyah.
A light-copper-skinned girl in hacked shorts and a Bikini Kill tee cuts through the crowd, holding tight to the wrist of another girl with hair bleached whiter than her pale skin. The first girl, natural curly hair blown out to wild proportions, hoists herself onto the stage. A third girl appears from the wings, the lights setting a sheen of purplish-pink on her deep-brown skin, and holds a hand out to the blonde.
All three duck back into the wings together, grabbing guitars, picks, drumsticks, courage. Then the music cuts, and the purple-green-red lights flash down, and a person with lime-green lipstick and a buzz cut squeezes past them. “Ready?” they say.
The blonde nods. “Always.”
The buzz cut person walks out on the tiny stage, takes a position at the mic stand to cheers from the raucous crowd. “All right, everybody! Make some fucking noise for Fairground!”
The girl with the curls slouches up to the mic, a pick between her teeth. She tugs her shorts up on her hips and takes the pick from her mouth. She doesn’t bother introducing herself or the others, but hits a jarring chord and runs into their first song at breakneck speed, the blonde banging hell out of her drums and the bassist kicking into frenetic rhythm, sweat slicking away from her basketball jersey.
They only have fifteen minutes, but it’s fifteen minutes more than they used to have. They speed through their short set list, and the crowd cheers, raises their hands, and gives in to the weird mix of punk and grunge and R&B.
They sing themselves hoarse in that short time, and when it’s over—too fast, too soon—they leave the stage, clutching their guitars and drumsticks like precious jewels. The next band will start soon, replace them in the crowd’s memory, but it doesn’t matter. They did what they came to do.
Sometimes they stay to listen to the other bands and dance themselves silly, but tonight they’re forty minutes from home and they have a curfew. Out in the parking lot an older girl with lilies inked on her upper arm and locs to the middle of her back waits by a beat-up van. “Good set,” she says, and pulls out keys so they can load the drums into the back. “Dia, your turn to choose. McDonald’s or Dairy Queen?”
“DQ,” the curly-haired girl says. She craves a Blizzard.
The one in the jersey lifts it to wipe the sweat from her neck, sticky from in there. “They know us now, a little,” she said. “Hanna, get up.”
The blonde stands up from her crouch, unsteady. “You’re not my mom, Jules,” she says.
It’s late and dark, and Dia opens her red-painted mouth wide and yells a note out into the California night, a release of residual energy.
Their tattooed chauffeur laughs at the echo. “Come on, we gotta go.”
Jules rolls her eyes but doesn’t mean it. “Yes, Ciara.”
They pile into the front of the van, legs and arms and guitars. The blonde—Hanna—turns the radio to the nineties station and they wind the windows down and sing along to Mariah Carey as they peel off into the night.
Hanna kicked her locker, the noise echoing down the empty hall. “Useless piece of shit,” she said under her breath. “Open.”
She gave it a final wrench and it opened, finally, the mess inside spilling out. Perfect.
She only needed her paper for last period, the last assignment she had to turn in before officially being done, d-o-n-e, with high school. Hanna found it, folded it in two, and put it in her backpack. Then she gathered everything else—old notebooks, candy bar wrappers, letters she’d never given to her parents—and carried it down the hall, where she dropped it all into a trash can. It made a satisfying thud as it landed, and Hanna smiled to herself.
Four hundred and seven.
She took her lunch outside, found an empty table, and ate her lukewarm slice of pizza while she watched her classmates whirl around without her. Everybody was so excited: all week long she’d kept seeing people hugging each other and bursting into fake noisy crying, everybody taking a thousand selfies everywhere she looked. Like now—Ali Siberski and Priscilla Nguyen posing by the vending machine, faces pressed together as they snapped away. Michael Brewer signing some skinny guy’s yearbook. Gloria Vazquez sitting on the lap of some kid from the basketball team—Hanna couldn’t remember his name. She couldn’t remember a lot of people’s names, actually, and yet still she felt a tug of sadness that this was the last time she’d see most of them.
She rested her chin in her hands and watched. They all probably knew her name, for the wrong reasons. But they wouldn’t miss her after graduation. She wouldn’t actually miss them, either.
Hanna tipped her face up to the sun. Five days till graduation. Four hundred and seven days since she’d given up drinking.
Given up drinking. That made it sound so much easier than it had been. It didn’t take into account the blackouts and fallouts, the repeated attempts and failures to quit. The night her little sister had found Hanna in her bedroom in the middle of the night, not breathing, and called the ambulance all on her own. The night when Hanna had to be treated for alcohol poisoning for the second time, when she woke up from the blur of the past couple of years and finally realized that her only options were complete self-destruction or sobriety. The pleading from her parents, and the promising from herself, and the ending up in a rehab facility four hours away.
Four hundred and seven days. How long it had been since she’d realized that no one would be surprised if she drank herself to oblivion.
At least she had one thing to be proud of.
Hanna sat there until the bell rang, listening to her classmates’ chatter, screams of laughter, plans for some “major prank” that Hanna was sure was most definitely not going to be good. When they all started to stream out, on their way to their last few classes, she joined them, let herself be carried back into the building and through the halls. And on the stairs up to her English class, she passed them.
Dia Valentine and Jules Everett. The two people who really weren’t going to miss her after graduation.
Whatever, Hanna thought. Who even cares anymore?
They were gone in an instant, disappeared in a flash of long braids and ripped jeans, and Hanna kept on to class, shaking her head as she slipped into her seat and slammed her bag down.
“Good afternoon, Miss Adler.” Mr. Matthews looked at her pointedly. “If you could try not to destroy my classroom before the end of the year, that would be great.”
Hanna rolled her eyes as she sat down, looking up to see the teacher still watching her with this expression that was equal parts Can you believe this girl is actually graduating? and How soon can I get her out of my class? It was the same expression she’d seen on pretty much every teacher’s face this week, with the exception of the few who’d actually helped her get back on track last year.
Well, sorry, she wanted to say to Mr. Matthews right now. Sorry I’m not giving you one last thing to hold against me! And really, really sorry for not being the complete train wreck you expected me to be! You must be so sad to miss out on telling everyone how right you were.
Hanna bit her tongue. That kind of stuff got filed away in the Don’t Say This Out Loud folder in her head, the one where she put everything that would get her in more trouble than she needed.
“Sure,” was what she said instead. “I’ll try.”
A few people snickered at that but Hanna ignored them, searching for a pen as Mr. Matthews walked up and down, handing out their final exam papers. “You have forty-five minutes,” he said. “Once you’re done, you can go, but make sure to hand your papers in on the way out. Okay?”
Hanna flipped to the first question: Compare and contrast the presentation of loneliness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Dia Gabrielle Valentine!”
Dia rubbed her red-painted lips together before fixing a smile on her face and marching across the stage to meet Principal Cho.
Finally, she thought. Four years of one-a.m. assignments and sleep-deprived morning classes, Jesse explaining math to her and panic-inducing finals, all over now.
All ceremony long the clapping had been constant, punctured by an occasional cheer or ear-splitting whistle. Now it warmed Dia and sent a zip of staticky excitement down her spine, because everybody out there was clapping for her. She’d done it. She’d actually graduated.
How’s that for a Fuck You?
Dia shook Principal Cho’s hand, the last time she’d ever be face-to-face with her, probably, and the principal gave her this wide smile.
“Congratulations, Dia,” she said, and the unending applause played a perfect backing track to her words. “You’ve earned it.”
“Thank you,” Dia said, and as she wrapped her fingers around the diploma she smiled hard enough to hurt.
She looked out into the rows and rows of families: Jules’s parents and her brother, Danny, were right up front, and the sun hit right in her eyes as Dia searched farther back. She had to squint but there they were—her parents, cheering and standing up so Alexa could be hoisted high in the air.
She waved as she moved on, praying she didn’t trip in her heels, and then she was down the steps and in line with the rest of her class. And then they were tossing caps in the air and everyone was yelling and Dia turned her face to the open blue sky and finally, finally, finally.
Once the ceremony was done, the formality fell away. Families and graduates mingled together, a singular mass on the field normally reserved for the girls’ soccer team. Dia found Jules quickly, and they ducked out of the way of somebody’s family photo session. “Can you believe it?” Dia laughed. “We’re free! We’re actually free.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jules said. “So free. Until we have to go to work tomorrow.”
Dia waved her off. “Work, shmurk. At least work doesn’t involve ten-page papers on Congress or constant fill-in-the-bubble tests.”
“No,” Jules said. “Just getting yelled at by people who think they’re better than us and a hideous amount of polyester.”
Dia almost tripped as her heels sank into the grass, a last-second grab for Jules’s arm the only thing stopping her from face planting. “These shoes, I swear.”
“This everything,” Jules said, shaking her head so her box braids snaked over her shoulders. “I can’t wait to get out of this gown.”
“I can’t wait to get out of this dress,” Dia said, tugging at the stretchy green fabric that clung a little too much to her every in and out. “I feel like any second could be a nip slip.”
“The Valentine tits,” Jules said, cracking a smile and raising her voice. “They will not be denied!”
“Shut up!” Dia swatted at Jules, but she was laughing too much to get her aim right. She should have bought something new, but it seemed like a waste to spend money on a fancy dress she’d wear only once when there was so much else she needed.
“Okay, I have to go find my parents,” Jules said, sounding less than enthused. “You should hear my dad today. ‘It’s your graduation! It’s a big deal! You’re going to college!’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m going to community college. The college that you teach at. I’ll still be tripping over your shoes every morning. Calm down.’”
“Don’t get down on us,” Dia said, narrowing her eyes at her friend. “This is a big deal. Hello, we are no longer high school students. We are college students. Sure, we’re still going to live at home and we’ll see your dad on campus, but we did it. We got ourselves here, so stop shitting on it.”
Jules rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “It could be worse. But it could be better, too.”
Dia gave her a warning look. “Don’t,” she said. “Didn’t we agree not to play this game anymore?” The game where they fantasized about the life they could maybe have now, if things hadn’t fallen apart so spectacularly. The life where they were leaving for LA tomorrow, instead of looking forward to a summer of working their minimum-wage jobs and warming milk at three a.m.
It used to be fun to imagine that life, but now it was depressing, and so Dia had said they couldn’t do it anymore.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jules said. “Am I not allowed to dream?”
“Only for today,” Dia conceded. “And then we go back to reality.”
“Fine,” Jules said. “Are we still going to the party?”
Dia nodded. “Come over before so I can do your makeup.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jules gave a mock salute. “Later.”
Dia watched her walk away, and then she heard her name being called and turned to the sound. Her mom and dad, Nina and Max, waved, Alexa propped up on her mom’s hip. “Over here!”
Dia steeled herself to cross the grass in her heels again, and began walking over. Alexa squirmed out of Nina’s grip, straining toward Dia as she approached. Her mom lowered the toddler to the ground and Alexa took a second to find her balance before breaking into a run. “Mama!”
“Hi, baby.” Dia crouched, holding her hands out toward her daughter. “C’mere!”
She ran into Dia’s arms, and Dia swept her up before peppering her apple cheeks with kisses. “Did you see me, Lex?”
The little girl nodded. “And I saw Juju,” she said before jamming her thumb into her mouth. Dia caught her smile before it really started—she knew that habit needed to be broken before it became a real problem, but god, if it didn’t look cute. “No, no,” she said gently, and eased Lex’s hand from her face. “We don’t do that.”
“Oh, leave her be,” her dad said. “It’s not going to kill her.”
“No,” Dia said. “But it is going to mess with her teeth, and in ten years I’ll be paying for braces.”
“She’s right, Max,” her mom said, smoothing down her cropped, relaxed, jet-black hair.
“Point taken,” he said with an easy smile. That was how it always went: her mom laid down the law and her dad gave in to whatever her mom said, too easy-going to ever want to cause an argument. Her mom the engineer, former military, sharp and strong, and her dad the musician, now EMT: an opposites-attract pair, always had been, always would be.
Her dad took out his phone. “Now, smile nice for me, both of you. Lala, say cheese.”
“Cheese!” Lex yelled, and Dia laughed.
“Okay, okay,” she said. Dia shifted the baby onto her hip and straightened the bow around her curls. She put on her brightest smile as her dad snapped picture after picture, hoping that her boobs weren’t spilling out and that there wasn’t lipstick on her teeth and that she didn’t look too much like she was about to cry.
Because she really had done it. Graduated! Two years ago, no one had believed she could. Or, not no one: Jules had been behind her all the way, and her parents, and Jesse. Principal Cho, too, pulling strings and signing off on extra credits and making sure Dia got her chance. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, she thought.
But everybody else? People she’d called her friends, teachers she’d liked, her mom’s coworkers? They’d rolled their eyes when Dia had said she was still going to graduate and go to college. When she insisted that yeah, she had a baby, but that didn’t mean those things were completely impossible.
You have no idea, people said. Having a baby changes everything. She imagined them thinking, You’re going to end up on welfare anyway, why put it off? And Stupid slut. Way to ruin your life.
“Dia!” her mom called. “Look happy, huh? It’s your big day!”
Alexa laid her head on Dia’s chest, and Dia raised her chin, her skin almost vibrating with all the love she had for this little girl. Yeah, having Lex had made things more difficult, and yeah, she could have made a different choice, but in the haze of everything back then, this was what she’d decided on. And when she looked into her daughter’s big, brown eyes, she knew that she wouldn’t change the way things were. Not for anything.
Eventually Dia’s cheeks began to ache from all the smiling, and Alexa began to fuss, her irritable I’m hungry and I could use my words but I don’t want to whimper. “Are you done?” Dia said through her rictus smile. “Is ten thousand pictures enough, or do you need more?”
“Don’t be smart,” Max said, but he put his phone away and held up his hands. “I’m done, okay? Forgive me for wanting to preserve this momentous occasion.”
Dia tipped her head back to feel the sun, warm on her face. The rubbing of her shoes, her too-tight dress; the slippery gown and crisp diploma; the scent of cut grass in the air—she didn’t need a photograph to remember any of it.
Jules rang the bell only as a formality, and then walked right in, announcing her presence as she opened the refrigerator. “I’m getting a soda,” she called out.
“Jules!” Dia’s dad came into the kitchen, a look of mild annoyance on his face. “You treat my house like a hotel.”
Jules gave her best impression of an apologetic smile. “Only because you said I could.”
“Hmm,” Max said. “I might start regretting that.” But then he laughed. “I didn’t get to say congratulations earlier, to my second-favorite graduate.”
“It’s okay, Dia’s not here,” Jules said, pulling her mass of braids over her shoulder. “You can be honest.”
Max narrowed his eyes. “I remember when you were a kid and actually showed me some respect,” he said. “Where did it all go wrong?”
He shook his head. “You hungry?”
“I’m good,” Jules said. “We had a ton of food at the house. Thanks, though.” Her mom had been cooking the whole day before: stewed chicken and rice and curry goat, mac pie and roast lamb, a true Barbados feast in California. They’d crowded around the kitchen table and Jules had eaten her body weight in all of it while her parents got all teary-eyed and started reminiscing about Jules’s birth. That always led into the story of how they met, and then they’d started dancing around the kitchen, and Danny had rolled his eyes, but Jules loved to watch her parents’ love.
“All right,” she said. “I guess I better go get ready for this party.”
“At least act excited,” Max said. “It’s your graduation night. You only get one.”
“It’ll be the same as every other party we’ve ever been to,” Jules said, shrugging.
“Go anyway,” Max said, running a hand over his locs. “Take Dia and make her have fun, for once.”
“Fine,” Jules said, grabbing her soda and heading toward the stairs. “I’ll try!”
Jules didn’t knock before entering Dia’s bedroom either, her friend at her computer, her honorary niece scribbling on the floor. Dia looked up at her, immediate annoyance on her face. “I have nothing to wear.”
“Juju!” Alexa stretched her arms up toward Jules, hands grabbing at the air. “Up!”
Jules did as she was commanded, scooping Lex up from the floor and settling the baby’s weight on her hip. “Hi, sweet one,” she said, nuzzling her nose against Lex’s cheek. Then she looked at Dia. “Don’t even start with me.”
Dia stood. “Have you seen that show with the two girls and they’re dating, but one of them’s a spy?”
Jules arched one eyebrow. “I’m an eighteen-year-old lesbian with internet access. I’ve seen everything that even hints at two girls being into each other. The GIFs are imprinted on my eyelids.”
“Okay, well, in one episode the tall one has this amazing red jumpsuit. That’s what I want to wear.”
“Let’s start with something you actually own,” Jules said.
Dia made a face. “I don’t know if I even want to go to this thing anymore.”
“Me neither,” Jules said, sitting on the edge of Dia’s bed. She let Alexa loose on the comforter and shrugged her backpack off. “But we promised.”
“Each other.” In the cafeteria, two weeks ago, looking at the text invite on Dia’s phone. When do we ever go anywhere? Dia had said. Me with Lex, you working all the time. This’ll be our last high school party ever.
I’m so sick of folding jeans, Jules said. Bagging people’s groceries. One day I’m going to do something different.
Of course you are.
Okay, Jules said. So let’s go to this fucking party.
Dia steepled her fingers underneath her chin, and then nodded. “Okay. We’ll go. And if it sucks, we get to leave after an hour. Deal?”
“Right,” Dia said. “Now let me work my magic.”
They set up the way they always did—or always had, Jules amended, back when they used to party and go to shows and roll around the streets of their town without a care in the world. Electro remixes and old-school punk playing through the speakers, Dia’s makeup spread across the bed, a bag of chips within easy reach. Dia eased Jules’s braids—fresh for graduation, the ten hours and numb ass and hypnotic click-click-click of Stephy’s acrylics whipping through her hair oh-so-worth it—into a high pony, then started on Jules’s makeup. Moments like these were what made Jules glad that they were both staying home for college: being apart, being without her best friend, the girl she’d loved since preschool? It would have felt like losing a part of herself.
Jules examined her face in the mirror when Dia was done: a simple flick of black liner on each eye and her thick brows framing them, clear lip gloss, and something shiny gold on her deep-brown cheeks. She got dressed in black jeans from her mall job, hacked at with a razor to make them look like the expensive ones from the store three doors down, and a gray shirt with the sleeves cut off, dipping low enough beneath each armpit to flash her black bra.
She played with Alexa while Dia painted her own eyelids deep blue and her lips a bright, shiny red. “I heard High and Mighty Kallas are playing at Revelry tonight,” Jules said, making a polka-dotted lion dance with a robot as Lex clapped her hands. “If we get out of this party early enough, we could catch them. I haven’t been to a show in forever.” She sighed with longing. Cheap beer and sweaty dancing and pounding, punky music? It was so good and she missed it so much. The music scene was real in Golden Grove; Jules and Dia had been going to backyard shows and all-ages clubs for years before they’d picked up their own instruments and become part of it.
(Jules made herself stop. That was before, and this was now. They had no band. They had no Hanna. It made Jules ache thinking about it all.)
“HMK are completely unoriginal and you know it,” Dia said. “They’re the worst Glory Alabama rip-off.”
Jules snorted. Anyone could be, and often was, labeled a GA rip-off by them—when your town had an amazing band that actually broke out, headlined every big festival in the US and overseas, played with legends like Sleater-Kinney and Melissa Auf der Maur, featured on the cover of not only Rolling Stone but fucking Vogue, too, there was a certain loyalty. Jules smiled, ready to drop a bomb on Dia. “You know they’re touring soon, right?”
“What? Glory Alabama?” Dia said, and her voice jumped an octave. “Shut up. Why is this the first I’m hearing of this?”
“First tour in five years,” Jules said. “First time back here in almost ten.”
Dia widened her eyes. “Oh my god, we’re going,” she said. “Oh my god, we’re going to get to see them? I don’t care how much tickets are, I will work a month straight of morning shifts, whatever. We need to be there.”
“I thought you might like that,” Jules said with a laugh, and Lex laughed with her. “We can be the creeper fans who wait outside their tour bus, if you want.”
“That is my dream,” Dia said. She got up and opened her closet, taking out a plain white shirt, which she looked at for a second before putting back. “Is a dress too much?” she asked. “I have no idea anymore. But I want to look hot. Not like a mom.”
“You are a mom,” Jules said, glancing over. “A hot mom.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Wear whatever you want,” Jules said, and she sat up. “Y’know, it’s really only going to be people from school at this party.”
“Okay.” Dia stepped out of her shorts and held a blue-and-white vintage-ish dress in front of herself. “What about this?”
“Yeah, great,” Jules said impatiently. “I’m only saying, if you were maybe trying to look especially good for a certain specific somebody—”
Dia pulled the dress over her head, coming up laughing. “I’m not.”
“And,” Jules continued, “if that certain somebody happened to be one Jesse Mackenzie . . .”
“I already said I’m not.” Dia smoothed her hands over the striped skirt of the dress. “Juliana, a person can want to put on nice makeup and dress up and look good for reasons other than wanting to impress somebody,” Dia said. “A person can want to put on nice makeup and dress up and look good solely for themselves.”
Jules held up her hands. “All right, I take it back.”
“You should.” Dia turned her attention to Alexa, her entire face suddenly beaming. “What do you say, Lex? Is Mommy good to go?”
Lex opened her mouth in a big yawn, a squeak her only response. “You and me both, kid,” Dia said with a laugh, and Jules reached over to tickle the baby until she was giggling wildly, too, all three of them exited and happy.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jules said eventually, breathless. “One last time, right?”
The bus dropped them off on the edge of a wide cul-de-sac lined with tall trees, branches still in the warm night, and Jules stared up at them. This was the Nice Side of Town, the side of Golden Grove where the big houses had glittering blue pools and cutesy mailboxes. The cars on the drive were shiny, brilliant, brand new; the lawns were green and dotted with flowers.
It made Jules feel small sometimes, how awed she was by these things, but wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in your pretty house, and look out at your beautiful yard, and feel proud?
That was what she really wanted. That was what she secretly feared she’d never have.
A pretty, happy, shiny life.
Dia was already walking down the street, and Jules took several long strides to catch up with her, bouncing in her fresh Nikes. “I changed my mind,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go to the show. It’ll be so much better than this.”
“We’re already here!” Dia whirled around, the skirt of her dress spinning, and she looked like some fifties movie star. “We made a deal! It’s going to be fine.”
“It’s going to be annoying.” Jules slowed as they approached the house with the music pounding out from the open front door. “But whatever. You want your party, you get your party.”
“Attagirl.” Dia hooked her arm through Jules’s. “Chin up, kid,” she said, an impression of the old stars she looked like tonight. “Let’s have fun.”
Fun, Jules thought. I can do that.
Once they were inside it didn’t take long for Jules to remember that yeah, parties were annoying—people spilled drinks on you and yelled way too loud in your ear—but they were also loose, wild, open. In the big living room two guys—one on drums, one behind a synth—made loud, bass-heavy music, impossible not to nod your head to.
Jules watched them play. She recognized them from around town, even disconnected as she was right now. They’d won the Sun City Originals contest last year, too, the contest that she and Dia and Hanna had always planned to enter, before everything. It was like a rite of passage around town and beyond to at least try to win. Not for the prize—five hundred dollars and your song on the station playlist was cool, but it was more about bragging rights. So that one day in the future, when you were selling out tours, you could say that was where you got your start and Look at Us Now.
“Jules.” Dia was at her elbow. “I’m getting a drink. What do you want?”
Jules pulled her attention away from the music and raised her voice. “Whatever,” she said. “And lots of it.”
Because Dia was right: this was their last-ever high school party, the last time they’d see some of these people, and didn’t they deserve to have a good time?
Yes, Jules decided, and so she let the girl she’d sat next to in freshman English spin her around the living room to that slick electronica. She took the shot offered by Oscar Rush and followed him out onto the deck. She watched Oscar and his buddies as they threw themselves fully clothed into the pool, and she stepped closer to the edge. She considered jumping herself, and thought about what it would be like to hit the cool water and disappear under the surface, how long she could swim around down there before her lungs began to ache.
Jules crouched down and dipped her hand into the blue. Oscar was dunking some kid under, water splashing everywhere, and Jules laughed. She looked up, searching for Dia. But the gaze she found was not Dia’s.
It was Hanna Adler’s.
They stared at each other.
Jules hadn’t thought she would be here. Wasn’t sure why she had thought that, because it used to be that Hanna was the life of any and every party. Why would that be different? Just because Jules wasn’t at those parties anymore didn’t mean that Hanna wasn’t.
Jules stood and hitched up her jeans. Her skin was hot to the touch and her mouth had that sour-sweet nervous taste. How do I look to her? she thought. To Jules, Hanna looked . . . like Hanna. An inch of dark roots in her blond hair, dark circles beneath her eyes, the same way she looked every time Jules glimpsed her in the packed hallway at school. Well—that wouldn’t happen anymore. Maybe this was it: maybe Hanna was one of those people Jules would never see again. That didn’t stop the twitch in the back of her mind, the reminder that this girl used to be her friend.
But tonight wasn’t meant for her to fixate on things from the past that she couldn’t change. Or people, who wouldn’t change.
A touch on her shoulder, and Jules turned away from Hanna’s empty stare. “Hey.” Dia handed her a cup filled to overflowing with a pinky-orange liquid. “What are you doing?”
“I—” Jules started to say I saw Hanna, she’s here, but she stopped herself. What was the point? That was all so old now, the three of them. Forget it. “Nothing. Waiting.”
Dia tipped her head to the side, her eyes so shiny and excited. “For what?”
Jules knocked her cup against Dia’s and downed the contents—too warm, sticky, and syrupy but with enough sting to perk her up—before smiling at Dia. “Isn’t that the question?”
Elliot has no idea who this house belongs to.
He has no idea whose party this is.
But he knows he’s having a good time.
“Nolan,” he says—or yells, maybe—“what time is it?”
Nolan checks his phone. “Ten fifteen.”
“Okay!” Elliot has to be home by eleven, according to his dad, and midnight, according to his mom. He’ll roll in sometime between the two, probably, and if he’s lucky he won’t get grounded.
He wanders outside, sipping the punch that stings as it goes down. It’s packed out here, all these people crowding a makeshift stage where a band plays. He might not know where he is but these parties are all the same: music outside, drinks in the kitchen, a circle of stoners in an off-limits bedroom.
A punch hits his arm and he swears. “Kwame, you asshole.”
Kwame salutes. “I’m out, man. Early shift in the morning. You coming to Mike’s tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there.”
He’s left alone again, and pulls a hand through his curls as he gets closer to the band. It’s these three girls going hell for leather up there, and the music’s good, but what catches Elliot right away is the girl in the front, singing.
It’s not just that she’s hot—though she is. Short and curvy and in these skin-tight jeans that make Elliot think about pulling them off and—
He shifts. Calm down.
She’s up there, playing her red guitar like she wants to hurt it, and singing in this raspy voice, and winding her body like no one’s watching her. But Elliot is.
Then he looks around and realizes: so is everyone else.
Elliot’s trying to ignore Nolan arguing with him over their last baseball game, the mistakes Elliot apparently made that cost them the win, his tendency to freeze. He’s trying to ignore Nolan, because on the other side of the yard the girl from the band stands right in his eye line.
“Uh-huh,” he says, nodding without looking at Nolan. “What-
He can’t hear the girl talking, but she’s using her hands to tell a story, drawing swooping circles in the air, and the other band members are watching her intently. She looks like the kind of person you have to listen to, he thinks. If it was him standing in front of her, watching those dizzying hands, he’d be listening.
Go over, he thinks. Say hello. Ask her name.
Is that an asshole move? Butting in while she’s busy talking? Or is it okay? He won’t know her if he doesn’t talk to her. But if he talks to her she might not want to know him.
Elliot cuts Nolan off. “I’m getting a drink,” he says. “You want one?”
In this stranger’s kitchen he grabs a half-empty bottle of rum, then puts it back. The clock on the microwave says 11:20.
Hi, he practices in his head. You were really good.
I like your band.
I like your band? What is he, twelve?
Hi. Good set.
Hi. I’m Elliot.
A coppery-brown hand reaches for the stack of cups at the same time Elliot does and he looks up to see the band girl right there. “Sorry,” she says with a shake of her head, and the tight spirals of her curls fan around her face. “You go.”
“No,” Elliot says, his mouth dry. “After you.”
She smiles at him, creases appearing around her eyes. “Thanks.”
Well, not silence: the noise of other people coming for drinks, more music outside. But silence from Elliot, his closed mouth.
“You know you’re on the wrong coast.”
The girl finishes filling her cup and then points at Elliot’s chest. “Biggie,” she says, and he looks down at his shirt, The Notorious B.I.G. in his chains and crown, and for a moment Elliot thinks she’s being serious, her face is dead serious, but then she cracks. “It’s a joke.”
Elliot manages a laugh and pulls a hand through his hair, a nervous tic he can’t stop doing tonight. “Right,” he says. “It’s my mom’s fault. She’s from New York.”
“I guess you get a pass,” the girl says, and then she sees something over his shoulder and her face clouds over. “God, that was fast.”
Elliot turns right as a white girl in supershort shorts stumbles into the kitchen. “There you are!” the girl sings, swaying slightly. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Hanna, what are you doing?” The band girl has forgotten about Elliot entirely, he can tell, as she hurries to the girl he now recognizes as the drummer from earlier. “Whoa! Okay, it’s time to call Ciara. You’re going home.”
They’re gone in a second and Elliot’s left kicking himself. He should’ve taken his chance.
This is exactly what Nolan means when he says Elliot freezes.
It’s 12:17, according to Elliot’s phone. He’s definitely going to be grounded.
He waits outside for Nolan, still in the house flirting with this guy with two sharp bars through his eyebrow. It’s a hot night, the kind where you wake up in a layer of your own stale sweat, and Elliot holds his hand out into the empty air.
“We need rain.” The voice comes from somewhere to his left, and then the band girl steps into his sight. “California’s thirsty.”
“Right,” Elliot says, and winces. Is he capable of saying anything multisyllabic to this girl? He clears his throats, shoves his hands in his pockets. “Is your friend okay?”
The girl makes a face that Elliot can only describe as Over It. “Yeah,” she says. “Too much to drink. She does it all the time. It’s fine.” The way she says It’s fine tells Elliot it’s anything but.
“You played tonight, right?” he says next. “You were good.”
She shoots him a look, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I know.”
Confident. Elliot decides to match her. “I’m Elliot,” he says. “What’s your name?”
She looks him up and down like she’s vetting him, deciding whether to trust him or not. Eventually she smiles and looks right at him, these deep, dark eyes, and Elliot feels like she’s laid him open right there on the street. “Hi, Elliot,” she says. “I’m Dia.”
Hanna matched her steps to the beat of the frenetic drums pounding in her headphones, stepping on every crack and flattened piece of gum. Bad luck couldn’t hurt her any more than it already had.
Four hundred and twelve days, she thought. No; it was after midnight now. So four hundred and thirteen.
Hanna ducked into the alley, which was dark enough to make her clutch her keys between her fingers. It had been a complete waste of time, that party, and Hanna had known it even before she’d walked in to the sight of Oscar Rush dancing shirtless on his parents’ dining table. She had only gone because everybody else was going, and did she really want to remember her graduation as another night she spent alone at home in her bedroom?
In hindsight: yes.
The moon was a skinny sliver above Hanna’s head, whatever light it gave off masked by neon streetlights. She skipped through track after track as she walked, sometimes letting no more than three seconds elapse before moving on, searching for something to set her nerves alight. On Hayworth Boulevard she let Brody Dalle scream about underworlds and ghost towns, and the perpetual itch that crawled up and down her spine felt satisfied, for three short minutes. But then the song was over and the yearning flooded back and she stopped, to wonder, to stare up at that crescent moon.
If she’d known Jules and Dia were going to be there, she definitely wouldn’t have gone. But from now on, she wouldn’t have to see them, would she? At school it had been hard to avoid them, even though she tried; there were only so many places to go, and she couldn’t miss them walking the halls together. And as much as she pretended it didn’t, it hurt—hurt deep, far down, in the place she stored those shattered pieces of her heart, next to the guilt. Because it used to be the three of them, always. Sharing fries and going to watch the BMXers pulling tricks after school. Sleeping three to a bed and switching clothes and rolling into places like they were the most important people in the entire world. Singing themselves hoarse, throats raw, on makeshift stages in people’s backyards. Those were their moments, Hanna and Dia and Jules, always.
Until they weren’t.
For four hundred and thirteen days, she’d been sober. For all that time, plus eight months more, they had not been friends. Things had changed, fissures and cracks becoming an all-out chasm so quietly and slowly that Hanna almost missed it. And when she’d realized, it had been too late. Nothing she could fix.
And she was alone.
Hanna sped up as she started down the long hill that eventually turned into her street. That was then and this was now, and now she was free. She didn’t have to see them anymore, as long as she avoided their parts of town. And in September she’d start working full time, doing admin at a medical company, and she’d save all the money she made, and in a few years she’d be able to leave. And leave so much behind—her ex-friends, her mom’s constant criticism, this whole town.
The music in her ears sped up, some discofied girl band, and Hanna matched her pace to it. She was almost running when she passed the Dempseys’ place with its front yard of wildflowers, the biggest burst of color on the block. Finally her key slipped soundlessly into the lock of her own house and Hanna stepped inside.
It was still and quiet, and Hanna exhaled into the comfort of it. “You are okay,” she whispered out loud, fast breaths. “You are here. You are okay.”
She waited until her heart had slowed to its normal rhythm before climbing the stairs. She bypassed her bedroom and eased open the door plastered in pretty flower cutouts.
Molly’s eyes flickered open as Hanna entered, as she slipped off her shoes and stole under the covers into her little sister’s bed. “Hey, birdy.”
Hanna flicked Molly’s arm. “Shut up.”
Molly’s laugh turned into a yawn, her tongue peeking out catlike. Molly hated all that, Hanna knew—the nicknames and being told how adorable she was—now that she was thirteen. But being annoying was Hanna’s prerogative as big sister, right?
“Did you have a good time?” Molly whispered, her eyes shining bright in the dark. “Were there cute boys there? Or cute girls? Did anyone get in a fight?”
“Parties aren’t like they show them on TV, Moll.” Hanna tucked her hands under her armpits and screwed up her face. “Trust me, you’ll understand once you get to high school. They’re another ridiculous way for people to decide who’s cool and who isn’t, and to get drunk so they can do things they don’t have the courage for otherwise.”
Molly’s eyes searched her face, cautious trust in that look. “You didn’t, right?” she asked, and her voice held the fear that her face did not. “Get drunk?”
See, she might be thirteen, but sometimes she sounded thirty. “No,” Hanna said, and god, the crushing wave of guilt that broke with Molly’s words, it could have drowned her. She wasn’t really asking, Hanna knew; Molly knew her drunk. She wouldn’t have to ask. It was more like she was checking, making sure, that she could really believe the sister in front of her eyes. And Hanna knew that was nobody’s fault but her own. That was what happened when you let your little sister find you unconscious among empty bottles. “No, I didn’t. Don’t worry.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Molly said. “Just wondering.” She rolled onto her back, blond hair mussed around her face, and did her trademark shoulder-shrug-eye-roll combo. “If you don’t have anything good to tell me, then why did you wake me up?”
“It’s my right as a big sister.” Hanna smacked a kiss on Molly’s cheek before slipping out of the twin bed. “It’s late,” she said. “Go to sleep, okay? I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Will you go with me to the bookstore tomorrow?” Molly widened her eyes. “Please?”
“After work, sure,” Hanna said. “Whatever you want. Now go to sleep.”
She left the room and pulled the door almost closed, and then she stood there watching through the gap as Molly fell asleep, a ball beneath the covers. Only when Hanna was satisfied that her sister was absolutely asleep did she go to her own room. She stripped to her underwear, put on an old shirt, and climbed into bed.
What she’d told Molly was true: parties weren’t like they were on TV. Hanna used to love them—they’d been fun for her. Not so much for everyone around her, having to hold her hair back and pick her up off the floor and rescue her from her whirlwind of destruction. But being drunk made her feel invincible, gave her cover for so many things. She said whatever she wanted, she did anything and everything that she got the urge to, and when she fucked up (often, and in big ways), she’d brush it off: “I was drunk! It’s no big deal.”
Until it was a big deal, a rubber tube down her throat, no-oxygen-to-her-brain kind of big deal.
Hanna had thought that getting sober would make everything better. Turn her into this shiny, new Hanna. But she’d realized pretty quickly that the girl who said every little thing that came into her head, who did whatever she wanted without thinking, who was careless and said and did things that really hurt the people around her—that wasn’t because of the drinking. It was her, the way she was wired.
She’d thought she’d be happy sober. But her problems didn’t
go away; they shifted. Now she was always working out how to keep herself in check, to not say those awful things, to not act out.
How to rewire herself so her instinct was not complete and utter self-destruction. How to not let the guilt and resentment and anger sweep her up and carry her to the point of giving up, giving in, letting herself drink again because at least then she could forget about it all.
Hanna sighed into the dark. Every night now this happened to her—no sleep, thoughts racing. So she did what she usually did: got out of bed and crouched to yank open the bottom drawer of her nightstand. Inside, thin black notebooks stacked up, some battered and creased, some shiny-new.
Hanna pulled out one with the spine cracked but not yet falling apart, and a pen that always leaked black ink all over her fingers. This was the best way she had to combat the self-loathing—well, the best that wasn’t relapsing. She sat with her back against her bed and flicked to a clean page, past all the words that sometimes felt like poetry, sometimes self-indulgent ramblings, but in the end, were always songs.
She and Dia and Jules weren’t friends anymore, no. They didn’t make music anymore, no. But they did not own her writing; the lyrics that came from her brain and heart and pit of her stomach were Hanna’s and Hanna’s alone.
Without thinking too much about it, she scratched out a first line.
She wears your face—I’ve seen her.