TABLE OF CONTENT

Chapter One

     Last year, Ellie used to hang out at the vegetable stand with
Marcus and me on Saturdays. This year, her face fluttered on a
piece of paper tacked to the park’s bulletin board. Most weeks, I
tried to ignore her eyes looking back at me. But today, Marcus
had set the table up at a different angle, and she watched me the
entire morning.
     The day that photo was taken, she’d worn her Beauty and the
Beast earrings. The teapot and the teacup were too small to see
well in the grainy, blown-up photo, but that’s what they were.
She’d insisted sixteen wasn’t too old for Disney.
     The crunch of tires on gravel sounded, and a Buick slowed
to a stop in front of the stand. I rearranged the bags of green
beans to have something to do. Talking to people I didn’t know,
making pointless small talk, wasn’t my thing. My breathing
always sped up and I never knew what to do with my hands. It
had been okay before, but now—surely people could see it on
me. One look, and they’d know. Chills prickled up my arms in
spite of the warm sun.
     Marcus lifted a new crate of cucumbers from the truck and
set it down by the table, his biceps stretching the sleeves of his
T-shirt. Barely paying attention to the girl who got out of the
car, he watched me instead. And not the way most people
watched someone; I had his full attention. All of him, tuned
toward me. He winked, the tanned skin around his eyes crinkling
when he smiled. I bit my cheek to keep from grinning.
     The girl walked over to the stand and I quit smiling.
     Marcus looked away from me, his gaze drifting toward the
girl. Each step of her strappy heels made my stomach sink a little
further. Marcus tilted his head.
     He didn’t tilt it much, but I knew what it meant. He did that
when he saw my tan line or I wore a short skirt. I narrowed my
eyes.

1

 

     “Hi,” she said. “I’d like a zucchini and four tomatoes.” Just
like that. A zucchini and four tomatoes.
     Marcus placed the tomatoes into a brown paper bag. “Are
you from around here?”
     Of course she wasn’t from around here. We’d know her if
she were.
     “We just moved. I’m Sylvia Young.” The breeze toyed with
her blonde hair, tossing short wisps around her high
cheekbones. Her smile seemed genuine and friendly. Of course.
Pretty, friendly, and new to town, because disasters come in
threes.
     “Going to Manson High?” Marcus handed her the bags.
     She nodded. “My dad’s teaching science.”
     Finally, I said something. “Three bucks.”
     “Hmm?” Sylvia turned from Marcus. “Oh. Right.” She
handed me the cash and looked over the radishes. “Are you here
every day?” Her eyes strayed back to Marcus.
     “Three times a week,” he said.
     “I’ll see you in a day or two, then.” She waved.
     I was pretty damn sure she wouldn’t be coming back for the
radishes.
     Sylvia Young walked herself and her vegetables back to the
four-door parked at the edge of the road. The tires spit gravel.
     I glanced at Marcus, but he wasn’t watching her leave. He
was rearranging the tomatoes. In true Marcus fashion, now that
four of them were gone, he’d want to make the pile neat again.
     I exhaled. Maybe I was overreacting, but he hadn’t done
that before.
     “You’re going to bruise those.” I grabbed a tomato that
nearly tumbled off the mound. The globe-shaped Early Girls
rolled too easily.
     “Don’t we have extra crates?” I looked to the shade of the
bulletin board, where we stored the refill crates. No empties.
     “Nope. Too much corn.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead
and popped the top on his water bottle.

2

 

     What amounted to a sweet corn fortress stood behind us.
Stacks of milk crates—neatly stacked, because Marcus is
Marcus—blocked the park and most of the town from view.
     He leaned against the table and smiled at me, his brown
eyes finding mine and his body turning toward me again. I felt
the shift, felt the pull in my body that made me stay with him.
My shoulders loosened without me even trying. He hadn’t
smiled at Sylvia Young that way.
     He tapped my nose with a finger. “Hey, what an expression.
Jealous of something, Jackie?”
     “So jealous. I’d love to have my own car. What’s the point
to being seventeen if I can’t have a car?”
     His eyebrows went up. He took a drink from the water
bottle and set it down, his eyes flicking from me to the ground
then back to me again.
     Being jealous would be silly, because Marcus and I weren’t
dating.
     That was the deal. For an entire year, our deal had worked,
and there was no reason it couldn’t work longer.
     Whatever expression that had been vanished and his grin
came back. “Whatever. You use my truck all the time.” He was
tall enough the edge of the table met his thigh instead of his hip.
     Anytime I used his truck, he came with. Down to the river.
Everyone in the county knew what those tree-lined fencerows
were good for.
     Marcus reached for my hand and threaded his long fingers
between mine. The rough calluses on his palm made a warm,
silly feeling trickle through me.
     My face flushed and I glanced around. He’d started doing
this lately. Reaching for my hand. Touching my shoulder as he
walked past. I pulled my hand away and rubbed my palms on my
shorts.
     Acting like this was ridiculous. Sylvia was pretty and
friendly, so of course he’d smile and say hi. And Marcus owed
me nothing.

3

 

     It was a cheap move, but just because I was nervous, and
okay, jealous, I played with the frayed edge of my jean shorts.
My legs weren’t bad, and these shorts were my shortest pair.
He glanced down like I knew he would and touched my
hand again. “Well, don’t be too upset. She doesn’t have your
legs.”
     Something tiny thrilled inside me. “That’s true. She does
have her own.” That was the thing about Marcus. He knew I
didn’t mean what I said; that when I claimed I wasn’t jealous, I
absolutely was.
     He shouldn’t know those kinds of things. And he definitely
shouldn’t be holding my hand to make me feel better.
     An engine guttered and cut out. The door of a white pickup
right in front of us opened and then slammed.
     Marcus jerked his hand back like mine had stung him. I
hadn’t heard the truck. I hadn’t noticed. How had I not noticed?
     A skinny man in jeans and sunglasses walked toward us. No
one we knew. Relief churned into nausea in my stomach. I
turned away to restack some of the sweet corn with my
heartbeat reverberating in my ears.
     Nothing had happened, it was fine, but I still couldn’t stop
my hands from trembling. I gripped the crate harder.
     The man in sunglasses talked to Marcus, but he kept
glancing toward me, his head tilting just a bit when he looked
my way.
     He wasn’t someone we knew, but he could have been. In a
town this small, it was odd to have someone we didn’t know
come to the stand. He left after a few minutes with spinach and
green onions, and the white truck rumbled away.
     We’d let this go on too long. We were too comfortable.
And Marcus knew it, too—he stayed away from me for the rest
of the afternoon, our glances brief and casual, even when no
one was around. He did not touch me again and I let the sick
feeling in my stomach keep my mind where it needed to be.

4

 

     By dinner time, we’d sold only a third of the sweet corn
fortress. Sweet corn wasn’t the smartest garden crop, because
everyone around here had a patch in their yard. Two weeks
from now, we’d be giving it away. A month from now, we’d be
throwing it away. But grow sweet corn we did, because my
parents had read too much Little House on the Prairie.
     Of course, no one in that story smoked weed through their
early twenties. My mother’s pothead college days were a secret
to no one, and my parents’ room still sometimes smelled like
weed.
     Once five o’clock came, I lifted crates and combined the
leftover produce without hurrying more than necessary. But like
usual, Marcus seemed hell-bent on beating some personal
record, stacking, shoving, lifting at twice my speed.
     I picked up a crate from the shade of the bulletin board.
The breeze fluttered the papers tacked to the cork—papers
offering lawn mowing services, piano lessons, babysitting. And
the flyer with Ellie’s junior photo and a tip line number.
     The soft rasp of the paper edges scraping each other caught
me like music.
     Four months.
     That weight in my chest—always there, now—seized up
and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
     I ducked my head and went back to loading the cucumbers.
Ran away with some guy, everyone said. Not a chance. We’d
played volleyball together, hung out at the pool on weekends,
did homework together. She would have told me about a guy.
     I ran my finger along the silver bracelet that always hung on
my wrist. Ellie had given it to me before she moved. I hadn’t
taken it off since she’d gone missing, and now I never would.
     Late afternoon sun baked the park and the vegetables and
my skin. If I could get to the pool still today, I could chill my
body in the water, lay out on my towel, and put myself, Ellie,
and Marcus out of my mind.

5

 

     I rolled up the tarp and tossed it to Marcus. The pool
wouldn’t happen, but maybe we could watch a movie instead.
No way was I going to let the things that hurt ruin the
things that didn’t. Worrying about Ellie wouldn’t help her, and
Marcus and I were fine. A little too comfortable, maybe. But
changing the topic was just as good as fixing the problem.
     I grabbed his water bottle from the tailgate as he jumped
down from the truck bed. Just as he turned toward me, I popped
the top up and squeezed. Water shot out and soaked his shirt.
     “Hey! What the—” His face colored pink, but he was half
grinning.
     Rattling him was too easy.
     But I was in for it. Determination settled in his eyes and he
took a step toward me. I ran for the truck, jerked the door open
and scrambled inside, then hit the lock button.
     The tailgate slammed and he walked past the passenger
door, tapping his finger along the window.
     He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine, the
muscles in his forearm tightening when he turned the key. He
wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily, so he must have a plan
for delayed revenge. I waited, but nothing. My eyebrows went
up. He looked over at me and shook his head.
     This was lousy payback. His nice blue T-shirt was soaked.
     “That’s all you’ve got? You’re going to shake your head at me
like you’re my mom?”
     He spun the steering wheel and braced his arm behind my
seat, looking out the back window as he backed the truck down
the asphalt path and out onto the street. “I’m definitely not your
mother.”
     “Thank God for that.”
     His mouth twitched. I shifted in the seat, turning toward
him. He couldn’t do much while driving, but being on my guard
couldn’t hurt, and my curiosity was getting the better of me.
     “Hey, buckle your seatbelt.”
     I reached for the belt. “Now you really sound like Mom.”

6

 

     He ignored me and drove the few blocks to the edge of
town. The welcome sign for Manson, Missouri, boasted a
population of 212, but that was wishful thinking. The town was
a collection of abandoned buildings and poorly-insulated homes
from the early 1900s. My sister, my only sibling and my
extroverted, energetic opposite, bolted for the nearest city as
soon as she graduated, but I didn’t mind Manson so much.
     Outside town, Marcus turned off the blacktop highway and
onto a dirt road. Not even gravel. Dirt. Nothing was down this
road except fields. “Uh—where are we going?”
     He parked the truck on the side of the road under the
shade of the tree-lined fencerow. The shadows from the
branches swam back and forth on the road. Marcus rolled down
his window and the breeze swept through the cab, smelling like
summer and creek water and grass.
     “You can unbuckle your seatbelt now.” He grinned, no
trace of embarrassment left.
     My eyes narrowed. Maybe my attempts at getting him to
loosen up were a little too successful. “What are you doing?”
     He reached over and unbuckled me. The belt slid back over
my shoulder and I moved it aside.
     Marcus slid toward me on the bench. He hooked an arm
around my waist and one under my knees, and pulled me toward
him.
     Tan arms. Sandpaper skin, because he hadn’t shaved this
morning. I touched the wet fabric of his shirt.
     We shouldn’t. Not now, not even to begin with. He knew
it. I knew it. But he leaned closer, bent down, and I didn’t move
away. His lips touched mine. Warm. Familiar. A little desperate.
     No one was here. The road was abandoned. I’d kept myself
where I ought to be all afternoon. I relaxed, closed my eyes, and
kissed him back.
     I should be watching out the window, should be glancing in
the mirror, but his mouth pressed into my neck, and I exhaled,
tipped my head back against the headrest, and let my mind stop

7

 

spinning. When he pushed closer, our bodies touching
everywhere they could, my stomach fluttered. His hands found
my hair, his lips came back to my face, and I tasted the salty
sheen on his skin. His eyelashes brushed my cheek. Any
thoughts I’d had dissolved. Just him, yes. Us, connected.
     My hands found his shoulders, feeling the clench of his
muscles. That was for me. Because of me. I traced down his arm
to his hand that rested on my bare leg, touching the hem of my
shorts. He kissed my neck and my jaw and then came back to
my lips again. He was so much but so soft and slow that it
seemed like he was trying to tell me something.
     I did not want him to.
     I moved my hands to his chest and tangled my fingers in
his shirt.
     Then I pushed a little, the weight of his body on my hands.
He moved back, sighing. The breeze rushed between us.
     “Later?” I asked.
     Everyone knew his truck, and everyone knew us. He
cleared his throat and nodded. “You okay?” He nodded again.
     I bumped him with my shoe. “As far as payback goes, that
wasn’t exactly fair.”
     He raised his eyebrows. “You started it.”
Sitting with him in the truck like this was tempting. Just to
talk. To tease him and watch him grin like that. Here we were
the most ourselves, and us together like this was where act three
of a happily-ever-after would end. And much as I would love a
fade to black and the end credits to roll, letting this be the point
we hung on forever, we wouldn’t get a fade out, and the other
half of our lives was waiting.

8

Kate Brauning

Merit Press

F+W Media, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 by Kate Brauning.
All rights reserved.