Read an Extract from The Start of Me and You:
Of all the places to have something memorable happen to you, Oakhurst, Indiana, had to be one of the worst. Our town was too big for people to know everything about you, but just small enough for them to clench down on one defining moment like teeth clamped on prey. Won the spelling bee in fourth grade? You are Dictionary Girl forever. Laughed a little too hard in sixth grade? You will still be the Guy Who Peed His Pants as you walk across the stage to receive your diploma.
By the time she made eye contact with me, it was too late to run off.
And I was the Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned.
The day before our junior year began, Tessa sat across from me in our booth at Alcott’s Books and Beans, reading while we hid from the August heat. I sucked down the last of my iced coffee and leaned back.
“I’m gonna look around before we have to go,” I said.
“Okay.” She didn’t glance up. Her skin had soaked up the summer sun so that she glowed from the inside out, tan skin disguising the only feature we shared—our freckles. Mine were more pronounced than ever, scatters of pinpoints against my still-pale skin.
I glanced back over each shoulder as I scanned the shelves for TV Writers’ Boot Camp. No one but my grandmother knew I’d been slowly but surely writing a script for my favorite show, The Mission District, about a plucky father-daughter duo running a diner in San Francisco. The script occupied the small, secret spaces of my days, though I’d never planned to do anything with it. At least I hadn’t until I discovered a summer screen-writing program at New York University. There were a hundred reasons I shouldn’t apply—too expensive, too improbable that I’d get in, and too impossible that my mom would agree to it before next summer. Still, I kept editing the script, almost compulsively.
Moments before flagging down an employee to help me find the book, I noticed a woman beelining toward me. I recognized her—the mom of someone in my grade, though I couldn’t remember whom. By the time she made eye contact with me, it was too late to run off. And to make matters worse, I could sense someone on my other side, surveying the poetry and plays section—someone who would witness every awkward moment heading my way.
“Hello, Paige. How are you?” Adjusting the sensible purse on her shoulder, she gave me That Look, full of pity. You’d think, given the diversity of the human population, that we would have come up with multiple facial expressions for sympathy. But no. There’s one: eyebrows and mouth downturned, head tilted like a curious bird.
That’s all it took. Aaron’s grinning face flashed in my mind, an expression that meant he was up to something. The ache of his absence throbbed in the center of my chest, as real as any physical pain I’d ever felt. Just as quickly, the guilt entered my bloodstream like a toxin. There I was, clinging to the scraps of happiness that I could finally feel again: coffee and books and an afternoon with my best friend. What right did I have, when he was gone?
“Fine, thank you,” I said. I’d seen That Look on hundreds of faces in the year since Aaron died. People had no idea what it did to me, how it brought back feelings in sharp pangs.
The woman forged on with that grim-but-caring smile. “I heard the school built a garden to commemorate Aaron. That’s so nice. I read an article in the paper that . . .”
The idea of us still hung in the air, but we’d never be more than a few golden memories and a bundle of what-ifs.
She kept talking, but her voice fuzzed over as I fought off memories of the garden dedication ceremony, the smell of mulch and springtime. The whole sophomore class was herded outside for it last April. Tessa, Kayleigh, and Morgan stood tightly around me, like they could physically shield me from all the stares. Aaron’s parents and brother shook hands with school-board members and dabbed at tears. The principal said a few words. He’d asked me to speak as well, but I said it should be Clark Driscoll, Aaron’s best friend.
“. . . a fitting tribute, I think,” the woman concluded, finally.
“Yes,” I said. “Very fitting.”
“Well, tell your mom I said hello.”
“Will do.” This fib seemed more polite than asking her name. I forced a smile as she walked away.
As always, I felt like a fraud, accepting condolences from strangers. Aaron Rosenthal and I met after my fifteenth birthday, and we went out for two months. Compared to his parents and friends, I barely knew him. I knew the good things—how he did goofy stuff just to make me laugh. How he used to lace our fingers together as we walked, squeezing my hand when he was excited about something. And he was always excited about something—no tough-guy smoke screen like other guys in our grade. Of course, he probably got grumpy sometimes. I just didn’t know him long enough or well enough to see it.
I mourned for his life, but I also mourned, selfishly, for myself. The first boy to really notice me drowned in a freak accident, and I would never know the whole of him. The idea of us still hung in the air, but we’d never be more than a few golden memories and a bundle of what-ifs. How do you find closure in that—especially when strangers treat you like a widow to a devoted husband? In post-mourning purgatory, I was stuck like the hardened gum under our booth’s table.
And that’s when I glanced to my left.
The person standing there—the guy who’d heard that whole exchange—was Ryan Chase. My ultimate, since middle-school pipe dream of a crush. I hadn’t seen him in months, and he’d since become a special brand of hot over the summer. Tan skin, light-brown hair lightened further by the sun. Standing this close, I realized we’d probably be the same height if I was wearing heels, but he didn’t need to be tall—not with that blue-eyed, broad-shouldered thing happening.
I jerked my head away, mortified. I told myself he hadn’t heard that woman talking, but he stepped closer to me and said quietly, “Hey. You all right?”
I didn’t think Ryan Chase even knew who I was, but of course he did—Paige Hancock, the Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned.
“Yeah.” Heat pulsed in my cheeks like a heartbeat. If I turned all the way toward him, he’d think I had sunburn the color of raw chicken. “Fine. Thanks.”
“It sucks,” he said. “The sympathy, I mean. Because it’s mostly for them—so they can pat themselves on the back for being caring.”
I summoned the flecks of courage in me—little zaps from somewhere in my bloodstream.
“Yes!” I turned to him, accidentally baring my fluorescent face. “That’s it exactly.”
He nodded. It was such a serious topic, but he smiled as pleasantly as if we were talking about cupcakes. “My sister had cancer a few years back. She’s okay now, but we became pros at talking to total strangers about it.”
I knew this, of course. He was the Boy Whose Sister Had Cancer until he started going out with Leanne Woods freshman year. Then he was Ryan Chase: the Boy Everyone Wanted to Date. But my crush on him started way before that—when his sister was sick, in fact. It started in the cereal aisle, where he did the sweetest thing I’d ever seen a boy my age do.
A comment popped into my mind. I wasn’t even sure if it made sense, but I’d been silent for too long already. So I deadpanned, “I guess I’m minor league in terms of pity acceptance. But I’m hoping to go pro this year. Hey, maybe that lady was a scout.”
Ryan Chase laughed. I mentally thanked my dad for all his years of complaining that Indiana doesn’t have a Major League Baseball team.
“So,” Ryan said. “You picking up books for school tomorrow?”
“Yep,” I said, suddenly glad that I hadn’t found the screen-writing book.
“Me, too. There was a lot of summer reading for Honors English, and I just realized there was one I didn’t get to. Guess I’m cramming already.”
“Do you have fourth period Honors?”
“Yeah! You, too?”
I nodded, now denying the urge to dance in little circles. I share a class with Ryan Chase. Who laughed at something I said. Never mind that he has a girlfriend of two years.
“Cool! Well . . . I should buy this and get started.” He held up the play in his hands.
“Yeah, I should get back to my friend.” This was code for: I have friends, I swear. “So . . . I guess I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” he said, flashing the heartbreaker grin. “See you tomorrow. We’ll make it a good year.”
My heart tried to skip right after him.
And then, just like that, it came crashing down. The guilt, as always, started low, rumbling in my feet and stomach. It rose like lava, hot across my chest until I felt sweaty. After a random woman reminded me how painfully gone Aaron was, I turned around and swooned over Ryan Chase?
No, I commanded myself. You have to stop this.
I’d done it for months now—the dizzying dance between grief and normalcy and the guilt I felt in moving between the two. I talked about that a lot during my year of therapy, though nothing the therapist said seemed, at the time, to help.
But I’d finished my last-ever session a week before and realized: I’m on my own now. I’d have to cope in the moment—not wait until my appointments. The therapist had encouraged me to address my feelings head-on. And the truth was, sometimes pretending to be brave eventually made me feel brave.
So I lengthened my spine, shoulders back. I summoned the flecks of courage in me—little zaps from somewhere in my bloodstream. Not many, but enough. Enough to stand up tall as I strode back to the corner booth. We’ll make it a good year. Yes, Ryan Chase, we will.
Please note: Until the 10th August 2017, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord can only be bought from WHSmith stores and WHSmith online.