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Levi, Seventeen Years Old


Aria, Sixteen Years Old




































20. Levi 21.


22. Aria 23. Levi 24. Aria 25. Levi 26. Aria


27. Levi 28. Untitled 29. Levi 30. Aria 31.


32. Aria 33. Aria 34. Aria 35. Levi 36. Aria 37. Aria 38. Levi 39. Aria 40. Levi 41.


42. Aria


43. Levi 44. Aria 45. Levi 46. Aria Acknowledgments About the Author Untitled

Art & Soul

Art & Soul Copyright © 2015 by Brittainy C. Cherry All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.


Published: Brittainy C. Cherry 2015 [email protected] Editing: Edits by C. Marie Proofreading: Emily A. Lawrence Cover Photography: Perrywinkle Photography Cover Design: Quirky Bird

For Grandma I love you I miss you I love you some more

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”-Marcus Aurelius

color | noun, often attributive | col·or | \?k?l?r\ 1. the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object, usually determined visually by measurement of hue, saturation, and brightness of the reflected light; saturation or chroma; hue. 2. Her. 3. Me. 4. Us.

1 /LEVI, SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD Mom was worrying again. Feelings of guilt began to creep in given I didn’t feel bad about her worries. She said I was abandoning her, but I tried my best to make her see that wasn’t the case. The cell phone hung loosely to my ear as her voice filled with an unnecessary but all too familiar fear. Mom worried about everything too much, creating mountains out of molehills. My aunt, Denise, always told Mom that her thoughts were the leading cause of her failed relationships. “That’s why things didn’t work out with Kent, Hannah. You pushed him away,” she scolded. “That’s why


you never go on dates, Hannah. You’re an emotional rollercoaster who fears intimacy.” Denise had been married for two years now, so I guessed that made her a relationship guru. “I just don’t want you to get hurt again, Levi.” Mom sighed into the receiver. She blamed herself for me being in Wisconsin, but it was my choice to come spend the year with Dad. I hadn’t seen him since I was eleven, and I had this crazy idea that if I didn’t try now for some kind of relationship with the guy, then I would never truly know my father. Plus, Mom needed her space. I needed my space. After being homeschooled all my life, it had gotten to the point where she treated me like I was her other half. She hardly talked to anyone else except for Denise and me.


“You’re no good for my big sister, Levi Myers. I know you’re her son, but you’re no good for her,” Denise always told me. “I’ll be fine, Mom.” She didn’t say anything else, but I imagined her nervously tapping her fingernails against the closest surface while she sipped watered down coffee. “Really, Ma.” “Okay. Well, if he gets too bad you’ll stay with Lance, right? Or you’ll come home?” She paused. “You’ll come home if it gets too hard, okay?” We both knew that wasn’t really a choice. I was no good for her and her mental health. Hopefully I would be better for Dad. I nodded as if she could see me, and she continued talking. “So where are you now?” “Waiting for the city bus to take me into town.” “City bus?”


“I guess Dad’s car isn’t working.” A few curse words slipped from her tongue, and I smirked at her obvious distaste for the man. It was hard to imagine that at some point they might have been in love. I didn’t know much about Dad, and the things I knew, I’d learned from Mom. I used to visit him for a week during the summer up until I turned eleven. He used to send birthday and Christmas cards with money and a Post-it note with a short message. Nothing big, just a small note saying happy birthday or Merry Christmas. I still had all of them in a shoebox. Then one year it all stopped. He told Mom it was best if I didn’t visit anymore, never really giving an explanation. My goal for this whole year with Dad was to find out the answer to why he stopped our visits and


his letters cold turkey. I was going to do everything in my power to try to figure out what happened between us. “I’m going to call Lance and have him pick you up.” “No, Mom. He’s at work. It’s no big deal.” Lance was my uncle, Dad’s brother, and the only reason she allowed me to come spend the school year with Dad. He’d helped me convince Mom that this visit could be good for all of us. He’d promised to keep an eye on me. I didn’t need Lance to look out for me, though. I wasn’t a kid anymore and had seen enough chaos throughout my life with Mom to be able to survive a year with my father. I’d learned quick how to grow up and be a man when Mom and I didn’t have one around.


Leaning against the bus stop pole, I dropped my duffle bag before setting my violin case on the ground. “It’s fine. The bus is pulling up right now, anyway,” I lied. She would’ve kept me on the phone for much longer than I wanted to talk. “I’ll call you later, all right?” “Fine. Call me later. Or I’ll call you. I’ll call you, okay? And, Levi?” “Yes?” “I love you till the end.” I echoed the words she’d been saying to me for as long as I could remember. She had a strange love for The Pogues’ song “Love You Till The End” for some reason, and all my life that one song played in our living room at least once a day. The whole bus ride to Dad’s I wondered what kind of music played in his house.


I was betting it wasn’t The Pogues.

The closest the city bus could get me to the town Dad stayed in left me with a twenty minute walk. It was fine, really—except for the darkening clouds overhead. It started to drizzle about halfway through, so I hurried my pace, using an awkward speed walk/slow run movement. When I finally made it to Dad’s, I saw his car resting in his front lawn. The hood was banged up, one headlight was broken, and he hadn’t bothered to close the driver’s door. The front porch had a flickering light that hardly attracted any flies or moths. There was a lawn chair in the yard that looked like it had been sitting there since 1974 and a half


eaten TV dinner was lying against the brownish grass. The best thing that could’ve happened to his lawn was the rain falling overhead. I stepped onto the wooden porch, which squeaked and whined every time I made the slightest movement. There was a good chance it would fall apart just from my body weight. The black door was swung open, so I didn’t bother to knock. “Dad?” There was no reply. Stepping out of the foyer, I saw him on the living room couch. At least the house is cleaner than the front lawn. His legs were hanging over the arm of the couch, and he was sound asleep. “Dad.” He twisted against the cushions but didn’t wake. Seeing him for


the first time after all of these years brought on such mixed emotions. I was happy, sad, bitter, and angry all at once. I wanted to yell at him for abandoning me, and hug him for letting me come back after all of these years. I wanted him to say he missed me, to say sorry, and to explain himself for being so distant over the past years. But mostly, I wanted him to wake up from his nap. Trying my best to push those emotions away, I cleared my throat. “Dad,” I said, this time louder, pushing his leg with the sole of my blue Chucks. He grunted before rolling over to face the inside of the couch. “Are you kiddin’ me?” I muttered under my breath before taking my duffle bag and slinging it against his side. “Dad!”


He sat up, scowling. “What the hell?” The palms of his hands rubbed against his tired eyes. His fingers curved into fists, and he tilted his head up to stare at me. “You made it?” “Yeah. I thought you would want to know I’m here.” He scratched at his peppered gray beard before rolling back into the inner fold of the couch. “Your room’s down the hall and to the right.” It didn’t take long before he was snoring again. “Good to see you, too.” Heading toward my bedroom, I glanced inside to see a freshly made bed and a dresser with towels and bath supplies sitting on top of it. At least he thought of me.


Heading toward my bedroom, I glanced inside to see a freshly made bed and a dresser with towels and bath supplies sitting on top of it. A few of my boxes that Mom had shipped over were sitting on the ground. Nothing else. My cell phone started ringing and Lance’s name flashed across the screen. “Hello?” “Hey, Levi! Did you make it in okay? I know Kent was going to pick you up from the airport, but I just wanted to check in.” “Yeah, I’m here. Dad’s car isn’t working so I took the bus, but I’m here.” “Dude, you should’ve called me, I could have picked you up.” “No big deal, I knew you were working. It was an easy trip.”


“Well, next time you need something don’t hesitate to ask. Family before work, okay? Are you getting settled in? Is Kent treating you okay?” “He’s actually taking a nap.” Lance went silent for a moment. “Yeah, he’s been doing that a lot lately. Are you sure you don’t need anything? Food? Company? Food and company? I can come over and talk your ear off to death.” He laughed. “I’m good, really. I think I’m just going to unpack my stuff.” “Okay. But call me if you need anything, day or night.” “Thanks, Lance.” “Of course, buddy. I’ll see you soon.” I hung up the phone, sat on the bed, and stared at the blank walls. It was far from a place I’d call home. It felt foreign. Mom and I


lived down in Alabama and our home was a cabin in the woods. The only good thing about Dad’s place was the backyard surrounded by trees. Without those trees and the memories I had of Dad, I probably would’ve felt like I was on Pluto or something. Opening one of my boxes, I pulled out my music collection, the most diverse thing I owned. I could’ve easily reached into the collection and pulled out a jazz CD, then reached in and pulled out Jay Z and followed it up with The Black Crowes. Mom was a musician and believed that all styles of music were worth exploring. We listened to all kinds of genres and styles of music during the day, never really having a moment when our house was silent. Dad’s house was mute.


Another box was packed with different hard cover dictionary sets: the MerriamWebster Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, and a two volume Oxford English Dictionary. Each day during homeschooling, Mom would have me flip through the books and find ten new words that I didn’t know and then we would use them in songs that we wrote together. The rest of my boxes included my Harry Potter collection, The Hunger Games, and The Chronicles of Narnia, every Stephen King novel, along with dozens and dozens of other books. I lifted the Merriam-Webster dictionary and began flipping through the pages. want | verb | \?wo?nt also ?wänt & ?w?nt\ to desire or wish for (something)


to need (something) to be without (something needed) I wanted Dad to want me a little. I wanted Mom to stop wanting me so much. I wanted to be wanted, but not wanted a lot.

The kitchen freezer held a variety of TV dinners. The fridge was stocked from top to bottom with sandwich meats, fruits, leftover pizza, Dad’s beer, and root beer. He remembered my favorite soda. For dinner I ate nasty mashed potatoes and meatloaf, downing it all with two root beers. Dad had the same thing, but he ate it in a different room. I stayed out of his hair for the rest of the night, hanging out in the woods during the rainstorm. High in the twisted branches was the tree house he and I


built when I was nine. In my mind it used to be so much bigger, but I guessed that was the thing about memories—they weren’t always exactly true. Carved into the tree trunk were our initials above the words ‘men cave’. My fingers rolled over each word. I didn’t remember carving the letters. I wondered what else I forgot about this place. I climbed the wet rungs on the tree, which were still pretty sturdy, and I sat inside of the now tiny house, which was covered with spider webs, dead June bugs, and ancient beer cans. In the far corner was an old boom box that Dad and I used to always play our favorite CDs while goofing off and wasting time.


Without thought, I hit the power button on the boom box, but it was dead like the June bugs. I sat in front of the window with my arms crossed, watching the rain fall. The rain always reminded me of Mom. Maybe I was starting to miss her a little.

2 /ARIA, SIXTEEN YEARS OLD I should’ve been sleeping. The rain hammered against the rooftop of the house at unforgiving speeds, leaving me with my eyes opened wide. I turned to the alarm clock sitting on my nightstand. The red laser lights were bright and reminded me over and over again why I shouldn’t have been awake. 2:22 A.M. I slid my body up, my back landing against the headboard. Tossing my peach and mulberry-colored comforter from my sweaty body, I took a breath. My thumb sat between my teeth as I proceeded to chip away at my short nail.


I hated the calmness of the household. I hated how everyone else in my family was able to sleep through the sounds of the current storm passing through Mayfair Heights. I hated how they were probably dreaming of something magnificent and happy while I sat up in bed overthinking everything. I stood from my mattress and shut my bedroom door, which was covered in my random artwork and pictures of me and my family. The cutout letters ‘A-R-I-A’ that curved over my doorframe showcased my coolness factor. Or lack thereof. My feet slipped into a pair of old, mintcolored flip-flops. I tossed my fringed purse strap across my body, and it wasn’t long before I climbed out of my first floor window. I hadn’t had enough brains to think of putting


on a jacket to cover my tank top and pajama shorts. The August air was cool as it brushed against my skin, but the rain was unapologetic. It washed over me, soaking me from head to toe before I reached the street corner. Putting on my thinking cap, I took a shortcut through Mr. Myers’ woods at the end of the block. It seemed like a grand idea, until I started slipping through the muddy grass, instantly transforming my flip-flops from mint to hickory brown. The heavy storm was torturing me, almost as much as my mind had been attacking my heart. I knew it was stupid to head out so late at night, but when your heart is under attack, only a few people can put a shield of protection around said heart.


When I made it to the edge of the woods, a breath of relief left me as I reached Mr. Myers’ property. It was the only house on this side of the road for miles, and for the most part, the house was exactly like the person who lived inside: broken down. It was a single-level home with more trash than treasures, including the winking porch light, the shattered gnome next to the mailbox, and the beat-up car that looked older than my grandpa. Mr. Myers didn’t know me, and it was probably best that way. He was the kind of person I never had the need to get to know. Mom called him the neighborhood loner. Dad was much less nice about it, calling him nothing but a stupid asshole. The weekend before Mr. Myers had driven his car into Ms. Sammie’s mailbox on Ever Road. Most


people would’ve reported it to the cops, but Ms. Sammie said the guy just needed a Bible and a talk with Jesus. She even made him a sandwich after they backed his car away. Across the road I could see Simon’s porch light shining. Thank God. Simon was my best—and only—friend. We’d known each other since we were in diapers. Our moms were best friends, so Simon and I were destined to be united in friendship. I think both parents were a little disappointed when the two of us didn’t fall madly in love and live happily ever after. Simon was more into blonde hair than my auburn, and I was more into boys who called me cute and then pretended I didn’t exist, so our love story never came to fruition.


The rain was freezing. I tried my best to cover up my soaking wet, see-through white tank top as I snuck into Simon’s backyard and tapped on his bedroom window, hoping to not wake his parents. Although I was close to his family, the idea of Mr. Landon finding me standing in a see-through shirt would be cause for a nice round of therapy. I shivered, standing in a puddle of water. It took a few minutes before Simon woke up and walked over to see me. He blinked a few times, rubbing the palms of his hands against his sleepy eyes. The window opened and I climbed inside, something I’d done for years. Simon went on to lock the window. He double-checked and triple-checked the lock, and then—for full certainty—he checked it once more.


Most boys would’ve at least glanced at me in the state that I was in, my top clinging to my braless breasts, but Simon didn’t flinch. Plus, he didn’t have his glasses on, so he was pretty much blind as a bat. One time when we were younger, I was changing in his room when he walked in on me. That time he did have his glasses on and his eyes met my chest instantly. Pretty sure he blushed every time he saw me for two months straight. “Are you okay?” he asked, a hint of unease in his voice. If there was anyone who was more concerned about me than my parents, it was Simon. He was a natural worrier—for good reason, too. After a rough past, Simon was allowed to worry a little more than others. “Just cold,” I replied, not really wanting to alarm Simon more.


“Did you randomly decide to take a walk at two in the morning?” “Yes.” “In the pouring rain?” “It wasn’t pouring when I left,” I lied. “Pretty sure it was pouring when you left.” “Well, I thought it would slow down.” “You should’ve checked the weather.” “Next time.” “I’ll grab some towels so you can dry off, and I’ll get a wet rag for the muddy feet you’re dragging across my carpet.” He didn’t sound bothered with the muddy floor, but I knew he was. Simon headed for the bathroom, and I tried my best to keep my muddy feet in one place.


When he brought me the towels, he opened the bottom dresser drawer and pulled out a pair of my pajamas that I always left at his place. As he handed them to me, he turned away to give me privacy. After removing all of my soaked clothing, I took my new top and slipped it over my head. “You’re going to need to bring more clothes to leave in the dresser if you’re planning on moving in with me,” Simon said sarcastically, yet extraordinarily sweetly. “Tell me when.” My new shorts moved up my ghost-white legs, and I smoothed them out with my fingers. “I’m good.” He walked over to his dresser where his glasses case was sitting. He opened it and placed his eyewear over his green eyes. His reddish orange hair was standing up in some


places, yet completely flattened in others. He looked exactly how I always imagined any person named Simon to look: kind of slim, but very tall; kind of nerdy, but oddly handsome. “Did you shave the right side of your head?” he questioned, his eyes turning to my new hairdo. “I did indeed, do you like it?” His head tilted to the left and took in my new look. His head tilted to the right, still staring. “It’s…artsy. Very much you.” “You hate it.” He did. I wasn’t surprised. “No, no. I like it,” he promised, which was a lie. Simon liked things to be as normal as possible when it came to looks. He hated standing out, but he knew for a fact that he had become best friends with an artistic girl


who was always going to stand out a bit when it came to my looks. I smiled at his lie, walked over to his computer chair, and sat. His room wasn’t drunk in colors like mine. It was all quite boring. Linen carpets with pearl white walls. The only color came from the few posters hanging up from his favorite video games. He lowered his body to the carpet and started rubbing the mud out. “Sorry about that, Si.” He chuckled, his shoulders rising and falling. “Well, ya know what they say, no better way to fix a slight case of OCD than muddy carpets.” He got on all fours and started scrubbing harder. I leaned forward, resting my elbows against my boney knees. Trying not to frown, I asked, “How is that going?” Simon had


always been a little obsessive about things, but I never thought it was a real issue and really, most of the things just seemed like pet peeves. When we were younger all of his toys had to face a certain direction. The television volume always had to be placed at a number ending with four. The forks always had to be washed separate from the spoons. Little things, really, but then I started noticing the older we grew, the bigger deal he would make of things dealing with the number four. The dinner table always had to be set for four people, even if only two people were eating. All doors and window locks had to be checked and double-checked—and triplechecked, and quadruple-checked. Sitting back on his heels, he sighed and wiped his brow. “I’m never going to get laid,


or a girlfriend, am I? I’m going to be a fortyyear-old virgin.” “Don’t be silly,” I remarked. “You’ll be getting laid in no time.” “Right. And I’ll be like, ‘hey, sexy mama, if you could just allow me to put on and take off the condom four times before we start the dirty, that would be great.’ Yeah, no big deal.” I snickered. “You’re right. You’re never going to get laid.” Simon narrowed his eyes at me and placed the dirty rags into his laundry hamper. He moved to his nightstand and squeezed four squirts of hand sanitizer into his palm. “You’re such a bitch.” “I love you too,” I grinned. My hair was still dripping wet from the rain, and I began braiding it. “Listen, if you’re still a virgin on


the eve of your thirty-ninth birthday, I will show up and we’ll have sex together. I’ll even let you touch my boobs four times.” Simon’s eyes traveled to my chest and his lips turned up. His cheeks flushed crimson. “Well, I might have to touch them six times. Or ten. Who knows how bad this issue of mine will be by then.” “You’re such a guy sometimes.” “And don’t you forget it.” He hopped on his bed and pushed his glasses up his nose. “So, do you want to keep playing nonchalant about your late night visit or do we want to discuss what’s bothering you?” “What makes you think something is bothering me?” He cocked an eyebrow. My heart pounded in my throat as I grabbed my purse and climbed onto his bed. My legs crossed, my


lips hardened, and I slipped my hand into the purse. First, I pulled out a paper towel and laid it on his comforter. I reached back into the purse. One. Two. Three. Four. I laid the four plastic sticks on the paper towel, and I watched the air evaporate from Simon’s lungs. He was silent, which made me sick to my stomach. “Are those…?” I nodded. “And they are…?” I nodded again.


I’d made sure to get four tests in honor of my best friend. Well that, and for my own wellbeing. “How did you afford all of those?” he asked, knowing that I was pretty good at never having enough money for ice cream or chocolate. “I saved up the money from babysitting Grace and KitKat these past few weeks. And trust me, the irony of me getting the money for these from babysitting wasn’t overlooked.” Four different tests. Four different brands. Four different days. Four matching results. Simon was emptied of thought as he fell backward, running his hand over his mouth. “Aria…for the simple fact that it seems false


until one of us verbally speaks the words, I’m going to ask you to say it.” “I’m pregnant.” The words burned the back of my throat, and I felt ridiculously alone once they left my mouth. “How? Who?” “Over the summer. There was a guy.” “You never mentioned a guy.” Simon’s curiosity was at an all time high, but I didn’t want to go into any more details of how I’d humiliated myself and fallen for the wrong guy. “I didn’t think he was worth mentioning.” He didn’t know what to say after that. Neither did I. We sat quietly until 5:56 A.M. The rainstorm had passed, and I knew I should head back home before my parents left for work.


I’d told them I would watch my little sisters during the day for twenty bucks. I climbed back out of Simon’s window and thanked him for sitting up with me and not once looking at me with a judgmental stare. “Are you going to keep it?” Simon whispered. I shrugged. I hadn’t really put any thought into the fact that I was actually pregnant after I’d peed on four different sticks, and told him the news. “My parents are going to flip out.” Simon frowned. He knew they were going to freak out about this. Especially Dad. “Well, whatever you need just let me know.” A sad, small grin took over my lips. There was something so remarkable about best


friends. They were always a solid reminder that you were never truly alone.

I headed back through Mr. Myers’ woods and at the halfway mark I paused and glanced up at the sky. The sun was waking with a yawn, slowly stretching its light across the trees with the burnt leaves that would soon enough fall to the ground. I wasn’t ready for it to be morning. I wasn’t ready to go home. I wasn’t ready to face the fact that tomorrow was the first day of school and I would be that girl. The girl who was going to start wearing baggy clothes to try to hide a growing stomach. The girl who was going to be noticed not because of her artistic ways, but because of her bad


decisions. The girl who was knocked up in high school. My back leaned against a tree, and I allowed the tang of the morning air to kiss my cheeks. “Hey, hey, it’s okay.” A quiet voice made me swiftly turn around. My eyes darted around the woods, searching for the sound. The voice continued speaking, but it was clear that the words weren’t being directed toward me. “You’re beautiful.” Those words definitely weren’t created for me. Most of the time when people talked about me they said, “Oh. Aria. You’re so…unique,” or, “You’re too skinny, eat a burger,” or, “What the hell did you do to your hair this time?!”


A few feet away a guy was kneeling in front of a deer. The deer’s eyes were wide, alarmed, but he wasn’t terrified enough to run. I’d never seen the guy before, but he appeared about my age. I knew everyone in Mayfair Heights by first and last name—even if they never noticed me—so it was strange that his face was unfamiliar to me. He had chocolate-colored hair that was hidden under a baseball cap, and a slight shadow of a beard. He wore a sapphire T-shirt with faded jeans, and loosely tied blue Chucks. In his hand were berries, which he held out toward the deer. “You’re gonna love these,” he promised. Each time he spoke I noticed the accent attached to the words. He wasn’t from around here—that was for certain. There was this


southern drawl that showed up at the end of each of his sentences; it was soothing. The deer stepped forward, moving in closer to him. Anticipation overtook me, hoping the deer would connect with the stranger. Do people feed deer? Is that a thing? A part of me wanted to look away from him, but another part really wanted to keep staring. My left foot moved backward, snapping a branch, and my right foot hit another, causing me to fall backward onto my butt. The deer became startled and ran off in the opposite direction. “Shoot!” he hissed, tossing the berries to the ground before brushing his hands against his jeans. A short chuckle left him. “Almost.”


I bit my lip and moved around, making more noise on the branches. He turned my way, looking as startled as the deer. First he was confused by my entire existence, and then pleased. His brown eyes smiled before his lips followed in the kindness. Clearing my throat, I gave him an apologetic frown. Taking a few steps my way, his gaze searched my face. He waited for me to say something, but I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent. His hand reached out toward me, but I refused it, pushing myself up from the ground. He kept smiling as I brushed away the wet leaves and branches from the bottom of my bum. “You all right?” he questioned. I nodded mutely.


His smile didn’t falter. I wondered if he knew how to not smile. “All right then,” he said. “See ya later.” He headed toward the tree house and started climbing the steps. Once he reached the top, the mystery guy disappeared inside, out of my viewpoint. I looked left, right, up, and down, glancing around at the quiet trees, wondering if he had even really existed. Yet I knew he had to be real, because the pile of berries still lay against the dampened grass.


There wasn’t a Sunday dinner when my family didn’t all eat together. Most of the time during the week Mom and Dad worked different shifts, so everyone eating together wasn’t all that common. Except for Sundays; Sundays we always ate together at our dining table because my parents thought it was important to catch up on life over a homemade meal at least once a week. Mom passed the bowl of crescent rolls around. “Oh! There’s news! Aria, Mr. Harper called about the art show you signed up for a few months ago. He said your work is going to be highlighted as the featured piece in the art museum. It all sounds like a very big


deal.” Mom’s voice was soaked in pride and wrapped in golden approval. She never minded that I was more into the creative world than the medical world she lived in. She was one of those parents who believed their children should be their own people. The crescent roll bowl landed in my hands and I passed it on to Mike, not replying to Mom’s excitement. “I thought you would be excited.” A slight frown hit her. “I thought this was what you wanted.” Nothing from me. “Aria, your mother’s talking to you,” Dad said with command in his tone, even though his eyes were looking past the dining room table to the television in the living room playing Sports Center. Dad had a way of backing Mom up when he was hardly paying


attention. He always came into the conversations at precisely the right time, like a spousal sixth sense. “I’m pregnant,” I stated nonchalantly, stuffing a spoonful of peas into my mouth. The words rolled off of my tongue as if it was a normal thing for me to be saying. As if I’d been trying for months to become impregnated by the love of my life. As if it was the next logical step in my life. Mike held his crescent roll in midair, his eyes darting back and forth between our parents. My younger sister Grace’s eyes were bugged out. My baby sister KitKat threw a few peas at Dad, but that was normal because she was a one-year-old and always threw peas at Dad.


I supposed their reactions were the precise way to look based on what I’d told them twenty seconds before. I wished I was invisible. My eyes shut. “Just kidding.” I laughed, becoming wary of the strange silence that filled the dining room. I poked Mom’s special meatloaf with my fork. Everyone’s faces softened, the shock subsiding. “You’re kidding?” Mom choked out. “She’s kidding.” Mike sighed. “Kidding?” Dad sang. Grace nodded with understanding. “Totally kidding.” KitKat giggled, but then again she was always either giggling, howling in tears, or throwing peas. “Yeah,” I muttered, my voice wanting to shake. I wouldn’t allow it to. “Not kidding.”


Dad tilted his head and was alarmingly calm. “Mike, Grace, take KitKat upstairs.” “But!” Mike began to argue. He wanted to be front row center to watch our parents verbally assault me and my bad decisions. He was normally the one to get in trouble for drinking and partying with a few of the other football players, so it must’ve been nice to not have the parents eyeballing him with stern looks for a change. I was always the well-behaved kid who promised and delivered straight A report cards each semester. My acts of rebellion were small in comparison: a shaved head and too much eyeliner had been the extent of my wild and crazy—until now. Dad turned his deceivingly calm stare to Mike. That shut him up quick. He lifted KitKat out of her chair and left the room.


The dinner table conversation took a turn for the worse, and I knew I should’ve told Mom alone first. She was a pediatrician and worked closely with kids and their issues, so maybe she would have understood. But instead, I’d tried to be all nonchalant about the issue and decided to drop my big news in front of my father. He wasn’t a pediatrician. He didn’t “get” kids. He was a plumber. He dealt with people’s crap for forty plus hours a week. Clogged toilets, sinks, nasty tub drains—you name it, he fixed it. Which meant by dinnertime, he was pretty annoyed by other people’s shit. Including mine. “Pregnant, Aria?” Dad hissed, his face turning redder and redder by the second.


The bald spot on the top of his head was bright and steaming with anger. Dad was a heavyset man of very few words. He never had much reason to raise his voice at us. We were, on the whole, decent kids. Even with Mike’s drinking and partying, Dad would scold him quietly. He’d had it pretty easy raising us until about three minutes ago. I didn’t reply to his question. My non-responsiveness made it worse. “Pregnant?!” His voice became a holler as his fists slammed against the table, knocking over the salt shaker. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hands, and I accidently bit the inside of my lip. Dad’s blue eyes were stern with disappointment and his mouth was so intent on forming a frown that it made me feel sad, too.


“Adam.” Mom grimaced, bothered by the way he was raising his voice at me. “Do you want the neighbors to hear?” “I doubt that would matter because I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to see it soon enough!” He was at a full-blown shout, and I was terrified. “Screaming isn’t going to make it better,” Mom explained. “And speaking softly isn’t going to either,” Dad replied. “I don’t like your tone, Adam.” “And I don’t like that our sixteen-year-old daughter is pregnant!” My body tensed up. If there was anything worse than saying the word pregnant myself, it was hearing the word fly from Dad’s mouth. My stomach was tightly knotted, and


I felt my dinner rising back up my throat. I’d never made any mistake that would make my parents seem so broken. How had I screwed up that much? They were fighting. They never fought. The last time I’d heard them do anything close to fighting was when they were trying to pick a nickname for KitKat, and that had ended with Dad kissing Mom’s forehead and rubbing her feet during an episode of “NCIS”. My hands fell to my lap, and I wanted to try to explain to them how it had happened. I wanted them to understand how I knew being pregnant as a teenager was a terrible thing. I repeat: being sixteen and pregnant is a terrible thing. I’d watched the show “16 & Pregnant” on MTV way too many times,


and I should’ve known to keep my lady parts away from that guy, but something weird happened to my brain when he called me beautiful. Well, not beautiful, but cute, which was more than I’d ever been called before by anyone other than my parents. Weird and freak, yes. Cute? Not so much. Mom ran her fingers through her wavy black hair. She had goose bumps running down her caramel arms. I looked more like her, more Mexican than Caucasian like my father. Her lips were full and her eyes were the color of chocolate candies. Those same eyes were currently filled with disappointment and confusion. “Maybe I should talk to her alone first,” Mom offered. Dad grunted before pushing himself away from the table. He didn’t have the same look


of confusion and disappointment, he just seemed disgusted with me. “Have at it.” When he left the room the conversation with Mom moved pretty quickly. “How do you know you’re pregnant?” she asked. “Took four tests,” I replied. “How do you know you performed the tests right?” “Come on, Mom.” “Is Simon…?” “What? No way!” “Why on Earth wouldn’t you use protection?” “I made a mistake.” I cleared my throat, feeling ashamed. After seeing the condescending look in her eyes, I bailed on the logic and tried for a more playful approach. “Didn’t you say to Dad that KitKat was an


accident, too? Can’t you see how these things could happen?” “Aria Lauren, watch your words. You’re this close to the edge,” she scolded me. When Mom got upset, her face tightened and the smile lines around her mouth disappeared. She also tugged on her right ear when extremely irritated. She was right. I was hanging from the edge, reaching out toward her to pull me up, but she was too busy tugging her ear to death. “Tomorrow I’ll pick you up after school and we’re going to head to the doctor and get you checked out. For now, head to your room so I can talk to your father.” My feet dragged toward my bedroom, and I paused on the wooden floor panels


before turning on my heel to face her again. “Can you ask Dad not to hate me too much?” Her mouth softened and those smile lines returned. “I’ll make sure that it’s the perfect amount of hatred.”

It’d been fifty-four minutes of yelling and screaming between my parents. Even though they were really upset with me, they were determined to take it out on one another. I sat cross-legged on my bed, ear buds in ears, and a blank canvas in front of me. The music was cranked to a deafening volume to avoid hearing my parents fall apart. I would lose myself in my artwork and music to try to forget that I’d broken my family. At least that was the plan until Mike came and stood in my doorway. His lips


moved at a nonstop speed, but luckily my music was shutting out whatever he was saying. Lifting my iPod, I stupidly turned down the sound. “You ruined this, you know. My senior year is supposed to be epic, but instead I’m going to be the guy with a knocked up younger sister.” “You’re right. I should’ve really thought about how this would affect my older, popular brother. It was a lot easier when nobody noticed me, right?” I sarcastically rolled my eyes. Mike was a huge guy, the star running back of the football team and on his way to being offered full rides to play football at some of the biggest colleges in the Midwest. With his blue eyes and light brown hair, he looked more like Dad than Mom.


“You’re so fucking stupid. You really don’t know what you’ve done, do you? Listen to them.” He gestured toward the living room. “Shut up, Mike.” I turned the volume back up on my music. He kept yapping for a good few minutes before he dramatically flipped me off and stormed away. My brother, my hero. Hours passed before the lights in the house faded to black. Mom and Dad never came to check on me. I hadn’t been able to paint, either. The brush rested in my grip, ready, but I never pushed it against my canvas. Grace poked her head into my room, but she didn’t know what to say to her big sister who was pregnant.


She walked back and forth for a while trying to figure out something to say, glancing into my bedroom before giving me a sly smirk. “You know KitKat is going to be an aunt to someone that’s only a year younger than her? That’s creepy.” Twelve-year-olds were a lot more forward than I wanted them to be, that was for sure. “Get lost, twerp.” “You’re a twerp, twerp!” she mocked back, placing her hands on her hips and rolling her neck back and forth as if she was nothing more than a body of sass. “I have questions.” “Of course you do.” “Do you pee on yourself?” “What?” I arched an eyebrow. “Do. You. Pee. On. Yourself? My teacher Mrs. Thompson was pregnant last year and


she peed all over the hallway when we were walking to music class.” “I don’t pee on myself.” Not yet at least. Was that something I should be worried about? Would I start randomly peeing on myself for some strange reason? Note to self—Google pissing during pregnancy. “I bet you’re going to be super fat too. Some people are really pretty pregnant, like Mrs. Thompson, but I don’t think you are going to be one of those people.” “You can leave any time, Grace.” “I’m not changing any dirty diapers. Do you even know how to change a diaper?!” “Shouldn’t you be in bed?” “Shouldn’t you not be pregnant?” Touché. I did the only mature thing I could think of.


I took off my dirty socks and threw them at her face, hitting her right in her mouth. “Eww! You’re nasty!” she whined, washing her tongue against the palm of her hand. “I’m telling!” Right, because our parents’ biggest issue at that moment was the fact that I’d put dirty socks in my sister’s mouth.

I went digging into my dresser and pulled out a pair of underwear and one of my oversized T-shirts to sleep in. I knew I should’ve been in bed already. School didn’t really care if I was tired in the morning. School didn’t care that my life was going through a complete upheaval. School didn’t care that I was moments away from a breakdown.


School just wanted me there by the first bell. I hopped into the shower to try to clear the fog that was residing inside my head. The water rained down on me for over an hour before I stepped out and dried myself off with a towel. The mirror in front of me felt mocking. My fingers fell to my stomach, and I stared into the mirror trying to understand how I could look the same, but be so different. I slid the T-shirt over my head, and I glanced at myself once more before walking out of the bathroom. I cringed when I saw Dad lying on the living room couch. He looked like a giant trying to get comfortable on a seashell, twisting and turning unsuccessfully.


My lips parted. My brain searched for the right words. After standing still for a minute, it was clear there weren’t any right words. So I left.

Monday morning Mike refused to drive me to school. He said it was because he had to be there an hour early to lift weights before school started, but that had never stopped him in the past. I always ended up going to the art room and messing around for an hour before school. Even so, he was very adamant that I wouldn’t ride with him. I wanted to complain to my parents about it, but the timing


couldn’t have been worse, so the bus was my only choice. The bus stop was two blocks away from my house. When I tossed my backpack on and left, I saw Simon already standing on the corner. The moment I stood beside him, he could tell everything I hadn’t yet vocalized—best friend extrasensory perception. “You told them?” he asked. I nodded. “Mike’s making you take the bus?” I nodded again. “Are you all right?” I shook my head, my eyes studying the curbside. “But if we could get through today not talking about it, that would be great.” “Right. Well, I’ll make sure to bury you so far into my own issues that you’ll completely


forget about your own. Trust me, I got a lot going on in this weird brain of mine.” Before he could say anything else, a pair of blue Chucks appeared beside me. My head rose up to the person standing next to me. My eyes met the pair of brown eyes that smiled without even trying, and I got lost. Deer Boy. His lips loosened into a small grin, matching his eyes. I smiled back. At least I thought I did. I couldn’t tell. His grin widened, making my stomach swarm with butterflies. You’re beautiful. He was so beautiful that it was almost offensive. He looked like a whisper sounds. Sweet, gentle, and romantic. It was making me dizzy. I shouldn’t be looking at him.


Really. Stop staring. Maybe one more glance? Maybe two more glances? My head dropped again. I stared at our shoes. My hands gripped the straps of my backpack, and I pulled them closer to me, my elbows pushing against my sides. “Hi,” he said. Swarming butterflies, sweaty palms. I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Simon or me, so I remained quiet. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him still smiling. I’d wished he would stop doing that smiling thing. Except, not really. “Is this where the bus picks us up?” I bobbed my head once before I started kicking around an invisible rock with my left foot. His blue Chucks started mimicking the


movement. We kicked invisible rocks together until the school bus pulled up. Simon was the first to get on the bus, but not before stepping on and off four times before he slid into the front seat. I stepped backward to let Deer Boy onto the bus before me. He gestured toward the yellow caged vehicle. “Ladies first.” “Thanks,” I replied, stepping onto the bus. A small laugh was heard as he followed behind me. “So she does speak.”


My first class of the day was calculus with Mr. Jones. If I had to pick my worst skill, it would be any math class. Being homeschooled, I pretty much avoided the math sections until the very end of the day. But now, with a premade schedule, I was forced to face it first thing in the morning. It was a special kind of hell. Mr. Jones stood outside of his classroom, greeting everyone. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice warned me. I’d been about to place my books on a desk in the front row. Turning behind me, I saw a guy with spiky hair, a gold chain around his neck, and something that looked


like a wannabe mustache. “Mr. Jones is the Sylvester the Cat of Mayfair Heights.” “What does that mean?” “You know.” He rasped up his voice and added a lisp with a ton of spitting. “Sufferin Succotash! He’s more into spraying it than saying it.” He patted the seat next to him in the back row. “You’re free to join me back here.” I accepted the offer. “You’re the fresh meat that every chick’s been gawking at, eh?” he asked. “Nah, I think you got the wrong guy. No one has said one word to me yet.” Except for the girl at the bus stop who said thanks, but even that was like pulling teeth. “Which is exactly why you are the fresh meat. They are studying their prey before they attack. And with that accent?” He


whistled low. “Man. You’re going to get girls pregnant just by looking at them. Toss in a wink and they’ll have twins. Which is why you’re going to need me,” he said, patting my back. “The name’s Connor Lincoln, and I am your saving grace, my friend.” “Is that so?” I said, pulling out a pencil and notebook from my backpack, even though I wasn’t going to take notes. “Yes. You see, I am the eyes, the ears, and the voice of the student body. I know everything about everyone who matters, and I can help keep you out of harm’s way.” “Well, isn’t that nice of you.” “What can I say? I’m a humanitarian.” He held his hand out toward me for a shake. “You got a name?” “Levi.” “Where are ya from, Levi?”


“Alabama.” “All right, all right, all right,” he said with a southern accent—or more of a Matthew McConaughey accent, which was in a league of its own. “You will forever be known as Alabama.” Seeing as how Connor had saved me from the spitting teacher, I guessed he could call me Alabama. The girl from the bus stop walked into the classroom and sat two rows in front of me, her head down the whole time. Half of her auburn hair was shaven, and the other half, dark red. She looked different than most of the Barbie girls in the hallways. Darker. Edgier. Beautiful. She reached into her backpack, pulled out a notebook, and started writing in it. She kept sweeping her bangs


behind her ear, but never looked up from whatever she was doing in her notebook. “What about her?” I asked Connor. “Who’s that?” Connor’s eyes moved to the seat I was pointing at and his eyebrow rose. “Oh. That’s one of the oddities. Not sure of the name because most of the oddities aren’t worth my mind space. It leaves more room for people like that.” He pointed to another girl who had a face plastered with makeup and was wearing a tight black shirt that pushed up her tits. “Now that’s worthy of my brain. Hi, Tori,” he said, waving. Tori turned around and flipped Connor off. Her eyes crossed mine, and she gave me a smile before turning back to laugh with the girl sitting next to her. “Ah, man, did you see


that?!” Connor exclaimed. “Tori Eisenhower smiled at me!” I didn’t tell him that she had actually been smiling at me, he seemed too thrilled about it. “Well, okay, she was smiling at you, but since you’re my new main guy, it counts as a smile for me, too. Dude. Do you see it?” He waved his hands all around the room. “See what?” “The sea full of sweet, sweet pussy. It’s ours for the taking, my man.” I laughed uncomfortably. Most of the time when I first met people I didn’t find the need to talk about using girls and referring to them as sweet pussy. With that one line, I was certain I didn’t like Connor. Hopefully this would be our only class together.


The first hour bell rang. Mr. Jones walked in and began speaking, spitting on everyone in the front few rows. Connor kept whispering things about ‘banging chicks’ and ‘getting digits’ while tugging on his gold necklace. I should’ve sat in the front row.

Connor followed me to science class, and at first I debated the idea that he was a stalker, but then realized that the schedule gods really hated my guts. I wished there was a decent way to say, ‘leave me the heck alone and stop talking about sex’ without sounding like an ass. When he pulled out a comb and started brushing at his nonexistent chin hair, I was


determined that school really stood for freaking hell. I considered calling him Eminem, but talking to him only encouraged his conversations about vaginas. I zoned out for most of my morning classes—realizing that they were all the same. Syllabus, teacher goals, ice breakers. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Being homeschooled all my life, I was happy to see that high school was exactly the same as all the movies portrayed it to be: scuffed up navy blue lockers, pretty girls giggling by the drinking fountain, student clubs posters hanging up, and a lot of gossiping voices. Every now and then I saw the Bus Stop Girl in the hallways, but she always kept her head down, or was talking to some guy with red hair.


Is he her boyfriend? I didn’t know why I cared. The guy made her smile, which was like a hidden treat. She didn’t do it often—she was more into frowning. It was weird, but her frowns made her more intriguing to me. She and the guy never touched. She mostly hugged that same notebook I saw her writing in earlier. God. Now I seem like the stalker. I shuffled my feet and hurried off to my next class. By this point it wasn’t a surprise that Connor was waiting inside my world history class.


The school day hours crawled by like years, which was fine because I knew at the end of the day I would have to be at a doctor’s appointment, something I really didn’t want to do. I’d rather run from reality than face it. Whenever Mike and his friends crossed my path, he made sure to never make eye contact. Most of his friends didn’t know we were related. At lunch, I sat with Simon and watched him open and close his milk jug as his eyes stayed glued to his historically long crush, Tori, also known as the most popular girl in our junior class. Also, also known as the girl who egged Simon’s house last year. He was


still in denial about that one, claiming it was Eric Smith who was behind the yolks. Like all hopeless romantics, love blinded him from the truth. It was all very tragic, yet somehow hopeful all at the same time. Simon kept talking about Tori as if she were his greatest dream come to life. “She sits three rows behind me in chemistry. I know you’ll probably disagree, but she’s smart, Aria.” His words were drunk on a fictional romance as he spoke of his imaginary lover. Sometimes I wondered if he saw tiny birds flying around her like Snow White or something. “You would be the one to crush on the rudest girl in our class.” The way his smile spread across his face made me smirk. “She’s not rude, she’s just


damaged. Those are my favorite kinds of girls, the flawed ones. It makes it easier for them to put up with my flaws.” “Is that why I’m your best friend? Because I’m flawed?” “No. Mainly you’re my best friend because you’re wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shirt with the faces of the four renaissance artists on it.” I glanced at my favorite shirt and grinned. “It’s almost embarrassing how cool I am.” “Almost,” Simon joked before he turned back toward Tori. “She’s so beautiful.” “You’re too good for her.” His elbows rested against the cafeteria table and his hands cupped his chin. “She’s the sun, and I’m the pale man craving her light.”


I chuckled. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say something so extremely awkward.” “Imagine our kids…” He released a breath of happiness. “Stunning nerdy blond children with freckles and glasses.” He paused, looked at me, and frowned. “Sorry. Best friend personal foul. No kids talk.” I wiggled in my seat. “You do know her hair isn’t really blond, right? It’s a bad dye job.” “Says the auburn girl who was born charcoal black,” Simon cockily replied. “Touché. But let’s not forget the main issue with the love of your life.” I gestured toward Eric, who was sitting beside Tori. “She’s off the market.” “For now. Rumor has it that he’s going to break things off with her.”


“And where are these rumors from?” His cheeks rose up. “I have my sources.” “Ms. Givens?” I asked. He didn’t reply, but I knew that was his one and only source for school gossip. Ms. Givens was the librarian who spent too much time eavesdropping on the whisperings around the hallways. “Let’s just say, Eric’s on his way out, and Tori’s going to be heartbroken, and then swoosh! Simon Landon’s in for the rebound.” The excitement in his voice was amusing. “And then what? You’re going to magically swoop in and comfort her? The guy who can barely make eye contact with the girl, let alone speak to her? How are you gonna manage that one, Romeo?” He nodded as if I’d made a point he hadn’t yet considered. When the bell rang for


our next class, Simon’s fantasy came to a halt as he lifted his lunch tray and placed it back down over and over and over and over again. His lips turned down as he noticed Tori walking out of the lunchroom with Eric’s arm wrapped around her shoulders. The sense of defeat almost washed him away. I took the tray from his tight grip. “She’s never going to want a freak like me, is she?” he asked, defeated. “You’re not a freak, Si. Plus, rumor has it those two are breaking up soon. She already dated everyone else in our class, so be ready to swoosh in! You’re next in Tori’s lineup!” My voice was sugared with comfort and lies. He knew what I said wasn’t true, but he still smiled large.



I’d learned more about the new kid from the gossip of the hallways than from his actual mouth. “Did you know he’s from the South?” “Like, Brazil?” “I hear he speaks French.” “He’s sooo hot.” “His mom named him Alabama!” “He has tattoos on his you-know-what!” “That accent is fake.” “He’s already made out with some chick in the locker room!” “I heard it was a threesome!” “He’s a word wizard.” “I saw him first!”


By sixth hour the sophomore, junior, and senior girls were already laying claim on the new guy while the freshmen lurked in the shadows. They surrounded his locker like lovesick puppies, twirling their hair and pushing out their chests. I felt bad for the guy. He didn’t have a chance at remaining mysteriously new with a face like that and a Southern accent like his. I stood at my locker, glancing over at him and his fanatics. Every now and then he would say something to them, and the girls would turn my way and stare at me. I’d never been stared at in the past, even with all of my different hair colors, dramatic makeup, and odd outfits. The students at Mayfair Heights high school were determined to keep me invisible, which was completely fine by me.


Until now. Now they were turning my way giggling, and flipping their hair over their shoulders before looking back at the new kid. Is he mocking me? Are they all mocking me? It was amazing how a couple hair flips and sarcastic laughter could make a person want to climb inside of their locker and stay hidden for the next one hundred and seventy-nine days. Or at least until the final bell. I slammed my locker and went on my way in the opposite direction of the group of dicks and divas. Bunch of assholes. “Do you know where room one-twelve is?” Deer Boy asked, hurrying over to me. I arched an eyebrow, a little annoyed with his smug ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ personality.


“The swarm of girls attacking you couldn’t help you out?” “So you noticed.” “Noticed what?” I asked. “You noticed them noticing me?” Hesitation fell against my tongue. “…Yes…” “Which in turn means you noticed me.” I wasn’t amused. “Don’t flatter yourself.” “Okay.” “Okay what?” I asked. “Okay, I won’t flatter myself.” His eyes were filled with such ease and sincerity that I almost lost myself in them. I blinked. “You’re weird.” “Weird in a charming way or just…weirdweird?” he asked. I wasn’t sure which it was yet. Maybe both. “Why were you guys looking at me?”


“Oh. I asked them your name. None of them knew it, though, and for some reason they thought that was comical.” He shrugged his shoulders. Figures. I knew everyone’s name in our school and they couldn’t take the time to figure out mine. “Why were you asking about me anyway?” “I don’t know. I guess I get curious about girls who walk through the woods at six in the morning on Sundays.” “Oh.” “I’m Levi Myers.” He gestured as if he was going to bow before me when he delivered me his name. Then he went ahead and did it. He fully bowed. He was tipping over into the weird-weird territory.


“You’re Mr. Myers’ kid?” I paused, thinking. “I never knew Mr. Myers had a kid.” “Yeah well, that’s my dad for ya.” His eyebrows furrowed. A slight look of disappointment passed through Levi’s eyes before he blinked and the softness returned to his stare. “And you are?” “Aria.” “Really? Aria?” “Yes…” “Not Becky? Or Casey? Maybe Katie?” “Nope. Aria.” He crossed his arms, and my eyes took notice of the eye tattoo on his left hand, resting between his thumb and pointer finger. “I spent all day trying to figure out your name and Aria wasn’t in the top twenty names.” “I’m sorry to disappoint.”


“No, no. I like it. Aria.” He smiled and placed his thumb between his teeth as he studied my face. “Aria.” His head tilted to the left and right. “Arrriaaa.” Stop saying my name. I shifted my body weight around. Now he was swimming in the weird-weird territory, and I had to admit, his weird persona was so far from his hot exterior. He was his own oxymoron. If there were a list of the top five oxymorons in the world it would look like this: Great Depression. Tragic comedy. Original copy. Jumbo shrimp. Levi Myers. “So do you always walk around those woods at six in the morning?” he questioned.


He rubbed the palm of his hand against his somewhat scruffy chin and then brushed his thumb against his top lip. I lingered a few seconds, trying to take in all of his facial characteristics. My eyes blinked twice. “Sometimes. Do you always feed random deer at six in the morning?” I asked sarcastically. “Always,” he said with confidence. I couldn’t stare at his eyes anymore because they were making me lightheaded. Actually the whole hallway was making my head spin. I took a breath and closed my eyes. When I reopened them, his brown eyes were still staring at me. Crap. My stomach flipped. Clearing my throat, I gestured down the hallway. “Room one-twelve is over there. Right past the cafeteria.” Food.


Ugh. More stomach flips. His eyes moved past me and he looked in the direction I was pointing. “Thanks, Aria.” He walked away. The farther he disappeared down the hallway, the calmer my heartbeats became, but the nauseous feeling rolling through my stomach didn’t stop as I brushed my hand over my lips. Moving my feet as quickly as possible, I pushed myself into the closest bathroom and hardly got the stall door shut before throwing up my breakfast and lunch. Sitting back on the heels of my feet, I reached for the toilet paper and wiped my mouth clean. I hated today.


The only thing I looked forward to during the school day was eighth hour. Eighth hour was my favorite, not only because it was the last period, but also because it was art class with Mr. Harper. Mr. Harper and I had known each other since I stepped into his Introduction to Art class my freshman year. He was a skinny, pipe smoking, mustache wearing, sixty-twoyear-old gay man who always attributed his love for art to a love affair he had with Leonardo da Vinci. Sure, the love affair might have been nothing more than an awesome acid trip that he’d experienced, seeing as how Leonardo da Vinci died four hundred


and thirty-three years before Mr. Harper was born, but it was a love story for the ages the way my favorite teacher told it. The class I was currently taking was an exploration class where the main goal was to discover a new way to look at art as a whole. Our classroom was set up differently than all of the other rooms in the building. Our desks were turned inward in a semicircle and there were at least fifteen extra chairs in the room. At the opening of the circle was a big chalkboard. Mr. Harper scribbled the words Partner Exploration across the board. “Shout out what you think of when you think of exploring. Ready? Go!” Mr. Harper said, holding his chalk in his hands. The class started shouting out random words at the highest volume they could.


“Jungle!” “Christopher Columbus!” “Jet skis!” “Sex!” Mr. Harper wrote all of the words on the board and placed ‘sex’ in the biggest letters. He was never moved by any teenage antics, only taking them as a learning experience. “Ah! And words that you think of when you hear the word partner? Go!” “Sex!” “Sex!” “Sexual intercourse!” All of the words dealing with sex came from Connor, the most perverted junior in our class who was always talking about sex or making sexual expressions with his tongue. I was certain that he had a small penis and never had sex or something


because a person who talked that much about sex was clearly compensating for something. “Team,” I whispered softly, almost voicelessly. Mr. Harper’s eyes moved to me, and he smiled wide. I knew teachers weren’t allowed to say they had favorites, but it was a given that I was pretty high on Mr. Harper’s list. In the biggest letters yet he wrote ‘team’. “For the semester I am going to pair you up with a partner. You are going to explore the realms of art, taking both of your personalities and creating a final piece of work that showcases two worlds colliding into one. You will learn their likes, their dislikes, their dreams, wishes, and biggest fears. You should learn anything and everything you can think of about your partner.” He picked


up the chalk eraser and began wiping away the words involving any form of sex. “But unfortunately you will not be allowed to have sex with your partner.” Connor complained, stating that sex was the only non-boring thing about the class. Mr. Harper kept clearing the board and said dryly, “Don’t be dramatic Connor. No one was planning on sleeping with you anyway.” The class erupted in laughter. Everyone was enjoying Mr. Harper’s humor as always. Well, everyone except me. My eyes were darting around the room to try to figure out who I would be partners with. The one problem with team projects was the idea of working in a team. The worst feeling in the world was looking around a classroom and realizing that you knew


everyone, yet at the same time you knew no one at all. “Don’t act like I don’t see you all panicking and searching for who you will be paired with. Your partners aren’t here.” Mr. Harper held up a finger, silencing our questioning minds before leaving the room. Connor huffed. “If he’s not back in two minutes, I’m out!” No one cares, Connor. By all means, leave. At a minute and fifty seconds Mr. Harper came back with Ms. Jameson only a few steps behind her. She was the music teacher who laughed too loud and had a beard that was too noticeable. One would think she would’ve shaved it by now seeing as how she taught at a high school with some of the most


brutal bullies in the history of bullies, but I guessed she loved herself the way she was. Behind Ms. Jameson came her classroom of students holding instruments. My cheeks flushed when I saw Levi walking in with a violin by his side. I shifted my stare to the ground and tried to pretend I didn’t notice him. I peeked up. He smiled at me. I didn’t smile back. “Art,” Mr. Harper gestured toward our class and then in the direction of Ms. Jameson’s class, “meet soul.” He went on to explain how three days a week we would meet up with our music partners and work on our creative piece, but I’d stopped listening almost immediately. I tried my best not to notice that he was walking toward me. I


tried my best not to notice that the seat beside me was empty. I tried my best to hope I ended up partners with Ellie Graze who talked too much and played the flute. “Hi, Aria,” Levi said, taking the seat beside me. I’d never heard my name spoken so much in one day. Perhaps he had a strange addiction to the letters a-r-i-a. “I guess this is a sign, huh? You’ve been so ubiquitous since I met you.” “What?” I blinked, glancing around at the rest of my class being partnered up. “What does ubiquitous mean?” “It was my word of the day this morning. It means being everywhere. Very timely. The universe is obviously shoving us together and screaming, ‘Hey! Get to know each other!’”


“I don’t think it’s anything like that,” I argued. “It’s more of a coincidence. Having one class with someone is pretty common. Don’t look too much into it.” The look of pleasure on his face was showing me that he was indeed thinking too deeply on the subject. “Really,” I sighed. “Stop it.” “Stop what?” “Smiling.” It had to be painful the amount of time he spent smiling. “I’ll stop smiling the moment you stop frowning. We can switch expressions.” “I’m not—” Pausing, I noticed how tight my lips were. Wiggling my mouth around, I loosened my face up and gave him a small, fake grin. “Better?”


His lips pouted out and nodded with the saddest look ever. “Much better.” He placed his violin in his lap. “So the rumors are true?” I asked. “Rumors? What rumors?” “That you’re from the South—though I doubt it’s Brazil—and that you’re a word wizard.” I considered mentioning his tattooed private parts, but that seemed like crossing a line for what was only our second conversation. I’d save it for our third. “I am from the South, but not Rio, and I do like words, but a word wizard? I don’t know about that seeing how I haven’t been placed in my Hogwarts house yet. Fingers crossed for Gryffindor.” “You seem more like a Slytherin.” “That doesn’t mean much to me coming from a Hufflepuff.”


I smiled, because Harry Potter references always brought out smiles. “What other rumors are there?” he asked. “Well, there was the threesome you had in the locker room with Jessica Bricks and Monica Lawrence during third hour.” “Oh well, obviously that’s not a lie. It was an amazing threesome with name calling, hair pulling, and everything intense. I’m surprised you haven’t heard my nickname yet.” “And what’s that?” “Mr. Wild.” Bull crap. “All right, Mr. Wild. What hair color do Jessica and Monica have?” I asked, knowing that he was lying. “Platinum blonde, duh.” “That was a lucky guess. Most of the girls here have platinum blonde hair.”


“And blue eyes.” “Yup, perfect little Barbie dolls with perfectly big checkbooks.” “Except for you,” he said. “You’re different.” He didn’t say anything else. The palms of my hands grew sweaty, and I straightened up in my chair. His eyes stayed zoned in on me, and I was shocked by how comfortable I was with our silence. At the same time I was extremely uncomfortable with our silence. How could I be both things at once? I bounced my right knee and bit into my bottom lip nervously. “So you play the violin?” I asked. “I do.” “Are you any good?” “Psh. Is Jascha Heifetz one of the greatest violinists to ever exist?” My blank stare met his shocked expression. “The answer is yes.


Yes, I am good. And yes, Jascha Heifetz is one of the greatest violinists to ever exist. God. What do they teach you people at this school?” “Not the top violinists, that’s for sure.” “Well, it’s a shame because Heifetz…he played the violin like he was fighting for his life, as if he would cease to exist if it weren’t for the music he performed. The strings screamed and cried and cheered and laughed all at once.” I wasn’t ready to admit it, or show it, but Levi made me smile. Not just on the outside, but on the inside, too. “Your personality is the complete opposite of your looks.” “I know that my personality is outstanding, so I’ll go ahead and pretend that you didn’t just call me ugly.” I snickered.


“Oh! She laughs, too!” He smirked. Connor walked behind us and leaned in toward Levi. “Warning, warning, oddity sighting, oddity sighting. Save yourself.” Levi gave Connor a laugh, but it wasn’t real. It was more one of those I’m-going-tolaugh-uncomfortably-so-you’ll-leave-methe-fuck-alone kinds of chuckles. “Friend of yours?” I questioned. “Can’t you tell? We’re the best of buds,” he sarcastically remarked. “Maybe you can give him some tips on growing facial hair. He’s been grooming that one chin hair for the past four years.” “I’ll think about it,” he said, turning back to me. “It’s two, by the way.” “What’s two? Two chin hairs?” “No, I couldn’t really care less about Connor’s lack of hair dilemma. But you said it


was just a coincidence that we had one class together, but we have two. You’re in my calculus class, too, but you never looked up to notice me.” “So you noticed?” I asked. “Noticed what?” “Noticed me not noticing you?” He laughed. “Touché.” The teachers handed out sheets we were supposed to fill out in order to ‘get to know each other’. The sheets were filled with basic questions like what’s your favorite food, favorite music artist, favorite sport, are you in a relationship. I blinked once. I looked up at Levi, and then back at the fact sheet. It didn’t say anything about a relationship, so it had either been in my head, or Levi had asked. “What?” “I said do you have a boyfriend?”


“That’s not one of the questions on the sheet.” “Aren’t we allowed to deviate from the list?” he asked. “No.” “I think we are.” “I think you’re wrong.” Levi raised his hand, and Mr. Harper called on him; I cringed. “Yes, boy with the violin?” “Are we allowed to add our own questions to the fact sheet, teacher with the impressive mustache?” Levi asked, his Southern voice really showing up within his question. Mr. Harper curled the ends of his mustache with his fingers. “I welcome creative partner exploration.”


“Minus the sex,” Connor chimed in, annoyance in his voice. “This class blows.” “Nice word choice, Connor. Your saxophone partner can look forward to in-depth conversations about life, politics, and human intelligence with you, I’m sure.” Mr. Harper smirked before walking over to Levi and me. “Where are you from, boy with the violin? I hear the accent.” “Alabama, teacher with the impressive mustache.” Levi was able to effortlessly slide into comfortable banter with anyone. He made it seem so charming, too. “Ah! I met my Leonardo in Alabama many moons ago. Remind me to tell you the story of my da Vinci one day.” Mr. Harper walked off, humming to himself and twirling his mustache in a daze of false memories.


“So…boyfriend?” Levi turned back to me, giving me his full attention. He wasn’t going to give up, so I gave in. “No boyfriend.” “The guy with the red hair is just…?” “A best friend.” “That’s good to hear.” “Why?” “Because I didn’t want to step on the redhaired guy’s toes. It’s against the rules, ya know? Taking another man’s girl.” I laughed. “What makes you think I’m available for the taking?” He ran his hand against his jaw line. “I don’t, really. Just hopin’.” “Why me? You have girls throwing themselves at you. Plus, people like you don’t like people like me.”


“People like me?” He leaned in closer to me. “You mean Southern? Because I was totally kidding when I said the South shall rise again earlier in the hallway to that girl. I’m as Northern as one person could get. I think tater tot casserole is outstanding. The Packers are probably one of the best teams in the NFL. Also, cheese is delicious. Gouda, provolone, sharp cheddar—you name it, I’ll eat it, and I’ll love every bite.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re so weird.” He didn’t say anything else. He just stared at me, his eyes and lips forming the kindest of smiles. I shifted around in my chair. I was uncomfortable with the way he watched me as if he saw into me. I preferred being the ghost of the school. His lips stretched wider as he placed his forearms on


the table and clasped his hands together. His chin rested against his hands. “For the record,” he spoke softly, “people like me find people like you refreshing.” I placed my pencil on my table and blinked once. Then I proceeded to stare at my feet the rest of the class period. But the whole time I thought about his chocolate eyes.

As the final bell of the day rang, Levi insisted on walking me to my locker, even though I told him it was unnecessary. He disagreed, leaving us arguing until we both arrived at the hallway my locker was located in. “By the way, I didn’t really have a threesome in the locker room,” he joked, but I couldn’t respond.


My breath caught. A group of popular girls and guys, including Simon’s stupid crush, Tori, were surrounding my locker. The closer I stepped, the harder my heart pounded against my chest. Tori turned to me with a wicked smile on her face and her red lipstick tube in her hand. She stuck it in her purse and puckered up her lips. “It turns out even freaks can be whores.” When I read the red lipstick words spread across my locker, tears started to form in my eyes, but I pushed them down and swallowed hard. Sadly these jerks were going to be highly disappointed. I wasn’t going to cry in front of them. Screw them. 16 and Preganent Slut Whore


Gothic tramp I’d hated a lot of moments in my life. When I was six, I hated that I didn’t get the Barbie doll I wanted for Christmas, and I cried so much that I made myself physically ill for the whole day. When I was eleven I hated that I wasn’t able to go to art camp because I had the chicken pox. When I was fifteen I hated that I was invisible. But right now was a new level of hate. Right now I just hated me for putting myself in a position to be noticed. I also hated that the bullies were entertained by my personal struggles, even though they’d spelled pregnant wrong on my locker. They should’ve really thought about being entertained by an English class or something. Dummies.


I sighed. I’m the dummy. Levi stood at a distance, looking at the words spread across my locker. When our eyes locked, all of the playfulness he’d showcased earlier was gone from his stare. All that was left was pity, and embarrassment. He started in my direction, and I held my hand up, shaking my head back and forth, hurrying down the hallway. “Aria.” I heard behind me and I snapped around to find Simon staring at me with the most pathetic eyes ever. He opened his mouth to speak but shut it just as quickly. “You know what’s messed up? Only three people in this school knew about this: Mike, you, and me. I’m pretty sure Mike wouldn’t tell anyone, seeing as how he tries his best to


convince people that we aren’t even related, and I know that I didn’t say anything.” His head lowered, his eyes dancing across the ground. “It was a mistake. Ms. Givens was telling me about Tori in the library, and I might have slipped and told her about…” He couldn’t even finish his sentence. My heart was breaking. He was supposed to be my best friend. “Leave me alone, Simon.” I forced my feet to move from their current location and travel down the hallway to find a way out. My hands aggressively shoved against the girls’ bathroom door, I pushed open a stall, and shut it just as quick. I pushed the lock into place and took a deep breath. My panic was suffocating my heart, breaths fighting each other to be taken in and blown out. My


hands rested on my hips as I began to try to steady my breathing. I coached myself. I promised that no matter what, I’d get through this. The waves of emotions were strong, but I was strong, too. I had to be stronger than my feelings, stronger than those people. Sometimes there was no other choice. Life had already taken so much from me. I couldn’t allow it to take my strength, too. I smoothed my hands over my shaky body. A few moments later, I opened the bathroom stall door. My eyes shifted around the space, and I almost had another panic attack when I saw Levi leaning against the sink. Oh crap, don’t tell me I went in the boys’ bathroom. This day needed to be deleted from existence. This day was nothing but shit.


I was mortified as I went to wash my hands at the sink farthest from him. He smirked and jerked his head in the direction of the hallway. “Are you okay?” I ignored him. “Are you okay?” he asked again. My head tilted in his direction and even though I knew we were the only ones in the restroom, I double-checked behind me to make sure he was talking to me. “This is the girls’ room, Levi,” I whispered. He laughed. He thought I was funny. I was actually being extremely serious. Then he frowned slightly. “Why didn’t you say something to them?” “I don’t care what they think.” “Is that why you just had a panic attack?”


The back of my hands brushed against my cheeks, then under my chin. “I didn’t.” Cocking an eyebrow, he gave me a ‘bullshit’ look. He leaped off of the counter. Before I could say anything else, two girls walked into the bathroom giggling and paused when they saw me and Levi standing there. They started to giggle again and walked out—not before muttering a nice ‘slut’ comment. Great. Just what I need. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I closed my eyes. “Look, I don’t need you feeling sorry for me. I don’t need your pity. Besides, you’re coming off as a really creepy new guy and the last thing I need in my life is more creeps.” I didn’t mean the words, and I regretted them the moment they left my lips, but I was embarrassed and wasn’t sure how much


more I could take. Having Levi standing in the girls’ bathroom with people walking in staring at us and calling me a slut was too much. Being pregnant was too much. Levi treating me in such a caring way was too much. It was all emotionally draining and pushing him away was the one thing I could control. I didn’t need his caring gazes and adorable smirks. He didn’t reply. His head lowered, and he stuffed his hands into his jeans as he walked away and muttered an apology. I was officially a jerk.

When I finally built up enough courage to leave the bathroom, I turned to my left to see James, my brother’s best friend, standing in


front of my locker, reading the red lipstick. James had always been a staple in my family’s life—he was Mike’s version of Simon, pretty much. He was also my first, longest running crush since I was eight. I liked to think of James as a born socialite. He was friends with everyone no matter their high school social status. From the stoners, to the nerds, to the jocks, James befriended every group. That was part of the reason why it was so easy for me to crush on him when I was younger. Funny how it only took one night to change all of my thoughts about him. James looked up and gave me a half smile. “Aria. Hey.” I swallowed hard and stared into his worried eyes. “Is it true? Are you…?” My head lowered. “Yes.”


“And is it…” He paused, glancing around the empty hallways. He took a sharp breath and stepped closer to me. “Am I…?” “Yes.” He muttered ‘shit’ under his breath. His fingers tugged at the collar of his sky blue Calvin Klein polo. “Are you sure it’s mine?” I must’ve looked shocked, because he quickly retracted his words. “Sorry. That was an asshole thing to say.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “What I meant was, are you going to handle it?” “Handle it?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. He whispered, “You know…are you going to get rid of it?” I didn’t reply. How could I reply to that?


“You gotta understand, Aria. Nadine and I are in a really good place with our relationship right now. Plus, I have football and am getting ready to go off to college next year. This would ruin everything for me. I can’t really afford to deal with this kind of thing in my life right now.” My eyes moved to my lipstick locker. Pretty sure you’re not the one dealing with this. My stomach tightened, and for a second I thought about slamming my fist into his perfectly slender nose. “Thanks for your kind support, James. You truly have a way with words.” I rushed out of the school building. All of the buses and most of the cars in the parking lot had already left. Mom sat in her Audi, looking at her phone. Great. Now the doctor’s appointment.


My body slumped. I dragged myself to the car and collapsed into the passenger seat. “Where the heck have you been, Aria?! I’ve been waiting here for over thirty minutes and you haven’t been answering your phone!” she hissed, annoyed with my tardiness. “Do you know what kind of stress you’ve been putting on us? Your father is on the edge of a breakdown, I had to make way too many calls to get you set up with a great therapist, Ms. Franks can only watch Grace and KitKat until six, I have to work third shift at the hospital tonight, and you have an appointment in five minutes across town and now we are going to be late!” I looked up at her and my mind tried to form words about how much of a shitty day I’d just experienced. I wanted to unload all of my emotional garbage into her lap but the


thoughts in my head were all just turning into a giant mess. My bottom lip trembled as I locked eyes with Mom. Her stare softened from her irritation. She nodded once, and only once, in understanding. “Okay,” she whispered, unbuckling her seatbelt and moving closer to me. Her arms wrapped around my shoulders, and she pulled me into her side. “Okay.” I sobbed uncontrollably into her side. And she didn’t let go.


I wasn’t a stranger to panic attacks. I’d watched Mom fall into them all the time growing up. They had a way of engulfing a person, swallowing them whole and spitting them out to the point that they weren’t recognizable. That was why I had to check on Aria in the bathroom. I had to know she was okay, because I’d seen the fallout of people when they weren’t all right due to their own minds. Aria’s eyes were sad, the same way Mom’s always were. The same way mine would be if I didn’t hide it so well.


I’d become great at smiles. I hid behind them to make sure no one ever realized how shitty my life was. Smiling was a way to avoid people asking questions. I hated the questions I was always asked when I traveled into town back in Alabama. I hated them almost as bad as I hated the stares and whispers. The stares and whispers were the worst of all.

“It’s about time you stopped by,” Lance said as I walked into Soulful Things. He inherited the music shop right in the heart of downtown Mayfair Heights after my grandparents passed away. Lance was a few years older than my dad, but looked decades younger. He was a weird hippie kind of guy who was


married to a weirder hippie woman named Daisy. I wasn’t sure if Daisy was her real name or if she just did enough drugs to actually believe she was a flower. Plus, she was always wearing bright yellow, which fit with her super bright and spunky personality. She taught 5:00 A.M. yoga classes on the rooftop of the store seven days a week up until winter moved in, when the classes were relocated to the high school’s gymnasium. Lance sipped on his green drink, which he’d probably made from grass and dirt, while he set up the window display with a new drum set. “How was the first day of hell?” “School was good,” I replied. “Hellish, but good.”


He smiled. His long brown hair was tossed on the top of his head in what he liked to call a manly-bun, and he kept combing fallen pieces back. “And how’s big brother Kent treating you? Is that going over well?” “It’s good,” I lied. “That tough, huh?” He reached into his pocket, pulling out cash. “Here’s some money for groceries. I’m guessing Kent mostly has TV dinners. Just try to buy organic when you can.” “Thanks, but he actually stocked up the fridge.” “Really?” His eyes widened. “That’s…that’s surprising. Awesome. But just so you know, you’re always welcome over to our house for dinner,” he offered. “Tonight Daisy’s making meatless meatballs and a kale salad.”


“Oh man, not meatless meatballs and kale salad!” I sarcastically sighed. “That’s totally my favorite meal. I would stop by, but I have way too much homework.” He smirked. “Don’t knock it till you try it.” “So, is Dad always so…” I couldn’t think of the right word to describe him. Cold? Distant? Since I’d arrived he’d hardly said two words to me. When he was talking, he was normally cursing out the mailperson or the pizza delivery driver for some reason or another. He was great at finding reasons to be unhappy and grumpy. Therefore, I stayed out of his way. Lance frowned. “Over the years your dad has built cement walls. There’s a separation between him and the rest of the world. He’s a hard one to crack sometimes and lives a lot


in his own mind. But don’t worry, just give it time. He’s really happy you’re here. He just has a hard time showing it.” He sat on the stool in front of the new drum set and started pounding against the drums. He lit the room up with colors that effortlessly flew off of his sticks. “Listen,” he shouted, “If you want me to talk to him, I can. I’ll do anything to make this easier for you, Levi. Just let me know.” He kept banging against the drums. He made me feel a little less alone. When he finished letting loose on the drums, he tossed me a smile. “That always feels good, man. If you ever need a place to escape, you can always come here. Except for when you can’t because we close at nine. But then you could always crash at our pad right upstairs. The door to that is through the back by the alleyway.”


“Awesome. Thanks again for everything.” He stood up. “You play?” “Not the drums.” “Have at it,” he said, tossing the sticks at me. “Music runs through our blood. Bang around a bit and see if you can find any magic.”

Dad was sitting at his desk inside of his office with the door wide open when I came home from Soulful Things. He was wearing a pair of thick black-framed glasses, studying a stack of paperwork. I paused at his door and greeted him, hoping for at least a hello. “Hey,” I said, giving him a slight grin. He didn’t look up, but said hi. We’re getting somewhere.


Ever since I’d arrived, I felt this knot in my stomach that if I said the wrong thing to him, he’d send me away. The dad I remembered was much more interested in me. Now, even though I was standing a few feet away from him, there was this strange distance between the two of us. I tried to keep the conversation going, because it was clear he wasn’t interested in doing much talking. “The first day of school went okay. I like my classes. The teachers are fine. And—” “Listen, I’m trying to get some shit done. You think we can do this small talk later?” he cut in, still staring at the paperwork. “Shut the door behind you.” “Okay. I’ll be in my room if you need me.” He didn’t reply. I shut his door on my way out.


“I’m afraid,” Mom softly spoke after we pulled into our driveway. “I’m afraid for you. I see a lot of kids whose lives are forever changed by things like pregnancies. I’m a bit angry, too—at you, at myself—but we’ll figure this out, okay? I want you to know that you can talk to me. You can talk to me about what happened and with whom, Aria. I promise I’m here.” She climbed out of the car, slowly closing the door behind her. I followed her inside, but I wasn’t ready to talk. Mom relayed all of the information from the doctor’s appointment to Dad once we returned home. I was eleven weeks pregnant, I


refused to dive into any details about James being the father, and I never wanted to hear the word abortion. Are you going to get rid of it? Dad brought up the word abortion five times that night. Each time I heard it, I felt a fragment of my heart breaking. Apparently his sister Molly had an abortion when she was a teenager and he said it was the best decision she ever made. “She gave herself a life,” he argued. “Could you imagine Molly with a kid?” No one could. Molly was what the world called a free spirit. Mom called her a slut—but that was another story involving a very strange Thanksgiving dinner two years ago at Simon’s house. “Aria is not Molly.”


“It’s the same situation, Camila! She’s knocked up by God knows who. There’s an easy solution for this.” Mom huffed. “Easy?” Dad slammed his body into the living room chair and sank into it, running his hands over his head. “How could you let this happen?” Mom’s eyes widen with horror. Mike came walking into the house just in time to hear the fighting. His football shoulder pads were still on, and he held his helmet under his left arm. “What’s going on?” “We’re figuring out how to get rid of an issue.” “We are not figuring that out,” Mom scolded Dad, shooting him the dirtiest look ever. I stood with my hands against my stomach. “This isn’t some kind of plumbing job you


can just flush away, Adam! This is a life. Your daughter’s life.” Dad’s eyes moved to me for the first time since the news. He stared as if he was looking through me. His brows burrowed, and he pinched the bridge of his nose before blinking and looking away. “It’s been a long day. What did you get for dinner?” “You were supposed to pick up dinner. You knew I was taking Aria.” He muttered, they argued, he muttered some more, they argued some more. “I can order something,” I said. “Forget it, Aria.” Dad sighed. He stood up from the chair. “You’ve done enough.” “Is this going to be the norm now?” Mike asked Mom. He removed his shoulder pads. “Because if this place is just going to be


yelling and shit, then I can stay at James’ house.” The mere sound of James’ name made me want to hit something. Are you going to get rid of it? “Watch your attitude, Mike,” Mom said, heading for the kitchen, tugging on her ear. “Because I am really not in the mood today.”

When the pizza arrived, I took a few pieces, locked myself in my bedroom, and had my headphones blasting music from my cell phone into my ears. If I hadn’t turned around to shut my window, I wouldn’t have seen Simon standing outside, about to tap on the window.


“Hey,” he said, giving me his ‘I really messed up and hope you forgive me, best friend’ eyes. “Go away.” He nodded, but didn’t leave. I did my best to ignore him as I sat on the edge of my bed and started painting a new canvas. Abstract art fit best for my current mood. I painted for an hour straight. My eyes shifted to the window. Simon was still standing there, with both his hands in his pockets. He looked pathetic. Good. “Go away!” I said it once more, colder than before. He nodded, but didn’t leave. He wasn’t going to leave either. I walked over to the window and pushed the screen up. Leaning out of the window, I


glared at him. “You were the one person who wasn’t supposed to ruin my life.” “I know.” He frowned. I wished he wouldn’t. Seeing his sad eyes and stupid freckles was pretty sad. “I wasn’t thinking, and honestly Ms. Givens and I were just talking and talking and for a second it felt like it was just another friend. It felt like I was talking to you.” “Don’t play the ‘my only friends are a school librarian and a pregnant girl’ card.” “I can’t play that card because it’s a lie. The card I’m playing right now is ‘my only friend is a pregnant girl’. It’s the only card in my deck. I am going to stand here until you forgive me, because I am so sorry. I am sorry for being stupid.” “You can’t stand here all night,” I argued.


“Yes I can.” His bottom lip twitched before he looked at the ground. “I’ll stay all night.” My eyes shifted to his shoes. They were muddy. It had to be driving him crazy. He noticed me staring. “Simon…” “It doesn’t matter.” He hiccupped, trying not to allow his OCD to control him. His chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. “It’s not bad,” he said, his face was turning red. He was seconds away from exploding from his own demons. “Okay, okay. I forgive you.” He refused to hold eye contact with me. “I was a very shitty best friend today.” “Shut up, climb in the window, and clean your shoes.” “Oh thank God.” He exhaled, climbing inside. He spent the next hour cleaning his


shoes and apologizing to me. It wasn’t really necessary, though, because he was the only card in my deck, too, and I couldn’t afford to be cardless.

The next day Simon stood at the bus stop still apologizing to me for his mistake. “My God, did I tell you how perfect your hair looks today? Did you do something different?” He smiled wide. “Because it looks like you went from a solid supermodel to like a super-supermodel.” I didn’t reply, but he kept going. “Oh! And I made a list of reasons why you’re perfect. You want to hear it?” “Do I have a choice?” “No. You don’t.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.


“You’re the only person who understands that tuna and roast beef go together. You can quote Star Wars movies. Your art skills are legendary. You keep cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer in your bedroom for me. You’re funny even when you’re not trying to be. You’re pretty much…” He didn’t stop for quite a while, he just kept going and going. I could hardly listen to him, though, because all I was thinking about were the blue Chucks that had to arrive at the corner sooner than later. Levi almost missed the bus. He showed up about thirty seconds before the yellow cage pulled up. My eyes shifted to him, and I felt extremely bad. What kind of jerk was I to call him a creep? There was nothing creepy about him. The only thing that was odd was how nice he


treated me, especially after the lipstick on my locker situation. I hadn’t thought of what I would say to him. I knew I had to say something, but I wasn’t sure how to pull my foot out of my mouth. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all the night before. His shirt was wrinkled and his brown hair was still dripping wet from his shower. Our shoulders were next to one another, only inches apart, but for some reason Levi felt miles away. I didn’t know him well enough to ask if he was angry with me, or if he’d had a bad night, or if he wanted to talk. I didn’t know him at all, really. Simon was the first to step onto the bus. Before he officially climbed aboard, he pushed his glasses up his nose and said,


“You’ve befriended me, the biggest weirdo ever! You volunteered as tribute like that one girl from Hunger Games…” He frowned. “I can’t think of her name, though.” “Katniss,” Levi said softly, nodding toward Simon. He brushed his thumb against his bottom lip. I swear he did it in slow motion, too, making me stare at his mouth as it formed words that made my heart skip. “Katniss Everdeen.” Levi Myers, ladies and gents. The biggest oxymoron of them all. “Yes! You’re Katniss Everdeen,” Simon exclaimed, not taking notice of my heart flipping in my chest as I stared at Levi, who refused to look at me once. I wanted to apologize, but I didn’t know how.


Levi was putting salt in my wounds as he sat and spoke to Tori during lunch. He’d caught her red-lipstick-handed the day before at my locker, and instead of yelling at her, he was giving her his stupid smile that made every girl in school want to have his babies. Well, except me. Once you get knocked up by someone at sixteen, the idea of having babies takes on a whole new meaning. Watching him talk to Tori was annoying. I should’ve looked away, but I couldn’t. “I’m so happy I didn’t swoosh in after Tori and Eric broke up,” Simon sneered. “It seems the new guy is all over that anyway. Too bad for him, she’s a bitch.” “You think he’s into her?” I asked, trying not to sound too interested, though secretly one hundred and ten percent interested.


“Are you kidding me? Of course he is. Look at her! And heck, look at him. I mean, I’m not into guys or anything, but he’s easy enough to stare at. He looks like he walked out of a soap opera as the hot lead character.” He paused. “Was that a weird thing to say?” “A little.” “Can we pretend I didn’t say it?” “Probably not, no. But really, you think they are a match?” “It’s like a match made in popular kids heaven,” he said. “You don’t have to hate her just because I do.” I knew his eyes were still looking at Tori. She was his heaven, but he refused to say anything like that after what she’d done. “No way,” he nudged me in the side, “you’re my best friend and we hate Tori. You


know what they say, chicks before…chicks.” He paused. “People don’t say that, do they?” I shook my head. “Probably not, no.” Simon kept staring at Tori, and I kept staring at Levi. He was laughing with her and as her hand landed on his shoulder, I wanted to vomit. If there was one way to describe Levi, it was that he was a noticer. When he spoke to people, he stared as if he was really noticing every feature about them. He really paid attention. I hated how much attention he was paying to Tori right then instead of me, which was stupid because 1. I’d pushed him away, and 2. Sixteen and pregnant. Tori tossed her head back in laughter and twirled her hair around her pinkie finger.


She was ridiculously perfect, and Levi noticed that fact. And I noticed him noticing her, too.

Around sixth hour, I considered skipping class. I’d never skipped a class in my life, but for some reason, it felt like the perfect time to run away. The front doors of the school were only a few feet away from me. With a quick movement, I could disappear onto the streets of Mayfair Heights and take a few moments to actually think. Ever since I’d learned I was pregnant, I took no time whatsoever to think. I stepped toward the doors. Am I really going to keep the baby? Does James have any say in that?


Am I ever going to feel as if I’m good enough? My stomach was upset because of the mystery meat the lunch lady served, and I was fully convinced that I was leaving. I was walking out of that building come hell or high water. “Hey, Aria.” My steps were intercepted when Tori and her followers stepped in front of me with their fake smiles. Well, crap. I cocked an eyebrow. As I was about to turn around, Tori placed her hand on my shoulder. “I just wanted to say sorry for yesterday. It was super immature of us to do that to your locker, so I’m sorry.” My shields were up. I didn’t say a word. “Plus, your haircut is totes adorbs,” one of Tori’s sidekicks said.


Silence fell. The three girls narrowed their eyes at me like I was an alien. What were they waiting for? Me to forgive them? Because that wasn’t going to happen. “Okay, whatever. I just thought I would say sorry.” Tori looked over her shoulder and smiled at someone. When I turned to see Levi, I rolled my eyes. Of course this ‘heartfelt apology’ had something to do with Levi. The second he walked off, the three girls’ kindness faded away, too. “You’re so fugly it’s almost embarrassing that you’re pregnant,” one of the girls said. I assumed ‘fugly’ was the ‘popular’ word for fucking ugly. “Did you wear a bag over your head when you let the guy all over you? You’re so pathetic.”


“It’s cute, really. How Levi sees you as a charity case. How he wanted to protect the little slutty freak’s feelings.” They kept going. My fingers were digging into the palms of my hands, and I hadn’t a clue why they were so interested in me when less than twenty-four hours ago they hadn’t even known my name. How can I go back in time to when they didn’t know my name? Tears of outrage blurred my vision as I turned away from the girls and headed straight down the hallway. “I don’t need you to fight my battles!” I said, marching toward Levi’s locker. He was switching out books for his next hour, and I sent them crashing to the ground. He didn’t break his stare from me. “Do you know how


hard this is for me?! I don’t need you making it worse.” My bottom lip was trembling as I fought the tears. Don’t cry. I felt like tears gave the person watching you a sort of power. I needed to hold onto as much power as I could nowadays. His eyes widened in shock. He stepped toward me. I moved back. “Aria, I’m so sorry…” He reached out to touch my shoulder, but I flinched. I took another step back. “I can’t believe I was going to apologize to you. You’re making it so easy for them to break me. Leave me alone, all right? Just…” The sadness in me deepened, my own self-doubt filling my mind with the words Tori and her friends had tossed my way. They were right. I was pathetic. “Please just leave me alone,” I whispered, feeling defeated.


She was beyond annoyed with me. I felt shitty about it, too. I wasn’t trying to stress her out more, but when Tori came up to me asking me to eat lunch with her and her friends, I thought it was a perfect chance to get them to apologize to Aria. I didn’t know why I felt a pull toward her. She was emotionally shut off from the world, but every now and then she would give me a small smile that made me think she didn’t want to be so alone. Plus, I still missed Alabama, and something about her uniqueness reminded me of home.


Our music class headed to Mr. Harper’s classroom with our instruments. I was half surprised to see Aria sitting at her desk. For some reason I figured she would’ve changed classes and moved to Florida to get away from me. I slid into the desk next to her and pulled out my fact sheet from the day before. “Sorry…” She scrunched up her nose and turned to face me. “Sorry for flipping out in the hallway, and for calling you a creep yesterday. I was embarrassed and hurt.” “No offense, Aria, but I think I’m the one who is supposed to be apologizing.” She disagreed. “My emotions are just all over the place.” Crossing her legs on her seat, she sat like a pretzel. “It’s like, I’m still me, but…different.” “Different can be good.”


“No. Not this kind of different.” Aria’s voice shook as she tried to control it. “Anyway, we should probably fill out this sheet today.” I didn’t oppose the idea. Honestly I was just happy she was even speaking to me. I learned quite a bit about her and her family. Her middle name was Lauren. She loved pizza of any kind. Her mom was a doctor and her dad was a plumber. Her favorite type of art was abstract (I thought abstract was weird). When she talked, she had a small dimple in her left cheek. She didn’t tell me that fact, but I couldn’t help but notice. I told her how I love egg rolls and bacon—not together, but I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea. My middle name was Wesley, football was my favorite sport to watch, and I only drank root beer.


“What does the tattoo on your hand mean?” she asked, looking at the eye sitting between my thumb and pointer finger. “Oh, it’s for one of my favorite songs, ‘These Eyes’, by The Guess Who. My mom let me get this one and this one,” I pointed to the quill pen tattoo on my forearm, “for my birthday. The quill is a reminder of how much words mean to me. If there’s anything I love as much as the sound of music, it’s the words that come along with the songs.” “That’s so cool. My parents would never let me get a tattoo.” “Yeah…my mom’s a little bit different than most parents.” I bit into my bottom lip, not wanting to talk about Mom too much. She must have noticed my need for a switch in conversation, so she continued onto the next topic.


“Okay,” she said, glancing down at her sheet. “Special skills?” “I’m a professional at the air guitar and lip syncing,” I said. She snickered and placed her pencil down on the desk. “I’m not writing that.” Arching an eyebrow, I asked why not. “Because people aren’t professionals at air guitar and lip syncing.” I smiled. “I definitely am a professional air guitarist and lip syncer.” “Bull crap.” It sounded like a challenge to me. I went digging through my backpack, which had at least a dozen of my favorite CDs inside. I pulled one out, walked over to Mr. Harper and asked if I could perform it. He agreed, allowing me to play the song on his


computer. I stood in front of the classroom, tuning my invisible guitar. Aria stared as if she thought I was insane, but that was no different from how she normally looked at me. “10 A.M. Automatic,” by The Black Keys started playing, and I sat on top of Mr. Harper’s messy desk, and started to strum along. My fingers moved franticly, never missing an invisible string. When I started silently singing toward Aria, her cheeks blushed and her feet tapped against the floor to the music. I hopped off of the desk and started moving around the room, singing to random girls, who giggled and twirled their hair. I lost myself in the music, feeling as if I was on stage playing in front of a real audience, strumming the guitar.


I felt everyone’s eyes on me, but only one pair of brown eyes really mattered. For the final verse of the song, I stood in front of Aria, playing the last chords, taking in the small grin on her lips. Once I finished, the final bell of the day rang and everyone packed up their bags. A few girls walked up to me, telling me that I was great, and Connor made sure to mention the amount of chicks we were going to bang because of the air guitar, but I didn’t care what they were saying. I wanted to know what Aria thought. She picked up her pencil and wrote the words air guitarist and lip syncing under my special skills. We were the last ones to leave the classroom, and we walked down the hallway quietly. She hugged a couple of books to her


chest and when we walked outside, waiting in line for our turn to climb onto the bus, she stared at the sidewalk. “That was really good, Levi,” she whispered, nodding slightly. “You’re really good at the air guitar and shockingly you sounded remarkably like The Black Keys.” I laughed. “It’s a superpower of mine.” “Do you have many superpowers?” “Just wait and see, Aria Watson. Just wait and see.” I felt like I was flying.

When I arrived back at Dad’s after school, he was staring under the hood of his car in the front yard. A cigarette was hanging out of his mouth, and he was muttering to himself


about something or other when I walked up to him. The knots in the stomach returned. “Hey, Dad.” He looked up, shook a few ashes from his cigarette, and went back to fixing his car. “You need any help?” “You know shit about cars?” he asked dryly. I didn’t. He snickered. “Just go play your flute or something.” “Violin,” I corrected, holding the straps of my backpack. He cocked an eyebrow. “I play the violin. Not the flute.” “Flute, violin, both sound corny as hell.” Ouch. “Okay. Well, if you don’t need any help…” I waited for him to ask me to hand him a wrench or something. It was pretty pathetic


the way I stood waiting, but I finally headed into the house. As I tossed my backpack onto my bed and my cell phone started ringing, I knew it was Mom. After I answered, she sounded just as worried and concerned as before. “How are you holding up?” she said, probably pacing back and forth as she talked. “Still holding on,” I replied, lying against the mattress. “Are you sure you don’t want to come back home? I can have a flight booked for you in about five minutes.” Tempting. “Not quite ready to pack it up just yet.” “Why do you need this?” she asked, sounding somewhat irritated. “I just got to try. I have to figure out who this guy is.” I wanted that father-son


relationship I remembered from my memories. I wanted to try to get to know Dad again. The problem was I didn’t expect him to be so closed off, therefore that meant getting to know him again would be a little hard. I wasn’t afraid to put in the work at our broken relationship, but I knew it would take time. Time. We have time. It wouldn’t be overnight, but it would happen. Plus, Mom went through cycles of her own mental stability, and I knew she was currently struggling with her issues. It was those same issues that made me want to get away from her and come stay with Dad. I wasn’t ready to go home to her.


Even if I missed her, I didn’t miss her enough to sit around and watch her fall apart. She sighed into the phone receiver, expecting me to say yes to the idea of going home. “I spoke to Lance not too long ago. After a yelling match he finally let up why he thought it was so important for you to be up there with your father.” “Yeah? And why’s that?” She paused. Her silence made me push myself up to a standing position. “Ma?” “He’s sick, Levi.” I laughed, because it was the only thing I could do. “Sick? What do you mean he’s sick?” “He has lung cancer.” What? Dad wasn’t sick.


“What’s wrong with you? Why would you say that?” I barked. “Don’t talk to me with that tone, Levi. I’m just telling you what Lance said.” It can’t be true. My heart started pounding faster as I rushed out of my bedroom through the house. Mom was still talking on the phone, but I wasn’t listening anymore. Now all I was doing was searching through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, the drawers in the kitchen, and the coffee table in the living room. I was looking for any signs, any clear proof that Dad was sick. Because if he had cancer there would be proof, right? He would have to take medicine. There would be paperwork or something…anything. I looked at his office.


The door was closed. “Levi!” Mom said in my ear, snapping me out of my hectic movements. “You’re coming home. There’s no way I’m going to have you there going through this.” “I’ll call you back,” I said to Mom, hanging up before she could reply. My fingers wrapped around the knob of the office door, and I pushed it open. Moving to his desk, I pulled open the side doors and looked at the orange pill bottles. I read the labels, but didn’t understand a single one. I kept digging and found all of it. The paperwork. The medicines. All the proof. I lifted a picture that was pushed in the back of the drawer. Our fishing trip.


A lump formed in my throat as I stared at the photographic proof that we used to be happy together. “What the hell are you doing?” Dad shouted, standing in the doorframe of his office. Just staring at him I should’ve known he was sick. He looked sick. Skinnier than any man his height should’ve been. The circles under his eyes were dark, too, but I didn’t know what his normal look was and what was out of the norm because I didn’t know him. “You a thief or something?” he hissed, giving me a look of disgust. “You looking for money?” “No.” I cleared my throat, dropping his paperwork into the top drawer. “Ma just said—”


“I don’t care what your mom said.” His hand slammed against the door. “The door was shut, which meant stay out.” Nodding, I headed toward the door, and he stood in front of it, blocking my way out, his eyes filled with less emotion than before. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna cry. Pull your shit together and stop being a pussy.” Who are you? Pushing past him, I felt my breaths growing heavier and heavier. Entering my room, I shut the door behind me. My back landed against the closest wall, and I pounded my hand against my chest, over and over again. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. I couldn’t go back to Alabama.


I couldn’t walk away knowing that I was leaving him alone and sick. Plus, there was my selfish need to want to know more about him. What made him so cold? When did he shift from the playful guy I used to know into this mean personality? How could I fix it? Fix us? I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t keep trying for a relationship with him before he… I blinked and swallowed hard. Time. I need more time. I came out of my bedroom an hour later and saw him sleeping on the couch. I knew if I walked away now, there would be no possibility of me ever learning about this stranger who shared my DNA. I also knew that if I left, he had no one. He would never admit it, but he had to be afraid. Cancer had


to be scary, and he was going through it alone. Maybe people said terrible things when they were afraid. Maybe Dad was always afraid. I can’t go back to Alabama. I called and told Mom. She cried a bit and told me she didn’t understand. Truthfully, I didn’t completely understand either, but in my gut I knew if I walked away now I would regret it forever. So, I would stay. I headed out to the woods around eleven that night with a flashlight and my violin. I loved the smells of the woods, the calmness of nature. Back home whenever my mind was clogged, Mom would have me step barefoot into the woods, my toes curled against the grass, and I would just breathe.


There was something otherworldly about nature that made my problems feel less important, made my situation feel less dramatic. I stared at the house that was hidden in the trees. The father who built that place with me still had to exist. I wouldn’t give up on him. Not now. I climbed up the rungs, and sat inside of the wooden house. I lifted my violin out of the case. Music would help me through this. Mom used to tell me that the violin strings were able to tell stories through the way the violinist played them; stories of grief, of suffering, of beauty, of light. I started playing quietly at first. The bow rolled back and forth against the strings, the sounds of my best friend bouncing through the sleeping trees, touching the


resting woods. The plan was to play until I stopped worrying about Mom back home. I wanted to play until my father was my dad again. I wanted to play until cancer was just a word and not a death notice. Yet it turned out I couldn’t fulfill those goals because at three in the morning, I was still worried about my mother, my father was still far from my dad, and cancer was still the most messed up word in the history of words. By that point, I felt like I was crashing down.

10 /ARIA

For Sunday dinner Dad grilled out while Mom made potato salad, corn, and homemade applesauce. There weren’t many more days left for barbeques in Wisconsin since winter would be here soon enough, so I was pretty excited. Dad made the best hamburgers, adding his secret ingredient that he would never reveal. We sat around the table, and Mike went on and on about the homecoming game coming up in a few weeks. “We’re playing against the Falcons and coach said a few scouts from UW-Madison are going to be there. Plus, next weekend recruits from Ohio State are coming up here.”


“You think you’re ready for this? Have you been getting your extra workouts in?” Dad asked, placing a tray of his hamburgers in the middle of the table. “Yes, sir. Coach said I have nothing to worry about, though, he said I’m pretty much guaranteed a few schools. So, I should be able to pick the one I want the most.” “Don’t let it get to your head, though. You have to keep your grades up, too. You need a backup plan.” Dad lowered himself into his chair and glanced toward me before turning back to Mike. “People should have a backup plan.” Mike agreed with him, and Mom just frowned at me. I tried my best not to draw any attention to myself during dinner. After all, during the last Sunday dinner I’d dropped the ‘I’m pregnant’ situation and


things had gone downhill pretty fast. This time I just wanted to enjoy my favorite burger. I took my first bite and my nose scrunched up. “Did you do something different to the burgers?” I asked. Dad’s eyes locked with mine for less than two seconds before he looked away, adding potato salad to his plate. “Same as always.” Nodding, I took another bite. My nose scrunched again. It didn’t taste the same as always. It tasted…bad, actually. I placed the burger down and pretty much lost my appetite for everything sitting in front of me. “Why aren’t you eating?” Grace asked me, stuffing her burger into her mouth. Just seeing her eat that thing was making me want to gag. How do they not taste it?! “When


Mrs. Thompson was pregnant she ate like a cow. She looked like a cow, too.” “Grace, that’s not a nice thing to say,” Mom scolded. I hated that the conversation was slowly turning to my pregnancy; I didn’t want to ruin dinner for Dad, again. Mom crossed her arms and gave me a pity smile. “It’s called dysguesia,” Mom said. “Your taste buds are just off due to the baby.” Dad cringed and pushed his chair from the table. Whenever he was annoyed the redness in his face deepened. “I think that’s enough.” “Adam…” Mom’s voice was low. “Sit back down.” “No. Not if this is just going to turn into last week again. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to deal with...” He gestured toward me as if I was a virus, a plague. “This.”


“I’m keeping it,” I said. Dad gave me a harsh stare, but I couldn’t stand being treated like this any longer. “I’m keeping it and I’m sorry if you hate me, but I’m keeping it.” Before he could reply—or more likely yell—the front doorbell rang. He hurried off to answer it and the rest of us remained silent. Mike shot me the same dirty look Dad had, Grace tried not to giggle at my so-called life, and KitKat ate corn. “You really need to think of better times to talk,” Mike said, irritated with my existence. A few moments later Dad walked back into the dining room, and I was a bit surprised to see Levi walking in behind him. In an instant I was standing. “What are you doing here?”


“Is this the boy?” Dad asked, gesturing toward me. “Did he do this to you?” “What?!” I hissed, embarrassed and shocked. “No!” Levi cocked an eyebrow and paused. “I’m sorry, if this is a bad time…” “What are you doing here?” I asked again. “Who are you?” Mom said to Levi. I could feel my cheeks heating up. My heart was picking up speed, too. He made me nervous and excited all at once, and even though my mind knew it was a stupid idea to feel this way, my heart didn’t care. “I’m Levi, ma’am. I’m Kent Myers’ son. I came up here to stay with him for the school year. I’m Aria’s partner.” His accent made him seem so innocent. “Kent’s son? Partner? What does that mean?” Dad hissed, annoyed as ever.


“Dadddd!” I screamed, extremely mortified, covering my face. “I mean, she’s my partner in our art and music class.” Mom stood up and tried her best to break up the awkwardness. “Sorry, Levi. I think right now is just a bad time.” “I’m sorry, Mrs. Watson, I really am, but I was hoping I could talk to you really quick.” “Me?” “Yes, ma’am.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out some papers. “Aria mentioned that you were a doctor, so I was wondering if I could talk to you. I promise it will be fast.” He held the papers out toward Mom, and she started frowning. She brought him into the living room and they sat on the sofa. They were whispering as all of us watched.


Levi’s shoulders sank and he listened to whatever Mom was saying to him. Every now and then he would nod and say, “Yes, ma’am,” but mostly he stared at the carpet, wiping at his eyes. When they finished, he pushed himself up from the couch and thanked Mom before turning toward the front door and leaving. I hurried into the living room. “What was that about?” I asked, moving to the window to stare at Levi walking away with his hands stuffed in his jeans and his head down. “Poor guy.” Mom shook her head, walking back toward the dining room. “I don’t want guys stopping over here, Aria! Especially a boy related to that deadbeat Kent Myers! Do you hear me?”


As Mom passed by him, tugging on her ear, she turned and said, “Give her a break, Adam. You’re acting like a real jerk.” He didn’t reply, maybe because he knew it was true. “What was that about?” I asked Mom, who sat back in her dining room chair and started eating as if nothing strange just happened. My heart was pounding in my chest wondering what she and Levi were talking about. “It’s a personal thing, Aria. I can’t talk about it.” “But…” My feet shuffled. I tugged on the hem of my shirt. “Is he okay? Is there something wrong with him?” Mom gave me her tight smile that told me she wasn’t going to give any more details on the subject. I debated heading over to ask


him what was going on, but I knew Dad would freak out if he knew I was leaving to meet up with Levi.

My alarm clock went off at 5:50 A.M. the next morning. Tossing on a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie, I stepped into my shoes and climbed out of my window. The morning air was crisp and chilled. I wandered down the sidewalk to the edge of the forest. I was hoping Levi would be out there, wandering around trying to feed the deer. My stomach flipped when I actually did see him. A part of me was surprised that he standing a few feet away from me, but then again he had said he tried to feed the deer each morning.


He had a handful of berries and was leaned against a tree trunk, but there didn’t seem to be a deer anywhere nearby. “Hi,” I said, walking over to him. I crossed my arms, trying to stay warm. His head rose and a small smile hit his lips. Clearing my throat, I leaned against a tree. “Are you sick or something?” “Why do you ask?” “Just wondering.” “Would it make you sad if I were?” he asked. “Yes.” “Even though we just met?” “Yes.” Yes. And yes again. “I’m not sick,” he said. “My dad has cancer.” I released a breath. “I’m sorry.” “Me too.”


I didn’t know much about cancer. Simon’s aunt had had it a long time ago, but she had been better for years. All I remembered Simon’s mom saying about it was that cancer sucked the life out of someone and everyone around them. That idea alone was terrifying and sad, and somewhat familiar to me. “He can fight it,” I said, hoping to give comfort. “If he wants to,” he replied, dryly. “I don’t think he wants me here,” Levi said, more raw than ever before. He always was so upbeat and happy, so seeing him like this was disheartening. “Not because of the cancer or anything. He just doesn’t want me here.” We stood quiet, staring as the sun began to rise before us. Slowly and cautiously a deer peeked out from behind a large tree. He


looked a bit alarmed, his eyes wide as he stared out. Levi whispered for me to remain still as he tossed a few berries onto the ground. I pretended that I was a part of the tree and hugged my body to the wood as the deer eased closer and began to eat the berries. “He comes out each time,” Levi explained. “He gets braver each time, too.” “Does he have a name?” He shook his head. The deer continued eating the berries until he ran off deeper into the forest. Levi smiled. Somehow watching the deer eat the berries brought him a level of comfort. He was so different. He was so refreshing. “What’s your favorite word?” he asked. “Favorite word?”


He nodded. “Mine is nonsensical. My mom always had me learn ten new words a day by flipping through the dictionary, and when I landed on nonsensical I knew it was something special because the meaning of the word is meaningless. It actually means nothing, which in the end has to count for something, right?” “Maybe. I guess.” He smiled. “Maybe.” “Oxymoron,” I said. “It’s my favorite word. And I guess, in the end, it kind of means nothing because both parts of an oxymoron kind of cancel each other out.” “Ugh. How nonsensical!” he whined, slapping the palm of his hand to his face. “So nonsensical!” I laughed. “The word oxymoron is actually made up of two Greek


words that mean sharp and dull. So oxymoron is its own oxymoron.” “It’s funny you should mention such a word while we’re alone together,” he said with a smirk, hoping I would pick up on his oxymoron. I did. Obviously. “Yup. It’s pretty bittersweet.” “But it’s kind of a comfortable misery.” “Oh yes. It’s awfully good.” I laughed. He laughed with me. Our laughter kind of blended into one sound instead of two. Then we were quiet. So very quiet. We stayed quiet for a long time. He was someone who was very easy to be quiet with. It was as if we were still having a conversation with no words whatsoever. Silently loud.


But as time passed, I knew I would have to get home to get ready for school. “Aria?” Levi pushed himself away from his tree. “Can I walk you home?” I ran my fingers through my hair and nodded. The leaves crunched under our steps. Levi walked beside me and even though we weren’t touching, I could almost feel my heart skipping at the idea of such a thing happening. He had a warming characteristic about him that brought me a level of comfort. Was Levi Myers real? Did he really exist? Or did my sad, black heart create him because it longed for a little bit of color? Either way, I was happy he walked beside me.

11 /LEVI

When I was eleven years old, I came to visit Dad during the summer. One of the first days there, he took me out to Fisherman’s Creek. We rented a wooden boat from the dock and sat in the middle of the creek all day long, baking in the sun. Our fishing hooks sat at the bottom of the water, no fish seeming interested at all in being caught. Dad bought himself a six-pack of cold beer and me a sixpack of iced root beer. He scolded me for not wanting to put real worms on our hooks, saying that the plastic worms didn’t ever work, but Mom told me that we were supposed to respect nature. She


said if we didn’t need it to eat, then we shouldn’t harm it. We sat chugging our beers and getting bad sunburns. The silence of the creek was something I always remembered. How we hardly moved in our boat, how the water only waved every now and then when a bird dipped in looking for a quick meal. After five hours of sweat, my fishing rod moved, and Dad jumped to my aid, helping me reel in the biggest catch of my life. “Pull!” he ordered, and I did. I pulled, pulled, and pulled some more. The moment of truth came when the fish emerged from the depths of the water and we laughed. We laughed so hard I thought my stomach was going to explode and root beer would come out of my nose. Turned out, my fish was less of a fish and more of a big


hiking boot. When Dad laughed, I laughed. Dad leaned against the side of the boat. “Dinner might be a little leathery tonight, Levi.” We kept laughing, me clutching my gut and him chuckling at my howls. That was the last time we’d laughed together. It was the last time we were happy together. I wondered what had happened. What had changed and made him stop loving me? Now the closest I got to hearing him laugh with me was when he watched old black and white comedies on television in the living room each night. He never asked me to join him, and I could tell he was a bit annoyed when I sat with him. So, I chose to sit in the foyer each night, around the corner so


he couldn’t hear or see me. When he would laugh, I would laugh. It almost felt like we were recreating a father-son relationship that was lost in time and space. I’d never loved black and white comedies so much in my life.

12 /LEVI

popular | adjective | pop·u·lar | \?pä-py?l?r\ liked or enjoyed by many people. suitable to the majority. frequently encountered or widely accepted. I didn’t know how to fit in with the popular kids. I sat at their lunch tables, listened to their talk about parties, and tried my best to always smile, but the truth was we didn’t have anything in common. They came from families who had a lot of money and lived lives of luxury. I came from a cabin in the woods. They all played sports and had other after school activities. I had my mom and


wasn’t allowed to join any clubs outside of the forest. I only had the violin, and Mom taught me the lessons. None of these guys played any instruments, and even though the girls said it was sexy that I played the violin, they never went into deep conversations about the best violinists or the interesting idea of mixing classical sounds with modern music. They mostly talked about sex, drinking, and the next party. High school annoyed me. Since I’d arrived here I’d been labeled and tossed into a box due to characteristics that were none of my doing. I was placed with a group who had no desire to know me because they were only concerned with the outside. On the outside I fit. On the inside, I was an abnormality.


It was kind of disturbing how they all sort of slept and hooked up with each other like it was normal. Stacy dated Brian who made out with Jessica who had sex with Jason who sucked Victoria’s toes, who gave Eric a blow job after he slept with Stacy who was still dating Brian. It was like a weird, tangled up inbreeding group that only kept it in the family. Plus, based on the definition of popular, these people were the exact opposite of the meaning. They were mean just for the hell of it. They were such a close-knit group compared to the majority of the school. Sure, they all loved each other, but the majority of the people at Mayfair Heights high school hated their guts. unpopular | adjective | un·pop·u·lar | \??n-?pä-py?-l?r\


not popular: viewed or received unfavorably by the public. When I looked across the cafeteria room, I always noticed Aria and Simon laughing with one another. Aria didn’t smile often, and her laughs were few and far between, but her friend had a way of bringing them out of her. I’d been thinking about her laugh since the morning we’d stood in the forest talking about oxymorons, cancer, and other nonsensical things. I liked that morning so much more than sex talk, drinking, and parties. I liked nature, and deer, and Aria Watson—who was a girl who was somehow happy and sad all at once. Sometimes we would lock eyes across the room and we wouldn’t look away. It was a


full-blown staring contest. Who will look away first? I never lost. She always turned away.

One night at 3:45 A.M. my cell phone started ringing. I groaned, reaching across my bed to answer it. “Hello?” I drowsily said, my voice cracking. “I have this idea that I want to run by you. I’ve been thinking about opening a record store in town and I want you to come home and run it with me. It can be our thing, Levi. We can have all of the best vinyl tracks and stuff. I bet there’s an old broken down warehouse or something we could use. And—”


She sounded so distant through the phone—so far away from reality. I’d wished the sound wasn’t familiar. But it was those same sounds and those same thoughts that pushed me away from Alabama to Wisconsin. “Mom. It’s almost four in the morning.” “Oh. Were you sleeping? I’m online now looking up to see if there are any abandoned shops in town. I even been making logos and stuff on Photoshop that we could use for the store. What do you think about blue and fuchsia? We need to come up with a name for the place. I know the people in town are always talking about how I’m a failure and won’t be successful—” “Nobody in town thinks that, Ma.”


“I know what these people think, Levi. I can always hear them. Oh! And I recorded a new song. Do you want to hear it?” She didn’t give me a chance to reply that I had school the next morning. She kept talking and talking. I placed the phone down on my stomach after an hour of listening to her nonsense gibberish talks, and I closed my eyes. I bet she wasn’t taking her medicine anymore. Her late night phone call was the exact reminder I needed to why I decided to come stay with Dad instead of with her for the year. I needed the break from her.

13 /ARIA

I’d missed school for a week due to morning sickness and feeling like complete garbage. After finally returning to school on Thursday, I asked my history teacher, Mr. Fields, for the bathroom pass after thirty minutes of him talking about boring things that happened hundreds of years ago. I’d been having bad heartburn from the taco bar lunch. It felt like someone was reaching into me and lighting my insides on fire while they proceeded to put my heart in a chokehold. I knew if I sat in class and had to listen to Mr. Fields’ monotone voice speak about Napoleon for one more minute I would probably pass out from boredom.


Walking down the halls, I saw my locker was once again covered with something. This time it was pregnancy pamphlets and condoms. I had to admit it was a great warning, but it was just a tad bit late. “I hate my life,” I muttered to myself, taking off the garbage. “High school sucks.” I turned around to see Abigail standing inches away from me. Everyone in school called her Awkward Abigail because she was pretty much a social outcast. I knew that I too was an outcast, but as far as weirdos went, Abigail was at the top of the line. She wore wind pants each day with an old sweatshirt that had a picture of Pink Floyd on it. Her feet were always in a pair of high heels that looked very painful. Whenever she walked, she walked hastily, which led to her


making a swishing sound as her wind pants rubbed against one another. Her high heels clicked, her swishy pants swished. If she wasn’t speed walking through the hallways in a hurry to get to her next class, she was quoting some random person. Her eyebrows and hair looked bleached blond, and she was awfully pale, too. She didn’t believe in personal space, and I knew this firsthand because she was currently helping me take the condoms off of my locker, pretty much breathing down my neck. “Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.” “Don’t let them get to you, though. It’s not a forever thing. ‘Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.’ You know who said that? Marcus Aurelius said that.” “I don’t know who that is.”


“Google, Aria. The internet is swirling with people just telling you stuff that you didn’t know. Don’t take it all in, though. A lot of it is just government propaganda trying to scare you shitless so they can steal your money.” And with that she was off, swishing away. I didn’t know Awkward Abigail cursed.

Thursday afternoons were my new least favorite thing. Mom wanted to know that I was okay, but she wasn’t sure how to get me to open up to her. I wasn’t planning to open up to her, so maybe that was part of the problem. Since I wouldn’t talk to her about the incident that led to the pregnancy, she believed I should at least talk to someone.


Dad was more into the pretend-Ariadoesn’t-exist parenting tactic. I wished Mom was a little more like him. Dr. Ward’s name reminded me of an asylum ward. Three of the walls in his office were bright white and the last one, baby blue. His furniture was all made out of polished dark wood, except for the powder blue couch against one of the walls, the blue candy bowl filled with jelly beans, and the blue pens that lay perfectly straight on his desk. I bet he learned that in psychology 101, the use of colors. Blue was supposedly a calming color that many often used to make people feel at peace, comfortable. Personally, it reminded me of Picasso’s Blue Period, which was a pretty depressing time period for him, though some of his


greatest masterpieces came from that dark place. Another oxymoron: Picasso’s Blue Period of Brilliance. “What’s on your mind, Aria?” Dr. Ward asked in his very therapist-toned voice. He was old, yet somehow still young, probably in his early thirties. Old enough to be a therapist, but young enough to still seem unworthy. I didn’t have a clue why Mom had picked him to try to crack into my brain. Dr. Ward didn’t talk much, but when he did, he was always asking me about my thoughts, my feelings, and my current state of being. “Picasso,” I said, reaching for the jelly beans in his blue bowl. “Picasso?” he questioned, a hitch in his voice.


“During 1901, Picasso went through a blue phase. He only used blues and a few shades of green in his paintings. It’s said that during those times he was highly depressed, but he also made some of his best work during that period. The Old Guitarist, for example, is one of my all time favorite paintings. It’s strange that during the darkest times of his life he created some of his best masterpieces.” “Hmm,” he hummed, tapping one of the many blue pens against his lips. “And what made you think of Picasso right now?” “Your office.” “My office?” “Yes. It’s depressing and stuffy.” “Do you think it’s because of the actual room, or because of your current state of mind?”


I didn’t answer; I wasn’t sure what the answer was. Maybe I was going through my own blue period. “Do you feel depressed, Aria?” I didn’t reply. I played the angsty teenager role. He didn’t seem to mind.

“How was the meeting?” Mom asked me, driving away from Dr. Ward’s office. “Great,” I lied. “He’s really great.” “Good.” She smiled, nodding. “Good, good, good. I’m glad you have someone to talk to.” Yeah, totally.


After my therapy appointment, Mom had to go back to the hospital and Dad was working late, so it was my responsibility to grab Grace and KitKat from our neighbor’s house and make sure they had dinner. Boiled hotdogs and fries were as fancy as I was getting tonight, and the two of them didn’t seem to mind at all. There was nothing my two sisters loved more than fries and whatever the heck a hotdog was made of. We sat at the table eating together, and Grace kept staring down at my stomach. “You’re really getting fat,” she said, stuffing her mouth with her hotdog, which was drowning in ketchup. “Shut up, Grace.” “You should think about going on a diet. Otherwise you’ll have a two hundred pound baby. Mrs. Thompson’s baby was pretty fat.”


“No one cares about Mrs. Thompson’s baby.” “That’s not nice,” she hollered, ketchup landing on her colorful shirt. Grace’s outfits always looked like she’d walked through a Skittles factory and swum in rainbows. From colored bracelets to rainbow socks, you would think she would be as sweet and bright as her clothing. Not so much. “You’re not really nice anymore.” “Well, calling your sister fat isn’t that nice either.” “You’re so grumpy.” I’m just tired. “Just eat your food, twerp.” “So does your baby have a dad?” Grace asked, apparently not in the mood to give me a break. “Grace…” The tone of my voice had an edge to it, warning her not to continue.


“He has a right to know probably that his girlfriend is knocked up with his baby.” She had this crazy idea that only people who were married or at least dating could get pregnant. If only that were true. I refused to reply to her statement. Instead, I picked and stabbed the food on my plate. “I bet your baby’s going to come out and his face is going to look like a butt. And it’s going to be all like this.” She made the ugliest face known to mankind, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I also cried. Emotional freaking rollercoaster.

14 /LEVI

Most of my love for music came from my mom, but Dad was the one who introduced me to the intense, beautiful skill of the air guitar and lip syncing when I was seven. Each night that I sat in the tree house, more and more memories of the man he used to be came back to me. I’d never forget the first song he taught me on the air guitar. It was one of my best memories with him.

Dad and I sat inside of the tree house, him with his case of beer, me with my case of root beer. He had a cigarette hanging between his lips as he crushed his first


emptied beer can and tossed it to the side. I followed his movement with my root beer. “I’m gonna teach you something that will get you a girlfriend some day, Lee. It’s the same way I landed your mom,” he said, lighting his cigarette. “The art of faking it.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he turned to his left where his boom box was sitting beside an old guitar case. “You’ve ever played the air guitar? Or have you ever lip synced?” he asked. “No.” After a few puffs of his cigarette, he nodded. “All right. You gotta watch closely, because this shit is serious and takes dedication. Do you think you can dedicate yourself to learning this instrument?” I laughed and nodded as I watched his fingers start tuning an invisible guitar. He


hit play on the boom box and as the music filled the space, his fingers moved against the guitar and his lips mimicked the words, but he didn’t actually speak a sound. “More Than A Feeling” by Boston boomed through the room as he strummed and ‘sang’ every note, rocking his head along the whole time. “Whoa,” I murmured as the song ended. He smirked. “Yup. I got something for you, one second.” He turned around, opened the guitar case, and he lifted an invisible guitar. “My old man gave me this when I was a kid, and now I’m passing it down to you. Take care of it.” I stared at my empty palms as he placed it in my hands. I cradled it as if I was holding the world against my fingertips. “Whoa,” I murmured again.


“All right. Are you ready? I’ll teach you the song I just played.” He hit play one more time on the boom box. We spent the night laughing, drinking beers, and learning how to become professional fake performers.

“What are you doing today?” Dad asked Wednesday morning. I had to make sure he was talking to me, even though we were the only two in the house. It was actually a miracle that we were standing in the same room. Most of the time when he saw me, he dodged in the opposite direction. “Me?” “Are you stupid? Who the hell else would I be talking to?” he grumbled as he opened the refrigerator.


I stayed up late each night since I found out about his cancer, researching and learning more and more about the disease. I also decided that I would blame the cancer for Dad’s grumpy personality—that way I wouldn’t feel like I was the one making him moody. “I have school.” He grumbled some more, sounding conflicted. “You think you can skip? The doctor said I shouldn’t be driving myself after chemotherapy, and I ain’t got anyone else to take me. Lance normally takes me, but he’s off at some hippie music festival or some shit.” It was the first time since I’d learned that he was sick that he’d actually admitted to having an illness. For some reason that made it more real to me. He really was sick. He really was fighting for his life.


“I can do that.” I nodded. I’ll do anything. He cocked an eyebrow and poured a cup of orange juice. He slid it over to me. I thanked him. “You know how to drive stick?” he asked. “Of course.”

Of course I didn’t know how to drive stick. Aunt Denise had helped me get my driver’s license in Alabama, but she hadn’t taught me to drive stick. Every other second Dad was cursing as I jerked us back and forth. “Jesus, Levi! I thought you knew how to drive stick? Switch the gear,” he ordered. “I don’t.” “What?”


“I just didn’t want you to have to go by yourself,” I said. Jolt. Stop sign. Five inches past the stop sign. Jerk. Stop. Holyshitwe’regoingtodieeee. “Well, that’s dumb. You should know how to drive. What the hell has your mom been teaching you down there?” He ran his hand against his chin. “I guess I’ll have to show you, seeing as how you can’t do shit right. In the meantime, just try not to kill me before cancer does me in.” “I would like that,” I said, nodding. “I would like you to teach me.” He would’ve never admitted it, but I thought he kind of liked the idea too.


A nurse sat Dad in an open room and hooked him up to a machine that dripped liquids into his body. He hollered at them for missing his veins, calling them idiots, but the nurses remained unfazed by his attitude. I sat next to him in a chair, wondering if it was working, if those chemicals were saving him. Then I remembered what Aria’s mother had said about stage four lung cancer, and I tried my best not to get my hopes up. I liked how Mrs. Watson was honest with me, but comforting at the same time. There was a small table with graham crackers and juice boxes of which I helped myself. Dad scolded me, telling me the snacks were only for the sick people, but Nurse Maggie told me that family was welcome to the treats, too.


About thirty minutes later, a girl from school walked in with her mom. I figured she was in my shoes, helping her mom out, but when she was the one sitting down in the chair and being hooked up to the machines, I realized I was nothing like her. Her skin was pale, ghostly, but she didn’t look sad. Not even scared. The same couldn’t be said about her mother. Her mother was terrified as she held her daughter’s hand. “It’s okay, Mom,” the girl said, a large smile on her lips. “It will get better after this.” She was comforting her mother while she was living some of the darkest days of her life.


I tried not to pay attention to her, but every now and then I would glance over.

“Where were you yesterday?” Aria asked at the bus stop. Simon was normally the first one to the corner, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen yet. I was certain he would be there soon enough. I smiled at Aria and held my backpack straps. “Did you miss me that much?” “No,” she huffed, kicking her shoe in a circular motion. “We were supposed to work on our project in art class yesterday and try to figure out what we were going to do, that’s all. Now we’re a day behind everyone else because of you.”


“Hold your horses, missy. I didn’t go ’round blaming you when you missed school for a week.” “That was different,” she whispered, her moving shoe coming to a halt. “I had the flu, and I sent you a message with what books on abstract artwork to check out from the library.” “Isn’t it called morning sickness?” I asked. “I’m not answering that,” she replied, rubbing her fingertips against her eyebrows. She wasn’t wearing any makeup this morning and looked perfect. If I hadn’t known any better, I might’ve thought she was makebelieve. “Why not?” She kept so much to herself, it didn’t seem fair. I wondered often about who the father of the baby was, but it wasn’t


my place to ask. If she wanted me to know, she would’ve told me. But then again, maybe she didn’t know that I was available to listen. “You can talk to me, ya know…about the pregnancy, if you need someone to talk to. I’m not even sure if you ever talk about it, but I want you to know that if you need a person to speak to, my ears are available for the conversation.” Her nose wrinkled up, and she slapped her forehead as the school bus pulled up. “Geez, Levi! It’s hardly seven in the morning and you’re already annoying me. This isn’t boding well for how our day with one another is going to go.” My lips turned up into a bigger smile. She was so cute when she was bitchy. “Too early for baby talk?”


“Way, way too early. A lifetime too early. Like, if we died, came back to life, died, came back to life again, died again, and came back again, it would still be too early to talk about it. You understand?” “Completely.” “Good.” “So…we’ll resume the baby conversation around lunchtime today?” “Why are you so freaking crazy?” “Because my mama raised me that way,” I replied, allowing her to step onto the bus before me. “Which brings me to my next question: can I eat lunch with you and Simon? I mean, I know we normally have some hardcore staring contests from across the cafeteria, but I reckon we could continue our staring contests at the same table.”


“You make it really hard for me to be annoyed with you when you use that ridiculous accent of yours.” She smiled playfully. I liked that side of her. “I can talk more like you if you want.” I switched my voice to my best Midwest sound. “How about we have a double deepfried corn dog and then eat a brat and get a sip of water from the bubbler?” “Ohmyfreakinggosh, a double deep-fried corn dog sounds so good right now.” I swear she actually drooled from the thought. “With ranch dressing.” I wasn’t sure if that was a pregnant thing or just a weird Wisconsin thing, but there was a significant chance it was both. When she said that I could eat lunch with them, I did a dance, which she told me to never do again.


So of course I did it again before I sat down beside her. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Seeing as how Simon isn’t here, I think this leaves an open invitation for me to sit next to you on the bus.” “You’re pushing it today, Levi. You want to sit with me at lunch and on the bus?” I nodded. “But it’s also so we can work on our project together. I figured if we are going to make this project the best we can, we need to start getting you in touch with good music.” I dug into my backpack and pulled out my CD player, then handed her one of my ear buds. “What is that?” she said, a look of bewilderment in her eyes. “A CD player?” I replied, confused by her confusion.


“People don’t use CD players anymore, Levi. That’s weird.” “Um, maybe normal people don’t, but seeing as how I am clearly a total hipster, I think it’s safe to say that this is the new hip thing to do. The old hipsters listen to vintage records, which, let’s face it, sound freaking amazing in person, but they are such a hassle to drag around town. An old school CD player still holds that cool, authentic hipster feeling, and weighs quite a bit less than a record player. So, mainly what I’m saying is it’s an honor for you to experience the magic that’s about to happen in your ear. It’s going to be like an explosion of color.” “Are you always so awake in the morning?” she joked. “Every day.”


She placed the ear bud in her ear, and I placed the other in mine. I hit play. “What CD is this?” she asked. “It’s a mix that I made at my uncle’s house over the weekend. It has all my favorites. First song is ‘Open Rhythms’ by Bodies Of Water.” I bent my knees, placing the soles of my shoes on the seat in front of me. As the song started playing, I relaxed into the seat, lifted my fingers, and played my air guitar intensely, making her giggle. She didn’t say anything else, so I had to take in the subtle clues that a person always gave when enjoying good music. Her foot started tapping. Her body started rocking. She closed her eyes with a smile.


She lost herself in it, and I couldn’t have been happier.

After first hour calculus, I walked up to Aria and drummed my fingers against her desk. “I think it’s nice that you laugh at Mr. Jones’ terrible jokes.” I smirked. “What are you talking about? Mr. Jones’ jokes are classic. And I fear being seen talking to anyone who cannot appreciate a good nerdy math joke.” I cocked an eyebrow. “So that’s what does it for you? Bad math puns? Really?” She nodded. “Not everyone can be as cool as Mr. Jones,” she said, sliding her books into her backpack as she stood from the desk. I always walked her to her locker after class,


and for a while she complained, but after some time, I think she kind of liked it. Clearing my throat, I puffed out my chest. “Well, I’m just going to put this out there: I’m not trying to be obtuse, but you’re acute girl.” “Ohmygosh, stop, Levi, that’s terrible.” She chuckled. “I don’t know if you’re in my range, but I’d sure like to take you back to my domain.” I followed my first bad math joke with an even worse one, making her laugh even harder. “That was awful, just stop. Go away.” I gripped the straps of my backpack with a large grin. I started walking backward, keeping my eyes on her. “Okay, I’m going. But I want you to know that this thing between us, it’s powerful. There’s no word to


express this new found connection we have, Aria. It’s like dividing by zero…you can’t define it.”

I got some crap from a few people for not eating at the popular table during lunchtime, but I didn’t care because Aria smiled at me as I walked toward her table. “Thaumaturge,” she said, unpacking her lunch. “Oh wow, thanks. I think you’re pretty good lookin’ too, Aria,” I replied, sitting down across from her. “What?!” Her cheeks blushed over. Whenever she was nervous, she placed her thumb between her teeth and broke eye contact.


“Sorry, I always assume when pretty girls use big words, it’s a term of flirtation.” “Well, it’s not.” “Keep telling yourself that. Okay, say the word again.” “Thaumaturge,” she repeated. “I downloaded this dictionary app on my phone last night and that was the word of the day.” “And the meaning?” “A worker of wonders or miracles. A magician.” “Okay, three things to say on this subject. One, what a badass word. Two, what a badass definition. Three, it’s a little sexy that you have a dictionary app.” She blushed some more and I loved it. “Anyway, so each day, I get a new word.”


“Let me see that.” She handed me her phone. I scrolled through it and started typing. “What are you doing?” “Adding my number so you’ll text me the new word if it’s something brilliant, but we aren’t together. And now I’m memorizing your number so I can text you all of my brilliant thoughts and knowledge on the world as a whole.” “Oh, I look forward to a complete indepth explanation as to why the chicken crossed the road.” Before I could reply to her sarcastic remark, Simon came walking up to the table like a zombie and plopped down. “You okay, Simon?” I asked. Aria gave him the same worrisome expression I was delivering. “I missed first hour,” he muttered.


Aria’s hand landed over her heart. “Oh no!” A chuckle passed through me as I took a bite of something that was slimy and kind of gray; the lunch ladies were trying to pass it off as turkey and gravy, but they weren’t fooling me. It was pig slop. “So? I’ve missed whole days. Aria has missed weeks.” “I had the flu!” she argued. I gave her a half smile. Her lips turned up. “No…you don’t understand. I missed first hour,” Simon said, pounding his head against the palms of his hands. “Simon has never, ever, ever missed a day of school. Not even a class. He has a perfect record,” Aria explained. “Had,” he corrected. “Had. Had. Had!” His face was turning red with irritation and even though I should’ve known it wasn’t


the right time to ask him, I really needed to know exactly why he was late. “Did you oversleep or something?” “What? No. Never. I set four different alarm clocks. But, when I was in the kitchen this morning, I had a twitch in my hand while pouring my orange juice and the whole container dropped, spilling everywhere.” “Oh no!” Aria said, her hand flying over her mouth. I didn’t understand. They were acting as if Simon was announcing he’d murdered someone in cold blood. “Yup.” Simon nodded, his eyes shifting away from any form of eye contact. “It went everywhere. My dad already left for work, and Mom was off to a doctor’s appointment.” “You should’ve called me,” Aria scolded her best friend. For…spilling orange juice…? “I couldn’t. I was scrubbing away.”


“It’s not really that big of a deal. Don’t let it get to ya,” I said, chugging my chocolate milk. “Not a big deal?” he argued, raising his voice an octave. “Not a big deal?! I had a perfect record! It was perfect! And now…” His head fell to the table, and he groaned some more. “Now I’m just imperfect.” I was having a hard time telling if Simon was being serious or not. I couldn’t imagine ever having a complete meltdown over missing one class period. Heck, I would’ve actually been ecstatic to miss first hour calculus. While I continued to eat my mystery lunch and Aria comforted her distressed friend, I looked up to see the same girl I’d seen the day before at the hospital. Her face was paler than it had been, but she was


moving as quick as ever with her tray in her hand. “Hey, y’all? Who’s that girl?” I asked, nodding in her direction. “You mean Awkward Abigail?” Simon said. I arched an eyebrow. “Huh?” “Awkward Abigail. She’s the weirdest girl in this school,” he said, tapping his fingers against the table. “A total freak.” I wondered if he knew how odd it was for him to be calling her a freak when half of the school called him the same thing. I held my hand up in Abigail’s direction and waved her over. “Hey, Abigail.” “Holy crap, Levi! What are you doing?!” Simon hissed. “You can’t call her over here! That’s social suicide and my social status is already in jeopardy.”


“She seems like a nice girl,” I said, waving her over. When she approached us with her tray in hands, she tapped her high heels rapidly against the floor. “What is it? Were you calling me? I thought you were calling me over.” “I was,” I said. “I’m Levi. I just wanted to see if you wanted to eat lunch with me and my friends.” Her eyes darted back and forth between Aria and Simon. “You want me to eat with you? They’ve never wanted me to eat with them before and I’ve known them since sixth grade.” She was very forward, and I kind of liked that about her. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure they changed their minds today, right, guys?” Aria and Simon remained silent. I


nudged my foot against Aria’s under the table. “Right, guys?” Aria raised an eyebrow at me, but nodded. “Right. Yeah, sit down, Awk—Abigail.” Abigail’s eyes moved to the large clock in the cafeteria and then to her watch. “I only have three minutes to join you.” “Three minutes sounds great,” I said. She placed her tray down beside me and the four of us sat in weird silence, just staring back and forth at one another. “Did you Google it, Aria?” Abigail asked. “Google what?” Aria replied. “Marcus Aurelius. Remember? Remember I told you to Google him?” “Oh…right…I haven’t found the time yet.” “During the Renaissance, people were learning different languages, instruments, painting, building skills, and also fighting off


deadly plagues. The fact that our generation now can hardly look up quotes is quite disheartening because we aren’t really doing much with our lives.” The three of us sat quietly, watching Abigail go on and on. She glanced at her watch. “I only have one minute left to sit with you guys.” Well, hell. I liked her spunk. “What’s a quote by Marcus?” I asked. Abigail’s face looked up at me, and she gave me a tiny smile. “‘The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane,’” she quoted. She stared into my eyes as if she were trying to say to me, “I know your secret.” I shifted around and gave her a tiny grin. “What made you quote that one?”


“Don’t know.” She pushed herself up from the table and picked up her tray. “Just did. Gotta go, time doesn’t wait for anyone, ya know.” She started off, but before leaving, she turned toward Simon. “I like your sweater, Simon. Maroon makes your eyes pop.” Her cheeks blushed over and she was off, dashing to her next adventure. “In the South, did you guys not believe in social suicide? Because seriously…you’re pushing us all into the land of misfit toys,” Simon argued, giving me a hard stare. “I think she likes you,” I said to the panicked redhead. He opened his mouth to holler my way, but he shut it fast. His thoughts seemed to be racing through his head, his facial expressions showing his confusion about what I’d


said. With haste, he pushed himself up from the table. “I’m going to get lunch.” Aria sat across from me, narrowing her eyes in my direction. “What’s your deal? What was that all about?” I didn’t answer her, because I wasn’t exactly sure myself.

“Two words for you, dude. Social. Suicide.” Connor was lecturing me in the locker room as we changed for sixth hour gym class. “You can’t keep eating lunch with those freaks if we are ever going to get invited to the best parties.” How did I end up having so many classes with this guy? I’d already been invited to the ‘best parties’, I just hadn’t found


a reason to ever go. I’d rather sit at home and be ignored by the father who didn’t want me. “I’m telling you, if we are going to get the kittens to meow our way, we need to avoid certain taboo things. That includes Awkward Abigail. She’s the worst thing a person could be seen with.” “She’s not a thing, Connor. She’s a person,” I said, pulling my gym shirt over my head. “I’m just saying, man. I get that it’s probably that Southern hospitality thing, but pull back a little.” Simon walked into the locker room and opened his locker. He never really talked in gym class, but I could tell it was his least favorite thing, seeing as how half of the guys picked on him and he was always chosen last for teams.


Connor started talking some more bullshit in a sickening manner, but I was becoming pretty good at tuning him out. I would’ve been better off sitting in the front of Mr. Jones’ math class being spat on. During class we played field hockey out on the soccer field. Mr. Jenson was the fattest gym teacher at Mayfair Heights, and he made sure to always belittle the students who weren’t the best at sports. Luckily I wasn’t too bad, but the way he spoke down to some of the others was disgusting. I wondered if he and Connor were related. “Alabama,” Mr. Jenson called out to me. The nickname had stuck more than I’d wanted it to. “You’re captain. Jason, you’re captain, too.” “Hell yeah!” Connor said, walking out toward my team as if I’d picked him.


“I pick Simon,” I said, making Connor freeze. “What?” he and Simon said simultaneously. “I said Simon. You’re up.” Everyone around us started laughing as if I was kidding, but the small smile that appeared on Simon’s face when his name wasn’t called last was worth it, even if we did get our asses handed to us that day.

15 /ARIA

October came sweeping in with wet weather, cloudy skies, and a growing belly. I was fifteen weeks pregnant and starting to look the part, too. For Sunday dinner, Mike invited James and Nadine in an attempt to avoid Dad storming off and rolling his eyes at me with disappointment. Mom made Grace’s favorite meal: chicken parmesan and green beans. In the past whenever James and Nadine came over, Nadine would always end up in my room while the guys played video games. She and I would talk about my artwork and her dancing. Now it was extremely odd to


have them both sitting a few inches away from me. I did my best to not look across the table at James, but I could feel his stare on me. This is so awkward. Why would he think it was okay to show up to my family’s house for dinner? Why did he think it was okay to bring his girlfriend with him? Why did I feel more alone than ever before whenever he held her hand? “So, I got into Duke,” James said, passing around the bowl of garlic bread. “I’m officially going to be a Blue Devil come next fall.” Dad beamed like it was his own son’s success. “No way. Full ride?” James nodded. He’d be playing football at Duke, and I was sure Nadine was already worrying about the long distance


relationship, seeing as how she was going to a community college about an hour away from Mayfair Heights. Even so, she smiled as if she was as proud as Dad. Even if James hadn’t gotten a football scholarship, I was positive he would’ve received one for some other reason. He was the top of his class, landing the spot as class valedictorian. He and Mike were pretty evenly matched when it came to playing football—Mike may have been better than James, actually, but when it came to book smarts, they were nowhere close to being on the same field. It wasn’t that Mike was stupid. He just didn’t really try. Truth was he never had to try. People loved him easily. The girls always wanted to date him while the guys wanted a solid bromance. Teachers let him slide by


with ‘good enough’ grades so he wouldn’t be kicked off of the football team. He was never put into a position where he had to put forth much effort. That was until his ACT scores weren’t that great, which didn’t pair well with his subpar report cards, making it harder for the scholarships to roll in for him. I could tell that my parents were growing wary of Mike not being offered a full ride like they thought he would’ve been. They were holding their breath waiting for a letter to come stating that he’d at least been accepted into a college. “Well, I think that’s wonderful, James. You worked hard for it. You deserve all the success coming your way,” Mom said. James smiled and thanked her. “Hopefully this dope will be joining me out there,” he said, shoving Mike in the shoulder. Every


now and then I could feel James’ stare falling over to me, but I hardly reacted. “At this point, we’ll take anything,” Dad huffed. I watched Mike’s mouth tighten with annoyance. I wondered if Dad knew how harsh he’d been lately. “Ah, the letters will be arriving soon, I’m sure of it. Mike’s the smartest person I know, besides Miss Beautiful over here.” James leaned toward Nadine and kissed her cheek. He stared at her as if no one else in the world existed, even though I was positive that we all did. I wondered what it felt like to be looked at as if I were the only thing that mattered.

After dinner, Nadine stopped in my room while the guys played some video games. She


sat on my bed, flipping through my sketchbooks and telling me how talented I was. I wished she knew how much she shouldn’t have liked me. “I heard some of the things people have been saying about you at school. They’re jerks,” she said, placing the books down onto my mattress. “For the record, I think it’s brave what you’re doing, having the baby.” “Each day at school as I’m being called a whore and slut, I rethink the decision.” “Don’t. It’s brave.” Her stare faltered to the ground. “James and I went through the same thing, but I had a miscarriage.” My eyes widened as I listened to her talk. “He didn’t want me to have the kid, anyway. He said he had plans for his future, as if I didn’t have plans, too. After the miscarriage he


cried, though. I still don’t know if they were happy tears or sad.” “I had no clue.” She shook her head. “No one did. It was over the summer when we took a break. But if I’d had a chance, I would’ve kept it, too. So screw everyone at school with their smallminded thoughts. Hold your head up high, and keep going. Even on the bad days, just remember why you’re doing it.” “Thanks, Nadine.” Gah. She really, really shouldn’t have liked me. She smiled and left the room. James popped into my room next, closing the door behind him. “Hey,” he said. His hands were stuffed in his jeans pockets as he swayed back and forth. “Sorry about showing up tonight, but Mike kept begging Nadine


and me to come over. I didn’t want things to seem weird, so I thought I should come.” “It was weird. It is weird.” He sighed. “We should talk.” “About?” “Your brother said you were keeping the baby. Is that true?” he asked sheepishly. My jaw tightened, and I dug the palms of my hands into the side of my mattress. “You told me you two broke up because she was treating you terribly. You said you two were going different ways in life.” “We were…” His head hung low like a puppy caught destroying a cushion. “You left out the fact that she was pregnant.” “Aria—” “You came into my room and you told me how Nadine treated you like garbage. You


built her up to be this monster. You said you always liked me. You ran your hands through my hair calling it beautiful. You called me cute and touched me, kissing my neck, my stomach. Then tonight I find out that your girlfriend never treated you like crap. She loved you. She loves you.” “I was in a bad place that night,” he whispered, still not looking at me. “You told me how you cared about me. Was that all crap just to sleep with me?” “No. Of course I care about you, Aria. You’re my best friend’s kid sister.” Kid sister. Ouch. “That night Mike and I’d been drinking. I’m not proud of it or anything and I never meant to hurt you.” Hurt me? “James you screwed me and got me knocked up. Then for weeks you pretended like you never slept with me, and got


back together with Nadine—you know, the other girl you screwed and got knocked up. You honestly have the most determined sperm in the history of sperm.” He didn’t reply. I hated that he blamed it on alcohol. I hated that the reason he really broke things off with Nadine was because she wanted to keep the baby. I hated that he was able to walk around school with no one knowing the truth of what we did. It wasn’t fair. “What’s the deal with you and Levi Myers?” he asked out of nowhere. “Are you two a thing or something?” A thing? Me and Levi? I didn’t reply, because what right did he have to ask me that question?


James and I were in completely different situations, even though we equally played a part in the pregnancy. No one was vandalizing his locker at school. No one was calling him a whore. He was pretty much known as a god at Mayfair Heights. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, shaking his head. “There’s something about the guy that I don’t like. You shouldn’t hang out with him. I don’t want you to get hurt.” I chuckled. That’s funny. “You can leave now, James. And congratulations on the free ride to Duke. You’re going to make a fantastic blue devil.”

On Monday, Levi and I spent the whole eighth period arguing over what our final


project should be. It took everything in my power to not think about Sunday dinner and how James felt the need to tell me who I should and shouldn’t hang out with. But Levi made that easier. He made it easier not to care anything about James. At least for a few hours he helped me forget. “You should really check out those books at the library that I told you about,” I said, walking out of the classroom at the final bell. “Okay. Want to go now?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ve already seen the books, and I understand the importance of abstract art and how it’s life-changing. I need you to realize it so I can start plotting out what three pieces I want to create for the final. Then you can start creating some kind of music piece to go with it.”


“So, we’ll meet at the library in about an hour?” he asked. “Levi,” I sighed. “You’re doing that thing where you annoy me again.” Not really. I like it. “But if you really need me there to walk you through it, I guess that’s fine.” “Okay. So we’ll meet in an hour or so at the library. It’s a date.” “It’s a meeting,” I corrected. “It’s a date-meeting.” “It’s a meeting,” I said once more. “It’s a meeting of dates,” he echoed, walking off. I bit my bottom lip and tried to slow down my quickening heartbeat. It’s a date.

On the bus ride home I sat next to Simon, who was still in a terrible mood. He had been


for weeks now ever since he spilled the juice. I knew there was more to his story than he was telling me as he stared out of the window. “You can talk to me, you know,” I said. He frowned, not saying anything. There were things in the world that really sucked, and watching your best friend be sad had to be one of the worst. “Simon.” “It didn’t work,” he said, still staring out of the window. His fingers tapped against his jeans over and over again. “Mom said they were going to stop trying.” I knew he was talking about his parents trying to get pregnant. They’d had trouble for the past years, and Simon always blamed himself due to a past accident he and his mom were in. My hands fell to my stomach,


and I stared at Simon, unsure of what to say. “I’m so sorry, Si.” He nodded. “Yeah. It’s just sucks, that’s all. They get one kid and he turns out to be a freak. They deserve better and it’s my fault that they can’t get another kid.” “That’s not true. None of it is your fault.” He didn’t say anything else, but I knew his mind was blaming himself more and more each day. It wasn’t fair the way life picked and chose who received what they wanted and who didn’t.

After going home and falling asleep for almost two hours, I woke up startled and late. Tossing on flip-flops, I headed for the library. Levi was sitting at the top step of the


library. His hands flew up when he saw me, and he gave me the biggest grin. “You know how lame it makes a guy feel to be sittin’ on the steps of a library waitin’ for a girl who might not show? And then she shows up forty-five minutes late?” I gave him a tight smile. “Sorry.” He lowered his brows. “Are you okay?” No. I couldn’t stop thinking about Simon. And one thing I learned about being pregnant was sometimes you felt like crying because the sun was shining, or because the pizza delivery guy forgot the cheesy bread. Other times you felt like crying because Simba was so sad during The Lion King and you just wanted to hug the little lion cub. My emotions were all over the place, and I didn’t know how to find the off switch.


“Yeah, let’s dive into some books,” I said, giving him a small smile. “Something’s wrong.” “Levi…” “‘Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life.’ Marcus Aurelius said that.” “You Google searched Marcus Aurelius?” I asked, pulling on the bottom of my shirt. “Yeah, on my cell phone while I waited for you. I figured if people during the Renaissance could play instruments and fight the black plague, I could perform a Google search.” “I see. Anyway, let’s get inside and get this over with.” “Aria, do you need a hug?” “No, Levi. I don’t need a hug.” Mostly because a hug from him would’ve made me cry.


He closed his eyes tight and placed his fingers on his temples. “What are you doing?” “Can’t you feel it? I’m pulling you closer to me for a hug with my Jedi mind skills.” “Well, it’s not working,” I said. I hadn’t been touched by a boy since James over the summer, and I liked it that way. After everything that happened, I’d learned that I liked my space. Of course, no one noticed that fact, because no guy ever tried to touch me. Until oxymoron Levi came to town. “No offense, but I don’t really like to be touched.” “Oh,” he said, dropping his hands and frowning. “Sorry.” “It’s nothing personal.” He walked up the steps of the library and held the door open for me. “Trust me. That’s personal.”

16 /LEVI

I wanted to know more about Aria, the girl who hardly smiled, the girl whose eyes remained sad when she did smile. She wasn’t really one to open up to people. I couldn’t blame her, really, seeing how everyone treated her at school. I wouldn’t have opened up either. “Okay, tell me what I’m staring at,” I whispered, edging my chair closer to her, but still giving her enough space to feel comfortable. “I can’t tell you. You have to figure it out for yourself. That’s the whole point of abstract art, it’s different for everyone.”


I nodded, staring back at the blues, yellows, and greens in front of me. To be honest, it looked messy to me, as if a two-yearold had broken into a room filled with paint and poured it all over the place. But maybe that was artwork to some people. I just couldn’t see it. “How long do we stare at it?” I asked. “As long as it takes for you to see it,” she replied. “What’s ‘it’?” “Everything.” My eyes started seeing doubles of the painting as I went cross-eyed from the overall experience of intense staring. “Okay, well, your turn,” I said, pushing the book in her direction. “You tell me what you see.”


She took a breath of relief as if she’d been waiting for me to ask. The hair tie on her wrist was removed as she tossed her hair into a ponytail. She loosened and stretched out before crossing her legs on the chair and flipping the pages in the book. She was searching and searching. Searching for something familiar. Something that she normally only allowed herself to see. When she found it, she smiled. Not one of her halfway grins, but a full-blown, toothy, this-is-my-safe-haven kind of grin. The painting was entitled Grounded Fly and Aria stared as if she was a part of it. Her body slightly rocked back and forth and her lips parted. I stared at her lips far longer than I should’ve, but the way they fell open was almost enough for me to want to press


my mouth against hers. I forced my gaze to move elsewhere, and when it found her eyes, I completely forgot about the idea of blinking. I’d never seen her eyes smile before; they were always so heavy and lost. In that moment, as she became a part of the abstract painting, she freed herself from reality, almost forgetting that I existed. She didn’t speak, but she didn’t have to. I saw what she was seeing as I watched her. The way her body lit with color for the first time since we’d met was indescribable. Part of me wanted to ask her how she tapped into the art, but I worried if any noise was made then she might snap back to reality and her eyes would be sad again. Mom used to tell me that happiness didn’t last, so a person should hold onto it as


long as possible, without questions, without regrets. We sat there for minutes that felt like hours of peace. Her eyes kept looking down while mine took her in. She was so beautiful. I wouldn’t say the words, because every time I’d given her a compliment, she flinched with discomfort. But I thought it often. So freaking beautiful. “Do you see it?” she whispered, her fingertips tapping against her mouth. “Yeah,” I whispered back. I saw it. “Aria?” “Yes?” “Can I show you something now?”


I took her to Lance’s music shop, where we were greeted by Daisy as she passed out vegan cookies to the customers. “Hey, Levi! Who’s the friend?” “This is Aria. She’s my partner for our art and music class,” I said, smiling at Aria. She smiled back. Whenever she smiled, I felt like I was winning at life. “I’m guessing you’re the art part of the project?” she asked Aria. “Yes, and he’s the soul.” “I’m Daisy, honey,” she said, extending her hand out to Aria. “Lance, come say hi to Levi’s school partner, Art.” Lance leaped over the cash register counter and hurried behind his wife, then wrapped his hands around her waist. “Is your name really Art?” he asked. “No, but close enough.” Aria laughed.


I like that sound, too. Lance smiled before his eyes fell to Aria’s stomach. When his eyes locked with mine again he smiled bigger. Turning his back toward Aria, he spoke just loud enough for only me to hear. “Not to dive into the uncool uncle role for too long, but I gotta make sure—Levi, the bun in that oven isn’t a Myers croissant, is it?” I laughed. “No.” Lance sighed. “Okay, back to the cool uncle role.” He flipped back around and gave Aria a high five. “Art, nice to meet you. You’re free to touch anything in the store and play anything you want. Anything you break, that fine nephew of mine buys.” “So break everything?” Aria questioned. “Oh, I like her spunk,” Lance said, nudging me in the side. “Balls to the wall, my


friend. Since you have that badass rocker chick look and are wearing a T-shirt with a badass kitten on it, might I suggest you start with the crazy new, crazy expensive Pearl Crystal Beat 5-piece shell drum set in the display window? Levi tried to play it once, but he sounded like complete shit, and I’m almost positive you can do better.” He handed a pair of drumsticks Aria’s way and told her to have at it. So she did. She played like every badass rock star in the movies. She pounded the drums, over and over again, whipping her hair back and forth, losing herself in the whole act of letting loose. “Whoa,” Lance said, staring at Aria in awe when she stopped. He started a slow clap with Daisy and me joining in. “That was


fucking awful. It’s almost as if you walked up to the drums and said, ‘I am going to take these sticks and proceed to kill the fucking joy of music.’ No, seriously, are my ears bleeding? Because I think my ears are bleeding,” he joked. I couldn’t stop laughing because he was right—it was pretty painful. Aria fell into a fit of giggles. “Okay, since I’m terrible at the drums, do you think you can play the violin for me?” she asked, gesturing to the violin on display. It wasn’t any violin, but it was the violin that I kind of wanted to marry. A Karl Willhelm Model 64—the best violin in Soulful Things. “I can’t play that,” I replied. People didn’t just pick up a Karl Willhelm violin and start playing. Especially a violin with a three thousand dollar price tag.


“Why not?” Lance asked, picking it up from the display. He handed it to me. “I think you and this violin might have a lot in common.” I took the wooden instrument into my hands and smiled at it. Lance handed me the bow, and after a few minutes of tuning, I placed my chin on the chinrest. “Any requests?” I asked Aria. She smiled. “Surprise me.” I slid the bow across the strings of the violin, playing Henryk Wieniawksi’s classic, “Polonaise No. 1.” It was one of the hardest pieces of music I’d ever learned to play. Part of me was terrified of messing up and looking like an idiot. Another part of me wanted to impress Aria. When I finished, the three started applauding and Aria mouthed, “Wow.”


Before we left she somehow managed to also murder the beauty of the piano, guitar, and a few tambourines. I walked her home and stood at the end of her sidewalk. She kept fidgeting with her fingers and smiling. “Thanks for hanging out with me today.” I smirked. She didn’t know it, but she gave me a few hours of not thinking about my least favorite word: cancer. Her cheeks reddened and she kept fidgeting. “I’ll see you at school?” she asked. “Yes.” “Okay.” She smiled and turned away. Then she turned back, and smiled again. “You’re amazing at the violin. I hope you know that.” She turned away and walked up the porch steps. She turned back to look at me. “Like, really, really amazing.” Another


smile. Keep smiling. She turned away once more. As she stepped into her house, I started to walk away and heard her shouting my name. “Levi.” “Yes?” More fidgeting. More smiles. “Do you think we can be friends?” I laughed, rubbing the back of my neck. “I thought we already were.”

I stepped into my bedroom right as my phone dinged. Glancing down at the cell phone, I saw Aria’s name, and I instantly rushed to read the message. Aria: Glitterati - noun plural | [glit·te·ra·ti \?gli-t?-?rä-tē\] : Wealthy or famous people who conspicuously attend fashionable events.


Me: Sounds sparkly. Aria: I bet they have wonderful punch that they pour into diamond encrusted glasses. I reached for my dictionary and started flipping through it. Me: Art – noun | [\?ärt\] : The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. Aria: I like that. Me: I think you’re art. She didn’t respond. I went and worked on some homework, pretended that I understood calculus, and checked my phone. I spoke to Mom on the phone. After I hung up, I checked my phone. I cooked a nasty TV dinner, ate it all, and checked my phone. I


sat in the foyer laughing at black and white comedies, and checked my phone. I checked it one last time before I shut off my light and climbed into bed. As I lay in the dark, I listened to the phone ding as the blue light lit up my room. Aria: Goodnight, Levi. I smiled in the darkness. Goodnight, Art.

17 /ARIA

The next day at school, Simon slammed his lunch down on the table in front of Levi and me. His anger from the day before seemed to be placed in the back of his mind as he blasted his annoyance on another issue at hand. “We will NOT be allowing Awkward Abigail to eat with us anymore! I forbid it!” For the past few weeks, Abigail would walk to our table, sit for two minutes—three when she wasn’t in a hurry—talk about some random quotes, compliment Simon, and then hurry away. It had actually kind of become a weird highlight of my day. “Why not? She’s great,” Levi said. Whenever he spoke, I watched his lips.


He could’ve said poop and it would’ve sounded romantic. Stop it, Aria. “Great?! GREAT?! Look at this!!!” He reached into his backpack and pulled out two Ziplock bags. One had two new bottles of hand sanitizer in them, and the other had cookies. “See?!” he said, his pale skin turning red with emotion. “…Hand sanitizer and cookies?” I asked, confused. “Homemade cookies! Yes—that’s right! Awkward Abigail came to a full-blown stop in front of my locker! And she said, ‘Hi, Simon. I noticed you were running low on hand sanitizer at lunch yesterday, so I bought you two new ones. Plus, I baked you some cookies.’ Then she handed me these and left!”


“That’s nice,” Levi replied. “Nice?! It’s insane! What if someone saw us?! What if people thought she and I were, were…a thing?!” “What’s wrong with that?” Levi asked. Simon huffed and laughed angrily. “She’s—she’s…she’s Awkward Abigail!” “Yes?” Abigail said, stepping behind Simon. His face turned redder as he turned to meet her stare. “Oh. Hi.” He gave her a big, fake grin. Abigail smiled wider than him. “You have a perfect smile. Very white and pearly. Too bad they are going to have to pull out your wisdom teeth at one point because I’m sure those would be nice, too. I would like to eat with you guys but,” she glanced at her watch, “I’m behind schedule today. I’ll see you later,


I’m sure. Simon, that yellow T-shirt is a great color for you. I thought maroon was good, but yellow’s better. Okay. Bye, you guys.” With that, she swished away with her wind pants, leaving Simon with his mouth hung open and confusion in his stare. “She CANNOT eat with us anymore!” “If you like her so much, just ask her out,” Levi said, biting into his chicken patty. “You think I like Abigail? ABIGAIL?! Yeah right.” Simon laughed. “Just because she’s weird, and kind of beautiful and happens to be an exceptional baker, and has a little dimple on her right cheek next to a heart-shaped birthmark, and actually quotes some interesting things sometimes, and is funny, and odd, and probably great at kissing because she’s always running her mouth nonstop which makes me want to kiss her


four times in a row—doesn’t mean I LIKE HER AND WANT HER COOKIES!” he screamed. Levi and I sat silent as we stared wideeyed at Simon, who had just given the most awkward, messed up monologue ever delivered by mankind. Our eyes moved over to Abigail, who had returned and was beet red, frozen in place and holding two packs of cookies. Simon turned to see Abigail. He blinked. She blinked. He blinked again. She blinked again. Several awkward moments of blinking passed before she spoke up. “I forgot to give Aria and Levi the cookies I baked for them.” She handed them our way, and then stood up straight. Her stare met Simon’s.


Simon blinked again. Abigail blinked, too. “I’m going to go now,” Abigail said. “Yup, that sounds about right,” Simon agreed. She hurried away, her high heels and swishing pants sounding her exit. Simon flopped into his chair and buried his face into his hands. “Do you think she heard me?” “No way.” Levi smirked. “I think you’re in the clear.”

When I wasn’t with Levi at school, I found myself thinking about him more than I should’ve been, and every time I received a message from him, my stomach flipped.


Levi: Eyesome – adjective | [ahysuh m]: Pleasant to look at. Me: Can you use it in a sentence, please? Levi: You looked very eyesome when you walked into calculus today wearing two mismatched socks. Me: You’re so crazy. He didn’t respond. I made dinner for my sisters, and checked my phone. I took a nap, woke up, and checked my phone. I weighed myself, stared in the mirror at my stomach, and checked my phone. I listened to Mom and Dad fight about me being homeschooled next semester, and then I checked my phone. This was all before seven at night. Levi: I hate that word. It’s my second least favorite word. Me: Which one?


Levi: Crazy. Me: Why? He made me wait again. I didn’t get a response until 7:39 P.M. Levi: Because the people in my old town always called my mom crazy.

18 /LEVI

crazy | adjective | cra·zy | \krā-zē\ Mentally deranged, demented, insane. Senseless, impractical; totally unsound. Likely to break or fall to pieces. Weak, infirm, or sickly. My mom was the best mom in the world. Except for when she wasn’t. I hated her the same way I loved her: deeply. Both feelings came in waves. When I loved her, I loved her a lot. When I hated her, I couldn’t stand looking at her. She never hated me, though, and maybe that was the problem. Maybe she loved me too much. It was hard being loved too much by someone because as time went by their


love started feeling like a chokehold. I worried too much about disappointing her, or letting her down because if I did, she fell apart. She panicked, feeling unloved. She went crazy. Being loved by a certain type of person was a tough job, and not everyone was right to fill that position. I hadn’t always known she was unstable. Growing up in the middle of the forest with only her and nature, I never knew there was anything wrong with her. We had fun together, laughing and singing and playing our instruments. When my aunt Denise would come over, the two of them would always laugh and drink a lot of wine that Denise brought with her. Then Denise would leave for weeks, and Mom and I would go back to our normal


routine. Denise was the only other person I saw for a long time except for when I wandered into town for groceries and stuff, where people would whisper about my mom and me. “Is it genetic?” they would ask. “Is he crazy like her, too?” they wondered out loud. It took everything in me to not walk up to the strangers and punch them in their faces for talking about Mom. They didn’t know her. They didn’t know us. We kept to ourselves in our happy world. Why didn’t they mind their own business? Why did they think they were better than us? I would return home, irritated with their hatred toward us when they didn’t even know who we were, but Mom would talk me


down from my anger when she was in her right mindset. “Words, Levi. Words. Those are just empty, meaningless words from empty meaningless people.” It wasn’t until I started going to visit Dad during the summer that I realized maybe our life wasn’t so normal. Maybe the whispering townspeople were onto something. It turned out that cleaning the outside windows of the house during a storm wasn’t the normal thing to do. Mom was convinced that using nature’s rain was the only way to truly get the windows clean, though. If I didn’t clean them well enough, she thought I didn’t love her. So she panicked.


She started talking about voices in her head, claiming they were real. She started seeing things that weren’t there. Denise later told me it was called schizoaffective disorder. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded scary enough to make me worry. Mom was put on medicines to help her troubled thoughts, and it worked for a long time. She wasn’t as afraid of things. She was my mom again—kind of. She smiled a lot less, but she said the voices were gone. Then she stopped taking the pills because she thought she was better. She wasn’t. I also learned that it wasn’t normal to be a kid with no friends. When I was nine and Dad asked me if I had a birthday party that past year, I said yes. When he asked how


many friends came, I said two. Mom and Denise. If I asked Mom if I could join a sports team, she thought I didn’t love her. She had these fixed beliefs that if I were to find friends, it would mean I’d betrayed her. So she panicked. She took her medicine again for a little while, until she thought she was better again. She wasn’t. The first time I forgot to say my prayers at night, she had a panic attack. She told me she was dying and it was because I didn’t tell God thank you. She told me God spoke with her and was angry and going to take it out on her because of my mistake. I remembered crying over her, begging her to breathe. Just breathe, Mama. I’d dialed 9-1-1 and when they came, she had already calmed down.


It was one of the first memories I had of her. Just breathe, Mama.

“Mom, relax,” I sighed into the phone receiver as I sat on top of Dad’s rooftop. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to Mom because I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t completely with me. I heard her sounds, but it wasn’t really her. She was so far gone I wondered if she—my real mom—was ever going to come back. “Don’t you miss me, Levi? Why won’t you come home?” Because I don’t want to see you like this. “You know I’m figuring things out with Dad,” I lied. “We’re getting pretty close,” I lied again.


Dad started drinking this afternoon, and he hadn’t really stopped. He received a call in his office earlier, and I guess it wasn’t the call he was expecting, because right after he hung up, he started drinking. I’d never seen him drunk before. He was currently pacing the backyard, muttering to himself with a beer in his hand, kicking around lawn chairs and anything else he could get close enough to. He was wasted off his ass. I’d told him earlier that he probably shouldn’t have been drinking so much seeing as how he was getting chemotherapy the next day, but he told me to fuck off and mind my own business. I guessed I wasn’t getting those driving lessons he’d offered me anytime soon. “Just come home,” Mom cried into the phone. “You aren’t being reasonable.”


“How’s Denise doing? Has she been by to see you?” I asked, changing the subject. I already knew the answer to my question. Denise called me earlier this week, telling me that she worried about Mom not taking her medicine. I could tell that she hadn’t been too, seeing how I’d been getting more and more late night calls from her. Denise wanted Mom to check into some mental health complex for a few weeks, but Mom wouldn’t. She believed she was fine. Sometimes I wondered if Mom would ever really get the help she needed. Denise said all we could do was pray—but I’d been praying for help since I was five, and nothing so far had changed. “She’s still with that sleazeball Brian. Can you believe that? I don’t like him,” Mom said, snapping me from my thoughts.


Of course she didn’t. The only guy I’d ever known her to like was me. “I don’t want to be here alone anymore, Levi,” she whispered, making me feel bad. “Mom, have you been taking your medicine?” “Those don’t work for me anymore. And now that you’re gone, I’m all alone. Did you know that? I’m all alone.” My stomach tightened, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. Of course she wasn’t taking her medicine. “Don’t say things like that.” “Why not?” “Because they fucking piss me off, you know that.” Maybe. Maybe she knew that. “Levi Myers, do not speak to me like that. You’re sounding more and more unlike yourself.”


You mean sane? We talked about pointless things until I forced myself to tell her I had to hang up. “Levi?” “Yes, Mom?” “I love you till the end.” I echoed her words, but then I felt bad because sometimes I wished the end would come sooner than later. Maybe I was unwell, too. It wasn’t long until Dad stumbled back into the house and headed straight for the bathroom. He wretched so loud that I could hear him through the door, so I moved to his study and grabbed some of his nausea pills and a glass of water. When I reached the bathroom, the door was flung open and Dad’s head was leaned into the toilet, violently vomiting.


When he sat back against the closest wall, he wiped his mouth with tissue. “Here, Dad,” I said, holding out the nausea pills and water. “This would help.” “Get the fuck outta here,” he muttered, waving me away. “The doctor said they will help with the upset stomach. Here.” I held it toward him. “I don’t want that,” he sneered. “It’s for the nausea, Da—” “I said I don’t fucking want it!” he screamed, taking the glass from my hand and throwing it against the bathroom wall, making it shatter to the ground. “Get the fuck out of here.” I stepped out of the bathroom and paused. My fingers formed fists, and I slammed them against my sides. “I’m trying!” I hollered, turning back to face dad.


“I’m trying to help. To make this easier on you. To build some kind of relationship with you!” I knew I was taking my anger off on him. My anger with Mom. My anger with cancer. My anger with life. I tossed the pills at him. “Take the pills or don’t, but when you go in for chemo tomorrow, you’ll wish you’d taken them.” “I ain’t doing that shit.” “Doing what?” “Chemo, I’m done.” “Done? What do you mean done? There are four more appointments on the calendar.” “I’m not going.” “Dad,” I said, my anger shifting to concern. “Don’t be stupid, you need the chemotherapy to get better.”


He reached his foot out toward the bathroom door and closed himself inside. I headed to my bedroom and reached for my shoebox filled with the past that Dad and I had used to share together. All of the Christmas cards, all of the Post-it notes, all of the small things I’d held on to that he somehow chose to forget. I should’ve stopped looking at the stuff. I should’ve closed the box, headed to the woods, and played the violin, but I didn’t. I kept flipping through the notes and cards, hoping that in that moment I was just having a bad nightmare, and that when I woke up, Dad would love me again—or at least like me. Time. We were running out of time.


Merry Christmas, Lee. I love ya, son. -Dad

Happy 7th birthday, my boy. We’ll celebrate this summer. -Dad

Missin’ you on the old creek. -Dad

Maybe next year we’ll spend Christmas together. Love you, Levi. -Dad


We’ll feed a few deer in the woods again when you come for a visit. -Dad

Love you, son. -Dad I sat up all night, pinching myself, trying to wake up from this nightmare. I was tired of everything. I didn’t think it was normal to be a seventeen-year-old and feel this tired. I was tired of faking that I was happy at school. I was tired of worrying about if Mom was going to hurt herself because I left her. I was tired of wondering if I would wake up one day and Dad wouldn’t be here anymore.


I was tired of my nightmare of a life, and I just wanted to wake up from it all.

The next morning at 5:58 A.M., Aria showed up in the woods. I was pissed off and tired from the night before with Mom and Dad. My body ached and slumped. I hadn’t slept at all. Aria stayed at a distance, frozen still. Her brows lowered. “You okay?” she mouthed. I tried to give her a smile, but I couldn’t. Anyone else would’ve received the biggest grin and a lie, but with her it didn’t seem necessary. With her it felt okay to be broken. I shook my head. “No,” I mouthed back, leaning against a tree.


With a nod of understanding, she walked toward me. She leaned against the closest tree and faced me. I stuffed my hands into my sweatpants, and we stared at one another, completely silent, but saying so much. For the first time, I showed Aria the real me. I showed her my truth. She saw the seclusion in my eyes that I never shared. She saw the pain in my soul that I hid behind smiles and lies. “You can talk to me,” she said. “If you want.” I pinched the bridge of my nose, debating if I wanted to talk about it. Talking made things real. But maybe realness was what I needed most. “My mom’s not doing too well. I wanted to get as far away from her as possible—which meant coming to stay with my


Dad. I thought it would be easier up here, ya know? But now my dad’s refusing to continue his chemotherapy, and I’m not sure how to deal with that.” “Geez, Levi. I’m so sorry. That’s a lot,” she whispered. “That’s too much.” I agreed. “What am I supposed to do about him not wanting chemo? How can I convince someone that their life is worth saving if they don’t have any desire to save themselves?” “You can’t,” she said with a sad smile. Sad smile—so nonsensical. “That’s the thing about lives. We’re all so tangled up with one another, but at the same time, we’re very much alone.” “Being alone is pretty lonely.” She nodded. “Yes. But sometimes being together and lonely is even worse.”


“Not right now, though.” “No. Right now is okay. Right now is good.” We didn’t speak anymore. She wasn’t trying to make me happy. I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to be happy, and Aria understood that. All she was doing was leaning up against the tree, looking at me with sympathy. A look of complete understanding. It was as if she were saying, “I see you, Levi Myers. And I’m lonely, too.”

She stood closer to me at the bus stop that morning, our shoulders almost brushing against one another. I imagined what it would be like grazing her arm, holding her hand, or heck, just holding her pinkie. I


wondered if she was cold or hot. Soft. Comforting. Who made you untouchable? “Why didn’t you tell me you were sad?” she asked, staring down at our shoes, kicking invisible rocks. “I didn’t know I was allowed to be.” My parents were broken enough, so it felt as if I didn’t have the right to break down too. When her shoes stopped moving, I looked up to find her doe eyes staring at me. “You can be sad with me,” she offered. “You don’t have to hide it anymore.” I cleared my throat and nodded. “Thanks, Art.” “You’re welcome, Levi.” The bus pulled up and as she stepped away from me, her shoulder brushed against mine. We were covered in fabrics, both


wearing jackets and T-shirts underneath, yet her small touch was enough for me to know what she felt like. Somehow she was warm and cold all at once, the same kind of feeling the rising sun brought to the frosted forest in the mornings. The only time I’d ever felt that way was when I played the violin and was able to escape reality for a little while. Shutting my eyes and feeling the bow roll across the strings was the only way I’d found warmth until Aria looked at me. She looked at me as if she really saw me, the real me, and she was okay with it, too. She stared as if I deserved to be happy. The real kind of happy.


That night, Dad was drunk again. Instead of watching him stumble around, I went over to Lance and Daisy’s apartment, ate tofu that tasted like feet, and stayed on their pullout couch. Aria: This afternoon I found out that the baby is sixteen weeks old and the size of an avocado, finished my calculus homework, painted a bit, and downloaded the whole Mumford & Sons CD to my iPod. Your turn. I smiled. Me: I ate tofu. Aria: That’s it? Me: We had calculus homework? Aria: You’re never going to graduate. Me: I think you’re beautiful. Aria: Shut up. Me: Your avocado is pretty cute, too.


Aria: I bet you say that to all the pregnant girls at school. I hadn’t stopped smiling. I imagined what she was doing. When a person wasn’t allowed to touch someone who they really wanted to touch, they settled for noticing every little thing about them instead. When Aria was happy—really happy—her dimples deepened. When she was uncomfortable, she chewed on the collar of her T-shirts. When sad, she bit her bottom lip—but she did the same when she was nervous or deep in thought, so I’d had to pay very close attention to make sure which she was. That wasn’t hard, though. She was very easy to pay attention to. I hoped her dimples were showing. I hoped I made her happy.


Me: Why did the chicken cross the möbius strip? Aria: To get to the same side. You’re such a nerd. And I think I’m more of a nerd because I knew the answer to your terrible math joke. Still smiling. Me: Goodnight, Art. Aria: Goodnight, Soul.

19 /ARIA

Each Thursday, Dr. Ward stared at me with the same concerned eyes. It was annoying how much he pretended to care. I wondered how much he would care if Mom wasn’t writing him such a big check. This time the candy bowl was filled with black licorice, which was worrisome. Anyone who believed that black licorice was candy should see their own therapist. Our conversations became cliché, each week echoing the last. He started with the same question each time, I spoke about an artist, and then he followed it up with one more question.


“What’s on your mind, Aria?” he would ask. “Banksy,” I replied. “Who’s Banksy?” “He’s this amazing street artist who uses graffiti art to express his controversial views on the world. He’s loud with his artwork, but quiet at the same time. No one really knows who he is, but they know him. The Balloon Girl is my favorite piece because it just captures everything within it.” He arched an eyebrow like he didn’t understand what I meant. I sighed. I wanted to say Google it and you’ll understand, but I explained, because I liked talking about art. It was the one thing I understood, the one thing that was meaningful. “It’s a little girl reaching out toward a


heart-shaped, red balloon, but the balloon is already floating away.” “Do you feel like you’re floating away sometimes, Aria?” Yes. A lot. All the time. But I didn’t tell Dr. Ward that. I stayed quiet, and he never pushed me for more details.

Monday morning I walked to the bus stop and smiled seeing Simon holding four balloons that read Happy Birthday in his hand. “Happy birthday!” he shouted, handing me the balloons. “Thanks!” I laughed.


Levi walked over to us frowning, staring at the balloons. “I didn’t know it was your birthday.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I didn’t get you anything.” “It’s okay, really. No big deal.” “It is a big deal!” Simon exclaimed. “Because you, my friend, are no longer sixteen. Which means you are no longer sixteen and pregnant, which means—” I definitely knew what it meant. “I am no longer a statistic! Well, I’m still a teen pregnancy statistic, but! I’m not the MTV television show kind of statistic!” “I think this calls for a dance,” Simon said. “Thriller?” “No. I think it’s hammer time.” He and I proceeded to partake in the weirdest M.C. Hammer dance right there on the sidewalk,


cracking up with one another while Levi stared at us as if we were psycho, before he joined in with the dancing. And I swear at one point, my heart swooned a little.

“Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday,” Levi said as we left calculus. He had said it at least thirty times since he found out this morning. “You can stop feeling bad now. I can feel the love.” I snickered. “As you should. Oh, hey. Did you hear why they never have beer at math parties?” he asked as we stood by my locker. “I guess they don’t want people to drink and derive.” Bad math puns from an odd, Southern boy.


Birthday officially made. Before he headed off to his next class, he handed me a folded piece of paper. I opened it and couldn’t stop the butterflies that weren’t supposed to be in my stomach. Happy Birthday, Art! From Soul. There was even a terrible drawing of what was supposed to be me eating cake or something. He was as bad at drawing as I was at the drums. Luckily we balanced each other out. “Happy Birthday,” James said from behind me, sending the butterflies in my stomach fluttering away. “Thanks,” I muttered, closing my locker and walking away.


James hurried beside me, clearly on a mission to ruin my birthday that was just made a few minutes ago. “Listen, I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this, but I heard a rumor that Levi was messing around with Heather Randall. I just thought you should know.” “Why do you have so much interest in Levi?” I said, rolling my eyes. I could see the jealousy that James somehow had over Levi befriending me. It was annoying to say the least. “I don’t want you to get hurt.” “Well, aren’t you just the caring type?” Before he could reply, Nadine came bouncing down the hallway and wrapped her arms around James’ waist. “Hey, you guys! What’s going on?”


James broke his stare from me and gave his girlfriend his smile. “Nothing, just checking in on Aria.” Nadine smiled toward me. “He’s such a sweetheart. Speaking of sweet…what’s the deal with you and the Southern Casanova, Aria? He’s cute!” James laughed nervously. “I doubt dating is the biggest thing on her mind right now, Na. Besides, rumor has it that he has a thing going on with Heather.” Oh-my-gosh-I-want-to-punch-you-inthe-penis! Instead, I gave a fake smile to Nadine. “Levi and I are just friends.” James sighed—relieved. That annoyed me, too. “Mhmm. I’m just saying if it were me and the baby’s father wasn’t in the picture, I


wouldn’t be turned off by the attention from Levi Myers. Plus, the way he looks at you is very different than the way he looks at any other girl here.” She smiled, pulling an annoyed James off toward their next class. Was that true, though? Did Levi look at me differently? I looked down at my protruding belly, rubbing my palms over the bump. It doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter how Levi looked at me. I wasn’t allowed to think of him in any way other than a friend. In a few months, I would be having a baby and my life would be forever changed.

20 /LEVI

On Wednesday, Simon invited me over to his house for ‘guy time’ as he called it. When I took the shortest walk ever across the street to Simon’s house, his mom answered. “Hi, can I help you?” She smiled. “Hey, yeah. I’m Levi, Simon’s friend. We were going to hang out for a bit.” Her face lit up, and she placed her hands on her hips. “You’re Simon’s friend?!” “Yeah, we met at school and—” “Who’s at the door?” an older guy said, walking into their foyer. “This is Levi. Simon’s new friend.” The guy’s face lit up, too. “Simon’s friend?”


“I know! Isn’t it wonderful?! Come in, Levi,” the woman said, grabbing my arm and pulling me inside. “I’m Keira and this is my husband, Paul. Si, come on out, you have a friend here. And it’s not Aria!” It would’ve seemed very strange and a bit rude how dramatic his parents were acting about Simon having another friend, but really they were just…overjoyed. Simon came running out of his room and groaned. “You don’t have to scare him off, guys. Hey, Levi, what’s up? You can come hang out in my room.” “I’ll order pizza!” Keira shouted. “And I’ll make some brownies! Levi, do you like brownies?” “Mommm, chill out. We’re just playing video games for a while.”


Keira turned around to Paul. “Did you hear that?! They are playing video games!” “I love brownies,” I cut in. A wise person would never turn down the opportunity for homemade brownies. Simon rolled his eyes as I laughed. He took me to the hallway leading to his bedroom. I noticed all of the family portraits on the walls, and couldn’t help but wonder about one thing that didn’t fit into the story of the person I was growing to know each day. When we stepped into his bedroom, he quickly shut his door behind us. “Can you tell that I don’t get many visitors?” “No big deal.” “No big deal? My parents just had a heart attack because someone came over to visit me. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here, because I need your input.”


I glanced around at his extremely clean room. Nothing was out of place. His clothes were organized by color in his closet. He had his video games organized on his shelf in alphabetical order. He had more cleaning supplies than I’d ever seen. He walked into his closet. “So we can play games and all of that stuff, but I really called you over for O.G.A.A.” “Oh, right, of course. I figured that’s what we were going to be doing anyway.” I nodded, sitting in one of his beanbag chairs. “By the way, what’s O.G.A.A.?” He walked out of his closet with a bulletin board. He flipped it around, and I stared at a crayon drawing of a girl with four groups of four note cards. “Operation Get Awkward Abigail.”


“That’s a drawing of Abigail?” I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes. He fiddled with his hands. “I didn’t get her nose right.” “Her body proportion is a little off. Not that Abigail’s fat, but she’s a little bigger than that.” “Well, clearly she’s not really a stick person, Levi. Aria is the artist. I’m just the weird red-haired best friend.” “Oh, well. All right. Sorry, but I thought last time we spoke on this subject you were anti-Abigail.” “But then I ate her cookies.” “And you liked her cookies,” I said with a wide grin. “They melted in my mouth.” He sighed heavily, sitting on his bed. “I loved her cookies.”


“That explains why we are in O.G.A.A. What’s on the notecards?” “Different scenarios of how I ask her out on a date.” I walked over to examine the board. “Sky diving? Hiking? A sign on a blimp balloon? These are your ideas for asking her out?” “Yes! Think about it. You’re jumping out of a plane, falling, falling, falling, minutes away from your death because your parachute is stuck, you look over at those blue eyes of hers and say, ‘Awkward Abigail, will you go out with me for a milkshake if we make it to the ground?’ And then she would say yes and we would obviously live happily ever after.” “Unless you died from the, you know, impact of slamming into the ground.” He smirked. “Well, yeah, there’s that.”


“Have you thought of, I don’t know, just asking her to go out with you?” “Like, in person?” “Yes.” “Face to face?” “Uh huh.” He started laughing hysterically, turning redder and redder. Then he went deadpan. “You know what, that might work.” He dropped his board to the ground. “Video games?” I laughed. We started playing some game where we shot a bunch of things, then we switched to a game where we killed a bunch of things, and then we switched to a game where we shot and killed some more things. Trying to be nonchalant, in the middle of some kind of battle field where Simon and I


were blowing off the heads of zombies, I said, “I saw your family pictures in the hallway.” He cleared his throat. “Yeah. Mom’s a picture addict.” “I didn’t know you had a little sister.” He continued playing the video game as he spoke. “When I was five, I begged my mom to take Lizzie and me out for ice cream, even though she was already tired from working at the diner. When we went, we were in a bad car accident and Lizzie ended up being in a coma for weeks. The doctors told us that for a three-year-old she fought hard, but wasn’t going to make it. Then one day, she was just gone.” “God. I’m so sorry, Si.” He kept playing the game, but his focus was elsewhere. “Then they found out Mom


would have trouble getting pregnant again due to the same accident, so they spent years trying to have another.” “You blame yourself?” “Wouldn’t you? If it wasn’t for me, my little sister would still be here. And Mom and Dad would’ve had more kids, and they wouldn’t have been going through hell these past years. I’m the reason their lives are screwed up.” “Dude, you were just a kid. You didn’t cause the accident.” “Didn’t I, though? We should’ve never even been out. We should’ve…” I could see the guilt in his eyes as he tapped the triangle button on the controller four times hard, before he moved to the square button and hit it four times, too. “Next topic?” he asked, not wanting to talk about it anymore. I wouldn’t


push him to keep talking. Therefore I went to a lighter subject. “So, I was thinking about Aria—” “Well, duh.” He smirked, growing comfortable again. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that every second of every day you’re eye-loving the hell out of her.” “Dude, shut up. I’m not. Anyway, I need an idea for her birthday gift since I missed it.” Simon arched a brow. “And you’re asking my advice?” I nodded. “Well, get her anything related to art. She was actually talking about this one thing, but it’s kind of expensive.” “What is it?”


He proceeded to tell me, and the price made me cringe. I hadn’t seen that kind of money in a long time, but it was the perfect gift, which only left me one option.

“I need eighty dollars,” I said to Lance after school one day as he moved things around his shop. Whenever Dad didn’t want me around the house, I would go to Lance’s music store and mess around with some of the instruments. “For what?” “A school project.” “What kind of school project makes you pay eighty bucks?” “I don’t know. Public school is weird. They even make you eat cow intestines, I think.”


“I definitely remember it being pig intestines when I went there. They sure are uppity nowadays. That’s the problem with your generation. You boneheads are eating like kings and queens.” He leaned back against a box and narrowed his eyes on me. “So really, what’s the money for?” “I want to take a friend somewhere.” “What friend?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow. “They don’t have a name, actually.” “Mhmm. Is it a girl friend?” “No gender, either.” “This is about that one girl, isn’t it?” “What girl?” “Art. The girl who played the drums like complete shit, and is the reason for that stupid grin on your face whenever I bring her up.”


“Oh, her?” “Yes, her.” “Yes,” I replied. “It’s about her.” “Once again slipping into the uncool uncle role: do you think that’s a good idea with the whole walking dead thing forming in her gut?” “You think she’s having a zombie baby?” The weekend before Lance had forced me to binge watch The Walking Dead with him. I couldn’t sleep for days after watching it, but shit, it was addicting. “Hell, maybe it is a zombie baby. I’ve been on LSD before, so I’ve seen some pretty weird shit. But seriously, Levi. Human hearts are like this.” He held up a plate of Daisy’s newest vegan cookies. “They are perfect when looking at them from a distance but then, when you pick them up,” he lifted a


cookie and it began to crumble, “they have a way of breaking. You two are young. She already has a lot going on. You have a lot going on. So you both should protect your hearts.” I nodded, slowly. “So…about that eighty dollars…” He rolled his eyes. “Take out the trash, sweep the floors, and then we’ll talk.” That pretty much meant yes.

21 /LEVI

On Friday, Connor was annoying me once again during gym class. “We have to go to this party tomorrow night. You don’t understand the utmost importance of this,” Connor barked, bouncing a basketball around. “Tori Eisenhower parties are like taking a trip to the Playboy mansion. So many boobs.” “You’ve been to one of Tori’s parties?” I asked. “No, but I’ve heard. And she invited you?!” He shook his head in disbelief. “Only the top of the top get invited to her parties. We need to go.” “Sorry, man. Not interested.”


Connor sighed and flipped me off as he walked away. Simon walked over to me with a basketball in his hands. “You were invited to Tori’s party this weekend? Tori Eisenhower?” “Yeah, but I’m not going.” “No way. You have to go. And you have to take me with you,” he said, his eyes filled with hope. “What? What happened to O.G.A.A.?” “I asked her out, she declined, and I felt like a complete loser. Therefore, I need this party to happen.” “She said no?” That was shocking. I could’ve sworn Abigail was into Simon. “Why? What was her reason?” He cringed. “Let’s not keep talking about the way I was rejected. She wasn’t into it, so she said no. So instead, let’s go to this party.”


“I didn’t take you as the party going type.” “That’s just because I haven’t been invited. Come on, it could be fun. Us men bonding over manly things,” he joked, shooting the basketball toward the hoop and missing by a mile. His finger pushed up his glasses. He cleared his throat, pointing toward his fantastically failed attempt at basketball. “I think the wind interfered with that one.”

When Saturday night came, Simon was at his highest level of excitement. “Don’t tell Aria about this,” he said, walking up to Tori’s house. He told me that he’d taken a bottle of wine from his parents. “They won’t notice it’s


missing. We have more wine in that house than needed.” “Simon, are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that this party wasn’t a good idea. He turned to me, wine bottle in his hand and started begging. “This is my one chance to swoosh in on Tori, Levi. Don’t back out on me now. Please. I need this.” The way he stared at me so pathetically showed me that this was the last thing we should’ve been doing, but I rang the doorbell anyway. Tori opened the door wearing a bikini top and shorts. “Alabama!” she squeaked, swaying back and forth. I had a feeling she wouldn’t need Simon’s wine. “I’m so happy you’re here!”


“We’re,” I corrected her as I nudged a wide-toothed Simon. “We’re happy that we’re here, too.” “Who invited Four?” she said, staring at Simon. I was certain he was going to pass out from the excitement of being a few inches from her. “I thought we could bring friends?” I flashed a smile. She giggled. “Whatever. Come in! Let’s take a shot!” Tori led us through the house where everyone popular from our school was partying, drinking, or making out. Simon leaned in toward me. “Did you hear what she said? She nicknamed me.” “What?” “She called me Four!” “And…that’s a compliment?”


“I know it’s probably easy for people like you to get a nickname the first day they arrive, Alabama, but for people like me—we dream of making it this far! We are pretty much waiting in a corner begging for our classmates to nickname us.” He patted me on the back. “Now, excuse me as I proceed to get ridiculously drunk.” Simon wandered off with his bottle of wine, muttering, “Holy shit. I’m in Tori Eisenhower’s house.” “Well, look here. If it isn’t Mr. Alabama at the party he swore he wouldn’t be attending.” I cringed at the sound of Connor’s voice. “And to think you brought one of the oddities with you.” “What’s up, Connor?” I said, turning to face him. From the dazed look in his eyes, he was already drunk.


“What’s up, Connor?” he echoed, shoving me in the shoulder. “Can you believe this, Matt? He said what’s up.” He shoved the guy standing beside him, who looked confused as hell. Connor turned back to me. “Look, Alabama, I know you want to try to be seen with me right now at this party because I’m a big fucking deal, but it’s too late. You can’t just wander back over to me. I got a new partner in crime. Meet Matt. He’s the new ‘it’ guy. He’s from a foreign country, doesn’t speak English, and the ladies can’t keep their eyes off of him.” “Dude. I’m from Canada.” Matt sighed. “And I speak English.” “Not if you ever plan to get laid,” Connor scolded. “Sorry, Alabama. You’re old news.” “Oxymoron,” I muttered. “What?”


“Old news, you can’t be old and news. That’s just stupid.” Connor frowned and patted me on the back. “You were such a contender before and now the oddities tainted you. Goodbye, Alabama. Goodbye.” They walked off in the direction of Simon, who was in the kitchen surrounded by a few people who all had a row of four shots in front of them and were chanting, ‘Four for Four! Four for Four!’

I wondered the whole night if Simon knew that everyone at the party was mocking him or if he was just so wasted that he didn’t care. Most of the party I stood in the living room, talking about pointless things with pointless people, watching to make sure Simon didn’t completely fall apart. He was


currently reordering the cabinets in the kitchen so all of the cups and plates were in groups of four. The assholes were recording him, asking him to explain the importance of color organizing his clothes. But Simon was having a ball with it all, so I wouldn’t interfere unless I found it completely necessary. Out of nowhere, a drunken guy walked up to me and patted me on the shoulder. “I don’t think we’ve met,” he said, holding a beer can in his hands. “I’m James Martin,” he slurred. “And you are?” “Levi Myers,” I replied, giving him my famous fake smile. “Let’s go get you a drink, Levi,” he offered, nudging me toward the kitchen. I shook my head. “I’m not a drinker.”


“Not a drinker.” He laughed and took a gulp from his beer can before slamming it down against the ground. “You’re funny. I like that. But you know what I don’t like? I don’t like you screwing around with Aria’s feelings. See that boy over there?” He gestured to some guy with a girl on his lap. “That’s my best friend, Mike. He’s like a brother to me. And seeing how he’s Aria’s brother that makes her a sister to me. So if you hurt her, I’ll,” he poked me in the chest, “kick your fucking ass.” “James,” a girl said, stepping behind the guy. “You’re drunk.” She sighed heavily. He turned toward her, giving her a big smile. “Of course I’m drunk, Nadine. It’s a fucking party. Only lame assholes wouldn’t be drunk at a party.”


Nadine gave me an apologetic smile. “Maybe you should step outside for air, James,” she offered. He sneered. “And leave you here with Casanova? That is what you called him, right? The Southern Casanova? As if you don’t already have a fucking boyfriend.” His words were slurring, leaving him looking like a big asshole. “You’re acting like a jerk,” she whispered. “Whatever, Nadine. Maybe you need a drink, too. Then you wouldn’t be as lame as Casanova.” He wandered off to the other side of the living room where a keg was stationed. Nadine blushed with embarrassment. “Sorry about him. He’s not always like that. Only when he drinks.”


“No big deal. Alcohol has a way of making the nicest people turn into assholes sometimes.” She frowned. “Yeah. Pretty much. Anyway, I think it’s great the way you treat Aria.” “She’s something special.” I nodded, wishing that my night involved her instead of this party. “She is. But, I actually came over here to tell you that Simon is kind of a few minutes away from drunkville in the kitchen.” Unlike everyone else, she didn’t call him Four. My eyes moved to the kitchen where I saw Simon standing on the countertop, holding four plates in his hands before dropping them one by one to the ground, making them shatter. “Opa!” he screamed.


For fuck’s sake!

Simon was completely shitfaced by midnight. His glasses were bent, his shirt was covered in spilled drinks, and his words were slurred more than seemed humanly possible. “C-c-can you be-be-believe that? She said no to me! Awkward Abbbigaail turned ME down!” he shouted. Instead of swooshing in on Tori, he spent most of the night talking about Abigail. “But I am now on-on-on to better things,” he slurred. “I’m popular!” People were standing around, recording his drunken breakdown, snickering. “I’m fucking popular!” “Okay, Mr. Popular. Let’s get going,” I muttered, holding his body up as we walked through the house.


The people who were recording Simon followed us the whole way until someone shouted, “FIGHT!” and they hurried off to the living room, where a guy was being tossed across the room and onto a coffee table. Another guy flew over to the one on the coffee table and started swinging nonstop, punching the dude repeatedly while everyone cheered, including Simon. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” he shouted, jumping up and down. “Kick his ass, Mike!” Simon yelled toward the guy fighting. Shit. Aria’s brother was the one throwing the punches, and he was also getting a few hits to his own face. “Call my sister a whore again! I swear to God, do it, asshole!” Mike said, slamming his hand against the guy’s jaw.


I hurried over and pulled Mike off of the guy. His eyes were wild with anger and he looked at me once before storming off. Simon clapped his hands together, excited with the craziness of his first house party, and then he kindly bent over and threw up on my shoes. What a perfect freaking night.

I was happy that the weekend from party hell was over Monday morning. Simon texted me telling me he had the time of his life, which was good for him. It was weird knowing so much more about him and how much blame he put on himself for what happened to his sister, therefore I was kind of happy I was able to aid in his night of freedom.


He kept talking about the party for the next three days, trying his best to not say anything about it around Aria, but I knew he would slip up soon enough. “We’re skipping school today, Art,” I stated on Thursday as Aria walked up to me in the woods at 5:55 A.M. She was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and yawning in her sweatshirt and pajama pants. She’d been joining me for the morning deer feedings almost every day when she wasn’t feeling sick. Whenever she didn’t show up, I would leave a pack of saltine crackers on her windowsill. “Did you get my best friend wasted this past weekend?” She yawned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She gave me a knowing grin.


“Okay. He might have been wasted this past weekend, and I might have been there with him.” I smirked. “He was a bit heartbroken over Abigail rejecting him, so he asked me to go out for a manly night with him.” “But I thought she liked him?” “I know. Freakin’ women, I tell ya.” She narrowed her eyes. “Watch it. Hormonal pregnant female here.” She chuckled. “I also almost got my ass kicked by a guy who thought I was screwing you over.” “What? By who?” “James Martin. He told me that if I was screwing with your emotions, he would kick my ass because you’re like a sister to him. Later that night he also told me that I was messing around with some girl named


Heather, which was a surprise to me seeing how I’d never heard of her.” Aria’s mouth dropped. “Seriously? He said I was like a sister to him?” “Yeah. He seemed to really care about you. Which I can’t fault him for.” I smiled. She didn’t. She huffed. “Oh my God. I’m going to kill him.” “I’m going to place the murdering side of you in the pile of hormonal pregnant things, too.” “No. That’s not hormonal. That’s just the facts. I am going to kill him.” “Oh. Well, then I am a bit terrified, yet oddly turned on by this dark side of you. If killing him is your goal, that’s fine and dandy. But just not today. Today we’re skipping school.”


“What are you talking about?” she asked, reaching for a few berries for the deer from my tin bucket. “We’re. Skipping. School. Today,” I repeated, this time slower. “Don’t be silly,” she replied, leaning against a tree. I leaned against the one beside her. “I’m not being silly.” “You are.” “Says who?” “Says me.” “The girl who’s skipping school today?” “No, the girl who’s not skipping school today because she’s already behind in her classes.” I sighed. “I’ll help you with homework,” I offered. “You hardly do your own homework.”


“Homework is overrated.” “Maybe.” Maybe. “I’m sad we aren’t skipping school,” I said. “Why would we skip anyway?” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a pair of tickets. Aria’s eyes fell to the tickets. “It’s your birthday present.” She snatched them out of my hands. “Shut up.” I shut up. “You got tickets to the Jackson Pollock exhibition?” I didn’t reply. “Are these for real?” Silence from me. “Why aren’t you talking?!” “You told me to shut up.”


“Well, talk now.” “Okay. I got us tickets to the Jackson Pollock exhibition, but today’s the last day.” She frowned. “It’s in Richman. That’s a two hour train ride away.” “Then we better leave soon.” “I have a therapy appointment after school.” “Then we better return early.” “You really want to skip school?” she asked, a bit of hope in her voice. Only if you do. “Yes.” She didn’t reply right away. She stared at the tickets in her hands while I stared at her. I tried to count each freckle on her nose, and when I lost count, I started over. “I’ve never skipped school on purpose.” “There’s always a natural high doing something for the first time.”


Her lips turned up. “We’re totally skipping school today.” I wanted to do a dance, but she would’ve thought I was a dork. But then again, she already thought I was a dork, so I did a jig anyway. “You’re such a dork.” Then she danced with me. She was the only one who could call me a dork and make me feel like Superman at the same time.

22 /ARIA

Levi called into school pretending to be my dad, stating that I was out sick. Then fifteen minutes later, he called pretending to be his father, stating that he was going to be missing school due to a family emergency. “That was a very impressive Midwest accent, Mr. Myers.” He held an invisible award. “I’d like to thank the Academy.” I chuckled. “All right, we have about a thirty minute walk to the next town to make it to the train station. Do you think you can handle that?” he asked sheepishly, zipping up two


backpacks. “I didn’t really think this all the way through.” “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll be okay.” I didn’t tell him that my back had been hurting lately and that my feet had been swollen, because I was certain he would’ve canceled our secret adventure, and canceling a trip to see Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings was against the law. Or at least it should have been. He looked at me warily, so I put on a cheesy grin and changed the subject. “What’s in the backpacks?” “Oh,” he said, his concern transformed into excitement. “It’s our art kits. I was reading online that all the cool, hip kids take art kits with them to art museums and fall into deep, soulful thoughts.” “What’s in it?”


“All of the basics. A sketch book, pens and pencils, a water bottle, a dirty magazine for me, a Jane Austen novel for you, and double stuffed Oreos.” I laughed. “Sounds about right.”

When we reached the train station I’d already eaten all of my Oreos, and two of Levi’s. He offered me all of them, but I refused, saying I wasn’t greedy. My feet were pounding and I felt as if standing was a task straight from hell. I’d never been so happy to see a train pull up into the station. When we sat on the train I ate the rest of his Oreos. He laughed at my black teeth.


At the art museum, I wanted to look at each piece and stay until the museum closed. Then, after it closed, I wanted to sneak back in and sit in front of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and lose myself completely so I could find myself again. A person who never truly lost themselves could never truly find themselves, either. Art was everything right and wrong in the world. It understood what words couldn’t say. “Oxymoron,” Levi said as we sat and gawked in amazement at Pollock’s work of art. “Greyed Rainbow.” “Maybe it was his favorite word, too.” Pollock’s painting was twisted with mostly black, white, gray, and silver paint, but across the bottom of the canvas were tiny strands of yellows, greens, oranges, blues,


and purples. “He hardly used paint brushes. He used sticks and knives and all kinds of different tools for his splattering and dripping paint techniques.” “I get it now, Art. I get why you love abstract: at first it just looks messy, but then you realize that it is messy, but at the same time it’s not. It’s controlled chaos.” “Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, yes, yes.” “That’s what we should do for our final piece. We should do three live abstract paintings in front of the crowd. Each piece will be a different oxymoron. The first one you’ll paint loud and I’ll play the music soft. Second we could do an angry painting, and I’ll play happy. Then we could do love and I’ll play hate. And you could paint using sticks, rocks, and leaves from the woods. Tapping into your own Pollock.”


I turned to him and couldn’t stop smiling. Brilliant. He didn’t look at me, but he kept staring at Pollock’s work. “I like the way your brain works, Levi.” “I’ve been thinking about kissing you,” he blurted out, still staring ahead. “I think about kissing you a lot. Then I feel bad that I’m thinking about kissing you because you’re going through some things, and hell, I’m going through some things, and the last thing you need to know is that I’m thinking about kissing you because that’s pointless. It’s so nonsensical, but very, very true, and that’s not all I think about.” “What else?” “I think about how you have forty-two freckles across your nose and how I want to kiss every single one forty-two times. I think


about how you are the only one who laughs at Mr. Jones’ bad math jokes, and whenever I hear your laugh, I laugh too. I think about how you touch your stomach and smile when nobody’s looking. It’s like it’s your personal secret that the baby makes you happy, and you get to keep that to yourself. I feel bad that I noticed because it seemed like your secret, but I couldn’t help it.” I swallowed hard and rubbed my arms as he continued. “I think about how you’re beautiful when you’re sad and it makes me angry when you’re mad. I hate whoever made you untouchable, because if there’s anything I would want to do more than kiss you, it would be to hold you. I like you, Aria. I know I’m not supposed to for certain reasons, but I don’t care. I like you, and I hope that’s okay


because I don’t know how to stop. I’m not asking for anything from you. I swear I’m not. Just…take your time, that’s all.” My heart skipped, twisted, cartwheeled, and cried. He was quiet before he said, “I hope you liked your birthday gift. Sorry it was late.” But it wasn’t. It was right on time. Our hands rested against the bench as we sat staring at the Greyed Rainbow. Slowly I edged my pinkie toward his hand. Slowly he edged his pinkie toward my hand. Slowly, nervously, quietly, our pinkies locked together. Yes, yes, yes.


Somehow we managed to return to the train station with two hours to spare before school let out. That meant that after our thirty minute walk back into town, I’d be able to spend eighth hour with Levi working on our foolproof project. Mainly I just wanted to spend more time with him. Being around him felt like being around someone who saw your scars and called them beautiful when you only saw your past mistakes. “You know your brother got into a big fight on Saturday?” Levi asked. “Mike? Yeah, well. He and his friends are always acting like idiots.” “It was about you,” he said, making me pause. “Someone called you a whore, and he literally kicked their ass.”


“I thought he hated me,” I whispered as I started walking again. “Quite the opposite.” He glanced down at the ground. “Your feet are swollen,” Levi said as we walked down the streets toward Mayfair Heights. “They’re fine.” “We can take a break,” he offered. I refused. “Oh! Before I forget, here.” He stopped walking and unzipped his backpack. He pulled out three packages wrapped in newspaper. “This one is for you, this one is for Avocado—” “Mango,” I corrected. “It’s the size of an mango now.” “What?!” He reached into his backpack, grabbed a pen, crossed out the word ‘Avocado’ on the paper, and wrote ‘Mango’. “You


have to keep me updated on the stats, Art. Geez. Anyway, this one is for Baby Mango, this one is for you, and this one is for you both to share.” I tore open the one for me and Baby Mango and smiled when I saw a new CD player with a set of headphones. Then there were two mix CDs. “Yours has a bit more rap music than Mango’s. I tried to keep that one PG. There are a lot of violin classics on Mango’s. You can put the headphones on your stomach for the baby to listen. Then the kid can be a musical genius like yours truly.” “Why are you so nice to me?” I asked, a little confused. Before he could reply, a voice shouted behind us. “What the fuck are you doing out here?!”


I turned around to see Dad sitting in his plumbing truck, his face red as ever. “Dad! What are you doing here?” “What am I doing here?! Why the hell aren’t you in school?!” Levi stepped forward. “Sorry, Mr. Watson, it’s my fault—I—” Dad put his truck in park in the middle of the road, swung open his door, and marched over. “Of course she’s with you, you little shit. Stay the hell away from my daughter.” “Dad!” I screamed, watching him charge toward Levi. “It’s not his fault I—” “You told me the kid wasn’t his!” Dad hollered at me, his hands in fists. “I swear to God if I catch you anywhere near my daughter again I’ll have you put in jail.” “Sir,” Levi said, putting his hands up in surrender, but Dad didn’t care.


“Get in the damn car, Aria,” he ordered, wrapping his hand around my forearm, yanking me toward him. “Ow, Dad! Let go!” I screamed. Levi stepped forward out of reflex, and Dad dropped his hold. “Take one more step and you’ll regret it, boy. Aria, car. NOW!” He swung the passenger door open and forced me to climb inside. Within seconds he was in the driver’s seat, speeding off down the road, leaving Levi behind. “What’s wrong with you?!” I cried, slamming my hands against his stiff arm. “I can’t believe you did that!” “You can’t believe I did that?! Watch it, Aria, because you are this close to—” “To what?! Pissing you off? Having you ignore me? Having you hate me? Because


I’m pretty sure you’ve already done all of those things. I made one mistake, the first mistake I’ve ever made, and you decide to pretty much disown me?!” His fingers were still gripping the steering wheel tight. “So this is your reasoning? This is why you’re skipping school, running around town with a delinquent, and acting like a goddamned five-year-old? Because I haven’t been speaking to you?! Jesus, Aria. Grow up.” Tears streamed down my face, and I shouted, “He’s not a delinquent!” “Bullshit, I know his father. I know the shit that goes on in Kent Myers’ house. Plus, James told me how the kid’s been harassing you at school!” What?! “They are dirt bags, and I don’t want to see you anywhere near that boy again. And, if it wasn’t already clear


as fucking day, you are not allowed to date, Aria!” He went silent and stayed that way for the rest of the ride as tears fell from my eyes. When we pulled into our driveway, I rushed out of the truck. “I hate you!” I cried, rushing into the house past a confused Mom. “What the heck is going on?” she asked, holding KitKat in her arms. “Aria, what are you doing here?” I ignored her and ran to my room, slamming the door shut. I hurried to text Levi to make sure he was okay, but he didn’t reply. Even with the door shut and my own sobbing, I could still hear Mom and Dad fighting. “What’s going on, Adam? What are you doing with Aria?”


“I found her running around town with that kid.” “What kid?” “Kent Myers’ son! I swear to God, I’m going to kill them both.” They began fighting—again: Mom telling Dad that he needed to calm down, and Dad shouting that she needed to stop babying me. “If I catch Myers’ kid anywhere near Aria again so help me—” “You’re acting ridiculous, Adam!” “No, Camila. You need to stop with this whole thing. You already know my thoughts on that piece of shit over there, and I am sick and tired of you acting like it’s not a big deal that our daughter is pregnant!” “I know it’s a big deal. I’ve been dealing with the big deal while you’ve been making up excuses to never come home and reasons


to never look her way. You didn’t even come home for her birthday.” They didn’t stop for an hour. I was surprised they even still had voices. “Whatever. I have to take Aria to her therapy appointment before I go back to work.” “Yeah, because those are working out great. Who’s going to watch KitKat while you’re gone? I have to go back to work, too. This shit made me run hours behind schedule.” “I’ll take her with me, okay? You just do what you do best: go away.” The front door slammed and the house went silent. “Aria, I’m putting KitKat in the car, meet us out there.”


After wiping my eyes, I hurried outside to the car. “Mom, I’m sorry. I can explain…” She wasn’t interested. “We have to hurry home after your therapy appointment today, Aria,” she said as I climbed inside and buckled my seatbelt. “I’m on call at the hospital tonight and your father said he’s working late again, so I need you to watch your sisters since Mike’s at football practice.” She kept going on and on about why I had to watch Grace and KitKat, but that didn’t matter much to me. I knew she was on the edge of falling apart because she kept tugging on her ear, and I knew it was my fault. “I really didn’t want you to have to deal with watching over your sisters because I’m sure you’re so tired, but there’s just so much going on and your father isn’t making this any easier on anyone. And skipping school, Aria?


Really? It’s just not…it’s not good. Plus, I need to finish the paperwork for you to be homeschooled next semester, I need to go shopping and bake cookies for Grace’s class, I need to make sure you have a way to get to your next doctor’s appointment, and, and, and—” She took a breath before her hands flew to her face and she began to sob uncontrollably. I’d never seen Mom cry. There was something so scary and heartbreaking about watching your lifetime Superwoman fall apart in front of you. I unbuckled my seatbelt and edged closer to her, wrapping my arms around her. Sometimes it was so easy to forget that adults were just kids in bigger bodies, and their hearts broke just like ours.

23 /LEVI

I was warming up some soup for Dad when there was banging on the door. When I walked into the living room, I saw Dad opening the door to Mr. Watson. Hastily, I approached the two of them. “Keep that shit kid of yours away from my daughter,” Mr. Watson scolded. Dad turned toward me, confusion in his stare before he blinked and a sly smile crept across his face. “Adam, it might be best if you get the hell off of my property.” “I mean it, Kent. I know the kind of life you live over here and the last thing I need is for my daughter to get involved in this kind of thing.”


“You mean your pregnant daughter?” Dad smirked. “It seems that she’s plenty capable of getting into enough trouble without the help of my son. Now get the fuck off my property.” Mr. Watson’s chest was rising and falling hard, his heavy breaths releasing through his mouth. His eyes moved to me standing behind Dad. “I mean it. Stay away from my daughter.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Dad chuckled. “Tell Camila I said hi.” “Don’t talk about my wife.” “Why not? Isn’t she talking about me?” Dad mocked. Mr. Watson flipped Dad off as he headed back to his truck and drove away. Dad’s laughter faded away when he turned to me.


“Why the hell are you running around town with a pregnant girl?” “She’s my friend.” His brows lowered. “You’re real weird, kid. Just lay off of that girl, all right? Camila’s already got enough going on in her life and the last thing she needs is that dick of a husband coming down on her because my dick of a son likes to fall for the knocked up kids. Leave her alone, all right?” “But—” “I said leave it!” he ordered. “Okay.” He grumbled and walked past me. “And stop watching the damn comedies sitting in the foyer. There are places to sit in the living room.” I didn’t know how to react. For the first time ever, Dad was inviting me to watch the


black and white comedies with him in a roundabout way, but he’d also told me to stop talking to Aria. I was a winning loser. As we sat in the living room, Dad told me he’d traded his old beat-up car for another one that happened to not be stick shift. He handed me an extra pair of keys and told me I could use it if I wanted to sometimes. I wondered if that was his way of apologizing for giving up on chemotherapy. If so, I just wished he would take the keys back.

24 /ARIA

Sometimes I caught my parents staring at me waiting for me to confess that the night I slept with James was an accident, that I’d had no say in the matter. But I had. I allowed him to touch me and keep touching me. As he kissed me I said yes, over and over again, feeling as if he was the only thing I needed and wanted. And then he stopped kissing me. The memory of that night replayed in my mind every morning I woke up, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, and touched my stomach. Sometimes I stared at myself waiting to confess that the night I slept with James was


an accident, that I’d had no say in the matter. But I had. I wanted him. And for a stupid few minutes, I could’ve sworn he wanted me, too.

Dr. Ward’s candy choice today was Starbursts, which was much better than his black licorice days. “What’s on your mind, Aria?” “Salvador Dalí. Salvador was known for his melting clocks painting, The Persistence of Memory. Did you know he had a brother nine months older than him who died? His brother’s name was Salvador. His parents named Salvador after his dead brother Salvador. Isn’t that crazy? They believed that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He said, ‘We resembled each other like two drops of


water, but we had different reflections. He was probably a first version of myself, but conceived too much in the absolute.’ Imagine that pressure. Never living up to what your parents dreamed you could be.” “Do you feel pressure from your parents, Aria? Like you let them down?” I blinked, thinking back to the argument my parents had had a few hours ago. “Is there a deal breaker?” I asked. “For what?” “For how much your parents love you. Are there different kinds of mistakes that can just make them stop loving you? Like, say a kid started using drugs, or fighting. Or failed a class. Or—” “Got pregnant.” “Yeah. Is that a deal breaker for love?”


“Your parents still care a lot about you,” Dr. Ward said. “But it’s not the same. Before, Dad used to pop into my room each night and tell me something about sports that I didn’t care about. Then I would tell him something about art that he didn’t care about, and then he would kiss my forehead and leave.” “And now?” “Now all of those memories are just melting away.” “You want to talk more about that?” he asked. “No.” He didn’t push me for more details. I was starting to like that about him.


When we got home, I looked down at my phone to see if Levi had texted me back. Levi: Sorry for any trouble I caused. Aria: It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault. He didn’t text back until dinnertime. Levi: It might be best if we don’t talk outside of art and music class. I don’t want to add stress to your family. Aria: What? That’s stupid. Levi: Sorry, Art. Aria: You can’t break off a friendship with an emotional girl who’s pregnant over a text message after telling her that you like her. That’s just mean. And stupid. He didn’t reply until after KitKat’s bath. Levi: I know. Sorry. That’s it? You’re sorry? Aria: Do you want the definition of asshole?


He didn’t reply.

25 /LEVI

The next morning at the bus stop, Aria didn’t look at me, but she did define a word for me. “Asshole: a stupid, mean, or contemptible person. Just in case you didn’t know.” I definitely knew. Right before lunch, Simon informed me that I should probably sit at a different lunch table, but he told me we could still talk in gym class. I sighed, taking my lunch and finding an abandoned table in the back corner of the cafeteria. I sat and ate my nasty food. “Are you okay?” Abigail asked, walking up to me. “I stopped by Aria and Simon’s


table, and Aria said you weren’t sitting with them anymore.” “Yeah.” She sat down beside me. “I have a few extra minutes today if you want me to sit with you. And I will probably have some extra time tomorrow, too.” I smiled. “Thanks, Abigail.” “Welcome.” She paused, staring down at her hands. “Why haven’t you told Simon or Aria about my cancer?” “What do you mean?” “I know you saw me at chemotherapy the day before you invited me to sit and eat with you guys.” “Oh. Yeah. I didn’t think it was my right to share something like that.”


“But that’s why you invited me to eat with you three, right? Because you felt bad for me?” “No. I invited you because when you smile, you make everyone else happy.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “The day you asked me to sit with you guys I was on my way to the bathroom to cry because it was one of my not-so-happy days. So thanks for that.” “Anytime.” She rubbed her shoulder and looked across to the table that we normally set at. “Is Simon mad at me or something? He won’t even talk to me, let alone look my way.” She honestly appeared perplexed by Simon’s sudden distance from her. “He likes you, Abigail.”


“Oh, I know. I like him, too,” she said, eating her sandwich. “No, I mean he likes you, likes you.” “I know. I like him, like him, too.” She cocked an eyebrow. “I thought that was clear? I gave him extra cookies.” “But you told him you didn’t want to go out with him.” “I don’t.” “Why not?” “Because girls like me don’t get the boyfriends.” She frowned. She sat with me for the longest she had ever sat in one place. “After next week, though, things will be different,” she muttered to herself before saying, “Should I make him brownies this time?”

26 /ARIA

“Stay the hell out of my life!” I whispershouted toward James, walking up to his locker. I couldn’t believe that not only did he have the nerve to threaten Levi at the party, but to also tell my dad lies about Levi as if he knew him. “And stay out of Levi’s life. He has done nothing to you.” “Well, I’m sorry,” he whispered back, glancing down the hallways, making sure no one was watching us. “I’m sorry that I care about the kinds of people who are messing with you.” “Stop it, James. You have nothing to do with this. You have no say in who talks to me and who doesn’t. Your girlfriend is Nadine.


Not me. And you are seconds away from really pissing off a pregnant girl.” He reached to touch my shoulder, and I stepped back. “And really? I’m like a sister to you? Because that’s not really disturbing and awkward,” I sarcastically remarked. “I’m not in love with her anymore,” he blurted out, making my stomach twist. “James…” He stepped toward me. I stepped away. “You’re always on my mind. I find myself thinking about you when I shouldn’t. When I’m with her, you’re crossing my mind.” “Probably because you feel guilty about lying to her.” “No.” He shook his head. “Well, yes. But that’s not it. I just think her and me—


“Let me guess, you two are growing apart? If I had a dime for every time I heard that.” “Aria, I want to help you. I want to help take some of the pressure off of you. It’s not fair that you’re going through this all on your own and I just want to help.” “Fine. Then tell everyone at school that you’re the father,” I said. His mouth tightened. His shoulders dropped. That’s what I thought. “Just leave me alone, okay?” He nodded. “But it’s true. I’m not in love with her anymore.” “Who you’re not in love with is none of my business. Just like Levi is none of yours.” I left him standing there dumbfounded. I wished the father of the baby was a stranger.


Seeing James on a daily basis was a complete mess.

I wondered how people fell out of love. James made it sound as if falling out of love was so simple. Was it one big event that changed the way their hearts beat or was it the little annoyances that built up over time? Mom and Dad fought every day lately, but I tried my best to not overthink it. People in love fought sometimes. Whenever one of us kids walked in on them arguing, they went mute. Then they would talk about some mundane thing like the weather or politics. They were professionals at pretending to be happy, even though we all knew they weren’t. Once we


left the room, the screaming would start up again. Then, one day everything changed. The fighting stopped. They both grew tired. Sometimes they would whisper things to one another, other times they moved right past each other as if neither one of them existed. I missed the fighting.

“I read something interesting,” Dr. Ward said, leaning back in his chair. I was confused by the sudden change to the start of this meeting. “Where’s the candy bowl?” I asked. “Oh. No candy today.” I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the change. The pens on his desks weren’t blue anymore. They were red. I didn’t like that, either. The


couch had new yellow throw pillows. His office was the same, but…different. “As I was saying,” he continued. No. You’re only supposed to say two things. “I researched some more on Salvador after last week’s conversation. He had a painting called My Dead Brother. He used pop art to create it actually, did you know that?” Of course I knew that. “Of course you know that. Anyway, Salvador said something that struck me. He said, ‘Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.’ Interesting, huh?” I wiggled in my seat, uncomfortable with the quote. “Ask me what’s on my mind,” I ordered.


He shook his head. “Not today.” Why? Why did he have to be so difficult today? Why did he have to break the normality that we’d fallen into? Why did things have to change? “You’re about sixteen weeks pregnant now, right?” My eyes welled up with tears because he was seeing me, even when all I wanted to be was invisible. “Seventeen weeks.” “You’re not the same person you were a few months ago, are you? That girl’s gone now, isn’t she?” I nodded again. “But maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to no longer be the person we thought we were meant to be. Maybe it’s okay to just be who we are now and accept that.”


“But I messed up. I messed up my family’s future.” “That’s the thing about the future, and the past even. They don’t exist in this moment. We only have the here and now. If we focus too much on the past or too heavily on the future, we miss out on our present desires, the things we want right now.” I cried in his office for the first time, breaking down because I was no longer the person I used to be. I was someone new, someone that my father didn’t love and my mother pitied; I worried too much about what that meant for our future. Dr. Ward handed me a Kleenex, and I blew my nose in it. He crossed his arms, studying my every broken down movement. “What do you want, Aria?” he asked.


“What?” “What do you want?” He repeated himself like it was the easiest question ever. I cried some more, because I knew what I wanted, but I thought it made me an awful kind of person. I wanted to have the baby. But I didn’t want to keep it.

“How was the meeting?” Mom asked me, driving away from Dr. Ward’s office. “Awful,” I sobbed. “He’s really awful. I never want to go back again.” “Good.” She smiled, nodding. “Good, good, good. I’m glad you have someone to talk to.” Me too.

27 /LEVI

I hadn’t spoken to Aria or Simon in a week. When Aria and I worked on our project, she used as few words as possible to get her points across. She was cold, distant. It wasn’t until Friday that she actually took notice of me. “What’s going on?” I asked, walking up to Simon, Abigail, and Aria. “It’s Abigail,” Aria whispered, her eyes wide. “She’s not…moving.” My eyes locked in on the girl, and a part of me didn’t believe it was Abigail. She was wearing jeans and a plain black T-shirt that hugged her body. No high heels—just tennis shoes.


“Abigail?” I asked, waving my hand in front of her face. Her crystal blue eyes were wide, but I couldn’t read her thoughts. “What’s going on?” “She’s not talking, either. No movements, no words,” Simon explained. “She’s officially broken.” We stood in front of her as the hallways cleared and everyone hurried to their first hour class after the bell rang. The hallways went silent, and Abigail didn’t budge. “She’s never been late to class.” Aria frowned. “Hell is freezing over right now as we speak.” Abigail blinked. Our eyes widened as if shocked by the small movement of her eyes.


“I’m having a party at my house tonight. You’re all invited,” Abigail said before walking off. Slowly. Without haste. At a normal walking pace. What. The. Hell?

We showed up to Abigail’s house at the same time, and when I asked Aria if she was still upset with me, she told me not to speak to her, so I took that as a yes. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even know why I’m here. I’m still pretty annoyed with Abigail after she flatly rejected me with no reason,” Simon said, fixing his tie. The fact that he was wearing a tie made me realize that even though he said he was still mad, he


still cared what this girl thought of him. “But I just had to know what an Abigail party would be like. It just seems—weird.” Aria rang the doorbell to Abigail’s house while Simon kept un-tucking and re-tucking his plaid button-down shirt into his belted jeans. When the door opened, an older woman with blonde hair and blue eyes matching Abigail’s appeared. “Hi! You must be Abbi’s friends. I’ve heard so much about you three!” She smiled bright, inviting us inside. “I’m her mom, Nancy. Come on in! We are just getting everything going with the games and things. It means the world to us that you came!” We followed her into their huge living room where balloons covered the ceiling and a bunch of people who looked exactly like


Abigail were sitting around, laughing, eating appetizers, and dancing around the room. The energy of the place was explosive. Over the fireplace was a huge banner that read, “Abbi’s CF Party!” Abigail walked up to us, still doing that weird normal walking pace thing and still wearing normal clothes. She smiled big. “Hey! Thanks for coming. Follow me and you can put your coats in my bedroom, come on.” We all eyed one another, but did as she said and followed her toward her room. Abigail’s bedroom walls were covered in the same positive quotes that she spouted off to us daily. “You can toss your coats onto my bed. Then we can go—” “Time out,” Simon cut in. “What’s a CF party exactly?”


Abigail’s eyes fell to Simon’s, and she shrugged, nonchalant. “A cancer-free party.” “Why the heck would you have a—” Simon lowered his brows and shook his head back and forth. “Wait, what?” “Abigail, you have cancer?” Aria blurted out, her eyes wide with confusion. I was the only one who knew this already, but the shock that filled Simon’s and Aria’s faces made my stomach flip. “Had. As of a few days ago, we just found out that it’s all—” “WHAT THE FUCK?!” Simon shouted, his body tense, his fists tightened. “WHAT IN THE GODDAMN HELL DO YOU MEAN YOU HAD CANCER?!” He was fuming, moments away from falling apart.


“What does it matter?” Abigail asked, raising a brow. “Why are you so upset? It’s gone.” Simon huffed and puffed, scratching at the back of his neck. “Right. So that just makes it okay? So the way we find out that you had cancer is at a freaking cancer-free party with yellow and purple effing balloons?!” “They’re my favorite colors,” Abigail explained, blinking rapidly. “I don’t understand why you’re so mad. I invited you to the party.” He pounded his fist against his mouth and shouted, “How fucking considerate!” He hurried out of the room, kicking the few yellow and purple balloons that were floating around the ground.


After Simon stormed out of Abigail’s room, I followed him to make sure he was all right. He wasn’t. He stood in the living room with her family, popping and kicking as many balloons as possible. I gave Abigail’s family a tight smile, grabbed Simon’s arm, and pulled him out of the house. Simon stood on the front porch, pacing, shouting as if he were still fighting with Abigail. “How could you be so fucking selfish?!” he screamed. “A cancer-free party when no one knew you had cancer?!” “Si,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. He hastily turned to face me. “Can you believe that?! Who would do that to someone?!” His nostrils flared as he went back to his quick pacing. “She’s okay, though. The cancer’s gone.”


“But what if she wasn’t?!” he cried, slamming his body down to sit on the top step of the porch. The palms of his hands brushed against his brow before he stared forward. “What if she wasn’t okay? You don’t understand. One day my sister was there, and then she wasn’t. Would it have been like that with Abigail? Would we have just walked into school, expecting to hear her quote some random old guy at our table but then she would’ve never shown up? And then would the principal get on the loud speaker and tell us that one of our classmates met an untimely death due to her battle with cancer? Gah! That girl pisses me off so damn much!” I sat down beside him, staring forward also. We sat there until his breathing slowed, and his anger subsided. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his T-shirt,


then said, “It’s weird the way you can walk by people every single day of your life and never truly know their story.” “I wasn’t supposed to stop,” Abigail said, standing in her doorway. “Nobody really messes with you when you’re the weird girl who dresses funny. I was supposed to keep moving nonstop, finding my way through day after day, never taking a break, never stopping to notice things. Because when you notice things, you start realizing how much you’re missing out on and when you realize how much you’re missing out on, you’ll get sad that you’re dying because you are going to miss so much. And once you’re sad, you get depressed, and you have to do everything you can to stay positive during cancer because your parents already cry enough and you already feel bad daily, so you remind


yourself to keep moving, keep busy, keep fighting, but you can’t allow anyone else into your tiny bubble because you don’t need anyone else to feel bad for you. “But then I made a mistake on my way to the bathroom, and I saw Aria taking things off of her locker, and she looked so sad. So I stopped. Even though I shouldn’t have.” Her eyes fell to Simon and she softly spoke, “And then I saw you, too.” Simon hadn’t looked at Abigail once since she started speaking. He was staring at his tennis shoes, tapping his feet repeatedly. “Simon,” I whispered. He nodded. “I know.” He stood up, loosened his shoulders, and walked toward Abigail. She parted her lips to speak again, but was stopped when Simon pressed his lips against hers. At first, Abigail


was thrown off by Simon’s sudden embrace, but it only took a few seconds before she started kissing him back. Way to go, Simon. *** There was a freedom that washed over Abigail after she realized she’d cheated death. Life shone through her. She laughed differently. She smiled differently. She was different. That night we all danced around the living room, tossing balloons, eating too much cake, and laughing too hard. We were all small parts of Abigail’s soundtrack that night, adding to the vibrant feel of joy, happiness, and the idea of tomorrow.


As I watched Aria spin with Abigail, giggling like fools, my chest tightened when I locked eyes with Aria. Her smile faded. Her lips parted as her eyes filled with guilt. It wasn’t fair of me to somewhat feel pity for myself and Dad’s situation while Abigail was so happy. I shouldn’t have been so selfish. But truthfully, I felt awful. So I hurried away to the bathroom for a breather.

“I’m fine,” I said, turning to see Aria in the doorway of the bathroom. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. “I’m so sorry,” she said.


“I’m happy for her,” I said, nodding once. “I really am, it’s just…a part of me wishes it was my Dad’s party.” I clasped my hands behind my neck. “We shouldn’t be talking.” “Just one minute, Levi.” We stood still for sixty seconds. I counted each and every second. Time traveled way faster than I wanted it to. One minute was up and we had to go back to the place where we didn’t talk, where we pretended that we didn’t feel the things we knew we felt. She turned away and left the room, giving me the few moments that I needed to feel a little disappointed. The world didn’t make sense and it was far from fair. It tipped in favor of some, while others struggled daily to keep their heads above water. I’d watched a family fall apart


over a new life being brought into the world, while another couldn’t have children. I’d seen one family celebrate their victory against cancer while I watched illness sweep away the chance of a future with my dad. The world was often ugly and painful, filled with hate, sadness, and despair. But Aria? She made sense in a senseless world. She was the rainbow to my everlasting thunderstorms.


Aria. “I was supposed to find out the sex of the baby, since I’m at eighteen weeks. It’s the size of a sweet potato today, which if you think about it, is kind of big. But, I’m going to wait to find out the sex because I want you to be there. I want you to have the baby,” I said, my voice shaking as I stood in front of Simon’s mom, Keira, in their living room. Her eyes were wide, and she shook with a stack of papers in her grip. My hands were clammy. I wasn’t certain of what I was doing, but I was leading with my heart instead of my head. It didn’t seem fair that I was pregnant and she couldn’t have a child. It wasn’t


fair that my best friend felt that he wasn’t good enough to be their only kid because of the one mistake he made as a child. It wasn’t fair that Simon’s troubling addiction to doing things in groups of four probably came from a missing puzzle piece to their family. “Aria,” Keira said, shaking her head. She set the papers down on the closest table and within a second her hands pattered over her heart. “That’s very kind, honey, but…” “But what? You can have it. I promise.” “Sweetie,” she said, placing her hand on my cheek, and then combing my hair behind my ear. She even touched my face like mothers were supposed to. “That’s very sweet,” she repeated. “And I’m sure Simon told you about our issue, but it’s not your responsibility, honey. It’s really okay.”


“Keira, I really want you to have it. I’m not just being hormonal, and I’m not just feeling sorry for you. I’ve tried to figure out why this all happened to me, what it means, you know? And I think…” my voice shook, “I know I’m supposed to give it to you.” Her eyes welled with tears. “What did your mom say about this?” “I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to tell you first.” “What about the father?” she asked. I shook my head. James didn’t want a baby in his life. That was a given from the way he responded to Nadine’s dilemma. “Not a concern. Really, Keira. If you and Paul want it, it’s yours. I want nothing more than for the baby to have a loving mom and dad.” Her hands covered her mouth, and she couldn’t contain the tears that were falling


from her eyes. She nodded her head yes. My heart flipped. She said yes. “We’ll have to speak to your mother, Aria. And if you aren’t sure—” “I am,” I promised. “We’ll talk to my mom. But, well, do we hug or something now?” “Yes,” Keira sighed, wrapping her arms around me. She rested her head on top of mine. “Yes. We hug now.” The closer she pulled our hug, the more I felt it—the feeling that this was the right thing to do. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t also be a little sad about it.

“This is insane,” Dad said, sitting on the couch. His eyes stayed on Mom as I tried to


think of the last time he’d looked my way. “We’re not seriously considering this, are we?” he asked. He hardly ever looked at me anymore, and when he did, it was a look of disgust. Just a few months before, I was the apple of his eye, his baby girl, his Ari. I wished he knew how much it hurt me to know I’d hurt him. Mike entered the house holding a piece of paper, and stared in our direction, taking in yet another fight. “It’s an option,” Mom said. “To give the thing to Keira? Come on. This is getting ridiculous!” He called it a thing more often than a baby. “Well, what advice do you have to offer? Because lately all you’ve been doing is complaining and avoiding, which isn’t realistic.”


“What does the therapist we’re paying an arm and a leg for have to say about this?” I didn’t know. Mostly Dr. Ward and I talked about art. “Who’s the father?” Dad asked me. I didn’t speak. “Dammit, Aria! Who’s the father?!” he hollered, slamming his hand against the arm of the couch. He thrust out his chest and tightened his jaw. “How the hell are we supposed to be realistic about this when she acts like a child herself?” “I don’t know, but it makes it a million times more difficult when the grown man of the house throws hissy fits whenever the idea of his daughter being pregnant is brought up!” He tossed a hand up in dismissal as he stood from the couch. “Do whatever you


want, Camila. By all means give the thing to your best friend. I’m sure that won’t cause any kind of issues down the road.” “Grow up, Adam!” Mom shouted as Dad stormed from the room. Her forehead fell to her hands. “We’ll figure this out, Aria. Okay? If this is really what you want to do, then we will figure this out, with or without your father’s approval. But if you can, you should tell the father of the child. It’s only right.” She left the room with her shoulders drooped low and her stress high. Mike stood in the foyer, still holding his piece of paper. He grimaced. “I got into UWMadison,” he said to the now empty room. He crumpled up the paper and walked away. “Not that anyone gives a damn.”


That night after Mom left for work, I ran to the store to grab a few things. When I returned home, I spent hours in the kitchen baking, enlisting Grace to help me. She told me more horror stories about my pregnancy while she cracked the egg yolks into the cake batter. Once all of the baking was done, she and I dressed the living room in red and white streamers and balloons. We made signs and hung them around the room, and when everything was in place, I had Grace run up to get Mike, because I knew he wouldn’t want to see me after I ruined his big news. When he came down, he saw the room decked out in UW-Madison colors with the worst decorated cake ever sitting in the center of the coffee table. It had an animal drawn on it, which was supposed to be a


badger, but somehow came out looking like a dead dog. “Congratulations!” we shouted at Mike as he walked in. He tried his best not to smile, but it slipped out. “I thought you were an artist? That cake is ugly,” he remarked, walking into the room. “Hey! I made that!” Grace said, throwing a plastic spoon at Mike. He retracted his statement. “By ugly I meant perfect.” KitKat woke up from her nap a few minutes later, and the four of us sat in the living room eating cake and celebrating Mike getting into school. “I’m sorry for everything,” I said to him, knowing I was the reason our parents had been so thrown off lately.


He glanced my way before grabbing more cake. “If anyone gives you any more shit at school, just send them to me. I’ll handle it.”

The next night, James and Nadine came over to hang out with Mike. As always, Nadine and James stopped in to check on me. I guessed James found a way to fall back in love with her. I hated how wonderful Nadine was—she deserved more than her current boyfriend who was much more interested in meddling in my life than focusing on her. “Any updates?” Nadine asked about the baby. I nodded. “I decided to give the baby up for adoption.” My stare moved to James. “I want Simon’s parents to have the baby. They’ve been struggling for so long, and I


really want the baby to grow up in a loving family with a mom and dad who are together. I’m supposed to tell the father to get his permission, but I think he’ll be fine with the idea.” James’ eyebrows lowered and his mouth tightened. Nadine frowned for a split second before she smiled. “I think that’s so brave, actually, Aria.” She nodded. “You’re really brave.” He cleared his throat before agreeing with his girlfriend. “Yeah, I think that’s great. I’m sure the dad would be fine with the idea.”

29 /LEVI

It was funny how the things you once hated became the things you missed the most. Mom hadn’t called me in a few days. The phone calls that I’d hated with her at random hours of the night had become a part of my routine. I missed her begging for me to come home. I missed her telling me how awful I was treating her. I missed her voice, her overprotective nature, her overbearing love. When I called the house, she would answer, but she’d tell me she was busy and hang up. I felt as if she was over it—over the idea of trying to get me to come home to be with her.


So instead of her worrying about me, I began worrying about her. Where was her mind? Was she healthy? Was she happy? Was she still struggling with fake fears and harsh realities? I called Denise to see if she’d checked in on Mom like she’d promised. When she answered, she sounded extremely pleased. “Levi, she’s checking into a health clinic!” Denise exclaimed. “What? Why? Is she okay?” “She’s going to St. John’s Music Wellness Clinic. They’ve been known for their use of music to help people who suffer like your mom. It’s the first place that I wanted to send her, but she never would’ve agreed before.”


“What made her change her mind?” “I don’t know. You know you’re mom—when she’s up, she’s up. And when she’s down, she’s down. I guess we caught her in an up moment. But no matter what, this is good news, Levi. Really, really good news!” “How can I talk to her?” I asked. She went silent for a moment. “I think we should let her get settled first. They are starting her on new medicines and treatments. Maybe give her a week or two.” Denise went on to ask about Dad, and I proceeded to lie because she would’ve been like Mom and wanted me to come home if she knew how crappy things were. When she hung up, I still kept thinking about Mom. I missed her so much lately. Her confused mind and all.


Maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time, the medicine and treatment would work. I went to the woods that night and played my violin for her. I stood on the largest rock, allowing the cold air to pass by me. I remembered how she used to play music in the forest with me back home. She was always the better musician. I missed her sounds the most.

30 /ARIA

I was twenty weeks pregnant, sitting in the doctor’s office with Mom on my left and Simon’s parents on my right. It wasn’t completely official with paperwork and all, but I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to give the baby to Keira and Paul. I also knew there was no way Keira was going to miss this appointment. Even though Paul never missed work, he’d taken the day off to be there. Paul was the grownup version of Simon with his red hair and freckled face. He didn’t wear glasses, but that was only because he popped contacts into his eyes every morning. The main difference between Paul and Simon was that Simon was a lot more emotional


than Paul. Paul had much thicker skin than Simon and things didn’t get to him as much. He never talked much, and mostly all I received from him were smiles when I went over to their house, but they were always nice smiles. The room was silent except for the ultrasound machine humming. The technician rubbed the cool gel on my stomach before they slid the transducer back and forth over my belly. She studied the ultrasound with a smile on her lips. “This one has a strong heartbeat. At twenty weeks they’re about the size of a—” “Cantaloupe!” Keira clapped her hands as she smiled wide with excitement. The technician nodded. “Yup! The size of a cantaloupe. You know your stuff.” I knew


that, too. “And we want to know the sex today, right?” “Yes!” Keira shouted, and then she quickly covered her mouth. Her eyes moved to me. “I mean, only if you want to, Aria.” “Yes, we do,” I replied. “It’s a—” “Boy,” I whispered, already having a feeling. “A boy.” The technician smiled toward me. “It must have been that mother’s ESP. Congratulations. I’ll have the pictures printed off and pass them to the doctor who will be in to speak with you afterward.” We thanked her as she left the room. Paul pinched the bridge of his nose and sniffled before wrapping his arms around Keira and pulling her into a tight hug. He kissed her forehead and they cried together.


“Thank you, Aria. Thank you so much for this.” Mom was crying too, squeezing my hand every now and then. Everyone cried except me. I was numb. It’s a boy.

31 /LEVI

Early Friday morning, I awoke to knocking at my window. My eyes moved over to the alarm clock on my nightstand. I rubbed my palms over my eyes, trying to focus on the numbers. 3:31 A.M. What the hell? Pulling myself up from the bed, I dragged myself to the window. I was shaken awake, seeing Aria standing there in her long nightgown with monkeys all over it and matching monkey slippers. I swung the window open and gazed straight into her eyes. “Art, what’s wrong?”


Panic raced through me as I stared at her tear-filled eyes. “Sorry to wake you. I know we aren’t talking right now, and normally when I have nights where I can’t sleep, I go to Simon’s, but he’s too happy about getting a sibling and I wouldn’t want to make him feel bad. If you want me to go I can. I just…I have no one to talk to.” “What’s going on? Come inside and talk to me.” She climbed inside the window. She wiped her hands across her eyes to remove the tears that were now falling and chuckled softly. “I’m sorry. I’m just emotional and…” Her shoulders rose and fell. As if by instinct, I moved my fingers to her face and wiped at her tears. If she knew what it did to my heart when she cried…


“Talk to me,” I said again, guiding her to my bed. “It’s silly,” she warned, sitting. I sat beside her. She’d never been in my house. This was a first for us. She must’ve been really broken. I wanted to inch closer and hold her against me. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. “It’s not,” I promised. If it was bothering her, if it was making her cry, it wasn’t silly. “Talk to me,” I repeated for a third time. “He moved,” she whispered, placing her hands against her stomach. Her head rose and her chocolate eyes smiled with her beautiful lips. “He’s kicking. Before it was just small flutters, but now he’s full-blown kicking.”


My eyes widened and without a thought my hands went to feel her stomach, but then I remembered. I paused, uncertain if I should. She took my hands into hers and placed them against her stomach. I felt it, too. The movement. The life. “Jesus,” I muttered. I’d never felt anything so magical, so real. “Give me a word to describe it. It feels like butterflies, and stomach flips, and stomach knots all at once. What’s a word for that?” “Happy.” “Happy?” she asked. “Happy,” I replied. She nodded. “I can’t stop crying.” “I think that’s okay,” I said. “It’s a boy?” “We found out today.” She cried harder. “And I’m a terrible person because I thought


about keeping him when I heard that. I thought about what I would name him and who he would grow up to be, and then I wondered what I would say when he asked about the guy who called me cute but didn’t really mean it.” “You’re beautiful,” I said, handing her one of my T-shirts to blow her nose in. She cried even harder, because she knew I meant it. “You’re not a terrible person because you think things like that, Art.” “Then what does it make me? I told my best friend’s parents they could have the baby and then I think about taking it back. If that doesn’t make me terrible than what does it make me?” I paused, searching for the right word. “Human. It makes you human.” We sat with


our hands resting against her stomach. Each time we felt a kick, my heart flipped a little. “He’s a cantaloupe now,” she told me. “That’s pretty big, but still pretty small at the same time.” I stood up from my bed and turned on the light. “I have an idea.” “And that is?” “Stand up. You have to stand up for this idea.” Questioningly, she stood. I went digging through my CD collection, searching for a certain song. “Ah, here it is,” I muttered, tossing it into the boom box that sat on top of my dresser. I went digging into my closest, knocking over boxes and my hanging clothes. Then I pulled out an old guitar case and sat it on the ground in front of Aria. “What are you doing?” She laughed, wiping at her eyes.


“Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed I take my violin to the woods and play until I feel a little less broken. And seeing how it’s too cold to play outside, and no offense, but you are freaking terrible at playing instruments, therefore I am going to teach you the gift of this beauty.” I bent down and unlatched the case, opening it to reveal nothing and everything all at once. “What are we looking at?” she asked. I reached down, lifting up my first ever air guitar. “This right here is a Myers’ family antique. My grandfather taught my father his first air guitar song on this beauty here, and my father taught me on the same one. And now I would like to teach Cantaloupe his first air guitar song. Granted, I might need you to supply the fingers for the playing since


Cantaloupe isn’t really…ya know, fully functional yet.” “Understandable.” She giggled. I placed it in her hold, and she took it. “Careful, you have to be gentle.” “Of course. I promise to handle it with care.” She smiled, and I just about died. I loved her smiles the most. I lifted my air guitar and hit play on the boom box. “What song is this?” she asked. “‘She Talks To Angels’, by The Black Crowes,” I said, tuning my strings. I smirked as I watched her start to mimic my movements. “It was my Dad’s favorite song to air guitar to when I used to come visit him. He loved it.” I spent the next hour teaching her the intro to the song, and we kept playing until she started yawning.


I placed her guitar back into the case, took the CD out of the player and set it inside of the case also. I held it out toward Aria. “I can’t take your guitar, Levi.” “No offense, Art. But I’m pretty sure this is between Cantaloupe and me.” I bent down to her stomach and said, “Practice whenever you can, buddy.” Aria climbed out of the window, and I handed her the case. “Thanks for tonight.” Her feet fidgeted back and forth. “Do you think we can eat lunch together again?” “I would like that.” She grinned and walked off with the guitar case in her hands.

32 /ARIA

It was a Sunday afternoon when Dad moved out. November 22nd, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Mom said he wasn’t really moving out, but he was just going to stay with his sister, Molly, for a little while. She said they needed space and time to figure out a few things. I watched him load up his truck with suitcases from my window. It looked like a lot of luggage for being a temporary move. Grace came in and stood next to me, staring out of the window. She had tears in her eyes, and I wrapped my arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.


Mike came into the room next. I asked him not to blame me right now because I was on the verge of tears, too. He didn’t say a thing. He stood on the other side of Grace and wrapped an arm around her. We each stared out of the window. It was the first snow of the winter. As it fell from the sky, everything around us fell along with it. After Dad drove off, the three of us stood there for a while longer. Mom joined us with KitKat in her arms. She was probably sad, but wouldn’t show it in front of us. We didn’t eat dinner at the table that Sunday. It didn’t feel right without him.

During the whole Thanksgiving break, I didn’t see Levi, mostly because I spent the


days with my family, trying to keep them from falling apart. I texted him about Dad moving out, and he sent me a word a day to keep me from going over the deep end. Levi: Thinking – noun| [thing-king] : the action of using your mind to produce thoughts.

Levi: Of – preposition | [uhv, ov; unstressed uhv or, esp. before consonants, uh] : used to indicate specific identity or a particular item within a category.

Levi: You – pronoun|[yoo; unstressed yoo, yuh] : Aria Lauren Watson.


Thinking of you, too, Levi Myers.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror wearing a tank top and sweatpants with Cantaloupe’s guitar case sitting open on the bathtub. The Black Crowes blasted and I practiced the song over and over again on the air guitar. Grace walked past the bathroom. She backtracked her steps and came to a standstill. “Are you drunk?” I laughed. “My teacher Mrs. Thompson said she wasn’t allowed to drink when she was pregnant.”


“Well, your teacher Mrs. Thompson was awkward for talking about drinking to kids your age.” She blinked as she watched my hands move back and forth against the invisible guitar. “Are you going crazy?” “That’s not a nice word.” She slapped the palm of her hand to her forehead and walked away. “Oh my gosh, my sister’s a pregnant nutcase!”

When school came back on December 1st, the snow was falling overhead, and I was bundled up in my winter wear. Mom had had to get me a new coat because my normal winter coat didn’t fit as well. Simon walked over to me and gave me a halfway grin. “I


heard about your dad. Are you okay?” he asked. I shook my head. “Do you want to talk about it?” I shook my head again, staring at the ground. When the blue Chucks stood next to me and kicked around the snow on the ground, I joined in with my shoes. “Hi, Art.” I released the breath I’d been holding for a week. “Hi.” “What size are we at now?” “An eggplant.” He smiled. “Morning, Mr. Eggplant.” We climbed onto the bus and set in the seats across from one another. He took out his CD player and handed me one of the ear buds. He placed the other in his ear. I took a few deep breaths.


And when he hit play, we both played our invisible guitars.

“I have a proposal for you, and I’m hoping you’ll say yes,” Levi said when his music class showed up to our art room. He sat his violin case down. “I think we should be glitterati.” “We’re not wealthy or famous,” I argued. “Plus, we don’t have any fashionable events to attend.” “Ah! But that is wrong! Because while I was walking down the hallway, I heard people whispering and gossiping about how I could possibly be the father of your baby.” “Is that the current rumor?” “It is indeed the current rumor, and seeing as how most famous people are always


talked about in those tabloids you read, then I think that kind of makes us famous by definition.” “And what’s that definition?” “Having a widely spread reputation.” I smiled. “We do have that, don’t we? But we don’t have a fashionable event to attend, so I guess we’re out of luck. Do you want to work on a few samples of our final project? You can play as I paint and—” “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t just change the subject because we do have a fashionable event to attend.” “And that is?” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and held it my way. “Aria Watson, will you go to winter formal with me this Saturday night?”


I chuckled. “Seriously?” He nodded. “No way. My mom would never let me go. Plus, there’s that whole six months pregnant thing I have going on.” “You don’t worry about that. You just have a dress ready and your dancing shoes on. I’ll deal with your mom.”

Levi asked Mom on Tuesday if he could take me to the dance. She said no. He asked on Wednesday. She said no. Thursday before my therapy appointment—no. Friday—no. When Saturday night arrived, I figured Levi had given up on the idea of me going to winter formal with him. I’d be lying if I said I


didn’t try on every dress in my closet, but most of them didn’t fit anymore anyway. Maybe that was for the best. I watched Mike and his date Jamie get ready with James and Nadine before they all headed off to the dance that I wasn’t allowed to attend. It wasn’t fair. Thirty minutes after the dance started, there was knocking on the front door. Peeking around the corner, I saw Mom opening the door. Levi was standing there giving her that charming smile that made everyone in the whole wide world fall in love with him. “Hello, Mrs. Watson. First and foremost, these are for you,” Levi said, handing flowers to Mom. My heart started beating faster and faster.


“Thank you, Levi, but I think the answer is still the same. We think it’s best that Aria doesn’t attend the winter formal tonight.” She said ‘we’ like Dad was a part of the decision when really, he didn’t even know there was a dance. “I know, but if I may?” He gestured toward the foyer, and Mom let him step inside. She shouldn’t have done that. Once Levi entered someone’s house—or heart—there was no way to ever get rid of him. He was wearing a black tuxedo with a polka dot green and white bowtie. He cleared his throat and stood tall, giving Mom that dangerous smile. “I want to take her to the dance. I understand why she wouldn’t want to go. I get why you wouldn’t want her to go. Her life is going to change within the next few months. Nothing is going to be the same,


everything is going to be different, and you fear that all of the changes are going to be too much for her. Plus, the idea of me in her life is just another stressful thing added to the equation. Trust me, I’ve been trying to leave her alone for the past few months, but she’s ruthless at getting my attention. I get that you worry about what others will say about her ever-growing stomach and how she’ll be judged and criticized by other kids. Any good parent would worry about such things and any loving parent would want to keep their kid from that. “But I want you to know that I’ll protect her. I’ll make her forget that there is anyone else in the room. I’ll make her feel comfortable and beautiful because her beauty is comforting to me. I’ll dance slow and not too often so she’s not on her feet all evening. I’ll


make her laugh at really corny math jokes and give her really watered down punch.” Mom placed her thumb in between her lips. She was probably debating if she should shove him back outside and double bolt the locks, or if she should drag me to my room and put me in a dress. “Levi, you have to understand. Aria isn’t in a place where she should be dating. It’s actually the last thing she should be doing.” He nodded. He frowned. He looked past my mom and saw me hiding behind the corner. He gave me a half smile. I gave him the other half. His eyes traveled back to Mom. “You think I want to date Aria? God, no. There’s nothing about your daughter that I want to date. She’s cool and all, but by all means, she has officially been friend-zoned in my book.”


“I think we both know that’s a lie.” Mom sighed, crossing her arms. “No, Mrs. Watson, it’s not. You see, there are girls and then there’s Aria. Aria is the kind of girl who you go to the music store with and listen to destroy the sounds of music. She’s the kind of girl you talk to about your views on realism compared to impressionism. She’s the girl who tells you that abstract art is the best art, even though you fight her tooth and nail about it because you think it’s meaningless, but the next thing you know you’re sitting in a library staring at books filled with pictures of abstract artwork and your heart feels ready to explode.” Levi turned to me as I stepped out from behind the corner. Our eyes locked, and he kept speaking. “Because you get it, you know? You get that the colors and the lines


and the curves aren’t trying to be like everything else in the world. You understand that the abstract art is standing out against the norm because it’s the only way abstract art knows how to stand. And you get so fucking happy because it’s so beautiful. And unique. And edgy. And…abstract.” The room filled with silence as the three of us stood with no words coming to our minds. Levi adjusted his bowtie, turned back to Mom, and cleared his throat. “So, if it’s okay, I would like to take your abstract masterpiece to the dance tonight. Friends only.” Mom turned to me and shrugged her shoulders. “Do you want to go?” she whispered. “Yes.” I badly wanted to go with Levi.


“Then go.” She nodded her head toward my room. “Go get dressed.” Without hesitation, I turned and hurried in the direction of my room with the biggest smile that I could no longer hide. As I entered my room I couldn’t help but giggle when I heard Levi say to my mom, “I’m sorry for saying the f word in your house, Mrs. Watson.” “It’s okay, Levi. Consider it your one free pass.”

Fifteen minutes later, I walked out of my bedroom wearing a black dress that probably shouldn’t have stretched out as far as it did. My feet were wearing a pair of flats because they were the only thing that didn’t make me


feel exhausted from standing. Mom gave me her pearl necklace and earrings. When I entered the living room, where Levi was waiting, he stood from the couch. “Whoa,” he said, staring my way. He didn’t say another word, or move an inch. Minutes passed, and still no movement. “Levi.” I softly laughed nervously, tugging on the bottom of my dress. “You’re staring at me.” “I know. I swear I’ve been trying to stop, but when I stare at you something weird happens.” “And what’s that?” “My mind shuts up.” “Oh, crap,” Mom muttered, standing against the fireplace, watching Levi and I with a camera in her hands and tears falling down her cheeks.


“Mom, don’t cry.” “I’m not, I’m not,” she promised, wiping her eyes. “It’s the dust from the fireplace, that’s all.” She smiled and got more dust in her eyes as she took photos of Levi and me. “I like him,” Mom whispered as she kissed my forehead. “I know I shouldn’t, but I like him.” “You and I both suffer from the same issue, Mom.” When Levi and I walked out to his car, he held the passenger door open for me. He hopped into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. My hands rested against my stomach as we drove in silence. “I meant that, you know,” he whispered, his eyes on the road. “The part I said about


there are girls and then there’s Aria. I meant that.” My shoulders relaxed into the seat, and I stared forward out of the windshield. There were girls, and then there was me. Slowly my left hand edged toward the middle half of the front seat, my palm facing up. Slowly his right hand edged toward the middle half of the front seat, his palm facing down. Slowly, nervously, quietly, we tied our hands together.

“Are you sure you don’t want punch? I mean, I know they don’t have diamond encrusted glasses, but they have these great plastic cups,” Levi offered for the third time. We sat


in two chairs against the wall. I shook my head. I couldn’t stop pulling at the fabric of my dress, feeling as if I was standing out way too much and that I was way too fat to be there. Girls kept walking over to us and asking Levi to dance with him, but he kept turning them down. All of the girls looked really beautiful and very far from pregnant. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come. Levi rested his hands in his lap. His feet were tapping against the gym floor to the music. He wasn’t having much fun, and I felt awful about it. “I’m sorry I’m so boring,” I said. “You’re not,” he lied. “I’m embarrassed.” “Why?”


“Because I’m fat.” He edged his chair closer to me and laid my head on his shoulder. “The way you talk about yourself makes me angry.” “But look at all of those girls out there. You could have any of them. Clearly they all want you.” “I don’t want them.” “Why not?! They are everything that every guy wants. They are what you want.” I felt him tense up and his foot stopped tapping. He removed my head from his shoulder. “Stop telling me what I want, okay?” “It’s true, though, isn’t it? You want that?” He rolled his eyes and pushed himself away from me. “Fine.” He started walking toward the dance floor, and I saw a few of the


popular girls smiling his way. He smiled back. I felt sick. He was choosing them. It made sense. I was on the outside of their world and Levi belonged with them. But then he kept walking past everyone. He walked out of the gym. I wanted to follow him, but I felt too stupid to do so. So I sat. I frowned like a dork, my hands resting against my stomach. About five minutes passed before Levi reentered the room, looking very different than when he’d left. My cheeks heated up as the room erupted with laughter. He was wearing a fake pregnancy stomach and his eyes were locked with mine as he crossed over to me. “What the heck are you doing?” I laughed, staring at how ridiculous he looked.


“Dance with me,” he said, holding his hand out to me. “No way.” “Dance with me,” he repeated, stepping closer. “Levi!” “Dance. With. Me,” he begged, his eyes pleading with me to say yes. He took my hands in his, and I stood up. The music was up-tempo and everyone was staring at Levi. “Just look at me,” he ordered, so I didn’t look away. He started dancing like an ape, all over the place, no sense of rhythm, and no care that others were staring at him. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I started dancing with him. With no care, no fear, and no regrets. I kept looking at him and as he moved, his fake stomach danced, too. “Some


people were just born to stand out, Aria. Just deal with it and keep dancing.” I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to, but I was falling in love with him. Each second was filled with more love. I wasn’t sure if seventeen-year-old pregnant girls were allowed to fall in love with oxymoronic boys who made their hearts skip. My head kept telling me that it was wrong, that I shouldn’t be considering such an insane idea. My head knew this was wrong. My head knew every reason why I should’ve never allowed myself to fall for Levi Myers. My head told me there were limits to love, boundaries. “You’re having a baby,” my brain told me daily. “You’re not allowed to date,” it ordered. “He’ll find someone better,” my brain scolded me.


But my heart…my heart believed in a quiet, simple kind of love. A kind of love that was created before time existed, a kind of love that was bigger than any limitations the world placed upon us. It was a type of love that had no age limits, no boundaries, and was seen only within the souls of two people. My heart didn’t give me much of a choice. “Love openly,” my heart whispered. “Love unconditionally,” my heart begged. “Love the struggles,” my heart taught. “Love in the moment.” It was something ugly and beautiful all at once, wasn’t it? How your heart didn’t give a damn what your head wanted.

33 /ARIA

We walked outside and it was snowing, large flakes of white covering the town. My feet were sore, but they weren’t too bad because Levi had forced me to sit down every few songs. He held the car door open for me and closed it. I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him how I was falling for him, how hard it was for me to concentrate on anything when he said my name, or played the violin, or smiled. When he climbed into the car we sat there for a while, watching each snowflake fall. “I had a very good time tonight,” I told him.


“Me too.” Silence. “Art?” “Yes, Levi?” “What would happen if I kissed you?” “If you kissed me?” My stare fell to his lips. I exhaled slowly. “Well, everything would change.” Things were already changing. “Is that a bad thing?” My voice shook, and I could feel the palms of my hands growing sweaty. I didn’t want to make eye contact, so I studied his floor mat. “I’ve only kissed one boy before. I’m not that experienced. I’m not a whore. I know everyone at school thinks I am, but I’ve only been with one person. I just wanted you to know that. I’m not a whore.” “I never thought that.”


“Maybe you once did. Maybe the thought swam through your mind when we were in class, or when I missed school because of heartburn or when my stomach started to show. It’s understandable. I wouldn’t even be mad at you for thinking it. I’ve thought it too, actually.” “I never thought that,” he said with confidence. He turned toward me and placed his hand behind my neck. He leaned in close. He slowed his breaths. Our lips were millimeters apart. I couldn’t stop staring at his mouth, and I think he was staring at mine, too. He ran his hand against my cheek and looked into my eyes. “Whoever made you doubt how amazing you are, whoever broke your heart…I’m going to hate them for a long time.” “It’s okay.”


“How is that okay?” “Because I found someone who’s kind of putting it back together again.” His lips inched closer to mine, and when they touched, I felt his hand wrap around my lower back. A feeling of warmth and protection ran through me as he pressed his lips against mine. I tilted my head to the left, deepening the kiss as I wrapped my arms around his neck. Then, as our lips were locked, I started to giggle against his mouth, feeling his fake pregnancy stomach bumping against my real pregnancy stomach. As I started to laugh, he did too, breaking into a chuckle. We didn’t move away from each other, though; our lips stayed together, connected. When my eyes opened, he was staring at me with those same kind eyes that he always


had. I slowly pulled my mouth away from his, but somehow it felt as if we were still kissing. I secretly hoped that feeling would never fade away. “Art, you’re something special,” he said, his fingertips softly massaging my lower back. “And I’m so dang happy that I met you.” The Southern twang that hung off of the word ‘dang’ was so handsome. It was the oddest first kiss I could think of, which made it the best. As he put the car in drive, his cell phone rang, and I saw the name Lance flash across the screen. Levi was quick to answer. What started with a smile and a ‘Hey, what’s up?’ quickly changed to Levi’s face falling into a frown and his jaw tightening. “I’ll be right there.”


He hung up the phone and turned the key in the ignition. “I-I have to drop you off real quick.” “What’s wrong?” I asked, touching his forearm. “My dad’s in the hospital. I’m sorry, I, um…” He started stuttering, running his hands through his hair. “I-I do-don’t know where Mercy Hospital is? Lance said the ambulance took him there? If you could tell me or something after I drop you, that wouwould be great.” His body was shaking, which made my body react in the same fashion. I shook my head back and forth. “It’s only a few minutes from here. I’ll go with you. Just take a right out of the parking lot.”


He nodded and whispered a thank you. I nodded back and said a prayer.

We arrived at the hospital, and Levi almost forgot to unbuckle his seatbelt as he rushed inside. I was right behind him. He was hectic, rushing to the receptionist, his fake pregnant belly still intact. “I’m looking for my dad,” he said, his nerves flying from his mouth. “He was brought in a while ago.” I stepped behind him and unhooked the fake belly, allowing it to fall to the ground. Just like that, reality was back. The real world came crashing down. “I’m sorry, I’m just going to need to know a few details.” The receptionist calmly tried to explain. My hand landed on Levi’s


shoulder for comfort, and I refused to move it. “His name is Kent Myers. He’s, um, he has cancer, and I just—look, I just need to know if he’s okay.” “All right, one second…” She was taking longer than Levi wanted her to. His whole soul wavered and shook before me. “Could you hurry?” he snapped, something he hardly ever did. “Levi.” We heard behind us, and we turned to see his uncle Lance standing a bit down the hallway. With haste, we jogged in his direction. “He’s okay, he’s resting.” “What happened? Where is he? I want to see him.” Levi had tears at the back of his eyes, and he blinked them away. “He called me complaining about chest pains and said he was having trouble


breathing. Daisy and I rushed over to check. It only got worse, so we called an ambulance to pick him up. They helped his breathing and now he’s resting.” Levi started to tremble, and Lance was quick to wrap his arms around him. “I thought…” Levi mumbled. “I thought he…” “I know, buddy. I know.”

“You should call your mom and let her know where you are,” Lance said, walking toward me in the waiting room. Levi was sitting in his dad’s room, and I’d been waiting. “Maybe she can come pick you up. It looks like we might be here for a while.”


“She’s working,” I said, tapping my foot, knowing I would have to call my dad to come get me. “I’ll be fine, Lance.” He gave me a worrisome stare, but I told him to go check on his brother. Fifteen minutes after I texted Dad, he came rushing into the hospital. “Aria!” he exclaimed, rushing over to me. I knew he was going to scream at me for being with Levi. I knew he was going to yell and scold me for being out with a boy, especially Kent Myers’ boy. Standing from my chair, I started talking before he could. “I’m sorry, okay? I know you didn’t want me to be out with Levi, but I like him, Dad. He’s the only one at school who doesn’t look at me like I’m a slut and his dad is sick, and we had to come here and—”


I couldn’t finish because Dad wrapped his arms around me, pulling me into a hug. “Jesus Christ, Aria! I thought something happened to you or the baby! You can’t just text people that you’re in the hospital! Are you okay?!” He pulled back, studying my face, making sure everything was in the right spot before he pulled me back into a hug. Confusion filled me inside but then I realized I wasn’t dreaming, that Dad actually was holding me so tight. I yanked on his jacket, pulling him closer to me. “I’m so sorry, Dad. For everything.” He kissed my forehead and held me closer to him. “None of that matters, okay? It’s all right, Aria. It’s all right.”

34 /ARIA

“I’m sorry,” Dad said, pulling into our driveway. “I’ve been terrible throughout this whole thing, and I just want you to know that it’s not your fault. I’ve been having a hard time, and I’ve taken that out on you. That’s not fair. And I’m so sorry.” I forgave him. Of course I forgave him. He kissed my forehead before I stepped out of his car, then he headed back to Molly’s house. A part of me wanted to pretend that he would’ve come back home that night and everything would’ve gone back to normal, but it didn’t. He drove away again. Later that night, Levi was standing outside of my bedroom window. I opened the


window and told him to come inside, but he didn’t. “He didn’t just stop chemotherapy,” he said. “I thought he just didn’t want to do it anymore, but the doctor told him it wasn’t working. He stopped because they told him it wasn’t working. The cancer’s spreading too much.” “Levi…” “He’s dying,” he whispered. “The doctors said the only thing they can do is help make him comfortable. Can you believe that?” He snickered, gripping his teeth against his lip. “There’s nothing comfortable about cancer. You can’t make cancer comfortable. What a nonsensical thing to say.” “Come inside,” I said.


He shook his head. “No, I should get back home. I just wanted to say sorry for the way the night ended.” “Come inside,” I repeated. “I’m fine.” “Levi. Please.” He took a breath and stepped inside. We sat on my bed in the darkness, our pinkies locked together. I wasn’t sure what I could say to him to make him feel better. I didn’t even think I was supposed to try to make it right for him. Maybe it wasn’t about fixing the broken hearts. Maybe it was about loving the broken pieces the way they were. Maybe when someone you loved was hurting, all they needed was someone to hold


their pinkie as a reminder that they weren’t alone. “I’m afraid of giving him up,” I said. “I have these thoughts of calling up Keira and telling her that I changed my mind and want to keep him. I’ve played scenarios in my head of how I could do this, how I could raise a baby on my own, and then I think of how terrible it makes me to want to do that. I start thinking too far into the future, and I realize how shitty of a thing that would be to do. Then I cry because I think too much and want too much and worry too much about the future. “The truth is the future doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t worry about your father dying because there’s no such thing as dying. There’s alive and there’s dead. There’s only the here and now, and if we sit worrying


about what happens next, we miss out on the best thing: being here with one another.” “I’m falling in love with you,” he softly admitted, almost apologetic. He rubbed his shoulder. “Sometimes you cross my mind and I just want to keep thinking about you for the rest of the day. Because daydreaming about you is easier than thinking about cancer. I want to sit out in the woods, and think about you. I want to crawl out of bed, and think about you. I want to play music, and think about you. Because when I think about you the world seems better.

“Then I remember that my thoughts can’t be about you because you’re not mine. You’re nothing but a dream. And I’m not the guy


who gets to nightmares.”






He placed his hands against my chest, feeling my heartbeats. “Don’t do this to me, Art. Don’t let me keep falling for you. Don’t let me love you. Because everything I’d ever loved has a way of falling apart, and the idea of losing you is too much right now. Don’t let me keep dreaming. Make me wake up.”

His words were pained, raw, uncensored. I saw the fear and hurt that lived inside him. I felt it too.


It didn’t seem fair, the way life worked. While I was months from bringing a new life into the world, Levi was preparing to say goodbye to one.

I wished the current issues were mine instead of Levi’s. Nobody deserved to hurt as much as he did. He had been nothing but kind from day one, and the fact that his heart was breaking made my heart break too.

“Can we kiss again for a while?” I asked, wanting him to know that I was more than a dream. He nodded. “I’d like that.” Our second kiss was nothing like the first. As his mouth found mine, I cried. I could feel


how sad he was when he kissed me and that made me sad. I felt his tears mixing together with mine as our lips pressed hard against each other. We were trying our best to live in the here and now, in the darkness together. We were so broken. We were so worn out from the lives we lived, but tonight we kissed with the broken pieces. We kissed with the fear. We kissed with the anger. We kissed with everything we had inside of us. And then we kissed some more. We grew tired together, creating our own kind of art. We became the masterpieces of the loneliest souls. The colors in both of our eyes bled out, knowing that sometimes the most beautiful pieces of art were created from the darkest of souls.

35 /LEVI

I woke up to find my arms wrapped around Aria. My mind started racing as I began remembering the previous night. The light shining through the window fell against Aria’s face. Light. Morning. Shoot! I climbed out of the bed and scrambled to grab my shoes, hoping that— “No need to rush, you’ve already been caught.” I turned to see Mrs. Watson standing in the doorway with a mug in her hands. “Mrs. Watson, I can explain…”


“Do you drink coffee, Levi?” she asked before heading toward the kitchen. I followed behind her, a little worried about entering a kitchen where there were many, many knives easily accessible. I cautiously ran my hand through my messy hair as I watched her grab another mug from the cupboard. “Cream? Sugar?” she asked. “Both,” I answered cautiously, sitting down on one of the stools at the island. A few seconds later she passed me the mug and part of me wondered if there was a chance she’d poisoned it. “I heard about your father.” She leaned against the island, across from me. “I’m so sorry.” I shrugged, running my finger around the rim of the coffee mug.


“Your father and I used to date,” she said, making me almost spit out my coffee. She smirked. “It was a long, long time ago. We were around the same ages as you and Aria, so it’s a little strange for me to see you two so close. It’s pretty surreal.” “I like her, Mrs. Watson. A lot.” “She likes you too, honey, and I think that’s the problem. She’s going through so much. Aria keeps a lot to herself. There’s so much she doesn’t say. The worst feeling in the world for a parent is knowing that your child is hurting and being unable to help them. I just worry that her being so close to you could be some kind of way for her to avoid dealing with her deeper issues.” “You want me to stop seeing her?” I asked, hoping the answer was no.


Mrs. Watson grimaced. “I don’t know, because last night when you showed up for the dance was the first time she actually looked…happy. Like her old self. I just—can you take it slow with her? Just friends?” “Of course.” “Which means no late night sleepovers.” “I’m sorry about that. It was a really crappy night, and I had no one else to talk to. I didn’t mean to fall asleep over here, I swear. I’m sorry.” She narrowed her eyes with a smirk. “You look so much like your father it’s scary.” “Was he always like this?” I asked referring to Dad’s coldness and harsh personality. “I remember him being different, but I don’t know if I’m just making up those memories or something.”


She shook her head, going into the refrigerator and pulling out eggs and bacon. “Kent’s always been a little rough around the edges, but at the end of the day, every choice he ever made was made to look out for others. His tactics weren’t always the best, but the motives behind his actions were always from his heart. He doesn’t mean to be harsh.” “When I used to visit him, he was happy to have me.” “He’s happy you’re here, trust me. Your father doesn’t talk about things. He never really has. He keeps his feelings to himself. After you stopped visiting, I think he just got lonely, and instead of doing something about his loneliness, he held it inside and kept his feelings buried.” “Were you and him in love?”


She shook her head. “Maybe puppy love, but he really loved your mom, he just made a few mistakes along the way. And I’ve truly only loved one man.” Tears fell from her eyes, and she laughed as she wiped them away, seeming somewhat embarrassed. “This is what happens when you work too many nightshifts in a hospital.” “I really hope things work out with you and Mr. Watson.” With a tight smile, she nodded. “Thank you, Levi. Now, on to the important things. Are you hungry?” She proceeded to cook me breakfast, and I couldn’t help but think about how I missed my own mom. When she wasn’t too far gone into her mind, she would make me breakfast and we would have conversations in the mornings. I missed that.


After we ate breakfast, I thanked Mrs. Watson and walked out of the front of the house to head home. “He loves you, Levi. You know that, right?” Mrs. Watson said, standing in her doorway. I shrugged, making her frown. “The day he found out about the cancer, he came to me. The same way you did. I sat with him and asked him if he had the chance to fix one thing in his life, what would it be.” “What did he say?” “Nothing. He said nothing. But a few weeks later, you showed up, and I think that said more than any words could ever say.”

The next Saturday night was the night of our “Art & Soul” showcase for Mr. Harper and Ms. Jameson’s class. Lance and Daisy told


me they would be there front row and center. Dad had a home nurse staying with us to help care for him, so he wouldn’t be able to make it. Not that he would’ve anyway. Simon and Abigail showed up, too, lips locked through most of the night. God. Kissing that much had to be tiring. The showcase was taking place in the auditorium, which held a lot more people than I’d thought it would. Aria and I sat in the wings of the stage, watching the people who performed before us. Everyone else already had their piece of art completed, so when they went out there, the artist discussed their techniques and then their partner played a musical number. Aria’s breaths were picking up as she stared out at the stage. “This was a terrible idea,” she said, shaking her head back and


forth. “We should’ve just did like everyone else and had the painting completed. What if I can’t do it? What if I freeze up and can’t paint in front of all of those people? What if—” “Just look at me,” I offered. “Just look at me and breathe. You can do this, Art.” She nodded once and glanced out at the audience. Her eyes widened. “He’s here.” “Your dad?” I asked, knowing she’d been worried that he wouldn’t show. “No. I mean, yeah, he’s here, but I wasn’t talking about him.” “Then who?” I looked out to see my dad sitting next to Lance and a lump formed in my throat. He looked weak, and tired, and hardly there, but he was there. He came. Mr. Harper announced us, and we walked on stage. As Aria set up all of her art


supplies, I was in charge of greeting the audience. “Hi, everyone. I’m Levi Myers and this is Aria Watson setting up her stuff behind me. We decided that we wanted to do three live art pieces to showcase our collection. We thought it would be cool to paint it in real time instead of completing the pieces beforehand. Or perhaps we were just really last minute and didn’t get our work done in time,” I joked, making the room laugh. “Our collection is entitled, ‘Nonsensical Oxymorons.’” Aria gave me a smile, indicating that she was ready to start. I grabbed my violin, cleared my throat, and started to play. The bow rolled across the strings as I began to play “Love You Till The End” as Aria used broken sticks and leaves from the woods to create her abstract piece.


She used dark, moody colors: deep blues, dark purples, blacks, grays, browns. She created a piece of art filled with darkness, despair, anger. As I became lost in the music, she became lost in the colors. She drowned as the colors drowned; she grew gloomy as her colors cried. She became the art. It was scary and beautiful all at once. The second song was “Fix You” by Coldplay. She used bright colors: yellows, pinks, oranges. Her body loosened up as she splattered the paint onto the second canvas with ease. Her once dark demeanor was overtaken with a light of someone healing, finding their way, finding their happiness. She allowed the sound of my violin playing to be the exact opposite of what she created. It was cool seeing so much brightness and life on the second canvas.


Last, I played “Masterpiece”, by Jessie J—Aria’s song choice. The song was about feeling an overwhelming amount of pressure on a person’s life. But it also showcased the idea of falling and standing back up. It was about finding one’s way, learning to live, learning to breathe. Aria paused for a few beats, staring blankly at the empty canvas. She dropped the sticks and leaves from her hold and her fingers dipped into a mixture of colors. Purples, greens, yellows, blues. Her eyes watered over, and she started painting with her fingers, running her hands up and down the canvas. The colors dripped, mixed, and blended. She started painting frantic, her tears falling down her cheeks as she wiped them with her paint-filled fingertips.


When I finished the song, Aria’s hands fell to her sides. Her chest rose and fell heavily as she stared at her controlled chaos. She turned toward me. I smiled. She smiled. The whole room smiled and cheered, rising to their feet applauding our masterpieces.

“That was fantastic!” Abigail gushed, bouncing over to Aria and me after the show, Simon’s hand locked with hers. “I knew you both were talented, but what you did up there was beyond talented. Way to make everyone else up there seem ridiculously average in comparison.”


“Well, you know.” Aria smirked, her hands resting on her stomach. “Some people were born to stand out.” “Which you two absolutely did!” Lance said, walking over toward us with Dad following slowly behind. “That was amazing. For a moment I thought Art was going to get up there and paint the same way she played the drums, but luckily you were the complete opposite. That was mind-blowing. And you!” He clapped, his face beaming with pride. He wrapped my head in his hands, kissing my forehead. “You are the kind of musician I want to be when I grow up.” “He’s right, you know,” Mr. Watson said, flapping the showcase program against his hands. “You’re the real deal, Levi.” I waited for him to add ‘for a dirtbag’ or ‘for a fucked-up loser’, but he didn’t. He


looked over at my dad and gave a smile that almost looked apologetic. “He’s good, Kent.” Dad just nodded once and kind of smiled, which felt like a giant hug. “If it’s okay with your parents, Lance and I set up a celebration party back at our place with a ridiculous amount of music, art, and pizza!” Daisy offered. Aria and I whined at the idea of Daisy’s pizza; it was probably made out of dirt, or would at least taste like it was. Daisy laughed knowingly. “Don’t worry, it’s not vegan. I figured you all might like those disgusting genetically modified organisms that are filled with deadly chemicals and poisons that are slowly but surely leading to the end of mankind as we know it.” “Ohmygosh, I hope you got pepperoni,” Aria joked. She turned to her parents to ask if she could go to Lance and Daisy’s.


After a small bit of hesitation, Simon jumped into the conversation. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Aria’s on her best behavior.” “Just make sure to stay off of your feet,” Mrs. Watson ordered her daughter. “And call me if you need a ride home,” her dad said, stepping near her and kissing her forehead. Her eyes widened at her dad’s action. He placed his hand on her shoulder. “You were fantastic tonight.” Tears formed in Aria’s eyes as she thanked him. Simon and Abigail agreed to meet us at Soulful Things after they stopped by their houses. I was pretty sure it was just an excuse to make out some more.

36 /ARIA

“You were amazing, tonight,” I told Levi. I’d never heard him play like that, free and raw. “You weren’t half bad yourself,” he said as we stepped into Soulful Things after Lance and Daisy dropped Kent back at home with the nurse. Daisy had music playing throughout the space and there were tables set up with pizza and snacks. We spent the next hour talking about the showcase. We laughed about how Connor’s paintings had ended up looking like awkward penises, we were impressed that Ms. Jameson had finally decided to shave her beard, and we were not in the least bit surprised that Mr. Harper had


gone on a long monologue about his past love with Leonardo da Vinci. “I’m gonna miss that class,” Levi said, sitting against the floor with his legs wrapped around a bongo that he banged every now and then. “Me too.” Mostly I would miss working with my partner each day. Next semester meant the start of homeschooling for the remainder of the year. I was going to miss the best Abigail quotes during lunch, and sitting on the dirty bus next to Simon, but mostly I would miss kicking invisible rocks with those blue Chucks each morning at the bus stop. “Where exactly are Simon and Abigail?” Levi asked, ripping me away from my thoughts, which were getting a little too sad. “They said they would be here thirty minutes ago.”


Just like magic, Abigail opened the front door of Soulful Things. Her eyes were wide, and she was panting as if she’d run all the way from her house. Her hands landed on her hips as she bent forward, trying to catch her breath. “Simon’s in a terrible mood.” “What? Because you two had to stop kissing?” I joked. “No.” She shook her head. “Much worse than that—although that was pretty awful, too. I tried to calm him down by saying, ‘You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.’ Do you know who said that?” “Marcus Aurelius,” Levi replied without thought. She arched an eyebrow. “How did you know that?” “Lucky guess,” he said, winking my way.


“This wasn’t the plan!” Simon came barging into the shop. “I can’t believe they would do this to me!” he shouted, his breaths heavy while his fingers were wrapped around a piece of paper. “Who exactly is doing what to you?” I questioned. “My parents! This wasn’t a part of the plan, we weren’t supposed to leave!” My throat tightened. “What?” “My dad was offered a job promotion,” he explained. “I found the paperwork on the living room table. They didn’t even tell me about it!” “What’s wrong with a promotion?” Levi wondered out loud, his eyes narrowed. “It’s in Washington.” Simon sighed, removing his glasses and rubbing the palms of his hands against his eyes.


Washington? Washington?! “When I confronted them about it they said we wouldn’t be moving until the summer, after I finished my semester of school and after the baby came. Why didn’t they tell me, though?! It’s as if they already made up their minds! It’s not fair.” He kept complaining, but my thoughts were still going over and over the word Washington. Keira and Paul wanted an open adoption; I wanted an open adoption. I wanted to watch the baby being raised in a happy, loving family. That couldn’t happen if I was in Wisconsin and they were in Washington.


My eyes kept blinking, my chest feeling tight as the baby flipped and kicked in my stomach. This wasn’t part of the plan.

“Well, this is the most depressing damn party I’ve ever seen,” Lance complained as he walked down the stairs from his apartment. Everyone was lying on the floor not talking as the music played on the loudspeakers. “Seriously, people. You suck at partying.” “We’re depressed,” Simon explained. “You’re too young to be depressed, unless you have gonorrhea. That shit is a buzz kill.” Lance snickered, until he realized none of us were laughing with him. “Come on, guys! Gonorrhea jokes are always good!” No one replied.


“Okay. Well, since you are all so teenageangst right now, how about we move to the rooftop for the awesome game that Daisy has set up for you.” “No thanks,” Simon said. “Too depressed,” I agreed. Lance crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. “Now listen, you little buttheads, Daisy went out of her way to create this next activity for you all, and you are going to walk your lazy bums up to the rooftop, maybe get a little frostbite, and have fun.” We all stared blankly at him before he raised his voice. “NOW!”

Set up on the rooftop were two guitars, a huge canvas, and baskets with water balloons. There were four markers sitting beside


the baskets, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Daisy was standing with her bright-as-always smile. “All right, you guys. In honor of Levi and Aria’s epic night of art, Lance and I thought it would be cool to have you explode in color. The balloons are filled with different paint colors, and the markers are for you to write down things that you’re feeling. Everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts. That’s what will make it beautiful. Plus, there will be music, brought to you by Lance and yours truly.” She walked over to the guitar and picked it up while Lance grabbed the other one. “Get messy.” The four of us went for the paint balloons and started writing down the words that we were feeling in that moment. Words that we


loved. Words that we hated. Words, words, words. Simon wrote Washington and threw it at the canvas, making the balloon burst with a vibrant blue. Even though he hated Washington, the way the paint exploded on the canvas made him smile. “That’s actually really freaking cool.” Words that were written and exploded against the canvas: healthy baby adoption long distance music art pain tears


kicks death cancer laughter sadness you me us All the colors bled against the canvas, splattered paint everywhere. By the end of our masterpiece, the four of us had learned to laugh again as our hands managed to become covered in paint. Levi ran his fingers against my cheeks, painting my face with purple. I giggled and dressed his cheeks with greens. He picked up the last balloon and stood close to me. So close that I was certain he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t.


Instead, he took his marker and wrote one word on the final balloon. There were over six hundred thousand words in the Oxford Dictionary. That meant there were six hundred thousand definitions of different words with a million and one meanings. Some words were silly while others were heartbreaking. Some words were happy while others were angry. So many different letters came together in different ways to form those different words, those unique meanings. So many words, but at the end of the day there was only one word that stood out among the rest. One word that somehow meant both heaven and hell, the sunny days and the rainy days, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was the one word that made


sense when everything else around you was messy, painful, and unapologetic. Love. With a smile, I wrapped my pinkie around his and said, “I love you.”

It might not have been right for us to feel the way we did, but it was our feelings, our way. My heart exploded when his lips met my forehead, and I listened to him whisper, “I love you, too.”

37 /ARIA

The next day Keira and Paul sat in our living room explaining to Mom, Dad, and me how the job offer wasn’t something they’d planned. “I didn’t even know I was up for the promotion,” Paul said quietly. “And I’m so sorry you found out that way, Aria. Simon shouldn’t have told you.” I shrugged. “I would’ve found out regardless, I guess.” Keira placed her hands in her lap, giving me a wary smile. “I know this isn’t what we agreed on, and if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, Paul will pass on the promotion.”


“Yeah, one hundred percent.” Paul agreed. “Even though it would make us ten times more financially stable, bringing us out of years of debt and struggle.” Keira pinched his arm, making him cringe. “But it’s not about the money. It’s about you feeling comfortable.” I glanced at Dad and Mom, wanting them to speak up for me, to erase all of the issues and make the decisions, but I knew it was my responsibility. Mike walked into the house laughing with James, and they paused when they saw use all sitting. Mike groaned. “Not another deep emotional baby talk.” James’ stare shot to me, worry filling his brown eyes. “What’s going on with the baby? Is he okay?” The hitch and level of concern in his voice was alarming.


I glanced around, making sure no one had noticed his urgency before I answered. “The baby’s fine. We’re just celebrating Paul’s new job promotion in Washington.” Keira’s hands fell to her chest and she took a breath. “We are?” I picked at my fingernails and nodded. “Yes. Congratulations, you guys.” James stepped closer into the room, running his fingers through his hair. “So, the baby goes to Washington? Aren’t you going to miss it, Aria? Didn’t you want it close to home?” He was starting to sweat as he wiped his hands against his jeans. Dad turned to James and cleared his throat. “Sorry, James. This is kind of a private conversation.” With a few blinks, James apologized. “I didn’t mean to cross any lines.”


Lines were definitely being crossed and blurred.

“You can’t seriously be letting them take the baby to Washington!” James barged into my room uninvited. He’d probably been sitting in Mike’s room waiting for a decent amount of time to pass before he announced his trip to the bathroom, which apparently happened to look remarkably like my bedroom. “You should’ve talked to me about this.” I cocked an eyebrow. “Why would I have talked to you? It’s none of your business.” “None of my…” His jaw dropped before he rolled his hand over his mouth, flabbergasted. “He’s my kid, too!” I dashed from my bed to close my bedroom door. “Do you want to say that a little


louder? I don’t think they heard you in Canada!” He squeezed the bridge of his nose and pushed the soles of his shoes back and forth across the room, leaving zigzags throughout the carpeted floor. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He opened the door and left with his head lowered. I sat down on my chair and rubbed my hands over my growing stomach. At least James and I had that in common; he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and neither did I.

38 /LEVI

I received a call from Denise and she spoke words I’d never wanted to hear. “Your mom’s in the hospital.” “What do you mean she’s in the hospital?” Denise’s voice was low, almost mute. “She had a bad reaction to one of her new medications and tripped down a few steps in the clinic. The doctors aren’t giving me all the details yet.” She was crying into the receiver, her words getting tangled up with her thoughts. “She was doing so well, Levi.” She went on to tell me how scared she was for Mom, but she knew nothing about being afraid.


Being afraid was currently being eight hundred miles away from your injured mother, feeling a million miles away from your dying father, and not having any idea what you should do next.

Music was what resided in my mom’s soul. Every day before she and I would have our violin lessons, she would quote Friedrich Nietzsche, saying, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” It didn’t matter how she was with her mental stability. When she was mentally all with me, she would quote Nietzsche. When she was so far away in her own mind, she would still quote Nietzsche. Even when her mind had taken her to the darkest places inside of her soul, music was


still there for her, her medicine, her life support. On Christmas Eve I found myself standing inside Soulful Things, unsure what my next move should be. Lance sat in a chair behind me, not making a sound. I’d never heard Soulful Things so silent. After I filled him in on what had happened with Mom, he said, “Why do the most bullshit things happen to the best kinds of people?” He apologized multiple times until no words were left to be spoken. “How do I choose?” I whispered, my hand rolling over my neck repeatedly as my mind raced. “How do I choose which parent to be there for?” Did I stay with my father who I’d never had a chance to get to know, who was currently living the last days of his life? Or did I go home to my mom who was


struggling from her accident and needed me by her side? How do you choose which need is more important? How do you choose which parent to stand by when they both need your support? Lance pushed himself up from the chair and moved into the storage room. He reentered with a case wrapped with a red bow. “I was going to give this to you tomorrow, but I think you might need it tonight.” I opened the case to find a brand new violin. It wasn’t just any new violin, it was the Karl Willhelm Model 64, the same one I’d been eyeing in his shop since I’d arrived there. “Jesus, I can’t take this. It was over three thousand dollars.” “Paid in full. I went ahead and set it up for you, too. It’s yours.” He smiled.


I picked up the violin and stared at it in my hands for a moment before bringing it to my nose to smell. For a musician, smelling a new violin was the equivalent of a reader smelling a new novel. It was a homelike scent that made you realize that the world wasn’t a completely terrible place, that there was still beauty that existed. “Get lost, Levi,” Lance said in the most caring way possible. “Thank you,” I murmured, to Lance, to music, to my soul. I fine-tuned the strings. I messed around with the bow. Lance turned and walked upstairs. The moment he disappeared, I shut off the lights, filling the space with darkness. Everything was exactly the same, but somehow completely different.


Colder. Sadder. Lonelier. This feels right. My fingers discovered the sounds of apologies that the violin offered me. The strings cried for me. Music understood me when I didn’t understand myself. It was my blanket of protection from every real fear that existed. I rocked back and forth as I traveled down the road of pure escapism. I became lost in the moment, forgetting all of my surroundings, all of my pain, all of my hurt. I played until my fingers ached. And then I played some more. I played until my body shook. And then I played some more. I played until my heart broke. And then I played some more.


My fingers ripped the bow away from the violin. My hands were pale as ghosts from my intense playing. My body shook with nerves and a clouded mind, but I knew the answer to the question. I knew who I had to chose, and it broke my heart. Hold it together, Levi. I needed to calm myself, to control my panicked breaths. I wondered if what I was feeling was what it always felt like for Mom. Were the panic attacks so painful that they traveled from her toes to the tip of her head? Did she feel the walls screaming at her? Was it always this ugly and terrifying for her? I needed to find a place of peace. But I wasn’t sure how. The truth was that Mom was my peace. From day one, she’d been there for me. Even


when she was battling the ugliest of wars, she was still my stillness. I was the hurricane and she was somehow the eye of the storm. She comforted me when Dad’s cards stopped showing up. She held me when he said he didn’t want to see me anymore. She’d been there from day one, and I’d left her. What’s wrong with me? How could I have ever hated her? She was sick, and I walked away. She begged me to come home, and I ignored her. She was my true music. Not the kind of music that I played in a darkened space. Not the kind of sounds that the shadows applauded. She was the colors that found the strings. She was the purples and blues, the yellows and reds that bled love from the vibrations of sound.


Hannah Myers was music. And without her, life was a mistake.

I headed home that night with my mind made up. I would tell Dad that I had to go back to Alabama and look after Mom for a few weeks. I had to know that she would be okay. But, when I stepped inside, I saw the glow from the black and white comedies playing on the television. Dad sat in front of it with his dinner sitting on his TV tray, and beside him was another tray with my dinner. My chest tightened as the nurse walked up to me, explaining that she would be back the next evening, and that she’d left all of Dad’s medicine labeled for him to take in the morning. She left and closed the front door behind her.


“I made you the fried chicken TV dinner and a Salisbury steak one—I wasn’t sure which one you liked more,” he said, moving a spoon around a bowl of soup in front of him. I sat down next to him on the couch as we watched the comedies together. He didn’t eat much of his soup, but when he did lift his hand, I watched it shake repeatedly. I offered to help him, but he huffed and grumbled as always. Eventually he placed his spoon down, defeated, and nodded toward me. I fed him the soup, and I was back to square one with no clue how I could leave him here to go back home. “You know that song you played at the showcase? The first one?” “Yeah. ‘Love You Till The End’ by—”


“The Pogues.” He nodded, his eyes still on the television screen. “It was mine and your mom’s wedding song.” The pieces of my mother that I’d never truly understood were slowly coming together. “What happened to you two? Why did you split up?” He cringed and rubbed his temple. “I messed up. Your mother and I got into a big fight one night, then I got drunk and made a move on Camila Watson in a bar. That’s why her husband can’t stand me, and that’s why Hannah left me.” “Did you love Camila?” “No. No. I was stupid and young, an asshole who made a bad mistake. It turned out my mistake was enough for your mom to pack up and leave me. I don’t blame her,


though. She had her anxiety and always worried I would leave her for someone else. At that point I didn’t know how sick she was, about her mental health. I should have fought, though. I should’ve fought for her.” “Did you love her?” I asked. He sniffled and cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything else until he was ready for bed. I walked him to his bedroom and even though he argued that he didn’t want me to help him change into his pajamas, he allowed me to do so. When he was settled into bed, I went to turn off his lamp, and heard him mutter, “Until the end.” Denise called me that night to tell me Mom was okay. She was still in the hospital, but she was doing much better.


That night I cried myself to sleep.

On Christmas day, I headed to the woods at six in the morning, just like every day before. For a second I thought I was still dreaming when I saw Dad standing next to the tree house. He stared at the ladder that led up to it. Each rung was covered in snow. Dad’s hands were stuffed into his sweatpants pockets. “You need a coat?” I asked, taking in his white T-shirt that was now too big for him from all the weight he’d lost. He shook his head. I walked up next to him, and we stared at the tree’s ladder together. “You remember when we put that ladder up?” he asked. “You were nine and you had


me test out each step to make sure they were sturdy.” “They weren’t.” I laughed. He laughed, too. It was weird how the sound of his laughter made me want to smile and break down all at once. “I thought I broke my behind when I fell. After you went back home, I had ice packs taped to my ass.” “They’re sturdy now,” I said, nodding toward them. “Just a little old, though. We should’ve spent more time up there.” He rubbed his fingers on the back of his neck, kicking off the snow on his shoes. His frail body was shivering as a cold wind passed through the tree branches. “You shouldn’t be out here in the cold,” I scolded.


“Last time I checked, I was the parent, not you,” he scolded right back. He pushed the back of his hand against his nose and looked away from the tree house. With a weighted sigh, he spoke again, “Listen. You’ve been too much for me to handle and I think it’s best that you go back to stay with your mom or aunt or something.” His words stung, causing me to step backward. “I’m not leaving you.” “Lance told me about your mom.” “She’s doing better,” I said. “She’ll be fine. I can stay here and help take care of you.” “You don’t understand, do you?” he hissed. “I don’t want you, Levi. I don’t want you here.” He wouldn’t look at me. “Your plane leaves tonight at seven-thirty. Lance


will take you to the airport.” He turned and walked back toward the house, leaving me standing there, confused and hurt. He’s abandoning me, again. I followed him into the house, but he shut me out by locking himself in his office. My fist pounded against the door. “Let me in, Dad!” I shouted, the back of my throat burning. “Let me in!” I begged. I pleaded, but he didn’t relent, and in the pit of my stomach I knew he wasn’t going to let me back in.

I showed up twice to Aria’s house. The first time, I saw her sitting in the living room with her family, laughing as they opened gifts together. Everyone was filled with life, and I didn’t want to ruin their Christmas, so I went


back to Dad’s and waited. All of my bags were already packed. I sat in my bedroom staring at the clock on the dresser. 4:35 P.M. Lance and Daisy had said they would be there at five to pick me up and drive me to the airport. I picked up the two CDs I’d made for Aria and baby Mango and slid them into my coat pocket. I knew the CDs weren’t the best or most expensive Christmas gifts, but I hoped they would like them. As I walked over to Aria’s, I tried to figure out the best way to tell her I was leaving. I wanted her to know that no matter what, we could figure out a way to make us work, even if we were eight hundred miles apart.

39 /ARIA

Late on Christmas Eve I listened to the sound of Dad’s truck pulling into the driveway. Rushing to my window, I saw him unloading his suitcases. He came back. The snow was falling and Mom stepped outside to meet him. For a while they just stood with their foreheads pressed together, holding one another. The next morning when Grace woke up and saw Dad sitting downstairs, she leaped into his arms, more excited to see him than all of the gifts under the Christmas tree. Then of course, she saw those gifts, and dived right in.


Things felt as if they were finally falling back together—into our new normal at least. I hadn’t had a chance to call or text Levi yet, but every few minutes he crossed my mind. After our late lunch, I tossed on my boots and winter coat to head over to his place to give him his Christmas gift. As I opened the front door, I was taken aback when I saw James standing on the front porch with his hands stuffed in his coat pockets. “What are you doing here?” I asked, confused. He snickered, his cheeks red from the cold. “Merry Christmas to you, too.” I didn’t reply. His fingers ran through his messy hair. There were heavy bags under his eyes, which matched his exhausted stare. “Look, can we talk?”


With caution, I nodded and stepped onto the porch. I rested my hands on top of my stomach and shifted back and forth from discomfort; my back had been killing me lately. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about.” “I broke up with Nadine,” he blurted out. “You what?” “Well, she broke up with me. I told her about the baby.” “You WHAT?!?!” I shouted, the back of my throat burning. “Stop screaming, will ya?!” he scolded, scrunching up his nose. “Wh-wh-why would you do such a stupid thing?! Oh my God, James! What the heck is the matter with you?!” My heart rate was picking up as my breaths grew short. “I think we should keep him.”


“Shut up.” “I’ll sign up for community college. I’ll get a job. Or two jobs. We’ll make this work. We can get an apartment—” “Oh my gosh. Are you drunk? Please tell me you’re drunk because you are talking like a freaking lunatic!” I was trying my best to convince myself that he was pulling an April Fool’s Day joke a few months early, but the way his eyes were begging along with his words told me that it was far from a joke. “You’re not thinking straight.” “We can do this, Aria.” “No,” I corrected him. “We can’t. That’s the thing. He’s not ours anymore, James.” “I did research,” he explained, stepping closer to me, making me nervous. “A few sites said that the father has to give his rights for the adoption.”


“Which you did.” “But now I’m changing my mind. People change their minds.” He reached for my hands, and I stepped backward. “Don’t touch me,” I ordered. “I want to be with you, Aria.” His words were wrapped in false dreams and tainted lies. “Haven’t you thought about it? About keeping him?” Sometimes. “Please,” he said, glancing behind me before moving in to kiss me. As our lips lingered, I whispered harshly, “Don’t. Touch. Me.” He stepped back, and I listened to the sound of someone clearing their throat behind us. Turning around, I saw Levi standing at the end of the sidewalk with his hands wrapped around two gifts wrapped with


newspaper. “Levi. How long have you been there?” His blue Chucks kicked back and forth around the snow. “Long enough to find out that he’s the father. That he wants you. That he kissed you.” “It’s not what—” I started, but James cut in. “It’s kind of a family issue, man. If you could get lost, that would be great.” “James!” I shouted. My eyes shot back to Levi’s, which were filled with rejection. “Yeah, of course. I just wanted to drop off yours and Mango’s Christmas gifts.” He tapped the gifts against the palm of his right hand before he walked up and handed them to me. “Merry Christmas, Art.”


He turned and started to walk away. I went to follow, but James grabbed my wrist, halting me. “Let him go.” I ripped my hand from his hold and flung my hand across his cheek. “I said don’t touch me.” “What’s going on out here?” Dad asked, stepping onto the porch. His eyes landed on James. “Hey, buddy. Merry Christmas.” “Thanks, Mr. Watson. You too.” “You looking for Mike?” I cringed and stepped toward Dad. “No, he was actually just—” “I’m the father,” James said, cutting me off once more. Dad didn’t process his words right away. He stood still, blinking with narrowed eyes. “I beg your pardon?” Oh my God. We’d been so close to having a perfectly decent


Christmas after months of being a broken family, so close to being somewhat normal. “I’m the one who slept with—” “Don’t say it,” Dad ordered. “…Aria,” James finished. He obviously had no desire to respect anyone’s wishes this Christmas afternoon. “What?” Mike said, standing in the doorway, staring at his best friend. His left hand had a dinner roll stuffed with ham, and his right was a solid fist. He stepped onto the porch, his chest rising and falling hard. “You slept with my little sister?!” His words were filled with blades and anger. “Mike, man. It was an,” Mike’s fist slammed into James’ jaw, sending him falling to the porch, “accident,” James muttered, brushing the back of his hand against his mouth.


“I’m going to fucking kill you!” Mike shouted, lunging toward James. Dad grabbed Mike before he could do any more damage, and a stumbling James stood back up. “She’s my sister, you asshole!” “Mike, chill out!” Dad said, his arms still gripped around his son, who was five seconds away from killing his best friend. “I want to raise the baby,” James said, spitting out blood from Mike’s punch. “Shut up,” I cried. “Stop saying that.” “I won’t,” he said, shaking his head. “Because it’s true.” “What’s true?” Mom asked stepping onto the porch. Her eyes landed on James and filled with concern. “What happened?” “He’s the father,” Dad murmured. “The father?” Mom asked. “The father,” Mike growled.


“The father?!” Grace said, standing in the doorway. I tried my best to keep calm, staring at my family as they stared at us, their eyes shifting back between James and me. Dad still held an angered Mike back, while everyone else tried their best to wrap their heads around the newfound information. “I just came to say that I want to give this a go,” James said, stuffing his hands back into his coat pockets. “With you, Aria. I want to raise the baby with you.” “Oh my God,” Mom whispered, tugging on her earlobe. “I need you to go right now, James.” “But—” “No. No buts. I need you to walk away and let us figure this out,” she said. “Mrs. Watson—”


“Walk. Away,” Dad shouted, his voice shaking us all. James lowered his head and nodded before he turned to walk off. Everyone’s eyes moved to stare at me. Dad released Mike and within a second, Mike was dashing off after James. As he rounded the corner, all I heard was a screaming James and Mike shouting how he was going to kill him once he got a hold of him. “I should go get him…” Dad grabbed his coat from inside and headed off in the direction of the two boys. Mom wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “It’s cold, come inside.” I followed her into the house, but I hardly warmed up.


Mom spent a long time telling me that everything would be all right, but I hadn’t a clue how that could be true. I felt the walls around me collapsing. Things had finally been getting better. Everyone was coming around to the idea of the baby and the adoption. Then James had to decide to ruin everything. “We’ll wait until morning to sort through this all. Okay? Don’t worry too much. It will all work out.” She kissed my forehead and left the room. The moment she left, a few tears fell from my eyes. The whole situation was overwhelming. My fingers rolled over my stomach. He was the only thing that kept me breathing right now. Each breath I took was merely for him.


“James is the dad?” Grace asked, standing in my doorway. I closed my eyes, wiping the few fallen tears away. “I’m not in the mood right now, Grace.” She didn’t reply, but I listened to her footsteps walking closer to me. “Grace, I said I’m not in the mood.” I opened my eyes and saw her holding two beaded necklaces. “I used my Christmas bead set and made one for the baby and one for you.” I swore I felt my heart breaking. I thanked her for the necklaces, and she smiled. “I’m glad you didn’t turn out to be an ugly pregnant person.” Snickering, I hugged her with my huge belly. “Thanks, Grace.”


I waited until the next morning to head over to Levi’s house and explain what had happened the night before. Mostly I was embarrassed, and also angry at James for thinking it was okay to kiss me, to even touch me. Standing on Mr. Myers’ porch, I knocked on the door, waiting for an answer. When the door finally opened and a fragile Mr. Myers appeared with purple shadows under his eyes, I hiccupped nervously. “Yeah?” he muttered, staring blankly at me. “I’m looking for Levi,” I said, giving him a half smile. Mr. Myers grumbled. “He’s gone.” “Oh.” I bit my bottom lip. “Is he at Soulful Things?” “No. He’s gone back to Alabama.”


His words didn’t register at first, because those words made no sense. I’d just seen Levi yesterday afternoon; how could he be gone? “What do you mean?” “I sent him back home yesterday.” My heartbeat increased as I stared into a pair of brown eyes that were much colder than the ones that belonged to the boy I’d come to see. How could Levi leave? How could he not say goodbye? Why would Mr. Myers send him away? “Why would you do that?” I asked angrily. “All he wanted was to be with you!” “We don’t always get what we want, girl. This ain’t no fairy tale.” “He’s been nothing but good to you. You’ve treated him like he’s nothing, but all he did was take care of you. And then you ship him off because you’re sick of him?


Because he’s a hassle? How could you be so selfish?! How could you just take the easy road and send him away?” “You think this is easy?!” he shouted, tossing his hands in the air with defeat. “You think it’s easy having your son care for you, spoon feed you, because you’re too damn weak? You think it’s easy living with the demons that took over my soul long ago? Living with the memories of the things I’ve done to people in this town? To Levi? To his mom? Well, little girl, you are stupid if that’s what you think. You’re a fool if you think anything about my life is easy.” “And what kind of issues do you think you left with your son when you chose to ship him off instead of trying to fix some of those past mistakes?”


“It’s too late to fix anything,” he said, rubbing his hands nervously together. “Whatever. If you want to give up that’s fine. It seems like that’s what you’ve done all your life. But you could’ve at least tried for him. You don’t have to be such a terrible father!” “I’m a fuck-up!” he admitted. “Over and over I fuck up in my life. I’m an asshole, ask anyone in this town, ask your father. I. Fuck. Up. But everything I have ever done since the day his mom left me has been for that boy and his mother. He didn’t deserve to have the responsibly of choosing between his mother and me. I saw the heartbreak in his eyes, it was killing him. So I made the choice for him. As parents we make choices. We make the hard choices that we never want to. We give things up when it’s the hardest thing


in the world. We allow our kids to hate us if it means they’ll have a better life. We sacrifice every single day. We send birthday and Christmas cards that the kid stops replying to because by that point, he just hates you. Which is for the best, because you ain’t got shit to offer him. He needed to be with his mom. She needed him more than my selfish desires of having him here. The last thing he needed or deserved was to sit here and watch me die. “I separated myself to make their lives better. To make their lives something good. I was nothing but a damn burden for those two. I fuck up and over and over again, but if it means that they get a chance at being happy, then I will keep fucking up. For them. Always for them.” I stood there with tears in my eyes, listening to his words, replaying


them in my head. He rubbed his temple before closing his eyes and taking a breath. “Sometimes loving someone means knowing they’re better off without you.”

40 /LEVI

When I got back to Alabama, Denise was waiting for me at the airport. We didn’t go to the hospital to see Mom until the next morning. Brian, Denise, and I stood outside of her hospital room. When I looked in at her small body, I felt sick. Seeing her hooked up to those machines tore me up inside. She looked a little pale in the face, but her brown eyes had life. A life I hadn’t seen in her eyes in so long. “I’m okay, Levi.” Within seconds I was beside her, holding her hands and hugging her tight as she held me back. “I’m okay,” she said again.


I held on tighter.

“She seems good,” I said as Denise and I stepped out of the hospital room. “She is good. They have her on some new medicines that seem to be working well for her, besides this incident.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a hair brush and started running it through her locks. She then proceeded to apply lip gloss and mascara. Only she would be worried about looking put together in the hallways of a hospital. “You’ll stay with me and Brian for a while until she finishes up the next few weeks at St. John’s. I’ll help you with your homeschooling and everything until your mom’s back. Then if things are going well, she’ll be an outpatient with three appointments a week


for the next few months, but she’ll be home with you.” Home. I’d missed home. She excused herself to go find a decent cup of coffee. I looked back into the room to see Mom staring my way with a smile. Within seconds, I was by her side again. “How’s your father?” “Not too good.” I walked over to her and sat in the chair beside her. Her fingers ran across my forehead as she moved my hair back. “I’m so sorry, honey. When do you go back?” “I’m not going back. I’m staying with Denise for homeschooling until you come back home.”


She sat up in her bed. “That wasn’t part of the plan. Denise said you were just coming back to visit for a little while.” “No. I’m staying.” Shaking her head, she took my hands into hers. “You have to go back and stay with your father, Levi.” “I’m here now, Mom. You wanted me to come home, and now I’m here.” She frowned. “I wasn’t in my right mindset. You should have this time with your father.” “He doesn’t want me.” I sat back in my chair and released a heavy sigh. “He told me he didn’t want me.” “That’s a lie. He always wanted you. This is my fault,” she whispered, fidgeting with her fingers.


It didn’t matter anymore. He’d made his choice, and I’d made mine.

Later that night I had Denise drop me off at the cabin. I wanted to finally sleep in my own bed. She tried to talk me out of it, but she agreed after dropping off some groceries and things. When I glanced at my cell phone, I saw new messages from Aria and opened them. Aria: I wish I could’ve explained what you saw with James. He means nothing to me. I just want you to know that. You mean everything. I’m so sorry, Levi. I knew that, and I knew Aria, but a part of me thought it would be easier to walk away than face the reasoning. I wouldn’t be back to Wisconsin any time soon, and it wasn’t


really fair to ask her to wait around for me. Plus, she obviously had things to work out with James, and I was probably just getting in the way of that. The distance was better for us, for her. I was only clouding her judgment. It was about time I awakened from the dream of Aria and me. Aria: I – noun, often capitalized, often attributive \?ī\ : Aria Lauren Watson. Aria: Miss – verb \?mis\ : To feel the absence of. Aria: You – pronoun | [yoo; unstressed yoo, yuh] : Levi Wesley Myers. Miss you, too, Aria Lauren Watson. But I couldn’t tell her that, even though it was true.

41 /ARIA

I texted Levi and waited. I took a shower, stared at my growing stomach, and I checked my phone. I practiced the air guitar, and then I checked my phone. I spoke to Mom and Dad about James, and then I checked my phone. I ate dinner, and then I checked my phone. Over and over again, I checked my phone. Over and over again, there was nothing to see. My mind started wondering how much of Levi had been nothing more than a dream.


All I wanted to do was fall back asleep and find him again.

Thursday was my last visit to Dr. Ward before the New Year, and I really needed to sit across from him and talk about art. I hadn’t spoken to James since Christmas. I wasn’t even sure where to start. Mom told me I shouldn’t say anything to Keira and Paul until James and I spoke to one another. Dr. Ward’s candy bowl was filled with red and green chocolate M&Ms, and I ate all of them within the first ten minutes. “So what’s on your mind, Aria?” It was funny how I’d come to love those words. “Gustave Courbet. He was a French painter who pretty much led the beginning of


the realism movement. When he was asked to paint angels, his response was, ‘I have never seen angels. Show me an angel, and I will paint one.’ Mr. Courbet and I had very different views when it came to art. He believed that one should only paint what they could see with their eyes, and I believed that art should be from the heart and soul.” “Believed? Do you not believe that anymore?” “I want to, but each passing day realism is showing me its appeal. It represents life truthfully, without hidden meanings, without doubt and questions being seen from any angle. It’s just real. It’s exactly what it needs to be. It makes me embarrassed a little that I’ve only focused on abstract. Maybe Gustave Courbet was right.”


“Bullshit,” Dr. Ward said, narrowing his eyes. “I’m calling bullshit.” “What?” “Why does it have to be one or the other? The opposite of real isn’t abstract. The opposite of real is fake. Abstract can be real, and it can hold more truth in it than anything else. You taught me that. Abstract art can be as true as realistic art, as long as it finds the courage to speak its colors into the world with genuine honesty.” “But what if abstract’s truth hurts someone else in the process?” I asked. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. His fingers clasped together. “One truth stings far less than a thousand lies.”

42 /ARIA

“We can’t keep him, James.” I sat beside him on his porch swing, watching as my truth stung his soul. He repeatedly tapped his fingers against his jeans. “We can do this, Aria. I know it will be hard, but we can do this.” I shook my head. “That’s not true.” “Why? Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we have him?” “We don’t get what we want anymore. We don’t make choices for ourselves. Everything we do is for him. Every choice we make is to give him a better life. So, we don’t get to keep the baby.” “Why not?”


“Because that would mean we were going after our own selfish wants and needs. For him we have to be selfless. For him, we have to let go. You and I would never be a couple, James. If we were, we would hate each other. Do you really want to raise a kid like that?” He didn’t answer. “Keira and Paul are already amazing parents. It’s not like the baby is going to someone we don’t know. I’ve known them my whole life, and they are good people. They’ll love him. He’ll be safe and loved.” The porch swing squeaked as he and I swayed back and forth on it. The chilled night sky was sprinkled with stars, and he stared at them as if trying to make a wish on each one. “The night I slept with you was the night after I tried to fix things with Nadine,” he


whispered at a volume that was almost mute. “We were already broken up for over a month, and she had no plans on getting back together with me. I came over to talk to Mike about it, and we ended up going to a party and getting drunk. I felt lost, broken.” “So you were drunk when we slept together?” “No,” he said quickly, turning my way. “No. I sobered up. But I was still lost. I didn’t handle things after she told me she had a miscarriage. I was still missing something I never really had. Something I never wanted. That nearly destroyed me. I was leaving Mike’s room and when I walked past yours, you smiled at me in a way that almost made it seem like everything would be okay. And then after you got pregnant, I reacted the same way I did with Nadine, searching for a


quick fix. But, as time went on and I saw your stomach and that this whole baby thing was really happening, I guess I felt like it was a second chance to do the right thing.” “You are doing the right thing,” I said, placing my hand on top of his. “It just so happens that sometimes the right thing sucks.” He snickered and went back to staring at the stars. “So what do we do now?” “You finish your senior year, then you go off to Duke and make something of yourself.” “And you?” Me? I learn to breathe again.

I started homeschooling the first week of the New Year. Mom and Dad both worked


random hours, and since they didn’t want me home alone during my online classes, I stayed with Keira each day. Every day around lunchtime, I saw Mr. Myers walk outside toward the woods. By the time I left Keira’s in the afternoon, either Daisy or Lance showed up to spend the evening with him. When the curiosity got the best of me, I packed up my lunch and followed him to the woods one day. He stood on the snow covered ground, staring up at the old tree house. “Did you build that for him?” I asked. He slowly turned around to look at me and sneered. “You’re trespassing.” “Yeah, I am, but I brought you lunch if you’re hungry.”


He huffed and walked back to his house, slamming the door in my face. Maybe tomorrow.

I showed up at lunchtime each day for three weeks. It wasn’t until February that Mr. Myers let me inside. Actually, his nurse let me in, but it was good enough for me. “You’re really annoying, you know that, right?” he muttered, sitting in his chair watching black and white shows. “I brought chicken noodle soup.” I smiled. “Not hungry.” “Your nurse said you haven’t eaten much today.” “Probably because I’m not fucking hungry,” he growled. He was grumpy a lot,


but being that I was thirty-two weeks pregnant, carrying around Jicama, I had my grumpy days, too. I opened the soup, grabbed a spoonful, and hovered the spoon in front of his mouth. “What’s your problem?!” he hissed. “Why won’t you let me alone?” “Because no one should spend their lunchtime alone. Not even grumpy men who think they deserve to be lonely.” He huffed and puffed some more, grumbling at me, but he opened his mouth and took the soup. “Your son’s ignoring all of my text messages, and I don’t know why,” I said after a few more spoonfuls of soup. “His mom said it’s because he thinks you’re better off.”


I arched an eyebrow. “Why would he think that?” “I don’t know. But everything Levi does is always to help. It’s just who he is.” Mr. Myers’ words ran through my head for a while longer, but I didn’t speak about Levi anymore. “I didn’t know you and his mom still spoke.” “She calls me every night,” he said. “She wants me to know that I’m not alone.” I ate lunch with Mr. Myers each day until the last day of his life. Sometimes he stayed in his bedroom, so I would play the CDs that Levi made for me and the baby, which always helped Mr. Myers sleep better. Other times, we watched television together.


One of the last things he told me was to tell his son that he loved him until the very end.

43 /LEVI

Dad passed away the second week of March. Mom wanted to fly in for the funeral with me, but I told her I didn’t think she should. She’d have to miss her appointments at St. John’s, and I knew they were keeping her mind balanced. She was doing so well, I finally had my mom back. I wouldn’t want her to fall backward from the stress of Dad’s funeral. My trip to Mayfair Heights would only last a week before I had to be on a plane back to Alabama. Aria had texted me the word of the day for the past sixty-eight days. I never replied, except to one message. Aria: Are you even thinking of me?


Me: Every day. It was true, too. I thought about her all the time, wondering how she was doing, wondering if the baby was okay. When I reached Wisconsin, Lance picked me up and drove me into town so I wouldn’t have to take the city bus. It was funny how everything was the same, but so different. Lance lost some color to his eyes. When we pulled up behind Soulful Things, he parked the car and we sat silent for a few minutes. He tossed his hair on top of his head, then rubbed his fingers repeatedly over his face. “I keep waking up hoping it was a dream, you know? That my brother’s still an asshole living down the street, eating artificial TV dinners.” I didn’t reply.


The last I knew of my father was that he sent me away. I felt bitter. Angry. Sad. Mostly sad. “He loved you, you know, Levi,” Lance said. A lie that was meant to bring me comfort. “Kent wasn’t the best at showing his feelings or expressing himself, but he loved you. I remember he would—” “Can we head inside? I’m tired,” I said, not wanting to go down the memory lane of how my father loved me from a distance. All I wanted was to get this funeral over with and be on a plane in a few days, not talk about who my father was when in all honesty I didn’t know him.


“Yeah, of course. Daisy’s already upstairs. I’ll be up in a second,” Lance replied. I climbed out of the car and started heading up to their place. When I turned around, I saw Lance with the palm of his hand resting against his forehead. His eyes were closed, and his other hand formed a fist as he tapped it against the steering wheel. I’m such an asshole. Walking back to the car, I opened the door and climbed back inside. Lance wasn’t telling me the stories to make me feel better. They were for his own comfort. “You were saying?” I asked. He looked at me, bit into his bottom lip, and sighed. “I used to catch him listening to you play the violin in the woods. He would sit in his lawn chair right on the outskirts of the trees and listen to you play. Once when I


showed up, he said to me, ‘The kid’s good.’ That’s all. Then we would both stay awhile and listen together. He wasn’t the best person out there…but he was the best person he knew how to be.” We sat in the car for hours. Lance told me stories about a man I never really knew. I learned more about my father sitting in that car than I had ever known. It all felt a little too late.

The day of the funeral, no one from town showed up. I knew my father wasn’t liked around town, but no one showing up to his funeral really drove that fact home. I sat in the back pew, not wanting to walk up and see his face for the last time. Lance and Daisy sat in the front row as the funeral


organizer talked them through all the details about moving my father to the burial location. My fingers tapped against the pew repeatedly. My tie was choking me. Each breath was harder than the last to take in. I loosened the tie, but the feeling of suffocation was still there as I went back to tapping my fingers. Lance and Daisy walked toward me and sat beside me in the pew. “Are we leaving?” I asked Lance. “They said there’s one more thing.” He placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it for comfort. We stared forward as the organizer set up three microphone stands on the stage. I cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on?”


“Your guess is as good as mine,” he answered. The speakers in the room squeaked as they were turned on, and seconds later a song began to play. I knew the song the moment the first note hit the sound system. A small smile found my lips as Simon and Abigail walked out to the two further back microphones, playing the air guitar to The Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels.” They played the intro to the song perfectly, Abigail even taking a moment to tune her invisible strings. I turned to see Aria walking out to the center microphone, and right on time, she started lip syncing along with the song. Her fingers gripped around the mic as she sang her heart out, her beautiful eyes locking with mine.


“Jesus,” I muttered, trying to hold back the tears that wanted to fall as she lip synced every single word. She rocked out to the song, singing with her soul as she danced with the microphone stand across the stage. Her black lace dress hugged her stomach as her black flat shoes danced around. She gestured toward me during Simon’s air guitar solo, signaling me to join her. Before I could consider it, Lance pulled a microphone from his suit coat and handed it to me, winking. I stood up and wiped my eyes before I started lip syncing with Aria. I walked down the aisle, and she grabbed her mic, meeting me halfway. We silently sang our hearts out, leaving no emotion behind, losing ourselves in the song, losing ourselves together.


After the performance, I was told to sit down in the front pew and Lance and Daisy were ordered to join me. Aria said it was time for the speeches. Simon walked up to the podium and cleared his throat, tapping his finger against the microphone. “Test one, two, three, four,” he whispered into the microphone, which rocketed his voice through the room. “Good, good, good, good. Hello everybody, I’m Simon Landon and I wanted to say a few words about Kent Myers.” He cleared his throat once more. “Kent Myers was an asshole.” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree on that. He was such a freaking asshole. I remember one time I was at the grocery store to buy a pack of root beer because me and my best friend Aria were going to get wasted on root beer floats.


“Kent had a cart with ten cases inside, leaving none for me. I asked him if there was a way I could have one of the cases, and he huffed and said, ‘You should’ve showed up earlier, idiot’ before he proceeded to take all of them and leave the store. I raced home and by the time he pulled into his driveway, I was harassing him about being a jerk and taking all of the root beer, and I kept pestering him about why he needed all of them. He turned to me—you know the slow, spinechilling, Kent Myers turn—and with a deep growl he said, ‘My boy is coming up here to visit for the week and he only drinks root beer. Now get the hell off of my property, you redheaded freak.’” Simon’s laughter faded a little, and he gave me a small smile. “Yes, Kent Myers was an asshole, but he sure did love his son.”


I pounded my fist against my mouth as I watched Abigail walk up to the podium next. She smiled my way. “Kent Myers was an asshole. We had the unfortunate pleasure of sitting across from each other at our chemotherapy appointments. Or as Kent liked to call it, ‘Fuck this bullshit in the fucking ass.’ He had a way with words. He always gave the nurses a hard time, calling them dumbasses when they missed his veins for the IVs. He called one nurse Susie, even though his name was Steven. He called me the annoyingly positive cancer girl who quoted dead people. “It was kind of his thing, you know? To be a jerk. That’s how you knew he was going to be okay. There was only one day when he wasn’t rude. I remember walking out of the clinic and seeing him sit on the curb with his head in his hands. I sat down beside him,


and he told me not to quote any damn dead people. So we just sat for a long time. Then he finally said, ‘I was supposed to have more time with him. I was supposed to have more time to fix my mistakes.’ Kent Myers was an asshole, but he sure did love his son.” Aria walked up last for her speech. Her eyes locked in on mine and she gave me a half grin. “I spent the past two months eating lunch with Kent Myers. There are many things I could say about your father, Levi. I’d learned so many interesting things, but…” She closed her eyes and gripped the edge of the podium. “But…” Her hands were turning red from how hard she was holding onto the podium. “Aria?” Simon asked warily. “I’m fine, just give me a second. Crap.” She pounded her fist against the podium


before she stood up tall and gave me a smile. “I had a really fantastic speech ready. It was going to be e-pic,” she stuttered. “Epic. But, well, I guess my water just broke, so I kind of need to get to the hospital.” Holy shit. Lance and Daisy jumped up quickly, ushering Aria to their car. Simon called Aria’s parents and his parents to meet us at the hospital. I rode in the back of the car with Aria. “I’m sorry I ruined your dad’s funeral,” she cried. I couldn’t help but laugh. “You didn’t ruin it, Art.” I kissed her forehead, combing her hair behind her ear. “You didn’t ruin anything.” “I missed you so much.” I kissed her forehead again. I’d missed her so much more.

44 /ARIA

Mom and Dad were already at the hospital by the time I arrived. It was seven long hours of terrible contractions before the doctors decided it was time to bring Honeydew into the world. Everything was a blur. It happened fast, faster than I thought it would, faster than I wanted it to. I was supposed to have a few more weeks with him. I wasn’t supposed to have to let go just yet. The doctor told me to push. Dad held my left hand. Keira held my right. Mom placed a wet napkin onto my forehead.


Simon’s dad tried his best not to faint. I cried because of the pain. I cried because of the nerves. I cried because it was really happening. I was angry. I was depressed. I was happy. I was so freaking happy. Push, Aria. Do this! And then the room went silent. They told me to stop pushing. Everything in my head started spinning. My baby was there, I could see him. But the doctor started hurrying. The nurses acted nervous. Everyone surrounded the baby. Except me. I was stuck in the bed, looking up, asking what was wrong, praying nothing was wrong. He wasn’t crying. He was very silent. He was beautiful. Why wasn’t he crying?


Please. Make noise. Make a sound. Say. Anything. I cried for him until he could for himself. And then he did. His lungs finally moved. They became stronger as he screamed, proclaiming his arrival to the world. Air. Lungs. In. Out.

Breathe. “Do you want to hold him?” the nurse asked. I nodded my head. Of course I do.


She placed him in my arms, and my tears fell against his skin. I knew it was silly, but I swore he was smiling. My lips fell to his forehead. “I love you,” I softly spoke. “So, so much.” My stare met Keira’s as she grinned my way. “Do you want to hold him?” She sobbed and nodded. “Yes. Yes. Yes.” I handed him over to her, and she kissed my cheek. Paul stood beside his wife, staring down at the new life in their world. The way they studied every inch of him showed me how safe he was. He would always know love. By then everyone in the room was crying. I cried some more. From that point on, his tears would be wiped away by someone else. His laughter and happiness would be created from another’s soul.


But his heartbeats? I felt sure I would always feel those against my own.

Levi. I shot to my feet along with everyone else as Mr. and Mrs. Watson walked into the waiting room. “How’s Aria? How’s the baby?” I asked, frantic. “Good. Good. Both Aria and the baby are doing great. A handsome seven pounds six ounces boy with ten fingers, ten toes, and a beautiful smile,” Mrs. Watson said. Simon released the breath he’d been holding for the past seven hours and hugged Abigail tightly. I stepped closer to Aria’s parents. “Is she okay? Can I see her?”


Mrs. Watson frowned. “She’s resting, Levi. Plus, you’ve had quite the day. Maybe you should be resting, too.” My shoulders dropped. “Yeah, okay.” “Five minutes wouldn’t hurt, though,” Mr. Watson said, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Come on, buddy.” He walked me back to the room Aria was in, and I looked in to see her staring out the window. “She’s not okay,” he said. “She’ll probably say she is, but she’s not, and she might not be for a while.” I nodded in understanding. “Just let her know that it’s okay to hurt a little, all right? I’ll be back to get you in a few.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked away.


With a slow pace, I stepped inside the room. “Aria,” I whispered. I watched as her body curled up a bit, her response to the sound of my voice. “If you want to see the baby, he’s in the room across the hall. The hospital has a room for the adopting parents to be with the baby. Isn’t that nice?” She didn’t look my way. Her eyes were still trained on the window. “It’s okay to be sad,” I said, taking a step closer to her. She tensed up. “Please look at me.” But she wouldn’t look. She couldn’t.



“Art,” he whispered again, his words sounding so close I was almost positive they came from within my own soul. “Look at me.” I couldn’t look. I wouldn’t. Even though all I wanted in the world was for his eyes to bring me the light. I wanted those lips to tell me that everything would be okay. My need to cry grew heavier and heavier as my body shook, but I didn’t shed a tear. “I’m okay,” I finally said, feeling in every bone of my body that I wasn’t okay. I was empty inside. My light was gone. It was all so overwhelming, because no books had trained me for this. No books told me what it would be like to let go.


Levi’s hand landed on my shoulder before he climbed into the hospital bed and wrapped me up in his embrace. I shivered when I felt his fingers touch my skin for the first time in a long time as his arms wrapped around me. “I’m fine.” My voice trembled as my body shook along with it. “Shh…” he hushed me, holding me closer and closer. “I love you, Art. I love you so much. Let me be strong for us right now. Let me hold you while you fall apart.” His touch was so warm. The tears fell. My body was shaking uncontrollably as Levi held on strong, refusing to let go. We stayed like that for five minutes straight, maybe even ten.


His fingers pressed into my sides as his face lay against my cheek. His warm tears intermixed with mine, and we cried. We cried for the recent death in our lives, and the new life. For the beginnings and the endings. For the first breaths, and the last. I rotated my body to face him. His gaze searched my face, as if he was wondering where my mind had escaped to. His brow grew knit and gloomy. “I’m so sorry, Art.” His lips hardened, and he pressed them to my forehead as he spoke. “I’m so sorry.” “Me too,” I said. “Me too.” “We’ll be all right,” he promised me. “Just not today.”

45 /LEVI

Aria was in the hospital for the next two days. When Mr. and Mrs. Watson brought her home, I was waiting on her porch with my violin. I leaped up and hurried over to them. She stepped out of the backseat and gave me a warily smile. She looked exhausted. “Levi, hey. How are you?” Mrs. Watson grinned my way. “I’m okay. How are you?” I asked her. My eyes moved to Aria. “How are you?” Aria’s eyes blinked. She shrugged. “I think she just needs some rest. Maybe you can come back in a little while?” Mrs. Watson offered.


I watched her daughter’s lips part as if she wanted me to stay, but then her dad agreed with her mom. My fingers ran through my hair and I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I’ll be back later.” I walked around the block a few times before I headed to Aria’s bedroom window, which was already opened, waiting for me to step inside. She sat on her mattress as I started playing the violin. Mr. Watson stepped into the doorway when he heard the sounds, but instead of asking me to leave, he closed the door, giving Aria and I privacy. I played “All Of Me” by John Legend, allowing the strings to voice the words I wasn’t saying. I played the song over and over again until she fell asleep with a smile on her lips.


And I kept playing until I knew she was smiling in her dreams, too.

She was doing better and better each day, but I knew she was still hurting. I wished I could take her pain and make it go away. After a few days, I convinced Lance to allow me to stay at Dad’s house for a night. When I opened his refrigerator, I almost lost it seeing the cases of root beer sitting inside. I’m still hurting. I wish I could take my pain and make it go away. Grabbing a pack of root beer, I headed out to the woods and climbed up to the tree house. The quietness of nature was peaceful, but I was happy when I heard a grumbling girl climbing up the ladder.


“Climbing trees isn’t something that one should do after giving birth.” Aria smiled, stepping into the tree house. I laughed. “You know what? I was thinking the same thing. But since you’re here, welcome to my oasis. To the left you’ll find nothing, to the right, a case of root beer.” “Your interior design skills are impressive.” “What can I say? I’m fancy.” She bit her bottom lip and tilted her head. “I love you.” “I love you."

Aria. Levi and I sat in the tree house for hours, sometimes crying, other times laughing until tears fell. He was the best kind of oxymoron.


When I was with him I could be a sad kind of happy and be content with the feeling. “Why did you eat lunch with him every day?” “Because that’s what you would’ve done,” I replied. He tossed his emptied root beer can to the side of the room before he leaned into me and kissed my lips gently, sending a wave of happiness through me. “Can I read you the speech I wrote for him?” “Yes.” I reached into my jeans’ pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper. I opened it, and smiled. “Kent Myers wasn’t an asshole. Most of the people who crossed his path would disagree based on the way he treated them, based on his actions, but he wasn’t an asshole. He was a man who made mistakes. A man who tried to fix those


mistakes all on his own, which sometimes led to him to making things worse. He didn’t always say the right thing, or always behave in the best light, but he tried. He tried to be good. He tried to protect the ones he loved. “A few days before he passed away, he asked me if I could hold his shaky hand. I linked my fingers with his and he said, ‘Will he be okay?’ speaking of his son. ‘Will he be okay?’ he repeated over and over, tears falling from his eyes. I nodded to him and said, ‘Yes. You’ll both be okay.’ He closed his eyes and muttered, ‘He’ll be okay.’ He slept that night more peaceful than all the nights before. He didn’t say another sentence in his life. There are so many words in the world, and his final ones were crafted solely for his son. Today I want to make two facts known:


Kent Myers wasn’t an asshole, and he sure did love his son.” Levi moved closer to me, placing his lips against my forehead. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Always,” I replied. That night our conversation came in waves. We went from silence to nonstop speaking over and over again. “They named him Easton Michael Landon,” I told him quietly. “What? That’s ridiculous.” He groaned. “I was really hoping for something more food related. Apple. Or Eggplant. Or…” “Broccoli.” I giggled. “God, yes. Broccoli Kale Landon. It just rolls off of the tongue.” “Or Pepper Pea Landon.”


“Okra Potato Landon.” He laughed. “Clearly they should’ve asked us for our opinion.” “Obviously.” More silence. “There’s a gift and a letter for you in your dad’s office. The gift is from me. The letter is from him. I wasn’t sure if you saw it or not.” “I haven’t been in there yet, but I’ll pick it up when I leave. Thanks.” More silence. “So what happens with us now?” I asked him, knowing that he was leaving in a few days. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually.” His voice was somber as he stared out the window, sitting still. My stomach knotted, afraid of what his reply would be. “But if I learned anything about the future, it’s that


it doesn’t matter. The future’s not real. So it’s best to live in the here and now with you.” It was all we had, the here and now, and that was good enough. We stayed inside the tree house, not looking toward one another, but holding each other’s pinkie fingers. We stared out the window, into the night sky. It was right then that we knew. We knew we were small. We were tiny specks of paint on the universe’s canvas. Most of the world would never know of the love between Art and Soul. We knew that in a flash, life could be ripped away, leaving us only with death and loneliness. But, in another flash, love could heal, leaving us with only life and hope. Levi made me hopeful, hopeful for the tomorrows that we had yet to meet. Right then, we were very much alive.


And we were hungrily in love. Levi Myers taught me three important things about life: Sometimes pinkie holding was the best kind of holding. Sometimes forehead kisses were the best kind of kisses. And sometimes temporary love was the best kind of love.

Levi. Leaving Mayfair Heights was hard. I didn’t know the next time I would be back, which made it even harder, but the one thing that felt as if it would be okay was Aria. Somehow we would make it work. When I got home, Mom was still Mom, which made me beyond happy. While she


prepared dinner, The Pogues played throughout the house. I sat on my bed with the letter from Dad and the gift from Aria. I’d been debating which one I should open first, and after a little too much back and forth, I went for Aria’s gift. I ripped the wrapping paper off and saw a painting she’d made for me. Attached to the canvas was a picture of my dad and me when I was a kid. We were smiling bright with our fishing poles, and I was holding up the old hiking boot that I caught that summer day. Aria had painted the same photograph using her abstract skills, running yellows and oranges through the skies, making it look like the canvas was exploding with life. I texted her right away. Me: I – noun, often capitalized often attributive | \?ī\ : Levi Wesley Myers.


Me: Love – noun | \?l?v\ : a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. Me: You – pronoun|[yoo; unstressed yoo, yuh] : Aria Lauren Watson. Aria: Ditto – noun | dit·to | \?di-(?)tō\: I love you, too. I picked up the letter and opened it as knots formed in my gut. Lee, I’m a shit father. I’m a shit person. And I don’t know how to start to tell you how much I hate myself daily. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m sorry because you would probably think it’s just the cancer and the fear talking. Which might be true.


I’m afraid to die. I’m afraid to die, and it’s not a surprise because I was afraid of living too. I’m afraid that I’m leaving this place with no one who will remember me. And if they do remember, it will be memories of things I wish I hadn’t done. I treated this town, these people like shit. I’ve treated you even worse. But still you came back to me. You loved me when I didn’t deserve to be loved. I was afraid to get close to you again knowing I was dying. I was afraid it would hurt you even more when I passed away. The happiest days of my life were with you sitting inside of that tree house. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m not a good person, I was never a decent friend or husband or father, but somehow I got one thing right. Somehow I didn’t


screw everything up, because I know this to be true: You’re the only thing left of me that’s good. I’ll love you well after the end. -Dad I sat there with the letter in my hand, rereading it ten times over. I love you too, Dad.

During our homeschooling violin lessons, Mom and I sat outside in the forest playing. In front of me was a music stand holding the new song Mom was teaching me. The branches of the tree swayed back and forth, casting shadows over us. She kept frowning at me every few seconds.


“Okay, stop, stop, stop.” She slapped her hand to her forehead before leaning against a tree. “What in the world happened?” “What do you mean? I played all of the right notes.” “Hitting the right notes doesn’t matter if you play the music without putting your soul into it. Otherwise it’s just noise.” Her head tilted to the left. “What’s on your mind?” I sat down my violin in the case, and shrugged. “It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why Dad ever stopped writing me or having me come up to visit him. And now knowing that I’ll never find out the answers…I don’t know. It’s just eating at me.” “I see.” She pushed herself off of the tree trunk and headed into the house. When she came back, she had a small box. “He made me promise that I wouldn’t tell you about


these. I was in a really bad place, Levi. I don’t know how to explain it but, I felt like I was losing you to him. I thought you would leave me to go stay with him. My mind was unstable. When I was doing better and wanted to give these to you, your dad asked me not to.” “Why?” “He didn’t want you to hate me.” I took the box and started going through the cards. Holiday cards, birthday cards. Five and a half years of cards that I never knew existed. I read them over and over again as Mom stood across from me. “I wouldn’t hate you, Mom.” “He’s the one who talked me into going to St. John’s. He paid for it all himself, too. He pretty much convinced me that the only way you would come home this time was if I went


to the treatment center. The deal was if I went in for treatment, he would send you back to me after I started doing better. Plus, he didn’t want you to watch him get sicker.” “Why would he do that?” “Because he knew his life was ending. He didn’t want you to lose us both.” There was so much about my father that I didn’t know. I had questions that would never be answered by him, but the one thing I’d always wondered about was answered. He never stopped loving me. And that was good enough for me. “He left you something, Levi.” “What do you mean?” I asked. She started walking toward the house and said, “Come inside. You might want to be seated for this one.”

46 /ARIA

Simon and his family boxed up all of their things to leave Wisconsin in June. They attended Mike’s graduation, where James gave a fantastic valedictorian speech about past mistakes and future opportunities. We all went back to our house for Mike’s graduation party, where we laughed, cried, and said our goodbyes. They were leaving that night to start their long drive to Washington, and a part of me wasn’t sure how to deal with losing my best friend. Simon, Abigail, and I sat on his front porch as Keira buckled Easton into his car seat.


“So this is it, eh?” I smiled at Simon. He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess so.” He turned to Abigail and placed four kisses on her lips before they said their goodbyes, promising to text each other the whole way to Washington. As they held each other in a long hug, I walked over to the car and kissed Easton’s forehead four times, in honor of his new big brother. After one last kiss, I pulled away from the car and hugged Keira and Paul. Simon walked over to me and didn’t hug me four times like I thought he would. It was simply one long, tight, loving hug that almost made me cry. “Oh wait!” I said, running over to his porch and picking up the guitar case that was behind the railing. “This is Easton’s. It’s his


air guitar. I want you to make sure he learns to play it when he’s old enough. Promise you’ll teach him?” He nodded. “Promise.” “Promise you’ll take care of him?” I whispered. “Promise,” he whispered back. Abigail and I stood beside one another, arms locked as we watched the car drive off down the road. “I guess it’s just you and me now, huh?” Abigail smiled. “Pretty much.” “Do you think I should be worried about him finding another girlfriend?” “What? No way. Simon is crazy about you.” “I know. I’m kind of a great thing. I wanted to seal the deal of our commitment to each other, but we decided not to have sex


seeing as how, ya know, his best friend kind of got knocked up her junior year and that was all dramatic and stuff. So I just gave him a hand job in the bathroom last night.” “Oh my gosh, Abigail!” “Not to toot my own horn, but I was pretty good at it, too, after all the things I read on hand jobs.” “What?! You read stuff on giving hand jobs?” “Google, Aria!” She snickered as we began walking back toward my house. “Seriously, how many times do I have to tell you about that?” I had a good feeling that I wouldn’t be too lonely with this girl around.


Abigail and I pretty much stuck side by side each day during the summer. It was different, but a good kind of different. I’d never had a close girl friend before, and it was great to have her and her odd behavior. When I wasn’t hanging out with her, I was in the woods at six in the morning feeding the deer. It seemed as if they didn’t fully trust me. Levi was much better at feeding them, but I wouldn’t give up. On the first day of July, I stood in the woods with a handful of berries. The deer was staring my way, stepping closer and closer. He was inches away from me, about to take the berries. A branch snapped from behind me, sending the deer running. I turned around and my breath caught in my throat as I stared down at a pair of blue


Chucks, which were kicking around invisible rocks. I started kicking around the invisible rocks, too. My eyes moved up to lock with Levi’s and he gave me that silly smile that always made me happy. “Sorry about scarin’ off the deer.” He stepped closer to me. “I didn’t know anyone would be out here.” He held his pinkie finger toward me. I locked it with mine. “What are you doing here?” I questioned. “My mom and I arrived late last night. It turns out my dad left us his house in the will. It’s a bit of a fixer upper, but Mom said it was always meant to be our home.” My chest tightened and I moved in closer to him. We were so close, our lips almost


touching. I felt his warm breaths brushing against my skin, against my soul. “Are you all right?” I asked. “I’m all right,” he replied. “Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m all right,” I replied. My heart flipped, kicked, and fumbled around inside of my chest. “Are you really staying here?” He combed my hair behind my ear. “I’m really staying here.” His lips lightly danced across mine, sending shivers down my spine. He kissed me with all of him and I kissed him back with all of me. With a soft voice, the boy with the beat-up blue Chucks spoke two words that made tears fall against my cheeks. “Hi, Art.” I blinked once before staring up into the most beautiful pair of brown eyes.


I loved him. I loved him so, so much. I loved him with no regrets of yesterday and no fears of tomorrow. I loved him in the moment, quietly, with secret whispers of love that only our young spirits could comprehend. With one small breath and one full heart, I whispered back, “Hi, Soul.”

The End.


Always and forever I thank each and every reader who took a chance on me and my novels. There’s no way I can express how much you all mean to me! Thank you so much for your love of words. To my family, for all of their love and support while I disappeared into my mind for many days on end. A special thanks to my mama who talked me through my panic attacks about the novel and told me to trust my heart. To my best friends, Vickie, Kyle, and Amber, who still love me even though I missed one too many Friday wine nights to get this novel complete.


To my amazing group of critique partners who are easily some of the most amazing women I’ve ever came across. You all are beyond talented and I’m glad to have you each in my life! To Stacey, Amy, Anitra, Karin, Allison, Michelle, and Adrienne: the best betas I could’ve asked for. Each and every one of you helped me in so many ways! I’m so thankful! Thank you to my amazing editor Caitlin at Edits by C. Marie—for dealing with all of my crazy! Also a big thank you to my proofreader Emily Lawrence who went above and beyond. To Danielle Allen and Olivia Linden: My soul sisters. I love you both so much! To Kristen Hope Mazzola: My author best friend who told me to trust my heart and listened to me complaining about starting


and stopping this story over a million times. I love you! To those who made my novel beautiful: Lauren Perrywinkle from Perrywinkle Photography for the lovely cover image, and my cover designer, Staci, from Quirky Bird. A GIANT thanks to all of the bloggers who spread the word on my novels and even give little ol’ me a chance! I cannot express how much you all mean to me! Thank you! And a final thank you to YOU, whoever you are, for being you. XoXo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brittainy C. Cherry is an Amazon Bestselling author who has always been in love with words. She graduated from Carroll University with a Bachelors Degree in Theatre Arts and a minor in Creative Writing. Brittainy lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family. When she's not running a million errands and crafting stories, she's probably playing with her adorable pets. Other novels by Brittainy C. Cherry include: Loving Mr. Daniels and The Space in Between.

You can find her on Facebook at:

If you enjoyed Art & Soul check out “Finding Laila” By Author T.K. Rapp Blurb: Joey, Cole, Haden and Braxton have been a constant in my life since I was five, and I have loved being one of the guys. I've been cheerleader. I've been study partner. I've been listener. When we're young, we don't realize the profound impact certain people will have on our lives. I had no idea twelve years ago I'd meet four boys who would turn out to be my best friends, my soul mates - my barmy. Now school is almost done, our last summer together is drawing closer, and I'm


trying to hold on to what we have while I still can. After this, we'll have to say goodbye to each other as our choices will take our lives in different directions. But I don't know if our friendship can survive once secrets and surprises begin revealing themselves to us at every turn. When it's all said and done, will our friendships remain unbreakable? Or will our once strong bond prove to be weaker than we anticipated? Letting go is harder than I thought, but some changes are necessary. And finding Laila...finding myself...may be the greatest journey of all. Link:

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