COLLATERAL DAMAGE is the companion novel to CROSS MY HEART, which spent more than 100 days on the Amazon Teen Top 100 Bestseller List in its first year of release, and was a 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee for Best YA Fiction.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, a 76k word/300 page novel for Young Adults, is CROSS MY HEART told from Parker's point of view.
**Though this is not a series, the author highly recommends reading CROSS MY HEART before COLLATERAL DAMAGE**
I'm a liar.
I don't lie because I want to lie. I lie because I have to lie. It's part of the territory—a side effect of what I do. Like the dizziness that comes with the heart medication. The numbness that may occur with the use of an inhaler. You just have to decide: die of heart failure or suffocation, or deal with a little nausea and tingling.
Some days it doesn't bother me. Other days I wish I had a normal job, like my friend Erik who works in a Hamilton high-rise as a medical billing specialist. Or even Mike Rusch—Rusch to his friends. Rusch and I graduated training together. He spends most of his day parked along Highway Fifty-eight waiting for some sucker to come along. A sucker who's late for work. Late for a meeting. Late for an appointment. The reason never matters. Not really.
I just lie.
It's scary how good I am at it—that lies fly off my lips without my even thinking about them.
Sometimes it's not even a direct lie. It's a lie by omission.
Like the ring.
She was never supposed to see that ring.
But she did, and then there was the jumping up and down and the screaming and God...the screaming. I never got down on one knee. Never officially even asked her. But I didn't not ask her.
Callie sighs, threads her arms around my neck, presses her warm body against mine. It's been four years. Four years of bodies pressing together.
"I'll miss you," she murmurs, whispering into my ear, fingernails grazing my hairline. I breathe in a trace of vanilla and jasmine, the perfume I bought her for Christmas, and pull her closer.
"I'll miss you, too."
We hold this embrace for what feels like forever and no time at all, standing on the sidewalk just outside her townhouse, already aching for one another. The streetlights cast a strange, pinkish glow over the buildings and the shrubs lining the walkways and the cars parked in the lot. My breath smokes in the frigid air. I already can't feel my nose.
It's going to be a long ride home.
I tip my head and study the starless sky, half expecting a flurry or two—the first snowfall of the season.
But I know better.
"If you have a free night this week," Callie begins, pulling away from me, "maybe we can meet halfway."
"It's only a few more months," I promise.
"Yeah." She straightens the collar of my leather jacket and fixes her eyes on mine—those brown, puppy dog eyes on the verge of tears.
Sunday nights, saying goodbye—it sucks. And that's no lie.
I bend low and kiss her softly on the lips.
"I love you," she says, smiling, gazing at me from beneath her black lashes.
The reply comes easily, practiced, uttered a thousand times over: "I love you, too."
"I will. I'll call you when I get there."
I swing my leg over my motorcycle, latch the strap on my helmet. The engine rumbles, roaring to life. One final wave and I'm off, leaving Callie standing on the step of the townhouse we share on weekends and holidays, my grandmother's ring on her finger.
It was my mom's idea.
I was passing through the hall, minding my own business, when she called me into her bedroom and handed me the gray jewelry box containing the engagement ring my grandfather had given my grandmother on her twentieth birthday. The ring took my breath away. It was beautiful—a large, round diamond surrounded by a dozen or more smaller diamonds in a platinum setting.
An heirloom piece.
That's what my mom called it.
My grandparents died more than a decade ago. My grandmother died first. She had a stroke. They put her in the hospital and then a nursing home. She never recovered. My grandfather started to deteriorate not long after she died. He grew thinner. Didn't go out as much. Rarely smiled and never laughed. Within nine months he was gone, too. It was a shock to everyone who'd seen him with my grandmother. He stayed with her, by her side, strong until the day she died.
He went downhill fast, is what everyone said.
Whenever Mom talks of them, it's always about how in love they were—how she knew that after the first one passed, the other would quickly follow. It seemed impossible for one to go on living without the other.
The ring brought my grandparents fifty years of happiness.
They'd want me to have it, Mom assured me.
The moment I saw it I knew Callie would love it. I couldn't have found a better ring than if I'd trolled a hundred malls. A thousand stores.
"There's no rush," she said. "But you've been dating a while now...."
My fingers tighten around the handlebars as I weave in and out of Hamilton traffic, passing under streetlamps and towering office buildings. I love the city. I love the bigness of it all. The world constricts a little when I reach the suburbs. Neighborhood after neighborhood, each identical to the last. And by the time I squeeze onto that empty, two-lane road leading to Carson County an inhaler doesn't sound like such a bad thing. It's practically a necessity, even.
It's my fault. I should've told Mom to hang on to it a while longer. Not that I don't love Callie, and not that she doesn't deserve a ring. Jesus. Anyone willing to put up with me for four consecutive years deserves something.
But Callie—she's only twenty. I just turned twenty-one. We haven't even discussed marriage. It's come up over the years, but never seriously. There was never a let's sit down and have this talk do you think we're ready for this next step kind of conversation.
If I would've been thinking—if I would've been smarter—I would've taken the ring out of my backpack. I would've remembered it was in there and never sent her looking for my history book, too lazy to roll off the couch and get it myself.
Callie didn't seem surprised at all. She was almost expecting it. It was as if I planned this all along—casually asking her to go in my bag, knowing what she'd find. And then she called her mom and it was like her mom expected it, and her dad, and the whole damn thing just snowballed.
Four years is a long time. High school graduation. Her degree. My training. Maybe she should have been expecting it. We both have steady jobs. Savings accounts. Insurance.... Hell, we're doing a whole lot better than most married people I know.
And the ring fit perfectly.
I'm not exactly a believer in signs, but if there were such a thing, that would have to be one, right? Grandmother's ring. Girlfriend's finger. All is well in the universe. If it didn't fit.... That's when I should worry.
And I love Cal.
I would've proposed, anyway. I would've thought up something amazing—something that would've blown her mind.
I would've proposed to her.
When Ms. Tugwell, the English teacher, calls for us to choose a partner, no one asks for me. No one utters my name, taps me on the shoulder. No one looks my way. I have succeeded in making myself invisible here. I am someone to fear. Avoid. Ignore.
I flip back a few pages in my English binder and skim notes from one of last week's lectures on American Romanticism. I like Poe—his stories. I like a guy who knows where he stands. I mean, shit. If you're going to murder someone, cut him up in a million pieces. If you can't have the love of your life, bury yourself with her when she dies. If you're going to do something, do it all the way. And, above all else, trust no one.
I search every row, looking for a stray—someone without a partner. But I'm the only pariah in this cold, cinderblock classroom wallpapered with celebrities reminding me to READ and that IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO BE WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN.
I'd rather work alone, anyway.
Ms. Tugwell rolls through the roster, calling names. Everyone announces his or her partner. I'm sure I can convince her to let me fly solo. A group of three isn't exactly fair.
The teacher lifts her head, adjusts her glasses. I turn swiftly toward Jaden's seat.
Jaden isn't here.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I should've pushed harder for AP English. They don't have to do this stupid project. Even if they did, they'd never need a partner. It's insulting.
I don't bother looking up when Ms. Tugwell addresses me. I already know how this ends. "Yeah?"
I lean back in my seat, clear my throat. "Yeah. I don't have one."
She smiles, obviously pleased, and pushes her huge glasses further up her nose. "Great! You and Jaden can work together." She scribbles the note in her book.
And it's like a black cloud descends. But, when I glance to my right, when I gaze out that long row of windows I remember that the clouds descended a long time ago—that we haven't seen the sun in weeks. That it's not possible for the world to get any darker than it is today. And I wonder if I'm the only one who notices.
Ms. Tugwell passes around packets of information highlighting the project requirements. I flip through the blue pages, skimming.
The reading list is censored.
She's just returned to the lectern when the classroom door opens and Jaden slips inside.
"Nice of you to take time out of your busy 'saving the planet' schedule to join us, Miss McEntyre," she says.
I feel a smile tugging at my lips. Everyone else laughs. If there is one thing Jaden McEntyre is known for, it's showing up late.
"Poverty doesn't sleep, Ms. Tugwell," she replies. "If I don't do my part, who will?"
That's the thing. See, Jaden's tardiness is overlooked. It's overlooked because she is Resident Humanitarian, both beginning and ending our days at Bedford High with the gentle reminder that Columbian orphans need shoes, too. Or that there are people in this world who have to walk a mile both ways to access clean drinking water. Or that it's important to eat at least three servings of vegetables a day. Because of this, she has been gifted with an infinite hoard of GET OUT OF CLASS FREE cards.
I'd love to pull that shit on my teachers, but it works for Jaden.
She is the exception to every rule.
This is going to be a nightmare.
"This assignment will not be turned in for another two months," Ms. Tugwell continues, "but that doesn't mean you should wait until the last minute. You and your partner should make plans to meet as soon as possible, then regularly until it's due. I'd suggest you get together before the end of today, so you can decide what literary piece you will focus on. You'll find the list of acceptable works in the information packet on your desks."
Jaden's hand lifts. "When do we pick partners?" she asks, eyeing the packet.
Ms. Tugwell adjusts her glasses. "About three minutes ago," she replies, matter of fact.
I suppress a grin.
That's right, Jaden. Partners have already been picked.
She apologizes. "I wasn't here."
Sucks to be you. Should've been on time.
"I know you weren't, so I had the pleasure of assigning you one." And then, the announcement we've all been waiting for: "You and Parker will be working together."
I can almost hear Jaden's breath escaping her lungs from two rows away. A quiet gasp. I'm sure the disbelief—the utter shock—is plastered across her face. Her life, as she knows it, is officially over.
"Thanks," she mutters.
I can't tell if she's serious or not. Jaden doesn't generally do sarcasm—especially with teachers. But there's no way she's happy with this little arrangement. And that's when I make the mistake of glancing over at her. She looks at me, and our eyes meet for the very first time. For the first time ever, I'm sure, since I can't recall seeing such a piercing shade of green until now. An almost transparent green—shallow seawater green, the bud of a newborn leaf green. I remain as still as possible—frozen, frowning as she assesses. Evaluates.
I know what she's thinking.
Stereotypical bad boy.
And in this single, uncomfortable moment, Jaden's cheeks flush pink. Her lips part. She shifts in her seat, uneasy, then turns her attention to the little blue packet that just royally screwed us.
She doesn't look at me again for the rest of the period.