“You didn’t even try to stand up for me, Carter.” I flick my spent cigarette out the window and watch in the mirror as it lands on the pavement behind us, sparks exploding in a kinetic frenzy.
“There was nothing to stand up to,” he argues. “If my parents didn’t like you they wouldn’t have invited you to dinner.”
I glance over at him, disbelieving. “Are you being serious right now? Your dad grilled me about college. Your mom hated my shirt . . .”
“Genesis, my dad grills everyone about college. And my mom never said she hated your shirt,” he interrupts.
“She said I wore it too much!”
“She said that she thought you wore it the last time she saw you!” His voice echoes through the cab of the SUV, thick with anger.
I’m the first to admit I am not country club material. I don’t even want to be country club material. All those pastel Stepford clones. But everyone wants to be accepted; some to a higher degree than others.
I finger the eyebrow piercing I got two years ago to spite my mom for moving me to a new town. A New Town. Again. The funny thing is that it barely fazed her. Like she expected it or something. Or worse: she wished she’d thought of it first; more concerned about the fact that, since I was underage, I let some filthy piercing establishment stick what could have been a previously-used, disease-infested needle to punch a hole in my head. Because if you’re going to ruin your body with ink and piercings at least find someone reputable to do it, right? We could have gotten a matching set. A two-for-one. The bar, though, is missing. I removed it at Carter’s. I thought it might make his parents like me.
Tears sting the outer edges of my eyes, threatening to spill over to my cheeks. I gaze toward the ceiling, forcing them to disappear. “Exactly.”
“So what? I don’t understand what your problem is!” He presses his foot deep into the accelerator, his steely gray eyes focusing on the road as he passes the car in front of us.
“It’s what she implied.” I root around the depths of my purse, digging for a new pack of cigarettes to satisfy a want. I tear the plastic away and beat the flimsy, cardboard package against my thin wrist, then remove a cigarette and grab my lighter. It’s nearly depleted from over-use. I flick it with my thumb, light the cigarette, and inhale, feeling a wave of tranquility wash over me. The moment is fleeting. “Forget it. You wouldn’t understand,” I say, blowing smoke into the air between us.
“You’re right. I don’t understand what you think my mom implied by saying that she’d seen your shirt before. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s stupid.”
The muscles in my stomach tighten in defense. “Because my feelings are stupid. I guess I’m not rich enough to have feelings. Maybe if I had a pool in my backyard you’d understand me better.”
“Where do you get this shit from?” he asks, frustration coloring his tone.
“You can let your mom know that we just can pay our rent this month, so if she plans on having me over for dinner anytime soon, then she’ll probably see this shirt again. She’ll have to forgive me, because it’s the nicest thing I own.”
“That’s not what she meant,” Carter says, his shoulders relaxing. “She remembered that you liked it. That’s all.”
He reaches his arm across the cab, stroking his fingers lightly on the bare skin of my neck. I jerk away; flinching. “None of you get it. I’m not like you. Every penny I make goes to help my mom pay the bills. I’ve got no money for college. I have one nice shirt to wear. Sucks to be me tonight, since everyone at this party probably remembers it from the last party we went to.”
The problem with Carter, I realize, taking another long drag on the cigarette . . . is me. I am the only chink in the armor of his fantasy life. I am the glitch. I don’t have money. I don’t have nice clothes or expensive things. I’m not a debutante. I have nothing in common with his friends or the girls at the country club. I am no one.
When I’m not with him, “dinner out” means the value menu via drive thru. If we can’t sneak leftovers from the restaurant during the slow season, Mom and I eat Ramen noodles in a bowl held over the sink, because she sold the kitchen table during one of our moves and never bought another one.
“I’m sorry,” he says, voice softer. “You’re right. Sometimes I forget.”
He apologized. I win. I should bite my words: force back the poison on the tip of my tongue. But instead of obeying that gut instinct to keep my darkest feelings woven tightly inside: “You forget what? That I’m not a trust fund brat like you and the rest of your friends?”
His eyes narrow, confirming I hit a nerve. “That’s what you think we are?”
“I don’t have to think: I know. You guys have your whole lives set up for you. Anything you want, all you have to do is ask. Daddy? I want a new car. Daddy? I need new clothes. Daddy? I want my friends to hang out at our mountain house for the week.”
“Wait. Is that what this is about?” Carter asks. “You’re still jealous over spring break?”
Selena invited everyone to spend the week at her parent’s mountain house, and I couldn’t go. It wasn’t the cost of food or gas money holding me back. It was timing. Spring break in South Marshall, a beach town, equates to business. I pulled double shifts. Mom and I both did. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. And at the end of the week, we had enough tip money to the pay bills left over from winter, when the town practically shut down. We had enough money for real groceries. The price was that I sent Carter off on break without me. Not that I didn’t trust him. I didn’t trust them. Her.
“I’m not jealous. I’m angry,” I clarify. “I’m angry because no matter what I do I’m never going to be good enough, and you’re never gonna understand.”
“So what if I don’t understand you all the time? You’re not exactly the easiest person in the world to read. I shouldn’t have to apologize for that.”
I lean forward and turn up the volume on the radio, drowning my sorrows in the strains of a guitar solo. A Friday night. My senior year. I should be happy. Happy I’m headed to a party with Carter Fleming, richest boy I’ve ever known, as his girlfriend.
I glance over at him as he drives in silent anger, hands gripping the steering wheel; lips pressed in a firm line; jaw tight. He’s annoyed. And it’s all because of me. Because I will never be good enough for him. I am nothing but a pile of bones and flesh taking up space better used by someone who actually has something valuable to offer the world.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” I finally say. “You should take me home.”
His expression shifts; the words stinging; like venom from my lips. “Wait. What?”
I sigh. “Carter, we are two completely different people. It’s not going to work. It can’t. It’s a miracle we held on this long, actually.”
His face pinches, voice softening. “Yeah, we’re different people, Gen, but that’s what makes us so great. That’s what makes you great.”
“We have nothing in common,” I remind him.
“Okay. So maybe dinner with my parents was a bad idea. What if we bail on this party and rent a movie or something? We can do something else. Anything. Just name it.”
When I imagined our break-up, playing it scene by scene, over and over again in my head, I was moving on the assumption that Carter would do the dumping, and I would be the shivering, shell of a girl left behind. Me, alone; begging him not to go. I never thought it would end like this; that I would end it.
“Carter, I . . .” But I don’t finish. I can’t. My eyes travel to the highway, the length of the headlights stretched out in front of us, just as a black object sprints across the road. “Carter! Watch out!” I scream. I brace myself, pushing my weight against the door, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough too late, and my entire body crashes, smashing into it as Carter turns a sharp left, veering out of the way. My skull cracks against the window.
Metal crunches against metal in a sickening orchestra of shattered glass and twisting car parts. The entire world spins madly out of control in suspended motion. We’re falling. Falling. And then . . . Nothing.
My heart pounds wildly in my chest, breaths heavy in my ears; drowning out the rest of the world. My temples throb as the blood rushes to my head. We’re upside down. I grasp blindly, searching for the seatbelt. A sharp pain sears through my right hand as I tumble to the ceiling.“Genesis?” I hear Carter’s voice. “Shit. Genesis? Are you okay?” The words hang in the air between us, trembling and full of panic.
I let out a choked sob and feel my way around the thick darkness, searching for the door handle. But nothing is where it should be.
The door opens.
Grappling for breaths, I crawl out on one hand and two knees into the cold, wet grass. A warm trickle of something snakes down the side of my head, cooling as it reaches the base of my neck. I brush my fingers across the thin rivers. When I pull them away, they’re covered in gooey, black sludge. I squeeze my eyes shut, feeling the tears as they bead across my lashes, and clutch my broken right arm close to my chest. My lungs burn as I suffocate on burnt rubber and cold, midnight air. No matter how hard I try, they won’t fill.
I press my head against the rutted pavement, allowing the world to close in on me.
This is what it feels like to die.
Air circulates, moving through the trees, rustling branches and leaves. Above me, the stars twirl and swirl: spinning madly. I shut my eyes, dissolving into nothing.
And then a voice. Soft and smooth. Almost a whisper.
“It’s okay. Help is coming.”
The sound is oddly comforting. Strange. Unfamiliar. And it pulls me back.
A warm hand brushes the length of my jawline, gently sweeping the salty wetness away.
“Don’t move, okay?”
The voice is far-off; distant: like God Himself calling from across the universe. It’s okay. But he’s not God and he’s not far away. He’s right here. I can feel him.
I push against my eyelids, straining to open them. The figure is a shadowy haze; blurry. His fingers intertwine with mine. His voice a low murmur: “You’re going to be fine, Genesis. I promise.”
I let my eyes fall shut, floating, and allow the stranger with the voice to comfort me; believing every word, even as I slip into a deep, horrible nothing.