BEFORE (Book Two)
59 Days Before
In all my memory of living in this house, we’ve never once closed the shutters in the family room. You’d have to be crazy to block out the view of the forest and the lake beyond. Today every shutter in the house is locked down tight.
Violet is spying through a crack in the entryway shutter, letting out dramatic noises. My cousin Reese looks at me from his seat on the river-rock hearth and rolls his eyes. He turns his attention back to his phone and shakes his head, not bothering to hide his smile from Violet.
“Yep. Still there. All eight of them,” Violet says.
“Any press is good press,” Reese says, not taking his eyes from his phone.
Violet rounds on us, then stares at me, eyes wide, like I owe her something. It’s not like I have any control over how many news vans decide to camp out in my front yard. Less than twenty-four hours after qualifying for the Olympics and my whole family is basically quarantined until my attorney and sponsors tell me what I can and can’t say to the media about Presley.
The thing is, I don’t even know what to say about Presley.
Violet stretches her neck with her hands on her hips. “Well?”
“What do you want from me, Violet? You know I’m not allowed to talk to them.” She’s really getting on my nerves, but there’s no point in running from your twin.
Her eyes widen. “Yeah, but you’re allowed to talk to us.”
My mom slips into the room with a tray of steaming mugs and offers one to my dad, who’s pacing with a phone to his ear, biting at his thumbnail. He waves her away and mouths, “No, thank you.” She crosses the room and sets it all on the hearth next to Reese.
“Drink it while it’s hot,” Mom says.
Reese nabs the can of whipped cream and squirts a Matterhorn-sized mountain into his mouth. Then he does the same thing on top of his hot chocolate.
“You disgust me.” Violet scowls and then turns back to her peeping crack in the shutter. “There’s got to be some trespassing law they’re breaking here. I’m gonna Google it.”
My dad hangs up and wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. “ActiveArmor is going to keep you. We haven’t lost their sponsorship. For now, anyhow. It will all depend on how this pans out.”
“That’s good. Thanks, Dad,” I say.
It seems like so far my sponsors believe that I have nothing to do with Presley’s injuries, but public figures have been lynched for less. My eyes bounce to the flat screen, which plays the same eight-second clip. Every network and sports channel blabbering their own theory about the kiss on the mountain yesterday. Honestly though, losing a snowboarding gear sponsorship is the least of my worries. More troubling is the fact that I kissed a complete stranger on national TV.
Or is she? I knew her name, didn’t I? And when I kissed her, it didn’t feel like the first time. I knew the golden flecks in her green eyes and her smell and the exact way our lips would fit together before they even touched. So why can’t I remember where I know her from?
I have no idea where she lives, what car she drives, where we met. I don’t know her family or even her last name. All I know is that I knew what it would feel like to kiss her yesterday. I needed to kiss her. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I didn’t care who was watching. Standing on the side of a mountain with news cameras and half of Truckee there, I bent over her, spoke her name, touched her face, and kissed her. And when our lips touched, it felt like home. And that scares me more than the media vans on the lawn or losing a sponsorship.
My dad’s eyes are tired. “Before we sit down with the lawyers tomorrow, we’ve got to have a straight story for them, son. And you saying ‘I can’t remember’ or ‘I don’t know’ isn’t going to cut it. A girl’s been hurt—pretty bad. And she was clawing her way up that mountain looking for you.” He takes a seat on the couch opposite me and rests his elbows on his knees. “So I’m going to ask you again, what happened up there? I’m your dad. And you need to tell me the truth.”
Violet abandons her spy post and marches over next to where my dad’s seated. “Seriously, Landon. What were you thinking? Kissing some beat-up girl on a gurney?”
Without a word, my dad puts his arm around her waist, pulls her onto his lap, and wraps her in a tight bear hug. “Sweetie, I think this conversation is going to go better if you hustle up stairs.” She struggles to break free, but he plants a huge kiss on her cheek.
“Dad!” she protests. He stands and nudges her towards the staircase.
“And you’ll have a better view of all that nonsense outside from an upstairs window. I’ve got some binoculars in my desk drawer if you want.” He smiles and winks at her.
Halfway up the stairs, she turns to look at us over her shoulder. Her eyes scan the group but narrow in on Reese. “Not sure why I’m being ejected, but that clown gets to stay.”
“I’m just here for the hot chocolate,” Reese counters.
My mom crosses the room, switches off the TV, then joins my dad on the couch. Her eyes are warm and calm.
“Why don’t we just start from the beginning, bud,” my mom says. “But before we do, I just want to say that your dad and I are worried that the pressure is getting to you. You’ve just come off the X Games. The Olympics are around the corner. Nobody would blame you if you need a break. You’re more important to us than any of this.”
My dad cuts in, “Son, we want you to be happy, so if you want out, we can pull the plug today.”
A lump swells in my throat. I know how much my career has meant to my dad. He got me my first set of skis when I was two. All of the months and years we’ve spent on the slopes. All the places we’ve traveled. Sacrifices he’s made to make my dreams happen. And now, just like that, he’s willing to let it all go because he’s worried about me.
Could it be the pressure? Could the stress be causing me to imagine things that aren’t real or forget things that are? That doesn’t feel right.
“I want to keep skiing.”
My mom reaches across and gives my knee a squeeze. “Okay, then. But either way, we have to get to the bottom of this. Tell us everything you know about this girl.”
I’ve been avoiding this moment—the time I would have to come up with something they’d believe about Presley. I’ve considered accusing her of being a crazy stalker. Violet would probably approve of that story. I could tell them she’s just some girl I met at a party. But it didn’t really matter what I made up, because if she said something different, no one, including the media, would know whom to believe. “Has anyone heard how she’s doing?”
My parents look at each other and then back at me. “Not too hot, I’m afraid,” Dad says. “She’s been put into one of those medically induced comas. I guess she had a pretty bad head injury.”
The news turns my stomach. I had no idea it was that serious. “I felt sorry for her,” I say.
“We all did,” my mom says.
“I felt sorry for her and it was just weird how she grabbed onto me like that. I felt bad just walking away.” I planned on coming up with a better story, but this was at least partly the truth. “I mean, how would that have looked? You guys are all upset about how it went down, and I get it, but think about how it would have looked if I shook off some bleeding girl so I could go smile for the cameras?”
There’s a quick knock at the door. “For the love of . . . when will those reporters take a hint? We aren’t making a statement today,” Dad says.
Reese is already at the door, looking out Violet’s spy crack. “It’s not the reporters.” He turns to me with the same look in his eye he had that time we got caught tin foiling the principal’s office. “It’s the cops.”
My dad faces me, all business now. “You’ve got to stop sidestepping the question. Do you know this girl or don’t you?”
There’s nothing I can do now but tell the truth. “No. I don’t.”
BEYOND (Book One)
One hundred and twenty days since they pulled my body from the river. My four-month dead-iversary. Four months of tug-of-war with my exasperated guide, James. He was wearing me down.
“This isn’t where you belong. Not anymore,” he’d said. “It’s futile.”
“You know exactly why I can’t go,” I’d said. “You know.”
Cut down at the end of my junior year. That was bad, but it wasn’t the reason I refused to leave.
James was right, though. I was completely alone. No one could hear me. No one could see me.
Until someone did.
“Seriously? Eggs?” I’d meant that to remain a private rant. Oops.
Several nearby classmates watched me appraise my Jeep, which I could see even from across the parking lot, dripped with yellow slime. This was just the latest slap in the face of my first week at Truckee High.
My first day of school, someone was kind enough to smear a roast beef hoagie on my windshield. It took five bucks in quarters at the do-it-yourself car wash to clean off the mayo haze.
Day three. After PE, my clothes disappeared from the girls’ locker room, forcing me to finish out the day in my uniform. These small-town punks made it hard to fly under the radar. I just wanted to get my senior year done and get out of this place.
Most people would be furious at these anonymous jerks. But I was madder at my mom for moving Chase and me two weeks before my senior year started.
“It’s a great opportunity, Pres,” she’d said. For who? I could live with the change, but this was going to be hard on Chase.
It wasn’t that Truckee, California didn’t have its perks. At the very least, it was different from Vegas. Towering Ponderosa pines covered the mountains and enveloped every structure in town like they gave permission for each building to exist. But they loomed, threatening to reclaim the real estate. I’d smiled at the first of many baby pine trees I’d noticed growing like weeds in the cracks of the sidewalks.
Truckee was pretty quiet with school back in session but I could tell by the rows of ski rental shops and paddleboard stores that winter and summer would be a different story. Lake Tahoe, with its freakishly clear blue water, was a pleasant surprise, since I’d spent the last several years in the Mojave Desert where the only nearby lake was a carp-filled stink hole.
Cool town. Not-so-cool people.
Taking a deep breath and pulling my shoulders back, I walked to my Jeep. The tell-tale sting of tears betrayed me as eggshells crunched under my shoes. Trying to appear casual and composed, I pulled a hair band from my wrist and gathered my uncooperative curls into a top knot. I turned my back on a group of eager spectators, and hefted my bag onto an egg-free patch of hood to dig for my keys. My phone vibrated. I ignored it.
Of course my keys were lost in the black abyss of my backpack. I felt unwelcomed eyes on me as I searched. Finally, with keys in hand, I opened the door and hurled my bag onto the passenger seat.
Then, I caught sight of a face I hadn’t seen before.
A good eight to ten cars away, he stood at the edge of the parking lot in the shade of the pines, arms folded across his chest, and studied me like some nightclub bouncer who was handed a fake ID (if bouncers looked like raven-haired H&M models). The boy was shameless. He stared, unabashedly, and the longer he looked at me, the more flattered I felt.
That is, until I realized what he was probably looking for: a reaction to my messed up Jeep. Wasn’t that what the girls behind me were smugly discussing? Wasn’t that why those freshman boys avoided eye contact when I walked by?
My cheeks flamed and I surprised myself by yelling across the lot at him, “What? What are you looking at?”
He flinched and unfolded his arms. His eyes locked onto mine and I matched him.
“Yeah, you!” I jabbed my chin in the air. Bring it, dude.
His eyes narrowed, and then he started toward me. An older man I hadn’t noticed before quickly grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him back. The boy became upset and jerked free. They argued. The man put both palms up in a gesture of pleading. The boy turned and glared at me once more, then charged toward me in strong, quick strides.
My gut seized at his fierce gaze and swift approach. A split decision of fight or flight. Flight. Definitely flight.
His gait quickened. I nearly dropped the keys, uttering a couple of son-of-a’s before I got the key into the ignition. The engine growled.
I slammed the lock down with my palm and hazarded a look. With only a pane of glass dividing us, his gaze bored through me. But behind his intense stare I thought I detected more. Confusion? Distress?
Surprisingly, an arrow of sympathy pierced me. My hand gripped the shifter—frozen, unable to pull it into reverse.
His eyes held me, almost . . . imploring?
I wavered, but finally tore my eyes from his and accidentally hit the gas before pulling the shifter into gear. The tires squealed as I ripped out of my parking spot. A slouched boy yanked his friend’s shirt back as I narrowly missed them. As I burned through the rows of parked cars, a few bystanders shouted something to the effect of, “Watch it, psycho!”
I looked for my pursuer in the rear-view mirror, and saw his figure, distorted by the dribbles of dried egg on my back window. He stood there, the only still figure in a swarm of activity, and watched me drive away.