Read the first chapter of Rocks Fall Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar!
Read the first chapter of
Rocks Fall Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar!
Meet, Lindsay Ribar!
Lindsay Ribar lives in New York City, where she works in book publishing by day and writes YA novels by night. She attends far too many concerts, watches far too much nerdy TV, and consumes fanfiction like it's made out of chocolate. She is fond of wine, cheese, and countries where they speak English but with really cool accents. Oh, and she has a Harry Potter tattoo.
Meet, ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES!
Twin Peaks meets Stars Hollow in this paranormal suspense novel about a boy who can reach inside people and steal their innermost things—fears, memories, scars, even love—and his family's secret ritual that for centuries has kept the cliff above their small town from collapsing.
Aspen Quick has never really worried about how he's affecting people when he steals from them. But this summer he'll discover just how strong the Quick family magic is—and how far they'll go to keep their secrets safe.
With a smart, arrogant protagonist, a sinister family tradition, and an ending you won't see coming, this is a fast-paced, twisty story about power, addiction, and deciding what kind of person you want to be, in a family that has the ability to control everything you are.
Brandy and Theo were about to break up. They just didn’t know it yet.
They were fighting about this movie they’d seen last week, and Theo was going, “What’s the point? The whole plot was just an excuse for explosions!”
Brandy responded with, “The explosions are the point,” which I mentally added to the long list of reasons she was basically the hottest girl on the planet.
Me? I dipped yet another French fry in ketchup, shoved it into my mouth, and watched the action unfold.
Theo—poor, clueless Theo—just went, “Well, it was stupid,” and took another giant bite of his burger. I’d already finished mine.
“You always think stuff I like is stupid,” said Brandy. You could practically see the exact moment when she reached the end of her rope. “Always. God. You don’t even try to like my stuff.”
“I do so try,” replied Theo. “I saw the movie with you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, because you wanted to grope me when the lights went down.” Brandy tossed her hair, and I shoved a handful of fries in my mouth to keep myself from grinning.
Oh yes. Here it came.
“I swear, I don’t know why I was ever into you.”
“Wha . . . what?” Theo was so totally perplexed by now, I almost felt sorry for him. “You were plenty into me yesterday. Hell, you were into me five minutes ago.”
It was four minutes ago. I’d been keeping track. But I didn’t say anything, obviously. Just chewed my food in silence, trying not to let on how much I was enjoying this.
Unfortunately, Brandy’s reply was interrupted by the sudden sound of a Black Keys song blasting into the quiet diner. My cell phone. Aunt Holly’s ringtone.
“Hello?” I said. Beside me, Theo called Brandy a very rude name.
“Ma says there’s a fault in the stone,” said Aunt Holly in her usual curt voice. “How soon can you be home?”
Normally I would have pointed out that the house she shared with Grandma wasn’t technically home for me—but there was no point in arguing semantics with people as easily provoked as her. So I just said, “Fifteen minutes if you make me walk. Five if you pick me up.”
“God, you’re lazy.” She sighed. “All right, just meet us at the May Day field. Ten minutes.” The line went dead.
“Guys, I have to go,” I said, grabbing my jacket and easing out of the booth. “The relatives require my presence.”
“See? That’s another thing,” said Brandy, without even missing a beat. “Look at the relationship Aspen has with his family. They call, he comes running. And vice versa, probably. That’s how it should be! But all I ever hear from you is how much you hate your parents.”
Brandy, on the other hand, called her father every single night after dinner. She pretended like it was her idea, as opposed to a product of her dad’s all-encompassing paranoia about basically everything, but you could tell it was a pain in her ass.
Theo sputtered pathetic half words as he sank lower and lower into his seat. I couldn’t blame him. Brandy always looked like a vengeful goddess when she got angry, and this was probably the angriest I’d ever seen her. I was kind of sorry I had to leave.
But up here, a call from Aunt Holly trumped everything—even something as potentially life-changing as this fight. I slipped a ten onto the table to cover my meal and headed for the door just as the waiter came over, probably to ask Brandy and Theo to lower their voices.
It was a gorgeous summer upstate New York night, the likes of which you never get down in the city. Instead of air conditioners spitting dirty water onto overheated sidewalks, Three Peaks was all cool mountain air tinged with the remnants of a hot day. Cool enough that I was comfortable in my long-sleeved thermal, warm enough that I didn’t need another layer over it.
I made a left out of the diner and started walking down Main. Past the Bean Barn coffee shop, past the cutesy boutique clothing stores—closed for the night by this point—and past the single grocery store, which marked the point where the commercial section of town ended and the residential one began. A few minutes later, even the houses grew sparser, until there were only woods. To my left, at least.
To my right, lawns and well-groomed trees gave way to a wide, flat expanse of grass, so well-maintained that it could’ve been a soccer field, if not for the giant oak tree that stood right in the middle.
The May Day tree. This was where all the citizens of Three Peaks left little presents once a year, as some kind of . . . tribute? Payment? Something like that. I’d never been here for an actual May Day party, so I didn’t know what all the gifts were supposed to mean. But I did know that they stayed under the tree until the Quick family—my family—came to get them.
I’d visited the tree several times over the past few years, always as a precursor to my family’s triad ritual, but this was my first visit of the summer. Anticipation coursed through me.
When I reached the tree, I ducked under its branches and surveyed the trunk. Or rather, the giant pile of stuff surrounding the trunk. It looked more or less the same as it did every year: a collection of weird little odds and ends left by people who maybe were superstitious, or maybe liked tradition a little too much, or maybe both.
The first time I saw it, back when I was just a little kid, I thought it looked like a pile of magic.
Tonight, there was better magic happening at the diner I’d just left. I checked my phone, just to see if either of my friends had texted me—if the breakup had happened already, or if there was still fighting left to be done.
Nothing yet, though. Well, nothing except a text from Mom. Her second of the day; her tenth of the week. I deleted it without reading it, like I’d been doing for months.
Footsteps swished in the grass, steadily approaching. I looked up, and there was Aunt Holly coming my way, tall and straight-backed and dressed in what looked like a business suit. Her hair, the same dirty blond as Dad’s, was pulled severely back from her face. I wondered if she’d come right from her office.
A few strides behind her was Grandma, a little bit shorter and rounder than Aunt Holly, her iron-gray curls making a halo around her smiling face. Hands in the pockets of her slacks, she ambled across the May Day field with the ease of someone forty years younger.
“Beat you here,” I said as they approached.
“So you did,” Grandma said, her voice as warm as always. “How was the lake?”
Theo and Brandy and I had spent every afternoon this past week at the big lake over in Elmview. Theo would play chauffeur in his fancy new car. We’d rent a canoe, paddleboat, something like that, or we’d chill out on the beach and pass around a bottle of whatever I’d picked up with my fake ID. After that, it was back to Three Peaks for burgers at the diner.
I shrugged. “It was whatever. Same as yesterday, same as the day before.”
With a snort, Aunt Holly wandered over to the trunk of the May Day tree to inspect the pile, apparently eager to get the ritual started. Or maybe her eagerness was less about getting it started and more about getting it over with, so she could go back to hiding in her room and getting wasted.
Grandma, though, paid her no mind. She just patted my cheek with one warm hand and said, “It must be nice, having your friends here with you for the season.”
“Yeah, it’s cool,” I said. It was true, too. I’d always liked spending time with Grandma, and Aunt Holly used to be okay back when my cousin Heather was still around—but this year, with everything so different, it was nice to have Theo and Brandy there as buffers. Even if it meant being a constant third wheel in their relationship.
Not that that would be a problem anymore. At least I hoped it wouldn’t.
“You said two, right?” asked Aunt Holly impatiently. She was pacing around the tree, taking in the objects that lay there. A lopsided pottery bowl. A lanyard bracelet. A small plastic ring decorated with a large plastic ruby. A one-eyed teddy bear. Several action figures. A crapload of CDs. Books, pencils, envelopes, shoes, random pieces of paper. “What’s the nature of the fault?”
Grandma glanced over at her. “Hm,” she said, and closed her eyes. Her hands began moving through the air like a spider’s legs, like she could feel something there that we couldn’t.
“One throwaway, one gift,” she said at last. “One male, one female. Balance. That one.”
Eyes still closed, she pointed into the pile, directly at a small plastic Batman that was missing its left arm. Aunt Holly bent and picked it up, cradling it to her chest like a baby.
“And that one,” added Grandma, pointing to another place in the pile. To a book. This time, it was me who picked it up. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d never read it.
Grandma looked back and forth between Aunt Holly and me for a second, then nodded, satisfied. “Come on,” she said, and started across the field again, in the opposite direction from the diner.
I didn’t ask why she’d chosen the Batman figure and the book. I’d given up asking about that stuff a while ago, because all Grandma would ever say was something like, “The Cliff wants what it wants. It’s my job to find the closest energy match.”
Which, yeah, made basically no sense at all. But that was fine. As long as the ritual kept working and the Cliff kept standing, I was good.
My grandmother’s house was truly ridiculous. It had probably started as a shack or something, but since it was first built back in . . . whenever . . . so many extra floors and extra wings and other stuff had been added, now it was this crazy sprawling mansion that looked like it fell out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. There were turrets, for god’s sake. Three of them.
Leaving our shoes by the front door, per Grandma’s rule, the three of us headed for the den. Aunt Holly locked the sliding door behind us. She always did that for the ritual, but it was especially important now that Theo and Brandy could show up at any moment. Neither of them knew what my family did to keep the Cliff standing and the town safe, and I’d been expressly forbidden from telling them.
As if there was a chance in hell that I’d ever say anything. I mean, come on.
Grandma started the fire while, across the room, Aunt Holly slid a familiar wooden box out from underneath the love seat. I crept up behind her, ready to fish one of my leaves out.
“Do you mind?” she snapped, hugging the box closer to her chest, using the expanse of her back to block my view.
I was all ready to snap right back at her, but before I could, Grandma caught my eye and shook her head. I sighed, bit back my reply, and gave Aunt Holly her space. Normally I’d’ve ignored Grandma and told Aunt Holly not to be such an asshole—but it’d been less than five months since she’d lost Heather. She had the right to be a little bit of an asshole, probably. So I kept my cool. I went back to the fire and let my aunt do the leaf thing on her own.
In the fireplace, the flames danced like brightly colored ghosts, the logs beneath them crackling. For the first time, though, I noticed something else. Something buried under the logs, burning hotter and hotter as I watched. I squinted, trying to see what it was.
“Why’s there a rock in there?” I asked.
Grandma came and stood beside me. “There’s always been a rock in there.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling kind of dumb. “Huh. But why?”
“It’s a piece of the Cliff,” said Grandma. “When the flames touch it, they forge a connection with the stone and, through it, with the Cliff itself.”
I nodded, rubbing my neck as the meaning of it sunk in. The rock was a conduit. Another link in the chain, just like me. Cool.
Finally, Aunt Holly finished her business with the box of leaves. She came back over to join us by the fire, holding three dry leaves in her hand. One long and thin, one small and spiky, one shaped like a fat teardrop.
“Oak, Ma?” she asked Grandma.
“Oh, yes, yes,” said Grandma, and dug into her pocket. She, too, produced a leaf—only this one was green and freshly picked. An oak leaf from the May Day tree. Aunt Holly reached for it, but Grandma pulled it back. “Maybe our Aspen should go first. It being his first ritual of the year.”
Shivers erupted in my stomach, but I didn’t let on. I loved doing this. Being part of an ancient tradition. Using my magic for something bigger than myself. And, yeah, let’s face it: showing off just how good I was at this stuff. Because I was very good.
“Yeah, let me,” I said, reaching for the leaves.
Aunt Holly’s lips tightened, but she handed over one of the dry leaves: the teardrop-shaped aspen.
Holding the leaf inches away from the fire, I repeated the words that my family had been taught since basically the beginning of time: “My name is my self, and I give them both freely.” And I let my namesake fall into the fire. As it burned, I let myself imagine the flames connecting me to the stone beneath the logs, then to the Cliff, over a mile away.
“My name is my self, and I give them both freely,” said Aunt Holly, and fed the spiky holly leaf into the fire. Grandma did the same with the willow leaf.
When all the leaves had crumbled to ash, Grandma silently gave the oak leaf to the fire, too—and that was when everything changed. The flames rose higher. They turned a thousand different colors at once, then finally settled into an eerie, unnatural shade of blue-green-turquoise. The flames stopped giving off heat, but kept flickering just like a real fire.
“The toy first,” said Grandma.
Aunt Holly held Batman out to me. “You do the reaching,” she said. “I’ll do the sending.”
Grandma, who could do neither, nodded in agreement. That was fine. I preferred doing the reaching anyway. Sending was boring.
I took Batman from her and closed my eyes. I always felt things better when I didn’t rely on sight.
Running my hands over Batman’s torso, legs, and pointy-eared head, feeling the fabric cape between my fingernails, I looked for a place to reach in, beyond the physicality of the object and into the invisible something that would point me in the right direction. Toward the person who’d owned it, and then given it to the May Day tree.
Only when my finger touched the empty left arm socket did I find the place. I wasn’t just holding an action figure anymore. I was holding a well-loved thing that was most at home in the hands of one specific boy. The figure remembered the boy as he was now, a confident teenager who’d recently convinced himself that he no longer needed his broken childhood toys—and as he’d been years ago, a reckless grade-schooler who knew in his heart that when it came to toys in general, and action figures specifically, broken was just another way of saying favorite. Which was why he hadn’t minded when, during a particularly vicious battle against Wonder Woman, Batman had lost his left arm.
A sense of lost attachment to his toys? Maybe that was something I could take.
“Not enough,” said Grandma, startling me a little. “Aspen, this fault will need something stronger—something brighter—in order to heal. Even though the things we take are all just energy by the time they reach the Cliff, that energy comes in different flavors, different strengths—”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted, but without annoyance. Grandma did that sometimes. Slipped into teacher mode during the triad ritual. I guess it came with the territory of having to teach the ritual’s ins and outs to whoever had time to come visit and help her out.
“I know you know,” she teased. “So get on with it.”
I reached further into the boy who’d owned Batman. There was a persistent lack of caring about his grades, even though he had a solid B average. A fierce, protective love of his family, even when he hated them. A strong, slow-burning love for a particular girl, who he’d first noticed in fifth grade, when she’d beaten him in a field day race. Tendrils of friendship stretching outward in many directions, immovable and important. A confidence in his ability to play football, basketball, soccer, table tennis, regular tennis, god this was a lot of sports . . .
Ah. A competitive streak.
Maybe that was what I needed. Something bright, as Grandma had said—but still something he wouldn’t necessarily miss when it was gone.
Got it, I thought—and then realized I’d said the words aloud. I opened my eyes to see Grandma nodding thoughtfully at me.
“An inclination toward competition,” said Grandma, squinting again as she regarded me. “Toward winning. That’s good work, boy. Subtle, strong, definitely bright. Good. Take it out.”
That was the cue I’d been waiting for. Closing my eyes again, I hooked my will into the boy’s competitive streak like it was a physical thing. It took a moment to pry loose, which wasn’t surprising since it was so deeply rooted in his personality—but I managed it.
Ritual reaching wasn’t the same as everyday reaching. When I reached into people and took stuff away, I usually did one of three things with it: absorbed it into myself, gave it to someone else, or released it. The ritual, though, required pushing my talents in a slightly different direction.
Concentrating hard, I guided the energy of the kid’s competitive streak toward the fireplace . . . and there it sat, a glowing orb of orange-yellow-purple, actually visible where before it had just been a very solid idea.
Grandma put her hand on my shoulder, looking so very proud. “Good work, Aspen. Very good. As always. Now, Holly, your turn.”
“I know, Ma,” she said irritably.
Grandma raised her eyebrows, but didn’t reply.
I stepped back from the fireplace, my knees like jelly, my body suspended between drunk and hungover, my mind suspended between my own consciousness and that of the person I’d just stolen from. Not terrible, as far as reaching hangovers went, but still incredibly disorienting. To say the least.
That was why this ritual needed three people. The thing in the fireplace was already beginning to flicker and fade, and soon it would disappear completely if someone didn’t step in and point it in the right direction. And in my current state, there was no way that someone could be me.
Aunt Holly moved toward the fire, sleeves rolled up, and took the orange-yellow-purple thing into her hands. She didn’t do anything. Just stared at it. And stared. And stared. And as she kept staring, her hands started moving together, slowly, shrinking the glowing ball into a tinier, more compact version of itself.
I smiled. This was part of why I loved the triad ritual. Normally, the reaching stuff that my family did was totally invisible. But when we were linked to the fire like this, I could see everything. The results of my reaching were right there in front of me, glowing and pulsing. And I could watch as Aunt Holly sent it, converted by the fire into pure energy, to the Cliff—the giant wall of rock that loomed over the town of Three Peaks—mending the fault in its stones, making it whole again.
The whole thing was undeniably badass.
“Did it work?” said Aunt Holly, turning toward Grandma.
Grandma’s eyelids fluttered closed, and she did that spider-legs thing with her hands again. After a moment, she said, “We’ve made progress. Now, the book. Take something different this time, Aspen. Something a little less bold. A little smaller, perhaps. A little more personal. Whenever you’re ready.”
By now, my head was clear enough. Setting the Batman figure down in front of the fire, I picked up the battered little paperback instead. Closed my eyes. Ran my hands over it, looking for a place to reach in.
I found it when I brought the book up to my nose and breathed in its dusty, musty, old-paper smell. A person came into focus in my head. A girl, seventeen, like me. Quiet about some things, loud and opinionated about other things. The book had traveled in her backpack, slept under her pillow, gone away to friends’ houses and come back missing her. Or maybe she’d missed the book, not the other way around. It was hard to separate the two, with the smell of paper in my nose and the feel of rounded page corners against my fingers.
Reaching further into the book’s memory of her, I dug around for something I could take. Her lingering guilt over a friendship she’d lost? Her loyalty to her boss at—where was it—ah, a local bookstore? The crush she had on one of her friends? Maybe that would do the trick.
“Not enough,” said Aunt Holly in a harsh voice that jolted my eyes right open. She was staring at me. Glaring. Yeah, that was the other thing about the ritual. Normally, when I reached, I didn’t have an audience. Even the person I was reaching into couldn’t tell I was doing it. But during the ritual, everything and everyone was connected. Which meant Aunt Holly and Grandma could watch me as I worked.
“Ma said something personal,” Aunt Holly went on. “Weren’t you listening?”
I thought a crush was plenty personal, but Grandma didn’t contradict her, so I just nodded and closed my eyes again. Reached.
“Is that who I think it is?” I heard Aunt Holly whisper. “That girl, again? Didn’t we just deal with her?”
Grandma huffed. “A few months ago. Yes.”
This girl loved books. She liked most animals, but didn’t trust birds. Her favorite foods were Buffalo wings and vegetable dumplings. She liked thrift-shopping, and had made a point of cultivating a strange sense of fashion. She liked being alone.
“That,” Grandma breathed. “You’re on the right track. Just go deeper.”
I didn’t know what she was getting at, but I focused on the aloneness thing and went deeper. This girl spent entire afternoons in the woods, reading in the shade of trees. In warmer weather, she often pitched a tent and spent the night the same way. Or she would rent a canoe from . . . Was that the same lake Theo and Brandy and I had been going to? Yes. It was.
She’d rent a canoe, paddle out to the middle of the lake, create a cocoon for herself with a beach towel—and read. For hours. Alone, separate from the entire rest of the world.
Grandma’s hand landed on my arm, gripping it so hard, I could feel her nails in my skin. “Good,” she said. “Perfect. Thinks she can just run away from real life, does she? Thinks there won’t be consequences? Well.”
I didn’t know what that was about, but I wasn’t gonna ask. Not in the middle of the freaking ritual. For now, all I asked was, “The boat thing?”
“The boat thing,” she confirmed.
So I latched on to the girl’s affection for boats, and for the peaceful solitude they provided. I dug my will into the places where it melted into the rest of her personality.
“Good,” said Grandma again. “Good work. Keep going.”
I did keep going, even though the girl was proving weirdly difficult to latch on to. Clutching the book harder, I increased my focus and tried to tune out the rapt attention of my grandmother and my aunt as they watched me. I pulled.
Something came loose—but it didn’t feel the same as last time. With Batman’s former owner, it had been easy. Smooth, like sliding a block out from the side of a Jenga tower. This time, though, I had to pull so hard that I felt something sliding out of place within myself. I could feel the echo of the girl’s loss within my own body. Weird, especially since the thing I’d just taken wasn’t very big.
But I still managed to hold on to it. I still managed to nudge it toward the fire, where it hung suspended, a bigger orb than the first one, orange-yellow-purple with flickers of red around the edges.
As Aunt Holly began to work her magic, I braced myself for a reaching hangover even worse than the first one. It made sense, given how much effort the stealing had taken.
But the usual hangover feeling didn’t come.
I looked down at the book, sitting harmlessly in my hands. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Nothing unusual about it at all.
Aunt Holly finished her magic. The orb disappeared. She turned toward Grandma and asked, “How’s the Cliff?”
“Good,” said Grandma, after taking a sip of her tea. “Solid. The fault is gone.”
As she spoke, the fire’s flames turned normal again. Shades of orange instead of shades of blue. I lifted the cover of the book, just to see; there was a My Name Is stamp inside, under which a name had been written in textbook-perfect cursive.
“Good,” said Aunt Holly curtly. “Then I’m going to bed.”
Without so much as a good night, she unlocked the door again and left. Grandma and I both watched her go.
When the silence between us started to grow uncomfortable, it was me who finally said the obvious: “She’s still depressed.”
Grandma’s eyebrows lifted. “Can you blame her? It’s only been a few months.”
I nodded. I knew that. Hell, I’d even been to the funeral. But it wasn’t like Heather and I had been close or anything. We’d seen each other like once a year. Maybe twice, tops. And yeah, we used to have fun hanging out, and obviously I was sad when she’d died—but was grief really supposed to last this long?
“Heather was her only daughter,” Grandma went on, her voice all soft. “I know you don’t have any idea what it’s like to lose a child—and I hope you never do—but try to give her the space she needs, all right?”
I nodded again, even though I’d barely seen Aunt Holly since my friends and I had arrived. When she wasn’t at her office, she only came out of her room for meals. Sometimes not even then.
I rubbed my neck, which had gone tense at the thought of Heather and the funeral and Aunt Holly. Talking about awkward stuff always did that to me.
“Anyway,” I muttered, basically dying for a change of subject.
“Anyway,” Grandma echoed, her voice a gentle mockery of mine. It made me loosen up a little. “You did good work tonight, Aspen. You always do, of course. But your talents are even stronger than the last time I saw you. Even more precise—and that’s saying something. I’m proud of you.”
This was a much easier thing to talk about. Especially since I knew she was right. I had gotten better at reaching since last summer. I was glad she’d noticed.
“Thanks,” I said. “Oh, hey, so, what’s your deal with Leah Ramsey-Wolfe?”
“Leah?” said Grandma, looking suddenly suspicious. I pointed at the handwritten name in The Hound of the Baskervilles, so she could see where I’d learned it, and her expression turned into one of understanding. “Ah. Yes. Well.”
“I mean, you clearly can’t stand her. Either of you. So . . . ?”
Grandma sighed, shaking her head. “It’s nothing. Old scores. Bad blood. Nothing you need to worry about.”
That sounded interesting. “Come on. Tell me.”
“Aspen,” said Grandma, sounding almost as sharp as Aunt Holly. “Leave it alone.”
“Whatever,” I said. If she didn’t want to tell me, I could just as easily find Leah Ramsey-Wolfe myself, and get my own damn answers.
“Whatever indeed,” said Grandma. “Shouldn’t you see if your friends have returned yet?”
Brandy and Theo. I’d almost forgotten.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I should.”
I darted around her, out the door that Aunt Holly had left open, and into the foyer. I recognized Brandy’s sparkly sandals among the shoes arranged neatly by the door. But Theo’s shoes weren’t there. A quick glance up the stairs told me that none of the lights were on. Huh.
Next, I checked my phone—and there they were. Five texts. One from Brandy, four from Theo. I read Brandy’s text first:
Going 2 bed. CU 2mrw. Ughhh worst day evr.
Worst day ever? I smothered a grin and clicked over to Theo’s texts.
Ummm Brandy just broke up with me?????
I’m gonna go for a drive.
Don’t wait up.
And don’t ever get broken up with, man. It blows.
I turned my phone off, slid it back into my pocket, and let out a long sigh of relief. Back at the diner, when I’d decided to reach into Brandy and take away her love of Theo and put an end to their stupidly cutesy let’s-make-out-in-public-all-the-goddamn-time relationship, I hadn’t really been thinking ahead, and—
Well, okay, that was kind of a lie. I’d thought about breaking them up for months now. Planned out various ways that I could do it, planned out what I’d do afterward. But there’d always been something in the way. The thought of people asking questions, the thought of repercussions at school. Stupid shit like that, keeping me firmly on the fence about whether or not I should actually do something.
But then, earlier this evening, Theo had stolen one of my fries—my fries—and hand-fed it to his girlfriend, complete with ridiculous airplane noises. Brandy had looked totally embarrassed, but also totally charmed, and she’d eaten the fry. She’d eaten the damn thing, and just like that, I was off the fence.
Without even giving it a second thought, I’d reached into Brandy and removed her love for Theo. And apparently, it had worked out in the best possible way. Which was to say, with a breakup.
“Aspen, honey?” said Grandma, making me jump. And making me realize that I’d been standing stock-still in the foyer, grinning at my phone like a total creep. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, totally,” I said. “Everything’s awesome.”
Because a breakup didn’t just mean I’d never have to hear those stupid-ass airplane noises ever again.
It also meant Brandy was single.
February always sucks. This is a scientific fact. But at the time, I remember thinking that this was objectively the worst February that had ever happened to anyone, ever, in the history of the entire world. There were three reasons for that.
First there was Heather. Aunt Holly called Dad, and then Dad told Mom and me. It was something with her lungs. Some fast-acting disease that I never found out the name of. There was a lot of hugging, in which I participated, and a lot of crying, in which I did not.
We went upstate for the funeral, and it was just me and Mom and Dad and Grandma and Aunt Holly and a couple of distant relatives who’d flown in to help scatter her ashes. None of Heather’s friends came, which kind of surprised me. But then, Heather had been kind of a giant nerd. Maybe she just hadn’t had any friends.
The second reason February sucked was Brandy. I’d had a raging crush on her for almost two years, but never worked up the nerve to ask her out—and then, on February tenth, I caught her making out with Theo on his front stoop during a party. Brandy admitted that they’d been going out for a week or so. They just hadn’t told anyone yet.
Then there was the third reason. The one I couldn’t have seen coming even if I’d been a goddamn clairvoyant.
My mom left us on Valentine’s Day, of all days. She’d always told me it was a greeting-card holiday that didn’t mean anything, so it shouldn’t have mattered, but there was something extra wrenching about sitting in my room that night, knowing Mom was on a train to Long Island at the same time that Brandy and Theo were probably out at some romantic dinner-and-movie thing, being all coupley.
The sitting-in-my-room part happened after my fight with Dad, which was after Mom had taken me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and given me a speech that she’d clearly practiced: “Aspen, if you ever want to leave, too, you just call me, okay? I’ll come get you, no matter when it is. Even if it’s ten years from now, if you want to change—if you want to get out of all this—you just call. Okay?”
I’d asked her, of course, what the hell she was even talking about.
“You’ll figure it out,” she’d said, her eyes going all wet. “God, I hope you will. Just remember this: You’re a good person. If you want to get out, just call. I can help you.”
Then she’d taken a single suitcase, and she’d left.
As soon as I’d recovered from the shock of her absence, I’d gone into their bedroom, where my suspicions were immediately confirmed: Mom had left so abruptly, she hadn’t packed much of anything at all into that suitcase of hers. Her side of the closet was still mostly full. Her slippers were on the floor. Her night table was still cluttered with stuff.
I picked something at random—the tiny book of Chinese poetry that her father had sent her from Hong Kong—and brought it out to Dad, who was slumped at the kitchen table. He looked like he was trying not to cry.
“Okay, I don’t know what the hell’s going on with you two, but you need to make her come back,” I said, slamming the book down in front of him. He looked up at me, uncomprehending, so I said it again, in much simpler terms: “Make. Her. Come. Back.”
He blinked a few times. Looked at the book, then at me. “Aspen, I can’t do that.”
“Hello,” I said. “Obviously you can.”
A newer, uglier thought occurred to me: “You don’t want her back?”
Dad rubbed his hands over his face. “Of course I do,” he said in this tiny, delicate voice that made my skin crawl.
“So what’s the problem?” I said. “Do it.”
“No,” he said.
I slammed my palm down on the book’s cover. “Do it. Reach. Or I’ll do it myself.”
He sprang to his feet. It was like I’d flipped a switch that turned Dad from a rag doll into the goddamn Terminator. Looming over me, he said, “You absolutely will not.”
But I stood my ground. This was Mom we were talking about. “Yes. I will.”
“All right. You listen to me, and you listen carefully. You will not alter your mother in any way. You know the rule.”
“Oh, come on, just this once—”
“Absolutely not.” Dad’s eyes were hard. “Do you understand me, Jeremy?”
That shut me up. Dad never used my first name. Neither of them did. I’d switched over to my middle name, Aspen, when I was eight, and I hadn’t looked back since. My parents only called me Jeremy when they were seriously pissed off at me.
So I nodded.
I could have fixed everything. Reached into Mom and taken away whatever had made her want to leave. Reached into Dad and taken away whatever it was that made him not want me to fix her. Reached into both of them, found the thing that had split them apart, and gotten rid of it.
But we have one unbreakable rule in the Quick family. We don’t steal from one another. We just don’t. And Dad was right about one thing: Mom was still part of the family, whether she wanted to be or not. So unless I wanted to admit that she wasn’t part of my family anymore, I couldn’t reach into her.
Which meant I couldn’t bring her back.