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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Skin Hunger

Copyright © 2017 by Eli Lang

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Natasha Snow, natashasnowdesigns.com

Editor: May Peterson

Layout: L.C. Chase, lcchase.com/design.htm

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-617-0

First edition

November, 2017

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-618-7

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Ava should be living her dream as the drummer for Escaping Indigo. The problem is, she’s secretly in love with her bandmate, Tuck. But he’s fallen for someone else. Being a drummer is still the best, but for Ava, every day is also a reminder of what she can’t have.

With her grandmother moving into assisted living, Ava figures it’s a good time to head home and help out. And if it lets her get some distance from Tuck and his girlfriend, all the better. But Ava hasn’t visited her family in years, and home isn’t really home anymore. Instead, it’s the place she’s been running from, full of memories of everything her parents wanted for her—and everything she didn’t want for herself.

But on the airplane, Ava meets Cara, and the two women feel an immediate connection. And when they bump into each other a second time, it seems like fate. Cara offers Ava something she’s never had—someone to love who loves her back. But to be with Cara, Ava may have to change her whole life around, and that’s something she’s not sure she’s ready for.

For my grandmothers.

And for LL. Live as you like.

About Skin Hunger

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Dear Reader

Acknowledgments

Also by Eli Lang

About the Author

More like this

I clenched my hand on the armrest. The fabric was rough and nubby beneath my palm, but thin enough that I briefly wondered if I’d tear it. There wasn’t even anything to be afraid of, and I kept trying to tell myself that, to use logic to get rid of the anxiety. But fear was an illogical thing. And squeezing an armrest to death would have more of an immediate effect on my fear than any reasoning ever would.

I thought about closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else, but I figured that would make it easier for me to picture something going horribly wrong. Better if I could see. At least it would give me the illusion of some control. I took a deep breath and wished, futilely and not for the first time that day, that I wasn’t alone. That Tuck, my best friend and the guitar player for our band, was here next to me, cracking jokes in an attempt to distract me. That Bellamy, our singer, and his boyfriend, Micah, were sitting in the seats in front of me, Bellamy’s voice drifting back while he worried about our instruments and equipment being handled correctly by the airline. I even missed Quinn, our sort-of manager, and his perpetual, overbearing protectiveness.

But instead I was by myself, flying somewhere I didn’t want to go, and scared before we’d even gotten off the ground.

I sighed and leaned my head back against the seat. Passengers were slowly making their way down the aisle still, bumping elbows and knees with bags that looked like they would never fit in the overhead compartments. No one had claimed either of the seats next to me yet—I’d snagged the window seat for myself, so I could see what was happening—and I hoped no one would. It’d be nice to stretch out, sleep a little, so that I wouldn’t be quite so groggy when we landed in the morning.

I changed my mind when a tall girl stopped at my row and casually hoisted her bag into the overhead compartment. She glanced down at me after she closed the latch, and smiled before she slid into the aisle seat.

I was staring, and probably being obvious enough that she’d notice, but I couldn’t stop. She wasn’t particularly striking. She wasn’t an average beauty queen. Her dark-blond hair was cut too short for that. It fluttered around her ears and her bangs drifted into her eyes. The length of it made her face appear almost too long, but not quite. Her makeup was heavy, dark, but it suited her, brought out the green in her eyes. There was something about the way she carried herself, though, that made me want to watch her move. She had an almost tomboy style going on, but she was elegant, graceful. She’d lifted her bag overhead like it was nothing, the slender lines of her wrists and arms delicate in their strength. Now she buckled her seat belt with the same smooth movement, her shoulders straight, fingers careful on the metal and cloth. Then she turned back to me. I was still staring, my brain screaming at me to look away. She brushed the hair out of her face with a flick of her finger, and I realized I must have been wrong before. They weren’t green, but blue—almost too pale but absolutely lovely.

“Hi,” I said stupidly. God, I couldn’t remember the last time this had happened to me, the last time I’d been completely stuck for words. I was objective. I didn’t get swoony over every attractive person I saw. Maybe it was because we were going to be stuck on an airplane together for six hours, but after that, we’d go our separate ways. Safe, or as near to safe as you could get.

She smiled back shyly. “Hi.”

Her voice was soft and sort of husky. She twisted toward me a bit in her seat, and the olive-green jacket she was wearing fell into perfect place. Even her clothes wanted to do the graceful thing. It was captivating. I hadn’t seen anything quite like her before.

Then I realized I wasn’t just staring, I was staring, and it was totally inappropriate and probably creeping her out. I wanted to say something, make that banal conversation you normally would when you were stuck next to a stranger, but I was too tired, my brain fried from the last few weeks of touring. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped anyway. Maybe she already thought I was a psycho with no self-control. I gave her a little nod instead, turned to gaze out the window, and tried to pretend that I wasn’t on the plane and this lovely girl wasn’t sitting two seats away.

My small show of boredom and indifference lasted right up until we were cruising down the runway. Everything was fine, fine, and I kept repeating that to myself like I could make the irrational part of my mind believe it. But when the plane tilted up, leaving the ground in that sudden way, letting loose that disturbing feeling of being completely untethered, I gasped. I had to keep staring out the window. If we were going to crash, I—perversely—wanted to see it coming. There was that idiotic imaginary control again, the idea that if I watched closely enough, nothing bad could happen. Or, if it did happen, I’d be able to do something about it.

A warm hand covered mine, thin fingers squeezing down, and any thoughts of watching for a crash flew right out of my head. I flinched and turned to the girl. She had her arm stretched out, and she was leaning over her own armrest so she could touch me.

“Are you okay?”

I nodded, but I didn’t know what to say. My mouth was totally dry, with nerves from a host of different sources.

She gave me that same tiny smile as before, but this time it seemed more thoughtful than shy. “Sorry.” She started to move her hand away, moving back over the space that separated us. “You looked—”

The plane tilted the other way, and my heart leaped up until it was lodged somewhere just behind my tongue. I flipped my hand over, the movement desperate and completely unconscious, and grabbed at her retreating fingers. For a second, I felt the hesitation in her, the tension in her arm, as if she were trying to decide whether to pull away or not. But it was only for a moment, a short one. Then she did move, but it was to lean closer and to wrap her fingers around mine.

After another minute, the plane straightened out, and I could breathe more easily. I looked up at the girl. She was watching me, watching while I took deep breaths and tried to calm down, to slow my heartbeat, and when I met her eyes, I was embarrassed. My palm was sweaty and sticky against hers, and I knew I must look like a complete fool, panicking when no one else was, when there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t help the fear, and I accepted it. Normally I was okay with it, because it was something that wasn’t pleasant or easy but simply was, and I could deal with that. But I didn’t want this girl to see me like that. I didn’t want to imagine anyone had seen me like that, but especially her, right now.

I drew in another shaky breath. She still had a hold of my hand, and as much as I wanted to wipe my palm on my jeans, I didn’t want to let go either. I raised my other hand and brushed my bangs out of my face.

“I don’t like flying,” I said. Captain Obvious. Great.

Her smile went a little wider, and I thought I might hear some teasing, but there was none. She pressed her fingers to mine. Our wrists nearly lined up, and I imagined I could feel the steady pulse in hers, counterpoint to the erratic leaping of mine. She held my hand until the plane had stopped twisting in the sky and we were more or less steady, and I wasn’t flinching at every move. Then she let me go, carefully untangling our fingers. She was even polite enough not to wipe her palm off once our hands had separated.

“Thanks.” My voice still sounded tight, but I’d probably be okay, now that we’d gotten past the takeoff stage and the plane was even, and I could almost, almost imagine I was on a bus instead, cruising down the highway, firmly on the ground.

She nodded. “Sure.” She hesitated, then reached her hand back out for me to shake. “I’m Cara.”

“Ava.”

She sat back in her seat and gazed at me, studying me almost like I’d studied her before. She had a book in her lap, but she hadn’t opened it yet. Her fingers brushed over the cover.

“Ava. What’s making you take a red-eye all the way across the country?”

I laughed, short and soft. Around us, the cabin lights were dimming, and there was the shifting, rustling noise of people trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in a cramped space. “You mean I don’t look like someone who might travel to see the fall foliage?”

She grinned back and shook her head. “Nope. And it’s too early for it to be any good yet, anyway. But you don’t have to say,” she added hastily. “Sorry. I’m used to talking to people, but I shouldn’t have pried.”

My turn to shake my head. “Nah, it’s fine. I’m going . . .” I almost said home, but the word caught in my throat. Where I was headed wasn’t home. Home was the place I’d left a few hours ago, the people I’d left. I wasn’t sure when it had happened. Even when I’d been so eager to leave my parents’ place, the town I’d grown up in, when I’d finally escaped to a college across the country, I’d always called where I was from home. But somewhere along the way, that had shifted. I didn’t think of it that way anymore.

“I’m visiting family,” I said. “Annual trip.” Or it would have been, if my parents had had their way. I’d put it off the last two years in a row. Maybe three, if I bothered to count. I’d begged off with a crazy touring and recording schedule, and made do with seeing my parents, and maybe my cousin, briefly whenever Escaping Indigo passed through. I hadn’t actually gone there on purpose, to spend any time there, in years. “My grandmother’s going into assisted living too. So I’m going to help.” It was the only reason I’d been corralled into a trip this long. I’d had to do it.

Cara nodded.

“You?” I asked, because I was curious, and because I wanted to stop talking about myself and why I was going. I didn’t want to think about it. If I did, I’d start thinking about how I’d wanted to get off the plane as soon as I’d gotten on, how I wanted to turn around and get back to my friends and the place I belonged.

She smiled. “Going home. I went out for a dance thing.”

“Oh.” What I knew about dance could fit in a tissue. My mother had tried to make me go when I was younger. It was the thing all little girls were supposed to do, and I probably had gone a few times, but it hadn’t lasted, and I couldn’t remember much about it. It was never going to be my thing, and I’d put it behind me like all the other things my parents had pushed at me. “That’s really cool,” I told Cara now. It was, and I thought I should say more, but didn’t know what else wouldn’t sound completely ignorant, either.

I wanted to ask her more about it, but a huge yawn caught me. I covered my mouth, embarrassed, but Cara smiled and shook her head. “You look exhausted.”

I huffed out a laugh. Maybe I should be taking that as an insult, but I couldn’t quite. “It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.” Touring always was. This round had actually been easier, calmer, than any tours I could remember before. We’d finally kind of made it. We had a tour bus and enough money in our pockets that we knew we weren’t going to starve, cash to pay people to help us while we traveled so we didn’t have to do every little thing ourselves, and while the venues we played weren’t massive, I wasn’t quite as worried that we were all going to be ax murdered in a back alley because the place was so scuzzy. It wasn’t like those early days, when Tuck and Bellamy and I had lived out of a van for weeks on end, sleeping with our gear so we wouldn’t get ripped off, playing for crowds who weren’t always exactly sure who we were. Happy when we were making enough money to pay for gas so we could get to the next city. I was glad those days were over.

Sometimes I missed the simplicity in them, though, missed how each day was only about putting one foot in front of the other, and nothing else. That was all there had been—a steady march toward our goal—and it had made everything so clear, had given me so much focus. Now it was easier but also somehow so much more complicated. We’d arrived, we’d actually gotten to where we’d wanted to go, and there were possibilities and options spread out before us, so that sometimes they seemed endless, and that wasn’t anything but good. But it was scary too, and it made me want to sleep forever sometimes, so I wouldn’t have to stare those big things in the face.

“Why don’t you stretch out?” Cara asked.

My mind, not really performing at peak, went in about a million directions, and half of them were dirty. I was immediately embarrassed with myself. Cara’s smile twisted slightly to the side, and I knew that whatever I was thinking was showing clear on my face, or clear enough for her to at least get some idea of it. Doubly so now, probably—a blush spread over my cheeks and up my neck. I didn’t blush cute. I blushed in splotches and spots, uneven patches of red that were as embarrassing as whatever was causing them. I sighed, but Cara reached out before I could look away or say anything, and ran her hand down my arm. It was only a couple of inches, elbow to forearm, but it was enough to make me shiver, to make me want to lean in to that touch. I hadn’t expected that reaction from myself, but it had been a long time since anyone had touched me quite like that—tender and gentle and a little bit shy—touched me to bring me back to them. I couldn’t even remember when the last time had been.

She raised the armrest on her seat and patted the cushion of the seat between us. “My schedule’s all messed up. I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep. But you could.” A slight blush, the faintest pink, spread across her own cheekbones. “If you want.”

What I wanted, with something that felt almost like surprise, was to stay awake and keep flirting with this girl. Even though I was pretty obviously doing a terrible job of flirting. It had been so long since I’d had any practice, and it was showing. I kept putting my foot in my mouth. Maybe it would be best to stop while I was ahead. And I was tired, anyway. I hadn’t been kidding when I’d told Cara that it had been a long few weeks. Good weeks, but draining nonetheless. And this would be my last chance to simply . . . sleep and rest and not think about where I was coming from or where I was going. Caught safe in the middle while we were in the air, before we landed and I had to deal with my family and being back in my hometown and everything that meant.

I nodded. “Thank you. That would . . . That would be really good.”

She nodded back and moved her hand for me, freeing the space. I lifted my own armrest and curled over onto my side, squashing my jacket under my head for a makeshift pillow. It wasn’t exactly comfortable. It was too tight and the seats were too narrow, so my knees hung over the edge. But I’d slept in worse positions. It was more space than I would have had otherwise, and I didn’t care if it wasn’t exactly ideal.

I was careful not to let my head touch Cara’s leg. She’d been the one to suggest the whole thing, but that didn’t mean I could push into her personal space any more than I already had. For a second, I worried about drooling or snoring in my sleep, and how mortifying that would be. But then my eyes were closing, the long day finally getting the best of me, and any worries I had faded away as I drifted off.

I woke up with a start to turbulence and the place bouncing underneath me. I clutched at the seat, disoriented from sleep and the weirdness of realizing I was traveling through the air. I wondered if I should sit up, but my bleary mind was telling me I should figure out what was going on first and try to decide if I needed to panic.

A hand landed on my shoulder and squeezed, gentle but firm, grounding. “Nothing to worry about.” Cara’s voice was soft and low. I woke up some more, glanced around. The plane was quiet, the lights all dimmed except for the tiny strips of gold that outlined the center aisle. Outside the windows, the sky was black, only the lightest spatter of stars visible. I took a deep breath and tried to orient myself, remind myself that it was fine.

“Some bumpy weather,” Cara said. “That’s all it is. No big deal.”

I nodded and briefly considered trying to go back to sleep, but I didn’t think I could. I must have been out for a while anyway. I sat up slowly, and something slid off my shoulders into my lap. I caught it before it fell to the floor and saw that it was a gray hoodie, fleece lined and warm. Something I’d wear, but it wasn’t mine. I handed it back to Cara. “Thanks.”

She shrugged. “You looked cold.”

I smiled at her. I was grateful. It seemed to me that small gestures like that were sometimes the hardest to do, but they were the sweetest. It definitely felt sweet to me, and I wanted to sit here and savor it. But it reminded me of Tuck too, of all the thoughtful but nearly mindless ways he took care of me, the habits we had between us that were so ingrained in us that we didn’t even have to think about them anymore. Making sure we were comfortable, always being there to make lunch because we knew the other would forget to eat otherwise, being someone to call because we always knew when we needed someone to reach out to. To cover the other while we were napping. That was Tuck for me, and me for him. Except it was different now, so different, and that had been so painfully obvious on this last tour. I loved that Cara had given me her hoodie. I wanted to take it in the lightness and kindness with which it was meant. I wanted it to be simple. My mind was just making everything so goddamned complicated.

I tried to shove all of that back. When I was nervous, or awkward, or unsure, I tried to remember that I was, technically, a rock star. As technically as you could define that label, anyway. And although I definitely didn’t think that made me any better than anyone else, I could pull that persona on like my own soft, fuzzy hoodie when I needed it, and let it keep me safe. Let it carry me, at least for a while. I tried to do that now, tried to remember that if I could be confident enough to get up on stage in front of thousands of people, I could damn well carry on a conversation. I grabbed for something to say, something to break the awkwardness that was growing between us, but I couldn’t think of anything.

“Why dance?” I asked finally, because that had been interesting, and it was the only thing I could think of.

Cara looked surprised with my abrupt shot at conversation, but she let it go. She leaned toward me, over the seat that separated us, and I leaned in too. Her voice was quiet when she started talking, likely so we wouldn’t wake anyone around us. “I don’t know. I wanted to move, I think. I had a lot of energy when I was a kid. My mom thought it would be a good idea, something for me to try. And I was good at it.”

It was a simple answer, but she seemed like she was actually considering it, like maybe if I gave her enough time, she’d tell me even more. I wondered if she’d have answered that way if we weren’t in this confined space, in the dark, amidst the warm, soft sounds of people sleeping. It felt intimate, suffocating and magical at the same time, in the oddest way.

“Do you like it?” I asked, because liking it hadn’t really come into her answer.

She opened her mouth, then closed it and tilted her head in something that was almost a shake or a nod, but not quite either. “It’s kind of like being in love,” she said after a minute. She blushed right away, enough that I could see it, even in the dark.

And yeah, it was a silly thing to say. But I thought maybe I fell a bit in love with her right then, because she had said it. In this weird pocket of intimacy, it seemed particularly secret and special. Even though we were strangers and would go our separate ways, so it didn’t matter what we said to each other. People didn’t say that kind of thing. I nodded, keeping my expression serious, so she’d know I wasn’t laughing, and she continued.

“When you’re in love, you’re, like . . . blissful and crazy and angry and it’s awesome, but it’s tiring and awful too. But you don’t want to stop being in love.” She laughed and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “That sounds crazy. Sorry.”

I shook my head, was shaking it even before she finished talking. “No, it doesn’t, not at all. That sounds . . . about exactly right.”

She laughed, just a puff of air escaping her lips. “Yeah? What do you do, then? Something that makes you feel like being in love?”

I pulled in a breath and nodded. She had no idea how close being in love was to what I did. “I’m a drummer in a rock band.” It still felt weird for me to be able to say that and have it be the first and last truth about my life, the rock I built everything else on. It was all I had wanted, all I had gone after for so long. For so many years, when it had been exactly as wonderful and awful as being in love, when it had seemed like it was impossible and would never happen, no matter how hard we tried. But now it had, and it felt surreal and better than wonderful.

Didn’t stop people from giving me some serious side-eye when I pulled that out as my career, though.

Cara didn’t, quite. Maybe because she made dance her career, so she was used to doing things that were a little different than what people expected.

“Why drums?” she asked, throwing my own question back at me. It didn’t feel like a challenge, though, or not exactly like one. It felt like the same curiosity I’d had.

I shrugged. “It was all I ever wanted. It fit for me.” The words just spilled out, but I figured that was as close to the truth as I could come without talking and talking, so I left it there.

Cara nodded. “So you do know what I mean.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I do.”

“And you’re . . .” She grinned, and I thought I saw the blush come back. “You make a living doing that?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You make a living dancing?” I wondered what type of dance she did. Ballet? Did she wear one of those frilly outfits?

“Sorry.” She glanced down. “Shouldn’t have asked like that. But yes, I do.”

I waved my hand between us. “It’s fine. And yeah, I do too. Sometimes we even get played on the radio.”

“Oh yeah?” She leaned slightly closer. “Have I heard of you?”

I hated this part. I was never sure what answer I wanted from someone when I told them my band was Escaping Indigo. If they knew us, that was awesome, and I was so pleased that we could actually be recognized by name. But they always had an opinion, and whether it was good or bad, whether they kept it to themselves, it changed the way people saw me. And if, on the other hand, they didn’t know who we were, then everybody was embarrassed.

I pointed down at my carry-on, tucked under my seat. I had a patch sewn onto it, with our band logo. It was probably pretentious to have it there, but I loved my band, and I liked the idea that people saw it and maybe wondered. And I wanted to be able to see our name, remind myself that it was real. Cara followed where I was pointing, and I could tell before she even looked back up at me, by the way she went still, that she was in the first camp of people, that she knew who we were.

She turned back to me, and I smiled, but I was nervous. She blinked and smiled too, but it looked as hesitant as mine felt. “I’ve heard of you.” She sounded honestly surprised.

I wanted to be pleased, and a big part of me was. Awfully pleased. How many times in the past had people asked, and I’d said our band name, and they hadn’t known we existed at all? It went more the other way these days, and that was definitely okay with me. “We do all right.”

“I haven’t heard a lot.” She sounded apologetic. “I don’t listen to the radio very often. But I liked what I did hear,” she added, fast, leaning forward like she wanted to press that into me.

I laughed, and it wasn’t an uncomfortable laugh, but a real one. Honesty I could deal with. “That’s totally fine. Some of my best friends are in bands who make music I can’t stand.”

“I really did like it. I’m not telling you that to make you happy.” She pulled her mouth down tight at the corners as she absorbed what else I had said. “Seriously? Do you tell them you don’t like their stuff?”

I shook my head. Short pieces of hair were escaping my ponytail, getting in my eyes. I pulled the tie out and ran my fingers through my hair, hoping it wasn’t as much of a disaster as it felt. “We don’t talk about it. But no one’s going to like everything. Doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re great people.”

She was staring at me, and I wondered if I’d said something weird. Then she laughed and pinched the bridge of her nose before she dropped her hand. She was still grinning at me, and I smiled in response, even though I didn’t know why.

“That’s . . . a really generous way to think.”

“Nah. It’s selfish. Lets me have more friends than I probably should.”

Cara’s smile went soft. “I’m glad you were the one I sat next to tonight, Ava.”

“Yeah?” It occurred to me, for the first time, that I’d been flirting with Cara—to the best of my flirting abilities, which, admittedly weren’t much, but still—this whole time, and I didn’t even know if she was into other girls that way. But I thought my flirting had been pretty obvious . . . okay, maybe not the flirting itself, but the staring, probably, had tipped my hand. She hadn’t stopped me, or rebuffed me, and now, as she watched me with that curious, half-timid look that you only gave someone you were interested in, I thought maybe she was. Maybe I had actually gotten lucky enough to sit next to a gorgeous, kind girl who might even find me attractive. And when we landed . . . what? Was I going to be bold and ask for her number, when I wasn’t even going to be around for very long? I mentally shook my head at myself. Flirt, I told myself. Have fun. Remember what it’s like to be with someone who isn’t a quick bang in a parking lot or a dressing room. And then call it done. That was really all I could do here.

I still wanted to ask for her number as we were getting off the plane, though. We’d talked quietly for the rest of the flight, and it had been . . . easy. Yeah, there were still those awkward pauses that happened when two people didn’t know each other. But it hadn’t been enough to make us stop. The hum of our voices had surrounded us, made a pocket for us on the plane. Sometimes Cara would make a wry joke, and I’d laugh out loud, then have to cover my mouth to keep myself from waking everyone else. And I had liked it. It had felt so good to sit with her and . . . be absorbed in her and our conversation, for those few hours.

When we landed, the sun was just coming up, making the clouds we’d flown through pink and pearl gray. The sunlight in the airport was almost blinding, after all the darkness, the shadows of the airplane cabin. I rubbed at my eyes and hoisted my bag higher up on my shoulder. Ahead of me, Cara was already weaving her way through people, headed to baggage claim. We’d said goodbye on the plane, both of us saying how great it was to have met, but it had been more than pleasantries for me. It had been the truth—I really had been happy to sit next to her, and I thought maybe it had been the same for her. But I still didn’t ask for her number, and she didn’t ask for mine either.

I’d gotten to be an expert at packing a lot in a small bag and not carrying as much, since we’d started touring, so my carry-on was all I had. No reason to follow Cara any farther toward the baggage claim. I made my way toward the rental cars instead. The people at the counter looked me up and down when I got there, and I had to show my license to prove that I was over the twenty-five-year age limit. The little slip of plastic with my picture on it proved the truth—I was pushing thirty. Not very old, but I still didn’t like telling people. I wasn’t vain. I didn’t buy into that bullshit about getting old. But rock stars had expiration dates. There was no getting around that. Everything had to be done so quickly, so you could fit yourself into that magic age slot. We tried to pretend it didn’t happen, and if you actually ended up making it in music, that expiration date got pushed way back. But I didn’t think any of us ever completely rid ourselves of the fear of being over twenty, over thirty. It was too ingrained.

I was still sneakily pleased when the rental people had to hand the car over to me.

The sun had come over the horizon by the time I started driving to my parents’ house. It was low enough, however, that it was hitting the trees just right, gilding them in light, turning the greens gold and emerald, and making everything look so lush and gorgeous and perfect that it was hard to see any flaws, almost hard to remember that I hated it here. The leaves threw shadows on the car and the road, making the light flicker as I drove underneath. It was beautiful, but confining too, the forest bumping right up against the guardrails. I thought about turning on the radio, filling the silence in the car, but I half imagined that all that greenery and light would soak up the sound. We had trees back home, and our foliage was actually probably far more lush, the semi-tropical weather ensuring that even our weeds grew well. But it wasn’t old growth like this. It didn’t loom over you and feel like it might swallow you up in a swirl of summer colors. Even though I’d grown up here, I always forgot exactly what it was like, and I had to get used to it each time, all over again. And each time it took longer than it had the time before.

I drove back roads to my parents’ house as much as I could. The streets were narrow and twisty, and squirrels kept darting out in front of me and stopping in the road, making me slam my brakes on. It seemed too closed in, too wild, to be a neighborhood, but houses, some set back, some sitting right on the road, were scattered every acre or two. An old neighborhood, with old houses to match. Low ceilings and decorative lintels. Moss growing up the clapboard and brick. They were pretty and tiny, cramped and quaint. I’d grown up in a house like these, with uneven floors and doors that stuck in their jambs, and a huge backyard with scruffy gardens along the edges. It had been an adventure, as a kid, had always felt comfortable and . . . like what my adult mind imagined home was supposed to be.

Apparently it hadn’t been quite as much like a home to my parents, because they’d sold it right after I’d switched colleges and moved across the country. They still lived in the same town, but now their house was newer. Squished together with other houses, with a tiny, neatly trimmed lawn. Doors that opened silently on well-oiled hinges, jambs that hadn’t been warped by time and damp. Floors that were shiny and even. Plumbing that didn’t croak when you ran the water. Sterile in appearance and design, but neat and easy. Less maintenance. Cleaner. I got the appeal in that. I got wanting things to be easy.

Didn’t mean I really liked the place, though.

I parked in the driveway, and my dad had the front door open before I even got out of the car. For a second, I stared at him through the windshield. It hadn’t really been that long since I’d seen him, and he looked nearly the same, with his gray sweater-vest and his glasses perched on the end of his nose. Nerdy chic, I’d always called it in my mind. Or comfortable and warm. And I realized that I’d missed him, more than I’d expected, or allowed myself to think. I left my bag where it was and jogged up the short path to him. He opened his arms without a word and wrapped me up in a tight hug.

He pushed me a little bit away, holding my arms so he could study me. I was almost looking at him eye to eye. That always surprised me, that I was as tall as my dad, since I wasn’t very tall myself. His glasses were slipping down his nose, and I reached up and pushed them back for him. He smiled at me.

“You look so tired.”

I sighed and wondered if anyone was going to notice anything about me while I was here aside from my lack of sleep. “Not what a girl wants to hear.”

“Not what anyone wants to hear,” he replied, gently but still chastising. He’d always been able to do that, put me in place or drive home a point without ever raising his voice, without even really changing his tone.

“I’m fine.”

He nodded, but he didn’t say anything else. I figured that topic wasn’t done, but he was letting it go for now. “Come inside.”

I went back to the car and got my bag. My dad offered to carry it for me, and I let him, even though I spent my life toting around drums that weighed ten times what was in that bag.

He brought my carry-on inside and set it down by the door, and I stood in the foyer and gazed around. I had to give it to the house—it was bright. Our old house had been so surrounded by trees that it had been like living in a fishbowl, all shadows and watery light. But this place was filled with sun—airy and open and clean. My mom loved that about it, that she could actually see what she was doing, that she wasn’t constantly fighting with a house that was older than she was.

Like I’d summoned her with the thought, she came around a corner and into sight. She walked toward me and held her arms out like my father had. She let me go quickly, and leaned back so she could stare at me, pushing my hair away from my eyes and taking me in. Making judgments about how I looked and what it meant. I knew she was. But she didn’t say anything. I almost wished she would, so we could have it out of the way. The rest of me was glad for the momentary reprieve.

Breakfast was easier than I’d anticipated, and I realized that it was this very moment, when we all sat down together for the first time in so long and tried to make conversation, that I’d been dreading more than anything. I loved my parents, I really did, but there was a disconnect in the way we related to each other. They had always expected, wanted, me to be one thing, and I had always wanted to be something else. There was still a part of them, I knew, that wondered why I hadn’t been what they’d imagined I would be. Why I hadn’t finished college and done something normal and banal. Useful. I was different, in so many ways, than they had expected, and I didn’t think they could understand quite how that had happened.

I didn’t even want to imagine what the expressions on their faces would be if I told them about Cara. If I told them about how I’d met a girl I thought was beautiful, a girl who’d touched me in a way that I hadn’t been touched in so long. A girl I wanted to kiss and hold and maybe be with, if things had been different and there had been any chance of that. I wasn’t in the closet, exactly, but my sexuality wasn’t something I talked about with many people, and my parents had never been on that short list.

But maybe I really did look too tired for anything more than a surface conversation, because they stuck to easy subjects. They filled me in on when my cousin was driving up, when dinner with my aunt would be, and what the schedule was for moving my grandmother into the assisted-living facility. Stuff that was simple and that we probably wouldn’t end up at each other’s throats over. Granted, I didn’t ask how my gran was feeling about the whole leaving-her-house thing, and my parents didn’t tell me. Maybe no one had asked her. Maybe they didn’t want to ask because they knew she was bold enough to tell them exactly how she felt, and they could already guess. Maybe no one wanted to allow her to make it real.

I didn’t really know what to do there. My grandmother and I had never been close. I didn’t think my grandmother was disappointed with me the way my parents were. I thought she just hadn’t ever known me, really. We hadn’t taken the time or energy to know each other. It was like we existed on two different planes. But I was here, and I planned to help, and if that meant figuring out what was really going on in her mind about all of this, well, then I would do it. Not right now, though. Not for these few brief minutes when my parents and I were getting along and sitting together at the same table and I could pretend this was a slice of my childhood, before I’d started defying everything they wanted from me.

After, I carried my bag upstairs and closed the door behind me in the guest room. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and flopped down on the bed. I wanted to sleep for hours, just lie here in this room that was completely unfamiliar. But I had people to see, plans to make. I’d have to get up, have a shower, get ready for the day. I could only take a few minutes here for myself, right now.

I sent a text to my cousin Zevi, telling him I’d meet him when he got to town, and asking when he was arriving. He didn’t write back, and I figured he was still driving. Then I checked my own messages. I had two from Tuck—a story he’d heard, that was mostly funny because he was such a terrible storyteller. The next was him saying his girlfriend, Lissa, had reminded him to ask if I got in okay. I laughed at both of them, but then I let myself wallow in being alone. I felt so isolated here. Like I’d been sent to the other side of the planet and I was an alien. The idea of Tuck and Lissa talking about me, him thinking about me, made me feel, perversely, even more alone. I had to put the phone down on my chest, wrap my hand around it, and hide the screen from myself for a few minutes.

I had a message from Micah too, and when I picked the phone back up, I checked it. I hadn’t known Micah long—he’d joined us as a roadie on the second-to-last tour, and he and Bellamy had become inseparable pretty quickly. I liked them together. I liked Micah. He was so good. He felt like a friend I’d known for a long time, instead of only a few months.

I called him, even though it would be stupidly early there, and even though I could have called Tuck or Bellamy or Quinn instead.

He answered on the third ring. His voice was a little gravelly, and I could tell he was trying to keep the sleep out of it.

“Did I wake you?” I tilted my head to the side so I could see out the window. There was a huge oak tree there, something that must have been there before construction had started on the neighborhood. They must have built around it. I’d had a tree like that outside my childhood bedroom too. When I was a teenager, I’d used it to escape, climbing down and sneaking across the backyard, leaving my window open a crack so I could sneak back. I wondered if I could do that with this tree too. Then I remembered that I wasn’t a kid anymore, and if I wanted to go in or out late, I could use my key and the front door.

Micah cleared his throat. “Nah, I’m up. I’m making coffee. Bellamy’s still asleep.”

He yawned into the phone, and I wanted to laugh, but I found myself yawning too. He clinked something around—the coffee maker, maybe—and there was silence on the line for a second, but it wasn’t weird. I liked listening to him being domestic, liked knowing he was taking care of Bellamy, and himself. I liked that they were back home, doing what they always did, their routine the same, even though I was all the way across the country and everything, right now, was different for me.

“You get in okay?” he asked when he’d gotten things settled.

I nodded, not caring that he couldn’t see me. “I miss you,” I blurted out. I could feel my face burning. I ought to give in and wear heavy blush all the time if this was going to keep up. I was just so glad to hear his voice.

He laughed, but it was gentle, like he wasn’t quite laughing at me. “You’ve only been gone a day, Ava.”

I sighed. “I know. But . . .” I lowered my voice. “I don’t want to be here. I hate it.”

There was a long pause, and I thought maybe I’d pushed it too far. When it came down to it, Micah and I didn’t really know each other that well. It only felt like we did.

Then he said, “It can’t be all bad. There must be something good you can tell me.” And I realized he’d only been searching for the right thing to say.

“Is this one of your therapy things?” I didn’t mean to sound so defensive. It just happened. I felt awful as soon as the words were out.

“Therapy’s been good for me and Bellamy,” Micah said quietly. Calm but firm, and I knew I’d hit a sore spot. “Not sure how much Bellamy actually likes it, but it’s a step.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know. You convinced Bellamy to go in the first place, so . . .”

“No, that was all Bellamy.” And it had been. I’d nudged him, because I’d wanted him to be happy, and I’d been heart sore at seeing him so sad, but we’d all wanted it to be his choice. I seriously believed it should be. And he’d done it. He’d gotten Micah to go too. I think that had surprised Micah—to think that, the entire time he was trying to get his boyfriend help, he could use help working out his own stuff in the same way.

Micah took a deep breath and what sounded like a sip of coffee. “Okay. So. Tell me.”

My brain went in exactly one direction, and I decided to just say it. “I met a really awesome girl on the plane.”

“Oh yeah? How awesome?”

I swallowed and lay back against the pillow. Cara’s face filled my mind. Had she been as pretty, as graceful, as I remembered, really? I thought she had. But I didn’t know how much of that to tell Micah. I’d never talked to him about this type of thing before.

Maybe that would make it easier. To pretend it was no big deal, because he was someone new in my life. Maybe it would be simpler.

“She was sweet. She let me sleep beside her, and then when I woke up, we talked for the rest of the flight.” I took a deep breath. What could it hurt? I told myself. How could it go wrong? It shouldn’t have been able to, but I was still nervous. I didn’t want to . . . take something that wasn’t mine, or make a big deal out of this, or anything like that. I didn’t want him to see me differently. “She was beautiful.” It felt like my chest tightened and, conversely, a weight was lifted off me. “I wanted to ask for her number, but what was I gonna do? Date her for a couple weeks and go home?” I tried to be casual about it.

Another long silence. “I didn’t know you were bi. Or pan?” he added hastily. “I didn’t know.”

I hadn’t wanted him to focus on that. But maybe I had. Maybe I wanted it out there, so I could face it.

“Well, it’s not like I go around wearing a sign,” I joked, but my voice was a little tight, and I realized that I was waiting for him to judge me. Even though he was gay, even though he was in a relationship with another man. I was waiting for him to tell me I couldn’t be who I said I was. It was what I was used to.

He laughed. “Well, no. I just feel like I should, I don’t know . . . have some way to . . .” He trailed off, and I could almost hear his embarrassment over the phone.

“A way to recognize us?”

He groaned. “That sounds so bad.”

“It’s so bad,” I taunted. I felt like laughing out loud. Not because of what he was saying, although that was funny enough, but because I was so incredibly relieved. I’d essentially come out to him, and he was concerned only because he hadn’t seen it before. “You’re stereotyping people.”


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