Chapter One Preview
Quinn Robbins could see her breath as she walked up to the familiar porch of the baby-sitter’s house to pick up her little sister, Annie. The heavy coat she wore was not enough to keep her from shivering as she rang the doorbell.
Her heart skipped a beat when the door opened, and she found herself face-to-face not with Maggie Cunningham, the baby-sitter, but with her oldest son, Zander.
Her cheeks flushed pink, “Hey, Zander.”
“Hey, Quinn,” Zander pushed the screen door open and stood aside, making room for Quinn to step into the familiar living room. When had he gotten this tall? She guessed it had been awhile since she had stood next to him, but the top of her head now reached only to his chin.
“Hey, kiddo, your sister’s here!” Zander called into the dining room where Quinn could see three-year-old Annie sitting at the long table and coloring, a smear of purple marker across her right cheek.
Annie didn’t respond right away; her head was bent over the white page, her little hand intently making short strokes in the middle of the paper.
Zander raised his eyebrows at Quinn, his brown eyes twinkling, “She’s concentrating.”
Quinn smiled, “Apparently,” she said, appraising Zander as the two of them stood in the small confines of the entryway. He made no move to put space between them. He was filling out. From this close, she could see the outlines of burgeoning muscles underneath his green “Bristlecone High School Football Team” hoodie. He played running back; Quinn had gone to a few of the big games in the fall. He had gotten better this year.
“Where’s your mom?” Quinn wondered. She was suddenly feeling self-conscious. Although she and Zander had always been close when they were younger, forced to spend time together by mothers who were best friends, somehow the transition to high school had launched them into separate spheres.
“Ashley had a dentist appointment. I have study hall seventh period, so I came home early to keep an eye on the kids for her. Friday night money.” He smiled as he flashed a ten-dollar bill from the pocket of his sweatshirt.
Quinn nodded. Ashley was Zander’s seven-year-old sister.
“Did you lose Sophia, then?” she wondered, looking around the room for Zander’s other little sister, who was four.
Zander chuckled. “She’s taking a nap, thank God. Those two are insane when they’re together,” he nodded toward Annie. “Last week, they made me play Trolls and Fairies for a solid hour.”
In the dining room, Annie carefully snapped the lid back on to the marker she’d been using, and replaced it in a tub that had once held baby wipes. She ran to Quinn, brandishing the paper she had been working on so carefully.
“I made this for you!” the little girl declared, jumping into Quinn’s outstretched arms.
“Thanks! It’s beautiful!” Quinn hugged her sister as she studied the page. She could almost make out the shape of a face with several circles in the middle; some of them were clearly intended to be eyes.
“Hey! I thought you were making that for me!” Zander teased, tousling Annie’s brown curls.
“No, silly! It’s for Quinn!” Annie made a face at Zander.
“Me? Silly? You’re the silly goofball head!” Zander tickled Annie’s tummy and she squealed.
“You’re the silly goofball head!” Annie reached for the light brown hair that Zander had so carefully styled to sweep over his right temple, but he ducked away from her hand in time.
“All right, you little monster! Go get your coat and shoes!” He swept her from Quinn’s arms, and quickly swung her to the floor, under the coat rack. Annie was still giggling, but she reached obediently for her furry purple snow boots.
“What about you? Big plans for Friday night?” Zander turned his attention to Quinn.
Quinn was startled by the question, and she felt the heat of a blush beginning to form at the base of her neck. “No, not really.” Not at all, actually. Her “big plans” for the evening involved the English essay that was due next Thursday, and, just maybe, microwave popcorn.
“Jake Price is having a party at his house tonight. His parents just installed a hot tub.”
“Nice.” Jake Price was a senior, the quarterback on the football team. Quinn had never once talked to him. She wasn’t sure why Zander was telling her this.
“Do you want to go?”
“What? Me?” Quinn was stunned. “Uh, I don’t think I was invited.”
“I’m inviting you.” Zander turned to Annie, who was struggling to pull her coat sleeves the right way out, “We were both wrong, kiddo. Quinn is the silly goofball head.” As he said it, he reached over to Quinn and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, causing a swarm of butterflies to flutter into her stomach.
“Yeah!” Annie declared. “Quinn, you’re the silly goofball head!”
“So do you want to go?” Zander’s face was earnest.
Quinn’s heart was pounding, and the blush reached up to her hairline, even coloring her ears, though she wasn’t sure why. She’d known Zander her whole life, this should have been easy, but somehow it was completely unexpected. “Um, yeah, maybe,” she finally choked out, “I’ll have to check with my mom first, see if anything is going on at home.” Although she knew that her mother would never object to her going somewhere with Zander.
“Sure,” Zander’s smile was easy, casual. “Text me later if you decide you wanna go, I could pick you up around 7:30.”
“Uh, ok,” Quinn’s throat still felt tight.
Sleet was just beginning to fall from the nearly-dark sky as Quinn drove Annie home in the Honda Pilot that belonged to her stepfather, Jeff, when he was home. She couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened with Zander. Why had he invited her to Jake Price’s party? She wondered what it meant – hoping that he wasn’t just asking to be nice, looking out for her in the way he always kind of had.
She was certain that she wouldn’t really know anyone at the party. Still, the thought of Zander’s invitation was causing strange flip-flops in her stomach as she drove.
The light from the upcoming intersection was reflecting off the wet drops on the sides of her windshield, making it difficult to see. Already slowing for the yellow light she was approaching, she didn’t see the boy crossing the road in front of her until it was almost too late.
“Crap!” Quinn shouted, slamming on the brakes. The driver of the lone car behind her honked the horn in frustration.
Where was he? Had she hit him? She looked around frantically, still stopped in the road. She hadn’t felt an impact, but where had he gone? She craned her neck forward the best she could, trying to make sure there was no teenage boy lying in the street in front of her bumper. The other car’s driver grew impatient and zoomed around her, crossing the double yellow line and running the red light in the empty intersection ahead.
“Is that a naughty word?” Annie’s small voice piped up from the backseat.
“What?” said Quinn, distracted, her heart racing.
“Crap. You said crap. Is that a naughty word?”
“Um, no, it isn’t,” Quinn could barely concentrate on what Annie was asking. Her mind was reeling. The highway she was driving on ran along the river that bordered the edge of their small town. It looked like the boy had been headed down to the riverbank. What was he doing? And where had he come from? Quinn was sure he hadn’t been walking along the narrow shoulder. Where was he now? She couldn’t see him anywhere.
“Quinn! It’s not nice to say naughty words!” Annie’s voice rose, as it generally did when she was feeling ignored.
“I know, Annie. Crap isn’t a naughty word.”
“Oh. What kind of word is it, then?”
“Um,” Quinn struggled to turn her attention back to her little sister, attempting to calm her shaking hands, “It’s a surprised word.”
“What are you surprised about?” Annie always had to understand everything.
Deep breath. She’s only three, Quinn silently reminded herself. Don’t freak her out, too. “A boy ran into the street without looking and I almost hit him,” Quinn answered, still trying to understand what she’d seen.
“I don’t know why,” her little sister’s insistent questions were starting to pull her out of her reverie, and her heart rate was beginning to slow.
“Where is he?” Annie struggled to look as far around as the car seat straps would allow.
“I don’t know. I think maybe over there somewhere.” Quinn pointed small break in the metal guardrail that opened on to a steep footpath, which led to the river. At the same time, she scrutinized the tiny row of businesses that ran along the other side of the road, “I can’t see him anymore.” It was odd. There was no reasonable place for him to have come from, and now she couldn’t see where he had gone. Down to the river after a trip to Jim’s Auto Repair? Or Bristlecone Payday Loans? It didn’t make any sense.
“Over where?” Quinn could see that Annie wasn’t just going to drop this.
“Hey, Annie, want to sing Jingle Bells?” Quinn asked, turning on the CD player. Annie had been obsessed with the song since Christmas a few weeks before.
By the time Quinn pulled into the two-car garage, both girls were singing loudly and giggling; Quinn was hopeful that Annie had forgotten all about the incident. Inside the house, she turned on Annie’s current favorite DVD – this week it was “Fireman Sam” – and retreated into the bathroom.
The near-accident had scared Quinn more than she wanted to admit. Her hands still felt shaky as she turned on the faucet, sending a flow of warm water into the sink. She reached into the linen closet and removed a clean washcloth and a small brown bottle with a purple lid. She thoroughly soaked the washcloth in the almost-hot water, and then carefully placed two drops of the lavender-and-vanilla scented oil in the middle of the cloth. She then folded the cloth into a smaller square and buried her face in it, breathing the calming scent in deeply, the way her mother had taught her to do when she was little.
Quinn stayed in the bathroom for a long time, wanting to be completely calm before facing her mother. Her mom didn’t need to know about this; she had enough on her plate right now as it was. Besides, nothing had actually happened.
Finally somewhat settled down, she managed to get started on making an enchilada casserole just a few moments before she heard her mother’s car in the garage. She put all of her energy into the preparations, trying to keep her mind occupied. She went overboard; preparing an extensive salad with lots of vegetables that needed chopping, and popping a made-from-scratch chocolate cake into the oven to bake while they ate. Her mother was usually exhausted on Friday evenings; Quinn hoped she would be too tired to notice how antsy Quinn was as she scrubbed the counters and set the table.
Luck was not with Quinn that night. An hour later, as the girls sat down to dinner with their mother and their brother, seven-year-old Owen, Annie turned to their mother, “Mommy! Guess what?”
“Quinn almost hit a boy who was in the street!” Annie announced. “And,” she added, “She said crap!”
“Quinn! What happened?” her mother turned to her in alarm, concern written all over her face.
Quinn sighed. It wasn’t always easy to appreciate how verbal Annie was becoming. “It was nothing, mom,” she said quickly, still trying to convince herself. “Some kid crossed right in the middle of the road, just before the light. I almost didn’t see him because it was getting dark, but we stopped in time, didn’t we, Annie?”
“Are you guys okay, honey? That must have been scary.” Quinn’s mother scooped Annie into her arms, hugging her tight, and reached across the table to grab Quinn’s hand. “Is the boy okay? Who was it?”
“He’s fine, mom. I don’t know who it was. I don’t even think he noticed. He didn’t stop or anything.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be having you pick up Annie when it’s getting dark so early…”
“It’s fine, Mom, really. We didn’t crash. We’re safe.” She didn’t want the conversation with her mother going too far in the wrong direction. She knew it made her mother anxious to have both her and Annie in the car alone.
“Quinn always drives safe,” Owen’s quiet voice interrupted. “It’ll be okay mom.”
Quinn looked gratefully across the table at her little brother, who had glanced up from his book long enough to join in the conversation. She loved her sweet, quiet little brother. Owen was always so straightforward and literal; it was easy to believe everything he said.
“Yeah, Mommy! Quinn drives safe. And buckles her seat belt!” Annie chimed in.
Quinn anxiously watched her mother’s eyes as she looked carefully at each of her children in turn. Her mother closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and finally spoke.
“All right, Sweetheart. I’ll try not to worry. Are you sure you’re okay, not too shaken?”
“I’m sure, Mom.”
“You don’t know who it was?” Her mother’s voice had changed from worried to curious.
“No, it was already dark. I couldn’t see him that well.”
“How old do you think he was?”
“It was hard to tell. He had a hood on, but I’d guess he’s probably around the same age as me,” Quinn frowned, remembering the way the boy had hunched forward, weighted down by an enormous backpack, his arms around something under his coat, almost as if he were protecting something… and a flash of color, under the jacket? A familiar-looking purple, but she couldn’t place it … she shrugged. For all she knew, he had a football under there. Why had it seemed so strange to her, anyway? “Old enough to walk a few yards to the light instead of trying to cross the middle of the highway, anyway.”
Her mom smiled, and hugged her tightly. “Well, I’m glad you guys are okay… hope he is, too.”
Quinn retreated to her room after dinner, hoping that immersing herself in the English essay would distract her enough to stop the endless playback of the near-accident that was running through her brain. She had just scribbled through her third sentence for the fifth time when there was a soft knock on the door.
“Hi Sweetheart. Can I come in?”
Quinn sat up on the bed and shuffled her books and papers into a pile, making room for her mother to come and sit beside her.
“How are you doing, honey?”
Megan studied her intently. Quinn sometimes felt as if her mother’s green eyes could see right through her. Tonight, those eyes were laced with the same concern and anxiety Quinn was feeling. “Really?”
Quinn sighed. “I think so. I was pretty freaked out.”
“I keep seeing it over and over in my head.”
Her mom nodded. “That happens sometimes when something really scares me, too,” she paused, and her eyes drifted to a framed photograph on Quinn’s dresser. “And that would really scare me.”
Quinn followed her mother’s gaze. It was a picture of her real father, Samuel, who had been killed in a hit-and-run car accident when she was three. In the picture, he was grinning widely, his gray eyes twinkling as he hoisted a tiny Quinn into the air. They both stared at the picture for several minutes.
“Still think I should have gotten my driver’s license already?” Quinn’s voice was wry.
Her mother looked directly into Quinn’s eyes. “Yes, I do. Things happen, Quinn. You can’t control everything. I know it’s scary for you. Trust me, it’s terrifying for me. But you can’t hide from the things that scare you.” She pulled Quinn into her arms and hugged her tightly, kissing her on the forehead before she let her go. “It will be okay, honey, it really will.” Quinn wondered which of them her mother was trying to convince.
It was almost 9:30when Quinn remembered the rest of the afternoon. Her heart dropped into her stomach with a crushing thud. Zander. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts, freaking out, that she had completely forgotten about him. What was he going to think? Now she had no idea what to do. Did she call him now? Text him? Already emotionally drained, Quinn found herself unable to make a decision. Instead, she climbed into the shower, turned the water on as hot as she could stand, and cried her eyes out.
When she had finally run out of hot water and tears, Quinn climbed out of the shower, exhausted. It took every ounce of energy she had left to change into her pajamas and crawl under the covers.
* * *
Quinn woke up feeling unsettled. Was it morning? No, the digital clock on her nightstand read1:23. Strange, she never woke up in the middle of the night. She could almost remember the dream she’d been having, but not quite. Something about … flowers? It left her with an odd feeling that she just couldn’t shake. She felt like it was somehow important, as if she needed to be able to remember it, but she just couldn’t.
For almost three hours, she tossed and turned in the bed, telling herself it was just a crazy dream brought on by the stress of the almost-accident, and that everything was okay, but sleep refused to return.
Finally, faced with the approach of morning, Quinn resorted to something she’d never admit to – she crept quietly to the next room. Inside, her mother lay sleeping, Annie curled peacefully next to her on the king-sized bed – the same way Quinn had slept every night until she was six, until a few months before her mother had married Jeff.
Gingerly, so she wouldn’t wake either of them, Quinn climbed in next to Annie. The little girl’s face was so relaxed, adorable, deep in sleep, Quinn couldn’t resist stroking her soft cheek for a moment. Though she didn’t wake at all, Annie’s hand reached for Quinn, wrapping her chubby little fingers around Quinn’s thumb. Their mother, a light sleeper always, stirred and reached across the sleeping Annie to find Quinn’s arm. For a long moment Quinn lay there, soaking up the comforting warmth of her mother’s loving hand on her arm, and the sounds of Annie breathing peacefully. A few moments later, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.