MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I’ve been stabbed in the chest. Literally. My eyes dart down to my bridesmaid dress, but somehow, it’s inexplicably blood-free. It’s also about four sizes too big, engulfing me in swaths of loose fabric.
“Sorry about that, honey.” Deb, the seamstress, puts a pin between her teeth and talks around it. “We just need it a little tighter up here.” She pulls at the minty green and pale blue fabric that wraps across my chest, pinching until it feels like it may slice me in half.
My boyfriend Zander’s mom, Trudy, gives me a sympathetic glance from her perch on a kitchen stool. “The first fitting is the worst. Next time will just be little tweaks.” She looks at the seamstress, who is now crouched down at my feet. “Right, Deb?”
Deb nods as she slides another pin into the dress.
It feels like I’ve been trapped in this dress for a short eternity, even though the clock claims it’s only been twenty minutes since I stripped down and traded my clothes for the eclectic floral confection that now drapes over me. Eclectic. That’s what the bride, Becca, called it when Trudy pulled it from the bag and presented it to me, one hand under it, like I was setting my eyes on a great award and not something that looks like an old watercolor painting in dress form. When Trudy slides a magazine across the counter and begins thumbing through it, I worry that maybe this is going to take a lot longer than the “quick second” she promised.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is what I wanted. To be in the wedding. Being in Becca’s wedding is the epitome of acceptance into Zander’s family. Wedding pictures are forever. It wasn’t a huge surprise though. Sure, Zander and I are only juniors—almost seniors—but I’m not a regular girlfriend. The kind you meet on the first day of math class and start dating on a whim when you get partnered up for a project. The one you break up with before the first school dance rolls around. No, I’m the opposite. I’m the friend-turned-girlfriend, the one his mom has been begging him to date since way before it was even appropriate. I’m the pseudo daughter-in-law. The girlfriend who no longer gets asked to dances or out on dates, because we just know.
The door slams and I tear my eyes away from Deb—who I was hoping wouldn’t poke me while I was actually watching her—to see Becca coming through the kitchen with a small black tote bag slung over her shoulder. Zander’s sister looks like a younger version of his mom, with sandy blond hair that is always in soft curls at her shoulders and blue eyes that are soft and kind. Even when she’s curled up on the couch watching a movie with her fiancé Chad, Becca looks like she has somewhere to go.
“Oh Liv, you look so beautiful,” she gushes when she sees me. Like her mother, Becca has the ability to say that sort of thing without sounding as if she felt obligated to.
“It’s a really gorgeous dress,” I say, and for the first time I feel like it’s true.
She shakes her head as she sits down on a stool next to her mother. “It’s a really gorgeous you.” She sets the black bag on the counter and dumps out the contents, sending little squares of fabric sliding across the granite breakfast bar.
Trudy claps her hands. “Wow,” she says, fingering a few swatches. “Madeline sent all of these?” Madeline is Becca’s wedding planner, but I’ve never met her, because she lives in Indianapolis where Becca and Chad live, and where the wedding will take place in one of the loft spaces downtown on Labor Day weekend.
Becca nods. “We’re supposed to pick our top five. I’m thinking something darker for the table”—she grabs a shiny taupe fabric and sets it aside—“and lighter for the napkins. And something with some sparkle for the cocktail tables.” She holds a sequin beige square in the air and shakes it in my direction. “What do you think about this? I sort of love this one.”
“Are there going to be any colors?” I ask.
Trudy laughs. “These are colors. Neutrals are elegant.” She pats Becca’s hand on the counter. “It’s going to be so beautiful.” Trudy pushes a curl behind Becca’s shoulder, and leaves her hand there, and my heart aches for how sweet it is. I so want that to be me someday, sitting with Trudy and Becca, obsessing over fabric swatches and appetizer choices and the guest list.
“Liv.” Zander’s voice comes up the stairs just as he does, and pulls me out of my thoughts. “We gotta go.”
I look down at Deb, who shoves a pin along my hem before sitting back on her knees. “You’re good,” she says. “I’ll see you in a few months for the final.”
I look up at Zander, who is striding over to his mother and sister. He picks up a piece of fabric. “Why are they all brown?”
Becca lets out a dramatic gasp. “It’s not brown,” she says, scrunching her nose up in mock disgust. “It’s cappuccino.”
“Whatever you say.” Zander puts his hands up in surrender. “Your wedding, your poop-brown napkins.”
Becca comes at Zander with an open hand that lands across his bicep, and he breaks out into laughter. “I’m just kidding! Jeez!”
“Leave your sister alone.” Trudy’s voice is sugar, like it always is with her youngest. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I snuck in the back. Liv and I have to go to a … thing. Okay if I steal her?”
I don’t move, because I know how this routine goes when I’m in the midst of wedding prep. Trudy and Becca can spend hours talking over every detail of this wedding, and Zander and I have been putting on this show for months. He insists we leave. I act like I just can’t, I have to help. He insists, I give in (because Ugh, what can you do? Guys.). And then, finally, I’m free. Tonight’s performance is no different. After a few groans from Becca about needing a tie-breaker vote, the door slams behind us and we practically leap onto the back porch. And no one can be mad at me.
Zander grabs my hand and leads me down the steps toward his car. “I am a human pincushion.” I sigh dramatically, like there was a chance I wasn’t going to make it through my fitting unscathed. “I could kiss you for rescuing me.”
“You could.” Zander is smiling when he pulls me toward him, his blue eyes locked on mine, his cropped blond hair shining in the sun. His arms wrap behind me as he walks me back, until my butt bumps into the car door. Zander’s lips are warm and soft, and so sweet when they meet mine. I sometimes still think about how surreal it is that I kiss him now. That after years of thinking about it—and okay, I’ll admit it, obsessing about it—I finally get to do it. I grope around for the handle behind me and slide away from Zander before our driveway PDA gets out of hand. I’m not making out with him in front of his house, not with all of the Peeping-Tom neighbors at their windows. I drop myself into the front seat and he does the same. As we back out of the driveway, I don’t even know where we’re going, but I don’t care. I’d go anywhere with Zander.
* * *
As we’re pulling out of his subdivision, Zander turns the music down. “Don’t be mad, but I can’t hang out tonight,” he says.
“But you just said—” What was that whole song and dance at his house for?
“I didn’t want you to be stuck with my family on a Friday night.”
“Thanks. I guess…” Instead I’m going to be stuck by myself on a Friday night, because there’s no chance my best friend, Emma, hasn’t already been scooped up by her new boyfriend, Mani. “Why can’t we hang out?”
“Peterson has a thing at his house.”
Tim Peterson is a senior on the baseball team—one of Zander’s teammates.
“And this is a no-girlfriends-allowed type of thing? It’s not just a party?” I say.
He doesn’t respond right away, and I wonder what exactly is happening over there that I can’t come along for. “It’s a party, sort of. But, like … okay, it’s a tournament.”
I’ve been to a lot of Zander’s tournaments, and none of them happen at anyone’s house.
“Peterson got the new Madden and the draft is tonight.” He looks at me like I must not understand. “You know, picking our teams.”
“I know what a draft is.” We’re pulling onto my road. “And that’s going to take all night?”
“We’ll probably just hang out after,” he says as we pull into my driveway. “I could maybe stop over after?”
When did it became such a chore for him to work me into his schedule? I think about telling Zander that it’s the second time he’s ditched me this week. But instead he kisses me, and tells me he loves me as I close the door behind me. And I don’t say anything, because he’s already said the one thing I’ve always wanted him to say.
* * *
“What’s the buzz, little bee?” Aunt Sarah flicks me on the shoulder as she passes me in the kitchen. I’m perched atop a stool at the island, and while my math book is open on one side of me, my computer is filled with words. I tip the screen down just slightly, to obscure it. “Still writing, I see.” She laughs at her rhyming. I’d roll my eyes at anyone else, but something about how much she doesn’t give a crap just makes me love her so much more. “Oh em gee.”
“Okay, just stop.” I laugh as she opens the refrigerator and pulls out the carton of lemonade.
“Sorry. When you wear that, you know I just can’t help it. Brings back memories.” She mock sighs and looks up dramatically, like her memories are locked up in a little cloud hovering overhead in our kitchen.
I look down at the yellow shirt and black leggings I’m wearing, and it does bear a slight resemblance to the bumblebee costume I was obsessed with in elementary school. It had black tights and a striped black-and-yellow body that looked like I’d gutted a giant stuffed animal, and inserted myself into it like a striped version of Big Bird. My mom had brought it home with her after she returned from wherever it was she had wandered off to. I didn’t know back then, but if I had to guess now, it was probably somewhere with our neighbor, Mr. Hoyle, whose wife moved out sometime shortly after. She was always scowling at our house.
Every day when I came home from kindergarten, I would pull my bumblebee outfit on, and spend the rest of the night buzzing about my Oma’s living room. Aunt Sarah would always come over for dinner when I was there—which was most of elementary school and the first half of middle school, before I moved in with her in seventh grade. She’d always greet me and my stripy legs with, “What’s the buzz, little bee?” I bet she wished I’d still been that cute when I moved in with her in seventh grade. It probably should have been weird for me to move in with her when I was twelve, but Aunt Sarah and I clicked right from the start. Probably because I never had a “normal” life. Aunt Sarah always made me feel like she wanted me at her house, and that’s all I ever wanted.
“She called yesterday.” Aunt Sarah doesn’t have to say who, because anyone other than my mother would just call my cell phone. Normal people actually want to talk to you, because they care. My mother just wants the illusion of caring. Next time I see her—which will likely be around my birthday next spring, because she’s sentimental like that—she’ll point out how many times she tried to call me. Like I’ve got a scorecard and she’s earned some points. In reality, I stopped keeping score when I was nine and she told me she was moving back for good and then didn’t. And I stopped caring around twelve, when I moved in with Aunt Sarah and knew that the illusion of my mother figuring her crap out was officially over. I don’t even know what state she’s currently in. She seems to just pop from place to place, without a care in the world.
When I think of family, I think of Aunt Sarah and my Oma—even though she’s mostly in Florida these days—and Zander, and his family. And Emma, my best friend since kindergarten, who is walking through the back door right now, letting it slam behind her.
“I did it!” she belts out.
“I’ll leave now.” Aunt Sarah glances at Emma and her eyes go wide. It’s not that Aunt Sarah isn’t fun, she just likes her fun a little quieter. And with fewer sweeping arm movements.
“You don’t have to,” I say. Unlike me, Emma doesn’t care what people think about what she says, or how she dresses, or anything, really. Aunt Sarah’s probably worried she’s about to hear Emma’s “first time” story. That ship has sailed.
“Oh yes, I do,” Aunt Sarah says, glancing down at my computer as she passes by. “But let’s talk later, okay?”
I love that Aunt Sarah doesn’t ask about my writing. I guess maybe it’s out of habit, since when I started, it was a journal my therapist gave me. At first I wrote about my mom, because I thought that’s what they wanted, but they never asked to look at it. So eventually I just started jotting down little thoughts I’d have. Usually it was a note about my life—something I wanted to change, a wish I had for how things actually were, something I felt bad about. But eventually they turned into little stories. My own little world where I controlled the outcome. And I suppose maybe that was the point all along.
Unfortunately, tonight I’m not writing anything. I’m staring at my blank screen, trying to think of a topic for a “dynamic personal essay” that doesn’t require me to splash my family problems across the page, but could still win me an internship at a major teen magazine next summer. Which would be a very exciting step up from the job I have lined up this summer at our local tourist magazine, Lake Lights.
“What are you working on?” Emma does not have a problem asking me about my writing. Or anything.
“It’s an essay contest for this—” I pick up the magazine from the counter next to me, the lead actress from my favorite book-to-screen adaptation smiling on the cover. “The winner gets an internship this winter.”
“Oh my god, in New York or something?”
I wish. “No, remotely. But it would look amazing on my college applications.”
“True story.” She sets a pile of red and white fabric on the counter in front of me. “I have news too.” She smiles. “I got the job at The Cherry Pit. You’re looking at one of Riverton’s newest worst-dressed waitresses.” She pops her hands at her shoulders and dips in a little curtsy.
“Congrats,” I say, and I mean it, because it’s not easy finding a job in a small town when all of the college kids swoop back in for the summer.
“So what are you going to write about?”
I stare at the screen, filled with completely unrelated paragraphs that are all dead ends. Usually I write short stories—love stories. But this? I don’t feel like I’ve actually experienced anything worth writing fifteen hundred words about. “I have no idea.”
Just put it in his mitt, and you can get off of this field. When I stand on the mound, that’s what I think about now. When I’m standing on the mound, or sitting in the dugout with moon dust caked on my pants. Or when I’m riding my bike, wishing I were still behind the wheel of my car. I played summer league when I was a kid, and I don’t remember wanting to get off of the mound as badly as I do now. I’d think about the way the sweat and dirt would make my face red and scratchy. How the short stocky kid who played right field always lost his white uniform socks and would come in his dad’s black dress socks. When I was twelve, I’d think about impressing the girls who had come to watch us play. Or I’d think about the motions I was about to go through. About how I needed to present the ball for just long enough. Shifting my weight at the right moment, squaring up to the batter after releasing the ball. I don’t remember my dad’s yelling back then, but I’m sure it was always there, like a soft static that was drowned out by all of the other thoughts. The girls and the pizza after the game were louder than he was.
But now, standing on the mound, the ball sticky in my hand, all I hear is my father, saying out loud all of the things I’m thinking. He’s standing behind the fence next to the dugout, his brow almost as wet as mine. At least mine is hidden by my Hornets hat. His is shining red, matted with damp brown hair.
“One more, Emerson!” he screams, his voice getting a little hoarse from the last eight innings. “Make it count!”
The ball leaves my hand and I can feel the verdict before the plate ump delivers it. “Ball two!”
My father’s hands slam against the wire cage in front of him. “No! Head in the game! You’ve got this, Emerson!”
There’s something really weird about my dad calling me by my last name. I think it’s a habit that carried over from little league, when he was my coach and wanted to treat me like the rest of the team. I can’t blame my dad for yelling today. He’s just saying out loud what I’m thinking:
What are you doing, Aiden?
Get this over with already!
I’m the fastest pitcher in our district, by just one percent. And if I could simply focus—do what my dad is begging of me—this game could be over.
Focus, focus, focus. I squint my eyes against the glare of the sun, and cock my head to the side. Better.
I wipe my fingers down the side of my blue pants and pat my palm against my thigh. Left. Right. I crank my neck back and forth, as if that’s going to fix the knot in my arm, the pain in my head, or the real problem—the blurriness as I stare straight ahead at the worn brown glove of my catcher, Zander. He’s clad in black and blue gear, flashing me a two, then four, then two, with his fingers between his knees. Two is my curve ball, and I shake my head at him, telling him it’s a no-go. I don’t trust myself today. He flashes it again and jerks his mitt to where he wants the ball, close and inside.
“Two up, two down!” Mani, our shortstop shouts to our teammates, letting them know we’re going to get these next two outs. We’re up by one with runners on first and second, in our last game of the regular season. The last win we need to take us into regionals. Back-to-back-to-back titles could be ours.
I bring the ball to my chest and feel the power charge through me as I release it toward the plate. I can feel that one percent. Feel it racing through my arm, feel it slip past my fingertips. This. Is—
I hear the unmistakable groan as leather meets skin. A grunt, a lurch, as the batter crumples to the ground, the ball falling off of his bicep down to the plate.
The ump stands. “Take your base,” he yells in a booming voice. There’s a special tone that umps save for pitchers who hit batters. There’s always a warning to that particular command: Don’t do it again.
“Emerson!” my dad yells, the metallic clang of the fence in harmony with him. His voice has an edge of knowing sympathy. “It’s just muscle memory! Focus!”
Zander throws his face guard back and puts his hands in a T over his head as he trots out to the mound. I jab my toe into the hard dirt.
“Shake it off, bud.”
Despite his best efforts, Zander and I really aren’t buds. We’re more of a codependent two-person ecosystem. Without me, he can’t do his job. He can’t be amazing until I am. You can be an amazing catcher, but without the right pitcher, you’re just catching the ball. With a bad pitcher, you’re chasing the ball.
He grabs my head in his hands and pulls it toward him. Zander loves these big shows. The whispers of, “Look at him, bringing Emerson back down, getting him focused.” People love the idea that we’re some sort of dynamic duo, on the field and off. “Shake it off. He had it coming. He leaned into it, man.” I know he didn’t, I know I was off, too tight, too wild. I shouldn’t have tried for inside. I told Zander. I don’t say it, because this is a show, not a conversation. “You’ve got this next guy. You hold them here.” I twist my head and pull away—I don’t like his little shows. I nod, because I know he won’t let up until I do.
My best chances for a strikeout are now on first, second, and third, and the top of the lineup is striding out to home plate. He stops behind the plate, rolls up his sleeve, and pats his bicep. He’s inviting me to hit him, egging me on, mocking me. The all-state pitcher who just nailed a batter. All they need is one run and it’s over. I grit my teeth, and remember what my dad said.
Muscle memory, muscle memory, muscle memory.
I lock my eyes on Zander’s mitt and lean back. I try to relax, let my arms and legs do their thing. The same thing they’ve done for the last ten years. Thousands of batters, tens of thousands of pitches, probably.
I let the sticky leather roll around in my hand, squeeze it tight, and let it roll off the tips of my fingers. When I was a kid, I had to remind myself what to do after the ball left my hand. I’d count it out step by step: present … cock … knee up … release … pivot … so much of it is natural momentum. But at the end, when you bring your body back to the center, position your glove in front of you, and stand ready—that takes thought. But even that is muscle memory now. I’m not even thinking as I let my weight shift to my left leg; as my right comes down and swings to the side. There are no thoughts as my glove comes up to my chest and my leg pivots out. Not a single thought as the white blur of leather leaves the bat and makes contact with my face. No thoughts as I hit the ground, my mother’s shriek hanging in the air.
Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Pennington