First Chapter of ‘Everything That Counts’



It was my eighteenth birthday, and I was going to die a virgin. Not because I was sick, or lived in a war torn country, or had to hunt for my food. But because I’m a geek. It didn’t matter if you called me a nerd, loser, bookworm, or dork. I wasn’t having sex either way.

Every guy I knew was better with girls than me, especially my older brother David. I assumed he was the living embodiment of every woman’s wildest dreams because he was constantly surrounded by an array of the fairer sex. All the characteristics that made the Georgetown University political science major look like the cover of a magazine were the inverse for me. David’s long straight brown hair hung ever so slightly in his eyes. Mine was wavy, unruly, and regularly gelled flat to my head. He stood six feet tall, broad shouldered, muscled, and tan. Although I was taller, pale skin covered my bones since I only needed enough strength to carry my AP Physics book to class.

He looked like a Congressman; I looked like tech support.

Girls thought David was hilarious. I thought he was a tool. His current ‘friend’ sat next to him wearing a tight dark green top. Instead of looking at the candles atop my German chocolate cake I couldn’t stop watching her chest rise with every breath she took.

“Blake! You’re getting wax all over the icing!” Mike, the youngest of us Morgan sons, and David’s doppelganger squawked. Although he sat next to me, I knew he’d rolled his eyes.

“Give him a chance to make a wish.” The only light came from atop my cake but Mom’s ebony hair still shined as she tucked it behind her ear. Her face was soft and fair, but the wrinkles around her eyes were imprinted on her face even when she wasn’t smiling.

My eyes turned to the flames in front of me. I knew it was a cliché to wish for a girlfriend, but I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and blew.

“What did you ask for, kid?” David nodded at me.

“You know it’s bad luck to say,” Amber, the sorority girl, cooed.

The stained glass chandelier suddenly blazed above us. My father returned to the head of the large oak table with eight high back chairs surrounding it. The light blended his age spots, from hours on the golf course with clients, in with the rest of his face as he smiled at me. A framed print of a Monet’s Water Lilies hung above him on the mint colored walls of our dining room.

My mother extended the plate of chocolate and coconut in front of me. I stared at the confection for a moment, listening. My parents talked about work, Amber whispered in David’s ear, and Mike’s fork scraped the plate.

I had to get out of there. Everyone was living their lives, and I was just treading water. “Can I be excused?”

“You didn’t even touch your cake.” My mother shot me a stare as if to say ‘I spent all that time baking it, and you’re not going to eat it.’

“I’m not hungry.”

“He just wants to see his girlfriend” Mike raised his voice an octave, mouth covered in brown icing. “Sophie.”

I rubbed my hands over my face. “How many times do I have to tell you she’s just a friend, who happens to be a girl?”

David raised his eyebrows. “What the hell’s wrong with you, Blake? You need to remember you’re a goddamn Morgan. We’re men. Girls aren’t friends.”

My hands slammed flat on the table. It was an unconscious reaction, one that I’d never had when my brothers teased me. Before I could retort my father bellowed.

“Boys!” The three of us froze and turned to him, “Both of you need to leave your brother alone. Especially you David, when you’re under my roof you follow my rules by watching your mouth. It’s your brother’s birthday, dammit.” He turned to me and nodded. “You can go if you want Blake, just be home by curfew.”

August twentieth had always been the end of summer as far as anyone in Anne Arundel County public schools was concerned. Sophie and I held a tradition, a stop at Rita’s to celebrate another year of my continuing to be a carbon based life form, and the last night before our overbearing school workload. The dessert stand was at one end of the brown brick shopping center. Two pizza shops, a movie rental store, a grocer, and a dozen other businesses were sandwiched between Rita’s and Sophie’s dance studio.

After purchasing a couple of gelati we’d amble down Hilltop Drive, then turn onto one of the many streets named after a tree. We’d gaze at the stars contemplating if in another galaxy there was an alternate Blake and Sophie doing the same thing. In an Annapolis where people went mountain climbing instead of sailing.

“So how was it?” Her cherry flavored Italian ice dessert matched her crimson hair. Since I was a foot taller than her I had the perfect vantage of the bun wrapped tight on top of her head. It reminded me of a cinnamon roll. Sophie’s hoodie was zipped up covering the black leotard I knew was underneath it. The oversize bag on her shoulder made her lean to one side, but I’d never asked if she needed me to carry it, because even if she was a ballerina, she was tougher than me.

“The same,” I said. “My dad made a huge deal of cursing, while cursing. Mom made me German chocolate cake even though I hate coconut. David has a new girlfriend.” Lime ice with its swirl of vanilla custard ignited my taste buds.

“Then it’s not the same.”

I shrugged. “Whatever.”

“But you always say you feel stuck, like nothing’s new. Like you’re invisible or something. You don’t notice the little things in life that make it worth living.”

“I wouldn’t describe my brother bringing someone new home as a revelation.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Here one day just fades into the next.”

She sighed. “I see that the precipice of adulthood has brought on depression.”

I smiled. “I guess it has.”

“Well, how would you like to celebrate your new level of responsibility and thus elevate you from the depths of despair?” Her voice had a steady rhythm to it. “Sign a contract, buy cigarettes, register to vote?”

“I don’t want to become an adult. Not yet.”

“I got an idea.” A crooked grin covered her lightly freckled face.

The air smelled like salt, a cool breeze washed over my face, and the moon glittered on the water. I couldn’t wait to leave Maryland. After eighteen years of drudgery, opportunity hovered on the horizon. Yet, I’d always miss the water.

We sat on the warped wooden bench looking out onto the Magothy River. Sophie scraped the bottom of her cup at my side, and then tossed it to the trashcan. She missed by a yard.

I laughed. “I don’t know why you try anymore.”

“Because one day I’ll get it.” She walked over to the remnant of deliciousness and placed it into the receptacle.

The waves were calm; the metal links from the swings clinked, and leaves in the trees rustled above us. I had spent six summers with Sophie since she’d moved from California. At first we were competitors, continually tied for highest grade on every math and science test. Then we found that if we stuck together, at least we wouldn’t have to eat lunch alone.

She dug in her messenger bag and handed me a rectangle wrapped in dark blue tissue paper. “Happy Birthday, Blake. I hope you like it.”

I tore through the wrapping and saw a red cover, with two spiraling ribbons of gold on the right. Etched in white lettering read ‘The Double Helix’. My fingers ran down the spine of the first edition, flipped it open, and thumbed through the pages. “Where did you find this?”

“I have my ways.”

The tip of my index finger moved from left to right, scanning the words.

Sophie giggled, “No wonder you wear glasses.”


“It strains your eyes to read about the atomic structure of DNA by moonlight.”

I shut it, and turned back to her. “Thanks for the book.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll be expecting something just as difficult to acquire in a few months.”

“You get candy every year for your birthday, Sophie.”

“Yeah, but I had braces for three years, and my parents are so uptight they confiscated most of it when I did go out.”

I remembered the last time we went trick or treating, on her thirteenth birthday. We took Mike, in a Batman costume, from house to house. When she showed up on our doorstep wearing a white lace gown and full size wings with feathers she’d meticulously handmade for months I felt embarrassed for not dressing up, even though the whole reason I didn’t was to avoid feelings of inferiority. Sophie dug through her purse until she found black eyeliner and drew a lighting bolt on my forehead.

“Seriously,” I laughed. “Harry Potter?”

Sophie arched her eyebrow, “Be quiet or I’ll make you carry a wand. Besides, Harry Potter is really cool.”

I gave her every piece of candy I’d collected that evening.

Back on the beach, I pushed my glasses up my nose. “Is Chris coming home soon?” Sophie’s brother played lacrosse with David, I had seen him intermittently the past three years.

She shook her head; still gazing out at the water, “Doubt it.”

“Do you know where he is now?”

“Iraq, still.”

All of David’s failures absorbed my parents’ attention, and his triumphs on the lacrosse field seemed of far greater value than mine in the classroom. But, I would never want him to have to face death every day like Sophie’s brother. If David made me seem like a little boy, compared to Chris, I was an infant as far as my physical prowess.

“He’ll be okay.” I felt like I should hug her, console her, but I didn’t.

“There’s a 63% chance that’s true.”

“How did you figure that?”

“It’s easy to find out how many troops are deployed, and how many are, you know.” Her green eyes grazed mine, “Not coming back.”

She was just like me. In a stressful situation you form a hypothesis, perform an experiment, sift through the data, and learn to accept the conclusion as fact. Although, I’m sure she hadn’t thought of the probability altering greatly since Chris was a medic. A ruthless warrior would kill a healer if they knew it would mean the death of many more men.

I didn’t want to share my thoughts, and was pleasantly distracted when she poked me in the ribs with her elbow. “Something pretty cool happened today, Blake.”


“I auditioned for Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center.” Her cherry stained lips turned up. “And it went really well.”

“That’s amazing, when do you find out?”

“By the end of the week.”

“You’ll get it.” Whenever I saw her dance, I could tell she loved it. Grace was an innate quality for Sophie, so much that she pointed her toes when she put on her socks.

“You really think so?”

“Of course,” I poked her back. “They’d be lucky to have you.”

“Would you come to the show in the spring, if I get it?”

“You want me too?”

“Duh, you’re my best friend.” She shoved me and I swayed to the side.

“I thought that was Lilly.”

“No,” She shook her head and her face glowed, her words soft as the wind. “It’s always been you.”

“Me too.”

“It’s not Jasper?”

“No, it’s always been you.” I poked her in the ribs again.


I ran a comb through my wavy brown hair, a glob of gel in my hand like every other morning of my life. I needed a change. I rinsed off my hands, leaving my brown hair a wavy mess like Mike always did. Maybe it would work; he’d just turned fifteen and had a girlfriend.

Back in my room with it’s midnight blue walls, which, my mother claimed, were ‘relaxing’, I pulled on a t- shirt, wrapped a belt around my jeans, and laced up my sneakers. The four walls I’d spent my entire life in were filled with books on subjects ranging from Ansel Adams to Stephen Hawking. A twin bed was shoved up next to the window, and a couple of posters hung on the wall, including one that Sophie had given me a few Christmases ago. It read ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’ The simple two-tone poster was a replica of a sign that Einstein had in his office while teaching at Princeton. I didn’t get it; the words were meaningless to me since everything could be quantified. For instance the moon is 4.56 billion years old while the Earth is 4.8 billion years old. The poster remained on my wall in the hopes that one day I’d experience something that would alter my reality.

Before I left my haven, I gently pushed Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ back so its binding matched up with the rest of the titles on the shelf. It was yet another object Sophie had given me, one that we’d read together the summer before high school. Mostly so we could learn Italian. She still wrote me notes in the musical language.

Mike and I trekked downstairs, grabbed some buttered toast prepared by our mother, who told us to “Have a great day.”

We shoved the toast in our mouths in response, and each downed a glass of orange juice. Sophie knocked on my door at precisely 7 a.m. I opened it, and followed her to her shiny white 2001 Honda Accord.

“Trying something different?” She eyed my hair.

“Yeah.” I shrugged.

“Looks good.”

“Hey!” Mike rushed out after us. “Can I have a ride too, Sophie?”

“No way,” I grabbed the door handle. “You’ve got a million friends, ask one of them.”

“Blake, c’mon, you’re my brother.” Mike whined.

“David didn’t give me a ride when he was a senior and I was a freshman.” I opened the door.

“Yeah, but he’s a jerk. You at least hang out with me.” He dug his toe into the dirt on the side of the driveway.

I turned to Sophie. She tilted her head to the side; her red hair shimmered in the early morning light. Orioles sang above us. “What’s the big deal? You said it yourself, he has a million friends. He’ll get another ride by the end of the week. Besides,” Her peach colored lips formed a crooked smile. “You’re not a jerk.”

I turned to my brother and sighed. “Get in.”

“Shotgun!” He yelled and shoved me out of the way.

Sophie laughed at me in the rear view mirror as I buckled myself into the backseat. We drove down a single lane of traffic that remained congested on the sharp right turn the car made to enter the senior parking lot.

Homeroom was the place where the last vestige of freedom a teenager held was stripped away. Even the nurse was unavailable to me if I fell to the floor and had a seizure, unless I also had written authorization from a teacher to visit her. But, I followed the rules, because that’s how I would get a scholarship. Then I would appease my parents by attending GW, get my graduate degree from Berkeley, and become an astrophysicist so I could study the ever-expanding universe. At times all that space full of the unknown made me feel small, but we were all made of carbon, and that connected everything.

A stranger breezed into our class. A waterfall of hair the color of spun gold hung over one shoulder, she had dark outlined eyes. She wore low-rise jeans that barely clung to her hips, and an orange t-shirt that, thankfully, looked as if it had been shrunk in the dryer. Before she even spoke, once I saw the silver loop through her belly button, I thought she was the most interesting girl at our high school.

Her voice was light as a hummingbird, “Hey, I’m Zoe Malone, is this the right home room?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Tanner straightened up in her dark pantsuit and took a slip of paper from the vixen’s hand. “Where are you from, Zoe?”


“Welcome to Cape Saint Claire High School,” The teacher’s eyes moved across the page. “It looks like you have a few classes and lunch period with Blake Morgan. You can sit next to him, and he can give you the grand tour throughout the day.”

My heart stopped.

Zoe turned to the class, “Umm, which one is he?”

“The tall one in the back, with the glasses.” Mrs. Tanner pointed at me.

The new girl’s hips swayed as she walked to the back of the class. The closer she got, the more my face burned. I slouched in the chair as if preparing for impact. The rest of our peers continued to talk, but the only matter in my universe was her. She consisted of much more than carbon.

“Hey,” The goddess sat down.

I tried to speak but instead started coughing, loudly.

“Are you okay?” Her dark eyes widened.

“Yeah,” I pounded on my chest, “All good.”

“I’m Zoe,” she giggled. “But, I guess you already know that.”

I wanted to say that, I was indeed the infamous Blake Morgan, and it would be my pleasure to attend to her every need until the next Ice Age. All that came out was, “Blake.”

“I like your hair.”

“You what?”

“Your hair just makes me want to…”

And that’s when it happened. Day became night, the sun went out, and black holes were no longer a mystery when she ran her hand through my hair. Up until this point I was unaware that girls like Zoe would ever contemplate touching a loser like me, much less do it. My confusion and excitement must have shown on my face when she pulled away.

“Oh, sorry. I’m just a hands-on kinda girl.” She shrugged as if that made it okay to run your hands through a stranger’s hair.

Which it totally did.

“So what do you guys do for fun around here, Blake?” She twirled a lock of hair around her finger.

“You mean like, me and my friends?”


The truthful answer was: quiz each other for Academic Decathlon, play video games, watch horror movies, or simply study in the same room. “We go to D.C. sometimes.”

“And do what?”

“Just you know, hang out.” At the Smithsonian, I should have added.

“Isn’t the Naval Academy nearby?”

“Yeah.” I almost dared to ask if she was aware that Annapolis was also the capital of Maryland. But, she was beautiful, therefore I thought better of it.

“So, there’s like a bunch of hot guys there, right?”

“I don’t generally check out the Midshipmen, but my friend Sophie likes to go at the end of school for plebes-no-more.”

“For what?”

I pushed my glasses up my nose. “The freshman, they call them plebes, and at the end of the year they have to traverse this pillar that’s over twenty feet high and pull a uniform dress hat off the top.”

“What’s so hard about that?”

“They grease it up, and tape down the hat with like, duct tape.”

Her eyes widened. “What’s the point?”

I shrug. “To not be called an underclassman?”

“And why does your friend Sophie like this?”

“You’d have to ask her, but she drags me there every year.”

“Will you take me this year?”

Her words did not make sense to me. “What?”

“Would you take me to check out the Naval Academy? You seem really nice and since we’ll see so much of each other I thought it would be fun. I mean if later you think I’m a freak you can totally back out and I won’t hold it against you. Or, whatever.” She shrugged.

“Yeah, sure, sounds great.” I don’t know if I said it because I wanted a change or because I was completely enamored by this person.

The bell rang and I ushered her to the photography lab.


At lunch I gravitated toward the table to the far left, the one Jasper had already claimed with his laptop and slice of pizza.

He didn’t lift his gaze from the screen, which cast an eerie green glow on his ebony skin. “So, is it different now that you don’t legally have to be here?”

“You already know the answer to that question.” I chomped on my own slice of pepperoni.

“Yeah, same song, different verse.” He ran his hand over his bald fade and powered down.

“That sounds like something my grandmother would say.”

“My grandmother does say that.” Jasper laughed and chugged his soda.

I checked to make sure we were still alone at the table then said, “Something weirdly awesome happened in homeroom.”

“That’s a paradox in terms my friend.”

“There’s a new girl in my homeroom, and she wants to hang out with me.”

“Did she mention any head trauma in her past?” Jasper raised an eyebrow.

“I’m serious, she ran her hand through my hair.”

“She touched you?” His arm froze; a soda can halfway to his mouth.

“Yeah, well my hair.”

“It’s a good thing you ditched the shellac. Her hand would still be in there.”

I remembered the bubbly sound of her giggle, the curve of her hips, and her rose colored cheeks. “She’s really hot.”

“On a scale of Gwen Stefani to Courtney Love, how hot are we talking here?”


“You have to introduce me to this elusive woman, Blake. Right. Now.”

“What elusive woman?” Sophie set her bag on the floor and a salad on the table with Lilly following suit.

A long mocha colored braid fell over Lilly’s shoulder. She also wore the required uniform for a teenager in Maryland: jeans, t-shirt, sneakers. “Is it another online girlfriend for Jasper?”

Jasper turned to Lilly who sat next to him. “She couldn’t have been my girlfriend, we never met. She was just a friend who happened to be a girl.”

“That sounds familiar,” Lilly mumbled as her plastic spork punctured lettuce.

Sophie shifted in her seat next to me, and Jasper kicked me under the table. I kicked him back. “What the…”

“Dude,” Jasper nodded toward something behind me. “It’s Gwen.”

My mind had never gone blank at school until the moment I heard, Zoe, my crush say, “Hey Blake! Is it okay if I sit with you guys?”

Before I could open my mouth, I heard the guy I’d known since first grade yelp, “Jasper.”

“Huh?” Zoe had a quizzical expression on her face.

“Yeah, go ahead and have a seat.” On autopilot I sounded smoother than I thought possible. “Zoe this is Jasper,” I pointed toward a guy whose longest relationship had been with a hard drive, and worked around the circular table. “Lilly and Sophie. Guys this is Zoe.”

“Hey!” Zoe’s smile filled her oval face as she sat down next to me and turned her dark eyes to Sophie, “So, I hear you know where to find some really cute guys.”

Sophie’s face turned red as fire. “Where did you hear that?”

“Blake told me about the Navy guys climbing some statue?” Zoe twirled a lock of golden hair around her finger.

“I don’t go to find a boyfriend, but, yeah, it’s kinda cool.”

“Why not? Aren’t they cute?”

“Yeah, but,” Sophie shook her head. “They’re in college.”

Zoe shrugged. “So?”

Sophie raised her eyebrows. “I’m still in high school.”

Zoe opened her mouth once more, but before words came out Lilly asked. “So, why’d you move here?” Her flat expression told me Lilly wasn’t interested in the answer, which didn’t bother me, since I couldn’t understand Zoe’s fascination with The Naval Academy anyway. She didn’t strike me as the kind of girl who followed rules as stringent as the military.

“My dad’s parents are like, super old, and they wouldn’t move to Denver. But, everyone seems really nice here. I’ve already been invited to a party this weekend.” Zoe giggled.

“A party, huh?” I could hear Jasper’s mouth water as he spoke.

“Yeah,” Zoe spun her fork in bowl of spaghetti. “At this guy named Trace’s house. Any of you guys know him?”

We all did. Trace Allen was the most popular guy in school, now that my brother had graduated that is. An all-star athlete who had an on and off relationship with the captain of the dance team, Nina. Lilly and Sophie both held an underlying sympathy for her since Trace got with every other pretty girl in school whenever he and Nina were on a ‘break’. He also cheated off my paper the entire fourth grade.

“Everyone knows Trace.” I shrugged.

Zoe turned to me; “He said I could bring someone, if I wanted.”


“So, would you come with me, Blake?”

After the question left Zoe’s mouth I felt Sophie stiffen next to me. My best friend and I held our breath until I said, “Sure.”

“Awesome! Now I just have to go shopping…” She kept talking, but it was nonsensical to me.

“I have to go,” Sophie stood up so quickly her books fell to the floor. She bent down and stuffed them back into her army green messenger bag. I picked up her AP World History book and handed it to her. “Thanks.” She hurried to the exit on the east side of the cafeteria.

“Hey, you left your food!” Jasper called after Sophie. When she didn’t turn back he shrugged and returned his attention to Zoe.

“Is she like, okay?” The object of my desire asked.

“Yes, she’s fine.” Lilly glared at Zoe. “Just has a lot on her plate being top of the class, dancing all week.” When she turned toward me, her brown eyes became a slit. “And people that just don’t get it.” The brunette ballerina mirrored Sophie’s actions, minus the spill, and left the lunch table.

“Whoa, what is going on?” The vixen’s eyes doubled in size.

“Don’t worry about them, Zoe.” Jasper’s voice lowered an octave. “Now what were you saying?”


“Is it okay if I borrow the car this weekend?” I took of sip from the large glass of milk in front of me.

“What for?” Dad asked from the head of the oak table.

“Just going to hang out with some friends.” I speared a piece of broccoli with my fork.

Mike scoffed across from me. “You don’t have any friends.”

Mom ignored her youngest child’s comment. “Why can’t Sophie drive?”

I poked at the baked potato on my plate. “She’s not coming.”

“Then whom are you going with?”


“Who’s this ‘Zoe’ you’ve never mentioned before?” Mom’s light brown eyes narrowed.

“She’s new, we have homeroom together.”

Mike’s hand froze halfway to his mouth. “You mean Zoe Malone?”


You’re taking Zoe Malone out on a date?” His mouth agape.

“No, we’re just hanging out, or whatever.” I couldn’t believe I had to explain my actions to my younger brother.

Dad looked over the frames of his wire-rimmed glasses; his eyes darted from my brother to me. “What’s wrong with this, Zoe Malone?”

“Nothing.” I said.

“She’s really hot, Dad,” Mike said.

My mother swatted at my brother. “Don’t talk about girls like that.”

Mike shrugged. “Well, she is.”

I turned back to Dad. “So, can I borrow your car on Saturday?”

He glanced at Mom, who nodded at him. “As long as you’re home by 1 a.m. and you swear not to drink a drop of alcohol.”

Mike chuckled across from me. “No one would invite Blake to a party that cool, Dad.”

“Neither of you better be attending parties ‘that cool’, Mike,” Mom said.

My brother muttered something unintelligible as he chomped on his garlic bread.

“So, when will we meet the infamous Zoe?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know she’s just a friend.”

Mike looked over at me. “He’s just worried that if he invites her over for dinner she won’t show up because he’s such a freak.”

“No, I’m worried she’ll meet you and be so disgusted that we share the same DNA that she’ll lose her appetite.”

“Boys,” Our father bellowed. “Can we have one meal where you’re not fighting?”

“No,” we said in unison.

“That’s it.” Our mother dropped her fork on her plate with a clatter. “You’re doing the dishes all week, Mike.”

“Why? For making fun of Blake? I always do that!”

“Not only that but because drinking and driving seems to be a joke to you, which it isn’t.” She stood up and left the table. 
The three of us sat there as Mom strolled up the steps as if she were one hundred years old and shut the master bedroom door. Water rushed through the pipes as she drew a bath like she always did when she needed some space from ‘all the Y chromosomes’.

I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “Was that a yes, Dad?”

He mimicked my habit. “Yes.”

“What about me? Do I still have to do the dishes?” Mike leaned toward our father.

“Yes. And it’s your night to take out the trash as well, Mike.”

“Blake gets to go to a party and I’m punished! How is that fair?”

“You didn’t know that life isn’t fair? I’m glad I taught you that lesson now.” He wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin, stood up, and followed my mother upstairs.

“Thanks for the help there, Blake.” Mike glared at me.

“Hey, what are brothers for?” I dropped my napkin on my plate and went to study alone in my room.


The party was the most surreal experience of my life. People I’d known forever surrounded me but, to them, it was our first meeting. Even though Jack Hudson had wet his pants in the fifth grade, I was the freak. Not to say that I felt superior to anyone in the home where the class President resided. My mouth refused to open the entire night. Although, Zoe didn’t seem to notice.

After approximately three minutes my ‘date’ turned to me and asked, “Beer?”

I knew that my answer should be, ‘No thank you, Zoe. As you know I’m not the legal drinking age in the state of Maryland. And, I borrowed my parents car to drive us here after I swore to them I would never drink and drive.’

What I actually said was, “Sure.”

My mouth puckered at the bitterness of it, then I read the label, and realized why. Dad told me to stay away from Guiness after he gave me ‘the sex talk’ and a condom two years ago. It hadn’t expired yet, wedged between the bills in my wallet.

Some things about the party were like I imagined. Couples in various locations throughout the house, including the laundry room, having sex. A room full of people sitting on navy blue beanbags smoking weed. And an arm wrestling contest at the kitchen table next to the keg.

We danced. Or rather, she danced and I moved awkwardly around her holding an empty beer can. I tipped it back as often as Zoe did hers, and no one offered me another. With an hour left before my curfew, we left. I drove through the dark winding streets surrounded by trees praying that I did the math right when I calculated my blood alcohol level. The Toyota Camry made it to Zoe’s house without incident.

I put the car in park. “I can walk you to the door, you know. It’s what guys are supposed to do.” I pushed my glasses off my nose, and somehow knocked them off. I felt around for them, but stopped at something warm, Zoe’s thigh. My whole body froze.

She giggled, and put my glasses back on my face. The moment I saw shining dark eyes my hand returned to the steering wheel. Which wasn’t anywhere near as exhilarating as touching her. “Yeah, but you’re not like other guys.”

I took a breath so I didn’t stutter. “You’re not like other girls.”

“You’re right about that.” Then she leaned in, and kissed me, lightly on the cheek.   “Goodnight, Blake.” She opened the door and darted up her steps. Once she entered the light on the porch went out.

Zoe was the second girl who’d kissed me, and although she smelled like beer, my whole body tingled. I pulled into my driveway. Before I got out of the car I threw a mint in my mouth and chomped on it. I checked my visage in the rearview mirror, ran my hand through my unruly hair, and adjusted my glasses before I strolled inside. A dim light flickered from the den that I knew was my father watching the news waiting for me to come home.


“Yeah, I’m going to bed.” I started for the stairs.

“Come in here first, son.”
I marched, like a dead man walking, into the rose colored room.

“What’s up, Dad?”
He gazed at me from over his wire-rimmed frames.

“I can smell cigarettes from here.”

“It wasn’t me!” I backed away in the hopes that he couldn’t smell anything else.

“So, you didn’t smoke?”


“You didn’t have anything to drink did you?”

I felt all the blood rush to my face. “Um, no, of course not.”

My father might as well have tortured me for hours considering how quickly I gave myself up.

“Maybe. A little. One.”

He smirked. “I thought we had a discussion about that before you left with your mother’s car.”

Suddenly my shoelaces became very interesting. “I know, I’m sorry.”

“You sure it was just one?”


“What else happened?”


“You took a girl out, drank, and nothing happened?”

“No. I mean yes nothing else happened.” My father was the last person I wanted to tell that I’d gotten a kiss from the hottest girl in school, that particular conversation was reserved for Jasper.

“Just remember that it’s difficult to attend college and raise a child.”

I know, Dad.” I wanted to add that would be scientifically impossible, but that was yet another discussion I didn’t want to have with my father.

“And college will be less fun if you get drunk and run over a bunch of school children.”

Dad.” Although I really thought it was illogical for young children to be playing outside past midnight. I mean where were these hypothetical children’s parents?

“I let you use the car because you’re responsible, Blake. I’m very disappointed in you.” Although his tone led me to believe he was in fact angry, he winked at me. Letting my parents down always felt worse than if they did yell at me and grounded me for a lifetime.

“It won’t happen again.” I stared at my shoes. “I’m sorry.”

He waved his hand at me and I turned to the stairs. “And, Blake?”

“Yeah, Dad?”

“You’re a terrible liar.” My father turned back to the T.V.

I threw myself onto my bed and rolled over. My glasses were askew, and when I straightened them I saw glossy dark leaves reflecting the moon outside the large bay window. They swayed in the wind and reminded me of my first kiss, five years ago.

It was the Fourth of July and my parents had a crab feast for the block. David insisted we invite Chris, which filled me with relief, because then I didn’t have to admit that my best friend was his sister, Sophie.

The younger kids ran up and down the street with sparklers while Sophie climbed halfway up the White Oak in my front yard. “C’mon Blake, you can see the fireworks better from up here.”

“I’m good down here.” I was never a big fan of heights. If humans were meant to fly, we’d have evolved wings by now.

“Why? Too cool to climb trees anymore?”

I sighed and pulled myself up to the same limb she sat on. From my new vantage point I could see David making out with someone who wasn’t his girlfriend on the side of the garage. “Jesus Christ.”


“You didn’t tell me there’s a perfect view of my brother and Jordan down there.”

“Where?” She giggled and turned her head side to side.

“Right there.” I pointed.

“Ugh! I hate being so short.” She pulled up on my shoulder, until her face was parallel with mine. Her long red braid tickled my arm. “Whoa, I bet he knows what she had for lunch.” She sat on her knees so her eyes leveled with my throat, although she directed them to the night sky. “I can’t wait until someone kisses me like that.”

I shook my head. “Girls are so weird.”

She turned back to me. “Why?”

“Boys don’t think about stuff like that.” I knew it was a lie once the words left my mouth because I thought about it too. All the time.

“Yeah, right.”

“I don’t.”

“Oh, I forgot, I’m talking to the Casanova of Annapolis. So, what do boys think about?”

“I don’t know, stuff?”

She giggled then lowered her voice, “Like hunting, bowling, and beer?”

I laughed. “Yeah.”

She raised her eyebrows. “But, you don’t think about any of that.”

I shrugged.

She exhaled the words. “Well, you must be right, because no one has ever thought of kissing me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Because no guy has ever kissed me. I always thought I’d have my first kiss before I started high school.” She gazed at me with her big green eyes.

I don’t know what came over me since every action I took had always been carefully thought out. Maybe it was because I wanted to have my first kiss as well, or that I knew she wouldn’t laugh at me, or that her skin shimmered in the moonlight. My mind went blank when I craned my neck and pressed my lips to hers. She tasted like strawberries, sunsets, and honeysuckle. My first kiss lasted just long enough to wonder if Sophie’s mouth was made of flower petals.

For a while there was only the laughing of children running in the yard, the adults’ banter that grew in volume throughout the night, and the hooting of a distant owl, until I said, “Now you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

She opened her mouth and began to respond when an explosion of fireworks erupted. Red, white, and blue lit up the sky blocking out the stars and planets I loved so much. Neither of us ever mentioned the kiss.

But, we did hold hands until the display of perchlorate, copper, and sulfur diffused into the atmosphere.


A preview of ‘The Bakery Assistant’

-This is a selection from chapter four in my novel in process ‘The Bakery Assistant’

The sun had set, and the sky turned purple. The two-bedroom apartment was above a laundromat and bodega in the middle of Chinatown. Toasted Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel, cloves, and cinnamon lingered in the air. The metal door in front of us was on the ground floor. It had no lock or buzzer. It’s exterior was once bright red; yet currently covered in graffiti, local band stickers, and scratches. When the fingers of Aaron’s left hand gripped the door handle I silently prayed there wasn’t an axe murderer behind it.

On the other side was a dim stairwell; with lights, round like a jellyfish’s body, which ran along one side. Three were flickering.

“It’s on the fourth floor.” Aaron nodded up the steps.

“Okay.” I tugged on the end of my braid.

“But there’s not an elevator.”

“I’m not afraid of walking up some stairs.” But there were other aspects of my current situation that I did fear, which went beyond my flats squishing on the musty smelling, gray carpet that covered the floor. I was afraid of being alone with Aaron.

I didn’t think he was a serial killer, and predicted that he’d protect me from one if they were to present himself. As we started on the last flight, and the walls seemed to draw closer as if it the stairway was narrowing, his hand woven with mine brought a wave of calm over me. The more time I spent with him the more I let my guard down. I’d spent six years building up a wall; I wasn’t about to let it turn to ash before I knew Aaron better than I knew myself.

He turned to the aluminum door with ‘4B’ in gold letters that hung askew above the peephole. Thankfully this one had a lock. Aaron dug a key ring from his pocket, that held over a dozen keys of all shapes and sizes. A jet black rabbit’s foot with fur, matted and worn, hung amongst the keys.

“Guess you’re not a vegetarian,” I said.

He shook his head and laughed. “I’m Italian. That’s against our religion. But this,” he held the paw between his thumb and index finger. “I’ve had since I was a kid.”

I felt a smile creep up my face. “So you’re superstitious?”

Aaron shrugged. “I don’t carry it for luck.” He pushed a key into the lock and opened the door.

I didn’t have long to contemplate the deeper meaning behind the charm before he opened the door to his apartment and ushered me in.

The room was the size of my den in Georgetown, and had three personalities. One was a living room with a flat screen T.V., beat up brown leather couch, a couple of mismatched high back wooden chairs, and a long narrow coffee table that was once a door before it had been cut in thirds and nailed back together. Second was a dining room with a rectangular glass table and six white metal chairs that I recognized from IKEA. An ivory bowl full of fruit including red apples, bananas, and green pears sat in the middle of the table. Third was the kitchen, in the center of which was a butchers block, atop of it was half a dozen cupcakes. But I couldn’t comprehend the dessert I’m sure he’d made from scratch because I was taken aback by the four walls surrounding me.

Due to their texture I could tell, underneath layers of paint, they were concrete, but the living room had been transformed into the Grand Canyon. With shades of taupe, gray, rust, amethyst, cobalt, and the lightest blue for the sky above the peaks. A lone bald eagle flew across the crevasse. The kitchen had been altered into a meadow with kelly green grass. Complete with woodland creatures, butterflies, birds and a deep blue stream that snaked below the cabinets, which ended in a rocky crest above the porcelain sink.

That was wonderful, but I was drawn to the dining area which had an ink colored sky, and bright white stars that twinkled. The Eiffel Tower popped from the wall and I refused to believe it wasn’t three-dimensional until I ran my hand along the steel and found that it was the work of a talented artist who understood perspective. The Parisian landmark stood in the forefront of a multitude of shimmering fireworks that sparkled around it.

“You painted this, didn’t you?” I asked, refusing to break my trance from the painted people that stood around the Eiffel Tower gazing up at the fireworks. My index finger traced the outline of the spectators in awe of the detail he’d given them including striped shirts, berets, and a bright blue bow adorning a smiling blonde girl. Her cheeks were pale pink.


I turned to him. “When did you go to Paris?”

“Never.” He shrugged. “My roommate Sid showed me a picture of it, and I painted this.”

Incredulously I asked. “You captured this from a picture?”

“Yeah, I mean I know it’s not perfect, and I made up the people…”

“But it is. Perfect.” My gaze reverted to the painting. “I’ve been there, many times, with my parents. And this is exactly what it looks like.”

“So, I guess you like it?”

“It’s magical, Aaron.”

“Thank you.” He took off his beanie, ran his hands through his hair, and pulled it back on. “Hopefully you think dinner is just as awesome.”

He moved toward the kitchen and I followed him. “What are you making?”

“If they didn’t eat it…” He opened the fridge and breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.” He grabbed a bowl of crabmeat and a bottle of white wine called: Three Wishes. The wine bottle had a plain label with the silhouette of a dandelion on the left side, blossoms hanging in the air above it, as if caught by the wind. Aaron set both onto the butcher’s block next to the cupcakes that I’d begun to inspect. “Don’t know if you want dessert before dinner.”

Atop each cupcake was a blossoming hibiscus decorated in icing, the colors melted together, shades ranging from crimson to lime. In the center they were so dark they verged on black. The edges of each petal were white.

“I can’t eat them, they’re art.”

“That’s the point, Claire. I made them for you.” He grinned. “I even filled one with chocolate pudding.”

I giggled. “Seriously? Which one?”

He picked the fuschia hibiscus and handed it to me.

I took the cupcake on instinct. “I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite.”

“Live a little. We’re adults, we can have cake before dinner like we always dreamed about when we were kids.”

My mouth began to water, because it looked delectable. I gingerly pulled the wrapper from the confection and when I bit into the tender yellow cake, rich mocha drenched the inside of my mouth. “Oh my God.” I mumbled before I swallowed. “Unbelievable. Better than Yo-Yo Ma.” I took another bite.

Aaron laughed at me. “You have cake all over your face.”

I halted from another bite. “Where?”

“Here.” He leaned over the butcher’s block and gently kissed me.

Aaron Ricci sucking on my bottom lip was when my body officially went into sensory overload.

“You’re right,” he said, wiping his chin with his thumb once we separated. “It’s really good.”

He turned to a cabinet with a painted fawn dipping his face into the stream, which gave me time to catch my breath, and finish devouring the flower he’d given me. He set a round wine glass in front of me and half filled it with white wine, corked the bottle, and put it back in the fridge.

I licked the last of the frosting off of my fingers. “You aren’t having any?”

“Nah, I haven’t had anything harder than an ibuprofen in seven hundred and sixty-six days.”

The lingering chocolate slowly dripped down my throat. “That’s very specific.”

Aaron looked me dead in the eye, and for once his shimmering blue irises left me adrift, rather than drawing me closer. “I’m a recovering addict.”

I didn’t understand how a twenty-five year old could already be so addicted to something that they had to cut out an aspect of common social structure. Then again I’d refused to get in a car for years. I knew there had to be more to Aaron. No one would tattoo a rose bush that took over an entire arm and half their torso unless it meant something. Was the rabbit’s foot a talisman? If I were a detective I’d consider those ‘clues’ in finding what lead him to drugs. But I didn’t feel it was my place to investigate.

Especially on our first date.

I moved the wine glass to the side of the butcher’s block. “Oh, then I don’t have to…”

“It’s okay, I mean I bought it for you, after you mentioned it when I brought you the soup last week.”

“If I knew that you were, you know…” I pulled on the end of my braid. “…not drinking…I wouldn’t have said anything.”

“Well I left my t-shirt that says ‘I’m an asshole when drunk or high’ is at the cleaners downstairs. That’s the one I usually wear on first dates.” He rubbed his chin. “Guess I forgot the tradition because I haven’t really dated anyone since I’ve been sober. Besides,” He pulled down on the edge of his beanie covering his eyes for a moment, and then pushed it back up. “I wanted you to at least taste the cupcakes I made for you before you ran away…screaming…into the night.”

I didn’t ponder the thousands of questions that snowballed behind my eyes because I found him honest. That deemed him worthy of trust. Although it was limited. “Seven hundred and sixty-six days?”

“Yeah. And I really want there to be seven hundred and sixty-seven.”

I glanced at the wine, wondering if it was a wise idea to consume alcohol when he wasn’t. Not only would it be rude, but also I didn’t know his intentions. Although I did see him open the bottle in front of me, thus it was impossible to drug me. Finally I came to the realization that even if I was in his house alone with him, I knew he wouldn’t take advantage of me. There was no substation evidence to convince me other than my firm belief that it was true.

“I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You could never make me uncomfortable.”

I took the glass, swirled it, and upon tasting I found it to be the perfect companion with a bouquet made of sugar. “It’s terrible,” I smiled. “I should drink the whole bottle just so you won’t be subjected to it.”

He tore apart bread crusts into an avocado green bowl, and grinned at his work. “Can’t have you doing that, Edie will get the wrong idea about me. Bringing her best friend home wasted.”

I rolled my eyes. “She’d probably give you a high five.”

He chuckled as he cracked an egg and started to beat it. “Why?”

“She thinks I’m uptight. I mean I haven’t…” I set down the glass of wine and bit my lip.

“You don’t have to do that.” Aaron bit the bottom of his own lip, and winked. “Even if it is hot.” He added mayo, and a dab of mustard to the egg.

My face burned. “I shouldn’t have told you why I do that.”

“It’s obvious.”

I tilted my head to the side. “Like when you pull on your beanie?”

He smiled at me, which was better than the cupcake. “Yeah, like when I mess with my beanie. But you can tell me what you really think, Claire. It’s not going to freak me out.” He dumped the wet ingredients into a bowl with the crab and bread. “I’m honest with you.”

I concentrated harder on not biting my lip than on what I was about to say. “Promise you won’t laugh?”


“I mean it’s not like serious…but… I’ve never been on a date. Not a real one.”

“Well let me let you in on a little secret. Only dates with me are this awesome.”

I took a deep breath, and a brick loosened from my wall. “And I’ve also never… kissed anyone. Ever. Not until a few hours ago.” I looked down at my hands. “But I guess you know that because you were there.”


I kept my face down. “You promised you wouldn’t laugh.”

“Hey.” His voice more of a whisper than a word as he lifted my chin. “I’m not laughing. It’s just I can’t believe no one’s ever tried to kiss you before.”

“One guy almost did. Try.” Edie and I had snuck out of our dorms to go to a party in the woods between our school and the all boys’ prep school. His name was Kevin. We were sitting against a White Oak when he leaned toward me, and threw up all over my jacket. The boys had shared a case of beer before my five friends and I showed up. “But he missed. In a way.”

“That sounds like an interesting story.”

“Not really.” I shook my head and took another sip of wine.   “What are you making?”

He chuckled. “Now I’m shocked.”


He turned the bowl toward me so I could see its contents.

“You forgot the Old Bay.”

He tapped his finger at the familiar yellow tin can with a blue logo that sat on the edge of the butcher’s block. “I wanted to prove a guy from Jersey could cook that fancy food you eat in Annapolis.”

“Prove it then.”

A sly grin crossed Aaron’s tan face as he mixed together all the ingredients. “Now who’s this Yo-Yo Ma? And should I be jealous?”

I giggled. “No, and he’s a cellist, probably the greatest musician ever.”

“Ah, so I should be jealous.”

I went back into the dining area, where I’d set my purse on the Ikea table when I’d become enchanted by the ‘City of Lights’ and fished out my phone. “You shouldn’t be,” I said as I returned to the butcher’s block. “His music reminds me of you, or at least this piece.”

My thumb found Bach’s ‘Suite No. 1 in G Major’ and closed my eyes as the cello’s swooping ballad filled the meadow Aaron used as a kitchen. When I lay my hands flat on the wooden table between us I could feel the vibrations from the strings. My fingers ached to be even a quarter as talented as Ma’s, or even Aaron’s.

As the solo swelled to completion O’Connor’s ‘Butterfly’s Day Out’ began to play when Aaron asked. “Why does that remind you of me?”

I opened my eyes. “Because it’s beautiful.”

“You’re right. It is. Dunno about me.” He wiped his hands on a towel and took his phone from the front pocket of his black skinny jeans. “I promised I’d play you a song. And they’re from Baltimore, so I’m thinking you’ll like ‘em.”

“I’m noticing a theme.”

“I’m a big fan of all that the great state of Maryland has brought to this country of ours.”

“I’d have to agree with you there.”

He set his phone between us. “This reminds me of you.”

He tapped a button and I heard a keyboard, drums, and guitar mixed with a weird 80’s electronic sound. Or maybe they were underwater. The lead singers voice was deep, brusque, and would have been terrifying in any other context but accompanied by a soft melody that built into a force similar to a typhoon. For some reason the song made me want to dance. And that wasn’t a common reaction at my current level of sobriety.

I looked at his phone. Most of the screen was filled with the album cover art: a seascape with a sky full of puffy white clouds in the background in front of which was a woman in a diagonally striped orange and white dress. It looked like something I would wear to the beach, yet something about the cover art jarred me. The woman’s arm reached up to a head that wasn’t there. She also floated above the water in lieu of legs. The creators of this masterpiece called themselves Future Islands and the first song Aaron chose to play was ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. It was a song of longing for someone you’ve waited your entire life for. Or at lest that’s how I interpreted it as I let my mind sift through the lyrics.

After the second crest of sound, I asked. “Why does it remind you of me?”

“Because, you’re beautiful.”

I shook my head. “That’s my line.”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t come up with a better one.”

Aaron let it play as he formed the crab cakes, the next song started with an electric guitar playing a simple rhythm, then a cymbol, and a kick drum. The singers voice was softer, more hypnotizing. When the keyboard started I checked its title, ‘Back In The Tall Grass’.

“It sounds like something Lloyd Dobler would play for Diane Court,” I mused.


“You’ve never seen Say Anything…?” I scoffed.

Aaron shook his head.

“It’s the one where the guy lifts this boom box over his head outside of his girlfriend’s house!” I instinctively raised my arms in the air, miming John Cusack. “You must have seen it.”

“Is it new?”

“No. It’s older than me. My Mom loves it.”

“Already planning our second date?”

I took a gulp of wine giving me time to remember our conversation. “Are you asking to watch a chick flick with me?”

“Yeah. I am.”

My eyes scanned the copious amounts of preparation he spent on our date. From the cupcakes, to the dinner, all from scratch. He even remembered that I mentioned white wine offhand. “So far it’s looking good. But the nights not over.”

His perfect lips parted, but before words could form; a ruckus came from the other side of the front door.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me she’s here!” A girls voice squealed.

“That’s because it’s a date, Sid, not a fashion show.” A gruff man’s voice answered.

A key jiggled in the lock.

“Jesus Christ.” Aaron reached across the butcher’s block, and took my hand. “Please don’t let my roommates make you re-think that second date.”

“Why would they…”

Before I could finish a petite, fair-skinned girl with long hair the color of a fire truck burst through the door. “OMG, Claire!”

She was a flash of shredded blue jeans, black leather jacket, and bright yellow heels. Then she attacked. I guess a normal person would have called it a hug, but to me it verged on assault.

“Can’t breathe.” I choked.

“Sid!” The owner of the male voice from the other side of the door: a tall, skinny, auburn haired, flannel-wearing hipster tugged on her arm. “I thought you said you cut down on the caffeine?”

Sid turned to the hipster, rolled her big dark eyes, and parted her bright pink lips. “I promise I only had two iced coffees today!”

“Cut it down to one then,” Aaron said, in a tone dark as Sid’s eyelashes. “I thought you guys were going to see a movie, Taylor?”

Hipster, or Taylor, shook his head. “You know she can get anything out of me, man. I tried.”

“It’s not like I’m stupid, Aaron. I mean you never make us cupcakes. And all that crab. And you tell me I can’t eat it.” She swiped the air dismissing him. “Just because I’m a hairstylist doesn’t mean I can’t see the writing on the wall. I mean you’ve been talking about this chick for weeks…”

“She’s not a chick,” Aaron growled. “Her name is Claire.”

Sid looked directly at me. “I didn’t mean that. I know your name. He’s been saying it non-stop like since he started at that bakery.”

“I think we should let them eat, babe,” Taylor said.

“I know! I’m sorry, like for real, about coming in here like this. It’s just that Aaron is like the coolest guy friend I have, and I just had to meet the chick he’s gaga over.”

“She’s not a…” Taylor and Aaron said in unison.

“OMG I’m so super rude. Let’s start over. It’s like amazing to meet you. I’m Sidney,” she put her palm to her heart. Her fingernails had lightning bolts painted on them. “You know like from the old horror movie with Courtney Cox? Or like the city in Australia, only spelled different. But everyone calls me Sid. So you should totally call me Sid. And this,” She kissed the ginger hipster leaving a lipstick mark on his cheek. “Is my man, Taylor. You know, like Taylor Swift, only he’s a guy. He does play guitar though. Only he doesn’t write songs about his exes because they were super boring.”

I unclenched my fingers from the end of my braid and placed them in my lap. “Hi, I’m Claire.”

“So tell me everything, Claire.” Sid held her eyes on me.

I bit my bottom lip, and internally loathed her. She hadn’t done anything to deserve the feeling of disgust that overwhelmed me, other than barging in on my date. Or maybe it was because she was the living embodiment of everything I wasn’t. If I didn’t already know that she only lived under the same roof as Aaron because of Taylor, his childhood friend, then I’d demand new living arrangements prior to a second date.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot, you’re like super introverted. I have this client at the salon who like only leaves the house for me to do her hair…” Sid’s voice was like sandpaper against my face.

Aaron pulled off his beanie, ran his hands through his hair, and balled the knit beanie in his fist. “I will literally give you all the money in my wallet to go out and do whatever you want tonight, Sid. If you leave. Right now.”

“Babe,” Taylor pulled Sid to his side, bent his head down so his lips met with her eyes. “They haven’t eaten yet.”

A smile covered her face showing off a million bright white teeth. “You’re right, babe.” Sid turned to me and whispered as if we weren’t inches from each other. “We’ll talk later, okay?”

I nodded.

Taylor took Sid’s hand and they walked toward the door. When it closed behind them I turned to Aaron.

“I’d like another glass of wine, please.”


‘Caroline Hearts Toby’- a gripping short story

Trigger Warning: This story includes violence and it’s aftermath through the lens of a teenage girl.  


Caroline Hearts Toby 

by Melissa Algood

“When I saw this, I thought of you,” the most perfect boy said.

I remembered the first night we spoke, at a party, a week after I turned fourteen. It was a humid Saturday night and an ex had decided to start a fight with me. I turned into a full-fledged drama queen, and ran crying to the solace of a wooden gazebo on the edge of the woods behind the party house. The tip of his long shadow touched the steps of my fortress before Toby did.

“Are you OK?” He asked.

“Yeah,” I said between racking sobs.

“You want to talk?”

“Yeah.” I went on for what felt like years but was actually a few hours without taking a breath.“…he’s just such an asshole you know, I could do so much better than him.”

“You could do a lot better, like me.”

For the first time that night, I burst out laughing.

The side of his mouth turned up in a half smile. “What’s funny about being my girlfriend?”

“You don’t want to date me, I’m like, totally crazy.”

“Maybe,” his light eyes enveloped me. “But you’re laugh is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”

Before I could decide if he was serious or not a group of boys with baggy jeans, flannel shirts,and backwards baseball caps called out, “Hey! We’re leaving, man. You coming?”

He stood up. The eaves of the rotted wood sighed beneath his lanky frame. “I gotta go, see you around.”

“See you around.”

That Monday, Margo and I strolled up to the side entrance of the two-story brick prison called high school, and there he was. His eyes were half closed as he sat on the steps playing an acoustic guitar the color of wheat. The scene was more fantastic than an e.e. cummings poem. My heart stopped beating in my chest as I followed the trajectory of his skinny left arm and the fingers of his right hand caressing the neck. Even though he was fully clothed, a hundred feet away from me, and so into the song he didn’t know I was staring at him, it was the most erotic event of my life up until that point.

Margo, my best friend since forever, nudged me. “Gawk much?”

I took a breath, not realizing I’d been holding it the entire time, and shook my head. “No way. Total waste of time. It’s not as if he likes me, or whatever.”

“He totally likes you, Caroline.”

“How do you know? Are you psychic?”

“I have eyes.” A smirk stretched over Margo’s tan skin. “Every time you speak, he looks over at you and smiles like a little kid. I’m afraid he’s gonna pull on one of your pigtails during recess, or something.”

My pulse sped up. “Really?”

“Watch him for yourself if you’re so interested.”

I did. Our eyes met for the briefest of moments and it made me feel as if I’d been shot out of a cannon. I turned back to my notebook and started to write, secretly wishing my Mom would give in and buy me a cell phone. Since I was fourteen, the best idea for expressing my undying love to him was to pass him a note after class, and that’s exactly what I did. The rest of the day proved supremely agonizing. As I walked out the front door to my bus, he stopped me, and handed me a note of his own.

I wrote him a note every day for the next two years.

Now, he stood before me with the gift. I believed it was a second chance when Toby handed me a magazine with my favorite singer, Lily Allen, on the cover. It had been months since we’d spoken, but it only took me the summer to figure out I’d made a mistake by breaking up with him for a guy with a better car. But, I was too late. Toby already had a new girlfriend, Sara. Yet there he was, standing in front of me, in the alcove between our respective English classes, with the magazine I’d later cut out all the pictures from, and tape above my bed.

I smiled. “Whenever I hear The Neighborhood, I think of you.

“You still like her, right?” His green eyes twinkled.

“Always, and forever, Toby.” I hoped that he knew I was referring to him, and not the British songbird.

His smile widened and warmed my heart, “Apparently, she’s coming out with a new album.”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be epic.”   That was the moment I should have told him, I still loved him and wanted to have a hundred babies with him. Instead I bit my bottom lip and added, “Thanks.”

“Always, and forever, Caroline.” My heart skipped a beat when he said my name.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time he’d see me, the girl he loved, a million years ago.

I went home that night and wrote a dozen love letters to Toby, as Lily Allen gazed down at me. A multitude of handwritten apologizes, in various colors of ink for emphasis, explaining why I was the worst seventeen year old to breath air. I knew putting pen to paper was archaic, but my thoughts could not be contained in a mere text. Besides it worked once before, maybe it would work again. Even if we didn’t end up behind a white picket fence, I needed him to know that I was sorry. Sorry for every dumb choice I’d made. Sorry for hurting him. Sorry for believing that there was another man that could match him, much less that one existed that was superior.

For weeks I contemplated how I’d maneuver past his new girlfriend, that emo bitch, and give them to him.

Sara would often pass me in the halls in school, and call out over a horde of underclassmen. “He says I give better blow jobs, whore!” A few students laughed, but most of them continued en masse through the crowded hallway.

I’d grit my teeth and avoid her line of sight. Not entirely because I was afraid of her, but because I didn’t want to get into a physical fight with my ex’s new girlfriend. Even I was above that.

Margo turned to me. “What the fuck is wrong with that cunt?”

I shrugged. “She’s totally fucking insane, like, even more than me.”

“I just can’t believe she says stuff like that.”

“Told you, she’s crazy.”

Margo pushed her long dark hair behind her ears. “Besides, Sara probably has a punch card for Planned Parenthood.”

“She acts like a porn star.” The whole time I’d know the pixie cut tall blonde she’d been more than forthcoming with every sexual act one could imagine. And although it made my stomach turn I knew that must be the reason Toby liked her. It wasn’t as if she were smarter or prettier than me, but she was sluttier. Then, I recalled that I couldn’t feel too saintly, due to a evening in close proximity to a church, with Toby. To celebrate passing his driving test we drove to the most secluded part of town and I gave him a pair of oversize fuzzy dice to hang from his rear view mirror. We spent the rest of the night being the only two people in the universe. “I mean I’m not like, perfect, but I’m not like, telling everyone about it.”

Margo’s dark eyes grinned. “Yeah, not everyone.”

I punched her in the arm, then told her in a quick hushed voice, “I think I’m gonna give him the letters.”

“I told you I can get Jason to give him one.”

“No, I can’t have my best friend’s boyfriend give a guy a love letter. Besides we work together at the grill. That’s too weird.”

“Whatever. Then how are you going to get past her?” Margo gestured down the hall Sara had just tromped through.

“I’ll meet him outside of English, or put one on his car, or something.” The thought of doing any of those things seemed exceedingly desperate, but I needed him to know that if I could, I’d build a time machine.

The day before my plan would come to fruition I pictured his big light eyes scanning the

notebook paper, and a toothy grin that would be sure to follow. Cool air wrapped around me, the leaves on all the trees seemed technicolor bright in shades of yellow, orange, and red matching my mood. The black asphalt I walked on seemed to be reflected in the overcast sky that would hover above town for months. I didn’t hear footsteps, but a waiter at the restaurant materialized next to me, as I put the key into the door of my car.

“You’re looking pretty sexy today.”

I rolled my eyes at what I took as a joke, since I was still in my waitress get-up. I knew him from school, we’d even had a class together junior year. Years later, after copious amounts of alcohol had been consumed, I’d remember him staring at me in class. But I’d always thought he was harmless.

Besides, at seventeen I caught a lot of guys staring at me. It was just something guys do.

He moved closer, tilted his head to the side, and smirked at me. “I had a dream about you last night, Caroline.”

The way my name rolled off his tongue made the hair on the back of my neck raise. Instead of running, I asked, “Really? That’s weird.”

He was inches away from me. “Why?”

I laughed, then opened the car door. “Cause I never had a dream about you.”

He shut the door with his elbow, and leaned on it. “You know, you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” He was close enough that I could feel his breath on my cheek.

Before I could respond he pulled on my long brown ponytail and tossed me to the ground. The Earth stopped rotating. I didn’t feel his grip on my wrists, the pavement on the back of my head, or hear the metallic klink his belt buckle made. But I did feel when he tore me in half, as if I were no stronger than a piece of paper. In my head I was clawing, crying, and screaming, but all that came forth was a whisper. I lay in the gutter next to my car, with him on top of me, as if I’d invited him, and he hadn’t shoved me to the dirt.

After, whenever that was, I sat on the hood of my car. My arms were red and blotchy, but I didn’t know if it was from him, or the cold air. I drove home, raced to the bathroom, and scrubbed until my skin was raw. I didn’t get out of the shower until all the hot water was gone, and Mom pounded on the door because dinner was ready.

It was three days later before I told her. We were at the dinner table and I couldn’t stand to stare at the pork chops and macaroni with cheese for another moment.

“Mom.” I stabbed my dinner with a fork. “Something really bad happened the other day.”

“What happened? Lilly Allen decide to leave the music scene?”


“Are you still upset about, Toby? Maybe if you give him just one of those dozen letters you spent forever writing he’d forgive you.” She threw me a grin, but it faded away when our eyes met.

“It was the worst fucking thing, ever.”

I knew my tone had hit her hard when she didn’t reprimand me for cursing. “Tell me, Caroline.”

The word died on my lips. Unable to let the word ‘rape’ enter our house because then it would never leave. “I was at the restaurant…and this guy from school…he…you know…like when I was trying to leave.”

“Did he hurt you?”

My brain refused to form words.

Her voice became darker than myself, “What did he do?”

I looked back down to my fork and thought about how much better life would be if I felt less than an inanimate object. “Everything.”

That night she insisted we go to the ER, even if it was no longer an emergency. I was handed some pills, blood was drawn, every opening of my body was swabbed and photographed. But, the questions were the worst because that was when I was forced to say his name. As if he deserved a name. He didn’t deserve to see a sunset, have a birthday, or drink water much less to be recognized as a human being.

“We’ll have to call the police and you’ll have to give a statement, Caroline,” the doctor said. She handed me back my clothes.

“I don’t want to talk to the police.” It was the first full sentence I’d said with such force since it happened.

“You’re a minor, it’s not up to you.”

I turned to my Mom, who’d insisted on being present for my continued humiliation. I hadn’t fully appreciated her presence until I begged, “Please, don’t make me talk to the cops, Mom.”

The doctor moved closer to my mother. “Your daughter might not be the only one.”

But I was seventeen, and I didn’t care about any other girls. I only knew that I could never say his name again, much less see him at court. Besides, then everyone at school would know, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t have more friends than me. No one would believe me over the popular jock who could get any girl he wanted. Years later I’d wonder if it would have been better if I had testified, and he ended up in jail, even if it was only juvie. I just couldn’t handle being crucified during my senior year along with actually being a teenager.

The next day my mother insisted that we go to my boss at the very least. When all three of us sat down in his office above the bustling bar and grill I felt as if the room was shrinking in on me. The only way I could get it to stop was to pretend I was back in that gazebo with Toby. I looked across the desk littered with papers, pretended he was my first love, and we were talking about music, not that a guy we both knew had raped me. I told the whole story, sparing no detail, at least up until the doctor. The middle aged overweight man reverted to himself when he turned from me toward my Mom and asked,

“Would it be all right if we spoke about this alone ma’am.”

She nodded and I was sent to sit outside. As if their conversation didn’t concern me, or might hurt me further when nothing more could hurt me since I’d become a shell of a person. Sensory overload had caused me to shutdown. I never realized how flimsy his office door was until I heard the conversation.

My mother started. “So, what do you plan on doing about this, firing him I presume?”

“Well, I’d have to talk to him first…”


“There are two sides to every story, ma’am.”

“Are you accusing my daughter of lying about being raped by one of her co-workers?”

“No.” He coughed. “Not saying that at all. It’s just that there are channels we have to go through before anything can be done.”

“What channels?”

“Well first I’ll bring him and his parents in. I’ve known them for years. His mother is the head chef. I need to talk to her once we’re done here.”

I almost smiled when I heard my mother’s voice turn into the hiss of a viper. “When we’re done here?   Is that what you’d want someone to say to you if YOUR daughter had just been attacked?”

“No.” He coughed again, louder. “It’s just that it’s going to be her word against his, I mean, she destroyed all the evidence.”

“You’re telling me she’s a liar because she took a shower after some animal…” But my mother didn’t continue. She didn’t need to. After all my boss didn’t feel Satan’s fingers tugging at his underwear, a tongue on his collarbone, or taste a sweaty palm when Satan covered his mouth as he finished.

“She’s so young ma’am, maybe she got confused.”

My mother rushed out of the room, pulled me out of the chair, and dragged me to the car. I’d been electrocuted by his words. It was as simple as: A teenage girl simply couldn’t be trusted.

The sedan pealed out, and without looking at me, my mother growled. “You’re never going back there, Caroline.”

My heart restarted. “Fuck that. I didn’t do anything wrong, Mom.”

“I know that, but they don’t. Do you really want to work with someone who thinks you’re lying. Someone who thinks some kid is above assault just because he knows his mother?”

“If I don’t go back, then he won.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“I can’t believe this shit…”

“You aren’t going back, ever. And stop cursing so fucking much, Caroline.”

There was nothing between us until we pulled into the driveway and I said. “I love you, Mommy.”

She turned to me, her dark eyes a monsoon of tears. “I love you too, baby.”

The next few weeks of school were particularly annoying, mainly because I was forced to be conscious for such an extended period of time. If I wasn’t doodling on all of my papers then I had my head on my desk blocking out the world. I didn’t think my actions were too far from the norm until my English teacher held me after class.

“Caroline, you haven’t turned in your term paper.”

I stared at the mustard stain on Mrs. Jennings’ blouse until I remembered what book I was supposed to read. “I haven’t finished it yet, I’ll get it to you on Monday.”

“It was due yesterday, and ‘Of Mice and Men’ is only one hundred and seven pages.”

“I’ve just been really busy.”

She smiled and I saw wine colored lipstick on her teeth. “I know that seniors like to party, but usually you’re tearing through books left and right. Now you’re either asleep or daydreaming. What’s going on with you, Caroline?”

For some reason a fire ignited in me and fury overtook my body. “My life just sucks, so feel free to fail me, or whatever.” I turned and walked toward the door.

“We’re not done talking!” She called after me, but I was already on Saturn.

“So there’s this show on Friday that Jason can’t go to because he has to pick up after someone that quit” Margo stared at me as if she were attempting to look through me. “So since I know your free, wanna be my date?” She speared her salad and shoved the leafy greens into her mouth.

“Maybe.” I shrugged from across the lunch table at her.

“Are you at least gonna eat?”

I tore off a piece of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich my Mom forced me to take to school, and tossed it into my mouth. “Happy?”

“That’s the most I’ve seen you eat in weeks.”

“I’m on a diet.”

“Stop with the bullshit, what is up with you?”

“Nothing.” The girls at the far end of the table cleared their trays and walked to the bathrooms for their after lunch cigarette.

“Did you give Toby the letters yet?”

“No.” It seemed like another person wrote them, even if every word were still true.

“Well you should, at least then you’d know if he still loved you.”


Margo’s hazel eyes doubled in size. “Who are you and where is my bestie?”

“I’m right here.”

“No, you’re not. It’s like you’re a damn ghost, it’s like, totally freaking me out.”

“I’m fine.” My voice turned into a razor I wanted to slash against her throat. “Just PMS.”

She rolled her eyes. “Nice try, but that’s next week. Jason told me you quit, for like no reason, and everyone at the restaurant is talking about it.”

“Glad I can be entertainment for someone.”

Margo leaned closer. “If you just gave him the letters, maybe you could get over him.”

“I don’t want to talk about Toby right now.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. He’s all you’ve been thinking about for months, and you are just giving up, without a fight. The real Caroline would never do that.”

I stood up and slung my messenger bag over my shoulder. “Maybe you just don’t fucking know me then.”

I ate lunch in my car for the rest of the year, I couldn’t bare to look at her until I learned to lock it up in a box, and hide the key from myself.

The idea that anyone at the grill took notice of my absence was unsettling. I wasn’t completely sure that my ‘story’ had been leaked to my ex co-workers and classmates until Jason came up to me at school later that day. He stood next to me as I pulled books out of my locker.

“I thought you should know what people are saying about you at the grill.”

I didn’t. I wanted to continue to live in disbelief, like it happened to someone else. But, curiosity got the best of me. “What?”

Jason looked me dead in the eye, as if he were diving into my soul, and crushed me. “He’s saying you wanted it, but you didn’t want anyone to think you’re a slut, so, you lied.”

The only guy I’d been with was Toby, and that had become a completely alternate universe. “That’s a fucking lie,” I hissed.

He moved closer to me, his voice lowered. “I know. I see the way you still look at Toby and Margo seems really concerned. I know you wouldn’t have sex with that asshole.” Jason attempted to pat my shoulder, but I jolted away.

“Sorry,” we said in unison, but only I continued speaking as my heart pounded in my chest. “I just…you didn’t tell Margo did you?”

His dark eyebrows furrowed. “I thought you did, but she didn’t ask me about it because of girl code. You two are like, inseparable.”

I turned, averting his gaze. “It’s whatever.” I threw my pre-calc book in my locker.

Jason’s voice turned stern, as if he were my big brother about to kick someone’s ass. “You should tell both of them.”

“No fucking way.”

“I’d want to know if you were my girlfriend.”

“But I’m not.” The reality that Toby and I were completely over hit me like a hammer. “I’m not his anything anymore. I have no right to like, talk to him, about stuff.”

“You guys have a history. A lot of history. He’d be there for you, Caroline. And Margo, too, she’d want to help you.”

I slammed my locker shut. “Don’t ever tell a soul, Jason. Especially Toby and Margo.”

“Why don’t you want them to know?”

I needed to tell the truth. Just once. My words were as quick as my courage. “Because if I start telling people then everyone will know and think that I lied about the whole thing just to get back with him.” And in the darkest parts of my brain I was worried Toby might think the same thing as well. “Besides it doesn’t matter, it happened, I just want it to be over.”

“Whatever you want.” He nodded, and backed away. “You have my number if you need it.”

But, I never called Jason, Margo, or Toby for that matter. I picked up the phone a thousand times, and dialed his number, but I hung up before it even rang once.

Later that week, at school, I saw the devil. He strolled down the hallway, mixed with a couple of guys, and stopped at his locker that happened to be a few feet from mine. Even though we were surrounded by hundreds of other kids, to me, it was only the two of us. That was until I saw Toby and Sara walking hand in hand toward me, although oblivious of my presence as he gazed at her, she at him. The hall was so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, punch him, throw books at the devil. Instead I was still.

Then, he winked at me.

Again, I had the exact opposite response I’d always assumed I’d have in this situation. I raced to the nearest bathroom, and threw up everything I had eaten, ever. I didn’t bother going to class because I didn’t want to see Toby in the hallway. I couldn’t be sure he didn’t see the wink. I couldn’t be sure of anything anymore.

The next few days of school, little changed. I made my self fully insulated, solitude became my reality. Toby’s new girlfriend still taunted me only now I truly believed that I was a whore, bitch, and a cunt. Normally I would have wondered why she bothered. After all, she won.   I deserved it.

All of it.

Satan had taken everything from me in that parking lot, including my second chance. It didn’t matter if I gave Toby the letters, because I could never tell him what happened. Could never tell anyone, ever, because that just made me feel it all over again. I couldn’t be the ‘that girl’. The one so stupid she got raped. If the experience taught me anything it was: Trust no one.

So, I took an empty coffee can out to the woods, and burned every sweet sentence that I’d written to my first love. The curvy script that spelled out every thoughtfully chosen word would live only in my memory, along with his smell, his laugh, and unending intellect.

I saw my perfect boy in the hallway a few days after I’d burned our hopes deep in the woods of our town. Toby leaned against the brick wall surrounded by a group of what used to be my friends too. He threw me a smile, he lifted his left hand and gently waved his fingers. A part of me found joy in the fact that I would, to him, always be the girl that he fell in love with at fourteen- strong, daring, and sarcastic. That was the only way that girl lived on. Instead of going up to Toby, standing on my tiptoes and French kissing him in front of the entire senior class, I bit my bottom lip, and rushed in the opposite direction.

“Where the hell have you been?” Margo scribbled equations in pencil on our group assignment.

“Got caught up,” I took the seat next to her and opened up my history textbook.

“Caroline,” She tapped her eraser on my desk. “This is physics.”

“Oh.” I closed the book, dug through my bag, and realized that I didn’t have the right folder either. “Can I look off yours?”

“Sure,” Margo adjusted the book so I could read it as well. “What’s going on? You’ve been acting weird for a while now.”

“Nothing, I’m just tired.”

“I’m your best friend, you can tell me. I’ll love you no matter what.”

So much of me wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t bring myself to trust my only friend in the entire universe. “I just really fucking hate physics.”

Her face brightened, letting me know I’d successfully acted like myself, as if we were in a play, and I finally got my lines right. “I know, it’s like when the fuck am I gonna use physics, in like, everyday life?”

I smiled, until Margo’s stare reverted to the text, and drifted off to nothingness. When our teacher began talking, I internally recited my new mantra: Caroline is dead, Caroline is dead, Caroline is dead, Caroline is dead, Caroline is dead, Caroline is dead.

Then, I took a breath.

-If you or anyone you know is a survivor of any sexual crime then please know you’re not alone.  Please get help and/or donate to RAINN-Rape And Incest National Network

short stories

‘Hair Dying’ – finalist in the Channillio Short Story Contest 2015

I rubbed my hands together, but the blood wouldn’t come off.

Maybe it was because the girl was so young, and her plasma had more vigor. In my mind’s eye I could still see her brassy highlighted hair tied up in a bun atop her head. She wore boots, skinny jeans, and a baggy t-shirt that hung off her left shoulder. The sixteen-year-old’s outfit reminded me of what I used to wear in high school, only my pants were baggy, and my tank top was skintight. Her boyfriend was in my chair finishing his transition into a full-fledged hipster. His bangs covered most of his face, unless he flipped his head to the side, letting his dark brown, layered hair cascade in the air like a waterfall. It reminded me of a certain pop star that teenagers hated being compared to.

I’d just finished texturizing his thick hair with a razor fraying the edges like a wide-angle lens when his girlfriend started in on me.

She stood up, and moved next to me. She stopped behind the chair her beloved sat in, and leaned to the left. As I looked in the full-length mirror that was flanked by particleboard drawers that made up my station her body appeared to form a question mark. Her hand rested under her hip and her whole face puckered as if I’d given her a lemon to eat, rather than being stupid enough to allow her to give an opinion on the last half hour of labor I’d performed.

“Dunno. Seems messy.” She circled around her boyfriend and tugged on random locks of hair. “I mean my Mom does my hair, for like years, and she’s got really high standards.”

Through gritted teeth I asked, “Which cosmetology school did she attend?”

The girl laughed. “Oh, she didn’t go to school. You don’t need to go to school because it’s super easy to do hair. I mean any idiot can do it.”

My whole body tensed. Usually I’d hold my tongue, but I’d dreamt of this moment for years. “You’re right, it’s super easy to carve shapes out of something that’s constantly moving, like hair. And I’d trust anyone to put caustic chemicals on my scalp. It’s not like people get chemical burns or anything.”

I took my razor and slid it across her throat.

-The rest of the story will be published on this blog later this year.  It can also be found at Channillo.com