THE MUSIC POUNDED within the constraints of the dimmed room, pulsating through the bodies of every dancing person. The large, extravagant room was packed far beyond capacity and marred by the quality of entertainment. The room was warm, stuffy, and stank of a blend of cologne, perfume, and sweat. But to the guests attending, it was a paradise—a place of refuge for some, a place to hide for others. And you had to be someone special to be invited.
Tanner threw her head back and laughed, then squealed as she spilled her cocktail. Sitting on her friend Emma’s lap, she experienced the perfect level of euphoria, and she didn’t want the feeling to end. As she looked around the room, she was suddenly aware of the fact that her life would probably never get any better than this. The thought seemed ridiculous, since she was only fourteen. But the idea that she could feel even happier than she did at that exact moment was even more inconceivable. She let out a contented sigh and scrambled awkwardly to her feet.
“I want to dance!” She yelled her announcement over the music and turned to Emma. She reached out to her friend, who let out a short scream.
“Watch your smoke!”
Tanner had forgotten that she was smoking. “Oh, my bad.” She giggled, dropping the cigarette butt into a half-drunk bottle of beer and attempted to pull her reluctant friend off the couch. A hand grabbed her arm and spun her around, and almost off balance. She was suddenly face to face with Jason Allen.
His brown eyes sparkled. “Tanner Rose, I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been here.” She laughed and gestured to her surroundings. He spun her again, and her vision swirled. Screeching, she grabbed him for support. “Cut that out!”
“You look amazing,” he said, taking advantage of her backless dress to caress her bare skin. “I was looking for a dance, but now I’m thinking we should take a little time alone.”
“Are you undressing me with your eyes, Mr. Allen?”
“Kind of.” He laughed. “But you haven’t made it too hard, if you know what I mean.”
“Whatever!” She laughed, too.
“So, what about it?” He winked. “Wanna make out?”
“I want to dance!” she said sternly and grabbed his hand. She dragged him through the mob of people.
Tanner pushed her way in among the mass of bodies on the dance floor and closed her eyes. And then she lost herself. She lost herself in the music, the movement of the crowd, and the warm and fuzzy sensation consuming her. That was the last thing she remembered.
TANNER FELT THE pain of her headache before she’d fully woken. She wanted to open her eyes, but was afraid to see where she was. The overpowering music continued to pound, so she was obviously still at Rick Vonn’s house. A weight pushed against her right side and she tried shoving it off, but it pressed harder. Allowing her eyes to open a little, she noticed a few shadows pass by. Her right arm felt dead and she turned her neck to see what was weighing it down. But she knew what it was even before Jason groaned. Directing her mind back to the night before, she tried to replay the events that led her to the couch in Rick Vonn’s foyer. But the dance floor was as far as she got.
“Get off me.” The fragmented words cut her dry throat. She tried to clear it, but the taste in her mouth made her gag. She pulled herself off the loveseat, dropping Jason to his side. The room spun when she got to her feet, and she fell back into the seat, crushing the boy under her. Another groan, but this time from her own lips.
It took a moment for the woozy sensation to subside, and then she got up again, slower and as steadily as her dizzy head allowed. She searched around her for her purse, hoping that she wouldn’t have to wander the trashed rooms in search of it. She’d spent many a morning climbing over passed-out and disheveled bodies. Besides, she was sick to her stomach already. The last thing she needed was a reminder of what she looked like passed out. She sighed her relief when she saw her silver clutch tucked between the cushions of the couch. She grabbed it and stumbled to the nearby washroom, avoiding eye contact with those few desperately trying to keep the party alive.
A familiar feeling of regret began to set in, but she had to hold it off, at least while she took a quick moment to text her driver to pick her up. In doing so, she noticed the bombardment of text messages on her phone. where r u? . . . ur late!!!!!! . . . WAITING! . . . ur costing us a fortune!!!!! Call me now!!! . . . HELLLOOOOOOOO!????
Swear words spilled from her chapped lips, and she hurried to clean up and remake her face and hair. She had no choice but to go home and change before heading to the studio. She’d gone to work way too many times in clothes worn and partied in the night before. I’m already late. So what difference would it really make? She quickly packed her stuff back into her purse and rushed out. If they want me, they can wait.
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD GABRIEL spun the rake handle in both hands with ease, before freeing it into the spring air. It rotated mid-air, the blue sky its backdrop. Then he extended both arms, grabbing it in the midst of its descent, and circled it back on his right side. “Swish,” he whispered. He stepped forward and lowered himself onto one knee, bringing the butt of the stick up into a jab, “Aagh!” He waited a few seconds, his breathing heavy but controlled, and then rose and rotated the stick again. He jabbed it forward. Turned his body to the left. Jabbed it two more times to his right. His legs were set in a horse stance. After one last pause, he stood up straight. Gabriel looked at the blue sky, closed his eyes, and sucked the air deep into his nose, down into his lungs, and then pushed it back out through his lips. The sun warmed his face, and the grass cooled his bare feet. He smiled as a feeling of tranquility swept through him.
The sound of a vehicle slowly moving up the driveway caught his attention. His mother. Gabriel wiped his face with the front of his shirt, as his mother parked the car and got out.
The passenger door also opened and a young girl in large dark glasses stepped out. Her brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, she wore tight, fitted jeans, silver strappy, high-heeled shoes, and a cream halter top with an open back. She looked about nineteen from where Gabriel stood curiously watching. He didn’t recognize her. His mother signaled over to him, before ushering the girl into the house. Gabriel pushed the rake handle back into the head of the rake and leaned it against a nearby tree, then trudged toward the side of the house and entered through the kitchen.
As he helped himself to a glass of water, gulping it down slowly, Gabriel heard the tinkling of piano keys floating from the other room, followed by his mother’s voice.
“I used to teach music at the middle school.” His mother spoke cheerfully. “That was before they cancelled the music program. What a shame. Now I teach from home, and sometimes I play for the choir at our church. I’ve also included it in my son’s homeschooling program. He’s really quite good . . . Gabriel,” she called, interrupting herself.
Moments later, she appeared in the doorway with a wide smile and eyebrows raised in anticipation. “Gabriel. Honey, I want you to meet someone.” She jerked her head in the direction of the living room and walked off.
Gabriel finished his water and followed after her. The young girl had removed her sunglasses and was staring absently at their family picture on the bookshelf.
“Honey, this is Tanner. Tanner Rose,” Miss Ruth said. “Tanner, this is my son, Gabriel.”
The girl turned to face him and Gabriel realized that she was actually much younger than he had first guessed. He recognized the look of indifference, along with the fake smile that followed his mother’s introduction. But he walked toward her anyway, with a hand extended. Tanner looked at it briefly, and he saw a look of amusement sweep her face. Still, she took his hand, and Gabriel was suddenly reminded of an article he’d read about how a limp handshake was the sign of insecurity.
“Tanner will be staying with us for a little while,” his mother said. The girl now stared at the crucifix over the fireplace, as if expecting Jesus to jump off the cross and lunge toward her. “Gabriel, please help with her bags.”
“Be careful,” the girl said, suddenly coming alive. “I have some important things.”
Gabriel nodded and headed out quickly. He didn’t want to dislike the girl before he even knew her, but he had a nagging feeling that their currently calm lifestyle was about to get messy.
MISS RUTH SHOWED Tanner their farm from the window of the guest room while Gabriel set her bags beside the bed. She explained that they grew a lot of their own vegetables. Tanner was impressed, but it was the kind of impressed that made her laugh. They were so quaint and funny. Miss Ruth and her son then left Tanner so she could unpack and settle in.
Once alone, Tanner sat on the bed and looked around the modest room. Besides the bed and bedside table, the only other pieces of furniture were a chest of drawers and a rocking chair. Cream crocheted doilies dressed the dark wood furniture and a cream floral blanket with matching pillows covered the bed. A large chocolate-brown and maroon rug was laid on the polished wooden floor. The simple décor matched the rest of the house.
Tanner allowed her eyes to travel around the space and her mind to mull over the events of the last few days. Miss Ruth seemed nice enough, but her son, although cute, was just plain rude. But those crystal blue eyes and dark wavy hair . . . He could totally be a model.
Tanner unzipped the suitcase lying next to her and flung it open. She glanced at the three magazines she’d packed on top of her folded clothes, and took them out one by one.
The first magazine cover was a picture of her on the set of her most recent movie. The caption read, “On and Off Set with Tanner Rose.” Another magazine had a picture of her lying in a hammock at their vacation home: “Tanner Takes Five.” On the third magazine cover, Tanner was pictured with three of her co-stars at a post-movie premiere party. They stood side by side, their arms slung around each other. In the picture, they were all laughing, but Tanner didn’t smile as she looked at herself. She wasn’t happy that her hair was damp with perspiration, her shirt had a spill on it, and her laughing mouth was so large, the reader could see down her throat: “Tanner Gets Toasted.”
She stared a little longer, hating the sight of her face. The picture of her friend, Emma, prompted her to grab her phone from her purse. She dialed Emma’s number, but the first attempt ended in a dropped call. No signal? Seriously? She paced the room, repeatedly redialing before tossing the useless device on the bed. Perspiration formed beneath her hair and, with a grunt, she shoved open the ancient-looking window, seeking some relief. To her disappointment, more heat poured in. Didn’t these people have AC?
Her room was on the back side of the house, and she peered out into the yard, which extended to a field surrounded by trees. “Great!” she muttered. “I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a couple of crazy hermit people.” She glanced at the vegetable garden to the right of the house and shook her head. “Why grow it when you can buy it? That’s what I want to know.”
She sat back down on the bed. Her heart was racing and she couldn’t take a full breath. She stood back up and paced the room.
Tanner glimpsed her reflection in the wall mirror and stopped, staring. I’m Tanner Rose! Tanner Rose! Girls would kill to be me . . . but would I?
After a moment’s pause, she closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. “What am I doing here?” she whispered. She’d asked herself this same question throughout the trip to Miss Ruth’s house. Her mother’s face kept shoving itself into her mind, but she pushed it back out, just as forcefully. She started searching through her bags, in the pockets that had seemed to be good hiding spots, but her mother had obviously foreseen her deception. Now she really couldn’t breathe. But she didn’t want to go downstairs and ask Miss Ruth if the AC was broken. Instead, she fell back on the bed and allowed the tears of both anger and frustration to flow.
GABRIEL DIDN’T ASK his mother about Tanner, and she didn’t volunteer much information. All she had told him was that she and Tanner’s mother, Alicia, had been roommates in college, and that Tanner needed somewhere to stay for a while, so she could “recuperate.”
Gabriel sensed his mother watching him now as he whipped the mashed potatoes on the stovetop. He knew what she was thinking. She’d shared her thoughts with him in the past in similar moments of quiet labor together. We’re so alike in many ways, she’d said, but it’s our differences that saved us. He didn’t want to have that conversation again. His dark hair fell over his forehead and he bit his lip in concentration.
“You’re a good boy, Gabriel.”
Gabriel said nothing. He just pressed his lips together in a smile and quickly returned his attention back to his task.
He was relieved when, at that moment, Tanner walked into the kitchen. “Hi.” She raised her hand to them quickly.
“Oh, hi.” His mother smiled, grabbed a towel, and wiped her hands. “What perfect timing. Dinner’s ready.”
Gabriel noticed Tanner eye the meatloaf that his mother carried to the table. The girl’s lips tightened. Hold it together. Be polite, he told himself. He scooped the potatoes into a bowl, picked up the dish of roasted vegetables, and followed his mother.
“Can I get you something to drink?” his mother asked.
Tanner scoffed softly. “Water is fine.”
Gabriel couldn’t look at Tanner once they’d sat down to eat. His chest tightened when she surveyed the room with a snooty expression. After his mother served her two slices of meatloaf, she lowered her head slightly, and when she thought no one was looking, she sniffed the steam. And while Gabriel said the blessing, she covered her chewing mouth to finish her bite, then joined her hands loosely, and rolled her eyes. He felt her watching him as he crossed himself.
“Thank you, honey,” his mother said. “So, Tanner, I am sooo excited to have you here. Did you know that your mother and I were roommates in college?”
“Yes, you said that.” Tanner gave her a thin smile. She rolled a baby carrot back and forth with her fork.
“Yes, well that was a long time ago, but it was good to hear from Alicia.”
Gabriel had never heard the name Alicia before.
“Actually, it’s a funny story really,” his mother continued.
It was obvious to Gabriel that she was trying to keep the mood light, but there was too much tension surrounding them to dissolve alone.
“You see, we weren’t even supposed to be roommates, did she mention that?”
“Actually, my mother never mentioned you at all until last week.” Tanner dropped her hand to her plate and faced Gabriel’s mother with a tight smile.
Gabriel witnessed the expression, as well as the blood flooding his mother’s cheeks.
“Wow, how much did the course in rudeness set you back?” He jabbed a piece of meatloaf with his fork. “Or are you just naturally impolite?”
Gabriel and Tanner locked eyes. After a moment, a flush crept over her face and her gaze wavered, then dropped to her plate.
She pushed her food around with a fork for a few seconds before muttering, “I’m sorry.” She glanced toward his mother as she said it, though. The apology clearly didn’t include him. “Excuse me,” she said, scraping over the floor as she shoved her chair back and rushed from the table.
“Gabriel.” Miss Ruth’s voice quavered.
He glanced at her. “Sorry.” He’d apologize for the disaster dinner had become, but not for defending her. Never for defending her.
They finished the meal in silence.
Tanner didn’t come down again that night.
MORNING SUNSHINE FILLED the room, waking Tanner. Its warmth reached through the window and caressed her face. And as much as she wished that the previous night had all been a dream, she knew before she even opened her eyes that it had not. She lay for a few minutes, adjusting to her surroundings. Snippets of the incident at dinner entered her mind and she cringed. After returning to her room the night before, she hadn’t finished her unpacking. She had just lain there looking up at the ceiling and wondering how she had gotten to be where she was. She’d fallen asleep on top of the bed with her clothes still on.
Now, she dreaded getting up and facing Gabriel again. Still, she stretched her arms above her head, groaned loudly, and stubbornly rolled to a seated position.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered. The blue sky beckoned from where she sat and, reluctantly, she lifted herself to her feet and walked to the window. Outside, she saw Gabriel.
END OF CHAPTER 1