Chapter 22: Moonlight Massacre

The mood at the Rossini Residence was bleak. Etta hadn’t spoken to her brother since his atrocious outburst a couple of days ago and she wasn’t planning on changing that anytime soon. To get back at her, he was refusing to do the chores as he had promised before and as a result, Melia found the house in a terrible state upon her return from San Myshuno and neither of them wanted to talk to her about it. Or to each other.

Melia: “Honey, what happened? Why are so grumpy all of the sudden?”

Etta: “Oh, just work. Cofeeshop  was absolute hell today. Whatever. But you!”

“You have to tell me everything! How was the shooting? And the contestants? Are they any good? What was the assignment?

Melia couldn’t wait to share everything from recipes to behind the scenes gossip with her daughter and she started describing her trip in great detail, but she was soon interrupted by loud steps on the stairs. Etta recognised Amon’s walk immediately and, unwilling to face him just yet, she kissed her mother goodbye and left for school early.

Normally, Etta would be feeling under the weather about it. She was not the type to hold grudges and she despised family conflicts because of the never ending Amon vs. Seth quarell that was exhausting everyone around.

But Etta wasn’t her normal self lately. At first, she had been obsessing about her little breakdown at the party, worried that she had embarrassed herself in front of Dante. She couldn’t understand why he had to catch her at those low, tearful moments all the time – first at the pool party at his place and now this. He must think her an insufferable crybaby.

But her  paranoid scenarios were over when he texted.

Etta’s heart made a backflip when she saw his name pop up on her screen. It took her good ten minutes to craft a somehow satisfactory response. He answered back and they had been texting constantly ever since. It was ridiculous, utterly absurd how happy it made her feel. Etta was sure her eyes changed into actual hearts every time her phone beeped.

She still didn’t find the courage to actually tell him about her feelings, though. And he didn’t imply anything, either. They had been circling around the topic for days, talking about everything but their feelings for each other.

Etta: *to herself* ‘If there are any at all at his side, that is.’

They had become close, sure, but Etta didn’t want to ruin it with a big confession like that. He probably only saw her as a good friend. Come to that, he was not acting particularly romantic towards her.

‘But then again, neither am I, right? Maybe Devi’s right, maybe he’s just as scared as I am.’

But every time she persuaded herself to finally do it, there was this little annoying voice in her head, planting seeds of doubt.

‘Yeah, right. Dante having difficulties talking to a girl. That’s like mom struggling to cook pasta. No way.’

Unable to decide the dilemma on her own, she decided to wait for some kind of a sign, a prove, a hint that he liked her back at least a little – an outcome she still considered close to impossible. She still found it fascinating to think about, though. So much that she could barely do anything else, ever.

Seth: “Etta, HELLO! Are you even listening to me? Screwdriver, come on!”

But not everybody in the house was that clueless. Aunt Devi definitely figured some things out.


‘I spy with my little eye…’

Devi’s observation skills were impeccable and she had all the evidence she needed.  Etta longingly staring at her phone for hours. Dante coming over daily to ‘hang out with Amon’ and then not bothering finding Amon at all and chatting with Etta for hours instead. Etta suddenly caring about her appearance a lot. The moment Devi saw her in a dress for the first time she she was six years old, everything added up.

Devi: “Woah, you look nice today!”

Etta recognized her aunt’s prying tone, but she didn’t took the bait and answered as innocently as she could.

Etta: “What do you mean today? Don’t I always?”

Devi: “Sorry, let me rephrase that: your eyeliner is on fleek, girl.”

Etta laughed, impressed by her aunt’s unusual knowledge of slang and she was about to compliment her on using it correctly, when Amon walked in and ruined their pleasant morning.

Amon: “Hey, Devi, you alright? Can you give me and Etta two minutes?”

Devi: “Sure thing, see ya later, kids.”

Etta rolled her eyes, quickly grabbed her oatmeal from the microwave and tried to leave with her aunt, but Amon was quick. He turned and stood next to her chair, successfully blocking her escape route. She reluctantly returned to her breakfast while Amon grabbed some eggs from the fridge.

Amon: “Etta, please. Please, talk to me! I don’t like this… this cold war between us.”

Etta: “Well, maybe you should have thought about that before you went all ballistic on me at the party!”

Amon: “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean a word I said, you know that.”

Amon: “Look, I… I was drunk. I know that’s not an excuse, but I was really drunk and I wasn’t thinking straight. You were right – what you said that night was true and I should have listened to you. I should have taken your side. I’ve only agreed with Taylor because I wanted to get laid.”

Etta snorted with contempt and tried to leave again. But Amon was not done.

“Which was totally unacceptable, of course! I feel terrible about it, really.”

He paused for a moment and after he was sure she gave up her attempts to escape, he took Devi’s seat and started eating.

Amon: “I’m so sorry that I hurt you. It will never happen again.”

Etta: “You promise?”

Amon: “I promise. Why don’t you join us for the Moonlight Massacre Marathon tonight? This time, I really invited just a couple of friends.”

Etta: “I’ll think about it.”

She was, of course,  lying. She didn’t need to think about it because she knew she was coming the second he asked. She would not waste the opportunity to see Dante.

A few hours later, armed with popcorn and a push-up bra, she was making her way downstairs to Amon’s ‘gym/man cave’ as he called it. Dante was already there but the two boys didn’t noticed she entered, because they were too engrossed in what seemed like a serious conversation.

Amon: “What do you mean, my sister?”

Upon hearing those words, Etta quickly backed out of the room, eyes wide open in shock. Her heart was once again beating like a runaway horse when she realized they were talking about her. She knew she shouldn’t but she was dying to hear it.

Amon: “Forget it, Dante, you treat girls like shit.”

Dante: “No, that would be you! Remember what you said to Gracie Arrington on Love Day?”

“Oh, she had it coming! Whatever, that’s not the point. The point is that my sister is not a plaything for you to have fun with, capish?”

Dante: “Oh, but the other girls are just fine for you to banalize as pleasure objects, right? Man, you’re such a hypocrite.”

Amon: “What the plum is your problem, Dante? Just because your sister is safe…”

Etta gasped. She couldn’t believe Amon would drag Angie into it. She was dead, for Watcher’s sake. He didn’t need to stoop so low. It was none of his business, anyway.

She didn’t get to hear the rest, because Tori and some other kids from school were coming down the stairs and the boys’ voices faded in the loud stomping and cheerful chatter.

Tori: “You guys ready?”

Etta quickly walked into the room, trying to keep her face as straight as possible.

Dante was already seated on the couch. He smiled at her when their eyes met and patted the cushions next to himself, suggesting she should sit there.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

They sat together in silence. Etta was really trying to concentrate on the movie but  every now and then, she could feel his eyes on her and it made her so painfully self-aware that she barely dared to move.

For some reason, she could only think about how uncomfortably her tongue rested in her mouth and how odd and clunky her arms were, just hanging around her body like that. She was glad when someone finally dimmed the lights during the chainsaw scene and hid her awkwardness in the dark so she could finally relax a little.

Thirty minutes into the second movie, she suddenly remembered the argument she had witnessed before. The movie was terrible anyway, so she occupied herself thinking about that. Amon and Dante were friends since they were kids and she had never seen them arguing before. She knew Amon loved Dante like he was his brother – actually, much more than that –  and she didn’t want to be the cause of their conflict. But at the same time, it made her feel so hopeful. Dante woudn’t ask those things just for fun. He wouldn’t risk his friendship with Amon over nothing. So it could mean that – and she barely dared to think it – he felt something, too.

Encouraged by this train of thought, Etta waited for Amon to dissapear in the bathroom with his girl of the day and then, she spoke to Dante in a low voice, preventing other kids from hearing her.

Etta: “Dante? What’s going on?”

Dante: “He’s just tried to escape from the camp but it turned out his girlfriend was kinda like a bait? To lure him into the forrest, you know? So now they can perform the surgery in him and…”

Etta interrupted him with a nervous laugh and shook her head a little.

Etta: “No, not the movie. I meant… What’s going on with us? Things just feel so… different.”

Dante froze for what felt like ages. Etta was already cursing herself for ruining everything, when he swiftly moved closer to her and smiled.

D: “Us, huh?”

Dante slowly rolled that word in his mouth in a way that sent shivers down her spine and it lingered in the air between them like a physical object. Then he slowly leaned even closer and whispered.

D: “Well, hm. This is just a wild guess in my part, but what might be going on – and again, I’m simply guessing here -“

D: ” – is that I’d like to take you out on a date sometime.”

Etta was internally screaming with joy. She had to make effort to stop herself from jumping up and doing a happy dance right there and then. It was just too good to be true. She probably fell asleep while watching the movie and started dreaming.

Etta: “Please, tell me this is not some kind of a bad prank? I’ve seen enough teen comedies to know that popular jocks only date the nerdy girl when they make a bet with their friends.”

To her surprise, Dante just laughed warmly, still looking right at her.

D: “You do realize who your brother is, right? You know his temper – if anyone tried to trick you like that, he would kill them. Plum, I’m pretty sure I’m risking my life just by asking you out.”

Etta: “You are a brave, brave man, aren’t you?”

Dante nodded and hesitantly reached for her hand.

D: “So what do you think?”

Etta: “I think it’s a date.”

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Chapter 21: Like a rain

“Yes, Mom, we’re eating our veggies. Yes, we do our homeworks every day. No, we haven’t killed each other. Well, not yet.”

“Of course, we take care of each other. Don’t worry about us, we’re fine.”

“What about you? How’s shooting going? How do you like San Myshuno? Should I add it on my bucket list?

Etta listened carefully to her mother’s chatter. She sounded better. Healthy. Even enticed.

After their inicial talk, it took a few more days for Melia to collect herself, but once she did, she was keeping busy.  The kids had been surviving on peanut butter sandwiches since the funeral, the house was fairly neglected and the garden…

…well, the garden looked as pitiful as Melia felt.

Goodbye, Gus!

She had got a lot of work to do. Luckily,  seeing her up and about infused the rest of the household with a new spirit. With their mom back, they felt a bit more like a family. A painfully incomplete family, but a family nonetheless. They were ready to help.

Few weeks and hours of persuasion later, Melia replied to the letter she had gotten from the SimChef producers  and soon after that, it was time for her first screen tests and shoots. With a heavy heart, Melia left her teenagers home with Devi and flew to San Myshuno.

That didn’t stop her from  stressing over her children’s well-being, of course. She was calling twice a day, armed with dozens of questions and concerns.

Etta was thinking about it on her way home from school and she decided she didn’t mind. It was a sign her mom was slowly getting back to normal and Etta would do anything to help with the process, even if it meant answering even a thousand phone calls a day. She was ready to be on her best behavior.

However, not everyone in the household was of the same mind as Etta found out when she got home. She was just raiding the fridge for leftovers, when Amon appeared out of nowhere, grabbed some frittata and took it to the living room to enjoy his lunch on a comfy couch. Etta followed him, the question already on her lips.

E: “Amon? What are you doing home so early? It’s only 12:30!”

A: “Etta! Well, I mean, I…. I… I could ask you the same question!”

E: “Mr Harrison is sick, they sent us home after fifth period. What about you?”

A: “I am, uhm, s-sick as well.”

E: “Mhm, sure, and I am Tinkerbell. Are you ditching school?”

A: “Me? I would never!”

E: “…”

A: “Please, don’t tell mom.”

E: “Only if you do all my chores for the next month.”

A: “Oh, come on! Can’t you just be nice for a change and help your brother out? Just this once?”

But Etta was unmoved by his pleas and remained quiet until he gave up.

A: “Ugh, fine, we have a deal.”

E: “Wonderful! Enjoy your free afternoon then, because tomorrow is laundry day.”

Amon rolled his eyes and grumbled.

Amon: “Oh, and by the way….”

E: “What?”

A: “Well, Devi won’t be back from her concert till tomorrow so I invited a couple of friends over.”

Etta instantly thought of the essay about Lord of Frogs that was due Monday and a pile of unfinished AP microeconomics exercises on her desk and she was about to say no, but then she remembered Dante was Amon’s friend, too.

E: “As long as they won’t bother me, I couldn’t care less. Just promise you’ll be quiet.”

Amon rolled his eyes again and nodded as she left the living room. Etta then rushed upstairs, craving a few moments of solitude.  She grabbed the book, determined to finish it that day, so she could start working on her essay. But the book was not as exciting as she would like it to be. Soon she found herself drifting off only to be abruptly awaken by ear-splitting, harsh noises.

‘What the…’

Etta was disoriented for a second, staring at the dark sky outside and then she realized she probably slept for a couple of hours. She quickly identified the source of the sounds – dance music and chanting and laughs – and she immediately felt her blood boiling with anger.

“AMON!!”

She walked out of her room, only to find people crawling all over the place and a whole crowd of her schoolmates dancing and singing along the stupidest song she had ever heard right there in the hallway.

Amon was among them, trying to dance his way towards Taylor, a super pretty cheerleader he hadn’t dated yet.

Etta: “Amon, can I talk to you somewhere quiet, please?”

A: “Sure, I can barely hear you over the music here.”

He slowly walked away and the little group he had been dancing with dispersed towards the other side of the room. Except for Taylor who did not like the interuption.

Taylor: “What the hell are YOU doing here, Ella? I thought this party was for cool people, haha!”

E: “My name’s Etta. And this is my house. Now if you excuse me… sorry, what was your name again? Oh, wait, I don’t care.”

Etta didn’t wait for an answer and without wasting another breath on that plum, she left. She found Amon in the kitchen with a usual smug grin on his face.

A: “What’s up?”

E: “Look. You said you invited a few friends, not half of our school! They’re literally everywhere! Don’t you think….”

A: “Weeeeeell, I mean, you know how fast news spread in this town. We’re just having fun, so what?”

E: “First of all, stop acting like you’re all just playing board games here, okay? Pretty much everyone is drunk, three strangers are smoking weed in my bathroom and I just saw someone in Devi’s room, you know… getting busy!”

A: “Good for them, I guess?”

E: “And second of all! Have it crossed your mind how inappropriate this is? We are in mourning, Amon! It’s disrespectful to throw parties just moments after dirt was scattered on your father’s casket, fo Watcher’s sake! How are you even in a party mood?”

A guilty expression flashed through his face, but before he could say anything, his lovely lady friend appeared, pushed Etta out of the way and gave her a disaproving, mocking look.

Taylor: “Sheeesh, what a buzzkill.”

Etta ignored her remark and  took a deep breath in, trying hard to keep her voice down.

E: “When do you plan to kick everybody out?”

A: “Oh, come on, Etta, don’t be so lame! Why don’t you grab a drink and just hang out?”

E: “Because unlike you, there’s still some human decency left in me, you absolute muppet!”

In that moment Dante walked in throught the garden door, wearing a swimsuit for some reason and inquiring about more alcohol. Amon gladly jumped at the opportunity and escaped the conversation.

Amon: “Let me find you some beer, bro.”

Etta felt tears burning in her eyes as she stood there like she was invisible while they all went about their business. Amon tried his best to acknowledge her as little as possible and she never felt more awkward and helpless.

Etta: “Amon, please, can you at least turn the volume down? I’m trying to…”

But Taylor’s cold, disdainful laugh cut her off mid-sentence.

T: “Oh, dear Watcher, just tell her what a pain in the plum she is, Amon!”

Etta: “Shut up, Barbie, it’s none of your business!”

A: “Whoa, watch it, sis, don’t talk to her like that! I think she’s right. Why can’t you stop being so uptight for one night and just have some fun, for plum’s sake!”

Etta could not believe her ears. She was genuinely counting on him to defend her against Taylor,  not the other way around. The betrayal left her speechless, but her brother was not done.

Amon: “Geeez, it’s not a coincidence you have no friends. Who would want to hang out with a bore like you!”

His words were like a slap in the face. She wasn’t ready for the humiliation that came with it, neither for Taylor’s hysterical laughter. For the first time in her life, she wanted to say something awful, too, she wanted to hurt him and to share her heartache, but she couldn’t fight the tears any longer. She turned around and ran to her room, sobs escaping her lips already.

A couple of minutes later, someone knocked on her door.

E: “Go to hell, Amon!”

But he, of course, did not respect her wishes and walked in. Except that it wasn’t Amon.

Dante: “Hey, it’s me.”

Etta sprang up from her bed in panic. He sounded genuinely concerned and on any other day, that alone would probably make her feel better. Right now, though, she was upset and confused and she didn’t want to see him any more than her awful brother. But more importantly, she didn’t want him to see her like this. She desperately needed few moments to collect herself.

D: “I just… You seemed really hurt by what Amon said and… not that I blame you, I mean, what a piece of plum! Honestly, it’s not true what he said. Lots of people want to hang out with you, he’s an idiot and I’m not here to apologize him.”

E: “Why are you here, then?”

D: “I just wanted to check if you were okay.”

E: “I will be, don’t worry about me.”

Etta wiped her tears and waited for him to leave, but he just sighed and came closer, his voice breathy and soft as a summer breeze.

D: “Listen, I know what you’re doing, okay? I know, because Angie was the same when our mother left us. She was doing everything in her power to stay strong and take care of me, just like you take care of your family. I know you want to protect them from the grief.”

She didn’t know what to say. With terror, she realized he was right and it paralyzed her to be suddenly so exposed. She didn’t have the strength to respond.

“But the thing is – you can’t, Etta. You can’t do this for them. Just like no one can do it for you. The grief… you can’t hide it behind the grief of others. It will always be there, so there’s no point fighting it. Just… take it. Take it like the earth takes rain, feel it, live it, let it cleanse you.”

He gently pulled her even closer and Etta, not fully realizing it, let herself fall further into his arms.

D: “It’s okay to be hurting, okay? It’s not a shame, it’s not a weakness and it’s not a burden. But if you ever feel like it is, I’m here, okay? I’m right here.”

Etta couldn’t stand it anymore. Something broke in her when he said it, the words scared her to death with their accuracy. They shook her soul and resonated with her very core and she cried and cried and he held her like there was nothing else in the world but her sorrow.

And for the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel alone in the world.

Chapter 20: For him

It was too much.

She wasn’t ready. Nobody was ready.

Etta knew it was coming sooner or later, although she had pushed it to the back of her mind. She knew it was inevitable and she knew there would be pain, lots of pain.

She just didn’t expect for it to hurt that much.

Her father passed away two weeks ago. And since then, it was like the time stopped. Or was it  her who got somehow stuck, while the time continued to pass like nothing happened? Every day was  just another endless, meaningless loop, filled only with quiet and solitude and pain.

There were moments when they couldn’t even look at each other. Etta never realized how isolating grief could be. The pain pushed each of them to their own corner, grief separating them like a deep, bottomless chasm nobody dared to bridge and they could do nothing but cry.

But there were other moments, too. Moments filled with special memories that brought smiles to their faces. Moments when they took care of each other. Moments of deepest gratitude. Those moments kept them trying to go on.

“Remember how he used to pretend to be the sea monster but couldn’t scare any kid with that kind face of his?”

Except for mom. She buried herself in her room, helpless and desperate and if it wasn’t for a few muffled sobs here and there, Etta would thought her mom died as well. Come to think of it, she probably did a little bit.

For two weeks, she lay in tears in bed all day, staring at the empty space by her side. She wasn’t speaking, she wasn’t eating and she wasn’t leaving the room, either.

Etta was worried. She wanted to give her all the time she needed, but she also wanted her mom back. Everyone wanted her back.

Knocking was deafening as it echoed in quiet corridors of their house. The annoyed voice coming from behind the closed door even more so.

“Go away, Devi!”

Etta slowly opened the door  and corrected her mother.

Etta: “Mom, it’s me.”

She entered the room and found Melia curled up in bed. She was pale, limp, with watery eyes and gray tint to the skin. When she heard Etta’s voice, she fought against the apathy  she’d indulged in for days and sat up straight.

For a minute, they sat there in  silence.

Etta: “Remember how I used to come here and beg you to let me stay with you at night?”

Melia: “Of course. You insisted you saw a ghost in your room. It was almost cute how scared you were.”

E: “Well, I’m scared now, too, Mom. I’m scared of losing you.”

M: “Etta, I…”

Her voice broke as she tried to answer and she burst into tears, sobbing violently. Etta didn’t know what to say and she felt her own tears building up in her eyes at the sight, so she remained queit.

It took a few dreadful minutes for mom to calm down. Etta desperately wanted to comfort her, to say or do something that would help. But if she knew the words she would have said them a long time ago. First of all to herself.

When her mom finally spoke again, her voice was rough and uneasy.

M: “I’m sorry, sweety. I miss him so much I can’t handle it. But… there’s also this… other thing.”

She inhaled heavily and started mumbling under her breath. Etta could barely make out the words.

“A few months ago, one of the guest in the diner liked my food so much she wanted to meet me. She thanked me and we talked briefly, I don’t even remember it that well. I thought nothing of it. And then… last week, the letter came.”

M: “It turned out she was a producer of SimChef. She wants me as a judge in the next season. The money she offered… I could probably save up enough to buy a restaurant in a year or two.”

Etta didn’t understand. Her mom was saying all those good things and yet, she said it with such an unhappy, remorseful face like it was  a terrible  tragedy.

E: “Mom! But that’s great news.”

M: “Maybe. I guess it would be if your father was still around. Now? Now I feel like a traitor. He worked his life away for this and once he’s gone, I’ll get to live the dream? How could I do that?”

Etta couldn’t believe her ears. She knew her mom was grieving but these words were madness. She was certain her dad would never approve of thoughts like that.

E: “What? No! No, Mom. You have to take it. Daddy would want that, I’m sure.”

M: “Oh, my child, you’re still so young. So optimistic. The world seems different for you, I understand. But I… I’m not even sure if I want it. It just wouldn’t be the same.”

The defeated tone in her voice broke Etta’s heart.

E: “You don’t know that! Look, I may be young, alright? And I may not know much about the world yet. But I know a good deal about love, because I’ve been a witness  of a great one my entire life.”

E: “Dad loved you so much, Mom. Everything he did, every day he suffered that horrible boss of his, every bussiness call he made and every freaking report he filled… it was all for you. He told me, years ago. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.”

E: “And he would  want you to go for it, Mom. He would want you to live your dream. His dream.”

Her mom just sat there quietly and stared at the wall in front of her. She was still obviously distraught, but her face looked more thoughtful than devastated. Etta was watching her changing expression carefully, ready to blurt out more arguments any second.

After another long pause, her mother stood up and forced a smile as she locked her daughter in a hug.

Melia: “You remind me of your father so much, sweety. Out of all our kids, you are most like him. And you’re right. I have to take it. If not for me… then definitely for him.”

Chapter 19: Trapped

“Etty, darling, put the books that are still usable to the boxes, please, so the boys can carry them to the car. I’m taking Seth to the store now. We should be back in an hour or so.”

Etta nodded although her dad couldn’t see her. She spent last two hours in the basement with old books, clothes and toys, deciding which were good enough to  be donated and which were going straight to the trash can. It was a tedious task, but Etta was happy to help.

“And don’t forget the lock is broken, okay? Okay, see you soon, cupcake!”

The idea to renovate the basement came after yet another heated argument between Amon and Seth. During the last two weeks, no day had passed without those two yelling at each other. At some point, Seth hacked into Amon’s phone, causing all sorts of trouble. When Amon found out, he slapped Seth across the face with such force it broke Seth’s glasses. Seth, understandably, fought back and then all hell broke lose.

That was the last straw. There was just so much conflict Melia could handle before realizing that her two sons simply couldn’t live with each other.

Moving one of them to the basement seemed too harsh and so it was decided to create two separate spaces there, one for each boy to spend his free time however he liked.

Melia: “No need to see each other. All. Day. Long! You’ll be still sharing the room up here, of course, because I’m not moving your beds to the cellar – yet – but I believe you can, at least, stay civil to each other while you sleep. Deal?”

And, probably for the first time in their life, Amon and Seth both agreed on something.

It meant a lot of work for the entire family, but everyone was just so happy, so eager to live without constant door slamming,  frequent swearing and endless cycles of insults that they all jumped right into it.

And so Etta found herself on the hard basement floor, surrounded by long forgotten household items and dusty furniture. It was both pleasant and heartbreaking to go through all  that old stuff. She hadn’t even thought of those things for years, but saying goodbye to them was harder than she originally anticipated.

Her nostalgic moment was suddenly interrupted by shrill noise of her phone ringing.

“Hello? Alexey?”

“I can’t tonight. I was telling you about this thing, wasn’t I? We’re renovating this weekend…yes…mhm.”

“Sure. See you Monday. Bye”

“Wow, that boy. I wish I was that resilient.”

Etta shaked her head, half-amused, half-annoyed and threw an especially heavy encyclopedia to the “still good” pile, when she heard the husky voice.

D: “Hey, there, girl! Do you often talk to yourself so much?”

E: “Do you often eavesdrop on people?”

Dante mumbled his answer, but the words were overpowered by the sound of the door slamming. As soon as Etta realized what happened, she ran towards them in futile attempt to open them again.

E: “NO! No no nonono! The lock’s broken, Dante! The door can only be open from the outside. We never close it when we’re in here.”

Etta knocked on the door loudly and called Amon’s name.

D: “It’s no use, he’s busy admiring his new workout machine. Aaron and Finn are helping him assemble it. I’m telling you, it’s worse than IKEA furniture. Plus, they increased the volume when your dad left.”

The music really was loud – she could hear it  from where she stood. There was no way she could out shout that. And Tori was with them, too, painting old shelves to make them look less pitiful.

E: “Great. So we’re trapped here for Watcher knows how long.”

She grumbled as she return to the giant pile of books on the floor.

D: “I think we’ll manage. So, you and the blond nerd, huh?”

Etta frowned and threw a book at him with exaggerated anger. He caught it and started paging through it casually.

E: “Don’t call him that, it’s mean.”

D: “Sorry, mommy.”

He smiled wryly, voice thick with mockery as he shut the book and threw it on the ground. Etta shaked her head and decided to join him on ancient bed that her mom used to sleep on when she was still a kid, but she remained quiet.

D: “Sooo, has he taken you out on a date yet?”

E: “What the… I mean, why do you even care?”

D: “Well, you said it yourself – we’e stuck here for awhile. I suggest we talk about something to pass the time.”

For some reason, his comment made her think of the advice she got from aunt Devi. ‘Tell him how you feel.’ She took a deep breath.

“Okay, maybe we could talk about…”

E: “….I don’t know. Books?”

‘You are such a coward, Etta Rossini.’

D: “Sure. Have you read any good ones lately?”

E: “Hmmm. No. Not really.”

D: “Neither have I. Great! Now that that’s out of the way – what’s up with Alexey?”

E: “Sheesh, just drop it. What are you jealous?”

‘LOL. I wish.”

D: “I just think it’s curious. I mean, what do you see in him, he’s so… completely bland. Not really a relationship material for a teenager. A girl your age needs some excitement.”

“You say it like you’re some kind of authority. What do you know about relationships, anyway? Your longest one lasted like… 12 hours?”

D: “You think I’m a terrible, heartless person, because I’m promiscuous?

“I don’t think you’re a terrible, heartless person at all. I just think you’re not the right person to pass judgment on such matters, when you… you’ve never even loved anyone.”

“I have, actually.”

E: “Yeah, but your mom doesn’t count.”

To her surprise, he didn’t laugh at her snarky comment.

D: “Well, I hate to break it to you, but I haven’t spoken to my mother for seven years. There are days, bad days, when I feel nothing but hate towards her. But today’s a good day, so let’s call it resentment.”

Etta was taken aback – his voice had never been so dark and serious before. At least not in front of her. She suddenly felt really stupid for joking around like that.

E: “I had no idea! I shouldnt have said that. I’m sorry.”

D: “It’s fine. You weren’t that far off. I was talking about my sister. So technically, it still doesn’t count.”

He tried to make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal at all, but it didn’t work. Etta felt even more ashamed for being inconsiderate before.

E: “I…. I didn’t know you have a sister.”

D: “That’s because I don’t. Not anymore.”

Hearing that, Etta’s heart skipped a beat in terror. She figured what it meant and she didn’t want it to be true, she didn’t want him to say the words out loud. The basement suddenly felt so much colder.

D: “She died when she was 16.”

E: “Oh, no! Dante, I’m so sor…”

But before she could finish the sentence, her phone buzzed. It was a text from mom.

E: “Sorry, my mom wants me to set the table. I guess I’ll have to dissapoint her.”

Dante just shrugged, lost in thoughts and Etta started typing the reply, when the idea struck her.

E: “Wow, I’m a real idiot. I have a phone! I can call them to let us out. How didn’t I think of it sooner?”

She dialed Amon’s number, then Tori’s, but none of her siblings picked up.

E: “I guess the music’s too loud?”

D: “Don’t worry about it. Someone will notice our absence sooner or later. Besides, it’s not that bad down here. With you.”

Something in his tone made her glance at him. There was a soft smile on his lips and strange intensity in his eyes, glimpses of longing and angst, pleas and promises, doubts. Etta couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was she was seeing but she knew he had never looked at her like that before. Like he was lost.

She leaned in.

E: “Tell me about her. What was her name, what was she like?”

D: “About Angie? Well, she was… tough. Stubborn at times. Overly independent and bossy, too. But she kinda had to be, since mother wasn’t around most of the time. Angie basically raised me on her own.”

D: “But she had another, softer side to her, you know. She was funny. Kind. Selfless and loving, very protective of family, even my mother. Oh and she was a math genius. Ridiculously smart and driven. She was… everything, I guess.”

D: “You remind me of her sometimes.”

His voice was but a whisper when he gently touched her hand.

E: “Tough and bossy, huh?”

D: “No, not that. You see, the thing about Angie was… that whenever she went, she was always the most interesting person in the room.”

D: “She had this calm, confident charm about her, that made her presence  comforting and at the same time – slightly intimidating. But even to strangers, she felt like home. Like safety. “

“Just like you.”

Etta wanted to object, feeling like she was none of those things he just mentioned, when his weight shifted slightly. It brought him closer to her, so close she could feel the heat of his breath on her face. There was the look in his eyes again, intense and dreamy,  that was drawing her in, hypnotizing her, until their lips met in a kiss.

Well, almost. Because in that moment, the door opened wide and hit the bed just a few inches from Etta, who, startled by the unexpected sound, jumped.

Tori: “Hey, noobs!”

Tori’s smiling face appeared seconds after that, informing them the lunch was ready and making fun of their temporary prison. Etta tried her best to act innocent, wondering how much her sister saw.

She got her answer as they were leaving the basement together.

T: “Just… be careful, okay? He’s got quite a reputation and he’s got it for a reason, you know. Whatever he told you, he probably…”

But Etta’s mind was already miles away. She was too astonished by to pay attention to such mundane things as words of advice. She didn’t need those where she was – on cloud nine.

Chapter 18: Devi to the rescue

Etta was mad. Disappointed too. And slightly embarrassed.  But mostly mad.

“As it turned out, the prince I thought I kissed was not really a prince after all. At least not for me. Maybe I should just kiss you, what do you say, Louis?”

At first, she was mad at Dante. Or she wanted to be. But she knew it wasn’t really his fault – people couldn’t decide what to memorize. It wasn’t like he did it on purpose.

Besides, Dante was still visiting them regularly for his music lessons and Etta found it impossible to stay away from him. Getting a chance to be around him and not taking it… still felt like a terrible waste. Everytime she saw his face or made him smile or simply heard him ringing the door bell, it made her heart flutter like there was a humming bird trapped inside her chest  – and she was getting addicted to the rush.

Dante was not helping, either. Clueless about what he was doing to her heart and mind and her whole existence, he started scheduling his lessons with Devi more often. And what was even worse (or better), he hanged around their house longer after each one of them.

They were never up to anything fancy. Mostly he watched her cook dinner and although she never persuaded him to help with preparations, he always happily helped with eating.

Dante: “If I could sing like you can cook, I would be a plumming rock star by now. Seriously, Etta, people need this. People need your food. You’re committing a crime by keeping this to yourself.”

They also talked a lot. About school and after school plans, about music and football and food. About their families, too. Etta told him some embarrassing childhood stories about Amon and Dante regularly shared the craziest family histories with her.

D: “So, my grandfather, Don, never married grandma Dina. He actually married her mom! But not before he had an affair with grandma’s sister Nina. And he also got all three of them pregnant – while they all lived in one house!”

Etta: “Hm, I’m pretty sure you’re making this up.”

D: “Oh, come on! I’m not creative enough to come up with something that plummed up. Too bad grandfather left before my mother was even born. He sounds like a fun guy to hang out with. He could probably teach me a thing or two.”

E: “Yeah, like how to get chlamydia.”

D: “Holy plum, someone’s been paying attention in sex ed, huh?”

Sometimes, he played a few songs for her while constantly making fun of his lack of skill, although that joke was getting less and less funny every time, since Dante’s playing was actually getting better rapidly. He usually played some sappy love song from the 80s, because they had easier chords, as he explained.

Etta didn’t mind. There were only very few things in the world she found more mesmerizing than Dante at that point of her life, but singing Dante was definitely one of them. The lyrics were often so suggestive that Etta was sure he chose them on purpose to torture her.

“I wanna know what love is.”

“I want you to show me.”

Etta to herself: ‘Oh, I’ll show you right now, boy.’

Still, it was a strangely pleasant torture. Too bad it was always over when Amon came home, since Dante was only sticking around until Amon showed up and then they headed out together. But Etta was grateful for every second. The boys were already seniors in high school. Soon, they would graduate and leave and her few stolen moments with Dante would end forever. She just couldn’t afford being angry at him, when their time was so limited.

So instead, the poor girl was mad at herself. She was mad for being so naive, for letting herself hope that someone like Dante could ever be interested in her. He was the most popular guy in their school, a talented athlete and musician and also the most handsome person she has ever seen. He could have any girl he pointed his finger at.

‘Why on earth would he choose me?’

It was hopeless. She knew it. But no matter how much she fought it, she couldn’t get rid of those feelings. On the contrary. Few weeks went by and Etta realized that what was once a pure physical reaction changed  to actual affection. She cared about him. She cared about his well-being, she cared about his daring dreams, she cared about his heart, simply because she knew now he had one, no matter how hard he tried to hide it with his playboy manners and indifferent attitude.

She cared about him. And it was almost unbearable.

But Etta was not the only one to notice the change.

Devi: “Hmmm, I feel like we should talk.”

E: “What? Why?”

D: “Dunno! I just feel like we should. It’s been awhile since we talked. I feel like talking to you.”

E: “You’re being weird, Devi.”

Etta was suspicious, but her aunt just winked at her like it was no big deal.

D: “Aren’t we all, from time to time? I have an open air concert in the park tonight. Wanna come?”

After Etta’s hesitant little nod, she smiled brightly.

D: “Awesome! Let me change to something more comfortable and we’re good to go.”

Etta was glad she came. Watching Devi perform was energizing and uplifting. She knew Devi was highly skilled and talented musician, she had heard her practice many times before. Daily. But seeing her perform, seeing the energy she poured into her music was a totally different experience.

Afterwards, they sat to eat veggie burgers Etta prepared for them and after a very brief, pleasant small talk, Devi looked at her niece knowingly:

D: “Etta, I know you better than you think. I can see something’s troubling you. So if you feel like talking about it, I’m right here.”

Etta sighed. She did feel like talking about it, she just didn’t want anyone to know that such a ridiculous matter was troubling her. It was such a petty thing in the grand scheme of things, after all.

Etta: “So…there’s… this one…boy….”

It sounded even worse than she imagined it and Devi’s badly hidden ‘I knew it’ look didn’t help.

E: “Geez, don’t give me the look, Devi.”

D: “Sorry. Go on.”

E: “Okay, so there’s this boy and he is… he’s kinda terrible. He swears a lot and he doesn’t take school seriously. He’s unpredictable, frustrating, immature, even reckless sometimes. And he’s also a bit of flirt.”

D: “And let me guess – you can’t stop thinking about him.”

E: “Pretty much. Tell me, Devi, have I lost my mind?”

E: “Because I DON’T want to like him! I’ve never intended to feel this way, it’s just… I think I also see someone else beneath all that. And that someone is… unlike all the other boys I know.”

D: “I see. And how does he feel about all this?”

E: “How should I know? It’s not like I can go and ask him…”

D: “Why not? Maybe you should. It might be a relevant piece of information for him.”

E: “Well, I’ve tried, but… It’s hard. I mean, he’s way out of my league.”

D: “First of all, the ‘league’ is made up high school plum. And second of all: of course it’s hard. Being vulnerable and exposed is the hardest thing, my sweet. But don’t let your fear hold you back. If you love someone, there is no possible harm in saying so.”

E: “No possible harm? But what if…”

D: “Only a psychopath would feel anything but pleased to hear that someone finds them attractive, Etta. At worst, he doesn’t feel the same and you’ll be exactly where you are now – not with him, right?”

D: “But at best, he does feel the same and he’s  scared to tell you, just like you are.”

“And if that’s the case – it would be a waste of  a possibly great love story, don’t you think?”

Chapter 17: Much Ado About Nothing

“O.”

“M.”

“G.”

“DANTE LOTHARIO?!”

“You kissed Dante Lothario!”

E: “SHHHHHH! For plum’s sake, keep your voice down.”

Etta hissed at Billie angrily as panic washed over her and she quickly scanned the street for potential eavesdroppers. They were on their way to school and other kids could be taking the same road. She really didn’t want this to get out, at least not before speaking with Dante. Being involved with a popular boy like that… she could imagine what an uproar it would cause.

But the coast was clear and Etta’s expression changed from a frown to bashful smile as she corrected her amazed friend.

E: “Well, technically, he kissed me.”

B: “Finally something interesting happened in this stupid little town.”

B: “Soooo, how was it? Did you lick his abs?”

E: “BILLIE!!!”

B: “What? I would have!”

E: “Yeah, but you’re a mental case.”

B: “Hey! Alright, Miss Boring. Will you tell me the whole story or do you want me to die of anticipation?”

Etta shook her head in amusement but she obliged. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was dying to tell someone about it  – all the excitement was just too much to handle. And Billie was the perfect person, because she acted almost as thrilled as Etta felt.

E: “And then he said…”

After school, she rushed to the library. Her class got a new science assignment that day and Etta was ready to start working on it. She found three books that looked helpful and, pleased with herself, she hid in her favourite quiet corner of study hall and indulged herself in mysteries of physics.

However, the studying didn’t really go as smoothly as usual. Maybe it was because of the subject…

‘Every planetary body is surrounded by its own gravitational field, which can be conceptualized with Newtonian physics as exerting an attractive force on all objects.’

“Hmm, that sounds like Dante.”

…but she was distracted and unfocused like never before. Disturbed, she shut the book and, in a very untypical fashion, left the library quite soon.

But if she was hoping to find a better study environment at home, she was terribly mistaken. She barely made it to the kitchen when she heard the thumps and angry screams.

It was Seth. He was standing in front of the door to his room, hammering at it with his fists, his face red and his voice furious.

“AMON!! Open the door! Do you HEAR ME?! Open the plumming DOOR!!”

Etta didn’t know what happened and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to. Amon and Seth had been unbearable for  quite some time now. It was a never-ending cycle of insults and arguments with those two. When they weren’t fighting, they were denying each other’s existence or at least trying to make the life of the other an absolute nightmare. But a scene of this proportion was a new occurence.

“AMON! Just take your brainless bimbo and GO TO HELL!!!”

Etta rolled her eyes in frustration. So it was because of some girl once again. Etta hated Amon for rubbing the fact he never had a girlfriend in Seth’s face like that, but it was rather hard to feel sympathy for Seth when he was being so mean. She was considering if she should intervene somehow, when the front door opened and Melia walked in.

Melia: “What is going on here?”

Etta noticed her mama sounded tense and weary.

Seth: “MOM! Amon brought another hooker to our house! And they locked themselves in my room! REALLY! And they’ve been there for hours! Mom! He’s…”

And then, the door opened and Amon walked out with a big  smile on his face, looking surprised.

Amon: “Oh, hello, everyone. Are we having a family gathering or what?”

But before anyone could react, Seth turned and started shouting at him, his rage pouring out of him like poisonous vapors. And Amon was just smiling and looking at him, baffled. Etta couldn’t help but admire his nerve.

“YOU! You plumming bastard! I’m gonna…”

Mama sighed, rubbing her forehead. She was clearly exhausted and Etta wasn’t sure if it was work or annoyance over boys’ tiresome, inconclusive dispute.

M: “I can’t deal with you two right now.

M: “You’re both grounded and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

And with that, she turned around and disappeared on the second floor, leaving both boys so shocked and speechless that they didn’t even notice Amon’s friend sneaking out of the house with inaudible goodbye.

“Ehm, see ya later – or not.”

Hour or two later, Etta found Seth outside, practicing chess.

Etta: “Hey.”

Seth: “Ugh.”

E: “Do you want me to talk to Mom? I could…”

S: “For plum’s sake, Etta. How many times do I have to tell you: I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP! Buzz off!!”


So she went. It saddened her when she realized Seth’s words didn’t even surprise her; heck, she expected him to yell at her. It’s become his new normal.

It was troubling, but so were other things. Like the fact that Dante didn’t call nor texted and Etta wasn’t sure where they stood after the kiss. She’d never kissed anyone before, she didn’t know the protocol. Dante, on the other hand, kissed lots and lots of people. And she didn’t want to admit the possibility that it didn’t mean anything to him, but she knew in the back of her mind that it was likely.

She was naturally anxious when he showed up for his music lesson. It was Tuesday afternoon, five days after the party, when he rang at their door. Etta waited patiently until she heard the piano and once she was sure the lesson started, she went downstairs. Their eyes met for a brief second when she entered the room and he immediately hit the wrong note. Etta smiled as she sat at the dinning table and opened her chemistry book, ready to work on her homework while he practiced like so many times before.

After the first half of the lesson, Devi took a little break and Dante shifted in his seat so he was looking in her direction.

Dante: “Are you deaf yet?”

Etta rolled her eyes at his joke.

Etta: “So that’s your intention! And here I thought you were scaring the ghosts away.”

Dante snorted.

E: “Uhm, are you hungry? I made fish tacos for lunch and there are still some left.”

He was, so they headed to the kitchen. Etta exhaled slowly as they grabbed their plates, gathering courage to ask him about the whole kissing incident.

“You really made these? Oh, boy, why don’t you… I don’t know, leave school and open a taco place? Or a pancakes place or something like that. You’re a pro!”

Encouraged by his pancakes remark, Etta tried to bring up the tricky subject.

E: “Maybe one day. Listen, Dante. I thought… maybe we should talk?”

D: “Sure! About what?”

Etta bit her lip. He wasn’t helping and she didn’t like the carefree tone in his voice.

E: “Well, you know. About what happened. At the party…?”

D: “Oh, you mean when Striker puked on Carlie’s hair? Man, that was pretty something!”

Etta broke off. Why was he playing  like this? He had to know what a big deal it was for her and Dante was many things but he wasn’t cruel.

D: “Etta? You were saying?”

She hesitated. He was looking at her with raised eyebrows and a confused smile.

He was clueless. Absolutely clueless. He had no idea what she was hinting at. And it was either a very good act or…

“You don’t remember.”

D: “You bet your sweet ass I don’t! I had so much booze that day I couldn’t even remember the party happened until others told me about it and…”

But Etta was not listening to him anymore.

Chapter 16: Party

A/N: Hey, everyone, I know it’s been months, but I’m back now and I have a bunch of chapters ready for you! And since it’s been so long, I went and re-read the previous chapters so you don’t have to. Here’s a quick summary of past events:

Teenage Etta’s got a job at a café, partly for the experience, partly to help out with finances, because she felt bad her dad worked so much. And it was somewhat justified, since her father had an exhaustion collapse shortly after that. Etta’s brother Amon got dumped out of nowhere and he decided to get over it by hooking up with as many girls as humanly possible. Together with his best friend Dante Lothario, they are known as the biggest womanizers in school. And it complicates things, because, of course, Etta has had a crush on Dante since he started taking music lessons at their house. In the last chapter, Etta had a huge argument with both her brothers and she was also invited to Dante’s party.

I hope that helped refresh your memory a bit! Enjoy!


“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Etta was freaking out. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and she didn’t know how to calm the chaos in her mind. How on earth was she supposed to face Dante, the most gorgeous, radiant, stunning guy in the world, while wearing only a bikini? She had no clue how  to gain enough confidence for that.

And she still suspected her sister forgot to mention the party was a pool party on purpose.

Tori: “Etty, please! Just look at you – I swear you have nothing to worry about. Except maybe totally blowing their minds.”

T: “Come on, put your dress on!”

Etta rolled her eyes and tried to focus, but her stomach was making backflips at the mere thought of the party. With Tori’s help,  she somehow managed the preparations, but she barely remebered it afterwards. It was like she fell into some kind of a trance.

And it didn’t get better when they got there. Quite the opposite.

T: “So, here we are! And everyone’s wearing a swimsuit. Let’s go change!”

Etta noticed the swimsuits  – especially on pretty cheerleaders who constantly followed Dante around and stared at him with dreamy eyes.

‘I don’t blame them,’ she thought to herself  with a light heart but it quickly sank when she realized she never talked to any of the cool kids there. Once again, she felt totally out of her element.  She couldn’t think of anything fun or interesting to say as they mingled, so she stayed stubbornly quiet and followed Tori around like a lost puppy.

Tori: “So, how do you like it so far?”

E: “Fine, I guess. Everyone’s much nicer than in school.”

T: “They are not bad people, Etta. And they are not going to bite your nose off, if you speak to them, I promise.”

E: “I’ve never said they’re bad! I just think we have nothing in common.”

T: “You’ll never find out unless you give them a chance! Why don’t you wait for me in the jacuzzi while I get us something to drink? Stella there is really funny and nice, I’ll introduce you.”

Stella really was nice. And talkative. And Etta was starting to feel less tense as she talked to her about swimming and movie adaptations and summer plans.

Stella: “It was such a cheap, predictable, boring cliche! They should have stayed with the source material!”

Unfortunately, Etta’s fragile bubble of safety quickly burst, when someone else desired Stella’s company and called her name. The girl apologized and left and the silence she left behind was deafening.

Etta slowly sat back, a small smile she offered Stella still lingered on her lips as she looked around. She didn’t know any of the people around her and she suddenly felt awkward and intrusive just sitting there listening to their conversations, even though they seemed to be paying no attention to her.

As she leaned against the hot tub shell, she realized she was sitting next to a quite attractive, athletic guy.

And he was looking right at her! It immediately made her self-concious and even more nervous than before. Afraid she’d embarrass herself, she chose to stay still and queit.

But the boy noticed the quick glance she threw his way. He smiled confidently as he took his eyes off of her and then he spoke to her nonchalantly.

“Hey, nerd! Nice tits!”

Etta’s stomach jumped and all the blood in her body rushed to her cheeks as everyone in the jacuzzi laughed. She froze, unable to find an acceptable response to his remark and after a few mortifying seconds of absolute silence, she decided to leave. Fast.

Determined to find her sister, she roamed the garden, only to spot Tori dancing her butt off on a dance floor, while another girl cheered her on.

She didn’t want to ruin her big moment, so she headed for a bar, instead.

“One soda, please.”

Unfortunately, Carlie Fyres was hanging around there, too.

Carlie: “Soda? Are you kidding me? And I thought you couldn’t get any lamer.”

Etta: “Ehmm, I don’t… I don’t drink.”

Carlie sputtered and scowled angrily.

C: “Well, you do now! This is a party! One Monkey Wrench for my pathetic little cousin here, please.”

Etta didn’t like it, she didn’t like it one bit, but she knew Carlie. Last thing she needed was to fight with her and make a scene. And Carlie was notorious for causing the loudest, most dramatic scenes on any occassion.

She took the drink and sat on a sofa next to Carlie. She knew her cousin wouldn’t let go once she set her mind to something. They kinda had that in common.

‘That’s why we never got along that well, I guess.’

“What are you waiting for? Just drink it already! I swear to Watcher, sometimes it’s embarrassing to be related to you.”

Etta sighed and drank the stupid cocktail while Carlie watched – it wasn’t bad, but Etta didn’t like it. She was dissapointed and upset and hurt and just wanted to leave already.

As soon as she finished the drink, Carlie stood with a triumphant smile on her face.

C: “See? Was that so hard?”

And then, thankfully, she walked away. Etta didn’t understand what was Carlie’s problem – why would someone do such a thing? Her preference for non-alcoholic beverages was not interfering with Carlie’s drinking in any way.

‘Why does she even care what I’m doing?’

Confused and bothered, Etta had enough of the party. She decided to hide inside until Tori was ready to leave.

She walked into the house only to find herself right in the kitchen. And without even thinking about it, she decided to prepare something to eat. It was her favourite thing to do to pass the time and she had barely eaten that day.

Pancakes were half way ready when his voice interrupted her.

Dante: “Etta? What the… What are you doing?”

Dante was standing right there, looking confused but dashing in his tight shirt and curious smile on his lips.

“Oh, Dante! I’m so sorry! I… I didn’t want to… I just. I always cook when I’m upset. I guess I was in such a frenzy, I haven’t realized what I ‘m doing.”

“That’s fine. The thing is…nobody’s allowed to be upset at my party. What happened?”

“I’m not even sure – everything, lately. My dad got sick, my brothers are, like, totally out of their minds and then there’s you and… and this party! And all the people here, they’re … they are just so… I just can’t do anything right and…”

Etta stopped when she felt her breath shorten and tears building up in her eyes as emotions took over her. Maybe it was alcohol, maybe it was just too much for her, but she knew that if she spoke one more word about any of it, she’d totally lose it. And she was definitely not going to cry in front of him.

“Sorry. You don’t need to hear that.”

Dante had to have noticed the fragile tone in her voice because he let it go.

D: “And cooking helps?”

Etta shrugged and lightened up a bit.

E: “I know it’s weird. But it does. Food is simply so… unifying, you know. It’s an experience we all share. Because, well, we all have to eat, no matter who we are and that brings us together.”

“Ever had that feeling of perfect peace after a good meal? It’s like everything falls into place, your worries shrink and world is alright for a second. And making food, being the one who can give this to others… I don’t know. It calms me.”

Dante smiled and she returned the smile shyly, pretty sure she gushed too much and too enthusiastically.

E: “I’m ridiculous, right?

D: “Yeaah, well, now that you mention it….”

D: “I’m kidding. You’re inspiring.”

“I’m afraid you’re the only one who thinks that.”

“I’m afraid other people don’t know you that well, then.”

He took a step forward and reached for her, his eyes intense and gentle before he closed them and pressed his lips against hers.

Etta was sure she was dreaming. It wouldn’t be the first time – but this was so much better than those dreams. She could hardly believe it.

She took a deep breath and to avoid awkward silence, she grabbed the plate from the counter and smiled.

E: “So…pancakes?”

Chapter 15: Inappropriate

“I wanted to ask you, Etta. Would you go on a date with me?”

“Earth to Etta!!! Earth to Etta!!!”

Smack!

“What?”

Etta was lost for a second. She quickly picked up the toast from the ground and tossed it back into the pan, struggling to remember what was the conversation about before she totally zoned out.

“I was asking if you’re coming to Dante’s party tomorrow.”

Etta blushed when she heard his name. She had to try really hard to push her silly daydream out of her head.

“Dante’s throwing a party?”

“Didn’t he tell you? That’s weird. He said  a couple of days ago that he would invite you.”

Etta heartbeat accelarated. The thought of Dante thinking about her was strangely exciting. What made him change his mind about the invitation, though…
She shrugged, acting calm and unimpressed.

“Well, he didn’t, so…”

“But I’m inviting you right now! He won’t mind. Come on, we’ll have a good time!”

It was a nice image – she could spend several hours in his house, with him around. She could catch a glimpse of him every now and then. Maybe she could even get a chance to chat with him. A soft smile crossed her face at the thought.

“You know what? I’ll go! I’ve never been on a real party before.”

“Exactly. It’s about time for you to have some fun. You never do anything but study and work.”

“But my work is kinda fun – it’s got croissants and cookies! And school is interesting these days, the new chemistry assignement is…”

“I know! Just…don’t mention chemistry at the party tonight. Some kids there hate science lessons.”

“Did someone say party?”

Chris appeared in the kitchen, wearing his best suit and his favourite cologne.

C: “What kind of party are we talking about? How many people? When? Where? Will there be boys?”

“Welllll, maybe? I mean, it’s possible?”

“In that case, I want both of you to be home at eleven  or I’m calling the police! And no cigarettes or alcohol! But that goes without saying, right?”

E: “Of course, Daddy! We’ll behave ourselves. Promise!”

Chris and Melia were stricter about rules ever since Tori had to spend the night at uncle Evander’s place after Carlie left her alone in a night club. And their parents didn’t even know about the boy who followed her around. They would have never allowed them to leave the house again.

T: “Perfect, Etty! You sure know how to deal with parents, don’t you?”

Etta laughed, although she didn’t know what Tori was talking about. She meant every word she said.

But she quickly let it go. She was too busy making up scenarios about the party in her head. She couldn’t stop thinking about it for an entire day. She knew it was all just an utterly absurd, hopeless fantasy that was never going to happen for real, but still – it was a pleasant one. And even if she wanted it to stop, she didn’t know how. The feelings came on their own, so surely they must go away on their own, too.

She was still distracted after school, but luckily, Seth had some problems of his own, so he didn’t care about her absent-mindness.

S: “It’s so unfair, you know? I’m the best player in the chess club right now. Maybe even the best ever. I don’t know why I have to compete to get the title of the club captain.”

E: “Seth, if you’re really that great, you have nothing to worry about.”

S: “I’m not worried. But it seems abundant. Why should we waste precious time with another tournament when everyone’s already aware of my superiority.”

“Hmm, maybe not everyone sees it that way. They deserve to have a chance, too.”

S: “Ugh, why am I even talking to you about it. You know nothing about chess.”

S: “Whatever. I’m gonna grab some snack. You want something?!

Etta was about to ask for a tuna sandwich when the bathroom door slammed. It surprised them quite a bit since nobody was supposed to be home at the time Seth and Etta were the first ones to come home from school that day.

But before they could do anything about it, a figure walked into the dinning room.

Etta immediately recognized her. It was Michelle. And she was naked from neck down, with only a towel covering her hair. She seemed surprised.

“Oh, is this not a good time?”

Etta didn’t understand. And just like Seth, she was paralyzed by shock and embarrassment. Suddenly, another door opened and Amon walked in.

“Hey, babe. What’s up?”

He walked toward the girl and kissed her, completely ignoring the absurdity of the situation. When he was done, he asked her to wait for him in his room.

After Michelle  closed the door behind her, Seth finally regained his ability to speak.

“What the hell, Amon? Have you lost your mind? Stop bringing freaking hookers to our house, for plum’s sake!”

“Aww, Little Seth got to see real boobies for the first time. Amazing, isn’t it?”

“Those were definitely not real, you idiot. You crossed the line, Amon. Mom and Dad are gonna be so pissed about this.”

A: “Like I care. I know you’re just jealous because you’re a pathetic virgin who can’t even dream of getting a girl of his own.”

E: “Amon! Don’t be a jerk!”

S: “Oh, Watcher. Shut up, Etta. I don’t need your help, okay? I don’t need a stupid little girl like you to defend me!”

And suddenly, he was gone.

A: “Whoa. What’s his problem?”

E: “Amon! What’s wrong with you. That was inappropriate. And kinda embarrassing, too.”

A: “Oh, it’s okay. Michelle’s a model and she poses nude, too. She doesn’t mind.”

“But I do! And apparently, Seth does, too! What are you even doing with Michelle anyway. I thought she was Dante’s girlfriend.”

A: “Ha! Definitely not. Dante was just having fun. And now I’m having fun. We’re cool.”

“You share girls now? Unbelievable!  And do you realize how desperate you look when you rub your conquests into everyone’s face like this?”

Amon hesitated for a second, contemplating her words.

A: “Hey, cut me some slack here, will ya? This was your idea, Etta! You wanted me to have some class and bring the girls home! You thought the bush was not good enough, remember?”

“You women! I’m wrong when I don’t listen to you and even more wrong when I do!”

And just like that, he was gone, too.

Etta just sat there, baffled. She was pretty sure she never suggested their home as a good place for Amon’s affairs, but it didn’t matter anymore. It seemed that the more she tried the  the less she understood.

Her brothers were really strange creatures.

Chapter 14: Realization

“OH-MY-WATCHER!!!”

The blonde girl behind Etta almost screamed. Billie was the sweetest co-worker she could ever wish for, but she could be a real oddball sometimes.

“Guess WHO just walked through the door! Dante freakin’ Lothario!”

Etta’s heart did a backflip at the mere sound of his name. She looked up without realizing what she was doing and it was true. Dante stood right there in the middle of the café.

She smiled instictively when she saw him, but then she noticed a particularly attractive girl next to him and quickly came to her senses. Trying to sound as indefferent as possible, she turned her attention back to dirty dishes.

E: “So what?”

Billie couldn’t believe her ears.

B: “So what?! He’s like… the hottest guy in school. Don’t act like you don’t have a crush on him. Everyone does. It’s human nature.”

Etta shrugged as she washed a hundredth mug that morning. Billie rolled her eyes at her lack of enthusiasm and went back to work. Mondays were always particularly busy and customers were quickly accumulating in front of the counter, forming a rowdy, nervous crowd.

Against her better judgement, Etta looked up and saw Dante standing at the end of the line. And he looked really good.

‘Damn it, Etta, get a grip or someone’s gonna notice just how plumming ridiculous you are.’

She managed to look away and decided to change filters in the coffee machine. It kept her focused for a while. At least until she overheard Billie taking Dante’s order. She tried to fight it but she couldn’t help herself. She looked up again, turning her head towards the sound of his voice.

He stood on the same spot as before, looking better than ever and Etta felt like her brain just melted.

‘Oh, my, he’s SO hot.’

‘How is he so hot?!’

‘Daaamn, I wish I was that coffee.’

Her wild train of thoughts was interrupted suddenly when the boy spoke.

D: “Etta? Hey, are you alright?”

He walked around the counter and sat on a bar stool there while Etta tried to contain the emotions she felt lately.

“Me? Good! I mean…ehm, never been better.”

D: “Well, okay then. It’s just that you looked a little distracted for a second.”

‘You have no idea,’ she thought to herself, her heart beating louder than a marching band. She was really glad the café was crowded and noisy that day.

E: “Oh, I’m just tired. Please, don’t tell my boss you saw that. He wants us to be all smiley and pretty and fresh in front of customers.”

D: “Well, you look fine to me. Listen, I wanted to ask you…”

Etta would love to stand there forever and watch how his perfect lips formed perfect sounds into the perfect words he spoke, but unfortunately, Mondays were truly extremely busy and they’ve just run out of cocoa.

E:  “I’m sorry, Dante, but I gotta go. This place is a mess today and we need a few things from the stock room. We’ll talk later, okay?”

Dante just smiled and nodded. Etta sighed as she watched him leave, unable to take her eyes off him.

‘Watcher, help me.’

B: “Hey! I saw that!”

Billie’s voice brought Etta back to earth. And back to work.

“Saw what?”

“Uhm, your face? When you talked to him? It was lit up like a freaking Christmas tree!”

“No, it wasn’t.”

B: “Etta, look, I’m not dumb. I can recognize a crush when I see one. But hello! You talked to Dante Lothario! Did he ask you out or something?”

E: “What? No! He’s Amon’s friend. He was just saying hello.”

B: “Well, better be careful. Dante’s not the type who would say hello to a girl without a very good reason. And that reason is usually in her pants.”

E: “Ew, Billie. Gross! I’m gonna get that cocoa.”

The blonde girl didn’t stop talking, but Etta quickly got away and hid in the stock room so she couldn’t hear her.

‘The worst thing is…Billie’s absolutely right.’

Dante was notorious ladies’ man. Girls were crazy about him and he was more than okay with it. Rumours had it that it ran in their family – his grandfather Don used to be quite a playboy, too.

Etta later caught a glimpse of that girl of his, Michelle. Billie told her she was a freshman in college and a lingerie model. She surely looked like one.

She looked like a kind of girl Dante would actually date. ‘Unlike me,’ Etta sighed.

B: “I guess one could call her his girlfriend. But, well… guys like Dante don’t really have girlfriends. Just… you know.”

Billie had a lot of information about the girl. She kept talking about Michelle and her botox and surgeries and extentions for the next hour. Etta couldn’t wait for the shift to end.

But it didn’t bring her any relief. On her way to school, she ran into Aleksey.

A: “Hey, Etta! Did you get my text?”

Etta’s heart sank. She suspected the text wasn’t from Dante, but while it was anonymous she could at least fantasize about it. Now that she knew who sent it, the magic was gone.

“Sure. I didn’t know it was from you, though. But thanks.”

A: “Well, now you know. Surprise! Heh. So, hm… I was wondering. Would you like to grab a coffee with me?”

Etta was like paralyzed. She didn’t know what to do. Aleksey was so great. And kinda cute, too. But she had feelings for somebody else.

‘For somebody who will never be interested in me,’ she thought bitterly.

E: “I don’t know, Aleksey. I work at a coffee shop, you know. I had enough coffee today. And every other day, too, I guess.”

And with an excuse about running late, she turned around and rushed down the street, leaving the dissapointed boy behind.

She felt really bad for turning him down like that, but she had to. It would be unfair to go out with him, given the circumstances.

Lost in thoughts, she bumped into someone at the end of the street.


She immediately started apologizing when she realized it was her brother Amon with a satisfied, cocky smile on his face. Expecting him to mock her or tease her by pinching her cheecks or do some other childlish thing, she instinctively flinched.

“Amon? What are you—?”

But then she noticed someone else – a girl crawling out of a bushes behind him  and her cheecks reddened in the sudden realization.

She didn’t really know why, but she snapped.

“Seriously, Amon? This is how you spend your time now? Have some decency, geez. And next time, spare me the shame and choose a bush that is not right next to my workplace, for plum’s sake!”

And with that she stormed off. She couldn’t put her finger on what exactly bothered her the most – Billie’s trash talk about Dante, Aleksey’s inability to read between the lines or Amon’s absolute lack of class. But she was sure of one thing.

‘Boys are such morons.’

Chapter 13: First and Last

T: “Etta! Dante’s here!”

E: “So? He’s not here to see me.”

T: “I know, I just thought… nevermind.”

Etta rolled her eyes and continued reading. Since she met Dante in the library, everyone was making  a fuss about him. Sure, he was fun and well-built and probably the most gorgeous boy she’d ever met, but that was exactly the point – guys like that were into other types of girls.

‘Yeah, I can keep dreaming.’

So she simply didn’t understand why Tori couldn’t shut up about him. Especially since there was all that drama going on downstairs.

Amon: “She was like  ‘I’m too young for a serious relationship.’ and plum like that! Do you know what else she said?”

A: “That she needs to ‘experience life before settling down’.  What the plum! She would experience plenty of life with me! I’m the definition of life!”

D: “Yeah, buddy, she’s gonna regret it one day, you’ll see.”

A:  “I know, right?! I bet she’s already regretting it. Let’s face it, I’m a total catch. Every girl in school would kill to be in her place. And instead of being happy about it, she goes and dumps me, just like that!”

D: “She’s a cow. And you’re better off without her – she’s not even that hot, I’m telling you. You can do much better.”

Etta and Tori tried to talk some sense into Amon when his girlfriend Brylee broke up with him that afternoon. Nobody expected him to be too upset, since Amon never seemed to be crazy in love with her. But to their surprise, he was absolutely devastated. He stopped talking, he stopped eating, he even stopped working out.

They had to call Dante. And even though girls considered his pep talk ridiculous and childlish it worked. Amon started acting more reasonable. But still, for the next few days, he was down in the dumps. Heartbroken aura followed into every room he entered and the family wasn’t quite sure how to deal with him. It would probably last much longer, if it wasn’t for another emergency that took everyone’s mind of Brylee: Chris collapsed from exhaustion after a particularly hard week at work.

It was scary. One moment he was standing in front of the fridge, choosing between leftover chilli or fish tacos. And in another moment, he was lying on the floor, feeble and unconcious.

The dinner that day was dreadful. Melia went to the hospital with Chris, so the kids were on their own and they were terrified. For some reason, Etta couldn’t bring herself to eat in the dining room. That’s where they’ve always spent most time just hanging out as a family. And with mom and dad in the hospital, their family just didn’t feel quite right. So she went to eat outside instead and her sibling quietly followed.

Nobody said a word while they were eating. Etta knew that if she tried, she would probably end up crying and that wouldn’t help anybody. She was sure her siblings just realized the same thing as she did – that the time between birth and dead is limited. And it flies. Mercilessly.

Luckily, Chris was all right. He came back home the next day and they all sat together in the dinning room and listened to Melia.

M: “Your father needs a vacation. We’re leaving in thirty minutes. No excuses.”

Melia rented a comfortable cabin in Granite Falls that could accomodate all six of them. Tori wasn’t pleased to find out she had no service out there but she didn’t say anything. She knew the situation was serious and she didn’t want to upset her dad with complaints.

They arrived in the early evening and after unpacking and changing into oudoorsy clothes, they started the trip in a big style – by lightning the campfire. No one in the family went camping before, so it was a brand new experience for them all.

Tori: “The house was built in 1904…”

They roasted some hotdogs for dinner and then, they feasted on s’mores. They told jokes and ghost stories (sometimes both at the same time) until the night got chilly and not even the heat from the fire could help. It was nearly midnight when the kids said good night and raced towards the bathroom, every one of them hoping to be the first to shower. The run, however, didn’t prevent Etta from noticing how happy and calm her dad was and she went to bed feeling a bit relieved.

Next day, after quick breakfast, there were two separate activities. Boys went fishing with Chris. They didn’t have to wander too far away, since there was a river bay just a few steps behind the cabin.

Meanwhile, girls took a nice long dip in a natural pool that was also part of the rented lot.

For lunch, they agreed to grill fish, but unfortunately, boys didn’t catch anything worth grilling. Melia saw that coming. None of them tried fishing before, after all. Luckily, she was ready for this scenario – she brought plenty of groceries from home. And she had Etta to help her, of course.

The girls had the lunch ready in no time. And it was quite a feast. They served roasted chicken with herbs and root vegetables, potato casserole, Brussels sprout salad with cranberries and smoked almonds. And on top of that a scrumptious apple pie.

“Wow, Mom has really outdone herself today.”

After the meal, the family set out for the national park. Melia and Chris went on a long hike together, while Tori and Amon decided to sit in front of the public cabin because there was Wi-Fi available.

At least they were getting some fresh air, unlike their brother Seth, who stayed inside and admired the magnificent collection of insect that was on display.

Etta, on the other hand, wandered around the forest. She couldn’t really understand her siblings. The place was so beautiful and so different than Willow Creek. How could they be so unimpressed? She missed aunt Devi terribly. She knew she would have absolutely loved the place. Etta spent an entire afternoon looking for something nice for her aunt, something that would make it up to her a little.

In the evening, teens decided to be social and visited the campgrounds. The place was full of daring adventurers and noisy families and weirdos who couldn’t even read a map. Tori met a lot of interesting campers that night.

Edgar: “I haven’t shower for seven days. Body odours are the best bug repellents.”

And so did Amon.

“Hey, handsome, wanna spend the night at my place?”

Etta, on the other hand, continued her quest for the most unique souvenir for Devi.

“These fireflies will light up her room and bring in an outdoorsy feeling. She’ll love it.”

Mel and Chris headed straight back, because they were exhausted after the hike. At least that’s what they said. In reality, they just wanted to take the occasion to be alone together.

“I’m all yours tonight, darling.”

In the morning, Melia played cards with boys and she was smashing them.

M: “Ha, you’re both real noobs, do you know that?”

Chris decided to try the waters again, this time with girls. It was a good decision – Etta used to go fishing as a kid with Devi and she remembered a few things. That day, they had grilled fish for lunch.

Chris ate his serving quickly and went back to the river. Their weekend was slowly coming to an end. He felt rested and happy but he needed some time for quiet reflection. He couldn’t remember last time they spended together as a family and it made him feel absent. And distant. He had a lot to think about.

“Life is like a river, it passes quickly…”

Etta saw him there, wondering what he was thinking about. But she knew she shouldn’t disturb him. Her father always cherished his little alone moments. Maybe he even needed them from time to time.

Besides, Etta had her own thougts to ponder over. She’s got a text the night before. It was a short message, but long enough to make her heart skip a beat.

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

It came unsigned, from an unknown number. Maybe it was even meant for somenone else. But Etta didn’t really care that much. Because the moment she read those words, she knew who she wanted it to be from. And that was more important than everything else.

‘I’m in trouble.’