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: ‘Seriously? This is too much for my body to handle.’

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





“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!!!”



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


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.’

Chapter 12: Just another Saturday

E: “Tori! So, how was it? Tell me everything!”

T: “Uhmmm. Fine. I guess.”

“Just FINE?! Windenburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world! At least according to tourist websites. And uncle Evander. Calling it fine… that doesn’t sound quite right.”

T: “Sorry to disappoint you. I didn’t get to see much of it – Carlie didn’t want to take me. She said sightseeing is for idiots. Those few glimpses I caught from public transport were breathtaking, though. So you’re probably right.”

E: “What? You didn’t visit the Van Haunt estate with the maze? The Chess Square? The Old Town? Anything? But what did you do, then?”

“Well, we went to Carlie’s dad house. And brace yourself, because it was the most awkward experience of my life.”

“So, when we showed up, his wife, Moira, was nowhere to be seen. Carlie said she never met her – presumably because Moira can’t stand the thought of Carlie coming over. But Carlie’s dad was nice. He welcomed us warmly and took our bags inside.”

“His daughters, Morgan and Siobhan, are already  in college, but they came home for the weekend, so we met briefly. Morgan just rolled her eyes behind Carlie’s back and left.”

“But Siobhan was actually kinda sweet. And very polite. She invited us inside and offer some tea and fruits, smiling constantly.

So we sat down  in a dinning room and chatted.

Siobhan inquired about my hair, where did I have them done and stuff like that. Then, she playfully teased Carlie about her hair – something like she have it easy with her straight, silky red locks in comparison with our frizzy curls.”

“And Carlie lost it! Completely! She started yelling like crazy, claiming that nothing in her life is easy and calling Siobhan a judgmental prick.”

Unsurprisingly, the most uncomfortable silence followed. I could hear the clocks ticking. Nobody knew what to say, so they just stared at each other, half shocked, half furious. And I sat there, wishing for a meteor to fall on my head.”

‘Why did I agree to come here?’

E: “Oh, holy plumbob! That’s insane!”

T: “Right? Poor Carlie.”

E: “Oh, come on. Carlie was the agressor in that situation. Don’t feel sorry for her.”

T : “Well, I do. She is Dom’s daughter, just like Siobhan and Morgan, but still, Dom chose to live with them. He loves them and supports them and takes care of them. He’s there for them, every day. And Carlie? She gets one phone call from him on her birthday. Imagine if  Dad was like that to you.”

E: “Whoa, I… I’ve never thought about it that way. I guess you’re right. And what happened then?”

“Lucky for me, Carlie calmed down while we were getting ready for the party. In fact, she  completely forgot about the incident the minute she got dressed. It’s understandable, though – she looked like a freakin’ popstar. Honestly, I felt  underdressed next to her.”

“So we got to the party, she introduced me to her friends, we chatted a bit and then we danced and danced and danced – it was so dope!”

“The music! It was amazing, like totally freakin’ awesome, since it was like an ultimate show of the most relevant DJs of Winderburg. But other than that, it was just a dance party, you know?

So after a few hours, Carlie went to order some drinks. She has a fake ID for situations like that, so it went smoothly. In fact, it went so smoothly that she never came back.”

“Hey, there!”

“Long story short, she hanged out with the boy she met on a bar for the rest of the night. And Watcher knows where they were because I didn’t see either of them ever since.”

E: “She left you there? All alone?!

“No! I was with her friends, remember?”

“Although,  they were practically strangers to me. There was a couple, or at least I thought they were a couple until the boy started hitting on me. You know, usual stuff like dancing just a little too close and staring just a little too long. He also touched me a few times, you know, ‘accidentally’.”

“He even followed me around everytime I tried to slip away. I asked him to stop and he acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about. The more I insisted the angrier he got, so…”

“…so, I ended up hiding in the bathroom, trying to call Carlie, but she wasn’t answering. So I called uncle Evander and he was so nice and came to pick me up”

“He and his girlfriend Kaya were really good to me. They fed me  and let me sleep on their couch. Kaya even lended me her old T-shirt to sleep in. “

And in the morning, uncle Evander took me to the train station and well, here I am!”

E: “Thank Watcher! Next time I see Carlie, I’ll kill her! Seriously, what was she thinking? How could she left you like that! A young girl, alone! And in a bar full of drunk strangers… What if something had happened to you?”

T: “Don’t be silly, Etty. I’m okay. Besides, I can’t blame her, that boy was totally gorgeous.”

E: “Tori! Please. Don’t be like this. You can’t ignore all the evil in the world. “

T: “Carlie is not evil! She’s sad. And lonely. You’d know that, if you’d be willing to get to know her better.”

E: “Well, you have to admit, she’s making it quite difficult for people to want to know her.”

T: “Maybe. And maybe you’re just overreacting.”

E: “And maybe you’re just too good for your own good.”

T: “Whatever. Enough about that. What about your weekend? Did I miss anything interesting?”

“Not at all. Everything was as usual.

I did some homework with Seth, while Amon went out with that girl of his. Oh, and Aunt Devi started with her music lessons.”

“I think she enjoys it, unlike everyone else – Dante is a terrible musician at this point. But he’s aware of that and it’s quite funny.”

“Hello, Etta. I bet you can’t resist my angelic music, can you?”

“He didn’t stop joking about it even after his lesson was over and we were having lunch in the garden.”

“And then I found out I forgot to put my hands on the freakin’ piano keys.”

“And I got some work done on my science project. Aleksey came and helped me with some graphs, so it’s almost ready.”

“So yeah, like I said: just another ordinary Saturday.”

T: “Now would you look  at that! Two hotties are trying to win her over and she calls it an ordinary Saturday! Careful, you heartbreaker!”

“Geeez, you’re even worse than Aunt Devi. We’re friends, simple as that.”

“Okay. Sure.”

Chapter 11: One of a kind

One Saturday in the middle of November, Aunt Camilla came to visit. She hugged everyone cheerfully,  investigated her nieces about potential boyfriends like aunts do  and teased the boys with uncalled-for advice about always using protection. Then she rushed to the dinning room and spent the rest of the afternoon there, chatting  with her sisters over a cup of tea.

“This will be my last year in representation, I’m afraid. I feel like I can’t keep up with the new girls on our team – but I’m turning forty so it’s understandable.”

Carlie showed up, too, much to Tori’s delight.

T: “Carlie! Long time, no see, huh? How are you doin’? Are you still painting?”

C: “Oh, come on, Tori. Painting is for idiots that have no life.”

T: “Uhm, okay then. So what are you up to these days?”

C: “I’m glad you asked – that’s what I wanted to talk about! there’s this awesome party happening in Windenburg next week and I want you to come with me. My dad lives there, so we can stay at his place.”

T: “Sounds great! But I don’t know. I’m not old enough to attend a party like that and my parents…”

C: “Boohooo! Little baby is scared of her parents. Do they still change your diapers, too?”

T: “No, but…”

C: “Gee, what’s wrong with you? Don’t be such a stuck up moron. It’ll be the best night of your life. Dancing, boys, juice…everything. You’d be stupid not to come, seriously.”

T: “I didn’t say I’m not coming. I’ll go! Just calm down, please.”

Etta was on the way to her room, when she overheard the end of the conversation. She didn’t like it. But the worst part was just about to come. Because in that moment, Carlie opened the door and saw her standing there with a guilty face.

The heck? You were eavesdropping on us? How pathetic!”

“I guess I have to ask you to come, too. Lucky for you, I’m generous like that, so yeah… you can come with us to the party, Etta.”

“Thanks, Carlie, but I have work soon in the morning every day and I can’t skip it. And I have to study for my science project. me and my team are supposed to test different metal conductors to…” 

“Who cares. This is the annual Summer Soltice Dance Party of Windernburg. It’s the party of the year, you bimbo.”

E: “I’m not really into that, I’m afraid.”

C: “Oh, whatever. I didn’t want you to come anyway. You’d just spoil all the fun.”

E: “Then why did you ask me in the first place?”

C: “Because I’m nice like that, obviously. I should have known better. Next time, I won’t bother with a lame nerd like you. See ya!”

Confused and upset, Etta retreated to the safety of the room and tried to comfort herself with a book.

It worked a bit, but just when she was getting to the really thrilling, suspenseful part, Amon walked in and sat beside her. Etta could tell he just returned home from a date with Brylee – he still smelled like her perfume.

A: “Hey, Etta! You busy?”

“Uhmm, kind of, yes. Do you need something?”

Etta was cautious. She didn’t know what this was about, but it was suspicious to say the least. She couldn’t remember last time Amon came into the girls’ room. If ever.

A: “I was wondering if you could help me with my homework.”

E: “I could. But I’m not… I probably don’t know much about the topics you study, since your two classes above me and everything. You should ask Seth.”

A: “Yeah, Seth! You know how nice and helpful he is – I bet he would strangle me in my sleep if he could figure out how to do it without becoming a prime suspect.”

E: “You’re too hard on him, he’s not that bad… But I see your point. So what do you need?”

A: “So, I’m supposed to write this essay about a certain book –  The eyes were watching Watcher or something along that line – and…”

“You mean Their eyes were watching God? Oh, that’s a wonderful book, Amon! You’re lucky to be writing an essay about that one. I hope one day we’ll get the assignment, too!”

A: “Or! You could write it now, maybe? Just in case the curriculum changes in two years or something.”

E: “You mean like…write it for you?”

A: “Well, I didn’t say that. But it’s a good idea. So what do you say?”

E: “I don’t know. I think you should read it – it’ll do you no harm. Besides, it’s a wonderful book with powerful themes such as judgment, isolation and unconditional love…”

A: “It’s a book about a middle aged woman analyzing her marriages, Etta. It’s boring as plum and absolutely unreadable. Please.”

“Middle aged women are people, too, and it would really open your mind to see their point of view. Watcher knows you need that.”

E: “So. I’ll help you with the essay, but only after you read the book. I’ll answer any questions and discuss everything with you and…”

A: “Right. That’s what I thought – you’re just like Seth. Condescending and arrogant and convinced that you’re better than anyone else because youre so well-read and cultured.”

A: “Well, guess what. I’m not interested in your plum, so keep your lecturing for someone who cares.”

And with that, he left. Etta just sat there, stunned and perplexed.

‘What on earth has just happened?’

She couldn’t stop thinking about it for hours. It was still bothering her when Aleksey, her classmate, showed up to work on the physics project. She was so distressed that even Aleksey noticed it. He’s never seen her so unfocused.

A: “Hmm, Etta, are you okay?”

E: “Do you think I’m a bad person, Aleksey? We’re not friends, so you have nothing to lose. Just tell me.”

A: “What? NO! You’re a great person. You’re smart and kind and driven…

“…and just great! The greatest girl, I mean, classmate… yes, the greatest classmate I like. I mean have. The greatest classmate I have!”

E: “It’s just that… maybe I appear arrogant or pretentious to some people…”

A: “Don’t listen to those people. They’re just jealous because they wanna be like you and they can’t.”

A: “Because you’re one of a kind.”

Etta scanned the boy. She knew him from school, but not very well. Up to this point they only talked about homeworks. Suddenly, though, he felt like a friend to her. His expression was sincere and his smile warm. He looked like he meant it.

E: “Well, that’s…that’s nice of you to say. I mean, really nice. So, ehm… Thank you.”