“How is your day going, sweetie?” Glancing up from her seat at the piano, Mrs. Elsberry’s warm smile has all the stress fading away. She’s never been my teacher, but she’s always been my second mom. Since I’ve never had a mother, I guess you could say I borrowed her from my best friend.
Taunts and insults, a nonstop assault causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. “Hey, jackass!” shouts a dickwad from down the hallway, so I hurry into the classroom and shut the door behind me. The chaos is deadened, but it still leaks around the hinges and beneath the door. The door would have to be a vault to close out all the teenage angst, drama, rampant hormones, and funky ball sweat.
Welcome to Fairport High.
Home of golden boys, jocks, beauty queens, mean girls, geeks, and the dregs of society destined for a lifetime of towniedom.
Take a guess on which category I belong.
If you’re unsure, I’m hiding out in the music room until the hallways empty, before making my escape to the student parking lot.
“SSDD,” is muttered with a shrug as I shoulder my backpack higher up. One thing about having a teacher as a second mom, there’s no energy wasted on explaining acronyms. If they don’t learn the acronyms, their life at school would be a lamb to the slaughter. “Daily Taryn Update, Mrs. Elsberry.”
“Sweetie, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Call me–”
“Karen,” is spoken over top of her in a teasing lilt. “When I’m at your house it sounds normal, but here at school…” is trailed off.
Moving farther into the music room, I fiddle with the strings on a wooden guitar. At the beginning of the school year, Karen told me to call it an acoustic guitar, and I’m always lured to touch it. Just an itching craving beneath my skin that drives me to strum, the thin metal an odd texture against the pads of my fingertips.
“Taryn’s good,” is whispered as I gaze down at the guitar sitting on a wooden stool. The music room is an interesting place, so different from all the other classrooms, besides the sorcery in the industrial arts wing. There’s a stage with rows of chairs, each has its own music stand. There are open spaces meant for larger instruments. The piano is centrally located, Karen’s happy place is on the bench. Then there is this lonesome stool, set off to the side near the wall closest to the door, situated in a watcher’s position, invisible and irrelevant and hidden… unnecessary.
A secondary character in the novel of my own life, never destined to be the main character.
A wraith in everyone else’s lives.
“She’s obsessed with Billy– not a good idea. The guy is a complete jackass, but she doesn’t see what we all see.” The thin wire feels foreign, the grooves of my fingerprint hypersensitive to the pressure. The twang is sharp, a shudder rolling through my body as goose bumps instantly erupt. Even my ears have an odd, unexplainable reaction. A humming reverberation.
“Desiree and I tried to talk sense into Taryn, but she’s just so happy that someone’s giving her attention. If I push it, I know she’ll cut me loose. She needs me. So I’ll wait until Billy torches her, while stalking the shadows with a fire extinguisher. Even Sage tried to get through her head.”
Do I feel like a traitor for talking shit about my best friend to her mother?
My mother is dead.
Devon’s my brother.
There’s this sense of silence in a family, where if you speak out, it’s a betrayal. Devon and Mom taught me that it’s stupid to keep your mouth shut. Taryn taught me the same. Mental illness is an illness, not a mark of shame. If someone had a broken bone, what would be the shame in telling their mother so they could get some help? The silence is admitting there is something to be ashamed over, a secret kept.
As I spill my guts, I continue to pluck the strings, no song created other than an assault on my ears and the destruction of an artform.
How can you lose a mother when you never had her?
Father? Mother? Dad? Mom? Daddy? Mommy?
Who are these fictionalized personifications?
Mother and father…
Brothers times three.
How do you lose someone who never saw you hanging on the family tree?
Relationships withered when squandered.
Parched yet over-watered.
Too much or never enough, left in a constant state of dehydration or ascites.
You can’t lose someone who never saw you.
My needs are irrelevant. Taryn needed Devon more. Devon needed to mentor Taryn. Taryn needed Essie for a purpose. Essie needed Taryn to take Bethany’s place at Primp. I lost my brother, my best friend, and my sister-in-law, all in one fell swoop.
If you love someone, you don’t turn jealous when you lose them. If you love someone enough, love them more than your pride and arrogance, you’re happy they found exactly what they needed to find.
I lost them, but I picked up a discarded mother. Seems like a win-win to me.
“Taryn loves Primp– she’s doing good.” Karen and Taryn don’t talk, so I am their go-between.
They live in the same house, revolve around each other like opposing magnets or a planet and its moon, but they never interact. Karen doesn’t get Taryn. Taryn doesn’t get Karen. They love each other, but they don’t like each other. They both like and love me. The mother and sister I never had.
“Raven, sweetie?” Karen whispers from beside me, hesitant to touch me after being burned so many times by Taryn. I’ve seen my best friend fling her mother’s hand off her, then shout in a rage. I don’t judge because I’ve seen it all before with Devon.
Snapping out of the fixation I have with the wood, glue, and metal fashioned into an instrument, I turn to Karen with a genuine smile. Then I wrap an arm around her waist and rest my head on her shoulder, needing the attention and affection like water or air.
Dad has always been touchy feely. The man runs around kissing women on their mouths, women who aren’t his wife. As long as Clover and those women understand it, who am I to judge. Odder yet, he kisses his own sister on the mouth and shamelessly cuddles with her. He’s clingy and over-affectionate with his children. But ever since Devon happened, Dad’s been spread thin.
Around the time Dad started smothering Clover with affection to get her to warm up, around the time Dad went out of his way to constantly seek out Willow, Violet, and Seth, making sure they felt a part of the family, he stopped touching me.
Overcompensation is the term Taryn called it when I vented– my best friend is drowning in therapy-speak, thanks to a stint in a rehab center, support groups, and weekly therapy sessions. Whatever you call it, Dad is spread thin with all the people he needs to cuddle and coddle, to where he forgot I existed, just as he did before Clover and her kids came into our lives.
The lyrics weave inside my head, immortalized the first chance I can get.
Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.
Their voice is heard above my belted scream.
Sucking. Sucking. Sucking.
Sucking all the attention like oxygen from air.
Suffocating. Suffocating. Suffocating.
Deprived of lifegiving support.
Need a ventilator– an injection of attention.
Fading. Fading. Fading.
Fading away into a translucent wraith.
The addict. The golden boy. The mean girl. The beauty queen… The genius. The superstar. The foundling. The zygote.
They find no competition from a wraith like me.
From a wraith like me.
Fingers move my hair out of the way, a palm rubbing a circle in the center of my back. Lips press against the top of my head, sigh heating my scalp. “Raven, have you thought about taking lessons?”
“On what?” Eyes flicking toward the clock, I have to get out to the parking lot before my siblings steal my car. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last. If I bitch, I get told to learn how to roll with the punches– they don’t get told how wrong it is to jack a bitch’s car and make her fucking walk.
“The guitar, sweetie.” Karen squeezes me tightly, then steps away, sensing the time better than I do. “I can set up lessons for you. One of my ex-students approached me about donating some time for students I believe have promise.”
“I’m not one of your students, and I have no promise.” Snorting, I step away toward the door. “I better get going before I have to walk home.”
“Just think about it, Raven.” Karen rests her knuckles on the stool beside the guitar, a defeated expression withering her face. Oversized clothing, drab and dowdy, hiding her body and her personality. Graying limp hair hangs around her face as a shield. Karen is terrified I’ll fade into the background noise like she has.
“I love you,” are the three easiest words I’ve ever spoken to the woman.
“Oh, sweetie!” The ache in Karen’s voice has me turning out of the door and running down the hallways as quickly as possible, because she wished those words came from her daughter’s mouth.
Her real daughter.
If Karen is my second mom, then that means I’m only her second daughter. Her daughter’s best friend since kindergarten. Nothing more than an accident of birth order, forcing us into the same classes until adulthood.
Running in a blur, I charge out the side doors, nearly taking out a freshman who looks lost and confused. Probably missed the bus and is experiencing the mass panic of what the fuck now. Sprinting around cars ducking and diving out of parking spots, everyone in a rush to gain a few extra minutes before the parental units turn into helicopter parents.
A feral growl roars up my throat, feet pounding the pavement. Sliding into a skid to my car door, I smack my palm on the window one, two, three times. Looking sheepish, Ozzy manually rolls the window down on my vintage Camaro.
AKA, the Pussy Magnet.
The beauty is probably worth more than our house.
“Out!” is an order as I hitch my finger over my shoulder. I’m not usually an asshole to Ozzy but this is getting on my last nerve. It’s one thing to give up your entire family, but I draw the line at John Mason’s legacy.
“Sorry!” Seth has compassion enough to actually look apologetic. Little boy cheeks puffing up as he sends a sheepish smile my way.
“No room back here.” Violet leans forward, hands possessively curling around Ozzy’s shoulders from behind, making sure to press him into the seat– a nonverbal signal that his ass is to stay in my seat. “You’re too big to fit.”
“Seth can sit on Violet’s lap. Ozzy can squeeze in back there.” Glaring at them, trying to get them to move, as the eldest of this group, now that Dev and Ren have flown the coop, they don’t fucking listen to me.
Weston sits in the passenger seat, totally tuning me out because he’s watching Sage’s car like a lovesick hawk. After making sure that hormonal asshole survived the last fourteen years of his existence, this is the thanks I get?
“Rae,” Ozzy drawls, sounding put out and frustrated, as if I’m the problem. One car. MY car. Four seats. Five people. The math doesn’t compute if they believe I’m the odd man out. A car that has been in the Mason family for fifty years. I’m the ONLY Mason in this parking lot with a goddamn driver’s license.
“God, don’t let her in here– she stinks.” Violet’s nasty, mean girl, vindictive tone does nothing to me, at least not on the outside. If I showed any reaction, it would only get worse. “Dad–” that stings more than anything. Dad replaced me with a pretty version who asks nonstop questions about police procedure. “Dad says you need to start dressing better. He thinks you’re depressed. I say you’re a faker trying to get his attention.”
“Rae.” Ozzy starts again, running over top of Violet. A hand swats him upside the head, with Seth choking on a laugh. “I have to go to the station as soon as I drop them off at home. I need the car– you don’t.”
That’s the problem with blended families. It was four to three, with Ozzy coming on as the swing vote. But since Dev and Ren moved on, with Weston completely duh over Sage and automatically siding with the twins, I thought I’d find an ally with the outsider.
See what thinking got me?
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Spittle flies as I curl down to fit my head inside the car window, glaring at the twins in the backseat and my nonresponsive traitorous brother in the passenger seat. “This is my car. You’re making me walk home because those spoiled fucking brats won’t shove their asses together… I repeat. In. My. Fucking. Car.”
“Sorries!” Violet sings with sadistic glee, blonde ponytail bobbing on top of her head– how I’d love to yank it. “Outvoted!”
“Sorry, Rae.” Seth only half-ass means it. It’s good to be in the majority. Safe. Cozy. Powerful.
“I’ve got to get to work, Rae.” Shifty gaze and quivering tone, Ozzy is getting impatient with me, like I’m the goddamn problem here.
“Huh? What’s up?” Weston comes back to the land of the living, voice pitched with indifference. “Oh. Hey, Rae. Don’t think you’ll fit back there. Sorry.”
“See, even your brother thinks you’re a fat ass!” Cackling, Violet leans back in the seat, spreading out to show me how very much room there is that would fit my very fat ass. Her palms slap at the back of the seat, gaining Ozzy’s attention.
“Fuck y’all.” Leaning upright, head no longer in the car. “Just fuck y’all.”
Deep breaths. Very deep breaths. Stalking away as my car prowls out of the parking lot like a phantom, I make a beeline toward Sage and his GAYSAGE-plated car.
Are my siblings cunts? Yeah, they are. Everyone enrolled at Fairport High is a cunt. That’s how adolescence works, right? Clover is always whispering that to Dad, usually to stop the Pink Taco Hut from imploding around us.
Leaning against Sage’s car, I’m prepared to wait, because it’s a two-mile walk home and the sole on my sneaker is doing an open mouth impression after a nightmarish gym class.
Violet sees me as competition. Competition for Dad. Competition for Clover. Competition for our brothers. Competition for the new baby. Competition for Ozzy.
I’ve never had a mom. Never had a dad. Always had to be the mother and the father. I’m not sure why Violet is jealous. She’s always had a mom– still has one. She was raised by a dad that kissed the ground she walked on. I feel awful that Sam died, because Dad loved Sam like the brother he never had. Now Violet has Dad too.
For me, Clover is spread too thin to be my mom. The baby is about to pop out, and Clover doesn’t have time for my shit. Dad is spread too thin to step up and actually act like my dad. He’s too worried the twins and Willow won’t feel accepted, to the point he kisses their asses and forgets I exist.
It’s my brothers that I blame. Weston hears the bullshit Violet and Seth say to me, and he just sits there. The worst is when he laughs, then says I can’t take a joke when I get mad. I feel betrayed. Weston sides with my bullies. He thinks he’s exempt from all the bullshit Devon, Ren, and I had to endure to raise him because he’s the baby.
Then there’s Ren, who’s so far up Willow’s ass, if someone asked him about his sister, Ren would automatically think they meant Violet.
Devon. Dev’s got too much shit to worry about. I’m not worth a second thought in comparison.
“Hey, Rae.” Even frazzled and half jogging, not a white hair is out of place on Sage’s perfect noggin, as he heads straight at me. “Hope you’re not looking for a ride, because I’ve got to run to the hospital to grab something from my mom to bring to Ginny.”
“Oh, yeah… no problem.” Stepping away from the car, I wave over my shoulder. “See you tomorrow.” I try not to get to bent out of shape that one of my best friends doesn’t realize it would take no less than three minutes out of his way to drive me home.
Aunt Ginny has Opal now, so she forgot she was my aunt. As Clover’s best friend, Aunt Ginny has always seen the twins as her niece and nephew. She still spends time with them, completely forgetting I exist. Now that Aunt Ginny has Opal, Opal has Sage, Sage has Aunt Ginny, and I no longer have Sage.
The lyrics manifest in front of my tear-blurred eyes as I cross the parking lot with my head down.
Everyone’s got a life.
They’ve got shit to do.
Easily forgotten. Forgotten… Forgotten.
No time for me.
Someone so unnecessary.
Existed when they needed me.
Moving on. Moving forward.
People worthy of their time.
Everyone’s got a life.
They’ve got shit to do.
Easily forgotten. Forgotten… Forgotten.
No time for me.
Someone so unnecessary.
Making it about half a mile, my ass lands on the curb, sneaker torn off my foot and my backpack spilling on the sidewalk. With a heavy sigh, I look around, dozens of cars passing closely by, filled mostly with my laughing and pointing classmates. The elementary kids are pushing and shoving and yelling and giggling at each other on the sidewalk behind me.
A rock in the water, they ripple to avoid me.
With vicious tugs, I yank and pull and snarl at my shoelace. Once it’s free, I slam my foot back into my sneaker, then tie the shoelace tightly around it, hoping the floppy sole will keep its mouth shut as I walk. The flop… flop… flop… was driving me nuts, but it wasn’t as painful as the gravel grinding under my sock.
God, never thought I’d wish for my old life back. Not only is that house closer than the new one, at least the people seemed to give a shit about me. Ya know, because if I wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have clean clothes, a shit-stain-free toilet, or someone to ask them if they did their homework.
Devon was the dad, literally beating the fuck out of anyone who messed with us.
Ren was the distracted working mom who cooked, and I was mom without a life that cleaned and nagged.
Weston was the good, helpful kid who never rocked the boat.
Dad would come home, relieved we were still breathing, happy we were still eating, and surprised we didn’t burn the house down and actually attended school. Dad would fall into his recliner. Ren would give him a beer. I’d hand him his plate. Devon would regale him with the tales of the day. Weston would sit at his feet like a good boy. Dad would be out like a light in less than a half hour.
How times change.
Dad promised better times.
He just failed to say it would be better for him, not me.
Someone so unnecessary.
“Get in!” is called out a window, tires crunching on gravel as a truck rolls to a stop inches from my toes. “C’mon, Lady Mason.”
One of the first thing this boy ever said to me was Lady Mason.
Bent down to pick up the socks and sneakers scattered around the living room, I hear the door whispering open behind my back. “Thank, God!” Flustered, Weston’s been driving me bonkers tonight. “Ren, you’ve got to take the kid out back and run him ragged, before I suffocate him with his filthy socks.”
“Kid,” Ren warns the oversized toddler slumped on the sofa, upset that he’s not old enough to go to the game by himself. “Don’t rush time. You’ll be on the field longer than the rest of us.”
“I’m bored. Already did my homework.” Grumpy and blaming me, nothing is worse than a resentful eleven-year-old. “If Dev would come outta whatever hole he’s hiding in, he woulda took me. But Rae here–”
“Sorry, little asshole.” Snarling, I toss his socks and sneakers in the general vicinity of his annoying face. Reacting as quick as a snake, West grabs them right out of the air. “I’ll get right on aging-up to sixteen, but you’re gonna have to wait a few years before I start bussing your overgrown ass around nonstop, like I’m some soccer mom without a life of her own.”
“Football!” shouts from three boys, and one of ‘em ain’t mine. “Soccer is not in our vocabulary. That game doesn’t exist.”
“Shit!” Pale skin flushed crimson, I jerk upright, because my ass was facing the door.
The ass in question is covered with a silly saying. Juicy. I found a pair of tight sweatpants in Mom’s stuff. A billion years ago, not sure why women displayed sayings over their asses, making it look as wide as a billboard. But Mom had a few pairs and I liked how soft the material felt.
Glancing over my shoulder, I glare at Weston, then my eyes flick to Ren ghosting in the doorway. “You dicks could have said we had a visitor.”
“Well, hello there… Lady Mason.” The boy snares all my attention, but it’s the voice that rolls along my spine and takes root.
“Chill.” Ren smacks the smaller boy in the chest with the side of his arm, not that the boy is small by any stretch. Ren is just that big. “Raven is off-limits to everyone, especially new buddies.”
“Huh?” My confusion has the boy laughing at me, a crawling, smoky sound. Across the living room, Weston watches me watch the boy while the boy watches me back.
“I need food!” Ren calls out, always super excitable when he gets back from a game. He’s in the kitchen in two steps, leaving his friend behind. “Now.”
“Me too?” the boy directs at me, asking if he can stay like I’m the lady of the house. Multi-colored hair is flipped in his face, hiding his eyes. Blond but there’s golden and ginger streaks with darker roots. I wonder if it’s shaved underneath– I bet it is.
God, he’s pretty.
Those lips. That voice. That dimple. I bet the eyes are just as captivating.
Aunt Isis said the boy-crazy gene would activate someday soon. Aunt Ginny laughed, said she sensed I didn’t have a girl-crazy gene, that’s for damn sure.
Yeah, this boy activated it. Big time.
“Sure, always plenty of spaghetti.” Looking around, I’m embarrassed by how stinky the house is right now. “Always smells like ball sweat in here.” As soon as the words are out, I cover my entire face with my palms.
“Ball sweat, you say…” the boy is now inches from me, doing the world’s slowest crawl toward the kitchen. “From footballers or…” is drawled out and left dangling.
“From actual sacks?” Weston is going to die tonight. “Been sniffing nutsacks in your spare time, sis?”
“Pretty sure Lady Mason meant it was sweat from football players,” the boy comes to my rescue. “But the sweat definitely is riper from the groin region.”
Giggling at myself, my face is about to burst like an overripe tomato. “The boys reek, but–” shuddering, the boy is far too close, smelling far too good.
Just a small sliver of a pale lavender iris peers out at me from a hank of hair. Yeah, those eyes have to stay hidden for sanity’s sake. The boy would have every girl who met him trailing behind him everywhere he went.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lady Mason.”
“What’s your name?” tongue twisted in a knot, my belly is doing summersaults. Skin suddenly tight and hot.
“Yo, Stone!” Ren calls from the kitchen, answering that question. “Get your ass in here. Raven is not interesting. At. All. Oh, Langdon Ssstoooooone, how much pasta you want?”
“Oh, shit!” Watching the boy run into the kitchen to get my brother to stop hollering, I realize who is inside this house.
“Oh, shit!” is repeated again, causing my baby brother to hit me with taunting laughter. “That’s Jackson Stone’s kid, isn’t it?” And I just made a fool of myself. While advertising the naughty word Juicy across my backside.
For a few seconds, I wondered what it would feel like to like-like a boy, but it would be ridiculous to like this boy. Something switches off inside my heart, protecting me from the future legend standing in my kitchen. This boy is destined to break hearts after pounding their pussies into annihilation.
“Lady Mason. Lady Mason,” calls out from inside the cab. “Looks like you have a flat tire on that sneaker of yours.”
Voice smoky smooth, never failing to elicit an embarrassing shudder to roll along my spine and an eargasm to cause an auditory explosion. I’m not special– he is. Langdon Stone has this effect on every member of the global population.
“Ah, here comes Pebbles to the rescue.” Chuckling underneath my breath, I reach out to grab my backpack, then hobble run around the front of the truck. Yeah, my amazing idea with the shoestring made it worse. Go me!
“Seriously, I could kiss you right now,” is an offhand comment as I climb up into the truck. Freezing for a second, I realize how that sounded.
Stone is used to everyone bowing at his feet, getting tongue-tied, and pretty much losing their shit. I’ve developed partial immunity since he’s Ren’s best friend and has seen me through a few terrible stages of development.
“Yeah, so forget I said that.” Snorting at my ridiculousness, I click my seatbelt. “I meant to say thanks, that is.”
“No problem, Lady Mason.” Violet eyes hidden beneath that insane hair are focused on the road, while those croon-worthy lips are curled, creating that inherited dimple a few generations of women have swooned over with Jackson Stone. “It was on my way. Besides…” trails off as Stone pulls up alongside the curb to the Pink Taco Hut.
World’s shortest ride, where I wished it was longer while in the presence of a future legend.
See how fast that was? See how fast Sage could have dropped me off? See how short of a ride someone would have had to sit on someone else’s lap inside my own goddamn car? See how long it would have taken Ozzy to drop the twins off and then pick me up at the school, only to drop me back off at the house– maybe an extra five to seven minutes. Those few minutes ample payment for nonstop borrowing my wheels as if they’re his.
“Thank. You.” Turning to Stone with a serious expression on my face, I try not to cry. “I mean it.” Then I reach down to tear my useless sneaker off my foot.
“Anytime, Lady Mason.” I’d love to think the smile Stone gives me is just for me, but that’s what makes him so intoxicating. One look, one word, one smile, and you honestly believe he only has eyes for you. It’s the Stone legacy at play, and the exact reason he’ll go double-platinum with his debut album.
“Mason would kick me in the nuts if I treated his sister like shit.” Stone means well, so I just nod and smile, as if he didn’t just jab a rusty blade in the center of my back and twist.
“Thanks!” is a perky shout as I hop out of the truck, hiding the bullshit lurking beneath. Stone’s truck rumbles down the street as I hobble across the front yard to the porch, backpack swung over my shoulder with my sneaker dangling from my fingertips.
I ignore the incessant throb, because that Mason in question wouldn’t kick anyone in the nuts for being mean to his sister, not when he’s in love with her biggest bully. The Mason in question hasn’t spoken a word to me in over a month. Oh, Ren’s been in the same location as me, but he hasn’t seen nor heard me.
Not sure when that happened. Maybe it was always happening, but the influx of Websters in our family only made it more obvious.
Yanking the other sneaker off my foot, I pitch the pair in the outdoor garbage can, then walk soundlessly across the porch floorboards. Devon is silent in his footfalls, and so am I.
Sneaking into the house, I make sure the screen door doesn’t creak, because I instinctively sense they’re all bashing the piss out of me. If they do it once, they most certainly do it every single time.
I hope they prove me wrong.
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