Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Happy Friday Readers!
Today we are bringing you a taste of our first upcoming release title 'Never Say Never' from Justine Manzano! So settle in, grab your favorite ice cream, and enjoy this sneak peek into Brynn's world!
When I was eight, I told my best friend Nina I wished my parents would get a divorce. She hadn’t understood then, and she still didn’t. Her parents loved each other.
But true love is a relationship unicorn. You either find it, or you spend your entire life searching for it, like a dog digging up the entire yard for something buried next door.
I had experience with people who had destroyed their yard and came up empty. They were sitting at my kitchen table.
Dad stared blankly at his newspaper, holding it up like a wall between himself and Mom, who drew her spoon through her cereal at a speed that would surely make her Cheerios soggy before they ever made it to her mouth. Both grunted their good mornings at me, shiny happy people as usual.
As I grabbed a yogurt from the fridge, I yawned. Loudly. Somewhat uncontrollably. I thought my jaw might crack, but I survived unscathed. Thinking about the reasons for my exhaustion, I regretted my life choices.
“Very ladylike,” Mom commented, finally finding her cereal appetizing enough to eat.
Dad spoke over her. “Stay up late?”
I nodded, digging into my yogurt. “Homework.”
“Uh-huh.” Dad turned the page of his paper. “How much of that time was spent reading that book you got in the mail yesterday?”
“Minimal,” Mom parroted. “Translation——you completed your homework by seven and were up ‘til midnight reading the book.”
It was so much more humorous when they played off each other, despite not being able to look at one another. That kind of unity took commitment.
Although playing off each other was always better than them playing off me. They could use teamwork just fine when they needed to scold me, but could they manage a mature conversation like one of those fairytale couples on television? Not a chance.
Dad pushed his chair back from the table, the legs scraping against the linoleum.
Mom didn’t miss a beat. “Tell your father he needs to lift his bottom off the seat to stand
or he’ll peel the linoleum.”
Oh, here we go. It was like playing referee in a boxing match with a broken bell.
And me without my striped shirt.
I turned to Dad, who was just a few feet away, putting his dishes in the sink. “Mom said you have to stand and move the chair back more gently or you’ll destroy our flooring.”
If I repeated their statements word for word, I’d have lost my mind a year ago when they’d started this round of ridiculousness. When I thought about it, I couldn’t find many memories where they smiled together, laughed together——hell, even talked to each other.
“Well, tell your mother I’m sorry. I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s perception of our perfect kitchen.”
“Dad expresses genuine regret at his transgression and promises never to commit such a horror again.” I shot a bitter smile in Dad’s direction, my way of informing him he was the ass in this situation.
No matter whose fault the argument was, I was always in the middle——the expired meat in their misery sandwich.
“You need a ride to school, kid?” Dad wandered out of the room before I could answer, heading towards the living room.
“Maybe?” I called after him. “Just a sec.” I pulled my phone from my pocket and texted Nina.
We getting a ride today? Need an answer STAT.
I finished my yogurt while waiting for a response. Instead of a message from Nina, I got one from her foster sister, Val.
We’ll be there in about five minutes. Nina needs you!
Val had moved in with the Lopezes in August and had immediately clicked with Nina in a way that could have made me jealous ... if she wasn’t insane. Which was why I didn’t blink at the drama of the text message. It was just Val being Val.
“Don’t need a ride.” I stood carefully—–so as not to scratch the damned linoleum——and cleared the table.
“Is that Adam boy driving you again?” Mom asked. “I need to talk to his father and see if he’s a good enough driver to be carpooling you all to school.”
“That Adam boy” was Val’s boyfriend, and he was nothing to worry about. Probably the most responsible guy ever created. And maybe, someday, Mom would actually talk to his father, instead of just asking me about it every other week since the beginning of the school year.
I made my way behind Mom, leaned over, and wrapped my arms around her, making sure to catch her eye. “Adam’s fine. It’s Val that’s trouble.” I waggled my eyebrows and managed to get a smile from her and a playful smack on the arm.
“You kids stay out of trouble,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I walked into the living room and hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder.
Dad was near the couch, fretting with the baggage tags on his rolling suitcase. “I’ll be in Chicago until Thursday. Take care of your mother.”
My stomach clenched. And that was my job, why?
“Mom takes care of herself because she’s a full-grown adult. A little warning would have been nice, though. Your schedule’s getting harder to keep track of.” I marched toward the door, not wanting to see his expression.
I didn’t want him to go. It was partly because I wanted him at home, and partly that I needed the buffer between me and Mom. Mom wanted a cheerleader for a daughter, the type of girl she could try out new hairstyles on, someone she could shop with. Someone like Val.
Meanwhile, I had spent my first paycheck at the local salon, getting my hair chopped into a pixie cut and dyeing it black. Mom and I hadn’t been the same since. For my mother, cutting off my long locks had been a tragedy, right up there with Hamlet and Othello.
I wasn’t Val. I never would be, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t accept me for who I was. At least when Dad was around, I wasn’t the only one. She was determined to fit him into her little ‘perfect husband’ box. It may mean more time playing referee, but at least when he was with me, I felt like there was someone who understood, who was in my corner. But now that someone would be in Chicago until Thursday.
“If I could pass them up, don’t you think I would?” Dad said, his voice sounding small.
He wouldn’t. Not if it meant more time around her.
I wished they would just get divorced already. Except maybe that wouldn’t make things
any better. If I wasn’t important enough to make him deal with Mom for me, maybe divorce would send Dad even further away. That thought made something in my chest shake.
A horn beeped outside. Adam was too polite for a honk. It sounded like he barely brushed the horn.
I shrugged and moved for the door, grateful for the distraction. “That’s my ride. I’d better
Dad lightly tapped my elbow to still me. “I’ll be home soon.”
“Yeah.” I kissed him on the cheek. “Have a safe flight.”
“I’ll text you when I land. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Adam’s old blue Honda Civic waited in front of the house. I took off at a gallop down the stairs, past the growing daffodils in our garden, across the front walk, and past my own personal birch tree. The birch tree was one of many in our town and the reason for its name, Birchwood Grove.
I slid into the backseat of the car where the fresh scent of roses engulfed me. Val’s perfume filled the surrounding air almost anywhere she went.
The car was short one person.
“Where’s Reeve?” I pulled the door shut behind me.
In the rearview mirror, Adam’s dark eyes winced. Val, who was facing toward the back seat, looked nauseated, her perfect features twisted. Only then did I notice Nina huddled on her side of the car, her head pressed against the window opposite mine.
My heart clenched.
“Nina…” I brushed aside the curtain of Nina’s dark, springy curls and peeked at her. She quickly swiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “What happened?”
For a moment, she just sniffled. “Reeve broke up with me,” she said. She pushed her hair back from her face. “Last night.”
My fists clenched at my sides, but I forced the reaction down. It wasn’t the first time. It may not be the last. But rather than lash out, I focused on the real problem.
“What? Why didn’t you call me?” I scooted closer to the girl who was always there for me and pulled her into my arms.
She rested her head on my shoulder, glancing up at me with her brown eyes. Nina was dazzlingly beautiful, even when she was just being casual. She had golden-brown skin, those curls, and cupid’s bow lips. Even when she hid the curls in a bun and didn’t bother to wear makeup, she was stunning. Today, however, she looked puffy and reddened. I hadn’t seen her this distraught since junior high when Dad thought we might have to move out of town.
“I didn’t tell anybody until today.” Her tone edged with a defensiveness I recognized. She thought I was accusing her of telling Val before me.
“Yeah, but why?” I ran my fingers through her hair. “You decided you’d torture yourself a little before you shared?”
She pinched my leg, which I may have deserved. “No, bitch. I was gonna try to act like I didn’t care.”
“How’s that working out for you?” Okay, my anger at Reeve was still in my brain’s driver seat. I needed to calm down.
“C’mon, leave her alone,” Val said. “Why do you have to be like that?”
I batted a dismissive hand her way. “Val, I think I know how to handle this. You’re the one who said she needed me.”
Val’s face scrunched up, her features coming together into a somehow still dainty ball of anger. “Well, handle it nicer.”
Adam laid a hand on her arm. “Val.”
She retreated into her seat.
I gave Nina a little squeeze. “Did Reeve say what stupidity went through his head this time?”
“This time he means it. He said I’m too difficult.” She forced herself to sit up and violently swiped away her tears. “I mean, what the fuck is that? He says I never want to do anything he wants to do, and I’m always acting like I don’t need him. I never ask for help, and I do things without him. He got mad because I went to the movies with you without informing him first, Brynn. He’s all, ‘I only found out because Scott and I saw you from the bowling alley.’ And when I told him that was because I knew he’d be shitty about me going, he started whining that he wanted to go bowling and I didn’t want to. I don’t like bowling.” She sank back against the seat. “God, what an ass.”
I stifled a laugh. It was always good to see Nina rebound after a moment of self-doubt, even if Reeve caused most of those moments. He was her blind spot, the only thing she didn’t listen to me about, and it never ceased to make my blood boil. Despite how much it might hurt her to hear it, I tried to hammer the positivity of this break-up home. “Damn straight! He doesn’t like your independence? He’s a Dildo Baggins.”
Trying to find my way back to you.
The words from the breakup song of the season slid from the radio speakers, filling the car with possibly the worst song that could have played at that moment. Adam shot forward, finger jamming the station search button. Val’s hands fluttered madly as she tried to beat Adam to it and failed.
“Real covert, guys,” I laughed. “Anyway, if that’s his problem, what the hell do you need him for? You’re doing everything right. You can only be with someone who loves you for who you are.”
“Yup,” Adam piped up from the front, his presence only visible by the black curls that stuck up over the top of the driver’s seat headrest. “If he didn’t like the real you, he was a waste of time.”
“You see, that’s what bothers me. Wasting my time.” Nina had suffered from severe asthma since she was a baby. She had spent far too much time at Westchester General Hospital, and she took time-sucks very seriously.
“I honestly think you should take this as a lesson,” Val said. “Maybe sometimes your personality can be too strong, and it scares people away. Find a middle ground. Something that works for both of you.”
Something inside of me reared up, ready to attack. “Or, you know, don’t compromise who you are for an asshole. You could do that instead.”
Val scowled. I loved Val, I really did, but sometimes I wanted to smack her in her stupid but adorable face. And she thought I was the one who was being insensitive?
“I hate this feeling.” Nina sniffled. “I hate that he can get to me like this.”
Seeing her cry made me want to cry, and I wasn’t doing that in front of Val and Adam. I fished out a tissue from the pack in the front of my bookbag. “You just need some time. You’re too strong to let him get you down for long.”
“Right,” Adam said. “He’s obviously a prick. I’m surrounded by the three of you all the time and it doesn’t unnerve me.”
“Not even a little bit?” I stifled a laugh. Sometimes, when Adam was with the three of us, he looked helpless, as though desperate for a life preserver.
“Yeah, sure, but it has nothing to do with you all being independent. It has more to do with you guys being loud.” He plugged his ear and winced, making sure we could see his expression in the rearview mirror.
Nina cracked a shaky smile, and the dark feeling in my chest lightened.
By the time we met up again that afternoon in mythology class, Nina looked more like herself, although the bags under her eyes were a dead giveaway to her earlier state. Still, it was a relief to see her smiling and goofing off with Val.
They were already sitting in their seats, so I took the desk beside them. It was a desk/chair combo, and my hips were a tight squeeze. I barely ever made it without banging the desk across the floor, a clatter that might as well be the “Brynn’s got some junk in her trunk” shuffle. I wedged my ass into the seat and momentarily bemoaned the invention of the corset of school furniture.
A moment later when the late bell rang, Adam slid past Mr. Howard with a sheepish smile and a wave. He found the empty seat next to Val and settled in with his own extra noise as he rustled through his backpack and pushed his frameless glasses up his broad nose.
“Are you done, Mr. Hernandez?” Mr. Howard asked.
He winced. “Sorry.”
Val squeezed his hand and tossed a sheet of her bouncy blonde curls over her shoulder.
“Good morning.” Mr. Howard called the attention of the class. Slowly, the chatter around the room tapered off. He waited until it was completely silent, and our eyes were all on him. “There you are. Today, we’re going to get started on that group project I promised you.”
A collective groan rose from the students, myself included. Nobody liked group projects.
“Projects will be presented in June, which leaves you an entire month. I warned you to enjoy spring break because you’d be working hard when you returned.” Mr. Howard’s tone was awfully playful for a man handing out jail sentences. “I’ll be posting the presentation schedule at the end of this month. The project will require groups of four—”
That was all I needed to hear. I grabbed Nina’s hand. She grabbed Val’s. Val’s hand tightened around Adam’s.
“What are we doing?” Val whispered. Adam smiled.
“I see some of you have already chosen your partners.” Mr. Howard grinned. “That easy to wake you guys up, huh?”
Someone tapped my shoulder. Raphael.
Raphael was a decent looking boy in my class who was intensely ordinary, at least to me. Nothing about him stood out. He blended in with the rest of his fellow castmates in the school play and barely managed to maintain a B average. His family had moved over the summer, but they let him stay with a family friend in Birchwood until he finished high school. And though he’d barely spoken with me before his reappearance, he’d spent every minute since senior year started trying to get me to go out with him. He was awful about it.
“Bree, drop them and come work with me?” he whispered, glancing between me and our group.
The assumption that I would drop my best friends to work with him was part of that something off about him. The other part?
“Brynn. You know I hate being called Bree.”
I’d told him a million times, but he didn’t seem to care. Only Nina got away with calling me Bree, and that was because she’d been using the nickname since we both learned to talk.
“But... weren’t we supposed to hang out?” he asked.
No, I had never agreed to hang out with him. He’d creeptastically invented that in his own brain. Stifling a shudder, I put a finger to my lips and shushed him, just in time to realize I had no idea what our project was about.
“Break into groups and brainstorm topics. Exchange phone numbers and email addresses. Lay down the groundwork. After today, we won’t be devoting class time to this project, so make sure you get it all covered.”
I turned my desk toward the others. “Raphael was being Raphael. What’s our project?”
Adam frowned. “He bothering you again?”
“Again?” I said. “When did he stop?”
“He can’t take a hint,” Nina said.
“That little worm,” Val grumbled, her nose wrinkling in that adorable way it always did. “I’ve never liked him.” Her nose unwrinkled and she perked up. “Doesn’t anybody nice ever want to date you?”
“Val!” Adam scolded.
The words sliced through me, but I had bigger problems to deal with. I didn’t even need to look behind me to know Raphael was about to barge into the conversation. My hand snapped up like a stop sign. “No one need apply. I’m not on the market. I’m not interested in romance; I’m interested in the project.”
Val gasped. “You’re not... interested... in romance?”
“The project, Val! Can we focus on the project?”
“We’re supposed to pick a region of mythology we learned about in class and find a topic we want to study further. We need to come up with a presentation we want to do and get his approval. Then present on our assigned day,” Adam recapped for me.
“The Trojan War. We talked about the war itself, and, you know, the horse. Everybody talks about the horse. But what about the causes? How the war happened, who was involved. How it was really all Eris’ fault.” Val leaned back in her chair. “Greek mythology is my favorite.”
Who could have guessed that Greek mythology would be Valentina Kokinos’s favorite? It truly was a shock.
“We’ll read up on it ourselves, then we’ll make plans to meet up and decide what we want to do with it this weekend.” Adam shrugged. “It won’t be hard to find time to talk about this.”
“We could do half during the slow shifts at Scoopy Doo,” Nina said, referring to the ice cream shop where we all worked.
“That may be a no go,” Val said. “I hear there’s someone new starting this week. Greg or something. We’re gonna have to train him.”
“Craig,” Adam said. “Sammy’s gearing up for the summer rush.”
“We’ll manage, or we’ll meet up after work,” I said. “We’ll play it by ear. Deal?”
We all agreed.
Once class ended and we were heading to lunch, I pushed aside my disgust with Val’s current behavior. We had to talk. Our previous after-school plans wouldn’t mesh well with Nina’s new situation, and the last thing I wanted was to remind Nina of the break-up. I looped an arm through Val’s and pulled her back to walk with me.
“Prom dress shopping after school is a no then, huh?” I whispered.
“No way! I don’t even know if she’s going now.” She shook her head, morose, as though missing prom was akin to a death sentence. “Why would she go to the prom by herself?”
I tried not to be offended. Offended was my standard state around Val. “I’m going to the prom by myself.”
“Well, you’re different.” She patted my arm. “Besides, now you can go with her. But I’d let her mourn awhile first.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that, whether or not I liked it, Val was Nina’s foster sister, and I was stuck with her unless Nina said otherwise. This involved regular mental gymnastics to keep me from throwing the nearest heavy object at her.
Between my desire to get away from Val and Nina’s insistence on locking herself in her room and listening to depressing music until she felt like herself again, I no longer had plans for the evening. After making Nina swear to call me if she needed me, and worrying that she totally wouldn’t, I headed home hours before my nine o’clock curfew.
Mom would be surprised. I rarely walked in any earlier than 8:58 p.m. Things in the house were always too tense, and I’d rather avoid it as long as I could. Most days, Nina’s parents fed me.
Once home, I kicked off my shoes and jogged up the stairs. “Mom! I’m home!”
No response, but a lot of shuffling and movement from upstairs. Had Mom gone to bed early? I hoped she wasn’t coming down with something.
She didn’t respond. Dread hit the bottom of my stomach like a weight, and I swallowed against it. Pushing my fear aside, I approached her room and pressed my ear against the door.
“What do you want me to do, Chelsea? Sneak out the window?” A man’s voice. Worse, I knew that voice. Not that there was much chance I wouldn’t in a town as small as ours. It was Jesse, from the local antique shop. He came in for ice cream at Scoopy Doo once a week “as a reward for a particularly hard day of work.” Like a kid who did well in school.
That room belonged to my mom and dad, and Jesse had absolutely no place anywhere near it. I snarled. “Mom, open the door now.”
The paint made a sticking sound as the door cracked open. A few months ago, Mom and Dad put their war to rest, and the three of us repainted every room in the house. Mom even let me smear some on her nose. That Mom was the same Mom whose head poked through the crack in the doorway. Innocent and youthful, years of tension disappeared from her face. She regarded me with wide eyes, a hesitant smile hovering on her lips. “Bree-baby, I can explain.”
I wanted her to explain it all away. But she couldn’t. There was only one explanation, and it was ugly and wrong. The darkness that had been biting at my heels since Nina had told me her news flared to life again, and I spoke my next words through teeth gritted hard enough to crack. “No, Mom. No, you can’t. And Jesse? Get the hell out of my house. You can use the door, but you should use the window, like the weasel you are.”
I escaped to my sanctuary, even as she called after me. It wasn’t until I was alone that it all sank in. I collapsed onto my bed and breathed. And breathed. And kept forcing myself to breathe until it felt natural again.
I wished there was a way to forget the truth. The truth about love was Reeve breaking up with Nina after two years of dating, for her being exactly who she’d always been. The truth about love was Dad leaving on business trips and staying away from home as often as he could, desperate to avoid the woman he had married. The truth about love was Mom, after twenty years of marriage, getting caught banging an antiques dealer.
Nina had been in love. My parents had been in love. Now they all walked around like a vital piece of themselves was missing. Like the world had ended when their relationships did. And I was supposed to want that? I was supposed to go looking for pain?
The truth about love was it sucked. And I wanted no part of it.