Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 3

Quinn turned and stared. A girl with black hair wearing all black clothing stood in the doorway. The other students, having unloaded Quinn’s things, made excuses and left, the sound of the cart’s wheels on the carpet echoing through the hall. No piercings marked the newcomer’s face, but she scowled just as well as any goth kid Quinn had known in high school.

“Um, excuse me?” Quinn said. “I don’t see anything there.”

The newcomer strode through the room and plucked a Post-it note from the headboard. “See? This has my name on it. ‘Reserved for Zoleen. Getting my things. Be right back.'” She continued holding the note out.

“Are you serious?” Quinn said. “That is not how it works—“

“It’s all about first come, first served,” the girl said. “I had to wait for my parents, and now I have to wait for people to put my things into a cart, so I came up here and claimed my space.” She sat down on the bed. As she moved, Quinn noticed that the label from the back of her jeans had been taken off.

She sucked in her cheeks. “I’ll take the bottom bunk, then.”

“And I get top!” Tara said, her fist pumping the air.

Quinn’s new roommate smirked. “Juleyka said she wanted the bottom. You get the top,” she said, pointing.

Quinn tried to remember the names on the door. “So you’re Zoleen,” she said.

“Yes?” Zoleen stood and began rearranging the furniture. She moved one of the desks closer to her bed, straightening it until its edges were flush with the wall.

“I’m Quinn.” She held out her hand, but Zoleen ignored it.

“Honey, I’m home!” another voice rang out. A Puerto Rican girl with curly dark hair stood in the doorway, striking a pose. “Res life, here we are!”

Behind her in the hallway, two guys waited with two separate carts.

“You may bring my things in now,” Zoleen told one of the guys.

Quinn stood in the middle of the room as the guys carried everything in. Her little sister sat down at one of the desks, seemingly unfazed. When the guys left, she tried again. “Hi,” she said to Juleyka. “I’m Quinn.”

“Can you fucking believe it?” Juleyka said, shaking her hand. “Here we are!” She grinned and twirled through the room. “This is going to be awesome. We’re here!”

“Yes,” Quinn said slowly. “Here we are.” She gestured toward Zoleen. “Roommates, for the whole year.”

Zoleen sniffed and retrieved a roll of duct tape from one of her plastic bins. She began taping lines on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Quinn asked.

“This,” Zoleen said, “is my space. I’d prefer it if you didn’t come into it.”

“Okay,” Quinn said, “but you’re taping off the whole second closet, too.”

Juleyka put her hands on her hips. “Nuh-uh. No way. I need all the closet space I can get. If anyone gets a whole closet to herself, it’s me.” She pointed to her suitcase, which was twice the size of Quinn’s.

Quinn opened her mouth, but Tara tapped on her arm. “Yeah?” she asked, wincing at the sharpness of her tone.

“I’m hungry,” Tara said.

“Okay. Let me just get unpacked and we’ll—“

“I have to pee, too.”

Quinn felt the other girls’ eyes on her. She swallowed hard. If she left the room, she would lose. If she sent Tara on her own, her little sister might get lost. “Can you wait a couple minutes?” she whispered.

Zoleen snorted. “Is she your kid?” she asked.

Quinn gaped at her. “Dude, she’s eleven. I would have had to be, like, seven years old. Gross.” Her nose crinkled, and her forehead creased.

Zoleen shrugged. “Just saying.”

“Hold up. Let’s get back to this closet sitch.” Juleyka bent and began peeling up the tape.

“Stop!” Zoleen shrieked.

Quinn gaped in horror as the girl with the black hair covered her eyes and folded to the floor, rocking back and forth.

“There,” Juleyka said, balling up the strips of tape. She tossed them into Quinn’s laundry basket. Without another word, she unzipped her suitcase and began hanging her things in the closet.

“You know what,” Quinn said, taking Tara’s hand. “I’m hungry, too.”

* * *

“This sucks,” Quinn said as she stared down at her salad.

“It’s just a salad,” Tara said, dipping a chicken strip into some barbecue sauce.

Quinn rested her chin in her hands and sighed. “No, I mean my roommates. They’re nuts.”

“They’re girls,” Tara said, shrugging.

Quinn nodded. “True, but they’re exactly the kind of roommates I hoped I wouldn’t be getting.” She nibbled on a piece of grilled chicken. Her stomach churned and she put her fork down.

“I’m sure Mom’s roommates are even worse,” her little sister said.

She was about to tell Tara that she was sure their mother didn’t have roommates when she remembered movies she’d seen about mental institutions. She rubbed her temples, the nausea rising. “Yeah,” she choked. She thought of the way Zoleen had acted, and wondered whether her roommates needed psychological help. “That Juleyka chick has some kind of narcissistic personality disorder,” she said, “and I bet Zoleen is obsessive compulsive or something.”

“What?” Tara wrinkled her brow.

“Never mind.” Quinn crumpled her napkin. “Let’s go sign you in for the night.”

They collected their trash and left the food court. The walk back to the residence complex was more than Quinn was used to. Hunger pushed her forward to the student center before, but she dreaded returning to her room. She took Tara’s hand, and wondered how long it would be before her little sister objected to holding hands in public.

Bicyclists blew by them, and throngs of students and their families walked in clusters, probably also looking for something to eat. Quinn was glad she and Tara beat the food court rush. Maybe her roommates would be out when she returned.

“Are you ready for school, Monkey?” she asked as they stopped at a crosswalk.

“Wait,” the electronic box said, and beeped.

“Mom was going to take me shopping for clothes,” Tara said.

“I can do that,” Quinn said. She gently nudged the little girl. “Besides, I have better taste.” She winked.

Tara smiled back, but the corners of her eyes turned down.

Quinn wondered if she shouldn’t have told the police what happened. Nancy might have calmed down on her own. They might even be all walking together now, laughing about her horrible new roommates.

“Walk,” the crosswalk box said, and began beeping. A digital display in the box counted down the seconds. She grabbed Tara’s hand and led her across the street.

When they returned to West and her room, only Zoleen remained. The girl sat at her desk, arranging and rearranging her supplies and laptop.

Quinn tugged at her lower lip as she watched her.

“Is this your desk?” Tara pointed to the third, and only bare, desk in the room.

“I guess so,” Quinn said.

Tara opened the box containing Quinn’s school supplies. “Can I put your stuff away?”

“Knock yourself out, Monkey.” She turned to her suitcase and unzipped it. In the closet, Zoleen had duct-taped a line dividing it directly in half. “How did you do that without measuring tape?” she asked.

Zoleen did not glance up, but replied in a crisp, even tone. “The duct tape is 1.88 inches wide, offering perspective to the space it divides.”

Quinn blinked. “What are you majoring in?”

“Math,” Zoleen answered immediately. She did not ask about Quinn’s major.

“I’m journalism,” Quinn offered. “I want to write for Elle and the other big fashion magazines. I guess we’re total opposites, huh?” She smiled and hung up a shirt. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. We have to live together for at least these next two semesters, so we should make the best of it.” She smiled at Zoleen.

“Is she staying here tonight?” her roommate asked.

Quinn did not have to ask who she meant. “Yes,” she said slowly. “Just for the night, though. I didn’t think it would be a problem.”

“Well, it is,” Zoleen said.

Quinn pressed her lips together and took a deep breath through her nose before replying. “Okay,” she said, exhaling. “Why?”

“Why is she staying here? She’s not a student.”

A dull pain began thudding in the center of Quinn’s forehead. She took another deep breath. “Our parents are away,” she said. Her heart twisted at the plural word, and she glanced at Tara out of the corner of her eye. Her little sister seemed completely preoccupied with setting up her study area.

Zoleen said nothing. She opened another plastic bin and began pulling out plastic toys. Quinn leaned forward, her forehead creasing. She recognized some of the characters. There were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some cult classic horror movie figures, and others she did not recognize. Zoleen lined them up along the back of her desk, leaning them against the wall.

“Cool,” Tara said, coming over to stand next to the girl. She reached out to touch the Rafael figure, but Zoleen snatched it away.

“No,” she said, setting it back in exactly the same spot it had been.

Quinn frowned. “She’s just a kid,” she said.

“She has no business being in a dorm room.”

Quinn bit her lip. Tara deserved to be at home, in her own room, with her own toys. If she brought Tara home, though, she would have to give up her dorm room, and the whole college residence experience. She would just be another commuter, and probably wouldn’t make any friends. Even if her roommates were weird, and potentially OCD, they were still familiar faces. She hadn’t had many friends in high school. Living on campus might be her only shot at a normal social life.

She turned away from Zoleen, and continued putting her clothes away, but she felt the other girl’s eyes on her back.

* * *

“Your little sister is what?!” Juleyka asked. She stood with her hands on her hips.

Zoleen sat demurely at her desk, her hands folded. “Their parents are out of town.”

Quinn ran a hand through her hair. Tara sat on the top bunk amid the new comforter and throw pillows, her eyes glued to her Nintendo DS. With her headphones on, she probably couldn’t hear a thing—or so Quinn hoped. “I’ve already signed her in for the night,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Without consulting us?” Juleyka waved her hands. “Oh, no, no, no. That ain’t gonna fly. I’m calling res life and complaining.”

“Wait,” Quinn said. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I brought a guy.”

Juleyka’s eyes glinted and she smiled. “Fine. If you get to have your little sister stay the night, then I get to have Nick.”

“Who’s Nick?” Quinn asked, but her roommate was already on her phone.

Juleyka spoke quickly, but it wasn’t English or even Spanish. Quinn heard her say “ciao” and a few other Italian words she recognized.

She turned to Zoleen. “Are you comfortable with some strange guy staying the night?”

Zoleen remained very still. “I don’t want anyone staying the night, but my parents said I have to broaden my horizons and get used to sharing space.”

At that, Juleyka snorted.

Quinn rubbed at her temples. “Look, I know Tara is a kid, but she’s not a baby. She won’t get in the way. I’ll have her sleep up on the top bunk with me. It’ll be like she’s not even here.” She locked eyes with Juleyka. “But no guys are staying in this room, ever.”

“Unless they have friends,” Zoleen added.

Quinn glared at her. “Whose side are you on?”

Zoleen shrugged. “I’m still a virgin. I’d like to change that this semester.” She spoke as though she were talking about improving her GPA.

Quinn gaped at her.

Juleyka lowered the phone from her ear. “Who says we can’t have co-ed sleepovers? There’s no rule for it. We just can’t have alcohol unless we’re twenty-one—“

“I’ll be twenty-one next June,” Zoleen said.

Juleyka grinned. “Nice! Maybe we can be roommates next year, too.”

Quinn tightened her fingers into fists and pulled in a deep breath through her nose. “What can I do,” she said through gritted teeth, “so that Tara can stay over?”

Juleyka raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just go home for the night?” She still held the phone, her wrist bent. The sunlight glinted off her French manicure.

“That’s an excellent observation,” Zoleen said.

Quinn glanced up at Tara, who still had her headphones on. “Listen,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She thought it would be fun to stay the night. Don’t you have siblings?” she added.

Zoleen shook her head.

Julekya said, “I’m the youngest of six. Puh-lease. No special treatment around here.”

Quinn wanted to ask her why she got the second closet all to herself. “It’s only one night,” she said instead.

Juleyka cocked her head, a sly smile spreading across her lips. “If she stays tonight, you both owe me a free night without either of you sleeping here, so that Nick can stay over.”

Zoleen said nothing.

Quinn shrugged. “Sure, whatever,” she said. “I’ll be home over the weekend, anyway. Is that a deal?” She held out her hand.

“Deal,” Juleyka said, grinning. She shook hands and pressed the phone to her ear again, lapsing back into Italian.

Quinn closed her eyes. Tara could stay for the night, but she had no idea what she would do for the next fourteen days.

* * *

Soft snores floated around her. The time on the microwave read quarter past one in the morning. Every time Quinn tried to lay down next to Tara on the top bunk, her heart started pounding and her mind raced with her worries. She wondered how she could keep Tara in the dorms without anyone noticing. She desperately wanted to know how her mother was doing.

She thought about calling the hospital to at least ask the staff about Nancy, but her mother might know she called without talking to her. The thought twisted her stomach into knots.

She sat in the bean bag chair Juleyka brought. It reeked of fruity perfume that at first gave her a headache, but Quinn had long stopped noticing. Her laptop sat open in her lap. Nothing was happening on Facebook or Twitter, and her email inbox was empty for the first time in months. She tapped her fingers on the mouse track pad, and then typed in “bipolar disorder” in the search engine bar.

She had never really researched it before. She knew her mother was bipolar. Nancy talked about how that was one of the few things she and Quinn’s father, Stan, had in common. Her father’s mental illness had taken him away from her. She shook her head. She did not want to think about him. She needed to focus on her mother.

She read through the list of symptoms with little attention. She already knew them from firsthand experience. She wondered, suddenly, what caused the disorder. She clicked through the website. Her eyes scanned the links. An article about psychiatric genetics jumped out at her. Before she could think about it, she clicked on it.

She did not understand the first paragraph or so. As she scrolled through, though, a new pit of dread began to attach itself to her stomach like a parasite. She went back to the search bar and typed in “is bipolar disorder hereditary?” As the search engine results loaded, her stomach seized with cramps and her hands shook. One article said that the disorder was eighty-percent hereditary.

She licked her lips and closed the laptop, her heart pounding in her chest. She needed some air, but she couldn’t just leave Tara. She got up and pulled a bottle of water from the mini fridge instead. She doubted Zoleen would notice, but if she did, Quinn would replace it.

She drank half the bottle in one shot. For a few minutes, her world shrank to just the simple act of relieving her thirst. When she could swallow no more of the cold water, she capped the bottle and returned to her laptop. She typed in “both parents bipolar,” and those search results were even worse. She closed the browser and shut down the laptop.

Research, she decided, was not helping.

Instead, she leaned back in the bean bag chair and tried to figure out where she would keep Tara the next night. She could just drive them both back home, but then she would have to drive back Monday morning for class. There wasn’t much gas left in her mother’s car, and if she was going to drive Tara to and from school, she would need to conserve it. She could always use her mother’s credit card, she decided. Her shoulders tensed at the thought, though. Maybe she should save it for emergencies.

For the first time ever, she wished she had grandparents that were still alive. They would know what to do. They would let Tara stay with them. Maybe, with their guidance, her mother wouldn’t even be sick. Her father might still be alive, too.

Quinn blinked away tears. She glanced at the clock again. It was almost two in the morning. She needed to get to sleep soon. Maybe, in the morning, things would look different. Maybe her roommates would forget their suspicions and invite Tara to stay another night.

She snorted. Maybe pigs would fly.

She climbed the ladder and settled into bed next to her little sister.

She did not sleep that night.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 2

The stitches on her arm reminded Quinn of Frankenstein. In less than a day, she became a girl she didn’t recognize, tossed into the sea of uncertainty. She tucked Tara into bed, left the little lamp on and the big light off, and left the door open a crack. She tiptoed down the stairs and found herself in the kitchen. Glass crunched beneath the soles of her sneakers. Yanking open the pantry door, she glanced about the tiny room for the broom and dustpan. Only shadows greeted her. Quinn flipped on the light, but the broom was not in its usual spot.

Frowning, she moved further into the pantry. It was about the size of a closet, and she didn’t actually need to go all the way in to see everything, but the broom being out of place was just so wrong. She turned and went back into the kitchen, eyes scanning like those of a feverish man looking for water. All she saw was the broken glass and ceramic littering the floor.

The broom wasn’t on the porch, either, and soon she found herself walking down the stairs to the basement. She flipped the light on and stood at the bottom of the stairs. At first glance, nothing looked wrong. After a moment, though, she saw the dried drops of blood on the neatly swept concrete floor. Her knees buckled, and she collapsed onto the floor, scraping her knees. Tears ran down her cheeks, and she wailed like a five-year-old. Her fingers clutched at the blanket in a pile of dirty laundry, and she dug her nails in. Clasping her injured arm to her chest, she doubled over. Her body went limp.

Her tears soaked the blanket and she gasped for air, but still the sobs came. The abyss pulled her in and cradled her, and she gave herself to it. All Quinn could think of was what might have happened if Tara had gone down into the basement with her, or if their mother had found them in the closet.

She cried out, and clasped a hand to her mouth. She did not want Tara to know she was so upset. Quinn snorted. “Upset” seemed like such a lax word for how she felt. Slowly she worked herself into a sitting position. Wiping her eyes with the pads of her fingers, she blinked into the dark. She squared her shoulders and took a slow, deep breath, practicing what her old yoga instructor taught her. She did not move her body. Instead, she focused on her breathing, until the panic and fear and other emotions swirled away, and all she could sense was the soft in and out of her breath, the air whooshing through her lungs.

Composed, she got to her feet, still maintaining the slow breathing. She brushed the dirt from her hands. As she stared at her palms, she remembered why she came into the basement in the first place. Forehead crinkling and eyebrows knitting, she searched the small laundry room. She even looked in the garage, where her mother’s car still sat. She realized with glee that she would have free reign of the car while her mother was away. A pit of guilt knotted itself into her stomach, and she brushed away fresh tears. Closing the basement door behind her, she returned to the room they used for laundry, and went back upstairs.

The broom, it seemed, had vanished along with her mother’s sanity. Quinn bit down on her lip, staring down at the glass glittering in the light. It would have to wait until the morning, when she could drive down to Walmart or something and get another one, or she could go to a neighbor’s and ask for one.

Grimacing, she leaned against the refrigerator. Their neighbors had to have heard the noise or at least noticed all of the emergency vehicles that morning. Whoever she went to would have questions, or they would stare at her, or say something stupid. Still, she really didn’t want the mess to still be there when Tara got up in the morning. Her little sister needed some semblance of normalcy, and Nancy always kept a clean house.

At the thought of her mother, fresh tears pricked at Quinn’s eyes, and the pit of guilt grew. She swallowed hard and straightened. Pushing off from the refrigerator, she grabbed her zip-up hoodie and pulled it on as she walked through the front door. Standing on the front porch, she surveyed her neighborhood.

Directly next door in the adjoining duplex apartment, Donna would have heard everything. Plus, Quinn surmised, her seventeen-year-old son was really creepy. She suspected that he tortured the stray cats that wandered into their yard. No, she would not ask them for help.

The Na sisters lived in the house directly across the street, but they mostly kept to themselves, and Quinn didn’t think they spoke English, anyway. She heard they came from Cambodia to escape the sex trafficking trade. Quinn didn’t know if that was true, but with the language barrier, it would take entirely too long to ask for a broom.

She sighed and began walking across the lawn to the other house next door, a three-family home. The elderly man on the first floor usually swept the stairs and front walk at least once a week. Quinn suspected this had more to do with boredom than some strange generational fascination with dirt, but he kept the broom and dustpan on the porch. She could just borrow it for a few minutes, and then return it before anyone noticed, or asked her questions about that morning.

Her feet tapped lightly on the wooden stairs, and the boards creaked underneath her weight. The broom rested against the mailbox. She reached out to grab it.

“That’s not yours,” a cigarette choked voice said.

Quinn turned to find the third floor tenant, a single mother of four children. The woman smoked at least four packs a day, probably because her kids never stopped running around. In the two years Quinn, Tara, and Nancy had lived next door, she had never seen any of those children doing anything quiet, like reading a book. They screamed and yelled even when they were supposed to be sleeping.

The woman raised an eyebrow at Quinn and inhaled, smoking half her cigarette in one breath. Smoke curled toward Quinn, and she brushed it away with her hand.

“I’m sure Henry wouldn’t mind,” Quinn said.

“Henry doesn’t get a say in this, because that’s my broom.” She jabbed a thumb into her own chest. “His broke.”

Quinn bit down on her lip. She didn’t know her neighbor’s name. “Can I borrow it from you, then?”

“Nope.” The woman finished the rest of her cigarette and tucked it into an overflowing ashtray. She immediately lit another. “That’s my good broom.” Dark circles underlined her eyes.

“I’ll bring it right back,” Quinn promised.

The woman snorted. “A guy said that about my car once. A week later, I found out I was knocked up, and didn’t have a car.”

“I’m sorry?” Quinn said, unsure of what else to say. “I’m not going to steal your broom, though.”

The woman pointed at Quinn’s house with a yellowed fingernail. “You live over there?”

“Yep. I’ll bring it right back over—“

“You’re the one that went in the ambulance, huh?” her neighbor asked. “What the hell happened?” She pointed at the stitches.

Quinn groaned. “I really don’t think we should—“

“If you tell me, I’ll let you keep the broom.” The woman smiled, exposing yellow teeth. She finished her second cigarette and lit a third.

Crickets chirped as the moon rose in the sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the small hairs on Quinn’s arms and brought a fresh stream of smoke into her face. She crinkled her nose. “I’ll tell you if you stop blowing smoke at me.”

“That’s not how it works,” the third floor creature said, but she turned away the next time she exhaled.

Quinn gave her the short version of what happened that morning. The woman’s eyes fixed intently on her the entire time she spoke. She left out that her mother had been getting worse and worse.

“Poor thing,” the woman said. She lit yet another cigarette, and held the pack out to Quinn. Quinn shook her head. “Suit yourself.” She pocketed the cigarettes and eyed Quinn for a moment. “So what are you gonna do?”

Quinn closed her fingers around the handle of the broom. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she said. She bent to pick up the dustpan.

“I didn’t say you could take that, too,” her neighbor said.

“Are you serious?” Quinn stamped her foot.

“If you tell me what you’re gonna do, I’ll let you take the dustpan.”

Quinn rolled her eyes and left the dustpan on the porch. She hurried back across the lawn. When she got into her own house, she locked the door behind her. “Nosy freakin’ nut job,” she muttered. As she began sweeping the mess in the kitchen, though, she realized she had no idea what she was going to do.

She worked the broom through, the glass scraping against the floor as she swept. Her mother had one sister, who lived all the way in Texas. Nancy and Mary Lynn despised each other. Quinn doubted her aunt would take Tara, and even if Aunt Mary Lynn did, Texas was a long way from Connecticut.

Pausing, she took stock of her progress. Most of the glass sat in a pile, but there were smaller pieces. The vacuum would make too much noise, and it was heavy, anyway. She could just vacuum first thing in the morning, but she wanted everything clean before she went to bed. She had a long day ahead of her. Eventually, she would even have to sort through all of her things for her college dorm, and either return them or put them to use in the apartment.

She froze, her fingers tightening around the broom handle. During orientation a couple weeks before, she discovered that her dorm room really was just one room. The resident assistant who led orientation and the tour said that students could have guests stay over or until two in the morning. There was no limit to how many times a guest could stay, except during finals week, when overnight visitors weren’t allowed. Her heart pounded in her chest. She had her mother’s car. She could easily drive Tara back and forth to school. Waterbury was only forty-five minutes away from the university. No one would have to know that Tara never actually left the dorms otherwise.

They would have to be careful. The Department of Children and Families would be checking in with her periodically, especially as her mother’s trial progressed. Quinn couldn’t remember exactly what the social worker said, but her mother would be in the hospital for fifteen days, and then a judge would decide what to do with her. If Nancy got better and came home, Quinn would only have to hide Tara for two weeks.

Quinn finished cleaning up the kitchen, her mind organizing a list of things to pack for Tara.

* * *

Sunlight streamed through the windows. Quinn shut off the vacuum just as Tara came down the stairs. Both the living room and kitchen were free from glass, but she made Tara keep her flip flops on, just in case.

Her little sister pointed to the two suitcases on the living room floor. One was large and fit most of Quinn’s summer and fall clothes. The second was much smaller and decorated with Tinker Bell and other Disney fairies, and only held a few changes of clothing for Tara. “What are those for?”

Quinn took a deep breath, took her sister by the hand, and led her to the couch. She explained her plan, carefully emphasizing how important it was to keep everything a secret.

“So, I’m going to college?”

“Well, no. I mean, sort of.” Quinn pulled her dark brown hair back into a ponytail. “You’re not going to be a student.”

“I get to stay at my old school?” Tara twirled a strand of hair around her finger. In the last five years, they had moved at least ten times. Getting used to a new school every time had been hard on Quinn. She couldn’t imagine what it had been like for Tara.

Quinn gently pulled her little sister’s hand away and began braiding her hair. “Yes. But you can’t tell anyone what we’re doing.”

“What about Mom? Where will she stay?”

Quinn bit down on her lip. Sweat broke out along her palms. She did not really know how to explain that their mother would be away for a while, possibly for a long time. “Mom’s going to get better,” she said finally. Tara seemed to accept the answer, and let her finish braiding her hair.

Less than an hour later, they sped down Route 69, all the windows of the car down. They passed farm houses and acres of meadows full of horses. Tara watched, wide eyed, through the passenger’s seat window. There weren’t any horses in Waterbury.

Between New Haven traffic and getting turned around, it took them about an hour to get to the university. Once they got on campus, Quinn ended up in the wrong parking lot. An old man wearing a blue jacket embroidered with the words Parking Lot Attendant halted them at the entrance.

“I’m sorry,” Quinn said. “I need to get to West.”

He mumbled directions that Quinn didn’t quite understand, then allowed her into the lot so that she could turn around.

In front of her, a minivan full of plastic storage bins did the same. She decided to follow the minivan. They seemed just as new as her. Both cars eased back out into traffic. The minivan zipped in and out between cars, though, and she lost them at the next light. Tears stung her eyes. If she couldn’t even navigate the university, she would never be able to get Tara to school on time.

None of the buildings resembled the dormitory she had visited weeks before. She continued up a hill. Slowly, the brick buildings became shingled houses. Frowning, she slowed. A car behind her honked its horn. She turned her signal light on and pulled over. As soon as they passed, she pulled back onto the road, crawling.

When she crested a hill, she spotted another building. The sign out front announced it as a magnet school. She squeezed the steering wheel to keep her tears at bay. She eased the car into the parking lot and made a U-turn. Then, she drove back the way she came. She pulled back onto Fitch Street, where a caravan of other cars filled with plastic bins slogged through traffic. One of them let her in, and she followed the rest. They went up the street and turned onto Wintergreen Avenue. She spotted the West campus dormitories and, following other cars, found her building.

Finally, she pulled into a visitor parking space in front of the dormitory. She shut off the engine and unbuckled her seatbelt. Her hands shook.

“Are you okay?” Tara asked, taking off her own seatbelt.

Resident assistants ran back and forth from cars to the building with new students’ items in rolling carts. Someone had brought a whole book case. Two resident assistants lifted it from the ground and tried to fit it into a cart. The cart rolled away, and the students dropped the book case. One of them swore loudly. The owner of the book case put her hands on her hips and screamed right into the resident assistant’s face. His eyes widened and he flinched backward.

Quinn glanced at her own things in the back seat. She only had her and Tara’s suitcases, plus a pristine white hamper filled with toiletries and school supplies. She wouldn’t need any help.

Someone knocked on her window. A blonde wearing a white tee shirt that said ResLife Move-in Day waved.

Quinn opened the car door.

“Good morning!” the older girl chirped. She held a clipboard. A whistle on a string hung around her neck.

“Morning!” Tara called back.

The girl waved to Tara, then turned her attention back to Quinn. “Are you ready to move in?” She gestured to a muscular guy waiting behind one of the carts. He wore the same Move-In Day tee shirt.

“Oh, I don’t have that much—“

“We’ve got this,” the guy said, giving her a wink. He opened the back seat door and pulled out the hamper.

“Pop your trunk,” the blonde girl said.

Quinn opened her mouth to object, thinking of the Tinker Bell suitcase, but the guy was already loading her hamper and box into the cart, and the blonde tugged impatiently at the trunk. Sighing, Quinn pressed the button for the trunk and climbed out of the car.

The guy hefted Quinn’s suitcase out and into the cart. Only Tara’s little suitcase remained.

Her little sister reached for it, but Quinn caught her hand and began to close the trunk.

“Wait,” the blonde girl said. She pointed to Tara’s suitcase. “Is this yours, sweetie?”

Tara nodded, and Quinn felt her heart jump into her throat.

“I love Tinker Bell!” the older girl exclaimed.

Quinn let out a sigh of relief.

“Are you staying the night?” the blonde girl asked.

Quinn’s heart lurched into her throat again, and she groped for an explanation. She had never considered that she might not be able to have a guest during her first weekend on campus.

Before she could say anything, Tara nodded, a huge grin spreading across her face.

Eyes wide, Quinn cut in. “It’s just so she knows her big sister isn’t, like, moving away or anything.” She winked at the blonde girl.

“I get it,” the guy said. “My little sister and I are really close, too.” He smiled and lifted Tara’s suitcase easily, then put it on top of the other items in the cart.

The blonde girl took Quinn’s hand. “Let’s get your dorm keys!” she said, tugging Quinn behind her.

Quinn grabbed Tara’s hand, and they entered the building in a human chain.

The guy rolled the cart into the elevator, and pressed the button to keep the doors open. Quinn queued up with a few other freshman. When it was her turn, she flashed her student ID at the girl behind the desk, and was given a single metal key. For some reason, she had expected a plastic card key, like the ones that hotels used.

“Your student ID gets you into the building,” the blonde explained as they joined the guy in the elevator. “Your key gets you into your room, like a house key.”

Quinn pocketed it. She made a mental note to get a lanyard or some other keychain later.

Upstairs, she and Tara followed the two older students to a door decorated with hearts. Each heart held a name written in glitter: Quinn, Juleyka, and Zoleen.

“Go on, go in,” the blonde said, bouncing on her feet.

Quinn put her hand on the door handle, then hesitated. “Are my roommates already here?” she asked.

“You’ll have to go in to find out,” the older girl said.

Quinn turned the handle, but it jammed. She pulled her key out of her pocket and unlocked the door. Inside, only furniture greeted her. “We’re the first ones,” she told Tara.

“That means you get to pick your side of the room, and your bed,” the blonde said.

The guy rolled the cart up to the door and unloaded her things while Quinn walked around the room. It was small for a space that was going to hold three people for a whole year, but with the huge windows looking out over the campus, the room was almost airy.

A set of bunk beds lined one wall, and a single bed stood against the opposite wall. Under the bunk beds were two three-drawer dressers, and a third occupied the space under the single bed. Three desks sat at different angles along the walls, and two closets were cut into the walls next to the door.

“I get top bunk!” Tara said, and ran into the room. She started up the ladder.

Quinn put a hand on her back. “Sorry, Monkey. I have roommates. We’re going to take that bed.” She pointed to the single bed.

Tara jumped down, frowning. “You can’t take that bed,” she said. She chewed on her lower lip.

“Why not?” Quinn asked. As much as she loved her little sister, she wanted to pick her own bed.

“Because,” a new, cold voice said from the doorway, “don’t you see my shit on it?”

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 1

Quinn wrapped her arms around Tara’s small body and held her breath. Even from inside the small closet, she could hear glass shattering as their mother threw dishes around their kitchen. Nancy Parker screamed obscenity after obscenity, and Tara trembled in Quinn’s arms.

“Is Mom going to . . . ?” Her eleven-year-old sister let the question hang in the air. She didn’t have to finish it. Quinn knew exactly what she meant.

“I don’t know,” Quinn said softly.

Their mother’s next words carried all the way up the stairs: “I’m going to kill you both!”

Tara broke into heavy sobs, her tears soaking Quinn’s shirt. Quinn clutched her phone in her hand, her finger prepared to press the emergency services button on the screen. Enough was enough, she decided. She loved her mother, but Nancy obviously needed help. Tears pricked at Quinn’s own eyes, and she blinked them away. She needed to stay calm and cool, if not for Tara’s sake, then to keep their mother away from them.

“She doesn’t know where we are,” she told her little sister. She didn’t say “yet,” but both the girls knew it was only a matter of time. Quinn exhaled softly and strained to listen. Downstairs, her mother was oddly silent. Quinn shifted, meaning to extract Tara from her arms, but her little sister only clung tighter. “Let go,” she whispered.

“I don’t want you to go down there,” Tara pleaded.

Quinn bit down on her lip. She didn’t really want to go downstairs, either, but Nancy was surrounded by broken glass, and in one of her moods. She didn’t have to try very hard to imagine her mother laying in a pool of her own blood, her wrists slit courtesy of a handy shard of champagne flute. She could wait it out. Nancy’s moods sometimes changed so quickly, they reminded Quinn of the Connecticut weather she had known her whole life.

She nodded to herself, relaxing. She hugged Tara and smoothed the younger girl’s hair. “It’ll be over soon,” she promised, but didn’t really know, and she knew Tara knew that. Still, she had nothing else to say. If she said “I’ll protect you,” it would only frighten Tara more.

“Why is she so quiet?” Tara whispered.

Quinn again thought of all the things their mother could do to herself. There were knives in the kitchen, and there was a bottle of bleach in the downstairs bathroom. Quiet and unattended, Nancy was more of a threat to herself than to them. She had read somewhere that something like fifty percent of bipolar people tried to kill themselves. Quinn had defended herself and Tara from their mother more times than she could count. Something felt different that morning, though, and Quinn worried that someone might get hurt.

She slowly began to unwrap Tara’s arms from her body.

“What are you doing?” Tara tensed.

“Going to check on her.”

“No,” her little sister begged. “She’ll stab you.”

“Stay here.” She pressed her phone into Tara’s hand. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll scream. Call 911 right away, give them our address, and stay in the closet.”

Tara whimpered. “Okay,” she said, and loosened her grip.

“Okay,” Quinn repeated. She slowly opened the closet door. The house sat in silence. She could not even hear the tick of the grandfather clock in the hall downstairs. She crawled out of the closet, pushed through a pile of shoes, and stood. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she stitched together a plan. She would go down the stairs, but not all the way. She just needed to get a glimpse of Nancy, and see what her mother was doing. For all she knew, Nancy had curled up on the couch and, in a state of exhaustion from her episode, fallen asleep.

Quinn wedged the closet door shut, shoved the shoes over, and took a deep breath. Then, she left Tara’s bedroom.

The stairs creaked under her feet, and she winced with each step. If Nancy was awake, she already knew Quinn was coming. She held her breath as she neared the landing. The stairs were embedded between two sections of wall. One side of the wall was cut out, so that as she got closer to the first floor, she could see into the living room. No one occupied the couch and, aside from a few framed photos and throw pillows strewn around, the room looked normal. Her heart thudding in her chest, Quinn descended the last four or so steps, glad her feet were bare, preventing any sound from her footfalls.

She stood in the living room and gazed into the kitchen. She could only see the kitchen table. Overturned chairs and shattered glass littered the floor. Where the living room rug met the cool linoleum, Quinn saw a few small splatters of blood. The red stood out on the white tile. She padded toward the kitchen, ears alert for any sound indicating an attack from her mother.

Rain pattered against the windows. The door to the back porch stood ajar. Ignoring it for the moment, Quinn turned to the rest of the kitchen. Shards of ceramic plates and glass cups glittered in the gray gloom. The set of knives her father bought years before he died was strewn across the floor. She counted them. One was missing. She closed her eyes for a moment and clasped a hand to her chest. She needed to find Nancy.

She left the kitchen and checked the back porch. Only drying laundry on the line greeted her. A railing wrapped around the porch, which stood twenty feet above their yard. She did not see her mother’s broken body below, so Quinn turned around and went back into the house. She surveyed the kitchen for a moment, thinking. Then her eyes went to the basement door, and she swallowed a knot of fear.

Quinn returned to the mess on the floor, carefully avoiding the glass, and picked up a small paring knife. She did not want to hurt her mother, but she couldn’t be sure that Nancy didn’t want to hurt her. She tiptoed to the basement door, put her hand on the knob, and slowly opened it.

Darkness swam up at her. The basement smelled of fresh laundry with a hint of stale cardboard. She said a silent prayer, then descended.

She dared not turn the light on, so she took the stairs slowly, feeling for each step with the toes of one foot. All it would take was one slip, and she would tumble into the void. She gripped the railing with one hand and continued until she arrived at the bottom.

Pale gray light shone in from the small rectangular window. Her mother stood motionless next to the washer and dryer, the knife clutched in her hand, her back to Quinn. The blade pressed into Nancy’s palm, and blood dripped onto the floor.

“Mom?” Quinn called softly. “What are you—?”

Nancy turned, a sneer breaking out across her face. She lunged toward Quinn, the knife raised.

Quinn blocked with her elbow, using her free arm to push her mother away. Nancy stumbled back but recovered quickly, and darted at her again. Quinn moved to the side. The knife slashed the air by her face. She held her hands up. “Mommy,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Quinn.”

“You,” Nancy snarled, and came at her again.

Quinn backed into a rickety old shelf. Several canned goods fell to the floor. Her feet tripped over them and she went down, instinctively blocking her face with her arms even as her tailbone smacked into the concrete. “Stop,” she screamed, but the knife sliced into the flesh of her forearm, and she felt warm blood dribbling down.

She looked up in wide-eyed terror at Nancy, who stared back at her, the knife poised. Her mother staggered back and fell to her knees, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.

Quinn could only see the cut and the blood oozing out of it. Tears filled her eyes but did not fall. The world around her spun, went gray, tilted, and for a moment she almost fainted. She barely noticed. Only the crisp red made any sense, pulling her in until everything was the same hue. A moan escaped from her lips, and slowly it turned into a growl of frustration, until she was screaming. She threw words she never thought she would call her mother at full blast. Nancy flinched with each one, but did not move. Tears streamed down Quinn’s face, and she dropped the paring knife she had brought with her, her hands shaking.

Soon her whole body shook, and her screams died down, her throat aching. A wintery chill overtook her. The little hairs on her arms stood straight up. She tried to see through the icy fog that enveloped her. There was something she was supposed to do. She groped through her terror, but the fog thickened.

“Police! Come out of the basement, hands up,” a rough female voice shouted from the top of the stairs.

Quinn continued shaking. Goosebumps popped out along her skin, and her eyes darted to the blood pouring out of the tender flesh of her arm.

“I’m coming down. Weapons down, arms up,” the police officer called. A flashlight beam hit the wall opposite the stairs. Distantly, Quinn heard Nancy scrambling back into a corner, but the room began to gray again.

A female cop with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail emerged from the stairs, her male partner at her heels. Both pointed weapons and flashlights around the room.

“Stay right where you are,” the male cop told Nancy.

Quinn’s eyes focused on the female cop, who knelt in front of her.

“Are you with me?” the woman asked. To her partner, she said, “Get the EMTs.”

Quinn felt herself nod.

The police officer, whose badge read Trisha Barton, pressed white gauze to the cut on Quinn’s arm.

“Tara,” Quinn croaked. “Closet.”

“She’s the one who called,” Officer Barton said. “She’s upstairs with another officer. She’s fine.” Trisha smiled, but Quinn did not return it.

Instead, she watched as the other police officer put handcuffs on her mother and marched her up the stairs. “Where is he taking her?” she asked.

Officer Barton’s eyes hardened. “We’ll need a statement from you,” she said. “Your sister says your mother has become increasingly violent.”

“She’s sick,” Quinn said. “I need to—”

Two paramedics came down the stairs. One carried a medical kit and the other a gurney. They erupted into action, applying more gauze and pressure.

“She’s going to need stitches,” one of the paramedics said.

“I need a statement,” Officer Barton insisted.

“My mother,” Quinn reminded them. “I need to make sure my mother is okay.”

The paramedics and police officer shook their heads in unison.

“We’re going to take you to the hospital,” the other paramedic said. “Can you walk?”

“Absolutely not,” Officer Barton thundered. “We need to lock her up.” Her voice sounded choked. Red splotches decorated her otherwise unblemished face, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Child services have been called. This cannot be delayed.” Her voice was crisp but laced with urgency and distaste.

“Are you blind?” the first paramedic asked.

“Excuse me,” interrupted a new voice. Quinn, the paramedics, and Officer Barton turned to see a tall man wearing thick black glasses and a pink dress shirt. He extended a hand to the police officer. “I’m Christopher Ramsey. I’m with the Department of Children and Families.” Before anyone else could speak, he continued, looking directly at Quinn. “Let’s get Ms. Parker to the emergency room, and then we can sort the rest of this out.” He smiled, his brown eyes warm.

Quinn nodded, and allowed the two paramedics to help her up. They led her up the stairs slowly, Officer Barton clomping up behind them, muttering under her breath.

In the kitchen, Tara sat in a chair that someone had righted. When she saw Quinn, her eyes grew large and wide, and she stood. “What happened?” she asked, tears threatening.

Quinn hesitated, unsure of what she should tell her little sister.

Christopher spoke first. “Everyone is okay,” he told Tara in a soft, soothing voice. “We’re just going to go visit the hospital really quickly, and get your sister bandaged up. Would you like to ride in the ambulance?”

Tara eyed him suspiciously, one eyebrow raised. She put one of her hands on her hip. “I’m not a little kid,” she said.

“It’s okay,” Quinn said, and held out her hand. “Come on, Monkey.”

Her little sister brightened at the old nickname, and ran over to Quinn. She wrapped her arms around Quinn’s waist and squeezed.

Quinn smiled and put her uninjured arm around Tara’s shoulders. Whatever happened next, at least her little sister was safe.

* * *

Quinn watched in fascination as the plastic surgeon made tiny, precise stitches in her arm. The red of her blood and brown of the iodine they used to sanitize the area had mixed until she could no longer tell them apart. The surgeon, whose name was Oscar Torres, had insisted on doing her stitches.

“It’s either me or the interns tonight,” he said, laughing.

She watched as he made the final stitch, then tied a tiny knot that she couldn’t see. His thick fingers moved as nimbly as a ballet dancer’s legs.

“All done,” Dr. Torres said, rolling back on his stool. He stripped off his gloves with a an elastic snap.

Christopher Ramsey thanked the doctor, then led Quinn and Tara into a private room. “Here, have a seat,” he said, pointing to the comfortable chairs.

Quinn sat, cradling her arm and wondering whether this was the room doctors used to let people know their family members died. “Where’s my mother?” she asked.

“Right to business,” Christopher said. He sat opposite the girls and pulled a folder from his briefcase. “Your mother is currently at the Waterbury police station.” He scanned through the paperwork.

“What? Why?” Quinn slammed a fist down on the table. Next to her, Tara jumped. “Sorry, Monkey.” She put an arm around Tara’s shoulders.

The social worker lifted his eyes from the papers in the folder. “Because she assaulted you,” he said calmly, “and because there are several reports of violent outbursts from various people.”

Quinn frowned. “Who?”

Tara tapped her good arm. Quinn turned to her. “I told,” she whispered.

Quinn bit down on her lip. With every second, the situation spun further out of her control. She couldn’t exactly blame Tara, but she wished she had been able to stop her sister from incriminating their mother any more.

“Neighbors, some of your mother’s coworkers, and yes, Tara.” He smiled kindly. “I know you love your mother, Quinn, but she’s dangerous.”

“She needs help,” Quinn said. “She’s bipolar. She can’t go to jail.”

Christopher nodded. “I agree. Do you know what your other options are, Quinn?”

She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to keep using her name, but she pressed her lips together instead, and gave her head a shake. She felt off balance, as though she had fluid in her ears and a fever.

“We can go down to the police station and press charges. Not only will your mother get an assault charge, Quinn, but she’ll also get endangerment of a minor.” He straightened his glasses. “If we don’t press charges, you could file a restraining order, but that won’t help much, other than to keep you girls safe. The only alternative is to have your mother involuntarily hospitalized.”

Quinn frowned. Her little sister squeezed her hand. “Against her will? Is that even legal?”

Christopher took a deep breath. “Your mother would have to stay for fifteen days. She would be medicated, fed, and cared for. She would be safe, and so would you.”

“And what about after that?” Quinn asked. “I can’t just abandon her. She’s sick.”

“In the meantime, we would file a restraining order. We have to move quickly, though, Quinn. Right now, her assaulting you is the best chance we have. The mental health system doesn’t give us much room.” Christopher pushed his glasses up on his nose again.

Quinn’s head thudded. She rubbed her temples. “I don’t know. Where would she go? What would she do?”

“We can get her moved to a more long-term facility that can take care of her,” the social worker said. “I need your cooperation, though, Quinn. We need to keep you and Tara safe.”

At the mention of her little sister, Quinn’s shoulders sagged. “Do I have a choice?” she asked herself, more than anyone else. She thought of all the times Nancy had raged at her and Tara, threatening to kill them or herself. She looked at the tiny stitches on her arm, then at Tara’s unmarred arms.

“I know this isn’t easy,” Christopher said.

She wanted to tell him that he had no idea, that her mother had been completely normal. Nancy had made them breakfast, and then something snapped. It was as if something possessed her, and the episodes were getting more and more frequent, and longer. Quinn looked down at her stitched arm.

“It will be much worse next time,” Christopher said gently.

She swallowed and blinked away tears, then sucked in a ragged breath.

“You’re in control now,” he told her. “You just turned eighteen, right?”

“In February,” she said.

“You don’t have to deal with this alone anymore.” He tapped the papers in the folder. “Let me help you.”

She nodded, afraid to speak. Tara slid out of her seat and climbed into her lap. “You’re getting heavy, Monkey,” she told her, but did not push her off. She took another deep breath and hugged her sister with her good arm. “Okay, what’s next?” she asked Christopher.

* * *

Tara’s head rested on her shoulder. They sat in the back seat of a plush taxi cab that Christopher had called and paid for. He knew a judge who could speed things up for them. She was pretty sure that as she and Tara headed home from the emergency room, Nancy was on her way to the behavioral health section of the hospital. She closed her eyes, trying to imagine two weeks of peace. In two weeks, she would be packing to move into her dormitory at Southern Connecticut State University, putting all of this further behind her.

She jolted in her seat, heart thudding. If she went away to college, there would be no one to take care of Tara. They did not have any family. A hand flew to her mouth and her eyebrows wrinkled. Tara would have to go to a foster home.

She stared out the window as the taxi driver got onto the highway, her shoulders tensing once more. With her mother gone, and her father dead, Tara was all she had, and vice versa. No matter what happened, she could not allow them to lose each other.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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#FridayReads: If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo

I know, I know. I’m late to the party. (What else is new?) I’ve been dying to read this book. I recently got caught up on all the bills and adulting, and the first thing I did after breathing was buy a bunch of books. Last night I finished If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo.

What a book.

I have some critiques, but they pale next to how this book made me feel. I thought I had somewhat of an idea of what it’s like to be a trans person—I have several friends, each with different experiences—but being in Amanda’s head was another thing entirely. (And I’ll still never truly know.) This book had me sobbing a couple times, absolutely aching to reach in and pull Amanda out and into my arms. I heavily related to being bullied, physically assaulted, and sexually assaulted, and I’m also a suicide attempt survivor, so this book hit all of my heartstrings. If Russo was trying to tear my heart out, she did—in the best way possible. The way that she weaves hope into the story is what was most moving for me.

There’s no trigger warning for this book, so I was taken by surprise by some of the content, but instead of feeling panicked, I wanted to see how Amanda handled different things. Russo handles the difficult subject matter in a careful balance between being realistic and being graphic. It’s no easy feat, and I commend her for her skilled writing.

I feel that if everyone experienced “living” in Amanda’s head, the world would be a much safer place for trans people. Maybe some people would still be awful, but those who are ignorant but good at heart would change. I truly do believe that most people are good; they just have certain views or misinformation that they have been carrying and need to unpack. If I Was Your Girl helps unpack those beliefs.

It’s also just a damned good story. I like reading YA because it’s so real. (That’s what I’d hoped for NA, but I digress.) Amanda is a girl you can easily root for. Russo made her a sympathetic character but not at all weak, considering everything she’s been through. You want her to get the guy, mend her relationship with her dad, and go to NYU. What I like most about this book is that it’s not yet another queer tragedy; Amanda rises and blossoms despite and in spite of the pain she’s endured. There is a HEA and it’s a nice warm one.

The other thing I love about this book is the author’s note at the end. Not only does it clarify some things for cis people, but it’s also extremely empowering for LGBTQIA+ people.

It’s okay to be genderqueer, or to change identities more than once in your life, or to feel you have no gender at all. […] There is no wrong way to express and embody your most authentic self! You are beautiful, and you deserve to have your body and identity and agency respected.

I may or may not have teared up while reading Russo’s note.

Coolest of all is that the model on the cover is a trans person, too. Russo mentions in her note that she had as many trans people involved with the book as possible. I love that her publisher respected that, because we authors don’t often get a lot of say when working with publishers. It’s just another shining example of progression toward a better world.

I hope Russo continues to write books, because if so, I’m a lifelong reader.

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What are you reading today? Let me know in the comments!

Writing the First Kiss Scene

It always amazes me that, no matter how many times I write a “first kiss” scene, it’s always different. I’m always worried that I’ve reached my limit, that I won’t be able to write another first kiss to save my life, but I still somehow pull it off. I still find myself getting sucked into the moment. And, to me, if I’m not feeling it while writing it, my readers sure aren’t gonna feel it.

Because I’m neurotic (or maybe dedicated to my craft), I was thinking about what makes a first kiss scene while making my coffee this morning. There are three elements:

  • The anticipation
  • The kiss itself
  • The aftershock

The anticipation is the buildup, the suspense. It’s every little thing that happens between the signal that there might be a kiss and the actual moment. When the POV character realizes that she wants to kiss the other character (or that they’re going to kiss her), it triggers the anticipation. You can approach this with that character’s reaction in a few different ways. Maybe she’s longing for that moment when their lips lock. Or maybe she’s completely flustered because she’s not even sure she wants the kiss. Attention to detail here is key. Which things does she notice about the other character? How quickly or slowly is time passing?

Then there’s the kiss itself. It’s a checkpoint, another affirmation that these two really do belong together. It’s got to be fireworks, baby. There can be adorable awkwardness, but this kiss cannot fall flat. After all, it’s one of the 12 stages of physical intimacy. (Of course, just like any other writing rule, once you know it, you can break it with good reason.)

Whenever I write a kissing scene, I think of my top three all-time favorite kisses from my actual life. Even though those kisses were with three very different people, I mentally highlight what made each of those kisses magical. I like to pick a couple of those elements, mix in my characters’ personalities, and bam! Whip up a first kiss.

Finally, there’s the aftershock—the physical and emotional reactions to the kiss that has transpired. This is a perfect opportunity to make sure that your readers are ‘shipping. I like to physically separate my couple and send them off to their own spaces where they can bathe in that afterglow. It’s also a good place to switch POV, to get a sense of how the other character is feeling.

If anyone has any doubts or if you want to ramp up the angst, this is a good time to weave that in, too. Or you can set up anticipation for the next encounter.

There are a million ways you can go about a first kiss. It really can be different every time, no matter how many of “those kissing books” you write.

What’s your all-time favorite fictional first kiss? Let me know in the comments!

Become one of my Patreon supporters and be the first to read snippets from my latest WIP—including Char and Amarie’s first kiss! Click here.

#FridayReads: The Gravity Between Us, by Kristen Zimmer

For the past few months, I’ve been stuck in a reading rut. Every time I tried to read for fun, I just couldn’t get into it. I forced myself to finish books or just stopped reading them altogether. And it broke my heart because, hi—I was the kid who used to get in trouble for reading inside her desk during class.

Mrs. Serra, if you’re reading this, I have no regrets, but thank you so much for trying to teach my mathematically challenged brain.

The few books I did manage to read during my rut just didn’t sweep me away like they normally do. It wasn’t because they were bad books, per se. They just weren’t what I needed.

Enter The Gravity Between Us, by Kristen Zimmer.

Since I’m writing f/f romance, I figured I should read some to see what works and what doesn’t. I mean, I know what I like—hello days of yuri slash fic—but in this gig, market research is super important. Fortunately for me, market research usually means reading.

There aren’t as many books in the lesbian or bisexual romance section as there are in the het romance section, but there does seem to be a hungry readership for it. Unfortunately, Amazon’s categories could use some organizing to better serve their readers—but I’ll talk about that in a future post.

Keeping myself within a budget narrowed down my selection, so I started scrolling through the remaining titles. I looked at lots of covers, read many blurbs, and tried a few excerpts, but nothing really grabbed me—until I came across The Gravity Between Us.

The cover, though pretty, isn’t what I expected; it could be anybody kissing, which I guess must’ve been the point. I almost passed it by, but I decided to give the blurb a shot.

Where does friendship stop and love begin?

At just 19, Kendall Bettencourt is Hollywood’s hottest young starlet, with the world at her feet—but behind the glamour and designer dresses is a girl who longs for normal.

Payton Taylor is Kendall’s best friend since childhood, and the one person who reminds her of who she really is—her refuge from the craziness of celebrity life.

With her career taking off, Kendall moves Payton to LA to help keep her sane. But Payton is hiding a secret that could make everything ten times worse. Because to her, Kendall is more than a best friend—she is the only girl that she has ever loved.

Just as they need each other more than ever, they’ll have to answer the question of where friendship stops and love begins? And find out whether the feelings they have can survive the mounting pressure of fame…

The Gravity Between Us is a daring, romantic, emotional story about friendshiplove, and finding the courage to be yourself in a crazy world.

It sounded fun and romantic with just the right touch of angst—and it is. I’m not much of a fan of the coming out trope anymore, because I feel like it’s been done to death. At least, it was in the fan fic community. But Zimmer balances each of Kendall and Payton’s troubles with humor and absolutely adorable moments. You also get to see these two just living their lives—which is really important to me in f/f fiction, because as much as readers need coming out stories, we also need stories that tackle other life problems. It was especially interesting to see how Kendall and Payton each handled their relationship being in the spotlight.

The sex scenes are emotional and evocative rather than descriptive, and while I wouldn’t have minded Zimmer turning up the heat even a little, they were beautifully done. It felt like it took forever for these two to have their first kiss—in a totally good way. I rooted so hard for them, I practically threw a party when they finally got there; the slow burn is one of my favorite tropes, and this one was so very sweet.

The Gravity Between Us is more like the NA I wish we could always have: young people figuring out adulthood while dealing with tough issues. I really enjoyed it, and I hope Zimmer writes more f/f romance soon.

Grab Your Copy Now

Give me your f/f recommendations! I honestly haven’t read very many. I’m pretty sure the last one I read was The Bermudez Triangle… and Maureen Johnson has since changed its title to On the Count of Three. That’s how behind I am. Please send help! Leave me a comment with your favorites.

Creating Characters for Any Other Love

Usually the first thing I do before I start writing a new book is sketch out the characters. Since Any Other Love is a companion novel, that part was mostly done for me. I just had to build upon the characters I’d already created for Just One More Minute.

Whenever I start a new book, I create a stylesheet for it. A stylesheet is something an editor will put together during their first pass of a book, making note of character features, style choices, and other things. I can’t remember where, but I once read a blog post suggesting that authors start a stylesheet from the very beginning to keep track of these things. Doing so has been a game changer for me. Because I love spreadsheets, I create my stylesheets in Numbers.

The stylesheet includes the characters’:

  • name, any nicknames
  • current age
  • date of birth
  • occupation
  • goal
  • fear

I took the Just One More Minute stylesheet and updated it for Any Other Love (which mostly involved aging everyone up by a year—tough work, I tell you).

I’ll often fully sketch characters in my dev doc—the document where I develop the plot structure, outline, and other important pre-writing elements. My dev docs range from a few to dozens of pages. While sketching characters, I list their physical features, typical outfit, any quirks, and other things. I also complete exercises I’ve picked up from different places over the years.

Sometimes I’ll do some writing where I throw the characters into a short scene, just to play with them or get to know them better.

There are also some things that are just for me to know, referred to as author headcanon—official things about a book or series that only the author knows. Usually I’ll make a note of these things in the stylesheet or dev doc. These are often things that won’t make their way into the book, but help me flesh out the character—like their favorite movie, or something else minor.

Inevitably I’ll end up on Pinterest. Don’t judge me—Pinterest is a fantastic place for writing inspiration! I always create a board for each new project, pinning pretty things that remind me of my story and characters. This includes everything from celebrities that look like the characters I see in my head, to typical outfits that my characters would wear.

And if I get sucked down the Pinterest rabbit hole, I’m still technically working. 👀

Speaking of pinning, I’ve got to, um, get to work…

While I do that, check out basic character sketches of Charlotte and Amarie!

Playlist for Any Other Love

One thing I have to have while writing is music to match the tone of the scene I’m working on. Sometimes I’ll throw on an instrumental focus playlist on Spotify, but more often than not I’ll listen to a few specific albums over and over while writing the first draft. For example, while I wrote Just One More Minute, I basically listened to LIGHTS’s Midnight Machines on repeat.

Any Other Love is shaping up to be a The Spirit Room (Michelle Branch) book, with my usual Banks in between. (I’m obsessed with her latest album, The Altar, right now.) I have a feeling there will be a lot of Eisley, too.

Here’s the Spotify playlist I’m building of songs—so far—that remind me of Amarie and Char, and are inspiring certain scenes I’ll be writing.

What are some of your favorite “I don’t wanna fall in love” songs? Let me know and I’ll consider them for the playlist!

Meet Amarie Locke

The first “vision” I ever had of Amarie was of her sitting by herself, chin in hands, tendrils of curly hair framing her face like a mane. In her eyes, though, danced pain and longing. I knew right away when I was writing Just One More Minute that Char and Amarie were going to get their own book, and that Amarie has Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD), like me.

Amarie, inspired by Angelic Zambrana

Age: 21

Occupation: Dunkin Donuts

High School: Kennedy High

College: Naugatuck Valley Community College

This is the college where I got my A.S. degree in web design. Amarie is in their Early Childhood Education (ECE) program. It’s convenient for her because NVCC has a childcare center for parents, meaning that she gets hands-on experience right on campus. She’s also been able to keep up with her classes… so far.

Car: blue 2015 Hyundai Accent hatchback

This car is freakin’ cute, and I feel like it fits Amarie perfectly. It’s royal blue and very compact, but quietly powerful. That thing can fly if you let it!

Wants: to be a pre-school teacher

Fears: her disease rending her completely bedridden

This book is #OwnVoices mostly because this is my fear. My UCTD can get pretty aggressive if untreated, and currently Amarie is still searching for a doctor who will listen to and treat her. Everything that I went through in the past decade was such a nightmare, and it’s important to me to share that experience. There are so many facets to being a chronic pain patient: living with the actual illness and its debilitating symptoms, trying to get a diagnosis and treatment from doctors who won’t listen, dealing with people’s looks when you’re using a cane but don’t “look” sick… I could go on but I plan on pouring all of that into this book.

It’s also #OwnVoices because Amarie is bisexual. In Just One More Minute, she’s dating Matt’s friend Lucas. Unlike me, she knows what her sexuality is but hasn’t had time to explore it; she’s been so sick that she hasn’t exactly had time for dating, never mind dealing with yet more looks and questions that she hasn’t really been able to answer for herself. It’s especially difficult being bisexual because society wants you to fit into a neat package and, well, you don’t when you’re bi—at least, according to their rules.

Despite the difficulties that Amarie and Char face, my goal is to keep the tone of Any Other Love just as light as Just One More Minute—with, of course, steamy sex. I’m so excited to write this book, I kind of want to drop my entire life in order to do it. These two have been chattering away in my head for over a year now, and I can’t wait to share their story with you.

What do you think of Amarie? Are you excited for Any Other Love? Let me know in the comments!

You can also go meet Char.

Meet Charlotte Butler

I’ll be starting my f/f contemporary romance Any Other Love pretty soon, and since I’m in the pre-writing stage, I thought I’d share some tidbits with you. You might remember teal-haired, bouncy Char from Just One More Minute. She and Rowan run into each other in the grocery store and it’s BFF love at first sight. Here are some fun facts about Char!

Char, inspired by Frances Bean Cobain

Age: 21

Occupation: short order cook at The 545

Fun fact, The 545 is based on a lounge in my own small town. It was creatively named The Lounge, and for years it was the place to go. I never actually set foot in there—mostly because my thing was karaoke—but my sister went a few times. It closed a couple years ago and it’s been empty ever since.

High School: Kaynor Tech

Since these books are set in the town I live in, I had to include my high school. It’s a technical school, meaning you get a dual education. When you graduate, you receive your high school diploma and usually certification in a trade. My trade—and Charlotte’s—was culinary arts. Out of high school, I could have worked at any restaurant or gone on to culinary school, but I decided it wasn’t for me. Charlotte, however, loves cooking and found her place at The 545… for now.

College: N/A

Car: green 1998 Pontiac Sunfire

Oh, how I miss my Sunfire. It bit the dust several years ago, suddenly and painfully. It lives on in these books. 😥

Wants: to open her own restaurant in NYC

Fears: being stuck in intolerant Greater Waterbury for the rest of her life

She also has a major crush on Amarie, who she met during a camping trip with Rowan and Matt in Just One More Minute. There’s just a teeny problem: Amarie is dating Matt’s friend Lucas, and doesn’t seem to be into girls.

Char is always dying her hair in “crazy” colors, and is usually pretty upbeat and bouncy. It’s interesting, because when I was in high school it wasn’t considered cool to dye your hair unnatural colors. You were automatically labeled goth or punk, and were considered weird. Now everyone dyes their hair all kinds of colors. Man, how things have changed!

What do you think of Char? Are you excited for Any Other Love? Let me know in the comments!