Dispelling Welfare Myths

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Back in February, I did a Facebook thread on common misconceptions about people who receive social services such as cash assistance and food stamps (also known as SNAP). I did this because I’m constantly seeing uninformed posts on Facebook bashing people who receive these services, and honestly… I just got tired of it. I shared statistics and links to sources.

Facebook’s search function is a nightmare, though, so I decided to gather everything here, that way I can link to this post in the future without having to hunt through my Facebook profile. Please feel free to share this post to help inform people!

I’ve been a recipient of SNAP—also known as food stamps—for the last two years, and I’m intimately familiar with the system.

To begin with, not everyone can just go online or march into a DSS office and walk out with cash assistance and food stamps. There’s an application process with multiple points of vetting—meaning there are several ways they prevent anyone from lying and taking advantage of the system.

You must provide your social security number, your address, proof of income (including pay stubs, tax forms, 1099s, etc), proof of living expenses such as rent and utilities. By the way, you can only claim rent and electricity as utilities.

It’s actually quite a lengthy process and a total pain in the ass. Not fun for someone with arthritis who can’t sit for more than an hour, whose stiff fingers don’t like typing, scrolling, etc.

You have to meet a LONG list of eligibility qualifications, too. For example, if you don’t have a good reason for being unable to keep a job, such as disability, you don’t qualify. Here’s the list of criteria. You don’t even want to read it, it’s so damned long.

You also have to regularly submit proof of income and other documentation. So, if you somehow lied your way through the initial process, there are checks and balances. Your ass will get caught, and bye-bye benefits.

The number of people cheating the system is actually extremely low. Offhand, I don’t have statistics, but each state regularly weeds out the bottomfeeders by enforcing this vetting process. And it’s a pain in the ass for those of us who are legit, so most scammers aren’t going to waste their time trying to forge or bypass it. Trust me.

Update: Based on the statistics of people who legitimately need SNAP, I’ve determined that less than three percent of people receiving SNAP may be scamming the system.

Further, SNAP does not cover non-food items. It doesn’t cover diamond rings or sneakers or purses or getting your nails done. If you try to add non-food items to your order, the system will automatically weed them out and force you to pay cash for them. Hell, it doesn’t even cover my Emergen-C, which is a vitamin-rich drink mix. There’s literally no way to get around this, either.

Now, let’s talk about the benefits themselves. The amount is so small, it’s hardly even worth it if you don’t really need it. Mike and I get $108 each month. Do you know what that covers? Not much. We can’t afford groceries out of pocket, so I’ve had to get really savvy. For example, I rarely buy things like mac ‘n’ cheese or those quick pasta or rice sides; they’re too expensive, so I just make them from scratch with seasonings and chicken broth. Now, remember that I have arthritis. Quick sides are my best damned friends. But I can’t afford them, nor can I afford freezer meals for those bad pain days when I can barely stand, never mind cook. People on food stamps are not buying steak and lobster, people. We can hardly afford pasta and chicken.

That said, it’s none of your god damned business what I feed my body. Many SNAP recipients are cancer patients or people with chronic illnesses; foods that are rich in iron, like steak, are extremely beneficial to our health. The SNAP program was created to make sure that people receive proper nutrition—yes, even us disgusting poor people.

Now, it is true that the more family members in your household, the more benefits you receive. However, I can’t just claim my Aunt Bob Who Doesn’t Exist lives with me; these have to be dependents, like children, or spouses or parents that you care for. You have to prove that they’re actual dependents, using tax return information, driver’s licenses or state IDs, etc. It’s another lengthy process that most career scammers aren’t going to bother with.

People who hate welfare—you know, the ones who claim that everyone who’s on welfare is taking advantage of the system, is lazy, doesn’t have a job, etc—are usually uninformed. They claim that people on welfare are all illegal Mexicans or some other racist crap. The truth? Brace yourselves! 39.8% of SNAP recipients are white people.

I’ll say it louder for those in the back of the room: THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE RECEIVING SNAP BENEFITS ARE WHITE PEOPLE.

So, when your white uncle starts bitching about all the people sucking off the state, he’s really just bitching about other white people.

Your racist uncle insists Puerto Ricans are popping out kids so they can get food stamps. It’s not true, friend. Not true.

Only 10.9% of SNAP recipients are Latinx.

25.5% of SNAP recipients are black.

Do the math. That’s 36.5%. Your racist uncle claims that the majority of people on SNAP are black or brown people leaching off the system, but the truth is that 39.8% of SNAP recipients are white people. 39.8 is bigger than 36.5, racist uncle.

In total, 76% of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 11.9% go to households with disabled persons, and 10% go to households with senior citizens.

Update: See my notes above; these statistics are where I got my numbers for percentage of people potentially abusing the system.

For those in the back of the room, THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE ON SNAP ARE PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY NEED IT. Mic drop. Auntie Liz out.

Just a clarification: I’m not saying the 36.5% people of color who are on SNAP don’t need it. I’m saying the majority of people of all ethnicities who are on SNAP have serious reasons for needing it.

So next time your racist dad or uncle or friend starts with that “people living off the state” crap, drop these facts for them and tell them to go stuff some steak in their face.

If you appreciate the time it took for me to put this together, please consider supporting me!

Crazy Comes in Threes: Chapter 5

Children raced around the basketball court. They screeched and laughed. Quinn winced. She wondered how anyone could be awake at eight in the morning.

“Okie dokie, Monkey,” she told Tara. “Have a good day. I’ll pick you up this afternoon.” They had slept at the house, but Quinn itched to return to the dorms. Her roommates were probably wondering where she was. She didn’t want to lose her dormitory privileges, and Juleyka, at least, seemed like the type to tell the resident assistant that Quinn wasn’t sleeping there. A glance at the gas gauge told her that she wasn’t commuting at all if she didn’t stop and fuel up.

Tara slid out of the car and ran into the throng of students. Quinn left the school grounds and headed to the closest gas station. It wasn’t the cheapest place, and their gas wasn’t great, either, but it would get her to campus. She pulled up to a pump. Without even looking, she opened the glove compartment. Her fingers closed on the thin plastic of her mother’s credit card. Biting down on her lip, she slid out of the car.

“This constitutes as an emergency,” she told herself. She swiped the card. The pump beeped shrilly at her. “Okay, jeez.” She went to press the regular unleaded button when she realized the screen wasn’t telling her to choose. The message flashed on the screen and then disappeared, but she read enough: Card Declined.

Sucking in a deep breath, she swiped it again. The screen gave her the same result.

“What the hell?” she demanded of the pump.

An elderly woman gassing up on the opposite side gave her a dirty look.

“Sorry,” Quinn mumbled.

“Should have paid your bill on time,” the woman said, sneering.

Quinn bit her tongue. She held the card up, as if to swipe again. Her shoulders slumped. No matter how many times she tried, it would just be a waste of time. Her mother simply hadn’t paid the bill.

“Or she went over her limit,” she said as she walked around to the driver’s side. Sometimes, late at night, Nancy sat on the couch watching home shopping channels. Every so often, packages arrived in the mail. Quinn never questioned them before. It was none of her business. But a real emergency was occurring and she couldn’t get gas. She squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white and her hands hurt. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the old woman shaking her head and climbing into her own car.

She relaxed her grip. Inhaling, she closed her eyes. She leaned back in the driver’s seat. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed slowly. It had been a while since she did any yoga. Maybe she should stop in for a class later. She had a couple punches left on her dance studio card.

Her shoulders tensed again. She wouldn’t be going anywhere unless she got more gas. She started the engine and headed home. There had to be change somewhere in the house. She only needed five or ten dollars to get to the university and then pick up Tara.

“I can’t miss any more class,” she said through gritted teeth as she turned into her street. She had emailed her algebra professor but he hadn’t responded yet.

She hopped out of the car before the engine fully shut off. The late summer sun beat down on the lawn. If things were different, she might be slick with tanning oil, laying out, trying to catch the last few rays for her tan.

Inside, the house was cool. She locked the door behind her. Standing in the living room, she tried to remember where her mother usually stashed her change. There used to be a jar on top of the refrigerator. She crossed into the kitchen and pulled a chair over.

“Jackpot,” she said, spying the jar. She pulled it down. Dust bunnies rained on her head. She sneezed. After hopping back down, she dumped the jar on the counter. It was mostly pennies, but there were some quarters. There was even a half dollar. She counted it out. When she finished, only five dollars sat on the table. It might get her to school, but it definitely wouldn’t get her all the way back to pick up Tara.

She left the change on the table and climbed the stairs. Her mother’s bedroom door stood closed. She hadn’t gone into it since her tour with Christopher, and even then, she only stayed in the doorway. She stood just inside the room. Nancy had made her bed that morning. It seemed strange, that her mother could be so normal and then so crazy.

She hung her head. That wasn’t fair, or nice. Her mother had a mental health disorder and needed help. She wasn’t crazy.

But the knife sliced through her memories. The stitches on her arm stung. She clutched her arm to her chest as though the wound was fresh.

Sighing, she turned her attention back to the hunt for change. Most people threw spare change on or in their nightstands. She checked the mismatched tables next to her mother’s consignment bed. Nothing.

She checked on top of Nancy’s dresser next. Only framed photos of her and Tara greeted her hands. Her fingers left faint trails in the dust. She would have to try to remember to give the room a quick dusting and vacuuming. If her mother came home to a dirty room, she would freak out.

Quinn paused. She wondered if her mother really would come home. She flopped down on the bed. Fifteen days seemed like such a long time, and she didn’t know how long a more permanent place would be. From what she gathered, it all depended on the judge and how unstable Nancy seemed. Her legs dangled off the edge of the mattress.

“The mattress,” she said. She jumped up. People kept money stuffed into their mattresses all the time. She lifted it away from the box spring, her arms trembling. At first, she saw nothing. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She reached in with one hand and pulled the object out.

The mattress fell with a puff of dust. She coughed and slid backward, her find cradled in her lap. After blinking a few times to clear her eyes, she looked down at the leather journal.

She flipped through it, eyes scanning for loose dollar or five dollar bills. Tucked into the pages about halfway through was a twenty and some ones. It was probably her mother’s emergency cigarette money. Quinn slipped the bills into her pocket. The journal remained open on her lap.

She tried not to look, but words began jumping out at her. The handwriting was definitely Nancy’s. The words looped in wide arcs.

“I hate Stan for killing himself, and I hate myself because it was all my fault,” she had written.

Quinn blinked at the words. Before she could stop herself, she read more.

The words started off neat, the meaning behind them sharp. Further down the page, her mother’s handwriting became almost illegible, the loops more of a scrawl. The last sentence was Quinn’s best guess.

She bit down on her lip. If the judge or Nancy’s doctors at the hospital saw her journal, they would almost definitely put her away.

She rubbed at her temples. By right, she should turn the journal in immediately. Grief did funny things to people, though. Nancy blaming herself for Stan’s death wasn’t all that crazy. At least, Quinn didn’t think so. It might look bad to a judge, though.

Her fingers flipped through the pages. Nancy’s words blurred by on fast forward. Phrases lurched out at her: “not a loving wife,” “made him do it,” “should kill myself.”

Quinn stopped at the page after that last phrase. Her eyes scanned through. Tears singed her sinuses. In thick felt pen, Nancy had outlined a detailed suicide plan. She even wrote about how the girls—Quinn and Tara—would at least get her life insurance.

“I am a horrible mother,” she wrote. “I don’t even love them. How can I love them when I don’t even love myself?”

Quinn slammed the journal shut. The sound of the thick pages slapping against each other, sandwiched between leather, echoed through her mind along with her mother’s prose.

“She needs help,” she sobbed. Her cheeks itched. She pressed the pads of her fingers to them. Her hands came back wet. Using her tee shirt, she dried her face and eyes. She sucked in long, deep breaths to still her mind. If she gave the journal to Christopher, Nancy would be locked away in a facility for a long time. There would be no end to her current reign as Tara’s caretaker. She had no idea how she would be able to stay at the dorms if her mother were transferred to a more long-term facility. At least, as things stood, Nancy would be home in less than two weeks. It could all be over soon.

Maybe she didn’t have to turn the journal over. Maybe her mother was doing well. Maybe the doctors at the hospital had figured out a treatment plan. She didn’t know for sure. It would take one phone call to find out.

She swallowed hard. Maybe she didn’t need to know. There was a strong possibility that Nancy hadn’t improved at all. Knowing could only make things worse. The knowledge would force her to take action. Deep down, she wanted to keep the journal to herself. The thoughts in those pages belonged to her mother, and only her mother. Guilt festered in the pit of her stomach like acid eating at a battery. She felt like a voyeur.

On the other hand, if she called and Nancy was doing well, she could just tuck the journal back where she found it. Maybe someday, years later, she could find a way to tell her mother that Stan’s death wasn’t her fault. That task felt as impossible as getting Tara to stop listening to that stupid boy band, ESX.

The first step, though, was to find out how their mother was doing. Everything else would fall into place after.

“It is what it is,” Nancy always said. Quinn would have to let things play out the way they were supposed to.

She jumped to her feet and jogged downstairs, where she left her phone. She held it in the palm of her hand for a moment, then  dialed the behavioral disorder unit’s number.

A woman with a bored voice answered.

“Hi,” Quinn said. “I’m calling to inquire about my mother.” Her heart pounded in her throat. She had never called the hospital. She hadn’t even thought about it. If Nancy found out Quinn hadn’t asked to speak with her, she would be furious. At the very least, she would be hurt.

“What’s your mother’s name?” the woman asked.

Quinn gave her the information.

“Hold on a moment.”

A second later, elevator music kicked in. Quinn wrinkled her brow.

Luckily, the woman came back on. “You’ll have to call back.” Static nearly drowned out her words.

“Why?” Quinn asked. Her hands clenched into sweaty fists. What Nancy called gerbil thoughts wheeled through her head. She struggled to put them into words. Swallowing hard, she made herself ask. “Was she released?” Her voice cracked.

“No,” the woman said. “Your mother is currently in solitary.” The phone line crackled.

“Why?” Quinn said again. The living room seemed to close in on her. She sat down on the couch.

The woman’s words were garbled. “She’s been refusing to take her meds. She assaulted a nurse today. You can try calling back tomorrow.” The connection broke.

Quinn dropped the phone into her lap and stared at it.

Her mother was not getting better.

Nancy seemed, in fact, to be getting worse.

She squeezed her eyes shut. Bringing the journal to Christopher would seal her mother’s fate, but it might also help her get better. They only needed to prove that Nancy was a danger to herself or other people. The hospital record’s from Quinn’s stitches and the police report from the incident might not be enough.

She blew out a long breath, stirring her hair from her face.

Slowly, she stood. With the journal tucked under her arm, she left the house.

She drove to the gas station first, then headed to the Department of Children and Families offices. A secretary informed her that Christopher was currently in a meeting.

“Would you mind waiting? He’ll only be another ten or fifteen minutes,” the secretary said.

Quinn nodded.

As she sat outside of his office, she realized she was missing yet another full day of classes. Her mother’s illness was once again complicating her life. She swallowed back the bitterness. Nancy couldn’t help it, she reminded herself

Christopher rounded the corner. He smiled, then frowned. She tried to smile back, but instead stood shakily. She held out the journal.

“What’s this?” he asked. Then, seeing the expression on her face, he gestured to the interior of his office. “Come on in.”

They sat down. His office was small but tidy. A bonsai tree sat on the window sill. His chairs were worn but comfortable. She crossed her legs, and held the journal out to him again.

He took it. “What is it?” he asked again.

She told him. Tears drizzled down her cheeks as she repeated some of the things she read. Christopher passed her a box of tissues. She pressed one to her eyes, but continued talking. She left out the money and her desperate search so she could get gas. If he asked, she decided she would just tell him she was cleaning. DCF didn’t need to know that she was broke.

He listened without saying anything. When she finished, he nodded. “I know this was a hard decision for you to make,” he said. “Your mom will be better off in the long run, though.” He set the journal down on the oak surface of his desk. He pulled her and Tara’s folder from a filing cabinet. He slid a sheet of paper to her.

“What’s this?” she asked, staring at it. She thought she already knew. She leaned forward. The edge of the desk bit into the soft and sweaty palms of her hands.

“Your temporary legal guardianship order,” Christopher said. “I told you my friends were fast. This grants you the ability to make decisions for Tara. Don’t abuse it.” He winked at her.

She only blinked back. They sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. She watched the seconds tick by on the clock on the wall behind the social worker. Everything felt hazy, as though she were in a dream. Her mother was probably going to be locked away in a mental health facility, and she was going to become her little sister’s new mother. She pressed her hands even harder into the wood. The sensation brought her back.

Christopher gave her a gentle smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”

She swallowed hard. Her mind was as blank as a white board in the classroom of a ghost town. Suddenly she found herself thinking of the fake towns the United States government set up while performing nuclear testing. Everything was staged. Families at tables, employees at meetings. Mannequins stood posed in an infinitely soundless world while a mushroom cloud bloomed overhead. Then the dust blew everything away.

She shook herself. She needed to be careful. If she thought about depressing things, she might find herself not far behind Nancy. Then Tara would have no one.

She needed to be an adult. She needed to ask the right questions.

She didn’t know what the right questions were.

“It’s okay,” the social worker said suddenly. “I’m sure you’re overwhelmed. If you think of anything, you can call me.” He smiled.

She stood on legs that felt as bloodless as the oak of his desk. Her head nodded, but she did not remember wanting to nod.

He started to walk her out, but as they reached the hall, she stopped suddenly. The right question surfaced in her mind.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

He looked at her. The seconds stretched out. People walked through the hall behind them. An air conditioner whirred. Phones rang. The receptionist chatted with another DCF employee. A weeping woman with two small children careened through the doors.

Quinn noticed none of this. Every fiber of her attention was focused on Christopher.

He cleared his throat.

She thought of spiderwebs and dust under mattresses. She realized she hadn’t dusted her mother’s bedroom. She would have to remember to do it later. Maybe she could make her last class of the day.

Her mind raced, throwing shadows of doubt. Maybe she had asked the wrong question. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for this job. She placed a hand on the wall, steadying herself.

“Now,” Christopher said suddenly, his voice soft.

Her heart leapt into her throat. She held her breath.

He cleared his throat again. “Now we wait.”

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 4

The sound of her roommates arguing jerked Quinn out of a light slumber. She sat up in the bunk bed, blinking and looking around.

“I did not drink your stupid water,” Juleyka screeched.

“It smells like your perfume,” Zoleen said calmly.

Tuning out her roommates’ argument, Quinn looked around for Tara. Her heart thudded in her chest. “Tara,” she said, scrambling out of the sheets. “Tara?” She descended the ladder. “Have you seen Tara?” she asked the girls.

“Can you tell this freak I didn’t touch her water?”

Quinn stared. Juleyka wore a tee shirt, a pair of shorts, sneakers, and a sweat band. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Not a single drop of sweat gleamed on her forehead, and her hair looked as though she had just left the salon. “Are you—? What are you—?” Quinn sputtered.

Juleyka looked down at her outfit. “Oh. I went for a run this morning.”

She looked more like she were filming a commercial about running, Quinn surmised.

Juleyka waved a hand impatiently. “Tell her,” she insisted. She said something in Spanish that sounded like a swear.

“I need to find my sister,” Quinn said. Her heart thudded in her chest. Fear coursed through her veins. If Tara got lost, or hurt, it was all her fault.

Zoleen held an empty bottle of water up in the air. “It smells,” she said, “like Victoria’s Secret.”

The door to their room opened, and Tara tiptoed through. She wore flip flops and carried Quinn’s shower caddy. Her hair dripped water onto her tank top. She grinned when she saw Quinn.

“There you are,” Quinn said. She ruffled her sister’s wet hair. “Want me to braid it?”

“Oh my God, whatever,” Juleyka said. She snatched up her own shower caddy and marched out of their room.

Quinn glanced at Zoleen, but the other girl busily rearranged the action figures on her desk.

As she started braiding Tara’s hair, her phone went off. She stretched to reach it from her own desk, one hand holding Tara’s hair, the other pressing her phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Quinn? This is Christopher Ramsey, with DCF. How are you?” the bubbly male voice asked.

Quinn’s mouth dropped open. She let go of the half braid and stood slowly. She walked to the other side of the room. “Yes?” she squeaked.

“Good morning!” he said. “I wanted to call to check in on you. How are you and Tara doing?”

“Um, good.” She paced the small open area.

“I know there’s a lot going on, and it’s confusing and crazy, so I’m going to try to make this as easy as possible on you. I have to stop by your mom’s apartment at some point, and make sure everything is five by five.”

“You what?” she blurted. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t be in two places at once. If Christopher stopped by in the next hour, he would know they hadn’t been home. Her chest tightened, and she struggled for a steady breath.

“Never mind,” the social worker said, mistaking her concern for confusion at the phrase he used. She could hear the smile in his voice. Nothing fazed him, she mused. “Anywho, I’m here to take care of you and your sister. I have a few other appointments this week, but I’ll be stopping in sometime.”

“Stopping in?” she repeated, her voice squeaking.

“It’s routine. No big deal. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you soon.” He hung up.

Quinn sunk into a chair.

“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.

Even Zoleen glanced her way.

She rubbed her temples. With a shake of her head, she forced herself to smile for Tara. “Nothing, Monkey.” She had no idea what she was going to do, though.

* * *

As they walked to Connecticut Hall for breakfast, Quinn tried to formulate a plan.

“You’re walking really fast,” Tara whined.

“Sorry,” she said, and slowed down. She and Tara could stay at the apartment and she could commute until Christopher made his visit, but she only had a half tank of gas and no money of her own. She hated to use her mother’s credit card, even though she was pretty sure she was officially in an emergency. She wished she hadn’t spent all of her babysitting money on clothes.

If she didn’t commute and missed classes, she would only be missing beginning of the year stuff, like going through the syllabus and all of that. It would be just like the first day of high school, only in air conditioning. She could always email her professors to see what she missed—or at least, she hoped so. She had to admit to herself that she really didn’t know. For all she knew, they would be diving into the material on the first day. Maybe it depended on the professor. Either way, she didn’t want to be that girl who showed up two weeks into the semester, expecting to catch up. She would also miss out on the first time introductions, and end up behind in her social life.

Not that she had much of a social life, she surmised as they neared the hall. She still needed to figure out how to trick her roommates into letting Tara stay another night.

She groaned in frustration.

Tara gave her a look, but said nothing.

They entered the hall. There were several buffet tables set up. Tara went straight to the fried dough line. Quinn wondered if she should make her eat fruit or something else healthy, but by the time she thought of it, Tara was already pumping melted butter and sprinkling powdered sugar onto her piece.

Quinn grabbed a whole wheat bagel and orange juice for herself. There was French toast and other delicious breakfast options, but she wasn’t entirely sure she would even be able to eat her bagel.

They sat down at a table, Tara munching on her fried dough before she even fully sat. A guy walked by carrying a tray piled high with brown scrambled eggs, and Quinn wrinkled her nose, glad she had gone with her bagel. She was sure the people cooking were certified, but she didn’t want to take any chances. The thought of having some kind of stomach flu or food poisoning gave her goosebumps.

Her eyes widened.

“That’s it,” she said, the plastic butter knife she held in midair. “Food poisoning.”

Tara cocked her head. “Do what now?”

Quinn leaned forward. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Listen, Monkey, today we’re going to pretend to be actresses.” She told her little sister what she needed her to do. When she finished, she spread a layer of cream cheese on her bagel and took a big bite.

Then she got into line for the mystery dish.

* * *

An hour later, she trudged into her room. “Oh,” she moaned, holding her stomach. “Oh, God.”

Juleyka looked up from where she sat drying her hair. She raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?”

Zoleen glanced at her, then looked away. She kept her nose close to the screen of her laptop, and typed furiously.

Quinn wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “I just shit my brains out.”

“Ew,” Juleyka said. “What the hell is wrong with you? TMI!”

“I think I ate something bad,” she moaned.

Tara rubbed her back. “Do you want a ginger ale?”

“Ugh,” she said, and slowly began climbing the ladder into her bed. “Conn has some scary food.”

“If by ‘scary,’ you mean ‘potentially hazardous,’ I agree,” Zoleen said. “Their meat loaf last night was slightly gray.”

Quinn’s stomach turned. For a moment, she thought she might actually be sick. Maybe she would have to watch which foods she ate in Conn hall. She lay down and pulled the covers up to her chin. Turning on her side, she wiggled until she could see the TV. A reality show played across the screen. She forced a moan, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.

“What did you eat?” Juleyka demanded, turning to Tara.

“Fried dough,” the girl said. She retrieved Quinn’s student ID and flashed it. “I’ll go get you a ginger ale.”

“Be careful,” Quinn moaned. She hated to let Tara go off by herself, but it was a necessary part of their plan.

The minutes dripped by. Quinn tried to concentrate on the reality show. Two sisters with fake hair and breasts argued about which dress would go into their new fashion line. She closed her eyes and groaned. If she had to watch the show for the rest of the afternoon, she might actually need to go to the infirmary.

“Have you been to the infirmary?” Zoleen asked, as though she read Quinn’s mind.

“I think it’s food poisoning,” she said, “and I’m on my mom’s insurance, anyway.” She swallowed hard. That wasn’t even true. Her mother made her buy a plan with the school. Quinn suspected that, in reality, their health care plan had lapsed.

“They would just send you back to your room,” Juleyka said. “I hope you’re not contagious.”

“Food poisoning,” Zoleen said, “is not contagious.”

“But apparently water theft is,” Juleyka said. She pointed up at Quinn. “You stole one of her waters.”

Quinn blinked slowly at her. She bit her tongue to keep her snarky response to herself. Instead, she looked at Zoleen. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Zoleen only gazed back at her. It was almost as if she knew every one of her secrets.

“Bullshit,” Juleyka said. “You berate me, but she gets nothing?”

“She,” Zoleen said, “is sick.”

At that moment, Tara burst through the door. She held a bottle of ginger ale, a soda, and some chips. She handed the ginger ale up to Quinn.

Quinn wrinkled her nose. Drinking the stuff would be the hardest part of her plan. Ginger ale tasted awful to her, and usually made her gag. She uncapped it and took a small sip, trying hard not to grimace. “So you made it back okay?”

Tara wiggled her student ID in the air. “This thing is handy,” she said, and winked.

Relieved, Quinn sank back into her pillows. Tara was officially checked in for the night. She suppressed a victory smile. All she had to do was convince her roommates that she couldn’t drive home.

“So are your parents home? When are you bringing Little Q back?” Juleyka asked.

Quinn pressed her lips together, glad the other girl couldn’t see her.

Tara spoke before she could. “I don’t think she can drive.”

“Food poisoning can be quite debilitating,” Zoleen said. “I once had an aunt who had to be hospitalized, because she was vomiting uncontrollably.”

“Ew,” Juleyka shrieked. “What is with you people and the TMI?”

Quinn pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. She made a mental note to over share more often.

The girls lapsed into silence. Quinn hoped Juleyka would just let it go. On the television, the celebrity sisters argued about a guy they had each known for about a week. She felt the bed shaking, and glanced over to see Tara climbing the ladder. She smiled and wiggled over so her little sister could sit.

Juleyka sighed loudly. “I guess it’s okay for Little Q to stay over, again.” She made a few more dramatic sighing sounds.

Quinn rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She winked at Tara. “Little Q?” she mouthed.

Tara shrugged. “Monkey,” she mouthed back, winking.

* * *

After driving Tara to school, then all the way back to campus, the gas gauge dropped down to a quarter of a tank. Quinn parked in a visitor’s space in the back of her dorm building, and scrambled out. She had ten minutes to get to class. She would have to figure out her gas situation later.

They could probably just sleep at the apartment, she decided as she speed-walked to Engleman Hall. With Christopher promising to stop by, it just made more sense. She peeled a soaked strap of her tank top from her skin, and wished she had bought a bottle of water or something. It would have to wait until class. She ran down the hall and slipped into her classroom. A quick glance at the clock told her she was lucky she walked fast.

The room was more like an auditorium. The seats were built into stairs and long tables. The room was full, so she had to climb the stairs to the only available seat. She shuffled through the thin space between the backs of people’s chairs and the table in the row above her. Finally she reached the chair, but it was attached to the table and only swiveled slightly left or slightly left, so she had to sidle into it while dropping her bag to the floor at the same time. The students to either side of her shifted uncomfortably. She squeezed in and sighed.

She would have to remember to arrive early next time. She hoped the rest of the class would go smoother, and faster.

* * *

She emerged from the classroom in a daze, the syllabus still clutched in her hand. None of her classes were even remotely related to her major yet, but she had hoped English would be fun. Fat chance. She already had a twenty-page essay to read, and a paper on its theme due the next Monday. Even worse, she only had five minutes to get to her Elementary Algebra class, and she had no idea where it was.

During orientation, she had slipped away to search for some of her classrooms, but never made it to her math class.

“I really didn’t want to be that idiot who gets lost on her first day,” she muttered under her breath.

A few passing students threw her curious glances, but she ignored them.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket.

She pulled it out, and frowned at the display. It was the DCF social worker. She brought it to her ear as though it were a live grenade, her arm stiff. “Hello?”

“Quinn!” Christopher nearly sang. “How are you?”

“I’m, uh, good,” she said. “You?”

“I’m on my way to your apartment now.”

Her blood thudded in her ears. “Now?” she repeated.

“I’ll be there in,” he paused for a moment, “about thirty minutes. This was my only available appointment.”

She curled her free hand into a fist. Pressing her lips together, she resisted the urge to yell at him. He could have given her a heads up, but she had heard that DCF social workers liked to surprise their cases. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she clenched her hand into a tighter fist. She wasn’t a bad person. Her mother wasn’t even a bad person. There was no real reason for DCF to investigate them.

“Quinn?” the social worker asked. “Are you there?”

“I’m here,” she said through gritted teeth. “Is this really necessary right now?”

“It’s okay, Quinn,” he said. “I just wanted to meet with you while Tara was in school. You’re not in any trouble. This is routine,” he added.

Her hand relaxed. Her shoulders dropped. “Okay.” She sighed. “I’m not home, though. You’ll have to wait.”

“No problem,” the social worker said.

Quinn ended the call and ran. As she raced through the hall, she groped in the pocket of her backpack for the car keys. She could not remember if there was milk in the fridge or even bread in the pantry. Groceries had been the last thing on her mind when she and Tara left for the weekend.

She burst out into the heat and pushed herself faster. A twinge of guilt twisted through her stomach for missing her class. She reminded herself that it was only the first day, and she wouldn’t be missing very much. At least, she hoped so. Math was not her strongest subject.

When she reached the car, she threw her backpack onto the passenger seat. She started the engine and pulled out of the parking space without waiting for the air conditioning to kick in. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead, and she realized that by the time she got home, she would look like madwoman. She braked to a stop before pulling out into the street.

“Okay,” she told herself, glancing in the rearview mirror. She brushed her hair out of her face, and pulled it back into a ponytail. “Relax. You’ll be fine.”

She lurched out into traffic.

The speed limit on Route 69 was forty-five miles per hour. She pushed her mother’s car to sixty, grateful for the lack of traffic and the few lights between New Haven and Naugatuck, the next major city. Farm houses and trees already turning color whizzed by her. She barely noticed them. She did not turn on the radio. Instead, she drove to the wild beating of her heart.

It felt like forever before she pulled into their driveway. A black Jeep sat parked in the street. She hadn’t taken Christopher for a Jeep kind of guy. She hopped out of the car and waved to him.

He got out. “Hello,” he said.

“Sorry,” she breathed. “I was at school.”

He frowned. “Why didn’t you say so? We could have rescheduled.”

She bit down on her lip. “I guess I didn’t think of that. Well, come on in.”

She sucked in a deep breath and led him to the house, hoping nothing was too horribly amiss inside. For a moment, she wondered if it was okay to be alone with a man she barely knew. Hesitating, her key in the lock, she glanced over her shoulder at him.

He gave her a curt smile.

She sighed and unlocked the door, then pushed it open.

The scent of garbage slammed into her. Her eyes widened and she stepped slowly into the house. She had forgotten to take out the trash. Swallowing hard, she blinked back tears.

Christopher cleared his throat. “So, we’re going to do the investigation part of this first, and then we’ll talk a bit about you taking temporary custody of Tara, and what’s going to happen with your mom.”

She nodded. Her throat constricted as the smell permeated even further. She wondered if she could change the bag without him noticing. If he did the tour on his own, she could do it rather easily. If he expected her to show him around, though . . .

“Why don’t you show me where Tara sleeps?” he said, smiling.

She sucked in a deep breath. “Sure.” She led him up the stairs. At least they were away from the smell.

The tour of the bedrooms felt like it took forever. There were only three, and their mother had the smallest, but Quinn suspected where they slept mattered the most, where the state was concerned.

She showed her mother’s room to Christopher first. On the morning that Nancy had been taken away, she had started to strip her sheets to wash them. The bed remained in a permanent state of half undress. Biting her lip, Quinn assured Christopher that she hadn’t had time to change Nancy’s sheets, but Tara’s were fresh.

He merely nodded and scribbled something on the notepad he carried with him.

She took him to Tara’s bedroom next. Toys and half-finished art projects cluttered the floor and desk. An ESX poster took up most of the wall space over Tara’s bed. She had been obsessed with the boy band since their first single hit the radio waves. Quinn didn’t understand what she saw in them, but then again, Tara hated the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They were the same in a lot of ways, but in others, Quinn surmised, the Parker sisters were completely different.

Laundry from the last time Tara had gotten dressed in her room littered the floor. Blushing, Quinn stooped to scoop up the dirty socks and jeans.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “She knows the hamper is right here.” She cleared her throat and deposited the clothing into the basket.

Christopher said nothing.

She brought him to her bedroom last.

Photographs from all of the concerts she had attended over the years covered the walls like wallpaper. Despite their gypsy lives, Nancy had always made sure to take Quinn to all of her favorite bands’ shows. A vintage Vivienne Westwood blazer hung from a coat rack Stan had made when Quinn was a baby. She smiled at both the rack and the blazer. She had worn the jacket to her first Perpetual Smile concert, and Jett Costa had complimented it. The rack had harbored all of her collected pieces over the years. In a way, Stan was still taking care of her.

Despite the tidy condition of her room and the years worth of mementos proving a happy life, the social worker remained silent. He made notes, and she wondered what he was writing.

He looked briefly at the upstairs bathroom, peeked into the hallway linen closet, and then they went back downstairs. She wished she had offered him a drink. It would be so much easier if he had to use the bathroom. She didn’t want to call attention to it, but she couldn’t stand the smell of it much longer.

“Excuse me,” she said, and crossed the kitchen. She removed the lid of the stainless steel can and tied up the bag. She brought it out to the back porch. When she returned, she sprayed the inside of the can with disinfectant and put in a fresh bag. “Sorry,” she said.

Christopher said nothing, but he scribbled something on the pad he had been taking notes.

“Well,” she said, “are we all set here? I have another class.”

“Is that the door to the basement?” Christopher pointed.

She sighed. “Do you want to see it?” She did not add again, though she wanted to. The last thing she wanted to do was go back down there. Perhaps, she admitted to herself, that was the real reason she hadn’t finished changing her mother’s sheets.

He nodded, and she led him down.

As they reached the landing, she saw that the dried droplets of blood where still there. Unconsciously, her hand went to the stitches on her arm. She jerked her arms to her side and stood taller. If she drew attention to what her mother had done, she might incriminate her more.

She glanced at Christopher out of the corner of her eye. He, too, noticed the blood. His pen became a blur as he wrote something she couldn’t see. It felt as though her heart had become permanently lodged in her throat.

The social worker poked around a bit, took some more notes, then nodded. They went back upstairs.

She sank into a kitchen chair. “Please, sit,” she said gesturing. “Do you want anything to drink?” Her voice was raspy, and her throat was dry, but she did not trust her legs. She hoped he said no.

He shook his head. The chair creaked as he leaned on it, but he did not sit. He opened a folder and began walking Quinn through her mother’s case and her custody of Tara. “Because you’re eighteen, we can make you temporary legal guardian of your sister.”

She nodded. She already knew that. What she wanted him to say was something like, “You passed. Everything is good.”

“I’ll file my report,” he continued, “and we’ll go from there.”

She swallowed hard, but the lump remained. “So . . . ?”

“I’ll be in touch,” he said. He gathered his things. “I can show myself out.”

The social worker strode out of the house without another word or even a smile. Quinn stared after him. Her heart hammered in her ears. Her hands shook. The house pressed around her, empty and yet too big.

Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.

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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.

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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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Happy 2nd Birthday, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos!

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Two years ago today, I released my third novel, The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. In the two years since, this little book and I have had a wild journey together. It was the first romance I published, which was nerve-wracking enough, but I’d decided to push the boundaries with the social issues I tackle in my writing.

A single dad, dealing with his daughter’s irresponsible mother while trying to put himself through college.

A tattooed Latina artist, determined to do more than just get by, and have a real career.

A little girl who brings them together through a Craigslist ad.

I wanted to crush stereotypes, to show the world that young single parents and tattooed women aren’t the “losers” they’ve all branded us as. It was my friends’ decisions to raise their children alone, but they never asked for strangers’ opinions on whether or not they’re good parents. It was my decision to get tattoos, but I never asked for customers at the jewelry store I worked at to rudely interrogate me about my body.

I wanted to tackle heritage, how colonization forces immigrants to assimilate into American culture, to give up the things that makes them unique, the things they eventually lose. Like the Italian my family no longer speaks, the Spanish my niece and nephew rarely use.

I also wanted to challenge gender roles and equality rules. Who says a man can’t raise his daughter alone? Who says that a woman can’t choose to be a nanny while she builds her career?

These things had been burning inside of me for years, and they all sort of bubbled out of me while writing The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos. I knew that a “traditional” romance was never told from the guy’s point of view unless it alternated with the woman’s, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break the mold.

Go big or go home, right?

I’ll probably never win any awards for this book, but I’m damned proud of it. It’s a great big middle finger to society and conforming, and that’s reward enough for me.

Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.

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

The Last in Line

The biggest fuck you I can think of is for us to survive, create, and thrive—despite and in spite.

Ever since I was a small girl, I most loved stories that were epic battles of good versus evil. I think that’s why I fell so hard for Dio and his music; every single song of his is about an epic battle between good and evil. Tonight, “The Last in Line” is so very hauntingly fitting.

Right now it looks as if we in the U.S.—and even abroad—are heading into some very hard times. If you have a pulse and have at all been paying attention, you already know what I’m talking about. If you’re living in some kind of denial, well, I feel sorry for you. The past two months have felt like the calm before the storm—if you can call any of this calm.

At the very least, I’ll be losing my healthcare. Myself and my loved ones with chronic illnesses—including cancer—who rely on the Affordable Care Act are soon to be left hanging off a cliff. Millions of Americans depend on the ACA, yet Trump, his cabinet, and the GOP have been hard at work dismantling it. There’s no backup plan proposal, and even Congress re-allocated the portion of the budget that previously covered the ACA for miscellaneous expenses.

This is only the start.

Whenever I start to feel afraid, though, I dry my tears and turn that fear into anger. Anger is what’s going to get me through these next four years, because if I’ve learned nothing else in the past 28 years, it’s that I’m a survivor.

Throughout the past two months, I’ve been doing a lot of digging. I’ve always been very self-aware, but now more than ever it’s become extremely important for me to know who I am. I need to remember, because if things get very hard and very dark, that fire is what will carry me through.

Tonight I feel like I’m at a wake. Never in my nearly three centuries of life have I ever been afraid of a U.S. president. I may have disagreed with some of their policies, but I’ve never questioned whether they would do their job and serve the people of their country. We’ve had some tough times in my country, but we’ve continued making progress.

During these last eight or weeks, I’ve examined my values and morals hard. I’ve made note of things I would never do, should the shit really hit the fan. I’ve tried to prepare myself as much as possible by focusing on the things that I can control.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how I can make a difference—just little me, a queer disabled woman who recently got her voice back. I’ve been thinking about my writing, how I can make a difference with my stories. How I can change the world.

Not with some grand undertaking, but by telling stories that normalize the things that are important to me.

While they’re normalizing hate—racism, sexism, ableism, rape, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, xenophobia, the list goes on for way too long (my, how much they hate!)—I’ll be normalizing a world where differences are celebrated. Where those of us who don’t fit the cis-het-white-ablebodied-male mold don’t have to be afraid.

Because it’s normal for us to exist.

The biggest fuck you I can think of is for us to survive, create, and thrive—despite and in spite.

And maybe that’s idealistic and naive of me. Trust me, I don’t think my words are the deus ex machina that is going to allow me to keep receiving healthcare and allow my dear gay friend to walk the streets of America without harassment.

But words are and have always been my only weapon.

First, words were the cloak with which I shielded myself from school bullies and evil men. My stories gave me something to believe in when I couldn’t believe in the world around me.

I don’t know what’s going to happen after tomorrow. I do know, though, the things I’ll never do.

I’ll never hurt an innocent person.

I’ll never remain silent when I see something wrong.

And I’ll never stop writing.

Halfway through writing this post, while I was washing dishes, I turned on the latest episode of the Self-Publishing Podcast. It just so happened that the topic of that episode is one that’s been heavy on my mind: changing the world with your stories.

Artists have always helped shape the world, whether through loud protest or more subtle nudging. I firmly believe that just existing is resisting, and continuing to create in the face of such oppression is our birthright as artists.

Those of us wielding pens and paintbrushes are some of history’s most prominent rebels.

Turns out that the guys of SPP and Laura have put together a FREE masterclass, Storytelling for Social Profit—meaning, how to infuse your stories with current social issues in order to create change. I just signed up, because if nothing else, I now know it’s not just me who’s been thinking about this. If you’re interested, sign up here, but make sure you do it now because apparently the materials are only going to be available for a limited time.

We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine
We’re the last in line

These words keep echoing in my head. In this past year, it’s become more and more clear which people are good, and which are complete garbage fires. I think, in these coming months, we’re going to find ourselves tested even further.

I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for the past five years: writing stories that feature strong women who took a different path. Stories focusing on social issues. Stories normalizing those of us who are labeled as “other” and therefore “wrong.”

My words are my weapon, and I’m going to war.

What Happens On Tour: Chapter 2

After what seemed like the longest pause in the history of her life, Poppy exhaled. She rocked backward on her heels, heart split down the middle. Part of her wanted to be thrilled. Going on a national tour was everything that South of Forever—and she—had been working toward. That kind of success would surely put them on the map, and probably give her the kind of job security that her generation so rarely saw. Still, it was too soon.

She’d hoped that South of Forever had a good few years before they hit that kind of critical mass. Most people wanted their success in a hurry, but Poppy wanted to finish school. She needed to, she thought as she twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Frizz lined the strand, her natural, tight coils threatening to escape her sleek waves. Pretty soon she’d need to get it relaxed again.

She bit down on her lip. The last thing she needed to be thinking about was her hair. Griff eyed her with something between concern and suspicion. For a moment, it was as if he could see straight through her. She swallowed hard.

“That’s amazing,” she croaked. There was no way that she would be able to go on tour and make it to her classes. If she went with the band, she would inevitably flunk out. If she stayed in Boston, though, she would be giving up everything she had ever dreamed of. Glancing at Griff, she lifted her chin. She needed to say something more positive than that. She was his manager, after all. “When?”

The question flew out of her mouth before she could catch herself. Once again, she was speaking without thinking. Her mother would say that she invited trouble just by opening her mouth.

Griff seemed not to notice the struggle clawing at her heart, though. He put his hands in his pockets and turned back toward her mother’s house, keeping his pace slow and leisurely. If things were different, she might be able to pretend that they were on a romantic walk, digesting their Thanksgiving meal. His next words burst that particular bubble instantly. “This is kind of springing it on you, but Saul said that they’re leaving Monday.”

Her eyebrows flew toward her hairline. “This Monday?” she squeaked.

“I know it’s super last minute, and I wouldn’t normally ask you to take off in the middle of a holiday.” He spread his hands, chagrin lining his face in a grimace. “But I need you.” He cleared his throat. “We all do.”

She took a moment to collect herself. “Who’s Saul?” she asked, changing the subject. Her mind roiled. There was no way she could juggle school and a tour. A national tour meant that she would be thousands of miles away from Boston at any given time, hours away from class.

As they neared her mother’s house, Griff slowed even more. She wondered whether he was prolonging their time alone together, or if he was just naturally a slow walker. Or maybe, she mused, he just wanted privacy to discuss band business.

“He’s like the Jett of King Riley.” Griff lifted a shoulder, an amused smile playing on his lips. “He definitely seems to be in charge, but he’s also their lead singer.”

“Oh.” She looked down at her toes. Despite the chill in the air, she was glad that she had worn her wedges. They made her legs look great, her floral printed skinnies practically painted on her. She put a finger to her lips. If she went on tour with South of Forever, she was going to have to learn King Riley’s band members’ names. Arguably, she should already know who they all were, considering she was a band manager and they were part of the Boston scene—her band’s stomping grounds. Technically, they were competition. She rocked back as she remembered a conversation that she had overheard between Perry and Max not so long ago. “Didn’t Perry used to be King Riley’s bassist?”

Pressing his lips together, Griff nodded.

“Is that going to be an issue?” She crossed her arms over her chiffon blouse and raised an eyebrow at him.

He lifted a shoulder. “I hope not.”

“Perry is a guaranteed problem,” she reminded him. Though he had mellowed out considerably since she’d met him that summer, he still made half-hearted passes at her and drank too much during shows. Even if he could tame his womanizing and borderline alcoholism, she could see him being the first to pick a fight with the other band. “Is this even a good idea? What did he get kicked out for?”

Griff chuckled as he angled back toward the house. “You think he got kicked out?”

“This is Perry we’re talking about.” She slowed, glancing at the front porch. It was empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, she put a hand on Griff’s arm. “Did he ever mention why he isn’t part of King Riley anymore?”

“Jett got the impression that he left on his own terms,” Griff said. “You’re right, though. No one asked, and he never said.” His eyes met hers, and a tingle zipped through her. Though her hand was still on his arm, he made no move to pull away.

Her breath caught in her throat. Blinking, she forced herself to focus. Griff was ten years older than her—at least, her true age. Everyone in South of Forever thought she was twenty-two, but she was eighteen. All of the guys she’d dated in high school had been her age or a couple years older. There had never been a need to lie.

“So, barring any Perry incidents, are you up for this?” He grinned at her and, for a moment, she thought she might faint.

He wasn’t the kind of smoking hot that made it on the covers of magazines or in underwear ads. He had a certain boyish charm that easily bent, fitting the rock star image. He could go back and forth between any look if he wanted to. She had seen pictures of him during high school, with hair grown out to his chin and the slightest hint of stubble on his face, thanks to Jett breaking out the scrapbook she kept. Poppy would have never pegged Jett for the sentimental type, but she had photos of Griff that even his own mother would probably never show mixed company. Poppy’s cheeks reddened at the thought of a photo of his bare ass. It was from his Perpetual Smile days, during a drunken night on tour. He’d mooned the entire band and Jett had snapped a photo that she later pasted front and center in her scrapbook.

Poppy realized that she had spaced out more than usual. Her cheeks blazed and heat pricked at the back of her neck. Clearing her throat, she started walking back toward the house. “I should really get back to dinner,” she said, avoiding his question.

“Of course.” Griff kept pace beside her. He ran a hand through his hair. He touched her arm as if he wanted to say something else, but then drew away.

Again, she couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if she went on tour with South of Forever for a few months. It could be like a vacation. Of course, she would be working, coordinating merchandise and hanging out backstage. She beamed at the thought of herself standing behind a merch table. She could wear one of the band’s T-shirts. Better yet, she could bring a real sense of fashion to their wares. So few bands even carried shirts for women and, when they did, they shrunk easily or were cut wrong. Then again, she wasn’t sure how much she could do in just a few days, especially with the holiday weekend.

She shook her head. She couldn’t go on tour with them, not if she wanted to finish school. Her mother and grandmother would kill her if she dropped out to go away with some band. She could only imagine the looks on their faces. They might even disown her. They’d come close enough when Jay announced his new career as J-SON, L.A.B. Records’s new face of hip hop.

She wanted to cry. A perfect opportunity was about to be wasted.

She realized that they were standing in front of her house. A sigh escaped her lips. “Well, I’d better get back to dinner.”

Griff nodded, shifting from foot to foot. “Yeah, sorry for interrupting.”

She wished that she could invite him in. If things were different, she would have no problem bringing a guy home. Her family would have a million questions, though. Jay knew the truth, but her mother and grandmother didn’t, and their curiosity about the man in their house would almost definitely blow her cover. Yolanda and Audrey didn’t understand tact or saving their questions until boyfriends went home. Poppy was pretty sure that they enjoyed embarrassing her.

Clearing his throat, Griff nodded toward the house. “I’m sure you have to discuss things with your family.”

Her jaw dropped open. It was as if he knew. Licking her lips, she shook her head. She wanted to tell him that wasn’t it, but she had no other excuse for not jumping at the chance to go on tour. “It’s just that I planned on being here for the whole weekend. They’ll be disappointed.” She gave him a smile, lifting a shoulder.

“Well, let me know what you decide.” He pulled keys out of his jacket pocket and pressed a button. The lights flashed on a glossy rental car that she had overlooked. She heard it unlock. He leaned in, as if to give her a kiss. Her heart stopped. She tilted her face, shock freezing her thoughts. Instead, though, he gave her a quick one-armed hug, then stepped away.

She watched as he climbed into the car, almost too small for his tall frame. Then, forcing her feet to move, she headed up the front walkway. By the time she got to the porch, he was gone. She wondered if she’d just imagined the entire exchange. As she eased back inside, though, she realized her entire family sat in the living room.

Her mother beamed at her. “I knew you had a boyfriend,” she blurted. “You’ve been so busy, I knew it couldn’t just be school.”

Grandma Audrey gave Poppy a knowing look. “He’s cute.”

“He didn’t stay long,” Jay remarked. He shot Poppy a questioning glance, but said nothing else.

She burned to tell Krista what had happened. She couldn’t think of a graceful way to exit the conversation or to ditch dinner, though. Krista was the closest thing she had to a best friend. She’d had friends in high school, but none of them had been super close, and they had all gone to different colleges around the country. Some were even overseas, traveling the world with the military.

Nodding toward the kitchen, Poppy indicated the food, probably cold. “Are we eating, or what?”

Her grandmother shot out of her seat on the couch and bustled into the kitchen, Yolanda close on her heels. Poppy heard Grandma Audrey swearing, and stifled a laugh.

“So what happened?” Jay whispered. “Everything okay?”

“Later,” she mouthed. She would tell him everything, but only after dinner—and only after she conferenced with Krista first. If anyone knew what to do, it would be Krista.

South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.


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


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What Happens On Tour: Chapter 1

Poppy twirled a pen between two fingers, her phone pressed between her cheek and a shoulder. “No problem,” she told Jett Costa, front woman of the band she managed. South of Forever’s keyboardist Max Batista had recently gotten out of rehab. Jett wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly. Poppy could understand. The band had been through a lot in a short amount of time. She still wasn’t sure why, but a few months before Jett brought her on, the singer had been hospitalized, too. Poppy had overheard their drummer Griff Whalen talking to Jett about it. No one knew exactly what had happened, but Jett had assured the band that it had nothing to do with her own rehab stint over a year before.

“I’m serious,” Jett said. Poppy started, realizing that, once again, she had let herself get swept away by other people’s drama. “I want everyone’s eyes on him at all times. I don’t want him relapsing.”

Poppy sighed. She hadn’t become the band’s manager to babysit musicians with drug problems. Still, her success depended on how well the band did. If Max started doing cocaine again—or touched anything else, for that matter—her career would be over. Pushing the thoughts away, she did her best to convince Jett that she was thoroughly capable of keeping Max on the wagon. “If you can stay sober,” she said, “so can he.”

A pause stretched on the other end.

Poppy bit her lip. Perhaps she had said the wrong thing. She tossed her long, brown waves over her shoulder and swapped the phone to her other ear. “I mean, I’m sure everything will be fine.” Though Jett couldn’t see it, she flashed the smile that she had once upon a time used to book shows for her brother.

“Yeah.” Jett cleared her throat. “Just keep an eye on him.” Without another word, she hung up.

Grimacing, Poppy put her phone down on her desk. If she kept at it, Jett and the rest of South of Forever would realize that she wasn’t the composed twenty-two-year-old that she pretended to be. She glared down at the open textbook on her desk.

“I’m going on a Starbucks run. The usual?”

Poppy glanced up at her roommate. Dark circles underlined Krista’s blue eyes. Her blonde hair hung limply around her face. Midterms were definitely starting to take their toll. Luckily, Krista had escaped the “freshman fifteen”—the fifteen pounds that most students supposedly gained during their first year at college. Poppy, on the other hand, had gained at least thirty. The last thing she needed was another fattening beverage, but if she was going to get through her study session and babysit Max, she definitely needed the caffeine. She reached for her wallet.

Krista shook her head. “This one’s on me.” She flashed her parents’ credit card, grinning. For a moment, she looked like the cheerful young woman that had moved into their room at the beginning of the semester. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “You got the last one.”

“True.” Poppy tapped her pen on the corner of her desk. She longed for winter break when, for a few precious weeks, she could just be Poppy the band manager. Juggling her classes, work, and keeping South of Forever from finding out that she was a fraud was starting to wear on her. There were bags under her brown eyes, and her once smooth, deep brown skin sported more than a few pimples. She was also pretty sure that she had a wrinkle near her nose. Next up, she thought, she was going to start sprouting gray hairs.

Krista turned and slouched out of their dorm room in defeat. Poppy glanced at the laptop open on her roommate’s desk. The cursor blinked on an empty page. Krista was supposed to be writing a paper for her communications class. At the rate things were going, neither of them were going to make it through their first semester.

It was too bad. Poppy couldn’t have picked a better roommate. Krista was easygoing and had no problem with Poppy coming and going at all hours of the day—even when she crawled into bed in the middle of the night after a particularly long rehearsal night with South of Forever. She was lucky that she woke up in time for her marketing classes most days.

Sometimes, she wished that she had chosen an easier path in life.

She turned back to her desk, her eye catching the framed photo of her and the band. She stood next to Griff, his arm draped across her shoulders. His fair skin was a stark contrast to her deep copper complexion. A tingle ran through her as she thought of that day, how his touch had lingered long after Max’s girlfriend Savannah took the photo. She had uploaded it to their website later that night, proud to be part of the South of Forever family. Her eyes roved over Griff’s face, his eyes slanted to the side. It looked like he was looking at her.

She blinked, peering closer at the photo. His blue eyes were so light, they were nearly gray. He was definitely looking in her direction, but whether or not he was peeking at her was a different story.

She shook her head. She needed to be studying, not worrying about whether Griff liked her. Her cheeks flushed and her heart fluttered in her chest. She should be so lucky. Rock stars like Griff didn’t go for girls like her—especially girls who lied about their age and college degree.

She chewed on her lip and made herself look away from the photo. She just needed to get through the next week. After midterms, she could spend Thanksgiving with her family—just far enough away from the band and all of the stress weighing on her shoulders.

The door swung open and Krista entered their room, cradling four lattes in a tray. Behind her, the hall stood empty. It seemed as if the entire campus was burrowed in, studying for exams. It was easy for everyone else to focus so early in the semester. Poppy wished it could be the same for her.

* * *

Poppy stood outside her dorm, her rolling suitcase parked in front of her. Shifting from foot to foot in her wedge sandals, she watched as yet another Honda Civic entered the complex. Instead of cruising past her to the line of visitor parking spots, though, it rolled to a stop in front of her. A tinted window rolled down.

Heavy bass poured out, punctuated by lyrics she hadn’t heard yet. Her brother Jay leaned out of the window and nodded to her. “Get in.”

Poppy snorted. She had expected Jay to come in a limousine or maybe even an SUV driven by someone from his record company. “Why a Honda?” She tossed her suitcase into the trunk and hurried around to the passenger side. Her fingertips barely brushed the seatbelt as Jay peeled out of the dorm parking lot.

“You blend in,” he said, whipping around the corner.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “And this isn’t standing out?” She could hear a bit of Grandma Audrey in her voice, even though it had been months since she last saw her grandmother. A soft smile touched her lips. She couldn’t wait to be home.

“Come on, I’m just having fun.” Jay maneuvered into traffic, slamming the brakes as the light turned red at the bottom of the hill.

Poppy rolled her eyes. She nodded toward the iPhone plugged into the dashboard. “New song?” Reaching for the dial, she twisted it until the entire car rocked with the bump of the bass.

Jay slapped her hand away and turned the music down. “It’s not finished yet.” He slanted her a look. “I’m not ready for the public to hear it.”

Poppy blinked, wondering whether anyone on campus would recognize her brother. Until just a few short months before, she had been J-SON’s manager. Only he had been surprised when, at a show she had scheduled, someone from a label approached him and invited them to dinner to discuss a recording contract. She, on the other hand, had always known he’d make it. He hadn’t been with L.A.B. Records long, but he was already one of their more promising artists. The two singles he had released were doing well.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, relaxing back into her seat as he pulled onto the highway. “I expected more fanfare, now that you’re all big and stuff.” She grinned at him.

“Incognito,” he said, putting sunglasses on against the morning glare of the sun. As he urged the Honda to the standard eighty miles an hour that the rest of traffic adhered to, he glanced at her. “How did finals go?”

“Midterms,” she corrected, “and they were a bitch.” She wanted to forget the last week of her life as quickly as possible.

“And how’s the band?” He gave her a sly smile.

Neither their mother or grandmother knew what she was doing, but Jay knew everything. They had always trusted each other with their secrets. “Running me ragged.” She bit her lower lip. “You heard about the scandal, right?”

“You kidding me? Everyone knows about it.” Jay switched off the song and tucked his phone into the center console. He punched buttons until he found Hot 93.7, an old school rap song trickling into the car. “It’s all everyone at L.A.B. can talk about.”

“Eventually,” she said, “Mom and Grandma Audrey are going to find out that I’m managing South of Forever. It’s inevitable.”

“Is he still sober?”

The abrupt change of subject made both of her eyebrows nearly touch her hairline. “Why do you ask?” She crossed her arms, twisting in her seat so that she could face her brother full on.

“Did you know that Koty Jackson is from L.A.B.?” Jay took off his sunglasses and regarded her with somber brown eyes.

She almost giggled. Of course she knew. Up until very recently, she’d had an ESX poster in her bedroom at home. When Koty left the boy band to join the rock band Perpetual Smile, she had migrated with him. If she thought about it too much, it was all just too crazy. In a million years, she had never dreamed that she would be managing the Dakota Jackson and Jett Costa.

Then again, things were much different with South of Forever. They still had ages to go before they achieved the kind of success that Perpetual Smile had known. She could get them there. She wouldn’t accept anything less.

Jay cleared his throat. “Daydreaming again?”

The Honda slowed as I-95 clogged, the morning commute just beginning.

Poppy groaned. She waved to the traffic. “Your people can’t do anything about this?”

“I’m not that famous yet.” He chuckled.

“I know exactly where South of Forever stands,” she said. “Does L.A.B. really talk about them that much?”

Her brother nodded. “Scott Woodrow is on double duty. He manages ESX, but still keeps tabs on Koty.” Switching lanes, Jay urged the Honda to go faster. Traffic slowed again, and he stomped on the brakes. “This is bullshit. I thought we’d miss this.”

“J-SON, traffic in Boston is ever present,” she said in her best Southern belle accent.

Just as he had when they were little, Jay dissolved into giggles. “Oh, Poppy.” He squeezed her hand for a second. “I’ve missed you. It’s not the same now.”

“It used to be us against the world,” she said. “Now we’re both in separate corners, kicking ass and taking names.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” He put both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m proud of you, girl.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Poppy nodded. If she could survive Thanksgiving break without her life imploding, she would be proud of herself.

* * *

The carving knife clattered to the floor. Poppy darted back, the blade missing her toes by inches. She glanced at her grandmother. Their eyes met, then they both dissolved into giggles.

“Quit throwing things at me,” she told Grandma Audrey. She wasn’t sure why she and her brother addressed their grandmother by her first name. Their father’s parents had passed away before either of them had been born, so there was no need to differentiate. Her grandmother had been Grandma Audrey for as long as she could remember, though.

“I’m just crazy like that.” Grandma Audrey stooped to retrieve the knife, and then ambled over to the sink. “Thirty-second rule,” she said, rinsing it off.

Poppy settled an elbow back on the counter, texting her dad a quick “Happy Thanksgiving” with one hand. It’d been years since she or Jay had spent a holiday with their father. After James and Yolanda separated, Poppy’s dad moved out of state. Last she knew, he’d taken yet another odd job. Even though he no longer owed her mom child support, he still sent Yolanda money every month. Poppy treasured their few visits and occasional FaceTime chats. Her dad worked hard and had a great sense of humor. She hoped that she’d inherited his work ethic.

Watching as her grandmother resumed carving the turkey, she sighed. She definitely hadn’t inherited that particular gene.

“What’s wrong, sugar?” Grandma Audrey dropped a slice of turkey onto a platter. Steam rose from the meat.

Poppy’s mouth watered. “I’m just thinking about how I’ll never be as good a cook as you.”

Tucking her chin into the palm of her hand, her thoughts again strayed to South of Forever. Jay’s words haunted her. She had tossed and turned in her sleep, unable to stop visualizing Scott Woodrow stalking Koty. She felt naked. From what Jay told her, L.A.B. had a lot of resources—both financially and in the music industry. Maybe it was unnecessary to worry about such a thing, but she couldn’t help but wonder how far L.A.B. would go to get back their prized pop star.

“Honey, you can’t even boil water,” Grandma Audrey replied. She nudged Poppy with an elbow.

“Exactly.” Poppy forced herself to be present. She hadn’t gotten to spend time with her family since she’d started college. “I’m practically starving at school.”

Plunking down several more slices, Grandma Audrey turned to look at Poppy. She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look it.” She poked Poppy in the ribs.

“Hey, it takes work to look like this.” Poppy put a hand on her hip.

Grandma Audrey winked. “You look fine. You’ve got all the right curves in all the right places. You’re no size zero, but you’re far from being overweight.” She popped a piece of crispy turkey skin into her mouth. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

“Thanks, Gran.” Picking up the platter, Poppy carried it to the table. At any moment, her mother would be home from work. Even though it was later than most families ate Thanksgiving dinner, Yolanda had to work at the hospital. Emergencies didn’t take holidays, she often said.

“I’m just glad you’re in school,” her grandmother continued, “unlike your fool of a brother.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head.

“Jay is doing so well, Gran.”

Grandma Audrey rolled her eyes. “He’s not getting an education.” She pointed a finger at Poppy. “You better stay in school.”

Pressing her lips together, Poppy nodded. She sat down at the table. Her grandmother sat across from her. Indicating the potatoes, turkey, and the rest of the Thanksgiving spread, Poppy tried to change the subject. “Everything smells great.”

“Don’t bullshit me, young lady. Your brother’s a fool and I’m not changing my mind. Your mother is still heartbroken.” Grandma Audrey crossed her arms.

As Poppy opened her mouth to respond, Jay burst into the kitchen. He’d been in the basement, working on his new song. She gave him a grateful look. Even though she loved spending time with her grandmother, her spiel about the importance of a college education was getting old. No amount of lecturing was going to eject Jay from his path. Poppy was pretty sure that her mother and grandmother resented her for helping him get there.

Jay gave her a sly look, his eyebrows wiggling. “Someone’s here to see you, Poppy.” A smile played on his lips.

Shaking her head, Poppy remained sitting. “Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that one.”

“I’m serious. Some white boy with a blond faux-hawk.” Jay crossed his arms. “Do I need to read him the riot act?”

Pushing her chair back, Poppy stood. Her knees wobbled. “No, because there’s no one here.” She stepped gingerly toward the living room, heart pounding in her chest. It couldn’t be who it sounded like. Jay had to be making it up. She froze in her tracks as she entered the living room.

Griff stood in the entryway, his hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket. He leaned over a table, studying photos of Poppy and her family.

Her mouth hung open. The Griff Whalen was in her house. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Mind whirling, she fumbled for a cool way to greet him. Instead, her lips sagged even farther apart.

He turned around, his gray-blue eyes settling on hers. “Hey,” he said. He removed his hands from his pockets and jerked a thumb toward a photo of her first day of kindergarten. “You’re so cute.”

She gaped at him. She was pretty sure her legs were going to give out from underneath her. Aside from the fact that Griff stood in her childhood home, he was also complimenting her baby pictures. Her life couldn’t be real. She wished that Krista had come home with her. Her roommate didn’t get along with her own family, and had stayed on campus. Poppy had tried inviting her along, but Krista had declined, saying that she needed the veg time.

She needed to say something, she realized. If she continued gaping at him, he might think that she had hit her head. Still, she couldn’t think of a single thing. Thank you sounded too egotistical, and it was too late to say hello. “What are you doing here?” she blurted. Smooth, Poppy, she thought.

Before he could respond, the front door swung open. He moved to the side, and her mother strode in.

Yolanda did a double take, eyes darting from Poppy to Griff. “I didn’t know we were having company.” A strange, bright smile took over her face. She held her hand out to Griff. “I’m Yolanda, Poppy’s mother. It’s so nice to meet you!” Her eyes danced.

“Oh Lord,” Poppy muttered. Her mother thought she had brought a boy home for Thanksgiving. Heat striped her cheeks. She glanced around for a place to sit down, but the couch was several paces away.

“Griff Whalen,” he said, shaking her mother’s hand. He didn’t mention the band.

Poppy breathed a sigh of relief. Let her mother think that she had a boyfriend. Grabbing Griff’s arm, she pulled him toward the door. “We’ll be right back.” She tugged Griff outside and into the bright November afternoon.

The door closed behind her, but she swore she felt her mother’s eyes on her as she led Griff down the street.

“Sorry to show up like this,” he said.

She realized that she still had his arm. Releasing him, she stumbled away. “What’s going on?”

Suddenly, she realized that, for all she knew, something awful had happened. She needed to put her band manager hat on. Whatever had happened, she could handle it. At least, she hoped so. She hadn’t planned on working at all during the long weekend at home.

“Everything is okay,” Griff said as they rounded a corner.

Poppy halted at the stop sign. She shook her head, jerking a thumb toward the sloping hill that dipped down from her street. “Not down the hill. It’s kinda sketchy down that end.” She led him deeper into the neighborhood, toward the nicer side. “So Max didn’t relapse or anything?” She clapped a hand over her mouth. Again with the word-vomit, she scolded herself.

Chuckling, Griff shook his head. “Nope. I have good news, actually. I wanted to tell you in person, so I could see your face.” He stopped, a grin breaking across his face.

Blushing, she wrapped her arms around herself. Though the sun was still out, the evening was growing cool. “Tell me what?” His words replayed alongside her pulse, the perfect beat. She wondered whether he actually meant what he said, or if he was just there because Jett had sent him. She bit down on her lower lip. No, that didn’t make any sense. Though South of Forever was Jett’s baby, Griff handled all things administrative. Whatever he was about to tell her was either really bad or really big and, since they’d already ruled out catastrophe, she had a feeling her world was about to change. Perhaps things were going to change in more ways than one, she realized as her eyes settled on his.

“So, I’m just gonna say it.” He bounced on the balls of his feet, the grin still on his lips. “King Riley—they’re another big band in Boston, with a sound similar to ours—is going on tour.” Eyes dancing, he took a step toward her and grabbed her hands. “I know this is usually your area, but they contacted me and I already said yes.”

“Yes to what?” Her eyes darted from his hands to his face. His skin was warm, and she shivered, delicious heat flooding her body at his touch. There was definitely something at work, pulling them together. Part of her wanted to yank her hands away, though. She had to be very careful.

Tipping his head back, he laughed—a content sound that thrilled her to her toes. He dipped his chin, gazing at her.

“King Riley invited us to open for them on their national tour.”

South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.


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


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