I run away from home in a downpour.
Guilt wends its way through my belly, knotting things up before catapulting into my throat, making it impossible to swallow or breathe. But I have to breathe. I have to exhale the taste of those words my mother and I just slung at each other.
You can’t go, Kenzie. It’s dangerous! You could die.
It’s a freaking bus to Philadelphia, Mom, not a rocket to the moon!
Buses crash! There are no seat belts! What if the driver is drinking?
You’re suffocating me! I hate you! Hate!
My parting word had cracked like a gunshot, punctuated by the slam of the front door behind me. But she’d followed, calling my name in breathless desperation—Mackenzie Grace Summerall! Don’t you dare drive in this weather!
I ignored the order, the rain drowning out her last whimper as I vaulted into the front seat. Even then, I refused to turn to get a glimpse of her.
I don’t really hate my mother. But I loathe that haunted, sad, scared, pained look that turns Libby Summerall’s gray eyes into two burned-out pieces of charcoal. What I hate is her fear. I don’t want to fear life—I want to live it.
The echoes of the fight fill the car and I don’t try to erase them with music, letting the pounding rain on the roof do the job. I never yell back at her—tonight was an exception. Usually I just simmer under the pressure of her protection, understanding it enough to accept the weight of it, only throwing off the heavy blanket whenever I have to escape.
I squeeze the steering wheel and work my way through the darkened streets of my western Pennsylvania neighborhood until I can turn onto Route 1, grateful for the lights of a strip mall and a few traffic signals to guide me through the blinding rain. Not many cars, though. Not on a night like this.
I press the accelerator and barrel into the left lane, that lane of peril my mother wouldn’t let me venture into for the year I had my learner’s permit. But I have a license and freedom now, and a car I bought with tutoring money and some help from Dad. Now I pretty much live in the left lane.
I pick up a little speed despite the rain, the tires sloshing through puddles and potholes, the eleven-year-old Accord feeling all of her 140,000 miles. The light ahead is green, so I give it some gas, hydroplaning for a split second, enough to send a flash of panic through me.
That’s not calming me down. I need happy, soothing thoughts. I need something I understand, something absolute to relax me.
Between the swipes of my windshield wipers, I go to that more comfortable side of my brain, away from guilt and worry and arguments I can’t win. I decline the Latin word for “strong.”
Fortis, fortis, forti, fortem, forte …
The language grounds me, almost instantly. The rules might be complex, but they make sense. I love things that make sense, that are exactly as they should be time after time. No surprises, no random twists, no pieces that don’t fit. Latin makes sense in a way that my world rarely does; it rolls off my tongue so smoothly I sometimes wonder if I didn’t live in ancient Rome in a previous life.
Which is why, if only I could get a damn bus to Philadelphia for the Latin competition, I could be number one in grammar in the entire state. But no … that would make too much sense.
The reminder of what started our fight makes me mad at Mom all over again. She wouldn’t even read the parental release, let alone sign it and have it notarized. So I’ll miss state competitions.
Because my leaving home has become Mom’s worst nightmare. Well, one of them. There’s also driving alone, taking a shower in a storm, crossing the street, using a knife, going on a date, or … living. Basically, my mother is terrified of life because … accidentia eveniunt.
In other words, shit happens, and that could be my mother’s motto. Except she is bound and determined to stop any accidents from happening. Ever again.
A wisp of a memory curls through my chest, a frustrating and elusive clip of Conner’s voice. I can still remember a lot of things about him, but I can’t quite capture his voice. I try for anything—the sound of his laughter, the way he said goodbye when we parted at school.
Go get ’em, Mack.
As if I could get anything the way he could—with ease. He’d been so accomplished. So big in life. And still big in …
Mors, mortis, morti, mortem, morte …
Declining “death” didn’t help me, either. I blink into the darkness, barely able to make out the next light about a half mile away. It’s green, I think, but it might be yellow by the time I get there. I hate making that decision, never sure if I’ll make it through the intersection in one piece.
Listen to you! You sound just like her.
Lights flash behind me, the high, bright halogens of an expensive SUV. Cursing softly, I swerve into the right lane to let it by, the wipers clearing the glass just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of one of those stupid stick-family decals on the back of the SUV. Why do people insist on advertising how perfect their little family is? Mom, Dad, soccer boy, and ballerina girl. All perfect. All … alive.
On the next pass of the blades, I reach the crest of a slight hill and see a pickup truck approaching from the side, probably going to hit the intersection the same time I do. I may have only had my license for a month, but I know the universal rule of trucks: they will cut you off at any opportunity. So I stay in the chickenshit lane and tap the brakes—
And hydroplane wildly. With a gasp, I shimmy the steering wheel to correct myself, splashing rooster tails of rain under my tires and shots of adrenaline in my stomach. In the next puddle, I’m tempted to smash the brake pedal, but I clearly remember the page in the driver’s ed handbook on maneuvering in the rain. On a wet surface, tap brakes repeatedly to avoid … something. Flooding? I don’t know which car part could flood, but I’d rather not risk it. So I touch the pedal again, applying light pressure, once, twice. But nothing happens. In fact, the car is picking up speed on the downhill slope.
“Crap.” The wipers fly by and I see the truck, the traffic light, but rain blurs my view again. “Come on!” I scream, willing the windshield wipers to move faster and clear the glass. They do, and I touch the brakes again.
With a soft inhale of surprise, I fight a wave of panic and press the brakes a little harder.
Nothing. This car isn’t slowing.
And neither is the black truck. The light turns yellow and I slam my foot on the brake so hard the pedal collapses onto the floor. I brace for my back end to fishtail, fighting the urge to squeeze my eyes shut, accepting the unacceptable: I have no brakes.
My Accord is flying now, spraying water like wings on either side of the car, barreling toward the yellow light with scant seconds before it turns red. The truck is twenty feet from the intersection and so am I.
“Stop!” I scream at him and my stupid car and everything in the world. But nothing stops. The wipers smack at the rain as the car soars forward and the damn truck isn’t slowing down. I stab at the console for the emergency brake, but there’s no time and I can’t get my shaking fingers around the grip.
Five feet from the corner, the light turns red and I stomp the useless brake pedal over and over and over again. A scream wells up inside me as I steal a glance to my right, blinded by the beams of the truck hauling ass right at me.
“Stop!” I cry again, finally yanking the emergency brake handle with every ounce of strength I have, looking left and right for an escape as I careen right into the intersection.
I can’t hear my own scream, but I feel everything. My muscles tense like steel in anticipation of the crash. Ice-cold terror washes over my body. The car’s moving like a roller coaster down a ramp and all I can hear is the piercing and relentless shriek of a pissed-off truck driver’s high-pitched horn.
Everything whips to the left, then the right, and I close my eyes as the world spins and twists and my chest is squeezed by the seat belt that keeps me squashed to the seat.
My only thought is … Conner. Is this how my brother felt when the conveyor belt yanked him down? When his neck snapped? When his world went black and cold and—
A thud stops everything. The car, the spinning, the dark thoughts. There’s just a steady pounding of rain, a mechanical clicking, and a low hum with a soft ding that resonates through the silence.
It takes a full five seconds for me to turn to the side, peer through the rain to see the bright yellow arches, and realize that the McDonald’s sign is right side up. Then I must be, too. And best of all … I’m alive.
But I don’t move, doing a silent, swift inventory of my body, waiting for the howl of pain … somewhere. But nothing hurts, and the only sound is a repeating hum on the seat next to me.
My phone, my addled brain realizes. A text.
Mom! Joy and horror collide in my chest as the what-ifs play out like a movie. Mom … hanging on by a thread as a police officer knocks on our door with the worst news …
It would kill her to lose another child. But we averted tragedy this time. Somehow. The only bad news is my car definitely has no brakes and probably will never see a hundred and fifty thousand miles, but who cares? I’m alive. And, oh, God, I’m sorry for saying that I hate my mom.
Desperate to talk to her, I flatten my hand on the passenger seat, rooting around until I find my phone. My hands are trembling so badly I can barely slide the screen lock. I manage to get to the texts, looking for Mom’s picture at the top of the message list, but it’s a phone number I don’t recognize.
I shake my head, not caring about anything but calling my mother, apologizing, getting home, and figuring out a way to downplay this near miss so she doesn’t freak out completely. Like that’s even possible.
The phone dings and vibrates in my hand, another number I don’t recognize, and I see the message attached to it.
Caveat viator, Quinte.
I’m a little off my translation game, but I squint at the screen as my brain registers the Latin words. Let the traveler beware, Fifth.
What the hell? I look up and try to see through the rain-washed windows. Did someone see me? Is that a warning? A fifth warning? A joke from someone in my Latin class? Someone who just saw …
Very slowly, lights come into focus, moving up the opposite side of Route 1. High, bright beams on a … big black pickup truck.
I don’t know why, but instinct makes me duck. No, not instinct. Common sense. That jerk tried to mow me down.
I lie on the console, my heart hammering into the emergency brake handle that just saved my life, when my phone vibrates and dings again. I refuse to look at the text, squeezing my eyes closed and praying for someone to help me. Someone … not in that truck.
My phone vibrates again and I let out a soft whimper. Another text. And another. And another. What is going on?
Finally, I have the courage to look at the texts, letting out a soft cry of relief when I read Molly Russell at the top. My best friend would come to my aid. Then I scan the rest of the texts. More from Molly. But there are at least twenty new texts from kids in school, names I recognize, some I barely know, and a couple of unknown numbers.
Why was I text-bombed? I thumb Molly’s text first.
OMG, Kenzie! Answer me! Did you see?
You’re FIFTH on the list!
You’re FIFTH on the list!
The list. The list? Not the … No, that wasn’t possible. I could never make that list. I touch more texts, barely processing a single message, because all I can do is stare at one word that pops up over and over and over.
This morning, the aftermath of my accident has almost died down, but Mom is still wrung out from the long night. After I called her from the car, she got Dad to pick me up and file the accident report. In spite of their separation, which has had him living in a town house a few miles away for the past year, he performed his dad duty and took care of everything, including the tow to a garage.
As always, he was the calm during our family storm, exactly what my mother needed to get through the ordeal. And as always, I had to wonder why those two can’t rise above the statistics that say parents who’ve lost a child inevitably divorce. They’re on their way to the inevitable, it seems, but haven’t yet signed the papers. So I remain hopeful, although my car accident last night did nothing but rip scabs off barely healed wounds.
I leave Mom to nurse those wounds and wait outside for Molly to pick me up for school. She arrives at eight in her VW Bug, and I jump in to escape the late-October chill.
“You don’t look any different,” she says when I slam the door shut.
“I didn’t get hurt,” I reply. “I told you last night, it was just a spinout.”
“I mean, you know, the list.”
Oh, God, the freaking Hottie List. “There was so much going on, I forgot about it.”
“You forgot?” Molly flips a honey-blond strand, making me notice that she’s not wearing her usual ponytail today, and …
“Do you have makeup on?” I ask her, unable to keep the disbelief out of my voice.
She shrugs. “I figure we’ll get a lot more attention today than usual.”
I almost snort over that. “Because of that list?”
“Kenzie, don’t you get it? That list makes royalty out of ten junior girls every year and you are on it.” She can’t keep the awe out of her voice and I can’t say I blame her, but not because I am suddenly “royalty.” I’d known the list was coming out this week—every kid in Vienna High knew that. But I never, ever dreamed I’d be on it.
With dark-brown hair that always has an annoying wave despite the flatiron, blue eyes that rarely get much cosmetic attention, and unremarkable features, I’m not a girl who stops traffic. I can’t imagine how I ever landed on a list of the most attractive girls voted on by the entire male population of Vienna High.
“Oh, please. Royalty?” I scoff. “First of all, that list is obsolete, meaningless, and unbelievably immature, starting with the cringeworthy name of Hottie List. I mean, who even says that anymore?”
“They said it in the eighties when they started voting on the list.”
“Started, I’d bet my life, for no other purpose than sexualizing and stereotyping girls, not to mention getting them to do God knows what for votes.”
“I heard Chloe Batista gave blow jobs to the entire lacrosse team.”
I roll my eyes. “My point exactly.”
“And she only got second.”
“Must have given second-rate blow jobs,” I mutter, tucking my bag under the dash.
“Well, Olivia Thayne was kind of a shoo-in for first place, wouldn’t you say? I mean, she’s gorgeous.”
I try not to look south on Route 1 when we turn, relieved we’re going the other way and I won’t have to pass the scene of last night’s accident. “Whatever, Molly. It’s not like being on that list is something I can put on my college app.”
“No, but that list is still a ticket to a better life.”
I shoot her a look. “A better life, Moll?”
“Better than what we have now. You’re going to get to go to list parties, Kenzie. I’ve heard they’re so much fun and every cute guy from miles around goes to them. Don’t you want a boyfriend?”
“Not as much as I want to get into Columbia.”
“Still Columbia, Kenz?” She can’t hide her disappointment. Since middle school, we’ve talked about being roommates at Pitt, but that was before I was old enough to realize that the town of Vienna, where we live, is really a bedroom community of Pittsburgh. The university is less than forty-five minutes away—too close to Mom for me to breathe.
“Oh, I won’t get into Columbia.” I try for casual, but my voice cracks. Because I might get in. “Anyway, we have a year to worry about it.” I don’t want to hurt Molly by admitting just how badly I want to get as far, far away as possible from everything in Vienna. The only way I can justify that is if I get into an Ivy League—no ordinary college would be enough for Mom to let me move away—and live with relatives. My aunt Tina has already offered to let me live in New York with her, so Columbia is my ticket to freedom. Of course, there’s a fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year price tag on that ticket. “Don’t forget, I need a scholarship.”
“You could get one.”
I might be smart, but an academic ride to Columbia is next to impossible unless you’re National Merit, and I’m not. I don’t play sports, either. “I’d have a shot if I won the state and national Latin competitions. Then I might be able to get a classics scholarship, but you-know-who won’t even sign the form to let me go to State in Philadelphia this winter.”
“Might snow on the roads?” Molly adds a smile to her joke, but that does little to ease the sting of the truth.
“Yeah, and she pulled out the drunken-bus-driver line.”
“Always.” Molly nods with pity, long aware of my mother’s obsessive nature and the reason behind it. She was next to me on those dark days after Conner’s accident, and she knows I live with the specter of a lost sibling. Of course, she doesn’t know … everything. No one knows exactly why Conner went down to that storeroom. No one except the person who asked him to go … me.
“It’s still a big deal,” she says.
I pull myself back to the conversation, stuffing guilt and grief into their proper boxes. “To get a scholarship to Columbia? No kid—”
“To make the list!” She sighs, exasperated with me. “Kenz, enjoy the moment, will you? You’re a year from even applying to college, and that is going to be the very year you reign on the list.”
“Reign?” I snort out a laugh. “It doesn’t make me some kind of princess, Moll.”
“And fifth! Not tenth, Kenzie.” She’s totally not listening to me. “You are hotter than five other really hot girls. Big names, too.”
“Oh, yeah, Chloe Batista and Olivia Thayne are virtual celebrities. Watch out for all the paparazzi in the junior parking lot.”
She ignores my sarcasm. “You got more votes than Shannon
“Dumb as a rock, that one.”
“And Bree Walker! They’re superpopular, pretty girls. And we’re …” She trails off and I have to laugh.
“We’re not,” I finish for her, stating the obvious.
“Well.” She manages a laugh. “We’re nerds.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m not in the band.”
“You’re the president of the Latin club, take four AP classes, and tutor calculus. Card-carrying nerd.”
So I’m a little geeky. “I don’t see how a stupid list changes that.”
“You’re fifth!” she exclaims again, like she just can’t say that number enough. “I mean, you are right after Kylie Leff and Amanda Wilson, captain and cocaptain of the varsity cheerleading squad, and homecoming princesses three years running.” She recites their positions like she’s reading their resumes.
“Together on the list as they are in life. Don’t those two ever separate?”
“Don’t change the subject. You know our lives are about to change.” She throws me a grin. “Yeah, I said ‘our lives.’ I hope you don’t mind me riding your coattails to popularity, ’cause I’m totally on that train.”
“By all means, climb on the train of mixed metaphors.”
She shrugs. “Joke all you want. This is big.”
“I guess you’re right,” I concede. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been text-bombed last night.”
“Really?” She repositions herself in the driver’s seat like a bolt of excitement has just shot through her. “Anybody good? Read me some.”
“Some … interesting.”
“Just, you know, kids.” I’m not sure I want to read that weird Latin one to her. But last night, before I went to sleep, I read every single message, and that one was still the most bizarre.
Caveat viator, Quinte.
Sent from a number that didn’t show up on Google, anywhere. An area code I couldn’t even find in the United States. It had to be some bonehead in my Latin class. But why was “the traveler” warned right after I had an accident?
Ignoring the full-body creeps that shudder through me, I reach into my backpack on the floor to get my phone.
“Let’s see,” I say, scrolling through the list. “I got texts from, oh, mostly the lunch crew and Latin club members. Drew Hickers said, ‘Grats, girl.’ ”
“Grats?” She gave a good guffaw. “Who says that?”
“Icky Hicky,” I reply, calling up our seventh-grade name for the first boy I ever kissed. “It’s mostly everyone trying to hide their utter amazement and not insult me with a ‘how did this happen’ even though we all know someone probably miscounted the votes and I got three. Counting Hick-man.”
“I don’t know. I heard the vote tallying is closely watched. But who knows? That list is shrouded in secrecy.”
“ ‘Shrouded in secrecy’?” I choke out a soft laugh. “Who says that?”
“Well, it is. Do you know who counts the votes?”
I don’t answer her because I’m still scrolling. I’ve been through the whole list and can’t find the Latin text. I start from the top again.
“I heard that the guys really get pressured to vote,” Molly says. “Like there’s hazing or something if they don’t cast a ballot.”
It’s gone. The text I read first after the accident is gone.
“And someone once tried to start a movement to get the list name changed to the Hot List, but …”
I barely hear her. How can that be? Texts can’t disappear, and I certainly didn’t delete it. Did I?
“They were killed.”
“What?” My head shoots up in shock.
“I think that’s just band-room folklore,” she says with a sheepish grin, her dark eyes sparking with humor. “C’mon, we’re almost there. Read me the messages. Did anybody really popular write to you?”
“Molly!” I know she’s always been a little more obsessed with popularity than I have, but this seems over the top. “Why is it so important?”
“Because for the first time, some doors are open that have always been shut and locked,” she admits quietly, pulling into the junior lot behind the gym. “So sue me if I’m a little excited to elevate my social standing. Hey, you gotta have a list party! At least I know I’ll be invited to that one.”
“As if my mother would let fifty beer-drinking lunatics into our basement for a list party.”
“Then you better take me to the ones you go to.”
“I will,” I promise, knowing my mother won’t let me go to parties anyway. I return to the phone, determined to find that text.
“Swear it,” she demands. “You will not get popular without bringing me along.”
“I swear it.” Could I have imagined the text after the accident? I was pretty dazed. But, no, I read it again before I went to—
A loud thwack on the trunk makes me jump, and Molly lets out a shriek.
“Oh my God, Kenzie,” she whispers, looking into the rearview mirror and grabbing my arm. “Look who it is. No, don’t look. Yes, look. But be cool.”
Without moving my head, I slide my gaze to the side-view mirror, blinking into the morning sun to see a tall silhouette. Very tall, broad, and sporting a Wildcats varsity jacket. I know that silhouette; I’ve watched it from every imaginable angle.
“Well, what do you know, Miss I Don’t Care About That List,” Molly says, turning to me with an awfully smug expression on her pixie-like features. “It’s Josh Collier, man of your dreams.”
She points a finger in my face. “Don’t even try to lie to me. You’ve crushed on him since eighth grade”
“Seventh,” I correct her, fighting a smile.
“Grats, Kenz!” Josh pounds the roof this time and lopes around to my side.
Molly and I just stare at each other. “Who says that?” we whisper in perfect best-friend unison.
“Kenzie?” He taps on the window and I turn, blasted by his slightly crooked, seriously cute half grin as he grabs the handle and yanks the door open with an air of possessiveness.
“Hi,” I say. Beside me, I hear Molly let out a soft ugh of disappointment. What did she expect, witty banter?
“Damn, girl,” he says, bending down to sear my face with eyes the color of a summer sky. “You made the list.”
I give him an unsure look. “That’s what I’ve heard.”
“You know what that means?”
Molly’s grinning as she gets her bag from the back. “She’s starting to find out,” she says with a bit of an “I told you so” singsong.
“It’s a big deal,” he says, his attention all on me. “Nice placement, too. Fifth.” He winks, sending a weight sliding right down my stomach and spine.
“Thanks.” I reach for my backpack on the floor, aware that Molly is taking her sweet time getting out, no doubt to eavesdrop. “But really, it’s no big deal.”
“I voted for you,” he says softly, a tremor of disappointment in his voice, as though I haven’t taken the honor seriously enough.
“That’s …” Kind of unbelievable. “Nice.”
“You almost came in fourth.”
My eyes widen. “I thought the vote count was some big secret.”
“It is, but I’m connected, babe.”
Babe? Did Josh Collier just call me babe?
He straightens as I get out of the car and then angles his head toward the school, those incredible silver-blue eyes still locked on me. “Can I walk over with you?”
I turn to look at Molly. “Go ahead,” she says, giving us a finger wave.
“No, come with us, Moll.” After all, she wants to ride the Popularity Train, and you don’t get much more popular than Josh Collier.
“Well, I kind of have to go into the band room.…”
He ignores her and steps close to me. “Bet you were stoked to see the list,” he says.
Molly backs away and catches my eye. “You go on, Kenz. I’ll see you at lunch.”
After an awkward beat, she takes off, leaving me alone and inches away from the guy I used to pillow-kiss when I first knew there was such a thing as kissing and that pillows were for practicing said art.
“Weren’t you psyched?” he presses.
“I guess, yeah.” I sling my backpack over my shoulder, painfully aware that the cool girls carry tiny purses and far fewer books … but they aren’t trying to get a classics scholarship to Columbia. I push aside a lock of my hair with my free hand, a little resentful that my breath is tight and my palms are damp and I didn’t have the foresight to put on some makeup, like Molly.
“You don’t seem very happy,” he says, his casual hand on my shoulder burning through my jean jacket.
“Well, I …” I dig for something other than You leave me speechless. “I kind of wrecked my car last night.”
“Seriously? That blows.”
“Congrats, Kenzie!” A girl whose name I don’t know holds up her hand for a high five as she passes.
“Thanks,” I say, brushing her hand. Is this what today is going to be like? Is this the power of the list?
“You going to the game tonight?” Josh asks as we approach a set of wide, trapezoid-shaped steps. Right now, my legs are so wobbly I’m not sure I can navigate what we call the crooked steps.
“The football game?”
He laughs softly. “No,” he says, layering on the sarcasm. “Girls’ volleyball.”
“No, I …” I shake my head. I don’t want to insult him because I know he’s on varsity, but I haven’t been to a high school football game … since Conner played and I was still in middle school. “Maybe,” I say, hedging bets left and right.
“Kylie and Amanda are throwing a list party afterward. You want to go with me?”
“Hey, Collier!” Another kid in a football jersey jogs over to us, giving me a tipped chin in greeting. “ ’Sup, Kenzie.”
Tyler Griffith wouldn’t have acknowledged me yesterday, let alone said my name.
“Dude, you’re killin’ my game here,” Josh jokes, with a pointed look at me.
“I’m saving you from being benched is what I’m doing,” Tyler says. “Coach wants us in the weight room for first period.”
Josh mumbles a soft curse, then puts a hand back on my shoulder, turning me away from his friend. “So, see you tonight?”
The list might be incredibly tacky and dumb, but a date with Josh Collier is … rare. Hell, a date is rare.
“Maybe, if I can.”
“I’ll text you.” He leans closer and puts his mouth near my ear. “Fifth.”