A CAROLINA FIRST-YEAR sprints through the darkness and launches himself off the cliff into the moonlit night.
His shout sends sleepy birds flying overhead. The sound echoes against the rock face that borders the Eno Quarry. Flashlights track his flailing body, all windmilling arms and kicking legs, until he hits the water with a cracking splash. At the cliff line above, thirty college students cheer and whoop, their joy weaving through the pine trees. Like a constellation in motion, cone-shaped beams of light roam the lake’s surface. Collective breath, held. All eyes, searching. Waiting. Then, the boy erupts from the water with a roar, and the crowd explodes.
Cliff jumping is the perfect formula for Southern-white-boy fun: rural recklessness, a pocket flashlight’s worth of precaution, and a dare. I can’t look away. Each run draws my own feet an inch closer to the edge. Each leap into nothingness, each hovering moment before the fall, calls to a spark of wild yearning inside my chest.
I press that yearning down. Seal it closed. Board it up.
“Lucky he didn’t break his damn legs,” Alice mutters in her soft twang. She scoffs, peering over the edge to watch the grinning jumper grasp protruding rocks and exposed vines to climb the rock face. Her straight, coal-black hair lies plastered to her temple. The warm, sticky palm of late-August humidity presses down on our skin. My curls are already up in a puff, as far away from the back of my neck as possible, so I hand her the extra elastic band from my wrist. She takes it wordlessly and gathers her hair in a ponytail. “I read about this quarry on the way here. Every few years kids get hurt, fall on the rocks, drown. We’re sure as hell not jumping, and it’s getting late. We should go.”
“Why? ’Cause you’re getting bit?” I swat at a tiny flickering buzz near her arm.
She fixes me with a glare. “I’m insulted by your weak conversational deflection. That’s not best-friend behavior. You’re fired.” Alice wants to major in sociology, then maybe go into law. She’s been interrogating me since we were ten.
I roll my eyes. “You’ve best-friend fired me fifty times since we were kids and yet you keep rehiring me. This job sucks. HR is a nightmare.”
“And yet you keep coming back. Evidence, if circumstantial, that you enjoy the work.”
I shrug. “Pay is good.”
“You know why I don’t like this.”
I do. It’s not like I’d planned to break the law our first night on campus, but after dinner an opportunity had presented itself in the shape of Charlotte Simpson, a girl we knew from Bentonville High. Charlotte popped her head into our dorm room before we’d even finished unpacking and demanded we join her for a night out. After two years of EC, Charlotte had officially enrolled as a Carolina undergraduate this year and, apparently, she’d turned party girl somewhere in the interim.
During the day, the Eno River State Park is open for hiking, camping, and kayaking, but if you sneak in after the gates close like all the kids here have, it’s probably-to-definitely trespassing. Not something I’d normally go for, but Charlotte explained that the night before the first day of classes is special. It’s tradition for some juniors and seniors to host a party at the Quarry. Also tradition? First-year students jumping off the edge of the cliffs into the mineral-rich lake at its center. The park straddles Orange and Durham Counties and sits north of I-85, about twenty-five minutes away from Carolina’s campus. Charlotte drove us here in her old silver Jeep, and the entire ride over I felt Alice beside me in the back seat, shrinking against the illegality of it all.
The jumper’s unfettered laughter crests the cliff before his head does. I can’t remember the last time my laugh sounded like that.
“You don’t like this because it’s”—I drop my voice into a dramatic whisper—“against the rules?”
Alice’s dark eyes burn behind her glasses. “Gettin’ caught off campus at night is an automatic expulsion from EC.”
“Hold up. Charlotte said a bunch of students do it every year.”
Another jumper sprints through the woods. A deeper splash. Cheers. Alice juts her chin toward the other students. “That’s them. Tell me why you want to be here?”
Because I can’t just sit in our room right now. Because ever since my mother died, there’s a version of me inside that wants to break things and scream.
I lift a shoulder. “Because what better way to begin our adventure than with a pinch of rebellion?”
She does not look amused.
“Did someone say rebellion?” Charlotte’s boots crunch through the leaves and pine needles. The sharp sound stands out from the droning background of crickets and the low bass thump pulsing our way from the party’s speakers. She comes to a stop next to me and brushes her auburn ponytail away from her shoulder. “Y’all jumpin’? It is tradition.” She smirks. “And it’s fun.”
“No,” damn near leaps out of Alice’s mouth. Something must have shown on my face, because Charlotte grins and Alice says, “Bree…”
“Aren’t you pre-med or something, Charlotte?” I ask. “How are you this smart and this bad an influence?”
“It’s college,” Charlotte says with a shrug. “?‘Smart but a bad influence’ describes like half the student body.”
“Char?” A male voice calls out from behind a raggedy holly. Charlotte’s face breaks into a wide smile even before she turns around to see the tall red-haired boy walking toward us. He holds a red Solo cup in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
“Hey, babe,” Charlotte purrs, and greets him with a giggling kiss.
“Char?” I mouth to a grimacing Alice.
When they separate, Charlotte waves us over. “Babe, these are new EC kids from back home. Bree and Alice.” She curls around the boy’s arm like a koala. “This is my boyfriend, y’all. Evan Cooper.”
Evan’s perusal takes long enough that I wonder what he’s thinking about us.
Alice is Taiwanese-American, short, and wiry, with observant eyes and a semipermanent smirk. Her whole MO is dressing to make a good impression “just in case,” and tonight she chose dark jeans and a polka-dotted blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Under Evan’s scrutiny, she pushes her round glasses up her nose and gives a shy wave.
I’m five-eight—tall enough that I might pass for a college student—and Black. Blessed with my mother’s cheekbones and curves and my father’s full mouth. I’d pulled on old jeans and a tee. Shy isn’t really my thing.
Evan’s eyes widen when they take me in. “You’re the girl whose mom died, right? Bree Matthews?”
A trickle of pain inside, and my wall snaps into place. Death creates an alternate universe, but after three months, I have the tools to live in it.
Charlotte jabs Evan in the ribs with her elbow, sending him daggers with her eyes. “What?” He puts his hands up. “That’s what you sai—”
“Sorry.” She cuts him off, her gaze apologetic.
My wall works two ways: it hides the things I need to hide and helps me show the things I need to show. Particularly useful with the Sorry for Your Loss crowd. In my mind’s eye, the wall’s reinforced now. Stronger than wood, iron, steel. It has to be, because I know what comes next: Charlotte and Evan will unleash the predictable stream of words everyone says when they realize they’re talking to the Girl Whose Mom Died.
It’s like Comforting Grieving People Bingo, except when all the squares get covered, everyone loses.
Charlotte perks up. Here we go…
“How are you holding up? Is there anything I can do for you?”
The real answers to those two questions? The really real answers? Not well and No. Instead I say, “I’m fine.”
No one wants to hear the real answers. What the Sorry for Your Loss Crowd wants is to feel good about asking the questions. This game is awful.
“I can’t imagine,” Charlotte murmurs, and that’s another square covered on the bingo board. They can imagine it; they just wouldn’t want to.
Some truths only tragedy can teach. The first one I learned is that when people acknowledge your pain, they want your pain to acknowledge them back. They need to witness it in real time, or else you’re not doing your part. Charlotte’s hungry blue eyes search for my tears, my quivering lower lip, but my wall is up, so she won’t get either. Evan’s eager gaze hunts for my grief and suffering, but when I jut my chin out in defiance, he averts his eyes.
“Sorry for your loss.”
And with the words I most despise, Evan hits bingo.
People lose things when they have a mental lapse. Then they find that thing again from the lost place. But my mother isn’t lost. She’s gone.
Before-Bree is gone, too, even though I pretend that she’s not.
After-Bree came into being the day after my mom died. I went to sleep that night and when I woke up, she was there. After-Bree was there during the funeral. After-Bree was there when our neighbors knocked on our door to offer sorrow and broccoli casserole. After-Bree was with me when the visiting mourners finally went home. Even though I can only recall hazy snippets from the hospital—trauma-related memory loss, according to my father’s weird, preachy grief book—I have After-Bree. She’s the unwanted souvenir that death gave me.
In my mind’s eye, After-Bree looks almost like me. Tall, athletic, warm brown skin, broader-than-I-want shoulders. But where my dark, tight curls are usually pulled up on top of my head, After-Bree’s stretch wide and loose like a live oak tree. Where my eyes are brown, hers are the dark ochre, crimson, and obsidian of molten iron in a furnace, because After-Bree is in a constant state of near explosion. The worst is at night, when she presses against my skin from the inside and the pain is unbearable. We whisper together, I’m sorry, Mom. This is all my fault. She lives and breathes inside my chest, one heartbeat behind my own life and breath, like an angry echo.
Containing her is a full-time job.
Alice doesn’t know about After-Bree. Nobody does. Not even my dad. Especially not my dad.
Alice clears her throat, the sound breaking like a wave against my thoughts. How long did I zone out? A minute? Two? I focus on the three of them, face blank, wall up. Evan gets antsy in the silence and blurts out, “By the way, your hair is totally badass!”
I know without looking that the curls springing out of my puff are wide-awake, reaching toward the sky in the night’s humidity. I bristle, because his tone is the one that feels less like a compliment and more like he’s happened upon a fun oddity—and that fun oddity is Black me with my Black hair. Wonderful.
Alice shoots me a sympathetic glance that Evan misses entirely, because of course he does. “I think we’re done here. Can we go?”
Charlotte pouts. “Half an hour more, I promise. I wanna check out the party.”
“Yeah! Y’all come watch me shotgun a PBR!” Evan slings an arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders and leads her away before we can protest.
Alice grumbles under her breath and takes off after them, stepping high over rangy weeds at the edge of the tree line. Fall panicum and marestail, mostly. My mother had called the stuff “witchgrass” and “horseweed fleabane” back when she was alive to call out plants to me.
Alice is almost to the trees before she realizes I’m not following. “You comin’?”
“I’ll be there in a sec. I wanna watch some more jumps.” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder.
She stomps back. “I’ll wait with you.”
“No, that’s okay. You go ahead.”
She scrutinizes me, torn between taking me at my word or pushing further. “Watch, not jump?”
“Watch, not jump.”
“Matty.” Her childhood nickname for me—Matty, short for my last name—twists at something deep in my chest. Old memories have been doing that lately, even the ones that aren’t about her, and I sort of hate it. My vision goes fuzzy with the threat of tears, and I have to blink Alice’s features into focus—pale face, glasses perpetually sliding to the tip of her nose. “I… I know this isn’t how we thought it would be. Being at Carolina, I mean. But… I think your mom woulda come around to it. Eventually.”
I cast my gaze out as far as the moonlight allows. Across the lake, treetops are the shadowed fringe between the quarry and the murky sky. “We’ll never know.”
“Always a but.”
Something hard slips into her voice. “But if she were here, I don’t think she’d want you to… to…”
“To become some other person.”
I kick at a pebble. “I need to be alone for a minute. Enjoy the party. I’ll be there soon.”
She eyes me as if gauging my mood. “?‘I hate tiny parties—they force one into constant exertion.’?”
I squint, searching my memories for the familiar words. “Did you—did you just Jane Austen me?”
Her dark eyes twinkle. “Who’s the literary nerd? The quoter or the one who recognizes the quote?”
“Wait.” I shake my head in amusement. “Did you just Star Wars me?”
“Nah.” She grins. “I New Hope’d you.”
“Y’all comin’?” Charlotte’s disembodied voice shoots back through the woods like an arrow. Alice’s eyes still hold a pinch of worry, but she squeezes my hand before walking away.
Once I can no longer hear the rustle of her shoes in the underbrush, I release a breath. Dig out my phone.
Hey, kiddo, you and Alice get settled in okay?
The second text had arrived fifteen minutes later.
I know you’re our Brave Bree who was ready to escape Bentonville, but don’t forget us little people back home. Make your mom proud. Call when you can. Love, Dad.
I shove my phone back into my pocket.
I had been ready to escape Bentonville, but not because I was brave. At first I’d wanted to stay home. It seemed right, after everything. But months of living under the same roof alone with my dad made my shame intolerable. Our grief is for the same person, but our grief is not the same. It’s like those bar magnets in physics class; you can push the matching poles together, but they don’t want to touch. I can’t touch my dad’s grief. Don’t really want to. In the end, I left Bentonville because I was too scared to stay.
I pace along the cliff, away from the crowd, and keep the quarry to my left. The scents of damp soil and pine rise up with every footstep. If I breathe in deeply enough, the mineral smell of ground stone catches at the back of my throat. A foot over, the earth falls away below my feet and the lake stretches out wide, reflecting the sky and the stars and the possibilities of night.
From here, I can see what the jumpers were working with: whatever cleaved the dirt and rocks to form the quarry had dug at a thirty-degree angle. To clear the face entirely, one has to run fast and leap far. No hesitation allowed.
I imagine myself running like the moon is my finish line. Running like I can leave the anger and the shame and gossip behind. I can almost feel the delicious burn in my muscles, the rush sweet and strong in my veins, as I sail over the cliff and into emptiness. Without warning, the roiling spark of After-Bree stretches up from my gut like a vine on fire, but this time I don’t shove her away. She unfurls behind my ribs, and the hot pressure of her is so powerful it feels like I could explode.
Part of me wants to explode.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
A wry voice from behind startles me and sends a few birds, hidden in the canopy above, squawking into the sky.
I hadn’t heard anyone approach through the underbrush, but a tall, dark-haired boy leans casually against a tree as if he’d been there the whole time; arms over his chest and black combat boots crossed at the ankles. The boy’s expression is lazy with disdain, like he can’t even be bothered to muster up a full dose of the stuff.
“Forgive me for interrupting. It looked like you were about to jump off a cliff. Alone. In the dark,” he drawls.
He is unsettlingly beautiful. His face is aristocratic and sharp, framed by high, pale cheekbones. The rest of his body is borne from shadows: black jacket, black pants, and ink-black hair that falls over his forehead and curls just below gauged ears bearing small black rubber plugs. He can’t be more than eighteen, but something about his features doesn’t belong to a teenager—the cut of his jaw, the line of his nose. His stillness.
The boy who is both young and old lets me study him, but only for a moment. Then, he levels his tawny gaze in challenge. When our eyes meet, a stinging shock races through me, head to heels, leaving fear in its wake.
I swallow, look away. “I could make that jump.”
He snorts. “Cliff jumping is asinine.”
“No one asked you.” I have a stubborn streak aggravated by other stubborn people, and this boy clearly qualifies.
I step to his right. Quick as a cat, he reaches for me, but I twist away before he gets a grip. His eyebrows lift, and the corner of his mouth twitches. “I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new?”
“I’m leaving.” I turn, but the boy is beside me in two steps.
“Do you know who I am?”
“I’m Selwyn Kane.”
His gaze sends tiny, invisible sparks of electricity dancing across my cheek. I flinch and throw my hand up between us like a shield.
Fingers, too hot, too strong, instantly close around my wrist. A tingling sensation shoots down to my elbow. “Why did you cover your face?”
I don’t have an answer for him. Or myself. I try to yank away from him, but his hold is like iron. “Let go!”
Selwyn’s eyes widen slightly, then narrow; he is not used to being shouted at. “Do you—do you feel something? When I look at you?”
“What?” I pull, but he holds me tightly without effort. “No.”
“Quiet!” he orders. Bright indignation flares in my chest, but his unusual eyes rake across my face. Snuff it right out. “Strange. I thought—”
Suddenly, shouts break the night, but this time they’re not from the cliff jumpers. We both twist toward the forest and beyond it, to the party in the clearing. More yelling—and not the happy, drunk kind.
A low growl close by my ear. I jump when I realize the sound is coming from the demanding boy whose fingers are still locked around my wrist. As he stares into the trees, his mouth curves into a satisfied smile, exposing two canines that nearly touch his bottom lip. “Got you.”
“Got who?” I demand.
Selwyn startles, as if he’d completely forgotten I was there, then releases me with a frustrated grunt. He takes off, speeding into the woods, a silent shadow between the trees. He’s out of sight before I can form a response.
A jarring scream echoes from the party on my left. Raised voices ring out from the cliff jumpers on my right, who are now sprinting for the clearing too. Blood freezes in my veins.
Heart pounding in my chest, I race to the trailhead to follow Selwyn, but once I’m under tree cover, the ground is barely visible in the darkness. Three steps in, I trip and fall hard into bramble. Branches scrape my palms and arms. I take two shaking breaths. Let my eyes adjust. Stand. Listen for the sounds of yelling undergraduates. Then, adrenaline shooting through my veins, I jog half a mile in the right direction with quick, careful steps, wondering how the hell Selwyn could move so fast through the woods without a flashlight.
By the time I stumble into the clearing, the party is chaos. Undergrads push against one another to run down the long narrow path toward the cars parked at the gravel lot. Beyond the trees, car engines growl to life in a rolling wave. Two guys struggle to lift the kegs and push them onto truck beds while a small crowd beside them tries to help “lighten” the barrels by drinking straight from the hose. Beside the fire, a circle of twenty kids cheer while holding Solo cups and cell phones high in the air. Whatever or whoever they’re looking at won’t be Alice. She’d try to find me, like I’m trying to find her. I reach for my phone, but there are no missed calls or texts. She’s got to be freaking out.
“Alice!” I scan the crowd for her, for Charlotte’s ponytail and T-shirt, for Evan’s red hair, but they aren’t there. A half-naked, dripping-wet undergrad girl shoves past me. “Alice Chen!” Campfire smoke billows thick in the air; I can barely see anything. I push through sweating, churning bodies, calling Alice’s name.
A tall blond girl scowls when I shout too close to her face, and I scowl back. She’s beautiful the way a well-maintained dagger is beautiful: sharp, shiny, and all angles. A bit prissy. Absolutely Alice’s type. Damnit, where is she—
“Everybody out ’fore someone calls the cops!” the girl yells.
I glance up right as the Solo cup–carrying circle parts. It only takes a second to see the cause of the screams from earlier and the reason why someone might call the cops: a fight. A bad one. Four drunken, enormous boys are rolling and swinging in a pile on the ground. Probably football players right out of preseason and fueled by adrenaline, beer, and who knows what else. One of the giants has another’s shirt in his hand, the fabric pulled so taut I hear the seam rip. The third is on his feet, rearing back for a kick to the fourth boy’s stomach. It’s like watching gladiators brawl, except instead of armor they’re covered in layers of muscle and have necks as thick as my thigh, and instead of weapons they’re swinging fists the size of award-winning grapefruits. The hurricane cloud of dirt they’ve created has put so much smoke and dust in the air that I almost miss the flicker of light and movement above their heads.
There! There it is again. In the air above the boys, something is shimmering and dancing. A greenish-silver something that swoops, dives, and flickers in and out of transparency like a glitching hologram.
The image pulls at a string of memory. The shimmer of light… and the very feeling of it, punches the breath right out of my lungs.
I’ve seen this before, but I can’t remember where.…
I turn, gasping, to the student beside me, a wide-eyed boy in a Tar Heels T-shirt. “Do you see that?”
“You mean the jackasses fighting over nothing?” He taps his phone. “Yeah, why do you think I’m filming?”
“No, the—the light.” I point at the flickering. “There!”
The boy searches the air; then his expression turns wry. “Been smokin’ something?”
“Come on!” The blond girl pushes through the circle of spectators, standing between the fighters and the crowd with her hands on her hips. “Time to go!”
The boy beside me waves her away. “Get outta the shot, Tor!”
Tor rolls her eyes. “You need to leave, Dustin!” Her vicious glare sends most of the gawkers running.
The something is still there, beyond the blond girl’s head. Heart hammering, I take in the scene again. No one else has noticed the silvery mass hovering and flapping above the boys’ heads—either that, or no one else can see it. Cold dread creeps into my stomach.
Grief does strange things to people’s minds. This I know. One morning a couple of weeks after my mother died, my dad said he thought he could smell her cheesy grits cooking on the stove—my favorite and my mother’s specialty. Once, I heard her humming down the hall from my bedroom. Something so mundane and simple, so regular and small, that for a moment, the prior weeks were just a nightmare, and I was awake now and she was alive. Death moves faster than brains do.
I exhale through the memories, shut my eyes tight, open them again. No one else can see this, I think, scanning the group a final time. No one…
Except the figure on the other side of the fire, tucked between the trunks of two oaks.
He glares upward, his expression calculating. Irritated. His sharp eyes watch the there-not-there shape too. Long fingers twitch at his sides, silver rings flashing in the shadows. Without warning, through wisps of smoke rising in eddies and waves over the campfire, Selwyn’s eyes find mine. He sighs. Actually sighs, as if now that the hologram creature is here, I bore him. Insult spikes through my fear. Still holding my gaze, he makes a quick, jerking motion with his chin, and a vicious snap of invisible electricity wraps around my body like a rope and yanks me backward—away from the boy and the something. It pulls so hard and so fast that I nearly fall. His mouth moves, but I can’t hear him.
I resist, but the rope sensation responds, tight pain in my body blossoming into a single utterance:
The word materializes in my brain like an idea of my own that I’d simply forgotten. The command brands itself behind my eyes and echoes like a bell rung deep inside my chest until it’s all I can hear. It floods my mouth and nose with dizzying scents—a bit of smoke, followed by cinnamon. The need to go saturates my world until I’m so heavy with it that my eyelids drop.
When I open my eyes again, I’ve already turned to face the direction of the parking lot. In my next breath, I’m walking away.