Until You

By: Penelope Douglas

Prologue

My name is Jared.

My name is Jared.

My name is Jared.

I kept repeating it over and over again, trying to get my heart to stop beating so fast. I wanted to go and meet our new neighbors, but I was nervous.

There was a kid living next door now—probably ten years old like me—and I’d smiled when I saw that she wore baseballs caps and Chucks. Other girls in my neighborhood didn’t dress like that, and she was pretty, too.

I leaned on my windowsill, checking out the house next door, alive with music and light. No one had lived there for a long time, and even before then it was just old people.

A big tree stood between our houses, but I could still see through the green leaves.

“Hey, sweetie.”

I turned my head to see my mom leaning on my bedroom doorframe. She was smiling, but her eyes were teary, and her clothes were wrinkly.

She was sick again. She got sick whenever she drank the bottle drinks.

“I saw that we have new neighbors,” she continued. “Did you meet them?”

“No.” I shook my head, looking back out the window, wishing she’d go away. “They have a girl. No boys.”

“And you can’t be friends with a girl?” Her voice cracked, and I heard her swallow. I knew what was coming, and my stomach tightened.

“No, I can’t.”

I didn’t like to talk to my mom. Actually, I didn’t know how to talk to her. I was alone a lot, and she pissed me off.

“Jared—” she started but didn’t continue. After a moment, I heard her walk away and slam a door down the hall. She probably went to the bathroom to puke.

My mom drinks alcohol a lot, especially on the weekends, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to meet the blonde-haired girl next door.

So what if she seemed cool and liked to ride bikes?

Or that I could hear Alice in Chains coming from her bedroom? At least I think it was her bedroom. The curtains were closed.

I stood up straight, ready to just forget about it and go make myself something to eat. My mom probably wasn’t cooking tonight.

But then I saw the girl’s curtains open, and I stopped.

She was there. That was her room!

And for some reason, I smiled. I liked that our rooms faced each other.

I narrowed my eyes to see her better as she opened the double doors but then widened them when I saw what she was doing.

What? Was she crazy?

I yanked up my window and peered out into the night air. “Hey!” I shouted at her. “What are you doing?”

She jerked her head up, and my breath caught when I saw her wobble on the branch she was trying to balance on. Her arms flailed from side to side, and I was immediately out of my window and climbing into the tree after her.

“Be careful!” I yelled as she bent down and grabbed hold of the thick branch with her hands.

I crept into the tree while holding onto a branch at the side of my head for support.

Stupid girl. What was she doing?

Her blue eyes were big as she stayed on all fours, holding onto the tree as it shook beneath her.

“You can’t just climb into trees by yourself,” I snipped out. “You almost fell. Come here.” I leaned down to grab her hand.

My fingers instantly tingled, like when a part of your body falls asleep.

She stood up, her legs shaking, and I held onto a branch above my head as I walked both of us toward the trunk.

“Why did you do that?” she complained behind me. “I know how to climb trees. You scared me, and that’s why I almost fell.”

I looked over at her as I plopped down on the thick, inner part of the tree. “Sure it was.” And I dusted my hands off on my long, khaki cargo shorts.

I stared out at our street, Fall Away Lane, but I couldn’t shake the feel of her off my hand. The humming spread up my arm and over my whole body. It was like all of my hairs were standing up, and I kind of wanted to laugh, because it tickled.

She just kept standing there, probably pouting, but after a few seconds she took the seat next to me. Our legs dangled together off the branch.

“So,” she spoke up, pointing to my house. “You live over there?”

“Yeah. With my mom,” I said, and I looked down at her just in time to see her eyes drop, and she started to play with her fingers.

She looked sad for a few seconds, but then her eyebrows came together, and she looked like she was trying not to cry.

What did I say?

She was still dressed in the same overalls I’d seen her in earlier today when she was unloading the moving truck with her dad. Her hair hung loose, and other than some dirt on her pants, she looked clean.

We sat there for a minute, staring out at the street, listening to the wind rustle the leaves around us.

She seemed really little next to me, like any minute she’d fall off the branch, unable to hold herself up.

Her lips were turned down at the corners, and I didn’t know why she was so sad. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go anywhere until she felt better.

“I saw your dad,” I started. “Where’s your mom?”

Her bottom lip shook, and she looked up at me. “My mom died in the spring.” Her eyes had tears in them, but she took long breaths, like she was trying to be tough.

I’d never met a kid that had a dead mom or dad, and I felt bad for not liking my mom.

“I don’t have a dad,” I told her, trying to make her feel better. “He left when I was a baby, and my mom says he’s not a good man. At least your mom didn’t want to leave you, right?”

I knew I sounded stupid. I didn’t want to make it seem like she had it better than me. I just felt like I should tell her anything to make her feel good.

Even hug her, which is what I really wanted to do right now.

But I didn’t. I changed the subject.

“I saw that your dad has an old car.”

She didn’t look at me, but she rolled her eyes. “It’s a Chevy Nova. Not just an old car.”

I knew what it was. I wanted to see if she did.

“I like cars.” I kicked off my DC shoes, letting them fall to the ground, and she did the same with her red Chucks. Our bare feet swung back and forth in the air. “I’m going to race at the Loop someday,” I told her.

Her eyes perked up, and she turned to me. “The Loop? What’s that?”

“It’s a race track where the big kids go. We can go there when we’re in high school, but we have to have a car. You can come and cheer for me.”

“Why can’t I race?” She looked mad.

Was she serious?

“I don’t think they let girls race,” I said, trying not to laugh in her face.

She narrowed her eyes and looked back to the street. “You’ll make them let me.”

The corners of my mouth turned up, but I held back my laugh. “Maybe.”

Totally.

She held out her hand for me to shake. “I’m Tatum, but everyone calls me Tate. I don’t like Tatum. Got it?”

I nodded, taking her hand in mine and feeling a rush of heat spread up my arm again. “I’m Jared.”

Chapter 1

6 Years Later …

The blood spills over my bottom lip and onto the floor like a long strip of red paint. I let it pool in my mouth until it dribbles out, since everything hurts too damn much to spit.

“Dad, please,” I beg, my voice shaking as my body shivers from the fear.

My mom was right. He’s a bad man, and I wish I’d never talked her into letting me spend the summer with him.

I kneel on his kitchen floor, shaking, with my hands tied behind my back. The itchy rope bites into my skin.

“Are you begging, you little pussy?” he snarls, and the strap whips my back again.

I squeeze my eyes shut, wincing, as fire spreads across my shoulder blades. Closing my mouth, I try not to make any noise as I breathe through my nose until the burning fades away. The skin on my lips feels stretched and swollen, and the slippery metallic taste of blood fills my mouth.

Tate.

Her face flashes in my mind, and I crawl back into my head where she is. Where we are together. Her sunshine hair floats on the wind as we climb the rocks around the fish pond. I always climb behind her in case she stumbles. Her stormy blue eyes smile down at me.

But my father breaks through. “You don’t beg! You don’t apologize! That’s what I get for letting that cunt raise you all these years. Nothing but a coward now. That’s what you are.”