Fifteen-year-old Amber Chandler believes in true love. And the best way to find him is to drop out of Girl Scouts, look fabulous, avoid unpopular people, and join Bay View High’s hottest clique. Unfortunately, Maxine, the clique leader, is so beautiful, she scares away the guys. And Amber can’t associate with anyone without Maxine’s approval. So when Amber’s widowed mother takes in a mysterious orphan, sixteen-year-old Cory McCormick, a foster kid in serious need of a makeover and a new personality, Amber’s doesn’t tell anyone about him.
Cory McCormick had a normal, happy childhood—except for his strange ability to hear people think. Then his parents were murdered, and he spent the next four years surviving on the streets. Now that he’s been placed in a foster home with the Chandlers, he finds himself with an entirely new set of challenges: stopping a bully from terrorizing the school, keeping in check his crush for Amber, and making friends. All he wants is to be back home with his own family, but that life is gone.
Cory and Amber stay out of each other’s way—until Amber’s mom shocks Maxine by asking to let Cory come with them to a party. When Cory and Amber step into Maxine’s car to head to an alcohol-fueled college party, they begin a journey that takes them far beyond the comfortable boundaries of childhood—challenging Cory’s street smarts and survival skills, and upending all of Amber’s notions about the meaning of friendship and love. What Amber and Cory discover about themselves and the people around them pulls them closer together—and ultimately threatens to tear their family apart.
Chapter 1: The New Kids
Amber stared at a boy with hair longer than her own and thought about scissors.
He looked bored, as if he could care less whether he was about to move into a comfortable home with central A/C, or an institution. Why was his hair so long? All the way down his back, sun-bleached into a color that was almost blond. Tattoos covered his arms, an elaborate, tribal pattern he probably thought made him look cool. A thick, olive-drab bracelet around one wrist. Rubber bands around the other. Black earbud cords dangled from his ears, vanishing into a back pocket. Pants shredded at the knees—real tears, not fake ones that were tagged, shipped, and folded on display tables at the mall, but gnarly, authentic gashes in the cloth that couldn’t withstand the repeated violence of concrete and asphalt or whatever it was that happened to him. Street fights? A skateboard stuck out of his duffle bag. Maybe he sucked. Or maybe he’d been crawling around on his hands and knees collecting abandoned rubber bands.
His sister looked like his Mini-Me—long-hair, boy clothes, and her own matching bracelet. She cradled a skateboard the way other girls held a doll. Seeing them holding hands was kind of cute and reassuring, because the boy looked like he just got out of jail.
Why her mother felt she needed to fill the emptiness in her life with foster kids Amber couldn’t understand. As if her father was replaceable. As if he was nothing more than a glass of water that had been knocked off a kitchen counter and lay scattered in shards across the puddled floor. Just sweep the mess away, take out a new glass, and fill it with more water—that easy, right? Why couldn’t her mother find another way to deal with her own pain? Amber didn’t want any people added to the family, especially this one, with his tattoos and ratty hair and clothes. He was a punk who was old enough to take care of himself. Her mother should have left the boy behind and taken the girl, but they were probably part of a package, and her mother took it upon herself to make a home for the both of them. She hoped her mother would change her mind and take them both back.
The boy caught her gaze and held it. Normally, Amber would glance away whenever this happened, when she caught the stray gaze of a stranger, but not this time. She looked at him with defiance, trying to will him back through the door and into the inner recesses of the Polinsky Center where he belonged. He didn’t move or turn away. He didn’t even blink. He stared at her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. It seemed to Amber that he was trying to read her on a cellular level, dissecting her with the cold, clinical scalpel of his gaze, mentally peeling back not just her clothes, but skin and muscle, cutting away tendons and bone, watching the blood pumping through her heart, reading the neurons firing off inside the wet, convoluted folds of her brain. Jesus.
Her mother called her name, then her sister’s. She rose from her chair and joined her mother, who was chatting with the social worker—and noticed the boy was still staring at her. She glanced down at her blouse, concerned that a button had come undone, and saw nothing out of place. Stop it. Stop staring at me. You’re weirding me out. Look at something else. Strangely, he looked away.
The social worker introduced the pair: Cory and his little sister Cozette. Amber’s sister Emily greeted the girl as if she couldn’t wait to have a brand new sister her own age to play with.
“What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? I like spaghetti and pizza.”
Emily peppered her with questions without taking the time to wait for an answer, trying to model the sort of greetings her mother taught her to say at the beginning of her playdates with new girls she’d never played with before. Amber herself had her own mental flashcards of polite words she was supposed to say as well, but she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to use them. Her world was about to turn upside down, and the last thing she wanted to do was welcome the disruption with open arms and a smile. She was grateful she had her own room so she could close the door on everyone and be alone.
And why did her mother feel they all needed to be there to bring the foster kids home? She had offered to stay home with Emily while her mother went to pick them up. To help them to bond with us, Amber, and for you to bond with them, instead of showing up out of the blue. I need your help welcoming them into our lives. And with this thought, with as much politeness as she could fake, Amber mustered a muted, artificial smile and said hi. They didn’t smile back. They didn’t speak. The little girl blinked. The boy, who had no problem glaring at her earlier, was looking out the window, pretending he didn’t hear her, though maybe he really couldn’t—whatever music he was listening to was so loud, Amber could hear the furious, tinny screech of notes blasting from his earbuds. Whatever. Amber dropped her smile. They’d be back here in a month when her mom’s naïve psychology experiment bombed and then they could go back to their lives.
To Amber’s surprise, they didn’t stay in the waiting area for long. The kids were there for only a few minutes when it was already time to leave, like fast food takeout. No tearful goodbyes, no farewell hugs, at least none that they accepted. The social worker did offer one, and when denied, she smiled and put her hand on their shoulders, giving each one a little squeeze.
The midday sun cast shadows that pointed back to the building as the group followed Mrs. Chandler across the small parking lot to where the minivan was parked beside a palm tree. Amber arranged their bags in the back while the boy helped his sister with the seat belt, ignoring her mother’s offer of help. Then he climbed in and took the back row for himself. Amber had assumed he would be sitting in the front seat, knowing her mother would want to talk to him. She remembered the stack of advice books on how to parent foster kids that her mom would read out loud to Amber: try not to overwhelm them; don’t shower them with affection they’re not used to having; let them ease into your lives. Sounded easy enough. Blowing people off wasn’t difficult.
Before starting the ignition, Mrs. Chandler looked behind her to make sure everyone was belted in.
“Are we all ready to go home?” she said. “Are we excited?”
Amber followed her mother’s gaze. Her sister Emily nodded, returning her mother’s smile. The girl beside her had the stony expression of someone suspecting she was being driven to an internment camp. The boy slouched in the back seat and stared out his window, the brim of his baseball hat pulled down low, his earbuds shutting out the auditory world around him. Amber returned her gaze to her own window as the minivan purred to life. With two new members joining their family, Mrs. Chandler eased the minivan out of the parking lot, rolled onto the street, and headed for home.
As soon as Amber’s mother unlocked and opened the front door, Emily took her new sister by the hand and headed inside to show her their room. Amber marveled at how easy it was to make friends at that age. Let’s go play and you have an instant new friend. Not so easy when you’re fifteen.
Her mother asked Amber if she could be so kind as to show Cory around the house while she helped his sister unpack.
“Why certainly, Mother dearest,” she said, and as her mother left the room, Amber adopted an air of artificiality, opening her arms wide, exaggerating the importance of the room with her gesture.
“This is the living room. Admire it’s… um…” She trailed off, looking around the boring room, at the sofa, the easy chair, the oak coffee table with the cork beverage coasters stacked in the center, the box of colored pencils with her sister’s princess coloring book, and right beside it her mom’s Color Me Happy book, a new hobby her mother picked up—Mom and her silly coloring books for grownups. Unable to think of anything interesting, she said, “…it’s living roominess.”
The boy didn’t crack a smile. She was being stupid and she knew it. She dropped her arms and got serious.
“This is the only room in the house with a TV, and it’s not even connected to cable, because my mom’s cheap. I’m kidding. Well, I’m not kidding. She’s really cheap, but it’s because we’re living off my dad’s life insurance and we have to be careful with our money. She doesn’t work. That is, besides taking care of us, of course. She jokes that we’re more than enough work for her. She’s like June Cleaver. I mean, she even has a record player. She listens to it all the time. Thank god I convinced her to get Wi-Fi and a computer. I told her we needed it for school. It’s over there in the corner if you want to use it.”
The boy didn’t reply. He didn’t respond. He gave her a dull look. She was boring him.
“If you want to watch TV,” she continued, “you have to use the antenna to get the digital signal. I mean, who uses antennas these days? My friends think it’s a total joke, but it doesn’t matter because I can always log into a friend’s account and stream shows on the internet. Over there’s the kitchen,” she said, and led him into the hub of their home, the room they spent most of their time in as a family.
The maple cabinets and the white tile countertop had been installed by her dad and some friends from his unit ages ago. The house had been a foreclosed fixer-upper her dad bought when he was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Her dad and mom liked the area and wanted the house to live in someday. Amber had vague memories of sitting in the back seat, staring at the massive river of traffic that stretched out ahead of them, then exploring the empty house while her parents cleaned it and got it ready for new tenants. That was a long time ago. Amber glanced back to see if the boy was still following her. He was.
“Are you hungry?” she said. “Have you eaten lunch yet?” She rested her hand on the refrigerator door
“Any alcohol?” His voice was rich and warm. His voice lingered in her mind like a new hit song on the radio.
She studied his face, or what she could see of it that wasn’t hidden by his hair, trying to reconcile the warm timbre of that voice with the sullen boy standing near her. She tried to find a hint of humor in his eyes, in his face, a cue that he was joking.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “Not in this house, unless you like cooking sherry. Oh yeah, there’s rubbing alcohol in the bathroom. And mouthwash.” She smiled. He didn’t smile back. Friendly guy
Amber opened the refrigerator door to a perfectly organized depository of food, clean and bright and ripe with the color of a garden ready to be picked. “How about carrot sticks? Celery? Lots of good, crunchy, healthy stuff here.” The resentment she felt earlier began to unravel like ribbon uncoiling off a new spool. He needed a make-over. First a haircut—that absolutely had to get done. Then a trip to the mall. And maybe he could get those awful tattoos lasered off—yes, that would do it. Oh wait, and then maybe he could let her clean up his brows a bit, just a few plucks with her tweezers, and that was it. She’d never been shopping with a guy before. She thought it would be fun to help him pick out cute guy clothes, dress him up like one of those models who stood at the entrance of her favorite store at the mall and greeted her in a way that always made her blush. If he turned out well, she might even show him off to her friends.
She pushed aside the raspberry jelly and mayonnaise to check behind the jars. She pulled open the clear plastic drawer to get the cheese and deli meat, and then another drawer for the pre-cut carrot and celery sticks. She explained how her mother liked to keep freshly cut carrot and celery sticks stocked in the fridge, not entirely because she wanted them to eat healthy, well, that too, but her mom used to smoke years ago, like before she was born. Once she had her, she had to quit, so she quit by snacking on carrots and celery, and she still snacked on them out of habit. And honestly, Amber didn’t mind the healthy stuff. But junk food was okay once in a while, right? Amber shut the fridge, balancing plastic containers of cheese and meat and vegetables in her arms, and turned back to the boy. He was gone.
How long had she been talking to herself? Where did he go? She set the food down on the counter and walked out of the kitchen to search for him. The bathroom door was open and no one was in there. He wasn’t in the guest room either—now his room, empty, except for the furniture, and his stuff: the duffle bag and that pathetic joke of a backpack sitting in the middle of the floor. Her own room she passed without a glance. In Emily’s, she found her mother unpacking Cozette’s bag and filling the drawers of Emily’s dressing bureau. The girls were on the floor, playing with Emily’s doll collection, dressing and undressing them, then positioning them inside the various rooms of the massive cardboard mansion Emily had made by stacking used boxes against the wall. Where could he be? He wouldn’t dare go into her mother’s room, would he? Nope. Nothing in there besides a stack of folded laundry on her mother’s bed, waiting to be put away. It wasn’t until she stepped into the only room in the house she didn’t think to check, her room, that she found him lying on her bed, his arm resting on her pink pillow behind his head, reading through her diary.
“What the hell?” She tried to snatch her book from him, but he rolled away, off the bed, and resumed his reading.
“October third. Oh. My. God. Enrique de la Fuente is SO hot. I am SO in love with him.” The boy spoke in a high falsetto, grinning. “But we don’t have any classes together. I don’t know how I’ll get his attention.” The boy looked up from her diary, his face filled with mock concern. “How tragic. What is Amber going to do?”
“Give back my diary, jerk-off.”
“I love saying Enrique de la Fuente’s full name. Enrique de la Fuente. Enrique. De la Fuente. His name makes my tongue skip with this lovely bounciness, like butterflies fluttering in sunlight. Birds flitting among leaves in a tree.” He laughed. “What is this cheesy shit? Nacho cheese. A few more pages and we’ll find the corn chips.”
“November fourteenth. Maxine is being such a bitch! I mentioned Enrique to her, and today I saw her talking to him in the hallway right after lunch. I can’t believe it. Like it’s deliberate. Like she’s doing it just to show she can have anyone she wants. I am never ever EVER going to tell her who I like again.”
“Damn it, give it back!”
He snapped the diary shut and held it high in the air, out of her reach. “And if you think I’m going to the mall with you for some fucking chick makeover, then you’re an idiot,” he said, his voice back down in his own range, his mocking laughter gone. “One minute you think I’m a ratty-haired punk who collects rubber bands for shits and giggles, and the next minute, because you like my voice or some other bullshit, you want to take me shopping? What do you think I am? A fucking dress-up doll to show off to your friends?” He tossed her diary across the room, knocking over her old dance trophies on top of her shelf like tin bottles in a carnival booth. The book landed upside down on the floor with the pages splayed out.
“I hate you,” she shouted after him as he brushed past her astonished mother in the hallway. He went into his room and right back out with his skateboard and headed to the front door. “Go run away and get hit by a car,” she said. “And stay out of my room!” She slammed her door.
Wiping tears from her eyes, she knelt beside her fallen trophies and picked them up. She recovered her diary, straightening out the bent pages. How did he know what she was thinking? She opened her diary and flipped past the last entry, almost expecting to see her thoughts magically appear on the page like some old Twilight Zone episode on Hulu. The page was blank. Was she that obvious? That transparent? Did she blink big googly eyes at him? She probably said something out loud and didn’t realize it. How embarrassing. He hadn’t even been home with them for a half hour and things were already awful. This couldn’t last long. He was going to drive them all crazy. She wanted her mother to call the social worker and take them both back.