“Peanut butter and chocolate is the best medicine,” Crystal said, dropping the sticky mess in front of me. I stared at it, unable to feel hungry. I was too angry. Eric was so conceited. He only cared about himself, and my grades were going to drop because of it. I’d never find information on my parents. Robb reached over me, dipping a pretzel into the peanut butter. “Don’t mind if I do.” Crystal swatted his hand. “Rude much,” she said. “Lola would have a fit if she saw you do that.” Lola was Crystal’s mother, and she wasn’t going to be home all night, despite the fact that Crystal had school tomorrow. We all did. “Lola doesn’t have to know,” Robb said, chewing with his mouth open. “It’s the best medicine, after all. I’m sure she’ll understand.” “Medicine for Jess,” Crystal’s pierced lip banged against her teeth, and she winced. “We’re here to make Jess feel better,” she mumbled. “Not you.” Robb chewed on his pretzel and stared with his big, brown eyes. “How’s that science project going for you anyway?” I moaned, collapsing on Crystal’s bed. “Horribly.” Crystal sighed. “Reminding her of it is not how you make a girl feel better.” Robb waved his arms in the air. “How was I supposed to know that?” “Maybe from all the girls you’ve dated,” she said, raising her black eyebrows. Robb shrugged, returned to his food, and Crystal rubbed her temples. “No wonder none of them worked out.” “Hey!” Chewed pretzel spewed from Robb’s mouth. “Some of them worked out.” Crystal nodded. “The drunk ones.” My mouth hung open. “You two drink?” I asked, reminding myself that I barely knew my two closest friends. “Like alcohol?” They turned to me and grinned. “What else can you do here?” Robb laughed. “The parties are the best.” “The clubs are even better,” Crystal agreed. My cheeks burned. “I didn’t know you had any.” “We don’t,” she said. “But the next town over does.” “My friend, Zac, makes fakes,” Robb said, leaning back with his arms behind his head. “We can get in anywhere.” I swallowed my nerves. “But aren’t you a little young?” Crystal waved her hand in my face. “You’re never too young for journalism.” Robb rolled his eyes. “I got her a fake, so she could beat her mom’s news stories.” “And if you want the best stories, you have to go to the best places,” Crystal said, beaming behind her bleached hair. “That’s when she realized how much fun clubs could be.” Robb laughed, his chest rising beneath his red shirt. “Alcohol is better than sweets any day.” I cringed. I generally avoided alcohol. Warping my mind didn’t appeal to me. “Relax, Jess,” Crystal said, pinching my arm. “It’s not a big deal; we’ll take you sometime.” I ignored her and stared at Robb. “I thought your parents were strict.” He raised his brow. “Who said they ever catch me?” he asked, suddenly checking his watch. “But I should get out of here before my parents freak.” My heart pounded. “What time is it?” “Eleven.” “What?” I leapt from Crystal’s bed and grabbed my things. “I’m late.” Crystal blinked. “So call them.” I searched my pockets, and my entire body sank. “I left my phone at home.” That explains why they weren’t blowing up my phone. “Weirdo.” I frowned at her. “It’s a bad habit.” “Relax,” Robb said, stepping between us. “I can drive you.” Before I knew it, I wrapped my arms around him. “Thank you,” I said, shying away before he could reciprocate my touch. When I looked at him, he was grinning. “Let’s go.”
I threw on my jacket. “See you at school, Crystal.” She waved, not even bothering to walk us out, and we rushed to Robb’s blue Chevy Suburban. As soon as we were buckled in, Robb took off, and I gripped the seat. “Sorry if this is a burden,” I said, knowing he knew where I lived. He already drove me to school twice, yet I was oblivious about where he lived. “I hope my house isn’t out of the way.” “You’re not a burden, Jess,” Robb laughed, pointing to Crystal’s neighbor. “But I live right there.” My stomach sunk. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be,” he said. “My parents can’t mind if they’re asleep.” I watched his unlit house disappear behind us. “Why are they so strict anyway?” I asked, hoping to find someone to relate to. “Grades or something?” Robb chuckled. “My grades are perfect. Believe me, they make sure of that.” Our conversation stopped, and Robb fiddled with the radio controls on his steering wheel. He briefly looked away, but quickly returned his focus to the main road. Then his hand pushed against the console, and his radio turned off. “They’re strict, because they’re paranoid.” “About what?” He shrugged, but it was stiff. “Stupid teenager stuff.” Clearly, he didn’t want to elaborate. “Mine are too,” I said, attempting to lighten his mood. Ever since my mother told my father I wanted to look for information on my biological parents, they hadn’t been the same. They tiptoed around the subject as if I’d leave them the instant I found a long-lost uncle, twice removed. Like that was going to happen. I was beginning to believe an extended family didn’t even exist, yet I hadn’t bothered looking. Because I was afraid and didn’t want to find out I was born practically alone. “I’m barely let out on weekend nights,” Robb said, suddenly breaking the silence again. His brow was furrowed. “I normally study. Isn’t much of a life for a player,” he joked. I bit my lip, curiosity bubbling in my veins. “How many girls have you dated?” “Quite a lot,” he said, winking. “I’m addicted.” “You’re going to get screwed over one day,” I said, and he smirked. “And I’m looking forward to it.” We laughed for a few seconds but spun into silence quickly afterwards. I leaned my head against the passenger window and watched the streets fly by. His truck sped past a drug store, and long lampposts stretched light over the street in a blur. We passed our school, and, even in the darkness, I could make out the willow tree’s looming shadow. Eric. I remembered how he met Teresa beneath it and frowned. I had no clue what I was going to do about my incompetent homeroom partner. Clearly, he wasn’t going to help me, but I couldn’t do the entire project by myself. It was due in three weeks, and Crystal and Robb had already begun theirs. They weren’t even close to done yet. Robb leaned over and tapped my leg, breaking my enraged trance. “See that mansion over there?” he asked, and my eyes adjusted in the darkness. Somewhat hidden in a thick mass of trees, a house peered out. A few lights shined through the thorns and lit up the contorted driveway. It was dark and eerie—the kind of house neighborhood kids would only approach on Halloween. As we passed it, Robb’s lip curled. “That’s Welborn’s house.” My knuckles tightened into a fist. “He’s so rude,” I said. “I tried so hard today, and he doesn’t care at all—” “Jess,” Robb interrupted me quietly, and his eyes fogged over. “He used to be a really great guy. Awesome, nice, smart, funny, you name it. He was even there for me when my dog died,” he spoke through a struggled laugh. “He was my best friend until Hannah’s death.” “I’m sorry.” “I wasn’t asking for pity,” he said, briefly meeting my eyes. He sighed and gripped the wheel. “That Eric is still in him somewhere; I’m sure you can talk him out of it.” I held my breath. “Do you really think that?” He nodded, but didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t push it. Who was I to judge them? I’d never lost anyone, aside from my biological parents, and I didn’t even remember what they looked like. I knew nothing of death, and, for some unexplainable reason, I was beginning to feel guilty for that.
“It’ll be okay, Jess,” Robb said, pulling into my driveway minutes later. “Thanks,” I said, forcing a grateful smile. “For everything.” Before he could continue our night with more conversation, I shut the door. I watched him back out of the driveway, and then I turned to my house. All the lights were on. Fantastic. When I opened the front door, my parents met me with folded arms. “Jessie Taylor.” My mother’s blonde hair was ruffled. “Where have you been? It’s a school night.” I sighed, dropping my bag on the floor. “Studying.” “Studying?” She raised her voice, and my father placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s almost midnight.” “It’s eleven.” “Don’t argue with me, young lady,” she said, jabbing a finger in my direction. “We’ve been worried sick.” “And who was that boy who dropped you off?” my dad asked, peering behind his reading glasses, and my shoulders dropped. “His name’s Robb,” I said. “And I was with Crystal and him—studying. We were working on our science projects.” “That’s funny, because your teacher called,” my mom said, raising her brow. “She said you haven’t even started.” My mouth hung open. I was ready to argue. “My partner won’t help me,” I said, and my father waved my excuse away. “You’re failing, Jess,” he said, shaking his head back and forth. “We made a deal; if you don’t keep your grades up, then you can wait to research your—” “My parents?” I finished, and they tensed. “I haven’t even had time to start researching yet.” “Whose fault it that?” my mother asked. “Maybe if you spent less time socializing, and more time studying, you’d be able to.” “But—” “No ‘buts’, Jessie.” She didn’t even let me speak. “We made a deal.” I bit my lip, avoiding their eyes. They didn’t understand. They’d never understand. “You get your grade up, and you can start searching.” “Fine,” I said, climbing my stairs to my bedroom and ending the conversation. Welborn was going to get it tomorrow.