Tuesday, April 20, 2021

First Look: Read the First Chapter of Don't Look Behind You

 Don't Look Behind You comes out in twenty days! Holy cow. I cannot believe it. In the mean time, are you ready for a first look? Keep reading for the first chapter.


Chapter 1

Day 91, Monday

Most people find orchids to be finicky plants. Their requirements for growing shiny new leaves and sprouting arching branches of blooms are too difficult to reproduce. People plant them in dense, smothering soil and complain when the plant withers to nothing but a dried, brown husk. What they don’t understand is that most orchids are epiphytic, meaning they grow hanging suspended from a tree branch or a slick cliff. They bloom only if precise conditions are met, or not at all. I know all of this because I used to grow them. Gently bowed green leaves on mossy chunks of cork bark, suspended near the perfect window by clear fishing line stretched taut.

I was always drawn to their particularity and resilience.

Not anymore. Not now that I’m the one clinging to life as a shriveled, nearly dead stub of brown in an airless, smothering situation.

I left every single one of my plants behind when I moved in with Aunt Karen.


The newly purchased loose blouse still has the tags hanging from the back collar. Its sharp edges are making the tender skin between my shoulder blades itch. I bend awkwardly, trying to reach it, and only manage to pull out a few strands of my overlong, hickory brown hair. What I wouldn’t give for a broken-in tee and jean cutoffs.

Helplessness threatens to overwhelm me, making me collapse on to the edge of the too-small twin bed, pawing at the bright red comforter with black polka dots. I’d have deemed it too childish to use if Aunt Karen hadn’t told me she’d purchased it because it reminded her of my favorite anime show about a teenage girl whose superhero alter ego is a ladybug. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m not interested in it anymore. Or any of my other former hobbies.

None of it makes me light up like it did Before.

The old house creaks as someone moves down the hallway.

I look up, my pulse skittering.

“Does everything fit all right?” Aunt Karen stands in the doorway, her perceptive brown eyes skimming over me. Her dyed red hair is starting to grow out, leaving a stripe of gray at her scalp.

I bite my lip, nodding. “This outfit okay?”

“The blouse looks nice on you. Feminine.”

Not like my old clothes.

The older woman moves into the room, dressed for her new job at the grocery store in a slouchy green polo and khaki slacks. Her eyes glance over my face and away. “Where’s your bracelet?”

“Oh. I—”

“Your parents would have wanted you to wear it,” she encourages, picking up the sterling bangle from the top of the dresser and watching with keen eyes as I snap it on to my wrist.

The clothes tag rustles when I move, sparking Aunt Karen’s continued scrutiny. “What is that?”

“Tag. Would you mind...?” Presenting her with my back, I pull my hair forward over my shoulder. My skin prickles at the exposure, but I hold myself still.

Aunt Karen excuses herself to get some scissors from the kitchen, returning with a bright red set that ironically also still has the tag on. The older woman gives half a smile as she yanks it off and tosses it in the wastebasket under the small desk in the corner. “It’s amazing the things you have to buy when you move. Being back in this house feels like going back in time.” Her eyes take in the room around me before she moves closer.

I’m grateful she doesn’t see me flinch as she draws closer with the gleaming shears.

Carefully, as if she’s afraid I’ll collapse if she touches me, my new guardian cuts the tag out of my blouse and tosses it.

“How are you feeling about your new school? You know how you’re going to introduce yourself yet?”

I shrug. I’ve been dreading this, so instead of making a mental plan like I normally would, I’ve kept putting it off. I guess I’ll figure it out if anyone asks. Probably no one will.

“Practice makes permanent. You should run over what you want to say in the car on the way over. Want me to role play it with you?” The woman crosses her arms, studying me.

“No, thanks. I’ll manage.” Shouldering my backpack, I follow her out on to the landing. The door to the master bedroom has been shut tight. In the short time I have resided in this place, I have never trespassed there.

The temperature drops as we descend the stairs. Under her breath I hear Aunt Karen grumbling about how inefficient the old house is with its minimal insulation and seventy-year-old windows. While the upstairs is near too warm, the downstairs feels like a freezer. I consider going back upstairs for a sweater but don’t. The second I step outside, I’m slammed by a wall of air so hot it steals my breath. It’s not even 8 AM and already almost 90 degrees. The jean skirt I’m wearing chafes, the blouse tacky against my skin. It’s got to be twenty degrees warmer here than at home.


My eyes threaten to well over, but I force the tide back. I can’t arrive for my first day of school with puffy eyes and splotchy skin. I get into the passenger side of Aunt Karen’s sedan once she unlocks it and click my seatbelt into place.

Despite the ocean of sadness that washes over me, I’m relieved to be out of the old house that has been in the family since it was built in the 1940s. The white paint peeling off the clapboard siding and the weathered front porch testify to the truth of it. Against the side of the aged structure, the AC unit shudders as it tries to keep pace with the climbing heat.

I look up at the house, all of its windows and blinds shut against the outside.

As Aunt Karen backs out of the driveway, something in my chest loosens. I’m nervous about going to a new school where I won’t know anyone, but it’s got to be better than that house, where every move I make is catalogued and deconstructed. The idiom walking on eggshells has never been so concrete in my mind as now.

The car moves down the street past orchard after orchard of almond trees. Apparently, it’s the town’s major crop, along with milk. This side of town is all farm land; the other side flooded by the sea of black and white cows at the dairy. You can smell the stench from the freeway.

In town, we pass the grocery store, a big box store, barber shop, furniture store, boutique dress shop, a beauty parlor with faded photos in the windows, and a coffee shop/diner. That’s it—that’s the entire town.

I make quick work of my breakfast, wadding up the foil wrapper and tucking it into my pocket. Aunt Karen wouldn’t like me leaving it in the car’s spotless interior.

The school looks pretty much how it did during orientation a couple days ago. A long, single storey white building with a gymnasium at one end. A knight on a horse is painted on the side of the gym over a banner saying, “Go Lancers!” Behind that is the football stadium, which looks well-kept even though the metal bleachers are ancient.

The parking lot is separated into two sections: the teachers’ cars mostly sedans and minivans, while the student lot is full of trucks with extended cabs. Many are downright filthy, hinting at the popular pastimes of rodeos and off-roading. I wrinkle my nose as Aunt Karen pulls to a stop right in front of the main building.

Every student standing on the sidewalk turns to gape as I unbuckle my belt and move to open the door.

Aunt Karen stops me with a firm hand on my arm. “Do you have your recorder?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Unzipping the front pouch of my new backpack, I unbury the small silver device and turn it on, careful to keep it low enough that no one outside the car can see it.

“Don’t forget to check it between classes to make sure it’s still going.” Her tone is admonishing.

“Don’t worry, okay? I won’t forget.” I know how important it is.

She watches me for a beat. “I’ll be here to pick you up after school. Wait right out front.”

I promise to comply before climbing out of the car. She doesn’t pull away as I move toward the clump of students on the front steps. Their conversations hush as I draw closer. All eyes are on me—the new girl.

I try to muster a small smile, but one by one their expressions register my face and flick away, as if they’re afraid to stare. My hand comes up to cover the white scar that cuts a line from my left nostril all the way to my hairline. Dropping my chin, I let my hair fall in front of my face like a curtain.

The metallic blue front door flies open, almost knocking me in the head. I gasp, jumping back.

“Crap. Sorry. I’m sorry! Megan?”

My reddened face whips up to lock on the boy who just tried to murder me with a door. The gangly boy with an anime tee and thick black plastic glasses frames gives me a sheepish smile. Adjusting the backpack strap he’s got slung over one shoulder, he holds out a hand. “I’m Noah Lopez, your student liaison. Welcome to Valley High.” He steps back, motioning for me to go through the door he holds open.

We step into the administration building. The aisle passes the high counter manned by a secretary and out the other side to the open-air courtyard.

My heart is staging a revolt in my chest cavity. I can do this. I can.

The secretary gives me a warm smile. “Good morning! I gave Noah here your schedule. He’ll show you around, okay, hon? And don’t be afraid to ask if you need anything.”

“Thanks.” The middle-aged woman’s warmth is a sharp contrast to the chilly reception I got outside, making me wonder if someone started a school-wide game of Hot and Cold I don’t know about.

“How’d you know my name?” I ask Noah as we pass through the courtyard. Low hills of dead grass roll between the concrete walkways, each mound crested by a sapling supported by wooden stakes, like miniature kingdoms guarded by groups of students. Nearest us, a jock catches sight of me and turns to whisper in his buddy’s ear. A ripple goes through the open space, and my ears flame.

Hopeful for some semblance of normalcy, I ignore the clamminess in my palms. Resist the urge to cover my face in my hands.

Noah chuckles. “You’re the first new kid we’ve had since Joey Donner moved here in third grade. Small towns, you know?”

“Right. Is this the part where you ask me all about where I’m from and stuff?”

“I figure you’ll tell me all about that whenever you’re ready to. Being new must be tough.” The smile the boy throws my way makes me relax a fraction.

The morning light glows behind the apple green leaves of the nearest tree, unearthing an urge I haven’t felt in three months. Taking out my new phone, I peel the protective film off so I can take a couple quick photos. Squatting gets the composition I want. When I’m satisfied, I straighten to find my would-be assassin watching intently.

“You a photographer?” he asks. “Can I see?”

I hesitate, but hold out my phone.

 “It’s pretty. You’re good. You should talk to Mr. Baugh, the art teacher, about getting into his advanced art class. I’m in there, too.”

Embarrassed by his easy compliment, I tuck the phone away, murmuring a quiet thanks.

Noah’s focus moves to my face. I wait for him to zero in on the ugly line marring my skin, but he doesn’t. Good, because despite what I told Aunt Karen, I have no idea what to say about it. Something like relief flutters in my stomach.

“Here’s your schedule,” Noah says, leading me along one of the walkways. “Mr. Tobin, fifth period. He keeps his room freezing cold, so you might want to bring a blanket to keep in your locker. A ton of people do. Last year there was even a competition to see who could find the ugliest one. And don’t ever be late to Ms. Parker’s class or she’ll make you wear a sombrero for the rest of the period.” He laughs, running a hand over his black wavy hair. “Hat hair is no joke, is all I’m saying.”

His smile pulls a ghost of one out of me in return. The expression feels foreign on my face. I can’t remember the last time I smiled.

Posters line the windows of the classrooms we pass advertising football, a club for future farmers, and cheerleading. I stifle a wince, hoping my tour guide didn’t notice.

He doesn’t miss much, unfortunately. “You have something against the great sport of cheerleading?”

“Not really,” I say with a noncommittal headshake.

“Okay… So, here’s your first period class. If you want, I can come back after and walk you to your next class. Make sure you don’t get lost?”

“Sure. Thanks,” I add as an afterthought.

“See you then, Megan.” He ducks his head before moving off.

When I step inside the portable classroom, no one is here yet.

A janitor is standing behind the teacher’s desk with a wastebasket in hand. “Morning,” he grunts, setting down the empty receptacle and leaving quickly, glancing back once. Probably to get a better look at my scar.

Settling in a desk in the back row, I take out my phone and look at the photo of the leaves. It is pretty good. Chewing on the inside of my cheek, I debate for a second before opening my social media app and posting it. It’s the first one I’ve shared since Before.

Almost immediately a couple of people I used to chat with leave comments. Maybe I haven’t been completely forgotten.

It would be nice to start posting photos again. As long as Aunt Karen doesn’t find out.

Before class starts, I unzip the front of my backpack under the desk to check the small device she gave me. It’s still recording.


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