Main Until the Day I Die

Until the Day I Die

If there’s a healthy way to grieve, Erin Gaines hasn’t found it. After her husband’s sudden death, the runaway success of the tech company they built with their best friends has become overwhelming. Her nerves are frayed, she’s disengaged, and her frustrated daughter, Shorie, is pulling away from her. Maybe Erin’s friends and family are right. Maybe a few weeks at a spa resort in the Caribbean islands is just what she needs to hit the reset button…

Shorie is not only worried about her mother’s mental state but also for the future of her parents’ company. Especially when she begins to suspect that not all of Erin’s colleagues can be trusted. It seems someone is spinning an intricate web of deception—the foundation for a conspiracy that is putting everything, and everyone she loves, at risk. And she may be the only one who can stop it.

Now, thousands of miles away in a remote, and oftentimes menacing, tropical jungle, Erin is beginning to have similar fears. Things at the resort aren’t exactly how the brochure described, and unless she’s losing her mind, Erin’s pretty sure she wasn’t sent there to recover—she was sent to disappear.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2019 by Emily Carpenter

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503904217

ISBN-10: 1503904210

Cover design by Faceout Studio, Lindy Martin

For Kevin,

who helped me survive


































































Epilogue ARCH






Friday, March 1


Take Shorie for ice cream

Pick up wings, beer, pinot gris

Work on Shorie’s letter

Shorie’s new Jax budget for school


(except latest Error Message—kick to Scotty?)

(and Global Cybergames guy—kick to Sabine?)

Mar; ch’s Oulipian constraint—N+5

How do I love thee? Let me count the weddings.

I love thee to the design and breaker and herb

My southeast can reach, when ferrying out of silence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How Do I Love Thee?” N+5




I was the one who insisted on the going-away party. Surprising exactly no one, I’m sure, because of how colossally bad an idea it was.

In fact, I have no doubt they discussed the issue behind my back in the days leading up to the dismal event. Just another instance of me forging blindly ahead, I’m sure they all agreed, trampling underfoot good sense, prudent measures, and the basics of self-care.

Proof positive that I was in dire need of a break.

Case in point: Shorie, my daughter, didn’t even want to go away. Instead of accepting her scholarship and going to college—fulfilling her late father’s wishes—she wanted to stay home and work at our tech company, Jax.

Additionally, the venue left much to be desired. For cost and conveniences’ sake, I’d planned to have the party at Jax’s office. Our startup, which launched a personal budget app, is run out of the funky loft space of a defunct department store in downtown Birmingham. The building is located smack-dab in the middle of the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, and all day, you can see groups of tourists retracing the steps of Martin Luther King Jr. and the protests he led. Possibility and hope fill the air.

At least they used to before Perry died. But now—five months later—the place never fails to put me in a dark mood. When I’m there, I feel like a scuba diver trapped underwater, desperately trying to fight my way to the surface, all the while knowing my oxygen is running out. I love my job, but I hate the daily reminder of what I’ve lost.

So, not the best place to have a party.

In my defense, no one tried to talk me out of it. Sabine, my ever-loyal best friend, assured me everything would be fine. “Shorie will have a great time,” she said in that soothing yoga-instructor voice she uses to persuade me to do things I don’t want to do. “She may be the CEO’s daughter, but we all consider her family.”

I believed her and relaxed. Sabine has that effect on me. Behind my back, people call her the Erin Whisperer. A somewhat embarrassing but fair assessment. Truthfully I don’t know how I would’ve survived Perry’s death without her. She’s been a lifeline for me, at work and with Shorie.

Sabine sent out the e-vites and ordered all the food, enough for the fifteen Jax employees and the handful of friends and family Shorie was inviting. Sabine said decorations were no big deal, just some flowers and Auburn swag to spruce things up. She even offered to take Shorie shopping for a new outfit.

I tried, I truly did. I plucked my unruly eyebrows, made sure to pick up my old workhorse black dress at the cleaners, and got my nails done, fingers and toes, for the first time in months. I had Shorie’s gift cleaned and wrapped, a delicate band of emeralds that my mother gave to me when I went away to Auburn.

And then, the afternoon of the party, I unraveled.

It wasn’t a Chris Stapleton song or the smell of an Altoids mint on somebody’s breath or the way some man’s light-brown hair curled up against the edge of his starched white collar. This time it was fast food.

I had popped into the hole-in-the-wall where Perry and I used to sneak off to revel in the forbidden glory of a chili slaw dog. In the shoebox-size space, I ordered what my Jax app had suggested to me—Have Sloan’s Special Dog, only $5.99!—and found a table near the door, being careful not to smudge my newly glossed black nails as I sat. Then the vortex descended.

Perry lay on the hospital bed in the shadowy emergency room. In the curtained area, I could barely look at him, he was so bloody and still. He’d been driving from Columbus, Georgia, to meet us at the lake for a family camping trip, first one of the season. On 73, between Waverly and Roxana, he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, the police said. Veered off the narrow road and smashed his car into a pine tree. He hadn’t been wearing a seat belt, that idiot.

After his meeting in Columbus, but before he’d gotten on the road, he’d met someone for drinks. A friend from college, Roy. Roy later swore to me that Perry only had one beer. The doctors did a blood test and didn’t find anything to warrant concern, but what did it matter anyway? This motionless body covered in blood was not my husband. My husband was gone.

How to explain grief to someone who’s never experienced it? It’s like a cross between a panic attack and a case of acute appendicitis, only it happens all over your body. It never goes away, and it permanently alters who you are. There is no escape, only temporary reprieve. That afternoon, I raced out of the hot dog place without my food. At home, I vomited into the kitchen trash can, then locked myself in the guest room. The room had the only bed I could sleep in, one without any memories hiding between its sheets. I crawled under the blanket, fully clothed, and immediately fell asleep.

I awoke to the sound of someone tapping gently on the guest bedroom door. It was Sabine, who must have let herself in with her spare key. It was 9:30 p.m. Thirty minutes before Shorie’s party was scheduled to be over.



The party’s going okay, I guess. However parties are supposed to go. The nineties mix Sabine put on is playing so loud, it’s making my heart keep time all the way down in the last cubicle.

I’m with one of Jax’s yearlong, paid interns—Hank?—who has the darkest hair and palest skin I’ve ever seen on a human. Not with with; I’m just showing him some of the inner workings of the proprietary GPS program Jax uses. The way my dad used conditional constructs—the if-then-else statements of programming—to tailor it to a typical Jax user’s needs.

I love tinkering like this, digging up the bones of a program, so to speak, but the truth is I have ulterior motives. Hank’s skills seem pretty basic—rudimentary, if I’m being polite—and I’m hoping if I show him something cool, he’ll give me something in return. Maybe tell me what Ben, Jax’s lead developer, has him working on. Possibly send a problem or two my way when I’m at school. Just something on the sly for me to mess around with. He could obviously use the help, no offense.

As I type, I tell him about one of our former interns, a doofus who actually used the password password for his admin account. The story makes Hank (or is it Henry?) laugh. That trips me up, and my fingers freeze momentarily. I’m not used to making boys laugh.

And then Mom rushes into the cubicle, ruining the moment.

“Oh my God, Shorie, I’m so sorry.” She’s not wearing yoga pants, thank God, but her makeup looks kind of half-assed, and the tag is sticking up from the back of her dress. She’s also got that glassy, confused look in her eyes. The look that’s become all too familiar in the past five months—she’s just woken up from a nap.

The intern snaps to attention at the sight of his boss. “Hey, Erin.”

“Hello, Hank.” Mom’s face looks strained. “Mind if we have a minute?”

He doesn’t even glance at me before fleeing the cubicle, and she moves to the desk. Taps her fingers on it. “Shor, I feel terrible.”

I wait for the explanation to follow.

“I was out, running errands, and I went home. I was just going to lie down for a second. But I was feeling kind of off, and I must’ve fallen asleep—”

I push out of the chair. “It’s okay.”

She pulls at the neck of her dress, and I reach out and straighten it for her. It’s the same one she wore to Dad’s funeral, which pisses me off but at the same time makes me want to cry. How could she do that? Wear that dress again? And at my party?

But I don’t cry or yell. What’s the use? It’s easier to be Robot Shorie—which is what my best friend, Daisy, called me one time in ninth grade when I refused to fight with her.

I do wonder what Mom’s been doing all day. Not helping Sabine and me set everything up, that’s for sure. I wonder if it occurred to her that she might not want to take a nap right before my going-away party. I want to slap her, then comfort her, then demand she apologize. All those emotions make me feel so nauseated, I could throw up.

“You look nice,” is all I say.

She doesn’t answer, just bites her lip.

When we rejoin the festivities, Daisy rushes up and presses a flute of what she pointedly announces is sparkling apple juice into my hands. I look around. Somehow Mom’s already got a drink in her hand, real champagne, and is tipping it back.

“That guy likes you,” Daisy says, her eyes like lasers on mine. “That intern, Hank.”

I take a sip and make a face. She’s smuggled me the real deal. I prefer the apple juice. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

She shakes her head. She’s been doing this for me since we met in fifth grade at robotics club—telling me which guys are interested in me. I never seem to be able to figure it out on my own.

“But if he does, maybe he can put a good word in for me with Ben.”

She lifts her brows. “Oh, Shor. Forget all that. You’re going to love school. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“Not as much fun as staying home and working at Jax,” I retort, feeling bolder already. I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. And, no offense, but Daisy doesn’t really understand where I’m coming from. She’s 100 percent thrilled about heading off to Georgia Tech, where her parents went. She’s basically been packing for college since she was in diapers.

I head over to talk to Gigi and Arch, my grandparents. They’re all decked out for the party—Gigi in a green dress with a giant diamond starburst brooch on her shoulder and Arch in a natty suit and his favorite Yale tie, blue with little bulldogs all over it. He makes another crack about me going to Auburn instead of his la-di-da alma mater, and Gigi shushes him. But I’m glad to hear him joking. Ever since Dad died, he’s seemed so sad. When I look around for Mom again, it appears she’s melted away. Just then Sabine taps her glass, and the room quiets.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming,” she says. “We really appreciate every single one of you showing up to wish Shorie success in the next phase of her life. Before we say good night, we’d like to invite you to make a toast. One sentence, short and sweet.” She winks at me. “I promised not to embarrass her.”

“Me first,” Ben says, raising his flute and clearing his throat theatrically. “An ode to Shorie. Looks like her daddy, codes like him too. But don’t think you can have her. She’s mine, Yahoo.”

Someone shouts, “What’s Yahoo?” and everybody laughs. Half of me feels suffused with happiness. The other half wants to run down the stairs and out into the street and never return. I really don’t enjoy everybody looking at me like this.

“Okay, that was three sentences,” Sabine says. “And nobody owns Shorie.” She casts Ben a reproving look, but he just grins and points at me. I try to smile back. If he really wanted me, though, he’d talk Mom into letting me stay home and work. I’ve known him since I was a baby, and I love him like family—I even used to call him Uncle Ben before I figured out he wasn’t really related to me—but I’m furious at him too.

Layton Marko, Jax’s lawyer, raises her glass next. “You may be the smartest person I know, Shorie Gaines, but you never rub our noses in it.”

Somebody yells, “Not true!” and breaks everybody up again.

“And comp-sci degree aside,” she continues, “you can still go to law school afterward, like the cool kids.”

I lift my glass to her while everybody hoots and hollers.

“My turn,” Sabine says. She dabs at her nose, and I can see she’s gotten misty-eyed. My heart twists a little. “You take our hearts with you, Shorie . . . so promise you’ll come back.”

Right then, I see Mom. She’s standing beside Ben, who’s got his arm around her. It isn’t that abnormal; they’re both huggers and have been friends forever. But for some reason it irks me. Mom catches my eye and raises her glass. Ben lets his arm fall away.

“Mine isn’t one sentence either . . . ,” she begins. The room quiets immediately, which is a thing that always happens when my mom speaks. “But first I’d like to say, I’m sorry for being late tonight. I lost track of time.”

I gaze down at my sandals and my lemon-yellow toenail polish. It looked cheery in the nail salon, but under the fluorescent office lights, it makes me look like I’ve got a kidney condition. How is it even possible that the room just got quieter?

“That said,” Mom continues, “I want you to know I am in your corner, one hundred percent, no matter what. Woo-hoo, Shorie!”

Ben’s arm pops back up to Mom’s shoulders, and he gives her a squeeze. But, at the same time, I see him and Sabine exchange glances. They’re not falling for Mom’s falsely upbeat tone.

“Anyway. I will always be here for you. I love you. Go get ʼem, kiddo.”

The guests clap. It might be my imagination, but the applause seems subdued, polite, like everyone senses there’s something wrong with Mom. They know. I do too.

When Dad found a bug in Jax, there was a simple protocol. He would just assign the problem to someone, and they would work on it until the issue was fixed. If only we could deal with people the way we deal with computers. Mom needs to be fixed. Maybe it’s not that simple with a human being, but I don’t know. I think finding someone smarter than me—a professional with experience—is worth a try.

Because clearly something is very wrong with my mother. And tonight, for the first time, I’m afraid if it doesn’t get fixed, something terrible is going to happen.



Two days after her party, Shorie and I are hauling her bright-yellow Huffy cruiser up three flights of stairs in Amelia Boynton Hall—the dorm for all incoming freshmen with engineering scholarships—when she abruptly announces that she’s tired and stops dead on the landing.

“We should keep going,” I say, just as a fresh wave of kids and parents surge into the narrow space, filling it up and pressing us back against the wall. They must’ve let in the next group on the schedule, or else someone ahead of us is maneuvering an entire three-piece living room suite through one of the doorways, slowing the traffic. Whatever it is, now we’re in a bottleneck to end all bottlenecks, and I’m reconsidering our decision to bypass the long lines for the elevators.

Lines of kids file slowly past us in both directions, ants bearing armloads of twinkle lights, rugs, microwaves, and coordinated bedding. The girls let their long hair hang down their backs, even in the ruthless, soul-crushing Alabama humidity.

I told you so vibrates through every cell of my body. Gigi’s stupid bike from 1990-something is not a substitute for a car. But Shorie didn’t want a car; she wanted her grandmother’s bike. And insisted we haul it to her room until she can get the right kind of lock for it. I know I can handle getting a rusty, grease-coated bike up a set of college dorm stairs, but there’s no rule book for leaving a daughter at college who distinctly, desperately, angrily does not want to be left. Or maybe there is a guide, and I just haven’t paused long enough from working to google it.

This was always Perry’s area—the delicate handling of our prickly daughter. If he were here, he’d whisper some inside joke in Shorie’s ear, cajole and comfort and coax until she was laughing and charging up these stairs. I can’t help but think the least he could’ve done was impart his secrets. But there was no time for a letter from my husband. And now there is just a big blank negative space where he used to be.

I still haven’t gotten used to this new jagged anger that emanates from my daughter. It started when Perry died. Every once in a while, it shoots out in violent electrified bolts toward me, always taking me off guard, paralyzing me, making me hurt in ways I never expect. It stays constant, a low hum droning on and on underneath any other sound.

I have lost my husband. I am losing my daughter.

The urge to cry is sudden, sharp, and overwhelming, so I turn back and aim a huge grin at my daughter. “Come on,” I say cheerfully. “Let’s make a dent in the universe.” I yank up my end of the bike, charging up the steps. I can feel her behind me, tripping to keep up.

We’re almost to the fourth floor when Ben catches up to us. “Y’all should’ve waited for me.” He’s his usual happy, open-faced self, loaded down with a couple of plastic trunks full of clothes from the truck. He continues past us, then is back in less than a minute. He hoists the bike over one shoulder and takes the stairs two at a time, Shorie and I falling into line behind him. A crowd of girls presses up behind us, and I find myself jostled closer to him, so close I can smell sweat and soap and whatever detergent he washed his T-shirt with. His back is a really nice one—long and lean and muscled—and it tapers down into loose-fitting jeans.

I focus elsewhere: the dorm doors decorated with whiteboards and name tags and Auburn posters. I’ve known Ben (and Sabine—there was never Ben without Sabine) for thirty years. In those years there have, admittedly, been a handful of times when I considered what it would be like to be with him. There would be this flash between us, a moment that only lasted half a second, and a thought would flit through my head—There’s something . . .

But those flashes were like the impulses you got when you stood at the edge of a cliff and felt that illogical urge to step over the edge. Easy enough to ignore. Especially when Perry was alive. Now that he’s gone, they fill me with shame. I may feel lonely, but I’m appalled at the idea of even touching another man, much less my best friend’s husband.

In Shorie’s room, Ben swings the bike against the wall, claps his hands, and rubs them together gleefully like he’s never had so much fun. “That’s your grandmother’s old bike?” he asks Shorie. “Damn thing’s a millstone.”

“It’s a beach cruiser,” she says.

I resist the urge to compare the bike to Perry’s mother, Gigi, millstonewise. I’m the adult here, after all. It’s up to me to keep things positive, even if it kills me.

“Bathroom’s through that door,” I say to Ben. “Knock before you go in.”

Shorie, Ben, and I take turns washing up, edging politely around each other. When Ben says he’s heading back to the truck for another load, Shorie turns to her bookshelves. She should be tossing confetti and dancing in circles around Ben. He canceled whatever weekend plans he had—work, hanging out with Sabine—and volunteered his truck. His reward? Being treated to a teenage girl’s icy silence in the back seat of the cab the two hours down to Auburn.

“Do you want me to make up your bed?” I ask.

“Okay.” She flips open the top of the bin with all her books.

I lay the foam pad over the thin mattress and wrestle the purple Pottery Barn comforter out of its plastic bag.

“Hey, where are the sheets?” I ask.

“The what?”

I breathe deeply. “The sheets. For the bed.”

“I don’t know. Didn’t you pack them?”

I rummage through a couple of boxes. The sheets are stuffed into an actual suitcase, crammed beneath Shorie’s collection of Converse sneakers, clearly stuff she packed. I decide not to think about the germs.

“When’s Adelia getting here?” I ask.

“I’m not sure.”

“She didn’t say?”

“I never called her.”

I straighten. “Shorie. She’s your roommate.”

“I was busy. You get that, Mom, right? It’s hard to do all the stuff you should do when you’re busy, busy, busy.”

She slams a couple of books onto a shelf. I snap the top sheet over the bed. So many unspoken words simmer between us, but if I speak up now, it’s going to turn into a battle. This is one topic we’ve covered thoroughly.

In March, after Perry died, his share of Jax’s stock reverted to me, along with the new weight of major shareholder, and shifted everything into high gear. Granted, for a startup, we were doing well—making enough money to cover salaries and also roll some cash back into the company. But we were nowhere near millionaires, not yet. We always needed to be raising more capital to safeguard our income—and it was technically still my job to attend these startup pitch events and scout potential investors. But, honestly, a lot of what I was doing was unnecessary.

Ben brought up the subject, once, of my taking a break. But after I pointedly changed the subject, he never mentioned it again. At Jax, as I mapped out some wild monetization or scaling model for the next five years or reported on the latest habit loop design or A/B split testing at another meeting I’d called, I’d notice my partners’ faces soften with pity. It was obvious they were placating me, showing up and sitting with polite smiles on their faces while I made up new reasons not to hand over the reins.

And then, early this summer, it occurred to me what I was doing. The goal I had been unconsciously moving toward ever since Perry’s death. I was getting the company ready to sell. Preparing to let Jax go.

This is why Shorie’s extra mad at me, as is Ben, even though he’s doing a pretty good job pretending he’s not. And I understand. None of us had planned on selling this soon, but none of us had planned on Perry’s dying either. And we made a pact. We agreed that when we sold, we’d all move on.

I want Shorie to start fresh too. She’s already on her way, with a full ride from National Women in STEM, along with career and mentorship opportunities that the organization will provide. She’s got a chance to really make something of herself and her talents—if she’ll just trust me and fly on her own.

But if she won’t fly, I’m going to give her a push. As I see it, that’s my job as her mother. And once I’ve done that—once I’ve gotten everything at Jax squared away and the company sold and my daughter launched into the world—then maybe, at last, I can focus on other things.

Like how I am going to survive the rest of my life without my husband.



Ben Fleming wants to sleep with my mother.

Sorry, no—I should just say it right out: Ben Fleming wants to fuck my mother. And OH MY GOD, just thinking those words makes me feel like I need to take a thousand scalding showers and then lock myself in a sensory deprivation chamber.

At first, I thought I was imagining it because of all Mom’s other strange behaviors. The blank way she looks at me, her forgetfulness, the constant working—and when she’s not doing that, the constant sleeping. But now that I think about it, these past couple of months, it does seem like Ben and Mom have gotten . . . tighter. I watched them the whole ride down from Birmingham from the back seat of Ben’s truck. They chatted and laughed and periodically touched each other’s arms. Oh, my goodness, look! There’s a deer on the side of the highway eating grass! How amazing! I must touch your arm for the hundredth time! I wondered if Sabine would’ve minded if she’d been there.

Anyway, just add it to the list of suck: my dad is dead, my mom is making me go to college instead of letting me stay home and work at Jax, and now there’s uncomfortable parental flirting. That last one, the flirting, doesn’t just suck; it actually fills me with Hulk-level rage. That the two of them can joke and laugh like one didn’t just lose a best friend and one a husband mere months ago infuriates me. And do they not care that I’m right there, watching them? It’s fucking disrespectful is what it is.

Now, standing in my new dorm room, organizing my books, I am so knotted up with fury and fear and homesickness that I can’t open my mouth. And even though the thought does occur to me, briefly, that I may possibly be overreacting to this Ben-and-Mom thing because I’m actually angry at Mom about other stuff, I shut it off and slam books onto the shelf instead.

Coincidentally the one I’m putting up now is my copy of The Emotional Dictionary. It was a graduation gift from Daisy’s mom. Clearly she was trying to tell me something. Like that I’m maybe emotionally constipated or something. Which I’m not at all. Just because our culture expects girls to emote all over the place, that doesn’t mean we should if we don’t feel like it. I have emotions, plenty of them, and I can show them anytime I want. I cried when I learned about Euler’s Identity, as a matter of fact. Right there in the third row of Ms. Blaylock’s trigonometry class.

Just to prove to myself that I’m perfectly comfortable with my emotions, I list out the ones I happen to be feeling right now. For each one, I slam another book on the shelf. Melancholy, BAM! Despondency, BAM! Misery, BAM!

Don’t get me wrong. I love my mother. And I know what I’m thinking about my own maternal flesh and blood is disgusting and offensive, but it’s the truth. It’s not that hard to tell when a man wants a woman. Well, correction: as long as I’m not the woman in question. That, I’m not so good at.

And there’s this: My mom is more attractive than your average suburban mom. She has long Disney-princess dark-brown hair and the bone structure of a runway model. Unfortunately she happens to dress herself like a color-blind toddler. And puts her hair in one of those midlevel, mom-style ponytails, scraped back and twisted with a scrunchie. She may be old (forty-eight?), a mad workaholic, and annoying as crap, but she would be a catch for any man her age. I guess. But it’s way too soon for her to even think about moving on. Way too soon for flirting. Especially with Ben Fleming.

And I don’t even know where she finds scrunchies anymore.

I load more books onto the shelf. BAM! BAM! BAM! I shouldn’t be here, moving into this dorm, wasting my time going to dumb-ass English comp classes that I could literally sail through even if I were in a coma. I should be in Birmingham, working at Jax, doing what my dad did, taking care of everything he used to take care of. Isn’t that the point of college anyway? To figure out your future? My dad already gave me my future.

My senior year, instead of playing lacrosse after school, I went to Jax every day and shadowed him. He showed me everything: the back and front end stuff, the database of all Jax’s users, and the way the servers keep the whole show running smoothly. He explained Scrum, the work-managing system they followed to build Jax. And Slack, the software they used for assignments.

Dad also had his own quirky organizational system. He didn’t use the calendar on his phone, or any other kind of personal-assistant app. He carried around a journal, slim and bound in coffee-colored leather, where he kept a record of everything—every problem he encountered, every to-do list, even ideas he had for new features. He jotted little poems to me and my mother in it, sometimes those dumb motivational quotes. He got a new one every month, and at the end of the month he put the old one on the shelf in his office at home.

He had me sit down for at least one afternoon with every single Jax employee for a Q&A session. I got to endlessly test every new feature of the app, even the long shots the more motivated interns were working on. He even set up the email server to automatically forward his daily event report to me so I could understand how he spotted problems.

I still check the report religiously at six fifteen every morning, right after I wake up, just like he used to do, even though I haven’t told Mom. She wouldn’t like it, guaranteed.

I haul another armful of books out of a box. BAM! BAM! BAM!

But here’s what makes me nervous. My mom is not in the right headspace for making good decisions. I mean, if Ben is dumb enough to make a move on her, I worry she may go for it. I’ve never really been able to predict how my mother will react to things. But since Dad died, it’s gotten worse. She’ll work for, like, two days straight, then sleep for the next two. I never see her eat anything more than a cracker or half a banana. And she just kind of floats around the house like she’s stoned. And then randomly snaps over something stupid like Foxy Cat shedding on her laptop case.

Once, when I was trying to convince Dad to let me enter this international hacking competition called the Global Cybergames, he commented that I didn’t need it. He said social engineering was the biggest issue in cybersecurity. In other words, humans become the weakest link in any system by sharing their passwords or using their computers’ automatic log-in function for email and unsecured websites. I probably shouldn’t think this—it sounds cold—but sometimes I think my mom is the weak link of Jax.

I happen to know that Ben, Sabine, Layton, Arch, and Gigi have met secretly a couple of times to discuss what to do about her. I stumbled onto one of those secret meetings one Sunday night, when I dropped by Arch and Gigi’s house to see if I’d left a magazine there, one of Dad’s old copies of Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, that had an article I wanted to finish reading. I’d let myself in the kitchen door, and I could hear someone, on the other side of the swinging door to the dining room, talking. It was Sabine.

“. . . could be just the rest she needs. A gentle push to encourage self-care. It’s an incredible place.”

I’d found the magazine and crept back out to my bike without anybody seeing me, then rode away as quickly and quietly as I could. What was strange was how not upset I felt. Yeah, I was shocked that the rest of the adults were talking about my mom like she was a problem. What outweighed it was the relief that somebody was going to take care of the situation.

But now that feeling of relief is disintegrating. If something happens between Ben and my mom, especially if Sabine finds out about it, surely that will be the end of Jax. And what’s left of our family.

I chuck a final armful of books onto the shelf and head to the desk to arrange Arch’s old cigar boxes and beer stein from Germany that I decided to use for decoration. I arrange the items methodically, positioning each exactly three inches from the next. I like things just so. Dad was the same way.

“You’re lucky you STEM kids get to move in on Wednesday,” Mom says. “I heard the other freshmen don’t get in until Friday. They only get the weekend before they have to start school.”

I grunt noncommittally and pull out my phone.

“Did everything allocate properly?” Mom asks, and it takes me a minute to realize she’s talking about Jax.

“Mm-hmm,” I say.

“The automatic deposit went through?” She cranes her neck, trying to get a glimpse. But the fact that she’s asking the question proves that she’s restrained herself from logging on to my account and stalking, which is a little surprising.

I know I should play nice and let her see, but I twist away instead. “It’s all good, Mom.”

“Just checking,” she says lightly, and it occurs to me for the first time that maybe I’m taking the wrong approach to this whole school vs. Jax thing. Maybe my best strategy is to play along with what she wants and find another way to get what I want.



What the hell is keeping Ben?

Shorie’s moved on to hanging her shirts and jeans in the closet, and I’m draping a string of twinkle lights across the window frame. Right now would be an excellent time for him to show up and inject a little levity into this putrid mother-daughter tension stew. But he’s nowhere to be seen.

And then, a tall girl with bright-red hair appears in the doorway. She’s struggling with a minifridge but, after a beat, lets it crash to the floor.

“Shorie?” Her voice sounds professional, like it’s coming out of a TV, and she’s wearing a ton of gorgeous, complicated-looking eye makeup. She’s so big and beautiful that I’m rendered speechless. She fills the room with a delicious vanilla smell too.

Shorie fixes her smile. “Adelia.”

“Dele.” The tall redhead thrusts out her hand. “Like Let’s Make a . . . , you know? I mean, you probably don’t. Nobody our age does. It’s just a thing my mom always used to say to her friends. I don’t even know why I said that. I’m nervous. Anyway. Unbelievably excited to meet you.”

Shorie nods. Smiles. You can do it, I think.

Dele continues. “You didn’t bring monogrammed pillows, did you? My mom was like, you’re gonna get the girl with monogrammed pillows, and she’s going to fucking hate you because all you’re bringing is the fucking Harry Potter sheets and a Hermione shower curtain.” Dele turns to me and claps a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God. Sorry. My mom didn’t actually say it that way. Cleanup on aisle Dele.”

I wave her off. “You’re good. All pro-Hermione here. I’m Shorie’s mom. Erin.”

“Sorry I haven’t been more in touch,” Shorie says. “I wasn’t sure I was actually coming to school.”

“Oh, no. I get it. No worries,” Dele says. “Glad you decided to come.”

Our eyes drag and catch. Dele and I have been surreptitiously emailing for the past couple of months. I feel guilty for not telling Shorie—and for being such a capital-H Helicopter Mom—but I know from experience how important your freshman-year roommate is. I was the only kid from my small Tennessee town who attended Auburn. Alone and nervous, I was lucky enough to have a roommate who insisted on dragging me everywhere she went.

Sabine and I pledged a sorority together, we attended football and baseball games, and she introduced me to her high school friends, Perry and Ben. My life was forever changed because of her friendship, and I want to make sure my daughter gets the same chance. So, sue me. I took matters into my own hands.

“I love your name,” Dele says to Shorie. “Mine’s from an old soap opera my grandma used to watch. Adelia Kent, The Lighthouse.”

“I used to watch that show,” I say, but Dele doesn’t look at me.

Shorie takes a deep breath. “Shorie was my mom’s mother’s name. She was Margaret Shore, but everybody called her Shorie.”

I smile encouragingly at Shorie.

“Shorie Shore,” Dele crows. “I love it. You know, my grandma from Eclectic, Alabama, had a friend named Poo-Poo. Poo-Poo Buchanan, I kid you not. And nobody even cracked a smile when they said it. Poo-Poo, you got a cup of sugar I can borrow to make this peach cobbler? Poo-Poo, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? His name was Lumper, by the way, the husband. Loony southerners. Just one step away from tripping and falling out of their Faulkner novels.”

Dele then segues into a story about how even though she’s not an engineering student (she received a journalism scholarship), she managed to personally strong-arm the housing department into letting her move into Amelia Boynton, where the atmosphere will supposedly be more studious. Her move-in time isn’t technically until five, so her parents won’t be here for another couple of hours. She then asks Shorie if she wants to go to a party at the Lambda Chi house with her that night. When Shorie actually agrees, I literally have to smother a yelp of joy.

Presently, Ben shows up loaded down with a hodgepodge of backpacks and old Trader Joe’s bags stuffed with HDMI cords, back issues of Perry’s Journal of Mathematics and the Arts magazines, and God knows what other useless odds and ends. After a whole new round of introductions, Ben leaves again, and Shorie and Dele sort through the bags. I can see my daughter has way underpacked. There are no picture frames or corkboards, only the twinkle lights that I packed at the last minute and have already hung and the Kristin Kontrol poster from her bedroom that she tacks up over her desk.

“You like the Dum Dum Girls too?” Dele asks her.

“Yeah, but Kristin’s solo stuff is more eighties. Different.”


I reach over, snag Shorie’s phone, and hold it out for her to type in her passcode. “A few final motherly instructions, that’s all.”

She frowns but complies. I take back the phone and start swiping. “Don’t forget to do everything through Jax, so we can keep up with what you’re spending and keep it in your profile.”

“Okay,” Dele says. “I’m just going to go ahead and say it right now. I know Jax is your family business, and I just have to tell you, I’m a total fangirl.” She lets out a whoosh of breath, her eyes shining. “I mean, how totally amazing is that? You created something millions of people love. I mean, that must feel incredible, you know . . .” She throws up her hands, awestruck apparently.

“It’s covered, Mom,” Shorie says.

“I love Jax,” Dele goes on. “I use it all the time.” She looks at me. “Maybe I could interview you for one of my classes. Is that weird, that I just asked you? You probably talk to, like, Forbes or whatever.” For the first time, she looks abashed.

“I’d be happy to give you an interview.” I put the phone down, and I can feel Shorie stiffening across the room, waves of unhappiness rolling off her. We’re almost finished unpacking, and the resistance has become palpable, a living force, a psychic, full-body no emanating from her very pores. Such wasted determination. Think what my daughter could do if she focused this energy into something really useful.

Dele doesn’t seem to notice. “Oh, Shorie. I’m supposed to meet my friend Rayanne. I’ll bring her by later and y’all can meet, if you want.”

“Okay,” Shorie says.

When she’s gone I turn to Shorie. “I just want to say one more—”

She interrupts. “There’s nothing left for you to say.”

She heads into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her, and I hear the water running. I sit on the newly made bed, sensing the vortex in the air above me. It’s about to descend again.

When Ben comes up with the last load of plastic crates, I ask stiffly for his keys. In the parking lot, I climb in his hot truck and finally allow myself to burst into tears.



After Mom leaves, Ben offers to set up my extra monitor, speakers, and printer, even though he knows I’m perfectly capable. He tries to make conversation—“What classes are you taking?” “Dele seems nice.” “How many girls do you have to share that bathroom with?”—but I freeze him out with one-word answers. After he’s finished tightening up the wobbly legs on my bed, he stands by the desk, flipping the wrench around his thumb and staring through the window’s janky plastic blinds.

“You know your mom loves you.”

I roll my eyes. “Thanks. Had you not told me, I would’ve never realized.” I know I’m being a huge brat, and yet I can’t stop myself. I’m so miserable and filled with rage, I can’t form a civil sentence.

He goes on. “And I know this is hard.”

I bite my lip fiercely to keep from crying. I’d rather die than cry, yet again, in front of Ben.

“Your dad—”

“Don’t,” I say. “Do not. Dare. Say another word. I should not be here.”

“I know.”

I can’t help it; my eyebrows shoot up practically to my hairline.

He glances at the open door, like maybe Mom is lurking out in the hall, eavesdropping on our conversation. “But she’s afraid if you don’t do this now, take the scholarship, you may never come back. She thinks you’ll regret it . . .”

Dele comes back in the room, a new girl in tow—she’s tall like Dele but with a blonde pixie cut. Dele introduces her as Rayanne, and the two head to Dele’s bed, where they start giggling and rummaging through some of her stuff. Ben and I go quiet, busying ourselves with other tasks. On their way out, Dele looks hard at me, like she’s expecting a distress signal.

“You okay?” she asks.

I nod vigorously. “Fine.”

“You want to grab pizza later, before the party?”

I’ve been thinking I’m going to bail on the party, but I probably should just bite the bullet and go. At least pretend to take part in the college experience.

“Great,” I say. And with that, the two girls are gone.

I fold my arms and address Ben in a low voice. “What I’ll regret is not being allowed to work at my parents’ company before it’s sold to some giant conglomerate. I want to be home. I want to be doing what Dad used to do. Finishing my father’s work.” My voice cracks on the word father’s.

To my surprise Ben lets out a sympathetic laugh. “Believe me, I have said those exact words to your mother, more than once.”

I can’t hide my surprise. “You have?”

He shuffles his feet. Drops his hands deep in his jeans pockets. “I told her you should take a gap year. That the school would probably hold the scholarship for you, under the circumstances, if that was what you wanted. I told her that you could stay home and work at Jax. That she could travel or just hang out with you.”

I don’t know what to say to all this. Ben Fleming being on my side is not a situation I’ve anticipated. Then, before I can process the strange turn of events, he smiles at me. A slow-growing half smile that lights up his face and makes him look kind of . . . I don’t know, trustworthy. And then I remember how he acted with my mother in the car.

“Shorie?” he says. “I’m going to take care of your mom. Because your father asked me to, and I swore to it. I know what you’ve been thinking about me—I can see it in your eyes. But that’s not how it is. It’s not why I’m here right now.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because your dad wouldn’t have missed this day for the world, and I know I’m not him, but I hope I’m somewhere in the vicinity of the next best thing. I care about you, Shorie. But . . .” He nods, like he’s trying to convince himself to go on. “I’m worried about your mom. She promised me and Sabine and your grandparents that she would take a break, but she hasn’t. She just keeps going and going. Showing up every day, working until late like the early days.”

I don’t reply.

“She’s slipping, Shorie. You see it, I know you do. She’s scattered. Whenever anybody talks to her, she misses half the conversation. Our Monday meetings are a mess. She zones out, messes up numbers, lets important stuff slip through the cracks.”

I think about the constant napping. Her awkward speech at my party. Maybe whatever is wrong with my mother is much bigger than I thought.

“I told her that she was in no shape to make the decision to sell,” Ben goes on. “But your mother is . . . it seems like she’s not in a place where she can take advice. From any of us. We’ve been talking. Me, Sabine, Layton, and your grandparents. Discussing the possibility of getting your mom to go somewhere. For a rest.”

I stare at him. Hearing him say it out loud, directly to my face, is a whole other deal from eavesdropping. I feel shaky just thinking that my mom might be unwell in some way I haven’t fully considered.

“Do you love her?” I say.

Ben’s face flushes. Even the whites of his eyes seem to redden. I’m shocked the words just came out of my mouth, that I actually went there. But I’m not exactly sorry.

He plants his hands on his hips. “We’ve known each other a long time, your mom and I.” He stares at me, and his face looks so guilty, I almost wish I hadn’t said anything.

“You can’t even lie to me about it.”

He raises his arms. “I don’t see the point in lying to you, Shorie. You’re like a human polygraph. I do love your mom, yes, but in a different way than I love my wife. And I promise you, I’m not going to do anything shady.” He scratches his head. “Here’s a secret about being an adult, okay? Relationships are work. There are times when you may feel like there’s a wall between you and your spouse. Or that you’re not close the way you want to be, the way you used to be. But you don’t just give up. You don’t look for an out. You take responsibility. You look at yourself and say, What can I do better? How can I make this marriage better?”

I can’t think of what to say.

“What matters is your mom is safe with me, okay? Because I care about her as a friend. And if I think she’s in trouble and needs my help, then I’m going to be there for her. I’m going to do what’s best for your mom, no matter what.” His eyes seem really tired. Sad and tired. They are green, burning like neon in the slash of light from the blinds.

“Like an intervention, you mean?” I ask. I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud too.

He blinks at me. “Maybe something like that, if the situation calls for it. Just her friends and family asking her to take care of herself. Nothing dramatic.”

“Whatever you do, I want to be included. I want to be there when it happens.”

“Of course. Of course you’ll be included.”

We stare at each other.

“But hopefully we won’t have to do anything like that. Look, Shor, I’ll talk to her, okay? Maybe you can come in over the winter break and work at Jax. And definitely over the summer, if we haven’t sold by then.”

It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. “Okay.”

He holds my gaze. “You’re a good daughter, Shorie. A good, lovely person.”

I grimace. I’m not a good, lovely person—I’m a human dumpster fire, and I’ve acted like a monumental shit today—but I don’t argue with him. The truth is, even though I don’t fully understand how he feels about Mom, I’m grateful that he’s here and that he’s looking out for her. I hadn’t realized how heavily it had been weighing on me until just now.

Before he goes, he hugs me and tells me that he’ll check in on Foxy Cat from time to time. I’m suddenly surrounded by his manly scent. It reminds me so much of Dad that I have the urge to leap backward out of his arms.

Grief, loneliness, confusion . . .

When he’s finally gone, I grab my laptop, settle on my narrow twin bed, and pop on my headphones. I let the music blank me out, and while I wait for my email to load, I take a deep breath, hold it, and look at my phone. Gingerly, I touch the top right corner of my home screen. The app with the mustard-yellow icon featuring half a white j.

Jax: get the jump on your taxes.

“Hi,” I say to the home page, like it’s an actual person. But that’s what Jax kind of is to me—an old friend with whom I’ve shared most of my life. And I feel things when I see that familiar mustard yellow page. So many things.

Sorrow, comfort, delight . . .

Or maybe the feelings are because of the single message in my unread private message queue. The last message Dad sent me before he died. The message I’ve never had the courage to open.



Perry, Ben, Sabine, and I dreamed up Jax one Christmas almost four years ago.

For the first time in our friendship, the four of us had found ourselves restless at the same time: Perry and Ben had spent a couple of decades working at various app development companies but had grown weary of making other people’s ideas happen. Sabine was treading water, managing a chain of successful yoga studios for a company out of Atlanta.

Years earlier I’d quit my job at the management consulting company to focus on restructuring and filling Shorie’s time, something her elementary school didn’t seem capable of doing. But then, in middle school, she signed up for a string of advanced classes, joined the lacrosse team, and didn’t seem to need me in the same way. I was okay with it, honestly. I was itching to get back to the world of adults.

That Christmas night, after all the wrapping paper and ribbon had been cleared away, Ben and Sabine dropped by. The five of us gathered around the tree that Perry and Shorie had decorated with purple-striped candy canes and silver spray-painted pine cones, drinking whiskey (Shorie, hot cocoa) and throwing out ideas for a new app. Some of them were okay; some were completely off-the-wall. But it was Perry’s idea that made us all go silent.

An app that would keep people on the financial straight and narrow.

It would do everything for even the most budget impaired: deposit and allocate every paycheck into the proper categories, then, for the remainder of the month, tell customers what they could and couldn’t spend.

And here was the clincher: Perry had figured out a new way to connect merchants, banks, and credit card companies with our system to pull all the necessary data on the fly—something no one had been able to do up to that point.

After the fire burned down and Shorie wandered upstairs to try out her new watercolors, we continued to brainstorm. There was a growing feeling of giddiness in the room. A kind of premonition of something so big and transformative just around the corner. We all knew what was happening without even saying the words aloud. This was going to be it. The idea that would change our lives.

We had two to build (Perry and Ben) and two to manage and sell (me and Sabine), and we agreed to split the ownership of the company equally between us four. Perry called his father, Arch, who had owned a trio of successful shopping centers out in Texas since the eighties. Over the phone, he agreed to kick in $650,000 to get things off the ground. A loan with no fixed repayment schedule, and he didn’t even want ownership. I wasn’t so sure I wanted us to be indebted to my father-in-law, especially with the uneasy relationship Gigi and I already shared, but Perry insisted we’d be able to pay him back within the first few years.

Then Perry had suggested the pact.

“This is our brainchild,” he told us. “We build it together, and when we sell, we sell together. None of this splitting-up, edging-each-other-out stuff. For this thing to work it’s got to be all of us or none of us. Agreed?”

Everyone agreed. We’d seen enough friendships shredded by a failed venture that we were wary. That was not going to happen to us—or our company. I had to admit, the whole pledge thing got me a little teary. When Perry and I finally collapsed into bed that night, I told him that our promise made me feel as if I were in one of those kids’ books where the gang makes a blood pact to always stick together. I’d never felt a stronger feeling of belonging. He smothered me in a hug, and we fell asleep.

It was like a dream, how Jax just worked, right from the start. Our business model might’ve looked slapdash on paper compared to a flashier Silicon Valley outfit, but the four of us were strong on substance, not optics. With Ben’s GPS experience and Perry handling his proprietary middleware stuff, we only had to pull in a database person, server administrator, and a few testers for extra support. I was CEO, raising additional capital and mapping long-term strategies. Sabine was COO, handling day-to-day details, staffing our cadre of paid interns, and generally running the office.

When Shorie wasn’t at lacrosse practice or hanging out with Daisy, she’d tag along with us to the office and do her homework or play Ping-Pong with whoever needed to take a break. She even used to bake pumpkin muffins and zucchini bread for us in the tiny office kitchenette.

Perry, Ben, Sabine, and I worked twenty-four seven, including holidays. We ate all our meals in the office and slept there so many nights I lost count. Even Shorie moved in a cot to help out at the end. And finally, at the end of two crazy months, we had a lean “minimum viable product”—a version of Jax ready to launch. Our salaries were just enough to get by on, but after one year, we were able to pay Arch back in full.

Three years later, we had expanded the features, had over 1.3 million users with an 80 percent retention rate, and had been valued at close to six million dollars. Which, to be clear, isn’t the same thing as getting six million actual dollars, just a guesstimate of worth. We weren’t rich, not yet, because we hadn’t monetized the app. But if everything went as planned, there was a chance we could hit the jackpot.

I sit in Ben’s truck in the broiling parking lot of Shorie’s dorm with my eyes closed. The left side of my head throbs. After all the emotional conflict with Shorie, now I just feel wrung out and only just slightly pissed.

What the hell is taking Ben so long? Are he and Shorie discussing how to handle me? How to get me away from Jax before I make a huge mistake, blow it up, and ruin all their lives? There have been other behind-my-back conversations, I’m fairly certain. Meetings where I was the subject at hand. Maybe because I’ve been less than on top of things. But more likely because of my recent announcement that I wanted the partners to sell Jax.

I dropped the bomb in June. Gigi and Arch, Ben and Sabine, and Shorie and I were all gathered for a Father’s Day brunch at a funky downtown bistro called Red Mountain Grill. When dessert came, I told everybody that after Perry’s death, I’d tried to keep up with my duties, but I’d not been able to. Without him there, I was overwhelmed. And the company had become an albatross, weighing me down in ways I hadn’t expected and couldn’t fully articulate, even to myself.

The bottom line: I was ready to invoke our pact. Perry was gone, and even though that wasn’t what he’d meant when he originally suggested it, continuing on without him felt wrong. I wanted to sell.

We would need to hire an outside firm eventually, but for now Layton, our in-house lawyer, could handle the prep. The payout wouldn’t be as big, not after only three years and with only a fraction of the users we could amass if we had two more years. And when some other firm bought us, there was no doubt we’d be forced out as shareholders. My partners might be disappointed we hadn’t achieved the ultimate dream—a $100-million-dollar buyout by a Facebook-size company—but our prospects weren’t exactly shabby. We could possibly get $10 million—$2.5 million for Ben and for Sabine, $5 million for me—and that wasn’t bad. But my bottom line was the same no matter how much we made. I was finished with Jax.

They were all stunned, naturally, but said they understood. With the exception of Gigi. On our way out of the restaurant, she pulled me aside and informed me that she and Arch had been hoping to purchase some stock in the company now, before we sold in a couple of years. Arch had lost so many tenants recently, he’d had to turn over two of his shopping centers to the bank. The one in Houston that he still owned was doing well for now, but who knew what would happen? I had apparently ruined their retirement plan and was being horribly selfish for not safeguarding their future. Like my son would’ve wanted, she said, her pupils expanded to large black pools of hatred.

I realized the real estate crash must’ve had an effect on Arch’s shopping centers, but he’d never mentioned it. To me, the whole thing smelled suspicious. My mother-in-law was notorious for not knowing the nitty-gritty of her personal finances. I wasn’t about to get roped into changing my mind on something this important based on her tenuous grasp of her husband’s business.

I removed my arm from her grip and spoke calmly. Perry left me everything he had, including his shares of Jax. He trusted me to do what was right for our family.

We’re family too, she said, with a look that was anything but familial.

Back in the parking lot of the dorm, the driver’s side door opens and I’m jolted back to the present. Ben slides in, angles his body toward me, and smiles sympathetically.

“Does she hate me?” I say.

“She does not hate you. And she would rather throw herself off a cliff than admit this, but I think she’s excited.”

Throw herself off a cliff. Interesting choice of words.

“It’s called the ‘dizziness of freedom,’ you know.” I stretch my neck, but my head’s still pounding relentlessly. “That impulse you get when you’re standing on a cliff, to throw yourself off.”

Our eyes meet, but I look away.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“Not exactly the way I envisioned the day I dropped my daughter off at college going down.” I force a laugh, and we both check our phones at the same time. Layton’s texted me.

How’s the move in going? Is Shorie okay? Are YOU okay?

“Sabine’s grabbing dinner with Layton.” Ben taps his phone. “She says no reason to rush back.”

I text Layton. I don’t know. I hope so. I add a grimacing emoji.

“You want to get a drink? Debrief?” Ben asks.

“Oh, hell, yes.”

“And if Shorie’s having a rough time or needs you, you’ll be close by. That’s what the bag you left in the back seat is for, right? Because you were thinking you might spend the night?”

“I’m being ridiculous, aren’t I? Every mom cliché rolled into one giant human helicopter.”

“Erin. This is a big deal, to leave your only kid at college.” He doesn’t say without her father, but I know he knows. That’s the hardest part of all this.

“It is a big deal, isn’t it?” I ask.

“It is.”

“Okay, then . . . what would you think about us getting a couple of rooms at the Conference Center? Just to make sure everything’s okay with her?”

“I think it’s a good idea.” He maneuvers the truck around the line of minivans and pickups and U-Haul trailers. “I’ll let Sabine know.”



For a moment, I let my finger hover over the unread Jax message that Dad sent me. He sent it in mid-March, right after the STEM scholarship was finalized and he’d set up my budget for college. The day before he died. It starts Shorie, my sweet, just like all his messages to me. But I’m not ready to open it and read the whole thing. I may never be.

I close my eyes.

It’s hard to explain why I don’t want to open it. I guess it’s like a wrapped present under the Christmas tree, shiny and beautiful and full of promise, and once I unwrap it, the anticipation will all be over. It will be the last communication—letter, phone call, text—I ever get from my father.

In my rational mind, I know reading it won’t make me feel any less miserable. In fact, the opposite seems true. I have the distinct sense that I’ll feel even worse if I do read it. It’s the law of energy conservation. When energy flows from one place to another, it may change forms, but it’s never destroyed. It’s the same with sadness, I’ve discovered. You can’t get rid of it.

I swipe back to my home page, and my allocations pop up, neat little bubbles all over the screen. Food, household, medical, personal, transportation, gifts, fun, savings. In addition to covering tuition, a meal plan, and books, the scholarship I’ve been awarded also gives me a little bit of living expense money. The school deposits that cash directly into my local bank account, which Dad connected to my Jax. Along with the extra money Mom’s put in, I should have no problem hitting my budget goal every month.

So here’s Jax in a snapshot: It’s a comprehensive personal budgeting app that captures all your purchases, and it sorts and automatically files them into categories for you using your bank’s bill-pay platform, the app’s proprietary digital wallet feature, and your phone’s GPS. It compiles authorized data from our retail and bank partnerships, scrapes a bunch of random public data plus our merchant partners’ information, and then, using a bunch of algorithms, tells you how much money you can spend on a given day at a given location.

If you choose, your transactions can be shared with some or all of your connections, making them, in effect, public. Most people opt out of that feature; it’s really there for parents keeping tabs on their kids or companies monitoring their employees’ work-related expenditures.

The best part is, when tax time rolls around, Jax connects to your particular filing platform. Then all you have to do is electronically sign in a couple of spots and voilà, your taxes are done. After that it automatically adjusts your budget for the next year, helps you keep up with your spending, and gives you updated suggestions on how to manage future expenses.

I know. Genius.

Just then, a banner drops down on my phone with a text from Gigi.

shorie darlin have you spent your cash yet love gigi it is a thousand

I laugh. Funny how, in spite of the fact that her son created the world’s first automatic budgeting app, my grandmother insists on using cash. Mom has always bitched about it, the fact that Gigi doesn’t use Jax, but she and Mom rarely see eye to eye on anything. When it comes to me, though, Gigi’s always been a big squishy cupcake. A cupcake that gives me lots of cash gifts and sends me all these hilariously unpunctuated, improperly capitalized run-on texts, all sent from a 2003 BlackBerry.

The air conditioner kicks in, and I straighten, letting the lukewarm stream of air wash over me. My grandmother slipped me ten one-hundred-dollar bills the other night at my going-away dinner. She asked if I wanted more, and I told her I’d let her know if anything came up. Mom would be pissed, but whatever. Gigi thinks Mom doesn’t spend enough on stuff like nice clothes and fancy meals.

I jump off the bed and pluck the huge gangster roll of graduation money from the back of the closet shelf. I peel off a hundred-dollar bill and drop it into my purse, just in case there’s something I want to buy that I don’t want Mom to know about. Which reminds me. I haven’t checked Jax’s daily server report. Which should cheer me up. Definitely get my mind off being stuck here at school.

I settle back on the bed and move my laptop closer, already feeling a little bump in my mood. The daily server report is essentially a health check, a dashboard with data on the system processes, the drives, the memory, and any errors that might’ve cropped up over the last twenty-four hours. There are also log files attached to the email, in case you need to access more info.

The dashboard itself is really cool, a typical Dad design. It’s an elegantly constructed, colorful one-sheet with columns and pie charts and graphs. Just looking at it makes me think of Dad and feel happy. Not many things make me do that these days.

I scan the report, and an error message catches my eye.

A database error occurred.

Source: Microsoft SQL Server 2016

Code: 0984 occurred 1 time(s)

Description: Transaction (Process ID 3168) deadlocked on lock resources with another process and has been chosen as the deadlock victim. Rerun the transaction.

Context: Application ‘’

Huh. Interesting.

I look over it again, nibbling at my thumbnail. The truth is, I could dig into this, but I’m not supposed to be messing with the servers. In fact, if Mom got wind of me poking around in Jax, she’d be pissed. Also, the server admin, Scotty, gets these reports, and he could already be on the case. But still . . .

I open one of the logs. Nothing looks out of the ordinary in the long columns. Not that I know what I’m looking for exactly, but sometimes things jump out at you. Time stamps, frequency, etc. I just can’t get over the fact that, since I’ve been checking these reports, I’ve never seen an error message like this.

It could just be a glitch, some weird anomaly that will never happen again. There’s also a chance it’s a bug. Which is not that big of a deal; it just means somebody has to fix it.

But there is a third option. A remote one, but an option nonetheless. The glitch could indicate that there’s a process running in Jax that wasn’t set up by Dad and is conflicting somehow with the basic software. Which is concerning.

I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t help myself. The thought of somebody screwing around inside Jax’s processes bothers me, but it excites me too. And the thrill of solving a problem could definitely take my mind off all the things that suck. So, before I can reason myself out of it, I shoot off a quick email to Scotty, asking him if he saw the error report and what he thinks it might mean.

Please don’t mention I said anything to Mom or Ben, I write at the end, then hit “Send.”

Dad would want me to do this, I tell myself.



Something is happening. Whether it’s happening for real or in a dream is hard to say.

Outside the car window yellow and red and green streak past in smeary underwater slow motion. Sound is low and garbled too. That Dolly Parton song “Here You Come Again” is a tinny earworm playing somewhere just above the water’s surface. Soundtrack to my quest.

It’s night now, but I’ve forgotten what came before this point. A lot of things seem tangled right now. Too difficult to tease out. I know I can’t possibly be underwater because I’m driving a car. No, not a car, a truck. Ben’s truck. I can smell him on the seats and in the air conditioning streaming over me.

Someone called me earlier. It was a woman, a girl, I think. She said Shorie needed me. That’s all I needed to hear. I am going to my daughter.

All of a sudden, there’s a loud chunk. I’m thrown against the wheel, then back onto the seat, and everything is still. I close my eyes, just for a second, just to rest a minute. My breath sounds like a roar. This is how Perry died, in a car accident. But I’m not dead. I’m not even hurt.

I stagger out of the truck and see that I’ve only just barely tapped one of those low poles. But also that I’ve arrived at my intended destination. Or close to it. I’m in a parking lot next to a brick-and-columned house with elegant landscaping lights and Greek letters over the door. Where Shorie is.

Next step: Find my girl. Tell her how sorry I am. Tell her I love her. Make everything right again. Somehow.

It’s not Dolly anymore. Now it’s relentless reggae that’s so excruciatingly loud, I feel like my brain is melting.

There are so many kids in this place too. They’re jammed in the hallway and up the stairs, spilling out of rooms and windows. It’s insane that they choose to gather in these tiny spaces. Can’t they just find someplace to spread out? Don’t they believe in personal space?

I squeeze between the kids, but they take up so much space with their yelling and dancing and drinking, it takes every ounce of strength I have. I feel like I’m swimming again, doing those water aerobics Perry and I got roped into once on that budget vacation we took when we were first married. My tongue is thick, and I can feel myself wanting to find a horizontal surface to lie down on, but I don’t. I’ve become one of those cadaver dogs, nose to the ground, hard on the scent. Shorie, Shorie, Shorie.

I ask a few kids if they’ve seen her—but they just stare at me with their blank faces and mascara-fringed eyes. They are all so young and dewy and beautiful, I want to stop and touch them. Stroke their long, impossibly shiny hair. Press my palms against their tight, unlined cheeks and tell them to enjoy this moment. They have no idea of all the things to come.

Next thing I know, I’m being propelled down the hall, through a swinging door, and into a grimy-looking kitchen, and miraculously there she is. At the sink, pouring something out of her cup. She glances over her shoulder, and her mouth turns into a frown.

“Mom!” she shrieks.

“You called me.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Somebody called me. Dele, I think?”

“You’re in your pajamas.”

I look down at my pink flamingo–clad legs. “Yes.”

“What are you doing here?” she says.

I blank for a second. Why am I here? Why was I driving Ben’s truck again, past all the smeary lights to the tune of Dolly’s lament? What is it that I want?

What do I want?

I want my husband back.

I want my daughter to be a little girl again.

I want us all in our house around the kitchen table, laughing and eating Thai takeout.

“I can’t go home,” I say, because I’m finding it impossible to translate my thoughts into words.

Shorie grabs me by the arms and shakes me. “You have to leave,” she hisses. “Where is Ben?”

“He’s back at the hotel.” I push my hair out of my eyes.

She grimaces. “The hotel?”

I know what the look on her face means. Before I can explain that she’s misunderstanding the situation, she pulls me out the back door, across a rickety porch, and down some concrete steps. I stumble over a garden hose. It’s the first time I realize that I’m barefoot.

“I came to Auburn for you,” she growls. “Because you forced me to, because you said it was what Dad would’ve wanted. And now you’re telling me you can’t go home?” She squints. “What’s wrong with you? Are you drunk?”

“No,” I say. But I don’t think it’s true. I actually do feel drunk or something very close to it. I’m those words the kids always use—smashed, hammered, wasted. The question is, How did I get this way?

“I want to say I’m sorry. I want to say . . . that I only want what’s best for you . . .” My voice trails. My brain has meandered off into another plane. I have no idea what I mean to say next.

Her face is so open and vulnerable, it makes me think of five-year-old Shorie, asking me if we can go pet the kittens at the Humane Society. It stops me cold for a second, and I can’t seem to find my bearings. My baby, my girl . . .

I try again. “I wanted to talk to you, Shorie. I wanted to make sure you weren’t mad at me.”

“Oh my God. Yes, Mom, I am mad at you. I am very, very fucking angry. I can’t even believe you would . . .”

She’s talking now, words piling up on words, sentences into paragraphs, and I know it’s important—crucial, even—that I listen, but I can’t seem to home in on the waves of sound bending the air. And even if I could hear, I don’t think I could grasp the words’ meaning. My head feels squeezed, front and back. Reeling, I think. This is what they call reeling.

Reeling with grief.

Reeling with confusion.

Reeling with some sinister substance I’ve never felt in my body before. It makes me feel light and heavy all at the same time. It makes the real unreal.

But I can fight it.

I interrupt her. “I want to tell you something,” I say, feeling more focused. “I know you all think I’m making the wrong decision. I know you think you can take his place and everything can keep going. But I can’t let you do that. I can’t! You’re just a kid, and you’re not ready for that kind of pressure . . .” Now I’m sobbing, my insides feeling like they’ve been gouged out. But the crying does something—it makes me focused, able to finally speak my feelings. “We made a pact. A pact.” It’s all I can manage to say. And people are staring at us now.

Shorie grabs my arm. “We should call Ben—”

I wrench loose. “Nobody knows what it’s like for me. To have to go into that office every day.” I stagger toward her, but she ducks, and I stumble forward, over a chair or the hose or something. All I know is I’m on my hands and knees staring down at the dirt and a crushed red Solo cup.

I have done something irreparable, and I don’t even know how I managed it. I quiet myself. Close my eyes. It’s time for me to go. Way past time. I just need a moment. A moment . . .

“Mom!” It’s Shorie who’s screaming now.

Maybe it has something to do with the sensation that I’m heading back under, back to the place where everything is quiet.



Just like I thought, something terrible happened. Mom lost her shit—in a pair of flamingo pajamas, no less—at my first fraternity party. I’ve never been so embarrassed. I’ve never been so scared.

Now it’s seven in the morning, and Layton is waiting in her red Mini Cooper in the deserted parking lot outside my dorm. She’s going to drive me back up to Birmingham, and they’re going to confront Mom. We all are, I guess, since, true to his word, Ben is including me in the process. I’m wondering now if I should just leave it to the adults. My stomach is churning in a sickening way.

I toss my backpack behind the seat and slide into the tiny car, glancing over. As usual, Layton looks like she’s just come from the world’s most important conference meeting, impeccable in a navy sheath with a matching blazer and black stilettos, the charm bracelet on her arm jingling.

I feel like a rumpled mess next to her. It doesn’t help that I only slept a few hours last night. After I called Ben, and he came and collected me, Mom, and his truck, he dropped me off at my dorm. I don’t think he wanted me around Mom anymore. Didn’t want me to see her all groggy and weird. I don’t know where they went after that, but honestly, I kind of didn’t care. But then he texted me at six thirty this morning that Layton was picking me up. For the meeting, he’d said. The one I’d asked to be a part of.

As we pull onto 280 West, Layton points to the coffee in the cup holder. I sip it gratefully, and we exchange pleasantries. She’s quiet for a moment after that, then speaks.

“I should tell you—and I’m not trying to scare you—but I think your mom could really benefit from psychiatric help.” She glances at me. “Everybody has moments of crisis. Everybody could use someone to talk to. I see a therapist from time to time. It’s really not that big a deal, I promise. You could see one too, if you wanted. I could get you the name of a doctor who works with young people.”

“Thanks, but no.”

“I apologize, Shorie, I know sometimes I can be blunt.”

“It’s okay.”

She hesitates. “There is something else I wanted to mention. Something I wanted to ask you.”


“Can you tell me how long the drinking has been a problem?”

“The drinking?” My voice squeaks in disbelief.

“At your going-away party, she had more than a few glasses of champagne.”

I hadn’t really noticed. “Are you sure?”


“Well, I mean, maybe. But we were celebrating.”

She nods, but it feels like she’s placating me.

“It’s not a problem,” I add quickly. “It hasn’t been.”

I’m telling the truth—Mom doesn’t drink much around me—but the reality is, I don’t exactly watch her every move. This summer I haven’t been around a lot, at least not at night. I’ve been riding around town with Daisy or barricaded up in my room, playing video games. For all I know, she could have been spending those nights alone, getting smashed.

“Because a lot of people are very smart about hiding their alcohol consumption,” Layton says.

A current of annoyance ripples through me. Who is she to be tossing around opinions? Assuming Mom is hiding some addiction. It’s not like she’s a doctor. And being so . . . matter of fact about it all.

Then she hands over a slick trifold brochure. I unfold it.

“Hidden Sands,” I read. “Innovative. Individualistic. Intuitive.” I stare at the colorful shots of a tropical island resort, then glance over at her. “What is this place?”

“It’s a spa. But also kind of a low-key rehab.”


“They call it restoration. Kind of a mellower approach to recovery. Not everybody goes for drugs or alcohol. Some people—people like your mom—just need a space to rest. And to work some things out.”

I sigh.

“You’re going to need to trust us, Shorie,” she says. “We’ve been talking about this for a while.” She pats my knee a few times. The rest of the way, Layton takes work calls while I distractedly scroll through my phone, trying to find something that’ll take my mind off my mom and the impending intervention.

Another error message in today’s server report, identical to the previous one, does just that. I study it for a second, chewing my lip, then see Scotty’s email. The error’s probably nothing more than a glitch with one of our new functions, he’s written, which we’re NOT going to discuss because you have other things to do. Like college. Remember, Shorie, I agreed to “forget” to remove your email from the daily report list, but you need to focus on school or the deal’s off. Got it?


As soon as we get to the house, I’ll slip into Dad’s office and have a look at his journals. If there’s some top-secret new Jax feature that he started testing before he died, he definitely would have written about it in one. And if the glitch happens to be more than that, if it turns out to be an actual problem—there’s a chance Dad could’ve noticed it before he died and written about it.

We’re the first ones to arrive at our house. Layton parks down the street so we don’t freak Mom out when she gets home, and I let us in the back door with my key. The house smells so familiar—cool and minty, with just a whiff of Foxy Cat’s litter. I kind of shiver with delight. It feels so right to be back here, but at the same time all wrong. I’m not back home the way I want to be, not really. I should probably be back in my dorm, sleeping off a hangover, like Dele probably is.

Layton, on another call, heads to the kitchen. I slip through the dining room and enter the tiny side porch that my parents remodeled for Dad’s office. Even though Mom’s taken a lot of his files back to the office, she hasn’t cleaned out any of his personal stuff. His brown leather journals are still lined up neatly on the small bookshelf beside his desk. Exactly thirty-nine of them, representing the thirty-nine months he’d helped run Jax.

I pull out the last journal on the right, running my fingers over the gold stamped lettering on the cover. February 2019.

But wait. The last journal should be March. Dad died on March 20—the first day of my senior year spring break—and he would have already filled out a little over 50 percent of the book. Or 0.612903 to be exact.

I check the previous years. Then this year’s journals. January, December, November, October, September, August . . . The rest are here, in perfect order, only there’s no March. I tear through his desk and the console behind it. In the living room, I look in the drawer in the coffee table and in all the nooks and crannies of the antique secretary. No journal.

I run upstairs, two steps at a time. My heart is thumping now. It has nothing to do with the error message; that I can handle, even if it gets me in trouble. I just don’t like the idea of my dad’s last journal, containing the last words he wrote, being lost.

I fly into Mom and Dad’s bedroom, check the dresser, nightstands, closet, even under the bed. Nothing. The bathroom’s clear too. I walk back out into the hall. I can hear a car door slam behind the house. Arch and Gigi. Or maybe Sabine.

And then I remember something from that terrible March night.

A nurse had taken Mom and me from the waiting room at the hospital in Alexander City to a smaller room down the hall. About a half an hour later, the doctor had come in and told us Dad hadn’t made it. But before he came in, while they were still trying to save him, a young female police officer had stopped by. She told Mom that an officer would have Dad’s car towed anywhere she chose. Then she held out a white garbage bag full of items they’d collected from the car.

On our way back to Birmingham, I sorted through the items. A windbreaker with the Auburn logo, an insulated coffee cup, a beige umbrella, his duffel, a little stuffed spider Beanie Baby. The spider Beanie Baby had been a gift for me, I knew. An inside joke referring to the time a spider bit me. I’d taken it out of the bag and slept with it that night. But there was something else in that white bag.

His March journal. I remember it clearly.

“Shorie, darling,” I hear Gigi call from downstairs. “Come help me clean up this mess!”



I wake as Ben wheels the truck into my driveway and push matted hair off of my sleep-swollen face. I try to put the events of last night into some kind of order, but I can’t. My headache has morphed into a massive body ache, my mouth tastes bitter, and my brain seems only to be able to recall flashes of things. Shorie’s angry face. Loud music. Me screaming about Jax. Nothing hangs together the way it should. Did I really drink that much? It doesn’t seem possible.

I focus hard on our white mission-style stucco house with its chestnut trim and leaded glass windows. There has never been such a welcome sight. Perry and I bought this house when Shorie was two, a quirky fixer-upper in a south Birmingham suburb called Hollywood. Like in its namesake, stately stone English Tudors and Spanish missions line the shady streets. We’d loved it in this house with its uneven, creaky oak floors, thick plaster walls, and every staircase, door, and banister built to last forever. We would have lasted forever too, if we’d had the chance.

The weather-warped door of the detached garage just beyond the house catches my eye. Perry always meant to upgrade to one of those doors that looked like real wood. He never got around to it, and I sure as hell won’t be doing it anytime soon. Anyway, who gives a shit about what your garage door looks like? Only people who’ve never had to deal with any real problems.

“Erin.” Ben clears his throat, and I snap back to the present.

“Here we are,” I say absently and gather my purse and the tote with my toothbrush and clothes from yesterday. I’m still wearing the flamingo pajamas and an Auburn Tigers T-shirt.

This morning, I woke in the hotel room to the sound of someone knocking on my door. When I opened it to Ben, he said it was almost checkout time, then asked if he could come in. Something had happened last night, he said, didn’t I remember? When I said no, he filled me in. I’d taken his truck, abandoned it in a parking lot next door to a fraternity house, and gotten into some kind of an altercation with Shorie. He’d received a call from Shorie and Ubered over to us.

I drank the water Ben handed me, then downed a cup of coffee. How could all that have happened without me remembering? He said blackouts are something that can just start happening to a person, especially someone who’s been under a great amount of stress, anytime, with no warning, and I should be careful. He seemed worried.

None of it sounded right to me, but I was scared, very scared, and so I meekly let him drive us home. Now, as Ben swings the plastic tubs we emptied at Shorie’s dorm out of the bed of the truck and stacks them, he seems totally shut down.

“Just leave them here,” I say.

Ben holds on to the tubs. “I can bring them in.”

“I don’t want them inside.” My voice is an exasperated growl. “We keep them in the garage.” Then I realize I said we, and there’s no “we” anymore. There’s only me. I am alone. My resolve breaks, and I dissolve into tears. Down go the tubs, and I feel Ben gently touch my arms. “I’m so embarrassed,” I sob. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I really appreciate everything you did. I’m sorry for whatever . . . whatever it is I—”

I close my mouth. Talking’s not going to do me any good anyway, not like this, when I’m so strung out. I need a shower, a huge glass of water, and then bed. The guest bed. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll sort things out. Tomorrow, I’ll pull myself together and be the mom Shorie deserves.

Ben pulls me into a hug. He feels warm and comforting, and without even thinking, I rest my head on his shoulder. My lips accidentally brush against the salty skin of his neck, and like a jolt of electricity, something inside me responds. I’ve almost forgotten what skin tastes like.

I’m so tired, it happens like a reflex, my arms lifting and circling his neck, my body moving to his. But then he makes a groaning sound, and it sounds so open, so vulnerable, that I keep going, raking my fingers up into his hair, letting him nudge my face up to meet his.

Next thing I know, we’re kissing. Only it can’t be a real kiss, can it? Because even though it’s lips and tongues and our hands on each other’s faces and in each other’s hair, it’s Ben. Ben. And something else. This kiss can’t be real because it is very, very good. Soft and gentle and moving with that secret choreography that only the best kisses have.

And then, as quickly as it began, the moment is over. The atmosphere around us changes into something heavy and dark. A storm cloud of bad ideas and unwise decisions descending. We pull apart and stare at each other in stunned, horrified silence.

“Ah.” His voice is a rasp.

I feel like I want to disappear, like it might be better if I could just die.

“No, no. I’m sorry—” I say.

“I didn’t—”

“Me neither—”

“It was just—” He glances through the leaded glass of the front door, his expression pained. Then he grips his forehead in one hand. “I hope the neighbors didn’t see.”

I look around uncertainly. Jesus. The neighbors.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat numbly.

“I’m sorry too,” Ben says. “That was . . .”

My fault. So stupid. Wrong.

“Yes,” I say. “Left field. But it’s over. Moving on, okay?”

“Okay. Yes. Moving on.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, at the office.” I unlock the door. He doesn’t move.

“The tubs,” he says. He seems forlorn.

I need to get inside. Away from Ben. Away from myself with Ben. “Just leave them,” I say firmly, step inside, and shut the door behind me. I stand in the foyer, eyes squeezed shut, like it will somehow stop the disastrous tape from running. Like I have the power to force this cataclysm I created into nonexistence. But I can’t. It’s too late, and I know it and the helplessness makes me want to wail out loud. To scream until I’m hoarse. Oh my God. I have done a thing that can never be undone.

Reality: My husband is no longer the last man I’ve been romantic with. It’s only been five months—months, not years, for God’s sake—and I kissed someone. Like a goddamn horny teenager. And it wasn’t just someone. It was Ben. Ben! Perry’s friend. My friend. Sabine’s husband. I did a monumentally stupid thing, and now our friendship is irrevocably changed. Forever. Shit. Shorie—what would she think if she knew? She would be devastated. She would kill me. She would kill Ben . . .

I force my brain to stop looping through the bombarding thoughts. Order it to start at the top. Proceed calmly.

Say it, Erin.

Reality: I’ve fucked up.

Challenge: Unfuck it all.

If that’s even possible.

I open my eyes. Force myself to take in my surroundings. The hallway is cool and comfortably cluttered with Shorie’s things: two pair of boots, and a couple of her jackets that I never got around to putting away last winter, still hanging on the hall tree. In the chipped ironstone tray on the chest, a pair of earbuds that the cat chewed. I run my hands over her pink fake fur coat and watch as bits of the fur swirl to the ground. I forbade her to wear it past the front hall because it shed worse than Foxy Cat. But she looked so glamorous in it, her shiny light-brown hair cascading over it, hazel eyes sparkling, and the dimple flashing just under the corner of her lip. My daughter looks like Perry grew her in a petri dish all by himself, but I don’t care. They are the two most beautiful human beings I have ever laid eyes on.

I pull my T-shirt over my head and let it drop to the floor, then hook my thumbs in the pajama pants and step out of them. I feel better in my sports bra and underwear, but in the hallway, I still push the thermostat down to seventy. I should start a load of laundry. And get some water, and aspirin, before I head upstairs. I snatch up the clothes and head back to the living room.

“Foxy,” I call. “Foxy Cat. Where are you?”

The room is dark and quiet, strewn with signs of Shorie’s last-minute, late-night packing. A bag from Urban Outfitters on the slouchy sectional sofa. Ripped tags and receipts on the glass coffee table. Empty hangers and a suitcase she decided she didn’t need after all. I gather it all up and dump it in a corner near the back door, then stop, staring out the windows that look into the backyard.

There’s a car in my back driveway—a black Escalade. Arch has an Escalade. But why would Perry’s father be here on a Thursday? Clutching the T-shirt and pj’s against my chest, I tiptoe into the dark kitchen.

In the low light, I can see the whitewashed cabinets and tile countertop have been wiped down. The dishwasher is gurgling away, and the perpetually stacked-up drainboard beside the farmhouse sink is empty. Foxy slinks along the legs of the table, rubbing up against something in addition to the table legs. Human legs. Instantly I’m hit with a very distinctive smell. Chanel Coco perfume. Gigi.

Extra chairs have been pulled up to the table, and five people are seated around it. Five people I know and have loved and trusted until just this very second.

Gigi, Arch, Sabine, Layton, and Shorie.

Each one of them looks at me, face grim, back straight, hands folded.

And now suddenly, the kiss with Ben feels even more horrifying and wrong and shameful than it did a few minutes ago. Because, of course, he knew. He’s a part of this. There are two empty chairs at the table.

I turn and run out of the room.



Mom runs out of the kitchen, and pity rises in my throat. She looked so shocked when she saw us. So vulnerable, standing there in her underwear, covering herself with those wadded-up pajamas. I will be okay if I never see my mother look that caught off guard again.

We all sit in silence—Gigi, Arch, Sabine, Layton, and me. Gigi and Arch look like they always do—tan enough to be healthy and dressed like they’re on their way to a cocktail party at the country club. Sabine, with her wavy blonde hair falling out of its messy bun, wears loose-fitting ripped jeans and a yoga top with a crisscross network of straps that reveals her thin, muscled shoulders. Naturally Gigi’s already given her a sniff of dismissal, but she thinks people should wear pearls and gloves to scrub a toilet, and I’m sure Sabine doesn’t give a rip. In fact, she doesn’t seem worried at all. Like always, she seems slightly separate from whatever’s going on, like she’s floating in her own bubble of serenity.

I am not so serene. Confronting Mom is nerve-racking enough, but now I can’t stop thinking about Dad’s missing journal. Where could it be? Why would it even be missing in the first place? I tell myself not to freak out. There’s got to be an explanation. Maybe Mom took it back to his office at Jax, in case she needed to use it there.

Soon enough, Mom’s back in the kitchen, Ben by her side. She’s put the flamingo pajama pants and T-shirt back on and retwisted her scrunchie. But she still looks terrible. Her face is yellowish, and she’s got these puffy purple bags under her eyes. And she looks scared, the way she looked right after Dad died. I don’t like seeing her that way, so I focus on the plaque on the far wall, the one I painted for her birthday a couple of years back.

Put a dent in the universe.

It’s some inspirational bullshit Steve Jobs said once. Or that Pinterest said that he said. Let’s face it, Cookie Monster could’ve said it, for all I know. But the phrase looked cool painted in silver lettering against a starry blue sky. I focus on the silvery swoop of the letter d on the plaque and tell myself to breathe. That we’re going to be done with this soon and Mom will be taken care of and I can find Dad’s March journal.

“What are you doing here?” Mom says. I flick a glance at her but don’t answer. The adults told me to leave the talking to them until they got through the main part.

Ben puts a hand on Mom’s back. “Erin. Let’s sit down. We want to talk to you.”

She pushes away his hand and sits. She looks like she wants to kill us. Then, “Thanks so much for coming,” she announces to the room, like it’s a party or corporate event or something. “Say what you’ve come to say, and then I’m going upstairs to bed. It’s been a long couple of days.”

“We came here to talk to you, Erin,” Arch booms. “And you’re going to do us the courtesy of listening.”

We all stare at him. He’s a quiet man, kind of disconnected, actually. Not exactly what you’d call warm. But, I don’t know. Maybe the situation is just so mega-uncomfortable that he thinks he should get aggressive. That makes me extra nervous, the sound of Arch being loud. The thought of a fight breaking out.

Gigi cuts in. “We know what happened in Auburn last night. We’ve talked to Layton and Shorie, and we know everything.”

Mom looks at me, a question on her face.

“You were drunk,” Gigi says. “And you made a scene at a fraternity house. Shorie was terrified. Here’s her mother, taking a car that doesn’t belong to her, drunkenly barging into a party. Making a fool of herself. Passing out on the ground outside, in her pajamas.”

Mom looks really hard at me. “That’s what I did?” I don’t answer, and our eyes meet. Hers immediately turn red and fill with tears. Then mine do too.

Ben speaks. “We’re worried about your well-being, Erin. We just want to suggest pushing the ‘Pause’ button.”

Mom gives him about the nastiest look I’ve ever seen her give anyone. My heart starts to race uncontrollably.

“At a top-notch rehabilitation facility,” Gigi cuts in. “For people who need help pulling themselves together. Arch heard about it from a friend of his.”

Everybody lets that one pass because we’re all used to my grandmother’s little digs at my mother. The unfortunate truth is my grandmother can be a colossal bitch at times. I just wish she’d throttle it back right now.

“Hidden Sands is a great place to rest,” Sabine says gently. “To regroup.”

“They call it restoration,” Ben says. “For people who are overworked or stressed or have mental health issues. And yes, addictions too.”

“Restoration.” Mom’s voice drips with sarcasm. “How interesting.”

I pipe up. “It’s on an island. There’s a beach. And yoga.”

Mom gazes at Sabine. “I’m impressed with how quickly you were able to find this place. Seeing as how all this just happened last night.”

Sabine folds her hands. No one says anything.

Mom looks around the table. “So how long have you all been talking behind my back? How long have you been plotting to send me away?”

The way she says it, I have the feeling she knows.

“You need help, Erin,” Layton says.

“We’ve been worried about you for a while now,” Sabine says.

Mom zeroes in on me. “I’m sorry, Shor. I’m so sorry for humiliating you like that. I don’t know what happened. But you know me, I barely even drink. You know that.”

I clear my throat. “You didn’t tell me you weren’t driving back home after moving me in. That you and Ben were going to check into a hotel instead.”

The room gets really quiet. Sabine looks down. Gigi emanates grandmotherly disapproval.

“I wanted to hang around, just in case Shorie needed me.” Mom turns to me. “Then later that night, you called—or your roommate called, I don’t remember exactly. I just know whoever it was said you needed to see me.”

“Well, then you should’ve called an Uber,” Gigi says. “Even I know how to call an Uber.” She glances around, like she expects congratulations on living in the present-day world.

“How did you get the keys to Ben’s truck?” I ask.

“He’s always had one of those magnet things under the bed of his truck. That must’ve been how I did it.” Her expression is so vulnerable again. So sad. The contrast with her earlier anger is so pathetic, I almost can’t stand to look at her.

“Erin, it’s okay,” Sabine says. “We really sympathize with what you’re going through. We all miss Perry so much. But you . . . well, it’s different for you. I think maybe we haven’t taken into account how deeply his death affected you. I’ve heard sometimes these things—blackouts and breakdowns—can happen when someone has undergone a trauma like this.”

“So why didn’t anyone call 911?” Mom asks. “Or take me to the hospital?”

Ben interjects. “Well, no one wanted to . . .”

“We thought you were drunk,” I say.

“But I wasn’t. I could’ve been roofied,” Mom says.

“What?” I say. But it seems like I’m the only one who thinks this sounds crazy. Everybody else is just sitting there like it’s no big deal. “Who would want to roofie you?” I demand.

“I don’t know. No one specific. It happens. But if I’d gone to the hospital and had my blood tested, we’d know. Now it’s probably too late.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben says. “Taking you to the hospital didn’t occur to me. I thought maybe you’d been drinking back at the hotel, in your room. I didn’t want what happened to get out, to embarrass you publicly . . .”

There’s a beat of uncomfortable silence.

“Very exclusive place, Hidden Sands,” Arch interjects, like we haven’t just been talking about someone dosing my mom’s drink when she wasn’t looking. “Only the best food, amenities. Spa services. Golf, if you want it. Tennis. Therapy, which is optional, of course.”

I love Arch, but oh my God, is he clueless.

“Nobody to bother you for a whole month,” he continues. “All the time in the world for you to rest and relax and get back to normal. So you can decide how you want to proceed.”

“How I want to proceed?” Mom echoes, a quizzical look on her face.

“He means if you still want to sell Jax,” Sabine says.

“Me selling Jax has nothing to do with whatever happened last night,” Mom says.

“We think it might,” Ben says.

“How?” She places her palms on the table. “Look, I’m very sorry for involving Shorie—”

Gigi interrupts. “What’s a child supposed to do in a situation like that—you getting drunk and following her? Embarrassing her in front of all her new friends at school. What kind of mother are you? What kind of example—”

“Felicia,” Arch says, and lifts his hand. Miraculously Gigi shuts her mouth.

“Erin,” Layton says. “Whether we sell the company next month or in two years, the issue is still the same. A CEO’s responsibility is to make their team feel safe and at the same time make potential buyers comfortable and confident. I think you’ll agree, this behavior falls short of that.”

I clear my throat. “You have to admit, Mom, you haven’t been . . . yourself since Dad . . .”

“I know,” Mom says slowly. “I realize I’ve been a little erratic. But I swear, it was one glass of wine. But somebody could’ve put something in my glass.” She looks around the table, her eyes pleading. “Please understand how hard this has been. I’m trying—” She looks like she’s about to burst into tears.

Layton puts a hand on Mom’s arm. “Are you currently in contact with any buyers, privately? To do my job properly, we can’t have any secrets. We all deserve to know.”

Mom shakes her head, but now there are tears slipping down her cheeks. She wipes them away and presses the back of her hand to her nose. Sabine passes her a box of tissues.

“You can tell us the truth, Erin,” she says.

“The truth is the most important thing,” Arch says.

“You don’t have to pretend to be strong,” Ben says.

“You have to be strong,” Gigi interjects. “You’re a mother. You’re all Shorie has, and you . . . you act like an unstable—”

“Stop,” I blurt out. “All of you. Can you all just shut up for a second and tell her about Hidden Sands? That’s why we’re here. Not to make her feel like shit!”

Gigi collects herself and swipes at the berry-colored lipstick gathered in the corners of her lips. Ben pushes the brochure toward Mom.

“It’s in the Caribbean,” he says. “A small island called Ile Saint Sigo, just off the coast of Saint Lucia, privately owned by Erdman International. They own boutique hotels all across the world. Hidden Sands is one of the most exclusive, private spa retreats there is. They’ll look after you.”

“Innovative. Individualistic. Intuitive,” Mom reads. “What’s L’Élu?”

“It’s this trek they take everybody on,” Ben says. “Kind of a short-term vision quest challenge the guests have to complete. After you’ve been there for three weeks or so—resting, relaxing, whatever—the final step is the L’Élu. You get a certificate that proves you’ve satisfied Hidden Sands’ requirements, and then you’re released.”

“Released.” Mom nods. “So that’s how it is?”

He and Mom gaze at each other over the brochure, and we all wait. It’s like we’re being locked out while a series of secret communications passes between them. I wonder if it bothers Sabine as much as it bothers me.

Mom flips open the brochure and peruses the shots of the wide white beach, turquoise water, and lush, leafy jungle. The modern spa, its serene lobby featuring an indoor stream running through the center of it. The luxurious monochromatic bedrooms with glass-and-steel walls, and teak-paneled yoga studios. Rich-person rehab, where movie stars and pop singers go to dry out.

“You really don’t have a choice, my dear,” Arch says. “Whatever it is that you took—”

Mom looks around the table. “I would think one of you—somebody—would care about that instead of plotting against me, behind my back. For months. I mean, for God’s sake, maybe I need to go to the doctor. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe someone did this to me—”

“Enough with that roofie nonsense!”

We all swivel to face Gigi. Her face is slack and pale, and I’ve never seen such hatred shooting out of someone’s eyes. “You almost ruin your daughter’s chance at a college education, and all you can do is think of ways you’re not to blame. It’s not only about last night, Erin. It’s about the way you’ve been ever since he died. You work all the time. You don’t come to dinner when I invite you. You wouldn’t even answer your phone. You’ve shut us all out for months—”

“I am doing the best I can!” Mom shouts back at her.

The air seems to crackle. Everyone’s still, and Mom’s eyes are huge and full of hurt. I’m trembling.

I stand up, almost toppling my chair. Everybod