Girl on the Brink
Sometimes the one you love isn’t the one you’re meant to be with.
An assignment during 17-year-old Chloe’s summer internship as a newspaper reporter results in an intense romance with an aspiring actor, Kieran. As their relationship deepens, Kieran reveals his hidden side of terrifying rages and smothering jealousy caused by a rough childhood. After Chloe’s efforts to help him unexpectedly turn Kieran violent, she breaks it off — and Kieran embarks on a quest to break her. A romantic thriller inspired by a true story.
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I’m caught like a fish in a net. I’m staring into my camcorder’s view finder at my interview subject who’s jabbering away, but I have this creepy sensation that somehow I’m the subject. Standing on the side is this guy who’s drilling me with his gaze, like he’s taping me. A hot flush spreads under my skin. I can’t screw this up—it’s the first assignment of my summer internship as a reporter for the Indian Valley Weekly News.
I glance sideways, sucking in my bottom lip. Noticing me look at him, the guy grins. He is watching me. I try not to feel unsettled, and turn back to Mr. Yamamoto, Ed as he told me to call him.
“I have a Zen garden out back that might make a good shot,” Ed offers. “Do you want to see that?”
“Sure.” Now I can get rid of the looky-loo.
We plunge into the steamy air of Ed’s greenhouse and wind down a path, brushing through leaves as big as platters and fern fronds dripping from hanging baskets, and exit through a door next to a fake rock wall with a waterfall tinkling into a pond at its base. A crooked sign next to it reads: “Summer special! Garden water feature $599, installation included!”
A square patch of pebbles raked into concentric circles lies outside. The sun bounces so fiercely off the bleach-white stones, I have to shield my eyes with my hand.
“Ed, why don’t you sit on this rock in the shade here, then I can get the garden in the background,” I suggest.
Ed perches on a boulder under the scant shadow cast by a red-leafed maple sapling.
“Hey Ed, if I’d have known you were going to be on camera, I would’ve done your makeup this morning,” a voice behind me calls. I know who it has to be. I roll my eyes.
“Kieran, you can put those orchids out on the table.” Ed pats his glistening bald pate with a handkerchief.
So the guy works here. That at least explains why he’s hanging around. I thought he was a customer.
“Seriously, your face and head are going to come out all shiny,” Kieran insists, stepping forward. “You should’ve told me. I know about this stuff.”
“I’m sure we’ll figure it out,” Ed says.
Kieran gives me a conspiratorial “what-can-you-do?” shrug. “Make sure you get his good side,” he says as he moves off.
I squeeze out a thin smile as a safe response and turn to Ed. Raising the camcorder, I press “record.” The red dot lights up. “So, Ed, why are you organizing Indian Valley’s first multicultural fair?”
“I decided to do this after that incident when anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the synagogue. It brought back memories of when I came to this country from Japan. I was a teenager, and I had many difficulties fitting in at high school with the language, my clothes, my look. Kids weren’t used to anyone different than themselves.
“I thought things had changed, but the graffiti incident made me realize they hadn’t. I decided to do something about it, and I thought the best thing was a celebration of Indian Valley’s multicultural population.”
Someone shuffles behind me, Kieran no doubt. It throws me off, and the next question disappears from my tongue. “Uh...” My mind is as blank as the front page will be if I don’t get this story. Marion’s words crash into my brain “just stick to who, what, when, where, how and why, and you’ll be fine.”
“Who’s participating?” I ask in a rush of relief.
“Soi Siam, the Thai restaurant...”
Kieran’s padding back and forth in the background distracts me. I force myself to concentrate, and get through the rest of the W’s and the H.
“That’ll do it. I just need a photo.” I take out a small point-and-shoot.
“Sure. Where do you want me?”
“How about by the bonsais?” Kieran again. What is his deal?
It’s actually not a bad suggestion. I snap a couple stills of Ed as he explains the tradition of dwarfing trees by cutting their roots.
“We’re done,” I say.
“That’s a wrap, as they say in show biz,” Kieran calls out. I ignore him.
As I pack up my gear in my bag, I take out one of the write-in business cards that Marion gave me. I’d penned in my name and cell phone.
“I almost forgot. Here’s my card, if you think of anything else.”
Ed takes it. “Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.”
I walk to my car in the dusty gravel parking lot. My first interview, and it went well, at least I think it did. Now I have to edit the footage for the video story and write the print article. Deadline is five o’clock tomorrow. Eek!
“Hey! Hey, Ms. Reporter!”
It can’t be. I pivot. It is. Kieran has his hands thrust in the back pockets of his dirt spattered jeans, shoulders hunched, a slightly sheepish expression on his face. “Sorry, I don’t know your name. I’m Kieran, Kieran Dubrowski.”
He wipes his right hand on a faded green T-shirt and extends it with a smile that widens a single freckle dotting his lower lip. His dark chocolate hair is pulled back into a messy nub of a ponytail. His weirdly formal introduction takes me aback. I shake his hand. My palm seems lost in his.
“I just wanted to tell you, you did a great job.”
“Thanks.” I remember I’m peeved at him. “But no thanks to you.”
His smile crumples. “What do you mean?”
“You distracted me. And Ed.”
“I did? I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to help.” He tucks a loose tassel of hair behind an ear.
“Hanging around staring doesn’t help. It threw me off.”
“You didn’t seem thrown off. At all. You acted like a real pro. I figured you were used to people watching you. I mean, that must happen all the time, right?”
I hesitate. “Not exactly, no.” I don’t want to confess that I haven’t actually done this before. I feel the intensity of his gaze again, soaking me up in his coffee eyes. I shift my feet.
“I’m really an actor. I just work here to eat, you know?”
Intrigue tugs me. “Are you in movies or anything?”
“I’ve been in a couple plays. I have an audition for a TV commercial coming up.”
“Kieran!” Ed booms. “Customer carryout!”
Kieran arches his eyebrows. “Gotta go. Nice meeting you.”
He scurries off, and I stroll to my car. What Kieran said to Ed about makeup makes sense now. An actor would know about that, and he’d be naturally interested in the videotaping. He did suggest the bonsai shot. Maybe I misjudged him.
Despite the shade from the “Yamamoto’s Garden Center” sign, the car is an oven. Cranking the AC full blast, I wait for a gap in the traffic to pull into the street. I glance in the rearview mirror. Kieran’s carrying a tray of pansies across the lot, but he’s looking right at me. I glance away. The road clears. I press the gas and head home.
* * * *
I enter the kitchen, placing my purse and equipment on the table. The house is super quiet and super big in the way that houses are when you’re the only one in them. I’m not totally the only one here, although it feels that way.
Mom is no doubt lying down. She’s been doing a lot of “lying down” since Dad left after spring break. I mean left left, as in moved-out-of-the-house left. It came as a real shock. My parents never fought or yelled at each other. Neither me, or my fourteen-year-old brother, Tyler, had an inkling that anything was up.
My parents had always seemed like they were a unit, a big rock, but now the rock had a gaping crack in it. When things happen like your parents splitting up, it kind of shakes your whole world, turns it upside down. One minute everything’s so normal, it’s boring. The next, well, life just crumbles like a stale brownie. And you can’t put crumbs back into a brownie. I know things have changed forever.
“Mom?” I’m surprised to see a pepperoni pizza and a six-pack of vanilla cupcakes with strawberry frosting on the counter. This means Mom actually remembered I’m going over to Clarissa’s and went out to the supermarket. A small miracle. There’ve been a couple times when she was so out of it that we ran out of food and I had to go get groceries.
Encouraged by the fact that Mom got herself out of the house, I check her small studio off the living room—maybe she’s sculpting again, but the room is untouched, as it’s been for the past three months. Nothing new except for another layer of dust covering her tools and the sheet over the piece she was working on when Dad split.
I trot up the stairs. “Mom?” I call again. Maybe she’s sorting laundry or something. I enter her bedroom. Disappointment crushes me.
She’s lying on her side in bed, in her bathrobe, her hair all mussed. I’m so sick of seeing her night and day in that frigging bathrobe, its deep apricot color faded to a puky yellow, the cuffs and collar fraying. I want to wrench it off her, throw it in the garbage, yell at her to get dressed in real clothes. Instead, I say, “Thanks for the pizza and cupcakes.”
She rolls onto her back. Her face is pale with charcoal-dark smudges underneath her eyes, which have a weird glassy look. People always say I look like her. I would never have pegged us as mother-daughter, but I guess you don’t see yourself as others see you. I have her auburn hair and lima-bean-green eyes, but she has a straight nose and small eyes. I have a ski-slope nose and almond eyes. I’m taller. Unfortunately, I inherited her flat butt.
She pulls her mouth into a smile as if it’s a huge effort to make her facial muscles move. She obviously took those stupid pills. I sit next to her on the bed and take her hand. It’s limp and clammy.
She licks her sandpapery lips. The pills give her dry mouth. “How was your first interview?”
“Great. Ed Yamamoto showed me his Zen garden, his bonsai collection. I think I got good stuff.”
Mom smiles wanly.
“How was your day?” I ask.
She hikes a shoulder in a semblance of a shrug.
“I’m going over to Clarissa’s now. Can I get you anything before I go?”
“I got you pizza and cupcakes to take.”
“I saw them, Mom, thanks.” She’s already forgotten that I thanked her for them. “Did you eat today? You have to eat, you know.”
“Some water maybe.”
I fetch her a glass of cold water. How long is she going to stay like this?
She sits up to drink it and downs almost the whole thing. “Hear anything from Tyler?”
“Mom you ask that every day. He’s probably too busy playing soccer.” I don’t mention that he’s mad at her for sending him to sleepaway camp, so why would he call her unless he had to?
I fling my arms around her shoulders and hug her. The pizza and cupcakes mean there’s still a smidgen of the old Mom in there somewhere. She’s not all gone. She pats my back faintly.
I refill her glass and leave it on a coaster on her bedside table. She’s already zonked out again. I change into cutoffs and flip-flops, grab the food and my purse. At the last minute, I take my camcorder, too.
Clarissa’s leaving tomorrow to be a counselor-in-training at the Blue Mountain camp in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. The summer looms long without her. Home has definitely changed—Dad’s physical absence hovers like a ghostly presence, and Mom’s physical presence hovers like a ghostly absence. And now I won’t have Clarissa’s house as a refuge.
We both live in the section of Indian Valley called the Knolls. I drive through winding streets of two-story houses and yards filled with azaleas and hedges. The one perk to Dad’s departure is that I get to use his car.
He moved to an apartment in Manhattan, where he works, so he doesn’t need a car to commute and does all his errands on foot. When he comes out to visit us, which has happened exactly twice since he left, he rents a car to make the forty-minute drive to our New Jersey suburb.
After parking on the curb in front of Clarissa’s house, I head around the side to the back, where I glide open the sliding-glass door into the kitchen. No one’s here. “Helloooo. Blue Mountain mamaaa.”
“Chlo, I’m up here,” Clarissa calls.
Leaving the pizza and cupcakes on the kitchen island, I bound up the stairs three at a time and enter her bedroom.
“Hey Riss.” She sits cross-legged on the floor surrounded by a duffel bag and piles of clothes.
“I’m just starting to pack. I can never decide what to take.”
“Check this out.” Grinning, I whip out my Indian Valley Weekly News business card.
Her eyes widen as she studies it. “You’re the only kid I know with a business card.” She frowns. “Aren’t you going to put your middle initial?”
“You think I should?”
“I don’t know. Seems like a business card should be formal.”
“Chloe A. Quinn. I could put my full middle name—Chloe Ann Quinn.”
“Or how about C.A. Quinn? Like J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis.”
“Then people would call me C.A.”
“You’re right, doesn’t have a ring to it. Just stick with Chloe.”
“Hey, I brought pizza. Let’s eat. I’m starved.”
“It’s in the kitchen. Cupcakes, too.”
Clarissa springs up. “What are we waiting for?” Our feet ripple down the stairs and land with a thud on the first floor.
Clarissa nukes slices on paper plates and hangs on to the microwave oven door waiting for the beep. “That internship is going to look so good on your college apps. I wish I knew what I wanted to be.”
“The CIT thing will look good—leadership skills and all that.” I take out a jug of lemonade from the fridge and pour two glasses.
“Yeah, but I wish I had a real career plan. I don’t want to waste my time in college studying something for nothing.” The microwave beeps, and Clarissa slides out the plates. “Ow, that’s hot.” She sucks a fingertip.
“A lot of people don’t know what their major is at first. I always liked writing so I joined Drumbeats and then I instantly knew I wanted to be a reporter.”
“See? That’s what I mean. You love writing. Jade loves animals so she wants to be a vet. I don’t have anything that I love.”
“You’ll figure it out. Where’s your mom?”
“Went to get Hailee from gymnastics. Let’s eat in my room.”
We take the pizza, lemonade, plenty of paper towels, and the cupcakes upstairs, and picnic on the floor.
“I can’t believe you’re going to be gone the whole summer again,” I say.
“I’m gone every summer.” She pinches off a string of cheese trailing like a cobweb from her mouth.
“I know, but still.”
“Yeah, I know. I thought about staying at home this year, but since I got the counselor job...”
“Yeah, you should do it.”
“I’m just freaking that Caleb is going to forget all about me.”
I roll my eyes. This is the real reason Clarissa considered staying home—her latest crush on this jerk, er, jock. They made out at a party a month ago. Clarissa’s been expecting him to ask her out since then, but he’s basically ignored her.
She doesn’t seem to be getting the message that he’s not into her, and I’m more than a little tired of hearing about every Caleb-sighting, who he was talking to, what he was wearing, etc., etc. Clarissa has a new crush practically every month—none of them ever develop into anything, but this one’s lasting longer than usual, I guess because she had actual contact with him.
“I don’t know, Riss. Since he hasn’t made a move by now, maybe he’s not going to. Maybe it was just a one-night thing.”
Clarissa drops her pizza crust onto the plate. “He was really into me that night. I think he’s just shy. You’ve never been into a guy, so you don’t know how it is.”
Shy? Mr. Football Quarterback? I let it go. “Cupcake?” I nudge the box toward her.
She eyes them dubiously. “I don’t really like Pantry Market cupcakes.”
Meaning they’re cheap supermarket cupcakes, not the gourmet kind from the Cupcakerie. “Fine, don’t eat them then. I’ll take them home.”
“Promise me you’ll keep an eye out for Caleb around town. Jade and Morgan are going to do that, too.”
“Too bad your phone doesn’t work up there.”
“I know. It’s a major bummer.” She moves the picnic remains to the side. “I better pack.”
I want a cupcake, but Clarissa has kind of ruined them for me now. I lie on my side on her bed, propping my head on a hand.
She zips a small, fuschia-colored cosmetics bag and tosses it in the duffle. “You’re taking makeup?”
She grabs the bag, unzips it, and displays a square packet in her fingers.
“Always better to be prepared. You never know who you’ll meet.”
“Is that guy, what’s his name, Matt, going to be there this summer?”
She makes a face. “I hope not. I didn’t like him that much. I only did it with him to say I did it.”
“And because he lives on Long Island so you won’t get gossiped about.”
“Exactly.” She holds up an orange vee-necked, Lycra ie. tight-fitting, T-shirt. “Should I take this?”
“Don’t you wear camp T-shirts every day?”
“Yeah, but I might need something else.” She flips it into the bag.
“Clarissa! Come and get your laundry out of the dryer already.” Her mom.
We look at each with scared faces. “Do you think she heard us?” Clarissa whispers.
“We weren’t talking loudly.”
“Coming!” Clarissa uncrosses her legs and stands.
While she’s gone, I check out her collection of snow globes from all different places. I shake the globes one by one, making the flakes flutter down and turn the cheesy little plastic monuments inside into mini-wonderlands.
I always wished I could come up with a cool collection like that. I tried stamps, but that seemed too nerdy, then I tried salt-and-pepper shakers, but that seemed dumb. I had a bunch of shells from a trip to my grandmother’s in Florida, but most were chipped and shells weren’t as cool as snow globes anyway. Eventually, I gave up on the idea of collections. I shake the last globe—San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, and remember I brought my camcorder.
I hustle as I hear Clarissa shuffling up the stairs, and I’m ready with the camcorder when she enters holding a pile of freshly laundered undies. I press record. She hams it up right away, as I knew she would, pretending to be a model, swishing her hips this way and that. She puts down the clothes, and picks up a cupcake. She bites into it and leers into the lens.
“Simply the most scrumptious cupcakes, dahling,” she says in an exaggerated British accent. She places one on top of her head and struts. “You can use them to improve your posture.” She balances another cupcake on the ends of several fingers. “Practice finger-twirling, or both at the same time.” The finger-held cupcake falls with a splat of frosting on the carpet.
She grabs another cupcake and quickly smushes it into the side of my face. I put down the camcorder and get her back. We’re now decorated in pink and white frosting.
“I want a selfie of us,” she says.
I pick up the camera and record us, cupcaked faces squeezed together, as we crack up.
Clarissa’s mom calls up the stairs. “Girls, what are you doing? Have you finished packing, Clarissa?”
Hailee, Clarissa’s younger sister, appears in the door. “They’re having a cupcake fight, Mom.”
Clarissa tosses a pillow at Hailee, who dodges it with a squeal. “Mo-om!”
“Tattle-tale,” Clarissa says.
The moment is over. “I better wash my face and get going,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess.”
We scrub our faces in the bathroom and go downstairs. I say hi to her mom, who’s watching TV in the living room, and we walk outside.
“Save that video for me,” Clarissa says.
“I will. I’ll edit it into a little piece. I’ll call it ‘frosted faces’.”
“That’s good. I like that.”
“We’ll be seniors when you get back. Can you believe it?”
“Chloe, we’re already officially seniors.”
I mock-wag my finger at her. “Hey, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Forget that. Then I’ll never have any fun.”
We hug, and I get in my car, feeling a little lonely already. I have Jade and Morgan to hang out with, but they’re not the same. I’ve been best friends with Clarissa since seventh grade.
My phone rings as the garage door is humming closed. Clarissa. I answer without checking the screen. “You miss me that much already, Riss?”
“Er, Chloe?” a guy says.
“Yes.” I frown, wondering who on earth it could be.
“It’s Kieran, you know, from Yamamoto’s.”
I hesitate. Did Ed tell him to call me? “Oh, yeah, hi,” I finally say.
“Listen, I feel really bad about what you said, about throwing you off today.”
“Don’t worry about it. No big deal.”
“No, really, I’d like to make it up to you. Do you want to grab a burger or something tomorrow night?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Unless your boyfriend wouldn’t like it.”
“No, no, I mean, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“So you’ll go out with me then?”
It hits me that he’s asking me on a date. This was the type of thing that only happens in Jennifer Aniston movies, not to me. “Well, uh, yeah, I guess, okay.”
“Cool. I thought of it as you were leaving today. I was willing you to turn around and come back, but I guess my mental telepathy was off.”
I giggle. “How did you get my number?”
“I found your card on Ed’s desk, and I said to myself ‘hey, what do you know? It’s meant to be’. How ‘bout I pick you up at the News office when you get off?”
“I’m off at six.”
“Perfect. See you then.”
I hang up. I have a date! The timer on the garage light switches off, swamping me in darkness.