- Pages: 368 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780525554264
An Excerpt From
Lulu arranges the image before she turns the camera on herself. Patrick’s mother is kind of a monster, but at least she’s the kind who makes sure all of the lighting in her house is flattering, even in rarely used guest bathrooms. You have to give her credit for that, Lulu thinks.
The light in here is so even that it almost seems sourceless. The shell pink of the wall is suede-soft, and it makes Lulu’s hard-earned winter tan glow golden in contrast. Everyone who’s not at the party will wonder where the hell she is when they see this.
So will the people who are here, actually. She didn’t tell anyone that she was going upstairs, and most of them don’t know the house well enough to recognize this room without context. The image will pop up on their screens at some point tonight, and they won’t be able to identify where she was when she took it.
They won’t ask. That’s a thirsty move, and they’re all supposed to be better than that. The idea of parties like this one is that you only get invited if you act like the invitation doesn’t matter to you.
Lulu explained this to her older sister once.
“Doesn’t it gross you out?” Naomi asked. “Treating your life like it’s a game?”
“Don’t you like to know the rules?” Lulu asked her in return.
Lulu was fifteen then, spending her afternoons riding around in Kingsley Adams’s BMW, learning how to smoke weed and how to drive stick, and how to tell if a boy liked you or just liked the way you looked next to him, stoned and pliant, riding shotgun.
She was wrong about how much King liked her, as it turned out, but right about the rules in general. There were rewards for knowing what they were and following them carefully. Rewards like when Lulu leaves a party to be alone for a little while, people assume that it’s because there’s something wrong with the party, instead of thinking there’s something wrong with her.
Lulu is pleased when her image blinks onto the screen. It looks like she imagined it: Her long dark hair is caught up in a messy topknot, pinned in place by a slash of gold. Bea made her laugh so hard she cried earlier, when the sun was still up and the world still seemed interesting, so her eye makeup is a little smudged in a way that suggests she’s been having too much fun to bother fixing it. She gave Owen his ring back but kept the chain she wore it on. Its empty curve dangles below the frame, where it won’t give too much away.
Lulu closes her eyes, opens them, and snaps herself in the act of looking up, so that the picture looks like it’s been taken by someone standing over her, catching the edge of her attention. Then she takes a movie: her looking at the camera, and then laughing, and then looking away. She thinks maybe she should be embarrassed—it’s kind of cheap, just her flirting with herself—but whatever, because it will also work.
She posts the files and then settles on the stool at the edge of the bathtub to thumb through the rest of her Flash timeline. She can probably kill at least another fifteen minutes before anyone thinks to come looking for her, and hopefully that someone will be Owen or Bea. If it’s Bea, she can talk her into leaving—going home and going to sleep.
If it’s Owen, she won’t have to work very hard to give everyone something new to wonder about.
When the bathroom door opens, though, Lulu doesn’t recognize the girl who walks through it.
“Shit,” the girl says, even though Lulu is fully clothed and sitting like four feet from the toilet. “I’m so sorry. Shit, shit, shit, sorry.”
Her hair is curly and copper red, and she’s milk pale, freckle-sprinkled, very thin. She flushes pink and takes a step backward, knocking into the open door. “Ow,” she says, and then, again, “Sorry.”
Lulu can’t help but be charmed. “It’s fine,” she says. “I mean, I’m not, like, using it. The room. I’m just taking a break. You can—” She starts to stand.
“No!” the girl says. “No, honestly, I’m—I was going to do the same thing.”
She’s still flushed, but smiling now too. Lulu, who endured years of middle school orthodontia, admires the almost aggressive evenness of her teeth.
“Kind of sucks down there, huh,” Lulu says. She sits again. “But Patrick’s parties are always like this, don’t you think? He likes getting shit-faced so much that he forgets there are other things we could be doing. Like, anything else. I’d play cards right now. Boggle. Anything but sitting around doing shots.”
“This is my first,” the girl says. “Party. Here, I mean. Not, like, my first party ever.”
“Thank god,” Lulu says. “I would hate for this one to ruin your opinion of them.”
The girl laughs. “I’m Cass,” she says. “By the way.”
“Lulu,” Lulu says. She doesn’t offer her hand, and Cass doesn’t either. Lulu can’t decide if Cass recognizes her or not, and it would be way too narcissistic to ask.
It seems like she probably doesn’t; she isn’t watchful around Lulu the way girls who know her from the internet sometimes are. They usually don’t say anything, but their eyes jitter across her body restlessly, trying and failing to look away.
Cass slumps down to sit with her back against the counter, stretching her legs out on the fluffy rug in front of her.
No one cares that much about you, Lulu reminds herself. She’s the one who cares way too much about everyone else.
Speaking of caring, she can’t stop herself from doing her usual assessment: Cass is wearing slightly too much mascara, a thin white T-shirt, and tight black jeans Lulu doesn’t recognize the brand of. The soles of her flats are scuffed with patterns of wear. Lulu can’t decide whether Cass is trying and kind of failing, or if maybe she doesn’t even know she should be trying.
When Cass pulls an iPhone with a cracked screen and no cover out of her pocket, a third possibility occurs to Lulu.
Is it possible that Cass just doesn’t care about trying either way?
“Do you and Patrick go to school together?” Lulu asks, trying to triangulate.
“Yeah,” Cass says. She frowns at something on the phone and swipes it away dismissively. Then she looks up at Lulu, her face glowing faintly blue from its light. “How do you know our host?”
“Elementary,” Lulu says. “JTD.”
So Cass goes to Lowell. She doesn’t look like the Lowell girls Lulu’s met. There’s usually a particular put-together sheen to them, she thinks. Something about Cass strikes her as raw. She’s not undone on purpose, like Lulu’s own carefully careless bun. But there’s something about her that’s just—
“I didn’t grow up here,” Cass says.
—what it is, Lulu thinks. She asks, “When did you move?”
“To LA? When I was twelve. I transferred to Lowell when I was a freshman.”
Lulu gets distracted by her phone, which is lighting up with notifications: people liking her post, and replying to it, and sending her videos of their own. She’s getting to the point, follower-wise, where she’s going to have to turn notifications off soon. Every time she posts anything, there’s a flood of this, just nonsense—girls she doesn’t know asking her where she got her jewelry and makeup and boys sending her snaps of themselves shirtless in their bathrooms, trying to look hard-eyed and distant.
If Naomi were here, she’d be asking Lulu about this too probably: Why do you keep doing it, Lu?
Lulu wouldn’t have a good answer for her.
She puts her phone down. “Do you like it?” she asks Cass. “Los Angeles?”
Lulu doesn’t catch herself in time to not roll her eyes.
“Oh,” Cass says. She leans forward just slightly. “So it’s like that.”
“It’s not like anything,” Lulu says. She lolls her head against the wall behind her, to make sure they’re both clear on how much space there is between them. “Whatever. Why would I care?”
“Oh.” After a beat, Cass leans back too.
Lulu should leave it at that. She should go downstairs and be social and stop sitting alone like a weirdo. She should go back and pretend everything is normal, so that at some point, everything will be normal again.
Instead, she says, “I think you have to give it a chance.”
“I mean, I don’t know. It’s just such a big city, and it’s so weird. I feel like it takes a while to figure it out. And people always come in with these ideas about what it is, or what it should be. It’s so exhausting. Like, just because you’ve seen it on TV doesn’t mean you know anything about it, I guess. Is all.”
“I guess. Is all,” Cass says, imitating the fall of Lulu’s voice at the end of her monologue. She nudges the toe of her shoe against Lulu’s ankle, to let her know she’s only teasing.
Despite herself, Lulu laughs a little bit. She tries to mask it with a shrug.
“But no, I get that,” Cass continues. “That seems fair. I guess I just haven’t found the parts of it that I love yet, really.”
“Nothing?” Lulu asks.
She risks looking up. Cass is leaning forward again, intent, unembarrassed.
“There’s this one spot,” Cass says. “It’s sort of amazing, actually. I could take you, if you want.”
Lulu’s phone flashes with a message from Bea.
Where the hell are you girl??
Don’t make me wander through this whole horrible fake castle on a search. Come back!!!!!
And then: O says he might be leaving soon.
Lulu knows exactly how the rest of her night will go if she leaves Cass here and walks back downstairs to the living room. Owen will be drunk; probably a little sloppy. Maybe he’ll try to talk to her, or kiss her or something, and she knows perfectly well that she should let him. She should. That would be a big step toward normal: bringing Owen back into her life.
Lulu knows how to follow the rules, and she knows what happens when she does.
She feels the first edge of a hangover coming on: the throb of a headache, the curdle of nausea in her gut. It’s silly to think that leaving with Cass will allow her to escape her own body, much less her life.
But if she leaves, people really will have to wonder about her. They’ll ask questions, and they won’t know where to look for answers.
“Okay,” she says. “Why not? Let’s go.”
Cass’s car is a few blocks away from Patrick’s house, taking up half of the street behind the bend of a blind turn and sitting directly under a NO PARKING ANYTIME sign. “Whoops,” she says as she unlocks it. The car is a boxy Volvo, not ancient but definitely not new. Cass grabs an armful of stuff off the passenger seat and gestures for Lulu to sit.
She doesn’t consult her phone’s GPS, which impresses Lulu. “You know your way around this neighborhood?” she asks.
Cass shrugs. “Reception sucks in the hills,” she says. “And I have a pretty good sense of direction.”
“Oh,” Lulu says. And then, to have something else to say: “I don’t.”
“You seemed to know your way around that house pretty well.”
Lulu steered them down the way she’d come up, taking a back staircase and then a side door, slipping them out the front gate without anyone seeing them go. She messaged Bea: hey feeling weird heading out talk tmrw? Though Cass is right about reception: When she looks down now, she sees that it didn’t send. She hits RETRY.
“I’ve spent a lot of time exploring at Patrick’s,” Lulu says. “And houses are different, anyway. There are walls.”
“Yes, there are,” Cass agrees.
Lulu knows that was dumb, and she moves to explain, to defend herself—there are limits is what she means, there are borders to guide you—but Cass doesn’t seem to be dwelling on it. Instead she keeps driving, fast and certain, taking them up and up and up.
She says, “We’re not far from where we’re going, by the way. I didn’t just, like, lure you into my car on false pretenses.” She keeps her gaze on the road but raises an eyebrow suggestively. “I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Me neither,” Lulu says. Which—whatever. Whatever. That isn’t a conversation she needs to have with Cass right now, especially if Cass doesn’t already know.
“See,” Cass says. “Look, we’re here.”
Here is a dark gate so tangled in vines that at first Lulu isn’t even sure that there’s anything underneath them. Someone has cut away a patch, though, to allow for the swing of the hinge, and the metal glints faintly in the car’s headlights. Cass leaps out to tap a code into the keypad. The gate swings open at her command.
Beyond the gate is a long, tree-lined drive. Unkempt branches laced together overhead turn the night’s darkness dense with shadow. It should look menacing, but instead it’s dreamy. Cass gets back in and eases the car forward, her foot light on the gas.
The gate swings closed behind them.
“So this is the hotel,” Cass says.
“The Hotel? Is that, like, its proper name?”
“For now. Do you want to hear a story?”
“Sure.” Lulu settles back in her seat and cranes her head up so she can look out the window at the trees. She can’t tell whether the flashes of light she sometimes catches through them are lights that have been woven through the branches, or if she’s high enough up that somehow, she can see the stars.
“Avery Riggs built this place around the turn of the century,” Cass says. “You know the name, right?
As in Lowell’s Riggs Science Center, or—”
“It’s the Riggs Library,” Lulu says. “At St. Amelia’s.”
Every private school child in Los Angeles knows the Riggs name; over the course of a handful of generations of increasingly lawless progeny, the family has donated a wing or at least a building to almost every campus improvement project in the city. Plus, one of the Riggs heirs, Roman, was in her sister Naomi’s class in high school—at least until he dropped out at the beginning of their senior year to run a start-up that became Flash.
“Exactly,” Cass says. “Avery was the one who made all of that money in the first place. He came out here at the very beginning of Hollywood to try to be a king of cinema. Movies didn’t end up working out for him, but real estate did. This place was his first big success.”
They come out of the tree canopy and all of a sudden Lulu sees it: The Hotel. Its white face is lit by the car’s headlights and Los Angeles’ ambient glow, and it looks almost luminous, gleaming, against the black of the hillside at its back. Floor-to-ceiling glass enclosing the first story shimmers. The floor above it is punctuated by the iron railings of balconies, dark against radiant white.
Cass doesn’t exactly park. She just pulls the car to a stop and turns it off. A black Range Rover is sitting right next to the front door, but no one’s in it. Since there doesn’t appear to be anyone else here, Lulu figures it doesn’t really matter where they leave the car.
“Is it . . . open?” Lulu asks.
“For us,” Cass says. She unbuckles her seat belt and opens her door. She stands and stretches into the night, raising her long, bony arms to the full white moon, which is sweet and heavy overhead. Her shirt pulls up so that Lulu can mark the points of her hipbones, and imagine the shadow at the curve of her waist.
Cass notices that Lulu hasn’t moved. “We aren’t going to get in trouble,” she says. “I promise.”
“I don’t know what kind of girl you are,” Lulu says. “But breaking and entering, that’s really not—”
“You aren’t going to get in trouble,” Cass repeats.
“How can you be so sure?”
Cass rolls her eyes. “We’re not breaking to enter. I had that code, didn’t I?”
Lulu gets out of the car.
This is what she’s been craving: something completely new. The night air is cold on her skin, sharp and shivery, and even with the moon it’s surprisingly dark. She’s out here alone in a place she’s never been with a girl she doesn’t know.
Anything could happen. Anything at all.
Lulu turns to Cass. “This is your favorite place in Los Angeles?”
“Shhh,” Cass says. She holds an actual finger to her lips.
“Hear that?” Cass asks.
Lulu shakes her head.
“You like that it’s quiet?”
“I like that it’s private,” Cass corrects. She takes a step forward and starts to say “Look—” but that’s as far as she gets before a light on one of the balconies flips on, flooding them both in buzzing fluorescent bright. Lulu’s heart spasms in her chest. She ducks instinctively.
When she looks up, Cass is still standing, an arm thrown over her eyes. “Ryan!” she yells. “Fuck! That light!”
On the balcony there’s a figure in silhouette—a boy, Lulu thinks. He drags something heavy into place and stands on it, fiddling with the base of the lamp that’s hung there. “Sorry,” he calls down. “Sorry, Cass, I forgot about the motion sensors.”
“I thought you were going to turn those off!”
“I did in Three,” the boy—Ryan—says. “But then I fell asleep in Four.”
“Why don’t you turn all of them off?”
“Then what if some random creeps came sniffing around?”
“Are you just hoping to blind them to death?”
“The security cameras, Cass. Can’t record a creep you can’t see.”
The light finally flicks off, and the dark that follows seems to swallow them all.
“You still there?” Ryan calls.
Cass scuffs the toe of one of her flats in the dirt. “Be hospitable, you asshole,” she says. “I brought someone with me. Come meet your first real guest.”
“Come up,” Ryan says. “It’s fucking freezing out.”
Cass looks at Lulu. She’s shy, suddenly, for the first time all night. “We don’t have to,” she says. “I just wanted to show you— I didn’t mean to— You don’t have to—”
“What kind of boy is Ryan?” Lulu asks.
“Nice,” Cass says. A smile steals across her face: small, secret. Oh, Lulu thinks. “A nice one.”
“I like nice boys,” Lulu says. “And, whatever. What else am I doing tonight?”
Ryan must be Ryan Riggs, Lulu realizes as they head inside and up the stairs. Roman’s little brother. He goes to Lowell too, so it makes sense that he and Cass know each other.
Lulu doesn’t know anything else about him, though, which is sort of unusual. Private schools in LA are a very incestuous little ecosystem: Colonies from elementary school spread and mutate into middle and high schools, so that everyone knows someone who knows someone else. But Ryan had a private tutor until his freshman year, and he hasn’t been around much since then. She doesn’t really see him out at parties, anyway.
The room Ryan fell asleep in is still heavy with the scent of his body, a warm, animal funk that makes Lulu think of Owen, and then makes her wish she hadn’t. The rest of the space is very teenage boy too: There’s a twin bed pushed against one wall, the mattress covered by a tangle of white sheets and a white comforter; a coffee table with a vape pen, a handful of empty cartridges, and a collection of lighters on it; then, on the floor, a stack of books and a stack of external hard drives, plus an enormous Mac desktop with a pair of nice speakers plugged into it. Not much else.
Ryan doesn’t flick on the lights when they come in. Instead he goes out to the balcony, brings in an armful of candles, sets them on the table, and lights them.
“You’re getting very witchy, Ry,” Cass says.
“I’m learning about atmosphere,” he returns.
Cass sits on the floor like she did in the bathroom, this time with her back against the bed frame. Ryan settles himself next to her. He doesn’t touch her, but he could.
Lulu knows that distance well. It’s a suggestive positioning of bodies—close enough for warmth, but far enough that contact has to be intentional. It occurs to her that she’s definitely the third wheel in this extremely weird situation.
She sits facing them, cross-legged on the floor. Lulu is relieved when Cass pulls the vape off the table and charges it up before taking a hit. She inhales deeply, and exhales a curtain of white that obscures her face as it drifts toward the ceiling.
Lulu’s not usually much of a smoker—doesn’t like the heady, uncertain way it makes her feel, the unpredictable nature of her own self when she’s high—but at least soon they’ll all be messed up, and she can stop wondering if she should have left before they came up the stairs.
“I told you that party was going to suck,” Ryan says to Cass. Then, to Lulu, he says, “Oh, I mean, sorry, it was your friend’s thing, yeah?” In the candles’ flickering, forgiving light, Ryan looks searingly romantic. He’s dark haired and handsome, with high, finely cut cheekbones and a wide slash of a mouth.
“I thought it sucked too,” Lulu says. She reaches across the table and plucks the pen from Cass’s hand. She may not exactly know what’s going on here, but that doesn’t mean she can’t act like she does. That’s one of the rules: Behave like you belong. “And he’s not really my friend.”
“Why did you go, then?” Cass asks.
They’ve only known each other for half an hour, and once again, Lulu can’t seem to keep herself from telling Cass the truth. “Saturday night,” she says. “I don’t know, it was something to do.”
“Why did you go, Cass?” Ryan asks. “Because as I recall, you don’t think much of Paisley—”
“Patrick,” she corrects.
“Or parties in general.”
“Broadening my horizons,” Cass says. “And hey, look, I made a friend.”
Lulu’s phone buzzes in her bag. She pulls it out and finds that her message to Bea still hasn’t gone through. Instead, Bea sent her: not funny srsly where the hell are you.
Left on an adventure but got a little stranded. Can you come get me? Lulu writes back, relieved to see the delivery confirmation pop up almost as soon as she’s hit SEND.
“Hey,” Ryan says. “No phones up here. There’s only one rule at The Hotel—”
“I didn’t tell her,” Cass says apologetically. “Sorry, Lulu, this is Ryan’s, like, thing.”
“My friend was just saying she’s leaving the party,” Lulu explains. “I think she’s going to come get me. Give me a ride home.”
“You sure?” Cass says. “I got you here. I mean, I can—”
“Thanks,” Lulu says. “But I’m good, really. Can you give me the address to give to her?”
“What the hell was that?” Bea asks. Lulu watches Cass disappear as the gate slides closed behind them. Cass is so pale she looks like a ghost against the driveway’s dim. “Did you get a good Flash or two out of it, at least?”
Lulu blinks at her own reflection where it appears in the windowpane, shimmering under a passing streetlight. She realizes that The Hotel is the first place she’s been in a year, at least, where she didn’t take a picture or a video. Even before Ryan told her she couldn’t use her phone, it didn’t even occur to her to try.
“Wasn’t anything worth seeing,” she says to Bea. She doesn’t feel like getting into it right now—even though if anyone has gossip on Ryan and Cass, it would be Bea, who has gossip on everyone. Everyone who matters, anyway.
“Oh, you know you’re always worth seeing, baby,” Bea says. She reaches out a hand across the space between them, and Lulu leans gratefully into her touch.
Bea makes them both breakfast in the morning. It’s nothing complicated: scrambled egg whites, avocado toast. Lulu squeezes juice from oranges from one of the trees in the backyard. They eat at the little table in the kitchen, where the light is good.
“You look like a religious figure,” Bea says, her eyes fixed on Lulu’s image in her phone. “Like the Madonna bathed in God’s holiness or something. I think my aunt has this photo as a painting in her bathroom, actually.”
Bea’s parents emigrated from the Philippines; they’re pretty agnostic, but her extended family includes some of the most Catholic people Lulu has ever met. Which isn’t saying that much, but still. Lulu secretly loves the art in Bea’s family’s houses—she’s probably talking about her aunt Tereza, who lives in the Valley, in a sea of gold-leafed crosses—but Bea thinks it’s tacky.
“You would know, Beatriz,” Lulu says. “And, I mean, Jesus’ mom was a Jew too, right?” She tilts her head. “Wait, are you filming?”
“I was,” Bea says. She tap, tap, taps at the screen and puts the phone down. “Now I’m not.”
“Can I see?”
Bea rolls her eyes. “I muted the audio,” she says. “And you look great. You know I wouldn’t put up anything that made you look bad.”
“We don’t always agree on what that is, though.”
Bea scoots her phone across the table to Lulu. “You can delete it if you really want.”
Lulu flicks it back. She knows she’s been a little too sensitive about stuff like this lately. Who cares if there’s another unflattering video of her on the internet for a day? Wouldn’t be the first time. And Bea doesn’t even have as many followers as she does, which is sort of a shitty thing to think about, maybe, but it’s also true.
When she looks up, Bea is touching her fingertips to the faint violet of a bruise blooming just above her collarbone. Apparently the reason it took her so long to notice that Lulu had actually disappeared last night was that she and Rich, her on-again, off-again, were getting it on. Again.
“Has he texted you?” Lulu asks.
“Not yet,” Bea says. “But I’d bet I hear something about that Flash in, like, the next five—”
As if on cue, her phone vibrates on the table. She and Lulu both break into peals of laughter.
“He’s so predictable,” Lulu says.
Bea nods like, Well, yeah. There’s value in predictable, and they both know what it is. Rich is definitely someone who follows the rules.
“He says they all passed out at Patrick’s last night,” Bea reports, and she doesn’t have to clarify who we is for Lulu to know who she means. Rich, their friend Jules, and probably Owen too. “They’re thinking about breakfast. Would it be, like, way too weird if I invited them over?”
Bea puts her phone down more decisively this time. “You know this is up to you, Lu. I’m not bringing people to your house if you don’t want them here. I just thought, I don’t know. You might want to.” There’s a phrase that’s left unsaid in Bea’s sentence: You might want to see people again, be social, pretend things are fine, talk to Owen. Stop being such a recluse.
Lulu knows she’s being unfair by not giving a straight answer. Bea’s trying to be a good friend. It’s not her fault that Lulu just wants someone else to make this decision for her so that she won’t have to be responsible for whatever the consequences turn out to be.
She doesn’t think she’s wrong that Owen’s been looking for a way to un–break up with her for the last few weeks. He’s definitely been trying to talk to her about something, and what else could it be?
It’s just that at no point, in all of those days and nights, has she been able to figure out if she wants to let him or not.
It seems like the right thing to do.
She liked dating Owen the first time. Why wouldn’t she like doing it again?
She would definitely like how much easier it would make her life.
“No one will think less of you,” Bea says, a little softer. “It’s not like he— Everyone knows you guys were in love. I don’t think you should be embarrassed to take him back.”
Again, Lulu knows what Bea isn’t saying: It’s not like he embarrassed you. Of course it wasn’t. It was Lulu who hurt and embarrassed Owen, so badly that he ended things.
But maybe he’s over that, and now he wants things back the way they were.
“He was knocking on doors looking for you last night,” Bea says. “He was the one who found me, and told me you were, like, actually gone.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bea says. “We had not considered that we might want to make sure we’d actually locked the door of the room we were using.”
“I don’t want to think about it either,” Lulu says. “Anyway, of course it’s fine. Invite them over. It’s always fun to have them here.”
The boys used to come over a lot back when she and Owen were still together. Lulu and O would make out in the grass while everyone else kicked a soccer ball around the backyard.
“I really need to shower before they get here, though,” Lulu says.
Bea is looking at her phone again. “Rich wants to know if you’re the kind of Jews who eat bacon.”
They are in theory, but Lulu knows her stepmom’s shopping habits and her dad’s cholesterol. There’s no way there’s any bacon in the house right now.
“Tell Rich that beggars can’t be choosers,” she advises. “But he’s welcome to bring his own.”
The boys take up so much space. Jules had to go home, but Patrick comes with, so it’s him, Rich, and Owen in the kitchen, sitting on the countertops and heckling Bea while she scrambles more eggs, these ones with their yolks.
Lulu swats Patrick’s calf and says, “Get down.”
“What, are your parents home?” he asks.
When have her parents ever been home? “They’re probably at Olivia’s soccer game,” Lulu says, which, now that she thinks about it can’t be true, because it’s a Sunday, but whatever.
“It’s so weird that you have a sister who’s twenty-one and a sister who’s five,” Patrick says. God, he has no tact.
“Six,” Lulu says, and then, “Half sister,” like either of these things matters to anyone but her. As if to prove her point, Patrick’s already turned away, in the process of doing something weird and violent to Rich’s upper thigh.
So she’s surprised to hear Owen pick up that piece of the conversation after her. “Half sister, Patrick,” he repeats. “You know that.”
Patrick nods. “Right,” he says. “Half sister. And your stepmom is hot.”
“Isn’t that the point of stepmoms?” Lulu asks.
Bea turns around from the stove. “You want to make more OJ, Lu?” she asks.
Lulu hates that Bea can tell she needs an out.
“I can get it,” Rich says. He’s moved so he’s standing next to Bea at the stove, like she might need his help scrambling eggs. It would be sweet if Lulu were in a better mood.
“We have to pick more oranges,” Lulu explains to him. “I’ve got it. I’ll be right back.”
It’s early afternoon already, and outside, the sun is warm through her clothes. Lulu thinks of stepping out of the car at The Hotel last night in her impractical outfit—a thin dress, no jacket—and the bite of the air against her skin. The way she felt exposed to some darker kind of night. Now the world seems tender again, offering up soft ground, green grass, sweet fruit.
The orchard isn’t really big enough to be an orchard, technically—it’s just a loose cluster of a half dozen or so trees (oranges, lemons, and a lone avocado) and stone benches that sit, quiet and solid, under their branches.
Lulu hears Owen before she sees him. He’s quiet too, barefoot like she is, but Lulu has spent years and years in this space when it was truly empty. She knows what it sounds like the moment someone else arrives.
He’s carrying a bowl. “I didn’t know if you needed something for the oranges,” he says. “To put them in.”
“Oh,” Lulu says. “Yeah. That’s smart, actually. Thanks.”
Owen places the bowl on one of the benches, and Lulu puts the oranges she’s already picked into it.
“It was also a good excuse,” Owen says. “To. Um. Talk to you.”
How long have they known each other? Lulu watches the way the light filters through the trees’ leaves, falling on the mess of his sandy hair, and does the math: since the first day of seventh grade. It was five years in September, then. Like, basically a third of her life so far.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “to start with. The way I ended things . . . I’m not proud of it.”
Owen didn’t ghost her, but he came close. He told her he didn’t want to talk about what had happened on the phone, and then he didn’t try to make plans with her when he got back to LA. Finally, desperate, she called him the night before school started.
He said, “I can’t do this anymore, Lu.” He probably said other things too, but that’s what Lulu remembers: the word can’t, and how tired his voice sounded, and how much her heart ached, like it was exhausted, like all it wanted was to be allowed to quit beating for a while.
Now he says, “You were, like, really important to me, and I hope I didn’t make you feel, just because it ended badly, that I hadn’t—that I didn’t—that—that wasn’t true.”
This does not sound like a prelude to an offer of the two of them starting over again. Lulu feels her defenses rising as surely as if they were physical walls going up, locking firmly into place.
“You don’t have to apologize to me,” she says. “I mean, since you’re here and everything. I feel like it’s obvious that I’m okay with you. Don’t worry, O. We’re good.”
“I’m glad,” Owen says. “But I also—I know there’s no good way to break up with someone, but I wish I hadn’t gone dark on you like that. I just needed some time, you know? I needed a minute to figure things out. But lately I’ve really been missing you, Lu. And I want us to try being friends again, if you’re interested in that.”
Lulu doesn’t know what to say.
“I get that I can’t, like, ask you for anything. So I’m not. I’m just saying: If that’s something you want, that’s something I want.”
Lulu nods. She turns back to the trees. It’s their season, and there are so many ripe oranges that she doesn’t even have to go looking for them. When she reaches, they fall right into her hand.
Owen is offering her something. It’s not what she imagined or guessed, but it’s something.
The problem is that it’s something new. Lulu has no idea what it would be like, what it would mean for them, to be friends. She could probably figure out the best way to play this, but she needs much, much more time. She feels undone by the scope of possibility, the idea that there’s some halfway point between being nothing to each other and being them again. The idea that he could want her, but not like that.
She doesn’t want to lose him, though. She knows that much.
She says, “You can help me with this, for starters.”
“Sure,” Owen says.
If they were—when they were—he would have razzed her about not answering questions, about being evasive, the same way Bea was giving her shit earlier.
Lulu thinks, Serves him right, that he can’t be familiar with her anymore. He can’t ask for more than she decides to give him.
On the other hand, now he’s just another person she has to keep a wall up with. And she already has so many of those.
Lulu doesn’t tell anyone about the specifics of her conversation with Owen. Bea is too distracted by Rich to ask on Sunday; by Monday, all anyone’s thinking about is finals, which start next week.
But the sense of detente between them seems to filter through their friends, and resettle some of the fracture their breakup caused in September. Lulu finds herself sitting at tables with the boys during lunch again. On Wednesday, Rich asks her to share her calc notes. On Friday sixth period, Jules texts her that they’re going up to the lookout to get drunk if she wants to come.
It would be easy to sneak off campus—technically she’s got Cinema Studies this period, but Mr. Winters is giving them “research time” to work on their midterm projects, so it’s not like anyone would notice if she left. The projects aren’t due until the beginning of next semester, which Mr. Winters thinks makes their lives easier but actually just extends their stress for another few weeks after finals are supposed to be over.
But Lulu doesn’t want to go hang out with her friends right now. What she wants, instead, is quiet. And she knows where to find it: Recently she’s claimed herself kind of a spot in a corner on the top floor of the library. She can go up there and post something to Flash, the way she did at Patrick’s party, so that on the internet it doesn’t look like she’s hiding out.
The space isn’t ideal for taking pictures, but she’s figured out how to make it work. The overheads are horrible fluorescents, but the windows are big enough to let some actual sunlight in, and the camera’s eye is so easy to trick once you know it. All she has to do is hide most of her face in shadow and she looks okay.
“One of my nannies taught me a game when I was little,” Lulu whispers to her phone. “Literary prophet, she called it. You ask a question, pull a book off the shelf, and let it fall open to a page that will have the answer you need on it.” The app blinks at her: full. Okay. They can only be like ten seconds long.
Lulu uploads that video fragment and starts another. She films her feet, clad in a pair of new boots, walking across the library’s industrial carpet floor. She asks her question before she chooses the book. “Why am I so fucking bored?”
Of course, she’s up in the science section, surrounded by textbooks. “Because it’s my biological destiny, apparently,” Lulu says, and slams the book closed. She snaps a few stills of the illustrated dissection diagrams and then a last black frame over which she adds the text: I GUESS JUST DONATE MY BODY TO SCIENCE WHEN IT WITHERS AND GOES OKAY.
It occurs to her then that, probably for the first time in her life, she actually has something she wants to look up in a book. There’s a small section on the first floor of the library dedicated to Los Angeles’ past, with a display table encouraging kids to read up on the history of St. Amelia’s Studio City campus and farming and water rights and whatever.
Of course, there’s also a couple of books about the library’s namesake: Avery Riggs.
Lulu did some cursory googling about Avery after her visit to The Hotel, to see if she could find more information about him and its history, but most of what she turned up was loose threads and weirdness: conspiracy theorists claiming he was illuminati, or that his wife was a vampire, or that if you draw a line between every building with his name on it in the city of Los Angeles you’ll come up with a pentagram or a map to a portal to hell.
Normally she would have left it at that—Lulu isn’t really that into history, even when it’s cult-conspiracy history. But the supernatural bent to people’s theories made her curious. She wants to know how Avery, who seemed basically kind of normal when he was alive, has a legacy that got so warped after he died.
The first book she pulls is called The Men Who Built Los Angeles, which only has one chapter on Riggs. Apparently his dad had a very big trust fund and an even bigger gambling problem; Avery was raised to believe he’d never have to work, and then, when he came of age, discovered that he if he didn’t, he and his mother and sisters might starve. He left the East Coast for Hollywood, hoping to remake the family name out there in the wilderness. But he wasn’t really a very good director, and after a while, no one would hire him.
He got lucky when he begged his way into a screening of a film called Bluebeard, an adaptation of the fairy tale starring a young actress named Constance Wilmott. She was still a teenager, and aside from her studio contract she had nothing. He married her even though it wouldn’t do anything for his “prospects”: a true love story, very touching. Except that it turned out she was a good investment, because it was the money she’d earned on that film—her first and last—that he took and used to buy his first property.
Lulu recognizes the outline of the story, if not the specifics. Her dad was still a junior associate at his firm, not a failed director, and her mom didn’t choose to stop being a serious actress, she stopped getting good roles, but other than that, yeah, she pretty much knows how this one goes. An older man and a younger woman; two people with almost no power, and yet, somehow, one of them has more.
The book says: Wilmott may not be a star that many remember today, but in fact her single role changed Los Angeles irrevocably. The intangible forces of her beauty and talent became the seeds for a real estate empire that would materially reshape the hills and valleys of Los Angeles. It was her image that allowed Avery Riggs to begin to create the city according to his singular vision.
It makes Lulu feel shivery to imagine it: these two people, small and ordinary, falling in love and changing the course of an entire city’s history. Connie playacting in a movie, and her acting turning into money that turned into land and business and a legacy. Maybe that’s why people are so obsessed with Avery Riggs: He made something out of nothing. He married a much younger woman and turned her into an empire.
If only her dad had figured out how to do that, Lulu thinks, instead of the extremely boring regular thing he did, which was to dump her mom when her career never took off, and marry someone younger, and then someone younger again.
She almost misses Rich’s response to her Flash amid all the stuff from people she doesn’t know. He went up to the lookout with Jules, apparently, and Bea, and a smallish bottle of vodka. In the video he sent her he’s holding his phone at arm’s length and filming the two of them, Bea’s dark head huddled close at his side. “You think that just because you have—what, two thousand—”
“Five thousand!” Bea chirps. She’s definitely drunk.
“Five thousand Flash followers,” Rich corrects himself, “you’re too cool to hang out with us now?”
“You’re bored ’cause you’re boring,” Jules says, somewhere off camera.
“Julian Powell!” Bea yells. Rich swerves to turn toward Jules and Lulu catches a glimpse—barely that—of Owen.
Someone is standing next to him. Someone shorter.
Then the video cuts out.
Lulu thought her heart froze the day Owen broke up with her; she thought she put it in deep freeze and left it there to just—well, not rot. Ice. Whatever. So it surprises her to feel it kicking in her chest, the gasp of a spasm where she was supposed to be numb. She wasn’t sure she wanted Owen back, but she definitely didn’t want him to move on first.
She’s sure her face will give her away if she tries to send a picture back.
Instead she messages Bea, I hope you’re defending my honor up there.
OBVSSSSSSSSS, Bea replies. BUttt shouldn’t you be here defending it yourself?
Lulu types, I have English eighth.
Come out with us after, Bea says. We’ll be at R’s house for a while and then I think going to some party? Someone Patrick knows?
Lulu weighs her options. It’s nice to have something to do, first of all, and if Owen is—whatever—with whoever—and who would he even be—she should assert her claim to her place in the group. She belongs there with them. She has belonged there for years, in ways that have nothing to do with being or not being Owen’s girlfriend.
But also: ugh.
Then a second thought occurs to her. If the party is being thrown by someone Patrick knows, he might know Cass too. She said she never went to those parties. It’s totally a long shot. But last time Lulu disappeared, Owen went looking for her, and everyone knew it.
Okay fine, Lulu sends Bea. I guess I’m in.
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