Start reading EVER SINCE by Alena Bruzas
Today we’re sharing a sneak peek of Ever Since by Alena Bruzas, an intense, beautiful debut about the power of finding your voice and sharing your story after trauma. Perfect for fans of Nina LaCour and Kathleen Glasgow.
Seventeen-year-old Virginia makes bad choices. In fact, she’s That Kind of Girl, according to the whispers. But as long as she has her tight group of best friends by her side, she’s able to ignore the gossipers. Until she finds herself spending time with Rumi, Poppy’s boyfriend. Breaking with tradition, she doesn’t hook up with Rumi. Worse, she falls in love with him.
While Virginia and Rumi’s relationship grows in secret, she discovers that his little sister, Lyra, is being groomed for abuse. The soon-to-be-abuser is a respected member of the community, and only Virginia knows who he is and what he does. If she stays quiet, Lyra will become a victim. But coming forward feels equally impossible.
CONTENT NOTE: Please be advised that this book contains depictions of sexual assault, CSA, and suicidal ideation.
Once there were five princesses. No, I mean five witches. Actually, they were goddesses. Anyway, whatever they were, they were friends.
Once there were five friends.
And the story goes like this:
It’s finally summer and we’re road-tripping out to the coast. Poppy is driving, so of course I’m sitting shotgun. Ramona, Paz, and Thalia take photos of their faces squished together. I say we have to make a pact to keep our phones in the glove box and we’re singing to the radio until it dissolves into static and then we play the license plate game and now we’re playing truth or dare. I tell Ramona to flash the SUV next to us and she gets me back by daring me to hang my butt out the window.
“Ro!” I squeal.
“Virginia!” she squeals back, and throws a scrunchie at me and says I have to do it and so I do and I think I’m going to die when Poppy goes around a corner and I almost fall out the window.
We get to La Push in time for sunset. The floor of the car is covered in garbage and my foot is asleep and our limbs are overlapping and intermingled. Thalia is braiding strands of Poppy’s hair and I’m painting Paz’s toenails and Ro is eating the sandwich that Thalia packed for herself.
We tumble out of the car with our arms around each other, holding hands and bumping hips, and the bond of our friendship seems enduring, like nothing can break it, ever. But as Edison spots us and bellows my name and I feel Thalia’s eyes all over my skin, I’m afraid it won’t be enough.
We’re camping on the beach. No one questions whether or not it’s allowed. We just pitch our tents and lay out our sleeping bags and start drinking. The beach is crowded with bare feet and loose waves and fraying cutoff shorts. I change into my bathing suit but I don’t go swimming. Nobody swims in the ocean here. It’s too cold. Even in summer you don’t go swimming off the coast of Washington.
Ro gets the fire going after Thalia relents and lets us use her Trader Joe’s bags as kindling and the boys wander over all casual to drink our beer and eat our hot dogs. Rumi is putting his arm around Poppy’s shoulders and kissing her neck and squeezing her thigh and she keeps leaning away and shrugging, but he isn’t picking up on her don’t-touch-me-I’m-going-to-puke signals. I can tell she’s drunk because her breath smells sweet like maybe whiskey and her eyes are wide. Poppy always gets extra innocent, like, Who, me?
Rumi probably thinks it’s no big deal because they’re going out, but I can tell Poppy is annoyed and it doesn’t help that she keeps taking shots. It’s funny how a night can change like that. How it can feel so good to sit under the salty sprawling night sky with your toes in the sand that’s still warm and the fire crackling and the sparks drifting and the ocean intoning nearby. Then suddenly you feel like you might puke and also people are probably possibly judging you right now because you’re drunk and sloppy and getting groped.
Poppy covers her mouth and stumbles toward the rocks and Rumi follows her like he probably thinks a good boyfriend should. I follow too because I know what’s coming.
“Just piss off!” Poppy says. I almost laugh because she sounds like a British gangster, but then she bends over and I hear a splatter. Rumi hovers, his hands in his pockets and looking at his feet.
“I’ve got it,” I say to Rumi.
He looks uncertain. Poppy yells piss off again and Rumi blushes and glances at me and then he leaves and I feel sorry for him. Poppy grabs my arm and I stagger and scrape my heel on a rock. She throws up again, so I just grit my teeth and let her hold on to me and keep her hair out of her face.
When she’s done I wrap my arm around her waist and she leans on me all the way back to our tent. I take off the rain flap because the sky is clear and the wind feels good. We lie down side by side, my fake blond mixed with her real black, and she takes my hand and threads her fingers through mine.
She’s quiet for so long that I think she’s asleep. When I start to get up she squeezes my hand tighter. “I love you,” she says with her eyes still closed.
• • •
I find Rumi sitting alone, playing chicken with the tide. His feet are stretched out and wet from the waves. “She’s just drunk,” I say. “It’s not about you. She always gets pissed when she’s sick.” My scraped heel is throbbing. He doesn’t answer, so I examine my foot. It’s still bleeding and there’s sand in the cut.
“What happened?” he asks.
Rumi stands up. “Wait here.” When he comes back he pulls my foot into his lap. It stings when he pours cold water over the scrape. As he applies Neosporin and a Band-Aid, I realize that I am so absolutely determined not to flirt with him that I have no idea what to say. I pull my leg back and wedge my bandaged foot under my butt.
By the fire Paz starts singing and Thalia is sitting in Edison’s lap and Ro yells something at Edison about punching him in the face, which he probably deserves but I think Ro is joking. The party oozes out away from the fire, small circles of kids here and there, and Paz and Thalia and Ro run down and splash their ankles in the water, lithe and silver in the moonlight. Edison grabs a six-pack and walks off, leaning to the side like a dilapidated house.
I tell myself every time, this is the last time. Thalia is suspicious but she doesn’t actually know. If I stop now maybe she’ll never find out. But then Edison looks over his shoulder at me. I stand up, straightening my bikini bottom and brushing sand off my butt. I feel Rumi watching as I follow Edison but I don’t look back. There are enough people here now that no one will notice, I don’t think.
The moon is almost full and it shivers across the water and for a minute I feel beautiful in the bending light. So I kiss him and of course we . . .
(I can’t even say it.)
I can still hear the singing, the cackling laughter, the lewd jokes of the party.
I come home to Poppy like I always come home to her. Whether it’s her house or the lunch table at school or here in the tent. I watch her breathe, in and out, in and out. It seems so easy for her.
Nobody was up when I got back from Edison. The fire was almost dead. Just a few embers glowing in the ash. I watched it for a while and drank from a bottle of red wine that somebody left open and halfway buried in the sand.
Now I lie with the bottle cradled in the crook of my arm and when it’s empty I fall asleep on my wine-stained pillow and bad dreams lap at my neck but I won’t remember them in the morning.
Before we leave, Ramona says we have to swim. “It’s the summer before senior year. It will never be like this again.”
“We have next summer, Rowie.” Paz crosses her arms and squints away.
“Next summer we won’t be in high school anymore, Paz,” Ro says. “We’ll all be off doing our own things. I’m going to France and Thalia wants to start early at school and your mom wants to visit your family in Brazil.”
Thalia smiles with the sun on her face and leans back in the sand, closing her eyes. Poppy glowers into her coffee and I say, “What about me, Ro? Where will I be?”
Ro gives me a look that is wistful and uncertain. “You’ll be sweeping cobwebs from the sky, Virginia. But you’ll be with us by and by.”
My toes are buried in sea foam. Ro puts her brown foot on top of my pale one. Her toenails are red and mine are teal. Our feet look nice like that, side by side and overlapping. She tucks a lock of hair behind my ear and I smile at her freckles, which I love. She’s reassuring me in her own way, I know. Maybe she’s not sure where I’ll end up, but she has faith in me to figure it out, is what she’s saying.
“So are we doing this?” Poppy’s hungover and pissed about it.
“Fine,” Paz says, but then she smiles and reaches for Thalia.
We run into the water holding hands. A wave rushes up to meet us like frozen blue static. We scream and Poppy squeezes my hand so hard it hurts. And then I am submerged, immersed, surrounded by cold so shocking, I can’t breathe or think. And for a second I feel terrified and almost lost like I’ll be swept out to that infinite blue sea. But to the right and left of me I am anchored to these girls. With them, I am safe.
On the way home Thalia and Paz ride with Edison. Ro sprawls out in the back and falls asleep with her feet hanging out the window. Poppy loads a bowl. She’s still hungover and now she’s carsick, so I’m driving even though it’s her car.
“Soccer is starting this week,” she says.
“Are you dreading it?” I ask. I can’t imagine why anybody would actually want to spend time with a bunch of eleven-year-olds.
“I like the kids. They’re hilarious.”
I smile at the road. It’s so Poppy. To her, it’s not even a good deed.
“Me and Edison, you know, again,” I say.
“Was it good?” Poppy refuses to judge me.
“What were the bad parts?”
“He’s a sloppy kisser. He got spit all over my face and shoved his tongue way too far down my throat. I almost gagged.”
Poppy laughs, covering her eyes. We come up on a curve and, reckless, I speed up, screeching as we tilt and the woods and the ocean rush by in blurs of green and blue and my entire world seems precarious. Poppy whoops and sails her hand out the window.
“You know, it’s fine. It’s just that I don’t think you like doing it,” Poppy says after a while.
“It’s fine? You really think it’s fine what I’m doing?” I glance back at Ro. She’s still asleep.
Poppy leans back and closes her eyes. “I mean, like, in a cosmic sense. We’re seventeen. It’s not like Thalia and Edison are married with kids. I mean, like, it’s all just drama. There’s no major consequences.”
“You mean, like, you mean, like.”
She laughs. “Piss off.”
The thing is with Poppy, there’s no hiding. She looks at me and I look back at her. “But I feel bad about it,” I say.
“Then why do you do it?”
She’s hogging the weed. I grab it and take a hit. “Puff puff pass yo,” I say with my mouth full of smoke.
“Virginia,” Poppy says. “Why do you do it?”
“I convince myself I want it, in the moment.”
“And then after?”
“Like last night after Edison and I hooked up, I felt like a pot that had been scoured.” I take another hit and hand the pipe back to Poppy. “That’s a weird way to put it.”
“I get it. Empty.”
“And like scraped out.”
“You should stop.”
“Stop what though?”
“Stop doing things that make you feel bad,” Poppy says.
“But there are so many things that make me feel bad and I never know which it will be. And I have you. And you always make me feel better.” I give her a shitty smile like I know I’m an asshole and I know she loves me anyway.
We pull into the line for the ferry. In the back seat Ro grunts and sits up, wiping drool from her mouth. “I smell pot,” she says.
Poppy drives through downtown Seattle traffic, after the ferry docks. It smells like salt and seaweed and cold wind and then it smells like exhaust and hot pavement. She grunts in frustration every time she changes gears in her hand-me-down muscle car. Ro scrolls through songs on her phone, searching for the perfect one.
I wish we had camped an extra night. Or I wish we had stopped and stayed in some tiny coastal town, some run-down bed-and-breakfast on a run-down road with clapboard houses and American flags snapping in the wind. But we didn’t. We’re here.
We park and Ro runs to her house and her mom comes out, down the stairs. We were only gone for two days, but they walk with their arms around each other’s waists, talking like it’s been months and they have so much to catch up on.
My house, across the curve from Poppy’s, is dark and the shades are drawn, but I can hear the music pounding through the door.
“I think Mom is making pizza on the grill tonight,” Poppy says, as if she assumes I’m spending the night. As if Willow, Poppy’s mom, will assume I’m spending the night.
I can smell the orange blossoms from the tree in the yard between Poppy’s house and mine as we slip past. Since that first night at Poppy’s when we were almost twelve, I haven’t slept in my closet or crouched behind the oak tree in the backyard. I haven’t tried to get invited to some friend’s house only to be told no because it’s a school night. Willow always lets me.
Inside her house, everything seems so normal. It’s clean and there’s food in the fridge and Willow is sitting on the deck drinking iced tea. She asks us about the trip and she says I need some aloe for my sunburn and then she starts the grill and I close my eyes and listen. To the conversation, to the birds, to the wind in the treetops, to thetap tap tap of cutting tomatoes and onions and peppers.
I think about that first night. About the keen relief of not being home when He was there. Of not having to avoid Him or to feel the compulsion to smile at Him and then the discomfort of actually smiling. About how Poppy lent me her best pair of pajamas and gave me her best pillow to sleep on as if it were no big deal. As if it were just a normal night.
“Virginia,” Willow says.
I open my eyes and look at her, smiling and normal.
“Do you want some?” she asks, holding up a pitcher of ice cubes and lemons and tea.
And I pretend to be normal too, like I always do, like I have been, ever since.
So I have this book. It’s big and heavy and full of sun and sky colors. It’s called D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. My fourth-grade teacher gave it to me. She had to be kind of sneaky about it because it was a pretty obvious display of favoritism, but that was the year I showed up to school with handprint-shaped bruises on my shoulders.
I spent the year reading and rereading the book in a shady spot of the reservoir park. When it was raining or getting dark, a lot of times I would go to Thalia’s house. And her door was always open, figuratively and literally. Their doors and windows are open all year, almost. The rain comes misting in, and the air and the wind and the sun.
Thalia wasn’t as obsessed with the book as I was, but she liked the story of Daphne. My favorite was always Medea. We would have these really intense discussions about Hades versus Hel versus Lucifer and the evolution of mythology and religion.
Poppy is sleeping next to me and I’m staring at the ceiling. Next year I’m taking the Comparative History of Ideas class, and the teacher requires a senior project. I keep thinking about doing it on folklore. Mythology and fairy tales. Once upon a time. Once upon a time there was a little girl. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess. And she lived happily ever after.
I slide my phone out from under the pillow. Hey, I text Thalia.
What’s up? she responds. How’s Poppy?
asleep and cranky
How can you be asleep and cranky at the same time?
shes hungover enough to manage i promise, I text.
Thalia texts me a GIF of a panda falling over, which is supposed to be Poppy, I think.
so i was thinking about doing my senior project on folklore, I text her.
Like what about? Thalia replies.
not sure yet, maybe mythology? like daphne or something
That sounds cool.
right, do you want to partner up?
It takes Thalia so long to respond, I start to get paranoid.
Okay, she says.
I stare at the word until my eyes hurt from the glare. She said okay. Maybe now I can fix it. Fix what Edison broke.
I send her a bunch of hearts and roll over, smiling into my pillow.
Thalia always thought there was a definite difference between fairy tales and mythology. Fairy tales are different from mythology is different from religion. Fairy tales are like Disney movies. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella. Something that the Brothers Grimm probably wrote or maybe Hans Christian Andersen. A princess gets saved from an evil witch by a handsome prince and they lived happily ever after the end forever and ever.
Mythology is like Zeus, you know? Or maybe Odin Allfather and super-hot Thor, but that’s in the Marvel movies. And that’s where I think she’s wrong. It all bleeds together. Thor used to be somebody’s god, somebody’s religion. Then he became a myth and now he’s a hot Australian actor who’s actually an alien who speaks Shakespearean English. None of it makes sense. All of it, mythology, religion, fairy tales, all it is, all it ever has been, is the stories we tell. The stories we tell to make sense of things.
In the dark when you’re scared, the thunder is booming and the world is shaking and everything might come down around you and there’s a beast, a monster, a wolf coming to get you. When things feel beyond your control. You tell yourself a story.
Once upon a time.
I wake up before Poppy. I sleep so well here, I always wake up first. I slip out of bed and downstairs to the den where we have our sleepovers when it’s all of us. The couch that Thalia and Paz always claim, their feet crossing and overlapping in the corner of the sectional. The chaise where Ro sleeps, lounging like a princess in a Renaissance painting. And me and Poppy make a nest on the floor, blankets and couch cushions and these long floor pillows that we found at Target covered in peacocks and paisley prints and dahlias. I sleep better when I’m next to Poppy.
The morning light is blue and diffuse and the dew sparkles like Cinderella’s dress, tiny lights on leaves and flowers. When I manage to wake up for it, this is my favorite time of day. I drink some of Willow’s mint tea and wait for Poppy. She comes creeping down, tired but not grouchy, rubbing dreams out of her eyes. I hand her my tea, hot through the mug in the morning cold air, and she takes a drink.
“Let’s go for a run,” she says eventually.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on, it will feel good. You’ll be glad when we get out there.”
We sync up our music and start out fast, racing like we always do, and we’re pushing past our seven-minute mile. I can feel the seconds falling behind me, slipping away in our slipstream, until we’re sprinting. Poppy throws her arms up and yells along with her favorite line of the song and I put my hands up in the air when the song tells me to and she does a move like a lawn mower, pretending to be a dad-dancer, and the sun is in our eyes and the air is perfect warm.
It rained last night and there are puddles in the dips and cracks of the sidewalk. I jog in place as Poppy stoops to rescue a fat earthworm stretching, reaching for dirt and flowers. She always does this. Not just for worms—for any bug, even spiders. Thalia calls her the steward of small things.
My feet are wet with puddle water and I want to shower and put on clean clothes and my house is quiet now. “I’ll come over later,” I say.
“I have that soccer coach orientation thing,” she says. “I’ll text you when I’m back.”
We never say goodbye. Somehow she knows I need to know that she’ll always be there. It’s never goodbye. There’s always later.
“Okay,” I say.
“Love you,” she says.
“You,” I say.
And I wave her off into the sunlight.
We all grew up here in this cul-de-sac. Paz and Thalia share a fence at the back of the curve under a tall ponderosa that kills the grass and smells like pine sap and dust in the summer. Ro lives on the corner closest to the rest of the world. Where you can hear the noise from Fifteenth two streets over. Where the bus stops just behind Pagliacci’s that makes the pesto primavera we used to celebrate birthdays with, feeling like we were fancy.
The reservoir park is behind my fence, dark and safe and cold or lovely warm or mostly something in between. In seventh grade we climbed over my fence and smoked weed in the park for the first time. Ro got paranoid and Paz got loud and I stared at the underside of the leaves of the birch tree, silver bells in the wind. In ninth grade Ro dared me to streak and then changed it to just moon them from the sidewalk but I didn’t hear that part and ran naked through the park dodging yellow streetlights, cold and kind of thrilled. I got dressed behind them, hiding in the shadows of the fence, while Ro and Poppy and Thalia and Paz were bent over with laughter because I streaked naked even though that wasn’t actually the dare.
At first I didn’t know them. I watched from my front stoop. Ro with her parents who actually paid attention to her, taking her on walks or loading her into her booster seat going who-knows-where. Thalia and Paz at the other end of the street, small faraway forms drawing giant chalk trees in front of their houses or Hula-Hooping or cartwheeling or trying to ride their bikes with no hands. Even after me and Thalia became friends in third grade, I felt like an outsider. Then Poppy moved in, an unclaimed girl, who maybe could be all mine.
Poppy gathered us. When she moved here we gathered around her. She invited us all over and we all came and then we were a group. We weren’t before, but when Poppy came we formed. And then her home became my home, more than my own.
The houses in our neighborhood, Thalia’s house, Paz’s house, Ro’s house, they’re Sears Craftsman. I looked it up once because I like them so much and they’re so different than my house. Mine is a big ugly split-level we bought from an old lady and it still smells like old lady even though it’s been years. The toilet is stained and the cupboard doors are warped.
The debris from the party my dad must have had last night is scattered over the carpet in the living room, trailing through the kitchen and the dining room into the bathroom. There is a small splatter of puke on the linoleum next to the toilet. The kitchen counters are littered with empty bottles and scarlet rings of wine. The garbage can is out from under the sink and stuffed with pizza boxes and crumpled bags of chips. I take the pizza boxes out and set them on the counter to put them in the compost later.
There’s a beer bottle filled with cigarette butts on my nightstand. The air smells stale and rank. Somebody probably passed out in my bed last night.
I rip off the sheets and open the window and lock the door and lie down on a spare blanket from the hall closet. I cover my head with my uncased pillow and fall asleep.