GIRL AGAINST THE UNIVERSE

“Filled with equal amounts of empathy, humor, and heart, Girl Against the Universe is an empowering story about finding the courage to piece your life back together, even when it feels irreparably broken.”
-Tamara Ireland Stone, 
 NYT bestselling author of Every Last Word

“I loved this sweet, slow-burn romance. Sports fiction at its best!”
 -Miranda Kenneally, 
  bestselling author of Catching Jordan

“Maguire is a brave, relatable character...There are friendships formed, family relationships tested and restored, and issues of identity explored. This is a satisfying and breezy book with likeable characters working through trauma to move to better, healthier places in their lives.”
-Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)


Maguire is bad luck.

No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when Maguire is around. Like that time the rollercoaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time the house next door caught on fire. Or that time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash—and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch.

It’s safest for Maguire to hide out in her room, where she can cause less damage and avoid meeting new people who she could hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star. Jordy is confident, talented, and lucky, and he’s convinced he can help Maguire break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for Jordy is to stay away. But it turns out staying away is harder than she thought.

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GIRL AGAINST THE UNIVERSE: READ THE BEGINNING

AUGUST

Chapter 1
Session #1

There’s a thing that sometimes happens in your brain when you’re the only survivor of a horrific accident. Part of you is happy because you’re alive, but the rest of you is devastated. Then the sad part beats up the happy part until nothing is left, until all you feel is terrible sorrow for the people who didn’t make it. And guilt. Guilt because you wonder if the Universe made a mistake. Guilt because you know you’re not any better than those who died.

This is what my therapist says, anyway. Since I don’t feel like talking, he’s talking for both of us. I hate people like that, people who think they know what you need to hear, people who think they can read your mind, anticipate your responses. “We’re not all the same,” I want to shout. But I don’t, because if I talk, then he wins. And I have lost enough already.

“Tell me about the car accident.” Dr. Leed leans toward me.

I glance down at my lap. He doesn’t need me to tell him about that. He spent almost an hour “just chatting” with my mom. I’m sure she filled him in on the gory details.

It happened almost five years ago, when I was eleven. My dad, Uncle Kieran, my brother Connor, and I were heading home from a day of rock climbing at a park outside of San Luis Obispo, where I grew up.

Connor and I were fighting about this boy who lived down the street when I saw the giant truck veer dangerously into our lane. The driver must have lost control of his rig as he navigated the twisting mountain road. Dad tried to swerve onto the shoulder at the last second, but we were driving along the side of a hill and there was just a few feet of concrete and a flimsy guardrail. The back of the truck clipped us and sent both vehicles straight through the guardrail and down the incline. Our car flipped end over end and landed in a rocky ravine. Dad, Uncle Kieran, and Connor were dead before the paramedics could get to us.

I didn’t even get hurt.

I was still in the ER when the newspaper people found me. They called me the miracle kid. I’ll never forget how they buzzed around, asking prying questions about what I remembered and why I thought I got spared. I had just lost three members of my family and these people wanted to talk about the luck of the Irish.

My mom tried to shield me from the reporters, but eventually she gave up and posed with me for a few pictures so they would go away. She said focusing on how I was alive would help everyone cope with losing my dad and uncle, two of the town’s most decorated firefighters. It didn’t help me cope. All I could think was that I should have been nicer to Connor. He was just teasing me. How can something feel so crucial in the moment and then seem completely trivial after the fact?

“Maguire?” Dr. Leed manages to sound both authoritative and concerned.

I shake my head. Reaching up, I pull the ponytail holder from around my bun. I gather my thick curly hair in my hands and twist it tighter and tighter until my eyes start to water. I coil it around in a circle and secure it again.

Dr. Leed taps a couple of sentences into his tablet computer. I’m not close enough to read what they say. “What about the roller coaster?” he asks.

Right. The next year, when I was twelve, a roller coaster car I was riding in careened off the tracks and crashed to the ground at a nearby amusement park. That accident wasn’t quite as serious—we were at the bottom of a hill when it happened, and at least no one died—but every single passenger in our car had serious injuries, except for me. My best friend at the time broke both legs, and another friend needed plastic surgery because she landed on her face. I walked away with a couple of scratches that didn’t even require stitches. No one called me a miracle kid that time, but the crazy lady who begs for change at the gas station called me a witch.

We moved after that.

And then a few weeks ago, I left a candle burning on my windowsill and went for a run. When I came back an hour later the next door neighbors’ house was completely engulfed in flames. You wouldn’t think a brick house could go up like a box of matches from one teensy dollar store votive, but it did.

And so we moved again. This time just to the other side of San Diego, but far enough away to put me in a different school district. Mom said it was because our house had smoke damage, but I’m pretty sure it was because she didn’t want to be the mom with the crazy kid who all the other moms whispered about.

That’s what landed me back in therapy. Not the moving part—the fire. Because apparently I snapped and ran toward the burning building. Then, as one of the firefighters carried me away from the danger, kicking and screaming, I kept telling him how the whole thing was my fault and how he had to save everybody because I couldn’t have any more deaths on my conscience. I don’t even remember saying that, but I remember the resulting trip to the hospital and the way the staff all hurried in and out of my room like I was a lit fuse. I remember the psychiatrist asking me if I wanted to hurt myself, the police asking me if I wanted to hurt other people, and my mother sitting next to me in a chair, not asking me anything, her fingers curled protectively around mine the entire time.

“I don’t want to talk about that either.” I raise my head just long enough to meet Dr. Leed’s eyes. They’re a warm brown, obscured partially by the navy blue glasses he wears. He runs one of his pinkies along his bottom lip. His nail beds look a little gray, like maybe he sported some black nail polish recently. I swear everybody in Southern California has a secret second life. Housewives are aspiring actresses. Busboys are screenwriters. Shrinks are rock stars. Nobody is okay with only being one person. I get tired just thinking about it.

I lean back in my chair and try to envision Dr. Leed as a punk rocker. It’s not too much of a stretch. He’s got dark brown hair that’s a little long for a medical professional, and I can see the outlines of forearm tattoos through the thin fabric of his long-sleeved shirt.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asks.

“Nothing.” I scrape the toes of my sandals back and forth across the patterned carpet. It’s black with overlapping white circles, but if you squint a little, the circles almost look like skulls.

“Okay,” he says. “I can’t make you talk.” He taps some more notes into his computer.

I watch the movement of his fingers, trying to guess what he’s writing, but he’s too fast. “What are you saying about me?”

“What makes you think I’m saying anything about you?” He gives me a half-smile. “Maybe I’m just emailing my girlfriend.”

I return his half-smile with a quarter-smile, more than a lot of people get. I decide I don’t completely hate him after all.

***

The waiting area is empty except for a boy who looks as if he’s been professionally assembled-- distressed jeans you can only buy for about two hundred bucks a pop, messy brownish-blond hair you can only get with a fair amount of product and patience, ridiculous tan without any obvious signs of peeling. He’s not hot, exactly—his nose is a little crooked and he’s a bit lanky, like a baby giraffe still growing into his limbs—but he sure knows how to work with what he’s got.

The boy looks up from a sports magazine as I shut the door to the inner office behind me. Cocking his head, he studies me with a harmless sort of curiosity for a moment before dropping his eyes back to his article. He pulls his long legs in close to the seat as I pass by so I don’t trip over them. It’s the kind of low-key, friendly gesture I appreciate.

“Thanks,” I say.

“You’re welcome,” the boy says, which strikes me as odd. Who says that? You’re welcome. It’s so strangely formal.

Dr. Leed’s receptionist slides open a frosted glass partition and motions to the boy. “He’s ready for you,” she mouths. She’s got a black phone pinned between her shoulder and ear while she looks up something on the computer. The boy tosses the magazine onto the chair next to him. He stands, stretching his arms over his head. “Wish me luck.” He flashes me a conspiratorial grin. Even his smile looks engineered—warm, friendly, just the right amount of lips and teeth. But it aligns all the rest of his features in a way that makes me second-guess my earlier judgment about his hotness.

“Good luck,” I mumble.

Little does he know I’m the last person he should be asking for luck.


Chapter 2

Session #2

Dr. Leed is listening to wailing guitar music on his phone and eating an In-N-Out burger when I arrive for this week’s session. He quickly tidies his desk and slips his phone into his top drawer.

“Sorry,” he says, rotating his chair around so he’s facing me. “I usually grab dinner before your appointment, but I got a bit behind schedule today.”

I shrug. “It’s fine.”

“What about you? Are you fine?”

“Yep.” I fidget with a strand of black hair that’s escaped from my bun, twisting and untwisting it around my finger.

Dr. Leed tries the same exact series of questions this week about the accidents and the fire and gets the same (lack of) response from me. Halfway through the session he gives up and grabs a magazine from a small table.

I glance over casually when I think he’s not looking. “Science, huh?” I say. “I had you figured as more of a music magazine guy.”

“You think you’ve got me all figured out, do you?” He smiles slightly. “What about you? What do you read?”

“Novels. A lot of action/adventure stuff. Oh, and nonfiction survival guides.” When you’ve got luck like mine, you can never be too prepared for impending disaster.

Dr. Leed and I chat about books for a few minutes, and just when I’m thinking I might like him--a little--he glances at the clock. “We’re running out of time. You want to talk about why you’re really here?”

And just like that, something inside of me slams shut. “I’m here because my mom says I have to be.”

Dr. Leed drums his fingertips on the edge of his chair. “Well if you’re going to be stuck here every week for a while, why not talk about things? I can help you if you let me, Maguire.”

I shake my head. “No one can help.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because the Universe hates me.”

***

I tug the ponytail holder out of my hair as I hit the waiting room. Dark curls spill across my pale shoulders. I rub my scalp with my fingertips and then reach down to tuck my mystic knot amulet back under the neckline of my shirt. The mystic knot is a Buddhist symbol of luck that I bought online after the roller coaster accident. It’s supposed to bring positive energy to every aspect of your life. I wear it 24-7—when I’m sleeping, when I’m showering, even in gym class.

Especially in gym class. High school gym can be dangerous.

I cringe at the thought. I can’t believe how fast the summer flew by. It’s almost time for school to start.

As I cross the waiting room, the receptionist waves and Perfectly Assembled Boy glances up. He gives me a longer look this time—so long that I start to feel a little awkward. I peek back at him as I open the door to the hallway.

“Your hair,” he says finally. “It’s so . . . big.”

I get this sort of thing occasionally, normally from friends of my mom. I’ve got one of those manes that everyone likes to ooh and ahh over but no one really wants for their own. Thick black hair that hangs past my shoulders in corkscrew curls and sticks out a few inches from my head if I don’t tame it down and tie it back. Kind of like that old-school guitarist Slash, only I’m a lot smaller than he is, so my hair looks even bigger. I almost always wear it in a bun.

I freeze with my hand on the doorknob, unsure of exactly how to respond, or if I should even bother. “Yeah, okay,” I say finally.

“It’s like it has its own life force,” the boy continues. “Very stellar.”

“Thanks . . . I think.”

He hops up from his chair. “Can I touch it?”

“No,” I say, a bit sharper than I intended.

He holds his hands up in mock surrender. “Sorry. Stupid question. But if you ask me, you should wear it down all the time.”

“No one asked you,” I say. But I give this boy a quarter-smile too.


Chapter 3

Session #3

Dr. Leed has that same screeching guitar music playing this week as I shuffle into the office. I wonder if it’s him, and he’s reviewing his performance from last night’s band practice.

His brown eyes follow me from behind his glasses, like he’s analyzing everything—my clothes, my posture, the way I walk. I slide into the chair and affix a neutral expression to my face.

“Let’s talk about something you said last time,” Dr. Leed starts. “You said the Universe hates you. What did you mean?”

“I mean I’m unlucky. Bad stuff happens around me.” I fold my hands in my lap. “You’re risking your life just by being in this room with me.”

“Maguire, you’re not responsible for the car accident or the roller coaster malfunction. Remember what I said about survivor’s guilt the first session.”

I wasn’t paying much attention during the first session, but I think he said it was a form of PTSD. “Yeah, but you weren’t there,” I say. “You don’t get it.”

“I understand why you feel the way you do, but there’s a difference between correlation and causation. Do you know what that means?”

“It means just because I was present at an accident doesn’t mean I caused it. But going rock climbing was my idea. The amusement park was my idea. Everyone else got hurt or died.” My voice rises in pitch. “And those aren’t the only instances. And all the events have only one thing in common: me. What other explanation is there besides that it’s my fault, that I’m . . . cursed or something?”

“Maybe you would’ve gotten hurt too, but you actually have really good luck?”

“Nope. I tested my positive luck.” I pull a midsize spiral notebook out of my purse. The words “Luck Notebook” are scrawled in black ink across the cover. “The front part is all the bad things that have happened over the past few years, and the next section is where I entered a hundred contests trying to see if maybe I was lucky and had just been spared. And after that is where I spent an entire summer trying every ‘de-curse yourself’ spell and product I could find on the internet.”

Dr. Leed takes the notebook from me and skims through it, pausing briefly in the middle. He shakes his head. “Look at all these websites. Who knew de-cursing was such a booming business? Tomato juice bath? Isn’t that just for if you get sprayed by a skunk?”

“There’s a lady in Alabama who swears by it.”

He flips back to the beginning of the notebook. “So before the fire there was the car accident, the roller coaster, and then a bit later an issue at a birthday party?”

I nod. “I went to my friend’s sleepover party and everyone but me got sick. And then for a while nothing major happened, but there were smaller things, like the time some rollerbladers fell down while I was running past them.”

“Okay, but maybe these events were just an unfortunate set of circumstances? You were in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“Well, if so, people should probably not be in the same place as me. That’s like being hit by lightning five or six times.” Only it’s not. It’s worse. It’s like being with your friends and family and watching them get hit by lightning while you just stand there, unscathed, wishing you’d never suggested leaving the house in the first place.

“So you really believe that you’re . . . cursed?”

“I know it sounds crazy.”

“‘Crazy’ is a word that has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless,” Dr. Leed says. “It sounds like a lot for any one person to deal with.”

“All I know is my being around other people puts them at risk.”

“So then how do you handle that?” he asks.

“I keep to myself,” I mutter.

Once I accepted the fact that I was bad luck, I shied away from group activities. And groups. And activities. I started spending a lot of time in my room, tucked under my covers reading books. There’s only so much damage a book can do, and I wasn’t worried about hurting myself. Accidentally hurting yourself is way better than hurting other people.

Sure, I got lonely for a while. But getting invited to slumber parties just wasn’t worth the stress of wondering if I might accidentally burn down the house with my flat iron or be the only survivor of a freak sleepover massacre. And loneliness is just like everything else—if you endure it long enough, you get used to it.

***

Perfectly Assembled Boy is in the waiting room again, this time looking a little less perfectly assembled. He’s wearing shiny basketball shorts and a hoodie. His wet hair is slicked back behind his ears, making his blond streaks look painted on.

He looks up from his magazine and catches me staring. “You can take a picture if you want,” he says, his voice perfectly level.

“I’ll pass,” I snap as I hurry for the door. What an ass. It’s not like he wasn’t checking me out last week, talking all that crap about my hair.

I switch my phone off silent as I head for the stairs. There’s a text from my mom. I swear under my breath as I read it. I dropped her car off for routine maintenance at the shop across the street before my appointment, but it turns out they found a bigger problem and are going to keep it until tomorrow. My stepdad is working late, and Mom won’t be able to pick me up for an hour and a half. If I were normal, I would just take a bus or a taxi home.

I am not normal.

I text her back and let her know it’s no problem, that I’ll just find a place to read and she can text me when she gets here.

I find a comfy chair in a deserted corner of the lobby and drop my purse on the small wooden table next to it. As I settle into the chair, I do what I call a five-second check. I scan the furniture, the floor, the ceiling, and everywhere in between. There are people going in and out of the bathrooms, but no obvious hazards. No lurking strangers. When you’re a disaster magnet like me, it makes sense to constantly be assessing your environment for danger. I’m not too worried about anything bad happening inside Dr. Leed’s inner office because it’s just the two of us, but any time I’m stuck in public I try to do a quick check of my surroundings every few minutes.

I knock three times on the wooden table and then pull the book I’m reading out of my purse. I open to the page where I left off and set my special Irish-penny good luck bookmark on the table. Seven chapters and seven five-second checks later, I’m just about to get to a really good part when a shadow falls over my page.

“You’re still here.”

I look up. Perfectly Assembled Boy has materialized in front of me. For being about six foot five, he’s shockingly light on his feet.

“Um . . . yes.” I turn to the next page of my book with a meaningful flourish and start reading, but my eyes trace the same sentence over and over because the boy isn’t leaving.

He sits down in the chair next to me, crossing his long legs at the ankles. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

I peer over at him. “Should I?” Maybe his comment about taking a picture was serious. I try to reconcile his image with everyone I’ve seen on TV recently. Nope, no matches.

“No.” He grins. Perfect smile 2.0. I have the sudden urge to buy toothpaste. “I was hoping you didn’t. Do you want to go somewhere?”

I snicker and then realize he’s serious. “Like, with you?”

“No. All alone. I want this corner for myself.” He rolls his eyes. “Yes, with me.”

I think for a second about what life must be like for this boy, someone who can sit down next to a total stranger and ask her to go somewhere like she’s a friend. How does he know I won’t tell him to get lost? How does he know I won’t accidentally get him run over by a bus? “Sorry. No can do. Waiting for a ride.”

The boy runs a hand through his hair. It’s mostly dry now and it sticks up in awkward sandy peaks. “Call your ride and tell them I’ll drive you home.”

“My mom’s not going to go for me taking off with some strange guy.” Not to mention I would never go for that. Since the accident, I’ve only been in a car by myself or with my mom. And the only reason I can bear it with Mom driving is because for a while I had no choice. I couldn’t exactly drive myself around when I was eleven. Still, my pediatrician had to give me sedatives for several months just to get me near a car without having a major panic attack.

“Okay.” The boy points across the lobby. “There’s an ice cream shop over there. Come there with me instead. Plenty of people around to keep you safe from this strange guy.”

I flinch. I walked past that shop on my way into the building. It was packed. Way too many opportunities for people to get hurt. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

My eyes skim past the boy for another five-second check. Furniture fine. Floor fine. Ceiling fine. A lady and her toddler are making their way down the hallway. The little girl’s sparkly shoes are moving too slow for the rest of her body. Just when I’m positive she’s going to trip, her mom bends down and scoops her up in her arms. They disappear into the ladies’ restroom.

The boy is talking. Apparently he’s been talking, but I haven’t been paying attention. I generally tune people out when I’m doing my checks.

“Am I hideous to you or something?” he asks.

Some girls might find him less appealing today, without his hair product and two-hundred-dollar jeans, but I sort of like his dressed-down look. And that smile is growing on me. Definitely not hideous. “No . . . I just don’t know you.”

The boy hits his forehead with his palm. “That’s why we’re going to get ice cream.”

“I can’t. It’s nothing personal. I don’t really hang out with people.”

He tilts his head to the side. “What do you hang out with?”

“Books, mostly.”

“Okay. Well, I know when to give up.” He gestures at my novel. “I’ll leave you two alone together. Same time next week?” He holds his hand up for a fist bump.

Gingerly, I press my pale knuckles to his overly tanned ones. “Same time next week.”

He turns and strides across the marble floor of the lobby toward the ice-cream shop, his hair flopping with each step. For some reason, I miss him a little after he’s gone.

But before I can even finish another chapter, he’s back, a cup of ice cream in each hand. “I got you vanilla,” he says. “You seem like a girl who plays it safe.” He sits down in the chair next to me again.

“You got that right,” I say. “And playing it safe does not involve being accosted by random strangers.”

“I’m not random. I’m the guy after you at Daniel’s office.”

I arch an eyebrow. “You call Dr. Leed Daniel?”

He mimics my eyebrow and scornful tone. “You call Daniel Dr. Leed?”

“I don’t really call him anything. I try not to talk much,” I admit.

“Oh, so you’re one of those. Perfect. You don’t have to talk much to me either.” He thrusts the ice cream in my direction. “Here. Take this in exchange for putting up with me for a few minutes.”

“What is your deal?” I take the paper cup he’s offering. The ice cream is starting to melt. “I thought you knew when to quit.”

His cheeks go pink—I’ve touched a nerve. “Sorry. It’s just, you seem normal, and I need to hang out with someone who doesn’t know who I am.”

“Why?”

“For my homework.” He pauses. “You know—the shrink homework.” Without waiting for me to respond he says, “Are your sessions different? Do you not get homework?”

“None so far.” Is this what I have to look forward to? Shrink homework? On top of the school homework I’ll have soon?

The boy taps one foot against the tile floor. “Mine go like this: Small talk. Then I discuss how I’m doing with my goals. Then I think up more homework assignments while Daniel flips through the latest issue of Guitar Player. Basically he makes me do all the shrink work and the client work. Pretty clever on his part.”

“Guitar Player—I knew it!” I say. “What is he? Full-time psychologist, part-time rock star?”

“No idea,” the boy says. “But I’m supposed to find someone who doesn’t know me and hang out with them, and since most people know me, I had to seize this opportunity.”

“Who are you?” I take a small bite of ice cream, doing another five-second check as it melts on my tongue.

He shakes his head. “Nope. That’ll wreck things.”

“This is really good.” I take another bite. “Are you, like, famous . . . or infamous?”

The boy grins. “I would say neither, but certain people would disagree.”

“Boy band singer?” I ask. “Reality TV show contestant?”

He shakes his head.

“Failed child actor? College basketball star?”

“Ha. You’re getting warmer.”

“I give up. You’re not even going to tell me your name?”

“I’d prefer not to.”

I shrug. “Works for me.”

And so the two of us sit there for a few minutes, eating our ice cream and making vague noises of approval. The boy slides my book out of my hand. He flips it over and makes a face. “A book about a boy with mad cow disease? Sounds uplifting.”

“You’d be surprised.” I peek over at his cup. “You got yourself vanilla too?”

He nods. “I’m more of a mint chip guy, but it’s good to do something different now and then.”

I think about that for a second. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

The boy gives me another smile and the temperature in the room goes up a couple of degrees. ”Do you want to see where I was going to take you?” he asks. “You totally missed out.”

“Oh yeah?” I finish the ice cream and set my empty cup on the table between us.

He pulls out his phone and swipes at the screen. A folder of images pops up. “Yeah. My friend showed me this place up the coast that you can only get to when the tide is low, this little rock island. Dolphins hang out there a lot.” He hands the phone over to me.

The pictures look like they belong on postcards—the blue of the Pacific spraying up onto jagged gray rocks, the sun setting in the distance painting the clouds a rainbow of red and orange, a cluster of seven or eight dolphin fins jutting out from beneath the crystal surface of the water. I would like it; pretty sure I’d love it, but for some reason I feel like messing with this boy. I toss the phone back to him. “Just because I’m a girl means I like dolphins?”

“More like because you’re a human. Everyone likes dolphins.” He sets his empty ice-cream cup next to mine.

“Well. Probably not everyone.”

He shakes his head. “Pretty sure everyone. ‘Oh, ugh, not dolphins. I hate them.’ That doesn’t even sound right.” He pokes me in the arm.

I twitch. I can’t remember the last time I was touched by someone who wasn’t related to me.

The boy keeps talking, oblivious. “They’ve got those smiley faces and big brains, and it’s so annoying the way they’re always learning complex languages in captivity and saving drowning fishermen in the wild.”

“Okay, probably most people,” I say. My phone buzzes in my purse. I pull it out. There’s a text from my mom saying she’s parked in front. “I’ve got to run, Dolphin Boy. Thanks for the ice cream.” I hop up from the chair and sling my purse over my shoulder. “We’ll have to finish this discussion another time.”

The boy points at the floor. “Is that your bookmark?”

Sure enough; when I grabbed my purse I must have knocked my lucky bookmark to the ground. I start to bend, but he quickly reaches down, picks it up, and hands it to me. “See you next week, Dolphin Hater.”

I can’t help but grin as I head for the door.

But then my smile fades.

Maybe this boy is right. Maybe I am missing out.


Chapter 4

Session #4

I’m not just missing out on dolphins.

I’m getting ready to leave for my therapy appointment when my mom looks up from the kitchen table, the pages of a handwritten letter spread in front of her. I recognize the looping script immediately.

“How would you like to see your Grandma Siobhan again?” Mom asks.

Siobhan is my dad’s mom, a vivacious gray-haired lady who runs a horse farm in Ireland. I met her only twice: once when I was seven, when she traveled to the United States for Christmas, and then again at the funerals. She’s actually the one who gave me my lucky penny bookmark. She used to write Mom and me letters when I was little. She’d send pictures of the new foal each time there was a birth. After the accident we slowly lost touch. I figure it’s because thinking of Mom and me makes her think of Dad and Kieran. She lost both of her sons in one day.

“Grandma Siobhan wants to come here?” I ask hopefully. “That would be amazing.” I scan the kitchen, searching for Mom’s car keys, but my eyes are drawn back to the pages of my grandmother’s letter.

My mom exhales slowly. “Actually she invited us to Ireland. She’s having a special gathering to honor your dad, uncle, and brother. Since this December will be—”

“Five years,” I whisper.

Mom nods. “Apparently everyone is going to come. Relatives I didn’t even know we had. You could see where your dad grew up, his house, his town . . .”

My eyes start to water. “You know I can’t get on a plane, Mom. I can’t even ride in a car with other people.”

“I told her that’s what you would say, but I wanted to run it by you . . . just in case.”

“Just in case what? I turned into someone else while you were having other kids?” My mom recoils, and I immediately regret my words. I have a half-sister, Erin, who is two and a half, and a new baby half-brother named Jacob. They are both adorable, and I love them to pieces. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”

My mom nods again, but I can see that my words had hurt her. “I just thought . . . in case Dr. Leed might be able to help you.”

“I don’t think he’s a magician,” I say. “But I guess it can’t hurt to ask.”

***

But once I arrive at the office, it takes me a few minutes to work up the nerve to mention my grandmother’s invitation.“Hey, Dr. Leed,” I say, as I settle into my usual chair. No music today. He’s drinking a coffee from the shop next door.

“Hi, Maguire. You seem . . . different.”

“Who’s the guy that comes after me?” I ask.

Dr. Leed shakes his head. “You know I can’t tell you that.”

I tap my flip-flop against the black and white carpet. “Then just tell me what he does. Is he famous?”

Dr. Leed’s eyes brighten behind his glasses. A smile plays at his lips. “Why the sudden interest in him?”

I clear my throat. “No, it’s not like that. He just made a point of asking me if I knew him, and I was wondering why he thought I would.”

“Ah. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about my other clients.” Dr. Leed sips his coffee.

I cross my arms. “You are not very helpful.”

He sets the coffee cup on the desk behind him. “I could be, if you let me.”

Grandma Siobhan’s letter flashes in my head, followed by my mom’s hopeful look. I take a deep breath. “Yeah. About that. I heard you give people homework.”

“You heard wrong. I help people create challenges for themselves.”

“So like, you think these challenges can fix me?”

Dr. Leed leans back in his chair. “You’re not a toaster, Maguire. You’re not here to be fixed.” He makes air quotes around the word “fixed.” “The first thing you need to realize is that mental health is fluid. It’s not like you have an infection and a doctor gives you antibiotics and then you’re cured. No matter what the two of us accomplish together, you’re still going to have good days and bad days. Make sense?”

“I guess,” I mumble. “Though I think I might rather be a toaster.”

“You and me both.” Dr. Leed smiles. “What I try to do is get my clients to tell me where they are and where they want to be. And then we figure out together how to get you there.”

“And this has actually worked for you?”

He laughs under his breath. “Once or twice.” For a second we both just sit there, looking at each other. Then he says, “What’s changed? Two weeks ago you didn’t want to talk at all. Why are you suddenly interested in therapy challenges?”

“I want to go to Ireland,” I blurt out. I tell him about Grandma Siobhan and her horse farm, about the memorial service, about the look on my mom’s face when she brought it up. “I wish there was a way I could do this for her.”

“It helps if your goal is something you want to do for yourself,” Dr. Leed says kindly.

I take in a deep breath, let it out slowly. “I want to do it for me too. I want to see where my dad grew up, see my grandma again, meet all my relatives.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t get on a plane! I can’t even ride a bus or be in the car when my stepdad is driving.”

“So you’re afraid of public transportation?”

I shake my head. “I wish it were that simple. It’s like I told you last week. I’m afraid of hurting people.”

Dr. Leed’s cell phone vibrates on the desk behind him, startling both of us. He reaches over to grab it, peeks at the screen, and then tucks it into his pocket. “Sorry about that. Hurting people. But you mean indirectly, because you might be . . . cursed.”

“Yes—like I showed you in my notebook. Bad things happen to other people when I’m around.”

“Well I don’t know if any challenge is going to convince you that you’re not cursed, but the type of therapy I do is meant to help you face your fears and also to restructure your thought processes. That way, even if the same things happen, you’ll think about them differently, in a more helpful manner.” He pauses. “I understand why you’ve been isolating yourself, but we can both agree that it isn’t healthy, right?

“I guess,” I mutter.

“So basically you need to do things around other people and have nothing terrible happen. And then if that works okay, maybe we can get you on public transportation of some sort, and ideally help you see that you and everyone else can survive a plane ride to Ireland.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly.” I sigh. Saying it aloud makes it feel like an impossible task. “Sure you’re up for the challenge?”

“You’re the one who’s going to be doing all the work,” Dr. Leed says. “I generally have clients come up with a list of ten things and have them try to complete one challenge each week.”

“Ten? That feels like a lot. What about five?”

Dr. Leed raises an eyebrow. “What about seven?”

“Lucky seven.” I nod. “I guess it could work. But where do I even start?”

“We don’t have to come up with the whole list at once, but I recommend things like sitting in a public area, talking to a stranger, riding in a car with someone besides your mom.”

I think of Perfectly Assembled Boy. “I talked to a stranger last week,” I say proudly. “And can I count school for sitting in a public area?”

Dr. Leed taps a few notes into his computer. “If you think being around people is dangerous to them, how do you manage to go to class and sit in a room with thirty other students?”

“I tried to get my mom to homeschool me after the birthday party incident, but she said no way. So I do these safety checks.” I tell him about my five-second checks, how I look for fraying electrical cords or tripping hazards or classmates who look like they could get violent, etc. “I also knock on wood a lot, throw salt over my shoulder, wear a lucky amulet—you know, basic good luck stuff.” I shrug. “Can’t hurt, right?”

“So your mom forced you into an uncomfortable situation, and you came up with a way to help yourself cope?”

I chew on my bottom lip. “I never thought about it like that. Yeah. I guess I did.”

“How much time do you spend on these things?” Dr. Leed asks.

“Not too much,” I say. “I have a series of good luck rituals I do each morning when I wake up. And then maybe a few times an hour for the checks.”

Dr. Leed enters more notes. “And how much time do you spend each day worrying about bad things that might happen?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Developing obsessive-compulsive disorder secondary to PTSD would be unusual, but it wouldn’t be unheard of.”

“Great,” I say. “The ER docs said I had anxiety, and you said I have PTSD, and now I have OCD too? Isn’t that where people wash their hands like forty times a day?”

“OCD is characterized by irrational or excessive worrying and repetitive behaviors that are done because of those worries, but like anything else, there’s wide variance when it comes to the actual symptoms and their severity.”

“Oh.” I guess I can see where my checks and rituals might qualify. I chew on my lower lip some more.

“What are your grades like?” Dr. Leed asks.

“I get all As. Maybe a B in gym.”

“And how are things at home?”

“You mean like do I get along with my parents and brother and sister? Yeah, we’re good.”

“Okay.” He types more notes into his computer. “If you’re spending less than an hour a day on your coping mechanisms and it’s not affecting your daily functioning, then you probably don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for OCD. But either way, secondary diagnoses are often transient.”

“Meaning you can fix me?”

“Meaning if we address the underlying cause, then the symptoms might resolve on their own,” he says. “So back to the primary problem. You don’t think you can survive a plane ride by doing your checks and rituals?”

“No way.” My heart thuds audibly in my chest as I imagine my mom dragging me screaming and crying onto a plane, concerned passengers recording me with their cell phones, flight attendants calling for airport security.

“Why not?”

“Because I know what to expect in a classroom. I know what to look for. I don’t on a plane, and even if I saw something, there might be no way to fix it, you know? I wouldn’t have any control.”

“I see,” Dr. Leed says. “So we need to start with something where you don’t know exactly what to expect. Something slightly tougher than sitting in class. What about joining a club, or even better, trying out for a sports team? Exercise tends to reduce anxiety and improve mood.”

The only sport I’ve done recently is running. I started jogging a couple of years ago as a way to stay in shape. “Would cross country count?”

Dr. Leed adjusts his glasses. “I’d prefer to see you attempt something with a little more interaction. How about track and field?”

“That’s a spring sport, I think.”

“Are there any other fall sports that interest you?”

I start to tell him that other sports are too dangerous, but then I stop. I used to play tennis a lot when I was little. Tennis was Mom’s thing the way rock climbing was Dad and Uncle Kieran’s. Dad, Mom, Connor, and I would play doubles at the park by our house. Connor and I even took lessons for a while. I haven’t played in years, but maybe if I got out on a court the technique would come back to me. And when it comes to safe sports, tennis is probably the next best thing to running cross country.

“How about tennis? Is that interactive enough for you?”

Dr. Leed nods. “Do you think you could survive trying out for the tennis team if you did your good luck rituals and your five-second checks?”

Most points in tennis are only a couple of minutes long. I could get away with doing quick scans in between them to make sure no one was in danger of tripping over an untied shoelace or a runaway tennis ball. “Probably. But what if I can’t? What if I freak out or something?”

“Do you have a certain way you calm yourself down if you start to feel anxious?”

I nod. “My old therapist taught me a bunch of different techniques—square breathing, visualization, relaxing all of my muscles.”

“I find coping statements can be helpful too,” Dr. Leed says. “Just something simple to remind yourself that the situation isn’t as dire as it might feel. Maybe something like ‘I can’t control the Universe’ or ‘No one is going to die.’”

“Okay, but what if I go out for the team and don’t make it? Or I do make it, and I hate it?”

“Then you quit?”

“And that’s okay with you?”

“Anything is okay with me, Maguire. You have to do this at your own pace, but if you want to go from where you are now to getting on an international flight in December, you’re going to have to push yourself a bit.”

My hands shake a little at the thought of tennis tryouts, at the combination of worrying about other people and being stared at and judged. I guess as the new girl at school I’ll be stared at anyway. And as long as I do my five-second checks, a tennis court isn’t a whole lot more dangerous than a classroom.

Maybe.

I see Mom’s face again, her expression a mix of hope and resignation. This trip to Ireland means a lot to her. It would mean a lot to me too. I was still in shock when my family was buried. I could use a second chance to say good-bye.

I nod. “Okay, I’ll try. So that’s challenge number one then? Try out for the tennis team? I’ll do it. For my mom, and for Ireland.”

“And for yourself,” Dr. Leed reminds me.

“And for myself,” I repeat.

***

“You’re smiling,” Perfectly Assembled Boy says. Today he’s back in his fancy jeans and button-up shirt, his hair impeccably messy.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.” He glances down at his phone and rolls his eyes at the screen before tucking it into his pocket. “Did you tell him you talked to me?”

“I tried to get him to tell me your secret identity,” I admit. “But he wouldn’t tell me who you are.”

“Good.” The boy looks away for a second. “He doesn’t know anyway—not really. I’m not even sure if I know anymore.”



SEPTEMBER

Chapter 5

“Maguire, don’t forget you have tennis tryouts after school,” my mom says with entirely too much enthusiasm. She’s at the counter slicing fruit, the baby monitor propped up against the side of a mango.

“Got it.” I stifle a yawn. As if I could forget. My mom was thrilled to hear I was going out for the tennis team. She’s always telling me I need to get out of the house more and meet people. Is it me, or is my mom the only mom in the history of ever who told her kid to spend less time reading and more time being social? Doesn’t she know the chances of me getting drunk, pregnant, and/or arrested are much lower if I never leave my room?

I spoon some oatmeal into my favorite bowl with the painted white elephants around the rim and take my usual seat across from my half-sister Erin. When my mom isn’t looking, I toss a little salt over my left shoulder. Erin catches me and giggles. “Maguire,” she says in her high-pitched voice, mangling my name just slightly so it sounds like Mack Wire.

“Shh.” I raise a finger to my lips. Her bright blue eyes sparkle. She’s just a little kid. She’ll play along.

Casually, I let my hand drop to my chair, where I knock three times. My stepdad, Tom, looks up from his newspaper. He’s an engineer of some sort. Chemical? Mechanical? Honestly, I don’t know, but then I’ve never made much of an effort to ask. Don’t get me wrong; he’s not a wicked stepfather or anything. He’s basically cool. It’s just even after three years, it still feels like I’d be betraying my real dad if I got too close to him.

“I hope the new racquet works out for you.” Tom tugs at the knot in his tie.

“I’m sure it’ll be great.” I force a smile.

He and my mom bought me this top-of-the-line graphite–titanium–moon rock bulletproof two-hundred-dollar racquet. I appreciate the gesture, but unless it’s going to play for me, there’s no guarantee I’ll make the team. And unless it’s magical, there’s no guarantee something bad won’t happen.

The oatmeal begins to congeal in my stomach when I start brainstorming about accidents that could occur during something as seemingly benign as tennis tryouts.

“Knock ’em dead, champ,” Tom says. Grabbing his keys, he gives my mom a kiss on the cheek and then heads off to work.

I slide my chair back from the table and mumble something about finishing getting ready. “Dead” is not a word I want associated with today.

***

The school day proceeds in an orderly fashion, thanks to a predictable routine and my five-second checks. I survive first-hour gym and then sit through European Literature and Trig. I eat lunch by myself outside, on the front steps of the school.

While I’m nibbling on a PBJ, I flip through my luck notebook. I used to keep it at home, but my mom found it once when she was putting away my laundry. I told her it was a statistics project I was doing for math class, but ever since then I’ve carried it with me most of the time. It would be really hard to explain all of the documentation I’ve been keeping.

I flip to the very back page and write the word “CHALLENGES.” Then I number from one to seven down the left margin. Next to #1 I write, “Make the tennis team.” Next to #2 I write, “Ride in a car with someone besides Mom.” That’s as far as Dr. Leed and I got, but it feels like plenty to work on.

After lunch, it’s time for physics. My teacher, Mr. Ginger, messes up my name for the second day in a row.

“Kelly?” he calls. “Kelly Maguire?”

I’m used to people reversing my first and last names, since Maguire is a pretty weird first name. I love it, though. It’s Irish, like my dad. When I was younger, people tried to call me stuff like Mac and Mags for short, but fortunately nothing ever stuck.

“It’s Maguire,” I say.

He rubs at the bridge of his nose as he jots something down on his seating chart. He’ll probably spend all semester thinking I’m some jock or ROTC wannabe who likes being called by her last name. I don’t mind.

Once Mr. Ginger finishes taking attendance, he gives us the rest of the hour to read the first chapter in our textbook and answer the discussion questions at the end. I finish them early and then fish a novel about a girl spy out of my backpack. I love adventure stories. Reading about people in mortal peril is much more fun than actual danger.

When the bell rings, I shuffle off to yet another boring lecture class. Juniors can choose from several electives and it’d be fun to take Home Ec or maybe even Theater. But hot stoves? Precariously placed set pieces? That’d be asking for a catastrophe. I only take gym because it’s required every semester. Some school incentive to keep teens active and healthy. What a crock. I’m surprised we’re not all dropping dead from high cholesterol due to the buffalo chicken sandwiches half the school eats for lunch.

I knock on my desk three times. I try not to even think about stuff like mass cholesterol casualties.

My last class of the day is psychology, something I signed up for because it sounded more interesting than any of the other social studies classes. Maybe I can learn something that will help with my therapy challenges. Today my teacher, Ms. Haynes, is talking about boring historical stuff, different schools of thought that led to various types of psychotherapy. Dr. Leed said what he does is called cognitive behavioral therapy. Hopefully we’ll talk about that eventually.

When sixth period finally ends, I head for the locker room. With my back to everyone else, I wriggle out of my jeans and T-shirt and into a pair of shorts and an embroidered polo shirt that my mom insisted would make me look like a serious contender. If you say so, Mom. I toss all of my clothes into my locker, slam it shut, and give my combination lock a spin.

I slink out of the locker room and head for the back door of the school. “Wish me luck,” I mutter to no one in particular.

The afternoon sun blasts me in the face as I step outside onto the blacktop basketball court. The ocean breeze blowing in from the west threatens to make my curly hair even curlier. Beyond the blacktop is the football field, surrounded by our blue and gray track. We’re supposed to meet in the football bleachers for an informational briefing session.

There are twelve girls lined up when I arrive--three orderly rows of four. I’ve never seen so many pleated tennis skirts with color-coordinated socks, shoes, and headbands. I suddenly feel like a ball boy in my shorts and polo.

I tromp up to the back and make a fourth row. The two girls right in front of me are still in their street clothes—one in jeans and flip-flops and the other in a pastel blue sundress and fur-lined Ugg boots. They turn half around to give me a curious look, but neither one bothers to say anything. Both of them were in my psychology class. Sundress Girl sat in the front row and asked a lot of questions about the lecture. Her name is Kami or Kimberly or something.

Coach Hoffman appears from behind the bleachers, a baseball cap pulled low over his pronounced brow and a clipboard balanced on one of his meaty forearms. He paces back and forth on the asphalt track, his neon yellow Nikes treading a repeated path across the stocky body of our mascot, the Pacific Point Porpoise.

A tall Asian girl wearing patterned kneesocks and a black tennis dress emblazoned with purple geometric shapes makes her way up the bleachers, scanning the rows like she’s looking for someone. She was also in my sixth-hour class. She sat in the back with me and redid her nail polish behind her book for most of the period.

“Bloody hell,” she says to no one in particular, in what I think is a British accent. “I cannot believe I’m going to spend all semester with you turnips.” She passes everyone up and comes to sit by me. “You’re the new girl, yeah?” she asks. “Maguire?”

“Yeah.” I scoot a little bit away as she drops her tennis bag on the ground. It’s more of a plain duffel strategically cut and sewn to convert it to a racquet bag. Tiny patches with slogans like “I think, therefore I am (better than you)” and “Death to pop music” cover the front of it.

“Right then,” she says. “I’m Jade.” She dusts off the bleachers with one hand before sitting down. She’s got fresh black and silver polish on every nail except for her thumb, which is adorned with a sunflower decal.

“Jade.” I scoot back toward her. “Nice to meet you.” Okay, so it’s totally dumb to like someone for her name, but jade is lucky in several different cultures. I’m counting this as a good omen.

“Welcome to tennis tryouts.” Coach Hoffman clears his throat. “As most of you know, we lost five seniors last year, so this is going to be a rebuilding season.”

A murmur moves through the crowd. Sundress Girl smoothes her already smooth ponytail and then raises her hand.

Coach gestures to her. “Yes, Kimber?”

“Given all the people that we lost and the relatively small number here today . . .” She pauses to take a look around at the bleachers, not bothering to look back at Jade and me. “I’m thinking that instead of having last year’s squad members go through tryouts again, we might be more useful to you if we spent the next few days trying to recruit some new members.”

“Thank you for the offer,” Coach says. “But it’s always been my policy that every member of the team tries out every single year. For one, this keeps you girls from getting complacent. And two, it helps me decide who will play which positions. We may have lost first, second, and fourth singles, but that does not necessarily guarantee you the top spot.”

Kimber’s back and neck muscles go tense as she sits up even straighter and another murmur moves through the group, this one accompanied by a few giggles. “Of course not,” she says sharply, fiddling with the strap of her sundress. “I was just thinking we might need more than we have here to make a solid team.”

Coach does another lap back and forth across the face of our porpoise mascot. “Oh, I don’t know. I count fourteen girls. We only need ten and a couple of alternates.”

“I see.” Kimber’s shoulders rotate up and back as she inhales deeply, but she doesn’t say anything else.

Jade and I exchange an amused glance.

“Here’s how today will go,” Coach continues. “First we’ll warm up with some calisthenics. Then we’ll break up into groups of two and just hit around for a while so that I can get a first look at some of the new faces and see which of my veterans have stayed in shape over the summer. Once everybody is loosened up, we’ll go from there. Any questions?”

A girl in the second row raises her hand. She looks nervously around the bleachers before speaking. “Will anyone be getting cut today?”

“Good question. No one will be getting cut until next week, so no pressure. Just have fun and don’t try to force it,” Coach says.

Kimber raises her hand again. “Isn’t Jordy going to be helping you out again this season?”

”Right,” Coach says. “I almost forgot. Once again, we’re all going to be lucky enough to have Jordy Wheeler at some of our practices and matches, serving as sort of my manager-slash-assistant.”

“You call that lucky?” a blonde girl in the front row pipes up. She tosses a sun-kissed braid back over one shoulder. Some of the girls giggle.

“For everyone but you,” Coach says. “All right. Anyone who needs to change clothes can go do so. We’ll meet back here in ten minutes to get started.”

I make a big point of slowly gathering my things, allowing the rest of the girls to descend the bleachers before I start so I can’t accidentally trip down the stairs and crush anyone. Even with something as simple as walking, I’m constantly on the lookout for potential hazards. I turn to Jade. “Who’s Jordy Wheeler?”

“Shite. You are new, aren’t you? He’s Pacific Point’s claim to fame—some big-deal junior tennis star.”

“Cool,” I say. “Does he play on the boys’ team?” I fling my tennis bag over my shoulder and make my way to the steps, my court shoes clunking down each of them like I’m a rhinoceros who’s had a few too many drinks.

Behind me, Jade’s footsteps are quiet enough to make a ninja jealous. “No. He goes to some online athlete school, but I believe he has to participate in at least one activity as part of his graduation requirements. He can’t play for the boys’ team because he competes in pro tournaments already, so that’s why he’s going to help coach us.”

“Wow. Lucky us.”

“I suppose. Half the school has a crush on him.” She scoffs. “A bit dodgy, if you ask me.”

“Why?”

“Allegedly his parents don’t let him date, or even hang out with friends much. He eats, sleeps, and breathes tennis.”

“Sounds boring.” Really I’m thinking that it sounds kind of predictable and safe. “But not exactly dodgy.”

“Well from what I hear, Jordy still manages to get plenty of action, if you know what I mean.”

I do. There were guys like that at my old school too, ones who were always single and yet seemed to have hooked up with everyone. Or so people said, anyway. I wasn’t exactly dialed into the social scene.

Jade and I hop down from the bleachers and cross through a gap in the fence to the track, where the other girls are either standing around chatting or engaged in various degrees of stretching. “So what about you?” I ask. “Are you from England or something?”

Jade exhales deeply. “Bloody hell, I thought you’d never ask.” She loses her British accent completely. “Nah. I moved here last year from Seattle. I’m in theater class. I just like to try out accents with people who don’t know me and see if I can fool them.” She turns the accent back on. “So I had you going then? For a bit?”

“For a bit,” I mimic her.

She laughs. “Brilliant.” She rubs her hands together like a mad scientist.

We drop our stuff on the track and do a couple of halfhearted stretches while we wait for everyone to finish changing. Kimber and the girl who was sitting next to her reappear in matching gray skirts and blue tops. Coach Hoffman and a tall boy stroll out of the school a couple of minutes later. The boy has a huge duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a hopper of tennis balls in the opposite hand. It takes me a second to recognize him.

“Dolphin Boy?” I murmur. It’s the guy from Dr. Leed’s office.


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Copyright 2016 by Paula Stokes. All rights reserved.