Seventeen-year-old Micah Foster is looking forward to the return of his girlfriend, Amber, who's been away in Los Angeles recording an EP with her band. But when Amber returns home on the anniversary of Micah's dad's death, something feels different and Micah pushes her away.
Over the next week, as Micah tries to repair his relationship with Amber, he relives the events of the past few years and recognizes a pattern. His friends and family are right--he self-destructs every April, right around the time his dad died, hurting people he cares about in the process. Will Amber be this year's casualty? Or can Micah escape his past in time to fix his present?
INFINITE REPEAT: READ THE BEGINNING
My girlfriend is coming to see me after three weeks of being away, and all I can think about is death. I see blood. Hear sirens. I rest my head in my hands, helplessness overwhelming me like it did that night six years ago.
Not your fault, I tell myself. If only I believed it.
I look up as a white Jeep Cherokee turns the corner onto my street, the tires squealing on the damp pavement. The vehicle slows to a stop, the taillights glowing bright red for a moment as Amber hits the brake pedal before shifting into PARK.
Red like blood.
No. Enough, Micah. I force myself to focus on Amber. I can’t believe she’s finally home.
I can’t believe she picked tonight of all nights to come back.
She kills the engine, flips off her headlights, and the whole scene goes dark. Glancing up, I notice that the streetlight in front of our apartment building is broken as usual. I run my fingers through my mohawk and then tuck both hands into the center pocket of my hoodie, suddenly wishing I’d left the sweatshirt inside. The combination of nerves and warm spring night is making me a little sweaty. I swear under my breath. It’s stupid to be nervous. Amber and I texted every day while she was in Los Angeles. It’s not like anything will be different.
Her blonde hair swishes out behind her like a comet as she cuts across the front lawn. She’s wearing some kind of slinky black dress instead of her usual ripped jeans and T-shirt, and I wonder if she put it on just for me.
Her whole face lights up when she sees me on the porch. “Micah!” She half gallops across the grass.
I scramble to my feet as she approaches, pasting a half smile on my face. There’s something else different about her, not just her clothes, but I can’t put my finger on it. “Hey,” I say finally.
“I missed you.” Amber flings her slender body into my arms, her face ending up against my neck, her silky hair brushing softly against my cheek.
“Missed you too.” I inhale the scent of her lilac perfume as I wrap my arms around her and lift her a foot off the ground. I can feel her ribs through the back of her dress. Well, that’s different. “Damn. Did they starve you?”
She giggles as I set her back on the ground. “No, silly. We were just so busy between recording and practicing and meeting people that I might have missed a few meals.”
I push her hair back from her face. “Don’t miss any more, okay? Wouldn’t want you to disappear.”
“No chance.” She twines her arms around the small of my back and stretches up on her tiptoes to kiss me. As our lips meet, my nerves fade away completely. Amber is back. Everything is the same.
Everything is normal again.
Until I remember what night it is.
We end up hanging out on the porch so we can smoke. My mom is a bloodhound when it comes to cigarette smoke, no matter how much air freshener and perfume we try to cover it up with. It’s safer out here, anyway. There’s less stuff that reminds me of my dad.
Amber leans her head against my shoulder. “So what have you been doing?” she asks. “Catch me up.”
I inhale deeply, watching the tip of my cigarette glow bright orange. “I’ve been going to school and working. There—all caught up.”
“School. Bleh. I wish I didn’t have to go back.” She takes the cigarette from my outstretched hand.
I laugh lightly. “I wasn’t sure if you were going back. Didn’t you say something about touring?” Amber had spent the last three weeks in LA with the rest of her band, Arachne’s Revenge, recording their first studio album.
“Yeah, but the first single isn’t releasing until the end of the summer. Janne—that’s the guy from the label who’s managing us right now—says he’s scheduling a few dates for us over the fall and winter breaks, and then we’ll hopefully be doing a full tour next year after we graduate.” She rolls her eyes. “And I get off probation. I’d start touring right away if I could, but even if my parents let me bail on school, there’s no way Eli or Damien could tour now. Eli’s mom is still talking about making him quit the band to prepare for Stanford.”
“Wow. You’d really drop out?” I ask.
“Maybe. You know school and I don’t get along.”
Amber goes to a performing-arts magnet school in the city. I always figured her classes were total cake. I mean, she gets graded on singing and playing the violin, two things she does for fun in her free time. What could be better than that?
She exhales a stream of smoke. “If I get in trouble again, I’ll probably get kicked out. Better to have dropping out on your record than expulsion, right?”
I take the cigarette and flick a bit of ash down to the concrete porch. She’s been suspended twice: once for streaking through the school cafeteria as part of a group dare and once when she got caught with a half-smoked joint in her purse. The school pressed charges on the drug possession, and that’s how I met her—doing community service.
“There’s always the option of not getting in trouble,” I suggest.
We both snort at the unlikelihood of that.
“Maybe I can behave for another year,” she says. “Just knowing we’ve got a shot at hitting it big if I don’t do anything stupid. Sometimes I can’t even believe my own life.”
A flash of jealousy strikes me, and immediately I feel like a dick. I took some guitar lessons back in elementary school but quickly got bored with practicing. I like listening to music way more than making it, so it’s not like I’m envious of Amber’s success. I think it’s just the idea that suddenly everything is working out for her. When we met, both of us had screwed up big-time, and we joked about how if anything could go wrong, it would. Now she’s becoming this golden child and I still feel . . . cursed. I have my own dreams too, but most of the time I feel like that’s all they’ll ever be.
I push away my jealousy. “So tell me about your trip, Ms. Famous Rock Star.” I pass her the cigarette. “Your turn to catch me up.”
Amber inhales and then grinds the cigarette out on the porch. Turning toward me, she tosses her hair back from her face. “Cali was amazing. LA is so sunny and fast-paced. Everything is moving at warp speed . . . except the traffic.” Her phone buzzes with a text and she pauses to fish it out of her purse. Her heart-shaped mouth unfolds into a smile as she reads the message. “Just Nate,” she explains.
“Oh.” Nate is the newest member of the band—their bassist. Amber’s friend Cynthia used to play bass, but she graduated last year and went off to some special music school in Pennsylvania. Amber laughs to herself as she composes a quick reply, and for a second I wonder if I have something to worry about. Nate is nineteen and works as a bar back at Alpha, the pizza place across the street from my favorite local club. Whenever I go in there, he always seems to have a flock of girls hanging on his every word. To me he’s nothing special, but girls aren’t known for being logical when it comes to guys.
“Sorry.” Amber sets her phone down on the porch. “Anyway, Janne took all four of us around when we weren’t recording: Rodeo Drive, Universal Studios, the Hollywood sign. It was monumental.”
“Literally,” I point out.
“Huh?” She cocks her head.
“Forget it. Bad joke.”
I hear the soft, sliding sound of a window opening behind me. I glance over my shoulder, but no one’s looking out. I pause a moment, listening for movement or breathing, but it’s just me and Amber, and a few crickets bold enough to brave an unpredictable St. Louis spring night.
She looks down at her lap and then up at the sky. “I finally felt like someone, Micah. Like I mattered.”
“You don’t need a record deal to matter.”
“I know,” she says. “It’s hard to explain. But it’s like everything else has been leading up to this moment. Before it, I had no purpose. No reason to exist.”
I take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. “Not true, but I get it.” I would probably feel the same way if I didn’t have my mom and sister to take care of. Not that they need taking care of—they’re both very tough chicks. But after my dad died, I kind of let them down for a while. I’m trying to do better now, to be the kind of guy my dad was.
To be the kind of guy he’d want me to be.
I never even got to say good-bye to him. I took one look at the blood and bailed. But it didn’t matter because he was already gone.
And there I go again. The sirens from that night crescendo in my head. Louder. Sharper. Like scalpel blades cutting into my brain.
Amber is still talking about Los Angeles, oblivious that my past is drowning out her words. My hands clench into fists. I need to scream. Or break things.
This is always how it starts.
Now she’s leaning her whole body against me, the warmth of her bare leg radiating through my jeans. I stare at the hem of her dress for a moment, at her perfect knee, her perfect thigh. She is perfect tonight and I am . . .
“Sounds like a tiring trip. You’re probably ready to crash.” I fake a yawn.
“I’m pretty hyped up actually.” Amber points at the curb in front of the building where there’s an open space between my ’65 Ford Mustang and the neighbor’s pickup truck. “Your mom is working late, huh?” She presses her body even tighter against me.
“I—yeah,” I fumble. “The diner.”
“So then how about we go inside?” Amber’s voice is smoky. She traces the tattoo on my neck with one fingertip, the soft pressure of her touch sending a jolt of chills down my spine. “I want to show you how much I missed you.”
“Oh.” Animal instinct takes over for a few seconds. I consider how quickly I could get Amber into my bedroom and peel that slinky black dress from her body. There’s still plenty of time before my mom gets home. My little sister is probably asleep. To say I’m not in the mood is an understatement, but hey, it would probably distract me at least.
Unless it didn’t.
I imagine losing my shit in the middle of hooking up, like starting to cry or something. Yeah, that’s not happening. Besides, even if I could keep it together, it’s not cool to use a girl like that. “I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t want to,” I say. “But my sister—”
“Won’t care,” Amber finishes. She turns and presses her lips to the scar on my right temple. I always thought of scar tissue as a buildup of dead skin, but that area is surprisingly sensitive.
“Amber,” I try again. Protocol here is tricky. Are you even allowed to refuse your girlfriend if you haven’t seen her in almost a month? “I’m actually not feeling so good. Might be getting sick.” I cough into my hand.
Her eyes narrow. “Really? You’ve never been too sick before.” She takes my hand in both of hers and brings it up to her mouth, pressing her lips to my fingertips.
They come away red with lipstick.
Flinching, I pull my hand away. There’s no reason for her to know what today signifies. We’ve been dating for about eight months, so of course she knows how my dad died, but she doesn’t know all the specifics. Still, it surprises me that she can’t tell there’s something on my mind.
It surprises me that I haven’t told her what it is.
“I’m sorry.” I inch slightly away from her on the steps. “Tonight’s just not a good night.”
Hurt flashes across her pretty face. “What is it, Micah? What’s wrong?”
Finally. I rub my lipstick-smudged hand on my jeans. “It’s no big deal,” I say, the words sounding like complete bullshit even to my own ears. “Tonight is—I mean I told you before about—” As I struggle to come up with the right way to phrase it, Amber’s phone buzzes again.
She glances down at it. “Sorry. We started working on a new song in Cali and Nate has a lot of questions.” She types out another response.
“Sounds like you two got pretty tight in Cali.” I can’t keep the sarcasm from bleeding into my voice.
She looks up quickly. “Wait. That’s not— You’re not worried about Nate, are you?” She sets her phone back on the porch. “I know he can be a flirt, but he’s totally just a friend.”
“No, that’s not it,” I say. But suddenly the words that were fumbling around on my tongue are gone, and I can’t seem to find them again.
Amber chews on her lower lip, a gesture that makes her look more like fourteen instead of seventeen. “It’s not another girl, is it?”
I laugh at the thought. Girls tend to find me hot for some reason, but I’ve got no game when it comes to actually meeting them. I’m still not even sure how I ended up dating Amber. We went from friends to more than friends in this hazy blur of volunteer work, concerts, and after-parties. “Hell no. It’s just me being stupid. I promise I’ll have my shit together in the next couple of days,” I say. “So . . . rain check?”
She plasters a fake smile across her face, but I can see in the tilt of her chin and slump of her shoulders that she’s still hurt. “I guess,” she says lightly. “If you insist on torturing me.”
“Only a little.” I ruffle her hair. “Maybe we can hang out tomorrow after I get off work?”
“Maybe. But this weekend is looking packed.” Amber slips her phone back into her purse and lifts herself gracefully from the porch. She brushes invisible dust from her dress. “I’ve got practice all day tomorrow and then my parents want me to do family stuff on Sunday.”
“What about next weekend?” I press.
Her eyes brighten. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Janne got us a gig with Bottlegrate for next Saturday night.”
“Here? I thought they were coming in June.”
“No, they are. The show is in Chicago, so I’ll be gone all next weekend.”
“Wow. Nice. Are you guys all driving up there together?”
“Dark Days Records is flying us there.” She looks hopefully at me. “I could ask if they might be able to get you a ticket too.”
“I wish.” Another needle of jealousy lodges in my gut. “I have to work.”
“Oh.” Her shoulders slump a little farther.
“But I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time.” I give her a light kiss on the cheek. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.”
We stand pressed together against the side of her Jeep for a few minutes. It feels good to have Amber back, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is off. I tell myself it’s just about tonight, about my head being trapped in dark places while she’s fresh off this amazing trip and glowing like a supernova.
She reads my mind. “You’d tell me if something was wrong, right?”
Maybe. Tonight’s the night my dad died. I try once more to force out the words, but they lodge in my throat.
“Okay.” Amber nibbles at her lower lip again, anything but convinced. “Love you. Talk to you soon.” She presses a button on her key fob and the doors unlock with an electronic chirp. She slides into the car, contorting herself slightly and holding down the hem of her dress.
“Love you too.” I stare for a minute at the way the fabric hugs her waist and hips and start to second-guess my decision not to drag her into my bedroom. “Bye.”
Amber gives me a finger wiggle and then pulls her door shut. She fires up the ignition and then yanks her phone out of her purse again. Maybe she’s going to Nate’s house next, I think. Or maybe I should be less of a jealous asshole.
The Jeep pulls away from the curb and heads for the corner of the street. I hold my hand up to say good-bye again, but Amber isn’t looking at me.
I cut across the wet lawn and go back to the apartment, shutting the door quietly behind me so as not to wake my sister, Trinity. Cruising into my bedroom, I flop down on my bed and start replaying everything that just happened. “You’re an idiot,” I mumble, when I get to the part where Amber practically begs to get naked. I should have just told her what my deal is. Even if we didn’t hook up tonight, she’d still be here with me, making me laugh. Keeping me from doing anything dumb.
Instead it’s just me. Me and my cans of spray paint. Me, my cans of spray paint, and the memories I can’t seem to get out of my head.
I need to go for a drive.
I flip on the lights in my room and search through three pairs of crumpled jeans looking for my car keys. I pat the pocket of my hoodie. No dice. Frowning, I drop to the floor and peer into the dust underneath my bed, coughing from the grime as I snake one arm into the darkness.
My fingers touch something that feels like metal. Ugh, metal covered in snot. I fish out a plate crusted over with nacho cheese from lunch last weekend. No wonder my room has smelled funky all week. I wipe my hand on my jeans and slip my phone out of my pocket. Using the flashlight on it, I check the entire space beneath my bed—no keys.
Muttering to myself, I check the top drawer of my dresser. I overturn my clothes hamper and shake each article of clothing. I must have spaced and put them someplace crazy. Slipping quietly out of my room, I creep down the hallway. I use the light on my phone to scan the kitchen counter and table.
“Looking for these?” My sister, Trinity, appears in the doorway holding my car keys in her right hand.
“You scared the crap out of me.” I flip on the lights and have to smile at her getup—she’s wearing penguin pajama pants and a Cartoon Mayhem T-shirt, and she has her hair fashioned into two buns that look like Mickey Mouse ears. “Why do you have my car keys?”
“So you can’t do anything stupid.”
“Come on, Trin. I was just going for a drive.” I hold out my hand.
She curls her fingers around my skull-and-crossbones key ring. “You promised, Micah. I can’t handle a repeat of last year.” She’s fourteen and dressed like a cartoon character, yet she somehow manages to sound exactly like our mother.
“Give me my keys,” I say softly.
“Tell me where you’re going.” She purses her lips.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “But I promise you I don’t want a repeat of last year either.”
April 5, last year
The night was cold for mid-April. I pulled a sweatshirt over my Black Flag T-shirt and slipped the hood up over my head. Gathering my paint cans into my backpack, I tiptoed down the hallway and paused for a minute outside my sister’s bedroom. If she was awake, she would hear me. She would say something.
Part of me wanted her to say something.
Part of me didn’t.
I needed this. This “outlet for grief,” as the family shrink would have called it. That is, if we could still afford the family shrink.
Besides, it wasn’t like I was hurting anybody.
I leaned my ear close to Trinity’s bedroom door but couldn’t hear her moving around in there.
How could she sleep, tonight of all nights?
Shaking my head, I crossed the living room in a few strides, expertly cutting between the sharp corner of the coffee table and the TV stand. I had oiled the front door’s hinges after school and it opened like a whisper, the night folding around me.
I paused on the porch, listening to my harsh breathing, to the drum solo my heart was pounding out in my chest. I was still telling myself that I hadn’t spent all day planning to hit the airport, that my decision was impulsive—something rash brought on by a sudden bout of pain.
But there was nothing sudden about my pain.
I walked halfway down the block to where I had parked my car, yet another piece of evidence that hinted at premeditation. I wondered what I would say if the cops caught me, whether I would lie and tell them it was a sudden impulse.
The drive across town was short and uneventful. It was after midnight on a weekday and the streets were mostly bare. I parked my car behind The Devil’s Doorstep. With trembling fingers, I unclicked my seat belt and glanced around me. The lights in the club were off—the parking lot empty except for one rust bucket that had probably broken down after a concert.
I slipped out of my car and headed across the gravel toward the strip of trees at the back of the lot. The trees led to a fence. Beyond that, the airport. The giant runways stretching out like so much blank canvas.
It wasn’t like I was a big graffiti artist or anything. I’d tagged only a few things, and always with the same image— an H and a J with a noose between them—the logo of my dad’s old band, Hangman’s Joke. I had done it on the side of a train, an underpass, and a couple of abandoned buildings.
I’d been thinking about the airport for a while. It was riskier, but tonight needed to be big, bold. Sweeping. Tonight I was going to do the abandoned terminal. And then maybe a runway, too. There was just something about all that flat concrete that called out to me.
I made quick work of climbing the ten-foot chain-link fence, ignoring the sign about trespassing on federal property. Dropping to the ground on the other side, I reached out with one of my hands to keep from face-planting in the wet grass. Then I cut across the nearest runway, dodging the glow of fluorescent overhead lights as I went. I made my way around the edge of the abandoned terminal.
My heart had finished its drum solo. Strangely enough, now that I was in more danger, I felt calm. Tagging did that for me. The hiss of the spray can. The sharp scent of chemicals. In a moment, I would be in the zone. Glancing around, I pulled a bright blue can of paint out of my backpack. I shook it, hesitantly at first, and then harder. I shot a stream of color at the cool metal of the terminal wall, just to make sure the paint was flowing properly. Then I tested the breeze and positioned myself upwind. If my mom caught me sneaking in looking like the victim of a paintball massacre, she would know what I’d been up to.
I left my backpack against the corner of the terminal and picked a spot that was slightly illuminated by the nearest overhead light, but far enough away so that I could hide in the shadows while I worked. I started by outlining the H and J as always. The paint spewed from the can, and with it some of the feelings that were all twisted up inside me.
I stepped back as I swirled the can in an arc. My dad was dead, and the rest of the band had formed a new group without him. This was the best way I knew how to keep him alive. People would see this and talk. Even if it was only a handful of airport personnel who saw it, they would tell people.
People talk about everything, even the stuff they don’t care about.
Especially the stuff they don’t care about.
And once the airport came with its solvents and paint and erased my work, I’d wait a couple of weeks and do it again. Or maybe a couple of months. I never quite knew when the urge to tag would hit me.
After outlining the letters, I filled them in with blue and shadowed them with black. I was putting the finishing touches on the noose when the shadows rippled around me. I stopped painting and scanned the area, but I didn’t see anything. No movement. No lights. Still, the air suddenly felt heavy with tension. I turned toward the corner of the terminal.
My backpack was gone.
“This yours?” An airport security guard materialized from the shadows. He wore a bright blue TSA uniform. My backpack dangled from his gloved hand.
Behind him stood two local cops—one guy, one woman. The guy looked only a couple of years older than me. The lady cop was closer to my mom’s age. She had her taser drawn and looked like she might be hoping to use it.
“Down on the ground,” she said.
I knew better than to argue. I lowered myself to my knees and laced my fingers behind my head.
“All the way down, on your stomach,” the guy cop added.
I got down flat, turning my head and pressing one cheek against the cool asphalt runway. My heart started rattling around in my chest again. This was going to be my third arrest. My mom was going to kill me. Worse, she was going to blame herself, as if she were the reason I was such a giant screwup.
Parents, always trying to take the credit for everything.
“Look,” I started, trying to sound extra remorseful. “What if I walk away and promise never to come back?”
“It’s a little late for that,” the woman cop said.
“I’ll pay for it. Or clean it myself,” I said. I hated the thought of erasing what I’d done, but I hated the thought of my mom crying behind her closed bedroom door even more.
Off to the side, I could see the boots of the TSA agent pacing back and forth in front of me as he talked to someone on his phone. He was using words like suspect apprehended and terror threat mitigated.
“I think you mean contained,” I said helpfully. “Mitigated just means lessened.” It was stupid to be smarting off, but I didn’t appreciate the guy talking about me like I’d been skulking around the airport with a backpack full of plastic explosives.
The TSA agent ignored me.
The lady cop bent down on one knee. “I’ll never understand tagging,” she said. “What is it that makes it worth the possibility of getting thrown in jail?”
Maybe if I told her the truth she’d take pity on me and let me off with a warning. “It’s the logo for my dad’s band. He died. This is how I keep him alive.”
“Why here? Why not just go paint on canvas or something?”
“My mom started selling his stuff the other day. His clothes, his amp, even his favorite guitar. Shit we kept around for five years, and suddenly she’s getting rid of it. I guess I needed to do something major to compensate.”
“You should have picked a lower-profile place,” she said.
Handcuffs glimmered in the night. So much for pity. Sighing, I laid my wrists on the small of my back.
“I see you’re familiar with this procedure.”
I didn’t answer. It sounded like a rhetorical question.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The cuffs slid onto my wrists. One more thing I was familiar with. “What are we going to find when we run your information, Micah Foster?” The cop tightened the cuffs, but not so tight that they cut into my skin.
“A couple of counts of vandalism,” I mumbled. “And trespassing.”
The guy cop walked over and hauled me to my feet. I pitched forward and nearly face-planted for the second time that night, but the lady cop reached out and steadied me.
“Repeat offender, huh?” she said. “Don’t expect to get off easy.”
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