Speechless

Everyone knows that Chelsea Knot can't keep a secret.

Until now. Because the last secret she shared turned her into a social outcast—and nearly got someone killed.

Now Chelsea has taken a vow of silence—to learn to keep her mouth shut, and to stop hurting anyone else. And if she thinks keeping secrets is hard, not speaking up when she's ignored, ridiculed and even attacked is worse.

But there's strength in silence, and in the new friends who are, shockingly, coming her way—people she never noticed before; a boy she might even fall for. If only her new friends can forgive what she's done. If only she can forgive herself.

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2. six hours later

 

I don’t know how I’m going to talk myself out of this one. My phone buzzes insistently in my hand, like it knows I’m trying to avoid it. A glance at the front screen confirms my impending doom: MOM flashes there like it’s mocking me. Crap.

 

Kristen nudges me in the rib cage with her elbow. “Who the hell is calling you?” she demands. “Everyone worth know- ing is already here.”

 

It’s true; the party is in full swing, the room filled with half of Grand Lake High’s student body—well, the half that mat- ters, anyway—and loud music. It’s no secret Kristen Courteau throws the best parties. Absentee parents, an older brother who has no problem supplying minors with alcohol, a big house with a top-notch stereo system—it’s everything a group of rowdy sixteen-year-olds could ask for.

 

On this couch I’m packed in tight like a sardine, stuck between Kristen and Brendon Ryan. Brendon Ryan, the last person I want knowing that my mother is calling to check up on me.

 

“It’s my mom,” I explain, leaning my head close to hers to be heard over the racket and praying that Brendon is too absorbed in downing his beer to pay attention. “She’ll be pissed if I don’t answer.”

 

“Then answer it,” Kristen says, like it’s that simple.

 

“And have her hear all this?” I shake my head. “She’ll kill me!”

 

“Fine, then don’t answer it.” Kristen rolls her eyes and knocks back the rest of her drink. Somehow she manages to look good doing even that. “I’m getting more beer,” she informs me, peeling herself off the couch and dancing her way across the room to the cooler and abandoning me to resolve this problem on my own. Sometimes Kristen can be such a bitch. If she wasn’t my best friend, I’d probably hate her.

 

Next to me, Brendon curls his hand over the cap of my shoulder and leans in close to my ear. Normally I’d be thrilled because a) Brendon Ryan is touching me, b) his near prox- imity means I can smell him, and c) BRENDON RYAN IS TOUCHING ME OH MY GOD (!!!), but I can’t even savor the moment because I’m too panicked. Also, tonight he reeks too much of beer and cloying cologne. This is a disappoint- ment because I always assumed that a perfect creature such as Brendon would smell of spring rain and mountain breezes and other heavenly aromas.

 

“Hey,” he says, his breath warm against my ear, and oh, yeah, that’s enough to send my already racing pulse into over- drive. “I bet if you go down the hall it’ll be quieter.”

 

It’s a no-brainer suggestion, really, but in that moment, I feel like Brendon is a certified genius for coming up with it. Maybe it’s due to the fact that when I’m anywhere within a six-foot radius of Brendon I lose all ability to think coherently. Well, okay, the Jell-O shot I kicked back ten minutes ago probably isn’t helping matters.

 

“Yes,” I finally choke out once I realize I’ve spent the last several seconds staring into his brain-melty hazel eyes with my mouth hanging open like the love-struck idiot I am. “Good idea.”

 

I push myself off the couch, stumble past the cluster of barely clothed freshman girls writhing to some electro dance remix—nasty—and don’t stop until I’ve reached the end of the hallway. Of course, even down here I can feel vibrations from the stereo’s pulsating bass. My phone stopped ringing a while ago. Great. Now I need to come up with an excuse to explain why I didn’t answer Mom’s call right away. One that does not involve divulging that I’m at a New Year’s Eve party with a bunch of intoxicated minors.

 

It’s so stupid. One lousy grade and my parents act like it’s the end of the world. A D in geometry is not going to ruin my entire life. But of course they don’t see it that way. The only reason I was allowed over to Kristen’s at all was under the pretense that we’d be babysitting her younger cousins. If Mom finds out what’s really going on, there’ll be hell to pay.

 

I open the hall closet and lock myself inside; at least the door blocks some of the sound from the raging party. My phone starts ringing again—Mom, of course. I push aside a broom handle and answer it with the most nonchalant hello I can muster.

 

“Chelsea,” she says, and by the way she says my name alone, I can perfectly picture the pinched expression on her face. “Why didn’t you pick up before?”

 

“Um...” I rack my brain for the first believable excuse. “My phone was at the bottom of my bag, and I couldn’t find it in time. You know my purse...it’s like a black hole.”

 

“Uh-huh,” she says. I can’t tell if she’s skeptical or if I’m just paranoid.

 

I perch awkwardly on the edge of a cardboard box, keep- ing one eye on the door. “So, what’s up?”

 

“I just thought I’d ask if you could pick up a gallon of milk before you drive home tomorrow morning.” She pauses. “How is the babysitting going?”

 

“Fine,” I say, though of course as soon as the word leaves my mouth, something crashes in the hallway. I cringe and press a hand to my forehead. This is just perfect.

 

“What was that?”

 

I recover without missing a beat. “Oh, just one of the kids causing trouble,” I say. “Probably should’ve skipped the candy after dinner—sugar overload.” I let out a laugh and hope it doesn’t come out too forced. “Actually I should probably go help Kristen wrangle them before they destroy the house.”

 

“All right,” Mom says, so oblivious I feel kind of bad. But only for a second. Then I’m just relieved that she actually buys my story. “Just make sure to pick up the milk tomorrow.”

 

“Right. The milk. Got it.” I need to wrap up this call ASAP before someone gives me away. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

 

Mom says, “Have a good night, sweetie,” before hanging up. And I’m in the clear.

 

Or, almost. I wriggle out of the closet and shut the door behind me, yanking my skirt down and raking my hands through my hair. I spent two hours wrestling with a flat iron to make it straight, and it’s already getting all poofy and gross. Great. I try to smooth it down as best I can, cursing genet- ics for the millionth time in my life for not gifting me with thin, silky hair like Kristen’s.

 

“Chelsea?”

 

I whip around to see Tessa Schauer standing there, peering at me with raised, overly plucked eyebrows. Usually when Tessa looks at me it’s for approval, or else a little fearful, but right now there’s just mild curiosity written across her face.

 

I don’t like it.

 

“What?” I snap, and she cringes just the slightest bit. That’s better.

 

All the bronzer in the world can’t hide her sudden blush. “I was just wondering what you were doing in the closet,” she says.

 

“None of your business.” No way am I letting Tessa know I’m the kind of loser who needs permission from her parents to do anything. As far as she’s concerned, I do whatever I want, whenever I want.

 

“Jeez, no need to bite my head off,” she says. “It was just a question.”

 

“That’s funny, because I have a question for you,” I say. “What’s it like to stab your best friend in the back?”

 

“What are you talking about?” she scoffs, but I can see the guilt flicker in her eyes. She’s not that smooth.

 

“I know about you and Owen,” I tell her. Tessa’s eyes go wide, and I take a step closer. “Did you really think you could keep it a secret?”

 

She backs up, flustered. “I don’t know what you mean,” she lies. “Are you drunk?”

 

“Don’t play dumb with me,” I retort. “What do you think Megan’s going to say when she finds out? Her boyfriend and her best friend. Talk about a knife in the back.”

 

Finally Tessa drops the innocent act, her jaw tensing with anger. “She won’t believe you.”

 

“Pictures don’t lie,” I point out.

 

Realization dawns on her face. “You snooped on my phone.”

 

I smirk at her. “You should be more careful with your indiscretions,” I say, and pull my phone from my pocket. “What was the point of pictures anyway? Were you going to post them to your Facebook and let Megan find out that way? Maybe I should save you the time and just forward them to her right now....” My thumb hovers over the keypad.

 

Tessa dives for my phone, but I snatch it back out of reach. Does she seriously think she can wrestle it from me? She really is a low-class bitch.

 

Now her anger gives way to panic. “Please, don’t tell her,” she begs. “It was so stupid of me, I know, but he said he was going to dump her anyway, and it was just a few times, and...” Her voice wavers. “Please, you can’t tell her—”

 

“Chill out,” I snap, just so she’ll stop this sniveling display of desperation. The secondhand embarrassment is killing me. “You look so pathetic right now.”

 

“I know you don’t like me, Chelsea,” she says, wiping away a stray tear from under one eye. “But please, don’t do this. Megan’s my best friend.”

 

“Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you stuck your tongue down her boyfriend’s throat.”

 

Tessa flinches. “You can’t tell her,” she says again. “You can’t.”

 

“Okay,” I say.

 

“‘Okay’?” she echoes. Cautious optimism creeps into her voice. “So you won’t say anything?”

 

“As long as you do something for me.”

 

By the time I return to the living room, Kristen’s over in the corner, wrapped around Warren. I don’t have to look around to know there’s more than one girl in this room staring in envy. Warren’s a senior, star of the basketball team, tall with broad shoulders and just enough stubble to make him look older and more mature than he is. And Kristen is—well, Kristen. Blonde, blue-eyed, curvy in all the right places and skinny in all the others, so pretty it hurts. Standing next to her is always a blow to the self-esteem.

 

I’ll never know exactly why Kristen made me her project, but she did. All through middle school I’d been intimidated by her from a safe distance, until eighth grade, when the seat- ing assignment for biology designated us as lab partners. Not only did Kristen acknowledge my existence, but somehow over the course of the year, she started inviting me over to her house and to the mall, passing me notes between classes, saving me a spot at her lunch table, and before I knew it we were friends. Not just friends, but best friends.

 

Being Kristen’s best friend has its benefits—everyone knowing your name, invites to just about every social gathering (or at least all the ones worth attending), and a built-in social circle. The same social circle that includes Brendon Ryan, who could easily be my soul mate. That is, if I could get him to notice me.

 

I turn my head and there he is, refilling his cup of beer at the table with Natalie Thomas glued to his side. Ugh, I can’t stand Natalie. She used to be Kristen’s best friend, before I came along; she’d never say it to my face, but I know she secretly resents me for that. She’s such a hanger-on, one with a notorious habit of flirting with all the guys within a five-mile radius—regardless of whether they have girlfriends or not.

 

Tonight she’s donned this bright neon-green glittery dress that would cause irreversible retinal damage to look at directly, and it comes down only to the very tops of her thighs. So, so trashy. She makes me want to vom.

 

Brendon Ryan is too good for her. Brendon Ryan is classy. He wears preppy polo shirts and button-downs with sweaters over them and styles his dark blond hair perfectly so it looks messy, but in a purposeful way. He’s student council president and always raises his hand in class before speaking, and instead of chewing gum he prefers mints, which he carries around in this tiny tin case. I’ve been in love with him ever since the first week of freshman year when he turned around in the seat in front of me in homeroom and offered me one, flashing that dazzling smile of his. Everything about Brendon oozes effortless cool. Unlike all the try-hard jocks Kristen and I tend to associate with.

 

If Natalie thinks she has her sights set on Brendon, she has another think coming.

 

I march right up there and position myself between the two of them. It’s a tight squeeze, but one I manage to pull off by pretending I am in dire need of more pretzels.

 

“Hi!” I say to Brendon.


“Hi,” he says, smiling. “How’d that phone call go?”


“I managed to pull it off. Thanks to you.”


Natalie leans over to me as I pop a handful of pretzels into my mouth. “You’re really pigging out there, aren’t you?” she comments. “Try and leave some for the rest of us.”

 

“I see someone left the gates open,” I mutter under my breath. I study her botched blond dye job, as tacky as the rest of her look, and add, “Wow, Natalie, I didn’t know brassy roots were in this season. Is trailer-trash chic back in style?”

 

Natalie scowls at me in return. “I’m surprised you have an opinion,” she says. “Aren’t you supposed to just be Kristen’s little mouthpiece? Enjoy it while you can—she’ll throw you away like she does everyone else soon enough.”

 

“Hmm, shouldn’t you be stocking up on more hooker heels?” I shoot back. I let my eyes travel down to the ones she has on and smirk. “Leopard print? Keeping it classy, I see.”

 

She glares and makes an annoyed sound in the back of her throat, but it does the trick—she spins around and stalks off, wobbling. Whether that’s due to her drunkenness or the height of her stupid heels, I can’t be sure.

 

Brendon looks at me, miffed. “That was kind of rude.” “Me or her?” I ask.


“Both, actually.”


“She started it,” I reply. “Besides, maybe I’d be nicer to her if she dressed a little better.” It would also help if she stayed away from Brendon and didn’t get her slutty germs all over him. Natalie is the kind of girl who can give you an STD from eye contact alone.

 

“I think she dresses just fine.”

 

Warren’s voice from behind me makes me jump a little, and I whirl to see him standing there with Kristen and his friend Joey Morgan. Kristen smacks him hard on the shoulder, and Warren in turn grabs her in a greedy kiss, which she readily reciprocates. Gross. Those two are always slobbering all over each other. Get a room already.

 

“I don’t know, man,” Brendon says. “Personally I prefer something left to the imagination.”

 

He winks at me, and the surge of butterflies in my stom- ach is so strong I think I may throw up right there. I need something to calm my nerves. The most obvious remedy is more alcohol. They don’t call it liquid courage for nothing.

 

Two Jell-O shots later and I’m thinking about what Natalie said—about me being Kristen’s mouthpiece. I know that’s how I’m seen, and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s kind of true. It’s no secret that Kristen is the ringleader of our so- cial group. The real thing that’s bugging me is what she said about me being tossed aside. Being Kristen’s friend is a balancing act, yes, but it’s one I’ve pulled off for a few years; if she wanted to get rid of me, she would’ve by now.

 

I don’t know why Natalie’s stupid comment is annoying me so much. After all, it’s Natalie; her opinion doesn’t matter. Brendon hands me another shot, and I notice his outstretched arm is a perfect golden tan.

 

“God, you’re tan,” I tell him, running my fingers over his wrist and marveling at the deep red-brown shade. His skin feels hot to the touch, and the butterflies in my stomach flutter again.

 

“Yeah.” He laughs. “I spent Christmas in Miami with my grandparents.”

 

“Oooh, nice!” I look at my own arm and cringe. “I’m so pasty,” I moan, and Kristen laughs.

 

“You’re such a ginger,” she says. She lowers her voice like she’s confiding a secret. “Still, it could be worse. So I’m in the locker room before P.E. the other day, right? Steph Lidell comes in and starts changing right next to me, and she takes off her sweater, and I am, like, blinded by orange.”

 

This isn’t news to me. Steph sits in front of me in Geometry, and whenever she passes back papers, I get a full view of her streaky orange hands. Still, I know better than to point out that it’s totally old news. Kristen doesn’t like being one- upped when she’s telling a story.

 

“It’s already bad enough that she has that fried, bleached- out hair, but a gross spray tan? Really?” Kristen shakes her head sadly. “It was horrible. I mean, she’s like seven feet tall! So she’s just this giant orange giraffe who smells bad. Like some weird combination of mustard and sweat or something. Seriously, I almost passed out.” She laughs, then sighs and adds, “I swear, it was tragic.”

 

“Seriously tragic,” I agree, tipping the Jell-O shot back until it slides down my throat, weirdly warm and cold at the same time. These things are like ninety percent vodka. As it hits my stomach, I shake my head hard and grimace.

 

Joey claps me so hard on the back I nearly choke. “You drunk yet, Chelsea?”

 

Yes, actually, I am. More than a little. I turn around to face Joey, and the room spins around me. Maybe that last shot wasn’t such a good idea. I’m really feeling it now.

 

Joey slides his hand up and hangs his arm loosely over my shoulders. I hope he doesn’t think we’re hooking up tonight. I’ve made out with him a few times, but never actually enjoyed it. Kristen keeps pushing me toward him, though, with the hope that if I start dating Warren’s best friend we can all go out on double dates. I might be on board with this plan if I found Joey even remotely attractive, but to me he’s just another beefy, boneheaded jock. He’s definitely no Brendon Ryan. The fact that he’s pulling me in under his sweaty armpit makes me want to puke.

 

No, wait, that’s the alcohol.

 

“Um...” I shrug out from under Joey’s grip. “I think I’m gonna—” I stop and clutch one hand over my swirling stomach.

 

My nausea must show in my face because Kristen laughs and says, “Oh, my God, if you puke on my carpet I’m going to be so pissed!”

 

Brendon looks at me, concerned. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” I insist. My stomach, however, does not agree. “I just need to... Bathroom. Bathroom would be good.”

 

I bolt out of the room, shove past two juniors molesting each other on the staircase and take the steps two at a time. When I reach the top, I see a line of bored-looking girls outside the bathroom. Yeah, I don’t know if I can wait that long. I’m definitely not willing to take the risk.

 

There’s another bathroom in the guest room, I know, and Kristen won’t mind if I use it. I rush to the end of the hallway and throw open the door without a second thought. Before I take more than a step in, I’m stopped in my tracks by what I see. Someone else is already in here.

 

Two someones.

 

I’ve never seen guys together. Not like this. The two boys are entangled, one lying on top of the other, panting hard. The dark-haired boy on top has his hand in the hair of the blond boy underneath him. The telltale sound of jeans being unzipped makes me gasp; the blond boy must hear it, because his head jerks up and his eyes meet mine, and I realize I know him. It’s Noah Beckett. We’re not friends, exactly, but we’re in the same grade. I sat next to him in Spanish last year. He used to let me borrow his pencils, and now he’s making out with some guy I don’t recognize in my best friend’s guest room.

 

Suddenly my nausea is the last thing on my mind.

 

I’m still processing the sight in front of me when Noah sits up, looking panicked. Instinct kicks in and I back out hast- ily, knocking my shoulder hard against the door frame. Noah calls after me, but I ignore him, stumble down the hallway and down the stairs, where I lean against the banister, trying to catch my breath.

 

Noah Beckett is gay? I never would’ve guessed. To me he was always just the kid who rides around on his skateboard in the school parking lot. I think he’s on the soccer team or something. He’s the kind of affable guy who hangs out with a lot of different groups and gets along with just about ev- eryone. Who blends in with the crowd. I’ve never really no- ticed him before.

 

Well, I don’t think I’ll have a recognition problem now. “Feeling better?”


Brendon approaches me with a cautious smile, like he’s afraid I’ll hurl all over his shoes at any given moment. Not a total impossibility. At this rate, I’m pretty sure my hand on the banister is the only thing keeping me upright.

 

“Uh—” Why is it that I always sound like such an idiot around Brendon? Seriously, I am incapable of forming a com- plete sentence in his presence, even when I’m stone-cold sober. It’s kind of pathetic. Okay, a lot pathetic. I breathe out and try to focus. “Where’s Kristen?”

 

“In the kitchen, I think,” he says. His brow furrows. “Is something wrong?”

 

“No,” I say, “I just—I need to talk to her.”

 

I find her in the kitchen surrounded by half of the basketball team. The guys are all rummaging through her cabinets looking for snacks. Kristen’s lucky her parents are out of town; this place is going to be a disaster area come tomorrow morning. I’ll probably have to help her clean it up, too. Somehow I’m the one who always ends up cleaning out the vomit-ridden toilet bowls.

 

“Kristen!” I say, louder than I mean to. Everyone’s head swivels around to look at me as I wobble up to her on un- steady legs. Balance is a tricky concept at the moment.

 

Kristen looks up at me over her cup of beer, one part amused, one part embarrassed. “God, Chelsea, you’re a hot mess.” Which is pretty lame of her, because her cheeks are apple-red and her eyes are just glassy enough to let me know she’s only a fraction less drunk off her ass than I am.

 

I ignore the insult and grab her arm urgently. “Kristen,” I say again, “you’re not going to believe what I just saw.”

 

This catches her attention, and everyone else’s. Warren closes the refrigerator door and looks over at us, and Brendon comes up next to me. Joey hops off of the counter and crosses his arms. Everybody’s gone quiet, wondering what I’m going to say. And really, this is the best gossip I’ve heard all year. Considering the year is less than an hour from being officially over, that’s saying something.

 

I don’t know what I expected to happen when I told ev- eryone. I guess I thought it’d be a funny story, or at least a memorable one. It’d be the kind of thing where later, every so often someone could bring it up by saying, “Hey, remember when Chelsea walked in on Noah and that random guy macking on each other?” And that’d be the point where I’d jump in and give my firsthand account, and everyone would be both amused and scandalized, and maybe Brendon would be bowled over by my charismatic storytelling skills and de- clare his undying love for me on the spot. Or something.

 

I didn’t realize Kristen would have the reaction she does— which is less laughing and more one of extreme disgust, like I just told her that her guest room has a cockroach infesta- tion. Once I spill the details, she gives a full-body shudder, mouth hanging open with a mixture of shock and revulsion.

 

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God! Ew!” she exclaims, appalled. “He got fag all over my sheets!” She says it like being gay is a highly contagious epidemic or something. My stomach drops, and I open my mouth to say something.

 

Before I can, Derek Connelly, the team’s small forward, laughs. “That dude?” he says. “Seriously?”

Warren stalks over to us, one fist clamped tight around a bot- tle of beer and the other clenched at his side. “Whatthefuck?” he slurs. Redness creeps up his neck and flushes his whole face. “That fucking— I swear— I’m gonna—” He doesn’t finish the thought, but somehow I don’t think the rest of that sentence would be “give him a hug.” Warren is about as affectionate as he is articulate.

 

“Seriously. What. The. Fuck,” Joey echoes, useless as always.

 

“Who was he even with?” Kristen asks me.

 

“I... I don’t know,” I say uneasily. “I don’t think the other guy goes to our school.” This conversation is not going the way I imagined it would.

 

“Who the fuck does he think he is?” Warren growls. He wipes the sweat off his upper lip with the side of his fist. “All right, where’s the fag? I’m gonna go talk to him.”

 

“Fucking right,” Joey agrees.

 

The two of them push their way out of the kitchen and head for the staircase. I trail after them and manage to catch up halfway through the living room, nearly bowling over five people in the process.

 

“You guys, don’t.” I reach out, snagging Warren’s shoulder.

 

Except because I’m so trashed, I stumble and almost fall down. Joey and a few other people see and laugh. Brendon, though. Brendon isn’t laughing.

 

“Look,” I say, “they’re leaving anyway. Just leave them alone, okay?”

 

I point to where I can spot Noah’s shock of white-blond hair. He hurries to the front door, red-faced, with a cute black-haired boy behind him. The black-haired boy seems to be dragging his feet, intent on going at a leisurely pace, his fingers wrapped around Noah’s wrist as they move through the throng of people packed at the bottom of the staircase. Noah stops and says something to him, the words impossible to make out over the music and the conversation. The boy says something back, and Noah frowns, tugging the boy’s hand, and they disappear through the door together.

 

The irony is that if I hadn’t been drinking, I probably wouldn’t have spoken up at all—not right there in front of anyone; I would’ve waited until it was just Kristen and me alone. And I definitely wouldn’t have touched Warren—he’s not the kind of guy you pal around with.

 

Of course, if I hadn’t been drinking, I wouldn’t have needed to find a bathroom so badly and I wouldn’t have seen what I did.

 

Warren shakes me off with a scowl, and I fall sideways into Kristen, who laughs and props me up against the wall.

 

“You’re sooooo drunk,” she says. “Oh, my God.”

 

“They’re fucking holding hands? Shit.” Warren spits into his plastic red cup—so many kinds of gross—before he nods at Joey and says, “You coming?”

 

And Joey says, “Fuck, yeah,” because Joey is an idiot.

 

“You guys.” I push myself off the wall. “You guys, seriously. Don’t. Just leave it, okay? Okay?”

 

“Don’t worry,” says Warren, “all we’re gonna do is teach them a little lesson.” But his smile is all wrong, twisted, and there’s something else in his voice, too, warning me not to push it.

 

And so I don’t. Because it’s easier. It’s easier to let them go.

 

My plans to have Brendon sweep me off my feet at the stroke of midnight are thwarted when my nausea catches up to me, and I instead ring in the New Year vomiting my guts out in the bathroom. I must pass out sometime after that, be- cause I wake up the next morning curled around the base of the toilet the same way you’d curl yourself around another person. Kristen didn’t even think to wake me up and help me into the bedroom, and now I have a sore hip and a crick in my neck. Not to mention a severe case of dry mouth.

 

I use the counter to pull myself to my feet then turn on the tap. As I scoop the cold water with both hands and splash it over my face, I try to piece together exactly what happened last night. I remember Warren and Joey taking off, but everything after that is a little fuzzy. It’s kind of freaking me out; I’ve never gotten that drunk before. Never to the point where I can’t remember what happened the next day.

 

Things start to come back to me when I rub my face dry with the thick terry-cloth towel hanging on the rack. Kristen cajoling me into one more shot even though I was already falling-down drunk; jumping up on her coffee table to dance until I fell off and landed on some freshman girl; Brendon— oh, God. Brendon. I’m pretty sure I totally threw myself at him in the most embarrassing manner possible.

 

“Yup, you totally did,” Kristen informs me cheerfully after I’ve managed to stumble down to the kitchen and collapse in the nearest chair. She sets a mug of water and two Advil in front of me—which for Kristen is as considerate as she gets. “You kept rubbing up on him and babbling about how hot his box of mints is. He was so weirded out. It was pretty hilarious.”

 

“I’m sure,” I mutter. It would’ve been nice if Kristen had intervened to spare me the humiliation, but I guess she was too busy getting a kick out of the situation.

 

She picks up the empty beer bottles littered on the table and takes them to the sink. “Cheer up,” she tells me. “At least you weren’t abandoned by your supposed boyfriend.”

 

An unsettled feeling twists in my gut. “He didn’t come back last night?”

 

“No,” she scoffs. “Fucking jerk. Probably went off to hot- box his truck with Joey. I swear—” She’s cut off by her phone on the counter ringing. She grabs it with a sigh. “That’s probably him. He better grovel.”

 

While she takes the call I swallow the Advil, downing all of the water in the mug in a few long gulps. My head is totally throbbing. I feel like death warmed over. No, scratch that. Like death left out on the counter for two days and then reheated in the microwave for thirty seconds. That’s exactly how I feel.

 

There’s an issue of National Geographic lying half-open on the table. I pick it up and leaf through it idly. I’m not a big recreational-reader type, other than celebrity gossip blogs and Us Weekly, but Kristen’s a talker, and I’m sure she’ll be argu- ing with Warren for a while before he gives in and promises to buy her something shiny in exchange for bailing. The magazine is open to a striking photo of an old Buddhist monk swathed in a yellow robe kneeling in prayer. Below the picture is a profile on the monk, who’d taken a vow of silence and hadn’t spoken a word in sixty years. I guess the idea was that by not speaking and staying in a constant state of contemplation, it made him closer to God, or enlightenment, or whatever.

 

I’m too preoccupied skimming the article and nursing my hangover to eavesdrop on Kristen’s conversation, but then she lets out an especially sharp “What?” that makes me snap to attention. When I look at her, she’s speechless, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. But she turns her back to me and lowers her voice so I can’t hear whatever it is she says next. It isn’t until she hangs up the phone and drops into the seat next to me, the shocked expression etched into her features, that I get an answer out of her.

 

“What’s going on?” I demand.

 

She drags her eyes off the phone in her hand and meets my gaze. “Noah Beckett is in the hospital,” she tells me.

 

“Wait, are you serious?” Kristen just nods, and my mouth goes dry again. I wrap my hands around my empty mug and ask, “What the hell happened?”

 

“He was in the parking lot of the Quality Mart, and he... he got beat up really bad,” she says. She pauses for a long time. “I guess he’s unconscious.”

 

My heart kind of stops, thinking about Noah like that. Who would do that to him? And then I realize.

 

I don’t want to ask the question because I’m so afraid I already know the answer, but I have to. “Did Warren and Joey do it?”

 

Kristen doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to. The look on her face says it all.

 

“Oh, my God,” I breathe, slumping back in my chair. “Oh, my God.” I cover my mouth with one hand. “I thought they were just going to talk to him!”

 

“You can’t say anything.” Kristen’s tone has a careful edge to it.

 

“But—”

 

“I mean it,” she says, more emphatically this time. “I’m not kidding. If anyone asks, nothing happened. You don’t know anything. Got it?”

 

I stare down at the open magazine, but the words there are a jumbled mess. I can’t wrap my mind around this. I’m an expert at finding out secrets, but keeping them—especially a secret of this magnitude—is something else.

 

“Yeah, I got it,” I say. “Nothing happened.”

 

Except I know better. We both do. Warren and Joey are behind this. They have to be.

 

Kristen wants me to pretend like last night never happened. Like I should just push it out of my mind and ignore the fact that her boyfriend put a boy in the hospital. I drive home in a daze, trying to do just that. But no matter how loud I crank the radio, I can’t escape my thoughts, and they keep circling back to Noah. What the hell was Warren thinking? I know he was kind of drunk, and I know that he’s not the nicest guy under sober conditions, but still.

 

I promised Kristen I wouldn’t say anything. If I do, I’m going to be in so much trouble—a kind of trouble I can’t even fathom. My parents will kill me. Kristen will disown me. Everyone will hate me. Besides, why should I have to be the one to rat them out? There were other people at that party who heard my story about Noah, who saw Warren and Joey get mad and leave. They have to know. Or they will, soon enough, once word spreads about what happened. So why should the responsibility to tell fall on my shoulders?

 

All the rationalizing in the world isn’t making me feel better about this decision.

 

Mom’s doing dishes when I walk into the kitchen. Dad sits at the table, reading the newspaper. It’s so perfectly normal I want to cry. I lean against the doorway and watch them, swallowing against the crater-size lump lodged in my throat.

 

“How was your night, kiddo?” asks Dad.


I shrug one shoulder. “Fine,” I lie.


“You’re awfully quiet,” Mom says. She wrings the sponge and raises an eyebrow at me. “Did you get the milk?”

 

Oh, shit. I totally did not even remember she asked me to pick that up.

 

“Sorry,” I mumble, rubbing my forehead with one hand.

 

My head is killing me. “I forgot about it.”

 

“Chelsea.” Mom sighs. “I ask you for one thing, and you can’t even—”

 

“I forgot, okay?” I snap. “God. I said I was sorry.”

 

Dad shakes out his newspaper and lays it flat on the table. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, standing up and coming over to me. He plants a kiss on the top of my head, and I hold my breath, hoping the three mouthwash rinses and obscene amount of Kristen’s perfume I doused myself with are enough to mask any lingering smell of alcohol.

 

It must be, because he doesn’t comment on it. “I can make a grocery run,” he offers. Always the peacemaker.

 

Mom sighs again, louder this time, and I take it as my cue to slink upstairs without further interrogation. I shut the door and toss my purse onto my bed. The issue of National Geographic comes tumbling out—I snuck it in my bag before I left Kristen’s. I couldn’t ask to borrow it because she’d think I was a freak, but I really did want to finish reading that article about the monk.

 

I flop down on my bed and fumble through the pages until I find it. Being silent for sixty years—I can’t fathom it. Hell, I can’t fathom being silent for sixty days. Even sixty minutes would be tough. This monk guy, his silence is used to better himself. My silence about Noah—it’s the opposite. It’s because I’m a coward.

 

I don’t want to think about this anymore, but even when I pull a pillow over my head and squeeze my eyes shut, I’m consumed with the memory of Noah’s eyes, the way they’d been filled with shock when I opened that bedroom door, and then panic as he realized what I’d caught him doing. And with whom. I wonder if that’s the same look he had when Warren and Joey kicked the shit out of him in that parking lot.

 

When I found Noah—them—on the bed together, Noah’s mouth had opened like he was going to say something, but I’d turned and hightailed it back downstairs as quickly as possible. Maybe he was going to say “Wait,” maybe he was going to ask me not to say anything about what I’d seen. Or maybe he wasn’t going to say anything at all, realizing that kind of request was futile, even if I was there to hear it.

 

After all, everyone knows Chelsea Knot doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.

 

I go to pull another pillow over my head, but my hand instead curls around my ratty stuffed dog, Nelly. It’s pretty lame to sleep with a stuffed animal when you’re sixteen, but I never could bring myself to get rid of her when I finally became too old for toys. Dad gave her to me when I was seven years old and had to get my tonsils out. I hug Nelly tight to my chest, smoothing out her matted gray cotton fur with one hand.

 

Yeah, I can do this. I can play dumb like Kristen said. No one has to hear it from me. I can stay quiet, even if no one else steps forward. Even if it means Warren and Joey get away with this. Even if Noah never wakes up.

 

What if he doesn’t? And what if no one points the finger at Warren and Joey? If that happens, can I really live with myself?

 

I already know the answer to that. I lie there for a while with Nelly tucked under my chin, trying in vain to come up with other options, some way out of this that leaves me unscathed, but they all circle around to the same conclusion. Kristen’ll be furious with me, I know it, but...but she’ll understand. She has to understand. I can’t not say anything.

 

The walk downstairs is like trudging down the Green Mile. Mom and Dad are in the living room, cozied up on the couch watching television.

 

“Mom?” I say, voice shaking. “Dad?”

 

They both twist around to look at me, and their expressions of content transform into identical looks of worry. It’d almost be funny if it were any other situation.

 

Dad mutes the television. “What is it, honey?” he asks. I take a deep breath. It’s now or never.


“I have to tell you something.” 

 

 

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