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Chapters One and Two of ZZZ!

Young casual couple isolated on white

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Peck

 

My phone buzzes and I ignore it. It’s just one of my sisters.

The guy in the sound booth shoots me a dirty look. I’m working on a track for the new album, because I want to see how some new beats sound mixed with our new single. He hits a button. “Do you need to take a break?” he asks.

I shake my head and keep playing. I play drums for a band, and I don’t have time to stop right now. Anything my sisters have to say can wait until I’m done here.

My phone rumbles again.

“Let’s call it quits, shall we?” he says from the booth.

Sometimes it’s hell having four sisters. And sometimes it’s awesome. Right now I’m annoyed. I pick up my phone but instead of answering it I cram it into my pocket.

I go out into the sound area and sit down next to the recording engineer. “Let me hear it one time, will you?” I tap my drumsticks lightly on the table while I talk.

He mixes it all up, and music comes into the headset he gives me. I like it. I like it a lot. I smile at him and nod.

He smiles back. “It’s better,” he says. “You were right.” He shakes his head.

“Don’t look so happy about it,” I tease. I take the headphones off and lay them on the counter. I swipe a hand down my face.

My phone rings again, just as the door opens. It flies inward, slamming hard against the wall. I jump to my feet when my sister Lark comes sliding into the room.

“Oh, my God, I have been trying to call you for an hour,” she blurts out. She bends at the waist, trying to catch her breath. She stands up, pressing a hand to her side.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I can’t breathe,” she pants. She holds up one finger. “Stairs.” She gulps air.

One of her gloves slips down her wrist, and that’s when I realize how serious this is. Lark never takes her gloves off. She never lets anyone see her hands or arms. Ever. For a long time, I thought she was just a germ freak—until I learned the truth. But the fact that she just let her glove slip tells me a lot. “Did someone die?” I ask.

She nods. But then she shakes her head. Then she nods again.

“Oh, my God!” I cover my mouth with my hand. “Who?”

“Sam Reed,” she pants out.

My heart lurches. My stomach dips and blackness crowds the corners of my vision.

“Emily just called to say he was in a really bad accident. They’re all on their way back from the beach to go to the hospital.”

I sink into a chair. “And he died?” How could he? We have unfinished business.

She waves a hand through the air. “No, no, not yet.”

I jump up. “Then why the hell did you tell me he was dead?”

“At the time, I was trying to breathe!” she yells back. “It’s not my fault you misunderstood!”

The door flies open again and another of my sisters runs into the room. Finally. Someone who can make sense of it.

“Emily just called again,” Wren says. “They just got to the hospital and Sam is in surgery.” Wren might be a mess on the outside, but she’s got it together on the inside. Thank God.

I jab my drumsticks into my back pocket and start for the door.

“Where are you going?” Wren calls to my back.

I don’t wait for her. I hail a cab and get in it, my heart beating about a mile a minute. Sam’s in the hospital. In surgery. I left things at a bad place the last time I saw him. A really bad place. I can’t stand the idea of him being injured and possibly dying without knowing how I truly feel about him.

 

***

 

The cab stops at the Emergency Room doors, and I get out. I go to the desk, and they tell me where the waiting room is for surgery, and I go in that direction. “Are you one of them?” the lady at reception asks me.

I lift my brow at her, because I can’t get my thoughts together enough to talk.

“There are a lot of them here for him.” I look blankly at her. “His family.”

Oh, yeah. There are a lot of Reeds, and all of them in one place can be a little intimidating. Lots of big, blond, tatted-up men. Like a buffet of testosterone and hotness, wrapped in pretty ink.

I stop in the doorway of the waiting area. I can hear the low murmur of male voices and stick my head into the room. The Reed brothers are all over the place, not to mention their wives. I find Emily and motion toward her. She waves me into the room.

I sit down beside her and she takes my hand. How bad is it? I ask her in sign language. Emily’s husband, Logan, is deaf, so the whole family signs. Thank God these people speak my language. Because if I opened my mouth right now, one big long stutter would come out, and nothing else.

Pretty bad, she replies.

What happened?

She shrugs and shakes her head. He left the beach right after the wedding to go home. He had to get to practice. He’d already missed way too much training time. And on the way from the airport to his house, he was in an accident.

Can I do anything?

“Pray,” Paul says from behind her.

Well, there’s that. I nod. Anything else?

She shakes her head.

Pete is sitting across the room with his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. Reagan rubs his back and talks softly into his ear. He nods, albeit reluctantly, and kisses her quickly, pulling her against him for a hug. She falls into his arms, like she’s meant to be there.

Is it okay if I stay for a little while? I ask.

Emily squeezes my hand. “Of course.”

There’s a commotion in the hallway and my four sisters come into the room. They’re on their tiptoes almost, trying to be quiet. Emily gives them the story, and they sit down beside one another on the floor and lean against the wall.

The Reeds take people in like they’re family. Anyone. The only requirement is that you have a pulse. And if you don’t have a heart, they’ll give you theirs. So my sisters and I already feel a connection here, but I can’t help but think that we should leave and give them some privacy.

“Where are the kids?” Lark asks.

“With a sitter,” Friday says.

“All of them?”

There are a lot of Reed kids too. Paul and Friday have two—three if you count Jacob. And Matt and Sky have four little ones plus Seth. Emily and Logan have one.

Matt sniggers. “You say it like we have our own circus.”

“Well, if the shoe fits,” Lark says.

Pete holds up a finger. “That would be shoes—plural. Lots of circus animals.”

Do you want us to go and take care of the kids? I ask. We’d be happy to.

Sky, Matt’s wife, shakes her head. “We’re going to go home as soon as we find out what’s happening. He’s going to be fine. I’m certain.” She squeezes my hand.

Ten bucks says the wives might go home, but the brothers won’t. Or at least not all of them.

A man in green scrubs walks into the room. “Reed family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once. The doctor looks around the room and shakes his head.

“Immediate family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once again.

“Get on with it,” Paul barks.

“Your brother is a very lucky man,” the doctor says as he pulls his glasses from his face and brushes a finger over the bridge of his nose. “He broke his tibia—one of the bones in the lower leg—in the crash, and has a pretty bad head laceration. We stitched him up, set the leg, put him in a cast, and we’re going to need to keep him at least overnight.”

“Why?” Pete asks.

“The team physician wants us to keep an eye on him.”

So they know who he is. And what he does.

“How did the team know?”

The doctor shrugs. “I called them.” He glares at us. “He plays pro ball.” He says it like it’s the Holy Grail. “They’re sending the team physician to evaluate him in the morning.”

The door bursts open, and a couple of men and a few women walk into the room. They’re loud and noisy and they’re extremely disrespectful.

“Will he still be able to play?” one of them asks.

The doctor shakes his head. “He’s going to be on the bench for a while. It’s a damn shame, too.”

Paul swipes a hand down his face and takes a deep breath.

“Some players come back from an injury like this,” the doctor says helpfully.

Oh, hell, there’s a chance he might not play again?

“Can we see him?” Pete asks.

“One at a time,” the doctor says with a nod.

“Which way?” Pete barks. The doctor points.

Pete takes Reagan’s hand and drags her down the hallway. “Only one!” the doctor calls.

“We are only one,” Pete yells back, but he doesn’t stop.

“Matt, you should go next,” Paul says. “You have kids to get back home to.”

Matt nods, but he says, “So do you.”

“I’m going to hang out for a while anyway.”

“You know Pete’s not going to go home tonight,” Matt says.

Paul nods. “I know.”

Pete and Sam are twins. They have a bond.

The doctor shakes hands with Paul and leaves the room. The people who came in last swarm Paul, asking questions. It turns out they’re from the team. And the girls are cheerleaders.

“Only family can visit,” Paul warns.

“We know,” one of the girls says. “We heard about the accident and just wanted to come and check on him. We won’t stay long.”

I sit down beside my sisters. “Y-you should go h-home,” I say to them quietly. I talk to my sisters. I always have. My stutter isn’t as bad when I talk to them. Not as bad as it is with anyone else.

“We’ll wait,” Lark says. She leans the back of her head against the wall, and tilts it so that she can look at me. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “He’s going to be fine,” she says.

I take a breath.

I sit quietly as his brothers come and go. Pete and Reagan come out, and Matt and Sky go in. And the cycle continues until everyone has had a visit. Pete kisses Reagan goodbye. It looks like he’s going to spend the night after all. “This is a pretty sucky wedding night,” he tells her.

“You’ll make up for it later,” she teases him. He hugs her, and then walks her and the rest of them out to waiting cabs.

When Pete comes back, I stand up and wipe off the butt of my pants. I should go home. I can do nothing for anyone here.

Pete motions toward the hallway. “Come on,” he says. He doesn’t want the team members or the cheerleaders to see me. I sneak to the doorway and follow him down the hall. The smell of disinfectant tickles my nose.

When we get to Sam’s room, he’s sitting up, but his eyes are closed.

I don’t want to wake him, I sign.

He smiles. “You’re the only one he asked for.”

My heart thuds. He asked for me?

He nods. “He’s a little fucked up.” He grins. “Okay, a lot fucked up.”

I walk into the room and sit down in the chair beside the bed. Sam’s hand lies outside the covers, so I take it in mine. I can see the veins in his hand, stark against his too-pale skin, and I move his IV line over so I don’t bump it.

Sam’s hand suddenly squeezes mine. I look up and find him smiling at me. It’s a goofy grin, and I’m so damn happy to see it that tears fill my eyes.

“Don’t cry, cupcake,” he says softly.

His eyes are barely open, and they shaved part of his head.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whisper. I tap my thumb on the bedrail, so I can talk without stuttering.

“It’ll take more than a semi truck with a drunk driver to take me out, cupcake.” He laughs, but then he clutches his head. “That hurt,” he murmurs.

“Can I do anything for you?” Tap. Tap.

“Just stay for a little while.”

I scoot my chair closer.

“Where’s Pete?” he asks.

“I don’t know.” Tap. Tap.

“He got married today. And I fucked his honeymoon all up.”

“He doesn’t seem to mind.” Tap. Tap.

He whispers fiercely, “He’s s’posed to be getting laid!”

I laugh. I can’t help it. “He’d rather be here.”

“If I had a choice between having newly-wed, wall-banging, awesomely good sex and hanging out with me, I wouldn’t pick me. I’d be at home fucking Reagan.” His face turns a little green. “Well, I wouldn’t fuck Reagan, because that would be gross. But Pete should be home fucking Reagan.”

His words are slurred and I can tell they’ve given him pain meds. But he still makes me laugh.

“Hey cupcake!” he says, like he just had a great idea. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” I say.

“I thought you were ready to kick me to the curb.”

I was. But when I found out he was hurt, it nearly gutted me. “Would if I could,” I say.

“Do you think you could fall in love with me, cupcake?” he blurts out.

I’m startled. I know he’s medicated, so I shouldn’t put any stock into his words, but I can’t help it. “You should get some rest,” I say. Tap. Tap.

“So, that would be a no.” He whistles. Then he scrunches up his face when it makes his head hurt. “I’m in trouble,” he whispers quietly.

“What?”

He squeezes my hand. “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, cupcake,” he says. “I just wish you could love me back.”

“You’ve had a lot of pain meds,” I say.

Suddenly, he grabs the neck of my shirt and jerks me so that I fall over his chest. His lips are right next to mine. “Listen to me,” he says.

“Okay,” I whisper.

“I don’t have much going for me, but I know what love feels like.”

“How?”

“It just is, cupcake. You don’t get to pick who you fall in love with. And God knows, if my head could pick, it wouldn’t be you.”

I push back to get off his chest, because I’m offended. But he holds me tight.

“You’re not easy to love, because you can’t love me back. But you might one day. I’ll wait. But you got to start taking my calls.” He cups the back of my head and brings my face toward his. A cough from the doorway startles us apart. I stand up and pull my shirt down where he rucked it up.

“Visiting hours are over,” a nurse says.

“She’s not a visitor,” he says. She comes and inserts a needle into his IV, and his eyes close. He doesn’t open them when he says, “She’s going to marry me one day. She just doesn’t know it yet.” His head falls to the side and he starts to softly snore. His hand goes slack around mine.

I pull back, my heart skipping like mad.

“They say some of the most ridiculous things when they’re medicated.” The nurse shakes her head. “He probably won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”

Pete comes into the room. “Everything okay?” he asks. He looks from Sam to me and back.

“Just gave him some pain meds,” the nurse says.

I’m going to go, I sign to him. I turn back when I get to the door. Will you call if anything goes…wrong?

He nods. “I’m going to go get some coffee while he’s asleep.”

I go to the public bathroom and sink back against the wall. He was medicated. He didn’t mean any of that. Did he? He couldn’t have. I stand there until my heart stops feeling like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I need to go and tell him that I do have feelings for him. What if something goes wrong during the night and I can’t tell him tomorrow? I need for him to know.

I go back to his room and stop in the doorway. Sitting beside his bed is a girl. She’s holding his hand and talking to him. He smiles at her and says, “I’m serious. I’m going to marry you.”

My heart jolts. He may as well have stabbed me with a knife.

I turn and leave. I don’t run into Pete, and my sisters are waiting for me.

“What happened?” Lark asks when we get in the cab.

I wipe a tear from my cheek as it snakes a warm path down my face. “N-nothing.”

“Did you talk to him?”

I nod.

“And?” Wren chirps.

“A-and the ch-cheerleader is in with him now.”

“Oh,” Wren says.

“Yeah,” I say.

I’m an idiot.

 

 

 

 

Peck

 

When I was twelve, I went for months thinking I was dead. Everyone in my household ignored me. That was per my mother. “If she won’t speak, don’t speak to her,” she’d said. What she didn’t understand was that I wanted to speak. I wanted to speak with a desperation unlike any other. I wanted to unburden my mind. I wanted to talk.

I just couldn’t.

So I moved around the house, prepared my own meals, got myself on the bus and off, took care of my own laundry, and I spent most of my time in my room, since no one was going to talk to me anyway.

I thought I was dead. Because why else would they not speak to me? Why would they punish me like they did for something I couldn’t control? I must have died and someone forgot to tell me. I was a ghostly specter of myself.

My mother and her boyfriend spent more time away from home than in the small apartment my mom and I shared. He kept a place across town, and it became easier for her to stay there rather than come home. I didn’t mind. I was a ghost walking around alone anyway, right? I spent my nights alone and was grateful for the silence. Because it would still be silent even if she were here.

But then there was a problem one day at school, and I ended up in the emergency room and then had my appendix out. It took them four days to find my mother, and suddenly someone cared if I lived or died.

Her name was Mrs. Derricks, and she was the school counselor. She brought me into her office and changed my life that day, and every day since.

The door slamming behind me jerks me from my thoughts of Mrs. Derricks.

Why aren’t you dressed? I ask Lark in sign language as she drops her things on the couch and flops down.

“Dressed for what?” she asks, blowing out a breath.

For the funeral.

Her brow furrows. “What funeral?”

My hands fly wildly. Mrs. Derricks’ funeral!

“Oh, crap,” she says. She jumps up. “Totally forgot. Give me five minutes to change.”

I text Wren and Star to see where they are, but just as I hit send, they come through the door. They couldn’t be more opposite. They’re sisters, born one year apart. And while they look alike, they couldn’t be more different.

“You need to tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

Wren looks down. “Why?”

“Because you’ll trip over it.”

“Who cares,” Wren tosses back.

Star has her shirt tucked into a pair of nice pants, her creases all perfect and sharp. Wren, on the other hand, is wearing jeans and a T-shirt I think she stole from Emilio when we stayed over with him and Marta at their house for Christmas. It’s four sizes too big for her and hangs down almost to her knees.

Emilio Vasquez isn’t our real dad. He’s the man who “sprung us from jail” as he calls it. In reality, it was a group home, but he’s pretty accurate. He and his wife Marta couldn’t have kids, so they decided to use their millions to better the life of a child. And they ended up with five of us, all at once.

Emilio is a former rock and roll star who hung up his microphone when drugs and drinking destroyed his band. Marta is a former groupie he fell in love with, or that’s at least how he tells it. She smacks the back of his head every time he calls her a groupie. She’s a tiny little Latina fireball.

To us, they’re our parents. They’re the family we weren’t born with, but were lucky enough to grow into.

“I can’t find black gloves!” Lark calls from her room.

“Why do you need black gloves?” Wren yells back.

“For the funeral!” Lark bellows.

“Oh, shit.” Wren streaks to her room with Star right behind her. They forgot too, apparently.

Five minutes later, they all come out dressed in dark colors. Wren looks like a slouch, but a respectable slouch. Star looks like she could be walking a runway.

“Tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

“Why?” Wren asks.

Do we really have to do this every day? When we lived with Emilio and Marta, their solid presences kept the fighting down. But now that we’re on our own, my sisters snipe at one another like verbal fencing is their favorite pastime.

I tap my finger on the counter, because when I tap, I can speak without a stammer. “Has anyone seen Fin?” I ask.

Star shakes her head and squats down to tie Wren’s shoe.

“Can’t stand it, can you?” Wren taunts.

“Shut up,” Star grumbles. She pulls a brush from the tidy little purse she has hanging over her arm and goes toward Wren with it. Wren backs up and blocks her.

“You are not brushing my hair,” Wren says.

“Somebody needs to,” Star says. She holds the brush out and raises her brow.

Wren turns to the mirror, licks the palm of her hand, and slicks her hair down by dragging her wet hand through her pink-and-blue locks.

“That is so gross,” Star says.

Wren grins.

I shake my head and motion for everyone to go. We’ll just have to leave Fin. If I wait any longer, I’m going to be late for the funeral, and I simply can’t have that. Mrs. Derricks saved my life. She’s the reason I’m still alive. And now she’s gone. Tears burn my nose and I sniffle.

“Are you all right?” Wren asks quietly as we walk toward the car waiting out front. Our driver gets out and holds the door for us, and we all slide in.

Fine, I sign, holding my five fingers out in front of my chest. All of my sisters know sign language. It was the only way I could talk for a long time. Until Emilio put a pair of drumsticks in my hand one day and I realized I had a voice.

Suddenly, there’s a squeal of brakes as a red four-door coupe slams to a stop in the street. The car jumps the curb and lands with one wheel on the sidewalk.

“Sorry I’m late!” Fin yells as she jumps out of the car and runs toward us. She’s already dressed, so she just gets into the car. “Were you going to leave without me?” she asks with a huff, settling her black skirt around her as she scoots in the car.

Finch is her name, but we call her Fin. She’s perpetually late. Always. For everything.

“Yes,” we all say at the same time. We have learned through the years that if we wait for Fin, we’ll be waiting forever.

She grumbles something to herself. Then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a brand new pair of gloves. She tosses them to Lark and grins. “Thought you might need those,” she says.

“That’s why you were late?” Lark asks.

Fin nods, looking down her nose at all of us. “I went to get you black gloves. So sue me.”

“You suck so bad,” Lark mumbles. She turns away from everyone and pulls her gloves off, and pulls the new ones on. Lark never goes without gloves. Ever. These go all the way up to her elbows and the tips of the fingers are cut out. “Where did you get these?” she asks. “They’re comfy.”

“At that new shop on Main.”

Lark spins her hand in front of her. “Did they have more colors?”

“Only about a bazillion.”

“Nice.” Lark smiles. She looks at us. “We’ll have to forgive her for being late. She was doing a good deed.”

“If we have to,” Wren grumbles.

Fin flips her the bird.

The car stops in front of the church, and we all get out. We have a security team of two and they’ll be with us. Hopefully no one will recognize us, but you never can tell how people are going to react.

Marta and Emilio find us inside the church and come to sit with us. They kiss each of us on the forehead and ask how we’re doing. The two of them together—it’s like looking at newlyweds all the time. They’re so in love with one another that it hurts.

The service starts, and I feel tears prick my eyes and my nose starts to run. Emilio pushes a handkerchief into my hand. I wipe my eyes and try to keep it together. But Mrs. Derricks saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if she hadn’t found out about me and made it her mission to help me. I certainly wouldn’t have four sisters and two wonderful parents, that’s for sure.

The church is bursting at the seams with people, and right before the service is over, we hear the whispers among the crowd. They know who we are, which means there’s a good chance we’ll get mobbed when we leave here. The security guards keep us close, flanking us on each end as we walk out the door. But when we get outside, there’s an even bigger crowd.

Someone inside the church must have alerted social media that Fallen from Zero was in the building, because there’s suddenly a mob of teenagers who are blocking the door.

“Oh, shit,” Emilio says.

Shit is right. This is awful. We try to speak, say hello, and sign some autographs, but suddenly someone jerks my hair.

“I got some!” I hear a female voice yell as she lifts a lock of my hair, which she just jerked from my head. I press on the offended spot. That hurts like crazy. My sisters start to run when they realize that this crowd is out for blood. I run too. Hell, I already lost a lock of hair. I don’t want to lose my clothes. Yes, that does happen.

We’re almost to the car when someone’s shoe sticks out and trips me. I hit the concrete hard, so hard that my forehead smashes into the sidewalk. Holy hell, that hurts. Someone steps on my wrist, and I scream.

But suddenly the crowd parts, and I see five really big men with tattoos holding back the offenders. “Back the fuck up!” one of them barks at the overzealous fans. I hold my wrist, because it’s throbbing like crazy, and roll over onto my back.

“I got you, cupcake,” Sam Reed says as he pulls me up off the ground. He moves me around like I’m light as a feather, getting me quickly to my feet.

“Th-thanks,” I murmur. Then I realize he just heard me stutter.

“I want to be your knight in shining armor, swoop you up, and carry you the rest of the way, but…” He looks down at the crutches he dropped.

I’d like to see you try, I think. But I don’t say it out loud.

His brother picks up his crutches and hands them back to him. Sam looks like he’s in pain. “You okay, Sam?” Matt asks. Matt is the one with the long hair and the kind smile.

“I’m okay,” Sam says. “Get her in the car, would you?” He jams his crutches under his arms and walks with us, and Matt holds my elbow.

Matt scowls at Sam. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let them walk all over her.”

“Um-hmm,” he hums. “I think the four of us had it covered, but whatever.”

Sam winces as he maneuvers his crutches. You okay? I ask. Since Sam can sign, talking with him has always been so easy.

“Fine.” He winces again, though, and I can tell he’s hurting. His eyes suddenly jerk up to meet mine and he says quietly, “This wasn’t how I’d planned on seeing you again, cupcake.” He reaches out and touches the side of my face. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

I hadn’t planned on seeing him again at all. Ever. Not after the way we ended things.

“Can I call you?” he asks.

Best if you don’t, I sign.

He looks everywhere but at my face for a second. But then his blue eyes meet mine. “Why not?” he asks softly. He stares into my face.

I don’t answer. I see that the car door is open and I get in, still holding my wrist. The driver closes the door, and I fall back against the seat.

Emilio and Marta ended up in our car, and I’m glad of it. “M-melio,” I say. I try to move my wrist and gasp as pain shoots up my arm.

“What?” Emilio asks. He sits forward.

“I th-think I h-h-hurt my wr-wrist,” I finally get out.

He tells the driver to take us to the hospital.

I lay my head back and look out the back window. I can see Sam Reed standing in the street watching the car until it’s out of sight. He’s standing apart from his brothers and their wives, all by himself.

“I’m glad those boys were there,” Emilio says. “I’ll have to buy them a beer to say thank you.”

Marta clucks her tongue. “They’re going to get swamped themselves, if they don’t get out of there.” The Reeds are local celebrities, ever since their reality TV show started.

I touch the top of my head where I lost a lock of hair.

Marta leans forward and pulls my head down gently so she can look at it. “I think you’ll be okay,” she says. She pats my hair down flat. She leans close to my ear. “At least your head and your hand will. Not so sure about your heart.”

She turns to look back at Sam, but he’s a speck in the distance now, and that’s how he needs to stay.

 

 

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