Nowhere But Here Original Opening

The following scenes are from Emily’s point of view and are what I originally wrote after Emily has the conversation with Eli and Olivia at the funeral home in the finished version of Nowhere But Here.  I loved what I had written below, but by using this it was taking to long for Emily to get to Snowflake and the story doesn’t really begin until she gets there. This meant I had to cut.  Also, after having written a few scenes between Olivia and Oz, I decided I wanted Olivia to form a relationship with Emily.

 

**Author’s Note** This is raw and unedited. There will be mistakes.

 

Chapter 4

My mom holds up my cell phone and I snatch it from her hand. She laughs and returns to washing dishes at the kitchen sink. I kiss my phone and dance around the island. I missed my phone. I missed touching it, texting with it, calling people with it.

Dad leans a hip against the counter and gives mom a kiss on the cheek. “How much?”

“One hundred dollars,” I say. I text my best friend, informing her that I’m back on the wireless planet. “I earned every cent.”

He chuckles. “I’ll be honest. I didn’t think you could go a week without a cell phone. How much money did the Beta Club make for the Cancer Foundation?”

“Around two thousand dollars.” A month ago, that jerk kid Oz accused me of ruining Olivia’s party and after three sleepless nights back home, I agreed. So when the Beta Club asked for ideas for the end of the year community service project, I suggested that we do a Give-Up-A-Thon to raise money for the Cancer Foundation. Walk-A-Thons are so over done plus you sweat.

Dad pulls out his wallet and places the cash on the counter. “You did good, kid.”

I scroll down the list of missed calls and notice Eli’s number several times. “He called.”

I gave Eli my cell number before I left as a guilt offering. To be honest, I never thought he’d use it.

“Who’s the new boy for me to question?” Dad loosens his tie and goes through the mail. We’ve had this conversation so many times we can do it in our sleep, but Dad is missing the point. “Any boy that wants to take you out has to come to the front door.”

“No, Eli called.”

The sound of dishes moving against the sink ceases and it’s the eerie silence that follows that makes me look up. Mom and Dad stare at each other, both frozen.

“What’s going on?” I ask. They stay silent. Crap. They want me to return to therapy. I sink into the chair at the kitchen table. “Look, I know you said we’d reevaluate my whole dead people freak out when school let out, but I promise I’m fine. I mean, there is no way in hell I’m walking into a funeral home ever again, but I’ve got it all figured out. When someone I know dies, I’ll send flowers and not just little pathetic plants, I’m talking huge arrangements.”

Mom dries her hand on a towel and leaves the room. Dad unbuttons his collar and sits in the chair next to me. “Eli called me last week when he couldn’t get a hold of you. Olivia died.”

“Is she really dead this time?” I regret the words the moment they come out.

“Yes,” Dad answers.

“Oh,” is the best I can come up with. The first time they told me, I felt nothing, but this time I feel a pang of hurt and I don’t particularly care for it. “Why did you wait to tell me?”

“There was no visitation or funeral. They cremated her remains. Eli and I agreed we should wait to tell you until you got through final exams at school.”

“Why?”

Dad leans forward. “You were wound tight when you came home from Kentucky. None of us wanted to add stress during an already stressful week.”

I’m foreseeing the whole we think it would be best if you discuss your fears with someone talk. Mom comes back into the kitchen with a box the size of a microwave. She holds the box close to her body with her lips pressed together and clutches the corners with white knuckles. Dad goes, takes it from her, and places it on the table in front of me.

“What’s this?” I ask.

Mom gives my shoulder a squeeze. “Olivia left you something of hers. It came two days ago. Eli said she was rather insistent on you having it.”

Dad hands me his car keys and I use them to tear the tape. “Did he say what it was?”

“No,” says Mom. “Maybe it’s her glass figurine collection. I loved it as a kid.”

I raise my eyebrows. Mom knew Olivia as a kid? I file that new tidbit of information in the back of my head and fold back the flaps to find two wooden boxes. The larger one looks worn by time. I pull it out and hear my mom suck in a breath. “It’s her letter box.”

The heavy box is nicked in several spots and the silver clasp is broken. My stomach twists when I find a large stack of letters inside. The one on top bears my name. I swallow. She shouldn’t have left me something so personal. She shouldn’t have left me anything.

Not in the mood to find out the depths of her disappointment of me as a granddaughter, I pull out the smaller box. It’s smooth and not a flaw to be found. This one has no lock. I open the lid and tilt my head. I don’t get it. She gave me a zip lock baggie full of white cigarette ashes?

“Oh God,” Mom chokes. “It’s Olivia’s ashes.”

The box slides from my fingers and the wood splinters on the stone floor. Laying flat on the floor in a plastic bag are the remains of my dead grandmother.

 

Chapter 5

I blink. It appears to be the only physical action I’m capable of. I’m lying on the couch though I don’t remember how I got here. My head rests on a big fat, fluffy pillow. It’s soft and I like how my face squishes in it.

Dad yells a lot into his phone. He walks in and out of my line of vision. Mom sits on the floor in front of me and watches Dad pace. She brushes my hair out of my face and whispers something to me. I’m not sure what, but it’s a whisper and it’s her voice, so I blink.

I hear Dad say one word, “Ashes.” His voice fades out.

There’s a dead person in my house. On the kitchen table actually. In a bag. I’m never going in there again. I may not ever eat again. I can go to McDonald’s and eat. There aren’t any dead people at McDonalds.

She hated me for ruining her party. Why else would she send me her ashes? I’m a failure in her eyes. A disappointment and she’s punishing me.

Dad crouches. His face a few inches from mine. He’s off the phone. I love him. So much. He was the one that rescued me when I was eight. His dark eyes had the same look they do now – worried. “I’ll take care of everything. You don’t have to think about this ever again.”

I fall forward into him and wrap my arms tightly around his neck.

“Its okay, Emily,” he whispers. “I’m going to take you to your room.” Dad picks me up and carries me. I close my eyes and press my face into his neck as we pass the kitchen.

***

My stomach gurgles and then comes that empty feeling that can only be filled by one thing: food. Rolling over, I pop my head out of the comforter and check out the clock. It’s five in the morning. Lucky Charms in a bowl of cold milk sounds freaking fabulous.

Dad said he’d take care of it. He’s the kind of guy that does what he says which means I’m free to eat tasty marshmellowy goodness. I try not to make any sounds as I make my way to the kitchen. I heard Mom crying late last night and Dad comforting her. I hate it when Mom cries and I can’t help but feel responsible for her latest emotional outburst.

I flip on the kitchen light and my heart squeezes in my chest. Crap. “You’re still here.”

The bag of ashes sits on the kitchen table right next to the box of letters. I suck in a deep breath and lean against the door frame. Okay, so I had another melt down of sorts, but give me some credit. How many people receive dead relatives in the mail?

I weigh the pros and the cons of entering. Pro – I get to eat. Con – I’m eating in a room with a dead person. Pro – I won’t be hungry anymore. Con – I’m eating in a room with a dead person. Pro – I prove to Mom and Dad I don’t need therapy. Con – I’m eating in a room with a dead person.

My stomach growls again. I guess I’m eating in a room with a dead person.

I fish out the bowl, spoon, cereal, and milk, all the while feeling like eyes are glued to my back. My spine has that weird sort of tingle. Kind of like when someone talks about lice and then your scalp feels all itchy. That type of weird.

Sitting at the island, I focus on my bowl of cereal and shove the mouthwatering loveliness into my mouth. Two chews in, my eyes slowly wander to the left. I knew it! I knew it! It’s watching me. “Stop it.”

All right. I know it’s not watching me. I mean, she is technically there, just not whole. Like her eyes are in there. I guess. I focus on the bowl again because I’m not going to think about ashes or dead things or body parts or eyes and I’m staring at the damn bag again.

I turn in my seat to face it. “Fine. I freaked. Are you happy now? Are you laughing it up wherever you’re at? I screwed up your crazy funeral themed party and now you’re screwing up my life. We’re even, okay?”

There! We’re even! I shove another spoon full of cereal in my mouth, chomping hard at the bits, annoyed I’m not even enjoying the marshmallow parts. I slam the spoon down. “I raised money for you. I convinced my friends to give up their most valued possessions for a week! Are you grateful? Noooo! You die and send your ashes to me. That is not cool, lady.”

The bag is just there. Staring at me. In judgment. Oh, it has eyes and their laughing at me. I rest my elbow on the island and place my chin in the palm of my hand. I don’t ask what she wants because I already know. She has words she wants me to hear and I don’t want to listen. They’ll be angry words and crazy and…that friggin guilt is back and nagging at my insides.

I slide off the stool and my heart leaps into my throat. I can do this. I am not giving this lady the satisfaction of watching me freak again. Still, with each step I take towards the box, my insides shiver as if I’m going to explode.

Shuffling to the table, I stop when I can lean on my toes and so that my fingertips can barely brush against the lid of the letter box. In one quick motion, the lid flaps back with a large bang and I jump several feet back into the kitchen. My heart pumps violently.

I crane my neck and peek inside the box. Only letters. Okay. I can do this. It’s just a letter. A letter from a demented dead woman, but still just a letter. Like a mouse scurrying across the floor, I snatch the letter from the box and race back to the island.

I stare at the ashes. They’re still there. Watching. Waiting. I’m an idiot. Without another thought, I open the envelope and honestly chuckle when I see a handwritten letter. At this point, I kind of expected cut out letters from magazines.

Emily,

You said you were sorry I was dying. I said I was fine with it. I lied. I wasn’t. You’re short visit made me realize that. I thought I had lived life with no regrets, but I was wrong. There’s a lot I didn’t say. A lot I didn’t do. A lot I’ll never get a chance to experience. At least in my physical form. At least here on Earth. All of them include you.

So, after many sleepless nights, I decided you’re going to spread my ashes and you’re going to do it with your father, Eli, in Snowflake. He’ll know where my final resting place should be.

~ Olivia

Great. Just great. Turns out Olivia got me in a way few understood – I hate guilt.

 

Chapter 6

“No,” Mom says. “No, this is insanity. It’s crazy. Emily, take a step back and see how insane this request is.”

Steam lazily drifts from the mug of coffee Mom holds in her hands. She sits with me, Dad, and Olivia’s remains at the kitchen table. Her hair falls out of a make shift pony tail and she’s still wearing her nightgown.

 “Yeah, but she left it to me to do and I think I should.” We’ve been having this discussion for an hour and it’s possibly the most circular conversation I have ever had.

“No, I’m sorry, but no.” Dad’s the only one dressed for the day. He wakes up early. Even on Saturdays.

“Why not?” I’ve wasted all sorts of energy trying to convince them to let me do it.

Dad chuckles and I can’t help but feel slightly insulted. “To begin with you’re terrified of dead things.”

True. “Besides that.”

He stops chuckling and leans back in his chair. A few wrinkles gather around the creases of his eyes. Dad’s older than Mom. Only by a year, but right now he looks really old and worn. He stares at the box of letters and then at Mom. “What do you want me to tell her, Meg?”

I take an interest in the napkin ring. Dad’s never sounded defeated before or desperate. Right then, he sounded a little of both.

Mom puts down the mug. “I don’t know. Emily, there are things you just don’t know or understand. About Eli and Olivia and…” She breaks off and the pause is more than dramatic. It feels like a person deciding whether they should jump off a cliff.  “The answer is no. You’re not doing this.”

“But…”

Mom cuts me off with a glare I’ve never received before. Her eyes are wide and almost a little crazy. “I said no. This is the end of the discussion.”

Never in a million years did I see that coming. I’m at a loss for words or thoughts or…

Dad stands and reaches for the ashes. I jump out of my chair. “What are you doing?”

“I’m taking the ashes to a scattering garden.”

My heart is beating so quickly, I swear it’s about to fall out of my chest. I don’t understand much, but I know that’s not what Olivia would have wanted. “No. You can’t do that.”

“Honey, listen,” He talks in that calm voice. The one he used when I was eight. The one he used last night. “I talked with Eli yesterday. Olivia spent all of her money on that party. She had nothing left. She didn’t purchase a place to put her remains.”

“Send the ashes back to Eli. This is his Mom.”

“He doesn’t want them.” The statement is so simple that I wait for him to continue, yet he doesn’t.

“He has to want them,” I say. “It’s his mom.”

Dad glimpses at Mom again. She stands, walks to the sink, and dumps her coffee. “Your father is taking the ashes to the scattering garden. End of discussion. Now go upstairs, get dressed, and think of something else that you want to do for the day.”

She clutches the sink and sways a little to the side. Dad rushes to her, folding himself around her. “It’s okay. I love you. It’s okay.”

Mom slowly wraps one arm around him and then another. She buries her face in his chest. Her shoulders shake. I’ve never seen Mom like this before. Never.

“Do what your mother says. Go.” Dad kisses the top of her head. “Let’s go upstairs.”

I stand next to the kitchen table and watch my parents leave. I’m torn. My mother is in tears and my father is in total damage control mode. I want to listen. I want to do what I’m told, but they’re wrong on this. Absolutely wrong and there is one hundred dollars sitting on the counter that can make things right.

 

Chapter 7

I’m going to be so grounded at the end of this. I had big plans for this summer. Parties. Trips to the mall. Lounging at the pool. I glance at my watch. Twelve at night. I should be at Conner McGaffey’s house, living large at his end of year pool party. Nope. Not there.

My right foot tingles and I shift the heavy backpack resting on my lap to restore the blood flow. Inside the pack is the letter box and bag of ashes. “You better appreciate this.”

“Did you say something?” the elderly lady next to me asks. Midge adopted me against my wishes in the Orlando bus terminal. Besides taking in strays, Midge enjoys long stories about her family, antecedents that don’t have a point, and knitting.

“Sorry, just thinking out loud.” Thinking that if I don’t get off this bus soon, I’m going to pee all over myself.

“What city did you say your father lived?” Knit one, pearl two. Knit one, pearl two.

 “Snowflake.” The same placed he lived the last one hundred times she asked.

She starts a new row. A tiny light strapped to her forehead guides her fingers across the knitting needles. Most of the passengers fell asleep an hour ago. “We’ll have to part ways in Bowling Green I’m afraid. You’re heading to the east. My oldest son lives in Louisville. That’s north.”

I know, but I don’t say that. Instead, I give her the polite smile and pray she stops talking. For hours, I’ve listened to every detail about her six grown children and how she loves to travel. I’m convinced they got her a bus pass so she doesn’t bore them to tears.

I lean forward and tap my toes. Gotta pee. Gotta pee. Gotta pee. Only a couple of more miles to Bowling Green and I can relieve myself in a toilet that isn’t vibrating.

“A bus station isn’t a very safe place at night,” she says. She also told me it wasn’t a safe place to be at noon, or two in the afternoon, or at dinner time, but somehow, the two of us survived. She gives me a sideways look, the clicking pauses. “How long is your layover in Bowling Green?”

She’s testing to see if I’ve listened to her four hundred and eighty-two rules of the road. I pull the ticket out of my pocket. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Good girl.” Click, click. Click, click. “Always have your ticket handy. See, I told you if you stuck with me, I’d teach you the rules of the road.”

I feel like I’m living in a bad apocalyptic movie. Teenage girl forced to travel the country with old woman across barren wasteland in a filthy bus. Old woman becomes mentor, teaching her the rules of the road. Teenage girl uses sweaters, knitting needles, and bad stories to frighten the evil lurking in the shadows of the bus terminal. Oh, and I forgot the best part, teenage girl lugs around the ashes of her demented grandmother in her backpack.

Maybe I do need therapy.

The vibration of my cell phone against my left thigh reminds me how deep I’m in. The first couple of hours, it vibrated non-stop. Slowly it moved to every thirty minutes to every hour. Mom and Dad have left a message every time, ranging from nuclear, to desperate, to crying, to simple, broken pleas. Not one of those messages said what I wanted to hear. That I can respect Olivia’s wishes.

I’ll be honest. I have no plans to, but at least I can return the ashes to Eli and let him deal with his crazy mom’s request. That family would probably eat this bizarre crap up.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have arrived in Bowling Green.”

Thank God! I jump up, but Midge stops my race to indoor plumbing by placing one cold hand on my arm. “Remember, the ticket says fifteen minutes, but get to the bus seven minutes before it leaves. You don’t want to be left behind.”

“Thanks.” I step into the aisle and feel kind of crappy for just leaving her like this, but I’ve got to pee. “Really, thanks. I mean it.”

Her eyes dazzle and if I don’t motor soon, she’ll launch into a new story and I’ll pee my pants. I walk backwards down the aisle. “Okay, then. Good luck.” And I’m off the bus.

“Miss, the bus to Snowflake is right here.” I’ve had the same bus driver since Atlanta. He’s a nice man, friendly, and waving his hand insistently at the bus next to the one I just stepped off of.

 “I’m going inside to use the restroom,” I say.

“All right then, but make it quick. Driver of that bus is antsy to move.”

According to schedule I’ve got fifteen minutes and I plan on peeing inside a building attached to the ground. I swing the pack over my shoulder and make a bee line for the woman’s bathroom.

The restroom is empty, just like the terminal. Hovering over the toilet (because sitting on it would be gross), I realize how insane this entire day has been. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I want to go home.

“Hello.” A girl about my age with stringy blond hair pokes her head underneath the door of my stall. “I saw you come in. You’re pretty.”

“Get out!”

“But I’m not in,” she says and she’s right. Technically, she’s on her side of the stall, lying on the ground with her cheek pressed against the wet tile floor.

“Then stand up!” I do. My trembling fingers fumbling with the button on my jeans.

“Yes!” she exclaims. “Got it!”

No. My pack slides under the stall. Blond stringy chick gone along with it. I fall to the floor, grabbing at the shoulder strap.

“Let go!” the girl on the other side yells.

As if! I yank at the pack and she yanks back. The material at my knees become wet and I try hard not to think about whatever muck I’m sliding around in.

“I’m not letting go!” the chick says.

“Neither am I you cracked out thief.”

She stops pulling, but doesn’t let go. I yank, but she doesn’t give. “I’m not cracked out,” she says in a small voice.

Oh my gosh. A thief with reputation issues. I need to open the door, but if I let go to unlatch the lock, she’ll get my pack for sure. I fall back on my butt, giving the strap a good yank along with it. The pack slides toward me and her body hits the door. She’s back on the floor again, staring at me. Half of my back is wrapped between her arms.

“Stop it!” she says.

“Are you insane?” Of course she is. Why did I ask? I kick my foot out and hit the lock with the hopes it will open. My head becomes increasingly heavy and I have the urge to let my neck fall back until I realize what is going on. I snap my head up and wet hair flings against my cheek. One cold drop of liquid rolls over my lips and down my chin. Oh God. Everything inside me churns. My hair went into the toilet and now I’ve got pee on my face.

Annoying giggles comes from the other side of the door. “You’re funny,” she says. “My name is Ariel. What’s yours?”

I kick at the lock. “Let!” Kick. “Go.” Kick. “Of.” Kick. “My.” The door opens and I spring from the floor, yanking my back with me out of the stall.

“Ow,” Ariel cries. “You’re hurting my arm when you yank like that. By the way, I really thought the door was going to open you said backpack. That’s how it would have happened in the movies.”

She’s standing and still playing tug of war with my pack. What do I have to do to make her go away? “I’m going to scream and then security is going to come running in and then you’ll be in trouble.”

“No, you’re not.” Ariel wears an off white tank top stained by dirt and jeans wet by the floor. She stands in the middle of a stream of water caused by an overflowing sink. The water slowly trickles into a drain at her feet. “Because you’re a runaway like me and you don’t want the police either.” 

“I’m not a runaway! I’m going to visit someone I know and you’re going to make me miss my bus!” My throat tightens. If I haven’t missed the bus already. What will I do if that happens? I spent all of my money to buy the ticket.

She shrugs. “Then scream.”

I blink. I can’t scream. I’m carrying somebody’s ashes. What if that’s illegal? What if they think I killed her? Oh crap. I’m going to jail. How could I not think any of this through?

Ariel flashes an I-won-smile. “See, you’re like me. Whatcha got in here? Anything good?”

“Nothing you want, I promise. Look, you’re making me miss my bus.”

“I heard you’re going to Snowflake. No one goes to Snowflake. They run from Snowflake. Stick with me. We can work together. We’ll be safer that way.”

“Safe?” A bubble of rage pop inside of me. I yank and yank at the pack. “Give me my bag back you insane freak!”

Ariel laughs and I watch in horror as she unzips the top of the pack, looks in and I gasp as she reaches in and begins to undo the bag with the ashes. She then looks up at me and simply says, “Oops.”

Oops. The box of letters and the bag of ashes slip from the pack and fall to the floor. The box lands with a resounding clunk. Letters scatter across the floor. But that’s not what makes me scream in terror. That’s not what makes every single muscle in my body wrench in pain.

The plastic bag hits the floor and a small waif of dust floats into the air and onto the tile floor. Parts of Olivia are about to disappear down the drain of a bus station bathroom.

Chapter 8

“What did you do?!” It’s a screech. Definitely a screech. My hands cover my head and I stare at the wet floor that swallows small parts of Olivia. “What did you do?!”

Ariel shushes me and acts like she might touch me. “Calm down. Do you want security in here? Whatever drug it was, I can score you more. Just chill.”

“That was my grandmother!” I fall to my knees in front of the open bag. I tremble everywhere, unsure what to do. Parts of her join the water flow.

“Sweep it up.” she says.

My hands reach down and I hesitate. I’m going to touch a dead person.

“Quickly! It’s mixing with the water!”

Before my eyes, Olivia goes down the drain. “No.”

“That sucked,” Ariel says. “You really didn’t have anything I wanted.”

“Go!” I can’t even look at her, staring only at the drain. “Just go!”

Ariel’s footsteps echo along the bathroom walls. The door to the woman’s bathroom squeaks open and closes with a thud.

Oh my God. I lost Olivia. I lost Eli’s Mom. Not a lot of her, but still. I reach down and seal the bag. The bottom of the bag is wet; the top dry. My fingers slide across the zipper and I dry heave at the thought of the sandy parts I’m touching.

Thankfully, the letters landed on the one dry part of the floor. I toss them and the box into the pack. Absently, I run my hand through my hair and stop when I hit the wet parts. I’m covered in pee and I lost parts of Olivia on the floor of a filthy bus station.

Tears burn my eyes, but I don’t have time for that. I’ve got to get to the bus and return Olivia before I find a way to screw this up more. I race out of the bathroom, through the empty terminal, out the doors into the humid night, and freeze. The bus lot is empty. Utterly, completely empty. A lot like me.

“Hey!” My head jerks to the left and a man carrying a large army pack weaves to the left, then to the right, but definitely towards me. “Do you have any money?”

I take a step backwards. “No.”

He has a beard, long hair, and smells of stale beer. “You’ve got to have something.”

The sob breaks out and I flee back into the terminal. Everything is closed. The diner. The ticket counter. There is nothing. Nobody. Except for the security guard who now stares at me at the other end of the building. He’ll call the police. He’ll send me to jail.

I bolt into the ladies room, lock myself into a stall, and climb onto a toilet, clutching the backpack to my body. My fingers tremble as I unzip the side pocket. I need help.

The phone rings once and the answer is immediate and desperate. “Emily?”

It’s not really words that come out as much as sobbing, gibberish. “Come get me. Come get me. Come get me.”

Chapter 9

I sit on the water tank of the toilet. My feet rest on the seat. I clutch the backpack holding Olivia tight to my chest. Sniffing up snot, I make the decision that today is definitely one of the worst days of my life. Ironic how the top three all involve dead people.

 The bathroom door screeches open and I hold my breath. What if it’s Ariel? What if it’s the homeless guy? What if it’s…

Three quick raps on the stall door and my heart misses several beats. “It’s me, Emily.”

I reach over and unlock the door. It swings open and reveals Eli. He presses his phone to his ear. “I’ve got her.”

He’s going to be pissed. I lost his Mom. How do I tell him I lost his Mom?

“Like she’s been crying a lot and possibly needs a shower,” Eli gives me the once over, before letting his eyes meet mine. “Are you ready to talk to your Dad? Last chance before he boards the plane.”

I shake my head no. Talk about another guy who’ll be totally ticked at me. How could I screw up so badly?

“All right. I’ll see you in a few hours.” Eli pauses then turns off his phone. He gives me the once over again before releasing a long breath. “You didn’t call your mom like I asked. You should. They’re worried.”

Knowing I’ve made a mess of everything, I clutch the bag tighter.

“Are you coming out?” he asks.

“I lost your Mom.” I stare at the water in the toilet. Its blue from those nasty cleaning cubes people put in the storage tank. I bet my hair’s going to turn blue. It should. I deserve it.

“Are you going to make me hug you in a woman’s bathroom stall?”

Maybe he didn’t hear me. “Not a lot. Like a half a teaspoon.”

“I’d prefer to hug you out here.” Eli jerks his thumb towards the terminal. “Even better, out there, but I’ll hug you next to a toilet if that’s what you’d prefer.”

“Okay, possibly more like a teaspoon and I’m sorry. There was this girl and she tried to steal the bag and…”

“Are you okay?”

I shift and discover there’s not much room on a toilet lid to adjust. “What?”

“Are you hurt? Did someone hurt you?” Eli’s dark eyes narrow at the word hurt and his muscles flex, making me notice the stars tattooed on his arm. He’s kind of acting all gangster as if he’d kick someone’s butt for hurting me. It’s cool yet frightening.

“No,” it comes out as a whisper.

Eli runs a hand through his hair. “I’ve been going out of my mind since your dad called me at eight-thirty this morning. If you don’t mind, I’d like a hug.”

I slide off the toilet and stumble into Eli. “I’m so sorry I lost part of your mom.”

Before I can think to warn him, Eli kisses the top of my head. I cringe for him, but decide to keep it to myself what’s actually in my hair.  He pulls out of the hug, keeps an arm wrapped around my shoulders, and guides me out of the bathroom. “No offense, Emily, but you smell bad.”