When they met at Leadership Camp two summers ago, they had one thing in common: Derek.
Each girl wanted to run her fingers through his dark brown curls; gaze into his long-lashed, sapphire eyes; wrap her arms around his tanned, muscular perfection; and plant a passionate kiss on those hungry-looking lips of his.
He truly was perfect, except for one small detail: he was a character on a TV show.
Derek wasn’t real, but their friendship was. When camp ended, they headed in four different directions, but stayed in touch. Two summers later, they reunite: one secretly on the run from an abusive “ex”; another trying to figure out who she is after her long-time boyfriend dumps her; the third struggling to save her family’s Bed and Breakfast; and the last mourning the loss of a beloved sister (unbeknownst to her friends). As they help each other through broken hearts and broken dreams, their relationships prove more meaningful, and more lasting, than any TV show.
No matter what they do or where they go, Nic, Ellie, Andi and Rhen will always be “N.E.A.R.”
So many years had led up to this day; so many days had led up to this moment. As Nic strode down the aisle in her graduation cap and gown, she searched the bleachers until she spotted her sister, Frankie, jumping up and down; Mom grinning and waving; and Dad beside her, wiping tears away. Nic waved back, their well-loved faces blurry as tears pooled in her own eyes, too.
As she climbed the stairs (don’t trip!), crossed the stage (smile!), and received her diploma (don’t drop it!), Nic was certain of three things: a) she had made her family proud; b) high school was so yesterday; and c) the smartest, handsomest, boy in the whole wide world was hers.
When Jonathan – her Jonathan! – delivered the valedictorian address, Nic’s smile was so bright it could have powered every house on the East Coast. Jonathan Chang: the first boy she ever loved. The first boy she ever kissed. (Except for Danny Schwartz at music camp, when she was nine. And Robbie Greenbaum, in kindergarten.)
Nic was still glowing when Jonathan came by to take her out to dinner. She’d saved her big announcement, and biggest smile, for that night: alone on her moonlit porch, his arms around her waist, her hands on his shoulders, gazing into each other’s eyes. It was just like the movies; just like she’d imagined. “I’m off the waitlist. I’m going to Clemson, too! We might even get the same dorm!”
But Jonathan’s smile was nothing like she’d imagined. It was more like a dying ember than a bright, happy flame. For the first time, Nic wondered if today really was a new beginning – as Jonathan had promised his fellow graduates – or the beginning of the end.
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Seventy-two days until NYU. New York University. Ellie was certain she would spontaneously combust before then, if it hadn’t been for her aunt’s phone call.
“Aunt Vicki’s invited me to New York for the weekend!” she told her parents. “It’s my graduation present.”
“Wow!” her mom said.
“Huh,” her dad said.
“That’s all you’ve got to say?” Ellie asked, looking from one parent to the other.
“It’s really not the best time.” Her dad eyed her mom with a cryptic expression.
“You’re kidding, right?” Ellie asked. “RIGHT?”
“We’ve got guests coming to the B&B next week,” her dad pointed out.
“I know. I’ve spent the past week cleaning and cooking for them.”
“And we appreciate it. The thing is, your mom’s – ”
Mom interrupted. “Ellie’s right.”
“Bev, the doctor said –”
“Wait, what? What doctor?” Ellie asked.
Her mother dismissed their concern with a wave and smiled at her daughter. “You deserve a break.”
“What doctor?” Ellie repeated.
“Nothing to worry about, I promise. Now give me the phone before I change my mind,” her mom teased.
Upstairs in her bedroom, Ellie had to laugh. As thrilled as she was to go back to her absolute favorite city in the universe, she couldn’t figure out what to pack. It was especially ironic since, for family vacations, Ellie always packed so quickly she ended up helping everyone else pack, too.
But this was different. This wasn’t T-shirts and bathing suits for the beach; this was Broadway and classy restaurants and NYU!
Most of her dresses were beyond ugly and older than God, but even if – miraculously – she found the perfect one for a night on the town, what about NYU? It would be her home soon, and she wanted to look right. To feel right. To belong. When she visited there two years ago, Ellie had been way too excited to pay attention. Did students walk around in jeans and Ts, like she did? Or were they more sophisticated?
“They probably look just like me,” she told herself. She bent over the suitcase and noticed a dusting of flour on her shirt from the pumpkin bread she baked. As she wiped it off, she saw grass stains on her jeans from wrestling the twins.
“Ellie?” Her mom stood in the doorway. “Almost dinner time. Oh – you might want to scrub that orange marker off your nose first.” She smiled and left.
Ellie sank down on her bed. “Yep. I’m sure they look just like me.”
Los Angeles, California
As Andi headed for the kitchen to prepare another dinner-for-one, she tried to remember: Did Dad leave because Mom was a workaholic? Or did Mom become a workaholic because Dad left?
She was in the kitchen, chopping veggies for another single-serving salad, when the doorbell chimed. She made her way to the door, wondering who it was and what they were selling. Through the peep-hole, all she could see was a bouquet of red roses.
Andi sighed. Did he already forget she’d broken up with him yesterday? High school was over, and so were they. It had been okay at the beginning – exciting, even. Not only was Chad the star quarterback; he had that bad boy thing going, too. Mom hated him on sight, of course, which only made Andi want him more.
The doorbell chimed again. “Babe. It’s me. I got somethin’ for ya.”
Andi opened the door. “We broke up. Remember?”
He grinned and offered her the flowers. They really were beautiful; must’ve cost a small fortune. “I was kinda hoping you forgot.”
Andi rolled her eyes. “Chad….”
“Brought you dinner, too.” He handed her the roses, then bent down and brought forth a pizza box.
Andi inhaled the aroma; it was heavenly. Definitely better than another lame salad. “Fine. We can have dinner together,” Andi smiled. “But I’m not changing my mind.” She stepped aside and let him in. “As friends.”
She found a vase and filled it with water. “Wanna grab some plates and napkins?”
“I’d rather grab you.”
Andi turned around. “Look – ”
“I am looking,” he said. “I always love it when you ditch the bra.”
Wishing she were wearing more than a skimpy tank top and short shorts, Andi crossed her arms over her chest.
“You’re sexy as hell.” His smile unnerved her. Why – how – had she stayed with him so long? Had she really been that lonely after Dad left? That desperate?
“This was a mistake. I think you’d better leave.” She reached for the pizza box to give it back to him, but he pulled her towards him, crushing her against his chest, his breath hot on her neck.
“School’s out forever, baby. Time to celebrate.”
“Cut it out!” She tried to loosen his grip. “I mean it, Chad.” Andi looked him straight in the eyes. “I told you. We’re OVER.”
“We’re not over ‘til I say so… Babe.”
His voice sent a chill through her. His face reminded her of a thunderstorm. For the first time, Andi realized she was in over her head.
Preston Hollow, Texas
Rhen climbed two flights of winding staircase, turned right and followed the mahogany-paneled corridor to her insanely spacious bedroom. After nine months, she still felt dwarfed, and embarrassed, by its size. As if it, and all the fancy new things that came with it, could ever replace what she’d lost.
She missed her old friends, her old neighborhood and high school. Her old house.
As bad as it was leaving all that behind, the worst part had been emptying Roya’s room. Just before moving day, Rhen and her mom stood by Roya’s bed, paralyzed with indecision, overwhelmed with grief. What to do? Pack everything and take it to the new house? That defeated moving in the first place.
But they couldn’t just give her sister’s things away. She had worn those clothes; they still carried her scent. She had touched every item in the room: they were part of her.
In the end, Rhen kept a few of Roya’s things in her new closet… and the truly important ones under her bed.
First, there was Roya’s beloved green bunny, with lopsided ears, patchy fur and worn smile. Rhen picked him up gently, tucked the loose stuffing into the little shirt Roya had made for him, and kissed his pink plastic nose. Next was the butterfly necklace with emerald wings. Rhen held it towards her window and watched it glitter in the fading sunlight.
She remembered the night her sister got the necklace: her long-awaited acceptance letter to the University of Texas at Austin had finally arrived. Mom and Dad had been so confident she’d be accepted there, they’d bought the butterfly necklace weeks earlier, for that very occasion.
Roya was going to study broadcast journalism and see the world… which led to the pocket-sized “World Shopping Guide – London, Paris and Milan” that Rhen had given her their last Christmas together. Roya never got the chance to use it.
Rhen couldn’t explain why she’d kept it. Was it the dazzling grin on Roya’s face when she’d unwrapped it? Or was it because giving it away meant accepting that Roya never would see the world after all?
Rhen turned her attention to the stack of photographs, selecting her favorites one – Roya
and David at their high school prom, her sister’s smile sparkling as brightly as her silver-sequined gown, David staring at her instead of the camera, bewitched.
“One look at Roya and that boy was gone,” Dad used to say, shaking his head and smiling.
Only now, Roya was gone… and it felt like no one would ever smile again.