I’m not an awful person, I swear I’m not, but you wouldn’t know that if you saw me on Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).
Oh, you’ve never heard of it?
It’s a ridiculous reality show where thirty beautiful girls compete for the love of a hot cattle rancher. To show their devotion, they do super meaningful things like wear red cowboy boots with tiny denim shorts, squeal for him at the local rodeo, and, of course, take their turn on a mechanical bull. This last activity will later be edited into a hilarious #FAIL reel since none of the women ever lasts more than ten seconds, and some not even two.
(If you must know, seven. And it wasn’t pretty.)
“It’s back on!” My younger sister Natalie bolted from the bathroom to the couch, jostling my arm when she flopped down next to me.
I frowned. “Nat, making me watch myself on Save a Horse is possibly forgivable, depending on how they edit this last segment. Spilling my margarita while I watch it is not.” I’d hoped a tequila buzz would numb the shame of watching myself be an obnoxious twat on TV, but so far, it hadn’t happened.
In my defense, producers told me to be an obnoxious twat. As soon I got to Montana, they took me aside and said, “We like you, but we want you to be the crazy one people will love to hate, and we’ll make sure you stay on the show longer if you’re good at it.” After thinking it over for a minute, I agreed. After all, the whole reason I was doing the show was to get noticed. If I was just another nice girl who got cut after the first episode, where would that leave me?
Had I known that clever editing would make me look even worse than I’d acted—a feat I’d have sworn wasn’t possible—I might have given that decision more than sixty seconds.
“Oh, come on.” Always able to see a bright side, Natalie patted my head. “Every show needs someone to hate on, and that person is always the most memorable, right?”
Noisily I slurped up more margarita. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Yes! Can you name one nice person from a reality show? No,” she went on before I could answer. “That’s because nice people are not fun on TV.”
Sinking deeper into the couch, I watched myself trash someone’s outfit on the screen. “They’re not making me look fun. They’re making me look like a hideous bitch.” I picked up my phone and checked Twitter, even though I knew it would be painful. “Yep. Just like I thought. Hashtag skylarsucks is trending. Oh here’s a nice one: ‘Skylar Nixon is not even pretty. Her mouth looks like my asshole.’”
Natalie took my phone out of my hands and threw it down between us on the couch. “Screw that, people are stupid and just like to hear themselves talk. Listen, you did this show to get your name out there. And it worked! A month ago, you were just a beauty queen from Michigan. Last week, you were in US Magazine! I’d call that a success, wouldn’t you?”
“No. They took a picture of me pumping gas, and I looked fat.” I shut one eye and cringed watching myself sidle up to poor, hapless Cowboy Dex and flirt shamelessly. “Jesus, I’m even more horrible than I remember. I don’t think I can keep watching this train wreck.” Tossing back the rest of my drink, I got off the couch.
“You’re gonna miss the lasso ceremony!”
“Good.” I stomped over to the kitchen counter, which, unfortunately, was still in earshot of the television. For the last month I’d been living in a small, repurposed barn on my parents’ farm, and everything was in one long room, kitchen at one end, bedroom on the other. Actually, it wasn’t even really a bedroom, just a bed separated from the main area by thick ivory curtains that pooled on the floor. I’d added that touch myself. In fact, one of the reasons my parents let me move in to one of their new guest houses rent-free was to help my mother decorate them. Not that I had a degree in interior decorating—or anything at all. But I did like the challenge of taking a raw space and making it beautiful. I should have gone to college for design.
Or underwater basket-weaving.
Or fucking anything that would have given me a real career to fall back on when the whole I’m Gonna Be a Star thing went tits up.
Heaving a sigh, I took my time in the kitchen, plunking a few more ice cubes into my glass and pouring generously from the oversized jug of margarita mix. But I returned to the couch in plenty of time to watch Cowboy Dex give out lassoes to the girls who’d roped his heart that week. Rolling my eyes so hard it hurt, I marveled that I’d managed to keep a straight face during this nonsense. No, even better than straight—my expression was sweet and grateful as Dex handed me that rope. Poor guy. He was cute, but dull as ditchwater. We actually had no chemistry whatsoever, but I’m sure the producers told him he had to keep me around for a while.
Oh, you didn’t know producers manipulate things on reality TV to get the conflicts and tension they want for ratings? They do. All the time.
Here are some other secrets I can tell you, although you didn’t hear them from me:
Those shows are cheap as hell. All the contestants “volunteer” their time, and the only things that are paid for are travel, lodging, meals, and drinks. For the two months I spent filming, I’ve got nothing to show but more credit card debt because of all the money I spent on clothes and shoes and hair and makeup.
Speaking of drinks, contestants can have, and are encouraged to have, as much alcohol as they want at the ranch, because a bunch of tipsy women are always more fun to watch than a bunch of sober ones. The showrunners made it a point to ask about favorite drinks during the interview process, and always kept the bars stocked.
Which leads me to my final point. Producers are the masterminds of the show—the contestants are more like puppets. The show might not be scripted, but if you’re not saying the things they want you to say, if you’re not having the conversations they want you to have, they’ll stop the cameras and tell you, “Talk about this.” And they edit so shrewdly, snipping out what they don’t want or stringing together words said on completely different occasions to create a sentence never uttered by anyone—there’s even a name for it: frankenbiting.
Like that—right there. “I never said that,” I said, lowering myself onto the couch and wincing when I heard myself remarking snidely, “People from small towns are all small-minded and stupid.”
Natalie sucked air through her teeth. “Wow. That was pretty harsh. You didn’t say it?”
“No! You can totally tell it’s edited—see the way it cut away from my interview to a voiceover? My voice doesn’t even sound the same! Those fucking producers were so slimy.”
The shot went back to me during the interview, and God, I hated my face. And my stupid girly voice. And who told me that color yellow looked good with my skin tone? “I’m actually from a small town,” I was saying. “I grew up on a farm in Northern Michigan, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Wait a minute. Had I said that? I bit my lip. I honestly couldn’t remember. And seeing as I’d recently moved back to said small town in Northern Michigan, it was particularly embarrassing.
And then it got worse.
“It’s nothing but a bunch of drunks, rednecks and religious gun nuts,” I heard my voice saying as footage of some unfamiliar, old-timey main street flashed on the screen, complete with a farmer riding a tractor through town. “I’d never go back.”
“What?” Furious, I got to my feet. “I know I never said that! That footage wasn’t even taken here!”
“Can they do that?” Natalie wondered, finally sounding a little outraged on my behalf. “I mean, just take any words you say and mix and match like that? Seems wrong.”
“Of course it’s wrong, but yes, they can,” I said bitterly. “They can do anything they want because it’s their show.” As I poured margarita down my throat, my cell phone dinged. I grabbed it off the couch and looked at the screen.
A text from our oldest sister, Jillian. She was a doctor and usually too busy for television, but lucky me, she must have found time tonight.
What the hell was that???
But before I could reply, another text came in, this one from my mother.
I thought you said last week was the worst. The thing with the mechanical bull.
My head started to pound. I opened my mother’s message and wrote back, I thought it was! I told you not to watch this show, Mom. They manipulate things. I never said that stuff. But I knew she wouldn’t get it. No matter how often or how well I explained the way editing worked, she still didn’t understand. My phone vibrated in my hand. “Oh, Jesus. Now she’s calling me,” I complained.
“Mom. She’s watching the show, even though I told her not to. Do I have to answer this?”
My sister shrugged. “No. But you live on her property. She can probably see in the windows.”
I ducked, then sank onto the couch again. Generally, I didn’t ignore my mother, but right now I really didn’t feel like defending myself or lecturing her again on the how-and-why of editing for ratings. I tapped ignore and tossed my phone on the table. “Can we please stop watching this now?” Picking up the remote, I turned the television off without waiting for her answer.
“It’s not that bad, Sky.” Natalie got off the couch and went to the kitchen to refill her glass.
“Yes it is, and you know it. I just insulted everyone we know here.”
“Maybe no one is watching,” she said, ever the optimist.
“I seriously hope not.” I hugged my legs into my body, tucking my knees under my chin. Glancing out the big picture window, I saw darkness falling over the hilly orchard where I’d grown up. Memories flooded my mind…running through rows of fragrant blossoming cherry trees in the spring, picking the fruit in the summer, rustling through crunchy brown leaves in the fall, throwing snowballs at my sisters in the winter. Maybe I hadn’t appreciated it enough when I was younger, but I loved it here. For all its glitz, New York had never felt like home to me. I’d even liked Montana better than Manhattan.
Natalie returned to the couch and leaned back against the opposite end, stretching her legs out toward me. “All right, silver lining. You did exactly what you set out to do—draw attention to yourself. You’ve always been good at that.”
Had she intended to be snide? Natalie wasn’t the cryptic remark type, and neither was I. If we had something to say to one another, we said it.
I eyeballed her. “What do you mean by that, exactly?”
“Don’t get prickly.” She nudged me with one bare foot. “I’m just saying that you know how to work a room. You obviously charmed the producers into wanting you to stay on.”
“But not so much that they thought I’d win the cowboy’s heart on my own,” I pointed out.
She shrugged. “You said yourself you guys had no chemistry.”
“We didn’t. But why me?” I whined. “Why couldn’t they’ve asked someone else to play the villain?”
“Because they didn’t trust anyone else to play it right. They needed someone to act devious and manipulative but who was also beautiful and appealing enough for it to be realistic that he’d keep you on so long. I think it was a compliment!”
I held up one hand. “Please. Everyone there was beautiful. And haven’t you heard? My mouth looks like someone’s asshole.”
She kicked me. “Stop it. You have that something extra—you light up a room, you always have.” She slumped like a hunchback and contorted her pretty features. “The rest of us just linger in the shadows, waiting to feed on your scraps.”
I rolled my eyes. Natalie was perfectly lovely, and she knew it. She just had no desire to play it up. While I adored cosmetics, she usually went bare-faced. I was a hair-product and hot roller junkie; she let her natural waves air dry. I could easily—and happily—blow a paycheck on a pair of Louboutins; she saved every penny she could and always had.
And that’s why she owns her own business at age twenty-five and you’re still scrambling to get by at twenty-seven. You might be the big sister, but she’s got a shop, a boyfriend, and a condo. What do you have?
I propped my elbow on the back of the couch and tipped my head into my hand. “God, Nat. I really fucked this up. It didn’t lead to Scorsese knocking at my door, and I probably just alienated everyone we know.”
“Quit being such a drama queen. They’ll forgive you once you flash that Cherry Queen smile at them.”
“Ha. Maybe I should dig out my crown and start wearing it around town. Remind them they liked me once upon a time.”
“Does that mean you’re staying here for good?”
Picking up my drink, I took a slow sip. “I guess so, although I promised Mom I’d be out of this guest house by the end of the month. That gives me about three weeks to figure out where to live, or else move in with them.” I grimaced into the glass. “I’m such a loser. Moving in with my parents at twenty-seven.”
“You’re not, Sky. But if you still want to be an actress, why not go back to New York and try again? A lot of people don’t break out right away.”
How many times had I heard that over the last few years?
I swirled the ice around in the glass. Could I take the New York audition scene again? All the rejection was so disheartening. Then there was living in the city itself. New York had such frantic energy, at every time of day during every day of the week. Once upon a time I couldn’t wait to be a part of that. Of course, I’d romanticized it entirely—the life I’d imagined included actually getting the jobs I auditioned for, and being able to pay my rent with plenty left over for shoes, blowouts, and trendy nightclubs, where I’d clink glasses with elite theater people who called each other darling and invited me to summer with them in the Hamptons.
Needless to say, that’s not how it went.
I spent four full years in New York, and the last year I paid my rent solely by bartending, lying to my parents, my sisters, and anybody else who asked about going out on auditions.
How pathetic is that? I mean, plenty of people lie on their resumes about their successes, but there I was lying about my failures, making up jobs I didn’t get.
That beer commercial? They went younger.
That legal drama? Turns out they wanted a brunette.
That web series about vampire nannies? Never heard back.
So after spending my entire childhood dreaming of being an actress and being voted Most Likely to See Her Name in Lights, turns out I wasn’t cut out for it. Or maybe I just wasn’t good enough.
Either way, it was really depressing.
I was debating calling it quits when the opportunity to do Save a Horse came up, and since I hated the thought of coming back a failure, I figured I’d give it one last-ditch effort to find success.
In hindsight, I probably should have just crawled out of the ditch and held up the white flag. Or better yet, told someone to shoot.
“I don’t know, Nat. I…didn’t really love living in New York.” Admitting how homesick I’d been seemed like another failure.
“Well, what about going back on the cruise ships?”
I made a face. “Nah. Two years was enough for me—I only did it for the experience. And the money.”
“Then stay here,” she said firmly. “Your roots are here. Your family is here. You’ve got a new job you like, and you can easily find a place to live.”
“I do like my job.” I looked over her head out the window again. “And I did miss it here,” I admitted. “But won’t everyone think I’m a big fat failure?”
“Fuck everyone!” Natalie said in a rare outburst. “What do you care what people think of you anyway?”
I shrugged, wishing I didn’t care. But I did. So much it hurt. My ten year high school reunion was three weeks away, and as it stood now, I’d walk in there with a pretty dull story—Failed Actress with No Plan B.
I wanted to be able to say I’d achieved something in the last ten years. But the problem was, I hadn’t. I had no career, no husband or children, no home of my own. Everybody else there would have pictures of their beautiful families to show and stories of their successes to tell. And what did I have?
Seven seconds on the mechanical bull.
And some really nice shoes.
The next day, I showed up for work at Chateau Rivard praying no one at the winery had seen the previous night’s show.
“Morning, John,” I called to the tasting room manager.
“Morning, Skylar.” He was inspecting wine glasses behind the long, curved wooden tasting counter. In his fifties, he was thin on top and thick through the middle and way, way too serious about wine, but I liked him well enough. He’d taught me a lot in the last month.
“Just give me a sec and I’ll help you.” I went to the employees’ room in the back and stowed my purse and keys in a locker before joining him again. “Hey, I wanted to ask you about doing some videos this month. I had an idea for a series of tasting clips, just short ones for our website and the YouTube channel, that would teach people about tasting different kinds of wines but not be snooty or overly preachy, you know? Just something fun and approachable, and we could highlight our riesling for summer.”
“YouTube?” John squinted at me. “Do we have a YouTube channel?”
“We will. I hope.” I smiled at him as I unrolled the sleeves of my white blouse. It was a warm day for May, so I’d cuffed them this morning, but the cavelike tasting room always stayed cool with its stone floors and walls. To me, it was a little dark and dungeony, and the fancy French furniture was definitely tired and uncomfortable, but the Rivard family was all about tradition, and resistant to change. Even though I was technically just the assistant tasting room manager, I thought I could help to modernize the place a little bit—not only the look of the tasting room but in other ways as well. After all, if I was going to work up the nerve to ask for a raise so I could afford an apartment, I’d better prove my worth. “I also have some ideas for additional summer events. I’m going to talk about it all with Mrs. Rivard as soon as possible.”
“Actually, she does want to see you.” John set one glass down and picked up another, holding it up in the dim light thrown by the ugly old brass chandelier overhead. “She said to send you to her office when you arrived.”
“Oh.” That was a little odd. I usually didn’t meet with her in the mornings because we did vineyard tours then. “Do I have time? Isn’t it like quarter to ten already? We’ve got two groups booked this morning.”
“I’ll cover for you here. Go ahead.”
An uneasy feeling weaseled its way under my skin. “Did she say what it was about?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Just said to send you.”
I tried a joke. “Should I be worried?”
“No idea. But you should probably go now. She doesn’t like to wait around.”
No, she didn’t. Miranda Rivard was a stickler for many things—punctuality, manners, tradition. She was the family’s third generation winemaker, although the Rivards had farmed this area long before that, and she was entirely dedicated to preserving its history. That devotion was nice when it came to saving the lighthouse or securing historical landmark status for an old home, but difficult to work around when it came to convincing her to update her tasting room or embrace technology.
As I took the steps up to the winery’s large, ornate lobby—also outdated, I wondered why I was being summoned like this. Could it be something positive? Why couldn’t I shake the feeling it was something bad?
At the far end of the lobby, I opened the heavy wooden door labeled Offices. Mrs. Rivard’s—I didn’t dare call her Miranda—was at the end of the long hall, but that morning I wished it were longer. I walked as leisurely as I could, my gaze on the frayed teal carpet runner. When I reached her door, I stood with my hand poised to knock and gave myself a little pep talk.
Relax. There’s no way Miranda Rivard watches Save a Horse. It’s probably something about the social media accounts you suggested setting up.
Right. That had to be it. Smoothing my skirt and squaring my shoulders, I knocked twice and waited.
I opened the door and poked my head in. “John said you wanted to see me?”
“Yes, Skylar. I do. Come in.” She gestured to the chairs in front of her desk and my stomach lurched.
Stop it. This is where you interviewed, so it’s probably where she conducts all her employee meetings. I’ll just leave the door open. No one gets fired with the office door open.
“Shut the door. Have a seat.”
Fuck. I’m so fired.
I approached the chairs and stared at them, like maybe if I chose the right one this would go better for me.
“Sit, sit,” Mrs. Rivard said a mite impatiently. She looked exactly the way you imagine a witch would look in real life—sharp features, shrewd eyes, long skinny fingers—but without the bedraggled hair. Her silver bob was perfectly even and hung in one shiny sheet to her chin. She wore very little makeup but her skin was actually pretty good for a woman her age, and I briefly considered opening with a compliment. I reconsidered when I saw the critical look in her eye, the firm set of her mouth.
Slowly, I lowered myself to the edge of one brown leather chair, desperately trying to think of a way to change the tone of this meeting. Speak before she does! Open with something positive!
“I’m glad you wanted to meet with me this morning, Mrs. Rivard, because I had an idea I wanted to run by you for a video series.” I tried the beauty queen smile on her.
“Skylar,” she said firmly, linking her fingers together beneath her chin, “I’m afraid I had to make a difficult decision.”
I kept a ghoulish smile frozen in place. “Oh?”
“Yes. It’s about your position here at Chateau Rivard. You see, our brand projects a certain image, and—”
“Mrs. Rivard,” I broke in. “If I could just—“
“Don’t interrupt,” she said sharply.
“As I was saying, Chateau Rivard is very serious about its reputation. We are the oldest winery in this area and have always been dedicated to quality, professionalism, and tradition. We stand out in the market because we are more upscale, and we cater to discerning wine drinkers who expect our wines—and our staff—to be beyond reproach. Do you understand?”
I sighed. “Am I here to be reproached?”
“When you interviewed, I was pleased with your appearance, your family’s history in the area, your role as former Cherry Queen, and your enthusiasm for our wines.”
“Now, I regret to say that I’m afraid those initial impressions have been eclipsed by your recent behavior on television and the subsequent media attention to it. Specifically, this morning’s article in the Peninsula Press.”
“What article?” I asked, gripping the arms of the chair. My Froot Loops churned in my stomach.
“You’ve not seen it?” She raised one thin brow and glanced meaningfully at the newspaper on her desk.
“No.” Panicking, I jumped up and grabbed the paper. My eyes scanned the headlines—and there it was.
FORMER CHERRY QUEEN MORE TART THAN SWEET.
I read the article quickly, my heart sinking with every snarky comment and embarrassing rehash of my misdeeds on the show. The writer mentioned how proud everyone had been to see a “hometown honey” on television but how that pride had withered as the weeks went on. Who’d have thought we’d ever see our sweet Cherry Queen drunk on vodka and suggestively riding a mechanical bull? he asked.
“What? That’s not even right! It was tequila, not vodka!” I blurted.
“I hardly think that detail makes a difference.” Mrs. Rivard’s tone was arch.
Maybe not, but I was hoping for more erroneous statements in the article, things I could point to and say, That wasn’t me! I never did that! I never said that! But unfortunately, everything he’d written about was something shown on screen. He ended the article by condemning me for the terrible things I’d said about where I came from, where my family still lived and worked, and scorned me for insulting good people with my catty, callow words, the same people who’d crowned me Cherry Queen and happily allowed me to represent them all over the country.
The country! The farthest I ever went as Cherry Queen was an Elks Lodge in Flint!
But it wouldn’t serve me now to be defensive. If I wanted to keep this job, I needed to apologize and agree that my behavior was not appropriate.
“Mrs. Rivard, I’m very sorry about the show. I agree, the way they are portraying me is not very…appealing.”
“The way they are portraying you? You don’t think your own actions were…unappealing?” She mocked my use of the word.
“Well, yes and no. I mean, I did do and say some things I shouldn’t have, but the editing makes it look much worse. People have to realize that.”
She tilted her head. “Perception is reality, Skylar. I’m surprised you haven’t learned that yet.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was right. My entire body felt as if it were shrinking.
“And I’m afraid that the way you’re perceived now isn’t the image I want in a front-of-house employee.”
I said nothing as the heavy shame of being fired settled over me like thick gray fog.
“I’ll mail you a check for your last week. Good luck.” She stood, and I took it to mean I was dismissed.
“Thank you,” I said morosely.
“I’m sure you’ll find another job,” she added when I was at the door. “You were a good salesperson, and many comment cards specifically mentioned your name as a positive aspect of our tasting room experience. But I might suggest moving. People have long memories in small towns.”
I nodded and slipped out without meeting her eyes, desperate to stem the tidal wave of tears I felt gathering momentum inside me. She didn’t deserve to see me cry.
Skirting the crowd in the tasting room, I quickly ducked into the employees’ room and grabbed my purse and keys, then rushed out again without even saying goodbye to John. I was sure he knew I’d been fired. How humiliating to think about our earlier conversation—he’d known I was going upstairs to get canned, but let me chirp away about YouTube videos!
Choking back sobs, I got into my mother’s battered old SUV and drove away, allowing anyone who watched to perceive the reality of my middle finger out the driver’s side window.
At first I was just going to go back to the guest house and crawl back under the covers, but I found myself passing the road that led to my parents’ farm, unwilling to explain the situation to my mother yet. Without consciously thinking about it, I kept going north, straight to Lighthouse Park at the tip of the peninsula. I’d been back for weeks but hadn’t yet visited this spot, a favorite of mine as a child. My dad used to take my sisters and me for walks on the paths there, pointing out the “Indian Trees” with their trunks bent at extreme angles by Native Americans hundreds of years ago to mark the trails. We’d hunt on the beach for fossils and tour the lighthouse, and he’d tell us about the ghost of Mable Day—a lovelorn sixteen-year-old girl from New York whose wealthy parents refused to let her marry a sailor she met while summering here. When he sailed again without marrying her and his ship was lost at sea, she drowned herself in the bay. I could still hear my dad’s hushed, eerie tone as he delivered the final line: And if you listen carefully at night, you can hear her crying in the wind.
Those were the kinds of stories I’d shared with guests in the tasting room, thinking that local color always helped to make a sale—it gave them an emotional investment in the product, something to talk about when they uncorked the bottle back home.
I parked in the near-empty lot and walked past the lighthouse and down the dozen wooden steps to the beach, where I slipped off my heels. The breeze off the water was cool, as was the sand beneath my bare soles.
Glad to have the beach to myself, I moved a little closer to the water and plunked down in the sand, tucking my flared striped skirt around my legs. Leaning back on my hands, I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to the sun.
Come on, think. Refocus. So no acting jobs materialized from Save a Horse, but did you ever really think they would? No. And instead of considering the consequences of acting like an evil twunt on national television, you jumped in and did it just to please those producers and stay in the limelight. The problem with you is that you never think ahead—you just grab on to opportunities here and there without ever thinking about what will happen if things don’t turn out perfectly.
I frowned. This was not peppy.
But I had to face it—many things in my life could be summed up with the phrase, It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Rollerskating down that slide in fifth grade. (Lost my balance.)
Waterskiing in a bikini at the sophomore class picnic. (Lost my top.)
Shooting whiskey with Tommy Parker before climbing in the bed of his pickup at the senior class bonfire. (Lost my virginity.)
Actually, it wasn’t a terrible first time, from what I can recall, although that’s not saying much—the memory is a bit fuzzy to this day. But Tommy was sweet to me afterward and we hung out all summer before he left for college in the fall. Three years later, when I was in contention for Cherry Queen, I was a little nervous he’d show up telling everybody about the time I’d “displayed poor conduct” in the back of his truck, which would make me ineligible. But he didn’t—he was a good guy, just like most of the people I knew around here. I felt awful that I’d said such nasty things about them.
And the shitstorm was only getting bigger. When I thought about the article about me in the paper, I wanted to make like Mable Day and disappear under the water. My reputation was shot. Tearing up, I lay back on the sand, covering my face with my hands. God, I’d made such a mess of things. Once upon a time, I’d been admired and respected around here. Played the starring role in every production. Waved from floats and pedestals. People had asked for my autograph. Taken pictures with me.
Now I was reviled.
But what could I do to show everyone I wasn’t that bitch from the show? That I was still the same girl they’d always known, just a little older and wiser—OK maybe not wiser, but at least trying to learn from my mistakes? I’d signed a contract forbidding me to talk about my time on Save a Horse, so it’s not like I could come totally clean. There had to be another way to remind them I was still the girl they were proud to call their own.
Wait a second—that was it! I’d go back to my roots by reaching out to the Cherry Pageant people! All the festivities were coming up in July, and maybe there would be a role for me as a former queen.
I sat up with renewed energy. Yes—this was perfect. I’d repair my reputation by embracing my community, getting involved, doing good deeds. I’d donate my time and energy to needy organizations. I’d work any event at the festival they wanted me to. I’d visit schools, cut ribbons, kiss babies, pick cherries. They probably wouldn’t pay me, but that was OK. My parents would let me move in with them for the summer, and after the festival, my reputation would be repaired, my confidence would be restored, I’d find a new job somewhere, and start saving up for my own place.
I took a deep breath, and the cool, damp air revitalized me. It smelled both earthy and clean, like the woods and the water, like the springs of my childhood. A rebirth. Getting to my feet, I brushed the sand off my skirt and turned around, proud of myself for coming up with a solution, like a real grownup.
To my surprise, I was no longer alone on the beach.
A man sat about twenty feet away, forearms draped over his widespread knees, hands clasped between them. He knew I was there, he must have seen me when he arrived, but he said nothing as I made my way to the steps and never looked away from the water. He had a nice profile, actually. Short dark hair, strong jaw covered with neatly trimmed scruff, nice ears. Sounds weird, I know, but I got the Nixon ears that stick way out, which is why I rarely wear my hair back and always notice ears on other people.
He wore aviator sunglasses, jeans, and a light brown jacket, and when I got closer I noticed he had a thick notebook next to him on the sand, the old fashioned spiral kind with a bright red cover. Intrigued, I nearly said hello, but something about the utter stillness in his pose told me he didn’t want to be bothered, and the greeting stuck in my throat.
Maybe he watches the show, I thought glumly. Maybe he knows exactly who I am and just doesn’t want to talk to me.
My spirits withered a little as I reached the wooden steps, where I realized I hadn’t picked up my heels from where I’d been sitting. I pivoted sharply, but somehow my ankle didn’t get the message and I went down hard on my hands and knees in the sand. A little squeak escaped me as I hit the ground.
Oh God. Please don’t let him be watching me.
A few seconds later I heard his voice.
I saw her. Of course I saw her.
I thought she was crying at first, because she was lying on her back, hands over her face. Although I was disappointed not to have the beach to myself, I felt a tug of sympathy and thought about asking if she was OK. But when I got closer and realized it was Skylar Nixon, I hesitated.
I hadn’t seen her in ten years, but I knew it was her. That hair—so light blonde it was almost silver against the sand. Her fingers covered her eyes, but I knew they were blue. Not a bright or sharp blue, like a gemstone, but sweeter, softer, like faded denim. I didn’t know this because of any extended time spent gazing into them directly, but from staring at her senior yearbook photo every night for a year while feverishly jerking off to the fantasy of her straddling my body in the dark.
But I’d bet every guy in our graduating class had that fantasy. She was just so beautiful.
We didn’t run with the same crowd back then—mostly because she had a crowd and I did not, which was fine with me. In those days, I preferred solitude. I sought it. Much easier to be alone with my anxiety than have to explain it to anyone.
It was still easier.
But I wasn’t that kid anymore, and here was a chance to prove it. Maybe this was serendipity.
I started walking toward her, and suddenly the voice in my head spoke up. Don’t do it. She’s too lovely, too fragile. You’ll hurt her.
Suddenly the disturbing image of Skylar gasping for air, my hands around her neck, lodged in my brain, along with the question, What if I choked her?
I stood there, paralyzed, desperately trying to push the thought from my head, and then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to do that. I had to talk back.
Stop it. Those fears aren’t rational. I’ve never choked anyone.
I hadn’t, had I? My mind suddenly went into overdrive, sifting through years of memories, trying to find the one where I must have choked someone. That’s why I was thinking about it now, wasn’t it?
Rational thought tried again. No! This is fucking ridiculous. You’ve never fucking choked a person!
But already that gut-gripping unease had me reconsidering my intent to speak to her. Even if I’d never choked anyone in the past, I must want to.
The other voice refused to quiet.
You know what will happen if you go over there and speak to her. So maybe you won’t choke her, but you’ll make a mess of things. Go ahead, start a conversation. If you’re lucky, she’ll remember you as the class freak and run off like a scared rabbit. If she likes you, you’re in even bigger trouble, because that’s how it all starts. And it ends with you ruining her life, just like you ruined Diana’s. You’re poison.
By this time, my heart was pounding furiously and my hair stood on end. The voice was right, he was totally right.
Distressed, I moved away from her, being certain to take an even number of steps, and sat down quietly in the sand, waiting for my heart to quiet down.
But it didn’t, because a moment later, she stood up, brushed herself off, and saw me.
Did she recognize me? I hoped not. I knew I looked different than I did back then, but I still didn’t want to take any chances.
Don’t look at her.
I said it eight times in my head.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her walk toward the steps and then hesitate, like she might say hello. I held my breath. Counted to eight.
Suddenly she turned and went down hard in the sand, letting out a little shriek of surprise. Before I could stop myself, I was on my feet, rushing toward her.
“Are you all right?” I asked, taking her by the elbow to help her up.
“Yes,” she said quickly, her cheeks going adorably scarlet. “Just a little sandy and a lot embarrassed. Thank you.”
Once she was on her feet, I dropped her arm and stepped back as the horrible fear of harming her popped back into my mind and stuck there. She looked up at me curiously, like maybe she was trying to place me. If it was possible, she was even more beautiful than I remembered.
“I know who you are.” It came out colder than intended. I hadn’t meant it in a bad way, but I was trying so hard not to think about hurting her that my voice was strained, my tone sullen. Fuck, I’m an asshole.
She must have taken offense, because her face fell, her complexion darkening further. “Right. Well, OK then.” Without any kind of goodbye, she brushed past me, scooped up a pair of shoes from the sand and stomped back over to the steps. She quickly slipped her feet into her heels and thumped up each stair with angry clacks.
Part of me wished I would have at least told her my name, reminded her that we’d once known each other, but another part just felt relief that she was gone and I hadn’t harmed her. The thought of choking her stubbornly refused to leave my head, and I walked back over to where I’d been sitting and dropped down onto the sand, hating myself.
Fucking hell. I’d made so much progress in the last year, and I’d let the sight of an unrequited ten-year-old crush undo it all. I was a fucking disaster and I always would be. Grabbing the notebook next to me, I hurled it into the water.
Two seconds after I heard the splat, I regretted it. “Fuck!” I jumped to my feet and trudged into the water to get the damn thing, which hadn’t gone very far. The water was frigid but shallow, and I rescued the journal before it was submerged, although I soaked my sneakers and the bottoms of my jeans in the process.
Reaching the sand again, I dropped down and fanned open the dripping notebook, its pages covered in neat, small, identical lettering. In the beginning, the pages all looked the same.
Eight words per line.
Ken, my therapist, never actually read my journal, it was just for me, so at first I’d reverted to the old habit, even though the whole point of the journal was to help me stop engaging my compulsive behaviors. But eventually, I’d stopped writing in it that way. I’d stopped doing a lot of things I used to do. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a setback like I’d had today. Then again, it was the first time I’d approached a woman I was attracted to since everything with Diana fell apart. Add to that it was a girl I’d crushed hard on back in high school, and maybe it was no wonder.
Frustrated, I dropped the notebook into the sand. Maybe it was just too soon. Maybe it was just the wrong woman. Or maybe I was just doomed to be alone for the rest of my life. My own misery was enough—why should I make someone else unhappy too?
Ken was always encouraging me to be more social, but I hadn’t come back here to make friends or reconnect with anyone. I’d come here for peace and quiet, to start over, to forget about New York and everything that happened there.
Forget that I’d lost my mind.
Forget that I’d lost my job.
Forget that I’d lost the only woman willing to love me.
No, that was wrong—I hadn’t lost her. I’d driven her away.
I deserved to be alone.
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