Happy Friday and merry Christmas to you!
I have a special treat to share with y'all today, one I hope you enjoy: the first chapter of The Next Best Thing! It seems like just a few weeks ago that I finished this book and, yet, here we are, less than a month away from its release. Emma and her friends are like dear children to me—sometimes even like dear friends—and while I loved writing them, I'm also ready to see them off. For five years, I've carried their stories with me and releasing this final book is like a breath of fresh air in my lungs. I really am like a parent here: excited to see my babies head out into the world and fearful about what will happen after I do.
I guess I'll find out in a few weeks, won't I?
Emma Fraser took one look at her ringing cell phone and decided she’d had enough of conversations she couldn’t change. So she tossed it aside and pulled her laptop closer, hoping to finish the final paper that was due on Friday.
Christmas break was coming up and Emma had spent nearly three weeks on that paper. As she rustled through the stacks of print-outs encircling her on the floor, fatigue and worry pulled at Emma’s limbs. She had never worked harder on an assignment than she had on this one. Ancient Christianity was the most strenuous class Emma had taken at Georgia Southern University so far, and Emma’s professor had a zero-tolerance policy for absences. Not a single one was allowed, even for sick days. As she fingered the rogue staple caught in the sleeve of her sweater, Emma’s guilt over passing her cold on to the professor a few weeks ago subsided. It served him right for making Emma come to class with a fever of one-hundred and one.
But the upside to taking an upper level history class to finish out her core was Emma could now answer any trivia question about iconoclasm in the Byzantine era.
“Where is that stupid journal?” Emma muttered to herself as she scanned the pages that littered her bedspread. She thumbed through a packet of stapled academic journals until she found it.
“Ha!” she said triumphantly, raising the journal above her head. Now she could finish the outrageously long bibliography.
Emma’s cell phone rang a second time. She closed her eyes and sighed. If she didn’t answer, Elsie would just keep calling.
Emma slid her finger across the screen, put the call on speaker, and held the phone close to her lips. “Hi Elsie,” she said flatly.
“Hey,” Elsie said breathlessly, sounding relieved that Emma had picked up. A pinprick of guilt stabbed Emma in the chest. “What are you doing?”
Avoiding you, Emma thought, and then hated herself for it.
“Just working on a paper right now. It’s due tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Elsie said, a note of sadness in her voice. “Well, can you talk?”
Emma mouthed the word “No” to her phone but said, “Sure, for a few minutes. What’s up?”
The answer was always the same.
“I don’t know what happened, Emma, honestly. One minute we’re engaged, and the next minute he’s telling me the whole relationship is over. I don’t understand what I did wrong.”
This was the part when Emma normally told Elsie that she hadn’t done anything wrong. That Andy just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. That she would find someone else who would treat her the way she deserved to be treated. None of which was entirely false.
But reality was a different story altogether. Their story—the story of what happened between Emma, Elsie, and Andy—was a wound that had never finished healing. Nothing would ever be the same as it was just a few short years ago.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Elsie,” Emma assured her, falling right back into her old routine. “Andy just wasn’t ready to commit himself to someone for life. Not even you. And that’s his cross to bear, not yours.”
Emma could almost see Elsie nodding to herself. She sniffed and took a deep, shuddering breath. “You’re right,” Elsie said, sounding like a little girl. “I need to get the hell over him.”
“It’s okay to be sad,” Emma said, backpedaling, not wanting Elsie to feel rejected again.
“I know. I just don’t know what I’m going to do now. I think that’s the hardest part.”
Emma knew exactly what she meant.
Four years ago, Elsie, Andy, and Emma had lost a friend. A first love. Andy’s older brother, Jesse, had taken his own life just weeks before graduation and not a single one of them had really recovered from the events that led up to his death. Or from the grief that followed.
It was hard to believe Emma and Andy had been friends for close to ten years. The time had passed so quickly at first, and then so slowly, that Emma felt like they’d known each other for both minutes and centuries. At one time, they’d been close simply because they wanted to be, but these days it was hard not to believe their friendship was held together only by Jesse’s memory. And at times it was a tenuous connection. Nothing would bring Jesse back. And Emma faced this reality head-on every single morning. Sometimes she would have nightmares that Jesse was drowning, suffocating, or calling out to her for help. And she would be paralyzed, her mouth open, ready to scream, but silent. And Jesse would slip beneath the waves every time, still shouting her name.
The counselor Emma had seen more than once since she started college told Emma her dream was less about stopping Jesse’s death and more about needing to let go of the guilt she carried. But guilt was comfortable for Emma, like a downy winter coat. She wore it well and whenever she’d laugh a little too long, or think someone on campus was attractive, or get excited about a good grade, Emma would suddenly remember Jesse and pull that coat up a little higher. Guilt kept her hidden.
Not long ago, Emma’s mother had told her hiding wasn’t going to do any good. But what her mother didn’t understand was that guilt was the very thing keeping Emma safe.
On Friday, Emma finished her paper around noon, spent two hours proofreading, and then trekked across campus to drop off the final copy at her professor’s office. After that, she grabbed lunch and went back to her dorm to finish packing.
Sanford Hall was one of the oldest dorms on campus. It was one of five brick buildings that bordered Sweetheart Circle, the beautiful, sweeping lawn at the main entrance to campus. At the end of a long, tree-lined drive, the famous GSU bushes welcomed visitors and students alike to Sweetheart Circle and all that had once served as the school’s original campus. The administration buildings, imposing and proud, which stood on the opposite side of the lawn, had housed the school, the library, and the men’s and women’s dorms back when the college first opened in 1906.
Emma loved Sweetheart Circle. Legend had it that if a couple held hands and walked all the way around the lawn three times they would be together forever. Emma didn’t believe in superstition, but she thought it was a sweet idea even if she hadn’t dated anyone herself in more than four years. As she set off across the dry grass, Emma sipped from a water bottle and wondered half-heartedly if Andy had ever walked around Sweetheart Circle with Elsie. But that, too, was almost laughable. Andy was neither superstitious nor a hopeless romantic and, in the years since his brother’s death, had become even less of one.
The thought had occurred to Emma more than once what a surprise it was that Andy and Elsie lasted as long as they did. During their sophomore year of high school, Andy had lost his virginity to Elsie, who was a junior at the time, and they had kept it a secret for almost a year until Georgia Franklin spilled the beans at prom. As it turns out, that particular betrayal had paled in comparison to the discovery that Jesse had been assaulted—likely on more than one occasion—by one of his classmates. And none of them ever knew exactly how bad it had been or for how long Jesse had suffered. Deegan Burke confessed to what happened at prom, and that was all a jury needed to convict him of attempted sexual battery, but he was still the only one alive who knew the whole truth. And the knowledge that he was locked up in prison for eight years did little to assuage Emma’s fears that he would hurt someone else. Eventually, he would get out. And she didn’t want to be anywhere close by when he did.
Emma’s building was quiet, save the raucous laughter of her neighbors as they shoved each other out the side door, and inside her apartment-style dorm the silence soothed her. It was easy to forget how loud the world was until it wasn’t anymore.
She collapsed into a heap on her bed and stared at the underside of her roommate Morgan’s bunk. Emma had pictures of Andy, Elsie, Andy’s mom Grace, and her own parents clipped to a wire coil, pictures from after Jesse’s death in which any casual onlooker might only assume joy in their expressions. But the truth was far more complicated.
In the months after Jesse died, Andy and Elsie’s relationship had blossomed into more than just hookups. Emma had advocated for this, but when it finally happened she’d felt surprisingly…territorial.
“It’s an easy transition,” Andy had said to Emma while they were making sandwiches in her kitchen that summer.
“You’re not just dating Elsie so you can keep having sex with her, right?” Emma asked, spreading mayo on her sandwich with vigorous swipes.
With a good-natured laugh, Andy had shaken his head at Emma. “I’m not going to lie and say that’s not part of it.”
“What’s the other part?”
“I like her, Emma,” Andy had said, suddenly serious. “And she likes me back.”
The reasons had been so simple, even if reality wasn’t simple at all.
Emma plucked a photo from its spot between two crinkled paper flowers and studied every detail. It was a picture of her and Andy at their high school graduation, dressed in blue and white gowns with Elsie in the center, pulling the two of them close to her. Elsie had come home from school in Savannah to attend their graduation and try to convince Andy he still had time to apply for college. Emma had known Andy would balk at the idea; he wanted to play music. But she had said very little, content to let Elsie think she knew Andy better than anyone else. In the end, Andy had caved and decided to attend a technical school in Statesboro, less than two miles down the street from Georgia Southern. And right down the street from Emma.
Emma traced her thumb over the glossy photo and recalled all the difficult conversations she’d had with Elsie after that day.
“I don’t understand why he doesn’t just move in with me,” Elsie had said during the fall of Emma’s freshman year. “We’ve been together for a year.”
Emma glanced sideways at her friend.
“What?” Elsie demanded. “What is that look?”
“You wanted him to go to college, Elsie. He’s going to college.”
“But I’m almost twenty and I’ve got my own apartment this year. There’s no reason for Andy to go to a technical school in Statesboro when he could be playing music in Savannah. It’s the perfect place for him. He doesn’t need college.”
“Elsie, he’s only forty minutes away from you. Plus, you spearheaded this whole argument for him to get a degree,” Emma replied, exasperated. “And now you’re saying he doesn’t need one?”
Elsie bit her lip and turned her focus to the zipper on her jacket.
“Oh,” Emma said, understanding. “Why didn’t you just ask him to move in with you? Why make it all about him going to college? Now he’s at a school he doesn’t care about spending money on tuition for a degree he’ll probably never use.”
“His mom is paying for school,” Elsie said pointedly. “She wanted him to go, too.”
“Grace didn’t care!” Emma exclaimed, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. “She was fine with Andy playing music. I think since Jesse died all she cares about is him being happy but you convinced Andy that he needed to go—that it was best for his future. And now what you’re really saying is that you just wanted him in Savannah.”
“Of course I wanted him in Savannah, but I thought school was a good idea, too. He needs something to fall back on.”
“Just not something in Statesboro,” Emma added. Elsie didn’t argue.
Emma tucked the photo back in its hiding place and let out a deep sigh. As she rolled over to put her phone on the charger she caught a whiff of Andy’s cologne on her pillow, the same brand he had worn since tenth grade, and paused, a swift course of emotions rolling through her.
Andy slept on Emma’s couch more times than she could count and her other roommates, Abigail, Caroline, and Morgan, jokingly referred to him as their communal boyfriend. They would stumble into the kitchen for breakfast to discover Andy’s long, lean frame stretched out across the living room sofa and take turns betting how much noise they could make before he’d wake up. At first, Emma’s roommates had teased her mercilessly about her close relationship with him.
“If my best friend was that gorgeous,” Abigail had said one morning as she leaned over the edge of the couch to peer at Andy, “he wouldn’t be just my friend for very long. Even with drool all over his face.”
Emma turned scarlet. “Andy is like my brother.”
“Whatever you say,” Abigail snorted.
But as the months wore on, Emma’s roommates had grown accustomed to Andy’s visits to the dorm. He didn’t eat their food or pee on the toilet seat, and except for the space he sometimes took up on the couch, Andy stayed out of the way.
There was one big change in his behavior, though, and Emma wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. On a handful of occasions, she had woken up in the early morning hours to find Andy sleeping next to her, but he never offered an explanation about why and Emma never asked. So now when she opened her eyes to the warm weight of his body filling the empty space in her bed, Emma simply smiled to herself, relishing the pleasure of knowing that after everything they’d been through, he still needed her.
This had been one of those mornings.
“Elsie called,” Emma told him the night before as they sat on her couch eating pizza.
Andy gave her the side eye. “And this is different than any other day because?” he asked, drawing out the last word.
Emma swallowed a bite of pepperoni. “Because you know why. What am I supposed to tell her, Andy? She’s always asking what she did wrong. I feel terrible for her.”
“She didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know. And that’s what I say. Over and over and over.”
Andy sighed heavily. “She has always wanted what I can’t give her. And that’s never going to change.”
“You know, you keep saying that. But I’m still not exactly sure I understand what it is you think she wants.”
Andy held up his right hand and counted with his fingers. “Love. Commitment. Marriage. Kids. Did I miss anything?”
Emma screwed up her nose. “I thought you were going for all those things, too. Or at least the first three.”
“I was. And then I wasn’t.”
Emma just stared at Andy, trying to think of what she could say to fix all the things that were broken between them. But she had already proven she wasn’t exactly good at fixing things, so she kept quiet.
Andy licked grease off his thumb and wiped his face with a napkin. “You think I messed it up, don’t you?”
Emma pressed her lips together and crossed her arms. “Actually, no, I don’t. Contrary to what you might think, I’m not actually an advocate for getting married just because you guys slept together. Or even because you had feelings for her. If you don’t want to marry her, that’s all the reason I need to support you.”
Andy looked taken aback. “Thanks, Emma.”
Emma leaned over to take Andy’s empty plate. When he met her eye, she offered him a half-smile. “Anytime.”
Andy got into Emma’s bed later that night, while she was still awake. She didn’t want him to know she wasn’t sleeping so she stayed quiet and looked out the window next to her bed, remembering Jesse. Emma guessed he was the thing that kept Andy coming back. No one had known Jesse the way she and Andy had, and no one ever would. So even if Andy found someone else to be with, or one day moved across the country, or even pushed her away altogether, Emma felt certain they would always find their way back to each other.
Grief, after all, is the most powerful form of love.
“Do you need help putting this stuff in your car?” Andy asked later that afternoon when he dropped back by Emma’s dorm. He was still wearing the clothes he slept in even though he’d already worked a full shift at the music store in the Statesboro Mall, more affectionately known as the Small. In preparation for Christmas break, Emma had scrubbed down the living room and taken out three bags of trash.
“No, it’s just a few things. But you can help me put all the stuff that’s under my bed up on the mattress. We can't leave it out while we’re gone in case a pipe bursts or something.”
“Right. Liability issues.”
“I’m glad I can tell my mom I learned something during my college tenure.” Andy said.
“Me too,” Emma replied, heaving a duffel bag onto the bed with a grunt.
“You’ve got a lot of shit,” Andy said, pulling a storage container out from under her mattress and putting it next to the bag.
Emma scoffed. “I’m sorry. Please remind me how many amps you have?”
Andy was unfazed. “Those are important,” he said as he rifled through the storage container and plucked out a wrinkled paperback. “This is—”
Emma went rigid when she saw Andy staring at the book, his complexion pallid. Very carefully, he put it back inside the box, as if it were a grenade that would detonate with the slightest touch.
“Is that the book he gave you?” Andy asked, his voice practiced and steady.
Emma nodded. A chill coursed through her body at the thought of Jesse’s letter still tucked away inside the back cover of Where You Are, the letter she had never told anyone about. The last words Jesse had ever written before taking his own life. The letter was a secret Emma wanted to take to her grave because it was tangible proof that she could have saved him. If only she hadn’t been such a coward. Seeing Andy with that book in his hands sent a cool panic up her spine. He would never forgive her if he knew the truth. The letter was the one thing that separated them still, despite their shared grief, despite the guilt they both carried even if they didn’t talk about it. If Andy ever found that letter, Emma would be held responsible for all the things that could have been done, but weren’t. And, like Jesse, he would disappear from her life for good.
Emma wouldn't survive another loss like that.
The choice between destroying the letter or telling people about it had taught Emma a little something new about the truth. Even if it were aimed at a single, narrow target, the aftershock could still obliterate everything around it. She couldn’t destroy the letter, the only one Jesse had ever written to her, no matter that its contents threatened the most important relationship in her life. And she couldn’t talk about it for the very same reason.
Andy closed the lid to the storage container and slid the box further back on the bed, away from them both. Then he cleared his throat and clapped his hands, much like Emma’s father had done when he first dropped her off at Georgia Southern, doing anything he could to avoid her gaze so that he wouldn’t start crying.
“Are you hungry?” Emma asked, filling the silence. “I picked up a sandwich at Lakeside, but I could really go for some Kyoto Express.”
Andy shook his head. “Nah. I had some of our pizza leftovers from last night. Plus, I’ve gotta get to the store anyway. There are some new albums coming out today and this really hot chick came in looking for one of them last week. I think she’s stopping by again this afternoon.”
Emma smirked at Andy. “You don’t waste any time do you?”
Andy shrugged. “It’s been almost a month, Emma,” he replied with a hint of frustration. “Besides, I didn’t say I was going to sleep with her. She’s just dropping by the store.”
“Yet,” Emma added with emphasis. “You didn’t say you were going to sleep with her yet.”
Andy winked at Emma and, for a moment, Emma actually felt like one day this would all be over. That everything would finally go back to way it was before Deegan had entered their lives and Jesse had left.
And even if it was a lie, it felt good to believe it was true.
What did you think of the first chapter? Let me know in the comments! And don't forget to pre-order your copy of The Next Best Thing now for just $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo!
What did you think of the first chapter? Let me know in the comments! And don't forget to pre-order your copy of The Next Best Thing now for just $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo!