The Art of Lainey


Paula Stokes


for the city that raised me,

the music that saved me,

and the ones who got away

Chapter 1


—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Maybe if I’d paid more attention to my mom and her tea leaves, I would have seen it coming. Instead, all I see is coming is Jason, my boyfriend of two and a half years. His dark uniform shirt clings to his muscular back and shoulders as he turns to shut the passenger door of the ambulance. He’s been doing ride-alongs with local medics this summer because he’s thinking about becoming an EMT after we graduate.

I stop right in the middle of taking an order to watch as he saunters across the street. Pulling a chunk of strawberry blonde hair down over my forehead, I try to hide where an ill-advised visit to the tanning salon resulted in a big glom of overlapping freckles shaped like New Jersey. Next time I will be strong when one of my friends tells me my fair, freckly skin will turn all bronze and glowy if I “take it slow.” Lies. All lies. Some people are simply destined for spray tanning.

The door to my parents’ coffee shop plays a weird wooden tune as Jason opens it, courtesy of the coconut wind chimes Mom got on one of her hippie sabbaticals. Tahiti? Tuvalu? Who can keep track?

“I said I’d like a skinny iced chai and a Death-by-Chocolate-Moose Brownie. Did you get that?” The girl on the other side of the register waves a hand in front of my face. She’s one of our regulars but I can never remember her name. She’s majoring in something artsy and likes to dress monochromatically. Today she’s wearing a long, sky-blue skirt with a navy tunic and head wrap.

“Got it,” I tell her, sliding a brownie onto one of our colored ceramic plates and plunking it down in front of her. I fill a cup halfway with ice, slosh some chai concentrate and milk over the top, and finish by giving the drink a halfhearted stir. “Here you go.” I quickly run her credit card through the machine and then slip out from behind the counter.

“Hey, is this skim milk?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say, and then mumble, “I think so.” I head across the shop to the long, wooden bar where Jason is now sitting with his back to me, tapping one of his black leather shoes to the music blaring from the speaker above his head. Weird—he never sits at the bar.

“So, what can I get for you, hotness?” I lean in close to stroke one of the blond curls sticking out from the bottom of his cap.

He looks up at me and flashes his trademark dimpled smile, only today I don’t see any dimples. A little voice inside my head whispers a warning: something’s not right.

I tell it to shush. Everything is better than right. I finished my junior year with decent grades so my parents are only making me work a couple of days a week at Denali, our family coffee shop. My older brother, Steve, is doing a summer study-abroad program in Ireland and left me the keys to his small but reliable Honda Civic. And my boyfriend—the smoking hot slice of savory goodness in front of me—just scored his own place. Well, technically his dad owns the condo, but he travels a lot for work so it might as well belong to Jason.

“I’ll just have water,” Jason says.

I frown. “You sure? Yesterday we got in this awesome Madagascar spice—”

“Just water, Lainey,” he says. “Alex is waiting out in the ambo for me.”

I glance through the big glass window in front of us, but the ambulance is parked across the street and I can’t really see him. “Well, you didn’t have to leave him outside like a dog. Did you at least crack the window?” I smile at my own joke.

But Jason doesn’t smile. Crap. Something is wrong. Or I’m being paranoid. I go get a glass of water and a mug of Madagascar tea for me and then rest my elbows on the bar next to him. Behind me, I hear my best friend, Bianca, picking up my slack at the counter. I shouldn’t have left her up there by herself, but I need to make sure everything is fine—a few minutes with Jason to make that little voice in my head be quiet. It’s not like anyone will die if they have to wait for their ultra-mocha-blended frappé with extra whipped cream.

“What’s going on, Jay? You all right?” I rub one of my hands across his shoulders, being careful not to snag my freshly manicured nails on his nubby polo shirt. Jason thought his ride-alongs would be all glamour, nonstop excitement. Maybe the reality that EMTs spend a lot of time waiting around for work has started to set in. Then again, a job doing nothing doesn’t sound like something Jason would mind.

He turns away from the window to look at me. No dimples. No smile. “I need a break,” he says.

“Are they working you too hard?” Maybe I was way off about what EMTs do.

“No.” He laces his fingers together in front of his body. “It’s just—I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

Tea sloshes over the edge of my mug as I start to shake. “I’m sorry . . . what?” My brain barely registers Bianca’s voice telling the customers to hang on a second. She hurries over with a rag and swipes at the floor while I continue to stare at my Jason. “Are you breaking up with me?”

I’m not slow. I’m just stunned. Jason and I have been together since the middle of freshman year. Less than a week ago we christened every room in his dad’s new condo, if you know what I mean. He talked about all the ways we were going to kick it this summer. Pool parties. House parties. We’re even supposed to be playing on a coed soccer team with some of our friends from varsity. It sure didn’t seem like he was unhappy with me.

“Sorry, dude.” Jason stands up, leaving his untouched glass of water on the bar.

Dude? Years of being practically inseparable and I am now reduced to the status of “dude”? Like we weren’t ever anything but drinking buddies? Bullshit. I put my hand on his arm to stop him. “You can’t just show up at my job and break up with me. Who does that?”

What I mean is, things like this are not supposed to happen when everything else is perfect. In April, I got picked out of over a hundred girls to star in a commercial for Hazelton Forest University. In May, I scored the winning goal at the state soccer championships. And the summer was shaping up to be truly epic.

What the hell happened?

Jason looks everywhere but at me. “Please don’t make this any harder.”

I told you I told you I told you, the little voice says. I want to strangle it. This can’t be real. The coffee shop blurs in front of my eyes and I wobble slightly in my platform sandals. I tighten my grasp on Jason’s arm to keep from falling over, but he pulls free so we’re no longer touching. For a second, I think about my mom’s face as she studied the bottom of her teacup yesterday. “Separation,” she warned. “Sadness.”

Crap. This is real. All I can do is clutch the edge of the nearest stool and stare at the metal sign on the wall above Jason’s head: Dogsled parking only. Violators will be peed on. “I—I don’t understand,” I say.

He gives me a pitiful look. “I just need to be on my own for a while. Sorry, Lainey.” He heads for the door.

The dining area of Denali is dead quiet, except for the music, which has faded away to a dull hum. It’s so quiet I’d be able to hear myself breathing if I wasn’t holding my breath. I can’t help but stare at Jason’s muscular back as he disappears out into the heat.

The wind chimes clunk together like thunder as the door swings closed. I turn around slowly, praying no one in the shop heard our conversation. Bianca is holding a rag saturated with Madagascar spice tea. Her eyes are dark and her face is heavy. She looks like she’s the one who got dumped. Behind her, two tables of college kids, and Micah, the prep cook, are staring at me.

“Enjoy the show?” I ask, plastering a tight-lipped smile on my face. “I was getting tired of him anyway.” A couple of the college kids clap. Monochrome Girl looks at me with the same sad eyes as Bianca. Micah fiddles with the hem of his black T-shirt as he helps himself to a cup of Colombian drip.

“I’m going to take a short break, Ebony.” I turn toward the back without waiting for my manager’s response.

Ebony is sitting in a corner booth working on next month’s schedule. She looks up with a bored expression. “Have you actually done anything today?”

Bianca jumps in. “I can cover the front.”

“Thanks, Bee,” I say, my voice starting to waver.

I keep the fake smile cemented on my face as I make my way around the counter, but it breaks apart right as I hit the door to the kitchen. I need to hide, and quick, but the only bathrooms are out front, which means there’s no place I can safely be alone.

Unless . . .

I turn and find the door to the manager’s office cracked open. Ebony doesn’t like us loitering back there, but she won’t know. Besides, my parents own the place. What is she going to do? Fire me? Dare to dream.

I barely make it through the door before the tears come, hot and fast. I collapse into the rolling chair in front of Dad’s dinosaur of a computer. Sobs force their way out of my throat. I feel like I’m trapped in a disaster movie where everything is shriveling into darkness and ash. Sunflowers are being uprooted. Puppies are being trampled. Whole cities are crumbling to dust.

Pushing the keyboard to the side, I rest my head on the desktop, wishing I could turn off all the lights and sounds, and maybe the air too. I can still see the customers staring at me, snickering behind their eco-mugs. And Monochrome Girl with her sad eyes.

I haven’t felt like this since I got cut from my junior-high select soccer team. I warmed the bench as a seventh grader and hoped to get moved up to the starting line in eighth grade. Instead, I had the worst tryouts ever and was the only player not invited back. I felt like such a loser walking away from the list of who had made it, my former teammates either avoiding me completely or patting me awkwardly on the back. I swore I would do whatever it takes to never feel like that again.

Someone knocks softly on the door.

“Go away,” I say, hoping whoever it is will take the hint and come back later.

No such luck. I look up as the door squeaks open. Micah is peeking through a one-inch crack, looking like he’d rather be in a dentist’s office awaiting several root canals than anywhere near me.

“What do you want?” I mumble through my tears.

He slides into the little room and shuts the door behind him. “Sorry. Just need to get the recipe for Caribou Cookies.” He reaches above me to the binder where Dad keeps the dessert recipes. The scent of smoke lingers on his clothes, like maybe he just came back from a cigarette break. Flipping through the binder, he pulls out one of the laminated pages.

But then he doesn’t leave.

“Are you some kind of weirdo who gets off on girls crying?” I wipe my eyes on the collar of my shirt. The teal fabric comes away dark with eye makeup.

Micah laughs softly to himself as he slides the binder back onto the shelf. “I hope you don’t really think of me like that.”

Something in his expression stings like lemon juice poured directly on my broken heart. Pity. I hate pity.

“I don’t think of you at all,” I say.

Micah nods. “That figures.”

I know I’m being a bitch, but I can’t help it. Jay didn’t hang out long enough for me to tell him exactly what I thought of his breakup strategy, so the rage is seeping out of me bits at a time, targeting anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. Better Micah than Bianca. He can take it. He’s got a tattoos and a mohawk. Clearly he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

“Hey,” I mutter, the closest I can manage to an apology. “Be cool and don’t tell my dad about this, okay?”

Micah runs a hand through his spiky hair. Dark brown roots are showing beneath the black dye. “Your dad doesn’t really talk to the kitchen people,” he says. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “I think he’s afraid of us.”

I pinch my lips together. It’s a little funny because it’s totally true. Dad thinks the cooks snort coke in the walk-in coolers and worship Satan in the parking lot. Sometimes I make up stories just to freak him out. That’s what he gets for letting a bald chick in a band do the majority of the hiring. Talk about unfair. I had to beg and plead to get Bianca hired on as a barista for the summer, but Ebony gets to staff the whole kitchen with dregs she fishes out of the gutter in front of The Devil’s Doorstep, Hazelton’s premier (and only) live music venue.