A sympathetic look crossed her pretty face as she turned in Jase’s arms, because she knew . . . oh lawd, she knew I’d been harboring a big gushy crush on Brandon.
“I brought you a cheesy pretzel,” the girl announced when they came up for air.
Brandon loved cheese-stuffed pretzels like I loved double fudge brownies.
“She brought you a pretzel?” Ollie asked. “Man, you put a ring on that.”
Brit rolled her eyes as she looped her arms around Ollie’s waist. “Does not take much to impress you.”
Twisting in her arms, Ollie dipped his head to hers. “You know what it takes to impress me, baby.”
I kept waiting for Brandon to fly out of the chair and run away from the idea of putting a ring on the finger of a girl he’d known for only a couple of months, but since I didn’t get the lovely view of his ass heading for the door, I glanced at him when I knew I shouldn’t. But I was a glutton for punishment.
Brandon was staring at the girl, grinning in a way that said . . . that said he was absolutely happy.
I swallowed my sigh.
And then he looked over at me, and before I could freak over the fact that he caught me staring at him like a stalker, his smile went up a blinding notch. “You haven’t gotten a chance to meet Tatiana yet.”
Damnit. I didn’t want to learn her name, but Tatiana was such a cool freaking name.
Tatiana shook her head as she turned brown eyes toward me. “No, we haven’t.”
“This is my friend, Calla Fritz,” he said, smoothing a hand up her back. “We had music class together last semester.”
That was who I was—Calla Fritz, always and forever the friend of the Hot Guy Brigade. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I blinked back the stupid sudden rush of tears as I wiggled my fingers in Tatiana’s direction. “It’s nice to meet you.”
That wasn’t a lie. Not really.
On Monday, I left my dorm early enough to head down to Ikenberry Hall, which was all the way down a huge hill my ass so did not appreciate. It was early May, but the temps were already cracking into the eighties, and even with my hair pulled up into a hasty knot, I could feel the humidity cloaking my skin and threading its annoying fingers through my hair.
Soon, before the end of my finals today, I’d look like a frizz ball.
I cut down the side path outside of Ikenberry and winced when I had to open the door and dip inside before a spiderweb of epic proportion dropped from the little roof over the door and onto my head.
Cold air was cranking in the building as I pushed my sunglasses onto my head and walked down the hall, entering the financial aid offices. After giving my name, the overworked and frazzled looking middle-aged woman motioned me to take a seat.
I only had to wait five minutes before a tall and slender older woman with silvery hair cut in a fashionable way came out to get me. We didn’t go into one of the cubicles where aid advisers worked. Oh no, she led back into one of the closed offices farther down the hall.
Then she closed the door behind us and walked behind her desk. “Please have a seat, Miss Fritz.”
Knots formed low in my belly as I sat.
This had never happened before. Usually, when I got called down here, it was due to information being missing from the file or a paper needing to be signed. After all, it couldn’t be a big deal. I only used financial aid for living expenses that weren’t covered by the crappy waitressing job I had, and it came in really handy when I quit at the beginning of the semester to focus more fully on my studies.
The nursing program was no joke.
I slowly placed my book bag on the floor beside my legs as I scanned her desk. Elaine Booth was on her nameplate, so unless she was pretending to be someone else, that’s who I was sitting in front of. There were also a lot of photos on her desk. Family photos—black-and-whites, colored, photos ranging from toddlers all the way up to my age, maybe even older.
I looked away quickly as an old pang hit me in the chest. “So . . . what’s going on?”
Mrs. Booth folded her hands over a file. “We received word from admissions last week that your check for next semester’s tuition has bounced.”
I blinked once, and then twice. “What?”
“The check didn’t clear,” she explained, glancing up from the file. Her gaze drifted over my face and then quickly averted away from my eyes. “Due to insufficient funds.”
She had to be wrong. There was no way that check bounced because that check was attached to a savings account that I only used for tuition, an account that held all of my money for school. “There has to be something wrong. There should be enough money in there for the next semester and a half.”
Not only that, there should’ve been enough money in that account just in case of some crazy emergency, and to carry me through at least a couple of months after graduation while I did the job hunting thing and decided where I wanted to live, if I stayed here or . . .
“We verified with the bank, Calla.” She’d dropped my last name and somehow that seemed worse. “Sometimes we have problems with checks due to the amount or a typo in entering the account number, but the bank confirmed there was insufficient funds.”
I couldn’t believe it. “How much did they say was in the account?”
She shook her head. “That’s proprietary information we’re not privy to, so you’d need to talk to the bank about that. Now, the good news is that you’ve always paid your tuition early, which means we’ve got time to work something out. We’ll get this fixed, Calla.” Pausing, she opened my file as I stared at her like my butt was suddenly frozen in my seat. “You’re already in the system for financial aid, and what we can do is adjust the requests for next semester, ensuring that your classes are covered. . . .”
My stomach had dropped to my knees at some point and was quickly plummeting to the floor as she continued on about increasing loan amounts, applying for Pell grants, and even a crap ton of scholarships.
At this moment, I didn’t give two craps about any of that.
This couldn’t be happening.
There was no way there wasn’t money in that account. I was meticulous when it came to which account I used for which bill or need, and I never used that account unless it was for tuition. I hadn’t even activated the debit card attached to it.
Then it hit me as I watched Mrs. Booth pull form after form out from racks next to her desk, stacking them neatly and calmly as if my entire life hadn’t just slammed on the brakes.
Ice drenched my veins as I tried to drag in my next breath, but it got stuck in my throat. This might not be a giant f**kup by the bank and the college. This could very well be seriously happening.
Oh my God.
Because there was someone other than me who had the means to get access to that account—one person who was virtually dead to me, so virtually that I behaved as if she were dead—but I couldn’t believe she’d do this. There was no way.
The rest of the meeting with Mrs. Booth was fuzzy to me. Numbly, I took the FAFSA applications and I walked out of the chilly offices, out into the bright sunlight of an early May morning, loaded up with forms.
There was still time before my final, and I found the nearest bench, sat down, and shoved the papers into my bag. I pulled out my cell phone with shaky fingers, looked up the number to the bank back home, and hit call.
Five minutes later, I sat on the bench, seeing nothing beyond the shades of my sunglasses, and feeling nothing, which was good—the blank and empty feeling in the pit of my stomach was all right because I knew it would turn to red-hot, blinding and murderous, cut-a-bitch rage in no time. I couldn’t do that. I had to stay calm. Keep my emotions in check, because . . .
All my money was gone.
And I knew—every cell of my body knew—this was just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg.
How my life went from mostly being okay, with the exception of being a little lonely sometimes, to one giant hot mess in a span of a week was beyond my ability to comprehend.
I was so screwed, and not in the fun and sweaty way.
It wasn’t just my savings account that had literally been cleared out two weeks before I’d written my check for tuition. Oh God, if only that was it. I could’ve bounced back from that. I could’ve even let that go, because what else could I have done?
After all, I knew it had been my own flesh and blood that had cleared me out, my own mother—my hocked up on pills, and most likely drunk off her ass, mother who my closest friends believed was dead. In a way, that hadn’t been too far from the truth. A terrible lie, but I hadn’t talked to her in ages and the alcohol and the pills and God knows what else had over the years killed the caring and fun mother I remembered from when I was little.
But she was still my mom. Therefore, the last thing I wanted to do was involve the police, because seriously, her life was already shitty as it was, and inexplicably, after all the drama and the heartache, a whirl of pity always surfaced when I thought of her.
That woman had to experience things no mother ever should.
But it hadn’t only been my savings account. Over the course of last week, during my finals, which I somehow managed to still complete without losing my ever-loving mind, the tip of the iceberg sunk the Titanic.
I pulled my credit just because . . . well, I had this horrible feeling it was worse. And it had been.
Credits cards I’d never seen in my life had been taken out in my name and they’d been maxed out. A student loan with a major bank I hadn’t even known existed had also been taken out, and that alone cost more than four semesters at Shepherd did.
I was in debt, to the tune of over a hundred thousand dollars when it was all said and done, and that wasn’t even including the debt I racked up on my own with the small student loans I’d taken out and the car loan I now wasn’t sure I could afford.
My stomach dipped and my chest seized every time I thought about how badly I was screwed, and it took everything in me to talk myself down from losing my shit. Credit and debt made or broke you in this world. I wouldn’t be able to get a loan if I needed one. Worse yet, even if I managed to scrape together the money to finish out college, any job I applied for could pull my credit and base their decision to hire me on what it showed.
On Thursday, after my last final, I’d suffered a minor breakdown, which involved a lot of tears, even more double fudge brownies, and maybe a little bit of rocking in the corner. I would’ve stayed in that corner for at least a month, but I refused, absolutely flat-out refused, to allow my life to get sucked away from me again.
Obviously, none of my friends knew what was going on or knew anything about me. Hell, they thought my mom was dead and Teresa thought I was from around the Shepherdstown area.
And how could I tell Teresa, or worse yet, Brandon? Oh hey, I got to go home, and you know, commit an act of homicide and strangle my mother—yeah, the one you thought was dead, because I’m also a horrible liar—to death for dicking me over. Can we hang out at your place and have drinks when I get back? That convo was way too humiliating to even think about, because then I’d have to tell them about the drugs, the alcohol, the absolute fail at life, and then the weird separation between Mom and Dad, which really was just Dad freaking disappearing, and then that convo would ultimately lead to the grief and the fire that had destroyed my entire family and almost destroyed me.
I wasn’t going there.
So I told them I was spending the summer with extended family, and hopefully, they didn’t end up reading about me in the news after I murdered someone.
No one questioned those plans, because just last year I had pretended to go home over break when in reality I had checked into a hotel in Martinsburg, had splurged on room service . . . like a loser.
A total loser.
Anyway . . .
I was putting the Three F’s on hold and I was going home. And hopefully, praying to every god out there, Mom still had some of the money that had been awarded to her, and that money had been substantial. There was no way she could’ve blown through all of her money and mine. I just needed to get her to—I don’t know—get her to fix this somehow.
That was Plan A.
Plan B consisted only of the realization that if she didn’t have a dime to her name, then at least—again hopefully—I had free housing for the summer, a summer where I’d be praying that my financial aid would go through. I was also praying that I managed to make it through the summer in a nowhere town and not murder my mother, so I could put use to the financial aid if I got it.
My hands had shaken as I clenched the steering wheel and hit the exit that led to Plymouth Meeting, a town just a few miles out of Philadelphia. I’d thought I might vomit all over myself as the thick oaks and walnut trees crowding the two-lane highway had thinned out and the hills stopped climbing. The trip hadn’t been long, a little under four hours from Shepherdstown, but it had felt like forever.
Now I was stopped at the red light across the street from a dollar store, in a town I never ever—ever—wanted to go back to, and I rested my forehead against the steering wheel.