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“The code?” I ask, my voice steady.

“The code that says he can do what he wants because he makes all the money. The code that says I’m not allowed to feel like shit because my life is so fucking great.”

She shakes her head, looking embarrassed for a moment, and I realize that I rarely hear her swear. I wonder if it’s something she has to make an effort not to do.

“So I’m stuck by myself with the kids in this soulless, make-believe place where everyone pretends to be happy all the time, just because the sun won’t stop shining long enough for them to realize they’re not,” Emilia says, each word soaked with contempt. “Why can’t it at least rain here?”

“Tell me about it,” I say as we both watch a pelican dive into the calm water. “It’s like living in Disneyland.”

Before I can think of what to say next, Emilia turns to me and puts her hands on my shoulders so that she’s looking directly into my eyes. I force myself to maintain eye contact, keeping my face light and open even though her palpable, uncharacteristic neediness is making me uncomfortable.

“Gracie, would you be able to do something for me?” she asks, and we’re so close that I can see the beads of sweat forming on her upper lip.

“Of course. Anything.”

“Would you come up to our place on Christmas Eve?” she asks, her tone now softer, almost wheedling, catching me off guard. “It’s just me and the girls, but it would really take some of the pressure off with Able not making it back.”

I pause, unsure of how to respond.

“Of course, Emilia. If that’s what you want,” I eventually say as relief burns through me.

She nods once, satisfied as she turns away from me, her car keys in her hand. Then, at the last minute, she turns around on the top step and smiles a small, sad smile I haven’t seen before.

“Where did you come from, Gracie?” she asks, and for the first time, I wonder if she actually wants an answer.

As I stand there on the porch steps, watching her leave, a strange feeling spreads through me, and I allow myself to finally wonder how this is going to end. On one side, the white houses of Coyote Sumac are twinkling under the pink light of the sun, and on the other, the ocean shimmers gold and turquoise like a mermaid’s tail. That’s when I realize that, despite what I said to Emilia, this dusty hellscape of a city has never felt so much like home to me, and I’m not ready to give it up without a fight.


After Emilia has left, I go for a run along the beach. I haven’t run in years, but I push myself forward, each step making me feel more powerful than the one before it. Energy surges through my body, and it feels good to drain myself on purpose for once. The cool December air burns my lungs, and by the time I get back to my house, I am doubled over, my chest heaving satisfyingly with the effort.

I’m still out of breath as I dial Laurel’s number from my sofa. As I wait for her to answer, I justify pulling out of Christmas at her place by telling myself that it was only a pity invite anyway, and I would have been crashing her and Lana’s celebration. I’d probably even be expected to grovel to Lana, which sounds tiresome for all of us, and like something I could do at any other time. The difference is that Emilia really needs me.

“Sure, that’s fine, Grace,” Laurel says when I tell her, but she sounds slightly put out, which catches me off guard. “Got a better option, huh?”

“I’m seeing Dylan tomorrow, so I figured I’d wait and see what happens,” I say, but I’m not sure why I’m lying. “Actually, Emilia wants me to go over. Able’s been held up and she’s worried about the girls’ reaction.”

Laurel doesn’t say anything for a moment, and I think of how distracted she was in the restaurant the other day. She’s probably not even listening to me. Lana’s probably got her tongue in her phone-free ear as we speak.

“What is this thing with Emilia?” Laurel asks, seemingly choosing her words carefully.

“She’s my friend,” I say defensively.

“Yeah, but I thought you didn’t want anything to do with Able after Lights.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” I say brightly, skimming the surface of the truth like I always do. At the time, I’d told Laurel that Able and I had parted ways, but I didn’t go into any details. Now I wonder how much she could have guessed.

“Grace, are you okay? You sound weird.”

“I feel great, actually. Better than I have in a long time.”

“I guess that’s good to hear,” Laurel says, still sounding unconvinced.

I’m about to hang up when she says my name again.


“Look, are you sure you’re okay? You’re sounding a little . . . I don’t know. Manic, I guess,” she says softly, and it’s the closest she’s come to mentioning the hushed discussions about the state of my mental health my team held whenever they thought I couldn’t hear.

“I’m fine,” I promise her, before hanging up. “Stop being so nice, it’s freaking me out.”

* * *

? ? ?

When Esme turns up the next morning, I’m halfway through making an apple pie to bring to Emilia’s for our Christmas Eve dinner. I found a recipe on Google, and am disproportionately pleased with myself for not having had to call anyone for help at any point. I move gracefully around the kitchen, feeling a rush of adrenaline when I work out how to use my new digital scale with an ease I didn’t know I had in me. The molten apple mixture is bubbling away, and the buttery smell of pastry fills the small house, transforming the entire place.

The loud knock on the door comes just as I’m checking how the pie is coming along, and I end up burning my finger on the yellow Le Creuset pie dish Emilia lent me. My good mood instantly evaporates, and it doesn’t recover when I see who is waiting on the porch.

Esme strolls in, throwing her phone on the sofa before sitting down.

“You forgot about me,” she says matter-of-factly, and I don’t lie to her and pretend that I didn’t.

She folds her arms across her chest. “I’ve been calling but you never answer. Where have you been?”

“Sorry, I’ve been busy. It’s nearly Christmas,” I say, even though I have no idea what that means for someone like me.

Esme narrows her eyes at me. “Are you coming home for it? Mom was asking.”

“Does she know you’re here?” I ask, caught off guard.

“She freaked out that I had a boyfriend in LA, so I had to tell her the truth.”

“How did she react?”

“She was fine. Whatever. Look, I need to talk to you about something,” she says, leaning forward. “I’ve been using the camera.”

She’s waiting for my reaction, her eyebrows raised, and it’s the most excited I’ve seen her.

“That’s great news! Are you feeling better about everything?” I ask, speaking loudly to cover up the fact that I’d forgotten to ask her before.

“Much better. But I’m using it in a different way from how we discussed,” Esme says innocently.

“What does that mean?” I ask warily.

“This girl from my school, August, is having a party for New Year’s up at her parents’ house in Ojai, and I’ve already been messaging Jesse to tell him that I want to hook up with him again. So, the day of the party, we’re going to set the camera up in August’s parents’ bedroom, and I’ll lure Jesse in once he’s drunk. I’ll get him naked, and then I’ll just leave him . . . I’m basically going to have footage of him naked, trying to get with me, that I can use to bargain with him to stop spreading the nude. The fake nude.”

“Hmm . . . I don’t know how . . . experienced you are. But logistically, he might think it’s a little strange if you’re making him strip completely naked while you keep all your clothes on,” I say as neutrally as possible.

“You clearly don’t remember sixteen-year-old guys,” Esme says, rolling her eyes. “It’s the only time they actually do anything you ask them to do.”

“Okay, sure. So Jesse is naked, you’re filming him, then you blackmail him with the footage,” I say, pausing for a moment. “And then we’re done. Right?”

“Wrong,” Esme says slowly. “Totally wrong. I was thinking about what you said about taking control of the story, and I’m going bigger. Much bigger. I’m going to make a movie about how social media has basically turned into another way for men to control women and their bodies, but that girls are the ones buying into it and perpetuating it ourselves, and then it’s going to be about everything that sucks about being a girl. So we’ll start with me and Jesse, and then we can interview Blake about her experience growing up trans in Anaheim, then we’ll move on to you.”

“Me?” I ask nervously.

“Yeah. We’ll use footage of you taking down Able at the awards show. It will be our Spartacus moment.”

“Okay, let me think about this,” I say, panicked and stalling for time. “Do you want a drink? I have La Croix or apple kombucha.”