“I’M SORRY MISS, but your card has been declined.”
I blink, looking down at the shiny piece of plastic the saleswoman is holding out to me in confusion. “No, no, that’s impossible. There must be something wrong with your machine. I know for a fact I’m nowhere near my limit.”
The woman fixes me with a bored expression, shaking the card in her hand, willing me to take it from her. “Please take your card, miss. I need to assist the next customer. Maybe you could come back later.”
My jaw sets in frustration as I pull my wallet from my bag and pull out a wad of hundred dollar bills. Taking my card from her hand, I slap a few bills on the counter and shove them in her direction. “Here. This should cover it.”
She wordlessly takes the money, conspicuously scrutinizing them to check for counterfeit bills. My jaw works as I stare at her, the whispering of the socialites behind me and the snickers of my friends providing a soundtrack to my public humiliation. After a long pause, the woman finally decides that I’m not some kind of shoplifter, and deposits the cash in the till. She’s barely able to hold up the bag and receipt before I rip them out of her hands and stomp off towards the front doors of the boutique.
“Wow,” my friend Mia snickers, bumping me with her hip when she catches up to me. “Was that as embarrassing as it looked to be?”
I shoot a glare at the girl on my right, resisting the urge to inform her that her so-called professional balayage looks more like bad roots. “Shut up,” I grumble instead, deciding that insulting the hair of the girl who is my ride home would not be in my best interest.
On my other side, Natasha nudges my shoulder. “You should just report that bitch. You’ve been a loyal customer of their’s for years. They have no right to disrespect you like that.”
I smile at my other friend’s words as we approach Mia’s white Porsche. Natasha puts the front seat down, allowing me to slide gracefully into the back seat, a move I had practiced many times before. “You’re right. I think I will, Nat. Thanks!”
Natalie laughs as Mia starts the car, cranking the radio up as some obscenely overplayed pop song blares through the speakers. Despite the loud noise, I’m aware of my ringing phone, and yell for Mia to turn it down.
As the music quietens down, I press my cellphone to my ear. “Hey, Mom.”
“Where are you, Peyton?” My mother’s voice rings out, seriousness in her tone.
I can’t stop my eyes from rolling. “Mia, Nat and I went for brunch then shopping, remember? Mia’s just driving us home from Carlisle’s now.”
“I need you home, right now, Peyton.”
“Okay, Mom,” I respond, shaking my head frustratingly in the rear view mirror for my friends to see. “I’ll be home in a few.”
The line clicks off before I can hang up on her.
“What’s up?” Nat asks, her attention completely absorbed in her phone screen.
“Nothing,” I shake my head. “Just my mom playing jailer. Mia, can you drive me home now? She’s pissed, for some stupid reason.”
“Sure,” she says, throwing on her signal light as she turns down the street that leads to our apartment building. “But I don’t see why you’re so worried. I mean, it’s probably just Jayden getting suspended again or something.”
Processing her words for a second, I realize Mia is probably right. The last time my mom was so short with me on the phone had been because she had just found out my younger brother, Jayden, had gotten into a fist fight at school and gotten suspended for a week.
As Mia pulls up in front of our building, Natasha lets me out of the backseat and passes me my shopping bags. “Yeah, Mia. You have a point,” I tell her as Natasha climbs back into the car.
“Let us know!” Mia calls and before I can even wave, her Porsche is squealing off into the afternoon traffic.
“Bitch,” I mutter to myself, now that I know she can’t hear me. Mia, Natasha and I have been friends for nearly fifteen out of our seventeen years of life, but it was more a friendship maintained out of necessity and social status than common interests. Mia Walker is the daughter of one of my father’s business partners, which means we had always seen a lot of each other. As my father would say, by staying friends with her I was making his work life easier. It didn’t seem to matter that she had always stolen my things and treated me like shit. She’s the Blair to my Serena, if that helps. We’re both queens on the social pyramid, but where she is manipulative and cruel, I actually have a heart.
You just wouldn’t catch me slumming it with the Brooklyn kids anytime soon.
Natasha Drake, on the other hand, is someone I actually enjoy being friends with. She’s stuck up, sure, but welcome the the Upper East Side of Manhatten. We’re born and bred with our noses in the air and Louboutins on our feet. At least Natalie and I have the same tastes in clothes and movies. But the way she just lets Mia walk all over her is absurd. Beyond that, there isn’t really much to say.
With a sigh, I turn and walk towards the front door. The door man lets me in with a friendly smile and an offer to help me with my bags. I decline, heading determinedly towards the elevator in the lobby. The ride up is quick, despite the fact we live in the penthouse. More than likely that’s due to the fact we have a private elevator, one that isn’t required to stop on a million floors before reaching your goal.
When the doors slide open, I freeze mid-step, as my eyes go wide and my mouth pops open.
Scattered around our once elegant and luxurious penthouse are cardboard boxes and men in jumpsuits loading our belongs into them. It takes a minute of me looking around in shock before I can speak. “Mom!” I yell as I get off the elevator, abandoning my bags at my feet. “Mom! What the hell is going on!”
My mother finally rounds the corner, and I’m overcome with more shock as I take in her appearance. My socialite mother is dressed down in yoga pants and a tee shirt, her chocolate hair thrown up in a messy bun. Her face is as bare and her feet, and it almost looks as if she forgot to moisturize last night.
“Well, it’s nice of you to finally join us, Peyton,” my mom snaps, crossing her arms over her chest.
I throw my hands up in the air as I wave them in the general direction of chaos that is our living room. “What. The. Hell. Mom.”
“If you had done as you were asked and stuck around this morning, you wouldn’t be asking that question.”
I roll my eyes, throwing my well-bred manners out the window. “You told me we needed to talk! You never said I was under house arrest!”
My mother’s face quickly contorts in anger. “Enough, Peyton!” she yells, something my mother doesn’t do very often. “Check your attitude when you speak to me, young lady.”
“Whatever,” I mutter, too quiet for even her super hearing to hear, and plop down on a lone stool in the kitchen. “Can you please just tell me what is going on?”
I watch as my mother’s temper simmers to a cold, hardened expression. She was never a very warm parent, really. I know she loves me and my brother to the ends of the earth, but she never felt it necessary to shower us with hugs or baked goods or any of that other fairytale mom crap.
“Your father and I are getting a divorce, Peyton,” she states, as if the reality of that statement means nothing.
I heave a sigh, leaning my elbow on the countertop beside me. “I know that. You guys told us on Wednesday.”
“Just say it already, Mom,” my little brother Jayden sighs as he joins us in the kitchen. Even he’s dressed down in a pair of worn out jeans and a tee shirt, his brown hair not even containing half as much hair products as it has these last few months.
“Say what?” I demand, looking back and forth between my mom and Jayden. “Somebody just tell me what the fu—”
“Dad’s gone, Pey. He walked out last night and he’s not coming back.”
Hearing those words come out of my sixteen year old brother’s mouth is surreal. He only ever talks about girls and sports. He’s never serious. Yet here he is dropping a Long Island sized bomb on me at eleven-thirty in the morning.
“No,” I sputter. “No, Jay, I’m sure he’s just gone on a business trip or something.”
“Your brother is right, Peyton,” my mother cut in, her gaze softening as she laid a hand on my shoulder. “Your father told me last night he would be moving out.”
“But...” I trail off, my gaze bouncing between my mother’s gaze and my brother’s.
Jayden scoffs, crossing him arms over his chest. “Tell her the rest of it, Mom.”
“Jayden Alexander,” she snaps, her head whipping around to glare at him. Raising one hand she points in the direction of his room. “Go.”
“Tell me,” I blurt out. “It can’t be much worse.”
Jayden laughs, but it’s dark and sarcastic. “You have no idea, big sister. No idea,” he shakes his head as he retreats to the confines of his room.
When Mom turns to face me again, her face is set in a mask of sadness. “Peyton, I’m so sorry. I wish I could find a way to make this better, but I can’t.”
She hesitates with her next words, and a sense of concern plagues my thoughts and I feel a sting of oncoming tears creeping up behind by eyes. In my darkest thoughts, I know what she’s about to say. But I refuse to let myself think it. “Go on, Mom. Just say it, please.”
“Your father is cutting us off. He’s already cut off our credit cards, and by the end of the day all of our accounts will be closed,” she says solemnly. As the words leave her mouth, the tears behind my eyes begin to fall. “I have a small nest egg gathered in an account under my own name, but it’s not enough to support our lifestyle. Your father has promised me that your’s and Jayden’s trust funds are still in tact, but until then...”
I can tell she’s holding back. She’s refusing to admit what is happening to us, because as soon as she tells me, it suddenly becomes real. But I need to here it. I need her to tell me in so many words, if I have any hopes of accepting it.
“Say it,” I demand through salty tears. I know that my life is about to flip upside down, and I know I’m not prepared for it. I’ve only ever known one way of living; this lifestyle of the elite and wealthy. I’ve never once been concerned about how much money is in my bank account, or how much debt I’ve accumulated on credit cards, or even if I’ll have a roof over my head the next day. Not until now, and the very thought I that being my life scares the hell out of me.
The look on my mother’s face says it all, before she even opens her mouth. “We have nothing, Peyton. I’m so sorry.”
“What kind of name is Rock Valley, anyways?” Jayden asks as we drive by the big welcome sign of the edge of town.
Rock Valley, Arkansas; population five hundred and sixty-three people. My mother had grown up here, in a farm house with her parents. My grandmother still lives here, in a small apartment downtown now, ever since my grandfather passed away a few years ago.
I’d been to Rock Valley exactly four times in my life, twice when I was a baby. But now we live here too, apparently.
That was my mother’s next big announcement. After I had calmed down from hearing about our newfound poverty, she’d informed me that my loving father had put our penthouse up for sale, forcing us to move. And while Jayden and I had begged her to let us stay in New York until the end of the year, it had been her insistence that we would be moving back to her hometown.
And so here we are, two days later, driving down the hardly-bustling main street of a town with one grocery store, a gas station and exactly zero Starbucks.
“Well, Jay,” I start, my voice dripping in sarcasm. “Probably because we’re in a valley, surrounded by rocks and mountains, loser.”
“Peyton McKenzie!” my mother cries from the driver’s seat. “Don’t talk to your brother like that.”
Jayden, who had miraculously scored the passenger seat up front, turns around with a smirk on his face. I drop my phone into my lap, willingly for the first time on this twenty hour drive, to lean forward and mess up Jayden’s perfectly gelled hair.
“Cut it out, you psycho!” he yells as he bats away my hands.
I lean back in my seat, smiling smugly as our mom begins to lecture him on his manners. Content with myself, I pick up my phone from my lap and return to my aimless scrolling through my social media feeds.
Since hearing of my family’s imminent move, I had gone dark online. To be honest, I hadn’t even bothered to tell my friends I was moving away. I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them I was broke and had been abandoned by my own father. Not because I was ashamed of myself, or embarrassed, but because I knew the judgement I would see and their eyes and the comments they— meaning Mia— would make.
During our cross-country drive, I’d discovered exactly twenty-three threads about my demise as Queen of the Spence School and subsequent exile. As I figured, Mia was fueling the flames of the gossip blogs, spinning exhaustively false tales about how I was going off to rehab for some obscene addiction, and the rest of my family moved to avoid being publicly shamed. Which, frankly, was hilarious, given the fact she had once gotten a mutual friend of our’s, and his sister, banned from her family’s hotel for selling her some not-so-legal pills.
Someone else said they heard I was pregnant. Another claimed I had an affair with a teacher. One stupid girl even went as far as saying she’d heard I had died.
These were the same people who all but worshiped at my feet not even a week ago. One minute they were begging me to come to their parties, let them sit with us at lunch or go shopping with them. All with the hopes that being seen with me would skyrocket their popularity overnight. Now, I’m the brunt of their jokes. They’re laughing at my misfortune, calling me names and, overall, virtually tearing me to shreds.
And while I know I’ll never see those people ever again, their words still hurt.
They’ve made it official. The reigning queen of the Upper East Side has been dethroned. My lifestyle, my popularity, my elite status have all been burned. I am nothing anymore, a nobody.
My mom drives my attention away from my self pity as she pulls our new, pre-owned Jeep into a short gravel driveway. “We’re here,” she announces with a smile on her face in the rear view mirror.
“Here” is an incredibly small house, one that reminds me more of a guest house than an actual home. The siding is aged vinyl, that while once may have been a pristine white, had long since faded to a pungent yellow. It appears to be two stories, but by the looks of it, the second story is more like an attic than an actual floor. There’s weeds growing in the front walkway, and the steps up to the front door are cracked concrete.
As I climb out of the Jeep, stretching my tired muscles, my nose crinkles at the sickeningly clean smell of fresh, unpolluted air. “Charming,” I sigh, taking in the building I’m now supposed to call home.
“I know you’re not happy with this move, Peyton. You’ve made that abundantly clear,” my mom huffs, blowing a lock of dark hair out of her eyes as she opens the back end of the Jeep. “But I think this little town is going to grow on you.”
“Unhappy is buying a gorgeous new top and going home to find out it’s not the same color it was in the store,” I explain. “Pissed is being uprooted out of my life and dragged across the country to a sketchy town that hasn’t had a face lift since the sixties.”
“I grew up in this town, young lady,” she snaps, yanking a suitcase roughly out of the car. “Now mind your manners and help. It’s late, and I think I speak for us all when I say we’d like to get some sleep.”
Rolling my eyes dramatically and tucking my phone back into my purse. With a sigh, I walk over to where my Mom was standing, kiss her on the cheek, and pull my suitcase out of the trunk.
Mom moves ahead, digging a small set of keys out of her pocket to unlock the front door for us while I hang back with Jayden.
“Please tell me you’re not all gung-ho about this move too,” I mutter, eyeing him out of the corner of my eye.
“Fuck no,” he chuckles, grabbing his duffel bag and turning to look at the house. “But it’s not like we have a choice, Pey. Dad’s too busy with his side-piece to give a shit where we live. Which means it’s time to put up and shut up, big sister,” he smirks, patting me on the shoulder before walking off to join our mom at the front door of our new home.