TANGOFISH

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Tango and TJ have been best friends since forever, until the night all that changes.

Suddenly Tango is on her own. Without TJ, she's unsure how to be or who she is.

When she meets Nate, the darkness begins to lift, and the hole in her heart gets a little smaller. Nate is someone who "gets" her. He's been where she is, and he knows how to fix things.

But there is a difference between healing and hiding, and after a while, Tango isn't sure if Nate's way of coping with grief is the right way for her. When she meets 13-year-old Paisley, suddenly everything she thought she knew about the boy she loves is challenged.

But has Tango gone too far? And is she too lost to find her way back to herself?

TANGOFISH - a story of life after loss.

* Releasing February 11th, 2022 *

Chapter 1 - the currency of casseroles

It's been two weeks. Two weeks, two days, and sixteen hours. That works out to be 400 hours, or 24,000 minutes, give or take. Sixteen and a half days of me being alive and TJ being...gone.

I go through the motions because I don't have a choice. I get up, have showers and pretend to eat breakfast. Then I go to school, sit with my friends in the cafeteria, come home, suffer through my parent's genuine and heartfelt attempts to get me "back in the game," and then go to bed, at which point I will lie on my back, mostly awake, because the dreams are fucking brutal, to stare out the window at nothing.

This is precisely what I am doing right now at four o'clock in the afternoon. I haven't slept since it happened. Not really. And I think I might be losing my mind because of it. I've heard it said that after three days of no sleep, a person is deemed clinically insane? If that's true, then I'm batshit crazy. The straightjacket kind. Certifiable.

Because I'm useless.

I had planned on going to TJ's house earlier. I'd been planning this for days because Mr. and Mrs. Baker are like my second parents. But I didn't go. Truthfully, I haven't seen them at all. Or talked to them. Not since they called at 4 a.m. two weeks, two days, and 16 hours ago. I want to, but I can't. And here's where it gets really bad. I couldn't even bring myself to go to TJ's service, which serves to reinforce what a complete and total asshole I am. Because if it were the other way around... if it had been me who had died and TJ who had been the one left behind, there's no way in hell she would be lying pathetically in her bed, crippled by insomnia, hiding from the rest of the world. No. Fucking. Way. If that had happened, she'd be making food for my parents. She'd be organizing a memorial for me. She'd be up late at night putting together a chronological photo board of the history of our friendship, starting from the day we met in the first grade. She'd probably even write a song for the service because, in addition to all her other talents, TJ is, I mean was, an amazing musician.

But it wasn't me who died. It was TJ, and instead of stepping up to help, instead of thinking about how her family must be feeling, I continue to lay motionless on my bed, completely and utterly paralyzed. Barely able to get through the day. Barely able, period.

I squeeze my eyes shut, eyes that feel as though they are now permanently swollen. Permanently wet. Because no matter how hard I try to stop them, tears keep coming, right along with a cruel and continuous rolling slide show playing in my head—picture after picture after picture. Because Taylor Jayne Baker has played a major role in my own personal movie since I was six and a half years old, just three days after the Bakers moved to 5733 Owl Road—blue house with the black shutters just six houses down from mine, and from that moment on, we'd been inseparable.

TJ made everything special. The world got brighter somehow after we became friends; its colours, more vibrant somehow. When we were eight, she showed me how to make origami birds from transparent pieces of delicate rice paper. The birds had tiny folded wings, with proud necks that we hung from the willow trees in her front yard from metallic gold thread. She showed me how to French braid my hair because, she said, hair is a woman's crowning glory; if your hair isn't right, nothing else will be. And to this day, I believe that to be true.

When we were eleven, we drew intricate designs on each other's arms with the dark and dangerous juice of berries we knew not to eat. Belladonna berries, I think. We wrote our names with the blood-red liquid and pledged right then and there that no one would ever come between us, not even our future husbands. We would be friends forever, no matter what.

***

Mom and Dad are both in the kitchen when I go downstairs. Dad is slicing mushrooms at the counter while Mom stands over a pot of boiling water on the stove, her face almost invisible in a plume of furious steam.

"Hi, love," Dad says with forced cheer. "Hungry?" He looks older somehow. There are lines on his face that weren't there before. I don't think he's sleeping much, either.

"I ate at school," I lie. "I'm good."

Mom turns around from the stove and smiles at me. "That's good, Tango. How was your day? Okay?"

"It was fine." Another lie. Because I can't be honest; I can't tell her that today, just like the past sixteen, was sad and empty and colourless; that everyone keeps looking at me as though I'm about to detonate any second. That without TJ around to facilitate our cafeteria hangouts, Avery and Rachel and Gabe, and Colton seem like strangers. I also can't tell her that I cut last period to hide in a stall in the girls' bathroom. Again. Instead, I force a smile of my own and feign interest in the mushrooms Dad has sliced and piled neatly on a piece of paper towel.

"That's good, honey," Mom says. "It's important to keep on doing all the regular things. But it's going to take time. Because—"

"Yeah. I know. Time heals," I finish for her. God. It's such a lame platitude. And honestly? I don't think time heals at all. It's just something people say when they're stuck for words and don't know what else to say. Because when your best friend drowns after driving her car off a bridge into a river, you have to say something.

"That's right," Mom says. "Indeed it does."

As much as I hate the platitude, I can't be mad at Mom. Especially now, the way she's leaning over that pot of boiling pasta, her dark hair sticking up every which way, thanks in part to (a) the steam and (b) her Greek roots. Don't get me wrong. My mother is beautiful, but her hair has a mind of its own.

"What are you cooking?" I ask her. It's rare for my parents to be in the kitchen at the same time. Usually, it's Dad's domain, and he hates it when anyone gets in his culinary space bubble.

"Tuna casserole," Mom says.

I curl my nose. "Wait. What? Seriously?"

"It's for the Bakers," Mom says, dumping the pasta noodles into a colander in the sink. "Carrie Dunlap organized a food-drop for them for a few weeks. Today is our turn."

Of course. Casseroles. The universal currency of compassion.

"If you could run this over in a half-hour or so, that'd be great, honey. It will still be hot. They can have it for dinner tonight."

I freeze beside the sink, my heart thudding in the hollow cavity of my chest. "Um. Can you do it, Mom? I have a lot of homework tonight" Crap—my third lie in five minutes.

Mom looks at me, one eyebrow raised, and though her dark brown eyes are gentle, they mean business. She's not having it. "It will only take you five minutes to run it down, Tangerine. It'll be ready in half an hour, like I said, Okay?"

"Okay," I sigh. There's no point in arguing.

Forty minutes later, I'm walking down Owl road, a still-warm tuna casserole in my hands. The dish is covered with a frayed blue tea towel featuring a map of New Zealand on it—a present from my Grandma, I think, though I can't remember for sure.

"If you want to eat with the Bakers tonight, that might be nice," Mom said when I left. "I'm sure they'd love to spend some time with you, Tange."

But I can't eat dinner with the Bakers. I can't even talk to the Bakers. Hell, I don't even want to see the Bakers. Because I know the minute I come face-to-face with TJ's Mom and Dad; the minute I see her little brother, Hayden, shooting baskets alone in the driveway, I will fall like a deck of fucking cards.

So, I wait behind their garage until I'm sure the coast is clear, then I drop the tuna casserole on the front step, ring the bell, and run away like the pathetic coward I am.

***