I'll Be Home for Halloween Excerpt
The following excerpt is from I’ll Be Home for Halloween, available for pre-order now.
Hillingham Hollow, a suburb of Houston, Texas
Halloween night, eight years ago
“You are SO lucky, Clea,” Lina McCurdy sighed, fanning herself. “I wish my parents would hire a hot, famous guy to be my boyfriend for a year.” Lina’s face was tinted light orange, and she had black triangles penciled around her eyes and nose. A jack-o-lantern grin outlined her lips, and she was wearing a bright orange mini dress, orange tights, black flats, and a green beret. She was staring across the room as she spoke, her dark eyes shining with envy as they took in my date for the evening.
It was sophomore year, and Lina and I were hanging out near the refreshment table at Jackie Messer’s annual Halloween costume party. Lina was here with her latest admirer, a guy names Grady, and I was here with a tall drink of water named London Lange. London was seventeen and a senior, and he was a member of a pop music group called Five with a Beat.
If that situation seems surreal and artificial to you, that’s because it was. I should never have even met London, much less dated him. As Lina had pointed out, he was hot and famous, and I was…
Well, I was nothing and nobody. Not an actress, not a singer, not any type of celebrity. Just someone whose parents had made the questionable decision to let cameras follow me around for ten months.
As of the beginning of the school year, I was on “Five in the ‘Burbs,” a reality show featuring London and his other boy band members living in Hillingham Hollow, trying to deal with “everyday life in the suburbs”—to supposedly hilarious effect.
Being on this show had not been my choice. Something of which I had reminded Lina many times already.
I shot my friend a bored look and said, “Lina. How many times do I have to tell you? My parents did not hire London to be my boyfriend. All they did was sign up our family to be on his group’s stupid reality show for the school year.”
Lina snorted. “I know. I’ve always thought your parents were dull, but that is, like, the coolest thing EV-er. Why couldn’t my parents have done something like that for me?!”
I twisted my lips into a skeptical grimace. “I don’t know how cool it is. Being followed around by strangers and filmed all the time. And for what? I’d never even heard of Five with a Beat until my parents mentioned them to me.”
Lina rolled her eyes. “How could you not have heard of them? They’re from right here in Texas, and they’ve had three top ten singles.”
“Two,” I said. “They’ve had two top ten singles.” And both had been from the debut album, not the current one. London had admitted to me that the group’s latest album wasn’t performing as well as the record label had hoped it would. The reality show was an attempt to boost the band’s profile, but since it was airing on a lesser-known streaming service, who knew how many people would actually watch it? For my own sake, I hoped it wouldn’t be too many. I knew there was no stopping the residents of Hillingham Hollow from obsessing over it, though.
“Who cares?” Lina asked. “I still don’t see how you couldn’t be familiar with them.” I opened my mouth, but she held up her hand to cut me off. “No, I know, I know. They’re not your kind of music. Which only makes it worse. You’re, like, the ONE girl in Hillingham Hollow who doesn’t appreciate starring on a TV show with these guys. Talk about irony.”
“I’m hardly starring on the show.”
“You’re on every week, thanks to London living with you.” She looked away from me again, fixing her focus on the subject of our discussion, her eyes narrowing as she looked London up and down. I was surprised he didn’t feel Lina’s hungry gaze biting into him from a distance, but if he did, he gave no sign. He kept his attention on the group of kids surrounding him—other students from Hillingham High, where London was attending with me for the rest of the school year. And where he had, of course, already racked up about a million friends.
I chewed my lip, knowing Lina was right. The Beat guys ranged in age from seventeen to twenty-one, and the older ones all lived in a house together. Since the show had been filming, they’d been working part-time jobs sacking groceries, stocking books, and even flipping burgers. The producers had been mining the guys’ interactions with the townsfolk for laughs. Dozens of people from Hillingham Hollow had the chance to be on the show in some capacity or other. Yours truly, however, was featured on every episode, thanks to my family hosting London Lange in our spare attic bedroom.
“He only lives with me because he’s the youngest member of the group,” I said to Lina. “He’s still a minor, and he needs to finish high school. The producers thought it would be better—more family-friendly—if he lived with a set of house parents.”
“Yeah.” Lina’s mouth crimped in a sardonic smile. “And the fact that he lives in your attic means you get to see him every day. Spend all that time with him. None of the rest of us girls at school could compete with that. No wonder you hooked him so fast.”
I grimaced. “I did not hook him. We’re not dating. We’re just friends.”
“Don’t give me that. You think no one’s noticed how the two of you have started holding hands this week? And don’t try to tell me you don’t like it, either. You may not have been a fan when he first came to town, but I’ve seen the look on your face when the two of you are together. You like him just as much as the rest of us do. Only, like I said, you have an unfair advantage with him.”
I worked my mouth, not sure what to say to that. Because I couldn’t deny it. London had been holding my hand this week, and paying me more attention. There was a reason he was doing so, but I couldn’t tell Lina what it was. My parents had signed an agreement saying our family would keep everything about the series a secret while we were filming it.
And I couldn’t deny the other thing Lina had said, either, about liking London. Of course I liked him. It was impossible not to. Maybe I had been unimpressed when I had first learned a pop star was coming to live with my family (Lina was right; it wasn’t my kind of music), but within minutes of meeting him, I had understood why London was a teen idol. He was tall and blond, the cutest boy I had ever laid eyes on, and his homespun charm was irresistible. Like Lina had pointed out, he was from Texas like us, born and raised in a tiny town called Slaton, and despite how famous he had quickly become, he had remained wide-eyed and humble about it. He had a winsome accent, a touch of bratty rakishness to his otherwise mannerly personality, and he could smile at you in a way that made your clothes feel like they were disintegrating and sliding to the floor around your ankles.
In other words, I had been doomed from the start.
Lina shot a sharp glance at me, challenging, and I finally blurted, “It just happened, okay? I’d thought London was going to live in the attic and ride to school with me in the mornings and that was it. I never would have expected—”
I wouldn’t have expected to fall for him.
I did not want to say that, and I pinched my mouth closed to keep the admission suppressed. Not that it mattered, anyway, because Lina had stopped listening to me. She had swiveled her head to gape at London again, and this time he seemed to feel the weight of her gaze on him. He turned to look at her. Lina’s lips curled in a smile, and she waved. London lifted a hand in return. He glanced at his companions, excused himself, and made his way to Lina and me.
“Oh, here he comes,” she hissed under her breath, as if I couldn’t see for myself that he was heading our way. “Do me a favor, Clea? Don’t be greedy, okay?”
I arched my eyebrows. “Greedy?”
“Yeah. Like I said, you get to spend all sorts of time with London. Way more than anybody else does. When he gets here, give me five minutes to talk to him, would you? Just five measly minutes.”
What I gave her was an incredulous frown. “London can talk to whomever he pleases, Lina. For however long he wants. Not like I have anything to say about it.”
She didn’t answer me, and the next second, London had reached us. Lina jumped in front of me.
“London!” His name erupted from her on an excited huff. “How’s it going? How are you liking the party? You look so good in that suit. All you guys do. It’s so funny that y’all decided to dress up like the Beatles.” She reached out to stroke his tie. A string of giggles tittered out of her, and she blushed under her face paint, making her look more like a tangerine than a pumpkin. Beside her, I cringed in secondhand embarrassment.
London didn’t seem to notice. Probably because he was used to girls treating him this way. To him, this level of exaggerated gushing was normal, probably even mild. He gave Lina a slight nod, straightened his tie, and said, “Party’s great. And thanks for the compliment. But you know there are only four Beatles, right? That’s why Mikey had to come dressed as Buddy Holly.”
“Who?” Lina asked, blinking.
London’s smile crumpled. “Nobody,” he said. “Just one of the most influential pioneers of early rock n’ roll.” And that was all. He didn’t compliment her on her costume in return, or try to encourage the conversation with her. He stepped past her and turned his attention to me. “Hey, how are you doing, Clea? I’m sorry I got waylaid and left you on your own for so long.”
I felt my mouth slant up on one side. “Not a problem. I can handle myself. And anyway, you can’t help it that you’re so popular and everyone wants a word with Your Highness.”
He shook his head. “They were mostly talking about sports. I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been trying to wrap up that conversation and get back here to you for at least half an hour.” He paused, a merry twinkle lighting his irises. “You know, you could have come over and rescued me anytime.”
A chuckle escaped my lips. “Rescued you? Sorry. I didn’t realize you were in distress, damsel.”
He stepped closer to me, turning so that most of his back was to Lina, and gazed down at me. “Seriously? You didn’t notice the desperate signals I was trying to send you with my eyes?”
“These signals.” He cocked his head and intensified his stare, widening his eyes in a silent plea. “You didn’t see me making that face over and over again?”
“Oh, that,” I said. “Yeah, I saw it. I thought maybe the ceviche had sat out on the buffet too long. Given you food poisoning. I thought that was your ‘My stomach is killing me—where’s the nearest bathroom?’ look. Figured one of the guys would tell you, sooner or later.”
Behind London, Lina’s eyes bulged, and she made a choked noise, as if she couldn’t believe I would say such a crude thing to someone as handsome as London. But she didn’t understand. I truly wasn’t one of London’s fainting fans. I honestly had never heard of him before we had met eight weeks ago, and his fame meant nothing to me. So I basically treated him the way I did my older brother—with affectionate derision. And he seemed to love it.
Case in point, London threw back his head in a laugh. “No, my gut’s fine,” he said, and patted his flat stomach. “Thankfully. That was my ‘Clea, I’m drowning over here, please feel free to interrupt and get me out of here pronto’ face. Just for future reference.”
“Ah,” I nodded. “Okay. Got it. So…I take it you’re ready to leave, then?”
He nodded, too, with emphasis. “I already said goodbye to Jackie. How about you?”
“No.” I almost laughed. “But I doubt she’ll care. I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you.” Jackie and I had never been friends. London was the one she had wanted to invite to her party. She knew she would get stuck welcoming me as his companion, but it was worth it to her because he would also bring along the rest of the Five, as well as the cameras. Speaking of which…the other band members had left almost an hour ago, but the camera guys were loitering in the corner. They had ignored me while I was talking to Lina, because London wasn’t around, but now they were filming us. I was impressed with how unobtrusive they could be. You know how people on reality shows say that eventually “you forget that the cameras are even there?” Well, it’s true. I’d had most of my days filmed for the past two months, and I rarely thought about the cameras anymore. No one else seemed to pay attention to them, either. If I thought about it too hard, I realized how strange—and likely unhealthy—that was.
“We can say goodbye to Lina, though,” I said, and I craned my neck to peek around London’s shoulder at Lina, who was still standing there, wringing her hands and staring at the back of his head with longing.
“Oh, right,” he said, and angled himself to face her again. He waved and said, “See ya, Lina. Hope you have a good night.”
“‘Night, London.” She gave him a weak smile. Then she flicked her gaze to me and added, “‘Night, Clea. Thanks for the five minutes.”
I shrugged and waved as London took my hand and tugged me toward the Messers’ front door. I was sorry Lina hadn’t gotten to talk to London like she had wanted to, but it wasn’t my fault. Like I had said, he was his own man, free to talk to whomever he chose. I couldn’t help it if he had chosen me. Besides, I knew he was only playing it up for the cameras. As of this week, he and I were supposed to be falling for each other. Like everything else in his life, London took his role as my fake suitor seriously, and he was trying his best to make a good show of it.
Outside, London held open the front gate for me, and we started down the sidewalk together. He didn’t let go of my hand. I took note of how warm and powerful his grip was, and of the slight roughness of his fingertips. He was the only boy whose hand I had ever held, and while we had been touching like this for over a week now, I still wasn’t used to it. The novelty thrilled me.
We took a right at the end of the block, heading in the direction of my parents’ house, and I shivered, knowing the night wouldn’t end when we got there. We were heading toward another novel experience for me, something more exciting—and emotionally risky, if I was being honest—than holding hands. Something that, now that I let myself think about it, was making my knees wobble.
“Hey, it’s going to be alright,” London said to me, so low I barely heard him. I was certain the microphones hadn’t picked it up.
I glanced up into his cool blue eyes, and he offered a sweet smile and pumped my hand once. He was trying to comfort me, I knew, and to ease my nerves, but he was only ratcheting up the anticipation. I gave him a tiny nod to let him know I had heard him and that I appreciated what he was trying to do.
The neighborhood was quiet and still, the hours for trick-or-treating long over. The moon smiled down on us from behind wispy clouds, silvering the pumpkins, plastic skeletons, and fake tombstones decorating some of the yards we passed.
London spoke again, and this time his voice was louder, signaling his comments were meant for the cameras’ benefit. “So. Clea. How’d you like the party?”
I shrugged. “It was alright.”
“Thanks for coming with me. I know it’s not your sort of thing.”
“Eh, this one wasn’t too bad, as far as parties go. Except…”
“Well, I don’t think most people understood my costume.”
He glanced at my clothes: the sky-blue dress my mother had sewn from a vintage pattern, the pearl necklace, low heels, auburn wig, and wide headband. “What’s not to understand? You’re clearly a Beatles fan, circa 1964.”
“I thought it was obvious, too, but people kept asking me what I was supposed to be. Then Mark Tony said he thought I was dressed as myself.”
“Yeah. He said ‘Oh, I get it. Everyday is Halloween for you, Clea. So tonight, you’re made up like a normal person. Or what you would look like if you weren’t such a weirdo the rest of the time.’”
“He didn’t.” Shock underscored London’s words—and maybe a touch of offense.
“Yep. But don’t sweat it, I thought it was kinda funny.”
He shook his head. “For whatever it’s worth, I think you look great. Really cute.” He raked an appreciative gaze over me, taking his time.
My cheeks started to prickle with heat. It wasn’t the first time he had said that to me tonight. Or in the past. London was always generous with his compliments. “Thank you,” I said. “You look nice, too, Mr. Lennon.”
His only response to that was to smile and pump my hand again.
A drift of dead leaves spilled across the sidewalk ahead of us, and as I moved to sidestep it, London swung his dress shoe right through the middle of it. A cloud of leaves erupted into the air. He laughed, and I had no choice but to join in, not only with the chuckling, but with the kicking. We spread the leaves around until we had made a terrific mess, and then we started walking faster, almost running as we made the last turn to my house. When we reached the porch, I was slightly out of breath.
What came next wasn’t spontaneous, but we hadn’t rehearsed it, either. I hadn’t realized it would happen so fast, and so I felt myself tremble with surprise as London turned and, with little warning, took my face in his large hands. As he bent toward me, starkly handsome under the porch light, I had a second to wish we weren’t both wearing silly wigs for this special moment. But at least I knew this was a Halloween I would never forget.
I had known it was coming, and yet the first sweep of his lips across mine put me off balance, as though the ground had bucked underneath my feet. I caught his lapels in my fists, and he wrapped both arms around me, pressing me closer to his chest to hold me steady. The kiss was supposed to be “brief and sweet.” That was what the notes had instructed. Instead it lingered, going on too long to be considered “brief,” and becoming just heated enough to surpass “sweet.” Maybe we would have to do it over.
Man, I hoped so.
London nibbled my lower lip and massaged my nape, the brush of those slightly roughened fingertips simmering my blood with unfamiliar yearnings.
I sighed as he finally broke aside, moving his mouth to my ear. “Are you alright?”
“Mm-hm,” I whispered back.
He took a respectful step away from me, and I slid the key out of my pocket and let us into the house.
Inside, the director, Patrick, waited in his chair, wearing a grin. “That was perfect, you guys,” he enthused, popping up and striding toward us. “Looked great in here on the monitors. How’d it feel?”
Like the world just slipped off its axis. Like I’ll never be the same again.
“Great,” I shrugged.
“Outstanding,” London chimed in.
I shot a glance at him, and he winked at me.
“Good, good.” Patrick patted us each on the arm and bustled off.
Noise and activity buzzed around us as the camera people and crew came to life, talking in loud voices and tramping around my house, rearranging their equipment for the next shot.
London swiped his Beatles wig off his head with one hand and touched my shoulder with the other. “You sure you’re alright?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I’m awesome.”
He tossed the wig onto the sofa and finger-combed his unruly locks. “That you are, Clea,” he said. “That you are. The most awesome girl I’ve ever met.” He flashed a grin, and I felt heat flare across my chest. His gaze as it held mine glimmered with affection, and, in that moment—only for a second, and only because the cameras weren’t trained on us right then—I believed it was real. Not that London was in love with me. That was absurd. But I believed he and I were friends and that he cared about me. Maybe even that the attraction I had felt in the press of his lips a few moments ago had been genuine.
Above all, I believed in him, and I was the happiest I had ever been.
It wouldn’t be until months later that I realized my mistake. Until I understood that nothing that had happened between us had ever mattered to London, and neither had I. That he had been pretending for the cameras the entire time.
This is an excerpt from I'll Be Home for Halloween.