Sneak Peek: Since We Last Spoke
by Brenda Rufener
Perfect for fans of Jennifer Niven and Nicola Yoon, this heartbreaking and uplifting novel captures the ups and downs of teen love in the face of unimaginable grief and the rocky journey to healing, peace, and forgiveness. From breakout author Brenda Rufener (Where I Live).
When Aggi Frank and Max Granger finally admitted their feelings for each other last December, it felt like love was beautiful and endless . . . until it wasn’t.
A fatal car accident involving their older siblings throws their lives into sudden chaos. And with a restraining order now in place between the two bitter households, Aggi and Max’s love runs cold. Being together again seems like a distant fantasy, even though they share the same driveway.
Still, Plum Lake is a small town, and staying apart can’t last forever. Aggi and Max eventually reunite at a lake-house party and break the ice after a year of silence.
But just as they begin to rebuild their relationship, the unthinkable happens, leading them to confront each other and their families in the hope of mending the broken pieces.
SINCE WE LAST SPOKE by Brenda Rufener
My sister Kate told me love was glue, a strong adhesive holding people together. She swore it worked as a protective layer of bulletproof glass, something shatter-free. Love sticks together when the world around you fractures into pieces, Kate said. But if unprotected, love will shatter, too.
When I wish for one more moment with my sister, sitting on the moss-covered dock, swinging our legs in unison, while we skip rocks across the glassy lake water, these thoughts overwhelm me. I want to ask Kate what protective force she was talking about, because love has only shown me how fragile and frail it is, even in the strongest relationships that take a lifetime, or in my case, seventeen years, to create.
Six thousand two hundred and five days for me to fall in love with Maxwell Granger and seconds for our relationship to smash apart. The glue Kate referenced didn’t stick, and I’m not sure a strong enough adhesive exists to hold together what was ripped from Max and me.
If only Kate received texts, I could ask what she meant. But my sister will never see the hundreds of messages I keep sending to her number. Cell service won’t reach her.
An engine rumbles in the distance, growing louder as the gears grind and rip the packed and unpacked snow. After a fresh blanket unfolds over Walabash Woods, noise softens, but as soon as a vehicle rounds the turn onto the mile-long private road that leads to the driveway my family shares with Max and his parents, the engine purr becomes a roar, and my movements follow the crescendo. Snow has a way of controlling me—slowing me down, or speeding me up—but today is Friday, and as on most Fridays, I’m determined to conquer its hold.
I stomp the mat where Welcome to the Frank Home has worn, smudged by ice and shoes, and kick my boots from my feet in midrun as I race for the stairs. Each step moans and creaks, and when I hit the top landing the banister rumbles, on the verge of collapse. I dodge an open box of nails layered in dust and leap over a stack of Sheetrock piled in the hall on the way to my room. Strangers might think we’re in the middle of a remodel, which is true if “the middle” means purgatory. I do wish one of those people from HGTV would pop their head in the door and shout, Surprise! or Welcome home, Frank family! or at the very least, Get the hell out while we gut this farmhouse and make it livable again! Then I wouldn’t have to wonder how many months the same box of nails will sit untouched in the middle of the hall outside my room, like a dirty sock in the street everyone circles around to avoid. Anything designed to improve life stopped after the accident. My life, my family crumbled with the Sheetrock.
Last December, though, I was standing naked in a canoe off the shore of Plum Lake, shouting, “Maxwell Granger, I love you more than you love yourself!” My arms outstretched, chin aimed at the clouds that were spitting white dots into my hair like tiny balls of paper.
It had taken years to finally show Max what my heart had kept concealed since we were kids. The whole naked part? I’d lost a bet among my closest friends but embraced it as a win. Nothing was going to stop my confession—not even losing a foot race to the dock that sent me into my family’s canoe, unclothed and unafraid. I placed the bet on purpose, and I lost on purpose, too. I knew exactly what I wanted to do that day. It felt like my life’s mission.
Umé, wrapped in smiles and all the confidence of the universe, screamed from the shore, “Jesus George Clooney Christ, Aggi! Your ass will be ice. And where is your damn life jacket? How many times have I insisted you don’t climb into a canoe without . . .”
Umé, my best friend since middle school, also known as my life anchor. We met in gym class as the kids were lining up, ready to count off by twos and split into teams. Hands clamped onto my shoulders and a head popped beside my ear. A voice whispered, “I’m going to steer you to the bathroom. Don’t worry, I’m right behind you. Just keep your feet together—shuffle—and don’t look down at your legs.”
But it was too late. Two streams of blood trickled down my bare inner thighs.
Umé, thankfully quick with a little white lie, shouted to our PE teacher, “She’s going to be sick!” and guided me into the restroom stall before our teacher protested or anyone saw that I’d started my period at the most inopportune time. Umé’s warm hand on my back has pulled, and sometimes pushed, me through the bad days, horrible times, and moments of complete devastation. Someday, I wish to return the favor.
Max’s best friend, Henry, wrapped in toilet paper from the waist down, as he’d lost a similar bet, hollered from the dock, “What’d I tell you, Max? She loves you! Always has, you lucky sumbitch!”
Henry didn’t mean Max was lucky because I loved him. He meant love in the more general sense. You see, Henry needs love like he needs air, but he miraculously grows, and even thrives, without it. Henry’s like this giant beanstalk that shoots toward the stars even though he’s never watered or fed or told how much he’s loved and appreciated at home. Henry’s found a place to store love, pack it away somewhere deep inside him. Then he lavishes his friends with it, especially Max. Who’s the lucky sumbitch now?
Since elementary school, Henry and Max have been friends, though Max has never stepped foot inside Henry’s camp trailer. None of us have. Henry won’t allow his friends near his home hidden away in the woods, and not because he’s ashamed or embarrassed, though I’m sure that plays a part, but because Henry wants to keep his friends safe. When we hike Walabash Woods, none of us go within a quarter mile of Henry’s chained-off driveway. Any closer and the dogs, Henry’s father, and his twin brothers would bark at us to keep off their private property. My dad says the Beacons have a lively record with the law and don’t want anyone close to their property. All the rules in the world, though, couldn’t keep Henry from his friends, especially Max. Those two have become like brothers.
That day at the lake, Max kicked at the snow-packed shore, his laughs bounding off tree to tree, wrapping my words in a warm blanket. Bravery never came easy for me. I dared not share the secrets in my heart until that day, minute, second. A ridiculous game of truth or dare among friends that suddenly became all dare. But when I threw my head back and laughed from the deepest parts of my gut, I grew so sure of many things. Myself. Max. Our future together.
Max cupped his hands around his mouth. “You’re naked! In the lake! In the middle of a snowstorm! Aggi Frank, you’re as wild as Walabash Woods!”
“Wildly in love with you!” I shouted.
Max tore his hat from his head and threw it at the lake. A decision he’d later regret when his ears practically froze off his face as he carried me back to my clothes, neatly folded beside the bonfire he’d built behind our families’ communal barn. For the record, I was still naked during Max’s deliberate act of chivalry, but quickly scrambled for my clothes. Max said he was protecting me from frostbitten feet. But I had willingly dumped my self-reliance into the snow and demanded a lift. In that moment, I knew I’d climb Everest without shoes if at journey’s end Max were there with wide arms and hands bearing mugs full of hot cocoa. While love oozes from somewhere deep inside Henry, comfort percolates from Max. Well, it used to, anyway.
The woods ushered in my love-filled confession to Max with ease. Snowflakes fell and stacked like Jenga blocks made of marshmallows. The gaps between snowflakes cushioned our background noise until the woods fell silent, still. Then my arms reached east to west and the sky unfolded a thick blanket of snow that covered my naked body. The lake hushed and the silence gave me courage to tell Max how I’d felt for longer than I remembered.
The woods had known Max and me since we were weaving in and out of our mothers’ legs, tumbling over while we reached for the same pinecone or teased at a squirrel tail. Walabash Woods knew I’d never tell Max how I felt until the time was right. After the flakes began to fall. Before the ice on the water cracked and split in two.
My words were snowflakes, floating in the sky, never sharing what they’d gone through before tumbling to earth. When you stick out your tongue and the ice crystals melt, you don’t feel the billions of water molecules that fought to stay intact while temperatures shifted and changed. You don’t taste how the winds banged against the kernels of ice as they plunged through layers of air and broke into pieces. Snowflakes only share their beauty when their journey ends. You only see the artful design after they land. Snowflakes never reveal the hell it took to form them.
Last winter on the lake, when I told Max I loved him, the woods applauded my courage with chirps and hoots. Pine branches bowed, and lake water applauded by splashing against the rocks. Even a damn loon—rare in western North Carolina—burst into laughter as it flew overhead. Possibilities had no end for me and Max, only beginnings. We were at the start of something magical, something meaningful, something supposed to last forever. In that moment, we felt our love was endless and shatter-free.
That night, Max’s brother was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, my sister Kate died by suicide.
These events changed everything. These events destroyed us.
I jab a mechanical pencil between the slats of my bedroom blinds and peek across the snow-packed figure-eight tracks connecting my driveway to Max’s. Pine trees, cloaked in white armor, line our property and stand guard. Sunlight bounces off the snowbanks and shoots against the wall mirror behind me, warming a small spot on my back. The thermostat is set to fifty-five degrees, so I shift in my chair hoping the sun spot will somehow increase my body temperature. Dad says, or rather shouts, that “heat costs money” and unless I “own stock in the electric company, the temperature stays at fifty.” Dad probably wishes he owned stock. Mom wishes we had money. I just wish Dad had a job so he could make money.
Mom and I aren’t supposed to know Dad lost both of his jobs months ago for smashing Max’s father’s face into the hood of his work truck. Mom and I aren’t supposed to question why Dad leaves every morning dressed in Dickies and work boots, his shirt wrinkled and untucked. Mom glances out the window when Dad stomps through the kitchen on his way to not-work, never questioning, as if she refuses to confront what has happened. But I do, and when the opportunity presents itself, Dad’s secret’s going to blow up in his face. I just hope Mom’s not staring out the window when it happens so she’ll finally acknowledge the truth. Maybe even do something about it.
At 3:59 on a Friday, I sit at my desk, waiting for Max to plow his Jeep across the driveway. He’ll arrive in sixty seconds. Hop into the snow and race for the passenger-side door. I wonder who the girl will be this week. I wonder if she will be someone I know, a lake kid, or a girl from town.
The engine hums louder, and I slide off my chair and crouch next to my desk at the window. Within seconds, Max plows into the driveway and slams the Jeep into park. I squint, but the girl’s face is only a smudge of pink against the white canvas. She’s not the same girl Max brought home last week, or the week before. This one’s fluffier, brighter, and wearing a smile that would make strangers notice and nod. She’s wrapped in a Chantilly cream–colored coat and a to-die-for azure-blue scarf. I’d definitely wear that scarf.
Max reaches for the girl’s hand and she dips her toe into the snow and laughs. Pom-poms on her boots skid along the drifted powder and trail her footprints. Max motions for her to stay at his Jeep before racing toward his house to snatch a snow shovel from the porch. He clears a path to his front step and nods when he’s finished. I half expect Max to throw down his coat, spin around, and magically unveil a checked flannel, wood axe, and earflap hat. Max, a gentleman and a lumberjack. At least the Max I remember.
Max stares at his feet as the girl sweeps her hair to one side and crunches snow on her way to the porch. I hate watching, but I can’t seem to stop torturing myself. As many times as I’ve tried distracting myself after school, joining Umé for coffee or sitting on my bed with earbuds stuffed in my ears, I watch the clock to make sure I’m crouched beneath my window at this time every Friday.
Max rips off his hat and sinks his fingers deep into his night-colored hair. I shut my eyes and sigh, as the Jeep door opens. Max, now rubbing the back of his neck, pats powdered flakes off his pants, reaches inside the vehicle, and grabs his backpack from the floorboard and a pizza box from the dash.
My stomach growls, and I imagine the piping-hot, mouthwatering contents of that cardboard box. A Lucio & Sons large BLT, though Max hates both the L and the T.
For years I suggested to Max he keep it simple and order a bacon pizza, but this is Max we’re talking about. In line, a couple of summers ago, I suggested Max ask Lucio & Sons’ pizza person to please remove ingredients one is disgusted by, but Max, famous for complicating the simplest of shit, refused, and will therefore always scrape off lettuce and tomato from his bacon-lettuce-tomato pizza. He said he wouldn’t, couldn’t, mess up a work of art: Lucio & Sons Picasso Pizza Pies.
Max pushes the Jeep door shut with his hip. The girl on the porch stomps snow from her boots, then pauses to watch Max hesitate at the bottom step. He’s back to staring at the ground, packing snow into V shapes with his feet. Max turns from the wraparound porch and scans the crescent-shaped lake in front of our property. He cranes his neck to the right, as he does every Friday just after four o’clock, until his eyes land on my house. He lifts his chin in slow motion and targets the window above my garage. My bedroom.
Max knows I’m here, peeking through the blinds, perched in my wooden chair, attempting to predict when the next ice storm will hit. This is my new hobby and my new life since the accident. I spend a lot of time analyzing wave motions in the atmosphere, trying to bring peace and order to weather-related chaos. Maybe Max understands part of what I do, but he doesn’t see the whole picture.
For months, Max has lived my afternoon routine, as I sit in my dark, cold room, sneaking glances across the driveway. So much has changed since Kate. Since Max’s brother, Cal. Since the tragedy that tore our families apart.
I’ve become keenly aware of Max’s moves, too. How he’s taken up running. How he’s consuming a lot of pizza for his wiry frame. And how he brings a different girl home every Friday afternoon when he has the house to himself.
Max pauses and stares at my window for ten seconds. I count, as I always do, and hold my breath.
Max drops his chin. I clutch my chest.
What will you do this time, Maxwell Granger? I have the house to myself, too.
He shifts his weight and I flinch. Today could be the day. Am I ready? Max turns toward the porch and I raise my blind.
My sudden movement causes Max to whip back around and glance at my window. I stuff my hand into my front pocket to prevent it from doing something lawless, like waving.
Max’s eyes lock onto my sweatshirted silhouette. No smile. No wave. No motioning for me to join him in the driveway.
What now Max? Whose move is it, anyway?
My heart drums as it does when I swim across the lake.
Talking to Max would violate the order. Break my dad’s rule. You will never speak to that boy again.
I stand still and wait.
Why do you watch me, Max? Why do you still pretend to care?
Seconds pass the halfway mark, and my chest pinches with fear that Max is about to do something we’ll both regret, so I beat him to the punch, drop my blinds, and they slam against the sill, rattle the window, chip off flakes of peeling paint. Max’s eyes pierce mine while I twist the wand tight to shut him out of my sight. My back slides down the wall until my butt hits the floor.
I won’t cry. The tears stopped months ago. Instead, I crouch beneath my window and wait for snow to crunch, laughs to echo from the porch.
Keys jingle. Max’s dog barks. His words bellow and sink my heart before they are swallowed up by the snowbanks.
“We have the house to ourselves!” he says, though it sounds like a shout.
I peek through a thin gap in the blind as Max stares back at my house.
“Yeah. I heard you, Maxwell Granger,” I whisper.
The slam of the front door sends sound waves skating across the snow from his house and crashing into mine.
Brenda Rufener is a technical writer turned novelist and the author of WHERE I LIVE, which Bustle named a most anticipated YA contemporary book hitting shelves in 2018 and Jennifer Niven called a “hard-hitting novel filled with hope.” Kirkus Reviews called SINCE WE LAST SPOKE, Brenda’s second young adult novel, “a compelling story about grief told through the voices of two expertly drawn protagonists.” When not writing, Brenda enjoys hiking the woods of North Carolina and spending time with her family. She is an advocate for homeless youth. Visit Brenda online on Twitter @BrendaKRufener, on Instagram @brendarufener, and on her website at brendarufener.com.
Author photo credit: Carolyn Scott Photography