No Love Songs

*My YA novel, NO LOVE SONGS, hits shelves on April 18! Here’s a scene with Myles and Mal, two thirds of the punk band, The Wide Awakes, getting sidetracked while working on a song together.

We hit the trails along the back end of the park, hiking down to the ledge, where the rocks sit on a cliff overlooking the river and downtown. It always steals my breath how the view sneaks up on me out of nowhere. One second, I’m hiking in the woods past all the scattered trash, beer bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and shards of Styrofoam, and the next second, I turn and find a postcard view of the train trestle stretching across the small canyon, braced against the smeary blood orange horizon of the setting sun.

Before Mal, I’d been coming to River Run all my life and had no idea of all the trails and overlooks until she brought me down there to write songs. The first time I watched her leap onto the rock, worn smooth by all the hands and feet and paint over the years, I lunged after her to pull her back to safety. There’s nothing but a few hundred feet of fall to the river, so it still makes my heart skip when she gets up there and stands with her arms spread apart like she’s about to take a swan dive to her death. But at least I’ll sit with her.

On occasion, when we hear a train rumbling in, Mal grabs my hand and squeezes tight, squealing like a little girl. It makes me hope the train will never end and keep chugging on forever. But it never does, and I’ve come to hate the last car of a train because it means Mal’s hand is not in mine.

For now, though, all is quiet.

“You seem off today. Everything okay?” Mal asks suddenly, pulling me back in from my thoughts. 

“Huh? Yeah.” I shrug.

She looks me over. “Is Hank being… you know? All Hank-ish?”

Sometimes I regret telling her the bits and pieces I’ve told her about my life at home. Not even Noah knows how it is with Hank. I roll my neck, blow it off. “Yeah, no. It’s fine.”

Mal turns to the trestle, patient as she waits for me to sort through my thoughts.  Ever since the day Hank moved in, he was after me to “man up.” And it wasn’t long before he decided part of “manning up” was to lash my back with his belt.

A gentle swoosh of traffic slips across the river. I don’t want to talk about Hank, or anything really. I’m fine with the river, the trestle, the two of us. This.

Mal’s got a scab near her left knee, peeking out from the hole in her favorite jeans. Her skin holds the evening sun as she cranes her neck to gaze out to the quiet. She’s the only person I’ve ever known who can wear a sunset—its dwindling warmth finding her cheeks, casting a shine in her eyes. Below us, the water is calm, and a faint breeze tickles our faces. She meditates for a few seconds before she pulls out her notepad.

We get to work. We fix up Oh That’s Nice, and I’m still messing with her about it when Mal gets quiet. She sets the pad down and gazes off. Something about the contemplative gesture stirs my thoughts, and I realize, as we’re up there above the river and the noise, that this song isn’t a joke to her. It means something. And sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own issues that I forget her life isn’t so perfect, either.

She told me as much once, right here at this favorite place of ours. I was mad at Hank about something, and I blew her off. “No offense, Mal, but you don’t understand. Your family is perfect.”

She’d turned and glared at me, her lips parting. “Is that what you think?”

I shrugged. “It’s better than what I’ve got,” I said, as though we’d entered a competition to see who had the most messed up family.

Another glance out to the trestle. When she looked at me again, her eyes were dark and piercing. “You’re wrong.”

The sharpness in her tone popped my little pity bubble. With my full attention, she bit her lip, still shaking her head as she turned to me, squinting against the evening sun. “Myles, do you know how much shit my dad takes on a daily basis?”


“Professionally speaking.”

“Um, no.”

“Well, let me help you out there. He takes it from the world. From his patients. From everyone who looks at him or hears his accent and assumes he’s going to plant a bomb in a mall or on a plane.”

“Mal, I wasn’t, I didn’t…”

Too late. I had her going now. “Seriously, he’s got to be the nicest person in the world, even after what he’s seen back home, you know? It’s crazy. How he came here from Egypt, searching for ‘freedom and prosperity,’” she said with air quotes.

“He went to medical school, stayed here to practice medicine. You know, to help people. And what’s the thanks he gets? They call him a terrorist at a baseball game.” She aims a sharp stare at me, a scathing smile, nodding. “Yep. True story. They ask if he has a flying carpet. They treat him like a criminal even after he changed his name from Jahi to John just to make them more comfortable.”

“Damn, that’s messed up.”

“I know it is.”

Her voice was defiant, daring me to go against her. Hurt filled the gaps between her breaths. “I know you think I live in some nice suburban house and everything is great, but it’s not. My mom? No better for her. Her family hates my dad because of some religious sect or something I don’t even fully comprehend. We’re not even religious, probably because of that. My grandparents basically disowned her. For marrying a doctor, for God’s sake.”

She looked off, contemplating. I let her stew and throw some rocks over the cliff until I realized she wasn’t finished. “Oh, then there’s Charley, the boy wonder.” She glared at me. “Jihadi Boy—it’s what they call him at school. Did you know that, Myles? Can you believe that? Private school shits. He was making a song about it, you know, as a joke. I told him if he did, I would wage my own personal jihad on him.”

Her eyes closed and she took a huge breath, as though she were sorting out the wreckage of thoughts and the words she’d scattered all over the place. I went to throw a rock but stopped short. “And what about you, Mal?”

She turned, stared me down. “I guess I got off easy. Sure, the girls love my exotic look. They rave about my olive skin and my like, totally cool hair.” She tossed a strand of hair and fake giggled.

I turned away. “Your hair is cool.”

Her voiced softened. “I could never be one of them, not that I want to be.”

“Thank God.”

She laughed. “But do you see? I mean, my life isn’t so awesome, you know?”

It’s not so easy for Mal. I know that now, as she gazes out to the trestle, hoping for a train to come and take her thoughts away. I think of how she zones out, gets quiet. How she feels guilty for her academic successes, like she hasn’t earned it the way her father did. About the band, she feels like a phony because she lives in suburbia but wants play warehouses and be hardcore.

The thing is, Mal’s family story is hardcore. Her dad is the bravest man I’ve ever met. And she’s got to see that, see how strong she is because of who she is. Maybe I should tell her that more often. Remind her she’s amazing.  

“Mal. I like it.”

She blinks, breaking from the sun’s trance. I shrug. “Oh That’s Nice. It’s good, okay?”

She turns to me fully, lips curving into a smile that causes fireworks to flare in my chest. “Yeah?” I nod. She looks off, smiling. “Okay then.”


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