Chapter 1 If I hear live, laugh, love one more time, I'm going to die, scream, rage. I know my mom means well, but my phone's almost out of storage thanks to the abundance of uplifting memes and Bible verses she won't stop sending me. Maybe I'd appreciate her unrelenting positivity if I was still in LA, enjoying my oat milk latte from the adorable café I wrote in almost every day. But for some reason, the never-ending text stream hits a little different when I'm fifteen feet away, sitting in my childhood room, and notifications keep interrupting the shame spiral I've been living in for the last two months. I swipe away her latest text message and nestle deeper into the frilly comforter of my childhood past. I make sure the volume is all the way down-after all, who needs sound when every single word is ingrained in my brain?-and hit play on the video that has quite literally ruined my life. To say the camerawork is shoddy would be a massive understatement. The video bounces and bobbles around as the image blurs in and out until a woman standing in an empty parking lot wearing nothing but spike high heels and a silk robe comes into focus. A woman, of course, who happens to be me. Jazz hands! Honestly, it's borderline offensive that after all the time I spent in Los Angeles, all the scripts I wrote, all the internet content I produced hoping to hit my break à la Issa Rae, this is what has millions of views. You flip out and threaten to bury your lying, thieving ex one time and it goes viral? What are the chances? It just really sucks that instead of my brush with viral fame catapulting me to television-writing superstardom, it's what ended my career. My phone dings with another text from my mom at the same moment the video hyperzooms in on my tearstained face. This is where it really gets good. And by good, of course, I mean downright horrifying. I lift my finger to swipe away another one of her messages. I love my mom and her hopeless positivity, but after moving back into my childhood home a month ago-exactly thirty-one days after my life took a drastic turn toward the absolute worst-with no signs of getting out, I'm in the mood for self-pity. "Collins Marie Carter!" My mom's thick midwestern lilt rings out from the other side of my much-too-thin door. "Don't you ignore that!" I shoot out of bed and accidentally send my phone sailing through the room. "Holy shit, Mom!" Just another perk of moving back home as a twenty-nine-year-old woman. Privacy? Never heard of her. "First of all, watch your language," she says, still right outside my door. "Second of all, that's the third text I've sent you this morning and you haven't responded to one." I scramble around my room trying to find something to wear before giving up and grabbing an old T-shirt off the ground and pulling on the bike shorts busting at the seams. Because really, what's even the point of trying when your life is completely ruined? "Mom." I throw open the door and try to harness every ounce of patience I have. "You know how much I love you, but I think with about forty percent fewer texts and fifty percent more space, we'll all be much happier." "You need to stop watching that darn video; it's not good for you." She gives me a disapproving once-over and continues to speak as if I didn't. "Also, didn't you wear that yesterday? I know you're depressed, but you'll never feel better wearing the same dirty clothes and never brushing your hair." If there were a chance brushing my hair and changing my clothes could turn back the cruel hands of time and convince me to never date Peter Hanson, I'd have a fresh updo and be wearing a fucking evening gown. Alas, formal wear is not the key to time travel and I'd rather be comfortable while I continue down this path of self-loathing. "Just let me be miserable for one more week." Or fifty-two. "And I promise to try to rejoin society again. It's still too fresh. I still get recognized in the streets." Being looked down on, on the bitter, hard streets of LA is one thing, but getting the cold shoulder in the suburbs of Ohio? Absolutely not. A person can only handle so much. "I'll give you thirty more minutes," she says, clearly not understanding the meaning of compromise. "I'm hosting Friday church group and I can't have you wandering around the house like a sad, godless puppy. Plus, I told the ladies you'd be joining us." She shoves the bedazzled Bible I didn't notice she was holding into my hands. I'm surprised I don't dissolve into a pile of ash. "Just in case you need to catch up." "While sitting in the kitchen and gossiping under the ruse of good intentions does sound like a blast, I'm going to have to pass." I return her Bible, only slightly concerned that lying while holding it resulted in one more brick in my pathway to hell. "I promised Dad I'd help him get things for the yard today." My dad, Anderson Carter, is perhaps the most precious human to ever human. A recently retired pharmacist, he's living his full gardener fantasy. Seeing this six-foot-two-inch, 320-pound Black man fiddling around the yard has been the only highlight of returning home. Unfortunately for me, once I told him that, he became relentless in his pursuit to recruit me into this vitamin D-filled hobby of his. I wasn't thrilled when I finally gave in, but now that it's saving me from an afternoon listening to the Karens-no shade, there are literally three different women named Karen in the group-drone on about how wonderful their boring kids are doing, I'm going to have to buy him lunch . . . if my bank account will allow it. "Oh darn. Well, maybe next time." My mom pouts and the fine lines of aging pull on the corners of her delicate mouth, which has never muttered a single curse word. "At least Dad's going to get some quality time with you." She may not curse, but those lips are well-versed in spewing passive-aggressive jabs. "We watched an entire season of House Hunters last week; quality time doesn't get any better than that." I can almost see the wheels turning in her brain to come up with a retort, but she stays quiet because even she knows it's true. Nothing can bond two humans more than watching incompatible couples argue about a house they can't afford and screaming at a television about gray laminate floors. "Fine, but if you're set on abandoning me and Jesus, can you at least make sure Dad doesn't forget to get the white oak tree while you're at the nursery?" She steps to the side as I squeeze past her. She follows close behind as I try to keep my eyes trained on the carpet they replaced last year and ignore the barrage of inspirational quote art littering the walls. The collaged picture frames filled with every single one of my school pictures break up Bible verses, proof of days when I loved overly teased bangs and scrunchies working overtime to keep me humble. As if I have any pride left. "Sure, Mom." I pull open the cabinet and grab the "World's Best Dad" mug I gave my dad for Father's Day when I was in third grade. I pour in some of the hazelnut coffee my mom is still trying to convince me doesn't taste like sludge and hope that today will be the day I learn to love it. "Text me the name, though, because I definitely won't remember." "The white oak." Dad's deep voice bounces off the white cabinets before he enters and drops a chaste kiss onto my mom's mouth. They celebrated their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary in February. He still kisses her every time he enters a room and my mom still blushes each time she lays eyes on him. It's sickeningly sweet. "That's what we're going to get; I had to order it. Noreen called me last night to tell me it finally came in." "Really?" My mom's face lights up and I'm not sure if it's because she's married to a man who does thoughtful shit like special ordering her trees or because she loves landscaping that much. "You didn't tell me!" They planted a tree in the front yard when our house was built thirty years ago. Unfortunately, two winters ago, it fell victim to a blizzard that knocked out power lines and roots alike. And while the Reserve at Horizon Creek may be a stifling hellhole put on Earth only to torture me in my lowest moments in life-let's not talk about being one of ten people of color in my middle school of more than a thousand-it's been around long enough that I can't say it's ugly. The trees planted at the inception of the neighborhood have grown into beautiful, mature trees many planned communities can't brag about. If the opportunity presented itself, there's a ninety-eight percent chance I'd sell my soul to be back in LA. But even so, no palm tree can compare to the droopy willow tree in my backyard where I spent countless summer days losing myself between the worn pages of my favorite books. Now with my dad dedicating all his spare time to the flourishing vegetable garden and rosebushes, it's almost possible for me to pretend we're not in the middle of Ohio when I step into our fenced-in backyard. Almost. "Well, since it seems as if you two need a little alone time"-I hand my dad the remaining coffee, which I don't think I'll ever adjust to-"I'm going to run and get some caffeine I can actually stomach. Do either of you want a bagel or something?" My mom opens her mouth, probably to defend her choice of hazelnut, but my dad beats her to it. "Two everything bagels, toasted, with cream cheese." He recites the order they've shared for years. "Just make sure to drink your coffee there and take the long way home after." He wiggles his eyebrows and my mom giggles. My stomach turns, but I can't blame the coffee this time. "Filthy." I grimace and shake my head in their general direction, trying to avoid direct eye contact. "And before church group, Mom? What would the Karens say?" "Oh, honey." She swipes a stray hair out of her face, and with one glance at her expression, I regret ever getting out of bed this morning. "Trust me. The Karens and every other woman in this neighborhood would love to experience anything like I do with your father." "La la la!" I stick my fingers in my ears and pretend to be disgusted by their overt and never-ending PDA. "I didn't hear any of that!" I hurry to my bathroom with my parents' laughter chasing after me and make quick work of brushing my teeth and wrestling my curls into a careless bun. In LA, I never left the house without putting ample effort into my appearance. Living in the land of opportunity, I was convinced I was always one outing away from meeting someone who'd change my life. I needed to be prepared. So of course the one time I was caught slipping in public happened to be the one time everyone witnessed. Life is rude like that. I contemplate putting on a bra before heading to the chain coffee shop down the road before deciding against it. Standards? Don't even know her! This is Ohio. The only two people I actually liked from high school left this town as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I don't have anyone to impress anymore. Not even myself. It's just too bad my mom won't agree. And sure, nearing thirty should mean I don't have to sneak out of the house anymore. However, according to the laws of Kimberly Carter, I'll never be too old to be told to change my outfit and put on lipstick. Which is why, at twenty-nine and three-quarters years old, I tiptoe down the hallway and run out the front door. I leap into the front seat of my mom's old minivan and peel out of the driveway without a backward glance. Burning rubber out of my quiet suburban hometown may not be my finest moment, but it's not my worst either. My life right now is a total dumpster fire and while there aren't many bright sides about my current situation, at least I know I can't sink any lower. Watch out, Ohio. It's only up from here. Chapter 2 I drive past a moving van as the white picket fences of the Reserve at Horizon Creek fade in the rearview mirror of the minivan I still don't understand my parents buying. I'm an only child; we would've been fine with a sedan. I adjust the radio, turning off Dad's sports talk and finding the local station I used to listen to in high school. I'm a sucker for pop music, and the Top 100 song that blasts through the speakers soothes my soul. I've gotten lost in the mindless lyrics, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, when my phone rings. Ruby's name lights up the screen and I contemplate letting her go to voicemail. Today has already been a day, and as much as I appreciate the motivational speeches she's been giving me since the video hit the internet, I'm not sure I can handle any of her lawyerly logic right now. However, I do know I can't deal with her wrath at being ignored. "What it do?" I answer, lacking the usual enthusiasm I greet her with. There's a long pause before her brash voice bursts through my phone. "Ew. What's wrong with you?" "Besides the obvious?" I switch the phone to the speaker, securing it between my chest and seat belt so I can keep both hands on the wheel. Safety first and all. "Not much." "Kim's still sending you inspirational memes and Bible verses, isn't she?" She throws out her accurate guess on the first go. Ruby has been my best friend since middle school. When her parents divorced when we were fifteen, she practically lived at our house. That's to say that she, too, has been on the receiving end of Kimberly Carter's never-ending good-vibes-only routine. "Kim's gonna Kim," I confirm what she already knew. "But today escalated to an invitation to join her church group." "Oh god. The Karens?" I can hear her shudder through the phone. "Were you able to get out of it? Do you need to brainstorm excuses with me?" Excerpted from Next-Door Nemesis by Alexa Martin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.