In her 2016 young adult novel Wrecked, author Maria Padian delivered an incisive examination of sexual assault, memory, and judgment through the story of an on-campus sexual assault. In her new book, How To Build A Heart, Padian visits the world of teenage girls once again. This time, she introduces readers to Izzy, a scholarship student at a private high school whose entire life is upended when two big things happen: first, her family is chosen to receive a Habitats for Humanity house; second, she falls in love with a popular boy from school.
Here's the full summary:
All sixteen-year-old Izzy Crawford wants is to feel like she really belongs somewhere. Her father, a marine, died in Iraq six years ago, and Izzy’s moved to a new town nearly every year since, far from the help of her extended family in North Carolina and Puerto Rico. When Izzy’s hardworking mom moves their small family to Virginia, all her dreams start clicking into place. She likes her new school — even if Izzy is careful to keep her scholarship-student status hidden from her well-to-do classmates and her new athletic and popular boyfriend. And best of all: Izzy’s family has been selected by Habitat for Humanity to build and move into a brand-new house. Izzy is this close to the community and permanence she’s been searching for, until all the secret pieces of her life begin to collide.
How To Build A Heart hits bookstores on Jan. 28, 2020, but Bustle has an exclusive look at the cover and chapter one below — start reading now:
Excerpt: Chapter One
"You do you realize you're a stalker right?"
One corner of Roz's mouth curls up, her version of a smile. A full-on smile is rare from Roz. Not that I'd see one now. I speak to her profile as she powers her mother's rust bucket of a car along the winding roads of McMansion Land. She's intent on her target and keeps her eyes focused forward.
"Yeah, Izzy?" she says. "So what does that make you?" Great question. And not without a little edge. Roz's comebacks are razors.
I'm not half as sharp, so I don't say what pops into my head. Mami's voice. In Spanish. She always doles out her wisdom and warnings in Spanish. Even though she knows my Spanish sucks.
"Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres."
In other words, "Tell me who you're hanging out with and I'll tell you who you are."
Which is code for, "I don't like your friends, Isabella." Which translates to, "Especially Roz Jenkins."
Which is muy inconvenient since Roz is my best friend and lives across the road from us.
Instead of a comeback, I make my best innocent face. "Me? Just along for the ride."
She always doles out her wisdom and warnings in Spanish. Even though she knows my Spanish sucks.
Roz laughs, this quick punch of sound. Like the smile, a full-on laugh from her is rare. "Accessory to crime, more like," she says.
I throw my hands up in surrender. "Honestly, Officer, she said she was just giving me a lift home from school! I had no idea she was hunting hot guys!"
The corner of Roz's mouth curls down. "These guys are not hot. They're douchebags," she corrects me.
"Right," I say.
'Tm just curious is all."
Obsessed, more like, I don't bother to argue. What else would you call our latest detour into the outer reaches of Clayton, Virginia? Miles from lovely Meadowbrook Gardens Mobile Home Park, where we live?
I've cruised these back roads with her seven times, occasionally catching a glimpse of a huge house with a three-car garage set back in the trees. There's not much else to see in McMansion Land-Roz's term for where the "rich, superficial fake assholes" from her high school live. Seven times.
And that's not counting how many trips I'll bet she's made out here by herself.
"These people fascinate me," Roz continues. "Admit it, don't you love when you lift a rock and all the bugs scuttle?"
"Totally. Love doing that," I agree. "But we're not lifting anything here with these drive-bys. It's more like we're sitting three feet from the rock, staring at it, waiting for bugs."
"We'll see bugs tonight," she assures me.
I smile, but glance down at my watch. I can only be so late before Mami suspects something. She knows I had a cappella practice after school today, so I would have had to catch the late bus or else wrangle a lift with one of the other St. Veronica's girls driving back to Clayton. She doesn't know Roz pulled up as I was leaving the building. Lured me in with her irresistible, "Hey, chica. Going my way?"
I'm not supposed to be driving with Roz. I'm not supposed to be hanging out alone with Roz. There are actually a whole bunch of Mami-imposed Roz Rules, and while this scenario has never been specifically forbidden, cruising the back roads where Clayton's millionaires live is probably a violation.
"Tell me again how this time is different?" I ask her.
Roz sighs her let-me-explain-it-to-you-again-stupid sigh. "The boys' basketball team has made it into the playoffs. They're having a celebration pasta party at the Shackeltons' house."
For a second I'm not sure who she means. Roz usually refers to her crush simply as Hot Sam. She never uses his last name.
And would never admit he's her crush. But I've heard enough about Sam Shackelton's hair (dark brown with red highlights) and eyes (sky blue) and hook shot (Sam is leading scorer) and friends (all douchey) and car (Jeep Cherokee), and girlfriend (Awful Melissa) to know my friend is way into him.
"Cool," I say. "I love pasta. But couldn't we have swung home first so I could change?"
Roz pulls her eyes from the road for one moment so she can strafe the length of my school uniform — white cotton blouse, green and navy pleated skirt, navy knee socks — with a withering glance. "You know, that getup is so retro it's practically in," she comments.
"Vintage," I agree. "I think my mother wore something just like it when she was in high school."
"It screams 'Future Nun.' Does it come with a chastity belt?"
"No, but they do require matching underwear."
Roz's eyes widen.
"Green and navy thongs with the St. Veronica Catholic School seal on the back," I deadpan.
There's a long moment before Roz gets the joke. When she does, she releases one hand from the steering wheel to flick my knee. The polish on her blunt nails is blue-black and chipped.
''I'll bet at your school it's a sin to say 'thong,' never mind wear one," she says.
"You got that right."
"We're not invited, Izzy."
"But I know how we can see what's going on," she adds. "Why does that make me nervous?" I say, glancing out the passenger-side window. We're passing the hilly, horsey part of Clayton, officially known as Clayton County, with fields that extend for miles, crisscrossed by white fences. A few massive brick houses are scattered in the distance, ringed with trees. I know from past excursions that Hot Sam lives in the more woodsy, less horsey part. Where each home is hidden at the end of a street-long driveway... except there's no street sign. Only mailboxes with a single number.
"You're nervous because you're a dork," Roz tells me.
"Really?" I say. Not about my dorkiness: we both agree that I am the complete dork inverse to Roz's total badassedness. "I think I'm nervous because you haven't let me in on the plan. Is there a plan?''
Upward curl of the mouth corner again. "Oh yeah," she says. That's all.
We reach the section of road where Hot Sam lives; Roz always points it out when we drive past. About a quarter mile before his driveway, however, she turns off, onto a packed dirt entrance. It extends unevenly into the woods, and we bounce in the suspension-challenged car. Tree stumps, freshly hacked, line the way, and it smells like wet pine.
This dirtway eventually opens into a construction site and the skeleton of a half-built McMansion. A porta potty and a carpenter's trailer are the dead giveaways that this is a work in progress. But it's long after hours, so no one's here.
Roz pulls alongside the porta potty and cuts the engine. "Well. This is fun," I say.
She swivels in her seat so I can see her face-on . The thin wire ring that loops through her left nostril. The blue high lights in her not-quite-blond hair, verging on purple in the dusk. "A few hundred yards through the woods, that way," she says, tilting her head in the intended direction, "is Sam's back yard." An unpleasant chill begins at the base of my skull and runs down the length of my spine. "There's a little pool house and a rock wall, close to the back deck. From there you can see right in. They have a huge flat screen on one wall. I could pretty much watch a whole movie on Netflix the other night. Without the sound, of course."
I feel my heart pick up the pace. "Wait, you spy on his house? Geez, Roz, I was kidding about the stalker thing!" I don't know what else to say. This is creepy. And a little sad.
And okay, I'll admit it: kind of badass.
An unpleasant chill begins at the base of my skull and runs down the length of my spine. "There's a little pool house and a rock wall, close to the back deck. From there you can see right in
She waves her hand, batting away my shock like it's an annoying mosquito. "Please. It's not like I'm taking photos or anything... Just observing The Douche in his native habitat." I can't help it: I laugh. Only Roz could blur the lines between a scientist studying primates and a nosy teen spying.
"C'mon." She nudge s me. "You know you want to look."
"Totally. That's my middle name. Isabella "Chicken" Crawford."
Roz shrugs . She swings open her car door. "Suit yourself," she replies. And heads into the woods in the direction of the Shackelton house.
I watch as she disappears into the shadowy arch of branches. It's very quiet out here by the porta potty. The eye less, gaping holes of the McMansion's window frames remind me of this painting I learned about in art class. It's called The Scream.
"What the hell," I hear myself mutter as I climb out of the car.
I dodge low limbs and pick my way between fallen trees in pursuit of Roz. There's no clear path and I can only guess which way she went. I trudge maybe a hundred feet when I hear this soft tapping sound: rain, on the leaves. Great. I really don't want to get soaked. And lost. What is it they say about wandering in the woods? You walk in circles? I have zero outdoor survival skills. I'm not even a Girl Scout.
I turn back toward the car. But then, a twig snaps.
"Izzy!" A fierce whisper, not far away. I peer into the gloom and can just make out Roz's outline alongside a tree.
When I reach her, she yanks me close.
"Geez, make a little more noise why don't you?" she hisses in my ear. "You're like an elephant crashing through ."
"Sorry. I don't have your creeper skills."
She points. Just ahead, we can make out a brightening through the trees. Voices. Music.
"Stay close," Roz whispers. "And be quiet!"
The sound and light increase as we approach the edge of the Shackeltons' backyard. The woods end and become lawn. Become a patio, with lots of furniture. Those wicker-and-cushion couches that look like indoor furniture someone hauled outside. How does that stuff not get totally ruined in the rain? Of course, there's a pool. Rock walls and gardens. A grill.
Actually, it's not a "grill." It's an Outdoor Cooking and Party Mecca. At one end is a brick oven, neat pieces of wood packed in an iron ring to one side. At the other end, there's a massive metal meat-cooking contraption that looks big enough to roast a pig. A couple of burners, in case you want to boil corn. Stone counters.
My father would have loved it.
Charlie Crawford: Grill King. Who liked nothing better than loading his Weber with charcoal briquettes, his cooler with bottled drinks, and his backyard with buddies from his unit. Although it was never "his" backyard. Just the patch of grass we shared with all the other families that lived in base housing. But that was ages ago. And Charlie Crawford is long gone.
A poke in the ribs from Roz pulls me back into the reality of wet woods and a party in progress. Beyond the patio is a huge house that seems to be all windows and glass doors. We can see into bright rooms filled with laughing boys. Watching some sports thing on TV.
But that was ages ago. And Charlie Crawford is long gone.
Roz was right: that is one seriously huge flat screen.
She whispers in my ear. "On the right. Pool house." She points to a small wooden building at the edge of the patio. A low rock wall extends along one side. "We can see great from there." She takes off, skirting the border of the lawn just inside the cover of the trees . I follow.
When we near the little house, Roz darts to the rock wall. She dives behind it, lies flat on her belly, then twists her head around, signaling me with one hand to follow. I pause. I really don't want to leave my safe cover in the trees. Roz waves again, her brow furrowing in this "C'mon, move it!" expression .
A unison male cry from inside the house startles me. The whole roomful of boys is shouting and fist pumping at the flat screen. Someone must have scored.
It's my chance. As th e entire team faces in the opposite direction, I race from the woods and hurl myself into the dirt alongside Roz . The ground is damp and soft; I'm going to have to get really creative explaining to Mami what happened to my white cotton blouse.
Roz and I lock eyes behind the protection of the rock wall. Hers are round. Bright. I've never seen her look so... alive. She winks at me, then pulls herself into a crouch and peers over. I do the same.
I can practically read the labels on the soda bottles lining the kitchen counters — that's how close we are. I count a dozen guys either strewn on sofas or shoveling food onto plates, while a low background pulse of music competes with the sports commentator's voice on the television. Two adults — A mom? A dad? — weave among them passing out napkins, laughing at something one of them says.
"What a bunch of assholes," I hear Roz mutter. Not for the first time .
I don't respond. I don't know these people. And even when I have given her some pushback, wondering how it's possible that every person at Clayton County High School could be an asshole, she just says, "You're new here."
Which is true.
"Skinny guy on the couch with the Kawhi Leonard corn rows? Green shirt?" she begins. I have no idea who Kawhi Leonard is, but I see a boy in a green T-shirt eating spaghetti. "That's Darius Jones. He's co-captain with Sam. What a jerk." And she's off. Filling my ear with all of Ned Perkins's/Isaiah Green's/John Mayhew's damning qualities, from their expensive cars to their outrageous sneakers to their terrible girlfriends. Especially their girlfriends. With Hot Sam's Awful Melissa ranking as undeniable Queen of the Worst.
I don't respond. I don't know these people.
It's amazing what she knows, and what I know, secondhand, about these people. I live in fear that if I do eventually cross paths with one of them, I'll slip and say, "Oh-my-god, you're Cassie who cheats on the vocab tests!" or "You're Eric who asked nine girls to homecoming!"
I mean, not really. I wouldn't say something that stupid. But all this info I shouldn't know would be screaming around my head and something might pop from my mouth. Who are you? they'd wonder. Dark-haired, green-eyed girl I've never met but seems to know me?
Sometimes I think I should tell Roz not to tell me any more. Fascinating as it all is, I don't want to slip.
I hate slipping.
Before she points out anyone else, a shadow falls across the deck. Someone stands at the sliding door, about to open it. "Frank! Here, boy!" we hear through the glass. A dog, one of those little bug-eyed dudes that are so ugly they're actually cute, appears at his heel.
"Uh-oh," Roz whispers as the door opens and the dog skitters out.
I'm too busy thinking Frank is a completely hilarious name for a dog to realize: this is not good.
Frank lifts his leg and is about halfway through his whiz on one of the Shackeltons' bushes when he aims his nose in our direction. I can see his nostrils quiver: our scent is a balloon floating inches from his smushy face. Whiz over, he takes two steps toward us, and growls.
The boy who let him out calls, "C'mon, Frank. Inside!" I feel Roz squeeze my arm.
"That's Sam," she says. Frank barks.
"Frank!" Sam insists, clapping. Frank ignores him, his toe nails scraping the flagstones as he advances.
"Go, go, go!" Roz hisses in my ear. She doesn't stand: she rolls, away from the wall, until she's at the edge of the woods. Then, at a half crouch, she bolts. She doesn't slink quietly now: she crashes through the underbrush like a herd of elephants. Frank, with a full-throated yap, tears after her.
Leaving me, Isabella Chicken Crawford, frozen in the mud behind the Shackeltons' garden wall.
"Damn," I hear. Way too close. Hot Sam has crossed the patio and now sounds like he's about five feet away. Not that I'm about to lift my head and confirm that distance. "Frank!" He claps again. He whistles, loudly. One of those two-fingers in-your-mouth dog whistles. Then, a woman's voice, from the house.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"I think Frank is chasing something. He just ran off."
"Oh no. I hope it's not a porcupine again!"
"Serve him right. Dumb dog," Sam mutters. He claps again. "Here, boy!"
I can tell from the sound that he's crossed the lawn. And his back is to me. Which means this is my moment. Before I second guess myself, I roll, Roz-like, only toward the little pool house. As soon as I reach it, I duck behind it. I peer around the side.
I gu essed right: Sam stands at the edge of th e woods and isn't looking anywhere in my direction . "Frank!" he yells into the darkness.
"Sam, c'mon in, it's raining," I hear the woman say. "He always comes back." I read hesitation in the boy's shoulders, but he turns. The light from the house falls on his face and for one second, before I pull back behind the protection of the shadows, I get a look at the most gorgeous boy I have ever imagined.
Not seen: imagined. Because that's how incredibly well God constructed Sam Shackelton. You almost can't believe it.
I wait until I hear his steps on the deck and the sliding glass door open and shut. The coast is clear, but it's full-on dark now. No way am I heading back into those woods: I will get lost. Or run into Frank. My best option is to get to the main road and walk to the construction site where Roz parked.
And where she's — hopefully — waiting for me.
The Shackeltons' long driveway is lined with cars from the basketball boys, and I duck behind each of them as I make my way toward the road. The rain has picked up, and my blouse clings to me like plastic wrap. My soaked skirt winds wetly against my knees; my waterlogged sneakers squinch.
There is no way I'm going to be able to explain this to Mami.
At the end of the driveway, I turn left... and am blinded by headlights from a car parked a few feet from the Shackeltons' mailbox. I almost fall backwards.
Then I hear, "Izzy! Get in!"
Roz. She's pulled the car just off to one side, so it's half on the road, half in the ditch. The passenger door swings wide. I scramble in, still blinking from the light. I land on something warm and wet. Frank. He whimpers and jumps into the back seat. "Oh my god! What's he doing here?"
Roz reaches back and scratches the top of the dog's head. "He caught up with me in the woods, and the only way I could get him to shut up was to pick him up. He's actually very friendly."
"What are you doing here?" I demand. Why aren't you waiting for me back where we parked? I don't add.
"Do I have perfect timing, or what?" she says. Frank barks.
As if he's agreeing with her.
"So what happens next?" I ask. "We add dog nabbing to the list of this evening's entertainments?"
"You want him?" Roz asks. "The Rodent might get jealous."
Roz isn't a fan of our dog, Paquito Schultz. "Paco" for short. A dachshund-Chihuahua mix, he once nipped her when she accidentally stepped on his tail. Since then, she only refers to him as The Rodent.
"Take him back, I guess."
"Oh? And how's that? Knock on the door and say, ' Hey, while we were trespassing on your property and stalking your son, we stole your dog! Here he is! Bye!"'
Roz does one of her sort-of.laughs. But I wasn't trying to be funny. "Nah. You can just carry him to their yard and let him go. He'll probably scratch at the door and they'll let him in." She looks at me. Waiting.
"Hold on, what 'you' are you talking about?" "They know me, Izzy. I can't carry Frank back."
"I didn't steal him!"
"Neither did I. It was a rescue. He followed me and would have gotten lost."
"Oh, that's a pile of—"
"Don't! Don't swear, Isabella!" Roz interrupts. Frank barks again. "You know swearing is a sin."
For some reason this pisses me off more than anything else. It's not like she doesn't make Catholic jokes 24/7. But right now, in my wet, muddy uniform-way late getting home and facing a tirade from Mami about violating the Roz Rules — I'm in no mood for jokes about sin.
I reach behind the seat, grab Frank by his collar, and pull him into my lap. He gazes at me with his bulging bug eyes and licks the tip of my nose.
"You're lucky I like pugs," I tell him. I turn to Roz. "Just so you know, I'm doing this because if we leave the dog out here, he might get hit by a car."
But right now, in my wet, muddy uniform-way late getting home and facing a tirade from Mami about violating the Roz Rules — I'm in no mood for jokes about sin.
"You're so good, Izzy. Or should I call you Saint Isabella?" "And for the record, I'm not the one who's chicken. You are." No retort. I got her there.
I climb out of the car, dog in my arms, and retrace my steps down the long, dark driveway. When the lights of the house come into view, Frank begins to squirm. I let him down and he rockets off. I treat myself to one last look at the Shackeltons' glowing house, then hustle back to the car.
Roz has the engine running, and pulls away the moment I close the door. Neither of us speaks for a while.
"I told you we'd see bugs," Roz says, finally breaking the stalemate.
"I saw Sam," I tell her. She glances at me, waiting. "One hell of a bug."
"Helluva bug," she agrees.
Another moment of silence, and then the two of us give in to the adrenaline and begin laughing hysterically.
It's amazing how quickly I forgive her.
How To Build A Heart by Maria Padian is on sale Jan. 28, 2020.