• WORDS FROM AN AUTHOR •
“This probably isn’t the best idea. You know how much he hates surprises,” I say into the receiver, putting the finishing touches on the room.
Violet’s laugh makes me fall onto the hotel mattress. “Ken, if it’s his wife, wrapped in sexy lingerie, I think he’s going to be more than happy for a little surprise.”
A click sounds on the hotel room door and my heart races.
“Shit, Vi!” I stand to look at myself in the mirror. Tousled hair. Black, lace stretched over my body. “I got to go. He’s here already.” I click END and toss the phone to the dresser.
I’ve had this plan in place for over a month. When Graham’s schedule showed he’d be on the road, there was no way I’d let us spend Valentine’s Day apart. With everything changing in our lives, we need this.
“What's going on in here?” His deep, gravely voice enters the room before he does.
I spin as he steps from the lounge area and into the bedroom. Damn, my husband is sexy as hell. No one wears a pair of jogger pants like he does. His tight white t-shirt stretches nicely over his strong chest, and a baseball cap low over his eyes hides what I can only imagine is shock and amusement from seeing me in Philadelphia.
“Surprise!” I hold my hands out to the sides in the most unsexy display of love I’ve ever experienced. I look down and see what I'm wearing, how I must look and cringe. “I’m so embarrassed. This was such a bad idea.”
“Nothing about this is a bad idea, baby.” His baseball bag drops at his feet and he’s across the room in an instant, sweeping me up into his arms.
“Be careful,” I say as he lowers me to the ground. “She’s fragile.”
“No girl of mine is fragile.” He cups my cheeks, laying a heavenly kiss on my lips.
“So, what was the plan here?” He checks over his shoulder at the bed covered in red and white rose petals. There’s a bottle of champagne that’s more decoration than anything. “Kennedy Black, did you come here to seduce me?”
“I’m very pregnant. At this point it feels like I’m twelve months along. If all this”— I rub my growing belly— “works for you, then yes, I’m here to seduce you.”
“Everything about you works for me. Always has.”
“Not always.” I smirk. “Remember when you didn’t even know I was alive until you hit me with your car.”
“That’s still not a funny joke, babe.” He grabs my hands and guides me over to the bed, laying me down with him at my side, looking down at me as if I’ve done something miraculous.
“How far we’ve come, huh?” I rub my belly again, something that’s become a bit of a habit. She survived the unthinkable and sometimes I still need a reminder she’s there.
“You still worried?” He replaces my hand with his own, running sweet, soft circles over my bare stomach.
“I have everything I’ve ever wanted. It was hell getting here, but I got here.” I smile through the tears. Graham pinches his lips together as he brushes a tear away, only to laugh. “Stop it! It’s not funny.”
“You’re cute when you cry for no reason. I’m going to miss it when she gets here.”
“Lucky for you, I’ll still be hopped up on post pregnancy hormones that I’m sure the tears will be here next Valentine’s Day.” I hold one side of his face in my hand, feeling the soft stubble on his jaw line. “Why are all your bags packed by the way?” I sit up on my elbows, looking at the luggage in the corner of the room.
“I was actually coming back to the hotel to grab them.” He stretches away from me, opening the bedside table drawer. He hands me a ticket for a flight at 4PM tonight.
“You were flying home?” I smack the ticket across his chest.
“I didn’t want to spend Valentine’s Day alone in a hotel room.” He bends to drop a kiss on my neck, right behind my ear. Every time he kisses me there, I’m transported back to my childhood bedroom. “I planned on surprising you and Ben tonight.” His head lifts, a smile stretched so damn far across his face.
“We could still make the flight, if you wanted,” I suggest, checking the clock on the table. “You’d miss out on peeling this off of me.” I showboat by running my hands over the baby doll-like top. “No seriously, you’re going to have to peel it off because I bought it a month ago and my boobs have grown exponentially since then.”
“Trust me, I’ve noticed.” His blue eyes drop to my chest, appreciating the one thing about pregnancy that makes woman feel sexy.
“Okay, lover boy.” I sit up and swing my leg over his lap to straddle him. “Are we going home or staying?”
“The answer is always go home, even if it's for less than twelve hours.” He leans up, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me close.
I’m not sure how long, but we watch each other.
We’ve been doing it since our junior year of high school. It fixes us. When the world feels like it’s closing in, we can look at each other, one single glance from the other, and everything is suddenly right in the world. Seventeen-year-old Graham Black to this one and everything else in between, he’s been different versions of his own kind of flawed perfection. Every single one I love a little more than the last.
“What are you thinking about, baby?” He kisses the tip of my nose.
“You. Me. Us. Them.”
“Them?” He drops his lips to my cheek now.
“Seventeen-year-old us. So lost in the world. I wish I could have told us that everything would be okay.”
“You’re going to do it again, aren’t you?” Graham smiles, watching the corner of my eyes for the tears we both can feel forcing their way to the surface.
“Take me home, Graham Black.” He stands with me still in his arms, our baby girl pressed between us. I stand on my tip toes as he settles me back on the carpet and kiss him. This time I don’t let him pull away, deepening it like I always do until we both know we’ll be cutting it close to make the flight.
The elevator ride, into the cab, and through the airport is a mixture of kisses and knowing glances between us.
“Who’s watching Ben anyway? Your parents come in to help out?” he asks as we board the plane. I buckle my seat belt, trying not to make eye contact with him. “Kennedy, who do you have watching our son?”
“Okay, here me out.” I turn in my seat. My cheeks ache from the grin I’m sporting as I look at my husband.
“Kennedy, what did you do?” He shakes his head. I schemed a pretty flawless plan. “Your plans never work like you think they will.” He corrects my inner confidence.
I turn to the front of the plane. “I may have asked Rico to babysit.”
“And…” He circles his finger in the air to have me continue. “What time did you leave today?”
“Rico got there at nine this morning and I left immediately.”
“And what time did you tell Amanda to be there, so you could make your flight on time?” He smirks, knowing I couldn’t help myself.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I shrug, pretending to dig in my purse for something.
“Kennedy Lucille Black.” He places his finger under my chin, turning my face towards him. “What did you do?”
“Baby, it’s Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air,” I whisper, resting my cheek on his arm. “No one should be alone on Valentine’s Day.”
"Why on God’s green earth would you volunteer us to do this tonight?” Nick plops down onto our new bed.
That had been his one stipulation when we decided to move in together. A brand-new king-size bed. I wanted a queen, ensuring I’d always be able to touch him at a swipe of my hand. Nick’s argument is still he needs all the room to spread out while he’s sleeping. He proves his point invalid by suctioning himself to my back every night to hold me close.
“Sandra looked so frantic at your team dinner the other night, I felt bad.” In the mirror, Nick falls back into the mattress. “You’ll survive. It’s one evening, you big baby.” I finish braiding my hair as Nick’s arms wrap around my center, pressing his chest to my back.
“The big baby part is what I’m worried about, Hannah.” His chin rests on my shoulder, pouting like a kid not getting his way. “And we haven’t been able to spend much time together because of hockey, and your internship.”
“Well, we’re spending time together now, and imagine, it will be good practice.” I unclasp his hands and push him away. “We need to go or else we’ll be late.”
“That’s kind of my plan, baby.” He slips his hands under my braid, guiding my face to his.
Kissing Nick will never grow old. I will always crave the feeling I get when his lips touch mine. It’s been three years of growing and learning each other in a way we never would have been able to inside the walls of our high school. We’ve been told from the beginning, the odds of us making it are small. It’s the same thing the world would have liked us to believe in our senior year of high school.
Nick Kovac has made it his life mission to prove everyone he’s capable of making the impossible, possible. This is his second year of being a starter on the hockey team. He didn’t allow his injury to derail him. He stuck to his therapy, made sure he was ready to prove to the hockey coach that he wouldn’t accept defeat as an answer. I don’t think I had ever been so proud watching him skate out onto the ice for his first returning game. With his parents and mine beside me, we cheered him on, just as we always have.
Nick pulls back, breaking our kiss. “We better go.”
“Oh, so now you’re eager to get out of here,” I joke as Nick grabs my coat, helping to slip it on. He drops one last kiss to my lips before grabbing my hand and guiding me to his truck.
Every time I step inside, a flood of memories holds my mind hostage. So many nights where we unknowingly changed the course of our lives happened right here.
“What are you smiling about?” Nick glances over at me as he pulls out into traffic, driving us across town to Coach’s house.
“Just thinking.” I lean my head against the cold glass, looking up at the stars shining above us, all streaks in the sky as he cruises through town.
I’m so grateful for all the pain we’ve been through. It made the happiness easier to appreciate.
“Mr. James called me today,” Nick blurts out. It isn’t a coincidence. He knows when I’m thinking about her.
“Oh, yeah?” I turn to him, looking at his side profile, imaging him the way I remember him in high school. His clean shave is replaced with the beginnings of a beard. Older and more mature is the boy sitting next to me.
“Kellan is doing well. Adjusting, I suppose. They’re a little worried he’ll be deployed, but no one really knows right now. Mr. James said he’s enjoying the warm weather, but misses being on skates.”
“I’m so proud of him.” I grab Nick’s hand and scoot closer to him, clenching the back of his hand to my chest. “I know Nicole misses him something fierce.”
“She could go be with him.”
“She could, but not everyone is an impulsive as we are.”
Nick pulls into the long drive, parking to the side of the garage. We head up the walk, greeted quickly by Sandra at the front door.
“You look beautiful,” I say, watching the sparkles of her dress flicker in the light.
“Oh, thank you, sweetheart. You have no idea how thankful I am for your help tonight. I’m surprised you convinced this guy to come with you.” Sandra checks the mirror in the entryway, applying a beautiful shade of dark red lipstick.
Coach steps around the corner in his tuxedo, whistling at his wife with a grin on his face.
“It will be good for him.” I grin over my shoulder at Nick.
“Never have I allowed a player to watch my kids, Kovac. Please don’t give me an excuse to cut you,” Coach warns.
“How hard can it be?” He reaches out his hand to shake Coach’s offered one.
“Shouldn’t be that difficult. The twins are in bed. Timothy is playing video games. He knows his bedtime and Cynthia is up in her room. I’ll be surprised if you see her,” Sandra explains. “Teenagers.”
“I promise everything will be okay. You two have fun. We have this under control,” I reassure them as they step outside and they wave goodbye.
The front door shuts and Nick’s eyes are on me, pure unfiltered doubt on our capability to survive this one night of babysitting.
“This is such a mistake. We could be cuddled in front of our fireplace, in our pajamas or less, ringing in the new year, but no, you had to be a saint and volunteer us for a gig, I’m quite certain, we are not qualified for.” He passes by me into the kitchen.
Boxes of pizza are stacked on the kitchen island.
“How hard can it be? Two are above the age of eleven, and the twins are already asleep. This is going to be a piece of cake. We don’t even have to feed them.” I pull open one of the boxes to see a full supreme pizza untouched. Nick grabs himself a slice and sits down across from me.
We both still, questions in our eyes as we listen. There’s a faint nose, barely registering to both of us. A young boy comes into the kitchen, an annoyed grimace on his face.
“Any chance one of you are going to actually do your job and check on my brother and sister?” He gestures a thumb over his shoulder.
“The babies are crying. That’s what we were hearing,” I state.
“Yeah, no kidding, genius.” Timothy covers his ears with his headphones, turns his back, and leaves the room.
“Okay, little man, enough with the attitude.” Nick stands up. “You are the one that thought this was going to be a good idea, so you get first crack at taming two babies.”
“Like it’s going to be so hard.” Cockily, I turn my back and head up the stairs, where I assume the bedrooms are.
I approach the crying little humans like their heads will spin around and spew vomit out at me. Their actually really cute. They share a crib still and when I look over the railing, the boy’s eyes widen. He knows I’m a stranger. Immediately, I realize we’re fucked.
“You must be Natasha and Nate,” I whisper. They glance at each other and back to me with cries fully loaded and ready to fire.
It takes a full hour to calm them both down. Once I think I get one down, the other screams out. Nick never comes upstairs and I’m half tempted to yell for him, but it’s not worth risking waking one of the babies.
Instead, I go back and forth between them, trying my hardest to calm them both to my ability. One loves to bounce. The other wants to swing. One likes a pacifier. The other despises it.
Once their son is peacefully asleep, I pick up his sister.
“Hey, Natasha,” I whisper, sitting down at the glider. “You going to take it easy on me?” She grins up at me. “That a girl. Give the world hell.” She smiles wider. Okay, this girl likes to be talked to. Talking is something I can do. “You know, downstairs there’s a boy that doesn’t think we can survive this night? I know, I think he’s crazy, too, but I’m determined to prove him. It’s one of my favorite things to do.” Natasha’s giggle makes me laugh. “But boy, do I love him. We’ve been through some things, like down in the trenches kind of stuff, and somehow we came out on the better side of things.”
For almost fifteen minutes, I tell her about Nick. At first, she seems interested, but her eyes slowly drift to sleep, but I continue to talk to her.
“One day, someone will swoop into your life and you won’t know what it was like to live without them from that point forward. That’s when you’ll know all of the bullshit, excuse my French, has been worth it.” I stand and lay her down in the crib next to her brother. “You’ll fight for them and argue with them, hate them at times, but they’re worth every sunrise, Natasha. I promise.”
The door clicks behind me and I wait for the cries, but they never come. With a sigh of relief, I step down the stairs and find Nick at the bottom of the steps. He’s swinging the baby monitor in his hand with a wild grin on his face.
“You heard all of that?” He catches me on the bottom step, wrapping his arm around my waist.
“Worth every sunrise, huh?” He kisses my cheek and releases his hold on me, heading back towards the kitchen. “Took you long enough to put those babies to bed.”
“I take it all back.” I playfully smack the back of his head and skip past him. “I didn’t mean anything I said up there.”
“Yes, you did. You love me.” Nick slips into one of the island stools.
“Eww!” Timothy cringes, pulling open the fridge to grab a can of soda.
“Have you seen your sister?” I ask, realizing we haven’t seen her since we’ve been here.
“She’s probably already snuck out her bedroom window to meet the neighbor kid. They like to make-out in our old playhouse,” Timothy says nonchalantly.
“And your parents are okay with this or?” I look to Nick as he slides out of his seat and checks the back door.
“No, not at all. Dad says the kid is shit for brains and has so little talent, he’ll probably end up living with his parents for the rest of his life. Also, Dad’s pretty sure he’s just trying to steal Cynthia’s virginity.” Timothy couldn’t care less about this conversation. He turns his back and leaves the room as if he didn’t drop a bomb on us.
“What are we suppose to do?” I ask, unsure of how far we are allowed to go. These aren’t our kids.
Before I can suggest anything, Nick flings the back door open. “Cynthia, get your ass inside this house right now.” Cool winds break into the house as he stands with it wide open.
A young girl with beautiful blonde hair stomps inside the house. Her arms are crossed over her chest.
“How old are you?” Nick asks, shutting the door behind them.
“I’m thirteen.” This girl’s eyes widen, taking in the situation we are finding ourselves in. “You must be my sitters because my parents don’t think I’m mature enough to stay home by myself yet.”
“You bet your ass we are and I think they have a point. You snuck out of your second story bedroom to fool around with, from what I hear, a no-good boy,” Nick barks.
“Thanks a lot, Timothy.” She sticks her tongue out at her brother as he steps into the kitchen, clearly here for the show.
I grab him by the shoulders and usher him out.
From just outside the kitchen, I watch as Nick sits down beside Cynthia. “I’m sure your dad has told you this, but boys are scumbags. No one worth anything will have you sneaking out of your parents’ house.”
“I’m not a baby. I can take care of myself. Don’t sit here and act like you weren’t doing the same thing at my age.” Good argument, girl. I’ll give her that.
“That’s not the point. The point is that a boy worthy of you will come along, when you’re older. Don’t waste all the good stuff on lonely boys next door.” If I couldn’t love this man anymore…
Seems Cynthia feels the same way. I know that look. I’ve given him that look when I was thirteen years old.
“Okay.” Cynthia stands. “You know, I threw a fit when my dad said one of his players was going to babysit us tonight.”
“And now?” Nick smiles.
“You aren’t so bad.” She shrugs, leaving the room, throwing a snarl my direction before disappearing back upstairs.
Apparently, that not so bad doesn’t extend to me.
Nick meets me in the living room and we both sit down on the couch. For the next few hours, we connect in a way we haven’t been able to in a while. When I volunteered to babysit tonight, I didn’t know what to expect, but as always, we hit the task as a team, ringing in another year together with hopes and dreams for our future.
“You still think you want to have kids one day?” Nick asks once we fall into bed around two in the morning. I roll onto my side, watching him as he slips between the sheets and sighs. “I’m seriously exhausted, Hannah, and it was only a few hours.” His eyelids flutter as he succumbs to the exhaustion.
I watch him, wondering what it would be like to see him as a father to his own kids. He’d be patient, probably far more than I am, and he’d teach them how to skate before they can walk. I’m certain he’d shield a daughter from anything that tries to harm her as he did Cynthia tonight and teach his son how to cherish a girl.
“Yes.” I swallow, afraid to admit it. “I still want to have kids.”
His eyes stay shut and he rolls onto his side. “As long as they have this.” His hand slips up to my chest, covering my beating heart. “Your heart.”
“And your blue eyes,” I add.
“Well, of course.” His spring open, showing off the color. Like always, love shoots out of them straight to mine. There’s never any doubt of what I mean to this man. “And if we’re being picky of our unborn children, then I hope they have your understanding.”
“I have to be understanding to be with you.” I run my finger along his lips.
He rolls, hovering his body over mine. His strength keeping his body off of mine. He lowers himself, dropping a kiss to the tip of my nose.
“Practice makes perfect, Hannah,” Nick whispers.
“You want to practice then?” I cup his face in my hands. “Because I’m not going to lie, watching you tonight, that Dad voice, it did something for me.”
“It did, did it?” He smirks, biting the corner of his lip to stop his smirk. “Make you want to call me Daddy?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” I laugh.
Everything about Nick grows serious. His stare melts in front of my eyes, softening in all the right ways. “You’ll be a great mother one day, Hannah. I can’t wait for the day that it happens.”
“You think so?”
“You love unconditionally by nature.” He kisses my cheek, switching to the over, consuming all of me. “Our kids going to be damn lucky, just as I am.”
Thank you so much for all of your help during release. To show my gratitude, here's the deleted scene from Kellan's POV! You may recognize what part of Waiting for the Sun it's from!
I walk down the hallway towards my math class and pause at the site in front of me.
Hannah’s head is ducked inside of her locker. Her spine perfectly curved, lifting and falling with her breaths. Her hand reaches up, still hidden inside her locker. Dammit, is she crying? Fuck, she is.
My instinct is to go to her. It’s always been to protect her. Ever since we moved here, Hannah has weaseled her way into my heart, becoming a sister to me. Brothers are meant to protect their sister. I couldn’t save Mia, but dammit, how often I prayed it would be me instead of her.
Now, I’ve failed Hannah as well.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I catch movement. Nick steps out of the bathroom, but I stay unseen with how busy the hallway is. He takes a step towards her, but pauses. Everything about him softens, like he’s desperate to ease whatever is paining Hannah. He doesn’t move towards her though. Instead, he watches her, taking in her entire body, shaking his head before he storms past me.
“What are you doing?” Nicole wraps her warm arms around my waist and peers around my body, only to release her hold on me. “Jesus, Kellan!” She smacks my chest as she passes by only to stare back at me. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”
Nicole pulls me into a hug.
She’s right. I’m a fucking asshole. Jesus, it only takes a handful of seconds to watch them in the same room, even apart, to know how they feel about each other. I’m selfish enough to admit how their feelings for each other hurts me.
Mia had been my best friend since we were little. We were inseparable. I had been the annoying brother, but she always let me in on the fun, never once making me feel bad for wanting to be around her. She was my sounding board and my confidant. She loved me in a way a sister should. Protective to a fault. Especially when it came to my heart. She always said she’d do anything to make sure my heart had been protected.
“Kellan,” Mia calls out from her bedroom. Her voice is weaker than it’s been in weeks. “Come in here, please.”
My steps are slow, not ready to see her, to look her in the eyes and see the life fading. I step over the threshold and pause. Her eyes are sunken in and her lips look drier than they’ve ever been. I sit on the edge of the mattress right beside her, pulling open the bedside table drawer. Plucking the top off the Chapstick, I smear it over her lips. She painfully rubs her bottom and top lip together.
“Thank you.” She rests her head back against the pillow. “I need to ask you a favor.”
“Whatever you need.”
“You sure, because you’ve been avoiding me, Kell.”
“You know I hate that nickname.”
“It’s why I use it.” She laughs this beautiful laugh and I imagine what it will be like to never hear it again. “Grab a piece of paper for me.” She gestures to her desk and I bring it over to her. “I’m too weak to write, so I need you to do it for me.” She nods her head, silently trying to convince me to help her. Little does she know is I’d do anything for her. “Write it exactly as I say it.” There’s a pause before she begins with a sigh. “Dear Hannah…”
I stand from the bed. “No!”
“Kellan, I need you to do this for me.”
“I won’t do it, Mia. I know what you are doing and I refuse to. I will do anything for you, but I will not do this.”
“I need you, Kellan. Please.” She begs.
“I won’t write your death bed letters, Mia. I won’t. I can’t. You can’t ask me to.” I drop the pad of paper at her feet. “I can’t because it means it’s almost time and I refuse to acknowledge that. I refuse to believe I may wake up tomorrow and you won’t be here. If you don’t breathe, Mia, I don’t breathe.”
Her hand reaches out for mine. Her cool skin against my warm causes me to pause. She grips tight to me, and I fall to the mattress beside her, allowing my big sister to hold me as I weep into her shirt.
“It’s okay, Kellan. You don’t have to. You don’t have to, okay?” She runs her hand over my hair, over and over again until my chest no longer frantically fights for a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry.” I sit up, looking into her pure eyes.
She cups my cheeks in her hands. “For what, baby brother?”
“For not being able to take your place.” My chin quivers. “For not being able to protect you from this.”
“Oh, Kellan, no one could have saved me.” She nods her head, hoping I can find a way to understand. “I got to live. I had parents who loved me endlessly. A brother who did everything he could to make sure I was safe. I got to know what it felt like to be loved.” Tears stream down her face, matching my own cries. “I lived a better life than some are granted the privileged, Kellan. Know that, okay?”
“It’s just not fair, Mia. I need you here.”
“I know you do, but you are as lucky as me.” She runs her thumbs over my tears, washing them away. “You have a life worthy of greatness. You will get to do all of these amazing things and I’ll be there along the way. I promise. Every hockey game, I’ll be there. When you join the Army, I’ll be there. When you get married, I’ll be there.”
“It’s almost time, isn’t it?” I watch her through blurred eyes.
“I can’t hold on for much longer, but I need you to promise me something?”
“Whatever it is, yes.”
“Make sure Hannah is okay, Kellan. That’s all I need you to do. Promise me, you’ll take care of her.” Her eyes widen, desperate for me to understand how important this promise is to her.
“I promise.” I shrug, grabbing her hand and running my thumb over the thin, sensitive skin.
Once her mouth stretches into a deep yawn, I know she needs rest. Everything we just went through had been too much for her. She’s exhausted, struggling to hold on to this life she’s been blessed with. I’ve been blessed by having her by my side since the beginning.
My lips rest against her forehead. “I love you, Mia.”
“You’re meant for greatness, Kellan. Be great. Be the kind of man you can be proud of. Be an honest man.” She smiles. “Because I already love that version of you.”
Before I turn to leave, I pause at the door, watching her, memorizing the way she looks in this exact moment. Not because I want to remember her sick, but because for the first time since her diagnosis, she seems free from it all. She’s broken the chains that have kept her tied down. No more treatments. No more doctor visits. No more of any of it.
Freedom looks good on her.
Like she can sense me watching her, she lifts her head and smiles, blowing me a kiss as she bends forward to grab the piece of paper and pen, I left on the bed.
Whatever it is she needs to tell Hannah and whoever else the letters are for, I wanted her to have the chance to do so. I may not be able to write them, but she will if things are needed to be said.
“Be an honest man,” I whisper to myself, still standing in the middle of the hallway. My feet, guided by my sister, move me towards the two of them. “Hannah, did Mia ever give you a letter?”
“What are you talking about?” Hannah gazes up at me, sorrow imbedded into her eyes. It’s no longer a current mood. Sorrow is who she is now. Her loss of my sister, the burden of carrying around her and Nick’s lies, it’s everything she is now.
Tears still lick at her cheeks. For the first time, I’m seeing Hannah how I’ve always seen her. My sister.
Nicole releases her hold on Hannah, and trails the single tear on my cheek.
“I’m sorry.” My hand wraps around Hannah’s waist and I tug her close to my body, wrapping every inch of my body around hers, doing what I should have a long time ago. My hand grasps the top of her head, running soothing circles over her crown. “I have to go.”
I pull away, greeted by a stunned, wide eyed Hannah. She made the same expression when I stuck a frog inside her sleeping bag. She came face-to-face with it when she cuddled inside. We used to have slumber parties in front of the television to watch movies. Hannah always insisted I joined them, even after weeks of pranks.
I turn my back, racing from the hallway, through varsity hall, and out into the parking lot. I barrel over, crushing my hands into my knees, failing to catch a breath.
I pull out my phone and send a text to Nick.
Me: I won’t be at practice today. Tell Coach I’m sorry, but there’s something important I need to do.
Nick: You’re kidding, right?
Me: It’s important, Nick.
Nick: It’s your ass on the line. Not mine.
He’s right about that. I made a promise to my sister and I intend on keeping it.
I’ve fought a lot of demons in the last several months, the kind that find their way deep into your soul, festering for attention. These particular demons don’t seem to want to give up the spot where they believe they belong.
Hannah Barnes is one of my greatest demons.
Leaving her in the rink, a mess on the floor, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. As I turn my back, I nearly pause at the door, only to convince myself to get the hell out of there. Even with all the anger and bitterness, I know she belongs right here in my arms. We both know it. It’s what I hate most about her. Even when she ignites a fury inside me, she’s the only one who can cool me down.
I park my truck behind my parents’ car and take a deep breath. What goes better with pain and heartache than a little bit of sorrow and nostalgia? That’s the only reason I can explain my trip down memory lane. I did the driving tour of my relationship with Mia, stopping at all the places we loved to go to together. It’s a great combination, if you’re searching for the ache we bury to keep up our perfect outward appearances.
No one likes to admit it. Everyone tries to hide from the pulse that reminds us of what we’ve lost. I was naïve enough to think mine had died inside me the moment I fell for Hannah. She has this thing about her we’re all searching for, this special ability to make me believe anything is possible, that the hurt will go away even when it seems like it’s been there forever. She’s the kind of magic we’re all missing, yet fearful of, because while she has you looking at one hand, the other hand is making everything you want disappear into thin air.
“We’re in here!” my mom yells from the kitchen as the front door clicks shut.
A fire roars in the living room, casting a glow around the area. Shadows dance around me when I pass through to find my parents sitting at the kitchen island. They’re bent over a plate of nachos, laughing with each other.
“Are you okay?” my dad asks, pushing out the stool across from him.
This is the last thing I want to do, but after the destruction I’d caused earlier tonight, the absolute least I can do is give them some peace of mind.
“Not really,” I admit, nabbing a chip from their plate.
“Hannah found you, then?” my mom asks, pouring us glasses of lemonade and sliding mine across the counter.
“She came here?” I glance around the kitchen like the thought is inconceivable. “Of course, she did.” The minute she figured out I had that letter, she came to correct it as quickly as possible. It’s more plausible that she came to play interference.
“I may have been a little harsh. I told her if she couldn’t bring me the man you’ve been since she first started coming around, then to leave you be.” Her hand skims across the marble and rests on top of mine.
I hate the way she can sense the brokenness inside of me. She winces when I pull away.
“I’m going to head upstairs.” The stool skids against the tile as I stand.
“Buddy?” The thick worry in Mom’s voice as she says my childhood nickname stops my escape.
Facing her, I take in the wrinkles around her brow. A mother’s face never lies.
“It hurts now, and it will hurt tomorrow. When it stops hurting so badly, that’s when you’ll see the truth.”
Her words are worth a true moment to soak in. I sure hope she’s right.
“I’m just going to jump in the shower. Wash off some of the bullshit from today,” I state, backing out of the kitchen.
Eager to get out of clothes that smell like Hannah’s perfume, I take the stairs two at a time, then flip on the light of my bedroom. What the hell? It doesn’t look like anything ever happened in here. Everything is how it should be. The broken glass is gone. My desk is organized, not a single paper out of place. The salvageable frames rest on the shelves, some missing their glass.
A few things are missing. Mia’s pink box of letters. The calendar with her birthday circled in red.
I strip and head right into the shower. The sharp bite of the cold stream instantly relaxes me. I rest my head on the wall. Every single minute of today rolls through my mind like a Ferris wheel. It goes around and around, never stopping to let me off. When I can’t stop shivering, I wrap a towel around my waist, ready to fall into my bed and forget today ever happened.
I pull on a pair of gym shorts and slip under the same comforter Hannah and I cuddled under one night before we were whatever we were. I lean over and grab my phone, pulling up an app I know I should be avoiding. I scroll along the feed for a short time, but nothing catches my interest.
I click a few buttons, bringing me to Hannah’s page. Apparently, I’m a masochist now. There’s nothing new except a random photo Nicole had Peter take at the rink on Mia’s birthday. Hannah stands beside me, a wide smile on her face, but the sadness in her eyes matches my own.
The green circle appears beside Hannah’s name, alerting me she’s online. Shit. Like she’s on to do the same thing as me, my phone pings with an incoming direct message.
Hannah: I feel like I’ve lost my best friend.
Me: You should be a pro at that by now.
Those three fucking bubbles pop up on the screen, flashing to warn me of a message in process. This is taking far too long. My resolve is fully broken.
Let’s blame it on the hurt. Even with every excuse, it still feels insanely cruel.
Me: Dammit, Hannah, I’m sorry.
That’s all she’s going to say? What the hell kind of response is that to what I said? Throwing the death of Mia in her face is cruel. Even through my own anger, I can admit that.
Hannah: Goodnight, Nick.
Me: Just wait a second.
What the hell am I doing?
Me: This isn’t easy for me. I know you must think it is but it’s not.
Hannah: Because it’s a walk in the fucking park for me? I had you. I’m selfish enough not to feel sorry about that, and now, I don’t. Something so simple feels like it’s ripping me in two.
Me: I’m torn because on one hand, I understand why you did what you did. Then on the other hand, all I feel is betrayed, like you somehow benefited from the scariest and most devastating moment in my life.
Hannah: That’s bullshit, and you know it.
Me: Hannah, that’s how I feel.
Hannah: Do you honestly think I could be so deceitful? Do you actually think I’m capable of something so cruel? It crushed me, Nick, to see you hurting so bad after she died. I never expected for us to happen.
Me: I have to go.
Me: Not right now, Hannah.
I toss my phone onto the bed, stupid enough to think a little sleep will make things clearer. Except I’m dead wrong. When I wake up, unrested and angrier than ever, I pull the covers off, slip on my tennis shoes, and head out for a run.
Fresh, crisp morning air is sure to help shrink the pain in my chest. I purposefully head right out of the driveway, avoiding the left side of the neighborhood. With headphones in, an angry beat in my ears, I hit the pavement. Pumping out three miles is easy. By the sixth, my legs feel like Jell-O.
I bend down, silently convincing my lungs to work in my favor. As I stand, I rest my hands on my head, willing the cramp out of my side. As it starts to disappear, a different kind of pain replaces it.
Too stuck inside my own head to realize I’d run this way, the familiar front porch hits me like a bull. I haven’t been inside Mia’s home since the day she passed away. Pulling my earbuds away silences the music, and I walk to the James’ mailbox. My eyes skim to the second story, over two windows to Mia’s. Even though the white, sheer curtains are drawn, I can still remember seeing her standing there just before dusk. The setting sun would beam against the house, cascading her in this angelic-like light.
“Dammit.” I turn away, quickening my pace until I’m in a full-blown sprint. Slipping in my earbuds, the music replaces the pounding heartbeats in my ears.
I only slow when I hit the front step and, panting heavy, walk inside, discard my shoes in the entryway, and head to the kitchen for fuel.
“You’re up early,” my mom observes, pulling the newspaper away from my father’s eyes. He seems shocked to see me standing here, which is completely fair after the shitshow last night. I should be hiding in my bedroom, away from the world and reality.
“I’d prefer not to have the conversation I can see happening already.” I open the fridge and grab the orange juice, showboating the empty container after I swig the little bit that’s left. “I’ll grab some at the store.”
“You’re going grocery shopping?” The skepticism in my mom’s voice should irritate me, but it doesn’t. “Since when?”
“Since I don’t want to be stuck inside this house with your knowing eyes and a room that only reminds me of her,” I say, turning my back and leaving them alone in the kitchen.
“Which her do you think he’s talking about?” my father whispers, his voice barely loud enough for me to hear him.
I take the stairs to my room two at a time and fall to my mattress. Which her am I talking about? My eyes gaze around the room, and a flood of memories takes over everything. Mia’s soft brown hair flashes in my mind. Her laughter is the most prominent memory I have of her, and it’s like she’s sitting next to me right now. Too quickly, the memory is replaced with a vision of Hannah beneath me, running her hands over my ribs.
Why the hell is this happening?
I grab my phone from the bedside table and open my texts, searching for the thread with my last conversation with Mia. She had been getting ready to go to bed, and now looking back, her text should have tipped me off that her moments were numbered.
Mia: You deserve a life of happiness, Nick. I love you.
I read the text several times, and when I can’t take it anymore, I close the screen.
Losing someone you love more than you love yourself causes a special kind of pain. I loved Mia beyond reason and explanation, but life decided I would need to find a way to survive without her.
Never in a million years did I think that day would come, but like most things in life, I was unprepared for a force like Hannah.
Even thinking about her now is a fresh wound, a deep sear on my heart. How do you care for someone so badly and still hate them? It’s a confusing feeling, but one I’m realizing I’m going to have to learn to live with.
After a quick rinse in the shower, I throw on a pair of sweats and a long sleeve team t-shirt. Hair dripping, I pound down the steps.
“Here’s the list,” my mom says, holding out a folded piece of paper. I raise an eyebrow, unsure of what she’s talking about. “You said you’d go grocery shopping.”
“Fuck, I did, didn’t I?” I groan, snatching it from her and heading to the front door.
“Just because you turn eighteen soon doesn’t mean you have permission to curse at me under my roof, boy!” she yells.
Like I need the reminder of my birthday. Mia’s had been hard enough. Living through mine will be a special kind of hell.
As I click the unlock button on my truck keys, I look down the street and come eye-to-eye with Kellan’s furious scowl.
“What’s up, man?” I open the door, prepared to jump in and drive away from whatever bullshit he has to dish out.
“Saw you lingering outside the house today,” he says, circling the bed of my truck. His hands are tucked into his pockets, more than likely to keep himself from punching me.
“I went for a run.” I’m not really sure why I need to explain myself.
“And you just ended up there, huh?” He shakes his head.
“What do you want from me?” I slam the truck door. “Are you after an apology? Because I can’t give you one. Or are you in need of something else to make yourself feel better? If you can’t tell, I feel bad enough without your troubles resting on my shoulders.”
“My troubles?” Kellan scoffs. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means what I do with my life is truly none of your business. You can fucking hate me, but I don’t need to ask your permission for anything.”
“You couldn’t even wait half a fucking year.”
“You didn’t seem to give a shit when I was hooking up with girls after Mia died. I’m not damn proud of that, but it happened.”
“Just like Hannah happened, huh?” He steps to me, and I’m fully prepared to take a fist to the jaw.
“No, not just like Hannah happened. Now, if you don’t mind, I have shit to do that doesn’t have anything to do with standing in front of my best friend, explaining myself.” I shove his chest. He stumbles back a bit but quickly recovers as I pull out of my driveway.
It’s a little bit before noon, and the streets are nearly empty for a Saturday. Maybe I can get everything without any run-ins. I’ve already ignored nearly twenty messages. Like any of those fuckers actually give a shit how I am. They want the details. School Monday is going to be a bitch.
I pull into the parking lot and turn the key in the ignition, savoring the silence surrounding me. Slowly, my eyes open, and my head turns to the empty passenger seat. Where I once would envision a beautiful brunette, now sits a tenacious blonde. I snap them shut again, hoping to erase the image of her.
“Fuck this!” I open the door, slamming it behind me.
As I walk into the store, a plan hits me. I’m going to pick up the things for Mom and add a few of my own.
Fueled by an uncomfortable anger, I grab my phone from my pocket and send out a mass text, drawing a line in the sand and maybe making a decision I’m going to regret.
I’m not the boy who loved the sweetest girl on the planet anymore. I’m not the boy who recovered from losing her. I’m sure as fuck not the boy who dug himself out of a hole and into the arms of her best friend.
I’m just a boy who’s desperate for a little numbness, even for one night.
“Where’s the keg, Kovac?” Jason yells.
I hold up my red cup and point across the field.
In the middle of the vehicles is a roaring fire, warming everyone surrounding the flames. My eyes scan over the party I pulled together in a matter of hours. We don’t need much. A large enough space, a few kegs, and music have all the makings of a good party. Something feels off, though. I had imagined this would make me feel better.
“You all good?” Nicole slips in beside me, interrupting the internal pity party brewing in my head.
“Not quite, but I will be.”
“Why do you care? And why are you even here?” I roll my eyes like a twelve-year-old girl. “Your boy said his peace.”
“Oh, so we’re going to pretend like you and I aren’t actually friends then? Because my boyfriend wants to be a jackass.” She tugs my arm as I turn to leave.
“He is being a jackass, isn’t he?”
“A jackass who loves fiercely and protects even harder.” Nicole shakes her head like she’s too pained to be stagnant. “You know, when Mia was at her worst, he’d sneak into her room at night and watch her labored breaths because he was so afraid she’d die alone. And after Mia’s funeral, he stayed the first night at her graveside because he wasn’t sure what it would feel like to sleep under their roof without her?”
Fuck. I reach up and dry my eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because that jackass loves his sister. He can say what he wants, but every time he saw you with someone different, drunk or not, it killed him. There has never been any doubt of how much you loved Mia, Nick, but . . .”
“But seeing Hannah and me, the way we were, it felt like a betrayal.”
“Kellan will always want you to be happy.” Nicole pats my back.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. Hannah and I are done,” I explain, gazing at her, hoping for something. I don’t know what I’m looking for.
“Hannah isn’t someone you get over. You and I both know that. Mia knew it. It’s why she made that girl promise those things.” Nicole sneers at me, turns her back, and leaves me standing here like a dumbass.
“Yeah, well, watch me!” I yell the threat. It sounds weak slipping from my mouth, and I hate myself more for that fact.
With determination, I cross the field to my truck, grab a bottle of rum from the back, and take a long pull. Like a burst of wind has hit me, I spin, watching the crowd around me and taking in every little detail I can. The rum settles into a warmth inside of my stomach. Instead of enjoying the feeling, everything inside of me churns, begging to be discarded.
“Now that you and Hannah are done, you can get back to doing what you do best, Kovac!” Jason jumps up into the bed of my truck.
“Oh, yeah, and what’s that?” I roll my eyes, unbeknownst to him.
A couple of the guys on the team circle around me. I’ll give them what they want. They want to be entertained by my loss, fuck it. I’ll give them a show. What else is there to do?
“Oh, come on now, you know exactly what I mean.” Jason jumps from the bed of the truck, beer sloshing over the edges of his cup.
A hot little thing circles his body. Her eyes are set on me, though, while she runs her finger across his chest. “Hey, Nick.”
Before Hannah, I’d think her voice is sexy, but she’s trying too damn hard.
Jason smiles like a cat who caught the canary. He’s brought this chick over here for one reason, and one reason only. Does he think I’m going to pull up her skirt and take her ass right here?
“What are you up to, Little?” I shake my head, tossing the empty rum bottle to the side. “You get off on this or something?”
“Chill out, bro.” Jason holds up his hands. He’d better, because I’m seconds away from smacking him like the little bitch he’s behaving like.
“I’m sorry he dragged you over for this, but I’m not interested, sweetheart,” I address her while glaring at the schmuck beside her. He’s such an idiot, he doesn’t even realize I’m getting ready to pummel him.
“Well, you know where to find me.” The girl nods at the fire and smirks an invitation to me.
“Jesus Christ, man.” I slam my flattened hands against Jason’s chest. He stumbles backward, collecting himself before coming toe-to-toe with me.
“What?” His eyes narrow. “Like you aren’t thinking about burying yourself inside of her.” He scans behind me. I’m sure he’s watching her ass sway. “I thought you called this party to forget for a little while.”
“What is this, fucking therapy?” I shrug, angry this conversation is even happening. He’s right. I did come out here to forget, but no matter how angry I am, I’m not going back to that place I was after Mia died. It would be too easy. No, I deserve to sludge through this mess with clear eyes, not numbed by a stranger.
“What, you still hung up on Coach’s daughter?” Jason scoffs. Snickers ring out around me.
“I’m glad I’m good for a little entertainment. I mean, that’s why you all showed up here tonight, right? You heard some bullshit about Hannah and me, but let me clear the air.” As I pause, the crowd clears and up steps Kellan. “I fell for Hannah pretty damn hard, but in the end, none of that matters. It’s done and over with, so you can all stop speculating and wondering what happened.”
I turn to leave, but red and blue lights stop my escape. Fuck. This area is secluded and unused. We’ve been partying out here since freshman year with no trouble, and tonight, of all nights, they show up.
“If you can drive, I suggest you get in your car, and head home. If you can’t, I suggest you call your parents!” an all too familiar voice yells through the darkness.
Everyone dives into their cars, and within minutes the field is practically empty. A few straggle behind, Kellan and Nicole included.
Mr. James steps out of the shadows of his patrol car, and his eyes land on Kellan.
“I haven’t been drinking, Dad, so no worries,” Kellan explains. “If you’d shown up twenty minutes later, I might have had to give a different answer.”
“Why don’t you get Nicole home, Son?” The tone in Mr. James’ voice has my eyes narrowing and my full attention on him. He’s begging Kellan to leave.
“What’s going on, Mr. James?” I ask.
He leans forward, shielding his voice. “I don’t want to do this in front of anyone, Nick.”
“What’s happening, Dad?” Kellan strides up beside me. Suddenly, we feel a little less like enemies and more like a team.
“Mr. James,” I beg out his name.
“Dad?” Kellan takes one step forward, shielding me from what we already know is coming.
“I’m sorry, Nick.” Mr. James reaches onto the side of his belt and pulls out his handcuffs. The silver glistens under the moonlight. “You’re being placed under arrest. If you could please turn around.”
“Dad!” Kellan shouts. “You have to be fucking kidding me!”
“I’m sorry, Kellan.” Mr. James places a hand on his son’s chest, begging him not to step in the way of him doing his job. “Nick, please turn around.”
I do as he says, holding my hands behind my back. The cuffs aren’t tight by any means, but there’s a discomfort and a disbelief in being in handcuffs.
“Mr. James, is this about—”
His nod answers my unfinished question.
“Hang tight, Nick. We’ll call your parents!” Nicole yells as Mr. James leads me to the patrol car. I stall at the back door.
“Don’t be silly. Sit up front.” He opens the door and helps me slide inside. When he’s behind the wheel and pulls out of the field, a heavy sigh echoes in my ear. “I didn’t want to do this. I want you to know that.”
“It’s your job, Mr. James. There’s no hard feelings,” I say to ease his mind. “I made a choice last night.”
“Doesn’t make this hurt any less, Nick. You’ve always been like a son to us. When you’re hurting, we hurt. Please know that.”
“I don’t deserve that from you.” I stare out the window. Buildings and cars pass by in a blur.
“What on God’s green Earth makes you believe that?” Mr. James pulls into the police station parking garage. He doesn’t give me a chance to answer before he jumps from the car and comes to stand at my door, flinging it open. “You think you don’t deserve it because you somehow betrayed my daughter, but I’m here to tell you, you did no such thing.”
“Sir, with all due respect—”
He holds up his hand before pulling me out of the car.
“With all due respect, Nick, I need you to listen to me, and listen good. Losing Mia has been the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Her life was cut far too short. I thought of all the things she’d miss out on most nights when I laid in bed, barely able to close my eyes out of fear of what the next day would bring. Do you know what made it easier?” Mr. James’ eyes sparkle with unshed tears.
“What, Sir?” My voice cracks in the middle. Damn, if that lump isn’t growing larger by the second.
“She left this earth knowing what it meant to be in love, and that is only, and will only ever be, because of you. I don’t care what happened after she passed, and I don’t care what happens tomorrow. If your love had been enough, Nick, she would have lived forever.”
“I love your daughter,” I say because there are no other words.
“I know you do, and I bet, for the rest of your life, you will, but don’t be a martyr. You deserve to be happy, no matter who it’s with.” Mr. James nods, ending the conversation.
The way he says that last part doesn’t go unnoticed. He knows about Hannah. Everyone does. They all have opinions and questions. One thing they don’t have, and will never have, is answers. Mr. James can say whatever he wants, but I don’t deserve to be happy, not right now.
Mr. James leads me into the station and once I’m in a room, quickly removes my handcuffs. Am I being interrogated? This seems awfully cut and dry. I threw the first punch. I’m at fault.
“Mr. James, what’s going to happen now?” I ask.
“We can’t talk to you without a parent present, Nick.” Mr. James sits down across from me, looking far too relaxed for the situation.
I’m not sure how long we sit here, neither of us speaking. When the door flies open, and my parents storm in, my mother grasps me in a tight hug, while my father shakes Mr. James’ hand.
“You okay?” my dad asks, standing beside my mom, the three of us a united front.
“I’m good. Just ready to go home,” I express, looking to Mr. James for some answers.
“You’re being charged with assault and battery for the events that occurred last night at the rink, Nick. You will be asked to stand in front of the judge come Monday morning, but luckily, since you’re a minor, and I’ve explained to the judge you aren’t a flight risk, you’ll be able to go home tonight.”
“So, I don’t have to go to juvie or anything like that?” I ask, fear thick in my voice.
“No, but I will let you know, you need to be careful when you mess with any Sanderson. They’re going to try to bury you. His lawyers will try to have you charged as an adult, meaning you could face harsher charges.” Mr. James looks at my parents. “That’s off the record.”
Everything goes a little fuzzy after this point. I sit in the stark room, running my fingers over the cold metal table. My parents ask questions, while I stare off into the corner, not really hearing anything they’re saying.
“Let’s get you home, Nick.” At the sound of my dad’s voice, I stand.
Mr. James pulls me into a hug. “It’s going to be okay. I promise you.”
I’m getting really sick and tired of people saying this to me. It’s not going to be okay. Promises don’t mean shit. If anyone understands this, it’s me.
“My truck’s still out at the field,” I explain as I step out into the hallway.
The pressure of my parents on my back proves how quick I stop in my tracks.
“What are you waiting for?” my dad says, an amused tone in his voice.
“We’ll wait for you outside, honey,” my mom says as she passes me. As she comes to Hannah, her eyes fall on the girl I once held at such a high revere. She places her hand on Hannah’s shoulder and squeezes once before following my father out.
Hannah turns back to the officer behind the desk, signs something, and shuffles the paper to him. Her tired eyes glance up at me. They’re rimmed with red, and large, black circles frame the bottoms. She looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks.
“What are you doing here?” I question, barely capable of hiding my disappointment.
“Nicole texted me to tell me what happened,” she whispers, shuffling on the toes of those damn pink Converses.
“Of course, she fucking did, but what does that have to do with why you’re here?” I don’t care to hear her reason and storm past her.
“Ma’am, here’s your copy of your statement.”
At those words, I’m struck frozen. My hand clenches the metal door handle.
“Statement? A statement for what?” I turn and we nearly collide with each other.
“For the events of last night. I figured they should know what happened to me, what caused the chain of events.”
“Always the savior, Hannah Barnes.”
“It sounds like an insult, coming from those lips of yours.”
“I don’t need you to save me.”
“Nonetheless, you’re in this situation because of me, Nick.” Her throat bobs up and down as she swallows. “You came to my defense, and you don’t deserve this. You don’t deserve any—”
“Don’t.” I hold up my hand to silence her, pivoting on my heel and pressing my forehead against the door. Hearing her say what I know is coming isn’t something I’m ready for tonight.
With my back turned, my feet refuse to budge. Two arms wrap around my middle. Every breath Hannah releases seeps through the back of my t-shirt. With my eyes clenched tight, I savor the moment her hands reach up, clutching my shirt. With an exhale, she loosens her hold, allowing one hand to slip away, while the other flattens over my heart.
Her touch, in this moment, is like stepping into the hot shower after a day of sledding. It prickles and burns in a satisfying way you can’t quite ever understand. Instead of backing away from the source of pain, you stick it out, finding a sick satisfaction from it.
“Nick?” Her nails dig into the flesh protecting my heart.
I reach up, covering her hand with mine, before ripping it away. “Just go home, Hannah.”
With rushed steps, I run outside and throw myself into the back seat of my dad’s car. He pulls into traffic, and like I can’t help myself, I stare out the window, my eyes drifting to Hannah. She stands right where I left her.
“Can we go pick up my truck?” I say, rolling my neck from side to side to relieve some of the tension. “It’s still in the field.”
“Kellan and Nicole dropped it off at the house,” my mom says, glancing back at me. A sad smile greets me, and her softness feels like a thousand bullets shredding my heart.
“Are you guys not going to even yell at me?” I ask.
Neither of them says anything. Their hands clasp together, resting effortlessly on the middle console. When we get home, my truck is in its spot. The kegs glisten under the moonlight.
“You’ll need to return those tomorrow.” My dad raps his knuckles against the metal as he passes.
“Seriously, no one is going to yell at me?” I shout, running after them.
When the front door slams behind me, I stare at them, certain they’ve been switched out by pod people. I’ve done some fucked up things in the past several months, but getting arrested takes the cake.
“Go to bed, Nicholas. Nothing we say will make you feel any worse than you already do.” My mom cups my cheek. “Tomorrow is a new day, and we got you, kiddo.”
“Always got you!” my dad shouts as he disappears into their bedroom. My mom follows him, leaving me to a night full of uncertainty.
I went out tonight for one thing. To forget. To disappear into the oblivion of my world. All it’s done is knock me on my ass, something I’m far too familiar with.
Seeing Hannah step up for me, once again, is the biggest knock of them all.
That won’t happen again. Hannah Barnes can keep showing up.
I just won’t be here when she does.
This suit jacket suffocates me, which is ironic since I already feel like I can’t breathe.
Popping the top button doesn’t give me any relief. With shaky hands, I undo the rest, but still can’t find the will to take a full breath. This is enough to make me wish I was the one in the coffin.
The lengthy line grows by the minute, and everyone has me in their sights. They’re here to pay their condolences. She was my girlfriend, my high school sweetheart. I hate seeing the pity in their eyes, the way they aren’t certain how to react. Some say, “I’m sorry,” while others latch onto me like leeches. The thing is, there’s nothing left of me for them to take.
Mia took it all with her last breath.
“Hey, Coach,” I say, finally daring to lift my head.
For the first time in the years I’ve known Coach Barnes, he tugs me in for a hug. His wife stands close behind him and does the same once he’s moved on to Mia’s parents.
“That girl loved you more than anything, Nick. When it gets really hard, close your eyes, and you’ll feel her. I promise,” Mrs. Barnes whispers, pulling away to join her husband.
Her words feel like lies as they soak in. I won’t feel her anymore. She’s gone.
Their daughter, Hannah, Mia’s best friend, is next, tears eager as hell to drop down her pink cheeks. Seeing others sad makes me angry, like I’m the only person who loved her, or something. That’s not the case, though. Look at this place. Every single person is here for her.
“I can’t do this shit,” I mutter under my breath, leaving the line of black to get fresh air. I push through the side doors of the church and step out to the parking lot.
People come and go. Some don’t bother giving me the time of day as they pass. I appreciate their lack of etiquette. That’s the realest reaction they can give me. What does one say or do when a seventeen-year-old boy loses the girl he thought was his everything?
The world likes to believe kids our age don’t understand what it means to love someone, but I sure as hell beg to differ.
They moved in down the street when we were in sixth grade, and she swept me away the moment she smiled at me. All curls and bones, my father used to say. For the first week, she sat on her front porch, and every once in a while, she looked up and smiled as I dribbled by. Sometime during the second week, she finally stepped down, snatched the basketball from my hands, and shot a basket. We didn’t have a conversation that day. It was just two kids living harmoniously together in her driveway.
Our friendship came easy. Our love, not so much. It took some time. On her part, not mine. I think I always knew she belonged with me. She wasn’t so sure, which I was fine with. Convincing her was half the fun.
Mia was insistent on us only being friends, but I knew deep down she felt what I did. There were moments when I would catch her watching me, and she quickly looked away, like I caught her doing something she thought she shouldn’t. She could deny it all she wanted, but the blush on her cheeks always told a different story. I loved those early moments between us. The innocence of our affection is something I’d give anything to have back.
Life isn’t like that though. We move out of those early stages so quickly and into what we believe is forever. Years tick by, and time doesn’t seem to matter anymore, because there’s too much of it on our hands. It’s when that clock slows that we begin to understand what we have found in another person.
Mine and Mia’s time has been cut short. Something I’ve always thought I’d have is a future with the girl of my dreams. Everything has been mapped out. She’d follow me to college, under the pretense that wherever I went would allow her to follow her own dreams, and then I’d be drafted into the NHL after that. We’d get married in a barn because Mia was obsessed with Joanna Gaines, whatever that means, eventually have kids, and we’d grow old together. That’s always been the plan.
Funny thing about plans is they’re bullshit.
Everyone has them, and unfortunately, not everyone gets to see theirs playout. If they’re like me, their future is stolen from them at seventeen.
Thinking about her hurts. It’s a stinging in my chest I can never get relief from. The moment Mia’s parents told me she was gone, that ache settled in. It’s a part of me now, a reminder of her, and I’ll hold it there if it means I can keep a piece of her with me.
“Nick!” Kellan yells from the door. “It’s time, man.”
What if I refuse to walk into the church, stand my ground, and say, “No, today is not the day to bury her?” Will it change anything?
Just inside the church, Mia’s mom clutches her dad. Damn, I’m being selfish. I have no other option but to walk in with my head held high.
I tell myself I’m not going to break down. As I sit next to my parents, my mother grasps my hand, reminding me I’m not alone. Lately, it happens too often. I’m starting to think she believes I’ll float off if she doesn’t check on me.
The pastor stands at the front, talking about loss and love, the world we are left in now that Mia is gone. He reminds us of different scriptures, and I’m desperate to stand up and yell, “fuck you.” It’s a load of shit. She was seventeen years old. There is no way in hell the world is cruel enough to take a life unlived.
“She loved fiercely.” A sweet voice pulls me from the darkness. Hannah stands behind the podium, nervously clutching a piece of paper. She sets it down, tucking her blonde hair behind her ears. Her eyes wander to the large photo of Mia, taken before she got too sick. At the end, she refused to be photographed. “Mia, she was the kind of girl who couldn’t help herself but to have such an open heart. Friendship came easy to her. At the end”— Hannah sniffles, tears desperate for an escape— “she was the best kind of friend to me. She sat and listened to me tell her things I’ve been holding on to for years. She didn’t judge when she had every right to. That’s the kind of friend she was. Selfless. That’s how I’ll remember her. Always.”
Hannah steps down and joins the rest of us in the parish. Kellan comes forward to speak. I didn’t know all of us were doing this. Mrs. James had asked me to say a few words, and I didn’t feel brave enough at the time to tell her yes.
“Mia helped me in the end. She was supposed to be the one in need, and every time I came to sit with her, she managed to move it back around to me. The girl didn’t have cancer. She never allowed it to possess her. Mia lived until the very last breath, and I often wonder how she did it. Mia taught us all what it meant to live, and I’ll keep living for you, Sis.” Kellan steps down, looking at the ceiling like he’s actually talking to Mia, and joins his parents. His eyes lock on mine, and he nods, this mutual understanding rolling between us.
Nicole, Mia’s other best friend, stands and pauses for a second. Her shoulders roll back, and she approaches the podium. Her hand reaches up and touches the frame of the photo.
“How does one explain Mia? It’s what I’ve been trying to figure out, this impossible puzzle I feel like I’ve been tasked with. She had this way of making you believe anything was possible. She’s the reason I’m not afraid to be myself, unashamed, even when the world is more than likely going to turn its back on me at some point.” Her eyes shift from her hands on the podium to Mia’s family. Her stare lingers heavily on Kellan. “She was a sister, daughter, a friend, and girlfriend.” Nicole’s eyes shift to me. “She loved you most, and I promised her I wouldn’t let you give up. So, in front of everyone today, I need everyone to promise not to let her death be the end of anything for you.” She swallows her tears. She and I both know the promise isn’t meant for all of us. It’s only meant for me. “Everyone say, ‘I promise, Nicole’.”
“I promise, Nicole,” the congregation says at once. A few chuckles echo among us.
Kellan smiles at me through his hurt. He can’t hide it. The same pain coursing through him is surging through my body. “Leave it up to Nicole to make demands at my sister’s funeral.”
“It’s why Mia loved her so much. Called her unapologetic.” Even saying her name hurts.
“She’s right, man. My sister loved you.” With those words, he returns to watch Nicole move into the crowd. Their eyes meet, and she offers a small smile. So much passes between them in an instant.
Everything they’ve said is true. Anyone who has spent a minute in the presence of Mia knows the kind of person she was. Selfless and unwavering. Kind and tender. She didn’t know what it meant to meet a stranger, because immediately, they’d hit it off. She was my opposite, and still somehow, she always found the good inside of me.
“Nick, would you like to say a few words?” Mr. James says. His wife sits beside him, sadness dripping from her eyes.
Fuck. I’m not sure I can do this.
What could I possibly say?
“Sure,” I say, wiping my hands on my khaki-covered thighs. Why didn’t I say no? No one would have blamed me.
My mom’s hand grips mine as I pass her in the pew. “You don’t have to, Nicholas.”
She’s wrong though. I do have to do this. For her.
I walk closer and closer to that damn podium they’ve stood behind, telling stories and little antidotes about Mia. If I had a box of matches and kerosene, I’d light this motherfucker on fire and walk away. Since my pockets are empty, and I’m too pretty to go to prison for arson, I step behind it like everyone else and look out among the town. There isn’t an empty seat, with crowds standing in any available square of carpet.
“Mia James is my girlfriend.” Breathe, Man. You got this. “She was my girlfriend, and I don’t think I’ve allowed that reality to settle in until right now, seeing all of you with tears in your eyes, looking at me with such sadness.” Don’t do it. You’re going to regret this. “Standing before you is a seventeen-year-old boy with the world at his fingertips. You already know I have a scholarship to any Division One university of my choosing, great friends and family, enough charm to dazzle anyone in this room, and yet, a boy stands before you, angry and ashamed, because I get to live this amazing life”— I beat on my chest— “a life he had planned to spend with her. And now, I’m making fucking promises to continue life in tribute to her death. If I’m being honest, I want to say fuck you to whatever kind of greater power has dealt this empty life to me.”
I ease around the podium and place my hand on the casket. Tears don’t settle on my cheeks; they pour down like rain on a rooftop, spilling over the edge. All eyes are on me, and not a single breath is taken. What will I do next, they wonder?
My attention strays to the enlarged photo. Her cheeks aren’t sunken in. Her eyes are full of a playful spark. This is Mia. Not that girl in the casket.
I grab it off the easel and hold it under my arm. This belongs to me now.
“Nicholas,” my mother calls as I pass down the middle aisle.
Fuck this church.
Fuck all their pity.
Fuck having a dead girlfriend.
“I’m out of here,” I say, not really caring if anyone actually hears me.
I hit the pavement, and the sun beats down on my skin. A quick glance shows no one’s followed me. Not that it would matter if they had. I’m taking this damn photo, and I’m going home. I can’t watch them lower her into the dirt.
With her portrait next to me, I drive through town. It’s like a snapshot of everything that reminds me of her. The diner where we had our first date. The movie theater where we shared our first kiss. The park she ran to after our first big fight. Everything in this damn town reminds me of her.
“Fuck!” I yell, banging my fist against the steering wheel.
I half-ass park my car in the middle of the driveway, race inside with the portrait under my arm, and fall onto the center of my bed. The metal frame bangs against the headboard. I see the edge of her brown hair from where I lie and imagine what it felt like to run my fingers through it.
The sky shifts from clear and blue to dark like the flip of a switch. In my mind, I know it isn’t possible. Not a second has passed where I didn’t watch the time change on the bedside clock. Numbers tick by so slow, and yet, time seems to pass by so quick.
Doors close outside, and I know they’re home. Mia’s parents had held a dinner afterward for those closest to her. There isn’t a world where I would have survived being stuck under the same roof as them.
“We missed you. Everyone did,” my mother says. She’s standing in the doorway, probably too afraid to come in. My actions today scared her I’m sure.
I roll onto my back and catch her eyes shifting down to the portrait of Mia. My Mia.
“It’s not fair, Mom.” I sit up, looking to her for answers I know she doesn’t have. No one does. Not a single person knows what to say to me to make it hurt a little less. “It’s just not fucking fair.”
“You’re right. It’s pretty damn cruel.” She perches on the edge of the mattress, not saying another word, just being with me in the silence.
I’ll no longer hear her goofy laugh, the way it hitches up in the end like she has to gasp for a breath. She won’t be there in the stands at all my hockey games or get to graduate high school. It’s all settling in now. The day leading up to the funeral, I’d had the privilege of ignoring the inevitable, but not anymore.
“She doesn’t get to have a future. She was seventeen years old, and that’s all she’ll ever be.” I fall back, covering my eyes with my forearm.
“No, she doesn’t have a future, but you do, Nicholas. Allow yourself to be sad. Do whatever you feel like you need to do, but at some point, you’ll have to dig yourself out of this hole I know you’ll be in.” She pats me on the leg like she always does when she’s trying to fling some motherly advice on me.
Once she’s gone, I pick up the portrait and lean it against my dresser.
Just outside of my room, my mom cries softly, and my father reassures her I’ll be okay.
Will I be okay, though?
It sure as hell doesn’t feel like it right now.
Straighten your spine.
Wipe that nasty scowl away.
Smooth the front of your dress.
This is the poisonous venom my mother has spewed at me tonight. Not one compliment. Not a sliver of a tender smile. No, those are reserved for my baby sister, Sarah Beth. My inner voice is bitter as hell, and there is no shame in admitting I’m desperate for a little bit of positive attention from my mother. Some would say I have mommy issues, and they’d be damn right.
“I’m parched.” My mother fans her flushed cheeks. Her expression contorts before my eyes. Years of anger are hurled in my direction with one single glare.
She actually hates me.
We’ve only been standing in this processing line for an hour, and she’s already managed to make me hate my newfound status in town.
A sharp poke hits my hip, and I peek down through my eyelashes at Sarah Beth’s hilarious, yet sweet smirk. All her bright, white teeth are on display like she’s won the blue ribbon in life.
Perhaps she has.
“She isn’t talking to me,” my witty little sister whispers. Even at nine years old, she knows who pulls rank under our roof, and it isn’t me.
“Aren’t you adorable?” I tousle her curled hair, checking over my shoulder to make sure my mother doesn’t catch me ruining all the hard work she’s done to make Sarah Beth the picture of perfection. She’s spewed hatred for much less. “Coming right up, Mother,” I singsong, bouncing from the reception line as if I’m pleased with running around at her beck and call.
My father, Dax Callahan, is officially the mayor of our quaint, nosy town. Once the other opponents heard The Great Dax Callahan was running, they pulled their hats out of the race, which made voting simple for the great citizens of Belle Meade.
‘The powerful stay powerful’ has been his mantra the past few months. Before he took office, he ran a multibillion-dollar corporation. What do they do there? The way he lines his pockets is never discussed. He refuses to reveal how we’ve always been privileged, clothed in diamonds and the finest furs. I have my own suspicions, and none of them are legal.
Still, here I am acting like the dutiful daughter, fetching water for the thirsty, and smiling until my cheeks feel like they’ll split in half.
“Having a good time?” Amilee Kingsley, one of my best friends, slips in line beside me. Her beautiful copper hair lays loose over one shoulder, held back by a barrette made of diamonds, no doubt real, in the most hypnotizing formation. She’s tall, lean, and every reason why girls immediately feel the flood of jealousy in her presence. Remarkable is how I’ve heard her described.
“What do you think?” I lean my hip against the impeccably decorated table.
Nothing but the best for the Mayor’s Ball. Although it’s tradition and always grand, my mother has taken it to the next level. I can only imagine how lavish the masquerade will be this year.
“You coming to the forest tonight?” Amilee reaches past me, grabbing a cup of water. As she takes a slow sip, she scans the room over the rim. When her stare lands on Dylan, he slyly grins. They do a silent dance, and Amilee waves to me as she walks to him.
“Do I look like I’m going to the forest tonight?” I run my hands over the ball gown I’ve practically been sewn into.
“We won’t be picking you up until eleven, and this shit show should be done by nine-thirty at the latest, so there is no real excuse for you to try to use on me,” she says tactically, twirling a single finger in the air.
Hannigan Forest is sort of a rite of passage in our town. Generations have used it as a means of escape. Parties inside the thick foliage essentially go unseen, which is the perfect set-up for eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids.
My mother’s heel tap, tap, taps the tiled floor, gaining my full attention. With a snap of her fingers, she points to the empty space in front of her where she believes I should already be.
Chill out, woman. You won’t die. Unfortunately.
“I better deliver this to her, or heads will roll,” I say when I pass Amilee and Dylan.
Amilee’s chuckle rises over the pomp and circumstance, and only because she knows I’m not kidding. My mother’s reputation as a ball buster is well known. Children cross the road to avoid her icy stare, and adults nod respectfully in agreement to everything she says. It’s how it’s always been, and I’m sure how it will remain.
“Here you go, Mother.” I hand her the beveled glass.
She places her flawlessly lacquered lips on the edge, devouring the water as if she’s lost in the desert and never thought she’d moisten her tongue again.
“Took you long enough,” she barks, setting the glass on the table behind her.
“I can never do anything right, can I, Mother?” I wink at my little sister.
Sarah Beth is the good daughter, while I make it my mission to torment our mother for my own amusement.
“Now, ladies, please, can we get along?” my father interrupts. He’s regal and assertive on any given day. Perhaps that’s how he’s become successful. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and those around him tend to bend at his whim.
“Yes, Dad,” I answer, returning a hostile stare at my mother. She hates that I call him Dad and only offer her the basic courtesy of Mother. I might as well call her a bitch to her face, which has the same meaning as far as I’m concerned.
“Tonight’s about you, honey. My apologies.” My mother kisses him on the cheek. She keeps a close eye on me as she runs her hands through the back of his silvery hair.
Someone should remind her gaining his attention isn’t a competition.
I’m his daughter, you sick fuck.
My mother is right about one thing. Tonight’s festivities are about Dax Callahan. The Mayor’s Manor is only open to the town twice a year. A gala and masquerade ball are thrown every year in his or her honor.
Hence why I’m stuck in a blush pink gown and ridiculous excuse for shoes with four-inch heels. I’d trade them for my black combat boots any day, but I’m expected to dress the part. Glitter sparkles in my hair, and my cheeks appear softer, lip-cracking smile and all.
Like a needle through delicate fabric, a soft lullaby strums through the room until it suddenly stops. Everyone is well aware of the absence of the music. The segment of silence is replaced with a haunting tune. A group of young men in tuxedoes out of a gothic fairytale, and women wearing cascading ball gowns made of silks and lace, step onto the dance floor. Their movements are antiquated, but hypnotizing.
As I watch, enthralled by the spectacle, a woman strolls onto the dance floor, not affected by the entertainment. As if the dancers understand her importance, they waltz around her, allowing her a clear path direct to my family.
There’s an air about this woman. Confidence rolls off her bare shoulders, down her lace dress, to the tips of her toes peeking out of the stilettos blessed to adorn her feet. Her hair is dark like a cloudy, midnight sky, and she has eyes that glimmer like diamonds.
Who is she? And what does she want from me?
Her harsh maroon lacquered lips loosen, though her shoulders tell me the truth. She’s uptight but trying to come across as refreshing and easy going.
“You must be Lennox.” The tall goddess talks directly to me, but she stands with her shoulders squared to my mother. They measure each other, a silent duel to see who holds the upper hand. Why they feel the need is beyond my understanding. She twists on her heels and offers her hand to me. “I’m Gail Blackstone. We’re new in town, and I heard the mayor had a daughter around my son’s age.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” A warm shock runs through me as her hand touches mine, and I jolt back. “Welcome to Belle Meade.”
“This is my son, Garrison.” The well-dressed woman shifts to the side, and a well over six-foot-tall heart throb comes forward to introduce himself.
Garrison extends his hand and does this romantic flip with his dark, devilish hair. The same warm spark runs through me again when we touch. He leans forward, his palm pressing mine, and his lips brush my earlobe. “Can I have this dance?”
His mother and my family watch, and suddenly, I’m stuck under Garrison’s thumb. There are ramifications for telling him no, and I’m not sure what my punishment would be.
I nod and allow him to escort me to the dance floor. The lights above us twinkle like stars in the desert, leading us through the dance. His hand rests low on my back, his fingertips dangerously close to my ass. The other holds mine between our bodies. He leads me, effortlessly, around the floor, our movements slow and rhythmic. I watch our feet, surprised how lightweight I feel in his arms.
Garrison’s fingers tip my chin, forcing us eye-to-eye. His skin is pale, but not sickly. All of his life stares back at me. We sway and spin. The dance floor is suddenly empty, and a crowd gathers around the perimeter.
“Don’t think too hard about them,” he instructs. “They’re jealous.”
A deep and amused chuckle rumbles in my chest. “You think awfully high of yourself, Garrison.”
“They’re jealous of me.” His voice rumbles and drips with sex. He leans down, his tongue practically skimming my earlobe. “They don’t get to hold you in their arms like I do.”
“One dance does not equate to a lifetime of endless love.”
“No, but one single kiss, if profound enough, can give you no other choice but to bend at my feet for eternity.” Garrison offers a knowing smirk. He’s playing me.
With a curtsy, I twirl to leave the dance floor. All of them are watching me. Some are skeptical, others enchanted. Mrs. Blackstone has a pleased, satisfied smile on her face, while my mother seethes beside my dad. I pass by them, and my mother takes a step toward me. My dad’s hand high on her bicep is the one thing keeping her from chastising me in front of our guests.
The ladies’ room may be my only hiding spot tonight. Once we’d moved into the mansion, my mother demanded restrooms be installed on the main floor, for the simple fact she couldn’t possibly share the same wash room with a bunch of commoners twice a year. Now, the manor is split into two sections; the living space and where we entertain. No one is ever allowed beyond the public areas. Armed guards are put in place during events to ensure noses aren’t poked where they don’t belong. We can’t possibly let them catch a glimpse of our real lives.
It’s where our weakness is held.
I ignore the watchful eyes of my father’s minions and scurry into hiding to collect my thoughts. What just happened? Garrison captivated the hell out of me. Being stuck under someone’s spell isn’t a good feeling when I’m used to being in full control.
“Can we talk for a second about how hot that guy was?” Emerson Saville, one of my other best friends, bursts into the room, swaying a bit on her heels.
“Someone cracked open daddy’s liquor safe,” I say, removing the light pink lipstick. I toss the tissue in the trash and replace the color with something much more me.
“Your mother will kill you if she sees that.” Emerson’s sinful grin warns me in the mirror when I glance up.
“We’ll see.” I rub my lips together, smoothing the burgundy shade.
“Now, back to the hot guy who looked seconds away from proposing to you in the middle of the dance floor.”
“No, he was not.” I take the spot beside her, and wishing for sleep, my head falls to her shoulder.
Emerson’s most skeptical glance meets mine in the mirror.
“I can read you like a manual, Lenny. Spit it out.” Emerson leans forward, forcing me to stand straight. What she can do is stop glaring as if she can see right through me.
“His mom, when we shook hands . . .” I stop myself, not having given myself enough time to process what had happened out there.
“What, were they abnormally soft or sweaty?” Emerson chuckles.
“I don’t really know. It felt off, if that even makes sense.”
“You’re going to need to give me more than that,” she says.
“I’m not exactly the intuitive type, but her intentions, although admirable, weren’t exactly sincere.”
“And you picked all that up from a simple handshake?”
If I didn’t love her, I’d smack the smirk off her face.
“A shock ran through her body into mine, literally felt as if it grabbed ahold of me and held me under her spell.” A searing headache embodies my weary accusations of Mrs. Blackstone. No amount of massage can ease the ache in my forehead.
“No offense, but . . .” Emerson holds up her hands, silently begging me not to knock her on her ass.
“Whenever there’s a but, it’s usually followed by some sort of insult.”
“Oh, it was going to.”
“It doesn’t make any sense, and I feel slightly insane even thinking it, okay?” I circle my finger around my temple, then abruptly stop, because even though I feel a touch off base with my suspicion, I refuse to look the part as well. “Let’s keep my crazy between us, okay?”
“Whatever you need, Lennox.” She smiles kindly.
After we leave the bathroom, the night continues exactly as I expect. We shake hands, express our gratitude for all of the townspeople’s support, and act as if we are a completely normal family. Behind the beautiful costumes—because that’s exactly what we wear—is a family full of deceit and lies. We smile and prance around as if all is well in the Callahan family. Our charade is for one reason only.
To deceive any outsider.
What no one sees is a mother who’s more worried about the white powder in her antique pill box, and a father who is too busy screwing anything in a skirt to care. They don’t see two young girls simply getting by, making their best attempt to blend into the wallpaper for fear of gaining their mother’s attention. No, they smile upon us with pride for simply allowing them in our presence. It’s much easier than knowing the cold, hard truth.
That’s the problem with the world. We assume we know things before we have all the information. First impressions are what we go on, without bothering to see past all the bullshit. We are wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
Once the last guest exits, I hike up my dress and head to the stairs.
“I’m going out with friends.” To avoid an argument, I don’t give her a chance. It’s not necessary since I feel her disappointment stabbing at my neck. “I did what you asked. I shook their hands. I smiled. The least you can do is not bat an eyelash when I leave, Mother.”
“Tomorrow is your birthday,” she says, matter of fact, like I don’t know. “I’ll need you home without the whore color on your lips.”
“And home, I’ll be.” I roll my eyes for my own satisfaction. I’ve mastered the act at this point. “Let me guess.” I stop on the top landing, high above her, looking down on her figuratively and quite literally. “A photo op? Another way to showboat me around town? Let them see how perfect we are, right?”
“It’s a day you’ll never forget,” she sneers at me, her teeth bared, and a wisp of happiness twinkling in her glare.
“Nineteen is not that big of a deal,” I say.
As I walk down the hallway, her whisper floats to me. “We’ll see about that.”
With the help of my foot, the door to my bedroom slams closed as I pass under the archway. When I’m alone, the dress draws my attention to the mirror. My hands skim the floral details on the bodice and the iridescent belt cinching my tiny waist. The sharp edge of my nails catch on one of the beads, and I pull at the string, destroying a cluster of flowers. I hate to admit how much I relate to this dress. Something beautiful, pulled in one direction until it begins to unravel. As I stare in the mirror, even with new imperfections, it’s still immaculate, a vision to bestow. The way the blush fabric cascades down my length is mesmerizing. The color is a clear contrast to my dark, long hair. Beautiful isn’t a word I’d use to describe myself, but even I have to admit, I’m some sort of dream in this dress.
Once I start to see flaws, I change my clothes for something more forest appropriate. My phone rings as I close the button of my jeans. Emerson’s name and picture flash across the screen. The silly girl is sticking her tongue out and holding up a peace sign. She’d snapped the picture without my knowing and programmed it to display whenever she calls.
“Yes?” I say.
“Get your skinny ass out here,” she slurs.
“Jesus, please tell me you aren’t driving.” I swipe my clutch off the dresser, stuffing my lip gloss and some cash into the interior, and hurry down the stairs, bypassing my mother without a backward glance.
“Don’t be out too late!” she hollers as I walk out the front door.
Without caring if she sees me or not, I flip her the middle finger.
“Do I look stupid?” Emerson giggles in my ear.
I open the back door of Dylan’s SUV, push end on the conversation, and address Dylan. “How much has she drunk already? It’s only ten.”
“Don’t point fingers. She was in this condition when I picked her up,” Dylan argues. “Now shut the goddamn door, so we can get going.”
“Oh, because we can’t be late to the forest,” I scoff, slumping against the cool black leather in his Denali. “Heaven forbid.” I wiggle my fingers, unimpressed.
“Do explain why you hate it so much,” Emerson says, twisting to face me, her legs tucked under her ass.
“It just freaks me out, okay?” I cross my arms in defiance, refusing to think about how scary that place is. “But for you, I’ll go.” Emerson’s soft skin tickles the back of my hand as I brush her cheek. “We picking up Amilee?”
“Do any of you ever go anywhere without each other?” Dylan jabs. Emerson and I giggle, and he sneers, unamused with us. “Yes, we’re picking her up.”
I lean forward, resting my forearms on the back of his seat, and whisper, “Dylan, why are your panties in a twist?”
“He’s all wound up because Amilee rejected him last night,” Emerson announces, a giggle short on her tongue when he glares over at her. “What? It’s the truth.”
“Amilee just doesn’t know what she’s missing yet,” Dylan says as we pull into Amilee’s driveway.
The girl in question bounces down the walkway, and the three of us watch in awe. Her curls whip in the light wind, and he moans. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think we’ve just witnessed a bit of disappointment and admiration, colliding into each other, deep in his soul. Amilee is a force to be reckoned with, and she’s fully aware of her power over people.
“What’s up, bitches?” she cheers, sliding inside the back, then immediately reaching forward to crank the radio up, her face close to Dylan’s. She inspects him and grins like she’s just caught the biggest fish in the lake.
“Do you have to torment him?” I whisper, leaning into her when she’s settled into her seat. “You know he has a thing for you.”
“Now, what would be the fun in that.” Amilee winks.
The three of us sway to the music and belt the lyrics at the top of our lungs, until we park on the shoulder near the Bridge Street entrance. Expensive sports cars, SUVs, and trucks line the road. Just another typical Saturday night in Belle Meade.
Outside the window is darkness. As I climb out of the Denali, my soles sink into the loose soil. Fireflies twinkle in the distance, blinking then disappearing. Their freedom stirs up a sense of jealousy deep in my heart.
“You coming, Lennox?” Amilee calls from just inside the tree line, moonlight framing her face.
“I’ll be right there.” I glance around the perimeter of the forest. A chill runs over my body, tickling the hair on the back of my neck. I pull my ponytail down, shaking the tangles out until it shields my neck. I hate the way it feels here. There’s something forbidden about stepping into these woods. We aren’t meant to be in here.
As I enter the forest, a brisk wind blows through the leaves, rattling me to my bones. I’ve been here a handful of times, but this time the forest feels different. Frantic, I twist, searching for whatever has goose bumps dancing across my skin.
“You okay?” Dylan’s light grip on my elbow startles me, and I shrug him off. His hands dart up in defense like I’ve slapped him. “My bad, Lennox.”
With a shake of my head, I suppress the strange sensation racing through my veins. “No, I apologize. I just had this weird feeling like . . .”
“Like what?” he asks, pulling me in front of his body, shielding me. The gesture is sweet, and I smile in appreciation for his quick reaction. He inspects the forest.
“It’s nothing.” I step around him and quicken my pace to catch up to Amilee and Emerson.
“I thought you’d bailed,” Amilee jokes, nudging me in the side.
“I thought about it.” I tuck my hands into my jacket, not eager to continue this night.
Every time I walk to one of the coolers, I sense eyes on me. At first glance, the scene around me spells it out perfectly. There’s nearly fifty people here. One or two, hell, maybe even three could be leering in my direction. Wouldn’t surprise me. The mayor’s daughter is meant to be on her best behavior and acting responsibly.
The longer we’re here, the stronger my unease grows.
“I’ll be right back,” I inform Emerson, whispering in her ear.
She nods before turning her attention back to Gregory, her latest boy-toy. He’s the all-American high school football player who’s gearing up to play for the University of Tennessee this coming season.
Sticks crack as I trek around the small circle of trees where everyone busies themselves with mundane conversation. The girls are dying for the attention they lack from their fathers, and the boys are capitalizing on an opportunity. It’s basic science in Belle Meade. The girls are easy, and the boys, well, the boys are easier.
Against my better judgement, I walk away from my friends.
There’s a pull in the air, and as I take every step, I know I’m headed straight for it. Out in the woods somewhere, something wants to be seen. Call it intuition. My fear drives me over and under limbs. An owl howls in the distance, and I stop dead in my tracks. A tingle runs the length of my spine, and immediately, I know I’m not alone.
“Hello?” I call, frozen in my own skin. Panic aches in my chest. Show yourself. “Hello?”
A quick rotation proves my instinct wrong. I’m alone.
My legs spring into action. As I race, twigs smack my face and arms, scraping the shallow depths of my skin. Shadows bounce around in the faint trace of moonlight. I pivot but see no one. My pace slows when I realize I’m not running back to my friends, but toward the entrance. As I see the shiny black paint on Dylan’s SUV, crackling reverberates in my ears, and I spin to find where the noise comes from. My body slams into a tree, and my back hits the ground. Specks of light dance in front of me.
“Ow, that hurt.” I rub the tenderness in my elbow as my vision adjusts. To my surprise, the object isn’t a tree. Not unless oaks and pines have thick, sculpted legs and brooding smiles. “You’re not a tree,” I say, scooting back like a kindergartner doing the crab crawl in gym class. A stranger in the woods never brings anything good into a young girl’s life. I’ve seen plenty of horror movies to know this is a fact.
“No, I’m not.” The stranger chuckles.
His hand extends between us, and I accept it, even though everything tells me not to. Our skin touches, and a shock races through my palm, and up my arm, strong enough to give me no choice but to jump back from him.
“Whoa! Are you okay?” His eyebrows shift up toward the night sky.
“You didn’t feel that?” I help myself up the rest of the way, dusting the dirt from the back of my pants while keeping a close eye on the boy in front of me. There’s something different about him, a strange disposition I feel connected to in some way, but know for certain I should be afraid of. “I felt you running directly into me.” His eyebrow perks up, mocking me.
“Why are you in the woods?” My fists pinch into my hips. Pretending to be unaffected by the way his eyes canvas my body is impossible, when all it does is cause tugs and twists inside of me. If he’s here to murder me, then I want to go out with a fight.
“I could ask you the same exact question. I’m Edric, by the way.” He reaches out to me again. Instead of being polite as taught, I leave his hand lingering between our bodies, refusing to chance the same shock he’d delivered moments before. “Okay, then.” My hint finally received, he slides his hands into the tight pockets of his jeans.
“That’s nice,” I say. He shrugs and turns to leave. “Wait, where are you going?” My voice is filled with desperation, and I don’t know why. He’s nobody to me, and yet, I’m not ready to say goodbye. “Not that I care, I just . . .”
“Why, are you going to miss me?” Glancing over his shoulder, Edric smiles, his mouth spread wide enough, it nearly takes up the bottom half of his chiseled face.
He seems familiar, like I’ve met him before.
“That’s not what I meant.” I run after him, forgetting all the rules I’ve been taught since I was young. “You clearly aren’t from around here, so why are you wandering in our woods?”
“Your woods, huh? You own the property?”
I reach out, grabbing his arm to stop his leaving. Instead of the expected shock, a thrill races through me like I’m on my first rollercoaster ride. He turns on his heels, stepping into me. I hiss in a breath, exhilarated by our closeness.
“Well, no, but . . .” I stutter, barely recognizing the gravel tone in my voice. My odd behavior confuses me.
“Then perhaps I have every right to be here.” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, and if it weren’t for the tree beside me, I would have fallen to the forest floor. “And if my presence here depends on being a resident, then consider me a neighbor, because we just moved to Belle Meade. Looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.” He backs away as he speaks, turning and crossing out of the forest onto the main road.
“Hey, where are you going?” I yell.
“I know when I’m not wanted.” He spins to face me, continuing to walk backward.
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to.” He holds up two fingers and taps his temple.
His playful wink does a hell of a lot more to me than anything else a boy has ever done to get my attention. Why am I so worked up over this guy? I don’t like it. Never once in my life have I felt out of control, but Edric, he makes me believe, maybe this time, I could lose the upper hand I’m accustomed to having.
“See you around, Lennox!” he yells as the thick foliage across the road swallows him.
Baffled by the odd encounter, I almost miss his use of my first name. I didn’t introduce myself when he did. Another chill dances up my spine.
“Lennox!” Emerson yells. “Where are you?” Her drunken giggles make me smile.
“I’m over here!” I shout, waving my hand in the air.
Emerson, Amilee, Dylan, and Gregory walk into a circle of moonlight.
“What are you doing out here, lady?” Emerson runs into my not-so-open arms. The motion of her body hitting me full speed is almost as painful as me running into the human tree moments ago.
“I see no one stopped her from drinking more,” I say, leering over Emerson’s shoulder at the other three. “How are we supposed to get her back inside her house without her mom knowing?”
They shrug, each avoiding my disapproval.
“You ready to go?” Amilee asks. “A fight broke out, and Dylan and Gregory swooped us up and ushered us out before we got swarmed by the masses.”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” I say, my attention straying to the space Edric occupied minutes ago. Too confused for conversation or questions, I don’t mention the dark stranger.
As we pile into Dylan’s car, they clamor on about this supposed fight and all the other drama the forest always brings. It’s like people shift into animals the moment they cross the threshold.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow night.” I practically jump from the car before it even stops in my driveway.
In the top window, a shadow crosses between the curtains. The person shuts them before I can see who it is. Either my mother is waiting up for me, or my father is finally attempting the parenting thing.
The front door screeches as I open it. With care, I close it to ensure it doesn’t slam. I head up the staircase and come face-to-face with my father.
“Oh, god,” I whisper-shout, my hand flying to my chest. “You scared me.”
“My apologies,” he says.
“Is everything okay?” I lean against the railing, unsure if I should pass him and hide in my room.
We don’t have conversations. At least nothing too serious, and by the darkness in his eyes, I’d say this is going to be a doozy.
“Yes, sweetheart.” He smiles. “Tomorrow, you’ll be nineteen.”
“I will?” I deadpan.
“Nineteen is sort of a big deal, don’t you think?”
“Honey, tomorrow, everything is going to change. Your mother . . .” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “Well, your mother didn’t want to warn you, but I need you to be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” I question.
“Tomorrow marks the beginning of your reign,” he whispers.
Wait, what did he just say?
“Dax!” My mother’s sharp tongue spits out his name. “That’s enough for tonight.” She stands at their bedroom door, her flowy night robe billowing at her ankles.
My father glances between the two of us. He leans toward me, kisses me on the forehead, and whispers, “I wish there was more I could’ve done. It’s out of my control now.”
“It’s okay,” I answer, not really understanding what I’m dismissing.
“Get some sleep, Lennox,” my mother barks. Her silk pajamas sway as she goes into her bedroom. “You have a big day tomorrow.”
Exhausted, I drop onto the mattress, tossing my boots to the floor. Tomorrow will be here before I know it. Up until this point, my nineteenth birthday has felt like any other day, and now, I’m not sure what the future will entail.
With my father’s solemn expression burned into the inside of my eyelids, I drift off to sleep.
I hope you love what you've read so far!
Read the rest on Dec. 6th, 2018!!!!
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This is where you'll find out about what I'm doing currently in my life and on paper. I'll try to keep it as updated as possible, even if it's just a quick and easy post about what I ate for breakfast! ;)