Sara let out quick laugh. “Okay, so you know about basketball, right?”
“Yeah, I read about it in the paper too. That sucks about the two losses, but at least they won the other two.”
“They’re looking forward to having you back, especially Coach Stanley. I went skiing with my parents, Jill and Casey, but you knew that. What else?” Sara flicked her eyes toward the ceiling, thinking of other news she needed to catch me up on. “Oh, um, I guess Drew gave me flowers to give to you. But… I forgot them. Just make sure you thank him so he doesn’t know I failed.”
“Oh,” I said quickly. Having had this time alone, I had the opportunity to consider what was happening between Drew and me. It was a whirlwind relationship, and it was difficult to recall how we had gotten to the point where he’d want to give me flowers. I could have convinced myself that we were friends, except for the kissing part. I couldn’t get around that.
“He asks about you whenever I see him leaving practice. We haven’t had practices after them for a while, so the guys are gone by the time the volleyball team gets on the floor. But he waits for me just so that he can check on you.”
“That’s sweet,” I replied honestly. “I feel bad I haven’t been able to talk to him.”
“Are you still interested in him?” she inquired, doubt lining her voice.
I let out a guilty breath, avoiding Sara’s eyes.
“Something happened that I didn’t get to tell you because I got hurt,” I confessed. She raised her eyebrows, vehemently urging me to continue. I took a second to decide where to start. It was a scene that I’d been tormented with for the past two weeks - only second to the nightmares that made sleeping through the night impossible.
“Evan found out that Drew and I kissed.” I hesitated to allow her to react.
“I figured,” she replied with a slight shrug. “Everyone else in the school knows too.”
“Seriously?” I groaned
“His friends have big mouths. That’s something you really haven’t been a part of yet, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Gossip. Everyone knows what you’ve done before you do. I’ve heard enough about what I’ve supposedly done over the years – it’s so stupid. Funny thing is, they don’t know the half of it. Anyway, there was talk about you and Evan before, but since no one knew anything to keep the rumors going, the fascination died. But you and Drew are a big deal for some reason.”
My stomach turned. Hearing this only added to my guilt.
“That’s not something I needed to hear,” I sulked.
“Sorry. Why, what happened?”
“Evan and I were yelling at each other in the halls after he found out about Drew, and then I was yelling at him about Haley. He didn’t realize I knew about them, and he wanted to explain, but I wouldn’t let him. He shouted down the stairs that he still loved me, and I kept walking. To make it worse, he saw Drew kiss me after practice that night.”
“Wow, I missed all that?” Sara digested my story and shook her head. “That explains the tension in the waiting room, I guess.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When we were waiting for you in the hospital, Evan and Drew stayed on opposite sides of the room. Evan kept glaring at him, until Drew finally called him out on it.”
“Please don’t tell me this happened in front of everyone?” I sunk into the couch and put my head against the floral printed cushion, looking up at the ceiling.
“Sorry,” she cringed. “The guys didn’t say anything specifically about you - it was more that Drew was fed up with Evan’s unwarranted hostility, and it gave Evan the chance to get in his face.”
I groaned. This was difficult for me to imagine. Neither guy seemed the type to pick a fight. I knew Evan was mad at me, and unfortunately Drew was the conscious one he could yell at.
“So, what are you thinking?” Sara asked, examining my guilt ridden face.
“I feel horrible about Evan seeing Drew kiss me, especially after what happened right before that. But I was just so angry at him for trying to hide the fact that he was doing the same thing with Haley.”
“What do you mean? He and Haley aren’t seeing each other.” Sara sounded so sure of her words. My heart skipped a beat.
“Sara, I saw them at the bon fire,” I stated adamantly. “Evan had his arm around her. That’s when I walked away with Drew, remember?”
“Em, you were on the other side of the fire. I was near Evan and he did not have his arm around Haley. She came over to him, said something stupid, like usual, and hugged him. He patted her on the back, humoring her, and then walked away. She went off and started flirting with Mitch. You must have only seen part of it.”
That couldn’t be true, could it? If it was true, then I would have never walked down the beach with Drew, and I wouldn’t have been so distracted that I allowed him to kiss me. This whole mess was unraveling around me, and I knew I was at the center of all of it. What did I do?!
“But she said she was seeing him,” I whispered. “I was so pissed when she told me at my locker that day.”
“I would have a hard time believing anything she has to say. You know she hates you, right?”
“Please don’t make me say it,” she huffed.
“Sara, did I totally screw this up?” The aching returned, but it was inside my chest, instead of my back.
“What do you want? You know that you and Evan stopped talking before Drew and Haley ever came into the picture – it had nothing to do with them.”
“But I didn’t help it any.” I sunk further into the couch.
“What about Drew?”
“I don’t know, Sara.” I was so confused about what I wanted and what was best, I couldn’t think straight. “He’s so nice and, come on, just look at him.” Sara smirked in agreement.
“But?” she encouraged.
I didn’t say anything for a minute. I was tormented by the thought of never talking to Evan again, but that wouldn’t change until I told him the truth – and that would never happen. So, where did that leave Drew? For some inexplicable reason, and without me realizing it was happening, Drew liked me. I couldn’t deny that, despite my inability to understand it.
“Being around Drew makes more sense,” I finally said.
“That’s the strangest reason to date someone that I’ve ever heard,” Sara responded.
“We’re dating?” I asked in disbelief.
“Em, he’s kissed you in public, he bought you flowers, and he calls me to check in on you – yeah, I’m pretty sure he thinks that.”
“He calls you too?!”
“Oh, yeah, sorry – I forgot to mention that. You’re right - he’s sweet, thoughtful, and beautiful.” She paused.
“But…” I waited.
“I’m not even going to finish that sentence.”
“Why do I have be the one to say it out loud?!” Frustrated, she finally exclaimed, “He’s not Evan.”
I instantly recognized the truth in her words. But I also knew that the truth didn’t matter.
“Can we talk about something else?” I pleaded.
“You can’t avoid this forever,” she warned. “We’re going back to school on Monday, and they’re both going to be there.”
“Sara, Evan doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
“I don’t know, Em,” she said, reluctant to say anything more, but I saw it in her roaming eyes.
“Just tell me, Sara.”
Sara took a breath, pausing before she revealed, “Evan was really upset at the hospital. I talked to him alone for a while. He was hurt when you didn’t want to see him. He thinks he cares more about you than you do about him. I could tell he wasn’t comfortable talking to me about it, but I think he just needed to tell someone, if he couldn’t tell you. He wished things were the way they were before that weekend we went to the movies.”
So did I.
“Emma, he’s not stupid. He pretty much knows what’s going on at your house. You should have seen the way he looked at Carol and George when he realized who they were. He still cares about you. I think if you just talked to him…”
“I don’t think I can, Sara,” I whispered. She didn’t respond, but when she dropped her eyes to the floor, I knew that she didn’t like my decision. I still wouldn’t be able to tell him the truth, and I didn’t foresee that ever changing. I couldn’t hurt him again. We sat silently for a moment.
“Speaking of the unspeakable,” Sara said lowly, unable to meet my eyes. “Do you have to move back in with them?”
“Yeah,” I breathed.
“We have to stop her,’ she insisted. “There has to be a way without hurting the kids.”
“I don’t know…” I started, but was interrupted by Janet slowly opening the front door to give us plenty of warning that she was returning home.
“So, what else do you have to tell me?” I asked over emphatically to cover up the serious conversation.
Sara shrugged. Then her eyes got big. She hesitated, tormented whether she should tell me.
“Just tell me.”
“I went out on a couple of dates with Jared this week,” she blurted. She watched for my reaction, anticipating the worst. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “That’s great, right?”
“It was really great,” she glowed.
“How did it happen?” I asked, trying not to think of our night at the movies and how they hit it off, because then I’d have to think about that night with Evan – and how I’d never get it back.
“I called to return his flashlight. We started talking. Then he called me later that night, and we talked some more. He asked me out and I said yes.”
“Leaving out the details?” I noticed. A vague account of dates wasn’t Sara’s style.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be weird for you since he’s Evan’s brother. But I had to tell you, or else I was going to burst. I can leave out the other stuff if you’d rather not hear it.”
“No, I want to hear everything,” I replied honestly.
Sara went on to talk about their dinner date in Boston and another in New York. Her eyes sparkled as she gushed about her time with Jared. As much as I was happy for her, this strange hollow sensation filled my stomach. Was I jealous? I pushed away the selfish emotion and smiled.
“And the second night, he kissed me. It was the most amazing kiss ever. I thought I was going to fall over.” Sara beamed as the memory danced across her eyes.
“What are you going to do now? I mean, he’s going back to New York, right?”
“Yeah, he left this morning,” she sighed. “It was the best time I’ve ever had, but he goes to college in New York.” She shrugged, smiling contently.
“Yeah, that’s it. Honestly, I didn’t expect anything else. I knew when I went out with him that that was probably going to be it.”
“Then why’d you do it?” I questioned in confusion.
“Why not?!” she answered enthusiastically. “I’d rather have these incredible memories of the two nights I spent with him, knowing that I probably won’t go out with him again, than not to have had them at all.”
“Huh,” I pondered, intrigued by Sara’s perception. Her words sat with me long after she left that afternoon.
I continued thinking about what she said when I lay in bed that night. Was it better to get as much out of the moment as possible, knowing it could slip out from under you in a second? Was the actual experience better than the inevitable conclusion? I guess I had to decide if the conclusion was a broken heart, or a broken bone, in order to weigh the risk.
I didn’t sleep well that night. My dreams swirled together in an incoherent jumble of images. I’m certain my restlessness was provoked by the conversation with Sara. Then again, I knew George was picking me up in the morning.
George and I sat in silence for the first part of the car ride – I stared out the window and he kept his eyes glued to the road.
“It would be best if you weren’t around Carol very much,” he finally said. His voice drew my attention. I wasn’t surprised he refused to look over at me. “She’s been under a lot of stress, and the new medication she’s on is affecting her moods. You can stay in your room and eat after we do, like you did before, but I’ll take care of the dishes. You just worry about getting your Saturday chores done while she’s out shopping.
“I spoke with the McKinley’s. They’re willing to help us out by letting you spend Saturday’s there, after you do your chores, and any Friday nights when you have a basketball game. They’re sympathetic to Carol’s stress and are very thoughtful to have offered. So please don’t make this any more difficult. Sunday’s you can spend at the library, like you have been. Emma, I don’t think I have to remind you that what happens in our house, stays in our house.”
I didn’t react to his subtle threat. He had just taken away the remnants of the only family I had – regardless of how dysfunctional. I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend time with the kids, and he’d speak to me even less now than he did before – it sunk in that I was truly alone.
My world was delicately balanced, but the scales never hung even. When something improved, something else had to crumble. Accepting this would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to learn, and even when I came to know it as true, it still crushed me.
“You bitch,” Haley Spencer sneered from beside my locker. “What did you say to him?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I knew she was obviously talking about Evan, but I had no idea what was going on.
“You must have said something to him to make him to leave,” she insisted.
I heard her words, but I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. I stared back, stunned.
“He left!” Haley exclaimed. “He moved back to San Francisco, and I know it was because of you.” Before I could respond, she stormed away.
I stood in her wake, unable to move. My books slipped from my hands and fell to the floor. Was she telling the truth?
“Here you go,” a voice said, handing me my books.
“Thank you,” I murmured, absently taking them without looking at the face.
There’s no way she could be telling the truth. He had to be here. He just wasn’t in school today. That was evident by his absent seat in English class. He couldn’t have moved.
“Em, I just heard,” Sara said from behind me. “I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s true?” I asked, turning to meet her sympathetic eyes.
“Yeah, I heard it from one of the guys on the basketball team.”
Sara stood in front of her locker, contemplating my expression. She waited for me to react. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to believe it. How could he be gone?
Then something broke. Sara saw it the second it happened and rushed alongside me, guiding me to the girls’ bathroom. The halls were relatively empty since everyone had already gone to class, so there weren’t many witnesses to the dramatic scene.
The pain crushed my heart. I sank to the floor, sliding my back down the cool tile wall. I didn’t cry, and my eyes didn’t fill with tears, although my insides felt like they’d been shred. I stared straight ahead, unable to focus on the wall across from me. We sat in silence for a time. I heard Sara breathing next to me, quietly witnessing my slow acceptance of the truth.
“He’s really gone?” The words were caught in my throat, and I breathed them out in the faintest whisper.
Sara remained by my side without a word, holding my hand. The truth sank in deeper and my heart released an aching sob. I collapsed onto Sara’s lap and gave in to its grief. My chest heaved as I gasped for air. Sara stroked my hair to sooth me while I cried into my folded arms.
“He can’t be gone,” I wept, wishing that saying it out loud, would make it true. I released another cry of pain.
Exhausted and raw, I laid my head still against her legs while the tears dried upon my face. My eyes stung from the tears, and my throat ached from the cries. My mind swirled with thoughts of why he left and questions of how he could have done it so suddenly. The more I thought about it, the more the pain turned to anger.
“I can’t believe he left without saying anything.” I pushed myself up to sit, the tension drawing back my shoulders. “He couldn’t even say good bye? Who does that?”
My rapid succession of emotions left Sara speechless, unable to find the words to answer. I stood up and began pacing, clenching my fists as I fumed at the thought of his selfish escape.
“Did the thought of being around me infuriate him so much that he couldn’t even return to school? He had to run away to the other side of the country just to avoid me?! He’s the one who stopped talking to me! Was I not supposed to get over him? Did he really want me to continue waiting for him to forgive me for something I didn’t do? I’m sorry if he didn’t like seeing me with someone else – but to pick up and move because of it!”
I grunted in frustration. My mind raced while I continued my pacing, unable to release my closed fists. I huffed and lost the words to continue my rambling rage. I breathed in, considering his actions with my heart strangled in my chest. The ire slowly subsided into a begrudged acceptance.
“Fine, if that’s how he felt, then he should’ve gone. He obviously couldn’t stand to look at me, so why should I care if he left?! Now I don’t have to worry about him yelling at me, or making me feel guilty for my decisions. I don’t care if I ever see him again.”
This was almost convincing, but my heart stuttered in panic at the thought of not seeing his face in the halls.
“Do you really believe that?” Sara asked tentatively. I blinked at her, recognizing that she was in the room. “He didn’t hate you, Emma.”
“You don’t know that, Sara,” I shot back. “I hurt him. I couldn’t trust him enough to let him in. Then I accused him of things he didn’t do. To top it all off, I shoved it in his face by kissing another guy right in front of him. Of course he hates me, and maybe he should. He couldn’t even be around me anymore. He absolutely hates me.”
Sara remained silent as I convinced myself of this. The words stung, and the anger settled. It was no longer directed at Evan but at myself. I looked at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. The pain and anger flickered in my eyes as I realized that it all circled back to me. Now I was left holding the pieces of my heart, crushed by my own hands.
I shook my head in disgust at the image in the glass. I stared at the dark eyes, my jaw tightening, allowing the anger and revulsion to grow. I accepted the blame for forcing him away. He had every right to hate me, just as I hated myself at that moment. My stomach turned to ice, and I looked away from the accusing eyes.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed the pain deep down, but I let the guilt and self-loathing fester as a punishing reminder. I took another quick breath before facing Sara. She remained a silent witness, concern etched in her eyes. I was exhausted by the gut wrenching turmoil and couldn’t feel anything anymore.
“I pushed him away, so he left,” I confessed quietly, submitting to the final truth. “I don’t have anyone to blame but myself – and now he’s gone.” I shrugged my shoulders dismissively. Sadness settled in Sara’s eyes.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “I’m okay.”
“No you’re not,” she whispered with a small shake of her head. After a brief silence, she said, “I think this period’s about over. Are you going to your next class?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Why not?”
We walked back to our lockers. My locker stood open, with my books casually tossed in the bottom. I grabbed what I needed as the bell rang.
“I’ll see you back here before lunch?” Sara confirmed quietly, the worry still heavy in her eyes. I nodded.
I lingered at my locker for a second after Sara headed to class. I knew what was waiting for me, and as much as I tried to convince myself I was ready, I knew better. Smothered by anxiety, I couldn’t loosen the tightness in my chest as I walked to Anatomy.
I sank onto my seat at the black table; the empty chair next to me screamed at me the entire class. I couldn’t concentrate on the lecture. I kept glancing over at the crushing reminder of his absence.
By the end of class, I was irritated with my sorrow. I didn’t have any right to grieve for him. I was the reason he was gone. But it didn’t matter how much blame I took for forcing him to leave or how much effort I made to push it away – I was broken.
“Are you still in pain?” Drew questioned when he sat next to me and Sara at lunch.
I’d almost forgotten he was joining us, until he pulled out the chair. The guilt of being distracted by Evan washed over me with Drew’s words. I obviously was not concealing my misery very well.
“No, I’m fine,” I assured him with a forced smile. “It’s just weird having everyone staring at me all day, that’s all.”
This wasn’t completely a lie, although it had nothing to do with my pained expression. Everyone had been staring at me since I arrived at school that morning. I expected some stares and whispers, especially after Sara’s account of the last time they saw me at the basketball game. But I wasn’t expecting so many gawking faces. It was as if I’d returned from the grave. It was unsettling.
Drew’s relief was evident when I saw him in the parking lot that morning. I was too preoccupied with searching for Evan’s car to notice him approaching with a huge smile on his face. I suddenly caught sight of him and found his greeting too contagious not to return. He startled me when he wrapped his arms around me and held me gently against him. I hesitated before hugging him back. Sara watched in amusement, knowing I was freaking out on the inside.
I was more concerned that Evan might see us than I was about being in Drew’s arms. It wasn’t really a horrible place to be. I glanced around at the eyes that turned our way as they walked by. I was still trying to accept that Drew really did care about me. More importantly, I was trying to figure out how I felt about him.
So, as he sat at the lunch table asking me if I was still in pain, I decided I wasn’t going to think about it anymore.
I leaned over and kissed him firmly on the lips and said as I pulled away, “I feel much better, thanks.”
A grin emerged across his face and a subtle flush rose to his cheeks. Behind me, Sara started choking. I turned toward her convulsions.
“Sorry,” she whispered, her face bright red. “Some bullshit caught in my throat.” I raised my eyebrows at her words, hoping Drew hadn’t heard.
“Are you playing in your game Wednesday?” Drew asked.
“It depends on how practice goes today and tomorrow,” I replied. Drew moved his chair closer and rested his arm along the back of my chair. I could feel his heat radiating along my side, but the proximity of his body didn’t ignite the tingling I was searching for.
“I’ll definitely play Friday,” I said, casually leaning closer so my shoulder touched his. I urged my heart to take notice, but it was too busy moping and wasn’t about to be forced to flutter.
“Do you want to come over after the game to watch a movie?” he asked. Suddenly realizing Sara would be there too, he looked at Sara to include her in the invitation. “Or hang out or something?”
“There’s a party Friday night at Kelli Mulligan’s beach house,” Sara informed him.
“Oh, you have plans?” Drew recognized in disappointment.
I shrugged apologetically, unaware of Sara’s plans for us on Friday night. I was still trying to get used to the idea that I had a Friday night. When Sara found out that I was going to be staying with her on the weekends, all of her worries about my returning home rushed away. In their place was a revelation that she finally got to bring me to all the things I’d been missing out on. So my schedule defaulted to hers on the weekends – which was a little overwhelming.
“I have computer class with Kelli during second period; she invited us this morning. We’re probably staying over,” she informed us.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Not only did I have plans on a Friday night, but my sleep over had a sleep over? The thought of a party sent a familiar sensation surging through my veins – panic.
“She mentioned something about it to me last week after our basketball game. I didn’t really consider it at the time. Is she letting anyone sleep over?” Drew asked.
“I don’t know,” Sara answered. This was not what she expected him to say, and I could tell she was bothered. I grinned.
“Do you want to go to the party?” My invite caused Sara to kick me under the table.
“I’ll make sure it’s still okay with Kelli. I have class with her next actually.”
“Great,” Sara forced. Her false enthusiasm was glaringly obvious to me, but Drew didn’t appear to notice.
The lunch bell rang and Drew walked us into the hall.
“I’ll see you before we leave for our game?” he confirmed.
“Yes,” I replied with a small smile.
Drew put his hands on my waist and pulled me to him. The chatter of voices and shuffling of feet surrounded us, but I didn’t resist his advances. His soft lips were warm against mine as he held them there for a prolonged moment. My heart refused to flutter, but I couldn’t deny the warmth that spread through my stomach and the swirls that danced in my head. I decided I could live without the rush, since kissing him was by no means uneventful.
“Bye,” he whispered with a small smile before walking away, leaving me looking after him.
“Ready?” Sara asked, snapping me back to the noise of the hall. She stared at me with wide eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“What are you doing?” she demanded incredulously.
“I don’t know what you mean. Aren’t we supposed to be dating?”
“I just sat with you for an hour in the girls’ bathroom –”
“Don’t, Sara.” I turned at the top of the stairs to face her. “This has nothing to do with him. I like Drew.”
Sara raised her eyebrows, challenging my statement.
“Really, I do like him,” I insisted and continued walking toward our lockers.
“Fine, maybe you like him,” Sara conceded. “But it still doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t care how amazing you think Drew is, he’s not –“
“Don’t say it, Sara,” I threatened. “Stop mentioning him. He decided to leave and I have to move on.”
“Just like that?” she challenged. I shrugged. “Don’t do anything stupid, okay? You can’t kiss your way through this.” I rolled my eyes and left her at the lockers to go to Art class.
This ended up being harder than Anatomy. Ms. Mier asked us to create an art piece depicting an emotion. She challenged us to unleash an emotion that could be felt through our artistic interpretation. A thousand different emotions surged through my head. I was fearful of exploring any one of them individually. Anxiety set in as I gathered a canvas and tried to select some colors to begin.
“Having difficulty deciding?” Ms. Mier inquired. “Or are you afraid of tapping into that emotion?” I glanced at her, recognizing her knowing words.
“I’m sorry you have to feel it,” she continued, “but I think you can create something amazing if you let yourself explore it. It may not help you heal, but it may help you process it.”
She paused, gently placed her hand on my shoulder, and whispered, “It’s okay to miss him,” before walking away.
I swallowed hard, pressing my lips together. I grabbed shades of red and orange and returned to my easel to begin processing.
During the two weeks of that assignment, I allowed myself to tap into the raw pain and drip it onto the canvas. I was true to myself with each stroke. It was a draining process, but the release was therapeutic. On several occasions, I fought to focus through blurred vision as I added layers of color, developing the pain with each shade. When I cleaned my supplies, I forced it all back into the shadows. By the time I returned to the halls, nothing remained - except for the aching murmur that took over my heart the day he left.
I moved on. I returned to playing basketball, only sitting out half of the first game after my return. I continued focusing on my academics, and found it easier now that I could escape to my room each night without the suffocating tension. I had the attention of a great guy, who easily distracted my attention whenever he was within sight. And I had guaranteed time with Sara. I was surviving as I promised I would.
I caught a glimpse of his tousled golden brown hair in the sea of people. I followed after him, squeezing through the bodies, forcing myself to move faster. No matter how fast I tried to move, I couldn’t reach him. The bodies became solid and I was pushing through branches that raked my skin. I could still see him up ahead, but he didn’t look back. My legs refused to cooperate and run faster. It took every effort to propel myself forward. I couldn’t let him get away. My heart raced as I feared losing sight of him.