Mom and Dad shared a look. The same look I’d seen countless times when they were deciding whether I was mature enough, worthy enough, to be privy to their useless information. Then Mom gave Dad a slight nod, like they were letting me in. Letting their pathetic child inside their fucked-up lives with their fucked-up logic.
God, how the hell had I been able to stomach this for so long?
“Daniel,” my mom said. “Jacob Matthews admitted that he fell asleep at the wheel.”
My body became numb and my vision blurred, like I was in some fucked up Twilight Zone episode. That was the first I’d heard that version of the story. What the hell? I had the sensation of falling, falling, falling, down the side of a giant mountain.
“He was scared,” mom said. “He apologized to Sebastian’s parents, signed the plea agreement along with other legal documents, and we moved forward from there.”
I moved my lips in a fuzzy haze. “What you mean is . . . you paid people off so that the public didn’t hear about it again.”
“We did what we needed to do to protect our families,” she whispered. I saw how her hands shook as she gripped the counter. “We didn’t need that kind of publicity.”
My father took a step toward me and for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel the need to cower. I felt dead, numb—weightless, even. Like I’d just been gutted and my remains lay in a heap on the floor and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. “You have nothing to feel guilty about, son.”
My gaze leveled on him. I could tell how uncomfortable I’d made him, glaring at him like that, but he didn’t look away.
“Don’t you get it?” my voice was soft, defeated even. “This entire time I thought you paid him off because it was my fault. You didn’t think I deserved to have that information?”
My hands tore through my hair as the resentment surged to a crescendo again. “You’re my parents, for God’s sake.”
A choking, garbled sound burst from my mother’s lips. “I . . . I wish I’d known you’d been suffering like this.” When I looked up at her, tears were spilling over her cheeks in waves.
But I couldn’t handle it. Not now. Maybe not ever.
It was too late.
I stormed down the hall to my room and slammed the door.
I lay in my bed and stared up at the ceiling, my body convulsing in shock waves. I’d spent so many years trapped in a prison of my own making.
My thoughts naturally wandered to Jacob Matthews. Did this arrangement keep him awake at night as well? Would I have taken what’d been offered to me? Maybe Matthews knew as well as I did that you could never run far enough away from your own damn self.
There was also a small a part of me that wondered if Matthews’s hands had been tied—that he’d felt forced to confess. That maybe somebody had dug up dirt on him—I’d seen it too many times to count on the campaign trail.
It was that kind of uncertainty that Gabby said I’d face for the rest of my life. And there was nothing I could do about it, except try to move on. Try to make something meaningful out of my life.
I pulled myself out of bed, changed into my suit, and soon enough there was a knock on my door.
“It’s time to head to the dedication, Daniel.” My mother’s voice sounded small and quiet. Filled with regret. And uncertainty.
And I could only hope that she got it. Really got it now. Got me now.
Understood that she’d once held me in her arms, whispered soothing words into my tiny ears, and shaped me into believing all things were possible. And then gradually, over time, the rug had been pulled out from under me. It had all been hollow. Useless. Disingenuous.
And then the night of the accident—it was all taken away. Just gone.
My hopes. My desires. My dreams.
And she—they—did nothing to make me feel otherwise. Only considered themselves. Their reputation. Their political standing.
And it was wrong. So Goddamn wrong.
And in that moment, I’d decided never to allow anyone I cared about feel that small. That worthless. That insignificant.
When we pulled into the crowded parking lot, my stomach had tightened into a fist. I realized how many of the people from high school that I had severed ties with would be here. Including Amber.
And in that moment, I wished that Ella had been at my side.
I saw her shock of red hair from the backseat of my parents’ car, and I knew I needed to say something to Amber before I chickened out. “I’ll meet you inside.”
I walked faster to catch up with her. “Amber, wait up.”
She turned, her eyebrows meeting in the center of her forehead.
“Hi, Quinn.” She motioned to her parents to keep going. “What’s up?”
She was gorgeous, with a flowing head of curly hair and pouty red lips. And I realized that the two of us had been high school students with almost-innocent crushes. I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last. And someday she would find a guy who’d feel for her what I already felt for somebody else.
I’d made mistakes. We all had. And it was time to remedy them. Right here and now.
“Listen, I’m sorry,” I said and her lips parted in surprise. “That I keep pushing you away. I’ve been broken up about this for years. Living with my own guilt and I’m ready to be done with it. Move on from it.”
“I’m glad,” she said, a small smile lifting her cheeks. “I’ve had my share of guilt, too. For liking you. Being attracted to you. When I was with someone else.”
“This whole time, I figured you were using me to get to Sebastian,” I said. “I mean, he was the king, the boss, had girls lined up around the corner.”
“And he knew it, too.” We both laughed about our lost friend and it felt good. Too bad he wasn’t here with us, so we could rag on him. But maybe he was somewhere, listening. Ready to pound his fist into my arm or wrestle me into a headlock like he’d done countless times on his front lawn.
I couldn’t blame him for having all of that charisma, unless he was abusing it—like I’d been fearful would happen if he kept traveling down the same path. I’d always hoped that reality would slam into him one day. But not in the way it had. And not at my own hands.
In retrospect, I was jealous of Sebastian. I’d wished whatever it was that he possessed would rub off on me. That I could be as luminescent as he’d been. As beautiful and magnetic.
But maybe it only mattered if one person felt that way about you. That you were the moon, the stars, and maybe even the whole damn universe.
“Anyway, Quinn,” Amber said, bringing me out of my thoughts. “I liked you for you. Sure, Sebastian was a superstar—gorgeous and charming and good at everything he touched. But so were you—in your own quiet way. And there was something so attractive about that.”
I closed my eyes at the sound of her words. Because Gabby had been right. There was a glow inside of me, too. Incandescent. This entire time. I just hadn’t recognized it.
“Thank you for that.” I grabbed Amber’s hand and squeezed. “I hope we can start over and be friends.”
“Just friends?” Her eyebrow quirked up.
I nodded and dipped my head, hoping I wasn’t hurting her again.
“I could do that,” she said, and then smiled. It was a genuine smile that helped unraveled that ball of worry in my gut. “Let’s go.”
She threaded her arm through mine and we walked up the stairs to the building. This time, I held my head high and saw things a bit differently from the way I had a couple years ago. People greeted me and slapped me on the back. I didn’t see pity or disgust in their faces. I realized now that what I had seen back then was my own emotions reflected back at me.
We slid into the front row of seats near our parents, but not before walking past Bastian’s family first. This time I looked his parents in the eye. Really looked at them. And I saw their sorrow, their grief, their forgiveness shining back at me.
And I showed them the depths of my emotions, as well. Because that was the singular place we were joined. Connected. In our heartache over losing someone that we’d loved.
I found the empty seat next to my mother, faced the front of the stage, and straightened my tie, ready to take on the day. That’s when I felt a pair of small hands grip my shoulders.
I turned to look into the eyes of my Aunt Gabby. Uncle Nick stood beside her and he reached for her hand, his gaze never leaving mine.
“We came to support you. We figured you’d need it,” Aunt Gabby whispered in my ear. “Please stop shutting us out. We want you in our lives, Daniel.”
I nodded and allowed her to encircle me in a hug, while Uncle Nick clapped me on the shoulder. I felt something warm and wet slip down my neck onto my hand, so I looked up at her.
And that’s when I realized that the tears that had fallen were all my own making.
I’d been lying on the couch trying to get my thoughts in order about Quinn when my phone buzzed with a text. I hadn’t been able to sleep very well the night before, like there had been a dark shadow looming over me. Over my heart.
Quinn: Heading home from my parents’ house. Can I stop by?
My pulse thrummed in my veins. I was desperate to see him, if only to hold him again. I loved the weight and feel of his arms around me. And I was scared of the possibility that that would be all I’d ever get from him. That he’d only be able to show me how he felt through his touch, and with his body—and never with his words or his emotions. That I’d have to make the difficult decision to walk away. Before I fell even deeper.
Me: I’d like that. Don’t have to be at work for a couple of hours.
Quinn: See you in a bit.
I brushed my hair into soft waves, sprayed it, and then changed into the clothes I’ be wearing to work—a simple black skirt, a plain lilac T-shirt, and a chunky necklace.
When I let Quinn inside, he didn’t waste any time gliding his fingers around my waist and resting his forehead against mine. “I’ve missed you.”
My heart threatened to burst through my chest. “Me, too.”
I pulled away and headed toward the kitchen. “You hungry or thirsty?”
He tugged at my hand to sit next to him on the couch. “Only for you.”
Then his lips met mine and I felt something warm and comforting in the center of my chest. Something that felt a lot like coming home.
I raked my hands through his hair and his fingertips fluttered against my thighs. “I like this skirt you’re wearing. Your legs are so sexy.” His fingers teased farther up my thighs beneath the cotton material. I let out a sigh as he kissed my neck.
“So, how was your visit?” I asked between breaths, hoping he’d open up, but also hoping he wouldn’t—so his hands would keep working their way to my panties.
His fingers stilled on the undersides of my legs and he pulled his lips away from my jaw to look me in the eye. “It went okay.”
It was as if I’d doused him with a cold bucket of water. He sat back against the cushions and rested his hands in his lap. The air in the room has changed to something thick and suffocating. I tried to swallow but it was as if fear has replaced my saliva and I couldn’t wash it down. It infused my skin and saturated my bones.
He seemed distant and isolated and anxiety rolled off of him in waves.
This was it. The moment he’d finally tell me something. Maybe everything. It was like a boulder that sat wedged between us. One that needed to be pushed to the side so we could get to the path beyond.
I ground my jaw and tried to still my reaction. Nothing he told me could possibly make me react as badly as he’d imagined. I almost wanted to coddle him like a mother would a small child and tell him it would all be okay.
“Listen—” he began, but I cut him off.
“Wait,” I said, rolling out my shoulders, working up the courage. “Quinn, I love being with you. I want you to know how much I look forward to whatever comes next . . . for you and me. That is, if you want the part that comes next.”
I dipped my head, suddenly shy and anxious, like maybe I’d been presuming too much.
I heard how roughly he swallowed. “I’m pretty sure that next part is going to be up to you,” he whispered.
I grabbed hold of his hand, laced our fingers together, and gave him my full attention.
“Ella, I went home yesterday because my best friend from high school . . .” he said and then squeezed his eyes shut. “He . . . his parents dedicated a baseball scoreboard in his memory.”
“Oh.” I waited to see if he’d offer anything more. After another beat, I asked, “Did he pass away?”
He nodded, fingering the blanket folded on the arm of the couch.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “In high school?”
He looked up at me. “Right after graduation.”
I felt a stab of melancholy for his parents and those that loved him. Why did senseless things like that happen? And when they happened to someone young, in their prime, they felt even worse.
Was this supposed to be the big secret he was holding on to? “You must miss him a lot.”
“I do,” he said. His voice was raw and throaty, sending a shiver racing through me. I’d never heard him sound that way before and something in the back of my mind was niggling at me. A memory. One I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “I have many regrets.”
Regrets. So that’s what this was about. He felt remorse over something he’d said to him before he died. Maybe they had a fight. Or maybe he lamented not saying something to him.