“How . . . how did he die?”
And now his face contorted into something grief-stricken. It made my heart slam into my throat. “In a car accident.”
“Oh,” I said, and suddenly things began rearranging themselves in my head. Bells and whistles were going off. But still I didn’t know what it was that I was supposed to be remembering.
“Was he . . . was he alone?”
He shook his head violently and his eyes looked red and tortured. “We, um . . . we were at a party together. I was the designated driver.”
My stomach seized up as I tried to recall where I might have heard this story before.
The next part flew out of his mouth in a jumble of words and breaths and unease. “I drove Sebastian and his girlfriend, Amber, home. She was in the front seat and he was in the back, passed out. We sideswiped a truck, and Sebastian . . . He died instantly.”
And all of a sudden the sound whooshed out of the room. I couldn’t hear or see anything, only the memory washing through me like a déjà vu—this same conversation played out a couple weeks back on a hotline call. The exact story that haunted me, the identical voice that left me unsettled—and it all fell into place in my mind.
That poignant, agonizing, emotional voice was now here in the same room. I sprang up and backed away, unsure if my brain was messing with me.
My lips were immobile and I wasn’t sure how my features had arranged themselves. All I could notice was Quinn’s response to my reaction. His eyes were wide and afraid. Terrified, in fact. And then they transformed into something else. Sorrow and regret and dejection.
He bounded off the couch and then backed away from me.
“Just forget it . . .” He sounded like he was talking through a tin can. Like his brain couldn’t get his lips to form the right words. “Fucking forget everything.”
And then he was out the door and gone. Just gone.
And still I stood there and stared at the wall, at the ceiling, out the window, and only one thought was ticking through my brain. Quinn was Daniel?
Suddenly the sound rumbled back into the room—along with my breath—and I gasped and sputtered and almost puked right there on my floor.
“DANIEL IS QUINN!” I rushed for the door.
“Quinn!” I called, despite knowing he was long gone. I sprinted outside to my stoop and looked both ways down the street, tears already streaming down my cheeks.
I needed to find him. I needed to explain. He thought I was disgusted by him—just like he’d always feared. Fuck.
I ran back inside to slip on my shoes and grab my phone and purse. I had an hour before I needed to be at the hotline. I’d find him before then, apologize, and explain that I was in shock.
Maybe I could explain without having to disclose the confidentiality of the mental health facility I volunteered for. I might be in a world of trouble for nearly having sex with one of my hotline callers.
Wasn’t there some kind of client-patient rule against cavorting with each other? How in the hell was I supposed to know that he was Daniel? This was totally coincidental. Did something like this even happen in a million years?
The first place I ended up was the frat house. I hadn’t been there in weeks. I didn’t see Quinn’s car, but still I yanked open the door and rushed inside. Joel was sitting at the table playing poker with a couple of the guys. A blond girl was in his lap, slobbering kisses on his neck.
Joel’s eyes practically bugged out of his head upon seeing me. “Ella, what are you doing here?” I must have looked like a wreck, a tangle, a maze of emotions. Because that’s how it felt in my head and in my chest. And most of all, in my heart.
“Is . . . has . . . has Quinn been here in the last thirty minutes?”
“Quinn?” Joel said. “Why are you looking for Quinn?”
I ignored Joel and looked at Brian instead. “Has he?”
“I asked you a question, Ella,” Joel said, pushing the blond out of his lap.
“No, I asked you first,” I practically snarled. “So answer my fucking question.”
He stood up. “Are you screwing Quinn?”
“Fuck you, Joel,” I said, and some of the guys whistled. Exasperated, I turned to dash out the door, figuring I wouldn’t get anywhere, anyway. But then I swung back around and faced Joel again.
“No, you know what?” I said, finally able to fit my jumbled thoughts together. “I wish I had been screwing Quinn instead of you for all of those months.”
He barked out a laugh. “You want to screw Quinn? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know where to aim his dick.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” I said, gripping my fingers into a fist. “He’s more man than you’ll ever be, Joel.”
I angled back my arm, wanting to take my anguish out on someone. Joel would have been the perfect candidate. I wanted to punch the astonished look off his face.
Jimmy came bounding around his seat to hold me back. “I should probably grab him and let you take a good shot, but you’d do more damage to your hand than his face.”
“He hasn’t been here, Ella,” Brian said now, in a soothing voice. “We haven’t seen him since he went home for a couple of days.”
“Thanks,” I sagged against Jimmy’s arms. “If you do, please tell him I’m looking for him and . . . and I’m sorry.”
I jumped back in my car and drove past Zach’s Bar, the pizza place Quinn and I ate at the other night, and then the movie theater, hoping I’d spot his car. I texted him twice, but he never responded. I told myself that maybe he just needed time to cool off.
I pulled into the parking lot of a drugstore and tried one last time.
Me: Please let me explain.
And then the only thing left to do was to head to work. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through the next three hours, but I didn’t know what else to do. I sat at my desk wondering how in the hell I had even driven here—my mind was a patchwork of conversations between Daniel and me.
How he’d sounded when he’d cried—like an injured animal. How the last time we’d spoken he seemed hopeful.
Had that optimism come from meeting me or was I being too presumptuous? To think my very presence would do the trick when his problems were so ingrained. I had known better than that. Psychology 101.
I’d told Quinn all about Christopher at his parents’ house that holiday weekend. Had he felt the same connection despite not understanding exactly how very real it had been at the time?
My mind drifted to the pictures in Quinn’s room. Oh God. Sebastian and Amber had been in that group snapshot. And they had been in that car that fateful night, with Quinn driving.
And Amber. She’d been the girl in the parking lot at Zach’s. And he wanted her, felt something for her. No wonder they’d seemed to have such a bond as they held each other. They’d experienced something so tragic, so life-altering, together.
Now my brain was reeling. Spinning. Like wheels on ice.
When my supervisor checked in tonight, I needed to tell him that I’d inadvertently befriended one of my callers. More than befriended. I had fallen for Daniel. For Quinn.
Was Daniel his first name? Daniel Quinn.
My phone line lit up and I was reluctant to answer it. What advice could I possibly offer anyone tonight when I couldn’t even figure out my own problems? I was going to have trouble getting out of my own head. But I needed to push through. This was my future, after all.
“Suicide prevention.” I took a huge breath. “This is Gabriella.”
“Gabby.” His voice sounded husky and filled with bitterness.
I panicked. Completely fell to pieces. My hands were shaking and my heartbeat was thundering in my ears. What did I do? Blow my cover? Play along until I could talk to him in person, or speak to my supervisor?
Yes, that was it. I needed someone—a superior to give me advice. I needed to play by the rules here. Fess up that I had made a mistake. And be professional about it.
“Hello?” he said.
“Daniel,” I said, my fingers nearly dropping my water glass. “Sorry . . . um . . . I know my voice is little hoarse. G . . . go on.”
I heard something distinct in the background. Something familiar I couldn’t place.
“No problem,” he said, sounding a bit unsure of himself. “Um . . . so, remember our conversation about hope?”
Long pause. I tried to move my lips. I was sure he’d notice something was off about me tonight. I gulped down my fear. “Yes, of course.”
“I think I hoped for too much.” I could hear the pain in his voice and I wanted to reach out to him. To tell him he hadn’t. That it would be okay. I couldn’t get any words out and I was blowing it big-time. Blowing it out of the damn water. And he knew it. He so knew it.
“You know what?” he said in a low voice. “Just . . . FUCK IT.”
“No, wait!” But the line was already dead.
And I was done waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I needed to decide for myself what was important. What mattered in my own damn life. Screw the rules!
I needed to do the right thing. And this time it didn’t mean showing up to my job and doing everything by the book.
I needed to find Quinn and I think I knew exactly where he had gone. Despite the flashing red button, I stood, grabbed my purse, and clutched my stomach. Pretending I was sick wouldn’t be that far-fetched.
I perched at my coworker’s door. “I think I might have the stomach flu. I’ve got to go now before I throw up or something.”
I was pretty sure given the sympathetic look on her face, she seemed convinced.
I didn’t even wait for her response. I just flew out the door and headed for my car, one thought racing through my head on repeat.
I need to get to you, Quinn. Before you break.
I sat on the side of the cliff staring into the murky water. Something was off about Gabby tonight. Maybe she had problems of her own. I knew nothing about her but she knew everything about me. Everything that mattered.
I was pretty sure I made her night that much more miserable by hanging up, but I’d decided in that moment that I didn’t need her anymore. I needed me. Myself. I needed to get my shit together and start living again.
Even if it had to be without Ella. I didn’t need a girl in my life, even though Ella had made me feel so many things. I’d be good on my own. Besides, I’d never be able to forget that look on her face when I’d bared my soul to her.
I’d decided right here and now that I would finish my degree and then talk to my uncle about working for him so I could then open my own shop someday. I’d remembered talking endlessly to Sebastian about it our senior year of high school and even he’d encouraged me to pursue my love of cars. Hadn’t even made fun of me or acted like it was a lesser career choice. Even he’d known I was good at it.
I’d come to realize that since the accident, I’d been in pursuit of the truth. About his death. About my feelings. About life.
And what I’d discovered about truth was that it wasn’t constant or objective. It was messy and uneven and sometimes unattainable. I wasn’t going to finally kill myself in that water down below, but I did need to find a way to get through my days.
Car lights appeared on the street corner, but I was hidden by the oak tree. The same tree I’d sat beneath with Ella. I’d miss her lips, and her arms, and her laugh. How she made me feel so alive. But I didn’t feel like dying anymore, so maybe I needed to thank her for that, too. It hadn’t just been Gabby helping me.
I heard footsteps trudging through the grass behind me and I turned to see Ella standing there. She’d said she had to work, so I hadn’t expected her to show up. Tears dotted her eyelashes and she looked relieved. Like the weight of the world had been removed from her shoulders.
And that didn’t really gel—it didn’t make any sense. Was she happy to have found me?
Back at her apartment, she’d thought I was pretty awful. So why would she come here? To clear her own conscience? Make herself feel better?
I turned away from her. “What are you doing here?”
She took another step forward and peered around the tree at me. And now pain crossed over her features. “What the heck happened to your face?”
“You should see the other guy,” I said. Even if Ella and I would never end up together, it had been sweet justice giving Joel a pounding. And all it had taken was one hard blow to break his nose and lay his ass flat on the ground, after he’d sucker punched me in the forehead. “You should thank me. Joel finally got what he deserved.”
Her breath caught and she knelt down beside me. Her fingers reached for my face before falling short. She looked defeated and fisted her knuckles in her lap.
But, hell, did she have to be so damn beautiful? I’d miss looking into those blue eyes that were like the ocean, deep and powerful—yet peaceful and familiar.
She looked down at my hands, one of which was red and split at the knuckle. She inched her fingers toward mine, but I shoved them beneath my thighs. No way did I need the torture of feeling her skin against mine.
“I’m . . . I’m so sorry,” she croaked out, and her voice broke on the last word.
And something shattered inside of me, too. A piece of my heart had chipped away leaving me with something so small, so trivial—I wasn’t sure it would have been enough for her, anyway.
“It’s fine,” I said, hardening my voice. “I knew it was a long shot, so I took a gamble. And it didn’t pay off.”
And now the last piece of my heart receded to the dark corner of my chest. I wouldn’t let her have that piece, too. I needed to save something for things I still looked forward to.