Like my cars, my aunt and uncle, and the idea of being free. I needed her to get whatever she had to say out of her system and then be gone. As far away from me as possible, so I could start getting over her.
Another example of that slippery slope of truth.
“Daniel.” Ella had said the word so softly, I didn’t know if I’d heard her correctly. My head snapped up to meet her eyes. “Is that your real name . . . your first name?”
I nodded, not sure where she was going with this.
“Daniel,” she said again, more sure of herself this time. And I hated that I liked the sound of it falling from her lips. “I . . . I’m Gabby.”
At first what she’d said hadn’t even registered in my brain. It was as if I was under water where everything was fuzzy and dark. And then, as it all snapped together, I broke the surface. I found my air and started breathing again.
Ella was Gabby. Gabriella. The girl to whom I had poured out my soul. No wonder she’d always seemed so familiar. So memorable. So comfortable.
But that also meant that she had deceived me. That she’d been messing with me this whole time. I sprang up so fast from my sitting position that my back scraped the tree trunk behind me. My skin was on fire and I welcomed the burn.
“Get the hell away from me,” I said. “You’ve been lying to me. Is this some kind of sick fucking joke?”
“No, Quinn, please. I swear to you.” She moved toward me, her eyes wild and untamed and filled with desperation. “I didn’t know until tonight, when you told me about Sebastian and Amber. That’s when I put two and two together.”
How was that even fucking possible? The coincidence was too great. I knew that she did some sort of psych work, but I had no clue that it was the hotline. Fuck. I’d told her some deep and dark stuff. Stuff that maybe no one should confess—unless they were anonymous.
“That’s why I responded that way, Quinn.” She latched on to my arm, but I yanked it out of her grasp. “Not because I think less of you.”
“I need you to leave me alone.” I started trekking down the hill toward the water.
“Don’t you see, Quinn?” she called out to me. When I glanced behind me she had sunk to her knees in the grass. “I think so much more of you. I think you’re amazing.”
I froze for a split second from the sheer implausibility of her statement. I was angry and embarrassed and miserable and I needed to get the hell away from her.
When I spoke to her, I didn’t think I’d ever heard my voice come out so quietly. “Please. Please just leave me alone.”
And she didn’t come after me. She just let me go.
I watched as Quinn—Daniel—whoever the hell he was, moved farther away from me into the blackness of the night. When I came upon him on the hill, I expected to find a distraught Daniel. The same one I’d talked to on the phone.
But there’d been something different about this Daniel. He had grown and healed, and he seemed almost numb to me. Maybe resigned. That last part hurt the worst.
I didn’t see how any of this could be resolved. Could even work between us. And now I understood why there were rules about this very thing in mental health facilities. Because it’s essentially a one-sided relationship. One person was the wounded and the other person was the healer.
Even still, there was always a give-and-take. After infusing someone’s sorrow inside your soul, it was nearly impossible not to come away transformed. And sometimes there was that one person who changed you so much, that you were altered for life.
Because you held their very essence—their very sanity—in the palm of your hand. And there was no way you could be left unscathed.
And I’d decided right in that moment what I absolutely, without question, had to do.
I needed to place my soul in the palm of Quinn’s hand and force him to make a decision. Either to ignore it or nurture it. Maybe then he’d understand. And maybe then we could heal, together.
I stood up, dusted myself off, and silently made my way down the hill. Quinn was standing close to the water’s edge, and for a split moment I wondered if he’d considered walking right in. Or maybe he’d prefer that I did in his place. I couldn’t gauge how much anger and disappointment he was feeling right then.
When he heard twigs snapping beneath my feet, his back stiffened. Even still, he didn’t turn around. I picked up the nearest stick and began marring the pebbled sand below me. Prepping myself for what I was about to say.
I moved closer behind him and then let my words flow out.
“The night that Christopher took his own life,” I began, and he twisted slightly toward the sound of my voice, “I was supposed to come home earlier from a party I’d attended with my high school friends.”
I had never before uttered these next words to anybody except my therapist, in the small confines of her office, over a box of Kleenex. I noticed how Quinn stood motionless now, as if anticipating my next confession. And I realized just how difficult it must have been for him to tell me all that he had over the phone lines those few times.
“But there was this guy at the party. Someone from another school,” I breathed out. “I’d seen him before and he was really cute and cool.”
I turned and stepped away even though Quinn hadn’t turned to face me. It was so difficult to admit that you’d done something so trivial while your brother had lain dying.
Or your best friend lay sleeping in the backseat of your car.
“So I stayed at that party an extra hour, just so I could talk to him out by the bonfire,” I mumbled. “And while I was flirting and smiling and feeling all heated from his attention, my brother was killing himself.”
I turned back toward the water and noticed how rigid Quinn’s shoulders had become.
“I could have gotten home early and maybe stopped him or caught him or talked him out of it,” I said, louder now, using the anger that had lain dormant inside me. “Something—anything—other than being hot over some guy that I never saw again.”
Quinn finally turned around—gaze locked on mine—and took a step toward me. Something was hooded there in his eyes. Sadness, pity, camaraderie. I didn’t know.
“I’ve never told anybody that story,” I said with a very confident voice, so that he’d know how much I trusted him with my vulnerabilities. “Not one person. Except the therapist who helped me through my grief afterward.”
He moved closer. And then closer still. He was a breath away and I wanted him to envelop me in his strong arms. But still, I waited. I wasn’t sure what he was feeling. If he was beginning to understand that we weren’t so different. Or if he was still confused and angry.
“We all have moments we wish we could take back,” I said. “Our actions may change the course of somebody’s life, without us even realizing it.”
And now we stood toe to toe, Quinn’s rapid breaths against my hair. His gaze was soft, genuine, caring, and all at once I was gripped with the knowledge that I had been blessed with two parts of a whole. The Daniel part and the Quinn part had merged to become the most incredible guy I’d ever met. And he was standing right before me.
Even if I never got to spend any more time with Daniel Quinn beyond tonight.
“But you seem so with it. So together, Ella,” he muttered. And then a deep growl emerged from his throat. One of pain, frustration, and isolation. “How in the hell did you move on? Become the strong person you are today?”
He dropped to the sand, picked up a rock, and flung it across the water.
I sat down next to him but refrained from touching him. I didn’t know what he wanted from me right then—physically—so instead, I become his emotional anchor, again.
“First you talk to a professional . . . one who you haven’t kissed. And I can help you find the right one.”
He nodded but remained quiet.
“And then you have to allow yourself to truly feel everything. All the emotions. The anger, the loss, the shock, the sadness. Don’t run from it, become numb from it, or just go through the motions,” I said. “And don’t become somebody else. Whether it’s with noble intentions or not.”
He thrust his head in his hands. “Goddamn, how do you do that?”
My fingers raked through the sand. “Do what?”
“See inside me,” he whispered. “See me for who I really am?”
“This isn’t one-sided, Quinn.” His head jerked up and there was awe in his eyes. “You make me feel things I’ve never felt, see things about myself no one has ever made me see before. And I have you to thank for that.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” he muttered. “It’s easy to be with you, Ella.”
I felt the knot that had been lodged in my chest loosen just a little more.
“You seem to have it all together,” he said. “And you’ve made me feel like maybe it’s possible for me, too.”
“It wasn’t always that way for me,” I said. “Sometimes, I still need to sit with my grief and let it shred me to bits and pieces over and over again. But I know that life is beautiful and I know that I’ve got so much to be thankful for.”
He squeezed his eyes shut like my words were too impossible to absorb.
“Those nights on the phone with me. You were already doing it, working through it,” I said. “And that’s why you’ve changed. I could tell the difference in your words, the tone of your voice.”
“Even still,” he said, his voice husky. “I’m afraid if I start . . . if I really start feeling everything—I won’t be able to stop.”
“No, that’s not the way it works. You’d get through it and come out the other side.” I reached for him, tentatively weaved my arm through his—and he let me.
“You’ll learn to be normal again. You will. It’s already begun,” I said, my face at his neck, breathing him in. “It’ll be new a kind of normal, but normal just the same. It’ll be a Daniel Quinn kind of normal.”
His lips lifted at the corners and our eyes met in one long unblinking look. And that’s when I knew. Really knew. That we’d be okay. That we’d work through all of this, together.
He scooted closer, his thigh brushing against mine. “How do you live with the what-ifs?” he asked.
“Neither one of us will ever know if our actions would have produced a different result. Or maybe delayed the inevitable,” I said. “We’ll never know. And we need to learn how to live with that.”
He nodded and looked at me with tenderness in his eyes. “I’m beginning to believe that.”
“Had you never called the hotline, I wouldn’t have known this amazingly gentle side of you yet,” I said, reaching out and brushing my fingers against his cheek. He closed his eyes in relief. “For what it’s worth, Daniel Quinn, it is a gift to know you. Every single part of you.”
His eyes sprang open and there was panic visible in them again. “You don’t feel differently about me now?”
“Yeah, I do.” His face fell and I nudged his knee with mine. “My feelings for you are much stronger now.”
His breath caught and he dipped his head. My fingers grazed his hairline and he shuddered. He brought my hand to his mouth, his lips resting at the center of my palm.
I felt his tender kiss all the way down to my toes.
“And what about me?” I asked cautiously. “Do you feel differently?”
“Sometimes I’d lie awake at night, fantasizing about the Ella part of you.” He traced his fingers against my jaw. “But I’d be desperate to talk to the Gabby part of you. So now I’ve got them both.”
“Quinn,” I mumbled, overwhelming affection coursing through me.
“Gabriella’s a pretty name,” he said, trailing his fingers through my hair, as if combing away my worries. “For a pretty girl.”
He moved his face toward mine and then tenderly brushed his lips across my cheekbone. I trembled in the wake of his touch as his fingers stroked where his lips had just been.
“Am I allowed to kiss Gabby?” he said, nuzzling my ear. Every nerve ending in my body pulsed against him.
“Please,” I whispered. “She wants you to.”
When his lips finally moved over mine I sighed against his mouth. I was so thankful to feel his skin next to mine again. His tongue fluttered out to meet mine and I got lost in his deep and powerful kiss.
I pulled away to catch my breath. “For the record, Daniel kisses better than Quinn.”
“Is that right?” His forehead creased, and I realized I’d come to appreciate that little line that appeared smack-dab in the center of his eyebrows.
“Yes,” I said, kissing his ear. “Because now I can feel all of him.”
He tugged me down on the sand and we kissed until our tongues were swollen and our lips were bruised. But our eyes remained open and our hearts became full.
We pulled up to Hartford Memorial Cemetery as Ella clutched her bouquet of yellow daisies. She looked anxious even though she told me that she’d been here last month on Christopher’s birthday. So maybe her nervousness had everything to do with me being with her this time.
After our night at the cliff, I felt insanely closer to Ella. It was like we’d clicked on many different levels. I still don’t know how it was possible that I’d met someone like her, let alone called her on the hotline, too.
When Ella said it was fate, I just bit my damn tongue. But maybe she was right. And maybe if I’d never called that hotline, I’d still have been inspired by Ella to become a better version of myself. It was like I’d been drowning and she’d come along and saved me. But she wouldn’t have agreed with that summation. She’d say that she’d encouraged me to save myself.