I have loved you as my own son, and I know Dusty still cares about you. I have a wish for you. If you are ever in a situation where my daughter needs help, please be there for her. She’s the silent trooper. She suffers in silence and she doesn’t think I can tell. I do. And I know life has ups and downs, and you both will have challenges. Please reach out. Please care for each other. Please don’t let this thing between your mother and my husband keep you away.
Life is short. Live. Forgive.
I will be watching over both you and Dusty.
— All the love, Sherry
All the love.
All. The. Love.
I read those words over and over and over and over. I lost track how many times I read them.
I knew she cared for Stone. I knew there’d been a special relationship, but this was more. This was so much more than I thought it was, and it cut me. It cut me deep.
He hadn’t even lied to me. I was replaying when I asked him why he was helping me, and he said it. Point-blank. Because of my mom, because he cared for her. Here was the proof. She cared for him back. And my dad and his mom?
What the hell? Again.
What. The. Hell?
Thoughts were flashing in my mind. Bad thoughts. Miserable thoughts.
Like, why’d she have to go?
Why’d he have to go?
Why’d they have to drive on that road? At that time of night? Why’d the deer have to choose to cross the road at that exact second?
Was it me?
Was I cursed?
Did everyone I love have to be taken from me?
My insides were twisting all in a knot, then being knotted again, and again. Bent over, my forehead to the ground, I rocked in a fetal position. Every one of those questions plaguing me, laughing at me, being screamed in my head, taunting me.
It was me.
I was the problem.
I was the connection.
They loved me, and they all died.
I had to go.
I put the cookbooks back where they were, and I had one thought. Leave. I had to leave. I wasn’t a pity project. I felt Stone’s loathing last night. I knew it was still in him, and now it was back and raging inside of me. It hadn’t quite left me.
I was done.
I could do this. Fuck everything.
Numb. I’d go numb. And I’d keep going. That’s what I’d do, and one day, I had to hope—one day it would be better. I would be so used to the pain that I’d almost think it wasn’t there. That day was my goal to get to.
I went and packed.
I had a goal in mind. I had motivation. It helped, knowing you had to do something in order to survive. Your focus suddenly became crystal clear. I didn’t have a ton of stuff here, but my books were the heaviest. I left half my clothes behind. They didn’t fit in my bag.
Leaving, I put the code in and hauled ass. I wasn’t sure what would set the system off, but I got out of the garage and there was no angry alarm going off, so that was one feat accomplished. The gate was next. I had no clue how to open it, so I tossed my bag up and over, then I climbed. I went slow, but I got there.
Once over, I pulled my phone and ordered an Uber.
The Uber pulled up.
I got in and I just wanted to get as far away as possible.
The voices woke me.
My fan wasn’t on, and while they weren’t yelling or raised, I could still hear them.
Maybe it was because my body had been waiting, or maybe I was more rested because of the concussion. Either way, when I woke, I rolled over. It was around eleven that night, so maybe the group was back from partying or Stone was here. I was prepared for both.
Grabbing my phone, I checked it first. It was blank.
I paused, frowning. I hadn’t expected that, but I still sat up and raked a hand through my hair. I hadn’t changed clothes when I got back to my room, so I looked down, remembering that I’d blindly grabbed a different shirt and it must’ve been one of his. The King’s emblem was prominent on the front, the whole name for the team was short for the Texas Kingfishers.
Shit. Oh well. I was already up and moving.
My feet were already in my flip flops, and I had my phone on me, just in case.
I made my way through the basement and to the stairs, pausing just enough to hear Lisa say, “I’m telling you, she’s not here.”
That was Stone. He had come, and yeah, he was pissed.
That made two of us.
I went upstairs, rounding the corner in the kitchen until I could see Stone in the doorway.
Lisa was standing in front of him. A guy with her.
That was it. Just those two. I didn’t recognize the guy, and both had their backs to me. Not Stone. He saw me right away, and his jaw clenched.
“Is this the concussion? Has it affected your head that much?” He lowered his head, those eyes pinning me in place. A pause, then a bite, “Nice shirt.”
Yeah. I should’ve changed.
I ignored how Lisa and her friend turned to me, surprised.
A second bite from him. “Is this where we finally part ways because I’m getting real fucking tired of this shit, Dust.”
I flinched, then no. Fuck no. I swallowed some acid and made damn sure my voice came out strong. “I found the cookbooks, Ace.”
He flinched at that name. His dad used to call him that, and I knew he hated that nickname.
“What cookboo—” he started to ground out.
I took a step forward, but only one. I stopped, folding my arms over my chest. “You know. The fourteen that my mother gave you.”
It took a second, then horror filled his gaze. His head jerked backwards. His nostrils flared. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” I clipped that one out now.
“Dusty. Those books, they were a gift…”
“I read the notes.”
I was calm. He was frantic. I saw it surging up in him.
And I didn’t give a fuck. I was cold. Numb.
I had moved on.
I waited a half second before I drove another nail into him. “I wonder if my dad left you a note, too? Maybe he did? Maybe he explained whatever the fuck happened between him and your mom?”
It came out as an accusation, but it was really a question. If he’d tell me or not, and I waited, bated breath, and when he stepped back, I knew.
He wasn’t going to tell me.
Then fuck him.
I didn’t need Stone.
We could go back to hating each other.
I didn’t need anything.
I didn’t need anyone.
Except Stone. You needed him last night, a voice whispered in the back of my mind.
I shut that down, real fucking quick.
“Dusty.” Stone’s head hung down. His hands went to his hips. He’d lost his fight.
I moved forward, knowing when to capitalize on the moment and I even gentled my tone, knowing it was the last and final nail in our coffin. “You’re off the hook.”
His head swung back up. “Excuse me?”
“Taking care of me. You said it yourself. You were doing it for her, but you’re off the hook. I’m letting you off the hook.” Another step forward, but this one hurt. It felt like I was pushing into wet cement, the kind that went to my chest. Still. I took another step, forcing myself. “I don’t know what she was talking about, the thing with your mom and my dad, and…” He went rigid. I pushed forward, “Maybe I don’t want to know after all. Maybe I’ll find out and I’ll hate him, and right now, I can’t hate him. I’m still mourning him.”
“Dusty.” So quiet now. He was giving in.
I was winning.
Another step. This time the cement was almost dry, but I pushed through. I had to. “Thank you for everything, and I mean it. Everything.”
His eyes darkened. Oh yeah. He got my drift.
I went on, “But I’ll take it from here.” I reached for the door, my intention pretty obvious, but I paused.
He continued to stare at me. A full thirty seconds. Another thirty.
My heart was pounding, wondering if he was going to let it go, let us go, half fearing he would and half needing him to, and then he jerked forward. My heart jumped into my throat as he circled the back of my neck, dragging me to him. He stopped, our foreheads were almost touching, and I wondered if he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t.
“Don’t call me when you’re needing someone’s dick to help chase away the nightmares, Dust.”
He spoke quiet so the other two couldn’t hear, but his words…they pierced me and my hand fell away from the door, but he was gone after that.
I shut the door after him and threw the lock on.
“Actually, you don’t need—” From Lisa.
I threw her a scathing look. “I don’t give a fuck.”
I was going nuts by late morning. Everyone had left from the house. I assumed Lisa told everyone I was back because they were quiet, or quieter than they used to be, or maybe they were getting into the swing of school again? Either way, I couldn’t stay in my room any longer.
So I cleaned.
I started in the bathroom. Nothing strenuous, just little things like reorganizing the medicine cabinet and then moved on to the game room…the entire DVD collection that seemed to now be turning into an antique collection was in disarray. Then it was the pile of magazines left in the basement kitchen corner.