“No!” I couldn’t stomach anymore. Gail came into the picture after my mom was buried. She heard the stories, and I was now realizing she’d been getting ideas that I did not want her to have. “Let me explain this.” I was speaking in a voice I had never heard before myself. My skin had been turned inside out. There was nothing to hide behind now. I felt like everything was scraped off of me. That’s what enduring that year had done to me. “You really need to hear me.”
I waited. I needed a moment to gather myself.
I felt like I was crumbling.
“I hate Stone Reeves.”
I heard her gasp on the other end.
I kept on, “I hate him with a passion I didn’t even know I possessed, and I was already hating him long before what his father did to us. I moved down here because my mom told me to reach for my dreams. I moved down here because I went through something; well, something that taught me life is actually short and I need to be making decisions for me. And saying that, it was something that I hadn’t already learned through losing my mother. But having said that, life is not short enough where I would ever want Stone Reeves back in it.”
She was sniffling now.
I refused to. “Let it go. Let whatever notion you have in your head about how this is going to resolve itself because it’s not going to happen.”
“He called me. He texted me. He said they’ll sue if you don’t stop. Gail, please. Don’t put my father and me through more pain.”
I was there again, holding my mom’s hand.
“I can’t survive another round with that family.”
I felt her hand go, again. It was always again. Over and over again, and I worked so hard to push that memory away, but it was back.
It was going to haunt me.
“Please.” A whisper from me.
I heard more sniffling on her end, and then a pause before she said, so quietly, “Okay.”
I felt dead inside. “Tell my father I love him.” Then I hung up and texted Stone.
Me: It’s done.
I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I blocked his number.
As far as I was concerned, Stone Reeves was out of my life for good.
Studying with Siobhan and Trent was more about drinking beer and avoiding the television because it was set to the football game. And watching the two of them flirt without really flirting, but both totally knowing they were flirting.
It was fun to watch, but I was also cold to it.
I didn’t like that I was like that, but I was. Romance. Sexual chemistry. Even the fun at the beginning, like what they’re going through right now, I was turned off to it. There was a firm wall built in me, and Siobhan whispered at one point that Trent had a roommate and if I was interested, he’d invite him out for me. She asked and nothing. Stone cold—crap. Wrong phrase. Deadness inside.
That’s what I was, but I knew that wasn’t normal. I mean, it made sense to me why I was like that. The event I went through before coming here…yeah, my throat was swelling up. Emotions that I didn’t want to deal with swept up at a startling rate and I felt my throat choking up.
I pushed it down. Another firm shove, just like with all the other uncomfortable and painful stuff.
Fine. I’d be this way. But I’d fake it. I’d have to. Give me a course in marine mammals and I’d be happy as a clam. Offer to set me up, and full on arctic blast inside of me. No one likes someone who is apathetic to the excitement going on in their lives, though. That’s the problem. That wasn’t a good way to make and keep friends, and I wanted Siobhan to be my friend. I almost needed it, desperately. If I didn’t have one friend, then who was I and what was my purpose?
I’d have to travel back to the worry from before that there was something truly unfixable about me.
I gripped my glass just thinking about that, and glancing down, I thought belatedly that I needed to loosen my grip. My fingers were white. I was either going to shatter the glass, or I was going to break my fingers. One or the other.
Expelling a harsh breath, I forced myself to stop thinking. That’s how I’d get through life right now. No thoughts about personal stuff. Just academia. Marine biology. I could recite the forty-four species of dolphins frontwards and backwards in my sleep, and I salivated over learning more. That was my goal. Eye on the prize. That’s what I’d do, and clipping my head in a firm nod to myself, feeling all rallied from my own pep-talk, I crossed the bar back to where Trent and Siobhan were leaning with their heads angled toward the other.
Maybe I should make my exit? I told her I would if she gave me the word, but we’d never discussed what the code word would be.
I tried to wordlessly ask Siobhan as I slid onto my stool, but she lifted her head up with a welcoming smile. And some relief. The lines around her mouth slackened at me coming back from getting a refill. Okay. I’d be staying a bit longer.
“It’s picking up in here.”
Trent was looking over my shoulder toward the door and the rest of the bar. We were in a corner, but I noticed the expanding crowd as well on the way back. A surge of customers came in just as I was getting my beer.
Siobhan frowned. “Well, it is eight, and it’s the campus bar. The game probably finished and everyone’s making their way back into town.”
Trent cursed, shoving up his glasses. He frowned. “You’re right. I forgot the first official game was today.”
Siobhan explained to me. “The other bar is the normal hang-out when there’s an off campus game, and now this one will be at full capacity. The team usually comes back after and sometimes they stop here before going wherever they go. Both places will be swamped the rest of the night.” She was looking around. “I forgot. I mean, I knew, but I forgot.” Her eyes lingered on Trent a moment, almost apologetic.
He looked, caught her, and both turned away quickly.
I would’ve been amused, or felt I should’ve been amused, if I wasn’t thinking about how my house would probably be party central tonight. If the team was coming back, I knew my roommates would be, too.
“Let’s get out of here!” My outburst surprised even me.
Both blinked at me a moment, then Trent started grabbing his stuff. “I second that. We can go to my house. No football game. We can study, or…” he paused, his gaze warming and holding on Siobhan, “just hang out.”
Her eyes got wide. “Is your roommate there?”
Her quick glance my way told me what she was thinking and shit, damn, fuck. I didn’t need that. I was so beyond needing that. Panic and claustrophobia and sheer terror rained down on me, and I had to stop. I had to breathe. I had to remain for a second, and then, another moment. It was still with me.
I was paralyzed, but I knew my face didn’t show it.
I’d perfected that bit over the last year. He couldn’t see me scared. I never gave him the satisfaction. I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction, and then I wasn’t there anymore. I was back at the Quail and I was in a college five states away.
The cement grip that overtook me loosened and I blinked. I was past it, and I was the only one not putting my stuff in my bag.
“You gonna drink that?” Siobhan referenced my drink.
Drink. Alcohol. Right. “Can I ride with you?”
I downed my beer. All of it. A full sixteen-ounce glass.
Even Trent looked taken aback. A guy next to our table whistled, “Way to go! You open that throat, baby.”
I reacted without a thought, snarling at him, “Shut the fuck up.” And sweeping my stuff into my bag, I was off my stool and ready to go.
The guy’s face was clouding with anger, but he’d been there the whole time we were. He’d been drinking and watching the football game, and I knew he was too slow to react. And I’d been paying attention to his entire table in the back of my mind because that’s what someone like me does. We pay attention.
And once I got to my feet, I could see the words forming.
He started to reach out.
Nope. Not today.
I evaded him, but then he had my bag.
He wasn’t thinking clearly, and to an extent, past haunts were clouding my own thoughts, so I didn’t hesitate to twist out from my bag, then bring my elbow down hard on his arm. He dropped the bag. I caught it, and before he could react to that, I stomped down hard on his foot.
He howled, grabbing for it, but that brought his head to the table, and he cursed again.
His buddies were dumbfounded. Two started to get up, but I pointed at them and clipped out, “Not a move. He made an offensive remark. I replied. Then he grabbed me. I defended myself. You say one word, I’ll call the cops and I have witnesses and video to back me up.” I snapped my fingers, pointing to the corners of the ceiling. There were no video cameras there, but there were televisions, and the guys would be too confused to investigate.
Trent and Siobhan were almost gawking behind me. I didn’t wait. I’d handled this scene stronger than I should’ve and I knew the quicker you got free, the better.
I got free.
Siobhan and Trent stared at me outside the bar, both with owl-like expressions. Eyes blinking. Mouth pursed tight.