When he started to pull back, I shot forward and kissed him again. He released my hands, and I grasped the bulge of his shoulders. His teeth grazed my bottom lip in an almost-bite, and I lost it.
All my excuses were buried deep beneath the heat of his body against mine. I pressed my hips into his, and he groaned into my mouth. I couldn’t control myself. My hands trailed from his waist to his chest, and he held me tighter in response. I spun us, and started pulling him toward my bed.
His hand slid down to my ass, and his kiss was so devastating and consuming that I wanted to rejoice or scream or cry.
The back of my knees hit the bed at the same time that he pulled away.
His eyes were dark, and his breathing labored. “Whatever stupid reasoning you’ve got for staying away from me, it’s wrong. And I won’t stop until I’ve proven it to you.”
Then he left, and I fell back on my bed in shock.
It took nearly five minutes before I could do anything but sit there with my fingers pressed to my swollen lips.
As soon as I heard Mom bustling around downstairs, I pulled myself out of bed. It was still dark out, but even without a sufficient amount of sleep, my strength felt renewed. Maybe Cade had kissed some confidence into me the night before. Whatever the reason, my heart was eerily steady as I dressed that morning. I put on the scoop-neck shirt that I’d started the day in yesterday.
I pulled my hair around to the side and did a quick loose braid that left the other side of my neck and my birds completely visible. The shirt only showed the very tips of my branches, but the lines were dark enough such that they couldn’t be missed. I replaced the plastic retainers with my usual ear piercings.
This moment was years in the making.
I’d spent so much of my life, too much of it, altering myself to please other people. This was my crossroads moment, and nothing would be the same on this new road, including me.
Before I could change my mind, I went next door to the guest room and knocked.
Cade opened the door, already up and ready for the day. His hair was damp and curled around his face. I could smell the familiar, masculine scent of him from here. Last night came rushing back at me, and it took a serious amount of self-control not to throw myself at him.
He said, “Good morning.”
His tone was cautious, like maybe I had come to deliver an angry tirade of my own. But I wasn’t angry, just . . . on the verge of hyperventilating.
All the calm I’d woken up with disappeared upon seeing him. Somehow, he made it all feel real. My control crumbled, and my throat felt like it was going to close up. He must have seen the freak-out coming because he pulled me into his room and closed the door behind us. I turned my back on him and said, “Just give me a second.”
I pressed my palms into my eyes to try to stop the tears that were building there.
“Max . . .” His voice was soft and came from right in front of me.
“I’m okay,” I whispered without lowering my hands. I hated getting emotional, but nothing was worse than getting emotional in front of another person.
His arms circled me, and I sunk into his chest. My breath rattled in my chest, and I fisted my hands in the front of his shirt.
“You can do this,” he said.
There it was . . . the belief. He had far more in me than I had in myself. If nothing else good came of this, at least there was that.
“It won’t be easy,” he said. Understatement of the year. “But your parents love you, Max.” I laughed, even though nothing was funny. My throat was thick with emotion. He brought a hand up and pulled my hands from my eyes. “And if they can’t see how amazing you are, they’re blind.”
I swallowed, and my throat felt raw. I didn’t know what I’d ever done to deserve him. I didn’t know why he would come anywhere near someone as toxic as me, but I was thankful.
Silence filled the room, but it was the comfortable kind of quiet that Cade and I had had before everything had changed. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t need to.
He held out his hand, and I latched onto it like I was falling and he was the only thing that could save me.
“I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
Some of the tightness in my chest eased, and I nodded.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I don’t know why you’re thanking me.”
I remembered the way he’d put himself out there last night and said, “You faced your demons, and came out on top. So, maybe I can, too.”
He smiled and squeezed my hand.
“Come on, Fearless Girl.”
I was far from fearless, but knowing he thought I was provided me with half the courage I needed. We left the guest room, and descended the stairs together.
Dad was watching television, and Mom was messing with something in the kitchen when we came downstairs. Michael was on his phone, and the Antichrist was flipping through a Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
Bethany saw me first, and her jaw dropped. God, it felt good to be the cause of that horrendous look on her face. I hoped it stuck that way.
She called, “BETTY!” Her face turned smug, and I thought back to Cade’s question the night before. Why did she hate me? Probably because, just like my parents, she liked her world nice and neat and clean. I wasn’t any of those things, with or without the tattoos.
Cade squeezed my hand, and I took the deepest breath that I could get. Mom came in from the kitchen drying a pan with a towel and said, “Yes?”
Bethany pointed in my direction. I took a few steps until I was all the way in the living room. Cade kept close by my side. Mom’s eyes settled on me, but it was several long seconds before she really saw me. She dropped the pan and it clanged against the hardwood floors. Her face passed through a spectrum of emotions that normally I would have found funny, except that I had no idea which one she would end up landing on. It was like Wheel of Fortune, only all the good possibilities had been removed. Dad looked up from the television just as Mom said, “Mackenzie Kathleen Miller, how could you do such a hideous thing to your body?”
It stung, but I kept my expression as blank as possible.
Dad asked, “What horrible thing?” He turned to face me, and I saw the anger wash over him. Out of the two of them, he was the more unpredictable one. He stood slowly, his motions stiff and small. His eyes flitted between my neck and my ear piercings and back again.
“What in the name of God have you done?”
His tone was soft, but clipped. This was the scariest version of him—still and silent and like the calm before the storm. Mom came to stand by Dad, and he took her under his arm. She turned weepy and mopped at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Why does she do these things to us?” she asked him.
All my anxiety ignited into anger.
“I didn’t do this to you. I made a choice about what to do with my body. It had nothing to do with either of you.”
My father exploded. “You mark yourself up like some kind of . . . tramp on the street, and you expect it not to bother us?” He didn’t raise a hand to me, but he might as well have. It hurt just as bad.
“Mick.” Cade’s voice cut in, hard and firm. Dad paused, and I could see his embarrassment and fury at having someone outside the family witness this conversation.
“Son, I think you should leave us alone to deal with this.”
Panic crushed me, and I crushed Cade’s hand between mine in return.
“With all due respect, sir, I’m not going anywhere.”
Mom sputtered in disbelief, and Dad fumed. I didn’t want them to hate Cade for something that was all about me. I took a step closer and said, “I know you don’t like these kinds of things, but—”
“Don’t like them?” Mom’s voice turned hysterical. “We raised you in the Church. You’ve been taught since you could speak that your body is a temple, and now you’ve destroyed it. You know what the Bible says about those kinds of abominations.”
“The Bible also says to give away your riches, but you guys sure haven’t bothered to do that. And I didn’t destroy my body. There are no needle tracks on my arms. I’m not addicted to anything, nor have I become a prostitute, Dad. This is art that means enough to me that I made it a part of myself.”
“Squiggly lines mean a lot to you?” Dad barked. “And birds? Yes, I can understand why birds mean a lot to you.”
“Freedom means a lot to me.”
“I’m glad to hear that because you’re going to get plenty of it. If that’s what you do with the money we give you—mutilate yourself and ruin all your chances of having a decent, respectable life—then we’re done helping you.”
That news hurt a lot less than I thought it would. In the grand scheme of things, their money meant nothing. It was the least important thing they could take from me.
“You’ve not been interested in helping me in a long time.”
Dad said, “I mean it, Mackenzie. You better hope your little music thing works out because you’ll not get a decent job anywhere else looking like that.”
I couldn’t stay there anymore without doing something crazy. I gritted my teeth and spat out, “My name is Max. Max. And that ‘little music thing’ is my life. I’m tired of you trying to turn it and me into what you want. I’m not Mackenzie, and I’m not Alexandria.”
Mom gasped like I’d slapped her. Even that made me furious. She threw around Alex’s name all the time, trying to push photos and old knickknacks on me. But the minute we tried for honesty about my sister and me, I’d apparently taken it too far.
I spun around and went to the table at the end of the foyer where Mom and Dad kept all the car keys. I found the familiar key of the car I used to drive before I moved to Philly.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?” Mom cried.
“To clear my head. I’ll be back when being here doesn’t make me sick to my stomach.”
Though at the moment, the answer to that felt like never.
It was becoming harder to breath, and I knew exactly where I would go—the same place I always went when I wished for a different life.
I’d almost dragged her out of there several times myself. I knew it would be difficult for her to have it out with her parents, but I hadn’t anticipated how much it would affect me, nor could I ever have dreamed her parents would have reacted so badly. I thought parents were supposed to love unconditionally? I assumed they would be mad, scream a bit, maybe cry, then settle down and talk it out like adults. When her father called her a tramp, I very nearly hit a man that was three times my age.
I followed Max out a door in the kitchen that opened into the garage. I expected her parents to come after us, but they didn’t do that either. Her parents had a three-car garage. At the far end was a black Volvo that lit up when Max pressed a button on her key. I tried to catch up to her, but she was already opening the car door, and it blocked my path.
“Just get in the car, Cade.”
Thank God. I was worried she wanted to leave without me. Needless to say, going back into that living room would have been awkward. I jogged around to the other side and slid into the passenger seat. The electric garage door was already opening, and as soon as it was up, Max peeled out of the garage, tore down the driveway and out into the street. She shifted the car into drive and slammed on the gas.
“Max, be careful, please.”
She slowed down a little, but not much.
“I’m sorry,” I said. God, that seemed so inadequate. All of this was my fault. “I never should have made you do that. I am so sorry.”
She smiled, and her eyes were watery. “Don’t be.”
“I shouldn’t have pushed you. You were scared, and apparently with good reason.”
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