“I always find a good reason to be scared, Golden Boy. I think it’s time I got over that, don’t you?”
I knew what she was saying, and my heart tried to soar, but I was still too torn up over what I’d witnessed. Anything that made tears form in her eyes was something I never wanted her to have to face. For the first time, I felt afraid of where this was heading, afraid of the depth of my feelings for her.
My life moved at a slow pace. It took months before I had feelings for Bliss. Never before had I felt so intensely and so quickly. Max swept into my life like a hurricane, and I never stood a chance.
She made a sharp left turn, then a right, and another left. We were in subdivision hell, and for all I could tell, it looked like we were back on the same street. She turned right again and dead-ended into a two-lane highway. She made a left, and we drove toward the rising sun. Her knuckles began to relax against the steering wheel. The farther away we got from her parents, the calmer she looked.
“Where are we going?”
She sighed. “To the only place more depressing than home.”
Every time I thought I understood her a little bit more, I was proven wrong.
“Why?” I asked.
She looked at me. Her hair glowed in the light of the waking sun. Her eyes were a bottomless ocean that I would give up air to explore. A perfect moment passed, uninterrupted by the world, unhurried by time, untainted by fear of the past or the future. And she answered, “Closure.”
We drove for another five minutes until we reached a hill on a deserted stretch of highway. Trees lined each side of the road, and they curved over the highway like a tunnel. At the top of the hill was the sun, and it looked like we’d drive right into it if we didn’t stop. It was breathtaking. The kind of scene you see in landscape photos and paintings. Max pulled over into a ditch just before the hill and trees started. She turned off the ignition and sat there, staring for a moment. Her gaze was so intense that I didn’t want to say anything. Whatever this place was, it meant more to her than just pretty scenery.
Quietly, she spoke. “Come with me.”
She removed the key and shoved it into the pocket of her jeans. She opened the door and started walking along the highway toward the hill. I unbuckled my seat belt and hurried after her. She was silent as she trudged through the knee-high grass. I followed behind her and realized there was a small trail worn into the earth. The grass and weeds bent backward out of our way, and I had a feeling that this path was of Max’s making.
Her breath came heavier as the hill inclined, but she didn’t slow or waver. She also didn’t speak. When we reached the top, my shirt was stuck to my back with sweat, and I’d removed my coat despite the cold. Max had left hers at the house, but she didn’t even answer when I offered mine.
The path veered off its straight line toward a rocky outcrop at the top of the hill. Max followed and climbed with practiced ease to the top of the largest rock. I followed, trying to step in the same places that she had. I sat beside her, and our feet dangled off the edge of the rock. We were underneath the cover of the trees, and we could see down both sides of the hill where the highway stretched into the distance.
It was peaceful up here. You couldn’t see any glimpse of the city, nor was there a car or house in sight. I could understand why she would come here. This far away from life, in the middle of nowhere, your soul felt bigger somehow.
She took a shaky breath, pointed to the road, and said, “My sister died right there, while I watched.”
All the air rushed out of my lungs, and my soul, which had felt clear and infinite moments ago, was mangled. She’d said it quietly and calmly with no hesitation, but I could see the toll the words took on her. Her hands were knotted tightly in her lap. She was still and stiff except for the swallowing motion of her throat that repeated every few seconds.
“I was thirteen and at some ridiculous sleepover out in the boondocks that I hadn’t wanted to go to, but Mom had made me. So . . . as I so often do, I acted like a bitch and pissed off the girl throwing the party. Mom sent Alex to come get me.”
She looked up at the purple and pink morning sky and pressed her lips together. “Alex was good about stuff like that. Most teenagers would have pitched a fit over having to come get their little sister on a Saturday night, but not Alex. She was upset about something, and I kept bugging her to tell me what it was. That was when I found out why she was at home on a Saturday night. Mom and Dad had found pot in her room, and she was pretty much grounded for eternity. That’s part of why my parents are so crazy conservative now.”
Max sniffed and pressed the back of her left hand to her mouth for a moment. Then she reached for the leather cuff bracelet on her wrist and removed it. On the pale skin of the inside of her wrist was a tattoo I’d never noticed before. It read 11:12. Something started to sink in my stomach, and I steeled myself for what I knew was coming next.
“It was 11:12.” Her voice broke, and tears started sliding down her face. “I know because I was messing with the radio, trying to find a decent station out here in the middle of nowhere. Alex was talking about how unreasonable Mom and Dad were. The pot was Michael’s, but she didn’t want to tell on him, so she took the heat. We were nearing the top of the hill, and neither of us was paying much attention. There was a guy coming up on the other side of the hill, and he’d fallen asleep at the wheel.”
Max started to shiver, and even though I was sure it wasn’t from the cold, I hung my coat around her shoulders. She exhaled and closed her eyes. Her eyes and lips were pressed into straight lines. Her tears reflected the sunlight, and her face looked fractured, rearranged by grief.
Her pitch was higher and her volume louder as she continued, “Alex swerved, but she wasn’t fast enough. His car clipped the side of ours at the same time that Alex slammed on the brakes. We started spinning, and then the car was in the air. I remember everything and nothing about the seconds that followed. I screamed and looked out my window at the tree we were flying toward. I looked back at Alex, and there was glass flying everywhere and a hole in the windshield. She wasn’t in her seat, but one of her shoes was stuck between the bottom of the dash and what was left of the window. I stared at that shoe for lifetimes before the top of the car slammed into the earth. It had to have been a second, maybe two, but my mind raced into the future. I thought about what I would do, what we would all do if Alex died. I pictured growing up without her, missing her on every birthday and holiday. I saw ten years into the future, and it was terrible.”
She shuddered, and her breath came out choppy. She pressed a hand to her chest, like she was physically holding her heart inside her body. I couldn’t go another second sitting here doing nothing. I scooted closer and put my hand over the one on her heart. She laced our fingers, and pressed our combined fists hard into her skin.
“My vision went black for a few seconds from the pressure of slamming into my seat belt. I was hanging upside down, and my skin was slicked with blood from all the glass in my skin. I saw her shoe again, and I started screaming. I don’t remember if it was words or just noise, but my sister was out there. No matter how I twisted and pulled, I couldn’t get my seat belt to come undone. I stopped struggling and started twisting to see if I could spot Alex anywhere through any of the windows. I looked out the side window, and I could just see her bright pink sweatshirt and this mound that had to be her body. She wasn’t moving, and I screamed her name as loud as I could. I screamed it again and again, and I kept waiting for her to move or for the guy from the other car to come find her or for anyone to come help. But no one came. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy who hit us ran into a tree, and he died, too. I didn’t have a cell phone because Mom had taken it away, and I didn’t know where Alex’s was. I kept screaming and crying for Alex for I don’t know how long, but I was the only living thing for miles. I don’t know how long it was before someone came along. When they did, my throat was raw, my vision was spotty, and it felt like someone was squeezing my head as hard as they could. And I knew my sister was dead.”
I pulled her into my arms, and she cried until the events of the morning disappeared, until the present took a backseat to the past. And until I knew I couldn’t live without her.
I felt hollowed out. Like all the pieces of me that I’d been holding together for years had poured out of my skin. Those pieces were broken and jagged and had torn me up for far too long. It was good they were gone, but now I was empty.
I’d never told anyone that story in its entirety. I told the EMTs what they needed to know, and the therapists what they wanted to hear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I’d told Cade. I was too afraid to look at his face, to see the knowledge of who I was in his eyes. I concentrated instead on his heartbeat, strong and steady beneath my cheek. All the things my life had never been. I needed something steady, because I wasn’t through yet. If I really wanted closure, really wanted to let this all go, there was more.
The morning had become noisy with the singing and droning of insects, and I whispered above it, “I wished it was me that died. That’s why I kept coming back here. I was the one who didn’t fit, who didn’t work. Alex was the good one, and it should have been me. “
Cade took me by the arms and pushed me away from his chest. “What happened to your sister and to you was terrible. It was a tragedy that I wish you’d never had to face, but don’t ever say it should have been you. You lived, and despite suffering a tragedy that would have crippled many people, you became a strong, beautiful, talented woman.”
I didn’t wish that it had been me anymore. Well, not very often anyway. But I was too raw to listen to his praise right now.
I wiped my eyes, stretched my limbs, and tried not to look at him.
The sun was moving high overhead, and I felt like it was shining light on all my secrets, all my flaws, even that dark, hidden thorn at the back of my heart.
“You get it now, don’t you? Why I pushed you away?”
The wind was wreaking havoc on my hair, and he reached out and brushed some of it back and over my shoulder.
“I think I’ve gotten it for a while, Max.”
I took a deep breath, thinking maybe this would be easier than I had anticipated.
“So you understand? That’s good. We should call and see if we can move your flight to Texas up. You can go be with your family, and I’ll try to fix what I’ve done to mine.”
I hopped down off the rock, and he followed.
“Max, I’m not going anywhere unless you come with me.”
There he went, sacrificing his own needs for mine. Maybe it was a mistake to let him see me like this. He was so empathetic that he felt the need to help every person in pain.
I turned, heading for the trail, but he grabbed my wrist to stop me. “I’ll be okay, Cade. I can handle my parents.” At least, I hoped I could.
I went to pull away, but he just pulled me around to face him completely. He was so close, and my body had a mind of its own. I swayed toward him.
“I’m not staying because I think you need me. I’m staying because I want to. I told you last night that I would prove you wrong, and this”—he gestured to the hill in front of us—“doesn’t change anything.” His brown eyes shone bright and sincere. “I should have come after you when you left that night, and I won’t make the mistake of letting you go again.”
I closed my eyes. How could one sentence make me miserable and joyful at the same time?
Mournfully, I said, “No you shouldn’t have.”
He flinched, but he kept going. “There are some things that are worth fighting for, no matter the outcome, and you are one of them.”
“Cade . . .”
“I know how different we are. I know that I’m not your normal type. But I also know that you’re attracted to me.” His hand came up to my cheek, and my traitorous body greedily accepted his touch. “I know that you make me laugh, and that I love hearing your voice, especially when you sing. I know that I haven’t stopped thinking about you since the day you sat down beside me at that coffee shop.” If I was honest, that was probably true for me, too. “And I know that I hate seeing you in pain, more than anything else in the world.”
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