“Cade . . . I just can’t.”
I tried to pull away, but his other hand came up to my face, and he held me firm.
“I’ll hurt you.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
I pushed away, and this time he let me go. I pointed up toward the hill where we’d spent the last several hours. “Don’t you see who I am? What I cause? I’m poison.”
His expression turned angry, “You are not poison, Max.”
I shook my head, and hated that I was fighting not to cry again.
“I am. I ruin everything good that comes into my life. It all rots around me, and you would be exactly the same way.”
“You’re wrong. You couldn’t ruin me, because everything about you makes me better. You make me take chances and make bolder choices. You make me less concerned with being perfect and more concerned with being real. You make me want to be fearless.”
The closer he came, the more nervous I got, and I was fighting the temptation to run. “Would you stop saying that? I told you before. I’m not fearless! I’m the complete opposite. I am filled with fear every day of my life, and it chokes me until I can’t move or breathe or think without it taking over. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, I still feel like I’m hanging upside down in that seat with the world crumbling around me.” I couldn’t catch my breath. All the walls I’d built over the years had been torn down when I’d told him about Alex, and now there was nothing to keep all the emotions from flooding me.
“I know you’re not fearless, but I don’t think you let fear rule you as much as you think you do. You fight for your dreams. You don’t take shit from anyone. You were brave enough to be yourself, even in front of your parents. You are the most vibrant, beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
He stood in front of me, and one of his hands slid inside his coat to rest on the small of my back. Energy crackled between us, and his forehead pressed against mine.
“Close your eyes. Remember what we talked about that night after your concert? Living is hard. It was hard when you were thirteen, it’s hard today, and it will be hard again in the future. So, you close your eyes and you breathe. Breathe with me.”
I was shaking, but I felt stronger with him in front of me, his gentle breaths fanning across my lips. I breathed until the weight of the world seemed easier to manage. Maybe that was just because I wasn’t holding it alone.
I admitted, “I’m so afraid.”
“I know you are. But fear lets us know we’re alive. It tells me that you care about what happens between us because the mind doesn’t waste time being scared about things that don’t matter.”
“Now open your eyes, Max. You are not poison. I am not better off without you. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t have feelings for me.”
I looked him in the eye, but I couldn’t say that, because it wasn’t true.
“Then that’s all I need. We both have baggage, Max, but I’m done letting it control me. You said you came here for closure, and I think that’s what we both need. We’ve had too much death and disappointment, so we don’t know how to accept the good things when they happen to us. I’m done with that. I’m done with letting people go.”
I was happy that he was battling his demons, but I’d been fighting mine all day, and I wasn’t sure I could face another. I said, “You don’t understand. Yes, I have feelings for you.” His lips spread into a smile, and it almost derailed my thoughts. I pulled my face away from his and continued, “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, leaving you. But I know myself. I know how I work, and that’s why I don’t trust myself to be with you. My heart is fickle and inconstant, and I’m terrified I’ll wake up one day and feel differently.”
He smiled sadly and said, “I think you’re terrified that you won’t.”
My mouth snapped shut. As was becoming a pattern . . . he was right.
He continued, “And if you do wake up one day and don’t want to be with me, I will fight for you like I am now.” His thumb brushed against my lip, and he pulled me into his chest. “I’ll remind you every day how amazing it feels when your body touches mine. I’ll remind you of the good times, and help you forget the bad. I’ll remind you who you are when life has beaten you down and made you doubt it. I’ll bust down your door in the middle of the night and kiss you until you remember that your fears are just that, and they can’t control you. I’ll take my chances against your fickle heart if it means it’s mine.”
I was beginning to realize that it already was. I looked at the top of the hill over Cade’s shoulder. I’d always associated this place with endings, but maybe it was about beginnings, too. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m going to be a raging bitch most of the time.”
He was so much more eloquent than me, but I had a feeling that was a yes enough for him. A wide smile formed on his lips, and my heart felt like it filled my entire chest.
“I thought you were working on that.”
I smiled back and shrugged. “Horrible attention span.”
We laughed, and it released some of the pressure in my chest.
He said, “I’m not asking you not to be afraid. In fact, the day that you aren’t is when I’ll start to worry. All I’m asking is for that date you promised the day we met.”
“I can do that.”
He closed the space between us, and his lips met mine. The empty spaces in me were filled to the brim, and for the first time in a long time, the world felt right side up again.
After she was in my arms again, I was reluctant to let her go long enough for us to get anywhere. We grabbed blankets from the trunk of her car and cocooned ourselves away in the backseat. We kissed and touched and talked like we had all the time in the world.
I hoped that we did.
We lay wrapped up together, trying to fit both of us on a too-small backseat.
I said, “I remember this being a lot more comfortable in high school.”
She lifted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Spend a lot of time in backseats, did you, Golden Boy?”
I pressed my fingertips into her sides, and she squirmed against me, laughing.
“I thought we’d established that the past was the past?”
I let her wrestle my hands off of her, and she pressed both of them flat against my chest. “Of course it is, but just to make sure your mind is firmly in the present . . .”
She kissed me.
Each new kiss from her outdid the memory of the last. I broke my hands out of her grasp, and she pouted against my lips. Then I tangled my hands in her hair, and she stopped complaining. It was cold in the car, but there was nothing but heat between us. Unlike the last time we’d kissed, she was in no hurry now. We alternated between talking and kissing until the sun shined from the other side of the sky, at which point both of our backs were killing us.
She asked, “This is how it starts isn’t it? We’re getting old.”
“Oh yeah, you’re already past your prime. Life only goes downhill from here.”
She swatted my chest, and then pressed a kiss to the place where she hit me.
“I’m glad you fought for me,” she said.
“I’m glad you let me.”
It was around sunset when we returned to her parents’ house. I’d told her that we could get a hotel, maybe rent a car and go on to Texas, but she insisted that she could face her parents again. When we pulled into the driveway, her mother was out the door and sobbing into Max’s hair before we even closed the car doors.
“Your father tried to follow you, but he lost you in the subdivisions. We tried calling you, but you left your phone here. Don’t you ever scare us like that again.”
Max’s expression looked like she was being hugged by one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but she was hugging her mother back.
“Your father has been torn to pieces. He’s out there looking for you now.”
“I’m okay, Mom. I just needed to deal with some things.”
Her mother pulled back and held Max’s face in her hands. She brushed her hair back tenderly from her forehead.
“I’m sorry about the things I said . . . Max.” Max did the constant swallowing thing, which I knew meant she was about to cry. “Your father and I are just scared. We lost your sister, and now everything terrifies us.” Max made a noise halfway between a sob and a laugh. “If it had been up to me, you never would have driven a car or left the house or done anything that took you out of my sight. We just want you to have the best life possible, and we tend to forget that it’s not our wants that matter. You’re an adult now, and it’s time for your father and I to stop trying to control your life.”
Max hugged her mother, probably the first hug she’d initiated in a decade, and Mrs. Miller burst into a second round of sobs.
It wouldn’t be easy. Max was too hurt and her parents too upset for a cry session to fix everything, but it was the beginning, and that’s all we can ask for in life—for a beginning to follow every end.
Max’s father came home, and after close to an hour of the three of them talking and crying, Max looked like she needed a break.
“Why don’t we go get you a dress for that gala?” I asked. “It’s tomorrow, right? I bet the mall is open for a couple more hours still.”
Mrs. Miller looked distressed at the mention of something as mundane as the mall, but she said, “They’re open late for last-minute holiday shopping, I think. But we don’t have to go to the gala, dear.”
“Of course we do,” Max said. “You’ve put a lot of work into this.”
Her mom smiled, and I could almost see the broken thread between them being repaired. A thread was a long way from a bridge, but it was something.
Her mother tried to give Max her credit card to pay for the clothing.
“No, Mom. It’s okay, I’ll find something.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I know you hate these things and are only doing it for me. So, let me pay. And get Cade something, too. Bethany was talking about putting him in one of Michael’s old suits that’s still in his closet. I’m sure he’d rather not look like he’s going to the junior prom.”
Max took the credit card but made quite clear to everyone (especially Bethany, who was eavesdropping from the dining room) that she was buying something cheap. Nothing fancy.
As it turned out though, even Max couldn’t stomach the dresses she found at the department store, and we wound up at a vintage shop a few blocks away. The owner was getting ready to close when we walked in, but she offered to stay open a little bit longer. Holiday spirit and all that. Max looked like she was in heaven.
I found a suit pretty quickly—gray with a really subtle red plaid. It came with suspenders, which Max approved of. She hooked her hands around them, and used them to pull my mouth down to hers.
I decided I was going to have to kiss her every half hour just to continue reminding myself that it was real.
Max tried on a few things—like a yellow beaded number that ended in the middle of her thighs that made me want to follow her into the dressing room. She tried on another that was dark green and cut high on her neck, covering her tree tattoo.
“That’s gorgeous,” I said. “But don’t you dare pick that one.”
“You don’t think I should cover them?”
I backed her into her dressing room and closed the door.
“I don’t think you should ever cover yourself.”
She smiled and laid a hand on my chest. “Thanks.”
“I mean it, I think you should just be naked all the time.”
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