I was supposed to be mad.
I was supposed to hate her.
But all I could do was hug her, pull her to me, and cry into her. I didn’t know what to think of the exchange between the two of us.
And maybe tomorrow, I would be mad again.
And maybe when I went back to Wisconsin, I would hate her once more.
But right now? On Christmas afternoon?
Right now, we were just two people made to screw up, f**k up, and learn new things. We were made perfectly imperfect.
Snow falls soft.
I love you slowly.
~ Romeo’s Quest
Those few days in Chicago, Mom and I didn’t figure things out. We didn’t work on our issues.
We mourned the first Christmas without Gabby. On New Year’s Eve, we cleaned out the bedroom, too. Mom lifted up Gabby’s guitar and smiled toward Daniel. “You can have it.”
He frowned. “I can’t.”
“Please,” Mom whispered, running her fingers over the guitar strings. “It deserves to be played.”
Daniel looked over to me and I smiled, nodding.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the guitar into his hands. As Mom and I folded up the last of the clothes to send the Goodwill, Daniel played Gabby’s guitar.
“Do you know any Beatles?” I asked him. Mom looked up toward him and smiled, waiting for his answer.
He played Let It Be, singing quietly. His voice was smoother than I’d ever heard it before. It gave me the best kinds of chills. Outside the window, snow fell at a tamed speed, falling against the tree branches, falling against every inch of Chicago.
And when the clock struck midnight, everyone cried.
“What do you think?” I asked Daniel as we arrived back at the train station in Edgewood. “Do you think she’ll be able to stop drinking?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “But I hope she does.”
“Me too.” I looked around and smiled at Daniel. We stood in a hidden corner by the payphones in the Amtrak station. “She wants me to come back to live with her…to work on our relationship.”
He nodded slowly. “I know.”
My voice whispered with the next topic. Mom had given me the letter from the college of my dreams on the way out. “I got into the University of Southern California.”
“I know,” he repeated. “Of course you did.” His head lowered to the ground. “No matter what, no matter how hard we try…why do I feel like I’m going to lose you?”
I felt it, too. But I couldn’t voice it. “Okay, well, Henry is going to pick me up soon. I’ll call you later? Otherwise I’ll see you at school this week.” I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him on his lips, trying to give him ease to his doubt. He lightly tugged on my bottom lip and I sighed against his mouth. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
As I watched him walk toward the door, my heart tightened. After our final exams in a few weeks, there was a whole new semester where Daniel and I would have to pretend to not be in love. Only this time, I wouldn’t be in his class. The idea of going through that again was painful. I wanted to be selfish. I wanted him to quit his job. I wanted him to run away with me, but I knew he couldn’t. He loved teaching. He loved his band. His home was here in Edgewood.
And what about college? I’d gotten into the University of Southern California. My dream school. That would be four years away from Daniel—four more years of separation.
We had gone one semester with being surrounded by each other and it had almost been the end of me. A raw truth was settling into my head as I studied him outside the building. I’d fallen in love with the right guy at the wrong time.
Jumping out of my skin, I turned around at the sound of my name. “Jake, you scared me. What are you doing here?”
“Just got back from my grandparents’…” He gave me a grimace look. “Were you just kissing Mr. Daniels?”
My mouth dried up and I coughed. “What?”
“You were just kissing Mr. Daniels.” He said it as a fact, but it hit my ears as a question.
I studied him intensely as he rotated his body toward the exit, pointing to Daniel, who was standing outside waiting for a taxi. I could feel the vomit climbing up my throat.
Laughing nervously, I yanked up my suitcase handle and started to roll it away from him. My legs felt like Jell-O. My mind felt like mush. “I gotta meet Henry…” I muttered.
We messed up.
We’d gotten too comfortable. We’d touched too much. We’d slipped.
Footsteps were following me, and I frowned at the sound of them. “Ashlyn! Listen, you’re a smart girl. But hooking up with your teach—” Jake’s mouth was yapping and yapping.
My hand flew to his lips, shutting him up. “Shut up, Jake! Shut up!” I was going to cry. No, correction—I was crying.
“Oh my gosh, it’s true,” he muttered, stepping back. “He’s the guy?! He’s the one?! Oh my gosh, Ashlyn!”
He was pacing back and forth. I looked toward the exit and saw Henry’s truck parked in the front of the station. My fingers ran across my eyes, and I tried my best to pull my panicked self together.
My entire body shook, my hands trembling.
“Don’t say anything…” I whispered.
Jake gave me a harsh look of disbelief.
I walked away, not looking back once. But I could feel his eyes still staring at me. Judging me. Losing all respect for who he thought he could someday love.
I’m not afraid of losing you.