Jake narrowed his eyes on Mr. Daniels and huffed, “No thanks.”

I cringed at his reaction and moved over to Jake. I placed my mouth near his ear and sighed. “Please, Jake? For me?”

He frowned and shook his head back and forth. He didn’t say a word. He just stood up and followed Daniel out of the room.

Hailey and I sat back down at the table. “Remember in the beginning of the year when I said I’d never seen two people love each other so quietly? About Ryan and Avery?” Hailey asked. I nodded. Her eyes moved toward Daniel, who was walking away. “I stand corrected.”

I leaned in toward her. “Jake told you?” She nodded. I started to explain the complete situation but she cut me off.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me, Ashlyn.” Her eyes watered over and she shrugged. “Friends stick together no matter what. And I told Jake to shut his big mouth and keep it to himself.”

I grimaced. “Yeah, well, I don’t think he has plans to do that.”

“If he cares for you the way Mr. Daniels cares for you, then he’ll shut up.”

It felt like forever since Daniel and Jake had left the cafeteria. And they didn’t return before the lunch period was over. I rushed toward Daniel’s classroom, my heart pounding out of my chest, fear almost eating me up. His door was closed, so I waited across from it as students walked past me, moving on with their lives. But I stayed still.

The door opened and Jake walked out first. I hiccupped when I saw him and rushed to his side. He looked befuddled and walked in a slow pace.

“Jake? Talk to me, please. What happened?”

He looked up to me, his eyes heavy with emotion, and he shrugged. “I think I just fell in love with Mr. Daniels.”

I laughed when I saw him smirk. “Yeah, it has a way of sneaking up on you.”

His brows fell. “You’re really leaving? Going back to Chicago?”

I nodded.

“Look, it’s not because of me saying I would make him pay was it? Because I didn’t know—” He paused. “I didn’t know another human being could care about someone as much as he does you.”

“It’s not because of you, Jake. It’s just life. Life is happening, and I’m allowing myself to happen right along with it.”

“I’ll watch after her,” he promised. “Hailey. I’ll sit with her every day. She won’t eat lunch alone.”

“Thank you, Jake.” I kissed his cheek.

“You’re welcome, Ashlyn.” He put the stress on my name. And I kissed his cheek again.

Chapter 41

We burned together.

We burned for fun.

We burned in front of everyone.

We were the stars.

~ Romeo’s Quest

It was the night before she was heading back to Chicago. After school tomorrow, Ashlyn would be on a train leaving town. I stood near the dock with Gabby’s guitar, staring at the frozen water, my hands jammed into my jeans. Randy had been out to check on me a few times, but I’d told him I would be all right. I had to be. She would hate if I was anything but okay.

The gloom of winter dwelled on everything. I could see it in every breath I took. The music and mystery of the lake was silenced by ice. But the music in her delicate voice sang to me.

“Hey,” Ashlyn whispered, walking behind me. Henry had let her borrow his car to say goodbye to a few people. She’d said that she was only using it to come see me. Her eyelids were hooded. She hadn’t slept a wink last night either.

“Hey,” I smiled, turning her way. She had a box in her hands. My eyes shifted to the small bonfire I’d started up at the request of her. I laughed, “Man, you look hideous. So f**king ugly.”

She smiled wide. “Romancing—you’re doing it right.”

“This sucks,” I sighed, rubbing the back of my neck.

“I know…” We walked over to the fire and she opened the box. “Are you ready?”

I wasn’t. But I picked up my guitar and started playing, singing low.

May the winds be our friends, floating us home.

May tomorrows be the beauty where each soul goes.

“Ryan’s fake cigarette box,” she said, holding it up. She tossed it into the flames and we watched the smoke send off into the air.

May the journey be worth the ultimate death.

May the sweet memories of us never be put to rest…

When she held up the letters from Gabby, I cringed. “Ashlyn, are you sure?”

A tear rolled down her cheek and she nodded, placing them in the fire.

Fine lines between here and there.

Bursting flames ignite the air.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Angels, listen closely now.

I finished strumming on Gabby’s guitar and we stood there, watching the smoke move through the calming, chilly winds. Ashlyn reached into the box and pulled out two pieces of paper and two pens.

“What now?” I asked, moving over to her. She handed me a piece of paper and pen.

“In five years, where do you see yourself?” She looked down at the blank piece of paper. “Write it down. And after I go to college, after you start rebuilding this place…we’ll exchange our notes. Right where we started.”

“You’re so f**king dramatic,” I laughed and frowned at once. But I wrote it down and slid it into my pocket. She did the same.

“I better get going. But I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

She stood still, staring at me. The pull of my soul brought me to her and I wrapped her in my arms. I looked up to the rosy-hued sky that was widening off in the far distance, and I tried my best to not let her go.