I wrap my arms around his neck and hold on tight, even after we get to his patio. I’m sure he wants to put me down, to show me the door as quickly as he can. But I’m not ready to let go yet, not ready to give up the strange and powerful comfort that comes from just being held in his arms.
Ethan makes no move to put me down. Instead, he crosses to one of the many long outdoor sofas that make up the different seating arrangements out here. He sinks down onto it, keeping me on his lap. In his arms. And then he starts to rock me like a child.
The dam inside me bursts, and emotions—dark, messy, devastating—come pouring out in all directions. I don’t know how to stop them. I can’t stop them, not anymore.
Unable to do anything else, I bury my face in Ethan’s chest and give in to the harsh, ugly sobs that threaten to tear me in two.
I don’t know how long I sit there wrapped up in Ethan’s arms as emotions I no longer have control over tear through me.
Long enough for the last remnants of day to fade to twilight and twilight to fade to inky darkness.
Long enough for the lingering warmth of the afternoon to give way to the chill that comes with early summer evenings on the beach.
More than long enough for the tide to roll in on the sand below us.
In a moment of clarity, I think of Ethan’s surfboards, of the wetsuits and the picnic basket and the towels, and I wonder if any of them are still there. Or if the ocean has swept in and carried them away in its endless, inexorable grasp.
For years, I wished that it would do that to me. That the ocean would push onto the desolate stretch of beach I used to roam all through high school and cover me. Envelop me. Pull me down, drag me under, carry me away from the taunts, the threats, the hate. Carry me away from him.
I haven’t felt that way in a while. Not since I graduated from high school and moved to San Diego. Not since I got away from my parents, from that damn boarding school, from Brandon.
Yet at this moment I’m right back there. Looking out at that endless stretch of ocean and wishing, praying, to be swept away. To be dragged under.
It’s not fair. Why now, when everything is going right? I have school, real friends, a job that challenges me, Ethan. It should be enough. God knows it’s more than I’ve ever had before.
And yet somehow, it isn’t enough. Because underneath all the polish, all the gloss, all the layers I’ve built up, I’m just as messed up as I’ve always been. I hate thinking that. Hate even more that it’s true.
I’ve spent three years here in San Diego, hiding, pretending to the world that all that matters is who and what I am now. It almost worked, too. Until Ethan came along. Why he brings it all back I’ll never know, not when he’s been nothing but wonderful to me.
Eventually the tears stop. So do the self-recrimination and even the sadness. In their place is only numbness, a blank emptiness inside me that I’m afraid will never be filled again.
Long minutes pass. I know I should muster up the energy to move, to apologize, to do something. But there’s nothing there, not when it’s taking every ounce of energy I have to just be. To just breathe.
Ethan waits patiently. He doesn’t shift, doesn’t talk, doesn’t betray impatience with me or the situation in any way. He just holds me. Rocks me. Strokes my hair. And I know if I could feel anything, it would be gratitude.
The thought has me stirring a little, just enough to lift my head and say, “Thank you.” It seems the appropriate thing to do.
But Ethan stiffens against me, his entire body going rigid between one moment and the next. “What did you say?”
“Don’t say that again.” For the first time, I hear anger in his voice. “Don’t you fucking say that to me again.”
“I’m sorry.” The harshness of his tone gets to me, makes me nervous and has me squirming to get free. For the first time, he hangs on, refusing to let go.
“Jesus! Don’t say that, either.”
The first lick of anger works its way in past the numbness. “What should I say, then?”
“Anything else. Anything but thank you. Anything but that you’re sorry.”
I shove away, harder this time, and Ethan gets the message. He gently sets me down next to him on the couch. I don’t want to look at him, don’t want to see the pity and the disgust in his eyes, but he doesn’t give me a choice. His face is just there, in front of me. His gaze direct, relentless, demanding that I meet it.
So I do. It hurts, but I learned long ago that everything hurts. I ignore the pain and do it anyway. “I don’t know what you want to hear.”
“I want you to tell me the truth.”
My blood runs cold. It’s been so long since I’ve heard those words, so long since I even let myself think about what the truth really is. “No, you don’t. Nobody does.”
I shake my head. I can’t. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“You start by trusting me.” Again, I shake my head, but Ethan cuts me off before I can say anything else. “I know that’s asking a lot. I know you’ve been hurt. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you to trust me with this part of you. But I need you to. I need to know what happened to you. And I need you to know that whatever it is, whatever you tell me, isn’t going to change things.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do.” His voice is as resolute as the look in his eyes. “I promise you, Chloe. I promise you. It doesn’t matter what you say. I’m not going anywhere.”
I don’t want to believe him. Because if I do, if I lay myself open in front of him and he walks away—or worse, doesn’t believe me—it will destroy me. I’ll fall to so many pieces that this time I won’t even be able to pretend that they fit together.
I’ve been fine in the five years since it happened because I’ve put it away. I’ve shoved all my pain and rage and hate down so deep inside myself that I almost forget it’s there. I survive because I believe the lie. If I do what he asks, if I bring the whole sordid mess back up to the surface, I’m terrified I’ll never be able to shove it back down again.
Though it’s the last thing I want to do, I drag my eyes back up to his. I can’t help it, can’t resist. Not when he says my name in that tone. Not when he looks at me the way he is right now.
And though it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—harder than facing my mom and dad after it happened, harder even than signing that damn piece of paper that Brandon’s family demanded—I take a deep breath and a leap of faith, and do exactly what Ethan asks of me.
“I was fifteen. Young and stupid and desperate to make friends. To have a shot at a normal life. We moved around a lot when I was young, never stayed in one place more than a few months. My dad was not exactly what you would call great at keeping a regular job.” Which is pretty much the understatement of the year, but there’s no need to get into that, too. The story about Brandon is more than enough to spring on Ethan right now.
“We moved to Boston when I was fourteen because there was a job opportunity my dad couldn’t pass up. It wasn’t a great job, at least not at first, so we pretty much lived in this crappy house in this crappy school district where we barely had enough desks, let alone books. It was ridiculous. Not to mention dangerous—there was a lot the school cops and metal detectors didn’t catch.
“I didn’t feel safe, not with the way that some of the guys talked to me or looked at me when I walked by them. Some of them had no problem touching, either, even if they’d never even talked to me. Girls were a commodity in a lot of ways, and guys thought they could treat us however they wanted. The administration had enough trouble keeping the guns out of school and the rival gangs from killing each other. They didn’t have much time or effort left to worry about anything less than actual assault.
“I didn’t know what to do, what to say to keep them away from me, and I didn’t have any friends to watch my back. I complained to my dad, but he said to just ignore them. That it wouldn’t be for much longer, just until the money started rolling in.
“But I’d heard that same story a million times through the years, and it never quite worked out the way my parents thought it would. Sure, now they had my brother and his brilliant ideas, but even the best ideas take financial backing. That’s what my dad was working on, or so he said. In the meantime, I was supposed to keep my head down and not cause trouble. I did my best, but there was always some other guy who thought he could slap my ass, brush an arm over my breasts. Who thought he could touch me whether I wanted him to or not.”
A breeze comes off the ocean and I shiver, though I don’t know if it’s because I’m cold or because of the story I’m telling. Probably a little bit of both. I don’t want to do this. Already I can feel the rage festering inside me—an angry wound just waiting for a chance to poison everything it touches. My new life. The internship. Ethan. Just the thought has me wanting to give up now, before I’ve barely begun.
But there’s Ethan, watching me with his steady, patient eyes. Holding me with his strong, tender hands. How can I not tell him when he so obviously needs me to?
The breeze gets stronger and I start to shiver in earnest now. He doesn’t say a word—probably afraid I’ll take any out to postpone the next few minutes—but he reaches into the outdoor chest that doubles as a coffee table and pulls out a blanket. He carefully wraps it around me, then picks me up and settles me back on his lap.
“I’m okay,” I tell him.
“I know you are.” His smile is full of gentle reassurance. “But I’m not sure I am. And I really need to be holding you if you’re about to tell me what I think you are.”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m not stupid enough to turn down a hug.”
“Good.” His arms go around me, pull me closer until my body is flush against his. As he does, I rest my head on his chest for just a second, draw reassurance from the strong, steady beat of his heart beneath my ear. I can do this, I tell myself. It’s just a matter of stringing one word in front of the other until the whole story gets told.
“Even then, I knew I wanted something more than the life my parents had. More than living from bad job to bad job, crappy paycheck to crappy paycheck. Back then I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but either way—doctor, lawyer—I wasn’t going to get into a good college if I stayed at that shit hole of a school. Or so I thought. Add to that the fact that I felt unsafe every time I passed through the front doors…trying to get out of there was a no-brainer.
“So I started researching all the private schools in the area, finding out which ones offered scholarships. I found a few that weren’t that far away from my neighborhood—it would take two buses for me to get there every day, but it seemed a small price to pay to get out of the school I was in. To guarantee a better future for myself.
“All in all, I applied to seven schools. I made it to the interview process in four, and actually gained admittance—with a full scholarship—to three. I’d never felt more proud. I had gotten great test scores, aced the interviews, and for the first time in my life I had a chance at a normal life. Maybe even a better-than-normal life. Even my parents were excited, my dad certain that the contacts my admittance brought him would be good for his business. As if he had a business to talk about back then.”
I take a deep breath, focus on prying my hands out of fists so tightly clenched my nails are leaving half-moon grooves in my palms. So far, everything I’ve told him has been backstory, but the hard stuff is about to begin.
“I started at the academy the first day of my sophomore year. I was nervous, afraid no one would want anything to do with me because I was a scholarship kid. But to my relief, I fit in pretty well. I made a few friends that first week, and pretty soon I’d attracted the attention of one of the most popular seniors in the school.” I laugh, but it’s a sound devoid of mirth. Nothing that happened next is the least bit funny. At least not to me.
“I should have known better. What was a guy like that—popular, smart, funny, rich, gorgeous—doing with me? At the time I didn’t stop to think about it, but now I wish I had.” Now I wish I’d said no.
“Anyway, we went out a few times. He seemed nice. My parents liked him. He treated me right—or at least I thought he did. In retrospect I can see all the control games he played on me, all the times he messed with me just because he could. Because no one had ever told him he couldn’t do exactly what he wanted when he wanted to do it.
“Every time we went out, he’d push for more. First base, second base, even third base wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to fuck me, and he really didn’t give a shit how I felt about that.”