“I think I would have liked her.”
I run my fingers through her hair, loving the sweet peach scent of her. “You would have loved her. She was sassy, just like you.”
“You think I’m sassy?”
“Baby, I was trying to be polite. I think you’re a lot more than sassy.”
She laughs. “I don’t know if I should be insulted or not.”
“Never.” I want to kiss her, but my shoulder makes it difficult to move around, so I settle for squeezing her more tightly against me. “I think you’re amazing.”
She squeezes back. “I think you’re pretty amazing, too.” She waits for a minute or two, just lying there against me, before she asks, “What about your mom?”
“Fuck. You really are ripping open every f**king wound I’ve got.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t find anything on her in the paper, so—”
“My mom killed herself exactly one year after my sister disappeared. She climbed into the bathtub and slit her wrists while my dad was on a business trip. I found her when I got home from school.”
“Jesus Christ, Z.”
I don’t say anything else. Neither does she. At least not for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything to say.
Finally, when I can’t take the silence any longer, I tell her, “I’m sorry about the competition. It was a stupid thing to do.”
She nods, doesn’t even pretend to disagree. In fact, she doesn’t say anything else for a long time, so long that I think she might have fallen asleep. I’m starting to drift myself, high on painkillers, when she whispers, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Suddenly I’m wide awake again. “Don’t,” I tell her.
“Why not? Somebody has to. What happened to April wasn’t your fault. It just happened, Z. The way terrible shit sometimes happens. There are all kinds of psychos in the world. You aren’t responsible for what they do.”
“Your mother was lost. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine how devastating April’s death was to her. She was lost and sad and miserable after April and she made a selfish, selfish decision. She let herself drown in the pain. That’s all. Still not your fault.”
“If I hadn’t gone to the bathroom—”
“If you hadn’t gone to the bathroom, that bastard might have gotten you, too. Then you’d be dead right along with April. Is that what you really want?”
“I wish it had been me,” I whisper, voicing the words I’ve never dared to say out loud before. The words that have been my mantra, the words that for so long have been my reason for being. I wish with everything inside me that it had been me that day in November and not April.
“I know. But it wasn’t.” She burrows into me, kisses my neck. “It wasn’t, and I will thank God every day that it wasn’t. I love you, Z. I love everything about you, and the idea that you might have died, that you might not exist in this world—I can’t even imagine it.”
It’s her turn to cry, my turn to comfort. Except it turns out I’m still crying a little, too. Eleven years I didn’t cry, and now that I have this beautiful, beautiful girl in my arms, I can’t seem to stop.
She doesn’t seem to care, though, as she runs her lips over my cheeks and jaw and nose and forehead. “Promise me,” she tells me in between kisses.
She stops, looks me in the eye. “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask yet.”
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t you know I’d do anything for you?”
“Promise me that when you start to feel like this again, you’ll talk to me. That you’ll tell me what you’re feeling so we can work through it together.”
“I’m not—I’m not very good at the together thing, in case you haven’t noticed. Or the talking thing.”
“Believe me,” she says with a fake glare, “I’ve noticed. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you promise never to shut me out again. Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you need to do to cope with it, I’ll deal with, too. I swear, I will. But you have to talk to me. You have to trust me to be there for you the way you are for me.”
I don’t jump in with a rash promise again, but I think that’s okay. I think she wants me to think about what she’s asking. Because we both know she’s asking a lot. And I don’t know if I’m strong enough to give it to her. I really don’t. But I know I want to try. She’s my everything, and if hurting myself means hurting her, then I’m going to have to find another way to cope. Because I never want to hurt her like this again.
“You’ll probably have to drag it out of me sometimes.”
“And I’ll probably be grumpy as f**k about it. I don’t like being vulnerable, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“And I’ll probably never be completely normal.”
She laughs. “Baby, that possibility was never even on the table.”
“And yet you’re still here.”
“That’s what you don’t get, Z. As long as you try, as long as you don’t shut me out, I will never not be here. No matter how bad or how good it gets, I will always be right here next to you.”
It’s a big promise—a huge one, really—but for the first time in over a decade, I’ve found someone to believe in. Someone to believe. It’s more than I ever thought I’d have, and for now … for now, it’s more than enough.
“You’ve got this, baby.”
“I know.” I smile at Ophelia, lean down so she can give me a kiss for luck. It’s the last day of the Dew tour, the first of three Olympic qualifying events. I’m the top-ranked boarder going into the finals, with Ash ranked third and Luc ranked tenth.
Cam just finished the women’s final with a third-place ranking, so to say we’re all a little excited would probably be an understatement. Ophelia’s at least as excited as the rest of us, maybe even more. I know she’s certainly more nervous. Not that I blame her. I think there will always be a part of her that’s waiting for me to mess up. Then again, I could just be projecting my own shit onto her.
I nearly laugh at the thought. After spending so many years trying to stay out of my own head, now I’m voluntarily diving in, thanks to Ophelia—and to the damn shrink she’s talked me into seeing once a week. It’s not easy, and I f**king suck at talking about my feelings and shit. But still, I’m trying. For Ophelia. And maybe, just maybe, for me, too.
I give her another kiss, this one more because I can’t keep my hands off her than because I think I need luck. At first I think she’s going to duck away—a million or so people are watching us, after all—but not my girl. Instead of pulling back, she wraps her arms around me and kisses me for all she’s worth. Her body melts into mine, her br**sts press against my chest, and suddenly the run I need to throw down in a few minutes is the last thing on my mind.
“Z. We need to go.” Ash’s voice barely penetrates.
I tangle my hands in Ophelia’s hair, tilt her head back so that I can deepen the kiss. She tastes as sweet as ever—a mixture of the ever-present peaches and the caramel-flavored coffee she just finished.
I slide my tongue along hers and she moans, her arms tightening around my neck until our bodies are pressed as tightly together as they can get.
“Okay, seriously.” Behind me, Ash clears his throat. “We need to get up there.”
I’m still not listening, but Ophelia sighs, pulls away. “Go,” she says, pushing me toward the lift. “Do a bunch of turns and stuff.”
“Really? Still with that?” I shake my head. It’s embarrassing, really, how little she knows about snowboarding. I’m definitely going to have to do something about that.
“What do you want me to say?” she asks. Before I can answer, she continues, “Oh, right. Have a sick ride. And while you’re at it, I want to see at least one YOLO flip and a triple cork 1260. Got it?”
My mouth drops open. “How did you—”
She just smiles. “I’m dating one of the best snowboarders in the world. The least I could do is learn a little bit about the sport.”
“Yeah, but a YOLO flip? Do you even know what that is?”
“It’s a cab double cork 1440. Which means you get to do a whole lot of those little spinny things you like to do.” She leans forward, drops another kiss on my mouth, then turns around and heads toward the stands.
“You’re just going to walk away?”
She stops, turns back. “I think you’ve got a competition to win, don’t you? And I need to go find Ash’s family.”
“They’re not here yet?” Ash asks, looking surprised as he scans the crowd.
“They probably are. I just haven’t found them yet.”
“Come on, guys. Let’s go.” Luc shoves us toward the magic carpet. “We’ve got shit to do.”
We do. We really do.
With a last wave at Ophelia—yeah, I’m whipped, and no, I don’t give a shit—I climb onto the lift, wait impatiently for it to take us to the top. This time I am not going to choke. I need to prove it to myself as much as I do Ophelia and my friends.
Since I’m ranked first, I’m boarding last, which means I get to watch everyone else go. Jake, the kid from Colorado, throws up a good score, and then Gage, from Taos, comes out of nowhere and blasts straight into first place with a triple cork 1440. He just f**king nails it. Luc throws down a good run, but again, this isn’t his event, so he’s happy when he lands in sixth place.
Then it’s Ash’s turn and his run is flawless. Fucking flawless. He doesn’t pull a 1440, but his 1260s are perfect and he slides right past Gage into first.
Then it’s my turn. The pressure isn’t totally on yet. I have one more run in case I f**k this one up—we all do—but I want to nail it so bad I can taste it. I scan the crowd in the stands, find Ophelia’s silly pink-and-purple-striped hat.
That little glimpse is all I need, the extra bit of reassurance that settles nerves I never knew I had and gets me down to business. I shove off and jump onto the top of the dumpster they’ve got set up for us to ride. I spin off that, hit the ramp into a solid double back rodeo. The landing’s perfect, and I coast backward down two sets of rails, adding in a little flip at the bottom of the second one for the hell of it.
I can hear the crowd cheering, but I can barely hear it above the adrenaline rush. I’ve got this. I can feel it in my f**king boots. I’ve got this.
I hit the second ramp, pull off a nice little triple cork 1260 for my girl, do another rail, and push my speed as I head into the big ramp that marks the end of the run. I hit it hard, grab decent air, and that’s when I bust out with the YOLO flip. For a second, just a second, I think I’m not going to land it. That this has all been a dream and I’m going to f**k it up like I’ve f**ked up so many other things.
But then Ophelia’s face flashes in front of me, her eyes shining a bright, bright emerald, and I know that it’s all real. That it’s all good.
I land like a dream, then coast down to the bottom of the hill as the crowd goes crazy.
Ash and Luc are waiting for me at the rope line, and they f**king jump on me the second I’m clear. “Holy shit!” Ash screams. “Holy shit!”
“You did it!” Luc yells. “You f**king did it!”
“The score’s not in yet.” But it doesn’t matter. It’s going to be good. We all know it. I barged that run. I f**king barged it.