I may have never stopped.

“Why is she back?” I asked him. “There has to be a reason.”

Gunner shrugged. “That’s her secret. If she wants to tell us, she will. Until then, it’s her secret to keep.”

He sounded almost defensive of her. Like he was telling me to back off. I’d been talked to like this before where Willa was concerned. When we were kids, he never let me get too close. There was always a protective wall he held around her, and God forbid anyone get too close.

“I’m worried about her. Her eyes are sad and guarded.”

Gunner didn’t respond immediately. He looked as if his thoughts had gone far away from here. Almost distant. I waited to see if he’d respond, and when I had almost given up on him, he turned to me. “Not everyone’s life is like yours. There are some things people don’t want to share. It’s how they survive.”

At that Gunner walked away. He didn’t want to hear what I had to say in response, and I was glad because I didn’t have anything. For starters, how the hell was my life different from his, except he had a shit ton of money? We both had married parents and good home lives. Neither of us had seen abuse or been neglected. Well, maybe emotionally Gunner had suffered neglect, but it wasn’t all bad. Ms. Ames was always there to mother him when he needed it.

After Willa had left, we stayed closed at first. Then we began to drift. I wasn’t sure why, but Gunner pulled away from me for a time. Football and field parties eventually brought us closer again, but things had never really been the same since she left. We’d been closer then. He had been my best friend before then. I thought of West as my best friend now. I talked to West about things Gunner just didn’t seem interested in.

Having Willa back reminded me of how things once were. She had been such a big part of our childhood. Being around her again brought it all back.

Willa was dealing with real shit. She’d never had it easy. I knew she thought of herself as a burden to her mother. I had seen it in her eyes and the way she said things. The way she tried so hard to make her nonna proud of her. The day she’d told me she was moving to Arkansas to live with her mother I had wanted to be happy for her. But I’d been heartbroken instead.

That hadn’t been roses for her there, either. I could see that in the girl she had become. I hated her mother. I’d only seen her once, and even as a child I knew she was beautiful. But that didn’t make me hate her less. She had made Willa feel unwanted.

“You waiting on me?” Ivy’s voice broke into my thoughts. She was something else I really needed to deal with. I knew it was obvious that I watched Willa. To everyone but Willa. But I didn’t want to hurt Ivy, either. Until Willa walked back into town, I had been perfectly happy doing whatever it was me and Ivy were doing. Which, to be honest, we were mostly just fucking. But still. She was a sweet girl.

I couldn’t keep doing that though. Not with Willa being on my brain all the time. It wasn’t fair to Ivy. I had to work through what this was I felt for Willa, and if friendship was all we would ever have. Until then I needed my freedom to find out.

Gunner wanted nothing more than friendship. He wasn’t mentally capable of being what Willa needed or deserved. He was the good-time guy, not the guy to lean on. Even if he was different with Willa.

“I was just talking to Gunner. Heading to my next class,” I told her, not wanting to give her false hope.

Her smile fell, but I’d been nice about the truth. “Oh” was her response.

I should have felt bad about that. I just didn’t seem to have the energy to feel anything about her at all. Which didn’t say a lot about me as a person. I was letting myself down. Typically I was a better guy than this.

Nothing but Disappointment

CHAPTER 13

WILLA

The thickness of hilarity hangs over me, and I move slowly through the room. Poppy’s house is always my favorite escape. There is no sense of annoyance from my being here. I’m accepted and free of the pain that always haunts me. Even my stepfather’s disgusted glare that I’m met with every day when he returns from work seems funny right now as I think about it and him. The world is my playground, and I shall play in it. I giggle loudly, and Bo, Poppy’s boyfriend, looks up at me from his spot on the worn leather sofa and smiles. It’s crooked and sweet, like Bo. Poppy is lucky to have Bo. He is sincere, fun, kind—but best of all he never fails to supply the good stuff.

Bo’s older brother sells pot, and he makes sure Bo gets the best when we all pitch in and buy some. We can count on him for nights like this. Sometimes days like this. Poppy’s parents are rarely home. They both work long hours at the restaurant they own in town, and Poppy has to always stay home and keep an eye on her younger sister. Which is funny too. Not sure why it’s funny, but I laugh again.

The room is almost weightless as I float by and then stop to pick up the vodka Sprite that Poppy fixed me. Bo’s brother also bought us a bottle of vodka. I drink the sweet mixture, glad that Poppy put so much Sprite in it. I don’t like the taste of alcohol much, but it sure makes me feel happy. So happy.

The yellow walls of the kitchen are too bright, so I turn off the lights and begin searching for the cheese balls I saw earlier in the pantry. I love cheese balls and all their fattening goodness. “Where’s the cheese balls?” I yell from the corner of the pantry.

“I got ’em,” Poppy calls back, so I stumble out of the pantry, only falling on my ass once and laughing so hard I have to curl up in a ball on the split-brick floor. The cold brick feels good to my face, so I rub it around, letting my cheek be soothed.

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