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He’s tolerated it? My heartbeat kicked up in my chest, my blood pressure jumping up. He didn’t have any right to act this way.

“You could have been hurt,” he said, softer this time.

“Yeah, well I wasn’t.” Not physically, anyway. “Stop acting like an overprotective older brother, Brian. Everything’s under control.” I pushed past him on my way to my room.

“That’s all you see me as, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice dropping an octave lower.

Rather than begin a conversation I so didn’t want to have, I closed my bedroom door and mumbled a good-night in his direction. I was supposed to be getting my life together. Taking this job, moving to the city, all of it was supposed to be my fresh start. My do-over. Instead I felt more confused and alone than ever.

I regretted how I’d handled things with Knox tonight. I drove him away, told him not to come back to group. My feelings were too tangled up to properly be his counselor. I knew I was treating him different from anyone else. For all I knew, they could all be carrying on relations outside of class. I was holding him to a higher standard because I liked him. And I wanted him to like me back.

God, I was pathetic.

I had to force myself out of bed in the morning. Some days were tougher than others, and after last night, I wasn’t feeling particularly put together and ready to face the day.

I didn’t know why the sadness hit me harder some days. Maybe it was PMS. Maybe it was the sting of Knox’s rejection, but I sat up in bed, my legs folded underneath me, fighting back tears and wishing I could talk to my mom. Knowing my parents no longer existed in this world was too much to process. The weight of their deaths crashed down on me and made it difficult to breathe. I felt like a massive dinosaur was sitting on my chest. A feeling that everyone told me should have faded by now, but was alive and present. I just needed to keep busy to block out the pain. It helped me carry on when I no longer wanted to.

That was what I focused on as I laced up my tennis shoes and threw my hair into a ponytail. I was meeting Belinda for coffee this morning to discuss the progress of my group, and then I was headed to a shelter to volunteer. I couldn’t keep running off to see Knox. He wasn’t someone to rely on. He was sick and needed help, and I would help him the best I could. I had only myself to rely on. Which was why I’d signed up to be part of a cleaning crew, wiping down cots and mattresses, scrubbing toilets, and mopping floors at the shelter today. If that didn’t distract me from thoughts of Knox and this dangerous game I was playing with him, nothing would.

When I arrived at Cup O’ Brew, I found Belinda already seated in a comfy armchair at the back of the café. I waved to her, and then ordered a hot chocolate at the counter. I even splurged and got whipped cream, hoping the extra sugar would help elevate my mood.

My insides were burning with curiosity, wondering if Knox had gone out looking for a girl after I’d left. Of course he had. Why wouldn’t he? And I shouldn’t feel the things I did. It would have been normal to be worried about his safety, his health, his mental wellness. Instead I felt a combination of jealousy and regret. Maybe if I’d stayed and talked to him, he’d have chosen me instead of the path he went down. It was all I’d thought about since last night, and I had the dark circles under my eyes to prove it.

Carrying my paper cup, I crossed the room to meet Belinda.

“You look well.” She rose and gave me a brief hug.

I was good at hiding how miserable and alone I felt. And at knowing how to apply under-eye concealer to cover up the fact I’d spent the night tossing and turning.

“Thanks. You do too. I love your scarf.”

The truth was Belinda went completely overboard with accessories. Bright pink hoop earrings, a rabbit brooch on her sweater, a colorful scarf wrapped around her neck, and a giant purple handbag. It was enough color to give me a headache. I slid into the wide leather armchair across from her and took a sip of my hot chocolate.

“Tell me how it’s going leading the new group.”

I fidgeted with my cup, like Belinda would somehow read my thoughts and know all I thought about these days was Knox. “It’s going well. I have about twelve regular members and occasionally get drop-ins too.” I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to hear. Did she want updates on each individual and their progress?

“Good. And how about participation?”

“Participation in class is average. Some talk more than others, those who are quiet pay attention thought and often nod along.” Except Knox; he only shares when we’re alone together.

Belinda took a notebook from her giant purse and flipped it open to scribble something down. “And engagement with fellow group members? How’s that?”

“Engagement?” I had no idea what she meant.

“Do they support each other, do they mingle after group is over and talk? Exchange phone numbers? Things like that.”

“Oh. Um, no, not really.” Most people fled the room as soon as the hour was up, like they were desperate to get away.

“It’s something I’d like you to encourage. This is their group. They are there to support each other. It’s your job to connect them, encourage them to build friendships inside the group.”

I looked at Belinda, wondering how I’d accomplish that. My mind flashed to Knox again and I imagined partnering him up with Bill or Donald for sharing time, and knew that wouldn’t work. But why was I even thinking of that when I’d told Knox not to bother coming back? Feelings of overwhelming guilt pierced through me, and I struggled to remain composed.


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