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“But?” she supplied, a trace of sarcasm in her voice.

“But…I f**k random girls. I use them for sex. I’m not a good guy. You shouldn’t be so nice to me.”

“You’ve made bad choices. You’ve messed up. But you’re not a bad guy. I see the way you are with your brothers, and attending group, that’s your way of trying to get better. You’re not going to scare me off so easily, Knox.”

My participation in her little meetings was practically court-mandated, and honestly, the only reason I’d continued going was because of my attraction to her. The waitress appeared again, this time to collect our half-eaten meals.

“Will you tell me more about how this all started,” she asked.

“What do you want to know?”

She shrugged, looking down at the vinyl-covered table. “Whatever you want to share.”

McKenna passed me the box of crayons and I chuckled, flipping over my own place mat to the blank white side. “Is this some type of counseling technique, drawing out your feelings?”

“No.” She laughed, her tone light. “I just like to color.”

I plucked a crayon from the box, noticing it was pink. But I wouldn’t complain about the choice in color. If this was what she wanted, I would try to get in touch with my softer side. I wasn’t ready to tell her everything, but after the day we’d shared—scrubbing shit off cots—I felt more open with her than anyone else.

“When my dad left, everything fell on me. I got a part-time job and took care of the boys. It would have been easier to drop out of school and get a full-time job, but I was set on finishing up my senior year. I knew I needed to graduate or I’d never be able to really provide for them.”

I scribbled something on the paper in front of me, not really paying attention to what I was drawing. “All week I went to school, worked, put food on the table, and at night, I made sure homework got done, supervised bath time, enforced rules and curfews. And I had to put up with strange looks at parent-teacher conferences and doctors’ appointments. Eventually I applied for legal guardianship.”

McKenna’s eyes stayed downcast on her own page, which made opening up easier somehow. She passed me another crayon, green this time, and I continued drawing – little crooked designs that made no sense but seemed to calm me.

“By the time Saturday night rolled around, I’d wait until the boys were in bed and I’d go down the road to the corner bar, where they never carded, and grab a few beers to relax. Then I’d find a pretty girl to sink into to forget my troubles.” There was more, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it.

McKenna sucked in a deep breath, temporarily pausing in her drawing.

I wouldn’t sugarcoat this. If she wanted in, I would let her see the true me, faults and all.

“I did what was expected of me. I take care of my brothers, pay the bills, follow up on homework. But at night, after everyone goes to bed, the emptiness and loneliness become too much. I need relief and that’s how I seek it.”

McKenna

I couldn’t believe he was telling me all this. In group, he was all penetrating gazes and silent intensity. But one-on-one, he was making himself vulnerable to me. I was straddling the line between being me—a regular girl who was interested in a guy, and a counselor who wanted to help him heal. I had no idea which one of us would win out.

Knox slapped a few bills down on the table, enough to cover both our meals.

“I can pay for myself.” I reached inside my purse for my wallet.

“Next time.”

I didn’t know if there would be a next time, but I nodded. “Okay.”

“Should we go?”

“Sure.” I rose from the booth and stretched, my back straightening reluctantly. I smiled, realizing I would sleep well tonight from the day’s manual labor.

I figured Knox was going to drive me straight home after we ate, but he surprised me by asking if I would go somewhere with him. I blindly agreed without knowing our destination. When he pulled to a stop in front of a deserted playground, I waited, unsure of what we were doing here.

“Come on. This place has the best slide in the world.”

I watched in fascination as he climbed from the Jeep and headed toward the playground. I’d never seen him in a mood so playful and carefree. He was captivating.

“Knox! Wait up,” I called, jogging behind him. He sat down on a swing and I joined him, each of us toeing the gravel to gain momentum.

He looked lost in his thoughts, and though there were a million questions I wanted to ask him, I waited, letting him enjoy the quiet moment he seemed to be having. We swung side by side, looking out at the park.

“I haven’t been here in almost twenty years,” he said finally. “I must have been about three when my mother worked in this part of town. She used to drop me off at this Russian lady’s house while she went to work. Sometimes after work when she picked me up, we’d come here before going home.”

I realized with Jaxon being four years younger, Knox would have been an only child at that time. It was sweet that he had memories of just him and his mom. I wondered if thinking of her made him sad, like it did for me. We sat in silence, swinging until the sky was growing pink with the impending sunset.

“So is that the famous slide?” I asked, tipping my head toward the monstrosity.

There didn’t appear to be anything special about it. It was an old rusted-out metal slide, but I could tell in Knox’s mind, it was somewhere sacred he’d built fond memories with his mom. And I wouldn’t question it. I had my own version of this slide built up in my mind too.

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