I leaned against the counter, watching them munch on crackers and listening to stories about school. Tucker wandered away after having his fill, and I brushed the crumbs he left behind into the sink.
“Is everything okay, Knox? I heard screaming coming from your room the other night,” Jaxon asked.
Jaxon was the most like me, which meant he was also the most suspicious, especially after my arrest for a DUI. I could understand their concern. I was the only guardian they had—I couldn’t go off the deep end like that again. And I refused to let them down; that would make me no better than our father.
Embarrassed, I scrubbed a hand over my face. “No. But it will be. In fact, I wanted to tell you that I’ve begun attending a class Saturday mornings to put my life back on track.”
“Is it the anger management class the judge wanted you to take?” Luke, my seventeen-year-old brother asked. His watchful eyes waited for my response.
With Tucker in his bedroom, playing superheroes by the sound of it, I figured Luke and Jaxon were old enough to know the truth. I didn’t shield them from much. To me, that was no different than lying. My father was a liar, and I didn’t care to walk in his footsteps in any regard.
I took a deep breath. The first step was admitting you had a problem, right? “The counselor actually wants me to attend a group for people with sexual addiction. She thought my history with girls was…too much.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Jaxon asked, a hint of a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. He was way too much like me. And the several high school girls I’d found crying at our doorstep proved his track record was already eerily similar to mine.
I needed to find a way to get through to him. But I guess getting my own life on track was the first step.
Friday nights were the hardest for me. I had thought moving to Chicago would be my chance to break free, the beginning of a grand and exciting adventure. But so far, my life here had been anything but.
I worked, I volunteered, and I went home to the quiet little apartment I shared with Brian. Then I’d change into my pajamas and heat up a can of soup for dinner each night while watching sitcom reruns in my bedroom. When I thought about how different my life was from that of other girls my age, it didn’t even seem like we were on the same planet. Going out dancing, dating, going to clubs…all of it felt so far out of reach for me.
I had always thought there would be time for fun later, like I was in a holding pattern waiting for my real life to start. As if all this was temporary. Someday I’d meet someone, forgive myself, and all the stress and guilt I carried around with me would suddenly vanish. I knew it didn’t work that way, but it was a pretty thought.
While I was growing up, school and grades had always been more important than boys and parties. Plus, I was what you’d call a late bloomer. Braces and glasses hampered my social life throughout high school, as well as a layer of acne, thanks to the greasy pizza place I worked at after school. After the accident, a social life and dates to dances were the last things I cared about. It had all been about surviving.
Needing some independence from the little Indiana town where I grew up, I’d jumped at the chance when I was offered a job in Chicago to counsel troubled teens. Besides, there was nothing for me back in Indiana anymore.
After my parents passed away tragically in a car accident my senior year of high school, I’d stayed with my friend Brian and his parents so I could finish the school year. Each day I kept my head down and did what was expected of me, then each night I cried myself to sleep. After graduation, I attended a local community college and continued living with Brian’s parents, even when he moved two hours away to go to Indiana University.
I had moved to Chicago to be free, to start over. But of course that wasn’t possible. My past followed me, just like it always would. Brian decided to relocate along with me, saying he would never let me fend for myself alone in the big city. Even though that had been exactly what I’d wanted. A fresh start where no one knew me as the sad little orphaned girl.
Did I want to live with Brian? No, but affording my own place in Chicago was out of the question. We’d found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, so at least we each had our own space. There was also a large kitchen and living room, and a small den where we put a breakfast table and my bookshelves. Brian had painted it a sunny yellow for me, even though we’d have to change it back to white when we moved out, per the landlord’s orders.
I should have been grateful, but his presence was a constant reminder of what had happened. Of who I’d become. I was living as a shell of my former self without any idea how to break free.
I pushed all that from my mind when I heard Brian knock at my bedroom door. Fixing on a pleasant smile, I pulled it open and stepped out into the hall. “Hi.”
“Hey, you.” He pulled me warmly into a hug, and I didn’t fight it. It was the only physical affection I got. And Brian was comfortable, like your favorite tennis shoes. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yep.” I grabbed my purse from the counter and looped it around my body.
Brian had bought a Groupon for a painting class tonight, and invited me along. He knew I wasn’t a go-out-and-party type, and his attempts at taking me out to dinner had failed too. It felt too much like a date, so we stuck to simple activities like this. Safe. Platonic. The story of my life.
When I thought about my meeting in the morning, the prospect of seeing Knox again sent a little thrill through me, making my belly dance with nerves. All week while I worked with the teen girls at the center, I’d felt like a hypocrite. I counseled them about not making their whole life about a guy, yet here I was, all my waking thoughts consumed by the mystery that was Knox Bauer.
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