“Why are you yelling for them? It’s the middle of the night!”
Despite it being as late as it is, Honor, Utah, and Sagan file into my room one by one. Luck motions to the bed. “Have a seat,” he says to all of them. I look up and Sagan is watching me as he closes the bedroom door.
“Everything okay?” Sagan asks, looking directly at me. I shrug because I have no idea what Luck is up to.
“Sagan,” Luck says. “What happens when you drink milk?”
Sagan releases an unsure laugh. “I don’t drink milk. I’m lactose intolerant.”
I didn’t know he was lactose intolerant, but what does that have to do with anything?
“Do you take medication for it?” Luck asks.
Sagan nods. “Sometimes.”
Luck turns his attention to Utah. “What happens if you go out in the sun for a long time without sunscreen?”
Utah rolls his eyes. “I burn. We aren’t all blessed with skin that tans easily,” he says, nodding toward Sagan.
“And you,” he says to Honor. “Why do you wear contacts and Merit doesn’t?”
“Probably because she has better vision than me, Einstein.”
Luck looks back at me. “They aren’t normal,” he says. “Having depression is no more out of your control than Sagan’s intolerance to milk, or Utah’s pale skin, or Honor’s bad vision. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But it’s not something you can ignore or correct on your own. And it doesn’t make you abnormal. It makes you just as normal as these idiots,” he says, waving toward everyone else.
I can feel my cheeks flush from a combination of the embarrassment and unwanted attention I’m getting right now. But I also can’t stop from smiling because I really do appreciate my idiot step-uncle. I’m kind of glad he showed up when he did.
“I also have athlete’s foot,” Sagan says. I look up at him and he crinkles his nose. “It’s really bad. Especially in the summer.”
I laugh and Honor says, “Hey, speaking of things wrong with us. Remember when Dad was diagnosed with Tourette’s?”
“No way,” Luck says.
“Not the cussing kind,” Utah clarifies. “That’s mostly embellished on TV. He used to have these tics all the time and he’d make these noises with his throat. The doctor said they were brought on by stress, so he took medication for it for a couple of years. Not sure if he still does.”
“See?” Luck says excitedly. “Your whole family suffers from all kinds of things. You shouldn’t feel so special, Merit. We’re all a degree of fucked-up.”
I laugh, but I don’t even know what to say. It feels nice to have their encouragement, no matter how strange it is.
“Merit,” Honor says. She looks at me with a hint of guilt in her expression. “I’m really sorry. I feel like I should have. . .” She shrugs and looks down. “Seen the signs, I guess?”
I shake my head. “Honor, I’m the one who tried to kill myself and I didn’t even know I was depressed.”
Luck leans his head back against the wall. “Merit’s right,” he says. “A lot of people who suffer from depression don’t even know they have it. It’s a gradual change. Or at least it was for me. I used to feel like I was on top of the world. Then one day, I noticed that it felt like I was no longer on top of the world. I was just floating around inside of it. And then eventually, it felt like the world was on top of me.”
I soak in what Luck just said, because it’s like he summed up my entire past year in just a few sentences. I open my mouth to say something, but my voice is cut off by the sudden sound of my father’s voice coming from the hallway. “Merit, you better not have . . .” As soon as the door swings open, my father clamps his mouth shut. I’m assuming he heard voices and thought something more sinister was going on. He looks around at all of us and it’s obvious he wasn’t prepared for this sight. It’s been a long time since Honor, Utah, and I have hung out in the same room.
He hesitates, nods a little and then smiles before closing my bedroom door. We all start to laugh, but he swings it open again and says, “I’m glad you’re all spending time together. But it’s late. Go to bed.”
“It’s a weekend,” Utah groans.
My father raises an eyebrow at Utah and that one look is enough to lift everyone off the bed. Sagan is the last to leave my room. Right before he closes the door, he smiles and says, “You were really easy to like today, Merit.”
I sigh and lie back on my bed. What a night.
What a week.
I turn off my lamp again and try for a second time tonight to shut off my thoughts. I’m finally almost asleep when I hear a soft knock on my door. It’s pitch-black in my room, but when the door cracks open, the light breaks through. Sagan peeks his head through the door. “You asleep yet?” he whispers.
I sit up and reach over to the lamp. “Nope.” My hands are already shaking at all the possibilities of why he’s back. He closes the door and takes a seat on the bed next to me. He isn’t wearing a shirt now. Only a pair of black sweat pants. I sit up, but keep the covers pulled up to my stomach. After everyone left my room earlier, I took off my pajama bottoms. Now I’m only wearing a T-shirt. Put us together, and we could make a whole naked person.
“I had something else to say but I didn’t want to say it in front of all of them,” he says.
“What is it?”
“You said something the other night about how you felt like an asshole after hearing my story.”
I nod. “I did. And I still do.”
He shakes his head. “It bothers me that you think that. You shouldn’t compare your stress to mine. We all have different baselines.”
I stare at him blankly. “What’s that?”
He reaches to me and takes my hand, pulling it to his lap. He turns it palm-up and touches my wrist, drawing an imaginary line across it. “Let’s pretend this is a normal stress level. Your baseline.” He drags his finger up my palm until he reaches the tip of my middle finger. “And let’s pretend this is your max stress level.” He moves his fingers down and touches my wrist again. “Your baseline is where you are on a normal day. Not too much stress, everything is flowing smoothly. But say you break your leg.” He runs his finger from the baseline at my wrist to the middle of my palm. “Your stress level would go up to like fifty percent because you’ve never broken your leg before.”
He releases my hand and flips his own hand over. He looks up at me. “You know how many times I’ve broken a bone?”
I shrug. “Twice?”
“Six times,” he says, smiling. “I was a rambunctious kid.” He touches his wrist and makes an imaginary line across it. “So if I were to break my leg, it would be stressful, but I’ve been through it before. So it would only raise my stress level to like ten percent. Not fifty.” He pauses. “You understand what I’m saying?”
I’m honestly not sure what point he’s trying to make. “Are you saying you’re tougher than me?”
He laughs. “No, Merit. That was only an example. What I’m saying is, the same two things could happen to two people, but that doesn’t mean they would experience the exact same stress over it. We all have different levels of stress that we’re accustomed to. You probably felt the same amount of stress over your family situation as I sometimes do about mine, even though they’re on completely different levels. But that doesn’t make you weaker. It doesn’t make you an asshole. We’re just two different people with two different sets of experiences.” He takes my hand again, but it’s not to prove a point. He just threads his fingers through mine and holds my hand. “It annoys me when people try to convince other people that their anger or stress isn’t warranted if someone else in the world is worse off than them. It’s bullshit. Your emotions and reactions are valid, Merit. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. You’re the only one who feels them.”
He squeezes my hand, and I’m not sure at which point during this conversation I fell for him, but it happened. I may look like I’m casually sitting on a bed next to him, but metaphorically, I’ve melted at his feet.
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