Axis

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August 10th

“ABSOLUTLEY NOT. NO WAY.”

“Lexi, come on! Just for a little while, for me. You can leave whenever you want.”

“I really don’t belong there, and you know it.”

Jasper sighs, clearly frustrated. Apparently he’s known for a few weeks now that nearly everyone who’s anyone in our grade is throwing him an official going away bonfire at Ethan Schultz’ place while his parents are away on some business venture. It isn’t explicitly said, but I know exactly what that entails. This is more than a casual going away thing for Jasper; it’s a party. Complete with a keg, smuggled bottles of vodka, and the rich glow of teen drama and secrecy. None of which I take any interest in.

Besides, nobody really wants me there. This is for Jasper, and it’s meant for everyone who isn’t me to get a proper goodbye. Because for a lot of these people, tonight will be the last time they will ever see their treasured friend. They don’t need me there taking away from that.

“You know what, Lex? I’m not giving you a choice. You’re coming,” Jasper says, immutable finality in his voice. “Fight me on this all you want, I’m not letting you miss out on this this time.”

Annoyance creeps up under my skin. He doesn’t get to dictate what I do. Parties aren’t my thing, and even if they were, I don’t want to go behind Aunt Colleen’s back, making false excuses about a hangout with people who aren’t my friends at a place where alcohol is bound to be present. I don’t like lying to Aunt Colleen, period. And the fact that Jasper thinks he can peer pressure me into this kind of irritates me.

“I don’t want to go, okay? Pretty sure I get a choice in regards to what I do with my life.” Whether intended or not, bitterness creeps into the fabric of my voice, meshing itself into each syllable.

Jasper looks frustrated. “You never want to go, Lex. Don’t you think it’s time to stop hiding away from the world and start actually living in it? You can’t keep avoiding all the good things in life because you’re too scared.”

I stand up, brushing myself off. He’s right, he always is, but I don’t want to hear it. I would much rather sit up in my room alone than have this conversation again. “Bye,” I remark flatly, turning to walk away from where Jasper’s sitting on his dock. “Have fun at your party.”

“You’re being ridiculous!” he yells after me as I march away. “I’ll be over to pick you up at six-thirty, like it or not!”

I circle round my house and walk through the front door, up the stairs, all the way up to my room, shutting my door behind me. I sit on my bed, bringing a pillow and clutching it to my stomach, and for a second I think I’m going to cry, but nothing comes out. I’m dry as the Sahara.

You shouldn’t be here, a voice in my head tells me. Things were so much easier before you entered the picture. Leave it to you to make everything difficult.

I expel a shaky breath, feeling more like a disease than a person. My head swirls with ideas like should’ve never been born and pathetic and hopeless. I feel like I’m drowning, and instead of fighting to find my way back to the surface, I grow limp, letting the water wash my body far away from here, someplace where I make sense and I’m not a burden who frustrates good people like Jasper when I don’t even know what it is that I want.

It’s happening again.

It’s been months since I last thought the words, a toxic string of four syllables. For a while there, I thought I was able to push the thought away, keep it from permeating my mind. But for the first time in a while, it’s back, and I feel it settling in my bloodstream like a gray, marshy lagoon drowning out what little life there was.

I want to die.

In my head, I see them, and they’re mocking me. I’m small and helpless and unable to fight back, so I just stand there and take it. If it isn’t little Alexandra, I hear them say, the stench of alcohol so thick that I hold my breath to avoid breathing it in. Let me give you a life lesson, Alexandra: life sucks. You’re either born with enough power to go places, or you’re not. And you, kiddo, got the short end of the stick, like us. Might as well start training to become a prostitute now. Insert a loud, bellowing round of laughter.

Do you ever talk, Alexandra? Or are you retarded? Should we check you into a psychiatric ward? I’ll bet she has no friends!

Imagine her when she’s more developed, when her chest will be filled out! Do you think I’d have a chance hitting that? Nah, I’m just teasing you, Alexandra. You still have another six or seven years before that happens. You should experiment on people your own age before you move on to older men like me.

Annoying, I hear my dad telling them as I hide in my room. Should’ve just worn a damn condom. More laughter.

I walk over to my desk and retrieve a notebook that I haven’t flipped through in a long, long time. I open it to a random page, dated back to the summer before freshman year, when Jasper’s and my friendship was still blossoming.

I almost slipped up today, it starts off saying. Jasper asked me about my birth parents, and I was just about to tell him. About watching Mom die. About Dad and his horrible friends. All of it. But then I remembered something one of them told me once, about how there’s a special place in Hell for people who use their past experiences to gain pity from others. And then I realized that I didn’t want a friendship centered on pity, so I didn’t end up telling him. I think it’s better that way. I don’t think he’d want to be friends with me if he knew what my life was really like before I came here.

I slap the notebook shut before I can read any more.

Part of me wants to be invisible, and another part of me wants to be seen for once in my life. I want friends but I don’t know how to be a friend. I kind of want to die but I kind of want to live.

So many voices in my head pulling me in so many directions, I don’t even know where I’m going anymore. I’m just bumbling aimlessly through life, trying to make sense of things along the way and find a definitive direction to take. The noise builds up like a crescendo, and instead of playing along with the music, I squeeze my eyes shut, willing it to be over. Willing the pain and the suffering and the chaos to all finally be over.

For a split second, I think about how I just want Jasper to be here with me, to hold me and tell me it’s okay in that way he does, even when he has no idea what exactly is going on in my head. But what’s the use, really? He’ll be gone soon. Like my mom. Like my dad. Like the tiny flicker of happiness that still burns inside of me. Soon, it’ll all be gone.

And I can only hope that, like everything else, I’ll soon be gone, too.


As much as I tried to not get sucked into this whole bonfire mess with Jasper, in the end, he won.

“This is stupid,” I muttered on the drive over, leaning my head against his window. “Nobody is gonna want me there.”

“Ahem,” Jasper cleared his throat. “I want you there.”

This may have been true, but we’ve been at Ethan’s for approximately twenty minutes now, and I’ve been standing alone on the outskirts of the group, observing and willing myself to gain invisibility powers, to no avail. Jasper is surrounded by people, which isn’t unusual for him, and he’s in the midst of a conversation with a ton of the guys on his soccer team, Champ sitting happily at his feet.

A few people are drinking, but I think that that number will increase exponentially as it gets later, seeing as it’s only seven o’clock and still relatively light out. Since we got here, a total of three people have made an effort to speak to me. Jasper, Ethan, who told me that he was happy that I came and that I should have fun, and a girl in the grade below me who mistook me for someone else.

So yeah, you could say I’m having a blast.

It’s glaringly obvious that I don’t belong here. I know it, and Jasper knows it, or at least he would if he wasn’t so engrossed in conversation with his friends, ignorant of the fact that I’m left with no one to talk to. I bring my hands up to my chest and hug myself, wondering how suspicious it would look if I just started walking backward towards the woods behind Ethan’s house, disappearing within the dark foliage and never returning.

There are at least thirty people here, with more expected to show up as the night progresses. Most of them are the guys on the soccer team, but as it gets later, more and more girls show up, making their way over toward Jasper’s circle and—undoubtedly—flirting. From a distance, they look like the background characters in a movie, when they show a party and you can see everyone in the background, mingling and laughing and having a good time, though you only get a glimpse of this before the camera pans back to the main character.

Here, there is no main character, because this isn’t a movie, it’s reality. Everyone plays a background character and a main character simultaneously, and there are no camera effects to embellish how fun this really is. You see the high points, when everyone in a group starts laughing or someone does something outlandish, and you also witness the low points, when there’s a bit of a lull in the conversation, or when someone says something that clearly pisses someone else off.

I don’t feel part of the group; I feel like I’m a ghost floating over it, looking down and watching everyone talk amongst each other. That’s how it usually goes when I’m in group settings. There’s always that disconnect, like everyone else is plugged into each other like strands of Christmas lights, and I’m just a single, cordless bulb. I can feel the energy bouncing off of me and charging the surrounding air, but try as I might, I never absorb that energy. So I just bumble on, smiling and nodding when acknowledged and feeling like a foreigner. A wallflower. A nobody.

Deciding that it’s better to at least stand near people and make it look like I’m capable of fitting in, I pick up the tattered remnants of my ego and walk them over to where Jasper is standing. Wordlessly, I fit myself between him and another one of his many friends as if that gap between them was specially designed for me. He glances over at me and smiles before carrying on conversation with the guys. I look down at my feet, feeling too awkward and embarrassed to at least pretend to be listening to whatever sports-related story is currently being relived.

I want to go home.

“Hey Lexi, I haven’t seen you since school got out. How’ve you been?” one of the boys in the group, a junior who I vaguely recognize to be named Alex asks me, most likely out of common curtesy so he doesn’t have to watch me suffer.

I expect everyone to carry on conversation around me, ignoring this boy’s question and especially ignoring me in general. But everyone stops and looks at me, awaiting a reply. I tense up, feeling color rise to my cheeks and feeling like someone just shoved me on stage, a spotlight blinding my vision.

“Uh,” I stumble, mouth going dry. “I’ve been good.” Everyone looks at me with dull expressions, not impressed with my generic answer. Panic rises in my chest. I need to say something else, but what? “I mostly spent my time with Jasper, but what else is new?”

Everyone laughs. I find myself relaxing, but only marginally.

“You’re lucky you have the whole soccer team to look out for you once Jasper’s out of here,” one of the other guys chimes in. “None of the other girls in our grade has our devotion like you do.”

I do?

Sensing my confusion, Jasper drapes an arm around my shoulders. “I told them they better keep an eye on you when I’m gone. Make sure nobody tries to give you a hard time,” he explains.

My brows scrunch together, and it takes effort to keep the hurt off my face. He had to ask people to make sure nobody gives me a hard time? Getting ignored by everyone, that I expected. But he actually thought there was a risk of people giving me a hard time?

“I’m gonna go grab something to drink,” I say, needing to get out of there before I start crying or something. A familiar voice rings in my head. Pathetic.

Before anyone can say anything, I weave my way out from the group of people and walk as calmly as possible inside, locating a bathroom, which is currently occupied by someone. I lean up against the wall outside of the bathroom, waiting, while my head pounds and my stomach clenches in on itself. The desire to be normal, to fit in here and talk to my peers like it’s nothing is so strong that I have a physical ache inside of me. But try as I might, I can’t do it. I just hear their voices swimming in my mind, reminding me of the fact that I’ll never amount to anything. Reminding me of a dark past that will forever haunt me, no matter how close I get to the light at the end of the tunnel.

The bathroom door is pushed open, and a familiar mop of auburn curls emerges, looking dazed and unlike her usual, cheerful self. She doesn’t recognize me at first, and for a moment I wonder if she’ll continue walking, not realizing that her former best friend is standing right there. But then she twists her neck and sees me, and her eyes widen.

“Lexi?”

I wave dumbly. “Hey.”

“Sorry, I almost missed you. I didn’t know if you were gonna show or not . . .”

Because I never came along when you invited me to parties. I always formulated an excuse until you eventually learned not to ask.

“Yeah, Jasper kind of made me come . . .”

She nods, and for a moment, there is an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. I stare at her, and I swear her makeup looks a little smudged, almost as if she’s been crying.

“You okay?” I find myself blurting.

She smiles, and just like that, the warm and cheerful Meredith Billingsley I know is back. “Of course. Just trying to escape the heat. But hey, I know I haven’t been keeping up with you since I saw you last week, but my offer on doing something tomorrow still stands. We really need to catch up.”

“I—yeah, okay, sure. What time are you thinking?”

She shrugs. “Eleven? I was thinking that cute little coffee shop—the outer space-y one?”

I smile a little. “Europa,” I correct her quietly. “Yeah, that sounds good to me. I’ll meet you there.”

“Actually, I can come pick you up, if that works for you,” she says.

“Yeah, sounds good.”

She looks at me for a moment, a soft smile playing at her lips, and I dig my heel into the carpet, wondering why she’s looking at me like that.

“You’re a good friend, Lex,” she says. “I hope you know that.”

Color rises to my cheeks, and I awkwardly thank her, unsure why me agreeing to meet up with her makes me such a good friend. Before I get a chance to consider asking her, she’s excusing herself to go grab a “much needed drink,” suggesting that I do the same tonight, and then, like a red-headed fairy poofing itself out of the room, she’s gone, mystical pixie dust in the form of her Chanel-scented perfume wafting in place of where she once stood.

I chew on my lip and slink into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind me in one swoop. Though I don’t really have to pee, I collapse on the toilet, my breath coming out in shallow gulps. This is a party, I tell myself. You’re supposed to be having fun.

I know this, and yet the only thing I’m having is a severe anxiety attack. I don’t know how to mingle with these people. Jasper and Meredith are the only ones I can bring myself to speak to without feeling stressed out and emotionally drained, and both of them are currently occupied.

I stare at my phone—zero new text messages. Which is unsurprising. Aunt Colleen knows where I’m at because Jasper came in to drag me off the couch, informing her that he would make sure I’d get back safely later. Jasper is too busy saying goodbye/partying with his friends for the last time. Reagan doesn’t need me at work tonight. And nobody else cares enough to text me. My mom is dead, so it’s not like I’ll be getting any worried “be back by eleven” texts, and my father is still in prison, so that’s out of the question.

Could my life sound any more like a pathetic soap opera?

The truth is, I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I hate other people’s pity, and I most definitely don’t want to form relationships with people if they are centered on how “sorry” they are for me and all that I’ve been through. That’s why I don’t open up to people; why Jasper still doesn’t know the full story of my past, just the bits and pieces he’s accumulated from overhearing Aunt Colleen talking to his mom.

I try to be normal, and talk about normal things that people my age care about—how hot the new physics teacher is, whether or not Bradley and Sara hooked up at that party last Friday, where the best place to buy alcohol with a fake ID is—but I just can’t find myself caring or having anything to contribute. When I was eleven, about a year after I came to live with Aunt Colleen and when she realized that I wasn’t behaving like a normal kid, she went and got me tested and, unsurprisingly, I came out diagnosed with both social and general anxiety disorder.

Disorder. Now that’s a word with ugly connotations. You hear a word like that and think about how that person needs help, and somehow, whether intentional or not, that person automatically becomes lesser in our minds, because their brain isn’t wired to be normal like a brain should be.

It’s something I push away as much as possible, and yet it always finds itself resurfacing. Like tonight.

Someone knocks on the door. “Can you hurry up?!” they yell. “I am one sip of beer away from peeing all over myself!”

Classy. I flush the toilet and wash my hands, taking deep, concentrated breaths. You’re gonna get back out there, I tell myself. You’re gonna go, and you’re gonna smile, and you’re gonna make an effort to talk to people. It might be painful, but you are going to suck it up and show Jasper that you will be fine on your own. You got this.

I savor my last blissful few seconds alone in the comfort of the bathroom before swinging the door open and floating past the angry blonde who starts pulling her shorts down before she even makes it to the toilet, her friend scrambling in after her and shutting the door behind them.

Deciding to head back outside, I weave my way between other people, already feeling myself getting flustered at the idea of going up and talking to some random person. I scope out the prospects, and most everyone is standing amongst a group of at least five or six other people. Considering the fact that I consider talking in groups of people larger than four to be public speaking, I decide to look for the smallest group possible, and over near the bonfire that has been set up since I was last outside, a group of three girls I recognize to be named Sydney, Jess, and Anna are laughing at something that has just been said. I decide to use this as my in and almost as if my feet have a mind of their own, I am walking towards them, though I have absolutely no idea what I plan on saying to any of them. Other than getting paired up with Anna in a group project once my freshman year, I have never spoken a word to any of them.

Before I have time to register what I’m doing, I’m standing before the three of them, face already growing hot as realization of just how awkward this is kicks in.

“Oh, hey Lexi,” Jess says, offering me a small, but genuine, smile. “How’s it going?”

“Good,” I say on impulse, internally beating myself to a pulp at the awkwardness in my voice. “Are you guys having a good summer?”

They perk up at this. “I’m having the best summer of my life,” Sydney gushes, flashing a blindingly white grin. “My aunt took me to Italy, I dumped my deadbeat of a boyfriend, and I convinced my parents to let me get this tattoo I’ve been asking for for years. Wanna see?”

Anna and Jess roll their eyes, but Sydney doesn’t seem to notice, and is more than willing to pull her baby pink tank top up, exposing her toned and skinny stomach. On her right ribcage, right below her bra strap, is a line drawing of a sunflower with leaves trailing to the side. It’s simple, but cute. But the confidence she exudes takes me somewhat off guard. I’ve never talked to her a day in my life and yet she’s talking as if we’ve been tight for years. I guess that’s something normal people can do.

“That’s so cute,” I say, partly because it’s true and partly because it’s what I know she wants to hear.

“She’ll show it to literally anyone with eyes,” Jess quips. “But my summer was okay. I worked, and then I worked some more, and then when I wasn’t sleeping, I was working. It was quite thrilling.”

Sydney scrunches her nose at this. “That went from fun to depressing real quick.”

Jess shrugs. “Gotta help pay for college, babe. Not everyone has parents who are willing to pay for your full tuition. Especially when you’re trying to be a music major.”

I digest this new information. I knew Jess was really involved with music, but I had no idea she wanted to pursue it as a career. Although I can’t say I’m surprised that Sydney’s family is paying for her college tuition. Pretty much all of her outfits look like they’ve been plucked out of a magazine, and her long honey blonde hair and makeup are always styled like she’s going to a photoshoot. She’s the sort of person who puts serious planning into her Instagram and pretends to take candids when really she got one of her friends to take her picture. The funds for all of those material goods have to come from somewhere.

“Have you thought at all about where you’re going to college yet?” Anna asks me.

“I—”

“You’ve gotta be one of the smartest ones in our class,” Jess says. “Are you thinking UNC? NC State? Duke?”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I mumble, leaving out the part where I don’t have money to go to college.

Sydney shoots me a questioning look. “You do realize college apps are only a couple of months away, right?”

“Y-yeah, the thought’s crossed my mind.”

“Interesting.” I can tell by the look on Sydney’s face that she finds this anything but.

“Have you guys thought about where you want to go to college?” I ask, desperate to keep this conversation, no matter how painful, going.

“I want to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York,” Sydney says proudly. “It’s, like, two of my favorite things combined: fashion and New York City. Have you ever been?”

My stomach churns. “Maybe once or twice,” I lie. More like my entire childhood.

“I’m not sure where I’m gonna go yet; probably somewhere in-state,” Anna says. “I want to become a nurse so I’m trying to minimize the debt I’ll be in from med school.”

I give a small laugh, but the knot in my stomach only twists itself tighter as visions of my mom dying in her hospital bed in New York City come flooding my memory. And then what follows is even more painful.

It takes a few seconds to register that Jess is in the midst of telling me her college plans, but I can tell that she knows that I’m not really paying attention, and I’m sure that all three of them are wondering why, after years of going to the same school and never talking to them, I’m choosing now to try to make small talk and become friends. By this point, everyone’s minds are so transfixed on college and the future that the prospect of making new friends in this town this late in the game seems like unnecessary deadweight. Especially if that new friend is a girl with such bad social anxiety that she can’t even correct her teachers when they call her by her full name of Alexandra instead of the preferred Lexi. Even though she absolutely detests being called Alexandra because that’s what her father and his terrible friends called her before bruising her childhood innocence and making her grow to hate herself.

“Hey, Lexi, have you ever gotten drunk before?” Sydney asks me. Jess and Anna give her a look. “What? I’m just asking,” she says defensively. Then, turning to me, she pulls out a flask from the pocket of her shorts. “Want to take a shot?”

“You really don’t have to,” Anna tells me.

I consider it. I really don’t want to drink, but maybe alcohol is what I need to lighten up. Alcohol is supposed to increase your confidence and make you forget about your problems for a little while, right? Plus, normal people would take the shot, and all I want is one night of normalcy.

But then I remember my dad and his friends, and the horrible stench of alcohol that they always reeked of when they came over, and the prospect of being anything like them repulses me. So I thank Sydney and then politely decline, excusing myself to go see what Jasper’s up to, and somehow I know that my first time ever talking to those three girls will also inadvertently be my last, judging by my rude and hasty exit. At least I tried, I guess.

I’m not really sure where I’m even walking towards—back inside the house to find a bedroom or another bathroom to hide in, presumably—when a tall and bulky guy I recognize from the football team intercepts me, clearly intoxicated.

“Alexis Callaghan!” he slurs, smiling goofily at me. “I never knew you partied! You know, you’re actually kind of hot, now that I think about it. You should party more often.”

“Okay, sure,” I remark with a hint of sarcasm, trying my best to circle around his bulky figure and escape.

“You know who I am, right?” he asks me. “I’m Josh Gibbons, quarterback of the football team and second baseman for the baseball team. Girls are supposed to find me hot. You think I’m hot, right?”

This is not happening right now.

“Totally,” I say, trying desperately to make him get the hint that he should go drunk flirt with some other girl.

“Okay, listen, I have a crazy idea, and I know you’re not usually into this kind of stuff, but listen to this! You are alone, and I am alone, and you look like you could use some fun, and I am the definition of fun, and I think that we should make out. Whaddaya say?”

No. My mouth goes dry, which is probably not the ideal kissing condition that Josh is looking for, but I can’t form the word. He’s so much bigger than me; all he would have to do is grab me and push me up against the house and I would be unable to escape.

“I-I’m okay,” I stutter. “I’m sure one of the other girls here would be happy to do that with you, though.”

“But the other girls here aren’t as much of a challenge as you,” he says. “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting rejected by Quiet Callaghan. That hurts, Alex.”

“Lexi,” I quietly correct, though I think he’s too drunk to notice. “Please just let me go inside,” I plead, still trying to dodge him.

“You want to go inside? Why didn’t you just say?” he asks, putting his hand on my back, dangerously close to my butt, and pulling me toward the screen door leading inside of Ethan’s house. I know all too well what his motives are once we make it inside.

“Josh, no,” I say, squirming out of his grasp. “Don’t follow me.”

Then, before he gets a chance to react, I’m rushing around to the side of the house where there’s nobody milling about except a girl I don’t recognize talking on the phone, and I throw up in the bushes. Looking disgusted and probably mistaking me to be drunk, the girl on the phone scrunches her nose and walks away, leaving me totally alone.

I’m not exactly sure how parties are usually supposed to go, but I’m pretty positive that this isn’t it. Leave it to me to screw it up.

All I want is to go home, but I can’t inconvenience Aunt Colleen and ask her to come pick me up, and it’s too far of a walk. So I’m stuck, sitting by these bushes, stained with my vomit. Tears prick at my eyelids but I really don’t want to cry, not here.

My skin where Josh’s hands were crawls, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m some sort of ragdoll that people think they can grab and touch and manipulate to their heart’s content. My dad’s friends certainly did. And it’s not like he ever did anything to stop it. I was a parasite to him. Should’ve just worn a damn condom.

The sound of footsteps coming jolts me back into present day, and I turn, fully anticipating it to be some couple sneaking away from the party to be alone, or Jasper looking for me. But it’s neither. Instead, I find Meredith, tears streaming down her face.

“Mer,” I say softly, the nickname that once rolled so easily off my tongue now sounding foreign. “What’s wrong?”

“Lexi,” she chokes out before a sob emits itself from her throat, and she comes and cuddles up next to me, burying her head in my chest. I can tell by the strong scent of alcohol that she’s wasted. “We’re gonna break up,” she sputters. “He won’t say it, but I know it’s coming. I lost my virginity to him! And I love him and my whole family loves him and thinks we’re gonna get married someday. But he cheated on me with some blonde skank and I gave him another chance because I love him and he promised he wouldn’t do it again but he’s gonna be so far away in college and I know he will and—and—”

She cuts herself off because she’s crying so hard. I cradle her and gently rock her back and forth, unsure what to say or how exactly to console a person who is clearly intoxicated. Looking down at her, I wonder how often she goes to parties and gets this drunk, and I wonder how differently things would have turned out for her if I would have sucked it up and gone with her to all the parties she got invited to. Wonder if me being there for her more would have helped in any way.

It’s weird seeing her like this, because the Meredith I always knew was full of laughs and smiles and jokes, and it’s painful to see her this broken. She’s supposed to be happy and confident and basically everything I’m not. She was my antithesis back when we were friends; I needed someone like her back then to keep me balanced. But seeing her like this throws everything I thought I knew out of whack.

“Shh, it’s gonna be okay,” I whisper into her hair, lightly massaging her back with my fingers in the calming way Jasper does for me when I’m upset. “Everything will work itself out.”

She lifts her head and looks at me, her eyes rimmed with mascara and tears, making her resemble a raccoon more than a person. “Do you really believe that?” she asks with a shaky voice. “That everything will work itself out? I don’t think life is always that forgiving.”

To be honest, I’m not sure if I believe it or not. I just know it’s what you’re supposed to say in times like this. Life hasn’t really worked itself out for me yet, and I’ve kind of given up hope by now. But someone like Meredith still has a shot at a happy ending, right?

“C-can I stay at your place tonight?” Meredith asks. “My mom will kill me if I come home like this again.”

I’m not sure how happy Aunt Colleen would be to see Meredith showing up this intoxicated at her place, but I’m not exactly in a position to say no, plus Meredith’s safety is my main concern right now. So I tell her that yes, of course she can.

“You’re lucky,” she murmurs, curling up against me and letting me stroke her hair. “Jasper loves you so much. He would do anything for you. Even keeping his true feelings to himself to avoid hurting you. I wish River was more like that.”

I find myself freezing. Is this the alcohol talking, or does Meredith know something I don’t? There’s no way Jasper sees me as anything other than his best friend. What “true feelings” could he be hiding from me?

Don’t get your hopes up, I tell myself. You gave up your crush on Jasper years ago. You’re not meant to be anything but friends and you know it.

“Did something trigger this?” I find myself asking.

Bitterness creeps into her voice. “Stupid Ethan Schultz had to come ask me why River didn’t come, and I had to make up a lie so I wouldn’t have to tell the truth and hurt his feelings. River doesn’t want to waste his time with high schoolers like us anymore. Now all he cares about is stupid college and the stupid future. And from the way he’s been talking, I’m not gonna be part of it. I tried calling him, just to check in, but he let it go to voicemail. He always has his phone on him.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, wishing I had the answers on how to make this better.

“I miss you so much,” she whimpers, clinging tightly onto me. “I’m sorry I ditched you for River. If I could turn back time and do it all over again, we would’ve stayed friends.”

“Shh. We’re still friends, I’m not going anywhere,” I say. Yet a voice in my head questions the validity of this statement. I try to push it away.

We stay silent for a while, Meredith sniffling and trying to regain composure and me trying my best to comfort her. Eventually, her breathing slows down to a normal pace and I realize that she’s fallen asleep, cuddled against me. I smile softly and gently coax her into a more comfortable sleeping position, letting her head fall into my lap.

After a while, when I find myself drifting off as well, I hear a rustling and look up to see Jasper kneeling down and watching me with a caring expression.

“Is she okay?” he asks, nodding at Meredith.

“She’s fine,” I say, voice thick with drowsiness. “Apparently things between her and River aren’t, but that’s for another day.”

“And you?” he asks.

“Me?”

“Are you okay?”

I think about Meredith’s earlier words. He would do anything for you. “Yeah. I’m okay,” I say.

He takes a seat beside me, our knees brushing. “Well, I guess that was a pretty good last party in America. Hopefully Australia throws some ragers too.”

My heart sinks a little at the mention of his move to Australia, but I try to remain stoic. “I’m sure they do.”

“Hey, I saw you talking to people tonight,” he says, nudging my shoulder with his. “See, they’re not so bad. You’re gonna be okay when I’m gone. You are.”

“Yeah, definitely,” I murmur. Definitely not, my mind counters.

“Want me to drive us home?” he asks.

I look up at him. “You didn’t drink at all?”

He shrugs. “I wasn’t feeling it tonight. I dunno, something about the finality of it all kinda made me want to remember it. This is the last time I’ll ever see most of those people, and I’ve been with a lot of them since preschool. It’s weird, saying goodbye, ya know? Usually you don’t do that until after graduation. But this time I’m the only one leaving.”

Don’t go, I want to beg him.

“I’ll carry her to the car,” he says, nodding at Meredith. “Is she going to her place, or—”

“She’s staying over with me tonight,” I say. “Someone should keep an eye on her.”

He nods quietly while he stands up and gently picks her up off the ground, carrying her bridal style. I pick my own self up off the ground, following wordlessly in Jasper’s wake as we head toward the front of the house, stepping over empty beer cans and red solo cups. The party is still in full swing, but Jasper has already said his goodbyes and we’re both eager to get some rest.

He lays Meredith in the backseat, hops in the driver’s seat, and sticks the key in the ignition, the sound of his car humming to life filling the empty void of silence between us.

“You’re really good to her,” he says, and I know he means Meredith. “I hope the two of you become better friends when I’m gone. From the sounds of it, she’ll need you as much as you might need someone like her.”

What I really need is you, I find myself thinking.

The rest of the ride home is a silent one, but our sheer proximity speaks volumes that our voices don’t have to. Words can only get but so far, anyway. Sometimes the warmth of someone else’s presence is enough.

A shiver courses through me as I think about how cold my days will become after Jasper leaves for good.

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