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August 16th

LIKE MY DREARY MOOD, the melancholic gray sky outside supplies a steady stream of rain showers. It’s the perfect day to hide inside curled up under a mound of warm fuzzy blankets while devouring a good book. So that’s precisely what I have been doing, mug of tea sitting on my bedside table, right next to a forest green candle burning that smells rich of earthy evergreen pines.

Down the hall, the sound of Willie running all over the house fills the otherwise quiet air, and it’s apparent that the young boy has a surplus of energy with nowhere to put it. I contemplate offering to drive somewhere to get him out of Aunt Colleen’s hair, but I can’t think of any children-oriented places I could take him and—as selfish as it sounds—I’m too comfortable to bother moving.

The faint pitter-patter of someone coming up the stairs vaguely registers in my periphery, since most of my attention is engrossed within the cream pages of the book resting on my lap. I dismiss it as Aunt Colleen running around the house doing some sort of chores, until the sound of my doorknob twisting open cuts through the air. Jasper’s head peeks inside, and I grit my teeth.

“What do you want?” I ask, sounding horrifically rude and impatient. I know I should be kinder, considering he’s—you know—my beloved best friend, and since he’s fifteen days away from permanently abandoning my life, but I am not in the mood to play around or pretend like I’m having fun today. Human interaction as a whole seems too tiresome.

He can tell that I am in no mood to jest today, so he cuts right to the chase, sitting on the edge of my bed. He studies the floor while he speaks. “You know that I care about you, right?”

“Jasper,” I say tiredly. “If you came here to tell me that, you’re wasting your time. I already know. Really, I’m fine.”

“Good,” he says, finally looking up at me. “So then you know me well enough to know that I can’t let what happened last night go. You can pretend like everything is fine as much as you want, but I see right through you. And I refuse to pretend.”

“That’s very nice of you,” I say, emotionless, keeping my eyes trained down on the passage in the book I now must reread for the second time, seeing as I absorbed nothing I’ve read since Jasper popped in. My brain is an empty hole.

He decides to take a different approach. “Willie seems eager to get out of here. Whaddaya say; wanna go take the little dude out for some fresh air?”

“Not really,” I mutter, knowing that this is a losing battle.

“That’s a shame,” Jasper laments with false dejection. “I already told your aunt we would.”

Defeated, I bookmark my page and cast my book away in annoyance. “You need to learn how to butt out, Jasper. Not every problem in my life has to fall on your shoulders.”

He shrugs as I pick myself up off the bed and trudge over to my closet, slipping on a pair of rain boots and grabbing a black zip-up rain jacket. “I guess I’m not good at not caring about you. My bad.” He sounds opposite of remorseful.

“Whatever. Let’s just go get Willie and get him out of here so Aunt Colleen can catch a break.” I lean over and blow the candle out, causing gray wisps of smoke to curl upward and carry any remnant of hope I had about avoiding Jasper’s pity with it.

If I had to stockpile a list of the top three most important people in my life, it would consist of Jasper (obviously), Aunt Colleen, and Willie. Truly, I love and adore Willie like he’s my own brother. He’s one of the few constants in my life that I actually enjoy with my whole heart and soul. But good lord, sometimes he can be a handful.

“Leck-thie, what causes rain?”

“What color is air?”

“How did they send a rocket to the moon?”

Normally, I love his inquisitive nature. Really, I do. He’s going to be one intelligent dude someday. But today, his constant questioning is grating on my last nerve, seeing as this outing is the last thing I want to be doing. Thanks to Jasper, now I have to endure all of his questions, as infinite as the stars speckling the universe.

I don’t have the heart to explain to him that right now, I am about as far away from him mentally as the footprints on the moon are from our own muddy footprints below us.

Jasper’s big solution for curing Willie’s suppressed boredom?

Taking him outside to slosh around and get messy in the rain.

I’m sure Aunt Colleen will thank him for that one.

Willie jumps around from puddle to puddle, the water splashing up to his knees and drenching his shorts. He’s wearing a rain jacket with a hood, but it’s already a given that there is not going to be a dry spot on his body by the time he decides he wants to head back inside. I’m surprised Aunt Colleen hasn’t come out stricken about one of us catching a cold from playing in the rain yet, but honestly, I think she’s too busy relishing the rare peace and quiet inside to be all that concerned. Plus, she’s always been a stickler about fresh air being vital.

“You seem distant. How are you?” Jasper asks as he rejoins me from running around chasing Willie.

I stand by Aunt Colleen’s garden, holding up an umbrella to keep my own body from getting soaked. “Jasper, I already said I was fine,” I snap. “Derrick is one guy. So he used me a little bit. Big whoop. Guys do that to girls all the time.” Even young ones who don’t understand what’s going on.

His brows furrow together in frustration. “Yeah, that doesn’t make it right, though. You deserve better than that.”

“Yeah, sure,” I mutter sarcastically under my breath.

Jasper closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath, evidently composing himself. He shifts in front of me and puts a hand on my shoulder. My eyes follow the movement of his hand to my shoulder until he uses his other hand to hold my chin and gently angle my face so I’m forced to look at him.

My heart-rate could outrun a cheetah if the two were paired up against each other in a relay race right now.

“Listen, Lex. You. Deserve. Better. I know you don’t think so, but you do. You’re going to find someone who will adore you for you, regardless of what you do with them. And you know what? In the meantime, I’ll be your boyfriend. No, I’m being serious," he says as I begin shaking my head, dismissing his words and pulling away from this ridiculous conversation. "If that’s what it takes for you to realize how loved you are, I will be whatever you need me to be in your life. I feel responsible that the Derrick thing ended so badly because I’m the one who pushed it on you, and I want to make this right.”

I try to speak, to say something—anything—in response, but the words aren’t there. The gray matter in my stomach swallows them up like a vacuum, or a black hole absorbing what little light draws near.

“Jasper, I—I don’t know—I can’t—”

He mercifully interrupts my scrambled attempt at speaking and picks his own words slowly, carefully. “I know that you know that I love you. And I’m serious, I know we only have fifteen more days together, and believe me when I say I’m just as terrified about that as you are.”

He looks like he has more to say, but Willie comes barreling through our bodies, kicking up rain water at both of us.

“You guys are being boring! Come play!” he whines.

“In a minute, Little Man,” Jasper says, crouching down to Willie’s level and giving him a fist bump. “I promise I’ll join you in a moment. Lexi and I just have to talk about something quick. Why don’t you go splash in that big puddle over there at my house and I’ll come meet you?”

Willie pouts. “You’re both being secretive. Why can’t we just have a fun day? Why does Leck-thie have to be so serious sometimes?”

Okay, ouch. You know you’re being gloomy when your five-year-old cousin points it out.

Jasper cuts in. “Come on Willie, be a little sensitive. Lexi is just dealing with something, that’s all. She’s still the same Lexi you love. We just need to finish our conversation and then we’ll come play with you. Okay?”

Willie hangs his head, looking remorseful. “Okay, Jathper. I’m sorry for being unsensitive, Leck-thie.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him, heart swelling a little. “I still love you, Willie Banilli.”

“You too!” he exclaims and then takes off toward Jasper’s house, clearly not yet developed in the art of expressing his love for people he cares about. That’s okay, I’m not quite there yet, either. At least he has time to grow into it.

“Lexi, just hear this and then I’ll drop it,” Jasper finally says, turning his attention back to me. “If you need reassurance from someone every day that you are worthy until you wake up in the morning and think it yourself, I’ll give you that. If you ever decide that whatever it is that you keep bottled up inside is too much to carry, I’ll help carry the load. All that I ask of you is to talk to me and communicate the things that are hurting you so I as your best friend can help you get through them. I want to watch you succeed, and it kills me to stand on the sidelines and watch while you shut everything out.”

I used to be obsessed with a TV show called The Vampire Diaries. One of the main premises of being a vampire on the show is that at any given point, you are able to turn your humanity off so that you do not feel emotions. I guess, being immortal and all, the heaviness of the world tends to wear you down after a while and the best solution is to just feel nothing.

I’m no vampire, but I swear my humanity switch is flipped off, because despite Jasper’s heartfelt spiel, I feel absolutely nothing. I’m as empty as a school hallway in the dead of night.

“You aren’t going to be here anymore in fifteen days, so I really see no point. And even if you weren’t leaving, I don’t have much to say, anyway,” I respond in a level voice. “Thanks for being a good friend while I had you, though. I’m sure some Australian will appreciate that about you.”

He looks opposite of pleased with this remark. “Stop talking about our friendship in the past tense like it’s already over. Me leaving doesn’t change anything about us.”

“It changes everything,” I counter. “But it’s fine, I’ve come to terms with it recently. Besides, Noah seems like he’ll make a decent replacement.”

This comment is a low blow, and really, really not okay. The hurt splayed on Jasper’s face only confirms it. Yet I don’t take it back. Somehow, I welcome the idea of pushing him as far away from me as possible. The sooner he realizes that his destiny is not to fix me, the better. If he gets a few scrapes in the process, so be it. At least he’ll make it out of this storm alive.

“If you’re trying to take the push me away approach, just say it,” Jasper mutters. “I can’t handle this faraway version of Lexi right now.”

Before I get another word in, he’s off to join Willie, leaving me behind. Rain pelts down on my clear umbrella and slips over the edges like hundreds of spilled tears. Right now I feel like I should be crying, but I just feel empty, despite the deadweight load of my past burdening me that I keep locked away inside. Jasper thinks if he keeps at me he’ll eventually be able to pick the lock and open me up.

What he doesn’t know is that I’m too complex for a simple key to work. I’m a maze full of deathtraps and broken memories, and the further you try to go, the more lost and confused you become.

My stomach churns as a distant memory comes flooding back to me.

One night when I was ten and still living with my dad at his apartment in New York, he had his creepy drug dealing friends over to watch a Steelers game, and they had wanted snacks so my dad ran to the store to get some. While he was gone, one of his friends snuck into my bedroom and sat on the bed beside me. He started talking in this quiet and husky voice, asking me why I was sitting alone instead of watching the game with them.

Just thinking about the sound of his voice makes the hair raise on the back of my neck.

I tried to ignore him, but then he moved his hand on my thigh and just left it there, despite my efforts to pull it away. Instead of noting my discomfort, he only slid his hand further and further up. My face felt like it was on fire and my organs were all on high alert, pulsating together in panic mode, sirens screaming in protest. I wanted that man as far away from me as possible, but I didn’t have the authority to tell him so.

Before then, my dad’s friends would only make the occasional inappropriate joke to me, which also made me wildly uncomfortable, but I could handle. Crude humor didn’t violate my body’s personal space. But that man . . . he did. And I wasn’t okay. What that man was doing wasn’t okay.

Eventually my dad returned from the local Quick-Mart with a bag full of chips and dip and the man went back out and rejoined the others in the living room. But I knew deep in the pit of my stomach that he would do it again. And a few nights later, he did.

A few nights after that, another one of my dad’s friends did the same.

And I was terrified.

I tried to communicate to my dad that his friends made me excessively uncomfortable, to no avail. He either didn’t get it, or he chose not to bother finding a solution, content with things as they were since they didn't directly affect him.

One night, I had contracted the stomach flu from someone at school and desperately needed to throw up. A group of my dad’s friends were over that night, as their visits grew increasingly more consistent, and the thought of inevitably walking past them to get to the toilet and catching their attention was worse than the nausea. So instead of making it to the toilet, I ultimately threw up all over the floor in my tiny matchbox bedroom and ended up sleeping in there on my bed. Enduring the horrible stench of vomit that emanated from my carpet all night was infinitely less awful than what my dad’s friends might have done with me had they remembered that I was there for the taking for whoever wanted me that night.

When my dad saw my puke stained into the carpet the next morning, he was livid. He thought that I was plain stupid to throw up in my room instead of the bathroom like a normal human being. He didn’t understand that I hadn’t wanted to come out because of his friends terrorizing the other side of my bedroom door.

The thought never crossed his mind.

I wonder if it’s crossed his mind now that he’s spending the maximum remainder of his life in a prison cell.

I tune back into the present day, slicked with rolling gray clouds and watered down by the steadily falling rain. Outside feels more like some dreary oil painting than a breath of fresh air.

But then I look over at Willie, who is laughing maniacally as Jasper chases him through the puddles, and a corner of my lips slightly pulls upward involuntarily at the sight of two of my favorite people enjoying life together.

I don’t want to hurt Jasper. But I’m afraid of what telling him the truth about my past—about me—will do.

I’m not sure how much more I can take fighting the memories down. For years and years, I was able to erase them clean from my mind, and at least on an actively conscious level, it worked. If I didn’t want to remember, I didn’t. Simple as that. Now, the memories keep infiltrating, regardless of if I give them permission or not.

It’s like I’m drowning, drowning in nothing but me, and the expansiveness of my life is suffocating. I just want a small, simple little corner of life like most people I know that I can modestly bathe myself in. Where everyone else is a happy little puddle to skip through on a rainy day, I’m the whole ocean, miles and isles of dark depths and ominous creatures lurking beneath the surface. I feel like my existence is too intense for other people to empathize with, and I’m not sure how to translate the feelings that come with such vast waters, especially not when I’m swept under the current and sinking beneath my own confusion and anger and guilt.

And yet, I feel completely still. Not in a calm and at ease sort of way. In a plagued with fear, unsure what step to take next sort of way. Though I don’t want to acknowledge it, I feel the earth beneath me give way a little bit, just slightly crumbling in a slow and subtle way that only I can feel.

I know I’m running out of time. Soon enough, my past is going to catch up with me, full force, and I’ll be forced to make a decision. Do I stare it in the face and fight it, or do I give in and let the enemy win?

For both of our sakes, I pray that I can at least hold out until Jasper is out of here for good so he doesn’t have to be around to witness the turmoil when everything finally does unravel.

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