Rewind (Book 2)

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Chapter 23: Full of Flaws

“Listen, if you’re going to spend the night at my place, I’m going to have to lay down some ground rules,” Jay tells me as he parks his car in his driveway, speaking for the first time since getting into the car.

“Fair enough,” I answer him as we step out of the car and into the cold evening air. I wrap my arms around me to contain some warmth. The air is almost as icy as Jay’s current mood and temperament.

“Firstly, I want to emphasize that this is a once-off thing. You are not to stay. You are not to move in and you are not to allow anyone else to move in. Secondly, do not permit strangers, or hobos for that matter, into my house, especially if they’re kleptomaniacs. Thirdly, please don’t build any treehouses on my property or spray paint any of my furniture,” he says sternly, quickly putting me in my place before I can even get any ideas. “I really can’t believe I have to say any of this,” he remarks coldy.

“Yeah…” I wince and avert my eyes from his in shame, “about all of that, I’m really sorry.” I finally apologize, “I’m sorry that I used to take advantage of you. I’m sorry that I was such a terrible housemate.”

“I wouldn’t say terrible,” he says quietly beneath his breath as if disagreeing with me. He opens the back door of the car and reaches for Zac’s arm. I help him until we manage to get the bag of brawn out of the car.

“Jay?” I question as I watch him throw Zac over his shoulder, taking some strain under the weight. Zac’s most definitely heavy.

“Aqueela?” He returns the name like he’s always done since I’ve known him.

“Why have you not moved to a fancier house? The bacon is being brought home and the cash is rolling in, so why stay in the same place?” I ask, genuinely curious as I take in the familiar surroundings.

Jay locks his car and walks up beside me to the front door, “I don’t know. I feel that if I move now, then what is the point? I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to forget my roots. The more you have, the more you want.”

“I like the way you see things,” I reply back softly. He turns to me and spares me a questioning glance. I shrug, “Your perspective on typical things is different.”

He adds, “If it helps, it’s also ’cause I’m saving. I don’t even know for what, I just know that I am. It’s more of a contingency if something unexpected were to ever happen.”

I smile to myself. Nothing’s changed, he’s still planning ahead to make provisions for the future.

“Could you unlock and open?” He asks fishes for his keys in his pocket before carefully handing them to me. He’s a little too preoccupied with Zac to do it himself.

I take the keys from his hand and ignore the feeling of his fingertips brushing against mine. I quickly unlock the door and open it wide so that Jay can get in and set Zac down onto the couch. He sends me a thankful nod as he does exactly that. He lets out a relieved breath once the weight is literally off of his shoulders. I step in after him and close the door behind me.

Jay’s immediately greeted by an eager dog with a ball in the mouth. I watch as he grins down at Slobber before getting down on his haunches to pat the overgrown pup. “Hey little guy, how’s my boy doing?” Jay asks Slobs.

I can tell just how much Slobber means to him…and to think he never wanted a dog. It’s also obvious of how much Slobber adores his master. He’s Jay’s dog now.

Slobber drops the ball and barks back at Jay all too happily, his tail swishing back and forth as he stares up at Jay as if trying to communicate with him. Jay laughs quietly to himself as throws Slobber’s ball for him, “Fetch, boy!” he encourages.

Slobber doesn’t waste a second before running to go and fetch the ball. He brings it back swiftly and drops it into Jay’s hands, ready for round two.

I grin and take a seat across from Zac on one of the single seaters. I get comfy and watch Jay interact with Slobber. However, Slobber gets distracted by my movement. Upon noticing my presence, he sprints to me before jumping onto my lap.

Surprised, it takes me a second to recover. From the corner of my eye, I notice Jay trying to stifle a grin upon seeing my dazed expression. I laugh upon being caught off guard as I cuddle Slobber to my chest. “Heya buddy,” I whisper as an unintentional smile breaks across my features. I’ve missed all of this so much and I’d kill to get it all back.

Slobber growls playfully at me as if willing me to talk more. When I don’t, he whimpers and barks at me before licking my hand.

I giggle and nuzzle my nose against his fluffy head before glancing at Jay in query. Sheepish, Jay scratches the back of his neck and shrugs before giving me a legitimate explanation, “I talk to him a lot. He now finds comfort in hearing my voice, apparently in yours too.”

“You think he still remembers me?” I ask him, taking my chances in doing so.

“Of course he does,” Jay answers immediately. “Give yourself some credit, you’re definitely not someone easily forgotten,” he tells me with an irrefutable gaze cast upon me. “You can leave for as long as you want to, when you come back you’ll still be his favorite person,” he concludes quietly.

“Nah, I think you top me in his books,” I say with a teasing wink. I then see his downcast expression and sigh at the reminder. “Maybe we should talk about what I said two weeks ago,” I suggest in the hopes of patching things up with him.

Open to the idea, he agrees easily and sits down, “Alright.”

I take the initiative to start, “I know what I did was wrong-“

Aqueela, Aqueela, Aqueela…I’m gonna need you to stop talking, ’cause quite frankly, no one cares,” Zac cuts me off from within his drowsy state as he blinks up at the ceiling in confusion. It’s then something clicks in place. He sits up slowly with a hand to his head as his eyes wander, “Where the hell am I?”

“We’ll talk later,” Jay assures me in affirmation before making his way over to Zac.

Zac glances around until his eyes land on me, “My head is sore. What happened? I can’t remember anything,” he states as it registers.

“How’s your vision?” Jay asks him.

“I’m seeing a lot of beauty on that side of the room,” Zac gestures to where I’m sitting, still full of jokes and sarcasm, “and I’m seeing nothing worth remembering on this side of the room,” Zac motions to where Jay is. Unfortunately, Slobber is on Jay’s side of the room too. That’s just unforgivable.

Jay, unfazed by Zac’s rudeness, merely asks another question, “Are you feeling dizzy or nauseous?”

Zac shakes his head in turn, “Only nauseous at the sight of you.”

“Get up and walk, I want to check something,” Jay orders boldly. If he were to be a doctor, he’d be a fairly good one. He’s knowledgeable on the subject. As for me, my first-aid has expired. I can barely remember anything.

Zac shakes his head but then stops when he sees my glare. “Fine,” he answers gruffly, for my sake, before standing up and walking over to me, a slight limp intact.

Slobber seems to go wild at the new smell of a person and begins to bark crazily at Zac. He eventually even nips at the bottom of Zac’s jeans and tries to tug him back.

Jay chuckles and hauls Slobber back into his arms ever so gently. “It’s okay, boy, I’m not his biggest fan either.”

“I’m not an animal person,” Zac frowns down at Slobber and Jay in distaste.

Jay stands up with Slobber in his hold, “Neither am I, that’s why I was reluctant to let you into the house,” Jay insults, offended that Zac can’t stand his dog. It’s evident that Jay was just saying that to get to Zac. He’s an animal lover through and through, for sure.

“Ha ha,” Zac responds in sarcasm before he glares at Jay for his wit and asks, “what did you want to check anyway?”

“To see if you could walk,” Jay answers back casually.

“And if I couldn’t?” Zac questions, annoyed.

“You’d fall, I’d laugh, and we’d know quicker,” Jay answers in an carefree manner, dealing with Zac’s nature in ease. He then turns to me in all seriousness, “We’ll have to watch him tonight. If he slurs in speech, vomits more than once, loses consciousness again, becomes extremely drowsy or increases in confusion and decreases in coordination - anything out of the ordinary - then we’re going to have to take him to the hospital to get a MRI scan or CT scan and a neurological test. I don’t think there’s any swelling on the brain…” Jay pauses before cracking a joke, “well not more than there already is, and I’m pretty sure he’ll remember everything by morning, but we’re still going to have to keep an eye on him.”

“Got it, doc,” I salute him with a laugh.

Jay glances to Zac before offering him some advice, “You should rest plenty. Try to avoid anything mentally or physically demanding-“

“No s*x?” Zac cuts in with a smirk before winking my way suggestively.

“If I have to answer that, then you’re just plain stupid,” Jay remarks nonchalantly before his eyes drift to me. “Maybe try wipe the blood off of him, please. I’m gonna get him an ice pack for the slight swelling.”

Zac stops him, “Why are you helping me?”

“Because I’ve been where you are,” Jay answers him reluctantly.

Zac sighs in dismay, “Turn around.”

“What?” Jay asks in confusion, just as puzzled as me by Zac’s command.

“Just do it, okay! What I’m about to say goes against my character so I need to maintain minimal to no eye contact right now,” he puts in his request demandingly.

Jay groans, but nevertheless complies and turns around. “This is stupid,” he mutters under his breath.

“You’re stupid,” Zac replies back on impulse as if he just cannot help himself.

“Those words don’t seem so out of character for you,” Jay replies cockily.

“That’s not what I was going to say!” Zac hisses bitterly, allowing Jay to get under his skin and mess with him.

Jay merely chuckles in amusement at Zac’s out of turn reaction, his back still turned to us.

Zac sucks in a deep breath as if preparing himself for a speech, “Here goes…” he trails off in a falter as if rethinking it.

“Why am I waiting?” Jay muses impatiently in a singsong voice as if to irritate Zac further. He’s taking advantage of the situation and he’s loving it.

Zac glares at Jay’s back as if to tell him to shut the hell up. Jay’s just having fun with this now and Zac’s just realized that.

“Hurry up, you lunatic!” I whine, tired of being kept in suspense.

Thanks,” Zac eventually forces it out as he wraps it up.

Jay and I fall silent under his single word.

“Phew!” Zac exclaims and pretends to rub a bead of sweat off his forehead as if relieved. “Glad that’s over with and off my chest.”

Jay turns back around to face Zac with raised eyebrows, “All that buildup for one word? That it?”

“Yeah and now I’m sorely regretting it,” Zac retorts before adding, “I take it back, you don’t deserve my thanks. I take it all back.”

All back? You only said one word,” Jay fails to hide his amused grin. “Not even ‘thank you’, just ‘thanks’,” he points out.

“Just shut up and get my ice pack already!” Zac raises his voice, his tone laced with deep irritation at being unable to win and get the upper hand.

“You got it,” I hear an easy-going laugh resonate from Jay as he heads for the kitchen, Slobber trailing after him at his heels.

Typical Jay, he’s usually relaxed in nature unless pushed otherwise. He’s no doormat either.

“He riles me up the wrong way,” Zac complains childishly as I take him into the bathroom to clean his stupid face.

“There’s a tap. Out of it comes water. Magic.” I gesture to the bathroom counter, “Do you think you can handle cleaning your own face without making a mess?” I purposely treat him like a two-year-old.

Jay hates mess and Zac is the very definition of messy. I don’t need another reason for them to not get along.

“Nope,” he pouts down at me like some kid, “do it for me.”

I send him a flat stare. He stares back challengingly. It somehow turns into a competition. He ends up blinking first. I smirk in victory. He groans in defeat, “Ugh fine,” he finally agrees and snatches the towel from my hands.

I grin and watch as he finally decides to rinse the blood off of him, muttering unhappily all the while in doing so. Whilst he’s still busy, I take out my cellphone and dial Bell’s number. As expected, she answers immediately.

“What’s up best friend?” she answers in a playful yet tired hum.

“How’s my brother from another mother doing?” I ask, worried about Troy’s condition.

“We just got back from the hospital now,” she sighs at my question as if she has a lot to tell me.

If only she knew that Zac almost ended up in the hospital tonight too…

“Uh oh, I sense a story behind this,” I press for more details, aware that chaos follows Troy.

“The paramedics pushed him in with a wheelchair on his own command. The doctor took an X-ray and saw that Troy sustained an acute fracture in his left foot and not his leg. Unfortunately, on the way out of the hospital, an accident happened. Max was pushing the wheelchair with Troy in it. They were just messing around. Troy kept telling him to go faster and that’s when Max slipped. They both plummeted down a flight of stairs. Nevertheless, we had to go straight back and see the doctor again. Needless to say, Troy and Max are now both in moon boots with crutches. They were both wheeled out of the hospital by nurses, both high on pain meds. Troy’s foot is now officially broken and Max has fractured three of toes. So yeah…it’s been a long night,” she explains in one breath before asking, “what about you?”

“Let’s just say that I almost died tonight,” I tell her ever so dramatically.

“What?” she asks in shock. “What on earth happened?”

I tell her the entire story, including the part where I almost died in a motorbike crash. I would have died a hero.

“My goodness, you win. Your night has been worse. Why do you always have to outdo me?” she asks with a vibrant laugh.

“Skill,” I answer before changing the subject, “is Benley and Blubber with you too?”

“Um…no,” Bells answers in hesitance. “I completely forgot about them with the hype going on.”

“I’m sure they’re alive,” I reply back with a chuckle before saying, “I’m just curious as to how Jay knew I was in trouble. He still hasn’t told me how he knew where I was.”

“I called him,” Bells reveals. “I knew Zac was up to trouble when he rushed you out the club like that. I was worried so I called someone who I knew would worry even more. I needed someone to check up on you. I had a bad feeling. I wasn’t sure if Jay would go after you though because he told me he was about to race. Maybe he just finished his race and then came for you,” Bells elaborates and explains it all. “As for how he knew where you were, beats me.”

“Thanks for calling him, Bells,” I extend my gratitude, “if he didn’t come when he did then who knows what would have happened.”

“No problem,” she says in turn, “I’m just glad he came.”

“Me too,” I agree when hearing Troy and Max bickering in the background. It’s a second later when I hear one of the babies start to cry as well.

Poor Bells, I feel for her. She has it rough. She needs a vacation pronto. She can have one when on her honeymoon with Max. I’ll stay and take care of the little ones, even though I once vowed to tag along with them if they were ever to end up married. Of course, it was a joke. I’m going to crash their wedding, don’t want to crash their honeymoon too.

“Anyway, listen, I better go. Max and Troy just accidentally woke up Melby and now I’m going to accidentally kill them. It’s like having five babies in the house,” she huffs in exhaustion before saying goodbye and ending the call, cutting our chat short.

I enter the lounge again to see Jay offering Zac an ice pack and a cloth. “Keep the ice pack on the swelling for ten to twenty minutes at a time,” Jay instructs Zac.

“Whatever,” Zac rolls his eyes and does as told, ungrateful as always.

“How did you know where to find us?” I ask Jay bluntly, still curious for the answer.

“Like I said, I was Zac at one stage. I used to go to that very same bar all the time. I had a hunch he’d be there too, especially since it’s close to the frat club. Plus, Grey always knows where Brody is and when he heard that Brody was at the bar too, we put two and two together and figured Zac was part of it all,” Jay explains himself.

He glances at Zac with a storm brewing in his blue eyes, “Speaking of which, I am going to kick your ass tomorrow for involving Aqueela. I would do it now, but I don’t believe in kicking a dog when it’s already down,” he warns Zac threateningly.

“You can try,” Zac smirks but his smirk quickly fades behind a dark, worrisome frown. “I’m starting to remember stuff now. It’s all coming back in flashes and bits and pieces.”

“Some concussions only last a few hours,” Jay states as if he’d been expecting it. “I figured yours was one of those. It’s normal that you start remembering now - good thing too, I won’t feel guilty when I end you tomorrow.”

Zac ignores Jay and asks aloud, with wide eyes, to no one in particular, “Where the hell is my bike?!”

It’s like he doesn’t even care that he put all of us in danger!

“Oh yeah…” I play with a strand of my hair innocently, “about that…it died. May it rest in peace. It surely won’t be missed.”

This won’t go down well…

His dark eyes flare up in fury as he whips his head to me, “You! I remember now. You crashed my bike!”

It’s about to rain meteorites…

“In an act to save us, need I remind you,” I try to defend myself against his accusations.

“An act that failed!” he snaps at me as if it’s my fault. Next time, I will send his bike into a fiery explosion and watch it die.

“Relax, man,” Jay reassures Zac, “my buddy Kyle took your bike. He’s going to take it to Landon tomorrow morning for repairs. Landon can fix anything, he’s brilliant like that.”

Zac huffs in deep-seeded frustration, “Don’t expect me to ‘thank’ you a second time.”

“I won’t. It’s too mentally demanding of you,” Jay grins, unfazed by Zac’s attitude. If anything, he’s handling Zac rather well. He’s really surprised me tonight. I think he’s capable of taking Zac on because he’s been where Zac is. He knows how Zac’s mind operates, and what better way to defeat than what you already know?

Zac opens his mouth to respond back, but as he does so, he ends up yawning instead. I swallow back a laugh as Jay motions to him to follow, “You look deadbeat, let me give you a spare room to use for the night.”

Zac, reluctant to obey, gives into his tiredness and actually ends up following Jay upstairs so that the guestroom can be shown to him. When he’s tired, he’ll comply. Tired Zac is probably the nicest version of Zac, other than concussed Zac.

I sit down and stare blankly ahead of me, deep in thought. Slobber curls up beside me and I end up stroking his soft fur. My thoughts are ruptured by the sound of a phone ringing. My gaze drifts to Jay’s cell lying on the coffee table.

I hesitate.

Not able to help myself, I answer his phone on impulse. I’m immediately greeted by the sound of shouting. I hold the phone slightly away from my ear before I register the screaming voice that can only belong to Decoda. I listen attentively to what she has to say as I try to figure out why she’s so infuriated with Jay this time.

“Who the hell leaves before the final race of the day?! You just vanished into thin air without even giving me a heads up. You’ve never ever done that before! The media coverage is not good. People are going wild over your absence. You can’t just leave without my consent. Your fans were expecting to see you race and win. I even had sponsors and some investors lined up to see you perform. Once again, you’ve blown it. You’ve left everyone disappointed. It’s no wonder there was drop in your fanbase today. You keep throwing all your chances to the wind!” Decoda shouts in fury before slowly asking the significant question, “What was so important to you that you had to leave immediately and couldn’t stay for the final race of the day? What was so important that you made the choice to take a huge risk on your career? What was so important that you decided everything else you’ve worked so hard for was worth sacrificing?”

I freeze at her blunt words before inhaling a sharp breath. I wasn’t aware that Jay left his race when he heard from Bells that Zac and I could be in potential danger. I thought he finished his race first and then only came.

“Whatever it is, it’s not worth it! She’s not worth losing everything over!” Decoda hisses knowingly before hanging up, making me glad that I answered her call instead of Jay. He could do without her judgment, especially now that he’s lost even more fans due to his irrational tendencies - due to me. He left that race for me and I’d be stupid to not see it. I’ll have to find a way to repay him back for all that I’ve caused him to already lose.

I glance down at Slobber, lost to my thoughts. There’s so much I wish I could undo. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Some mistakes just simply cannot be fixed no matter the time and effort invested into making it right again.

“Are you okay?”

I tense when Jay takes a seat beside me. I shift so that I’m facing him and reply with a meek nod accompanied by a faint smile.

“Really?” Jay scoffs as he takes in my facial expression, “’Cause you look down in the dumps to me,” he states with a fleck of concern etched into his bubblegum blue eyes.

Unknowing as to how to reply to that, I change the subject, “Thank you for what you did back there. Thank you for coming.” I’m careful not to mention the fact that I know he left his race for me. I’d rather not stir up something - that something being a hornet’s nest. I don’t want to set him off.

He leans back to stare at me for a brief second before a carefree grin spreads across his lips, “You don’t have to thank me, Klutz,” he assures me in confidence. Before I can say anything back, his smile suddenly fades behind the sincerity in his voice as if to convey his seriousness, “I’d do it for you any day, Aqueela Lawson,” he concludes quietly yet boldly, speaking with nothing but conviction. For the moment, I believe him.

I return the smile and avert my eyes from his before mumbling a response, “You’re being…nice?”

Jay feigns winces and flinches back, “Ouch. I guess I deserved that one.” he jokes with that same carefree grin of his. This is the Jay I prefer to the one I saw with Brody.

His reaction to all of this is really catching me off guard. I was expecting a lecture from him and more of his cold-shouldered self, especially seeing as he had to leave his race for me and because he ran into Brody tonight. He was forced to succumb to old memories that he’d rather not hatch or relive. As curious as I am, I won’t ask. I will not let his story surface until he wants it to surf my knowledge. If never, then I can live with that.

I bring my eyes back to his, “No, I never meant it like that, I…”

He grasps my arm gently as if to stop me right then and there. When I settle down with a perplexed expression, he releases his hold and takes over the conversation. “I realized how stupid I’ve been,” he states, point-blank.

I have no clue where he’s taking this, so I just go along with it, “Only now?” I joke, a teasing glint to my eyes.

A ghost of a smile flickers across his lips, “Again, ouch.”

“Sorry,” I repeat with a playful grin of my own.

I watch him exhale a tense breath before he starts talking, “I don’t even know how…” he falters as if hesitant and uncertain as to how to begin.

I shoot him an encouraging smile in the hopes of comforting him as he takes his time in gathering his thoughts to say whatever he needs to say. Jay’s always sucked at expressing himself.

He starts again and decides to just go for it this time ’round, “I’ve always been incredibly selfish when it comes to you. It’s why I was so angry when you left five years ago. It’s why I was so angry when you told me about your accident two weeks ago. But if anything, I’ve been angrier at myself for letting you go. I’ve unintentionally been taking it out on you. You’ve been my punching bag.”

I stay silent, giving him the platform to voice his thoughts. He needs this.

“I gave you the ticket to New York because I saw how your dad’s absence affected you. I wanted to give you the choice to see him, even if it meant losing you for a month. I wanted to be that boyfriend that you could count on, the one who wouldn’t hold you back from anything - except, I failed,” he admits, tearing his gaze off of me.

He didn’t fail.

He takes his words in a different direction, “People see me as this kind of perfect person,” he breathes out quietly, a frown developing on his lips at the thought of it. “It’s a lot of pressure to live up to. My name shouldn’t even be in the same sentence as the word. I shouldn’t be classified as ‘perfect’ when I’m the exact opposite,” he tells me, being blatantly honest with himself whilst doing so.

I instantly feel guilty at the thought of me being one of those people who always see him as a perfect person. I didn’t realize the negative effect it would have on him. I didn’t consider the pressure of our words, or of the way he sees himself.

“I might be seen as perfect by society’s definition and realms, but inside I know what I really am. I’m not successful like people say I am. I’m not an overachiever or any of what they make me out to be. They don’t really know me. Cold truth is, I don’t have everything together. I don’t have my life mapped out for me. I’m not some accomplished all-star with his head screwed on right. What I truly am, is a failure. I’m nothing but a failure. I’ve failed so many times and I still keep failing. I failed today, I failed yesterday and I will probably fail again tomorrow-“

I have to cut in and interrupt when I hear his last sentence, “Don’t always be so pessimistic. The difference is that despite your many failures and flaws, you keep going. You keep tackling life and overcoming its obstacles and challenges.”

He nods, “I was going to say that it’s okay that I fail. I can accept my failures; it’s others who can’t, others who refuse to just see me for what and who I really am. I’m nothing out of the ordinary, but people don’t see that. My real problem is that I’ve failed myself…” he meets my gaze headstrong, boldness in his eyes, “and I’ve failed you too.”

I shake my head profusely, “You didn’t fail me. You never have. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I never wanted to get caught up in fame.” He sighs in dejection and continues, “I know who I am and I know where I come from. I never want to lose sight of that by what people say. It’s why I don’t blow all my money on irrelevant things, material things, like a new house…” he smiles at me in reference back to what I asked him earlier, “to answer your previous question. Like I said before, I want to remember my roots. I want to remember where I came from.”

“You don’t have to lose sight of you,” I argue in respect to when he implied that people’s opinions might possibly change him. “People don’t get to decide who you are. It’s you who makes the choice.”

“I know that, but my goal was never to teach others that the only way to get by in life is through being perfect and flawless. My aim was to inspire in spite of the failures. No one is perfect. It’s a lie. I don’t want to be the face of a lie. I don’t want to be the poster kid that influences wrongly. I’ve had a sketchy background and I’ve suffered just like everybody else. If people classify me as ‘perfect’, everything else - my own suffering and abandonment included - feels like it all just happened in vain,” he reveals his perspective.

He’s always had a unique way of thinking in comparison to others. It gives him an edge that no one can compete with.

“I don’t understand,” I confess softly. The only problem with his unique outlook on life is that he tends to blind me with confusion in the process.

He blows out a breath of frustration as if irritated with himself in the fact that he can’t quite express and share how he feels, “I don’t want to be seen as flawless. I want to be seen as full of flaws. If I’m called flawless it’s as if the mistakes that I once made and learned from - the very same mistakes that shaped me to be who I am today - mean nothing. Being labeled as flawless means that I make no mistakes and that I’ve made no mistakes. Take away my flaws and erase my mistakes and you take away all that I’ve learned and all that I’ve become because of it. Take away who I’ve become and you take away me. If I’m not me, then who am I? I’m somebody else. I’m a liar. If I’m perfect and flawless, then I’m a liar too. I hate being called perfect. I can’t even begin to express how much I hate the word ‘perfect’.”

“I never looked at it like that,” I confess sheepishly. He overanalyzes and looks into matters deeply. It makes me feel inferior because I look at life differently. I just want to roam free, go wild, have a blast and be happy. It’s unrealistic - a dreamer’s point of view - but it’s me.

“Calling me perfect takes away from my integrity. It’s a way of erasing who I really am. It’s a facade and a label put on me by others. It’s a method that bounds and conforms me to a lie. It’s a way of wiping everything that I stand by, everything that is morally right. Everyone is going to slip up, but it’s how you deal with your failures that make a person,” he explains himself clearly this time.

“Your point being?” I ask with a teasing smile.

“Getting back on track here,” he grins back slightly, “what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t handle my failures well when I slipped up with you five years ago. I really messed up and I’m sorry for that. I think I never went after you because I always felt like an extreme failure…sometimes I still do. You’ve always been this beautiful and complex person, Aqueela,” he elaborates, making it obvious that he means inner beauty in this context, “I just felt like you deserved so much better. I felt like you deserved someone perfect and flawless - someone that I could never and will never be. It’s only now that I see how stupid I was. Despite my failures, I should have gone to New York and looked for you anyway. I shouldn’t have let the word ‘perfect’ hold me back from going after you. ‘Perfect’ got in the way of us. I made it an excuse.”

I now loathe and despise the word ‘perfect’ too.

Jay continues, “I’m so tired of being angry all the time, Aqueela. I’m tired of always being angry at myself whenever I see you. I still haven’t forgiven myself for being an idiot. I want to finally get past that. I want the same peace I see in you. I want to live freely the way you do. I’ve said it before, but you inspire me. To be selfish again, I’m asking that you stay this time. I don’t care in what sense or form, I don’t even care who you date, just stay in my life this time, alright? Don’t flake out on me again.”

I laugh lightly, “Alright,” I confirm, “just don’t run back to Africa or leave again either.”

“Deal sealed,” he smirks in agreement, a cheeky smile playing on the corner of his lips at me agreeing so easily to his simple request.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I tease, bursting his smug bubble.

“I’m not done,” he grins in ease, patiently waiting to see how I’ll take to his words.

“This is probably the most you’ve talked in months,” I point out, “not that I’m complaining. I prefer it over the silent treatment and the ‘you’re dead to me’ treatment.”

“I gave you the ticket; then just before you left I begged you to stay. Grey, the dumbass, planted thoughts in my head until I was convinced you wouldn’t come back after a month. I was afraid of losing you, especially since I’d been left behind before. It got to me up until the point where I didn’t believe you when you said that you planned on coming back in a month’s time. I lost faith in you. That one’s all on me. I let fear blind me, it caused me to distrust your words. It’s why I said we were done if you got on that plane. I broke up with you because I thought you weren’t coming back. I said it in the hopes to sway your decision, in the hopes that you’d stay. I was hoping that if I put pressure on you, you’d chose me,” he chuckles humourlessly and shakes his head to himself, “man, was I wrong, you sure showed me.”

I never knew any of this.

“It wasn’t a matter of deciding between the two of you. It was a matter of closure, at least for me it was. I needed to see my dad. I didn’t choose him over you. I was planning on coming back to you when the month ended - so for me, you calling it off seemed pointless at the time. I figured that when I got back we’d just continue on where we left off. I took your breakup as something temporary,” I explain my side to the story, more than satisfied that we’re finally clearing up the confusion and miscommunication that has lingered between us for years.

“I have to admit, if you did come back in a month, I would have accepted you back in a heartbeat. At the time, though, I was convinced that you were leaving for good. You even packed as if you were leaving for good and that terrified me,” Jay confesses as he makes his point clear to me.

“I didn’t intentionally plan to leave for good. It wasn’t premeditated or anything, but I think a small part of me wanted to escape from my life in Minnesota. It wasn’t about you, it was about leaving all my painful memories behind. It was about running away from my problems that I had yet to move on from, those including my abuse and the death of my biological mother. It was just too much, so subconsciously I was taking the coward’s way out by running,” I reply back in turn. I take the liberty to be honest with him and clarify it all. “Grey was partially right and partially wrong in a way,” I admit to him.

“It’s my fault. I was dating you and I didn’t even see the true effect that all Yolanda’s negativity took on you. I knew it upset you, but I didn’t know to what degree and I never bothered to ask,” he says in response, understanding as ever, even to the extent of taking all the blame upon himself.

“My doubt of not coming back was erased when Mason told me everything,” I add thoughtfully. “He made me realize that you were that childhood friend. He told me about how you defended me against him in secret for years on end, so-“

“He said all that?” Jay questions in confusion as he interrupts me.

I nod in response.

“When I went back to the airport to stop you, I saw him and you. I thought he was badmouthing me. I thought that you were choosing him over me, and so, I stupidly gave up, gave you up. When you didn’t come back, I didn’t bother searching for you because I was sure you were with him. I jumped to assumptions. I spent two years trying to get over you because I thought you chose him and I didn’t want to come looking for you if it meant you wouldn’t be with me, and also, I knew that even if you did pick me, I’d never be good enough. When you didn’t return, even after a few months, it just reinforced my idea of you and him being together,” Jay elaborates before coming to a solid conclusion, “I knew it was over.”

“No,” I shake my head in argument, “Mason only followed me in order to defend you,” I clarify yet again seeing as there’s been so many misunderstandings between us. “When he told me all that you did for me, I knew for sure that I couldn’t leave you behind. It was then that I was one hundred percent sure that I’d be back in a month, even if it meant staying in a town that haunted me with my past. I wasn’t willing to lose you. You weren’t supposed to be the sacrifice. However, I then met Zac and Lars and ended up in a car accident. You know the rest of the story,” I breathe out a sigh of relief at getting it all out in the open.

There’s been so much confusion on both our parts and it’s simply because of miscommunication. We should have cleared this up years ago.

Jay reaches for my hand and clasps it tightly as he inspects me with concern and scans my face with his eyes as if in search of something, “There’s something else you’re not telling me.” He hits the nail on the head. “Tell me, don’t hold back on me anymore.”

I suck in a deep breath before confessing the last of it, “I didn’t just delete your number because I was scared. I didn’t only not contact you about the accident because I was afraid it would be the last time I’d see you. It was more than that. I figured you were better off without me.” I exhale sharply and try to explain, “I told you that my father said some things, well what he said was actually what stopped me from returning home.”

“Whatever he told you, it’s a lie,” Jay insists, already convinced of the fact.

I shake my head in protest, “It’s the truth. What he told me is the truth. You might think you’re a failure, Jay, but it’s not your fault, it’s mine. I was told that I’m a burden on everyone, especially you. Lars told me that I set people up for failure. The only reason you feel like a failure is because I always set you up for it. You don’t fail me, you fail because of me. You gave me a home, access to your finances, and you got me out of my situation with Yolanda. You did so much for me and I never gave anything back in return. I just took. You’re not the selfish one here, I am. You’ve always been selfless.”

“That’s not true,” Jay argues, refusing to believe what I’m saying. “You shouldn’t trust him. He’s a liar. Plus, you’ve seen worse days.”

“Lars left and abandoned me as a child because he said I was a burden. Yolanda got stuck with me as a result. She abused me because I was a burden. You had to take care of me when she was arrested because I was a burden. I’ve always been a burden on everyone, a burden that’s just passed along from one person to the next,” I say, fighting through the surge of sadness surfacing from layers of stone.

I’m the problem.

“That’s a lie, Aqueela. He lied to you. He left you because he was selfish. Yolanda abused you because she wasn’t stable…and everything I did for you, I did because I cared, not because I saw you as a burden or just someone to look after,” Jay replies back forcefully, trying to get me to see it the way he does. “You’ve always been so much more than that.”

“You just dropped everything for me. Just today you left an important race for me. You lost more investors and sponsors because of me. Nothing will ever change, I will always be a burden on you, whether you accept it or not, whether you see it or not and whether you believe it or not. It’s probably the only thing Lars was right about. Even now, I’m still your burden to carry,” I tell him as I feel a tear trace my cheek.

Jay takes me by surprise as I feel his arms materialize around me before he embraces me tightly, “I didn’t drop everything today because you’re a burden on me, I dropped everything because you were in trouble. And I certainly don’t carry you because I have to; I carry you because I want to.”

I smile against his shoulder, the tears fading behind his words of assurance, as I return the gesture and hug him back. I’m grateful I have a friend in him.

He pulls away from the embrace slowly and ever so slightly as if to check if I’m coping. He gingerly lifts a hand to touch my cheek, the place where he’d seen the tear, his other hand still resting lightly against my back. We fall into an uncomfortable silence for the split second and I part my lips to say something, but the words get caught at the back of my throat. His riveting blue eyes keep me in place under his piercing gaze. I’m about to remove my hands from his neck when he suddenly and impulsively - without warning - leans in and tilts his head forward.

I would have allowed it had it not been for Zac’s loud voice booming from somewhere upstairs, “Sh*t, you guys, there’s a vampire in this house!” he shouts out adamantly as if truly believing it. I roll my eyes before I hear a crash from somewhere upstairs. “We’re all going to die!” His shout is followed by the sound of his fast-paced footsteps running down the stairs to meet us.

I move out of Jay’s grasp uncertainly and tear my eyes away from his shyly. Zac reaches us soon after, fear plastered all over his face, as he frantically tries to catch his breath.

“What’s going on?” Jay recovers quickly and manages to keep his cool when he’s done nothing but rattle and unnerve me.

“There was something under my bed. I just saw a flash before I heard a thud from beside me, and then there was this creature on top of me trying to attack me,” Zac explains as he glances around warily as if waiting for something to jump out from the darkness.

“You’ve lost it. Your concussion seems permanent,” I joke in an effort to calm the giant baby down.

“I’m not joking, Aqueela!” he snaps at me before turning to Jay for assistance.

It’s then that something runs past us in a flash - a blink of an eye - just as Zac said, before we hear noises coming from the kitchen. Slobber instantly wakes up and sniffs the air before going wild and berserk in his little fit of barks as if smelling out evil…and this time, it’s not Zac.

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