Chapter 41: Streak of Light
“Is this really necessary?” Jay asks me as I force him to take photos with everyone, against his will, with the sunset and lake as our backdrop.
“It’s making memories!” I exclaim, now jovial -- nothing like taking photos that cheers me up quite as quick. Behind the lens, it’s a whole different world.
“I can think of better ways to make memories,” he replies with a frown as Dean forces him under his arm. He’s still not over the whole ‘Wyatt leaving us for dead’ thing. In fact, he’s quick to shove Dean away from him.
“I bet you can.” Ryan winks at Jay before puckering up his lips, gesturing to me.
Jay scoffs under his breath before shaking his head, glancing away.
“Strike a pose!” Troy yells at Jay before pouting, almost as if to persuade Jay into doing the same.
“I’m tapping out of this one,” Jay tells me, leaving the predestined photo I had set up. “Sorry, Aqueela,” he apologizes, sincere.
“I’m offended,” Dean complains, unaware that Jay hates photos in general.
“Yeah, I’m out too,” Landon agrees with Jay before he and Sarah return back to the campsite.
As of lately, everybody follows suit in Landon’s wake. He’s the new, renowned leader of our group seeing as Jay all too eagerly handed over the role, tired of others looking to him for everything. Thus, it’s really no surprise when everybody sparses out until it’s just Jay and I left.
“C’mon, ’Queela, everyone else has left. Please, can we go?” Jay asks, resorting to pitiful begging. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day and it’s going to get dark soon.”
“I told you, not until I get a portrait of you,” I remind him, turning him in place in order to capture the most perfect picture. “Nope, not like that,” I say, correcting his rigid stance yet again as I try to find a more aesthetically pleasing position.
“What are you doing?” he huffs, growing impatient.
“Would you stop stiffening up?!” I hiss at him, aggravated with his stubborn refusal to comply. “You’re not making this go by any faster!”
“Then stop touching me all over!” he snaps like the ticking time bomb that he is. “It’s your fault!”
I can’t help but immediately erupt in giggles, reminiscing back on the days that we’d always argue like this. There’s always that streak of light in the dark and this just so happens to be one of those moments.
Jay arches an eyebrow at me, confused. “What? What am I missing? Why are you laughing now?”
I just end up laughing louder, as a result, missing this temperamental side to Jay. It was the first ‘Jay’ I came to know.
Jay, unable to stifle his laughter anymore, joins in until the both of us are left wondering why we’re laughing in the first place.
“You know,” I pause hesitantly as I dwell back to the distant memory, “you were wrong,” I conclude in determination.
He stays silent in order to hear me out.
“You were wrong when you said that I wouldn’t remember,” I tell him, nostalgic over the moment lost in time. His words are coming back to haunt me, five years later:
“Are you drunk right now?"
“Why, Aqueela, are you such an idiot?”
“You are beyond drunk.”
“You mean a lot to me but I’m never going to be good enough for you. You deserve the best...and I’m not it. I never will be. I wish you’d see that.”
“I’m only going to say this because I know you won’t remember any of this by morning, but back in science, I did do it for you.”
“To the world you be but one, but to one you might be the world. For me, that’s always been you. You’re my world.”
“You asked me what I wanted to say, I was going to say that I don’t want space, Aqueela. I want you. I always have. I’m glad you stopped me. You reminded me that I’m never going to be him. I’m never going to be the person you deserve. You’re not mine to take.”
“What are you on about?” he asks aloud, puzzled. “Am I in trouble again?”
I shake my head. “No, far from it, Taylor. You see, Jay, to the world you be but one, but to one you might be the world,” I clarify, hoping he’ll remember -- he tends to never forget. “What you were right about, is that I do deserve the best. You are my best, Jay. You always have been and always will be. Since meeting you, I’ve always been yours to take. I wish you’d see that.”
I glance up at him, meeting his gaze. He’s staring at me in disbelief as if he cannot fathom that I actually did remember that night. The memory is hazy but his words are clear in my mind and heart.
Taken aback, he remains silent, processing it all. He visibly swallows, clearly moved by everything I’ve just said.
I smile wholeheartedly and refocus my lens. “Now, how does one capture such perfection?” I tease, ready to take the photo. The ‘lost’ look on him is kind of cute. I think I just found my perfect picture.
“Like this,” he takes me by surprise when he places his hand on my camera and suddenly shoves it away before leaning down to touch my lips with his own.
There’s a quick intake of breath as I register what he just implied. The moment is so surreal yet I automatically lean into him anyway, it being natural to me. I yield to his soft lips when his hand settles at the back of my neck. I internally smile and reach up to trace his jaw with my fingertips.
He uses his other hand to interlock our fingers, assuring me that right here, right now, I’m home.
A cool wind passes between us, transporting me back to the day Jay first kissed me. He’s as gentle and hesitant as I remember him to be. His mint scent entraps me and I realize, in reality, nothing much has changed between us. We’re merely starting over, hoping for a different ending.
His hands find my waist as he tugs me up onto my tippy-toes, reminding me that wherever he is, is where I’m meant to be.
With Jay Taylor, there’s always a bolt of lightning. There’s always a volcanic eruption. There’s always a tidal wave of emotions, yet, still, I always end up happily following him into oblivion -- even now, as my heart continues to pound away in my chest.
If it’s the wrong decision, I’ll probably be making it a million times over anyway.
He pulls back to stare down at me with an intensity that leaves me breathless, that past fleck of silver returning to his eyes. “You don’t get to do that, Aqueela. You don’t get to say that and expect me not to do anything about it,” he says quietly, fazed.
“I have no idea what you mean,” I lie, having predicted the outcome.
He steps forward and yanks me back to him before embracing me tightly, holding me in place against him as if not ready to let go. “Why’d you have to say that? You suck so much, Aqueela,” he whispers into my ear, his voice raw with emotion. “I’m going to be in pieces again when I leave,” he openly confesses.
Then don’t leave.
I push back from his arms and tilt my head up to look at him. It’s rare that he’s ever this honest with himself, forget me or anyone else. As I do so, he drops his head and places another affectionate kiss on my lips as if he cannot help himself.
Confused, I break from my stupor as a dazed smile crosses my lips.
“This makes me think of the first time I kissed you,” I admit, voicing my thoughts aloud. If he’s being truthful, I might as well be too. “I don’t quite remember it entirely but-”
“It went a little something like this,” he cuts me off abruptly before hoisting me up and kissing me again.
Obviously, I respond even though he’s completely wrong and it most definitely didn’t go down like this.
He slowly brushes his lips against mine before reluctantly pulling back. I place my hand on the side of his face and stare down at his features, recalling everything about him as his blue eyes meet my gaze.
“Just to refresh your memory,” he adds, removing my hand from his face to tenderly kiss the palm of my hand, a rush of butterflies coursing through my veins at the heartfelt action.
“Knew that was your ‘better’ idea of making memories,” Ryan states teasingly, having seen us on his way back to fetch Nancy’s phone that she left behind.
“It’s going to be a lot more memorable to me than the photos,” Jay replies with a nod, not bothering to deny it anymore.
“Oh, come on!” Benley whines as he stares up at the high zip line platform in dread. “Another height thing?”
“We don’t cater for cowards,” PB states under his breath, still upset that he got into trouble for the loss of two of the camp’s tubes. He had to fish out the last one at the bottom of the damn wall, apparently.
“You don’t like water, you don’t like heights, you don’t like girls, there’s just no pleasing you,” Landon replies with a shake of his head, unimpressed with Ben’s lack of participation.
Benley stills and blinks at Landon in confusion. “You do know that I’m engaged, right?”
“Who’s the unlucky guy?” Lan asks, in turn, dead serious.
“AJ is his fiancee, Babe,” Sarah explains to her oblivious fiance.
“For real?” Landon asks, confused.
“For realz,” Sarah nods, confirming the facts.
“Hmm...” Landon trails off in wonder, “who would have said?”
Benley scoffs in disbelief, Landon earning just yet another enemy to his name due to his blatant insults directed at others.
“You ready?” a voice asks from beside me. “You ready to suck?”
“Shut up, Max,” I answer, aware that it can only be him.
“Race you to the top of the first platform?” he asks, taking off before I can reply.
“Don’t--” PB begins but then stops himself, “forget it.”
Ignoring PB, I chase after Max, not prepared to let him hold defeat over my head, even if he is cheating like the brat he is. I shove him out of my way and reluctantly climb the ladder up to the top of the platform.
Max groans and begins climbing again. Unfortunately for him, Jay tugs him off to climb up after me.
“Aww, c’mon!” Max whines aloud from the bottom of the platform, having clearly lost to a champion -- me.
“Could you at least put your harness on before climbing up next time? You’re gonna give me a heart attack. You’re a wreckless klutz as is. No need to take risks,” Jay scolds as he approaches me with a harness in hand.
I internally smile at his thoughtfulness, wondering how I’ve survived without him for so long.
“Jerks,” Max mutters as he finally makes it up, strapping himself into his harness.
“Here,” Jay offers, unfazed by Max’s loud complaints, “let me help you before you fall and kill yourself.”
“Only an idiot will slip and kill themselves,” I say jokingly, concerned for Troy.
Before Jay can reply, we hear a shriek from below us.
I glance around frantically, worried. “Where did Max go?”
“Help! I slipped and almost killed myself!” I hear his panicked voice.
Jay sighs and glances down, only to see Max dangling by his harness just below us. He shakes his head before pulling Max back up to safety. “This is exactly what I mean,” he says, turning back to me, his point now proven.
“Slipperly wood,” Max comments with a relieved grin, interrupting us. “Did it rain last night?”
“Only in Jay’s heart,” I answer aloud, nudging my ex playfully. “He’s going to miss me so much,” I tell Max jokingly. If anything, I’ll be the one missing him so much.
Jay falls silent and shakes his head, refusing to comment.
“How are you two dealing with that?” Max asks us, intrigued, now that he knows everything that’s been going on.
“We’re not,” I reply in all honesty. At least, I’m not. “But I think we’ll manage,” I add, certain of the fact. “We’ve done it before. It’s clear that we have different plans for our lives and that’s okay. This is reality. This is where we’re at and this is what we’re facing, what all of us are facing. Jay’s right; there are better days to come. This is just the beginning.”
Max nods in understanding before glancing Jay’s way, seeking his view on the situation.
Jay stiffens in his stance before shrugging. “It is what it is.” Before Max can reply, he changes the subject, no longer wanting to speak about it. “By the way, idiot, it’s pronounced ‘slippery’ not ‘slipperly’.”
“Tomayto, tomahto. You say potahto, I say potayto. Aqueela says broccoli, I also say broccoli. What’s your freaken point?” Max asks, cocky as ever. “The platform is slipperly!” he clarifies, stubborn in his opinion.
"Aqueela,” Jay drawls out in frustration, seeking my help, “back me up here.”
“It’s slipperly, stupid!” I argue with Jay, taking Max’s side seeing as he is, no doubt, correct. My best friend has always been a genius!
"Thank you!” Max exclaims in exasperation.
A grin tugs at Jay’s lips but he’s quick to hide it. “I’m out,” he tells us before going down the zip line at a tremendous speed without a second thought in mind, landing on the other side a few seconds later.
PB sighs from behind us, having seen it all. “We weren’t starting yet.”
I shrug, uncaring. If he has a problem, he can be the one to take it up with Jay. I’m certainly not doing it.
“This is it...” Benley sucks in a deep breath as he wearily stares down from the top of the first platform, “I’m going to officially face my fear today.”
If I can, he can. Scratch that, no he can’t. I’m a living legacy!
“You’ve said that three times now and you’ve yet to move,” Xavier points out in irritation. “Like literally, you’re barely breathing.”
Jay’s the only one who has crossed over to the second platform. In other words, the rest of us are all standing squashed up against each other on platform one while we wait for Benley to get a move on.
“Be a man!” Sarah raises her tone at him, having lost her own temper.
Landon grins, tossing an arm over her shoulders, drawing her to his side before kissing the top of her head. “That’s my girl,” he says, finding her temper to be attractive.
“Agreeing with the pretty blonde,” PB speaks up, mentally exhausted by us.
“Hate to say it but even I’m agreeing with my ex,” Ryan backs Sarah up, shocking us all in the process.
“Looks like Jay’s having a blast,” Mason points out, envious of him.
We all follow his gaze to see Jay lying on his back on the second platform, impatiently tossing his helmet up and down as he waits for us to catch up.
“BoyBand better get moving or I’ll be moving him myself,” Gland threatens, meaning it.
“C’mon, Babe, you got this,” AJ encourages him.
“No, Babe,” he replies with a shake of his head as he makes a move to back out, “no, I don’t.”
“I’m facing my fear today too,” Landon pipes up. “I’ve always been afraid to help people, today I help people,” he says before shoving Benley off of the platform without a second thought in mind.
Benlet lets out a loud yelp of fear before he’s speeding down the zip-line. He makes it to the other side in the blink of an eye. Fortunately for him, Jay’s there to assist him seeing as his piercing screams caught his attention.
Gland falls into a fit of laughter as a result before fist-bumping Lan, commending him on his latest achievement.
“Man, people are right, it does feel good to overcome a fear,” Lan states, pleased with himself. “He’ll thank me later for it.”
No, no he won’t...
“Me next!” Max and I shout simultaneously.
We both turn to glare at each other as a result before making a run to the front of the platform, shoving everybody out of our way in the process.
“I can fly!”
We turn to see Troy dangling from the platform by his harness with his arms spread wide.
“Pity he was wearing a harness when you guys pushed him off,” Leban says to Max and I as he pulls Troy back up with the help of the pulley system, pretending to drop Troy to the ground on the last second much to Troy’s despair and our amusement.
While Max is distracted, I summon courage and jump off the platform, taking to the zip-line as quickly as possible. My heart lurches with the immediate speed. Nonetheless, I keep my eyes open, taking in the passing surroundings, in awe of the beauty.
“Whoo!” I shout at the top of my lungs, loving every second of it.
Once again, I come alive.
It’s over too quickly and before I know it, I come to a brutal halt, my body jerking upward on impact. Then Jay and Benley are helping me down onto the second platform.
“Stupid,” Jay shakes his head at me, a carefree grin crossing over his lips as he flicks my helmet, “you forgot to brake.”
“You’re going to hurt your neck with that whiplash,” Benley adds, unimpressed, still shaken up after his little experience. Too bad for him that there’s no going back now, the only way is forward and to the next platform.
We all turn to see Max coming down at a great speed next. He stops himself and jumps onto the second platform like a pro, making me question whether this is really Max or someone who looks exactly like him. Bets on the latter.
He spots Jay standing close to me and immediately jumps to his correct assumptions. “Is this happening again?!” he asks in excitement, pointing between us.
Jay and I immediately step apart from each other, only noticing our close proximity now.
“Ooooh!” he claps his hands in enthusiasm before wagging his eyebrows at us.
“Shut up, Max!” I hiss at him, annoyed.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” he asks loudly.
I glance back to the first platform to see the others arguing over who will be next. Dean goes next and is barely on the zip-line when Troy decides to go too. Troy ends up bumping into him and the two of them end up getting stuck.
“What the hell, dude?!” Dean complains, twisting his body to swat Troy on the helmet, hurting his hand as a result.
Jay sighs before he and Benley pull the two of them over to us. Meanwhile, Max and I pretend to look busy.
“Troy!” Max embraces him as soon as he and Dean are safe. “Guess what, Jay and Aqueela are back together!”
I scoff in annoyance. How did I not foresee this?
Troy shakes his head and places a hand on Max’s shoulder in sympathy. “Sorry, bud, but Squirt and BroBoyBand are actually seeing each other behind our backs. I felt so betrayed when I found out.”
Max let’s out an over-exaggerated gasp as Jay looks to me for an explanation.
“Took him long enough,” Ben comments with an irritable frown taking over his features.
“Is this true, Aqueela?” Max asks, astounded. The only thing he should be astounded by is Troy’s stupidity.
“Sorry you had to find out this way, BroJay,” Troy apologizes, feeling for Jay in the moment. “She should be so lucky. In fact, if you ever cheated on her, she should apologize to you.”
Jay glances at Benley and I before shaking his head. “Staying outta this one.”
“Good choice,” Benley replies back stiffly just as AJ, the daredevil, comes down next.
“So, who’s breaking it to AJ then that her fiance is a lying, cheating, garbage face?” Troy asks, glancing around. He makes eye-contact with Ben. “No offense, dipwad.”
Ley Ley merely rolls his eyes in response. At least, Troy knows that he’s not gay.
“Aqueela’s a lesbian, idiots!” Dean laughs, highly amused. “If anything, it’s Max here,” he lays a hand on Max, “who should be worried. His wife is cozy with Furby over here. I think they’re having an affair.”
If Bells were currently here, she’d kill him.
Jay shakes his head. “Don’t wanna know,” he mutters.
“Truth be told, Bell is way out of my league,” I defend myself against their ridiculous accusations.
“And might I add, out of Max’s too,” Ben says as he helps AJ down.
“Bro, how much do you workout?” Max asks Dean, wincing in pain as he removes Dean’s hand off of his shoulder.
“If anything,” Dean lays his hand on Troy’s shoulder next, Troy cringing in pain under his grasp, “Troy should be worried seeing as it’s his wife who loves Bell.”
It’s Troy’s turn to gasp.
“How I love it when it goes back to bite Troy in the backside,” Benley smirks, satisfied with the outcome. “Full circles are great.”
I zone out of the talk as I watch Bell come down next, spinning out of control because of her incorrect grip, until she vomits. It’s then that Emma vomits and decides to back out.
“No, seriously, do you workout 24/7? Do you live in the gym?” Max asks Dean, intrigued by his strength. He’s not letting this go anytime soon. “’Cause, like, dude, you’re hella fit.”
I slap my forehead, embarrassed for him.
“I get that a lot.” Dean smirks in response before winking my way. “You’re missing out.”
“I’m good,” I reply, unfazed.
“Babe!” Max, elated, runs to help his wife, a wide grin on his face. “You did it!” he exclaims, trying to lighten her mood after she just threw up everywhere. “I love you, my baby mumma!” he laughs, wrapping his arms around her waist.
She slaps his hands away. “Stop fondling me and help me down, Max! It’s not the time!”
“Got it, Babe. Right, right,” Max agrees as he and Jay carefully help her down, “what was I thinking.”
“Nothing, apparently,” Bell replies in her usual dive-like tone, not appreciating Max enough, at least, not right now. There are times where one does not need to appreciate Max but this is not one of those moments.
“You’re totally right, Babe. That was so wrong of me,” Max apologizes, completely sincere. “Please forgive me, Baby.”
Bell huffs dramatically. “I’ll think about it.”
Jeez, my best friend is some catch...
“Check the train coming in,” AJ points to the next three on their way to us. “Choo, choo!” She pretends to pull the horn.
Blubber and Jam are coming down with PB, Blubber because he’s afraid and Jam because he’s in love with PB, I think. PB is squashed in the middle with Blubber in the front and Jam at the back.
“Is Jam embracing PB?” Ben asks with a shudder, disturbed, as he squints at the disgusting picture before all of us.
None of say anything as the three join us.
“This platform is getting too full. I think we should move out to the next one,” Jay suggests thoughtfully, feeling crowded with Blubber now aboard. It’s just a matter of time before Simo gets here and Jay knows it.
I nod. “I second that.”
“No,” PB argues with us, shaking his head, “this time, you’ll both wait for my instruction-”
“One hand!” Jay cuts him off, happy-go-lucky as ever, already on his way down to the third platform.
“See, now that’s not okay,” PB murmurs, upset.
“No hands!” Jay hollers a second later, taking both hands off of the rope before he lands on the other side with skill and precision.
“That kid should just be an instructor,” PB huffs, taken aback.
“Show-off,” Dean comments under his breath, unable to not grin. He’s just like Simo in that department.
“Thing is too slow,” Landon complains as he hops off onto our platform, having gone next.
“But you were speeding!” Max tells him, confused. “Probably the fastest from all of us.”
"Too slow,” Lan emphasizes as if to get it through to him.
Max drops it.
“Let’s meet Jay, Babe,” AJ suggests to Ben, pointing to the third platform. “We can go together.”
“Great. Now we’re gonna spend another half-an-hour waiting on him,” Landon mopes, impatient.
“I ain’t scared,” Ben lies, trying to build up his own confidence, “I ain’t never scared, ain’t scared of nuthin’. You hear me? Nuthin’! I ain’t ever scared, ain’t ever been scared in my life.”
Gland is influencing too many of my people.
"Babe,” AJ stops her fiance, “why are you speaking like that? Stop. Stop speaking like that. I don’t find it appealing,” she kids, dragging him to the front before both of them are on their way down to Jay.
Ben’s shouts are drowning out AJ’s.
“Cute couple,” Dean remarks with a lazy smile.
“They’re a couple?” Lan asks aloud, truly blown away by the very old, expired info. “I thought she was his sister.”
I swear, it goes in through one ear and out through the next.
"Ah, tell me about it, my brother, I used to think that too,” Max chips in, standing on his tippy-toes to throw a casual arm around Landon’s shoulders.
Landon pauses as if he cannot fathom what’s currently happening. He frowns, taking a moment to process it before registering Max’s actions. He doesn’t hesitate to swat Max’s arm off of him before glowering down at him in warning. “This dynamic we have,” he gestures between them, “it’s now over,” he finalizes in a threatening tone.
Ouch, and before it even started...
Max shrugs, uncaring. “Was worth a shot.”
The others all join us soon enough. Quite frankly, I don’t know who is worse, Nancy and her screams of terror or Laiken and his flexing – he has an unreasonable obsession with himself.
Gland, on the other hand, shouts threats at Ben on his way down with Oog atop his shoulders. It’s not very safe but they don’t seem to care and at this point, neither does PB. In fact, I get the feeling that PB would prefer it if we all fall and drop to our very deaths.
As for Mia, she brakes too much and ends up stopping halfway across the zip-line. She ends up having to pull herself along the rope with the help of the guys – that being Laiken, Zac and Mase with Max pretending to be busy...again.
Susie and Kyle are the last two we end up waiting for. Kyle, insisting that he stay behind to help Susie, does exactly that and clips her harness for her before she’s on her way. Unfortunately, just like me, she forgets to brake and ends up taking the brunt of the impact due to her light frame.
“Too many Aqueela’s in this damn forsaken town,” Max says dramatically, causing me to scowl at him, much to his rising laughter.
I help Susie down and high-five her in pride.
The kid gets me. The kid is me!
After that, we all go from platform to platform, working as a team, before finally catching up with Jay, AJ and Benley at the end – the three who are not team players, at least, not today.
“I’m surprised BoyBand didn’t faint,” I joke at seeing his distressed face.
"Oh, he did,” AJ replies with a faint smile, ”many times.”
Jay chuckles under his breath. “He was passed out on AJ’s back for more than half the time.”
Ben folds his arms across his chest, striking a defensive stance. “Whatever,” he murmurs in shame.
Jay flashes him a thumbs-up before jumping backward off the last platform.
PB uses the pulley system to lower Jay to the ground before doing it for the rest of us. He ‘accidentally’ forgets Jam up there and so does the rest of us as we depart without a care in the world.
I skip after Jay, all eager to talk to him. “Thanks for waiting for the rest of us!” I say, sarcastic.
He purposely slows down, falling into step with me as the others pass us by, engrossed in their own conversations. “Sorry but I was feeling overwhelmed,” he explains. “We know way too many people.”
“Don’t make excuses, Jay Taylor. I will not stand for it. I will-”
Jay leans forward and captures my lips with his own, silencing me. He cranes his head and pulls me up onto my toes, coaxing me to respond. I grab fistfuls of his t-shirt and willingly move my lips against his as he leads us.
I’m not over this ridiculous idiot, never have been, not by a long shot. He’s not easy to forget, even after five years.
I feel him smile against my lips in contentment. It’s enough to send my heart into overdrive. Anymore surprises from him, and my heart will skyrocket out of my chest and fly away with my dreams of him staying.
Only now remembering that we have an audience, our ‘friends’, I step back in an attempt to break the kiss.
Jay merely follows me, taking a step forward, refusing to disconnect our lips, not willing for the surreal moment to end. Instead, he places a hand against my cheek, freezing me under his sweet touch.
I place my hands on his chest and shove him back.
“Why?” he asks, throwing his hands to the air in exasperation, a boyish grin on his face. ”Why?”
I swallow back my laughter. “You think I was going to make it easy for you?”
I glance around to see that all of our friends have already left, all but Jam. Taylor played his cards wisely.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t,” he winks, teasing me.
I shake my head at him, amused by his flirting. “You don’t have as much game as you think,” I lie.
“I guess I’ll just have to use you to get back into practice then,” he replies smoothly.
“Where’d all our friends go?” I change the subject, sensing my defeat nearing.
He shrugs. “They left.”
“So you kissed me?”
“I saw the gap and I took it.”
“This was awesome and all but I think we should get back,” Nancy states hurriedly, hiding her true agenda.
“Checking in on Grey again?” Jay asks her knowingly, aware of her feelings for him despite having a boyfriend.
“How’s he doing?” I ask, surprised that he has missed yet another group activity. He always says he hates us but he always participates anyway. This is the first time where he’s refused to be involved.
“Not too sure,” she confesses. “I’m still trying to get it out of him,” she admits, glancing Jay’s way as if seeking the truth from him.
Jay, catching the hint, holds his hands up apologetically. “Not my place to say,” he repeats what he’d said to me earlier, staying loyal to his friend. “Besides, he’s still not talking to me,” he sighs, averting his gaze, clearly feeling guilty.
“You think I can try speaking to him?” I offer, worried about Grey. I need him to be okay again. I’ve never seen him so...broken before.
“He hates you,” Nancy reminds me, blunt as ever. “Just let me do it. I’m this close...” she motions to the small space between her thumb and index finger, “to getting through to him.”
“You going to him again?” Ryan asks, standing behind Nance, his smile faltering upon overhearing the discussion.
Nancy jumps at hearing his voice before swiveling around to face him. She falls silent under his gaze, looking just as guilty as Jay.
I’m honestly surprised that he even noticed she’s been gone.
“I thought we could go on a hike together,” he pauses in uncertainty, “just the two of us,” he clarifies in hesitancy, seemingly out of his comfort zone for the first time ever. As everybody, including Nance, knows, he’s not one to initiate such things...romantic, boyfriend things.
Nancy, refusing to acknowledge or recognize his evident effort, begins to protest, “But Grey needs-”
"Nancy,” Jay interrupts before shaking his head at her, ”stop,” he commands, gesturing to Ryan and the frown that is now on his face. “Your boyfriend,” he emphasizes, “is asking you to go a hike with him. Do it.”
She sighs under her breath, still adamant about looking out for Grey. “But Grey’s in a dark space. Someone needs to check on him and-”
“Aqueela will,” Jay concludes firmly, leaving no room for argument.
“Why Aqueela?” Nancy and Ryan ask in unison.
“Because if anyone understands Grey, it’s her,” Jay answers while staring down at the ground, emotionless yet meaning it. The corners of his lips quirk up into a slight smile. “Also, if anyone is going to force something out of him, it will be Aqueela.”
“Fine,” Nancy huffs before reluctantly following after Ryan, displeased. However, for once, Ryan seems angrier -- a sight that no one is used to seeing.
“Can I ask you something?” I ask Jay aloud before forcefully tugging him away by the hand. “Why didn’t you tell Grey? You tell him everything,” I say, releasing his hand.
He shrugs, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his sports shorts. “I don’t know. I just felt like I couldn’t this time.”
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion. “Do you want to come with me to talk it out with him?”
He shakes his head. “That’s probably not a good idea.”
“Why did you volunteer me, though?” I question, puzzled by his unusual behavior today, along with his vague answers.
“Because it’s bugging you,” he replies calmly. “And because I know him better than anyone else here. I know that he’ll talk to you.”
“How can you be so sure?” I ask him, wishing for the power to read his thoughts. After all this time, he’s still a walking enigma.
“I just know,” he answers with another half shrug, playing it off cool.
I frown, sensing that there’s an underlining reason behind his sudden change in mood. “Jay, is everything okay?” You know, other than the fact that you’re leaving for a decade.
He nods and forces a smile. “Yeah. Don’t worry about me. Everything’s fine.”
"Jay...” I drawl, used to the same response whenever I ask him that question, “are you sure?”
I just want him to be open with me again.
“Mhmm hmm,” he nods again as if to reassure me. “You go ahead. I’m just gonna go talk to Greg for a bit.”
It’s funny, he walks in the opposite direction of where I last saw Greg go.
“Heyo!” I greet Grey and take a seat beside him on the grass in front of his tent, noticing the dark rings under his gray eyes.
“Bye-o,” he waves goodbye, bidding me off.
“That’s not very nice,” I say, refusing to budge from my place next to him. “Good to see you out of your tent today.”
“Truly wish you’d go back in yours and never come out,” he voices his thoughts, staring up at the sky in deep thought.
I laugh and playfully nudge him with my elbow. “You really hate me, don’t you?” I tease, glancing his way.
“What do you want, Lawson?” he snaps, having lost his patience with me. “I’m not in the mood for your jokes, your personality and just you in general.”
“What’s wrong, Grey?” I ask, point-blank. “Let me help you,” I coax, concerned.
He shakes his head before looking at me from the corner of his eye. “You’re the most inadequate person I’ve ever met, what makes you think that you’re capable of helping me?”
“Because you’re just as inadequate but refuse to admit it,” I tell him, getting real with him. “I can relate.”
“Try harder, Lawson,” he mutters, breaking eye contact.
I collect myself and my insults and turn to face him instead. “Listen, Grey,” I start, “I know you think that I’m just a joke but-”
“I don’t think that,Aqueela,” he lifts his head and sighs in defeat, his eyes finding mine as he cuts me off. “I know you,” he says quietly, playing with a blade of grass between his fingertips, “I know there’s more to you than just your quirks, as annoying as they are.”
“I just want you to be okay,” I admit, truthful. “I know I mess with you all the time...but I’ve never seen you like this before. Whatever it is, it’s eating at you. What’s happening? Try me. I can drop the jokes and be compassionate for once.”
“I don’t need your compassion, Lawson,” he murmurs, angling his head away from me, “I just need you to be gone.”
“I was hurt more when I found the person I was looking for, that being my own father. To see someone you care about look you in the eye like you’re a stranger, to have him denounce you as his son because of one mistake you keep trying to undo...it’s a road you can’t come back from...”
“What was the mistake, Grey?” I ask him, referring back to many years ago when he told me a little about his past. It was the time he was giving me advice on not going after my father -- if only I had listened to him. “What is the mistake you keep trying to undo? What’s the road you can’t come back from? You already know mine.”
He shifts uncomfortably before meeting my gaze. “I should never have told you anything.”
“Why’d he denounce you?” I press for answers.
“Why wouldn’t he?” he asks, in turn, dropping his head. “After what I did...” he trails off, blinking back his emotions as he grasps tightly to the blade of grass, “‘unforgivable’ is the word. I don’t blame him, some days I’m barely able to look at myself in the mirror. I can’t forgive myself, Aqueela,” he looks up, his gaze keeping me frozen in place, “and that’s the problem.”
I swallow, feeling his pain in the moment. “What did you do, Grey?”
“You don’t want to know.” He shakes his head yet again. “You’d never look at me the same. Nobody would. Just ask my father.”
“I already have the lowest view on you,” I joke in an attempt to lift his spirits, “you have nothing to lose.”
He nods, catching me off guard in the fact that he’s actually agreeing with me. “That’s because I’ve already lost it all.”
“You still have us,” I reassure him, placing a hand on his arm. “You’ll always have us,” I promise him. Nothing will change my outlook on Grey Ferrot. He is who he is and that’s that.
“You stay it like it’s a blessing,” he replies, narrowing his gaze at me before shrugging my hand off his arm. “You’re supposed to be comforting me.”
I stifle a smile. “Okay, now that you’ve got your insults out of the way, you may proceed by telling me everything.”
He groans before not-so-discreetly moving away from me. “I want to but I can’t. Okay? I can’t do it, Aqueela,” he confesses, sheepish, too ashamed to face me. “I was young and I was stupid. I don’t like thinking about it but as of recently, I can’t stop.”
“Lighten the load by giving me some to carry with you,” I persist, wanting to be a true friend to him, even during the dark patches and worst of times.
“She’s back,” he comes straight out with it, unable to hold it in any longer.
“You father?” I gasp, not fully concentrating. I’m distracted by the distraught expression on his face.
He presses his lips into a thin line, holding himself back from lashing out at me. “What part of ‘she’ did you not get?”
“Your mother?” I gently rephrase, cautious as not to cause him to stop talking.
“My mother left me the day I was born after first trying to abort me, so no, not her,” he clarifies, showing no emotion whatsoever. “My parents got into a dispute after I was born. My mother hit the road. My father raised me.”
I stay quiet, having no words to say to something like that. I’m sure I’ve joked about his birth being an accident before. I guess there’s a consequence to being funny. Sometimes, it’s no joke. I need to be more careful with my words.
“I’m talking about Leila, the first and last girl that I ever dated, the girl I was smitten with, the girl who took the fall for me,” he explains, casting his gaze downward again. “Before you idiots, I had an entirely different group of friends.”
He just admitted that we’re his friends!
I refrain from pointing it out. It takes everything in me to not say anything. He better appreciate this! I’m even starting to get a migraine. I’m exploding on the inside. My life goal has always been to get him to admit to being our friend.
“They were real idiots. We were always drunk and did stupid things. One night, when I was fifteen, after leaving a club to smoke, I stumbled across a guy in the alleyway. There was just blood...everywhere...but what really got me was that he was alone. It’s a good thing I wasn’t too wasted. I found his phone and called Greg. It was the only number he had saved. And, as you know, that’s how I first met Jay.”
He didn’t say ‘JT’.
“Are you still mad at him?” I ask. I hate hearing Jay’s story. It hurts me every damn time I have to listen to it.
He shakes his head. “I’m just...” he falters, confused, “why didn’t he tell me?”
Nobody knows, not even him.
“Where does Leila fit into this?” I query in interest.
“I didn’t see Jay again after that,” he ignores me and continues on with what he wants to reveal. “Two years passed and I stuck with that same life. I stayed with the wrong crowd, in fact, I was their leader. By this stage, I’d been dating Leila for four years. She was one of the good ones before I ruined her,” he admits, running a hand through his hair as his anxiety gets the best of him.
“Take a breather,” I advise, sensing his mood.
He adjusts his position before making a move to stand up. “You know what, this was a bad idea, forget I said-”
I grab his hand and yank him back down. “Why do you always forget that you’re only human, Grey? Be human for once.”
He bites his bottom lip, contemplating it, and shakes his head before collapsing down beside me again. “I’m going to regret this,” he states gloomily.
I nod, agreeing. However, he needs to vent to someone. It seems as if Jay’s the only one who knows the full story and it doesn’t help that they’re currently not speaking.
“There was this new kid at school. His name was Jake. He wanted to be a part of us. He was dorky but had guts at the same time -- reminded me a little of Jay himself. At the time, though, the thought didn’t cross my mind. I decided that we’d have an initiation for him, let him think that he had a shot at getting in. In reality, I just wanted to have some fun. There was no way I was letting the dork be one of us,” he elaborates in regret.
I suck in a deep breath as the puzzle pieces slowly come together.
“One night, my crew -- Jessica, Finn, Mark, Leila and I -- took Jake to a lake we always used to visit when hammered. It was located on private property but we always snuck in. We’d all been drinking that night, everyone besides Leila. We told Jake that he could be in if he climbed the ladder and jumped from the high rock into the lake. I lied and said to him that we’d all done it before despite Leila begging me to call it off,” he explains, saying it all aloud, more for himself than for me.
I don’t like where this is going.
Grey tilts his head to the ground and closes his eyes, his jaw clenched tightly and his hands clutched into fists. “Jake lost his footing halfway up the ladder. He missed the angle and hit his head on a rock on the way down. He fell into the shallow side of the lake. The water turned red and by the time I got him out, he was unresponsive. I couldn’t resuscitate him.”
I cringe at his words, speechless. I’m out of my depth here.
“Leila tried phoning for help but Mark stopped her. He knew that we’d be held accountable. They argued and the commotion caught the attention of the owner. Finn and Jess took off without a second thought. Mark hesitated before doing the same.”
“And you?” I ask softly, knowingly. “What did you do?”
“Leila begged me to stay and face the punishment with her but I...” he shakes his head in despair before opening his eyes, “I ran, Lawson. I ran like a coward and left her behind.”
I don’t miss the way he deliberately looks everywhere but at me.
“We all make mistakes,” I say, trying to support him through this, except, I haven’t made a mistake like this one. This time, I can’t relate. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, especially not with me.
“That’s not even the worst of it,” he breathes out as if pained, “he died, Aqueela, and Leila took the fall for it, all of it. She didn’t give any of us away. She was let off as it was an accident but everybody at school heard of it seeing as the fabricated story splashed across the media. They hated her after that. Everybody did. They blamed her, called her a murderer. And what did I do? I stood by and let it happen. When I tried to speak to her, she ignored me, ignored all of us. Finn told me to just let it go, so I did. The comments and rumors got so bad that it got to the point where one day she was just gone. People say she moved away but I wasn’t entirely sure...not until now.”
“You didn’t say anything after?” I ask him, my eyes wide in shock.
“I tried to speak out, told my father everything. He kicked me out and soon vanished too. After that, I was too afraid to speak up. Instead, I focused on putting my life back together. I left my group of friends and withdrew to myself.”
His father must have really been disappointed in him to just up and leave him behind like that.
“I found my escape in racing whereas JT found his healing in it. That’s when I met up with him again. He immediately reminded of Jake. His situation flashed before my eyes and I realized that I was the very people I saved Jay from. I was those people to Jake and because of my actions, a life was taken. It could have been Jay.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t, because Grey was there.
“Running into JT was no coincidence. It was a chance to redeem myself for Jake,” he confesses to his true motives in befriending Jay all those years ago. “I wasn’t expecting to get a brother in the process. JT had my back through it all. Still does.”
I smile. The friendship Grey and Jay have, the bond between them, is unbreakable.
“He encouraged me to do right by Jake and tell the truth, you know how Jay is. Eventually, I listened to him and told the public. I personally apologized to Jake’s parents too and begged for their forgiveness. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do but something good came from it, Leila. She returned upon hearing the news.”
Now I’m lost again.
“But I wasn’t in the right headspace to speak to her. I left her behind and went searching for my dad to make things right, hence how I first became involved with JT’s old gang. I needed them for information. In return, I didn’t tell the police of their existence.”
Grey’s made some stupid as hell slip-ups.
“When I finally found my dad, he disowned me, said that my mother was right to leave,” he pauses as he recalls the memory, “and he was right to do so.”
I shake my head. “That’s not fair, Grey. You’re coming down too hard on yourself.”
“A life is gone because of me, Lawson,” he clarifies bluntly. “That’s what it comes down to.” He rubs his temples in frustration at me not getting it. “Luckily, JT stood with me through it all. But, by the time I got back, it was too late. Leila was gone.”
Leila is like a damn ninja!
“To this day, my father still wants nothing to do with me,” he sighs, his voice strained. “He can’t forgive me. He can’t let go.”
And, as a result, Grey can’t let go either.
“I would have been better off not knowing just how much he hates me. I would have been better off had I not gone looking for him,” he informs me, casting his gaze to me once again, his gray eyes giving away his current emotion -- grief. “I was trying to help you when I told you not to go after your father. I wasn’t trying to break you. I was trying to prevent that. You don’t have to believe me but it’s true.”
I finally understand his icy personality. It all makes sense now. It all comes from a place of deep sadness and guilt.
“I believe you, Grey,” I speak up after a moment or two. “I do.”
He turns his head to look at me, inspecting my expression as if to decipher what I’m thinking. “Good,” he finally replies, satisfied.
“So Leila’s back now? How do you know?” I prod, curious.
“Brody told me,” he answers solemnly.
I roll my eyes at him, unimpressed. Brody’s a rotten apple. “You’ve had them keeping tabs on her for all this time?”
He nods shamefully. “I needed to know if she was okay without ever having to face her.”
“And so now?” I question, not following.
“And so now she wants to see me.”
“Hey, Boss Man, did Jay talk to you?” I ask, having searched the campgrounds for him, only to come up short.
Boss Man frowns and shakes his head in response. “No. Haven’t seen him all afternoon. Why?”
Because he said he was going to speak to you...
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion before recollecting myself. “No reason,” I lie before quickly leaving, not in the mood to explain Jay and Grey’s moods. It will just worry Greg -- those two are his boys.
A minute later, while on my search, and I’m suddenly yanked back by my shirt.
I spin around, only to be met with emerald-colored eyes. Of course, it’s him. He’s the only one who has enough guts to get in my way.
“Try the lake,” Landon winks down knowingly at me. “You can thank me later.”
I grin up at him and salute him. “Lan the man! Lan the champi-an! You da best! Better than all the rest!”
He smirks in delight, arrogant as hell. “Don’t I know it.”
I playfully roll my eyes at him before shoving him back. ”Now, out of my way, pathetic weakling.”
A wide grin breaks across his face as he holds his hands up apologetically. “Woah,” he jokes, pretending to flinch, “now, now, watch the face.”
I put on a serious expression, playing along, as I hold up my fists up to him, bobbing back and forth like a boxer on my toes. “Don’t mess with me, Kitler. I’m a walking, talking savage, a lean, green, fighting, machine. I’ll knock you out with one punch.”
He nods, taking on a serious expression too. “No doubt, no doubt.”
I drop my fists along with the entire act and smile. Much to my surprise, he returns the smile.
I suppose he has a warm side to him after all.
“We don’t hang out much, do we?” I ask aloud, it only occurring to me now.
“There’s a reason for that,” he teases, earning himself a slap to the arm. He laughs it off, entertained by my reactions.
How is it that Landon is in a good mood on the day both Jay and Grey are brooding?
“Jeez, I’m only joking, Lawson,” he chuckles. “You’re as weird as I thought you to be but it’s been one hell of a journey with you and these whack-jobs, one I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.”
“You included,” I add, amused upon seeing the look of horror on his face.
Accepting his role as a whack-job, he shrugs and holds his fist out to me. “To the journey. Here’s hoping that it continues.”
I place my fist against his and nod in agreement. “Always and forever.”
He then places his fist against his chest and taps twice before showing me the ‘peace’ sign.
Another smile pulls at my lips as I watch him walk back over to Sarah.
The sun is setting by the time I get to the lake, the orange sun glimmering over the water.
I stop just short of it all and admire the exquisite view set before me. If there’s a God, He’s incredible.
I shake my head to myself when spotting Jay. Everybody has left and gone back to their tents but he’s still here, sitting on the bank of the lake. He’s skipping stones across the water with a blank expression on his face, his eyes void of any emotion.
I quietly join him, taking a seat in the sand beside him.
“Hey,” I greet softly.
Aware of my presence, he keeps his gaze cast on the lake. “Hey.”
I suck in a deep breath, suddenly feeling the tension in the air between us. “Grey told me everything, just as you said he would. You were right.”
“Obviously,” he replies, cracking a half grin. “That happens 99 percent of the time with only 1 percent of the time you acknowledging it.”
I nudge him with my shoulder. “Don’t get cocky, Taylor.”
He merely chuckles, nudging me right back.
We fall into a comfortable silence now that the ice has been broken.
“He’s not mad, by the way,” I say, out of the blue. “Grey,” I clarify upon seeing his confusion, “he’s not mad at you.”
He sighs, leaning back on his hands as he adjusts his position. “Good to know,” he replies, his tone almost sarcastic.
“He’s just confused,” I add, still lost as to why Jay didn’t say anything to him. It’s just not normal.
“So am I,” he answers solemnly.
I raise an eyebrow at him, skeptical. “Say, Jay,” I start hesitantly, “are you, by any chance, angry at Grey?”
If so, this is a rare sight.
A frown morphs over his features as he considers the idea for a second or two. He shrugs again, flexing his arm as he skids another pebble across the lake, refusing to speak about it. “I don’t really know, Aqueela.”
“What’s going on with you?” I ask outright.
“I hate complaining, Aqueela, but,” he pauses, gathering his thoughts, “I guess I’m just apprehensive of the future. I don’t know where I’m going. I like being in control and that’s something I don’t have right now.”
If I didn’t know him for this long, I wouldn’t get it but because I do, I understand how he feels. “Sometimes you just gotta let go and trust that there’s a bigger plan for you.”
“This place,” he gestures around, ”Minnesota,” he emphasizes, “is home.”
I nod, able to relate. There’s no place like Minnesota.
“I don’t think I’m ready to leave it all again,” he confesses, voicing his uncertainties to me. “Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell Grey or anyone else...because I didn’t want to face the reality of the whole situation.”
“You told me,” I boast, feigning pride.
He smiles down at me in amusement, choosing to humor me. “That’s because you’re you. You’re different from the rest.”
“Don’t lie,” I scoff, folding my arms across my chest, “you told Greg, Kyle, Leban, Benley and ‘The Dung Beatles’ too.”
“Kye and Leban found out about it while we were still in SA. As for Greg, he’s always had a way of finding out everything that happens in my life,” he explains. “But I didn’t tell Benley,” he clarifies. “And I definitely didn’t tell the Dung Beatles.”
“Forget that,” I wave the matter off, “don’t think too much into that.”
He grins and places his hand atop mine as he turns to face me. “I’ll miss you guys,” he admits, careful with his words. “Even the Dung Beatles.”
I smile up at him and hesitantly lean my head against his shoulder, having decoded his wording. ”I’ll miss you too.”
On impulse, he drops his head atop mine. “I know there’s gotta be a place for me somewhere out there.”
I close my eyes and relish in the serene moment, surrendering myself to the peace that only comes in his presence.
"Of course, Jay, in the end, we all belong.”
I’m struck by a vivid memory of a girl with blonde hair and a boy with unforgettable blue eyes playing in the sand together.
“Yeah, you taught me that.”