I freeze, his words sending chills coursing through my limbs. My chest is pumping to the beat of my spastic heart, and I can’t tear my gaze from his somber face. He’s watching me carefully trying to gauge my reaction, but I have nothing to give him. I momentarily don’t feel anything. I’m just stuck. Frozen. And then I realize that my mouth is trying to mumble my incoherent thoughts.
“What?—You... How?—I just...”
“Stop. Please,” he says, and I can tell that he thinks I’m judging him. He thinks he’s completely ruined my shiny image of him. His words hold regret and I’m desperate to ease his mind, even though I don’t know if I should.
“I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to talk,” I offer timidly.
His eyes find mine, and there’s an indescribable pain flowing through them, but weaved between the obvious self-loathing and disgust is shame. This one emotion alone is enough to make me want to give him a chance. There’s more to Trevor Nixon than I ever imagined.
He starts to nod his head, but just as he opens his mouth to speak, we’re interrupted by students filing out of the room. I check the time and realize that class ended five minutes ago. I turn back to Trevor to find him watching me expectantly. I begin putting my stuff into my bag, and I know he’s thinking that I’m done with him, that I’m not actually willing to give him a chance since I’m free from the obligation of listening to him now that class is over.
“Kiddies! Before you leave...” Ms. Garrison stands from her desk to get our attention. “Find time before Thursday to really decipher your dreams. Find out what they might mean. There’s plenty of websites that can help you out.” She claps her hands together. “That’s it. Have a good day.”
“Do you have class after this?” I ask Trevor.
He’s still watching me when I turn back towards him, and he wordlessly shakes his head side-to-side.
“Great.” I smile. “How ’bout we head to the Coffee Lounge?” I start to stand up, but I feel something warm brush my arm. I turn to find the cause of the sudden tingling sensation to be Trevor’s hand.
“You don’t have to do this,” he tells me, and I’m amazed that he would really think I’d let it go without an explanation.
“There’s no way I’m letting this conversation end like that. I’ve gotten to know you over the last few months and let me tell you, I don’t see you as capable of murder. So, with that said, how ’bout we go get some coffee and you tell me what really happened.”
I can feel his relief by the way he loosens the amount of pressure on my arm. As his hand falls away, I see a tight smile grace his hard face and something inside me unravels, knowing that he’s not as guilty as he made himself out to be.
“I wasn’t all hooked on drugs and women or anything, so don’t get the wrong idea,” Trevor tells me as we sip on steaming cups of rich coffee.
These words alone are a huge comfort to my tormented thoughts. In all honesty, that’s exactly where my thinking went. I imagined a drug induced Trevor holding a blunt in one hand and a blonde bimbo in the other, and it was not a pleasant feeling. I take a sip of my Long Black and wait for him to continue.
“I guess you could say that adrenaline was my drug,” Trevor goes on to explain. He’s staring at his drink but his mind is elsewhere. “I got into so much trouble back then. My buddies and I were always looking for the next thrill: climbing buildings, jumping off bridges, racing.”
“We talking Fast and Furious here?” I can’t help but wonder aloud.
Trevor chuckles softly. “Yeah, something like that.” He brushes a hand through his hair and then tries to fix the mess with quick scrubbing movements to help the strands settle into place.
I watch in fascination as his bicep jumps with the motion, but his next words draw me back to his story.
“It was winter, and me and a bunch of guys decided to go swimming. There was this challenge that only the bravest and stupidest of people would attempt because the water was literally a hair above freezing.” He’s shaking his head as if he can’t believe the ignorance of his younger self.
“The challenge was to swim from one side of the lake to the other,” he continues.
“James didn’t want to do it. He kept saying how dumb it was, and that we were just tempting death. He kept telling us that he wasn’t a good enough swimmer, but we all knew he could swim fine, so we assumed he was just chickening out. We kept picking on him and teasing him.
“It was decided that Alex and Cody were going to partner up, and Jackson and Emerson were going to partner up,” he says, regret clear in his voice. “That left me without a partner. There was no way that I was going to pass up a chance to win. I’m dangerously competitive at times.” He informs me with an uncomfortable grin. “Anyway, with much persuasion, we finally got James to agree.”
“Here’s your cheesecake dear.” Trevor and I both snap our attention to the older lady as she slides the dessert across the table with a smile.
“Thanks,” Trevor answers politely, and then we wait in silence until the waitress is gone. A hush settles over us for a moment as I wait for Trevor to continue.
“Anyway, Alex and Cody made it to the other side followed soon after by Jackson and Emerson, and then it was our turn. I remember calling him a pansy as we both dove into the frigid water.” He stops, and I watch his throat work as he fights to keep his composure.
My heart is clenching with fear and dread of what his next words will be. Sympathy is working its way to my tear ducts, and I know it won’t be long before I can’t hold it back.
“Those were the lasts words I ever said to him.” I watch him pinch the bridge of his nose, and I swallow down the thick emotion threatening to expose itself in my expression. Unfortunately, a single tear escapes and trickles down my cheek.
I reach across the table to grasp his fist. He looks up at me and I can see just how torn up he is. I want to sigh and laugh with relief, but I also want to pull Trevor to my chest and just let him cry. Instead, I sit there until he reaches out and gently wipes a salty drop from my jawline with his thumb. His fingers linger there for a moment before he pulls away.
“Trevor,” I breathe. “That was an accident. You didn’t kill him. You had me thinking that you were responsible for his death; that it was completely on your shoulders.” I squeeze his hand. “That was his choice. You didn’t make him get in that water.”
I’m surprised when Trevor smiles, and I scrutinize his expression with confusion. “I know. Believe me, I know. It took a few years to come to terms with it, but I’m good now,” he explains. “I just hate remembering it and knowing how easy it would have been to just agree with him and opt out of the whole suicide swim.”
I smile warmly at him. “Then what?” I ask. I observe him as he watches me pull my hand away from his and slide it into my lap.
“What do you mean?” Trevor asks, looking up from where my hand has disappeared under the table. He takes a large bite of the cheesecake. “He drowned, that’s what. I’m not sure I want to go into details. It was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever—”
“No,” I hurry to say. “I’m not asking for details. Please don’t tell me. I’m just curious about your life. What happened next to make you give up partying?”
Trevor is silent for a moment and I can tell he’s thinking through what he wants to share. He takes another bite before setting down his fork and looking at me.
“Remember how I told you, this was several weeks back, but I told you that I used to party and hang with friends all the time?”
“Yeah,” I answer as I bob my head. “You said it’s because of me that you stopped.”
“Right.” He leans back in his seat and scratches his eyebrow, “I probably should have clarified a bit better about that. See, the truth is, I stopped doing all that because of Trinity. She was never a partier, but when she started getting depressed, I think she just stopped caring and decided she wanted to live a little. That’s why I blamed you back then. I was just bitter and stupid and I targeted you. Just like it was James’ choice to get in the water that night, it was also Trinity’s choice to give up her ‘good girl’ status.
“I’m going to just be honest and say that, yes, you were what pushed her to do that, but that’s in the past, and ultimately, the choice was hers,” he explains. “I don’t at all condone what you did, but I can see that that isn’t you anymore. I’m not bitter, so I’m not going to dwell on who you used to be, okay?”
He pauses for a moment before going on. “But anyway, when she was going through that low point, she stopped being herself. She would get wasted and throw herself at guys, and I felt a need to watch after her. I no longer found partying to be fun because all I did was babysit her. She was wild, and I didn’t know how to stop it, so instead, I just stopped going to parties.
“Eventually, I realized that I never actually liked that kind of lifestyle all that much anyway. It was dull and pointless.” He rubs a finger along his eyebrow as he looks down at the pie on the table. “So, instead, ” he says, glancing up, “I started focusing on sports and lifting. I joined the math club, if you can believe that, and I actually enjoyed it a lot. It’s kind of a secret passion for me.”
I smile behind my hands because I never imagined Trevor to have a nerdy side. All it did was make him that much more endearing to me.
He catches me smiling at his confession and shakes his head at my immaturity. “You’re not allowed to use that against me, got it?” He warns while pointing his fork at me.
I laugh harder into my fist, watching as he shovels another bite of cheesecake into his mouth. Before I can even think about my actions, I grab the fork from his hand and take a bite of my own. I can feel my face heat up, and what makes it even worse is the fact that Trevor is watching me closely as I slide the fork from my lips. It’s a strange sensation when a moment that should be so casual and relaxed suddenly turns heated and intimate.
I hand the fork back to Trevor, feeling stupid for taking it in the first place. It was his cake, not mine. I guess getting to know him a bit better suddenly gave me the illusion that I had the right to eat his food.
Embarrassed, I push my hair behind my ears and stare into my lap. I hear him start to laugh. It’s that warm, deep laugh that has my ears melting, and I look up to find him watching me, his eyes gleaming.
“I’m not gonna bite your hand off, you know?” His lips are tilted up and my eyes keep jumping back and forth between his eyes and his mouth. “You can have more.” He shoves the dessert towards me and sticks the fork right in the center of it.
“Sorry.” I laugh with a mixture of embarrassment and liberation. “That was kind of rude, I guess.”
“Naw.” He leans back and folds his powerful arms over his chest. “But, if it had been a tiramisu you’d have lost a finger or two, but I’ll let this one slide.”
“Oh, so generous.” My words drip with sarcastic humor as I take a bite. “So, you still partied a bit once you moved to Illinois? I thought you said you changed after your friend’s death.” I hated using that word so bluntly, but Trevor didn’t seem bothered.
“Well, I changed from my dangerous, stupid ways. I no longer took my life for granted,” he explains. “I stayed out of trouble, but I still enjoyed hanging with my friends, and my friends enjoyed hanging at parties, so...” he trails off, letting me guess the rest of his meaning on my own. “The biggest thrill I’ve experienced since then was jumping off that seven-foot cliff at The Hole.” He laughs and I watch him with a smile plastered across my lips.
There’s a brief moment of silence as my mind processes everything I’ve learned about the boy sitting across from me. Here I always thought of him as perfection in human form, and yet, he just spilled some of his deepest flaws. I’m entirely aware that no one is perfect, but I had convinced myself that he was the closest thing to it.
I take a sip from my mug as I eye him over the rim. He’s busy finishing off his cake, so I have a moment to stare. I’m in awe of his strength. Not just his physical strength, but what he was able to pull himself out of after his friend died. That takes will power—the kind I have yet to possess.
And, to think that all this time I thought he had a simple life; that he never made mistakes or caused his parents grief. I had been so wrong. I had judged him in the opposite way, believing him to be better than he truly was. I’d taken the Trevor that he put on display for everyone and believed that to be all there was to him. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I had labeled him as naive and innocent. I felt that he didn’t understand pain or heartache. He hid it so well. It’s amazing how wrong I had been.
I can’t help but wonder if the signs had been there all along. Did the pain shine through every once in awhile, and I was just too blind and selfish to realize it? Whereas I displayed my pain for all to see, Trevor hid it from the world. Why?
In all honesty, I think I had wanted pity. I wanted people to feel sorry for me. I wanted them to feel what I felt because I felt so lonely and so guilty that I didn’t think I could shoulder that kind of agony on my own. So, I dropped my burden onto the feeble shoulders of Trinity Nixon, and it broke her.
I can feel the heated prick of tears at the backs of my eyes. I wipe at them casually so as not to draw attention, but Trevor notices anyway. There’s no hiding the obvious glistening in my gaze.
His brows scrunch up in concern and uncertainty. “You okay?” he asks after a moment.
I’m working on pulling myself together before the dam breaks. “Yeah, I’m just really sorry.” My words are strained as I fight to keep my emotions in check. “I never knew what you went through. I just wanted someone to understand what I was feeling, and I think I pushed people away just to see if anyone would fight for me, but nobody did. It was a selfish tactic. I’m just sorry that I never had the strength that you have.”
He tilts his head slightly, confusion pinching his brows together.
“The ability to shoulder my own hatred and guilt on my own instead of spilling it all over other people...” I explain, “... all over your sister.”
“Listen.” The tone in his voice is authoritative but holds a hint of tenderness. He scoots forward in his seat slightly and places his elbows on the table, clasping his hands together in a joined fist. “I’ve accepted your apology. I have no quarrel with you anymore. The only person you need to consider now is Trinity.”
I can’t figure out what made this man so forgiving and positive. He’s been through just as much pain as I have, and yet, he twisted everything around so that he grew from it instead of wasted away.
“You shouldn’t have to carry all the pain on your own,” Trevor adds a moment later. He’s watching me carefully, and I realize that I keep drifting into my own jumble of thoughts. “You listened to me, so if you’re ever ready to share a bit more with me, I’d be happy to listen.”
“I did share with you,” I remind him.
“I know,” he replies, and I get the feeling that he can see more of me than what I choose to reveal. “But, I also know there’s a lot you’re not telling me,” he pauses to weigh my reaction, but I just continue staring at a wet spot on the table as I squeeze my coffee mug between my hands.
“Emma?” It’s nearly a whisper, and I can’t keep myself from looking up just to see what expression he has on his face, and in that moment he’s like an open book. He so badly wants to know more about me. His eyes are traveling all over my face as if he’s trying to solve a math problem or a puzzle. He’s curious but cautious. “A few weeks ago at my place, when we were watching that movie together, why did you freak out when I put that scarf around you?”
The question takes me back to that moment; the feel of the soft fabric slipping around my neck, and immediately my thoughts return to the past. The day that my whole life was flushed down the toilet.
“Mom? Where’s dad?” We’re both sitting silently. The only sound that can be heard is the tinkling of our silverware brushing against our plates. I’ve been watching her closely for the past five minutes, wondering when she’s going to notice me, or if my dad is going to come join us for dinner.
“He received some bad news today, so he’s in his office,” she tells me.
I eye her for a moment as she pushes her food around, never once bringing her potato-filled fork to her mouth. Her mind is definitely occupied with something, and I’m dying to find out what.
“What happened?” my fifteen-year-old self asks.
She stops playing with her food and just stares at her plate for a moment. Mom’s dull eyes slowly lift to meet my own innocent ones. “He, uh..." She clears her throat as emotion fights to clog the passageway.”He received some bad news that he’s responsible for.”
“Oh.” My young self isn’t quite sure how to respond since I can’t fully comprehend the level of pressure he must have been suffering.
“Your dad has been under a lot of stress lately. He found out some bad news today, and I think it just sent him over the edge,” she tells me gently. “On top of that, he just got another call from his boss that didn’t go well,” she explains.
It isn’t until later that I discover that the news he received is about the man who had committed suicide—the man he’d been responsible for imprisoning.
“It’s probably for the best,” she goes on. “He needs a new job, something less demanding and stressful.” She offers me a sad smile, but I just continue to watch her behavior. I get why she’s upset, but I get the feeling that there’s more to the story that she’s not telling me.
Just before dinner I had been in my room and had heard my dad come home. This was bad because over the past year he’d started devoting so much time to his work that we barely saw him before midnight. We actually preferred it this way, because when he was home it was never pleasant. It was always him and mom throwing nasty remarks at each other, or him screaming at me to clean up a particular mess. He had gradually faded into a stranger, and I hated him. Every word that dripped out of his mouth was laced with venom and cruelty. He was never physically abusive, but his words could tear your heart out just as easily as a fist.
I had been sitting on my bed listening to the common banter between my mom and dad; her typical hushed tone compared to his obnoxious roars and threats. I just wanted to slink under my blankets and hide.
A few minutes later the arguing died, and I heard a door slam shut below me. I waited several more minutes before braving the walk downstairs. My mother stood alone at the kitchen counter dishing potatoes and roast beef onto two plates. She didn’t look up as she set the plates on the table and motioned for me to have a seat. The calm in her demeanor was a dead giveaway that something wasn’t right.
“Would you mind taking this to your father?”
I startle from where I’ve been gazing at my half-eaten meal in thought. I hadn’t realized that I’d zoned out until my mother speaks. She had now left the table and is standing at the kitchen counter holding out a plate full of roast and potatoes for me to take. My heart sinks because the last thing I want to do is be anywhere near the man sitting behind those office doors, especially after learning that he’s had a particularly lousy day.
She must notice the hesitancy in my movements because her face softens.
“Please?” she nearly begs, and the intensity behind that soft word has me obeying.
I nod as I stand from my chair, grab the plate from her trembling fingers, and numbly shuffle my way down the hall. I can hear my mother gathering the dishes as I walk closer and closer to the devil’s lair.
I knock gently, hoping that if I present myself quietly he will be more gracious. There is no answer. I knock louder, but my fist is greeted with silence. I place my ear up to the wood to listen. I don’t want to chance walking in on him during an important phone call only to find a hateful sneer directed at me—his daughter. When no movement or noise is detected, I carefully push the door open.
My eyes take in the scene before me with horror as the plate in my hand clatters to the floor and shatters along with my heart. I will never forget the gut-wrenching dismay, twisting and clawing at my gut for a way to escape as my brown eyes furiously take in the images before me. The look of agony on his face as his own hazel eyes rapidly blink at me. The panic that battles inside him is obvious as he willingly lets go of everything and slides into the deceptively peaceful claws of death.
“I’m so sorry, Trevor,” I gasp as I’m abruptly ripped from images of my past. My voice is wobbly with conflicting emotions. “I don’t think I can.”
His hand instantly reaches over and intertwines with my own quivery fingers. “Emma, it’s fine.” His thumb is stroking the back of my hand as concerned eyes meet my own. “Just when you’re ready. I’ll never push you to tell, but if you ever need to talk, I’m happy to listen, okay?”
I just nod as I brush a hand over my damp cheek. “I will tell you one day, Trevor. I will.”
I knew it was cruel, but I didn’t care. For some reason, I just had this unexplainable hatred and passion for ruining everything associated with this sad excuse for a human. I could see her smile sag, and her shoulders fall as my words absorbed into her veins, pumping from her heart to her brain. It was finally clicking. For so long she had just taken me for some messed up angry person, and up until this moment, she had never figured it out —that I had something against her personally.
I’d made plenty of rude comments. Made fun of her stupid skirts and fluffy girly blouses. She was like a walking barbie. Fake and plastic. My hatred was like a flame, and I wanted to melt that stupid frozen smile off her smooth, flawless lips. I wanted to yank her shiny, synthetic hair from her oval shaped head. Strip her of her precious jewels, expensive shoes, and make-up enhanced face. She was the epitome of phony. The stereotypical good girl that had herself put together from the inside out.
She had everything I would never have, and everything I would always want. What made her so special and untouchable? Why was her life so spotless and carefree? To have a fragment of the joy she produced would keep me sane and satisfied for the rest of my high school days. And I hated it. I hated everything she represented. I hated her!
“You know it’s true,” I said as I watched her fumble with the books in her locker. “You’ll never amount to anything.”
She mumbled something under her breath, but I couldn’t understand it. There were no tears, but I could tell my words were getting to her.
“So, you don’t deny it?” I snarled at her, my teeth grinding against each other as I clenched my fingernails into my palms. “Trying to cover up your worthlessness by caking on your face and decorating your body with cute clothes doesn’t change the fact that you’re nothing. People can see that you know? We know what you’re hiding.”
She ignored me as she pulled a textbook from inside the metal contraption.
“There’s nothing in there, Barbie,” I joked as I poked my finger against her naive little head.
She shook my finger away and shot a glare in my direction.
“Oh, so you do have some fight in you?” I was egging her on. I so badly wanted to start something. Get her really riled up. So often I was hit with the realization that I didn’t actually know why I felt the need to harass her, but every time I’d push it away. She’d never done anything to me except show me kindness. And I believe that’s where she made her first mistake. I didn’t want kindness. Kindness was just a messed up way of showing the damaged and corrupt population that you were better than them. Whenever she smiled at me or looked at me with pity, I knew she thought she was better than the rest of us, that inside she was secretly praising God Almighty that He never handed her that kind of wretched, waste of a life.
She wanted to fix me. That’s why she kept coming back. That’s why she kept pursuing me. It was sickening really. You can’t just put new batteries in me and expect me to start dancing around the hallways. I’m more like a glass doll that has to be carefully and precisely put back together, and even once I’m whole again there will always be missing pieces.
She’ll never get it. She’ll always come back. Except for today. Today I had reached my new record. I had broken her just enough to shatter her outside wall. Her strength was failing her, and it was causing all kinds of wicked madness and twisted jubilation to erupt inside of me.
“You are a fraud,” I muttered with disgust. “Do the others realize that you’re hideous under that mask? That all you desire is to feel high and mighty?” I watch her shoulders tremble, and I know I’m on a roll. “Does Daddy tell you that you’re his little princess? That’s obviously his way of telling you that your head is too high up in the clouds. How could you be a princess when you’re not even strong enough to look me in the eyes? You’re weak and pathetic. Nobody wants you. The world will continue to bow down to your wretched, plastic body, but nobody will ever want your heart.”
And that’s when I saw it. Just a single tear, and for just a split moment I was mesmerized by the slow fall of the droplet as it explored the contours of her innocently flawless cheek. I had so much more to say, but it was suddenly stuck in my throat, and I was frozen as I watched her crumble in front of me.
“Someday I hope you’re happy,” she hiccuped as she flung the tear off her cheek.
She never lost her calm as she gently pressed her locker door shut, slung her bag over her shoulder and strolled away. And all I could think about was the fact that even when I had done my worst damage, and thrown my most brutal ammunition she had quietly accepted each insult, and yet still felt more concern for me than herself. What was the matter with her? Why couldn’t she just hate me? That’s what I wanted. I wanted her to hate me like everyone else. The fact that she cared ruined everything.
Because if a stranger could care for me, then why couldn’t my own father.