I left swiftly like Cinderella but I didn’t drop a slipper, only secrets. I hurried out of the pool in my soaking underwear despite Brandon’s protests and promises to drop the topic. He followed me through the house as I yanked my shorts on and left a trail of footprints to the front door. He reached out, grabbed my arm, squeezed to show me just how bad he wanted me to stay, but I had to go. Brandon knew not to follow me out of the house, and I walked back home alone with wet spots on my chest and shorts, looking utterly lost.
I snuck into the house and got in bed and haven’t left. No one can manipulate me if I’m hiding under my sheets, nothing can touch me while I’m in the safety of my bed. Knocks came in the morning to wake me up along with my mother’s voice. “Do you have work, Emma? Should you be up?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I tiredly called back, my lack of sleep creeping up quick, “I quit yesterday.”
She pressed me for a few minutes but eventually left me alone, likely realizing that something is wrong. When something’s wrong, I prefer to be left alone. I don’t like to be vulnerable in front of people, even my own mother. Tears make me feel weak, especially when watched by those I act so tough towards. I used to let it all out in front of my friends and family, but I have a reputation to uphold, one that requires me to be emotionless.
By lunchtime, my stomach is grumbling like some earthy disaster. I know it’s because I’m hungry, but I like to think it’s because I let Brandon in and now it’s messed me up. If I go to the shop, I’ll see him. If I go to Jonas’, I’ll see him. If I go to the beach, I’ll see him. Nowhere is safe except for the apocalyptic bunker I am in the process of making, but I don’t know how long I’ll last in here without something to subside my cravings.
My phone vibrates under my pillow, and I automatically assume it’s Lauren, but when I lazily fish it out, I see unfamiliar numbers with the message: Emma, its Brandon. Lauren gave me your number. I’m sorry if I pushed you too far last night. Let me make it up to you.
Even in my bed he’s reaching me, grabbing my ankles and pulling me out. I shut my phone off and shove it back under my pillow. Kicking my blankets off, I shakily get up and leave my bedroom for the kitchen, scavenging through the pantry, taking things that I can stash in my bed with me. Granola bars, water bottles, trail mix, and a bag of popcorn. I turn back to the hall with my findings but come to a halt when my Aunt appears in my path with damp hair, fresh out of the shower with judgment on her cleansed face.
“What are you doing?”
I slip past her. “Getting food.”
"Clearly, but why? Why don’t you sit at the table and I’ll make you lunch. You’re not living off of granola.”
“That’s okay,” I rush, making my way backward towards my bedroom, “I just gonna go back and—”
“Who are you avoiding? Me? Your mom?”
“Avoiding? No. No one in the house anyway.”
“Don’t you have a job?”
I smear on my guilty smile. “Oh, I quit yesterday. It just wasn’t working out.”
"Emma,” she says, disappoint. “Why? Why would you quit your job? You’ve wanted to work there for years.”
“Because—because I just don’t want to anymore. It’s not that complicated, I just don’t feel like it anymore. I’ll find a job somewhere else in town or something.”
My Aunt crosses her arms. “What’s going on with you? Are you hanging around those old friends of yours again?”
“No. I’m not,” I say seriously, more so than I would like. “Like I said, it’s not that complicated.”
“If it’s Kaden—”
“It’s not! I don’t even see him, Aunt Wendy. Please, don’t bring him up ever again.”
She nods, backing up and turning into the living room, disappearing. I huff and lock myself back up, dumping the food on my bed but no longer feeling hungry. How could she bring up Kaden? Is she that concerned about me? It was just a job, I don’t see the big fuss about it. It’s not like I came home out of my mind and in pieces like I used to.
While chewing on my bottom lip I look at my pillow, thinking about the text message Brandon sent me. He wants to make it up to me, meaning he still wants to see me after I dashed out of the house, yanking on clothes and creating a trail of puddles as I did so. What do I have to do to make him hate me? If Brandon was no longer intrigued by me, then I wouldn’t have to deal with the anxiety from needing to push him away. He would do all of the work. If there’s no guy wanting me, then I have no one to go crazy over, trying to decide what I should do and how I should act. I’m tired of feeling like a mental patient and acting like one too.
I don’t think I can stay away from him. I think I’m going to keep slipping up and giving in until either he shuts me out or breaks my heart.
I grab my phone from under the pillow and turn it back on, the screen lighting up with a text message from Lauren: We’re getting together tonight. Since you ditched the group last night, I’m coming to get you and forcing you to come out with us. Be ready by eight.
At eight o’clock I hear a knock on my window, not ready for anything. I open the shutters and see Lauren standing outside, so I then slide up the glass.
“How come you never answer your phone? Whatever, it doesn’t matter, you’re coming with me right now.”
“I saw the text,” I say, “and I’m not in the mood right now.”
“Emma,” she whines, “come on. Brandon’s going to be there, so come. You like him, right?”
“No. I don’t like him. And I don’t want to see Kaden either.”
“Jonas is there. What about Jonas? You love Jonas.”
I sigh. “I do love Jonas, but not enough to be with Brandon and Kaden right now. Now I’m going to close the window.”
“Wait!” She shouts as I reach my hands up. “Can you please just come for me? Kaden invited this guy I was kind of with, and I don’t want to go alone. I need my friend right now. I need you to tell me when he’s coming my way and interrupt if he tries to talk to me.”
I drop my hands. “Jonas is there, why can’t he help you?”
“Jonas is bringing a friend.”
"Lauren,” I dramatize, “you really don’t know what I went through last night. I can’t be around Brandon right now.”
“So that’s where you went. What? Did you sleep together?”
"No. No, we didn’t, but some stuff happened and he asked me about myself and about Kaden and it’s all weird now.”
“Well, you tell me when my guy is coming my way, and I’ll tell you when your guy is coming your way.”
I contemplate it for a second. “If you’re ex or whatever is going, why do you wanna go anyway?”
“Because—oh, please don’t make me say it!”
“What have you done now?”
She gives me an innocent, ‘I didn’t ask for this’ blush. “Because Austin’s gonna be there.”
“Please don’t tell me—”
“I like him again, okay? I can’t help it!”
“All of those talks we had with Jonas in his hot tub, trying to get you two together,” I reminisce. “Why, Lauren? Why Austin? Why again?”
“We all know I’ve always had a crush on him, it’s just now it’s more than some stupid crush. I really like him, Emma, and he’s been dropping hints that he likes me as more than a friend. So, please, please come with me. I need my best friend.”
I take a breath and consider the consequences of my decision. She gazes up at me with big doe-like eyes and my shoulders relax. “Fine, but if I do anything regretful with Brandon it’s your fault. You know what, just slip him some facts about how bad of a person I am and that’ll be your payment.”
Before I can tell her to wait for a second as I change, Lauren mutters, “We have so much to talk about, don’t we?”
After I change my comfortable clothes for shorts and a soft t-shirt, I meet Lauren out front and we walk together to Kaden’s house, the hub, where everyone always meets up to start the night. She asks about my situation with Brandon and I simplify it to, “I’m just struggling to stay away from him.”
“Why don’t you just not try to then? Just take a chance,” she says.
“No. There’s no way I’m getting screwed over again. The last thing I need this summer is a new Hunter or Milo or Kaden.”
“Okay, but Brandon doesn’t seem like one of them. He’s a good person. Did he text you? I gave him your number.”
Glancing off at the beachy houses lining the street, I say, “Yeah, he did, but I didn’t respond. Now I’m going to have to deal with it now at Kaden’s house.”
“And you know how you said that Kaden wants me back? He doesn’t. He’s still a complete jerk. I overheard him say to Brandon that in the end, everyone I date ends up hating me, and that’s just the way it is.”
“Really? Jesus. Whenever he talked to me about you, he was so determined to win you back. I don’t know, maybe he was saying that to Brandon to throw him off, to get him to not go after you so he has no competition.”
“I don’t know,” I breathe out. “He said some other stuff that was pretty disgusting.”
My cheeks heat up. “Uh, that I was, you know, a fun time.”
“Oh, ew. What an asshole.” Her face scrunches up. “I can’t believe he’d say something so—I don’t know. He just sounds like a complete pig.”
“He is a complete pig, Lauren. He’s dangerous. And even if I gave into Brandon, which I wouldn’t, he’d have Kaden whispering stuff like that in his ear all the time.”
“Too bad Kaden couldn’t just disappear like Milo did.”
When we reach the house, I toughen up before following Lauren in as she slips through the front door. Familiar voices tickle my ears as we walk down the open hall to the living room. Jonas pops in front of me out of nowhere and wraps his arms around me. “I thought I smelled beautiful,” he says loudly, but whispers in my ear, “my housemate is out back.”
I nervously laugh and tell him with my eyes to stop when he pulls away.
“I forced her to come,” Lauren says, subtly eyeing the room for Austin.
“Lauren told me you brought a friend?” I ask.
Jonas steps to my side and motions to a guy sitting beside Preston on the couch talking. “Isn’t he so fun to look at? I swear, everyone in this town is gorgeous.”
Lauren looks too. “He is ridiculously pretty.”
“Most people are outside. Austin and Kaden are talking about taking Daddy’s boat for a ride.”
“Oh my god, yes. I’ve been waiting for them to,” Lauren gushes, grabbing onto Jonas’ arm. “Let’s go find out if they are!”
Jonas latches onto me and the three of us slide through the open back door, spotting Kaden and Austin and others sitting around on the patio furniture. The sight of Kaden makes me uneasy but the sight of Brandon sitting next to the memorable Jess makes my stomach rise. Brandon looks to me, looking rather surprised that I’m here.
I feel Jonas’ hold on me tighten as if he knows I want to slip away. “Hi,” he says to the group, “we were just wondering about the boat plans? Are we going out on the water?”
Kaden glances up at me, his eyes staying fixated. I swallow. “Yeah, we are. We’ll head down to the dock in a few.”
Lauren let’s out a “Yay!” But as soon as I feel Jonas let go, I shoot to the back door and escape. Between Brandon and Jess’s eyes and Kaden’s, I thought I was going to vomit. I lean against the counter island in the kitchen, my elbows on the granite as my hands run through my hair. What was I thinking, saying yes to Lauren? But I saw this coming, the regret.
“What did you do?”
I peer to the side and see Jonas.
“She’s outside sitting with Austin, and I’m wondering why you dashed in here. You better feel better before we go on the boat.”
“Don’t you Jonas me. Is it because of Jess. They’re just friends, Emma.”
I stand up straight, nearly laughing. “Jess? I don’t care about Jess, Jonas. I could care less about who Brandon sits with. If he wants to sit with Jess then he can sit with Jess. If he wants to be with Jess then he can be with Jess, I don’t care.” Jonas’ eyebrows rise. “Brandon is the last thing on my mind. Who cares if we kissed a few times and went swimming in our underwear? I don’t. He doesn’t.”
“Christ,” Jonas says, reading me like a book. “If you’re that messed up over seeing him sit next to another girl, then you might wanna give in and lock it down.”
“I’m not giving in. He’s going to have to be with her so I can let go of this.”
Jonas groans and pulls me through the kitchen into the dining room, giving us privacy. “Look,” he starts, “I may not know what happened between you and all of your past boyfriends, but I know for a fact that what happened between you and Kaden will not repeat with Brandon. He’s a close friend of mine, okay? What Kaden did to you—I can’t have you thinking that it’s normal, that some other guy will hurt you like that. Frankly, I don’t even know how you handle being in the same room as Kaden after last summer.”
“If what you’re worried about is having something worse than what happened with Kaden happen with Brandon, then you have nothing to worry about. It can’t get any worse.” Jonas places his hands on my shoulders, looking deep into my eyes. “I wish I could just convince you that Brandon isn’t going to purposely hurt you. I know him. I’ve known him for years. He’s not that kind of guy, so please, please just give him a chance. For some reason, he has the hots for you even though you’re stubborn as hell and in denial right now. Just let the past go and move on! He’s sitting right outside, Emma, for God’s sake, take him before Jess does or someone else because he’s a major catch!”
Jonas’s hands fall and I let out the breath of air I’ve been holding in. He takes a breath himself, cooling down from his pep talk. “So, what are you gonna do? Are you going to hold yourself back until you can’t breathe, or are you going to take a chance?”