“I’m going to...” I sigh, “I’ll stop restricting myself.”
Jonas nods then smiles then grabs my hand. “Good, now let’s go sit with them, and you can figure out how you’re going to win his heart. You’ve always been good at that, so go do it. Go awaken the flirty, romantic Emma inside of you.”
Flirty, romantic Emma. How did I win the others over? Hunter liked me because he thought I was pretty, and at fifteen a relationship can be that shallow. I suppose I won him over by simply being a decent looking fifteen year old. I can’t say I pulled any tricks on him because I didn’t know any at the time. Milo, that’s a different story. I suppose I played the innocent girl for him to turn, but I can’t play innocent with Brandon. There were some smoldering looks and soft touching, and toward the end of our relationship is when I started pulling more suggestive cards to get what I wanted from him.
Their eyes spring up to Jonas and I as we return back outside. Finding a big enough spot on the large chair facing the patio sectional, we sit together. Jess is still beside Brandon, sitting in front of me. Lauren is sitting beside Austin, and I can’t help but shake my head with amusement.
I glance at Brandon, then look to whoever’s talking, then I glance to him again, then look back, then when I glance at him the third time, he’s already looking at me. I bring my hand up, tucking my hair behind my ear so it stops falling in my face before running my hands down my thighs. His eyes follow my hands and come up to my face when I stand. I lean down to Jonas beside me and tell him that I’m going to get a drink inside.
I don’t look back as I leave and head to the kitchen, opening the fridge to find a lot of beer, few water bottles, and even fewer food choices. How do these boys survive? Rolling my eyes, I grab a water and close the fridge, turning to find Brandon walking in.
“Brandon,” I say, happy he got the hint.
He comes up to me and places his hand on the countertop. “Yes?”
I sigh. “I’m sorry for leaving last night without an explanation. You’re always nothing but sweet to me, and I shouldn’t have left.”
He nods, not expecting an apology from me.
“And about Kaden—I just can’t talk about it right now. It’s a very sensitive topic for me, and revisiting what happened just brings up a lot of emotions and feelings and I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”
“I wish you would have told me that last night before running out.”
“I know, I know, I shouldn’t have left. I-I didn’t want to leave.”
He looks down at me, deep into my eyes. “Then why did you, Emma?”
“I don’t know. Why have I been doing all of it—pushing you away?” I glance down for a moment. “Because I’ve been protecting myself, you know that. Because I’ve been so terrified of being hurt.”
Brandon takes a step back, leaning against the counter. I place my hand on top of his, making him look at me again. “Emma—”
“But I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to hold myself back. I’m not going to drive myself insane thinking about what’s going to happen, I just want to live right now.” I think. No, I know. It’s not just because Jonas told me to.
“No more running off?”
I take a step closer. “No more running off.”
I’m not sure if Brandon is completely convinced, and I’m even more unsure if I am either. I know that I have feelings for him, though. I need to stop lying to myself about that.
Just as Brandon leans close, Kaden comes through the backdoor with everyone else behind him. “We’re heading down to the dock now,” he calls, “anyone that doesn’t want to come can just stay here.”
Before I can ask Brandon for some more time to talk, Jess comes up behind him and latches onto his shoulders. “Let’s go,” she playfully whines. “I wanna go out on the water.”
Brandon looks to her pouting face and then back to me. “Lauren wanted me to go with her, so I better catch up to them,” I explain before ditching the situation and finding Lauren outside with Jonas and his friend.
“Emma, this is Presley,” Jonas introduces me.
After glancing back to see Brandon and Jess walking out the front door, I turn to the three with a smile. “Like Elvis Presley?” I ask.
“Uh, yeah, my parents are life-long fans,” he says kindly. Presley seems like the kind of person who is always in a good mood. Even though I really just met him, it’s hard to imagine a sad face on him. Before I can say something else as we walk along the street, I feel a hand on me, pulling me backward.
I look and see Lauren, who was just beside Presley, on the other side of Jonas moments ago. “What is it?”
“I didn’t think you were going to come,” she says lowly.
“Because we’re going to the dock. The dock, you know, where the boat is. Where Kaden—”
I cut her off, “I’m fine, Lauren. I can go there. It’s not a big deal.”
“Are you sure? What if you have some dark flashbacks, or what if he tries to do it again?”
I shake her hand off me. “Stop it. You sound crazy. We were all on drugs then.”
“It’s just—after what you said on the way here, I don’t trust him. Just stay close, will ya? We don’t need a repeat of last summer.”
“Where’s Austin? Shouldn’t you be trying to win him over?”
“I did not just hear that,” Jonas calls at us. “Lauren, please do not tell me you’re after that one again.”
“Inside voices, Jonas, please.”
I look at him. “She does. After all we went through last summer.”
Lauren switches places with me, now beside Jonas so she can explain herself. I zone out and look ahead at the group. Kaden, Austin, a guy, and girl I don’t know the names of. Then I look back. Jess, Brandon, Preston, and Kailee, a girl who used to hang suspiciously around Austin. I wonder if Lauren is worried about her.
Soon enough the streets are replaced with the sidewalk then the marina nears. The sight of it makes my stomach flip despite my need to prove Lauren wrong, that I don’t need to be babied. I chew on the inside of my cheek, remembering how I felt: cold, completely alone, no longer on earth, but trapped in some strange place. I felt dead. I remember the feeling of his hands pushing against me—I can feel it now.
I look to Lauren, snapping back to life. “What?”
“Are you okay? You don’t look well.”
“I’m—I—don’t know about this.”
She pulls me aside, letting the others pass us. “You don’t have to go. I’ll stay behind with you. We can go down to the beach.”
“No, you wanted to go, you wanted to be with Austin. I’m fine by myself.”
“I’m not letting you wait by yourself. I’ll tell Jonas that we’re sitting this one out.”
Before she can run off, I grab her arm. “Lauren, really, you go. Be with Austin. I’m fine. I’ll wait for you guys down by the water, I kinda feel like being alone right now. I just want to have a moment to let things go, okay?”
She looks unsure. ”I don’t know. I’ll feel bad leaving you behind.”
I shake my head. “Don’t. Do me a favor and keep an eye on Brandon and Jess if you can.”
“Fine. I will. Don’t go anywhere.”
“I’ll be right down there,” I say, pointing over the wall, down to the water. “And if Brandon asks where I am, or if he tries to stay behind, just tell him I need a minute and to go on ahead.”
“Okay. I can’t promise that he’ll listen, though.”
“I’m sure Jess will convince him to stay.”
We exchange smiles before she jogs off to catch up with the others. I climb over the wall and make my way down the rocks to the beach. Kicking off my shoes, I carry them as I walk into the water, my eyes scanning for shells. Down the beach I can see a bonfire going, a few families gathered around with four people playing volleyball at the net. They’re young guys, likely wasted.
Curious, I walk along the reaching waves, nearing them. One looks familiar. I continue spying, inching closer until they call the game and the four gather together. One in the bunch catches sight of me, and the others look over too. My body hits a wall at the sight of him. Everything around me blurs away, and he seems caught-off-guard as well. “Emma?” He calls over, almost like a signal to run.
My feet sink into the sand, stuck. “Milo?”
He jogs over and I struggle to make up my mind, if I want to sprint off or find out if it’s actually him I’m seeing and not some bizarre hallucination. Suddenly it’s too late to decide and he’s in front of me, well some older version of him.
“Emma,” he breathes out, calling me Emma and not his pet name from two years ago. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? W-What are you doing here? Why are you here?”
“My friend,” he motions back to the group, “his family has a beach house in town so we came down for a few days. Are you staying at your Aunt’s house still?”
My Aunts house, where I lost my virginity to him in my bedroom, where it all really began. “Yeah, every summer.”
Silence falls between us, but it’s not long until he says, “You look the same. A little different, but the same. Are you still with Kaden?”
“Kaden? No. I’m not.”
“What? Did you break his heart?”
With my head spinning, I ask, “Milo, why did you cheat on me?” As if I’m going to wake up any second from my dream. I have to find out while I can. “Why did you cheat on me and then never talk to me again let alone explain? You just told me to leave. Why?”
He sighs, running his hand through his hair. “I don’t know. It was two years ago. I was an asshole back then.”
“Well, did you like me, at least? Did you have any feelings for me?”
“I did. I loved you. I meant it when I said it.”
“But did you in the end, or was there just something about me that made you hate me?”
Confused, Milo asks, “Where is this coming from?”
“I just want to know what happened.” I just want to know if what Kaden said is true.
He turns to a stray piece of driftwood a couple steps up the beach, sitting down. I sit with him. “Look, I didn’t hate you. I hated myself. Two years ago I was stupid, reckless, I hurt people, and I know I hurt you, Emma, bad. I don’t know why I slept with that other girl, maybe because it just seemed like something I would do. I was high all of the time, into anything anyone would offer. It’s hard to explain my actions, but I did love you through all of it. When you caught me that day, when you confronted me, I had to turn you away because I couldn’t stand the fact that I hurt someone that I cared so much about. It was easier to ignore you and my mistakes than own up to them,” he explains, looking out at the water. “I regret turning you away, but I know that we shouldn’t have been together. You deserved someone better than me.”
With a heavy heart, I look up at him. “So it wasn’t because of me?”
“No. I still loved you until the very end.”
“I loved you too, I meant it when I said it, and you’re right. We shouldn’t have been together.”
He nods then looks at me, connecting our gazes. “I’ve changed, Emma. I don’t want you to think that I’m the same person. I went to rehab after that summer, got my act together.”
“Good, I’m glad. Everyone here stopped using as well.”
“How are they? Still staying at their parent’s beach house?” Milo’s talking about Kaden and Austin.
“Yeah. Still partying and getting together with the gang, you remember everyone, right?”
“How can I not. You know, it did surprise me that they didn’t tell you I was messing around with other girls, though.”
I inhale very quickly, almost causing me to cough. “What?”
“They knew. I told them.”
“Austin and Kaden for sure, maybe a few other guys.”
Suddenly Milo’s friends call for him and he turns to me. “I have to go, we’re heading into town for the night.”
“Oh, okay, yeah,” I mutter, getting up, “I still can’t believe that you’re here.”
“I know. It was good seeing you. Maybe I’ll see you around again. I’m here for a few days.”
I nod. “Yeah. I’ll see you around.” But before he can walk off, I wrap my arms around him, breathing in his nostalgic, boyish scent. “Thank you.”
He hugs me back before nodding and catching up with his friends. I watch as they make their way up the path to the main road, eventually disappearing.