Jonas fetches me ice as I examine my side. A bruise is already blooming on my hip like some deadly flower. I poke at it and feel the subtle waves of pain. I take the ice pack from him and press it against my skin, laying on the couch in my swimsuit.
The front door swings open and Brandon rushes inside. Jonas hurries to him, explaining, “I heard her yell and when I went outside he was holding her, grabbing her face and—”
Avoiding eye contact, I stare at my hip even though I know he’s watching me, waiting for me to look. He walks around the couch and crouches beside me. “Emma—” He starts, but knowing myself, I can never just sit and listen.
“I’m fine. You didn’t have to come. It’s not like he punched me in the face or broke my arm.” I still stay fixated on the icepack.
“She’s acting crazy. I don’t know what’s wrong with her, Brandon.”
“I’m not crazy,” I fight back, already breaking my mental rule by looking at him. “I’m fine, really. He just pushed me down.”
“Alright,” Brandon says, finally able to speak, “let’s go upstairs.”
He helps me up and walks behind me as I climb the steps. Entering his bedroom, I head straight for the bed and sit down. He closes the door, but before I can mutter another lie, he asks, “Are you done?”
Wordless, I bite down on my lip and watch him. Brandon stands in front of the door, arms crossed, waiting. Instead of saying ‘yes,’ I breathe out and bring my hands through my hair. Brandon comes over and I stand up to hug him. One arm wraps around me as his other hand cradles the back of my head, and I latch on tight. When we separate, I turn to show him the forming bruise. “Is it bad?”
“It’s bad, Emma. He threw you to the ground,” Brandon says, taking in the mark. When his eyes reconnect with mine, he asks, “What happened?”
“He—He just came through the back door saying he loves me. I told him to leave but he wouldn’t. I ran for the door but he grabbed me, and he wouldn’t let go while saying disgusting things in my ear. I yelled for Jonas, he came out and told Kaden to leave. He threw me down, threw a chair in the pool, then left.”
“We have to do something about this. No more letting it go and hoping it doesn’t happen again. I’m not going to let him terrorize you, hurt you.”
“The summer is almost over, I just want—”
“Don’t even try. I don’t care if the summer is almost over. It only takes him a minute to grab you, harass you, then physically assault you.” Brandon decides, “You need a restraining order against him, anything to show him that there are legal consequences. And, you should have called the police. Why wouldn’t you let Jonas?”
“I-I don’t know. I just want this to be over. I don’t want to go through any legal processes, and I don’t want to get him arrested. I don’t want to be up all night thinking about how he’s sitting in some jail because of me. I know I probably sound stupid, but I can’t be the reason Kaden’s life is ruined. If he does end up in jail, I’ll never forget about him.”
Brandon sighs. “Well, we can’t just do nothing.”
“Then I’ll... I’ll call Mr. Lane. I rather he be in rehab than the back of a police car.”
“You’re going to call his father?”
“Yes. I met him last summer. Kaden’s Mom and Dad came here for a couple days to celebrate his Mom’s remission. I’ll get his phone number from Austin or someone. I’m sure he’ll remember me.”
“Okay. As long as he’s away from you.”
I nod, thinking about how to approach Austin. “I’ll try to call tomorrow; see what his father says. But right now, I really just want to change,” I say, looking down at my dried swimsuit, reeking of chlorine.
* * *
If I want to find Austin, there’s one place I think to look first and that’s the boulders. He and his friends used to surf down there and start campfires when the sun started to set. Our friend group used to hang out around those campfires. One night, last year, Lauren dared Kaden to jump over it. They were both drunk out of their minds—I was one of the only sober ones. I tried to hold him back, but he shoved me off and leaped over the fire and tripped, burning his feet. Austin and Preston had to carry him back because he couldn’t walk. I hated him for it, nearly broke things off between us because he seemed so idiotic to me when I hadn’t had a drink in me.
Now walking through the huge hunks of rock, I catch sight of Austin standing in the water, his surfboard laying on the sand behind him. He’s watching a friend of his as the guy attempts to catch a wave. Just as Austin yells out to him, I call out.
He turns, probably expecting one of his latest conquests. “Emma? What are you doing down here?”
“I’m here because of Kaden.”
His face falls as he runs a hand through his salty hair. “What did he do now?”
I shake my head, reaching him. “Don’t worry about it. I just—I want to talk to your Dad.”
Austin sighs. “I know, he’s bad, but—”
“He’s out of control. He’s gonna end up seriously hurting someone, and I’m sure he’s going to get himself hurt in the process. Austin, if he’s arrested, or—”
“You wanna send him to rehab,” he says, skipping to the end of my proposal.
“He needs help.”
Austin sits down in the sand, staring out at the water. I watch him as he speaks. “I thought I could handle him myself. I’m supposed to be his big brother. He told me he wasn’t going to get into trouble.”
“How do you expect him to when he’s, well, off the wall, Austin?”
“He’s fucked up?”
"Yes. He was yesterday.”
Austin groans. “I took everything away from him. Who’s giving him shit?”
“Please let me talk to your Dad. Clearly, this is not the right environment for him if he needs to sober up.”
“I told my Dad I had everything under control. He trusted me with the beach house only after I convinced him. If he hears that Kaden is acting like this again—he’ll never let us come back.”
I cross my arms. “Maybe you should be the one to tell him then. Your brother needs help, Austin. What’s more important to you? Kaden, or the beach house.”
Austin rubs his hands against his face. “Alright, alright,” he mumbles. “I’ll handle it.”
“Good. I know you’ll do right by him.”
Just as I turn to leave, Austin says, “You know he’d be fine if you were with him.”
“I know, I know.”
“I was with him last year, and he wasn’t any better than he is now.”
“I know, I just thought that if he got you back, he’d try to be better. He always wanted to be better for you.”
Taking in a breath, I leave him with, “He wanted to, but he never could.”
Later at night while eating dinner with my Aunt and my Mom, I think more about what Austin said. He’s right, Kaden did always strive to be better for me, and he told me that he would many times. But, I know how it ends. He never changes, and I have to make the decision to leave, myself.
After I nearly drowned at the marina, I stopped talking to him. I bunkered down at my Aunts house and didn’t leave. Eventually, after being unable to reach me through my phone, he came to the house but was faced with my father. My mom always told my Dad that Kaden was no good for me, but it was hard for him to fully understand the extent of it when he leaves for weeks to work. I remember the sight of it. I was stepped to the side, just out of Kaden’s visibility. My Dad stood tall while my mother spoke behind him. My mother did all the real fighting.
Once I told her the night of the incident that I was done with Kaden, she was relieved. She was proud of me for ending things. “You’ll meet a nice boy,” she told me, “I promise. They’re out there. It took me a while to find your Dad.”
Even after her patience, she is ending up alone.
As I look at her across the table, I can see the exhaustion on her face. Her recent frivolous drinking can’t take the pain away, not forever. When she peers up at me, I smile. I show her that I am happy so she might want to feel the same.
“Jonas found out about Stanford,” I say.
“Oh, so we can talk about it now?” My Aunt asks. I don’t like to talk about it. Everyone always says congratulations and talks on and on about how intelligent I must be.
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“What school is Brandon going to again?” My mother asks. She likes talking about Brandon.
“When is he coming over here. Invite him over for dinner, will you?” My Aunt says. “How about tomorrow. We’ve only seen him twice. If you’re so serious, then maybe you should properly introduce us to him.”
My mother smiles. “Yes. Invite him for dinner. I’ll make my cobbler for dessert.”
How can I say no to her? Lately, she can’t get out of bed, but suddenly she wants to bake a cobbler. Maybe I have to put my own anxieties aside so Brandon can heal my mother with his charms. I mean, he healed me. How can I be so selfish to keep such powers all to myself?
“Okay. I’ll ask.”