Destructively Oblivious

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Chapter 29: Manipulate

ma·nip·u·late

/məˈnipyəˌlāt/

verb

1. to have control or influence over something to get what you want.

______________________________________

*Asher’s Point of View*

While it was not only awkward and almost unbearably uncomfortable to have your own mother walk in on you in that situation, it was also in complete defiance of her rules. There were few that she’d set when Dol moved in, but there was one rule she prominently enforced, and I’d just broken it.

Upon seeing my mom in the doorway of my room as I laid beside my roommate whose virginity I’d just taken, I opened my mouth to say something, absolutely anything, but I couldn’t form an explanation.

My mom tore her gaze from Chloe and retired it on me and, through clenched teeth, asked to see me downstairs. My eyes extensive with worry, I nodded, throwing on the boxers and T-shirt that had been discarded of the night before, and headed downstairs without saying a word to Dol. I didn’t even know what I’d say to her if I wanted to.

Not sure which was more strenuous, going downstairs to be confronted by my mom or finding a way to subtly escape my house, I operated down the stairs, watching my angry mother in the living room.

Hearing me behind her, she abruptly turned to me with narrowed eyes. “What the hell were you thinking? Is this the first time this has happened? What did I tell you when she moved in? How can you dare to treat her like this?”

She threw more questions per second than I was ready for and I blinked a few times to register her interrogation.

I swallowed, tugging the brim of my nose between my fingers. “I wasn’t. It was the first time. You told me not to let this happen. And it’s not what you think. It isn’t just sex. I really care about her.”

“You really care about her?” My mom’s arms crossed over her chest and her unhappy eyes turned evil. “Is that supposed to be enough to get you off the hook? You care about her? I care about Finn, but you don’t see me sleeping with him.”

My mom signaled to the puppy at her feet and I cringed at her example, then shrugged. “You’re making this a bigger deal than it has to be.”

“No, Asher, I don’t think you’re making this a big enough deal. What are you going to do now?”

I froze. I hadn’t had time to think about the What Now? portion of it. What was I going to do now? There was a reason I’d avoided telling her how I felt for so long. While some of my reasoning had to do with the dread that she wouldn’t return my feelings, another part of it had to do with the fear that she would.

I wanted to be with her. I wanted to make her happy... wanted to be happy myself, but the idea of holding her heart in my hands suddenly brought my nerves to an uncomfortable tremble. I asked myself if I was enough for her and I told myself no.

I watched my agitated mother pace back in forth in front of me, taking small steps in each direction before flipping and pacing the other way. Through frustration, she exclaimed, “You don’t even know what you’re going to do! Was that the plan? Sex first, think later?”

“I don’t know!” My emotions scattered like a house of cards on a windy day. My eyes found the floor, ashamedly. “I don’t know what the plan was. I told her how I felt about her, she told me she felt the same way and it all just happened.” I turned from my troubled mom and collapsed on the couch. “I didn’t mean for it.”

She followed close behind me, walking around the couch and standing only feet in front of it. “You didn’t mean to sleep with her or you didn’t mean to tell her how you felt?”

I sighed. “Both.”

My sullen expression was unmissable and seeing it, she sat on the coffee table in front of me. She exhaled wearily. “Asher, I’m so glad that you’re experiencing feelings for someone, and so strongly. I’ve seen the way you are with Chloe; I’ve seen the way you look at her. I know she means a lot to you, but she is...” She hesitated, pinning her eyes to the floor and shaking her head. “She’s fragile.”

I narrowed my eyes and scoffed. “I know that.”

With an exhale, her gaze connected with mine. “No, you don’t know the half of it.”

Not sure what she meant, I blinked. “Then explain it to me.”

Her sympathetic gaze turned hard and her head shake was rigid. “It’s not my place to tell you. It would be intrusive of me-”

“Well, you’re not exactly the epitome of minding your own business at the moment,” I snapped at her, beyond frustrated with her vagueness.

“Asher...” Despite my outburst, her voice was slow and her eyes were soft. “All I’m saying is that Chloe shouldn’t be with somebody who isn’t ready to be with her.”

“I am ready to be with her,” I responded, my voice nothing but a whisper. Without much thought, I added, “I think.”

My mom’s tone was similar. “You think?”

My eyes were suddenly closed, the back of my head against the couch. She was right, and I was an idiot. Last night should have never happened. The entire day with Dol shouldn’t have happened. The last two months with Dol shouldn’t have happened. And now I was stuck in a fucking mess because I couldn’t control my heart nor my dick. I had to open my stupid mouth.

Gently, my mom reached out, drawing one of my hands between both of hers, squeezing carefully. “I know you like her, but is that enough?” She frowned. “Honestly, Asher. You were completely different just two months ago. Who’s to say anything has permanently changed?”

I wanted to cry, which was disheartening. “I feel like I’ve changed,” I tried to assure her, but I knew she was right.

She shook her head, her voice less soft and more rigid. “A girl told you she had feelings for you last night and the first thing you did was sleep with her. That doesn’t sound like change to me. Do you feel ready to be in a relationship?”

My brain a whirlwind, I shuddered. I didn’t give myself enough time to think through my answer and because of that, I allowed fear to drive each and every single one of my words.

“No.” I swallowed hard. “No, I don’t want to be with her. None of what happened yesterday should have happened. It was a mistake; all of it was just a huge mistake.”

Her expression was saddening, but she nodded in agreement, Or maybe it was understanding. Silence overtook the room.

The moment of stillness was broken by a wavering voice that didn’t belong to me or my mom. The comment came from behind me. “Wow, Asher. Thanks for the heads up. It’s good to know how you really feel.”

I jumped off the couch like it had been set on fire, turning in the direction of the voice. Chloe was standing in the middle of the stairs, now fully dressed, and, even with the distance between us, I could see that whatever words she’d overheard had brought her to tears.

“Wait Dol-” I tried.

Chloe’s words drowned out any of mine. “Don’t. Just don’t,” she said shakily.

She turned suddenly, bolting up the stairs and out of sight and I yelled her name, asking myself what was wrong with me as I ran after her.

*Chloe’s Point of View*

Asher and Amy had been gone a long time, longer than I thought they’d be, which evidently left me enough time to throw on clothes and look somewhat presentable for the day. I was sore from the previous night events, my womanly parts feeling a noticeable strain after finally being in use, and I tried to put my desire for more to the back of my head.

The back of my thigh ached from where Asher had gripped it so firmly, but it was a pain I welcomed and the recollection of it hinted at me every time I took a step.

Buttoning the last of three buttons on my jeans, I turned back to my closet to find a shirt and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I trailed my eyes down my reflection, noticing the multiple red marks that peppered across my chest. I brought my fingertips to one of many, reliving the memory of Asher’s warm mouth against my skin. I smiled, turning to my closet and plucking a shirt from a hanger.

Leaving my room to search for either of the two Freed’s, I began rounding the corner at the top of the stairs, only to be halted when hearing Asher’s voice below.

“No.” I heard him say sternly. “No, I don’t want to date her. None of what happened yesterday should have happened. It was a mistake; all of it was just a huge mistake.”

My stomach dropped as confusion pounded on the door of my already-boggled thoughts.

A mistake, he said. All of it. Everything that had happened between us, the smiles and the laughs and the kisses and the sex and the... friendship. It was all a mistake to him, each a piece of something he regretted.

I felt embarrassed before anything else, but that humiliation was replaced with both anger and pain before I could fully grasp the situation. I moved down the stairs, my actions taking over my brain and I sniffed when my eyes landed on Asher on the couch, his back to me.

“Wow, Asher. Thanks for the heads up. It’s good to know how you really feel,” I claimed, my eyes watering at their own accord.

I hadn’t even given him the chance to explain before I bolted back up the stairs, but really, what was there to explain? He’d said what he meant, I just happened to overhear him. I could hear his footsteps behind me but slammed my door as soon as my feet hit the carpet of my bedroom. It was as if my sanity was a thin piece of paper and someone had ripped it up, shredding away reason. I couldn’t seem to comprehend anything except pain.

When the door to my room pulled open and Asher stepped through the jamb, tears took no time spilling effortlessly out of my eyes.

“Get out,” I urged, pointing at the open door.

Eyeing me carefully, Asher stepped closer, shaking his head at my plea. “How much of the conversation did you hear?”

Crossing my arms over my chest, I scoffed, trying to maintain my vision through misted eyes. “The part where you explained everything that happened between us was a mistake.” The lump in my throat was expanding and my voice was growing high pitched the more I tried not to cry. “And how you have no interest in being with me.”

“You didn’t even hear the entire conversation!” he said abruptly, throwing his arms out to his sides.

“I didn’t need to!” My arms fell and my eyes plummeted to the floor, the tears within them too much to bear. In nothing short of a whisper, I cried, “There’s only so many ways to say you don’t want me.”

All the air seemed to deplete from Asher’s body as he stepped up to me, trying to cup my face with both hands. In a moment of weakness, I let him and he used his thumb to wipe away my visible sorrow. “I do want you! It’s not about that, it was never about that. I just-”

“You just used me,” I choked, my eyes broad with delayed realization. I could feel my stomach tightening, the lining eating away at my reserve. “After everything... you-”

At first, he looked startled by my reaction, but after a beat of silence, he cringed away from me like my response had kicked him.

“No. God, no, Dolphin,” he demanded, still holding my face, and tightly. “You can’t possibly believe that.”

I shook my head rapidly, removing myself from his rigid grasp. He’d tried to maintain his hold on me, but I pried backward, my heartache from seconds before doubling.

“Don’t touch me, Asher!” I yelled, stepping away from him. He moved closer to me and I slammed my hands to his chest, forcing him back a step. “Don’t fucking touch me! I hate you!” And this time, I meant it.

“Please. Can you let me explain,” he begged, grasping my forearm with an ironclad grip.

It took less than half a second to rip my arm away from him, bringing my hand up to slap his alluring face, my palm as red as his cheek. He'd faltered back a step from how hard I'd slapped him, but I stepped closer, repeatedly slamming my hands against his chest.

He gripped both my forearms with incredible strength to control my flailing hands, but I didn't stop trying to hit him. I wanted to hurt him. I knew it was wrong but I wanted so badly to hurt him the way I was hurting.

“Let you explain? Let you explain what?! That you enjoyed getting me into your bed, but you’re not ready for a relationship? How all of this was one giant fucked up mistake that got out of hand?” Tears dashed down my face, every broken piece of me igniting with the second round of humiliation as I dropped my arms to my sides.

Asher’s lips were quivering when he opened his mouth to respond, but he didn’t say a word, because what I had said was true. Our relationship was a fucked up mess that got away from the both of us. I sobered some of my anger, the pain inside me too potent to ignore.

“I’m such an idiot.” I laughed because there was nothing left I could do. “Silly me for thinking Asher Freed could actually possess any sort of genuine emotion.”

“You’re not letting me explain.” His eyes were wide, but his words did nothing to pull me closer to forgiveness or understanding.

I blinked, my vision blurry and my throat tight. With my heart shattered into tiny, microscopic-sized pieces, my emotions began catapulting from one end of the house to the other. I shrugged, wiping another tear. “You don’t have to. Everything is perfectly clear to me now.”

“I...” he began, allowing the sentence to break into particles of nothing.

He swallowed, the tension in his shoulders hardening. He looked destroyed by the revelation of our morning. His appeared expression only served to make me angrier. He was a better actor than I’d realized.

“Congratulations, Ash. I hope finally getting me into your bed was as satisfying as you wanted it to be.” My voice cracked as another teardrop scurried down my cheek.

He dropped his arms immediately, turning out of my bedroom door and moving down the stairs. The front door opening caught my attention, the sound of it slamming, breaking me down. I sobbed in the middle of my room.

As much as I tried to hold it in, the pain had seemingly broken the dam behind my eyes. The tears started falling down one after another, without a sign of stopping.

Grabbing my phone from my pocket, I dialed a number and held it to my ear, in desperate need of a hug. “Hello?”

I let go of a long, shaky, relieved sigh when Jamie’s voice echoed through the phone. Trying to keep my voice as neutral as possible, I spoke. “I need your help.”

She sucked in a short breath full of hesitation. “Right now? I’m watching Boy Meets World.”

I chuckled slightly at her reluctance, mentally thanking her for making me smile while I felt physically incapable of it.

She continued, “It’s Cory and Topanga’s wedding. This shit’s tearing up, and I’m in pajamas.”

“Jamie, I really, really need you.”

I held my breath as the line went silent for a few seconds, not a bone in my body surprised when I heard her. “I’ll be over in ten.”

She was actually over in seven and she was, in fact, wearing pajamas. My bedroom door opened unexpectedly to reveal her and, seeing her in my room, I realized Amy must have let her inside the house. The thought of Amy downstairs led me to think of Asher and, just when I thought I'd gotten my meltdown under control, more tears flooded.

One fell down my cheek as Jamie collapsed on my bed, but her brow dipped as she saw me crying, something I rarely did in the company of others, and she asked, “Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

I slammed the back of my head onto my bedroom door, sliding down it until my butt was on the floor.

“I did something stupid,” I mumbled with disinclination. “And I need you to tell me everything is going to be okay.”

Jamie gave me a sheepish grin, trying to lighten the tear-dampened mood. “Are you pregnant?” She chuckled.

I brought my sodden eyes to the ceiling and shook my head, letting it bang gently on the door behind me as I explained, “No. We used a condom.”

“What the fuck?” she spat out, the words fumbling from her mouth harshly. I pulled my eyes back to her as she repeated, “What the fuck?”

Waiting for her to put the puzzle together in her own head, I examined her with a defeated expression.

“What the fuck?” she said again, and I rolled my eyes.

“Jamie!”

Her eyes the size of basketballs, she sputtered the name of the last person I wanted to think about. “Asher?”

“Asher,” I confirmed.

Shakily, I explained how my last twenty-four hours had been, starting with the terrible eggs I’d cooked, and ending with the ten minutes I’d spent crying in my room, experiencing much more pain than I ever thought possible for the situation.

My bed creaked as my homicidal best friend stood from it. She looked nowhere near rational when she grumbled, “I’m going to set him on fire,” through clenched teeth.

She yanked out her phone, scrolling through her many contacts, searching for one in particular. The fear that she was calling anyone in a time like this was enough to get me off the ground. I ripped the phone from her hands, and she groaned.

“Please don’t call anyone. Please. Especially if you’re going to call...” I choked up on his name, another wet bundle of sadness rolling down my face. I was suddenly sobbing, my words slow as I maneuvered them through my heartache. “I just want you to hold me while I cry. Just tell me he’s an idiot and that I don’t deserve to feel like this.”

She nodded immediately and whipped her arms around my shoulders, tugging me into an unyielding hug.

“He’s a fucking idiot, and you don’t deserve to feel like this,” she whispered against my hair. With unparalleled outrage, she added, “And I’m going to set him on fire.”

______________________________________

*Asher’s Point of View*

Pulling carelessly into Danny’s driveway — because I was only able to act carelessly lately — my mind was filled with every belittling comment on planet Earth, and the images in my brain bounced from Dol’s face that morning while she was crying to her face the night before when she was... Fuck.

My car came to a screeching stop, along with my patience, as I pulled into my friend’s driveway, hopped out, and slammed my car door. Then I reopened the door and slammed it again. Turning away, I made a mental note to check and make sure I hadn’t left any marks later.

The most insane part of the circumstances I was cursed with was that I had almost gotten out of the entire situation the day before when I was interrupted by Hayden’s phone call. I had almost not told her I liked her altogether. I had almost not fucked everything up. Had being the operative word.

Five minutes later, I was sitting in Danny’s living room chair, looking into the confused eyes of all my friends as they questioned my sanity, and the fact I was still in my boxers and a T-shirt in the middle of the day.

Leaning over, my elbows resting on my knees, I rubbed my face. “I fucked up.”

I heard Blake chuckle and he sounded so amused that I could have slugged him. “What could you have possibly done this time?” He smirked.

I paused, my hands stopping over my mouth, and I stared at the three guys, my eyes reaching out for every single pair in the room. “I... I slept with Chloe,” I managed.

My friends each had a different reaction. Andy’s smile was gigantic and I’d imagine, after all the time he’d spent wishing Dol and me together, that he was thrilled. Blake’s was blank, unsurprised, emotionless, shrugging it off like it was exactly what he had expected. Danny was disappointed, his face similar to how my mom was a half-hour before. I didn’t know which one I hated the most.

Slightly shaking his head at me, Danny granted a forced breath. “How did that happen, Asher?”

“I don’t know.” My back pressed against the chair, my stomach clenched in stiffness and discomfort. My chest was tight and uneasy, my face heated from anger towards myself and irritation towards everyone in the room. I didn’t need to hear them deprecate me for the five hundredth time. I could do it all on my own. I was sure the ground would soon open up and drop me into Hell... if I wasn’t already there.

I sighed again, unable to find a comfortable position on that chair to save my pathetic life. “It just happened. It was a... mistake,” I breathed.

Andy furrowed his eyebrows. “A mistake? Or a decision?”

“Fuck off? Or fuck off?” I bit out.

I stood from the couch and made a beeline for the kitchen, reaching above his fridge and pulling whatever alcoholic drink was closest.

“Can I have this? Thanks.” Not waiting for his response, I popped the top off and took in as much as I could.

Danny sighed, nodding at me to come back and sit in the chair, saying, “Although I don’t think it was the smartest thing to do, what’s done is done. But since you’re not currently with her, and you’re drinking enough for the four of us, I assume something else went wrong?”

I took another pull out of what I had deciphered was whiskey, giving him a sarcastic thumbs-up, and hunkered down into the chair.

“Good observation, Sherlock. This morning, my mom burst through the door of my room to find Dol and me absolutely naked in my bed,” I explained with complete misery. Andy and Danny cringed, Blake let out a laugh. I continued, “So then she dragged me downstairs to explain to me that I’d made a mistake and forced me to realize I’m still a horrible fucking person.”

Gulping down the alcohol, my pain was starting to dissipate, bringing anger in its place.

Why did nobody think I was a good person? The answer was clear to me: because I wasn’t.

Andy chucked a pillow in my direction, nailing the whiskey I was holding. Luckily, my grip was tight, but I narrowed my eyes at him for almost knocking it out.

“You’re not a horrible person,” Andy growled. “You’ve just made a few mistakes. We all have.”

After another long sip, I was almost unable to take the ache in my chest. “You only say that because you’re the only person who wants Dol and me together, besides me.”

And I suppose Dolphin. I couldn’t get the images of her crying out of my head.

Danny stood, ripping the whiskey from my hands. I tried to complain, but my words came out in a slur of sounds after drinking 30% of the bottle over the course of three minutes. “Everyone wants you and Chloe together, but there is a time and a place. Have a little self-control.”

I had already proved to myself countless times I had none of that.

Blinking gradually, my gaze fixated on one item to begin to try to maneuver my way into a grammatically correct sentence. Sighing up at him, I tried to ignore the pain that had tightened around my chest, making it hard to breathe, to think, to do anything.

“I care about her so much. And I screwed everything up. I screw everything up. On top of knowing I screw everything up, I have people in my ear telling me that I screw everything up. If it’s not my mom, it’s my best friends who seem to have something new to say every five seconds about a situation they’re not in and have never been in. I am fully aware that I fucked up. I fucked up from the moment I let her live in my house. In fact, the only other place she ever is except my house is in every waking thought I’ve had since I met her!”

Everything inside me ached with unfamiliar guilt. If my own emotional grief wasn’t enough to make me wish I would stop breathing, I simultaneously felt the crushing anguish of remorse for breaking the heart of someone I cared so deeply about.

My voice was broken, my vision hyperfocused on the ground as I let out a splintered sigh, filled with loss. “I hurt her. Everyone was right. I hurt her.”

I heard myself speak, but couldn’t register my lips moving. I pulled my eyes to one of my three friends but was unsure who I was looking at because my field of view had turned black. With my hand out, in a barely manageable whisper, I let out, “Please, give me the bottle. When I finish it, you can throw me on the couch and let me die for all I care.”

I imagine Danny was staring down at me with a disgraceful look, but I couldn’t refocus my sight enough to receive it. Not being overly gentle, he shoved the bottle back into my hands. I began to take long pulls, feeling my rational thinking fall to nothing, replaced with peaceful numbness. It wasn’t great, but at least the pain was gone.

______________________________________

*Chloe’s Point of View*

The next few hours with Jamie were so enjoyable I almost forgot about the misery in my heart. We watched movies and ate ice cream and basically did whatever Jamie felt was necessary for me. I didn’t complain, merely let her coddle me like a newborn. It was almost ten at night by the time we finished what felt like our fifty-sixth movie, and around that same time, my phone went off. Picking it up, I answered when I realized it was Andy.

“Hey, Andy," I murmured. Jamie’s head turned towards me when she realized her boyfriend was on the line but returned to searching for movie number fifty-seven. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Chlo. Um, I’m with the guys, and we need your help.”

Sighing, I asked him what he needed, every piece of me hoping when he said guys, Asher wasn’t included.

Andy, shuffling around on the other end of the phone, was silent for a moment, whispering something to someone, but his voice returned moments later. “Asher came over to Danny’s earlier, and he basically drank himself to the edge of alcohol poisoning and can’t drive himself home.”

At the mention of his name, the same misery in my heart pounded again, and I wished I could rewind to an hour before when I was knee-deep in movies and candy and not submerged in painful reality.

“So I assume you want me to come and get him?” I grimaced, my tone conveying my mood.

“If you can’t, I’ll just drive him home, but I’d have to leave his car here and I don’t think he’d be happy in the morning.”

Simmering with deep annoyance, I gave him a brief nod, fully aware he could not see me. Asher Freed was going to be the death of me. Or more so, I was going to be the death of him. I didn’t know how much longer I could hold off from putting him in a chokehold.

Jamie gave me a ride over to Danny’s and I thanked her for cheering me up, even though the somewhat happy mood was long gone at the knowledge I’d have to handle a drunk Asher. She hugged me, and I stepped out of the car, the cold air brushing against my skin. I shivered, less from the weather and more from the sight of the familiar Chevelle a few feet away.

I knocked on the front door and Danny opened it a few seconds later, giving me a smile and gesturing into his house. I thanked him, seeing Blake and Andy close behind him. They all had the same thoughtfully awkward expression plastered on their face, bringing me to the conclusion Asher must have told them what happened. Trying to brush off whatever embarrassment I had over the topic, I stepped around Danny, and my eyes fell onto the leather couch with Asher’s body atop it.

He laid on his back, legs over the arm of the couch. Walking into the house, I seethed anger, more than I had ever felt in my life. At this point in the day, I was done with the sympathetic glances, done with the crying, done with the talking, and done with Asher. The guys might have been able to see the smoke coming from my ears.

Glancing at the drunk child sprawled out on the couch, I looked at the three guys sitting on other furniture. I held up my hand, eager to get out of this house and back into my bedroom of loneliness and betrayal.

“Keys,” I bit out towards anyone who would hand them to me.

Andy nodded, pulling them from his pocket and tossing them at me. With the keys in my hand, I walked over to the arm of the couch to collect the drunken mess.

Sending me to a limit of anger I didn’t even realize I could reach, Asher sat up, took the keys from my hand, and held them close to his chest as he laid back down.

My anger molding into loathing, I held out my hand to him. “Give me the keys.”

He shook his head, a small grin on his face like he was a child causing trouble, which he essentially was at this point.

“Asher, give me the keys!”

I wanted to lean forward and grab them, but I knew that could result in either falling or being pulled on top of Asher, and touching him was the last thing I wanted. Even being near him was pushing it.

As the silence in the room became nearly unbearable, Asher and I continued to stare at one another. My anger began to subside and instead morphed back into the emotion I’d been trying to hide from all day: sadness.

Hot wet tears piled into my eyes until they’d overflowed and made their way down my cold cheeks. The lump in my throat was too hard to swallow and I choked on the words I didn’t even realize I was saying. Or screaming, more so. “Asher! Give me the keys! I have had enough of your shit in the last twenty-four hours! Give them to me!”

The words were only a sound that I wished I had controlled better, but Asher slowly sat up and placed the keys in my hand, sobering instantly as my raw emotions fell through the mask of anger. I turned away from him, wiping my eyes with my sleeve, and looked at the three guys who were all staring at me cautiously like I could explode at any minute.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep, shuttering breath, and made my way to the front door, slamming it behind me without taking into consideration it wasn’t my house. Hoping Asher knew he was supposed to follow me, I waited in the driver’s seat for him to stumble his way out. He finally did, sitting beside me in the passenger seat, muttering, "I’m sorry.”

I didn’t answer, only wiped the tear rolling down my face before he could see it and started the car. Finally getting home after what actually felt like decades, I walked into the house, throwing his keys onto the counter and resting my hand next to them.

With my back to the entrance room, I heard the front door close behind him and we both stood there in complete silence. I contemplated turning around and forcing a discussion between us, one that was more calm than our previous conversation that morning, but when I heard his footsteps approaching me, I decided against it, turning to sprint up the stairs.

Thirty seconds later I was climbing out Asher’s bedroom window and onto the roof, letting myself cry into oblivion in solitude.

It was an hour after that when I had finally felt like all the tears in my body had been dispersed of and I sat there, legs hanging over the side as Asher made his way out onto the roof with me.

He very cautiously walked over, collapsing to the left of me. I didn’t look at him, not sure if I was more sad, angry, or embarrassed and not ready to find out from whatever I’d say.

“I drank a whole pot of coffee for this, Dol,” he shared.

I didn’t look up at him, but the corner of my lip twitched. Shaking my head slowly, I nervously picked at my nails, shooting him a glance. “Well, I’d hope so. You shouldn’t be on the roof drunk.”

Although recently, I wouldn’t mind if he fell off of it.

I admired his grin, but when his face fell into a frown, so did mine.

“I’m sorry," he said kindly. "I-I am... beyond sorry. Sorry doesn’t cover it."

“Great, Asher’s sorry. Everything’s better now, huh?” I grumbled sarcastically. Asher strangely wasn’t irritated by my rude response.

“Sometimes, sorry’s the only thing left you can say when you fuck up so badly.” He sighed, scooting himself closer to me slowly. “I know it’s not fine. What I did was messed up, and so stupid. I know how much all that... first-time shit means to you, and I fucked it up. I’m sorry.”

My eyebrows drew together and I sent him a confused expression. “Asher this isn’t about the ‘first-time shit’. You... manipulated me-”

“No, I didn’t,” he insisted through a scowl. “Last night meant as much to me as it did to you.”

I frowned. For someone who said they hated lying, he sure made a game out of it.

I let my shoulders sink, defeatedly. “Sex doesn’t mean anything to you.”

His blink was dismissive. “It does when it’s with you.”

My ears began to burn. I didn’t know what to think. On one end, Asher appeared just as frustrated and hurt as I did. On the other, I had given something very important to someone who woke up the next morning to say he didn’t have the interest in going any farther.

“What I said this morning, I didn’t mean that I regretted it,” he persisted. “I meant it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. I have thought about being with you every day since I met you. I’ve thought about what it would be like to hold you in my arms... to be able to call you mine. I’ve wanted you since you shook my hand in that hallway.”

“But...” My mind still whirling, I had no response.

“Look, I understand if you’re pissed off at me for my reactions this morning. I understand if you’ve actually debated tossing me right off this roof.” His voice dropped to a dejected pitch. “I won’t like it, but I’ll understand if-if you want to... move out.” His head shook gently, shaking that scenario from his head. “But I need you to know that our friendship and everything that’s happened between us was not a mistake. I never meant it that way. You are the best person that’s ever walked into my life. You’re my best friend, my favorite person to be around. Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to hurt you.”

He looked so incredibly determined that I heard myself speak before I’d had the chance to let my thoughts mature.

“I believe you.” The words crashed over me as I let out a sudden and uncontrolled breath, it hitching halfway through. “I don’t think you used me,” I whispered. Asher looked the way I felt: beyond relieved. “What I don’t understand is what happened this morning. What... changed your mind?”

“I don’t deserve you, Dol,” he mumbled. “I don’t deserve anyone, as proven by today. All I do is cause people pain.”

“That’s not really fair to yourself, is it?” He didn’t answer my question. I scowled at his silence. “I like you Asher, and I want to be with you, even after what happened this morning.” With no answer from him once again, a sigh passed through my joyless lips. “Maybe we do cause each other pain, but we also make each other smile. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

I’d never felt so vulnerable in front of Asher, and that included the night before when every scrap of my clothing was on the floor beside his bed.

His shoulders lifted with undeniable defeat and I knew I was getting nowhere with him. He looked crushed as he pulled my hand into his, intertwining our fingers.

He exhaled an unsteady breath. “I don't know how to be someone that you deserve. That is why I did not tell you how I felt. I fucked everything up by telling you. I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to lose you.”

“But I...” Want to kiss you. Want to be with you. Want you to know that I accept what you say, even if I don’t like it. “I get it- well, no, I don’t. But I don’t want to lose you either. Because you mean a lot to me.”

Blinking slowly, I stared into his very distressed gaze that was staring at our attached hands. He didn’t answer right away, letting his eyes scroll from my hands to my face.

“I’m so sorry, Chloe," he finally responded.

I snatched my hand from his, using it to nudge his arm. “You should be. Don’t call me that.”

He let himself smile timidly. Hesitance leading his every move, he pulled me into a hug and I rested my head on his shoulder.

I couldn’t argue, I didn’t want to lose him either. I understood now how he felt. I understood the emotions he’d went through today. I understood that, like me, he couldn’t let go of his own insecurities and that this relationship would have to be put on hold until he could come to peace with himself. That was what was so hard about the situation. I understood, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Sighing against his shoulder, my hip pressed up against his, I let my hands fall into my lap and soaked up the feeling of his arm around me, asking, “You’re still my best friend?”

“Yep.” He popped the P.

“And nothing’s changed between us?” I clarified.

“Nothing besides the fact we saw each other naked,” he countered. I could basically hear the smug look on his face. He was trying his best to be normal and that made me smile.

A grin on my face and whatever emotions I had been feeling during all this mixing together, I giggled. “I hate you.”

He kissed my forehead, his lips leaving a shadowy mark when he did. “No, thankfully, you don’t.”

And so, we sat on that roof for a few long hours, not speaking, simply pondering the ways we could pretend that everything was the same when nothing ever would be again.

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