Chapter 35: Once
1. One time only.
*Chloe’s Point of View*
“But you understand why I was angry though, right? You’re acting deranged.” My brother’s desperate voice was in my ear as I turned the corner at the top of the stairs that morning.
Taking a considerable glance around the room, I ensured the kitchen was empty, specifically devoid of Asher before I made my way downstairs. Though I was nothing less than relieved I had confided in him about a few of my past traumas, I preferred not discussing it again, at least not two days in a row.
“This doesn’t sound like much of an apology, Tate,” I muttered impatiently, snapping at him the same way he had towards me a few nights prior when he’d called me simply to yell about how selfish I was.
That was the night Asher and I had attacked one another with our mouths before getting interrupted by his wakeful little sister. Tate and I hadn’t spoken since. It had only been a few days, but we had never gone that long without talking in our whole lives. His sigh was distinct on the other end of the phone, his remorse obvious from the weary sound.
“I am sorry,” he promised. “Mom told me you didn’t want to visit on the anniversary like we’d talked about and it set me off. I think Dad and Amanda-”
“Stop calling it an anniversary,” I splintered out, barely able to bite back my vexation. “Death dates are not anniversaries.”
Silence mutilated the line and I winced, my expression pained due to my own harshness. I understood Tate meant no harm in describing the accident that almost took my life with the term ‘anniversary,’ but I hated the elucidation. I felt anniversaries were something people celebrated, not dreaded.
Tate had called me minutes before while I was getting ready for school and I debated picking up the phone. Because I knew he was going to apologize for his outburst towards me days before, and I felt I deserved to hear his regret, I grabbed the device and slammed it to my ear. I smiled when an apology was the first thing he said but frowned when he followed that with a “but”.
My brother let out a rumbling breath, rewording his excuse. “Mom told me you had no interest in coming to visit Dad and Amanda with me in February.”
I pressed my lips in a tight line, irritated with both Tate and my mother for discussing me while I wasn’t around. “I never said that to Mom, so maybe she should mind her own business, as should you.”
“So you do want to come?” My brother’s tone was alive with hope and I nearly felt bad crushing it with my defenses.
“Well... no, not at all.” I cringed and Tate cursed at me. Knowing I was upsetting him, I sought to make things right. “You know how I feel about the graveyard. I don’t get the satisfaction in visiting the way you and Mom do.”
Tate and my mom used to visit the cemetery religiously after the accident, as they both wanted to share their cumbersome spirits with each other while hovering over the tombstones of their two lost loved ones. I always hated stepping foot on the grounds that held dead people, especially when it was those I had been forced to watch die.
I swallowed my sadness, ignoring the sounds of painful screams, the flashbacks of metal screeching against itself as I tried to dig my way back into the present, muffling the horrendous memories of the past. It would do me no use to explain to Tate for the millionth time that I got no relief in seeing my father and sister six feet under and that while he could have his fun talking to cement grave markers, I would rather stay home and sulk when the horrid date came around.
“I know you always say that,” he tried, oblivious to me rolling my eyes. “But you haven’t been in years. You have no idea if it would help or not.”
Thankfully, I didn’t need to answer my brother’s useless plea. My phone began vibrating against my cheek and I glanced at the screen to see my mom’s face and name. Happy with the distraction, I gave a relieved smile to the empty kitchen and excused myself from the conversation with my brother, hanging up on him mid-sentence and answering my mom’s call.
“Chloe!” she broke out before I could get a word into the phone. “Did Tate call you?”
So much for the distraction.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, twice actually. Once a few nights ago to call me selfish and another this morning to call me deranged.”
“He doesn’t mean that. He’s upset.” My mom’s voice was wavering. I found it slightly funny that she could be states away from Tate and me, but still know exactly what was going on between us, trying to alleviate our issues. “You know how he gets around this time of year. It’s a painful couple of months for him.”
My features instantly formed a glower at nothing imparticular. “It’s not fair that his excuse for screaming at me is something that we all mutually go through each year.”
“You’re right, Chloe. He shouldn’t be yelling at you. And I shouldn’t have put the idea that you didn’t want to go in his head.”
I shrugged, squeezing my phone between my shoulder and cheek to attempt to make myself some coffee. I poured the grounds into the machine as I mustered a sigh. “You weren’t exactly wrong.”
My mom’s voice was soft when she responded, “You’ve never been too eager to visit the cemetery. I figured nothing had changed.”
I pinched my eyes shut, remembering what my brother had said to me. “Tate’s right. I haven’t been in years. Maybe I should just...”
My sentence trailed off when I heard a noise behind me and I craned my neck to watch Asher move down the stairs, dressed for the day. His steps slowed when he saw me, but I quickly turned back towards the coffee machine, pressing the on-button and muttering, “Asher’s here,” into the phone to signal a subject chance to my mom.
While he may have known the details of the accident now, I didn’t feel comfortable including him in my family discussion of deary death.
Her voice immediately pepped up at the mention of my roommate. “Give him the phone! I want to say hello.”
I did as she asked, tossing the phone towards him. He caught it with narrowed eyes, confused, but I mumbled something about my mom on the other end and he brought the device to his ear. My mom bellowed out a joyous hello to him and he responded just as cheerful, regardless of the weary face he’d been sporting when he walked down the stairs.
“Hi, Janice. How’s Utah? Lots of National Parks and Salt Lakes, right?” he asked her. She giggled while I rolled my eyes at Asher’s limited knowledge of the state.
“Yeah, that’s about it,” my mom said before laughing. “How have you been? My daughter’s not causing you too much trouble, is she?”
Upon hearing that, Asher’s unsure gaze met mine and the air was abruptly packed with untouched tension between us. We had actually been causing each other quite a bit of trouble lately.
Without moving his eyes from mine, he answered my mother’s question. “Just enough to keep things interesting,” he mumbled.
My mom’s tone was playful at first, but when she realized I may have actually been wreaking havoc on anyone’s life, she sounded concerned. “Uh-oh. Chloe, what have you been doing?”
Asher handed the phone back to me when my mom had addressed me and, hesitantly, I tugged it back to my ear. I didn’t exactly have any interest in sharing the multiple ways I’d been keeping my roommate busy with fights, hookups, and anything there else.
My eyes were still pinned to Asher’s, unable to look away. I belatedly answered my mom’s worrisome question. “Nothing too bad, I promise.”
I had attempted for the words to sound like a joke, but it sounded more like an apology and I inwardly recoiled at my own delivery.
“Nothing too bad?” She repeated, her tone confused. She paused, then continued, asking, “Chloe, do I need to put you on birth control?”
Her voice was a toxic mix of both stern and light-heartedness. I didn’t know how it could sound as if she was speaking them simultaneously, but both mine and Asher’s eyes snapped elsewhere upon her comment, breaking our long-lasting eye contact.
“What? No! Why would you think that?” I bombarded her, my cheeks achingly flushed.
“I was only joking!” She laughed. “Sheesh, Chlo, you sound like I really do need to put you on it. I told you and Asher to behave yourselves before I left. Don’t tell me you did otherwise.”
I knew she was only kidding, trying to embarrass the two of us, but it had worked more than she’d realized and I was too mortified to respond. The call fell eerily silent.
Asher was staring at me with wide eyes, awaiting my response. He signaled to the phone, urging me to answer, but I shook my head, the English language melting from my memory. Even the Spanish language had left my brain activity.
“Hello? Chloe?” My mom’s voice echoed in the soundless kitchen.
Answer her, Asher mouthed at me with urgency on his face. I was sure my mom’s joke about us was sounding more and more accurate as the silent seconds ticked on, but I couldn’t find the correct response.
“Are you still there?” she asked.
My roommate threw his arms up in exasperation, reaching forward and tugging the phone out of my grasp, bringing it to his own mouth. “Sorry, I think the phone’s cutting out. One of the cell phone towers fell down nearby, so the service around here is pretty bad lately.”
I was bewildered by how quick he thought of that lie but equally thankful that he’d managed to respond when I lacked the courage to. My mom understood and he was able to end the phone call moments later.
He threw the phone onto the counter roughly, giving me an appalled stare. “Jesus, Dolphin. Way to be subtle.”
I shook my head, dragging my hands through my hair, feeling like a crazy person. “I’m sorry!”
With my body returning to its normal temperature, I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. He gave me a dumbfounded expression, but I waved it away, resting both my hands on the kitchen counter and shutting my eyes.
I faced away from Asher, trying to wish away the red hue that I knew had taken over every inch of my face. Thankfully, I’d only had to speak with my mom over the phone because if she had been here in person, she would have seen the deception all over my face. The kitchen fell into another heated silence, but it didn’t last as long as the first.
“Can we talk about what happened the other night, here in the kitchen?” Asher murmured from behind me. While I was glad he had moved past the unnerving topic that involved birth control and my mother, the subject matter he’d brought up wasn’t much better. I didn’t see why he felt the need to discuss that ignominious moment between us when we’d covered his kitchen floor in rainwater, tears, and sweat. “We never really... confronted it.”
I swallowed hard, wanting nothing less than to talk about that night, especially after I may or may not have just hinted towards my mom that I was now sexually active.
“No,” I said softly, turning to face him. “We are not going to talk about what happened that night because what happened that night should have never happened. I thought we agreed on that.”
He frowned and I didn’t understand the expression.
“I know it shouldn’t have happened.” He moved a step closer, watching me carefully and I felt strange under his calculating eyes. “But I still have a hard time controlling the way I feel about you.”
My head was shaking and, although I knew Asher and I shared the same problem, I breathed out, “Well, control it,” like the hypocrite I was.
Asher’s frown deepened upon seeing my reaction. “Like you control the way you feel about me? I hate to break it to you, but you kissed me back that night.”
I swallowed. The ground was suddenly the most interesting thing in the world to me and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“I’m having a very hard time managing this... situation. I know I have to but...” Asher’s soft admittance peeled my gaze from the floor and retired it on himself. He sighed. “Chloe, when we got home that night, half of me wanted to tell you that I could never see you again and the other half wanted me to tell you that I needed to be with you. But I can’t seem to settle on either of those things.”
My flesh prickled with the desire to touch him, to pull him into my embrace, but I knew I couldn’t. He was finally starting to explain himself and my need to hear that was even greater than my yearning to hold him.
He released an endless sigh and when his frown smoothed, his expression fell into vulnerability. “I know you don’t understand, but we would not work. You deserve more than what I can give you.”
My confusion plummetted into frustration. “That is not something you get to decide for me.” The anger shifted into something worse, which was pain, and I tried to blink back the water rising behind my eyes. “Believe it or not, I am old enough to make my own decisions and I choose you.”
“And I need you.” His face looked panicked as the words exploded from his mouth. “But that is not enough. I am not enough. Before we met, I was doing all these fucked up things that I’d done for so long they had become habits. I barely came home anymore, I barely spoke to my mom, and when we did speak, we were arguing because I was so angry with her. I was gone so often that she just stopped wasting her time cooking dinner. I was always out, drinking and fighting and mad at everyone, for no reason!”
He pressed his hands to his face as he attempted to calm down after his eruption. Or maybe it was the easiest way to avoid looking me in the eyes.
“Asher,” I whispered, relieved when he removed his hands from over his face. “You don’t do those things anymore.”
“Because of you,” he prompted and my heart dropped into my stomach at the urgency in his words. “I don’t do those things anymore because I met you and I realized if I wanted to be around you, to actually be your friend, I couldn’t be someone that you wouldn’t like.”
I opened my mouth to respond, to say anything at all but was muted.
Asher’s eyes pooled with an emotion I couldn’t identify as he said, “I saw the way you acted around me when we first met. You didn’t like the drinking or the fights or the... the women. That isn’t who you are.”
I couldn’t deny it the way I wanted to. What he was saying was true. There were certain things about Asher that didn’t appeal to me when we’d first met. I hadn’t realized it until then, but Asher had made a significant shift from the person he once was. His deep frown returned.
“I feel like a completely different person. I’m not sitting in the office every week because I’ve gotten into a fight. I come home from parties completely sober.” His eyes growing extensive, he ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t even talk to another girl without your face or your voice or your laugh popping into my head!”
He’d said it like it was all my fault and my first instinct was to apologize.
“I never wanted to change you. I’m sorry,” I shared through blurry, guilty vision. He shook his head at my atonement.
“But that’s the thing — you changed me for the better. You’re good for me, but I’m not good for you, that’s my point. As much as I feel different, I’m the same person from before, I’ve just muffled the parts of myself that were destructive and the only reason I haven’t done stupid shit is that I know you’d be disappointed in me if I did.” He flinched at his own excuses, heaving a breath. “That’s why this...” He signaled between us. “...would never work. I wouldn’t be able to fully change into who you needed me to be and I would hurt you.”
I wanted to cry at the intensity of the situation. I had no idea how deep his reasoning for not being with me really went. My eyes welled with the tears I couldn’t keep hidden and as soon as he saw them, he stepped up to me, wiping the moist bundle that was tumbling down my cheek.
Softly, he slid his palm against my cheek and I leaned into his touch. His tone was more gentle now than when he was belittling everything about himself.
“I can’t do this. I want you. But not like this. I want to be with you, but not like this.” He paused when I didn’t move, then sighed. “This situation we’ve had going the last week isn’t helping us, it’s making everything worse. We need to be friends. Only friends,” he emphasized. “I need things to go back to the way they were before anything happened between us. It’s unfair for us both if we have it any other way.”
Abashed, I looked away from his heated eyes but nodded at what he’d said to indicate I’d heard and that I understood. The kitchen was silent, a sheet of tension over the two of us, but it wasn’t awkward tension, nor was it a tension I could ignore.
I peeked up at him as he ran his hand gently down my cheek, across my jawline, stroking it so softly that my skin began to burn. The way he was touching me didn’t help me accept his decision; every line he traced on my flesh only fueled my next request.
“Can I kiss you?” I asked him, wanting him now more than ever.
“Dol,” he spoke softly. “Please, don’t do this-”
“Just once,” I clarified. “And then we’ll be friends. Just friends. I know I’m not being fair to you, and I’m not being fair to me, but I need to... kiss you.”
I felt too much desperation to feel embarrassed like my heart was tormenting me. I needed to feel him one more time, even if it was the last time. He paused for a long moment, looking at the kitchen floor as I set my hands on his chest, praying he’d let me have this.
“Just once?” he finally confirmed.
“Just once,” I repeated.
And then, slowly, hesitantly, unsurely, he nodded. On my tippy-toes, I tugged his mouth down to mine, fast and intensely like I’d never get to do it again, which I hoped wasn’t true. There was a slight pain that came with his lips against mine, an aching that told me it was the end of something.
Our lips moved together in slow, agonizing movements that we both wished could last forever, but knew couldn’t. I let out a whimper when he pulled away and his forehead rested against mine. Feeling I needed to fill the silence, I pressed my voice down into a whisper.
“Haría cualquier cosa por besarte todos los días,” I murmured, feeling what I thought was the closest version of closure Asher and I could have.
He didn’t say anything at first but eventually drew his forehead from mine, staring down into my eyes like he was studying the sadness inside them. “Don’t translate this time. I think I’m better off not knowing.”
I tilted my head in a minuscule nod before he let go of me, physically releasing me. Neither of us said anything more. After one last longing glance, he turned quickly and moved up the stairs, abandoning me alone in a fit of heartache. Silence fell around me as I stood alone. The air wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable, but it was packed with one seemingly endless feeling — loss.