SLOW BURN

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1. friends forever

THEN


JOSH


It hurts to look at her.

It hurts to look at her smile knowing I'm not the cause for it. I like the way her cheeks tug towards her eyes whenever she smiles or laughs. That's when I know she means it. It hurts to see her walk into the arms of another man. It hurts to see her lips meet his in a kiss. It hurts to know she isn't mine.

I can't bring myself to call this love. Surely love isn't supposed to hurt like this? I know it's wrong to feel like this about her but I can't do anything about it...so I'm leaving. I need to run before I do something stupid that will hurt her...that will hurt my brother. Brad is one lucky son of a bitch. I hope he knows that.

I can see her from where I am sitting right now. It's graduation day. The day is finally here. I am sitting on the stage of the auditorium which is flooded with people. Of course, her face stands out in the crowd. She's sitting next to Brad with my parents, watching the class Valedictorian give her speech. I know she's here because of Brad and some of her senior friends but for a moment, I allow myself to pretend that she's here for me.

I can't pin point the exact moment I started to care so much for her. She was my friend before she became my brother's girlfriend. I liked her before Brad paid any attention to her. In a way, I know they're together because of me. I was their bridge. I should feel good about that, I suppose, but I don't. Thinking about it makes me sad. When did I become this depressed person? God knows I need the change of scenery. I can't wait for this to be over.

Somehow, I made it through my senior year of high school. Now it's time to go into the real world. It's time to become a US Marine. I know that's going to be the distraction I so badly need. I won't ever have to worry about getting caught on the feelings I have for my brother's girlfriend. It's not right. I know it.

Natalie suddenly meets my gaze and I almost jump. They're in the fifth row so only a few feet away from where I am which is the first few rows, considering my last name starts with an 'A'. She smiles at me and raises her eyebrows as if saying, how exciting, you're graduating!

I offer her a smile in return just because I can't ignore her. She caught me staring at her already anyway. I try to remember the last time we made eye contact. I can't even remember the last time we had a proper conversation. It's all my fault. I'm the one that stopped talking to her in an effort to fight whatever the hell I feel for her. Things would be so different if my brother wasn't her boyfriend. Then I wouldn't feel so guilty about trying to steal her away.

I hope she knows I valued our friendship. It's the only good thing I got from high school. Natalie and I met on her first day of freshman year during our first period. We had art together. I was a sophomore. She didn't get together with Brad until the beginning of this year, their junior year, my senior year. I thought this year would never end.

The ceremony drags on. My family and Natalie all stand up to cheer when they call my name and I walk across the stage to get the fake diploma. It's just the diploma pouch with nothing inside. They'll be mailing our diplomas home. Why? I don't know. I've never understood that logic. I'm over all of it by the time the ceremony finally ends. I hang out with some of my friends and we take pictures before I go out looking for my family outside. I spot the big 2011 balloons up in the air. My mom is so extra. She is already crying as I make my way towards them.

"Jesus, mom, don't cry," I say as I put my arms around her. "It's just high school."

"I'm just so proud of you." She mumbles as she hugs me tight.

"I better get these tears next year too." Brad jokes making mom chuckle. He looks at me then embraces me in a manly hug. The ones where we slap each other's backs and pretend we don't have any emotion whatsoever. "Congrats, bro, must feel nice."

"Thanks," I say pulling away and then Natalie is in front of me. She's wearing a white dress. Her wavy hair is around her shoulders. She's smiling at me, her cheeks tugging up to her eyes.

"Congrats, Josh. You did it!" She says and then she hugs me.

I glance at Brad who is over with his friends now. My parents are talking about something. For a moment, it's just me and her in the field. I close my eyes for that brief second and enjoy the feeling of her arms around my waist. I'm taller than her so her face fits perfectly on the crook of my neck. She fits so perfectly in my arms.

Get a grip, Josh.

I open my eyes and take a step back. "Thank you, Natalie."

She just smiles at me and then Brad is back by her side. I watch as he puts his arm around her shoulders then kisses her lips briefly. I look away. This is why I stopped hanging out with them altogether. I couldn't see them do things like that. It's already shaming enough to have to look at my brother at home knowing I have feelings for his girlfriend. I think about how I would feel if I had a girlfriend and Brad liked her. I wouldn't like it at all.

We hang around for about an hour or so with friends before we finally head home. Mom and dad gave Brad permission to throw a party at our house tonight. I don't know how he convinced them. He probably made it seem like he was doing it for me which is ridiculous because I hate parties. I never know what to do in them. I don't dance. I don't kiss random girls. I don't drink. At least not how you're supposed to drink in parties.

This is why I stay in my room that night as everyone starts to arrive. Brad can have his party. I don't care. I'll be gone in a week then I won't have to deal with things like this anymore.

I'm really looking forward to the isolation. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing. I think it's the change I'm looking forward to. High school was not challenging at all for me. It would feel useless if it weren't for that diploma we get at the end. My dad also joined the Marines when he graduated high school. He told me I shouldn't feel obligated to join just because he did and I don't. This is something I've been wanting for a long time. I know dad was hoping I would start working at the station right after high school. I hope he understands that I want to do this first before becoming a firefighter.

My dad is the chief at the Portland Fire Station #12. He has been a firefighter since he was twenty-one years old. Before I was even born. I respect him so much for that. I'm proud to be his son. I hope to be half the man my father is one day.

My thoughts are interrupted by a faint knock on my door. At first, I think I imagined it. The music is loud downstairs so it's possible I did. I stay seated on the couch in my room before I hear it again. I stand up and pull the door open.

"Natalie," I say in surprise.

"Hey, I knew you'd be in here." She smiles at me then looks down at the small cake in her hands. "I brought you cake. You know since it's your party and all."

"It's Brad's party." I tell her over the music.

"In honor of you," She says in a sarcastic tone making me chuckle.

"Want to come in?" I ask her opening the door wider.

"Yes, please," She says as she walks in. "I never know what to do with myself in parties."

I smile because I already knew that. We are very much alike in that aspect. I close the door in an effort to diminish the sound of the chaos happening downstairs. "Where is Brad?" I ask her cautiously.

"Getting wasted," She says as she looks at my bookcase on the wall. "You still have the same books here since the last time I was here. Do you still read?"

I shrug. "I haven't in a while."

She turns around and faces me then she hands me the cake. "Here. Eat."

I grin. It's always amused me how bossy she is. "Okay."

I sit down on the floor with my back against the bed and Natalie sits down next to me. The cake has the words "Congrats, Grad!" written on it in gold frosty.

"So how do you feel?" Natalie asks me as I scoop a piece of cake.

"Doesn't really feel any different."

"Yeah. You probably won't feel it until you leave." She meets my gaze. "I'm gonna miss you...I've been missing you." She says quietly. "Why did we stop being friends?"

I gulp then set the cake down next to me suddenly not really wanting anymore. I didn't expect this conversation to escalate so quickly. "We're still friends," I say trying to sound casual but my voice is not so convincing.

"Then why did I find out through Brad two weeks ago that you were leaving?"

I can't read her. I can't tell if she's hurt or confused. Maybe both. "I figured I'd let him tell you. He is your boyfriend."

"But you were my friend," She says sadly. "I guess I thought we're going to be friends forever." She smiles. "Immature, huh?"

"You have other friends, Natalie. I'm sure you don't need me." I tell her gently.

"You don't miss people you don't need."

I clench my jaw and look straight at the TV. I know she's talking to me as a friend. I know she's telling me that she misses me as a friend. But my mind is playing these tricks in my head. Her words are hurting me and she has no idea. Of course I've missed hanging out with her too. It's the reason this year sucked so much. It's the reason I couldn't wait for it to end.

I wish I can tell her why I couldn't be her friend anymore. Why I can't be her friend right now. I know I should ask her to leave. She would be confused and hurt if I did. She's not doing anything wrong. But I am. I know better. I know it because I shouldn't like the way her arm feels against mine. I shouldn't want to reach out and kiss her but I do.

I find myself in this debate again. I wish her boyfriend wasn't my brother. I know it wouldn't even be right then but at least I could be honest to her.

"Did you get mad at me because I started going out with your brother?" Natalie asks me after a moment. She asks the question quietly and carefully. I can tell that it's been bothering her for a while now.

I want to kick myself for not being more considerate. I just stopped talking to her without giving it much thought. I didn't think about what she would feel. She probably thinks I'm the worst friend in the world. She wouldn't be wrong. "Of course not." I answer honestly. It's not her fault that I began to develop feelings for her. It's not Brad's fault either. This is all me.

"Okay," She says slowly. "I'm sorry. I'm just trying to understand why you stopped talking to me. I've been wanting to ask you but you're never around anymore. Now you're leaving...I just thought it was now or never." She shrugs.

She's just curious. It's simple, really. Not really. I can't tell her the truth and I don't want to hurt her. God. Why did I have to like her? Why did my brain decide to start to think of her as the unique, awesome girl she is? Why did my heart choose her? I know it's not the end of the world. It's high school. I'm young. I'll get over it. But it pretty much seems like the worst thing ever right now. I know this is probably the last time I'm going to see her for a really long time—maybe ever. I don't know if she'll still be around when I come back and it's not something that I'm going to be thinking about...on purpose.

I make the mistake of turning to look at her. She gives me a sad smile.

Look away, Josh. Walk away. Get the hell out of this room right now.

I'm not listening to my brain right now. I'm listening to her even breaths. I'm looking at her brown eyes that seem darker in here. "Natalie..." I hear myself whisper as my eyes travel down her checks, down her lips...

And then I do the one thing I vowed myself to never do. I do the one thing I've desired so much over the past few weeks. I do the one thing that would change everything...if I were staying. I do it because I know I'm leaving. I do it because I know I will regret it if I don't.

I place my fingers underneath her chin and pull it up gently. Her eyes look confused for a second but she doesn't push me away. I look at her as I lean in and bring my lips to touch hers.

I kiss her.

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