Publicity Stunt

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two: the reason.

I’M A FIRM believer that everything happens for a reason, but I can’t validate this happening in the slightest—unless it’s because I’m meant to land myself in jail.

This has to be a joke. The universe is screwing with me.

I keep repeating the phrases about all of this being some type of twisted, messed up universal conspiracy over and over again in my mind throughout the rest of the day. Even after I get through my immunology lecture—lost in the headache of antibodies and antigens, T-cells and B-cells—and take the shuttle to the market to pick up snacks for tonight. At some point, I begin annoying myself, but I just can’t get over it.

Of all the people to be the guest on Bela Porter’s show for the one time Faye’s miraculously selected by random drawing to attend, it’s him.

“Jackson West,” I say under my breath as I go through the automatic doors into the grocery store. I bring my hands up to my hair and wedge them into my curls. “Fuck.”

A girl, who I hadn’t noticed was close by, quickly power-walks away with her cart. I recognize her fire-red hair and realize she’s the one who was next to me on the bus. By now, she definitely thinks something’s wrong with me, since, the whole ride here, whenever I thought of Jack’s name, I found myself cringing, shaking my head, and whispering to myself.

Dear God, I need to rein it in. . .

That, and I need peanut butter cups—lots of peanut butter cups. Wine doesn't sound like a bad idea either.

I grab a basket from one of the nearby registers and embark on my mission. The candy aisle is my first destination.

As I scan through the Reese’s—trying to figure out if I actually wanted the cups or the pieces—my phone vibrates in my back pocket. I hang my head and groan.

I’m expecting it to be Faye, who has been sending a flurry of pictures of Jack to our group chat. She’s the type of person that goes through different phases of obsession, especially when it comes to fictional or celebrity crushes, and with the prospect of meeting him, Jackson has become her most recent one.

After my phone vibrates twice more, I sigh and pull it out, bracing myself for yet another red carpet shot of him handsomely dressed in a designer suit or a paparazzi snap of him shirtless on the beach with some model or one of his gorgeous co-stars, but what’s actually on screen leaves me surprised.

Message from: Jordan (3)

Hey

Are you busy?

Clara wants to call

That explained the rapid-succession triple text. Jordan always did that when he really wanted me to answer him and quickly.

I hover my finger above the contact name, unsure if I’m really the most pleasant person to talk to at the moment. But it is Clara—if there’s anyone who can bring up my mood and center me again, it’s her.

Without even sending a text, I press call and bring the phone to my ear. The second we connect, a high, sweet voice bellows.

“Hi, Kallie!”

There’s a ringing in my ear from her volume, but I don’t mind. I’d been right, her voice is exactly what I need. It feels like I’ve been revitalized with new positive energy. I grab a bag of pieces and continue on.

“Hey, Bunny. How are you?” I coo, throwing the bag into my basket. My tone is ridiculously sweet, the complete opposite of the one I’d been using to rant to myself minutes earlier.

“I lost my tooth today!”

She sounds excited, as would be expected. I can almost hear her lisp over the phone and notice there’s a whirring in the background like they’re in the car. Jordan’s probably just picked her up from school.

I congratulate her, and then she sighs dreamily. “Yeah, me and Jordy are going to capture the tooth fairy tonight and shake her down.”

Her last words had come out a bit more aggressive.

“Shake her down?” I’m sure the shock is palpable in my voice. “Jordan! What are you telling her?”

My brother starts cracking up. “Hey, that was all her. I didn’t tell her anything.”

In the back, always one to want to please and make people laugh, Clara begins to chant, shake her down, shake her down, while she pounds on her booster seat.

I shake my head, highly concerned and highly amused at the same time. Where a five-year-old could learn what shaking someone down meant, I didn’t know. Regardless, her giggles are like music to my ears, yet a stab to the chest. It’s times like these that I realize how much I miss her, and when being 150 miles from home really hurts.

“So you’re staying at Jordan’s tonight?” I ask, trying to move on from the upcoming mugging of the tooth fairy and my feelings.

“We’re having a week sleepover,” Clara clarifies for me.

Well, that’s not a good sign.

“A whole week?” I’m so surprised that I start slowing down.

“Or more. It depends.”

Once again, Clara sounds blissfully unaware of what’s actually going on. I have a bit of a clue on my own, and then Jordan confirms my suspicions.

He coughs and then lowers his voice. “Yeah, Mom, uh, Mom needs to get some work done around the house.”

From his tone, I know that he’s meant it in the way we usually use it—as a code for, ’Mom lost her job. . . again’.

And as if that information hadn’t been enough, Clara proceeds to add innocently, “And Pete’s helping her.”

Another new guy?

“Pete?” I’m so thrown off now that I completely stop in the aisle.

“He works at the grocery store,” Clara says, bursting with pride. “He cuts the meat.”

“Right,” I say through a sigh. I can’t believe this. I dig my fingernails into my palms. Jordan and I continue to speak in code.

“So is he really, uh. . . helping her around the house?” I ask.

“Yeah.” Jordan sounds a mix of annoyance, anger, disappointment, and just plain resigned. We’ve been through this so many times already. “We can talk about it later, but Clara’s going to hang with me and Maeve for a bit.”

Clara gives a loud cheer. She loves Jordan’s girlfriend. “Mae Mae!”

Her happiness only half-lifts my mood this time. Bringing one of my hands up, I begin massaging one of my temples. This is such a mess.

“Okay.” I bite my tongue so I don’t say anything I’ll regret regarding my mother’s poor decision-making in front of my sister. “Are, uh, are you all set? Do you need anything now?”

“No, checks just came in so I should be fine.”

For now.

I don’t even bother asking him if it’s okay that hold off sending anything so I can go to New York. I don’t even want to mention New York at all. Jordan doesn’t need his day brought down any more by a mention of Jack either.

“Okay, I’ll talk to you later,” I say.

“Love you, Kallie!” Clara shouts.

I let out a breath and try to smile, even if she can’t see it. “Love you, Bunny.”

Once we hang up, I squeeze my eyes shut and press my phone against my head. It’s so hard that I swear I’m leaving a big red welt on my skin. The entire situation feels like a ticking time bomb that we don’t have the timer or wire cutters for, a ship that we’re trying to figure out how to patch while it sinks. I absolutely hate feeling so unhelpful, so helpless, in general, but especially when it came to my mom and Clara.

Although she’s our half-sister, me and Jordan have assumed responsibility for Clara over the years—alternating the “parental” duties, so to speak, with everything we could get away with. Because honestly, if we aren’t the ones taking care of her, no one really is. At least, not in the bare minimum way she should’ve been.

It isn’t that my mom doesn’t. . . try. She does. Some days a bit more than others, but she does. But her demons—her many, many vices—always love to grab her and drag her down to the pits of her personal hell whenever she clamors to decent place.

Once upon a time, she was good. Back when Dad was still alive, which was almost fourteen years ago. After that, everything in life turned on its head. That’s when she began to spiral, and since then, not that I had expected to but ever still hoped for, I never got any semblance of the mom I had before back again.

Ugh.

I can’t tell if I want to cry, scream, or punch a wall. It feels like my mind is melting.

Let me just get my crap and get out of here.

I spin around in my spot to figure out exactly where I am and what’s around me. And then, of course, I’m greeted by a sight I do not want or need to see. It’s a wonderful gift. A reminder of all of the other joy, future endeavors, and opportunities life has both ripped away and bestowed upon me.

Jackson.

He’s on the cover of a magazine in a fitted burgundy t-shirt that looks great against his tanned skin, with a very light bit of scruff on his face, as he bares that grin of his that still holds that boyish, reckless charm despite the fact he’s twenty-two now and not seventeen. But that smile no longer gives me the butterflies it used to. It no longer makes me want to grab his face and kiss him until I can’t breathe.

The headline reads: JACKSON WEST: HOW THIS HOLLYWOOD HEARTTHROB’S PROVING HE’S THE REAL DEAL.

I grind my teeth, looking first up at the ceiling and then trailing my eyes across the plethora of other magazines on the end-cap that I could’ve found myself in front of instead.

But no, it’s him. As if this moment isn’t bad enough.

“No help,” I find myself muttering under my breath, meeting his glossy, printed hazel eyes that they’ve really played up the green of in touch-ups.

At first after I say it, it hurts. Like a dull pain in my chest. The tiniest crack in the armor I’ve built over my heart. Because, not only do the words relate to his sudden—albeit brief—reemergence in my life now, they also remind me of what happened between us years ago. How everything ended. How it started. The beautiful yet tragic and chaotic moments in between.

It’s been a little less than five years since he moved out of our town of Colton. A little less than 1,461 days for me to get over it, to push Jack Westfield to the depths of my subconscious and leave him as a distant memory.

And I have.

The wound’s calloused. I’m over Jack. I’m good, I swear. But right now, I’m just so vulnerable and upset that I just can’t help but leech onto that ancient heartbreak, feed off of its poison.

I feel something wet at the corner of my eye, and I dab at it.

A tear—it’s a tear.

I’m crying over this idiot all over again. In a goddamn supermarket.

But. . . it’s not him I’m crying over, I tell myself, it’s more what he represents—the past, the state of being stagnant, not moving on. That’s what’s happening with my mother, she’s still stuck in this same cycle. This cycle, this whirlwind, that Jack had stood with me through many times. He’d tethered me, kept me from getting swept up and destroyed by it.

I can’t help but wonder, as I had for several months after our love story ended: how does someone like that—someone so incredibly significant—just stop. . . being so?

Fuck.

I feel my eyes sting even more, and I bite the inside of my cheek so hard I almost taste blood. There’s a vice grip tightening over my lungs as I find myself getting overwhelmed.

I need to stop. I can’t do this now.

One, because I sound ridiculous.

And two, because, just, not here. Not next to a family size bag of Fritos.

Suddenly, my sadness and blossoming anxiety switches to anger.

Before I can stop myself, I take a few steps closer to the paper and jab at it—at him—with my finger, reiterating, “You are absolutely no help.”

And then, ignoring the other man in the aisle looking on with a frightened eyes and cradling his kale chips, I head for the alcohol.

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