chapter 23 || kai
That night, I lay in bed, staring at the dim glow in the dark stars that have been stuck on the ceiling, desperately wanting some liquid courage. Tonight, it’s one of those nights, the ones where you cannot stop thinking, where one thought leads to another, setting off a chain reaction to the darkness. I’ve avoided them for so long with alcohol that I’m terrified of spiraling without it. So tonight, the only goal is to keep it at bay.
I replay the words I told Ryder earlier. Hayden seems to be a pretty good distraction. The words slipped out before I could catch myself and it’s been stuck in my mind for hours, making itself at home in a corner.
Up until I came here, I used alcohol as a distraction from my feelings, because if I let them in, I would’ve lost it. As long as you don’t let them in, they can’t hurt you. It’s different here though. Here, there’s a comfort knowing that other people are dealing with the same feelings, that they’re also lost. Although the focus of group therapy is on the dead, it’s a focused distraction. It doesn’t cause a chain reaction.
But is Hayden just a distraction to you? I think, forcing my mind to stay on track for once.
It’s peaceful, grounding even when I’m near him. When he kisses me or holds me, he makes me forget everything. I forget where we are and what we’ve lost when I’m with him. And it’s freeing. That is until Ryder sneaks in with his comments of wrong place and wrong time. Then everything comes rushing back all at once, hitting me at full speed. I try to do my best to push it away, but do I use Hayden while trying to do that?
Do I actually feel anything for him, or is it all fake? Does he feel things for me or am I just a distraction to him? Are we using each other or is this real? Was Ryder right along? That I shouldn’t be getting into relationships, that I need to get over Emma first?
Everything hits me all at once. The chain reaction has started.
I start doing what I’ve done a thousand times over; go through Emma’s life, the months leading up to her death.
I believe it started when her mom died, but it might have even started when her dad left. When she lost her mom, we took her into our house in a heartbeat, my mom as her legal guardian until she turned 18. She refused to go to her dad, who lived in a whole different state and only reached out to her once a month, twice if he was feeling nostalgic.
She stayed in bed almost the entire day, coming out to get the occasional plate of food. I tried to talk to her, to be there for her, but she refused. My mom said to give it some time, that she was still grieving her mother and in a way, her father too even though he has left years ago.
A while passed and it was still the same. No talking, hardly coming out of the darkened room, no Emma. The legal issues and the court dates took an even bigger toll on her. I caught a glimpse of her as they were leaving for a court date. She looked like she was dying; her skin pale as snow, the makeup barely covering her dark circles, her cheekbones prominent. I didn’t realize it then, but she was physically dying, long after her mental death. She came back later that day and locked herself in her room, and she didn’t come out for 3 days straight, not even for food.
Ryder came by multiple times a week, hoping to see his girlfriend. Every time he came by I merely shook my head and every time his shoulders slumped, his smile gone. “Give it some more time” my mother kept on saying. It hurt Ryder to see her like this, but he knew he couldn’t do much. None of us could.
Another few weeks passed, the same cycle of depression cycling through every week. Eventually, my mom had enough of her own advice. She dragged Emma out of her room and took her to therapy. I went with her whenever I could, but Emma would hardly look me in the eye. My guess is that she was embarrassed; she hated it when people saw her at her lowest, even her best friend.
Slowly, she started coming out more, talking to me and Recce and my parents. She would laugh and hum songs while she danced around the kitchen helping with dinner. Ryder came over as soon as I told him that she had a smile on her face. They melted in each other’s arms the moment they laid eyes on each other. She went back to school and lacrosse, putting on her cheerful persona, like the past couple of months never happened.
And things went back to normal.
But as it turns out, it was all a facade, one that I should’ve been able to crack, to see through. I caught the smile on her face faltering often throughout the day, but as quickly as it went, it came back. That should’ve been my first clue. She was my best friend and I should’ve been the one to see through her. I was the one who was supposed to know how she felt. I was the one who was supposed to bring Emma back, the real Emma.
I was the one who was supposed to save her.
The room starts to get smaller and smaller, confining me inside the walls that hold years and years of nothing but pain. My breath gets caught in my throat and I panic, thrashing around underneath the covers, trying to get out but only getting tangled in more. I keep kicking and flailing my limbs, only to end up rolling off of the bed, the sheets still wrapped around me.
“Kai! Kai!” The light flips on and footsteps get louder and louder. “Let me help you,” her voice soothes as her hands hold down my legs. I stop kicking, but my breath only comes in short bursts. My heart pounds against my chest to the point where it aches and it feels like I’m dying Callie works quickly, unwrapping me like a present. When most of me is unstuck, I rip off the remaining sheets and shuffle backward till my back hits the bed frame and I pull my legs in, letting my head rest between my knees as I try to control my breathing.
After a few minutes, or at least I think it was minutes, my breathing goes back to a steady pace.
“You okay?” Callie asks, holding out a water bottle. I take it from her, my hands shaking as I lift it to my mouth. The water dribbles down the side.
I nod, but I don’t meet her eyes. “I need some air,” I say, grabbing the corner of the bed frame to pull myself up. My body jerks forward and I would’ve landed on my face if Callie didn’t catch me.
“Maybe you should lay down? Drink some more water?” I jerk away from her, leaning against the wall.
“I just need some air. You can go back to sleep.” I stay close to the wall as I stumble towards the door. My hands fumble as I work the lock and when it finally turns, I push it open, pulling it tight behind me.
Somehow, I manage to make it to the big oak tree before my legs give out and I fall forwards. The same place where Hayden kissed me for the first time. Where I kissed him back. Where he asked me to be his girlfriend, where I said yes.
And we’re back to our original breakdown.
“Did you do it just to piss of Ry or because you really wanted it?” I mumble to myself, flipping myself over on my back, staring at the stars. A pang of pain goes through me, remembering Emma’s star theory, but it makes me smile.
“Well it depends on the situation, right?” a timid voice says. I look over to the base of the trunk.
“Zach?” I ask.
I push myself up on my elbows. “What are you doing here, Zach?”
“Couldn’t sleep, so I decided to wander a bit.” He adjusts himself so that he’s facing me, and the moonlight glistens off of his wet cheeks. “Anyway, what’s the situation?”
“Are you sure you want to take this on? You seem like you have enough on your plate for the night.”
“Kai, please. I need a distraction.” Distractions. Lovely.
I sigh, laying back down, my hands interlaced on top of my chest. “I don’t know if I’m using Hayden as a distraction to avoid my feelings, which I used to do with vodka, or if I actually like him.”
Zach stays quiet for a moment, thinking it over. “If I’m being honest, it doesn’t look like you and Hayden have a connection.” I look at him, bewildered. “Don’t get me wrong, you have some type of connection for sure, but I’m just not too sure if it’s the right connection for the relationship.”
I absorb the words. Zach confirms my fears spot on. “You think I’m using him?”
“I don’t think you mean to, you’re too good of a person to do that consciously. I think you lost your coping mechanism so suddenly that you used the first one you could find.” I look at Zach, a sad smile plastered across his face.
“You’re pretty insightful for someone as young as you.” I point out as my left-hand runs across my face. “What do I do now?” I whisper.
“Talk to him, Kai.” With that, Zach pushes himself up, glancing over to the lake before turning around. I watch as he starts to walk away, but he halts no more than a few steps ahead. “Personally, I think Ryder’s the one you really like in that way.”
My body goes rigid and I can’t breathe again. Before I can fully register what he said, Zach’s gone.
And I’m left alone with more thoughts than I started with.