Chapter 32 - Everything
River had fallen asleep on my chest, her breathing was deep and even, and the amount of comfort I took from being able to calculate her heart rate should've been worrisome.
But it wasn't.
I glanced at my watch again. It was nearing time for Jackson to be off of work and River's bed probably wasn't the best place for me to be when he walked in the house.
I rolled her on her side and she groaned my name as I brushed the hair off of her neck before pulling her covers up.
I sat on the edge of her bed and waited until her breathing evened back out before standing up and putting my clothes on.
I was in the kitchen eating a sandwich when Jackson walked in the front door.
He asked as he brushed past me, headed to the refrigerator.
He eyed me. I knew he was still holding this against me, as he should.
I nodded and he sat down across from me.
"You stayed here all day?"
"I live here."
I was aware of what he was getting at but I wasn't planning on taking the bait.
He only nodded while he swirled his beer bottle around on the tabletop.
"You're a good guy Beau, the best one I know actually. So I can not for the life of me understand why you don't see how wrong this is."
His voice was low and I knew it was hard for him to keep his composure.
I didn't know what to say but I knew his words made sense. River was young, very young. But that didn't change the way I felt about her and I needed to make him understand that.
"It's my job to take care of her, to make sure she's safe, to protect her. I left here this morning trying to ignore whatever this is, then for some reason, I couldn't stop thinking about the way she looks at you. . ."
He looked over and stared right through me and I knew exactly who he was trying to protect her from.
"I'd never hurt her."
"You would never intentionally hurt her. But you're already inadvertently doing it now."
I opened my mouth to argue but he spoke again.
"She's had so much shit to deal with her whole life and I finally got her away from it. She's just about to start actually living and I can't let you mess that up. Because intentions aside, River is an all or nothing type of person. She will give you all that she has to offer but where does that leave her?"
I swallowed my words because I couldn't argue with him. Because nothing he said was wrong. He was right and it made me nauseous to admit it to myself.
"I need you to leave her alone."
He finally said the words I had been expecting from him.
"I don't think I can."
I admitted to my best friend.
"If you love her like you claim, then you have to. And I think you know that."
I did but that didn't make it any easier.
"You're about to leave, what are a few days anyway?"
A few days with River as mine was everything to me.
I looked over at my best friend's face, he was worried and it bothered me, but it wasn't misplaced.
He was right to be worried.
Here he was, asking me to keep my distance from his sister and all I could think about was getting back to her room so I could curl my body around hers as she slept.
"Can I at least tell her goodbye?"
My heart clenched in my chest as the words left my mouth. I wanted to leave it up to him but I wasn't sure what I would do if he said no.
I was trying my best to respect him but I wasn't above sneaking through her window either.
"Is that a good idea?"
He sighed rubbing his temples.
"I have to say goodbye to her, Jackson. I don't know when I'll be back."
It was a truth I wanted to keep her from.
As soon as he nodded I stood up and walked down the hallway before he had a chance to change his mind.
River was still asleep when I made it to her room, I sat down next to her and pulled her hand out from under the covers. Half of me wanted her to wake up but the other half was dreading the moment she opened her eyes. I'd never be able to leave if I had to look into her eyes and tell her goodbye.
I kissed the pads of her fingers one by one then pressed her palm to my face before leaning down and kissing her forehead. I stared at her face trying to remember every last detail so I could file it away and think about it a thousand times when I needed to.
Then I stood up and thanked God that she was still sound asleep. I was a coward for it, I knew that. But there wasn't another option.
I went to my room and packed a bag. I'd have to come back for the rest while she was gone during the day this week.
While she was at school. Because she was still in high school.
My stomach felt like it flipped over. I couldn't stand the thought of being in River's way but no matter which way I looked at it, that's exactly where I was.
I gathered my things and went to the living room. I sat my bag down on the couch and started rifling through it aimlessly.
There was this invisible tether between River and me. It was always there but anytime I tried to push her away she grabbed on with both hands and pulled me back. I could feel it now more than ever.
I wanted to turn around, run back to her and kiss her face off but instead, I dug my heels into my shoes, and made my way to the front door without looking back.
"You're doing the right thing."
Jackson told me before I walked out of his house.
It would be easier if I could be angry with him but that seemed impossible. There was no way I could blame him for protecting her. The only problem was, I wanted that to be my job and I felt as if it was already.
I tried to protect her from the girls at her school, from her shithead principal, from the flirtatious version or Taylor, even sometimes from herself. And once, which seemed like a lifetime ago now, I thought if I pulled away from her a little I could protect her from just about anything.
But I never once considered that there would be an issue where it would come down to this for a second time.
Because now, I actually had to protect her from something that I wasn't ready for.
I had to protect her from myself, again.
And for real this time.