I make my way down the hall the next morning, wondering if I’ll find Jay still asleep on the couch. I don’t. I find an angry Min sitting at the table sipping her coffee. I come to a halt. Too afraid to say anything. “Jay told us what happened with the guy.” She offers.
“A, I need you to stop drinking. Vance told me about the fight you two had and I understand you wanted to go let loose, but you can’t drink by yourself. I know I probably sound like a bitch, but I can’t worry about you like this all the time. Last night was terrifying. You weren’t answering your calls, and I had to send Jay to look for you because I was too afraid to find you like I did before. Do you know how shitty that makes me feel?” I look down, the full weight of my choices barring down on me. “I say this with love A. I love you and I need you to be safe. So that means no more drinking. No alone. Not unsupervised. Not until you go back to a therapist.”
“Okay… I will.” I say. She stands from her seat and walks over and wraps her arms around me. Squeezing me tight. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t. I promise.” I have to do better. I will do better. She gives one more tight squeeze, then returns to her coffee.
“So… did Jay seem like he was upset because he’s still in love with you or upset because this was a bad move because of the competition?”
“You’re unbelievable.” Her coffee cup hides her smile, but I know it’s there as her eyes rise.
“Well, which is it?”
“I don’t know.” I say sitting across from her. “He seemed worried in general. I hated it.”
“I’m not over him… Last night made it clear I wasn’t over him.”
“Finally, you admit it.”
“It’s not easy. What am I supposed to do?”
“Talk to him. That’s the only way anything will get worked out.”
“He’s so disappointed in me though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He thinks I’m a drunk… He didn’t believe me at first when I said I didn’t have that much to drink.”
“He doesn’t know you, Alia. He’s seen you drunk enough times to have that conclusion. But he doesn’t know of all the hurt you’ve gone through these last few years. The reason you’re driven to drink. We all have our vices. But working together for this competition, he’s going to get to know you again, and he’s going to see how amazing you truly are.”
“I hope so….” My phone lights up with a text.
Micah: Are you okay? Jay told me what happened.
I sigh and bring my hands to my head, not wanting to deal with this right now.
“Jay told Micah.”
“Did you want to keep it a secret?”
“No… I would have told Micah eventually, but not today. I’m still processing it.”
“Maybe Jay knows that Micah will give you the delicate touch that we lack.”
“I know… I’m not mad. I’m just tired…”
“Stay home today.”
“I can’t… I don’t want to waste my absences in case we’ll need them for the competition.”
“I understand… You should probably start getting ready then.” I nod my head and grab my phone. “Hey, take off tomorrow. Spend the day with me.”
“No, I should go to work.”
“A, I’m taking off tomorrow and you should too. Your coping mechanism is to busy yourself. I’m not letting you this time. Take off tomorrow.”
“Okay…” I say before walking down the hall to my bedroom.
I quickly change into some comfortable clothing. Dark skinny jeans, a loose-fitting grey shirt, and my favorite pair of slip ons. I keep my makeup minimal, not having the time or energy to put any effort into it. I park my car in one of the school parking lot’s then walk over to Rustic’s. While I’m waiting in line, I pull out my phone to reply to Micah.
Me: I’m fine. Jay to the rescue once again.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” I look up in time to see Jay and Vance fall into line with me.
“Tired. How are you even awake right now?”
“Coffee. Lots of coffee.” I smile, happy that Jay is talking to me. Happy that there’s no anger or resentment in his eyes.
“The second I see someone with a beaten face, I’m going to kill him.” Vance says. I look from him and Vance, their demeanors completely changing overnight.
“Guys, I’m fine. I don’t think he was even a student. He seemed older.”
“You think it’s mom related?” Asks Jay. The secret we kept about my kidnapping weighs in those words. He doesn’t trust my mom, and I don’t blame him.
“That’s always a possibility, but I think I was just a target of opportunity. I was alone, and if I remember correctly, most girls at the bar were either with guys or other girls. I was an easy target.”
“Doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not allowed to go drinking by myself anymore.”
“Min was really worried.” Says Vance.
“I know… I’m sorry, guys. I really am. Min and I talked about it this morning though. I’m going to put all of my energy into school and this competition.” I look down at my phone and see a reply.
Micah: I’m glad he was there… If anything would have happened to you… I don’t know if any of us would have stopped looking for the guy who did it. I wish Jay gave him more than a broken face.
“I hope you don’t mind that I told Micah.” Says Jay, glancing down at my phone. I lock it and slide it back into my pocket.
“No, it’s okay. I would have told him… I just wanted to process it first.” I’m next in line so I order my coffee then go down to the end of the bar to wait. Vance follows me while Jay orders. “I’m sorry for being an asshole last night…”
“It’s fine, Vance.”
“No, it’s not. And I’m not saying it because something shitty could have happened last night. I told Min everything that I said and she put me in my place…”
“It’s okay to feel the way you do Vance. I left. And it made all of you feel like you meant nothing to me. I understand. Min is biased because she’s my best friend. It’s okay to be angry.”
“It’s not. I was wrong… I lashed out because I was angry and yes, that’s how I felt at the time. But now. With the truth. I would have made the same decision.” I blink away the tears that threaten to fall and turn my back to Vance, unable to face him.
“Thank you, Vance.” He places his hand on my shoulder and turns me back to face him.
“I really am sorry, Alia. I’m happy that you are back and I promise to work hard in this competition so we can win and put you on the map.” Jay comes down and joins us just in time for the barista to call my name. I grab it and smile at both of them. “Thank you for making me emotionally unstable this morning, but I really need to get to class.”
“Not yet, we’re walking you to class.” Says Jay.
“You can tell Min I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Min didn’t ask us.” Replies Vance. “We decided it this morning. We’ll make sure you get to your classes okay. One of us is always in a building near you.”
“Come on, this is ridiculous.”
“Humor us.” Says Jay as the barista calls their names. They grab their coffees, then we exit Rustics and walk towards the building where my first class is.
“This isn’t going to be an all the time thing, right?”
“Just for today.” Answers Vance. I sigh, but I’m grateful.
“So, how did Jay rope you into playing in the band?”
“Lots of begging.”
“Don’t let him fool you, he practically screamed yes when I asked him.” Vance rolls his eyes and I laugh. My heart aching at how much I’ve missed this side of them.
“Speaking of, I heard that you always knew Jay could sing. Yet, if memory serves correctly, you suggested Letty to sing for the band.” I laugh, remember our time at the animal shelter, helping Emmett on his birthday, and talking about starting a band. Jay gave me panicked eyes when Vance said we would need a singer.
“I’m good at keeping secrets. But see, he didn’t keep it hidden for long.”
“We were all surprised.”
“How did you know you wanted to produce music?” Asks Jay.
“I don’t know honestly… I mean I always loved music but after North Isles… After being with my mom for an entire month. I had a hole. When I came here for college, Min and I would see buskers and I saw this electric violinist who created all these beautiful sounds right in front of us and I fell in love. I wanted to do that. It pushed the darkness away.” I look up at them, both stone-cold faces, thinking about what I just said. They don’t know what happened to me after North Isles, and I don’t plan on telling them now. “Well, here we are. See you guys later.” I say.
“We’re still twenty feet away.” Says Vance.
“You can watch me walk inside if that makes you feel better.” He rolls his eyes, but they both nod their heads and watch me walk away. I offer a smile before turning my back to them.
Me: Don’t worry, I have guards today.
Micah: What do you mean?
Me: Jay and Vance say they’re going to escort me to every class today.
Me: They’re acting nice.
Micah: I know. I talked to Vance briefly. He told me what he said to you and how awful he felt about it.
Me: I told him it was okay, that he felt that way.
Micah: He did… But not anymore. He was just lashing out last night.
Me: This is too much to process… I just want to crawl into bed and hide under my covers.
Micah: Just make it through today and don’t go to work tomorrow.
Me: Min said the same thing…
Micah: You should listen to her.
Me: I was going to. I’ll need to catch up on my sleep, anyway.
As Vance said, he or Jay were always waiting for me after class. Even for lunch, I wasn’t alone. When I walk into Communications, courtesy of Vance’s escort, Jay is sitting at his desk. He smiles sweetly at me before looking back down at his phone. Despite last night being the worst night of my life, I’m happy that it pushed us over that hill of anger. I can tell Jay is still restrained, but he’s talking to me and smiling. It’s more than anything I could have hoped for.
═════════════════ ∘◦ ❉ ◦∘ ══════════════════
Like Min and Micah requested, I don’t go to work the next day. Instead, I end up sleeping in until ten when Min finally wakes me up with coffee and breakfast. After we eat, I dress in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and wrap myself in one of my softest blankets and sit down on the couch. “You look like a burrito.” Says Min, dragging her own blanket out of her room.
“I’m a comfy burrito.” She simply smiles but joins me on the couch as we search for something to watch. She doesn’t bring up the incident at the bar, or that Jay and Vance are talking to me again. I know she wants to talk about it, but today, I need this. Time to unwind and relax.
It’s almost one when there’s a knock on the door. I look over to Min, still tightly wrapped in my blanket. “Are you expecting anyone?”
“No. Go look.”
“I’m literally in a straightjacket.”
“A, you’re going to want to see who it is.” I look at her questioningly, but she doesn’t say a word. I tear away from my blanket and rush to the door. When I look into the peephole, I see Micah standing there, and next to him a girl with long ombre box braids and a septum piercing. Her arms are crossed as she impatiently looks at the door. I turn to Min and see the smile on her face. “I told you that taking off today would be good.”
“You two planned this?”
“We did, especially after the bar incident. I’m going to get my stuff so I can go to Vance’s. Open the door before she leaves.” Min walks to her bedroom as I unlock the door and open it. Letty’s big brown eyes lock with mine, then searches my face, my hair, looking to confirm that it's really me. I’m at a loss for words, but before I can speak, she slaps Micah in the back of the head. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” She yells.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Letty ignores him and pulls me into a hug.
“God, I’ve missed you.” I squeeze back, not wanting to talk in fear of crying. She pulls away from me, then slaps the side of my arm.
“What was that for!”
“For not telling me either.”
“How was I supposed to?”
“You could have gotten my number from Micah, asshole. But let me guess, you were too chickenshit to ask.”
“Do you blame me? You’re kinda scary.”
“I get to be. Are you going to let me in or not?” I smile but step aside as she walks in. Micah stays outside.
“I’m going to go back to the guys. Letty let me know when you want me to come pick you up.”
“No, I’m staying the night.” She says, motioning to her backpack.
“I should have known.” He says with a smile then looks at me.
“You deserve it. Especially after the week you’ve had.” I wrap my arms around him, hugging him tightly.
“I don’t deserve any of you.”
“Yes, you do. Now catch up with your best friend.” He says as I reluctantly let him go.
“Micah, wait! Give me a ride over.” Says Min, coming out of her room, overnight bag in hand.
“You don’t have to leave.” I say.
“A, this was the plan. You two have the place to yourself all weekend. I’d want alone time with you too if I hadn’t seen you for three years.”
“Of course. I’ll see you Sunday.” Min follows Micah out and I shut the door behind them. When I turn back around, Letty is already on the couch, shoes off and my blanket on her lap.
“What?” She asks, looking at the dumb smile on my face.
“I’m a little shellshocked. I was expecting a worse reaction.”
“I thought about punching you if that makes you feel better.”
“Thank you for not punching me.” I say as I sit down on the couch, my legs tucked underneath me as I face her. “Why aren’t you mad at me?”
“I was. For a long time. I was hurt. I cried. I cursed you. I hoped bad karma against you, but then… The reports and the interviews came out. I saw my best friend, but I saw a broken down version of her. I was worried about you and your safety. I knew your mom would never let you be happy, so I just prayed that you would come back into our lives one day so that we could protect you from her.” Letty’s eyes grow darker, but she forces a smile and shrugs her shoulders, keeping the tears at bay. “I felt bad for wishing bad stuff on you. Like it was my fault you were going through god knows what.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Letty. I left because I had to.” She nods her head, then looks down and wipes away the tears that escaped.
“Micah told me. I’m so unbelievably mad that they kept you from me. We could have caught up weeks ago.”
“They had to take their time to process it… Don’t be mad at them. You should be mad at me. It took me forever to build up the courage to ask Micah about you.”
“That’s different. You didn’t know if I was still friends with them or not. Stop defending them. I want to be mad.”
“Okay, I’ll stop.” I say with a smile.
“I really like what you did with your hair. It suits you better.”
“Thank you. I really like your braids and your septum piercing.”
“I even have a tattoo.” She says.
“What? Where?” She turns around and pulls down the back of her shirt to reveal a small minimalist sun with a wave crossing through it on her shoulder. “Oh, that’s cute! Why did you pick that?”
“A reminder of the best weekend of my life.” She turns back around, a smile on her face.
“When we went to the beach with the boys?” She nods her head.
“It was when you and I got closer. When me and Emmett started getting close. It was a really good weekend for me. It concreted all of our friendships.”
“It was a good weekend for me too.” I say, thinking back to how caring Jay was to me after I got sunburned. It was the first time I ever saw that he could have the same feelings for me. I wish we weren’t so stubborn and wasted so much time before getting together. We could have had more time if I stopped questioning everything.
“You’re not over him, are you?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Lils, you’re not hard to read. Even after all this time. I know my best friend.” My chest tightens at the nickname I haven’t heard in so long.
“It’s hard… Jay has been the only person in my life that knew and understood what having parents like ours felt like. And even if he didn’t, I never met someone with a heart like his. How do you get over someone who is perfect for you? Everyone else feels like I’m settling.” No matter how many boys I’ve dated over the years, no one ever compared to Jay.
“I don’t know… I feel that way with Emmett. He never stops trying to learn and understand about my culture. He can be a bit dim sometimes, but I knew Emmett was the one for me. Have you and Jay engaged any?”
“It’s been rocky. He feels closed off.”
“It wasn’t easy on him when you left… He shut himself up in his apartment the entire Christmas break. He wouldn’t answer our texts or phone calls. Micah eventually had to call Jay’s uncle to check on him. Then when school started, Jay acted like he never shut anyone out. He was friendly, played his music, even started playing baseball. Whenever we tried to talk about you, he would just say ‘she made her choice’ and leave it at that.”
“And when the articles came out?”
“Not a word. He wouldn’t talk to us about it. We asked him if he knew where you lived. We thought about going up to Westbrook ourselves and just search around for you, but how do you find someone in such a large city? We eventually gave up and hoped things would work out for the better.”
“No, don’t be. What about you? What happened when you left?”
“Oh, I don’t remember. It was so long ago.”
“Can you believe me for once?”
“Lils, what happened?”
“I was with my mother, but I was still alone.”
A hand hits me hard in the face, quickly quieting the crying I was doing before. Now I’m stunned as I look at my mother. “Do you really think your life will be better without me? You think that trash could ever give you what I can?” She grabs me hard by the arms and shakes me. “You are nothing without me. You would be dead on the side of the road if it weren’t for me. Be grateful and stop whining about some stupid boy. You only live because I allow it. Now show some appreciation.
“She’s not a pleasant woman.”
“Did she lay her hands on you?”
“She slapped me once, but it was no big deal.”
“That doesn’t sound like a small thing. What else happened?” I shrug my shoulders and avoid Letty’s stare. I never talked about that month I spent alone with my mom. I never told Darren, Min, or anyone else in my life. I was going to keep it with me until the day I died, but Letty… the only person I want to know all of my secrets. “She made me feel small… she broke me…” My voice is small and I look down, not wanting to cry in front of Letty. “I believed her. I let her tear me down. I let myself believe I didn’t deserve any of you. I still work through that thought.” Letty moves closer to me, her hands grabbing hold of mine.
“Fuck your mom. You are worthy of all the love. You are worthy of our friendships. You are an amazing young woman that I am so thankful to know. I can see that you’re still broken. And it’s okay, but you’re not alone. Not anymore. I’m not letting you go, Lils. I refuse to ever let you out of my sight again.” All the pain and tears I have been holding back these years come rushing out, but it doesn’t scare Letty. She simply pulls me to her and holds me tightly, running her hand over my back again and again. I didn’t realize how much I let my mother poison me. I thought I was doing better, but I still believe her words. That I’m nothing without her and it terrifies me.