The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 28

My phone flashes and buzzes with another missed call. Picking it up, I stuff it into the nightstand drawer. My dad or fucking Calder. Nearly two weeks of being back in Philly, they still won’t leave me the hell alone.

After my blubberfest at the park, I went to my grandmother’s to dump the Nissan, then to my dad’s to throw all my shit into my car before he got home from work. I did leave him a note, but apparently, that wasn’t sufficient. He’s been threatening to come here. Like I need that shit. I told him I loathe goodbyes. I’m good at making up excuses.

Staring out at the skyscrapers isn’t as cool as I thought it’d be. I hate being in my bed. It’s somewhat easier with the comforter shoved into the closet. I don’t need that as a ball and chain around my fucking neck.

Fuck…

These past couple of weeks haven’t been time to reflect and recharge. They’ve been to crash and burn. This pain is nothing like I’ve experienced, even burning my hand, setting fires. I’m not only suffering through the pain she caused me, but through the pain I caused her. I feel it. I just don’t understand it.

I gave in. I admitted to Kat that we were together. As much as I hate the term, I was, in fact, her boyfriend. I just didn’t make it official with her.

When I got here, I thought it’d be my escape, but she’s everywhere. The elevator. My bed. My couch. The balcony. Every inch of my kitchen. Her torn underwear is still in my bathroom.

At first, I tried eating soup and spaghetti, but I couldn’t finish. I went out for one grocery trip, loading up on beer, crackers, cereal, and frozen dinners and pizzas, but I haven’t eaten much of them, either.

The only other outing I made was to the laundry room on my floor. A blonde and a brunette, one on each trip, tried to make conversation, but I didn’t stick around, not interested in their stupid attempts to find out more about me.

I watch some TV, but not really. I keep it on for the noise as I stare at the wall, searching for answers to something I thought didn’t exist, which turns out, still doesn’t. She’ll just move on to the next fucker, telling him the same thing. It’s all a joke.

Throwing the sheet off me, I get up and take a shower. I then dump some clothes into my suitcase and drive straight to my grandmother’s, picking up the Nissan.

When Grandma answers the door in a pink tracksuit, I lean down to kiss her cheek. She asks, “You’re back?”

I fold my fingers over my fisted hand. “Yeah. I had to go to Philadelphia for a couple weeks.”

She nods, her gray hair bobbing, but her gaze is skeptical. “Did your friend get her license yet?”

I maintain a calm as she studies me. “Uh, no. Dash has been helping her.” Shit. I hope.

She laughs. “Dash? That boy barely looks old enough to be driving a car himself.”

I laugh for the first time in weeks. “Probably not the best person to help.”

My grandmother nods to the driveway. “Do you need my car?”

“I can take you somewhere if you need to—”

She waves me off. “Oh, I don’t care.” She then looks at me with a smile. “You’re a good kid, Jared. You always have been. I never worry about you.”

“Um.” Looking away, I swallow as I shove my hands into my pockets. “Thanks.” Maybe she should worry. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

She leaves me at the door to go into the kitchen. When she comes back with the keys, she says, “I want to see a picture of her holding her license when she gets it. What’s her name again? Kate?”

“Kat.”

She nods. “What’s that short for?”

“Katriona.” Fuck. Saying that crushes my chest, making it challenging to breathe.

“What a pretty name.” She tilts her head as she dangles the keys. “She’s not just your friend, is she?”

I hold out my hand and blindly reply, “I don’t even know anymore.”

She drops the keys into my hand. “I think you do.”

I squeeze the keys and clear my throat. “Thanks for the car, Grandma.”

She smiles as she watches me lurch even closer to losing it. “Anytime.”

I escape to put my suitcase in the trunk of the Nissan but hesitate before opening the driver’s side door, readying myself for the inevitable, yet sweet torture. When I get behind the wheel, the agony isn’t so sweet after what transpired last time we were together.

Chomping my lip to stave off another blubber bash, I start the car, unsure of driving to where I shouldn’t go but ultimately deciding it’s exactly where I need to be.

When I get out of the car, Lange sees me as he rounds his truck. “There you go again, disappearing on me.” He laughs. “Your rug rat has been looking around for you for days.”

I nod with an uncertain smile. “He’s somewhat dramatic.”

His laughter dies. “You okay? You look like hell warmed over.”

Leaning against the door of the Nissan, I try to joke. “I’ll still beat your ugly ass in Tony’s beauty pageant.”

“True.”

Digging my hands into my pockets, I head up the walkway, looking around for Kat or Dash, but seeing neither. Since it’s a weekday, my dad or Brenda aren’t around, either. Thank Christ.

Going into the foyer, the house seems empty due to it being lunchtime, but I still check the kitchen. When I look in, I see the back of a gray T-shirt draped with a brown ponytail, hunched over the far counter.

As I walk to the center island, I stare at Kat, not knowing what to say or how she’ll react. Before I say a word, she turns around. The shock is evident on her face, but a scowl quickly takes the place of her surprise. Her hair casts darkness over her face, making her look paler, and the dark circles under her eyes are more pronounced than the last time I saw her sickly. She’s not even hiding it with makeup. Regardless, Kat is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid my eyes upon.

She glances past me and grips the counter behind her as if to prop herself up. Keeping my distance on the other side of the island, I say, “I, uh, wanted to see how your driving is going.”

“Really? You came from Philadelphia to ask me that?”

“I wanted to see you, Kat.” Despite saying that, every time we make eye contact, we both look away, which flares the pain in the pit of my stomach and the center of my chest.

“You haven’t even been able to say my name, let alone talk to me. So, forgive me if I was under the impression you never wanted to see me again.” When her eyes flicker to me, they glisten. “By the way, I’m finished with my driving hours. Dash and my mom have kept me going.”

I sigh. “Yeah. About that…”

Her eyes and voice both bite. “Why do you care? I’m only a charity case.”

Not taking my eyes from hers, I swallow my pride. Hard. “I should never have said that. I truly didn’t mean it.”

“You always mean what you say.”

“Not always.”

“Like when you said that you were my boyfriend, but now we’re over?” Her voice catches, and she looks to the island, clearing her throat as her eyes shine heavier.

I shake my head. “I meant the first part of that.”

“God. I have no idea what to believe. You said so much.”

“I’ve been finding I don’t say nearly enough.”

“I get it. I was so focused on certain things I hoped would change, that I missed what was right in front of me.”

“Kat, don’t—”

She sniffs and crosses her arms. “I wanted to be your girlfriend, desperately, but I can’t change what you want or don’t want out of life, and we would’ve broken up, anyway.”

Irritated by her faulty notions, I lick my lips. “And how do you know all that?”

She looks up at me. “You’re so obstinate. You’ve lived your life a certain way, and you believe in things wholeheartedly. You’re not a force to be reckoned with, Jared. Yet, I went along for the whirlwind, and I was blown apart.”

“I… I didn’t… I’m sorry.” That’s all I can say before my voice box ceases to work.

“You don’t have to apologize for the way you want to live your life.”

“I’m not. I’m apologizing for hurting you.”

“It is what it is. I just have to dust myself off and move on.”

I slowly inch my way around the large island, stalking her. “Kat, what about you? You said some… things… too. You’re leaving.”

She backs away with every step I take. “Next summer. I still have until then here if I do get the job.”

I feel my muscles tighten. “But you’ll look elsewhere down there, won’t you?”

“I need to move on. I told you why I can’t stay here.” Kat swallows a small whimper and closes her eyes as she bumps into a counter.

I narrow mine at her. “We’ll stop fucking.”

Her eyes fly open, and she looks to the doorway, compelling me to check, too, but not caring if there were someone there. Turning back to her, she argues, “We couldn’t even stop when we were fighting! How would this work? You’d come home on the weekends, and we’d what? See a movie and have dinner? We’d kiss goodnight, and then you’d sleep at your dad’s? We’re not in high school anymore!”

“I know that.”

“I don’t understand you! You’re now okay with me being your girlfriend, but you don’t want us to have a future.”

“Isn’t tomorrow technically the future?”

Kat shakes her head as she slides along the counter across from me. “You know what I’m saying, Jared.”

“There you go again, making assumptions and missing the point.” I move closer. “And now you’re leaving.”

“But you’re leaving to live in Philadelphia.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“You already did! You said I was your girlfriend, we fucked, and then you said we’re over!”

“There was more to it than that!”

Looking to the door as she moves away from me, Kat lowers her voice. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“You didn’t mean it?” I clench my teeth as I shadow her.

She whips her head to me, her eyes incensed. “Does it matter?”

“Did you mean it?”

As she approaches the end of the counter, she wipes her cheeks as we stop, glaring at each other. “I have to go home.”

“Just tell me the fucking truth.”

“I said I’m not doing this!” She goes to leave, but I block her.

“You’re just going to date other guys?”

“I’ll have to!”

“Are you fucking serious? You’re dating me!”

“You broke up with me!” she cries, attempting to dodge past me again. However, I’m faster. “As you said before, relationships don’t work! So, why are you holding onto me?”

“Why can’t you answer my fucking questions?”

“You can’t even answer mine. I don’t want to fight anymore!”

I bitterly laugh. “Who’s fighting?”

“I’m trying to let you live your life! I won’t be around to be that burden!” Kat shakes with a sob. “That ball and chain.” Fuck me.

“I’ll lose you, all because you want a kid?”

“It’s more than that!” Her hands go to her eyes as she furiously brushes away tears. “You dumped me last night, Jared! How fast you forget!”

“You’ll let some motherfucker inseminate you?”

“Oh, my God!” Kat shrieks, shoving my chest with one hand. “I can’t fucking believe you!”

Grinding my teeth, I heatedly shake my head. “No. It’s not happening.” I lean closer to her. “I’ll be the only one donating to the cause, not some offhand cocksucker.”

Her eyes and mouth gape at me before she yells, “Stop saying shit like that!”

“Why? Because you’re considering it?”

“No, because it hurts me, you’d say something like that just so I won’t leave Annapolis!”

“And it hurts me because you’d leave for that very reason!”

“You expect me to stay here, date you, and then what? We’d resent each other for not meeting each other halfway!”

“Fuck! You’re not—!”

“Jericho, what the hell is going on?”

I look over my shoulder, and Kat rushes past me. Dash tries to grab for her, but she jerks past him, too. As I storm over to him, he asks, “When did you get in, and why haven’t you been answering my calls or texts?”

Without hesitation, I push him up against the wall and get in his face. “Are you fucking her?”

“Jesus! No! I’ve been helping Kat with her hours! That’s it!”

“Is she seeing anyone else?”

“I thought you!”

“I know you’re behind her decision to leave! You put the goddamn idea into her head!”

“No! I found out after you did! I swear to God!”

“You’re not even stopping her!”

“I can’t!”

“She’ll listen to you!”

“No, she won’t! She’ll only listen to you!”

I grab his T-shirt. “Don’t get fucking mouthy with me, Dash!”

“Jared, calm down!”

“You’re telling me to calm down? You’re the reason I’m losing her! You’ve been feeding her bullshit about me!”

“No, I haven’t!”

“You’re lying! Tell me the truth before I shove your mother’s stripper pole up your ass!”

He shoves at me, but my grip and determination are steadfast. “I’ve been trying to help both of you! That’s the truth!”

“You can’t be loyal to both of us at the same time! I’m sure you two laugh it up about me!”

“Fuck! We don’t!”

“Tell me the fucking truth!”

“Christ! I am! I just know what’s going on with you!”

My eyes widen at the thought of Kat betraying me with what I told her about Blair. “What did Kat tell you?”

“Jared, I can’t…”

“You can’t tell me what I told her not to tell you?”

He pretends to be confused. “What’re you talking about?”

I double-fist his T-shirt, yanking him to me. “Goddamn it! Who’s it going to be, Dashiell? Her or me? You can’t be friends with both!”

His hands go to mine, feebly pushing me away, even though I know he’s stronger than that. “Jared, come on!”

“That’s what I fucking thought!” I let go of him, and my hands go to the top of my hat, gripping it. “Fuck all of you!”

Dropping my arms, I storm out of the kitchen with Dash yelling, “Jared!”

I blow past Tony and Cy coming through the front door and go for the Nissan.

This time I go to the marina, the park not being a favorite of mine anymore.

Sitting on the picnic table, I watch people already preparing their boats for the races tomorrow night. Either they’re unemployed, or they’re gym teachers on summer vacation who lie to their best friends. If that’s the case, I hope they all fall in and drown.

I’m officially alone. I thought I was alone before, but no. This is solitary confinement. This is all my doing. Maybe I should embrace the robot inside and turn off every emotion I’ve ever felt toward another human being. It’s easier not to feel. I’ve been with Dash and Rio so long that I let them do the feeling for me. I listened to their shit and gave them advice if it didn’t pertain to females. The joke’s on me.

I thought I… Shit. I almost…

Jesus. I’m an idiot.

All that shit does is tear people apart. Christ. I was just as gullible as my father.

I’m not gullible anymore. I’m not anything. I function better when I don’t feel. When I’m a machine.

Looking at my watch, I realize I’ve been staring at the bay for almost two hours. Time flies when you just don’t give a fuck.

Since my phone had rung some time ago, I finally check my voicemail, expecting it to be my dad or Dash. Instead, it’s the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania telling me that I have a Friday meeting. Mostly meet-and-greet bullshit. Good, though. A distraction can’t come soon enough, and I can soon throw myself back into work, forgetting this fucking city and all that inhabit it or soon won’t.

With my dad still at work, that gives me time to go to his house, grab something to eat, and then switch cars before heading back to Philly. Unfortunately, when I turn down the street, I see his truck in the driveway. Christ. Of all the fucking days for him to be home early.

I punch the garage code into the panel and go through the utility room, automatically looking for a case of beer, but knowing there aren’t any here.

Walking into the kitchen, it’s quiet, which is a welcomed respite. I go to the refrigerator, grab a water, and slam the door.

“Jared, can you come in here when you’re done?”

Fucking shit.

Twisting the cap, I mouth, “What the fuck?”

Tossing the cap onto the counter while taking a chug of the water, I walk toward the living room. Rounding the corner, I stop in my tracks. Rio, Dash, and my dad are sitting on the couch.

“What the fuck is this?”

Dad raises an eyebrow. “Have a seat. We need to talk.”

I laugh, taking backward steps toward the kitchen. “I’m out of here.”

He yells, “Sit down, Jared!”

I turn around and head for the garage, but Dash, living up to his name, surges past me, cutting me off at the doorway, nearly spilling my water. “Get out of my way,” I warn through clamped teeth.

From behind me, Dad says, “You aren’t going anywhere. Your grandmother doesn’t want you driving her car once you’re here. If you do, she will call the cops to report it stolen.”

I spin around, almost knocking over Dash. “What the hell?”

“Now.” He nods to the armchair. “Sit down.”

I confidently laugh this time. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“You want to try it? Lose your brand-new job for grand theft auto?”

“She has my car!”

“Uh, no. Not anymore.”

“You stole my fucking car? I’m calling the cops!” I reach into my pocket for my phone, but he shrugs with a cool smile that stops me. “I hope you have a good lawyer.”

“You don’t know my mother. You wouldn’t believe what she did when she caught me drinking in my room at sixteen. Do you want to risk it?”

“How in the hell did you know I had her damn car?”

Sitting next to my dad again, Dash clears his throat with a twitchy smirk.

“Shit! Damn Judas, Calder! I was right not to trust any of you! Not even my own grandmother!”

Dad shouts, “Zip it and have a damn seat!”

Squeezing the water bottle, I glare at him as his gaze follows me. I drop into the lone armchair, slamming my water onto the end table, sloshing water onto it. My glare then falls to the coffee table in front of me. I’ll be physically ill if I look at the other two traitors again.

My dad says, “We’re here to help you, Jared. You are out of control.”

I raise my head, long enough to shoot him a look. “I’m thirty-fucking-years old!”

“Watch your mouth!”

I shake my head at the floor. “Jesus.”

“As I was saying, this is an intervention.”

Looking up again, I glare at him and then to the two assholes next to him. “You can’t be serious!”

He counters, “And you can’t be serious if you’re not taking us seriously.”

“Unbelievable.” I nod at Rio. “What say you, Duquesne? I thought you were done with me. Why aren’t you elbow-deep in pussy right now? Did that commandant of yours grant you special permission to be here?”

Dad yells, “Jared!”

I roll my eyes as Rio answers, “Dash called me in a panic. I said it’s time we all get everything out into the open.”

“No. It’s time for me to get back home.”

Dad says, “This is your home. You have no reason to be in Philadelphia yet.”

“I have to work Friday. So, again, you’re wrong.”

“For now, you’re here, so you’ll listen to what we have to say.”

I sit back, crossing my arms over my chest, and my ankle over my knee. “Oh, I can’t wait for this shit.”

Dad shifts forward, perching on the edge of the couch. “You’re becoming an alcoholic. I’ve said that. At first, I thought you were drinking because of the stress of living here again—old memories, and having me around you all the time. But then, I noticed the drinking didn’t kick up until a few days of working at Brenda’s.”

I yank on my bill, shielding my eyes. “Jesus. Not this shit again.”

“This will only help if you shut up and listen.” I again roll my eyes. “It started slow, at first. Then the night at the races, it’s as if a light turned on, but you checked out.”

Dash clears his throat. “You knew Kat in school. I had no idea you went that far back with her. I did see you several times with a girl in the halls, but I didn’t think much of it and forgot. When Kat and I met at Bowie, I didn’t recognize her as that girl I saw with you. We thought it was funny that we had gone to the same high school, but it wasn’t our topic of conversation. I do find it funny that we had been friends with the same Jared Beckett, yet didn’t know it.”

Dad says, “I had taken him to the hospital to visit Kat after her accident.”

I glare at my dad. Anxiously fidgeting, Dash says, “Anyway, Kat and I stayed in touch over the years, and we’re both teachers, so we run into each other from time to time.”

“Are you going anywhere with this?” I impatiently ask, glowering at him. I don’t need to hear about their symbiotic friendship.

Dash’s blue eyes meet mine, oddly radiating a calm significance. “Kat and I have talked.” Shit. No.

I slam my fist onto the arm of my chair. “I knew it! You have been talking shit to her behind my fucking back! I was right! It’s your fault she’s leaving!”

Dad snaps, “Do I have to tape your mouth shut?”

Dash smiles at him but cowers as he looks back to me. “Don’t worry, Jericho. She thinks highly of you, despite your bad attitude, dirty mouth, and hissy fits.”

“Fuck off.”

Dad sighs, digging his hand into his salt-and-peppered hair. “I said stop talking, Jared Adam.” Son of a cop-calling bitch.

Dash says, “Kat has been a good friend to you. We both have, believe it or not. But the day I introduced you to her, not knowing you used to be friends, I saw the change in you, too. You liked spending time with her, not just with driving. You were happy.”

Rio leans forward and clasps his hands. “I know you thought we were making you the butt of a joke, inviting Kat to the beach house. That’s not so. As I told you, it was all my idea to invite her. I knew you’d never ask her. I thought you’d like to spend more time with Kat, other than with driving. It was evident you had a good time with her at the club. You smiled with her. You don’t smile much unless you’re making fun of my job, or Dash in general.”

Dash eagerly nods, and I scowl at both. Rio says, “When you and I lived together, there were several occasions where you mentioned her name in your sleep.”

I scoff, “I did not.”

He licks his lip. “When I met her at the club, I knew she was the one you had talked about.”

“I was drunk at the club, and just like when I allegedly said her name, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

My dad frowns, but Rio chuckles. “At the club? You weren’t drunk when she showed up. The look on your face was stone sober, and the rawest expression I’ve seen from you, Jare.”

“Maybe you were the one who was drunk,” I grumble, reaching for my water.

“You know I didn’t have a drop of alcohol the entire night.”

“Yeah, because you weren’t allowed to.”

He sighs. “Everything I do is of my own volition. Spending time with Lib. Putting up with your shit. Moving to Virginia. Being here for you right now.”

His unwavering gaze is disturbingly serious, and I gawk at him in dread. He goes on. “We’ve all been trying to help you. We see you suffering. It’s something you’ve fought since I’ve known you.”

Growing more anxious each second, I set down my bottle of water. “What’re you getting at, Duquesne?”

He sadly smiles. I look to my dad and then to Dash, who are giving me roughly the same expression. What the fuck is going on?

Rio says, “We’ve seen the aftermath of the arguments you and Kat have had.” He nods at Dash. “He told me about the one earlier.”

“Traitor.”

“No way, Jare. He could technically press assault charges.”

Dad says, “Look how far you’ve sunk.”

Before I can argue, Rio states, “Your outbursts stem from buried feelings you have.”

I roll my eyes. “What the hell? This psych diatribe is tiresome. I’ll tell you all damn day what I feel for him. Contempt would be the first word that comes to mind.”

Dad says, “Jared, shut up.”

As I rub my fingers over my jaw, Rio raises an eyebrow. “No. Your feelings for Kat.”

My fingers freeze on my face.

Jesus Christ.

Rio says, “You thought you could avoid it.”

My eyes widen, and I can’t look anywhere else. The only actions I can do is grit my teeth, shake my head, and say, “Don’t even, River.”

He sighs. “Jare…”

I don’t know if I’m ready to run or scream. I clutch the arms of the chair as I lose my grip on everything I’ve held to be true.

Dad slides off the couch and kneels next to my chair. “It’s okay, bud. We all know. We’re here to help you.”

“You don’t know shit.”

Rio purses his lips and glances at the coffee table. Dad takes a shaky breath, and I automatically look at him, seeing his eyes dampen. “Jared, you’re in love with Kat.”

“Shut your damn mouth!”

Ignoring my outburst, he says, “I know you have a hard time trusting women, but I see the look in your eyes when you’re with her. It’s undeniable.”

“You see nothing.”

“You need to face this.”

“I don’t need to do shit.”

Dash mournfully says, “You’ll lose her to someone else, Jericho.”

Cautiously lifting my gaze, I see Dash wiping his eyes, and I want to smother him. He’s always been the weepy type. “Jesus, Calder. Get a damn grip.”

Dad asks, “Why can’t you accept it? Love does exist. You found it with Kat.”

I laugh in disdain. “Oh. Right. So it exists? Bullshit. I’m just her next victim.”

Dash says, “She would never hurt you.”

“Dash, you know nothing about our past or present. You all must think I’m a chump, believing in this shit. She’s been down that road before, so it’s not her first ride on the marriage-go-round. Look how that turned out for her!”

Dad says, “Kat thought she had the love she wanted. She made a mistake, and she corrected it.”

“Really? Like you should have? Hadley and I were a mistake, right?”

“No. I’d do it all over again just to have you two.”

“Christ, Dad. You need a hobby.” Looking to Rio, who hasn’t given much of a reaction, I snap, “What, Duquesne? You fucking don’t believe all this bullshit about me, do you?”

With his blue eyes on me, he steadily says, “You love her, Jare.”

Holy fuck.

“Huh-uh. Fuck, no.” I again glance at him for a smile or any indication he’s joking, but I know better. Rio Duquesne has always been my rock. My voice of reason. He always puts out my fires.

Still, they all have to be fucking delusional. I thought maybe I was developing… those kinds of feelings… but Kat rejected me more than twice.

Jostling my hat back and forth, I’m on the edge of losing my goddamn mind. Closing my eyes, I try to focus on nothing, and not the darkness suddenly falling over me.

My dad asks, “Are you okay?” No, I’m not fucking okay!

Opening my eyes, I glare at the coffee table. Dash asks, “You want to know why I call you Jericho? Bible school. Fifth grade, we did a skit about the city of Jericho and its walls falling down. Yeah, that’s you—Jericho. How crazy is that? At ten years old, you were closed off! You don’t tell Rio and me anything! Hell! I know more about Rio than I know about you, and I’ve known you most of my life!” He wipes his face again. “It took trumpets to bring down Jericho’s walls. That’s why we’re here. We’ve brought the trumpets, Jared, and those walls are coming down.”

Leaning my face into my hands, trying to compose myself, I garble, “Not likely. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Rio says, “Despite you thinking I’m abandoning you, I’m not. We’ll still get together, and we’ll talk as usual but stop blaming Liberty. Your war with her ends now. It’s my decision to go, so lay off her with the accusations. Just as it’s Kat’s decision to leave. Maybe if you talk to her and tell her how you feel, she’ll move to Philly to be with you.”

“Yeah. I tried that.”

Seemingly shocked, Dash asks, “What?”

I scornfully laugh at his reaction. “Oh, she didn’t tell you that? I thought she told you everything, Calder.”

Still sitting next to my chair on the floor, Dad hangs his wrist over his bent knee, looking up at me. “You asked Kat to move in with you?”

I sigh. “I didn’t necessarily say with me but at least to the same city. She doesn’t want to teach or drive in Philly.”

Rio says, “She might change her mind about moving there. Lay out your feelings to her. Kat loves you.”

Dad rubs his hand over his mouth, but I don’t comment on his reaction. Instead, I admit, “She told me.”

Dad says, “You need to tell her how you feel, too.”

Dropping my hands, I furiously shake my head. “For what reason, Dad? In the end, it’s all bullshit! A fucking sham! And as you’ve all just witnessed firsthand, I’m a worthless piece of shit that doesn’t deserve a damn thing! There! You all happy now?”

“Jared Adam Beckett!” Trifecta.

“Jericho!”

Dad gets up on his knees so that we’re nearly face-to-face, and he grabs my arm. “You aren’t worthless!”

“Even after I betrayed your daughter?”

“What?”

Tucking my hands onto the back of my neck, I bow my head. “Hadley’s best friend, Blair. Remember her?”

“Yeah… What’s that have to do with—”

“When I was thirteen, I fucked her!”

I unwillingly glance at Rio and Dash, who I only told I had lost it to some girl in high school when I was sixteen.

The room blurs as my eyes drown. Scrubbing my hands over my face, I wipe my eyes and cheeks dry before my shame is on display.

Stunned, he says, “Jared… You were thirteen and having sex? I… What did… How? Dear God.” I hear his sniffing, and I bury my eyes behind my hand as the tears come faster. I don’t want to hear my father’s devastation, realizing his son is a bigger fuck-up than he thought.

“Did she… hit on you?”

I clear my throat, but it still cracks. “She knocked on my door after you and Hadley were asleep one night when she was staying over. I was drunk. She sat on my bed, talking to me. Then, she unexpectedly kissed me. Her hands roamed over my legs. Jesus Christ. Do you really need to know more?” He swipes at his eyes. “Hadley doesn’t know that her brother is a fucking lowlife. Not only did her boyfriend Max cheat on her with her best friend, but the same best friend was also fucking me!”

“You were only a kid! A baby!”

“I still did it! I still can’t look at Hadley without the guilt! I’m fucking garbage for doing that to my sister!”

“You are not garbage! This girl was older, and you were too young to think of the consequences! You could’ve gotten her pregnant! At thirteen! And you were drinking. God…”

“I know. I didn’t realize that then. She complained about how I could knock her up. After the first time, she brought condoms.”

Behind his fisted mouth, he mumbles, “Jesus, Jared. It was more than once?”

“About once a week. I got better at it.” I inhale. “So, we’d squeeze in a quickie here and there when Hadley was busy with something. It went on until Blair moved to college late that summer. I was fourteen by then. Hadley found out about Max and Blair sometime in her freshman year, but not about Blair and me.”

“I… You… What the hell? Christ, Jared! How did I not…?”

Trying not to completely lose it, I take a deep breath before saying, “Don’t blame yourself, Dad. When Blair kissed me, I let her. She showed me what to do. I needed to do it. Not because I was horny. I didn’t even have any damn idea what I was doing. It was awkward and not fun. Yet, it made me feel better in a different way. I needed to purge that bitch from my life once and for all.”

Dad closes his eyes, and warily asks, “Who, Jared?”

Her. I wanted to get rid of the innocence she gave me.”

My dad sobbingly utters, “Fuck,” and that’s a harsh reality check of his thoughts.

Leaning back, my hands go to my face as I fucking bawl again, but this time in front of my dad, who hasn’t seen me cry since I was a little kid and two people who haven’t seen me cry yet. Behind my hands, I brokenly mutter, “I’m so sorry I’m such a fuck-up, Dad.”

I vaguely hear Dash’s blubbering again, which doesn’t help mine.

“No, Jared.” Dad’s voice is closer to me, and he grabs my arm again. “Don’t do that! You’re my son! I love you!”

“Jesus.”

“We all make mistakes. Look at my mistakes! I was an alcoholic and a workaholic. Beer was always around, but I wasn’t. I’m sorry you had to go through that. You must resent me for not noticing.”

I wipe my eye on my arm. “I never hated you, Dad. I was grateful you didn’t leave us.”

“I’ll always be here for my kids. No matter how old you are.”

“As much as I want to, I can’t love someone when I fucking hate myself!”

Amid my dad’s and Dash’s sniveling, Rio says, “You made a mistake, but you were a kid who didn’t understand the repercussions. She was an older girl, so she does have more accountability in this. And as for falling in love with Kat? You can’t stop it, Jare. You do deserve her love, as she deserves yours. You’re miserable without each other.”

“I broke up with her. That’s why I left town early.”

Dash says, “Damn, Jericho. So you were together?” He laughs. “Rio and I knew you were. Shit. We knew you were in love with Kat. On the boardwalk, I saw you holding her hand. I nearly lost it.”

My dad says, “I suspected, but it wasn’t apparent until I saw you kissing at the construction.”

Rio smiles but makes no mention that he saw us on the boardwalk kissing, too.

I take off my hat and toss it onto the coffee table, anxiously running my hands through my hair. “She doesn’t want me. We had another argument earlier about her leaving, and I told her…” Numbly staring at the table remembering what I said, an unexpected sob chokes me. I feel disgraced that they’ve been a part of my deconstruction.

Dash says, “I heard.”

My dad asks, “Heard what?”

“Jesus,” I mutter behind my hand. I bow my head. “I told Kat I’d get her pregnant.”

Always the judicious one, Rio asks, “Just so she’ll stay? Jare, you can’t—”

Looking up at him, I reply, “It wasn’t some gimmick to get her to stay.”

My dad starts crying again, and I grind my teeth together, so I don’t, but it does nothing.

Rio asks, “How would that work? She’ll be moving to Virginia.”

I tearfully yell, “I know that, Rio! I don’t know how it’d work, but I’d make it work! But she keeps trying to find an escape! She doesn’t realize how… Fuck.” I rest my hand on my clasped hands. I’ve never cried so much in all of my despondent, fucking life. I thought I had turned off all my emotions. Shit. I suck at everything.

Dad says, “I didn’t know you and Kat were… that close yet.”

“We were.”

He sighs. “Oh, Christ.”

Dash says, “You need to tell Kat the truth about your feelings for her. Kat’s driving has suffered because she’s not interested in it anymore. She’s been missing classes.”

“She said her hours are done, but she didn’t mention about missing classes.” I shove a hand into my hair and lean my elbow onto the arm of the chair. “She’s so eager to distance herself from me. I don’t even blame her.”

Dash shifts, unable to sit still. “She has a whole school year left here. How will she avoid you?”

“I can’t force her to see me.”

Rio says, “She knows you don’t want a relationship with her.”

“But we’ve been in one! Why can’t she see that? She’s the one who has been pushing it onto me! I finally go with it, tell her she’s been my girlfriend, but she said we’re nothing!”

Rio asks, “Did you tell her, or did you just assume she knew?”

“I didn’t want to label what we were.”

Dash says, “Yeah, but anytime someone would ask if you’re dating, you’d instantly deny it. I can see where she got mixed signals. I think she was looking for those three words from you.”

I roll my eyes, and my dad says, “Yes, Jared. Be honest with her. Think about what it’ll be like without her again.”

Rubbing my forehead, I try to argue my case more, but I’m exhausted from denying it all, mostly to myself. Instead, I ask, “Can I please have some time alone? This has been no less than excruciating.” I stand. “Can I get my suitcase out of the car, or will Grandma call the cops?”

Dad smiles. “You’re okay.”

“I’d like to thank all of you for the hell you caused me tonight. If any of this is repeated outside this room, I will knock out all of your teeth with a crowbar, cut off your dick with a circular saw, and set you on fire.”

Dash’s mouth hangs open. “That’s a little too specific.”

“Call it a continuing daydream.”

When Rio walks over, he hugs me. “Don’t ever try to get rid of me again. I love you, Jare. And if you complain, I’ll knee you in the balls.”

I laugh, which feels good. “Jesus, Duquesne. I hate you.” I then whisper, “Thanks.”

“You and me. Dinner tomorrow. I’ll text you after work.”

I roll my eyes but relent. “Yeah.”

He slaps my shoulder and steps away as Dash throws his arms around me. “You don’t have to say it. I know you love me more than Rio.”

“Right. I’m still trying to figure out how to trade you in.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do without me.” That’s the scary truth.

Dad says, “I’ll meet you boys in the truck. Give me a minute.”

As they walk to the kitchen, I say, “And someone better put my damn car back.”

Dad smirks. “It didn’t go anywhere.”

“You fed me lies?”

“No. Grandma really would’ve called the cops.”

“How nice of her.”

Suddenly, Dad grabs me into a hug, his fingers digging into the back of my shirt. “I’m so proud of you, no matter what. I love you, Jared. Don’t you ever forget that. I’m always here for you.”

I nod over his shoulder. “I know that.”

He shakes, and I want to roll my eyes again, but I end up wiping them instead.

Goddamn it. I’ve turned into such a pussy.

Leaning against the wall of the building, I wait for Rio at our favorite restaurant, even though he’s been a dick the last two times we’ve been here. And late, as usual.

Last night, I went up to my room and collapsed on the bed, sleeping straight through until this morning. No thinking. No obsessing. No drinking. Just sleep.

I didn’t go to the construction today. Dash said Kat didn’t, either. Not surprised. I don’t know if I can go back there. I’m afraid she’ll see right through me. If she hasn’t totally given up on me.

I swept out the garage, washed the Nissan since I’m obviously done with it, and then traded it for my car, cleaning that, too. I then took off my dirty, wet shirt to shoot some hoops by myself. Anything to keep my mind busy and my attention away from my phone.

“Jared?” My eyes fly open.

Holy fuck. That voice.

Lifting my head from the wall, I see a certain blonde bitch, her obnoxious black shirt, and pants highlighting that.

I don’t bother hiding a scowl. “Jesus.”

She scans the porch and parking lot. “River told me to meet him here. He didn’t say you’d be here.”

“Well, River is getting his ass kicked.” I yank my phone out of my pocket and call him, but not surprisingly, he doesn’t answer. Self-righteous asshole.

“Fucking voicemail.”

Liberty punches at her phone screen. “He’s not answering me, either.”

As she says that I get a text from Diet Doctor Pussy himself. Don’t be too mad. No, you won’t be kicking my ass. No, Lib didn’t know about this. She can help. Just ask for it. Make peace with Lib. Pay for her dinner like the gentleman I know you are. Be nice, Jared.

Her phone also buzzes with a message, and as I shove mine back into my jeans, she warily looks up at me and sighs.

“Your boyfriend is officially on my shit list.”

“Yeah. Mine, too.”

“Well, I’m out of here.”

As I turn to leave, she says, “Jared, wait.” Sighing, I turn to glower at her. “He clearly went to some trouble getting us here. Maybe we should at least have dinner.”

I frown. “Are you serious?”

Liberty nods and not waiting for a further comment from me, she tucks her arm into mine, leading me into the restaurant. I want to push her off, but at this point, I don’t have the energy.

We’re led to a corner booth. Rolling my eyes, I take the seat across from her, needing this to be over as soon as possible. Nothing is said to each other until after our drinks are brought to the table.

She finally says, “We need to call a truce.”

I look up from my beer. “Why?”

“You’re asking that? River is your best friend and my boyfriend. He’s the common denominator between us. I’m not going anywhere, and I know that neither are you—not geographically speaking. You’ll always be a part of his life. I accept this, yet you don’t.”

I pull at my hat while watching the door, beyond ready to leave. “And I’ll agree with you.”

She pouts. “I’m making an effort here. Why can’t you?”

I sit back, crossing my arms. “I’ll order something and eat it. Effort.”

“Why do you hate me so much?”

“Hate is a strong word. Detest is better.”

She plays with her red fingernails. “What did I do to you?”

“You enjoy keeping Rio all to yourself. He can’t even have a life anymore, let alone friends.”

She raises her eyebrows. “That’s far from the truth! I encourage him to spend time with you and Dash! We see each other at work, so I do understand if he wants to get together with you two. I’m all for it if we don’t have plans.”

I contemplate that, but don’t say more, not in the mood to argue here again.

“Can we please, please get along? We both love River. It’s important to him that we are more than just civil. He’d like us to be friends.”

“I’m pretty sure he still believes in Santa Claus, too.”

“Jared, come on. Effort.”

“Will it get you to talk less?”

“Maybe.”

“Fine. Congratulations. We’re friends.”

She frowns. “I doubt it’s that easy getting the membership card.”

I shrug. “I just revoked Dash’s.”

“Jesus. I hope that’s a joke.”

I mockingly widen my eyes at her. “Call it whatever you want.” Grabbing ahold of my beer, I take a drink to avoid further comment.

Sipping her Sprite, she shifts in her seat. “Okay. Let’s talk. I like cats. Do you?” I narrow my eyes at her over my bottle. “I definitely take you for a cat person.”

Setting down my beer, I retort, “Nope. Allergic.”

She puts her elbows on the table, interlacing her fingers. “I need to know your thoughts about Kat.”

“The meowing kind?”

She sighs in exasperation. “No. The kind that you’ve been teaching how to drive.”

“Like Toonses?” I’d laugh if her snooping weren’t pissing me off.

“Oh, my God!” She does laugh. “No! You and Kat! Are you still friends?”

I look to the swordfish on the wall. I’d rather look at a dead fish than her. “Why?”

“You’re both my friends. Right?”

“You’re really abusing that membership.”

“I know she told you how she feels about you, and that you had a big fight.”

I lean forward, reaching for my wallet in my back pocket. “Not surprised she’d blab to you. Well, I’m not talking about this. I’m done here.”

“Oh, no. You’re not leaving.”

I glare at her as I toss my wallet onto the table. “Fucking watch me.” The bitch snatches it, and my eyes fly to her face. “What the hell?”

She slips my wallet into her purse. “Jared, I want to help you.”

In disbelief of her tenacity, I shake my head. “You just stole my damn wallet. What is it with people stealing my shit?”

She chooses to ignore me. “Let’s be honest here. I know you have feelings for Kat. You can’t fool anyone, except maybe Kat. You two are a perfect match. You’re both private to different degrees, cynical, and oblivious to each other’s feelings. You complement one another so well. Two peas in a pod. Yin and Yang. Where you leave off, she begins. That sort of thing.”

“Am I going to throw up my dinner before I even eat it?”

“What about when you start living in Philadelphia? Will you see her every weekend?” I answer her with a blank stare, but she keeps pushing. “Would you consider her to be your girlfriend?”

To get her to shut up, I finally but honestly concede, “Yes.”

“At the beach house, you wanted nothing to do with her being your girlfriend. That’s a change from the way you used to feel about that, isn’t it?”

Through my teeth, I reply, “Yeah.”

“That’s a huge step in the right direction.” She weirdly grins. “I think you’re doing great. We just have to get you two together, for good this time.”

“I’m done talking about this.”

“River did tell me you could use a female perspective.”

I scowl. “What the fuck? That boyfriend of yours is—”

She cheerfully finishes, “Pretty special, don’t you think?”

“Shit. If being a meddlesome know-it-all who spends his day digging around in indiscriminate pussy while spouting his psychobabble bullshit, then yeah. He wins that award.”

“You can be a real dick, Jerry.”

“I’ve heard that, Libby.”

She heavily sighs. “Do you want my help or not?”

“Your help? I’m just trying to make it through dinner without stabbing you in the throat with my fork.”

“I know what you’re all about. Trust me, and no, River hasn’t told me anything. I know what I see.”

“Uh-huh.” I pick up my bottle and take a swig, plotting Rio’s painful death.

“You have no idea what the hell you’re doing with Kat. You want her. So much that it’s ripping you to shreds bit by bit, yet you won’t do a damn thing about it. You were suffering in silence, but now it’s spilling over to everyone else. You won’t stop her from leaving because you’re apprehensive of baring your soul to her and not being worthy of her love. You want to love her, but you don’t know how. You’re scared she won’t love you back.” She grins at my horror. “Did I get that right?”

In an astonished daze, I lower my beer. “Goddamn it.”

“That’s what I thought. Now, do you want my fucking help or not?”

I idly scratch my ragged beard. “Christ. Why do I feel like I’m making a deal with Satan?”

Her blue eyes sweep over me. “Because from the way you look, you’re already in hell.”

Sighing, I numbly admit, “I am.”

“Good. You’ve finally hit rock bottom. Welcome, Jared. I’m your angel of mercy. Where would you like to start?”

Knowing I’m making a deal with the Devil, I nod. “I know exactly where.”

Reaching over, she grabs my hand. “Perfect. Let’s do this.”

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