The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 5

Kat

“Nice to meet you.”

“What’s your last name?”

Could he have twisted the knife into my heart any further by uttering those cutting words to me?

Having Jared walk back into my life is either a blessing or a curse. In school, he was hot, but now, he’s undeniably smoking hot. Though he’s broader with an indescribable wariness about him, his hair is still a warm caramel, and his eyes are the same cool mix of green and hazel. They’re spellbinding.

Yet, looking into Jared Beckett’s blank stare when I saw him at my mom’s for the first time, genuinely not recognizing me, I took off before I broke down in front of him.

I can’t forget how he forgot me.

Love is something I’ve never been good at or have possessed much luck. I’ve had two boyfriends and a handful of crushes from afar. Well, almost all of them were from a distance. Years ago, I thought Jared and I were friends. I had wanted more, but he didn’t. He only liked teasing me with the possibility before yanking it out of my reach.

I should go back to the beginning.

My name is Katriona Elyse Merrick. Kat.

Or as Jared Beckett used to call me, Kit Kat.

Jared and I went to high school together. During my sophomore year, which was his junior year, we took driver’s education class together that was offered after school three times a week for a semester. The class was split up, and we would rotate practicing things like parking, driving around cones, and backing into a parking space in the school’s parking lot, while others would spend an hour in a classroom.

When we were practicing in the lot, we each were paired with a partner. They wanted us to practice driving with someone who could distract us but in a safer setting instead of throwing us out onto the street with distractions. I was paired with Jared often.

The first two weeks was classroom instruction to become familiarized with the laws of the road, and the basics of operating a motor vehicle. Jared and I each sat in the second chair, a row apart. Helena Keiser sat between us since we were seated alphabetically. One day during the second week, Helena caught Jared smiling at me as I casually caught his eye. She thought it was some kind of significant moment, I guess, because she remarked that we would look cute together, and Jared should ask me out on a date. I was so horrified she put him in that awkward situation. I wasn’t anyone in my school. I didn’t play any sports. I wasn’t a cheerleader, in any high-profile clubs, or the band. I wasn’t popular or even known for being one of the extremely smart kids. I wasn’t a burnout, a dropout, or put out. I did my work, was a good student, and had a handful of friends, but there wasn’t anything that singled me out.

In contrast, Jared was a varsity football player—wide receiver, to be exact. I knew that because after Helena’s comment, I looked him up in my previous yearbooks and school newsletters. I even stopped by the team picture hanging outside the gym doors, which listed their names and positions. Since I wasn’t into football or into who’s who in school, I had known nothing about him.

After I knew who he was, that’s when I started hearing his name more. The more I heard his name, the more awkward I felt that Helena suggested he ask me out. Jared Beckett was popular, but not massively so, casually finding out from friends of friends’ intel on him that he mostly kept to himself.

After Helena’s bold proposition, things immediately became different. Jared and I were paired together in a car for parking lot work. At first, he teased me about how far I’d have to pull up the seat compared to him, how serious I looked when I concentrated on not running over cones, and how I forgot where the turn signal was. Jared had also started calling me Kit Kat. I’d roll my eyes at him, but his smile riveted me, and his laugh was infectious.

We’d started talking more, too. We talked about our favorite TV shows, hobbies, and what we wanted to do with our lives. Then just as quick as the initial teasing started, it took an unforeseen turn, and Jared found reasons to touch me. Whether it was to get a closer look at my earrings or my rings or to playfully rub my shoulder and neck. He was definitely not paying attention to how I was driving, which made me not pay attention to how I was driving.

Oddly, it became nearly a given we’d be partners. He’d take me by the arm, leading me to a car before I had the chance to pick someone else. Each time in the car with him, he became braver. Once, I wore ripped jeans, and as I looked to the left, Jared touched the fringes on my knee, slowly grazing his fingers over my skin. Shocked, I quickly looked back at his soft smile and persistent gaze as his fingers continued to trace my knee. I had never experienced goosebumps so fast in my life. Turning to look over my shoulder as I backed into a space, the car became almost intimate. His head leaned toward me more, closer each time I had to look behind me. My nerves were buzzing, and I had a hard time concentrating. When he closely whispered, “I really like your perfume,” I gasped a thank you to the back window before the car shook to a hard stop, nearly running us over the curb.

When it was Jared’s turn to drive, I teasingly squeezed his arm and tickled his neck as repayment. Even so, nothing seemed to bother him. He was a good driver, but he apparently didn’t have to focus as much as I did. He had more fun with it, especially when the instructor wasn’t watching. Though, all three of the instructors had told him to slow down on more than one occasion. Because of that, I came up with a nickname of my own for him, referring to his driving style that made him laugh. Jared was unflappable, that is, until the moment I patted his leg, returning the favor. He practically jumped out of the driver’s seat. The dazed look on his face was funny, but he didn’t laugh with me.

About two weeks later, his flirting escalated even further.

“When’re we going out?”

I laughed in disbelief. “Whenever you want to go.”

I thought maybe Helena’s teasing was carrying over from the classroom to the car, so I played along with him. I tried acting nonchalant, yet was anything but. I was floored.

It ended up turning into a weekly thing. Jared even asked for my phone number at one point, but neither of us made a move to make plans. It was bizarre. I didn’t know how else to handle the odd state of play I found us to be in. His picking up my hand to look at my ring turned into him, briefly winding his fingers with mine. His eyes said something more. Something he couldn’t, maybe. Although I knew he didn’t really want to go out with me, the affectionate closeness that was occurring between us felt… real… like he wasn’t putting on a show since we were alone in the car and had no audience.

I didn’t question him about it, afraid of bursting the bubble I had built around us in my head and heart. The cars were the only places we could quietly get to know each other, even if we didn’t talk about what was happening between us. Though he didn’t say it or follow-through, I swear I didn’t imagine he wanted more.

Regardless, I couldn’t fathom why he’d want anything more from me. I lamely sat by the phone every night, yelling at anyone who talked more than five minutes, call-waiting be damned. After a week of sitting by the phone, I was positive he really wasn’t serious. So, I proceeded as such.

Nevertheless, all that fell apart when Jared stopped by my locker on the way to his class.

“Kit Kat, are you coming to the game Friday?”

“I might. Why?”

“Watch me play. I’ll score you a touchdown.”

“You will?” His grin matched mine as he nodded. “I’ll be watching you, then.”

“Then, I’ll be watching for you.”

I had gone to the game, but number fifty-five didn’t score a touchdown. I watched Jared nearly every second I could but didn’t see him once look into the stands.

Confusion flooded me again the day he sat down next to me on a bench outside of school, waiting for our instructors to arrive.

“If I brought you my spare football jersey, would you wear it Friday?”

I laughed, but he didn’t, so I swiftly sobered. “Um, are you serious?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

“Why would you ask me to wear it?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Nervously, I said, “Okay, I’ll wear it.” His smile was immediate and so bright.

Friday morning came, but Jared didn’t stop by my locker or give me his jersey. I would’ve worn it, but apparently, he wasn’t as serious as he claimed to be.

Our driver’s ed. class was finished by winter break, and I became depressed. Every day, I’d wait for Jared to call me, but he didn’t, and since our class was officially over, I thought his association with me was over, too.

One Saturday, over break, I was riding with my grandmother to get groceries. On the way home, out of the blue, she pulled over and told me to drive. At first, I protested, but she laughed and got out of the car, telling me not to overthink it. I still hadn’t gotten my driver’s license since class had finished, so I was only driving with a permit. I reluctantly got behind the wheel. Pulling back onto the road, I drove for about two miles when an oncoming car crossed the center line into my lane, hitting us head-on. My grandmother was killed instantly. I don’t remember anything after the impact. I sustained a fractured skull, a broken neck, broken nose, broken left arm, fractured ribs, and my right lung collapsed. I was put into a medically induced coma for over a month due to brain swelling. The nightmares I had while I was under were like a never-ending horror movie and stayed with me for months afterward.

Not many people came to visit me from school during my long hospital stay, making me realize how little I meant to Jared after all.

I was finally allowed to return to school two months later. I had been in the hospital for Christmas and New Year’s. That didn’t matter. I didn’t have my grandmother, and I was the reason for that.

Since the accident, I’ve been left with motor glitches such as a Swiss-cheese memory, a lapse in speech at times, and often have trouble writing down something. My problem isn’t physiological, but a mental block that won’t let me carry out a task for several seconds. Either stemming from the accident or the anesthesia drugs, the doctors had said it may pass, but it has yet to.

When Jared saw me my first day back to school, he stopped to ask me how I was doing in front of my friends, who still thought our status quo was weird. Although I was hurt he hadn’t visited me in the hospital or at home, I was glad he was still acknowledging me. Just like driver’s ed. the previous semester, we fell into a routine of knowing where each other would be at certain times of the day. He also seemed not to be able to keep his hands off me again. He was always putting his arm around me, rubbing the nape of my neck, playing with my hair, or landing his Colts cap onto my head. My friends were flabbergasted. Jared and I were in the peculiar situation we were in months before. It was like we were facing off, neither willing to budge to move things forward for us. Or maybe I was delusional, thinking he wanted to move anything forward.

Following an empty summer, when I was a junior and Jared was a senior, we once again passed each other, often going to class. I was frustrated we were back to the same, bland greetings in the halls the first week.

We were friends if I could really call us that. Jared didn’t ask me out again, but he did stop me on my way to class, wanting to know my plans for the first dance of the school year, and if I’d save him a dance. Saturday came, but once there, he danced with other girls. We caught each other’s eye most of the night, but he never asked me to dance. So maddening. It was as if he was taunting me. I’m forever baffled by his actions and non-actions.

The most significant blow yet came the week after the dance when I saw one of the girls Jared had danced with wearing his number fifty-five jersey on game day Friday. I was heartbroken. I ran into the nearest restroom, hyperventilating or near death. Whichever one it was seared my heart and tore out my stomach. I was praying it was death, and I had already been at that particular door.

The following weeks, I was cold to Jared. Upon my entering the gym for a school assembly, he came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist, and put his chin on my shoulder. His lips were so close, and his breath bathed my cheek. His musky cologne clouded my thoughts. I anxiously mumbled a hello, careful not to touch his arms clasped around me and kept talking to my wide-eyed friends. If he had a girlfriend, I wasn’t encouraging him to touch me anymore.

I also started taking a new route to my two classes, where I usually ran into him. Evidently noticing a change, three or four days later, Jared cornered me in the hallway where our classrooms were next door to each other. Apparently, he caught on to what I was doing and waited for me, making us both late to class.

“What’s wrong, Kit Kat?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“We used to talk, but now we don’t.”

“We’re not in the same class anymore.”

“That can’t be the real reason. Are you mad at me?”

“No.”

“Why are you avoiding me, then?”

“I’m not.”

“Did I do something?”

“No. We’re going to be late for class.”

His face was inches from mine, and people were scurrying past us to class. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I desperately wanted to ask him about the girl wearing his jersey, but I didn’t want to hear him admit to having a girlfriend that wasn’t me.

He had stepped back and let me escape, but another incident was soon to follow.

I began walking around the halls at lunch with my friends, one of whom was a boy. Jared had a different lunch hour, so I was surprised when I saw him in the hall during my lunch. We didn’t say anything to each other, but the irritated look on his face said plenty. Later that afternoon, between classes, he grabbed my arm, dragging me to the side.

“Is that guy your boyfriend?”

“What guy?”

“The one you were walking around with earlier?”

“No. Why?”

He relaxed. “I just wanted to know.”

Jared said nothing more, leaving me utterly confounded.

The school year was long and tedious, filled with teasing and frustration.

A week before his graduation, Jared cornered me one last time.

“Will you miss me, Kit Kat?”

“Yes.”

“Will you think about me?”

I couldn’t lie. “Every day.”

He grinned. “I promise I’ll call you in a few days.”

My own smile was unanticipated. “Okay.”

Jared graduated and moved away to college, never calling me. I thought I had fallen in love with Jared, but he left. I had meant nothing to him.

I went on to college and became a teacher. A year after graduation, one of my coworkers set me up on a blind date with a lawyer. Jed and I dated for eight months when one day, he brought up marriage, and we just decided to do it at the courthouse. I wanted to finally erase Jared from my heart, but even Jed’s name reminded me of Jared’s, so it was impossible. We managed to stay married two years, but when his job transferred him to California, neither of us was too upset when I decided not to go. It should be more complicated and emotional than that, but it wasn’t, which is probably even sadder in itself.

I never did get my driver’s license. I’m still petrified. Jed tolerated me because he only had to drive me to the bus stop. Now, I rely on my mother to carpool in the mornings. My dad refuses to drive me anywhere, still. My mom seems to sympathize with me, or maybe she just doesn’t want me on the road since I killed her mother.

That haunts me every single day.

I had Jared Beckett in the palm of my hand, but I let him slip through my fingers. I stupidly failed to close my hand to keep him from blowing away. That is the saddest part of it all. I let him go before I even let him in. Why did he tease me? I had so many questions that still remain unanswered. He’s my what could’ve been. But it’s more like he’s my what never will be.

Until Jared reappeared.

At my mom’s construction, I had overheard Adam mentioning to Jared about going to the races. He’s not wearing a wedding ring, but since he’s an engineer and is doing construction for my mother, it’s only logical that he wouldn’t be wearing one. I found out for sure from my mom that he isn’t married. I just don’t know if he’s dating anyone.

When I got to Spa Creek Bridge, I saw an old friend of mine, Dash Calder. We met at Bowie State University in an early elementary education class. From there, we found out we had gone to the same high school. He was just a year ahead of me. I didn’t ask Dash if he knew Jared. Why brutalize myself with stories about him living his life and having a great time doing it?

Dash and I became well-acquainted. We even partnered up often for class projects. Dash is such a sweet person, very friendly to everybody, willing to help anyone, and he always had admirers around him. We’ve stayed in touch by email, and I’ve seen him around Annapolis a few times over the years through our schools’ interactions.

Standing here now, looking up at Jared years later, is something I never thought would happen.

“Jericho, this’s Kat Merrick.” Jericho?

I wait for Jared to say something, but his jaw appears to be unhinged and nearly hitting the bridge.

With a broad smile for me, Dash says, “Kat, this is my best friend, Jared Beckett.” Best friend? For how long? Since high school? It figures that Dash Calder’s best friend is Jared Beckett. What a small, damn world.

“We know each other.” My smile grows as I witness Jared’s unanticipated and swift unraveling.

Jared’s greenish-hazel eyes blaze from me to Dash. His mouth closes with a loud snap of his teeth. Is he angry at Dash for knowing me?

Most likely, he’s pissed about the salt I dumped into his coffee.

Juvenile, but it made me feel better.

For a minute.

Jared’s eyes fly over me with recognition anew. I haven’t changed that much. Slightly different nose, contacts, some purple in my hair, and boobs.

Oh, and telling him my married name. Yeah, I did that, too.

Jared opens his mouth to talk but then shuts it again. While adjusting his Colts cap, he looks over the side of the bridge, out to the sailboats. With the harbor breeze whipping into a frenzy, his throat muscles tighten several times, and his chest heaves weighty breaths before his tense gaze finds mine once more.

What happened to him during these past twelve years?

Why does he seem so perturbed with me?

What the hell is wrong with Jared Beckett?

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