Chapter 14-The River Denial
“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
Maddie and I were at Pedro’s for lunch. It was Wednesday, and the week had been hectic. Schoolwork was piling up like crazy as teacher’s prepared for Thanksgiving break and its anti-academic aftermath. My study group for Econ was already experiencing the symptoms of pre-Turkey Day, including procrastination, disinclination to do the simplest of tasks, and an obsession with stuffing recipes.
“We’re not here only for the decadence of Pedro’s Grande burritos.”
“I wish we were,” Maddie lamented.
I pursed my lips.
She sighed. “Fine. I knew this would happen
eventually. Fire away.”
“How long have you liked Raven?”
Maddie fiddled with a strand of her golden hair.
“Since the first time you two went to the lounge.” At my confused expression, she elaborated. “Remember? You bought Poe, and I was terrified of him after he went through my underwear drawer? I still am, actually.”
The light bulb switched on. “Oh yeah.” The interrogation on my virginity and the stern warning day. “Wow, that was fast.”
Maddie stared out the window. “She’s Raven, you know? Spunky, spontaneous, passionate…rule number one is to never fall for a straight girl, but Raven knocked me off my feet, and I can’t seem to get my balance back.”
Shawna appeared with our food, halting Maddie’s confession. She placed them on the table with her usual dourness and left without a word. Meanwhile, my brain was scrambling to reconcile what Maddie was saying with all the time we’d spent with Raven. Every interaction was under evaluation.
I took a fortifying sip of soda while Maddie continued. Her shoulders relaxed with each sentence, like an enormous weight was being lifted. “I’m not stupid enough to tell her how I feel, for a million different reasons. She’s head over heels for Jesse, she’s straight, and she’s my friend. Doing anything would be selfish and doomed.”
I opened my mouth, hoping some kind of profound advice would pour forth. Instead, my only remark was, “That sucks donkey balls.”
We ate in silence for a while, both mulling over her confession.
“Let’s talk about you.”
“Not much to talk about.” I squirmed in my seat. “Uh-uh,” Maddie snorted, unconvinced. “How’re things with Landon?”
I twirled my finger on the condensation melting on my shake. “They’re fine. We’ve texted a few times, but he’s been really busy. We’re meeting up tonight to work on the project.”
“Did you guys have a chance to talk in Psych?”
I was reaching the bottom of my shake. “Not really. Garfield has us working with different people each day and watching weird clips.”
I did not trust that sound.
Thankfully, Shawna showed up with our bill, and I wanted to kiss her frowning forehead with gratitude. “Let me get this one,” I told Maddie, waving aside her protest. “I made you spill the beans, so let me pay for the ones you ate.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “You’re so lame. But thank you.”
“That was funny!” I protested.
“Anyway,” Maddie interjected. “There’s this party my friend Gabe is hosting on Friday at Grimm’s. He’s renting the place out and everything. Would you and Raven like to come?”
“Umm…I don’t know. Raven will be up for it.”
Maddie pinned me with a glare. “I want you to come too. I know for a fact you have nothing else going on that day.”
“Nuh-uh! I had plans to paint my toenails this cool new silvery color, read a little, catch up on my shows, and put something on Poe’s tail and watch him go crazy.”
“Sophia,” Maddie groaned, rubbing her temples. “That’s what you do every Saturday. It’s November and you’re a college freshman. Cut loose and live a little.”
Shawna returned with my credit card and gave us the signature ‘leave-now’ look waitresses have sole mastery of.
“Fine,” I gave in, frowning at Maddie’s celebratory fist pump. “Raven’s going to pee herself with excitement.”
Landon was late.
I shivered, pulling the collar of my huge coat up to cover my cheeks. Lexi would have hated it here. She was a sun in the fun kind of girl, the kind you see in the sunscreen ads with their hair billowing behind them and an impossibly perfect tan. Maryland’s winters would have absolutely wiped her.
Determined to return some warmth to my suspiciously numb appendages, I stood and paced. After a few minutes, I found myself closer to the lagoon than I’d ever been before. My reflection trembled at me from the ground.
Shuffling closer, I missed the slick patch of grass a few inches in front of me. My arms pin wheeled as I started falling towards the water, and a bloodcurdling scream clawed its way from my throat.
An arm went around my waist and I was jerked back into a blissfully solid chest. My chest heaved, and the wildeyed girl in my reflection mocked my cowardice. “Sophia! Sophia, it’s okay. Breathe, just…breathe,” Landon’s voice in my ear slowly worked its way down my system, until I was calm and very embarrassed.
“Is there any way we could go back so you won’t have seen that?” I sighed, defeated.
Landon dropped his arm, and I turned to find him watching me closely.
“No, but there is a way you can explain why you just screamed like you were about to be axe-murdered,” Landon suggested.
Damn, he hadn’t gone temporarily deaf.
“Don’t make fun of me.”
Landon paused, and his brow furrowed in intense concentration. He slowly shook his head. “I’m afraid I can make no such promise. You will be the judge of the amount of ridicule you receive.”
Snickering, I went to resume my seat on the blanket
I’d spread over the grass. Landon sat beside me, close enough that I could brush against him without being obvious, but not close enough for me to get nervous and start reciting the Dewey Decimal System.
“I’ve always been deathly afraid of water,” I confessed, gazing at the twinkling stars. “Bodies of water, you know, beaches and oceans and stuff. They just…freak me out.”
“I don’t know, honestly. You never know what’s happening under there. You can’t breathe, you can’t see, you can’t hear. It’s like being suspended in time in an alternate universe. Who’s to say your reflection is really you? Maybe it’s me as a mermaid, and I’m bloodthirsty and vicious. Maybe Mermaid Sophia is just waiting for me to go into the water so she can switch places and send me back to her terrible merman father.”
“Your imagination is a terrifying thing.” Landon hesitated. “You must have hated California.”
“I love Cali. It’s not all beaches, despite popular opinion. I rarely went to the beach, not unless my friends were set on it. We had a pool, but I never went in. My family stopped asking after a while.”
“So does that mean you’d be really pissed if I threw you into a pool as a prank?”
I shot him a glare. “Only if you’d be pissed waking up a eunuch.”
“You sure do spend a lot of time thinking about my-
“I’m going to stop you right there,” I spoke loudly and held a hand towards his face to make my point. “We will not be discussing any nether regions in our study session. Instead, how about I ask why you were late?”
“Shift at Grimm ran longer than expected. Why? Did you think I wouldn’t show up?”
I scoffed, waving the notion aside as if it was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard. “Puh-lease. What’s better than a psychology study session? Partying, dancing, socializing?”
He looked amused. “I was just going to sleep.”
“Also unnecessary. That’s what math classes are for.”
Landon chuckled and tucked his arms behind his neck, fixing his gaze on the stars. “So what fresh hell are we tackling today?”
Taking a few minutes to adjust myself so I was facing him and sitting Indian style, I glanced down at my clipboard.
Denial of Addiction-Forms and Points of Progress
I tapped the pen restlessly against my knees and read it aloud to Landon. He exhaled deeply. “Alright, start us off, buttercup. How do you think people deny addiction?”
The words on the paper were waiting for me to speak. Taunting me.
“Sophia, I’ve spoken to your parents about this. They also worry that you’re not absorbing your sister’s death as you should be. You are in denial.”
Taking a deep breath, I tried to focus my mind on the here and now. “Um, let’s see. Denial of addiction…people can deny addiction by telling themselves they can stop whenever they want to.”
Landon’s eyes drifted to the stars. “Addicts try to give themselves power they’ve already handed over to someone or something else.”
I quickly wrote as I thought. “They also try to set time goals, like ‘Oh, I’ll stop during New Years’ or ‘When I get a job, I’ll stop’. It doesn’t work though, because the will needed to stop doesn’t just magically grow based on an event or a date.”
Landon studied me. “Yes. It’s a sort of comfort, also in the vein of self-appointed power. If you can set an expiration date on it, then you don’t have to worry about overcoming it. You procrastinate.”
My pen was tapping faster against my knee as ideas flowed in waves. “But obviously, the worst denial is that you don’t have a problem to begin with. Some people just get so…so used to living with the crushing guilt and the unpredictability of their addiction that they stop trying. We shrug and say everybody has indulgences that makes their day a little easier, or their mind an easier place to be.”
“We?” Landon shifted so he was directly in my line of vision, instead of the trees I’d been addressing.
“Them.” I cleared my throat and stared at the
clipboard. “I meant them.”
Landon looked like he wanted to say something, but held back. I spoke quickly. “So, ah, those are the forms. How about points of progress? We’re supposed to…” my voice trailed off as I read what I’d written while hastily preparing the outline. “We’re supposed to relate it to personal experience.”
I looked at Landon hopefully, but he shook his head.
“Your turn,” he murmured.
Turning slightly so I could see the lights in the sky, twinkling merrily against the inky night sky, I tried to ground myself into reality. To dig my heels into the present instead of getting dragged into the murky depth of the past.
“Points of progress…admitting you have an addiction, seeking help, telling a loved one. Um, accepting treatment, and planning for the future.”
“About covers it,” Landon agreed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, and I saw the exhaustion he was valiantly trying to hide. His eyes fluttered shut, the sooty lashes in sharp contrast against his pale complexion.
“Thanks again for coming, Landon. I know how hectic everything is for you, and I…well, I just appreciate it.”
He lifted the corner of his mouth into a half smile. “I know, I put the ‘group’ in ‘group project’. You should just tell Garfield that I did everything. Honest thing to do.”
“Don’t push it,” I warned.
“Now I have a High School Musical song stuck in my head. Thanks. Not like I was trying to blot out the memories of that part of my childhood.”
“Push it, push it, to the limit, limit!” I sang. “Wait a minute. That’s not from High School Musical, isn’t it fromDude!”
Landon blinked innocently. “What?”
“Stop distracting me!”
He shrugged, and his expression settled into something more serious. “You just seemed like you needed a break from your own thoughts for a minute.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. He was right. The pen in my hand was still, and the ball of tension in my chest had eased slightly.
He was making a habit out of leaving me speechless and flustered. I was out of words.
My thank you came in the form of my confession.
“I had a twin sister.”
I felt Landon still, but didn’t look up from my clipboard. I gripped the pen tightly in my hands.
Stay in the present, Sophia. Don’t look back. Don’t. Look. Back.
“Yeah, had. She died about a year and a half ago. Leukemia.”
I waited for the usual barrage of ’I’m sorry…it must have been so hard…so young, so tragic.’
Only, Landon didn’t do any of that. He lifted the pencil and extracted it from my locked fist. “Remember, pencils are friends, not weapons.”
He didn’t let go of my hand.
I took a shaky breath. “Friends, not weapons. Got it.
You’re probably wondering what Lexi-that’s her name- has to do with addiction. The thing is, addiction is an unhealthy attachment or type of self-harm.”
This time, I locked eyes with Landon. “I never really moved past my sister’s death. I’m not sure what that means, or its true. Letting Lexi go would be like telling one of my vital organs to stop functioning. I don’t know how. I can’t.”
A cold sweat was working its way over my body, and my mind was like the ocean at sunset, trying to drag me under buried memories. My teachers’ constant calls to my parents, the guidance counselor dragging me into her office when my grades began to crash, the pitying stares of my classmates…
Landon took the clipboard from my hands and cast it aside. “Hey!” I protested, but he was having none of it. Using his hold on my hand, he tugged me into him, the impact of his body slamming the air from my chest. My arms found their place around his neck, and I rested my chin against his solid shoulder. Landon’s hand tangled in my hair, holding me tight. Did he think I would try to escape?
A minute later, he eased us apart and pulled me down to the grass. We laid side-by-side on our backs, and I struggled not to give in to the impulse demanding I crawl onto Landon and trace every inch of him with my tongue.
“I think we’ve got enough bullet points for tonight,” he announced.
“If you say so.”
“Now tell me about Lexi.”
The sarcastic comment I’d been about to make about his bossiness died on my lips. “What?”
“I want to hear about your twin. Two Sophia Michaels out there? How did California manage?”
Talk about Lexi? I hadn’t spoken to anyone about her since Dr. Beck, and that was a year ago. Most people who asked how I felt weren’t really interested in an honest answer, they were simply driven by the human interest in all things morbid.
So simply talking about Lexi Michaels was a foreign concept.
I took a deep breath and tried to release my anxiety.
“How to describe Lexi…we were fraternal twins, so we didn’t look like carbon copies of each other. Actually, most people who met us were surprised to find out we were sisters. Lexi was bright and social, always throwing herself into group activities, sports, friends. There was nothing she didn’t try to tackle. I, on the other hand, was not a fan of high school.”
“Oh no, don’t tell me you were the sister that has to be dragged to every event,” Landon chided.
“Unfortunately, I was. Lexi was always trying to bring me into her circle of pals. Even though I’m older by seven minutes, she was always protecting me with the rabid ferocity of a Pitbull on crack. She was respectful and kind until you did something wrong-then she had an arctic cold shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. I remember this one time, we were home alone on a Friday night, and I was trying to bake when she decided to put cinnamon in everything. Except she didn’t realize Mom had switched some of the labels on the spices. You should have seen our parents when they tried my muffins…”
My animation and liveliness increased the more I talked about her, and Landon listened. Exhausted, busy, and sleep-deprived Landon chose to lay beside me in the freezing cold and listen to stories about my sister.
And for once, the stars didn’t feel so far away