Resisting Gravity

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Chapter 26- A Shot of Oblivion

“And all of a sudden, I felt really tired. Like the world had drained me for everything I had.”

-(bgt) Unknown

Landon

The spot wouldn’t come off the counter.

Scrubbing even harder, I focused all my energy on removing that one…fucking…spot.

“Lan!” Doug eyeballed me from where he was setting up extra tables for the Saturday night rush. “It’s okay, that blotch has been there longer than I have.”

“Ugh,” I grunted, throwing the rag into the bucket. Of course. Why would something go right for once? It was against cosmic law.

Kylie and Brent shared a glance and continued their work. They’d been studiously avoiding me and my foul mood for the last few days. I wanted to care, but I didn’t.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, but I didn’t glance at it. Undoubtedly it would be Jesse, checking to make sure I hadn’t lit the joint on fire. Would be poetic, actually.

“Is the fridge stocked?” Doug checked. I nodded, and he rounded the corner to his office.

People started trickling in. I prepared drinks quickly, hoping someone asked for something complicated as opposed to beer. I desperately needed the distraction. Girls lined the counters, but I found myself unable to plaster the usual charming smile or perform the song and dance I usually did for tips. Most of the night passed in a blur. I worked tirelessly, would’ve gone right through my break if it wouldn’t have prevented Kylie and Brent from taking theirs. Fifteen minutes of idleness didn’t pass peacefully. My mind agonized over every detail of the demise of my relationship with…her. Whether there were any signs that could have warned me how close she was to the edge.

“Is she more important than me? Is she more important than you?”

My hands formed a fist around the table. I rubbed my temples, forcing the cloud of anger and guilt to the backburner. The second my break was over, I jumped back to the counter and tried to lose myself in my work.

The rush peaked at midnight, stemming the tide of fun-seeking college students. I was washing dishes when I heard a throat clear behind me.

I turned and was disappointed to see dark eyes watching my every move. “What do you want?” I bit, scrubbing a mug with more force than necessary.

Naomi shifted on her barstool. “Just wanted to see how you were doing. You haven’t been Mr. Social Butterfly the last few days.”

“That’s because I don’t want to talk to you. Ever. But I have no other choice, because you have the self-control of an infant.”

She sighed. “Is this because of what happened at the house party Thursday?”

I froze. “You remember?”

“I wasn’t sure if it was real or a weird trip, but yeah. I heard and saw most of it. She went nutso on you for coming to help me. Pretty selfish, if you ask me.”

The mug handle snapped off in my hand. I tossed it quickly into the bin and spun to place my palms flat on the counter in front of Naomi. She startled, recoiling from the waves of fury rolling off me. “She had every reason to react the way she did. You don’t have any ground to judge her. You’re nothing like Sophia.”

Naomi held her hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“Woah, calm down. All I said was she a little harsh.” She slid her hand down my forearm. “Giving you up shouldn’t have been that easy.”

I yanked my arm away. “Just stop talking. Or leave.”

Kylie and Brent popped up next to the counter.

They’d changed into thick coats and were glancing warily at

Naomi. “We’re going to head out; you need anything?” Brent asked.

Surprised, I glanced at my watch. It was already one a.m. The night had flown by. “Nah, I’m good. See you guys.”

They left, and I was alone with Naomi. “The bar is closed,” I said, drying the glasses. “You should go.”

She pouted. “Why do you keep trying to get rid of me? It’s not my fault your girlfriend dumped you.”

Giving her my back, I listened to the soft music playing overhead and cleaned, doing my best to ignore her. Unfortunately, my mind had decided it would rather be restless and tormented.

“I’m done.”

“I’m done being your second choice.”

I rubbed my chest absently. As if she would ever be my second choice. She was everything. Turning away from her had taken a lot out of me…and in the end, it taken it a lot from me too.

I’d called her at least a thousand times between then and now. But I hadn’t gotten a single sign from her. All I knew was that her cat was home and that she wasn’t really talking to anyone. Typical. She repressed and repressed until she exploded.

“Aren’t you going to top me off?” Naomi raised her empty glass and arched a brow. “I’m parched and way too sober right now.”

I didn’t bother with a response.

She groaned, fiddling with the edges of her frayed shorts. “C’mon, Lan. Let’s have a drink together. You need to get out of your headspace for a little while and loosen up.”

I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol since that night, and Naomi knew it. “Why the hell would I do that?”

She gestured around us. “Nobody’s here! It’s just you and me. We can get shitfaced and stay here till it wears off. No harm done. But you get a break from mooning over your ex and I get a break from having to deal with it.”

My jaw clenched. I wasn’t going to lie and say I hadn’t been tempted to numb this misery in the easiest way I knew how. But the memory of last time I’d lost control haunted my every moment. Hell, the only reason I was in this mess was because I couldn’t let go.

“You do enough drinking for the both of us.”

Naomi released a mini-shriek. “Why are you so fucking stubborn? I’m not going to rip your clothes off and molest you, okay? I care about you, hard as it is for you to believe. Seeing you in this much pain isn’t fun. So please, just listen to me for once.”

She rose from her stool and rounded the edge of the bar. She clinked through the bottles until she came up with two beer cans and set them on the counter. Resuming her seat, she popped the tab and took a long sip. “Ah, that hits the spot.”

Before I knew what I was doing, I’d turned towards

her and braced my hands on the counter. I stared at the bottle.

So innocuously deadly.

“How long are you going to hate yourself this much?”

I popped the tab and raised the can to my lips.

“Me and you, this relationship, it’s over. I want no part of this-this sickness.”

And for the first time in a long time, I drowned my troubles.

Naomi was curled on the floor, laughing hysterically. “My nose is so weird. Like I have two breathing holes.

What’s the rest of it for? Why don’t we just have holes in our faces? It would save space!”

I watched her and popped open my fourth can. The world had started to tilt and whirl around my third drink. Apparently staying sober for a few years really screwed up my tolerance.

“You should have seen the look in her eyes,” I mused. “Like flashing thunderclouds. So betrayed, so vulnerable. And I did that to her. I knew exactly how she would feel.”

I laughed. “But what can I do? You’re a mistake I can’t ever forget!”

Kicking over a chair, Naomi struggled to her feet. A long strand of hair was stuck to her cheek, and she was going insane trying to blow it off. “Excuse me, you’re not the only one who has to deal with Rex’s death. If it wasn’t for me banging you, he’d still be alive.” She took a long swig and tottered on her feet. “I knew the dumb fuck had a temper and would try to fight you if he found out. But how was I supposed to know what would happen? How?”

She shook my shoulders, and we both wobbled. “And then you tried to kill yourself. Also because of me!” She giggled. “I’m like a one-woman poison. Everything I touch dies.”

I bit my finger contemplatively. “Do you think she even cares right now?”

“I knew better than to fall in love,” I chuckled. “Look at my track record with women. My mother, you…I’m a real Romeo. And now Sophia won’t even call me back.”

Standing, I threw my arms wide and spun in a circle.

“I love her so much it hurts, and she won’t even bother calling me back.”

Naomi twirled around the dance floor, beer sloshing around the can in her hand. “Why do you like her so much? She always looks like she got caught with her hand in the cookie jar whenever I see her. And she’s pretty, but she’s not all that.”

I chuckled, tripping and using the wall to steady myself. I stared at my leather wristbands. “That’s her ‘fightor-flight’ face. Sophia likes to cocoon herself in safety, and anything that tests her emotions isn’t something she wants to deal with. As for the pretty…she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

Sliding down the wall, I sprawled across the floor and rested my flushed cheek against the cool linoleum.

Naomi dropped to the ground and started playing with my hair. “You’re so damn dramatic. Who knew that when the mighty, holier-than-thou Landon Sinclair fell, he’d fall so hard? I feel cheated. You haven’t even slept with her.”

A knock on the front door interrupted our drunken confessions. I glanced at the door, but made no move from my sprawl on the floor. “She reached into my fucking chest and grew roots in my lungs. And now I can’t cut her loose.”

Petting my hair as the door continued to rattle, Naomi clucked her tongue. “There, there. I’ll buy you a pillow pet and make it all better.”

Someone rounded the corner of the hall. Vaguely, I noticed Doug, hair matted from his pillow and sleep lining his forehead. He took one look at us and did a double-take. His gaze hardened and he went to the door.

“I’m assuming you’re here for him?” he drawled, stepping back for the persistent knocker to enter.

Jesse and Medusa rushed in. I rolled to my back, leaving my head cradled in Naomi’s lap, and pointed. “Hey! I know you!”

“Landon, you idiot,” Jesse whispered. “What have you done?”

Medusa’s mouth pursed in disapproval and disgust. I tried to get to my feet, but I’d momentarily forgotten where they were. I made a circle with my thumb and forefinger and held it up to my eye. “I spy a dirty traitor and a vindictive bitch!”

Medusa was texting, only looking up to send me a disdainful glance. Jesse spared a sneer in Naomi’s direction before crouching to haul me to my feet.

“Woah!” I cackled. “There those are!”

He grabbed my arm and started pulling me through the door. He halted in front of Doug as I swayed.

“Have him call me when he sobers up,” Dough

ordered. “He’s not fired, but he’s in a shit-ton of trouble.”

“Thank you so much. He’s not normally like this,” Jesse apologized.

Doug nodded and hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “She can sleep it off in my office and I’ll drop her off where she needs to go. Take care of him.”

I waited till we’d passed the threshold of the bar to mutter in Jesse’s ear, “Who are we taking care of? I forgot.”

“Wow,” Medusa said. “You are not a functional drunk.”

“I’m not drunk!”

She redirected her attention to the guy dragging me down the sidewalk. The wind was making my eyes water. My mouth tasted like cow crap, and goosebumps were spreading over my arms from the temperature.

“We’re going through the main road to get to your room?” Medusa inquired.

Jesse nodded and removed my finger from his

mouth. “This is going to be a long night.”

I was getting tired and nauseous. “I wanna sit down.”

“No.”

We were taking a very difficult bend towards the dorms when a figure sitting on the architecture building’s stair was illuminated. It leapt to its feet and ran towards us before stopping abruptly.

I blinked the haze from my eyes and nearly swallowed my tongue.

“Sophia?” Jesse balked. “What are you doing here?”

She looked at me before quickly focusing on Raven.

“What the hell, Raven? I don’t see a mob of frat boys chasing you!”

“Wait a minute…” Jesse propped me against the wall and spun to face Medusa. “You texted her? You texted her to come here so she could see him in this condition?”

“Is he drunk?” Sophia whispered.

“Nope!” I interjected, pushing to my feet. “Just trying to tape up the shreds you left me in. But you go about your day, seriously, no big.”

I saw the sadness in her eyes replaced with wrath. She turned her head away abruptly and crossed her arms over her chest.

“She’s been a mess since Thursday, Jesse! She needed to see with her own two eyes that he isn’t the victim in all of this.”

“I can’t believe you! It’s not enough you strong-

armed me into taking her out there in the first place, but now this! How conniving can you be? Even if you don’t like Landon, you’re supposed to care about me. I helped your best friend. And now you want to kick mine when he’s down? What’s wrong with you?”

Sophia stared at the ground. I approached her and she skittered away. “Don’t touch me, Landon.”

“Do I disgust you that much? You can’t even be near me?” My voice broke, and I ran my hands through my tangled hair.

“I’m disgusted by what you’ve done to yourself,” Sophia murmured. “I thought you were stronger.”

“Don’t come near me-near us- right now, Raven. I don’t trust what I might say.”

“Jesse…” Raven whispered. A tidal wave of nausea hit me, and I doubled over, lunging towards the nearest bush in time to vomit violently.

My body shuddered, and I wiped my mouth with my sleeve. My head felt cottony, but clearer. I wasn’t sober quite yet, but it felt good to have less poison coursing through my veins.

Sophia was crying quietly, tears tracking down her cheeks and dripping down her chin. Raven grasped her elbow and pulled her away. “Let’s go,” she said. “We’re clearly not needed here.”

Jesse helped me up, but I didn’t need as much support. I pushed him a few feet away as I struggled to catch my breath. Bracing myself on my knees, I inhaled deeply, hoping the air would sweep away the last dredges of intoxication. I started walking in the direction they had gone, determination keeping me on my feet.

“Where are you going?” Jesse called.

“I’m doing what I should have done in the first place,” I said, fixing my gaze ahead.

“I’m going after her.”

“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Chapter 27

Flatline

Three years earlier….

Lexi winced as she rolled her sleeve over the bandage on her arm. “Whoever says shots don’t hurt is obviously referring to the dead or the comatose.”

We were walking out of the hospital, where she’d just had another check-up. My hands were clammy from the nervous fists I’d folded them into. Somehow, I felt every needle that punctured her skin, lost every drop of blood she did. But where Lexi was a pro at bouncing back, I was left somewhere on the corner of pale and pukey.

“Alright, give me the car keys,” Lexi ordered abruptly, sticking her hand out. “I’m going to need to make a quick getaway when I drop you off if I have any chance of seeing Peter tonight.”

My jaw dropped. “Have you lost your marbles? You just had blood taken! You’re having an endoscopy in a week! You need to go home and rest.”

She wiggled her fingers impatiently. Annoyed, I smacked them into her palm, scowling at her triumphant cheer. She hopped into the car and started the engine.

“Lexi, did you hear what I said?” I snapped, buckling my seatbelt. “I don’t think you should see Peter tonight. You heard what the doctors said. Until they know for sure what’s going on, you need to take care of yourself.”

Like a switch, Lexi’s green eyes were suddenly blazing with emotions I couldn’t name or even comprehend. Her breath hitched, and for a second, my heart stopped. She couldn’t cry. My fearless, spunky, bigger-than-life sister couldn’t do something as human as cry. But when she raised her chin, I didn’t see a trace of a tear. Just resignation.

She reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly. “You know, I think you worry about me more than anyone else. I guess we’re even, then, since I worry about you every day too.”

I frowned. “Why would you worry about me?”

With a patience beyond her years, Lexi tugged the strand of hair in my mouth free and smiled. “Do you know why I’m going to see Peter?”

“Because you’re crazy and horny?”

She chuckled. “True. But that’s not why. I’m going to break rules and go see my boyfriend because life is short, Soph. Moments like these make memories that last longer than life itself. Hiding in a shell, waiting idly by while I get poked and prodded…that’s not how I want to go. But now I’m out of excuses, you know? Mortality makes you bolder,

I guess. It makes you honest.”

I viciously stamped the rising panic and terror her words conjured. “Don’t be stupid. The doctors don’t know that you have anything yet. And even if you do, you’ll be fine. You’ll fight.”

She watched the cars next to us drive by, faraway and thoughtful. “You’re right. I will. But my point, sis, is that fighting is something you have to do every second of every day. Regardless of what disease or disorder is in your body. You have to fight to get out of bed in the morning, you have to fight to smile, you have to fight to take the car keys to see your boyfriend…it’s a never-ending battle.”

Her attention switched to me, and I nearly flinched away from her intensity. “That’s what worries me about you, Soph. That someday I won’t be there to give you a shove when you need it and you’ll just stay in the waiting room. Waiting for results, waiting for news…waiting. You won’t really be living. Because being alive means feeling. And if you’re always waiting, you’ll never learn those skills. And that means you, my sweet turtle, will be left absolutely defenseless when you need to fight the most. “

Raven was going to break my arm.

“Um,” I said, gently extracting my elbow from her grip. “Raven? Do you maybe want to slow down a bit?”

Swiping a strand of hair savagely from her face, Raven refused to meet my gaze. She hopped from foot to foot, attention on the ground. Even if I hadn’t been her best friend, it would have been easy to feel the waves of pain and anger raging through her. The girl was a human grenade. “Can we go now?” she demanded, lips pursed. “It’s cold as balls out here.” Despite wanting to bring up what had just transpired with Jesse, I knew she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Not yet. And although I knew how tough she wanted to be, I couldn’t help but think about the ribbons of pain undoubtedly slicing her heart.

Sighing, I hooked my arm through hers and continued our walk. When we reached the hall door, I dug into my pocket for my access card and was about to swipe it through the scanner-

“Sophia Michaels! Cat girl!” I froze.

“I’m going to shove my boot so far up his ass he’ll be coughing shoelace for a week!” Raven growled. “Please don’t,” I muttered. I finished swiping my card and held the door open for her to pass through. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“I don’t want to leave you out here with Sir

Shitfaced.”

“I can handle myself. Go on now.”

With a grumble, Raven stomped into the warmth of the building and disappeared up the stairs.

Which left me shivering outside, my nerves strung tight. After a quick pep talk, I spun around, prepared to deliver a royal screw-off.

Instead, my words caught in my throat at the moisture in Landon’s bloodshot gaze. He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes quickly.

I couldn’t help myself. “Why did you do this to yourself? You’ve been so smart.”

Landon pushed a hand through his matted hair. “You can probably wager a guess.”

I stepped back, hand going to the door handle. “Don’t you dare pin this on me, Sinclair. I didn’t put that bottle in your hand, and I certainly didn’t make you get drunk with Naomi.”

He cursed fluidly, likely not expecting me to know that fun tidbit. “Damn Medusa.”

“It’s not her fault. She was telling me what I needed to hear.”

“Bullshit.”

Weary, I sagged my shoulders against the door and rubbed my forehead. “What do you want, Landon?” Talking to him, even for a minute, drained me more than an entire day’s activity. I didn’t know if it was the war between us or the war between my heart and head.

“You.” The answer was swift and strong. He took a step closer, prompting me to unlock the door in anticipation of a speedy retreat. “I just want you, cat girl. I want your crazy, I want your thoughtful, I want your everything. There isn’t a piece of you I wouldn’t kill to have.”

Tears burned in the back of my eyes, but I kept it in. “I don’t believe you.” I pried open the door, preparing to duck inside and get away from this horrid night. Instead, I’d barely managed to make it inside when he grabbed the door and stepped inside.

“How can you say that?” he demanded. “After everything we’ve been through?”

I whirled around, indignant. “After everything we’ve been through, you still chose to run off to Naomi instead of stay with me! And if you say one fucking word about your

‘obligation’ and what you ‘owe’ her, I swear to God I’ll kick you in the balls.”

Storming down the hall, I was acutely aware of Landon’s footsteps thudding behind me. When we’d reached the third floor and he had yet to leave, my rage bloomed again.

“Landon,” I said with thinly veiled calm. “Go away. Leave me alone. You made your choice and forced me into mine. That’s that.”

An incredulous laugh burst from his mouth. “Is that what you believe? Hate to burst your bubble, baby, but that’s not how it went down. You ran away, like you always run away. You don’t know how to fight for anything or anyone, least of all yourself.”

I glanced around to make sure no one was stirring at the commotion in the hall. Stuffing my hands in the pockets of my jacket, I struggled to bite back the venom my cruel self-conscious wanted to spew.

Seeing my lack of response, Landon walked over to the adjacent wall and smacked his palm against the hard surface. I watched him with as much fascination as I always had. This boy had a way for captivating my every sense, for overwhelming me, no matter what I did to push him away.

Suddenly, Landon was facing me, his gaze burning a hole through my defenses. “The girl I love, she could write a thousand stories, direct a thousand movies. She could live a thousand lives. All you’ve got to do is tell her it’s finally safe to come out.”

I swallowed. “Stop. None of that changes the facts. And the fact is that you refuse to leave Naomi behind, and with that poison in our relationship, there’s no way we can survive.”

He ignored me, on a roll of emotional destruction.

“What would Lexi say if she knew how big a part of yourself you’d buried alongside her?

It would have hurt less if he’d sucker punched me. My hand flew to my throat, and I staggered back a step. Landon, reading the scroll of emotions on my face, was instantly remorseful.

“Sophia, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have-” He tried to put his hands on my arms, but I shoved him off.

My vision was blurred from the tears burning in my eyes. “Do you have any idea how hard I tried?” my words caught in a sob. “I’ve never fought harder for anyone than I have for you.”

Landon dropped his head into his hands, shame folding his posture.

“You-you made me fall for you when all I wanted was to get back on my feet. You made me love you, Landon.”

He dropped his hands and raised his head slowly, gaze wide with disbelief. “You…love me?”

I snorted, scrubbing viciously at my wet face. “Of course I love you, idiot. It wouldn’t hurt this damn bad if I didn’t.”

Once again, he tried to approach me, but I held up my hands. “No. No, you don’t get to be happy about that, because the only thing it means is you’ve succeeded in inflicting that much more damage.” “Sophia, please just tell me what you want me to do. Tell me how I can end this fucking nightmare,” he beseeched.

“You know what you need to do to end it, Landy,” I said sarcastically. “Send Naomi packing. Report Carter. I could write you a list if that’s easier.”

Landon laughed, a bitter sound. “You make it sound so easy. Have you ever taken a life, Sophia? I know it was an accident. I know that. But at the end of the story, there was still a dead teenager because of me. I took away a life, a future, a soul. I can’t blame his brother for hating me. I can’t even blame Naomi for spiraling into the mess she is. But I can’t turn my back on them. I don’t know how.”

I shrugged, mouth moving into a twisted smile. “I guess we’re at an impasse, then.”

“Sophia-” he started towards me again. I turned, running like hell for my door. There were only so many times I could resist before I crumbled into his arms. Raven had left the door open, and I scarcely managed to make it inside Landon’s weight hit it. I turned the lock, leaning my forehead against the wood.

“Just go,” I said, knowing he could hear me.

“Never,” he replied softly.

I slid down the door, my knees giving out at last. The tears hadn’t quit falling, and they sped up in intensity as I heard him slide to the floor on the other side. At this rate, I’d be dehydrated within the hour.

“Let me hate you, Landon,” I wept. “Maybe then I’ll forgive you.”

There was no answer from the other side, just the sound of his breath hitching. I’d completely forgotten about Raven until she sat on the floor beside me and squeezed my hand. And I remembered that I wasn’t the only one with a broken heart in this room.

“I’m so sorry, Rae,” I murmured.

She sniffled, and for the first time since I’d met her, Raven started to cry. “I hate boys.” She dropped her head to my shoulder, tears soaking into my shirt. “They’re all bastards.”

I wrapped my arms around her, smoothing her hair.

Limping his way over, Poe wiggled onto Raven’s lap and offered a sympathetic meow. She rubbed Poe’s head, and his purr of satisfaction vibrated through the room.

Raven exhaled a laugh. “Makes sense. The only time the little shit likes me is when I’m crying on the floor.”

I’m not sure how long we stayed like that, two heartbroken girls and a tailless cat, separated by only a few inches from the boy who started everything.

“The tragedy of life is not death...but what we let die inside of us while we live.”

-Norman Cousins

Chapter 28

Family Therapy

“The seatbelt blinker thing is off,” Raven

commented. “So you can go to the bathroom, if you need.”

“Already went,” I said, not bothering to unfasten the belt.

Raven sighed and lowered her seat, much to the dismay of the middle-aged woman sitting behind her. I felt bad about sticking her with such a sucky travel partner. My attitude for the last week had taken sulky and sullen to a whole new level.

We’d bid Maddie farewell on campus, since she was getting a ride home from a friend. It had been bittersweet, with a touch of awkward thrown in for spice. Maddie was still acting off-beat, but she’d been essential throughout what I’d dubbed ‘Heart Hell Week’, bringing copious amounts of tissues, chocolate, and booze. She hadn’t mentioned Erica in ages, and I’d wanted to ask what was wrong, but I was too busy licking my wounds.

As for me…the Psych presentation had propelled me into bed for a straight twenty-four hours, petting Poe and listening to morose music.

Landon and I sat on opposite sides of the lecture hall. I’d already emailed Garfield the PowerPoint, and Landon had all the notes he needed for his part. So long as neither of us deviated from the script, the next three hellish hours should go by smoothly.

As pair after pair presented, I grew more agitated. I hadn’t spoken to Landon since the night I’d told him I loved him. He hadn’t tried to call or reach out at all. I had no idea where his head was at. There was never really a way to tell.

“Sophia Michaels and Landon Sinclair.”

My heart began to race wildly. Grabbing my crumpled notes, I zigzagged over backpacks and skateboards until I reached the front of the room. Landon was already there, hip balanced against the desk and arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t look at me as I approached.

Pulling the PowerPoint slides up on Garfield’s laptop, I was glad to have the desk between me and Landon. A tangible obstacle separating us.

“We did our presentation on, um, addiction,” I started, wincing at the points we’d undoubtedly just loss for lack of creativity in opening. I just wanted this final to be over.

I read through my slides robotically. They were mostly statistics I’d gathered online with trivia sprinkled in, along with my opinion. Relaying information from my sessions with Landon was the hardest.

When I reached the end of my part, I exhaled in relief. I quickly skirted the edge of the desk so Landon could take my place in front of the laptop. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tried not to stare as he addressed the room.

“Addiction is described as the state of being enslaved to a habit. My partner gave you the numbers-let me give you the truths.”

I glanced sharply at his notes. There was nothing about ‘truths’ in there! I’d checked those pages at least seventy times. What did he think he was doing?

Landon ran his fingers along the corner of Garfield’s desk. There was an energy to the way he carried himself, to the way he moved, that kept everyone on the edge of their seat.

“I think addiction is a scale. We are all addicted on some level. Of course, the levels vary, the subject of addiction changes. Most people assume addiction is a disease because of drugs, or alcohol, whatever. But the substance doesn’t matter. The strength of the addiction does.”

He clicked through to the next slide. “Points of progress of addiction are different for everyone. But some similarities survive in each case I studied. Each victim thinks they’re in control. They think they can protect themselves. Fools believe that at the end of the day, the addiction won’t be able to betray them. And the deeper down the rabbit hole they go, the more they start to feel like the addiction is the only thing they need to survive.”

Numbness was spreading through my arms and neck

as it hit me what-or rather, who- Landon was talking about. “But at the end of the day, if something is bad for you, it doesn’t matter how pretty the wrapping is, or how funny, or how vulnerable. With each hit, you lose more than you could ever imagine.”

I turned my head and immediately regretted it. Landon was staring at me, blue eyes filled with a condemnation that raked through me like hot coals. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t move away, couldn’t tear my gaze from his. He held me captive as I was shred apart.

“Addiction lowers your guard, step by step. A shy smile, cold toes, a chocolate milkshake. Nothing too deceiving, not at first. Addiction is tricky that way. One minute you’re experiencing the greatest high of your life-and the next you’re lower than you thought possible.”

Landon chuckled as he clicked to the last slide of the presentation. “Addiction is willingly climbing the steps of the gallows, and smiling while you hang.”

The PowerPoint ended, and Landon began to gather his papers. After a beat of shocked silence, the class applauded. Garfield blinked a few times before clearing his throat and calling the next group.

The rest of the flight passed smoothly. I didn’t manage to sleep, but I rarely did on flights. When we deplaned, Raven barely had enough time to bid me goodbye before she had to catch a bus. She lived two hours away, and she didn’t want her parents making the drive to get her.

Throwing her arms around me in a tight hug, she squeezed the daylights out of me. “Remember, if you need anything, just call. Seriously, you need to communicate. If you do your introvert, lick your wounds quietly thing, I will punch you in the crotch.”

I laughed. “Communication, got it. Now go! You’re going to be late, and I need to go get Poe.”

“Not going to miss demon cat,” Raven said gleefully. “Wow, three weeks of fur-free underwear. What a treat.”

After some more urging, Raven ran for her bus. It had grown dark outside, but LAX was bright. It took a while to go through the process of retrieving Poe, but finally I was slugging through the tunnel leading to the pickup zone. I spotted my parents immediately. Mom was standing on a chair, and Dad was trying to convince her to step down.

She saw me, and a huge grin spread across her face. A pang went through me, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be in my Mom’s arms. Elbowing past an overly-affectionate couple and grouchy businessman, I ran straight to my mother’s embrace. Dad gingerly took Poe’s cage and my suitcase as I tossed my arms around Mom’s waist.

The urge to cry was fierce, and it was a feat of epic proportions to keep my emotions from welling up. Sniffling, I released Mom and hugged Dad.

“Are you alright, baby?” Mom asked carefully. “Was your flight rough? Did anyone give you a hard time?”

I shook my head, bending to release Poe from his cage and sweep his wriggling body into my arms. Putting him in the cage in the first place had been nearly impossible, and I’d hated doing it with every fiber of my being. I wasn’t going to make him stay in there any longer than I had to.

Mom’s jaw dropped. “Sophia…where did Poe’s tail go?”

Oh boy.

I laid on the couch, lazily flipping through channels on T.V. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, and I found comfort in the low hum of conversation. My first day home was luxury and relaxation, but I had no doubt the spoiling would end tomorrow.

Explaining Poe’s missing appendage hadn’t been easy. Dad was furious, Mom was scared silly, and both wanted to go to the authorities immediately. All I’d told them was some psycho had broken into the room and mutilated Poe. I wasn’t shelling out many details.

“So honey,” Mom appeared at the foot of the couch. “Do you want to help us start decorating for the Christmas party?”

I sat up, rubbing my temples. My parents annual holiday party had completely slipped my mind. Great, mingling with nosy relatives and drunk cousins was exactly what I needed.

“Sure Mom,” I sighed. “It’s in like three days, right?” “Same day every year,” she replied, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. I couldn’t stop a giggle from bubbling through.

Sarcasm on Mom was like a pink dress on an alligator. “There’s that laugh I’ve been waiting to hear.” Mom reached over and took my hand in hers. “I wish you would tell me what’s bothering you. I’d understand, you know. No smothering.”

Tugging a strand of hair free from my bun, I stretched it across my forehead. Dad was puttering around the kitchen, but I knew he had one ear listening in on our conversation.

“I’ve just had a tough time at school lately.”

Absently, I strung the piece of hair across my mouth, only realizing my actions when Mom reached over to smack it from my hand. “Do you know what happens when you swallow a strand of hair? It’ll wrap itself around your intestines and kill you!”

I rolled my eyes.

“Amy!” Dad called, a tired reminder to get back on topic.

“Listen you guys,” I started, hoping to set their worries at ease for once and for all. “I’m fine. Really. I’m just in a slump because my brain is trying to recover from finals. So what do you want me to start decorating?”

Despite not looking particularly convinced, Mom stood up, yanking me along with her. We headed into the garage and sifted through the boxes of junk we routinely stored in there. After plenty of dust and spider scares, we reached the holiday jackpot.

Mom grunted as she dragged a worn cardboard box out from behind an old bike. “We need to clean in here.”

“You say that every year.”

“And every year, I mean it.”

Giggling, I pulled my own box out, and the two of us grunted and groaned into the living room. Dad watched amusedly as we both collapsed atop our boxes.

“Lightweights,” he snickered.

Mom raised a brow. “Oh yeah? Let’s see you try.”

“Game on!” Dad answered, striding to the garage. Ten minutes later, Mom and I were dissolving into heaps of laughter as Dad reemerged, sweaty and annoyed.

“We need to clean in there!”

The next three days went by in a flurry of cooking, old Christmas music, and decorations galore. I was almost always covered in glitter, and Mom smelled like she bathed in pine.

The work may have been painful, but by the time the party rolled around, I was feeling loads better. Decorating was cathartic, I suppose. Or maybe it was just spending time with my parents and remembering that life did exist beyond Franklin University. Mom and Dad were really going over the top this year. I’d worn a knee-length red dress and done my hair up with green barrettes so it curled around my shoulders. Poe was roaming the second floor, with one of those child barriers in front of the stairs to keep him from freaking out the guests.

“Oh my God!” Mom shrieked. I was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, where I likely wouldn’t move for the rest of the night. Access to food and avoidance of civilization-who could ask for more? “We forgot to put up mistletoe!”

Dad groaned. “Amy, the mistletoe has ruined lives. Marriages.”

“I don’t care! It’s tradition. Here, help me put it over the entry to the living room.”

I watched Dad humor my crazy Mom while I discreetly munched on some chips. I’d never really stopped and thought about how strong my parents’ marriage was, because it had been a given that they would weather anything together. They were a constant, unbreakable. They’d lost a child after years of struggling and had their other daughter sink into herself-that would sever most marriages. But here they were, stronger than ever, ready to take on the world.

“Sophia, are you eating the food? Wait till the guests get here!” Mom ordered.

On that note, the doorbell buzzed. The Meyers popped in, parents and two teenage kids.

“Oh, look at you! You’re so cute!” Mrs. Meyers gushed, holding my shoulders tight. “And good job avoiding the freshman fifteen. My niece-you met her, Debra!- she wasn’t as lucky. All that dessert isn’t good for a young lady’s shape.”

This was going to be a long night.

As guests continued to filter in, I said many hello’s and how do you do’s. Frankly, the only thing keeping my sanity intact amidst the, “You’re an undeclared major? Hmm, I see,” or gems like “I thought for sure you would go into the medical field! But I guess that kind of challenge isn’t for everyone” was the bar full of desserts to my left.

The hum of conversation and mirth along with the holiday music playing in the background helped settled my frazzled nerves. People were getting along, the gossip was minimally malicious, and they loved Dad’s onion dip. Outside, the younger kids were playing tag around the pool, an activity keeping a lot of the parents nervous.

“Sophia, I’ve got someone I want you to meet!” Mom’s voice had my shoulders immediately tensing. Plastering a polite smile on my face, I swiveled to meet the guest.

A girl my age or a bit younger watched me curiously, her wrist held captive in Mom’s grip. She was gorgeous, with a thick mass of light brown hair, sharp cheekbones, and full lips.

We shook hands, and she introduced herself as Mercy James. Mom excused herself, leaving us standing awkwardly. Mercy rounded the kitchen island and grabbed a stool across from me.

I tried to make conversation as she shoveled food onto her plate. “So you came with Archer Sloane, huh?”

Archer was the son of old family friends. The

Sloanes’ hadn’t been able to make the party this year, since it a busy night at the restaurant they owned, but Archer was close enough to my parents to make an appearance alone. Or in this case, with a date.

“Yup,” she replied, popping a brownie bite into her mouth.

Tugging a strand of hair around my fingers, I reflected on the man in question. “I’ve known him since I was a kid. Really cool, very down to earth. Not usually something you see in guys that are smoking hot.”

Mercy tilted her head in thought. “The down to earth thing is arguable.” She licked a dollop of frosting from her finger. “Anyway, who crapped in your cereal this morning?”

My brain took a couple of minutes to compute. I chuckled, confused. “What?”

She gestured in my general area. “You’re not wearing a stitch of makeup at a party, there’s a dried coffee stain on your dress, and you’re majorly spacing. So either you have boy trouble or you’re a serial killer in disguise.”

“How’d you know? I even hid my bloody axe this

time.”

She reached over and snagged a brownie. “You’re funny. Surprising, since you look like someone ran over your cat.”

“My cat is more likely to be the one running people over,” I joked weakly. “But yeah, you’re right. There’s a boy. Or was.”

“What happened?”

For some reason, I wanted to open up to this girl. Maybe it was because I’d been keeping everything under lock and key throughout the break. It could have just been her cavalier, painfully blunt attitude. Whatever it was, I found my guts promptly spilling.

“A lot. Too much, actually. Relationships shouldn’t be this painful, right? Loving someone is so simple. So why does it hurt so freaking much?”

Wiping her fingers on a napkin, Mercy looked thoughtful. “Don’t let the movies fool you. Being in love isn’t all sparkles and unicorns.”

Well then. Not what I expected.

She wasn’t finished. “Loving someone is the hardest thing in the world. Loving someone means fighting. It can lift you so you’re soaring high one second and bring you crashing down in the next. Now, the type of love it is doesn’t depend on how high you go or how hard you fall. True love…” Mercy paused, a small smile playing across her lips. “If it’s true love, he’ll give you wings so you can fly beside him.”

She licked the powdered sugar from her fingertips.

“Unless he’s an abuser. If that’s the case, get away as fast as you can, and give me his address because I have connections.”

I grinned. “Very poetic. Would you like a napkin to draft a short novel?”

We talked for a few more minutes, and her advice actually made sense. She was logical, with just the right touch of romantic. When she asked me if the problem between us was fixable, an image of Naomi boarding a train filled my mind.

Mercy shook her head, pouty red lips twisting into an exasperated smile. “Then what are you pouting about? Axe the issue and get your shit together, girl.”

For a wild moment, everything was so simple. My problems with Landon didn’t seem so vast and thorny. I was invigorated anew, actually standing to go see him when I remembered I lived in California and he was in Maryland.

I sat down.

“So how did you and Archer meet?”

Her response was vague at best. “Um…he kind of saved my ass. I was in a tough spot and he bailed me out.”

I smirked. Figured. The boy was always searching for a problem to solve, a case to take on. It made sense that this girl, with her no-holds-barred attitude and world-weary eyes would be the one he’d pick.

Sharing a story about his childhood antics, I noted how she lit up with glee. Hopefully Archer wouldn’t hurt this one.

“Bless you for telling me,” Mercy cackled, tickled pink by child Archer’s crazy.

I winced. “Just don’t tell him I told you. He has a gun and he knows how to use it.”

Mercy froze, a fudge square halfway to her mouth. “You know about the gun?” she murmured, shocked.

I arched a brow. “Well, yeah. It kind of comes with the job description.”

Mercy started to respond, but Archer swooped in, a panicked look on his handsome face. He mussed my hair until I smacked his hand away.

“Mercy, can I talk to you in the backyard?” he asked. I smirked, knowing full well he didn’t want her to hear all the dirt I had on him.

She shrugged. “Sure.”

Grabbing another cookie, she rose from her seat. “It was nice talking to you. Let me know what happens, okay?”

“You got it. And thanks, Mercy.”

They headed into the backyard, and I creepily watched them for a few minutes. Archer couldn’t seem to tear his gaze from the girl. He said something that made her face crumple with sadness, and she glanced my way.

Whoops! I quickly turned my attention to the cookie on my plate.

Raven had yet to hear from Jesse, and the stubborn girl refused to be the first one to reach out. Those two were so annoyingly similar. Tenacious as hell with a protective streak a mile long. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t seeing it from his point of view. If he’d done the same thing to me, waiting till I was at a low point before calling in my ex to see me in all my humiliation, Raven would have brought down hell. Jesse was doing what he always didtaking care of his best friend.

I wondered how Landon was doing. I wished he used social media, so maybe I could stalk his activity, but alas. Was he spending it with Naomi? I gritted my teeth at the thought.

No, Mrs. Kendall would never let him stay at school during the holidays, and no way would she allow Naomi to darken her doorstep.

The party started winding down, the high point coming when Archer and Mercy kissed under the mistletoe.

Guess Mom hadn’t been wrong.

As guests started filtering out, I let Mom drag me to the door to say goodbye. A lot of wet cheek kisses later, I was bidding Archer and Mercy farewell. She hugged me tightly and commanded Archer to text her number to my phone so she could get updates. When it was my turn to hug Archer, I stood on my tiptoes to wrap my arms around his broad shoulders.

“Be good to this one,” I murmured in his ear. “She’s spunky and I want to know how she keeps her hair like that.”

“Trust me Soph, I’m not the wild card in this relationship,” he replied softly.

Once the house was finally empty and quiet, I got to cleaning. Mom and Dad tried to help, but I could sense their fatigue. “Go to bed,” I ordered. “I’ve got this.”

“Thanks baby.” Mom pressed a kiss to my forehead and disappeared up the stairs.

“Night,” Dad yawned, following her up.

I plugged in my headphones and got to work, taking some cleaning breaks to slow dance with the broom. I found a shoe lying next to the DVD player, a tube of lipstick near the soda, and a baby’s pacifier on the couch. Better than last year’s cleanup, featuring a flavored condom near the fireplace.

Nearly finished, I was lugging the black garbage bags next to the backyard door to take them out in the morning when a photo on the mantle caught my eye.

I picked it up, thumb caressing the embroidered frame. It was a picture of Lexi and me at Laguna Beach from six years ago. We were wearing swimsuits; Lexi clad in a cute striped bikini while I was sporting a gray one piece. We had our arms around each other, cheeks mashed and dopey grins on. I was hiding behind her a little, worried about how my legs and belly would look in the photo.

A pang seared through my chest. It had been a happy day for all of us.

I sat on the couch and stared at the glittery Christmas tree. Lexi was a Christmas junkie, always gung ho with the decorations and begging to string the lights up right after Thanksgiving. She’d dress in only holiday themes the week of Christmas and play enough hokey music to make our ears bleed. Our annual holiday party had always been a blast when she was with me. We’d sit on the couch and gossip about who was cheating on who, or who had gotten work done on their nose.

Even when we fought, it was the kind of fighting where you knew you would make up quickly. My anger had a very short expiration date when it came to my twin. She’d pout and cutesy her way out of any situation, a tool I’d envied like crazy. I’d never met anyone since who’d been quite as brave as my sister, or quite as gutsy.

Exhaling, I set the picture gently back on the mantle.

And I made my decision.

“Guess I’m finally taking a page out of your book, sis,” I murmured, mind already whirring with plans. “Because I’m going back to fight for my guy.”

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