Carbon

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Chapter 29

I lumbered through the hallways vacantly, slowly searching for any remnants of the house—everything was gone. The oven, the microwave, the washer, the dryer, the sofas, the throw pillows, the pictures, the photo albums, everything was no longer in the house. Glass shards glinted in my arm from frantically breaking in, but was it considered breaking in if it was my own house? If I grew up in it and lived in it for nearly eighteen years, and then, suddenly, it was wrenched away from my grasp?

My voice crackled as I hoarsely moaned, “Mom?”

No answer.

I twisted my neck around the edge of the doorway to the master bedroom. The water bed was gone along with its frame. The television that sat in front of the royal bed no longer existed. All of the adornments and jewelry of the room were absent.

“Esther?” I cried out desperately.

No answer.

All of the people were gone, too.

I frantically combed my fingers through my tendrils. My chest tautened as my heart threatened to tear through my ribcage. I choked down air into my stomach, and I aimlessly meandered through the empty home. I furrowed my brow as I clenched my teeth and threatened to lose my sanity after losing something I thought was so permanent in my life.

Where did my mom expect me to live?

Why didn’t Esther tell me about this plan?

I thundered down the stairs and whipped around the staircase to my room. My jaw dropped as soon as my foot slid across the hearth. The books that once lined the walls were all gone. A tan-line stretched across the walls from the varying piles along with the shadow of my small twin bed by the wall. A blue blanket rested on the fossilized imprints of my bed in the carpet. I fell to my knees and cuffed my face into my hands, hiding the view from my eyes.

“Have you read this?” Heath pulled a book from the shelf at the bookstore, just glancing at spines that were so alien to me but worn and familiar to Heath. I turned to the fragile edges of the book and gently took it from him. His palm rested in the open air, as if to ascertain I would not drop his precious treasure.

I peeled away from my fingertips and trembled my lips in extreme emotional instability. I let out a small whimper as my fingers dug through the carpet, as if in search of a trapdoor hiding my beloved possessions.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Everyone misquotes this one line about intimacy, thinking it’s about love, but no, it’s about family, about friendship.”

I innocently nodded and glanced at the synopsis on the back of the book. “How is it?”

I languidly stood up, afraid my joints would disintegrate upon the pressure, and slid out of the room. I couldn’t bear to face the sheer terror evolving around my mind upon just the instance of absorbance of the view.

“I don’t know what to think of it, really.”

I cocked my brow. I never understood how he couldn’t have an opinion about a book. I mean, he had an opinion surrounding every facet of his life. He hated the works of Shakespeare and loved the works of the romantics. “You either hate it or love it,” I assured.

He nonchalantly shrugged. “I just don’t know about that book.”

I marched across the house, numbly absorbing my new surroundings, not knowing exactly what to do anymore. I needed a way to distract myself from this awful, awful offal of a home. My foot cramped upon a pencil rolling silently in the dining room, and I snatched it with my toes, handing it to my phalanges like a mutated monkey. I glanced at the lead tip, and the carbon charcoal was sharpened and apparent.

“What do you want to do when you’re grown up?” I asked Heath after a long weekend at a tournament. His mom drove meticulously, caught up in her music blaring from the radio, ignoring the two teenagers in the backseat.

Heath’s head fell across my lap, and his eyes slowed to close. He murmured, “You can’t phrase that question like that.”

I ran my fingers through his silky hair, and his hand rested on my kneecap. “Why not?”

“We’re almost eighteen, which is close to twenty-five, which is half of fifty, which is a half of a century. We’re already on the brink of adulthood. You probably should rephrase it like, ‘What do you want to do when you’re older?’”

I pivoted on my heels and marched down through the kitchen and through the dining room briskly, ignoring all of the scars and remnants of my past etched into the pallor walls.

“Fine, what do you want to do when you’re older?”

Heath nonchalantly shrugged and confided, “I think I want to be a counselor or something like that. Maybe a social worker. I just want to be able to help people with their problems. They shouldn’t have to go through everything alone, you know?”

I whipped around the corner of my doorframe into my room. My eyes wildly widened to absorb more and more of the room. My hand tautened on the pencil as I stared intently at the shadow of where my dresser used to stand with photos of Heath and me resting on top. The pencil began to bend from my force.

“What about you, Dev?”

My blue eyes wavered at the curve of his profile as he stared intently at the back of his mom’s seat. His thumb began to rub up and down where my IT band was super tight. I admitted, “I don’t know.”

“You’re good at a lot of things.”

I shook my head. “Not really.”

I knelt down in front of the blank wall, my knees against the kickboards. I didn’t care if I would bruise for the next day or any other day. In a weird, masochistic way, I hoped I would to remind myself of what a failure I was, of what I deserved. I placed the point of the carbon charcoal against the wall, the texture obscuring my line as I began to streak it far above my head.

“Why don’t you be an artist?”

“How am I going to survive?”

“God’ll figure that out. You do whatever you want, and if you love it, God will give you peace.”

Stunned, I glared at him menacingly. How dare he mention God to me? How could he mention God to me when he knew I barely could accept Him as merciful and grand? All of this bullshit fed to me is that God treats those with the strength with obstacles and scars, but I didn’t have it. I couldn’t handle the abuses in my path.

I pressed into the pencil, darkening the creeping lines of a trunk. My lips curled with agitation as I ushered more lines to collide and entwine to shade and create texture. It just didn’t look right. I quickly rubbed out a shadow creeping in on the source of light—my window.

God doled out shit for people because He was sadistic.

I pounded my hand into the wall repetitively, trying to console myself as I blistered against the pencil. I couldn’t take this all at once. I couldn’t take this in all at once.

Jude freed, my mother abandoned me, my home bared.

I sat back on my haunches and slid about a yard to the left so I could continue to branch out the fierce limbs.

I sat on the dock miserably, drying the tears flowing from my eyes with the heel of my hand. I could barely stand to glance up in time to see Heath plop down beside me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders, pulling me to his chest. “It’s okay, Devin. It’s going to be okay.”

I sobbed into his chest, “I put my own fucking father in prison.”

“He deserved it.”

“But my family doesn’t.”

I choked back a sob as I analyzed the roots near the floorboards. I finally noticed the eerie droplets of my own blood slowly sliding down the wall, mixing with the charcoal. I threw my foot into the wall mechanically, and then I shoved my foot back into the wall again, again, and again.

There were some things I never talked about with Heath or really anyone, and that was my fallout with God. Deism was tempting, but agnosticism was even more seductive as I led a life full of abuse and loss. In this situation, I failed to see anything godly or holy about this whole mess. It appeared to me I was truly being attacked and punished for some stupid sin.

I whipped my head back and shouted, “You fucking happy?! Are you happy, you stupid motherfucker? Huh, God? Is this what you want? Is this what you want?!” I shoved my foot into the wall one last time for good measure and then released a bestial cry, falling to my knees.

I sobbed and sulked for what seemed like an eternity before turning my chin up.

A black tree stretched from one corner of the room, sliding across the wall, to the other side majestically. Bare and naked, no leaves burdened the tree, but no leaves supported the tree either. The gnarled roots wound and hid in themselves like mischievous mice hiding in the rafters.

The tears poured down my cheeks like sheets of ice, and I cuffed my hands over my ears as I released one last howl before falling into a catatonic state of silence and just an unblinking gaze into the tree.

Because I wished I was a tree so I wouldn’t have to feel these emotions. I wouldn’t have a brain to create relationships or expectations. I wouldn’t have a brain that made me believe in a Heaven or a Hell. A brain that allowed me to accept this mystical being as perhaps the ruler of the world, a brain that forced me to believe in God.

I conscientiously divided my life into segments there was no possibility I would lose, but I failed to see any truth in it all because I thought I couldn’t lose myself. And yet, there I was unmolding from the skeleton of Devin Paulina Sebold.

I nervously pulled up to the front of Devin’s house and parked my car on the edge of the asphalt against the curb. I cut the engine and leaned across the console to pick up her corsage. I remember I just kind of picked out a blue flower and asked for a green ornamental ribbon… I remembered her favorite color was green, but the blue was for me. I loved it when she wore blue—her tawny skin glowed and her curious eyes shone. I rubbed the condensation off of the plastic container and set it on my lap. I glanced at the rear-view mirror, noticing my bow-tie was askew. I never asked her and she never mentioned what color her dress was going to be. I just did the general penguin suit—black matches everything, I think.

Mom would probably say different.

I finally heaved a sigh and brought up the courage to go to the door. I mean, what was the worst thing that could happen? Her mom could open the door, and I would finally meet the woman behind the scenes. Esther could open it and say something, but I thought she and Leslie must have left already because none of the porch lights were on.

I sauntered to the front door and fixed my jacket nervously, pulling the ends down and meticulously checking the stupid bow-tie. I should have just gone with a tie, but I wanted to impress her with everything. I hit the doorbell, but no tone could be heard. I rapped on the door twice quietly.

The door slammed open, and I jumped out of my skin, dropping the corsage on the porch. Devin stood there—but not how I imagined. I expected a floor-length gown that made her alien to me, but she wasn’t. She heaved breaths urgently, perspiring a mist against her tawny skin. Her blue eyes flickered wildly against my image. She wore an orange-and-red-striped cardigan that was buttoned too low, showing her lack of cleavage, and a pair of soccer shorts. Her fingers ran through her hair frantically as she finally noticed my suit. “Oh God, oh God.”

“Uh, yeah, we have prom?” I kind of questioned.

She tilted her chin up, and I could tell her eyes were beginning to well up. “Oh my God, I forgot. I’m so sorry.” She took a step back from the door, and I took a step over the lip of the entry way, thinking she was inviting me in. She jumped forward and forced me back onto the porch. “Please don’t come in.”

“Fine, I’ll wait here.”

She frantically shook her head. “No, no, you’re going to have to go by yourself. I won’t be ready in time.”

“It’s fine. We’ll just skip dinner.”

She put a hand on my chest and gently pushed me back. “No, Ned. Just go. Just go. I’m having some really bad issues right now.”

“Well, I can wait if you want me to. I mean, this isn’t completely my ideal night either. You could have just said you didn’t want to go with me.”

She paused and meekly met my gaze. She peeled her hand back away from my chest. “No, I want to go with you. I really want to go with you, but I can’t tonight. Any other night would have been fine… I’m just having some issues right now.”

I took a step back and hesitantly nodded, “Okay, that’s fine. I guess I’ll talk to you Monday…” My eyes fell to the ground as I picked up the corsage, and I gently tried to hand it to her. “I got this for you.”

Blood-stained fingers gently took it from me.

I turned to her face, and she realized her mistake. She quickly retreated back into the house, a step behind the doorway. She placed the corsage on the floor next to the door and tried to close the door. I shoved my foot between the frame and the heavy wood. I furrowed my brow as I pressed, “What happened to your arm?”

She pulled her cardigan sleeve over her hand and stuttered, tripping over her words, “It’s—uh, it’s nothing.”

I took a step toward the entry and shook my head slowly. “No, what happened, Devin?”

She bared her teeth and hissed, “It’s nothing.”

My eyes wandered over her shoulder, and I noticed a window by the back door was destroyed. Shards lined the floorboards and glittered from the night stars. None of the lights were on in the house. I gently nudged her out of the door frame as she tried to close the door as she realized I was beginning to unravel what she was hiding. “Ned, stop.”

I wandered through the bottom floor. The house was naked. Furniture imprinted on the carpet, but it was no longer there. The coffee table we studied on was gone. The refrigerator was no longer in the kitchen. After investigating every cupboard and corner of the house, I turned around to Devin and asked, “What happened?”

Devin pulled back the sleeve of her cardigan to reveal cuts wrapping around her right arm until her elbow. She murmured, “I’ll tell you if you help me pull the shards out.”

“We’ll need a light.” I leaned over to the wall and flipped the switch. Nothing came on. “The electricity’s not out. You’re neighbor’s lights are on.”

“She must have called the electrical company. The only thing I have right now is water, and I don’t know how long that’s going to last.”

I turned to her and cocked my brow. “What happened?”

She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb and asked, “Your car has a light, right?”

“Yeah.” I grabbed her left hand and led her outside to my car. I leaned over and unlocked the passenger side door like I visualized in my head, opening it for her, her sliding in and thanking me, and me gently closing it. I walked over to the driver side and sat down, shutting the door behind me, shutting out the cool night air. I flicked on the light, and the gravity of the wounds sank into me. The cuts fell nearly a quarter of an inch into her flesh, revealing muscle and fascia I had learned about in Anatomy and Physiology a year ago. The bleeding had stopped, and I wondered if my pulling out the shards would bring the blood back.

“I like the suit,” she whispered.

I turned up to her eyes, and she gave me a soft smile. I shook my head as my brow folded and whispered, “You’re a mess.”

She turned back down to her arm and retorted, “I know.” Her minute fingers grabbed a shard peeking from her flesh and tossed it out the window. She meticulously angled her arm under the light to detract all of the glass we could find, me watching for any glinting pieces and her abstracting everything. She finished and leaned back into the chair, checking out her handiwork. “I don’t think I’ll need stitches.”

“You’ll scar.”

She turned her face to me and stated, “My street cred just went up fifty points.”

I shook my head, warning her that I was being serious. “What happened?”

She pulled her sleeve down as her smile faded away from her face. “I don’t know everything myself. She drugged my water bottle. One minute, I was doing homework in my room, and then I woke up in the backyard. I thought maybe I blacked-out, but I wasn’t drinking. I got up to the door, and I was locked out. I tried every door and window, but she changed all of the locks and locked everything else.”

“So you punched through the window?”

Her eyes widened as she defended, “I had to. I thought Holden was in there!”

I turned to stare at the road and assumed, “Holden’s gone, too?”

She nodded her head fervently. “I think she has him.”

“Your mom?”

“And Esther.”

“Where are they?”

“They moved in with him.”

I froze and slowly turned to her. “Jude got out?”

She furrowed her brow and muttered, “I think Mom left because he got out. I’m pretty sure they must have moved in together with Esther.”

“But she’s your mom.”

“But he’s her husband who she’s known for nearly twenty-five years, Ned. Who are you going to pick? Your ungrateful kid or the man who you waited three years for?”

I cradled her face in my cold hands, her warmth permeating my skin. “Listen to me.”

“Ned…”

“Listen to me. You are worth it. Okay? She should have picked you. This is no reflection of your worth or value, okay? I would pick you every single time.” I peeled away from her and turned back to the asphalt. I combed my fingers through my hair as I tried to begin to understand why her mother would just leave her like this—abandon her to nothing.

“I’m sorry about prom, Ned.”

I turned to her and cocked a brow. “You can’t be serious.”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s your senior year. You’re supposed to enjoy prom and just act like a fool the whole night.”

We sat silently for a long time. I remember glancing at the clock and counting about forty-three minutes went by before I had a complacent idea. I was too busy staring at her, waiting for her to break down, but she was done. I could tell by the way she forlornly glanced at her house occasionally that she was in mourning. Her initial stage of anger dissipated away as time healed those scars and opened new ones on her heart.

“You know what? We’ll have our own prom. Just you and me.” I started up the engine and inquired, “You still have your beer?”

She cracked a smile and murmured, “Do I have to share?”

I gave her a slight punch in the shoulder and pulled out my cell phone. I ordered a pizza, and she gave me her address, except I asked the guy to just deliver it to the curb. She pulled out of the car and rushed inside. I pulled out of my car and sat down on the curb, waiting for her to come back and waiting for the total. After I hung up, she pranced back to the car with a six-pack of some beer I barely recognized and the corsage. She persuaded, “I promise it’s good. It’s a local brewery.”

I pulled out a bottle from the cardboard box and glanced at the name. “Awesome ’Possum?”

“It’s cheap. Give me a break.”

I placed it back and took the corsage from her grasp and cracked open the container.

“Ned, what are you doing? I brought it back so you could give it to your mom or Lex.”

I pulled her left wrist to me and slid on the token. “I got it for you, stupid.”

Her eyes remained on the corsage as she pulled her hand closer to her body. Her fingertips prodded the flower gently and curled the ribbon delicately. Her lip rolled under her teeth as she investigated it some more.

“I know you said that one time your favorite color was lime green…”

“It’s beautiful, Ned.” She turned to me and raised her hand. “High-five.”

I laughed and slapped her hand as she sat down on the curb beside me. “If there was a pageant for socially awkward people, you would win.”

“And you would be the emcee?”

“Of course.” I glanced at my car, and then a thought flew across my mind. I turned to her and inquired, “Did she take your CDs?”

She sadly nodded. “No, she broke them the other day. She took my box to the backyard and broke them one by one.”

My plan backfired, and then I asked, “You listen to any good radio stations?”

She shook her head. “You can pick.”

I pulled myself off of the curb and opened my car door. I rolled down all of the windows and kicked on the radio to a random station. Elvis Presley blared through my speakers as I pumped up the volume. I glanced over my shoulder at her and curled back my lip, “You want a hunk of burning love?”

She laughed and shook her head. “This is prom. Play some crap music.”

I twisted the dial and ended up on an 80’s station. David Bowie blared through the speakers, and I turned around. I yelled over the music, “He’s my eye buddy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, one of his pupils is permanently dilated. I think he got hit in the head when he was younger, and then he turned out that way.”

“Well, he was hot when he was younger.”

“You just like guys with crazy eyes.”

“That’s what I put on my internet dating profile,” she joked. She leaned back into the grass, propping herself up with her left arm as her right arm sat in her lap, probably nursing it from all of the destruction it went through.

I saddened and turned back the dial.

“Whoa, stop!”

I jumped. “What?”

“Stay on this. I love this song!”

I waited a moment and then shut the door. The music fled from the car, and my heart beat rose as I untied my bowtie and unbuttoned the top three buttons of the stupid shirt. The black tie hung carelessly on my neck like a feather boa a drag queen would scoff at. I turned to Devin, and I was so happy.

She had her eyes closed as she hummed along with the song. She tilted her head back and forth lightly with the melody. Her soft voice barely could be heard as she gently sang along with the chorus.

I stuck out my hand and invited, “You want to dance with me?”

She opened her eyes and glanced at my hand. She cracked a smile and gently shook her head. “You are such an idiot.” She took my hand, and I pulled her to her feet. She stumbled towards me. She stabilized and put her hands on my shoulders. Her eyes remained at her feet, and she marched in place a couple of seconds. She meekly turned her gaze back at me and murmured, “I don’t know how to dance.”

I laughed. I murmured, “Just put your feet on top of mine.”

Her feet timidly fell upon mine. I wrapped my arms around her lower back and rested my chin on her crown. I breathed in her cinnamon scent and smiled goofily to myself. Her hands clenched my chest. I swayed back and forth, carefully moving my feet slowly and evenly to not allow her to stumble and fall. Initially, I was frightened that she would have no beat, but her hips began to sway under my touch as I slowly stepped in a small circle. I could feel her lips part as she smiled and laughed into my chest. The songs switched to a song I knew, My Chemical Romance’s “Demolition Lovers,” and I began to softly sing.

She whispered, “I love this song, too.”

“Kind of morbid.”

“Kind of beautiful.”

I felt her shift underneath me, and I pulled my chin away and glanced down at her. She turned her chin up, and our eyes locked. She whispered, “Kind of like us.” Her full lips parted, and her eyes shivered across her whites.

My hands slid up her back and cradled her neck. I leaned in and folded my lips over hers gently. Her hands rested on the curve of my neck, and we smiled into each other’s lips and then sunk back into each other. I shimmied over to the car with her feet still on top of mine and gently pushed her onto the bumper of my SUV. Her hands tousled my hair as my hands fell to the small of her back.

“Ahem.”

My hand rested on her forearm as her left hand slid down to my chest. I leaned into her, and she leaned into me. She was perfect.

“AHEM…”

She and I quickly separated and turned to see a pizza delivery guy dressed in his red and white uniform glaring at us. I turned back to Devin, and she began to pat down her wild hair. I laughed at how blushed her chest and face had become. I gave her a peck on the cheek, and she turned into me and gave me a peck on the lips.

“It’ll be thirteen thirty-five, if you could pay me before you guys start ripping each other’s clothes off.”

I peeled out fifteen bucks and didn’t wait for the change, and I took the pizza from the guy. He waddled back to his car and tore off dangerously close to me. I pivoted on my heels, and Devin nestled on the curb again. She popped a top off a bottle and placed it beside her and then popped off another cap. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to get drunk. If I say anything weird or kind of off, just ignore me.”

I nestled down beside her. Her warmth precipitated from her side against me. I smiled at her as I placed the pizza on the asphalt. I flipped over the lid and offered her a piece. She grabbed a piece. “Best prom date ever.”

I smiled and grabbed a piece. “Ditto.”

We sat in silence again, but it was the comfortable silence you could enjoy. You just filled the silence with your embracing thoughts. She stared off into the distance and nibbled her pizza. I noticed she drank about four beers. I was still on my first. The beer had a pungent pumpkin flavor that curled my tongue, but I guess she was used to the strong liquor after some of the stories and seeing some of the things she imbibed.

I finally broke the silence, “So are you excited your dad’s out?”

She silently shook her head, her eyes glued to the stars above us.

I turned to her. Her silhouette’s profile had smooth curves with just the one bump on her nose breaking the perfection of everything. Her bottom lip curled over her top lip as she thought for a moment. Her eyes glistened and glowed in the darkness, alive with thought.

She began the fifth beer, and, wrongly, I decided to test the waters. It was unethical for me to use her handicap as a way to finally get some answers, get to know her better. I felt like I barely knew her even though I had strong feelings for her. I knew about this and that, but I didn’t know her past. I didn’t know what happened that caused her to be who she was. “You don’t have to answer this, but there was a rumor when your dad got accused of tax evasion. Your sister said you framed him.”

She nodded.

My heart stopped. I slid a little bit away from her, almost as if it was contagious to be a liar. I meekly stared at her, and I shook my head. She was still Devin. She was still the girl I think I loved. “Why? Why would you do that?”

She took a long drag on a beer and continued to stare vacantly. “I did his taxes for him. All I had to do was put that he made less money than he actually did. I just screwed his tax equations up while I was doing the numbers. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier. I should have done it years earlier.”

“Devin!” I yelped, disgusted.

She became silent.

I placed my hand on hers and stared intently at her, trying to give her a safe environment she would feel comfortable in. I whispered, “But why? Your dad is a good man.”

“Bullshit.”

“Devin, what happened? Why would you do that? He’s just a man, but I—”

“He isn’t a man. He is a monster.” Her brow furrowed as she stared at the horizon. Her lips unveiled clenched teeth, and her hand curled into a taut fist under my touch. She finally turned to me and honestly inquired, “Do your parents hit you?”

I froze. I shook my head.

“Well, he would. Not like spanking or something like that. He would beat the shit out of me. He beat me so badly one time, I could not get up. I thought I was going to die.”

Startled, I could only say, “Devin, did anyone know?”

She turned away from me and glared off into the horizon. “I don’t know why he chose me. He didn’t hit Esther like he did me. Esther never knew, and Mom never knew. No one knew. I would just blame it on being clumsy. I would blame it on soccer. I would just use all of these excuses to protect him because I loved him.

“Isn’t that stupid? You shouldn’t love someone who beats you, but I did. I just took it because I thought maybe that was just how he showed love. He always said I was his favorite.”

“Devin, we have to tell someone.”

“I did.”

“What?”

“Who are you going to believe? A minister or a kid? A man of God or an atheist? I had no proof. I had nothing to go by. You don’t believe children. I didn’t show all the signs. I wasn’t willing to be a statistic, and that let him do whatever he wanted with me.

“One night, he came home so drunk. He smelled like strawberries and vodka. I thought it smelled kind of sweet but not in the good way—so sweet to the point of bitter. He went into Esther’s and my bedroom. He yanked me out of bed, and he told me to drive him to the church.

“I didn’t have a license or anything. I thought to myself, Hell, if I slam into a tree, at least I’ll kill us both. No one would care about me, but everyone would care about him. That would just give him more pleasure. But I didn’t have the strength to do that. I couldn’t do it, so I drove us to the church.

“We went down to the basement, and I had to tell him something really important. I don’t know why I decided to do it when he was plastered. Maybe I thought he would be more lenient and understanding. Maybe I thought I could run away from him if he tried anything. Well, I told him, and the first thing he grabbed was a letter opener. I didn’t think he could do anything to me with that, but he stabbed me three times in the outer thigh. He then threw me into his desk.

“The papers scattered everywhere. I don’t know why I thought this, but I remember being so frustrated that all of the paperwork would be out of order for me tomorrow. I thought I’d be back to work the next day.

“Well, next thing I know, Heath shows up. He shoved my dad out of the way, and then Jude hurdled to the floor. He got up again and finally threw a blow into Heath’s face. It was then I knew it had gone too far. I couldn’t let him destroy Heath. He could do whatever he wanted to me, but he couldn’t break Heath.

“And that’s why I framed him. I didn’t want to get anyone else hurt. I didn’t want anyone else to be demoralized and punished for things they have no control over or never did.”

I slowly blinked and murmured, trying to understand, “You did it to protect Heath?”

“I couldn’t let anyone else feel that pain.” She heaved a sigh and then coughed. I glanced at her eyes and noticed she was finally crying. “I never told anyone why. I never knew anyone cared.” She shuddered and collapsed into her knees. “God, you must think I’m so weak. I’m the emotional girl who can’t get shit right.”

“Devin,” I whispered. I placed my hand in the middle of her back, and she let out a blood-curdling wail as she continued to fall into herself. She shook her head silently as she shuddered, and I pulled her closer to me. She buried her face into my shirt. I slipped off my tuxedo jacket and placed it over her shoulders lightly, trying not to disturb her.

“And now he’s back,” she choked. “Oh God… oh God.”

“How about we go inside, okay?”

She turned to me and murmured, “Please don’t be mad at me. I just did it. I had to.”

I pressed my lips against her forehead and whispered into her soft skin, “I know, babe. I know you had to.” Anger rushed into my chest as I thought about all of the times I had defended him in front of doubters. I defended him and thought perhaps it was just a minute error. I thought all of these great things about him, and one word toppled his whole shrine inside my mind.

I pulled her onto my lap and folded my arms under her knees and around her back, and I lifted her and carried her to the door. She nuzzled my neck, her lips brushing against my sensitive skin. I opened the door and tip-toed into the house. I flicked the door close and shuffled into the living room. I knelt down to the floor and gently laid her down. Her hair splayed out as her limbs loosely fell to the floor. I combed through her hair gently, the silky strands tickling my fingers. She silently stared at my face, trying to translate my expression into an emotion, into thoughts.

She whispered, “What are you thinking right now?”

“You’re drunk.”

“Yeah, but I can still think. What are you thinking right now?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Could you do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Tell me.”

“How about I give you a back rub?”

She rolled over with her abdomen on the floor. She pulled her cardigan over her head and curved her arms to her sides, covering her chest. Her alabaster skin glistened as the moonlight streamed in through the window. She twisted her hair over one of her shoulders and lay back. “Don’t get any ideas.”

“Sure.” My hands slid against her velvety skin, rolling over the bumps of her vertebrae and her ribs. My fingers ran into the knots and massaged them out. Her skin twitched under my touch but then slowly relaxed. I murmured, “Tell me when you want to stop.”

She whispered, “Don’t.”

My fingertips danced across her back as I debated telling her my deep secret, the secret that could destroy me if she rejected it. I leaned over and glanced at her tattoo on the curve of her upper back—Free. I had to be willing to take a chance. I straddled her lower back and rubbed deeply into her muscles, spreading up as if she had wings and fell down her upper arms. I leaned over her and pressed my lips against the curve of her back. I kissed each bump of her vertebrae and then traveled up her neck. My lips came to her ear, and I whispered, “Devin.”

“Hmm?”

“I think I love you.”

Her eyes snapped open and she twisted her face to mine. Her eyes widened with fright, and she stared at me incredulously. “What?”

“I love you.”

She pulled herself out from under me abruptly and pulled her cardigan on quickly, careful to not reveal her breasts. She shoved me off of her with both hands and growled, “Get out.”

I sat up and stared at her, terrified she was going to break my heart. “What?”

“Get the hell out.”

“Devin, it’s okay if you don’t feel the same way. Just don’t do this.”

“I said, ‘Get out.’” Her gaze shot to the wall, and a tear shed down her cheek. She shook her head as her hands covered her ears. “Please, Ned, get out.”

“Devin, it’s okay. It’s okay.” I reached for her and grabbed her wrists. I grabbed under arms and pulled her to my eye level. Her eyes locked on mine, reddened by alcohol and tears. I whispered, “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head as a deep grimace carved into her face. “Please, don’t say it. Don’t ever say it again.”

“Devin, what are you talking about? I love you. Please tell me what’s happening.”

She shook her head and begged, “Just leave, please.”

“Devin, what’s going on?!”

“Get the fuck out!”

I drove home around one-thirty. I slapped the wheel angrily as I tried to understand what I did wrong. “Demolition Lover” kept coming on the radio even though it was an old song, and it kept pissing me off. All of the scenarios I played in my head never ever equaled what happened. It was like she was scared of me. She did not reject my emotions or feelings, but she was unwilling to accept them. She was terrified of hearing my vulnerability.

I slammed open the door and thundered inside. My mom came pounding down the stairs and whipped around the corner into the kitchen as I came in from the garage. She had a smile on her face until she saw my wan expression, “Baby, what’s wrong?”

I shook my head.

“Ned, what’s the matter?”

I turned to her and admitted, “I told Devin I loved her, and she flipped out.”

“Oh, Ned, I’m so sorry.”

“I didn’t know what I did. She just kicked me out of her house.”

“Wait, I thought you were going to prom.”

“Long story. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

“Well, Lex wanted to know what happened tonight. She told me to tell you to wake her up to tell her about it.”

I moped up the stairs hopelessly and finally made it to Lex’s room. I shoved some of her stuffed animals off her bed so I could sit down at the foot. I gently rocked Lex’s legs, and she shot up. She gave me a toothy grin while rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “Was it like a fairy tale?”

I smiled, “Just like one.”

“I’m glad. Was Devin pretty?”

“She was gorgeous. I should have taken pictures for you.”

“Oh, and you were her knight. I can’t wait till I go to prom.”

Funny, I would have thought I was the dragon the way Devin reacted.


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