Carbon

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Chapter 54

I marched down the stairs mechanically, drudging my feet along the wooden floors. Another day to just mumble through and deal. Another day living in this hell that Devin created for myself and my whole family.

I understood she needed saving, but I was exhausted. I was tired of finding ways to look at her and not feel sympathetic or fearful or disgusted. Just glancing at her made my stomach churn and made a part of me begin to hate her. I never noticed until it began to pile up when I initially started hating her. It was so backwards, loving her and then slowly loathing her. Was it because she was connected to my past? Was it because she was a walking mistake taunting me with each moment our eyes met? I just remember suddenly waking up and realizing I couldn’t bear it anymore—taking away my family, my best friend, and my morals.

I rubbed my eyes slowly as I slumped into the kitchen. My mom stood in front of the stove, shifting a skillet with scrambled eggs leaking around the pan. Her ears perked, and she twisted her neck to give me a greeting with a smile and a head nod. “Morning, sweetheart, it’ll be done in just a sec.”

My dad sat at the table with a sports magazine practically stapled to his long, narrow nose. He licked his thumb before turning the page to look at more polls and stats collected by journalists regarding his favorite NFL teams and squads. He scoffed at one statistic, repeating “dammit” and “Christ” as he vented to no one in particular.

My eyes fluttered to the sink, and Devin ignored my entrance, turning on the faucet and washing dishes. Her usual uniform clung to her—athletic shorts and a t-shirt—a slob. Her blonde roots began to peek from the brunette dye rebelliously, and she tied up her hair into a messy bun as she felt my gaze upon her.

My mother leaned across the stove to grab a plate and placed the cooked eggs on it. She handed it to me, and I gingerly took it and silently sat down across from my dad. He glanced up at me and inquired, “Who you’ve got for the Broncos and Colts?”

I shrugged, “Dad, you know I don’t keep up with that stuff.”

My mother interrupted, “I’m so glad to have some help around here with Devin around and Lex staying the night at her friend’s, right, dear?”

My dad muttered something under his breath and chuckled to himself.

My eyes swept to Devin, glaring at her fiercely and enviously. She had everyone under her spell, and now that I was free from her curse, I could tell she was merely a cretin in the vision of an angel. She stopped scrubbing the dishes, scratching the sponge across a porous thermos. Her luminescent eyes pulled away from her task and glanced at me in the periphery, questioning how she should respond to the question.

I reached across the table, snatched my dad’s coffee, and took a long drag from the porcelain mug. I never removed my gaze, and she turned back to the dishes obediently.

You’re just like me, Ned.

Seeing her made me want to vomit. She was a reflection of me—a monster. She was the reflection of all of my faults and failures. I couldn’t handle being faced with that much responsibility or severity of consequences. Her broken and shattered pride shone through her eyes whenever I could see her oval face. Guilt would begin to seep through me but would be suffocated by animosity and anger.

Devin turned back to the dishes silently, scrubbing away pieces of egg stuck to another skillet meticulously, foam crawling up her arm. She held her cast to her side, merely using her fingers as an aid in the cleansing of the dishes.

My parents continued to get ready for work, leaving Devin and me alone together, and I almost peeled myself away from the table just from the tension filling the air. She and I never spoke, avoiding each other with side-steps and mild bumps as we cleaned up the breakfast. My parents thundered down the stairs before saying their goodbyes and finally leaving.

“I’ve got to say something, Ned,” Devin murmured as soon as the lock clicked into the door, and I bolted the deadlock.

I whipped around to see her standing in the middle of the kitchen with determination carved into her petite, minute features. Her brow furrowed fiercely as she opened her mouth to continue.

“You need to get out,” I interrupted.

Flabbergasted, she froze. She whispered incredulously, “What?”

I pursed my lips and glared at her. “You heard me.”

“Ned…”

“I can’t handle this anymore. You’re just a walking memory haunting me, you know? You’ve gotta leave or I’m going to lose my fucking mind.”

She whispered solemnly, “Is this because I didn’t love you back?”

It was now my turn to be stunned. I writhed my wrists like a towel, analyzing my true motives behind the whole envy and jealousy revolving around to her. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“I’m just your problem, aren’t I?”

“Devin, I can’t deal with you, knowing you slept with practically everybody in this town. What’s even your number? Can you even keep track of it? God, how am I supposed to handle that when you realize the girl you loved was a sex slave?”

“You’re supposed to support her instead of act like she’s a slut!”

“Every time I look at you, all I see is you being raped. Me raping you. Jude raping you. Men raping you. I can’t deal with the stupid figments anymore!”

She became feral. She dropped the plates into the sink fiercely with a clatter resounding throughout the kitchen. I stepped back, expecting her to swing at me. She took a step toward me, and her fingers fell to the seam of her shirt. She quickly tore it off, unveiling a bright blue sports bra… but that wasn’t what really caught my attention.

I turned away, nailing my gaze to the refrigerator.

“Look at me, Ned!”

I didn’t respond.

“Ned, just look at me!”

I turned back to her. Bruises marbled her abdomen and chest up to her neck. Yellows, browns, blues, blacks, and purples scattered across her skin as if an artist splattered a brush with the colors across her skin. Tattoos of the abuse cluttered her complexion. She hoarsely roared, swallowing before unveiling her voice, “You don’t think I’m reminded? You don’t think I have to live through the shit again and again? Every time I go to sleep, all I see is him, the other men, Heath… and you, Ned.”

I slowly shook my head.

“Every time I look in the mirror, I get to relive it. Every time I notice my nose a little askew, I remember the man yanking it as hard as he could and shoving his penis in my mouth. The bruises across my abdomen just stick out like wicked birth marks. Whenever I eat my stupid liquid diet, I think of the man punching me to get me to stop screaming. Whenever I see a kid, I think of how I can’t ever have that. Whenever I see you, I think of how… I don’t know…”

I just furrowed my brow, feeling heat rush to my face.

She confided innocently, “How I should have loved you. How I should have been so in love with you without any hesitation or fear.”

I whispered, “You should have loved me.”

She retorted evenly, our eyes meeting, “You can’t force me to love you, Ned. I like you so much, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

I slammed my fist into the table angrily and roared furiously, “Devin, Heath is dead! You can’t go on loving him.”

“How dare you bring him up! How dare you!”

“Yeah, sorry, I knew you guys fucked because you loved him so much. And with me, it was just because you felt sorry for me. I was a replacement for him because I was willing to do anything for you. I was blindly in love with you so fiercely that I gave up a relationship with the girl I thought I would marry for you. I cheated on her for you. You slept with me because I was a substitute for Heath.”

“Ned, stop it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Did you love him?”

She squinted her eyes, piercing into my gaze. She pulled on her shirt clumsily, her cast getting caught on the sleeve. If I were a decent human being in his right mind, I would have rushed to help her, but I received some perverse pleasure in watching her struggle.

“Excuse me, I meant, do you love him?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ever love me? Do you love me?”

“I don’t know.”

I threw my hands up in the air. I turned away from her for a moment and began to walk away, but she snatched my arm and pulled me back into the kitchen, leaning back and using her weight as an anchor. I swiveled on my heels, slapping her bruised hand away. “Stop it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” she shouted venomously. I slipped from her clammy hands, and she slammed into the floor. Flat on her back, she blinked for a moment, and then she pulled herself back up.

I just stood like a statue, a permanent glare directed at her.

“When I was with you, I was so happy—I never thought I would ever be remotely happy again. You just made me feel so alive and lit up. You cared about me, and I missed that so much. I missed it so much, Ned. You made me feel all these ways that I can’t explain and can’t describe. When I’m with you, I don’t have those nightmares anymore.

“When you looked at me, I felt like I could do anything. I could actually do something worthwhile. I wasn’t worthless or useless. I had meaning; my life had a purpose.

“When I’m with you, I don’t have seizures. I forget I’m even broken that way. I don’t know what love is, but my body does. Making love with you was the first time I had sex without feeling guilty or dirty or disgusting. I felt loved. You respected me, and you held to my boundaries. You never asked for anything I wasn’t comfortable with. I was a human being instead of a sex toy for the first time in my life. I am not afraid of losing control when I’m with you.

“I could be in love with you.”

I replied, “Well, are you?”

Her eyes widened before she whispered under her breath, “I don’t know.”

I shoved a finger in her direction and argued, “But you can honestly say you love Heath without hesitation.”

“Yes.”

“God, Devin, this is so screwed up. All you care about is Heath; that isn’t all you have. If you are so vehemently in love with Heath, how do you not know love? Do you not feel the same way for me? Do you not miss me when I’m gone? Do you not wish I was here when I’m gone?”

“I do, but—”

“But you can’t love me.”

“I don’t know.”

I buried my face in my hands and rubbed my eyeballs with exhaustion crawling into my conscious. I peeled away from my fingers and mumbled, “Look, I know you two were in love—”

She put her hands to her head and shook it, her eyes rolling. She threw her hands out to her sides angrily and muttered, “Are you serious right now? Are you honest to God serious right now? Ned, you are so blind! You are so blind!”

“I saw the way you two looked at each other. I saw how he was willing to protect you and how he was willing to sacrifice for you. You two were so in love.”

Tears formed in the corner of her eyes, and a tinge of guilt began to boil in my heart. She cupped her hands over her mouth and leaned over onto her knees for a second. She sprung back up and stared at me with tears pouring down her rosy cheeks. Her hands pulled away to reveal a pained grimace and bloodshot eyes. She whimpered, “I love him.”

“He loved you, too, but he’s dead, Dev. You can’t live the rest of your life reluctant to move on. You’re killing yourself every second you hang on to him. I know you two thought you would spend the rest of your lives together. You thought you would get that white-picket fence and those two point five children along with a nice van. You thought he would come home, peck you on the cheek, and play catch with the children in the backyard while you cooked dinner. Why couldn’t that have been us?”

She clenched her eyes shut; a squeal escaped her quivering lips.

“You two were in love—”

Her eyes snapped open abruptly, interrupting my thoughts before she exploded with her voice. “He was in love with you!”

I froze, and we both stared at each other incredulously for what seemed like hours. I finally responded, still stunned by those six words. That just didn’t make any sense. All of those times we spent together and he talked about girls and grades and sports like any other guy. We played video games together until we fell asleep. He helped me ask Lily to be my girlfriend. I gave him advice about girls when he felt like he was in a slump and never was going to get a girl. We told each other everything. “What?” finally expelled from my lips.

She sobbed, “He was in love with you, Ned. He loved you, not me.”

“But, that doesn’t make sense.”

“He was gay, Ned.”

I slowly blinked, computing all of the times he said those gay jokes, all of those times he used those gay slurs in front of our friends. He couldn’t have been compensating for his sexuality.

“Hey, Ned.”

“What?”

“What turns a fruit into a vegetable?”

“What?”

“AIDS.”

I fervently shook my head. “You’re lying.”

She covered her mouth with her hands and whimpered, “He didn’t want anybody to know. He had been in love with you since freshman year. I was his cover. I was supposed to be his way to pray the gay away. We never had real, consensual sex. He never kissed me for his own pleasure. We never were really together.”

“But… but…”

“I wanted it to be me, Ned. I wanted it so much to be me because he was so perfect, flawless. There was nothing wrong with him, except he saw his sexuality as his one defining flaw.”

My hand whipped into the side of her face, and her neck audibly cracked from the impact. She slowly turned back to me, gifting me a forgiving stare as the tears seeped over her eyelids. Tears began to blur my own vision. “Don’t you dare lie to me, Devin.”

She whispered in a breathy voice barely loud enough to be heard, “He loved you so much. All he could do was try to be the best friend you had. He had to watch you be with girls and feel inadequate in your eyes. He would never admit to you that he did. He just wanted you to be happy, and he was content with being your wallflower.”

A single tear trickled down my cheek.

And I honestly couldn’t tell why.

I didn’t know if it was because my friend kept such a crazy secret from me, or if maybe I blamed myself for not knowing my friend enough to know he was gay. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to think that all of the innocent things we did together could have been misconstrued by his imagination. Maybe it was because I should have loved him like Devin should have loved me.

“So please don’t say he loved me because I know there was no way he loved me like I loved him.”

We were all after something we couldn’t have. A stupid leash wrapped us all together for separate reasons, and then it all became clear. As Heath chased after me, Devin chased after him, and I chased after her. My stomach pitted and cramped at the sudden confession.

And then it occurred to me… how could she have kept this from me for so long? How could she have stifled this secret for so long? But then again, how did she manage to keep a hold of her molestation history that began when she was too young to even remember?

She just did.

She crumpled to the floor and stared up at me somberly. She sniffled loudly and wiped her tears away with the heel of her palm. Her fingers combed through her hair as she tried to calm herself down.

I took a deep breath and finally asked, “What was it you wanted to tell me?”

Her blue eyes lit up suddenly. She stuttered, “I think I love you.”

I shook my head and walked out of the room incredulously. I had always felt like I would be above the moon about her finally admitting her love to me, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I just felt lousy. I couldn’t accept her love anymore as my affections had expired.


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