The noise turned out to be a car accident. A minor one, basically, but a wreck in the school parking lot, no matter how minor, was significant enough to attract the attention of almost everyone.
As Cam and I got closer to the crowd of on-lookers, I heard names. Names that guarantee the rest of the school would perk up with interest. I just groaned.
"Are you fucking insane?!" Bixby bellowed at the top of his lungs.
"It was just a fucking accident! For fuck's sake! Calm down!" Riley was yelling right back, waving his hands around randomly.
"An accident?! What the fuck were you doing? How do you accidentally destroy an $95,000 car in a goddamn parking lot?!" Bixby was pissed and when I finally got close enough to see his truck I cringed. He loved that truck.
"I looked down for a second and you backed out like a maniac! How the fuck do you even have a driver's license?!" Riley was examining the front of his car, which was crushed inward. I could see he was unhappy, but he wasn't distraught like I'd expect.
"Me?! This is entirely your fault!"
"My fault?! Are you kidding?! You drive like a crazy person! It's a miracle my sister is the only one you've killed!"
That brought the noise from the onlookers to a screeching halt. Utter silence surrounded the accident, along with bits and pieces of both vehicles. I looked at Bixby and knew his reaction would not be pleasant. I pushed my way through the crowd, with cam trying desperately to keep me out of it.
"Riley!" I stood directly in front of him, trying to not look at Bixby at all. It was hard, still, to be near him. I tried to focus on Riley, to keep from feeling that gut-tightening ache that came when I looked at Bixby or caught him looking at me.
Riley took a deep breath. "Sorry, Em. Sorry, B. Really. It really was an accident." He sounded honestly apologetic, but his attention wasn't focused on Bixby for long. "Emma Grace, I'm glad you're here. We need to take your car, because obviously mine's a little fucked up." He waved one hand toward his car while he used the other to pull me into a hug.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I noticed that Bixby's anger was not appeased by the apology. He glared at Riley and his breathing was hard and angry.
"Ry, what are you even doing here?" I looked up at him with a frown.
"Riley, get your fucking hands off of her. Now." Cam was standing suddenly very close, almost in Riley's face, and I was shocked.
"What the fuck, dude?" Apparently, so was Riley.
"You heard me. Get your fucking hands off her." Cam grabbed my wrist and yanked me away from Riley, who wasn't actually holding me at all. Cam's roughness was a surprise and I grimaced.
"Cam? What the hell?" I rubbed my wrist and stepped away from him. We'd definitely attracted the attention of the whole school, but the faces are blurred until I couldn't pick out anyone in particular.
"What?" Cam asked like he hadn't done anything freakishly strange.
I rolled my eyes and focused on Riley again. "Why are you here?"
He eyed my wrist, and glared angrily at Cam. "I'm picking you up. We have a… date."
"No we don't."
Cameron and Bixby chuckled, and a lot of the crowd seemed amused too. Riley shrugged. "Well, we could." He yanked his shirt over his head and tossed into the open roof of his car. "Beach trip?"
I noticed then he was wearing surf shorts that hung low enough on his hips to show off his amazing abs. He had no hair on his upper body except for a small "happy trail" that disappeared below his waistband. He was used to being gawked at, but I just frowned.
"What are you talking about?"
He leaned closer to whisper in my ear. "You've been fucking miserable for a long time, and I'm tired of watching you be unhappy. I just want you to have some fun. Just a little. It won't hurt you. It won't make anyone doubt how much you love them. But they're gone, and you're not even trying to live a life anymore." He stood up straight and looked down into my face with an honest and hopeful look. "I just want to take you to have some fun, Em. It's finally warm enough and… please?"
"I need to go home first…"
"Emma Grace!" Bixby's outrage beat Cameron's by a split second, but I looked only at Cam.
"He's my friend, and he's offering me something that you can't. Tell Sky I'll call her later." I knew how they'd interpret my words. I knew I'd made Bix and Cam and most of the student body think I was leaving to hook up with Riley. But I didn't care.
I expected Riley to smirk but he didn't. He was gathering his insurance information for Bixby while I walked around to my car. I didn't stay long enough to see what else happened, but teachers had started making everyone clear out of the lot, and I didn't hear sirens so I assumed no one had killed anyone.
It took longer than Riley expected, but we finally got on the road. I guess he thought he'd show up, wisk me off to the beach, and we'd be there in a few minutes. He didn't plan on getting into an accident, or having to wait around for a tow truck and a police officer to write a report. He didn't take into account that I'd need to ask permission and change clothes and all that either, but I was done by the time he made it to my house. He'd had to beg a ride from one of the girls at school, and I'm pretty sure he got a date out of it. Whore.
And it turned into a beach weekend. I doubt Connor would have agreed to it under different circumstances, but I'd been so miserable that he would have done anything to see me happy again. Looking back, I wondered if he let me go because he was mad at Bix and he thought letting me be with Riley would hurt him. He never said anything about being mad at Bixby, but I knew he was. And more, he was hurt by it, by Bix dropping us. He'd become a part of our family, and he was missed by more people than just me.
And I was happy. While I was lying on a bright pink towel, on my stomach, on the beach, with the sun warming my skin and Riley singing along to music from his phone, I was happy. It was easy to be happy then. Riley didn't make me talk about what was bothering me. He didn't make me talk about anything at all, except which restaurant we ate at. And we shared a hotel room but slept in separate beds. I sent a picture of the beds to Connor so he didn't worry about that too much, but I think he would have been okay with his teenage daughter having sex if it made the hurt go away.
But Riley and I didn't have that. We had an easy friendship, usually. Sometimes he was an ass, but mostly he was just my friend. And that weekend, he was the kind of friend that I needed more than anything else in the world.
On the way back home, I shifted in my seat to look at him. He'd turned even darker from the time spent in the sun, and his hair was lighter. He was beautiful. And I told him so.
He chuckled. "Ditto, babe." Then, "Are you any better?"
I thought about that for a few minutes, and he let me. "I'm not sure. I had a good weekend though. Just, you know, not having to talk about my feelings, or whatever."
He quirked his lips slightly into an almost smile. "Yeah, everyone always wants you to talk about how you feel, like they can do anything about it anyway. I think they think if you talk about it, it won't hurt anymore. But they don't have a fucking clue. It hurts. Period. It hurts like a sword to the gut. Not just a punch, a sword. And having to walk around with a smile on your face, while not talking about the goddamn sword in your guts… Yeah, not easy."
"Yeah. And then they want to say that it just takes time. It'll get better with time. Like I just need a few days and I won't miss my heart beating. Like a few days will make the nightmares go away."
"Oh God, the nightmares! I know right! I mean, I'm sure yours are different than mine, but still."
"Do you have them still?"
He paused a moment. "Yeah, but not as often. I guess the time thing, as far as that goes, is right. But I still have them sometimes. It's still hard to go to the beach. It's hard to look at Bixby. It's hard to go to sleep when I've had a really great day, ya know? I mean, I wonder if it would have been better if she'd been there. That kinda shit."
"And I wonder, a lot, if she'd be disappointed in me. She was just a kid, so yeah, I can't really even imagine her as a teenager. But I hope she wouldn't think I'm horrible."
"She would. Sisters always think their brothers are horrible. Sometimes." I smirked at him and he rolled his eyes, but smiled in return. We were quiet for a few minutes before I spoke again. "I wonder if my mom would be any better at handling me than Connor. He tries, he really does. He wants to just fix it. But he's grieving Colton too, and trying to be a better dad for Liz than he was for me."
"Does it bother you? The way he is with her, when he wasn't there for you?"
"No. It wasn't his fault he wasn't around for my childhood. He's a good dad. I'm lucky to have him."
"But it isn't enough, is it?" He sounded sort of sad, a little hollow.
"No, it is, sometimes. But sometimes…" I took a deep breath and released it on a sigh. "I thought that I'd always have Bixby. None of the rest of them, my family I mean, have ever felt permanent. But I thought Bix… would never leave me. I didn't think about how we'd be. I mean, I didn't assume we'd always be together like a couple. I never thought about that at all actually. I just thought, he'd just be there. I'd just have him. Always. And I could handle everything fine if I had him. I never thought about specifics, hows and whys and all that, but part of me knew I'd lose my family. Clearly I wasn't thinking about anyone dying, or I might have been more prepared for… this."
"That's when it happens. When you feel safe, like your life is good and constant, that's when everything falls to shit."
"Thank you for this weekend, Ry. I mean it."
He'd stopped for gas, but hadn't gotten out of the car. He'd just been sitting, talking to me. And then he leaned over and kissed me. It was sweet, and probably most girls would love to have Riley's lips touching them, but it just made me a little sadder. I think it made him sadder too. "I'm gonna miss you, Em."
"What?" I felt hysteria kicking in. Was he leaving me too?
"I know you about as well as anyone can, Em. And I know you're going to escape. You're going to graduate from Carlton, and be gone. And you won't be one of those people that try to keep up with everyone. You'll just… go. And I'll miss you. That's all. I mean, you can call me whenever you want. I hope you do call me, a lot. But I just… don't expect it."
"You're not the first person that's said that."
When we finally got back, it was strange to be back home. I dropped Riley off and drove home feeling much lighter than I'd been. Connor noticed the difference, and I could tell it was very hard for him to not ask me about it.
When I got back to school, Cam demanded explanations instantly. And Skyler too. But I just didn't answer. Eventually (a week later) they let it go.
And the rest of my senior year of high school was… almost bearable. Almost.
Bixby dated a lot after I went away with Riley. He might have been dating before that, but he hid it. He stopped hiding it after that weekend. By the time prom rolled around, he'd gone through most of the senior and junior class girls. I tried not to care, or to at least seem that I didn't care. He went to the prom with a senior from the Academy, and so did I. Riley was the perfect date for me, and I actually had fun. At least, I had fun for the hour that I was there.
Look, I went. I wore a beautiful dress. I took pictures. I danced. I drank spiked punch. And I came home. Riley didn't mind though.
I know Skyler and Cameron were worried about me, and their worry for me seemed to increase as the year came to an end. Again, I did the things I was expected to do for graduation. I cried at the speeches. I laughed at the four people who flashed the crowd. I hugged my friends. I cheered. I tossed my hat. I went to the post-grad party. I drank and danced and even made out with… someone. I forget who.
And the next day, when I woke up at 3:30 in the afternoon, I packed all my stuff.