A/n: After nearly two years of writing, this is the end. I don't think I've ever been more emotionally invested in a story as I have been with this one. Nor have I ever had a main character who has made me feel such a conflicted mess of things as Brady has. I have gone from barely being able to tolerate him, to honestly hating him, to loving him so much. He's the most relatable character I've ever imagined, and it makes me very sad that, just when I realize this, his story ends.
Note how I said his story. Because there is going to be a sequel, only not with Brady as the protagonist. That will be Shaun in the next one. Unfortunately, the first chapter won't be out until the beginning of December. So. If you're interested, put me on author alert (if you haven't already). The story will be titled Back to the Drawing Board. Make of that what you will.
I would like to thank everybody who's stuck with me, with this, and with Brady for so long. Thanks to my amazing reviewers. Thanks to everyone who has favorited. Special thanks to AYParillo who has put up with me talking/ranting about these characters as if they were real since the beginning. And another special thanks to JHeartbreak for reasons he already knows; without him, the ending would have been completely different and not as good.
With all of that said, I only have one more thing left to say: Enjoy the chapter!
Realizations, Decisions, and Goodbyes to Finally Make Things Right
I stared up at the ceiling and tried not to think about anything other than how the sunlight through my curtains gave the white paint a blue tint. In the past several weeks, this had become my normal routine. I would spend hours lying on my bed, just starting off into space while I tried not to think. At first, it had only been something I did when I had nothing to do, but recently I'd taken to doing it instead of doing the things I should be doing. Like studying for that chemistry test I had tomorrow. I knew I would regret that later, when I ended up bombing it. As of right now, though, I didn't care. It was really hard for me to care about most things anymore.
Time hadn't made anything any better. It had been almost a month now since I'd had those last confrontations with Shaun and Jason. I hadn't seen or heard from Shaun since, and Jason was still avoiding me as much as he could at Grant's. Knowing that I probably would never settle things between either of them left this hollow feeling in my chest that just sucked all the motivation to do anything right out of me. But that feeling was relatively new—maybe just from the past week or so. Initially, it had been confusion. Then, it had been indignation for a bit before it was followed by some more confusion. Those two emotions were always the most prevalent whenever I started to think of everything that had happened. After a while, it had gotten exhausting, which was why I'd stopped trying to understand what went wrong. I didn't think I ever would, so what was the point?
Besides, it was easier to not think about it. Not thinking about it meant I couldn't care about it, and not caring about it meant it couldn't hurt anymore. It made me feel empty, but I would take that over how bad everything else had made me feel. Even if it did destroy my drive to do anything. That was a price I was willing to pay.
I didn't know (nor did I care about) how long I'd spent staring up at my ceiling before a sound from downstairs finally snapped me out of the trance I was in. The sound was of something slamming against wood. Probably a hand. Probably my dad's hand. I closed my eyes and exhaled with resignation, waiting for the inevitable shouting that I knew was going to follow. The fact that my parents were getting a divorce hadn't stopped them from arguing. Honestly, I thought it had made things worse since it had simply given them something else to yell at each other about.
The sound of raised voices reached my ears a short moment later, just like I'd known it would. With another sigh, I rolled off my bed and headed towards my bedroom door to close it. I would be so glad when the divorce was over; I was sick of listening to them fight. Regardless of that, I listened for a moment before actually closing the door. I couldn't help but be curious at what they had possibly found to argue about now.
What I heard made me decide not to close the door at all.
"You have no right to try and take my right to see my son away from me!" my dad shouted.
"Of course I do," my mom snapped back. "I'm his mother. I know what's best for him and that's to be away from you!"
My eyes widened. How could mom say that? I didn't understand how she could think it would be best for Dillon (they could only be talking about Dillon since I was eighteen, meaning they no longer had custody over me) to be kept away from dad. That wasn't right. That wasn't fair to dad or Dillon.
Dad apparently thought the same thing.
"How?" he demanded. "How is it better for Dillon to grow up without me—without a father—than it would be to have me in his life?"
"Because you're too strict on him," mom said, and it made me frown. Where was she getting that from? I'd never thought dad was too strict with Dillon. Or with me for that matter. His punishments and scoldings had always seemed justified and equal to what I'd done wrong, even if it didn't seem like it at the time I'd been being punished. It was mom who had always blown up over small things and penalized us more severely that we had deserved. Knowing that, I was baffled by how she thought she could use being strict as a reason.
"You're not a good influence on him," my mother continued. Her voice had gotten quieter, like it sometimes did when she was angry. I walked out into the hallway, over to stand at the top of the staircase, so I could hear her better. "If he's with you without me around, your feelings and thoughts towards me will corrupt and poison his feelings and thoughts. You'll turn him against me—I know you will."
"Are you serious, Lisa?" my dad exclaimed indignantly. I understood how he felt since I was feeling the same way. "How can you even say that? I would never do such a thing! I can't believe you—I can't believe you're doing this! I would never do something like this to you!"
"That's a lie!" cried my mom. "You would! You would do it just to hurt me!"
"I would not!" dad bellowed. I blinked at how angry he sounded. "How dare you accuse me of such a thing! Especially when you are doing exactly that—when you are the one who is trying to take my son away just to hurt me! You're being a hypocrite, Lisa!"
I nodded slightly when I heard that because I thought she was being one, too. It was really frustrating that mom didn't realize that either.
"You are also the one who is making this so damn difficult!" dad told her. "When I said we should divorce, it was my attempt to settle things with you in the only way that makes sense at this point because it's obvious we can't do in any other way. And we can't continue on like this—I won't continue on like this. Not after seeing the effects it's had on Dillon. But you are the one who keeps pulling shit like this to prevent anything from being accomplished. We could have already been divorced by now if you had just cooperated with me, but you haven't and won't just for the sake of being difficult."
I blinked again. If that were true (which I was nearly positive it was since my dad had always been the more reasonable one), then I was going to be quite upset with mom. It didn't make sense how she was acting or what she was doing. The best thing for all of us was obviously for her and dad to settle the divorce matter as quickly as possible with as little as trouble as possible. Why couldn't mom see that she was making it more difficult and painful by continuing to do things like this? Was it like my dad had just said? That mom was refusing to cooperate just for the sake of being difficult. If so, then that was beyond ridiculous. She was beyond ridiculous.
"No! You always do this to me!" my mom shouted. "You always say it's my fault when it's not! You always blame me for everything without ever giving me a chance to explain! You just don't understand and I'm—"
I stopped listening to her. I couldn't listen to her anymore because this roaring had started in my ears. It was suddenly very difficult for me to breathe, as well. My heart simultaneously felt like it had stopped and was pounding furiously in my chest. I stared wide-eyed into space, feeling dizzy and a little sick to my stomach.
That…that was almost exactly what I had said to Jason that day in the parking lot. That was nearly the same thing I had accused Shaun of doing. And—
I swayed a little as realization hit me and I reflexively reach out to steady myself against the wall. With my heart still hammering, I let myself slide down to the floor where I sat completely motionless in shock. My parents continued to argue in the background, but I paid no attention to them. I was too busy trying to deal with the revelation I'd just had and all the emotions it had brought with it.
Since the confrontations with both Shaun and Jason (but before I'd just stopped caring), I'd been going back and forth between the emotions of confusion and indignation. Indignation because talking to them hadn't worked like I'd wanted it to and confusion because I couldn't understand why it hadn't worked. This entire time I'd been trying to figure out why neither of them had let me explain, understood my reasons, or forgiven me, without any success. Until now. After hearing what my mom had just said, I was pretty sure I finally understood.
Mom was being ridiculous, unfair, and unreasonable. I had thought this even before I'd heard her say that which was so similar to what I had said. And if she was those things, I was those things. If she was ridiculous, unfair, and unreasonable with what she was doing, then I had been ridiculous, unfair, and unreasonable in what I had done. This had made me see the parallels between my parents' relationship and the ones I'd had with Shaun and Jason. Despite the differences in situations and how they weren't totally comparable, it was comparable enough to make it obvious to me now. The way mom treated and reacted to my dad was practically identical to the way I had reacted and treated Shaun and Jason when I'd confronted them.
And if I knew she was wrong for what she was doing and had done, then I had to be wrong as well.
I exhaled hard and took a deep breath in, forcing myself to calm down. Before I could say I had been wrong with completely certainty, I had to be sure. I had to look back on what had happened, but if this was going to work I also needed to keep my emotions out of it. Too much emotional involvement had probably been why I'd never been able to figure it out. So, I called on the detachment and lack of caring I'd been feeling for the past week to help. I also tried something hearing mom say those things had made me believe might work best—I remembered what happened while I imagined myself as someone else. If I pretended to be an outsider looking in, I thought it would give me enough distance from the situation to view what had happened in the clearest, most unbiased way.
It did. It worked. And what I saw made my throat close up with guilt, disgust, and incredulity with myself.
Blaming Shaun for my cheating had been wrong. Going to Jason afterwards to try and have him take me back had been wrong. Cheating in the first place had been wrong. I had been so incredibly wrong with everything I'd done in the past several months that I honestly had no idea what I hadn't seen or realized it sooner.
Actually, that was a lie. I did know why it had taken me this long. It had just been easier to ignore all the bad things that had happened rather than deal with them. Mary had been right; I was terrified of confrontation and this was another example of that.
Shaun and Jason had also been right. Shaun when he'd said that it wasn't his fault—that it was mine—and Jason when he'd said he was my second choice. These things were so apparent now. I didn't understand how I'd never seen them before.
No. That was another lie. I had seen them before, but I had forgotten and chosen to ignore them. It was just one more way I had tried to avoid confronting what had happened.
I had always known cheating on Shaun with Jason was wrong. The same went for all the lying I had done to both of them. It had made me feel so guilty. Guilt was a terrible, nauseating emotion for me. I hated the way it made me feel, so I tried not to feel it. I tried to find ways to get rid of it. Hence the way I'd managed to convince myself that cheating was okay as long as I only did it until either Jason or Shaun proved that they were better than the other. I couldn't believe I had done something so wrong and irrational, while at the same time I could. When something made me feel guilty, I would give anything not to feel it, even if that meant denying such obvious truths and lying to myself.
That had been exactly what I had done after Shaun and Jason had found out about my cheating. After the initial shock had worn off, it had left only this intense feeling of guilt that I didn't know how to handle—that I didn't want to handle. So, I'd somehow convinced myself that I hadn't been at fault for what I had done. Somehow, I'd convinced myself that it had been Shaun's so completely that I'd even started to honestly think it was.
My fear and inability to cope with guilt had led me to believe in something that couldn't be further from the truth. It had led me to believe that everyone was unjustly blaming me for a wrong that wasn't my fault. It had led me to seek out Jason only because I'd been lonely and I'd thought he would give legitimacy to my belief with how understanding he was—not because I had the feelings for him I should've had if I'd really wanted to be with him. By then, though, I'd been so wrapped up in this absurd fallacy I'd created that that hadn't matter. I'd been so wrapped up in it, that when he had also blamed me, it hadn't made a difference in the way I'd thought. For some reason, it had only made my conviction that I hadn't done anything wrong and that I was being blamed unfairly even more resolute. So much so, that I'd continued to believe it even after nearly a month had gone by.
Up until now.
Now, I could plainly see the wrong I had done and how wrong I had been in nearly everything. In cheating, in lying, in trying to pin what happened on Shaun, and thinking it was okay to treat Jason as a second choice. I could plainly see that I did deserve the blame because it had been my fault.
Everything that had happened had been my fault.
I wrapped my arms around my stomach as the guilt settled in, making me feel sick. Sadness and regret were present, too. It wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be, though. The feeling was still awful, but it wasn't unbearable. I guessed it helped that for the first time in this entire situation I was thinking about it rationally—I wasn't trying to lie to or deny anything to myself.
After hearing what mom had said, I doubted I could lie or deny things to myself anymore anyway. If I did, then I would be more like her than I already was, and I didn't want to be. I didn't want to end up in a relationship like my parents'. It was horrible to think that I almost had; I never wanted to risk it happening again. I knew it was the fear of becoming my mother and the resolve not to so I didn't end up in a dysfunctional relationship like her and my dad was what was giving me the ability and rationality to deal with and accept the mistakes I had made, along with the guilt. It probably helped that a good amount of time had passed, too; it had put the distance between me and what had happened that was needed for me to calm down enough so rationality was even possible.
It was strange, though, how out of all the things that could have finally made reality hit me in a permanent way, it had been this. Not what Mary had said on that night, not what Liss had said in the café, not my confrontation with Shaun, and not my confrontation with Jason—it had taken something almost completely unrelated to what had happened to make me understand. That didn't make much sense.
Then again, along with everything else I'd realized today, I'd also come to the conclusion that a lot of the things I did, said, and felt didn't make sense or were very rational. I supposed all that mattered now was that I knew I had been a stupid, naïve fool and, in knowing that, I was going to do everything I could to not be one ever again. In knowing that, I was going to do all I could to make up for it.
The only question was how.
I bit my lip uncertainly. Right now, I didn't have an adequate answer to that question. I most likely wouldn't until I had spent a long time thinking about it. That was for the best anyway. The more time I spent thinking about it, the more likely it would be that it was the best solution.
Before I could start that, though, I needed to deal with the emotions I was currently feeling. Thinking would go nowhere if I was too distracted by my guilt, sadness, and regret. I wasn't sure how exactly I was going to go about this, but I thought that talking to Mary and perhaps crying for a while might be the best place to start.
Actually, no—it wasn't. There was a better place to start putting things right.
I tuned my parents back in to see if they were still arguing. They were. It was still about who would and should have custody over Dillon too, which shouldn't have been an issue at all. I listened for a moment to let my irritation with them build until it was stronger than anything else. Then, after wiping the tears from my cheeks and taking a deep breath to prepare myself, I stood up and walked downstairs to confront my parents about their fighting for the first time.
It was a good thing Dillon hadn't been home to hear or witness it because it hadn't been easy or pretty. It had been frustrating with more shouting, swearing, accusations, confessions, and tears than there had ever been before. But it had worked. Somehow, I had managed to get my parents to see how ridiculous they had been and were being. I had somehow managed to get through to them so effectively that that was the last big argument they had.
The satisfaction and relief I felt afterwards made dealing with everything else seem that much easier and hopeful.
Another several weeks had gone by. I was doing…okay. It was easier to accept responsibility for what I had done than I had expected. The guilt wasn't as awful as I'd thought, either. It was still awful, of course. There were days when it was so strong that I felt like I was going to throw-up, but I hadn't had one of those in a while. In fact, I felt considerably less guilty now than I had just two weeks ago. I guessed the ways I had found to deal with it were working.
Time was a big help. With each day that passed, the pain lessened a little bit more. And with those days when the guilt was really bad, to the point where I just wanted to hide from it, I had found that reminding myself of what might happen if I did worked wonders on giving me the strength to push through it. Talking with Mary helped a lot, too.
The thing that had the greatest effect on helping me overcome the guilt and the self-hatred that it caused was I was in the process of forgiving myself. That didn't mean I was making up reasons to justify what I had done. It meant analyzing everything that had happened very carefully and accepting that, while it was my fault for deciding to cheat and lie, the forces and reasons that had led me to do this weren't completely in my control.
For one, it was now blaringly obvious how my parents' relationship had influenced my own perception of how they should be, even before they had started arguing. My mom had always given my dad a hard time about how he never spent time with her (which wasn't by choice, but because he was an accountant and worked long hours; my mom never seemed to think that was a good enough reason). I didn't think my dad had ever been as happy as he could have been with mom, but he'd stayed with her regardless because it was the easiest thing to do and at least she was someone. The similarities between how my parents acted towards and treated each other and how I had acted towards and treated Shaun and Jason were frightening. If I had noticed them sooner, I doubted I would have ever let myself get into such a mess. The thing was, until recently, the influence had been completely subconscious. I couldn't correct or prevent something that I wasn't even aware of, so there was no sense in blaming myself for that.
Then, there was the fact that I had never felt like I was getting enough affection from Shaun. I had been wrong when I used that as a gage to determine how much he cared about me. That was clear to me now, but it hadn't been when we'd been together. Even if it hadn't been true at all, it had felt like Shaun didn't care about me as much as he should or as much as I wanted and needed him to care about me. This was why I had fallen for Jason's charm and demonstrative nature so easily—why I started cheating on Shaun with him in the first place. I had thought that was what I had wanted: a partner who was naturally and openly loving.
The problem was I hadn't known what I had wanted at all. If I had, it would have been easier for me to choose between them. Honestly, both of them had parts of what I'd wanted or thought I'd wanted. Shaun with his class and poise, and Jason with his easygoingness and compassion. If they had combined into one person, it would have been perfect. Or, at least that was what I'd thought. There had been a part of me that had also thought and hoped I could influence them into being more of what I'd wanted. Shaun more so than Jason. And now that I knew how hard Shaun had been trying for me and that he did love me, I couldn't help but wonder if he would have eventually become everything I'd wanted in a boyfriend if I hadn't screwed up so badly.
But I had screwed up and there was no way I could change that. I couldn't change how naïve I had been; I couldn't change the things I had done or the mistakes I'd made; and I couldn't change the way Jason and Shaun now thought of and felt about me. I couldn't change the past.
The only thing I could change was myself right now. I could change who I was now and make myself a better person by accepting and learning from my past wrongs. I could work on being less naïve. I could forgive myself for being naïve in the first place and for making all these mistakes. After all, not everything that had happened or why something had happened had been in my control; I wasn't completely at fault, even if the majority of it was. Sure, I should have had known better, but I hadn't and there was no use in beating myself up for it. What mattered most was that I knew better now and wouldn't make such foolish and naïve decisions ever again.
I needed to move on. I needed to move forward. And I was. I had mostly forgiven myself for the things I had done that was a direct result of my parents' relationship subconsciously influencing my own. Now, I was in the middle of trying to forgive myself for cheating, lying, and the overall way I had treated Shaun and Jason. This was harder and slower going, but it was working. I no longer felt as if I should be punished for what I'd done, like I had for a while. Seeing Jason at Grant's didn't make me feel nauseous with guilt anymore and coming across Shaun's old texts on my phone no longer made me want to cry. There was still pain, but it was pain that I could deal with. It was pain that was gradually, yet definitely, fading.
It helped that I knew Shaun and Jason would eventually be okay again. They were both incredibly strong people. I had little doubt that they would make it past the hurt I had unintentionally caused them. They just needed time, like I needed time. And if they had enough, maybe they could forgive me, too. I knew nothing would ever be the same between any of us, but perhaps it could be okay. I hoped so. If it wasn't, though, I could live with it. It wasn't the end of the world—something I had just recently begun to understand.
So, overall I was doing a bit better than just okay. In a few months, I thought I would be close to being completely fine. I wasn't going to be back to "normal," because there was no way to go back to that after everything that had happened. Even if there was, I wouldn't want to. That wouldn't change anything; that wouldn't help me make myself better. If I wanted that to happen, I couldn't go back to the way I had been. I had to learn from the past. I had to grow as a person. I had to create a new "normal," a new "me." But most of all, I had to find myself.
I didn't think I could do that here. There were too many things holding me back: the loss of most of my friends who were never really friends; the constant reminders of everything that had gone wrong; the monotony that had been every day since I could remember; and the lack of opportunity to be completely on my own for once. I couldn't start anew in this place without facing constant setbacks. It would be easiest somewhere else—somewhere different, far away and new, where no one knew who I was or who I had been. I wanted some place where life was so nonstop and aggressive that I wouldn't be able to ignore it. I needed a place where I'd have to either know myself almost absolutely in order to survive or metaphorically be left behind to die.
And that was why I had decided to accept Mary's offer to move to California with her.
I glanced around my room, checking for anything that I might have missed. There was nothing. Everything was already packed inside of labeled boxes or the suitcase leaned up against the wall by the door. The room looked unnaturally bare, yet cluttered at the same time. It gave me a strange melancholic satisfaction, my stomach doing anxious and excited flips.
"Brady, are you absolutely sure about this?"
At the sound of her voice, I turned towards Mary. She was sitting on the edge of the bare mattress only two feet away for where I was standing, staring at me with a serious and searching expression. I met her eyes directly and nodded my head. "Yeah, I'm sure," I told her.
Mary stared hard at me without saying a word. I could understand how she wasn't completely convinced that I really wanted to go through with this. After all, I had made the spontaneous decision only two and a half weeks ago—two and a half weeks before the day she had planned on leaving.
Two and a half weeks before today.
After several seconds, though, Mary finally nodded back. "Okay." She stood up and looked around the room at all of the boxes herself. "Your dad is going to ship all of these to you?"
"Yeah," I said, reaching out to touch the nearest one. The label on it read CLOTHES.
"How did your parents take it, by the way?" Mary asked. She turned back towards me with a questioning look. "When you told them you were leaving."
I shook my head and shrugged one shoulder. "Neither like it, but my dad understands. My mom? Not so much. She's usually just starts crying whenever it's brought up and has to leave the room. It makes me feel bad, but not bad enough to change my mind."
"And your brother?" Mary raised both her eyebrows, her eyes sympathetic and concerned. I opened my mouth to answer only to close it and look away, biting my bottom lip uncertainly.
"He…he hasn't talked to me much since finding out," I eventually managed to tell her.
"Is he home right now?"
"Yeah, in his room."
Mary gave me a stark look. "Well, then you go talk to him," she instructed. "Unless you want to leave without saying goodbye to him."
"No." I shook my head. "No, I don't want to do that to him." I was already doing that to my parents. They had no idea that today was the day I was leaving. I thought it was for the best, even if I couldn't explain why. With Dillon, though, I couldn't go without seeing and talking to him since he was the one I was going to miss the most.
I looked over at my closed bedroom door, staring for a moment before I turned back towards Mary. "I'll meet you in the car, okay?" I said.
Mary said nothing. She merely nodded with a slight, pleased smile on her face. I smiled back and then headed out of the room, across the hallway to my brother's.
His door was closed, but I knew he was in there since I could hear the background music of one of his videogames and the sound of his fingers on the controller. I just listened for a moment, my throat closing up a little as I realized this was the last time I would be standing here like this for who knew how long. It made me incredibly sad. But after a few deep breaths, I was able to get myself under control enough to knock on Dillon's door with one hand while I opened it with the other.
"Dillon," I said. "Can I come in?"
My brother glanced away from his TV screen to stare at me. His eyes and expression were stony. It made the constriction in my throat worsen, but I tried not to let it get to me so much. I just stood there in the doorway, waiting patiently and hopefully for a positive answer from Dillon.
It took a minute or so, but Dillon eventually paused his game, which was just as good as him giving me a verbal answer. I smiled, half-grateful and half-sad, and walked into the room. Dillon promptly turned away from me, a scowl on his face. I felt my heart drop a little as I sat down on the floor next to him.
We sat in silence for a while, both of us waiting for the other to speak first. I knew it should be me, but I was afraid my voice wouldn't work with how tight my throat was. Besides, what I really wanted to do was envelop Dillon in a hug, not talk. Unfortunately, I didn't think he would appreciate that right now. So, I took a deep breath instead and began talking.
"I don't want you to be mad at me," I told him quietly. "I don't want to leave knowing you are."
"I'm not mad at you," Dillon grumbled, sounding frustrated. He still wasn't looking at me. "I just—I just don't understand why you're leaving in the first place."
I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. "It's hard to explain—"
"Okay…okay…" Sighing again, I chewed thoughtfully on the inside of my lip for a moment. I wanted to explain this in a way that made sense to a thirteen year old that didn't completely reveal what I had done, yet in a way where I wasn't lying to him. It was difficult, but I finally managed after a moment of very careful thinking.
"I…made some mistakes in the past few months. I won't tell you what they are, but they're pretty bad. I'm trying to make up for them now, and I'm almost done. I just…getting away for a little while will help bring me all the way there."
"How?" Dillon demanded. He turned back towards me with a confused, angry look. "How can leaving do that? It doesn't sound like it will help at all. It just sounds like you're running away."
I stared at him, my eyes wide and my lips parted slightly in astonishment. After a short moment, I closed my eyes, exhaling hard and shakily. "You're right," I confessed. "It does sound like I'm running away. In a way, I am." I opened my eyes and met his gaze directly and gravely. "But I'm not running away to avoid my problems, I'm running away so I can find a way to face them."
"That doesn't make any sense," my brother said.
"It doesn't," I agreed with him. "But it's what I have to do—what I need to do. I know you won't like hearing this, but you'll understand it better when you're older."
Dillon narrowed his eyes at me. "And in the meantime? While you're gone? What am I supposed to do?" he snapped. "You're just leaving me here. Alone. To deal with mom and dad by myself. I can't…I can't—" He cut himself off, tightly clamping his mouth and eyes shut as he whipped his head away from me. I could still see enough of it to see and recognize the strained expression he had on his face. It was the one he usually got when he was trying not to cry. That, along with his words, told me exactly why he was so upset with me leaving that he hadn't talked to me.
Without thought or hesitation, I pulled Dillon towards me and wrapped my arms around him. He started to fight to get free at once, but that only made me hold onto him tighter. Eventually, he stopped struggling and gave in, dropping his head onto my shoulders and hugging me back fiercely as he began to cry. I could hear his muffled sobs and feel the way they shook his entire body. It broke my heart. Rocking him gently back and forth, I rested my head on top of his.
"You thought I was abandoning you?" I whispered incredulously. "No. No, I'd never do that. If I had thought things were still awful with mom and dad then I never even would have considered leaving. But they're not fighting anymore, Dillon. You've noticed that, right? How much better it's gotten? And the divorce will be finalized soon, which will settle everything completely."
"And if it doesn't?" Dillon asked into my shirt, his voice choked.
"Then you call me and I'll come back at once," I promised vehemently.
Dillon sobbed harder. "I don't want you to go at all."
"I know," I murmured. I hugged him tighter and began stroking his hair, crying a little myself. "I know you don't. But I have to, Dillon. I can't really explain why—I just have to. For once, I need to do something for myself."
"When…how long will you be gone?" he asked.
"I don't know," I told him honestly. "Until what needs to happen happens."
"That's a sucky answer," Dillon mutters, and I couldn't help but laugh a little.
"Yeah, it is. But it's also the truth."
My brother was silent for a long moment. If it wasn't for the fact that he didn't try to pull away from me, I would have been afraid that he was going to get angry again. As it was, Dillon continued to hug me tightly while I hugged him back and stroked his hair. He didn't seem to be crying anymore. I wished I could have said the same for me. Tears were still running consistently down my cheeks. I couldn't help it; this was the last time I would be spending with my brother for who knew how long.
"Are you leaving soon?" Dillon quietly asked a few minutes later, finally breaking the silence.
"Mary's waiting in the car," I said as an answer.
Dillon took a shaky breath. "Okay…" he mumbled, and dropped his arms from my back. When he lifted his head from my shoulder and tried to extract himself from my arms, though, I just held him tighter.
"She can't wait a little longer," I said in response to the questioning look he was giving me. Dillon smiled slightly, nodded, and began hugging me back again.
"I love you, Brady," he said a moment later.
I pressed a kiss to his temple, smiling from the warmth hearing that had made me feel. "I love you, too," I told him. "And I'm going to miss you so much."
He just nodded in agreement and then started to pull away again. This time, I let him. I had a feeling that if I didn't do it now, I would never. So, with a sad smile, I ruffled Dillon's hair affectionately and stood up. His eyes were on me as I walked to the door. It was the intensity of his stare that made me pause to turn around and look at him one last time before I left his room. For a few minutes, Dillon and I just stared at each other in silence, both of us with tears once again running down our cheeks. I suddenly had the urge go back over there to hug him again and tell him I'd changed my mind—I wasn't going to leave.
It was when I almost gave into that urge that Dillon smiled at me. The amount of warmth, love, and understanding in it made my heart swell. It also told me it was okay for me to leave, if that was really what I needed to do. I made a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh, and smiled back at him, hoping he could see from it how much I loved him and how lucky and grateful I thought I was to have him as my brother. From the way Dillon's smile widened, he did. We spent a few more seconds like that, just grinning at each other.
Then, with unspoken agreement, I walked out the door and Dillon went back to his videogame. Neither of us could bring ourselves to say the word "goodbye". Neither of us felt the need to.
I walked back across the hall to my bedroom to grab my things before heading downstairs. The strap of the messenger bag pressed down on my shoulder as I walked through my house for the last time. It was the bag Shaun had given me for Christmas. I doubted I would ever get rid of it. Not only because I still loved him and how a part of me probably always would, but because I liked how it was a reminder. Every time I used or looked at it, I would remember what had happened, the good and the bad. I would remember what could have happened if things had been different—if I had been different. And I would remember what I needed to do from now on to make sure they were different.
The weather outside was warm and sunny, the perfect picture of an end-of-spring day. I looked up at the cloudless, blue sky as I walked down the sidewalk towards the driveway and smiled to myself. It was incredibly appropriate, I thought, for me to be leaving on a day like this.
Mary started her car when I was a few feet from it, and popped the trunk. After walking around to the back, I shoved my suitcase into the only bit of free space that was left. The rest was taken up by boxes, some full of Mary's stuff and others full of mine. I spent a moment looking at them before closing the trunk and going over to the passenger's side of Mary's car. My own car was parked several yards away by the side of the road with a FOR SALE sign on it.
I sat down on the passenger's seat, closing the door and depositing my bag on the floor by my feet. Then, I looked over at Mary. She was already looking back at me, with her eyebrows raised, her eyes filled with an excited light, and her hand poised over the gearstick.
"You ready?" she asked, and I nodded without hesitation.
With her trademark smile-smirk, Mary put the car in drive. As she pulled out of my driveway and started down the road, I glanced over my shoulder for one last look at my house—for one last look at my old life. Watching both disappear in the distance left this sad, empty sort of ache in my heart. Mostly, though, it just filled me with this sense of happiness, relief, and correctness. I turned back around in my seat, grinning because I was finally doing something for me.
Finally, I was doing something right.