Warning: Rated for mentions of death, sex, language.
fate fell short this time, your smile
Fades in the Summer
©2013 dear-llama. All Rights Reserved.
"Who are you looking at?"
Silence followed that question, and I could only assume Mary-Jane – because that was who Bertha had been talking to – was pointing or blushing or simply doing nothing, as she was wont to. I was back-facing them and didn't want to turn around. I had the feeling they exactly didn't like me. It would seem overly forward to intrude into their conversation.
After a moment, Bertha spoke again. "The new lifeguard? Good pick."
I almost dropped the tray I'd been holding. What the hell?
"Hey, you know him, don't you?" Bertha was suddenly by my side, leaning against the counter and studying me through the gobs of thick eyeliner she slapped on every day. Her gaze wasn't friendly, but it wasn't unfriendly either. "Maybe you can put in a good word for Mary-Jane here."
I shoved an empty tray back into the pile. "We… don't really talk."
"Really?" Bertha pursed her lips. "Shame… he's…" Then she grew silent, and I looked up to see what had caused that uncharacteristic behaviour. And groaned inwardly.
The aforementioned lifeguard – Dylan Ainsworth – had his elbows propped against the counter, and he was staring at me unsmilingly. His shirt was unbuttoned, showing off a broad strip of tanned skin and lean muscles. A part of me wondered if he'd done it on purpose. Then again, he'd probably just thrown it on before entering the café. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been shirtless and sitting in the lifeguard chair on the beach just a few feet away. What drew my gaze, though, had nothing to do with his very fine body. It was the automatic chronograph watch on his left wrist. He was always wearing it – even when he was working as a lifeguard, because the watch had been made for diving purposes and was, quite naturally, water resistant.
"Tara," he greeted me softly. I marvelled at this anomaly. In the short time I'd been working here, he'd come in several times with his friends, but had never sought me out for anything more than a brief nod. Beside me, Bertha's eyes about popped out.
I cleared my throat. "Hi, Dylan."
"I'm hungry," he said.
"I kinda figured," I replied drily. "What do you want?"
He shrugged. "You know what I like."
Yes, I did know what he liked, but I didn't think he would want it right here, right now. He gave me a look that told me he knew what I was thinking, and I said, "Come back in five minutes."
I shrugged and turned away. Ignoring the vicious glares Bertha was sending me, I stuck my head into the kitchen at the back and hollered for a chicken and ham sandwich, with extra cheese and no olives. While waiting, I turned back to look towards the counter, where Bertha was trying her hardest to chat Dylan up.
"So, you're the new lifeguard they hired for the summer, huh? I've seen you come in here a couple times." I could've told her not to bother. Her flirtatious tone was wasted on him.
True enough, Dylan simply glanced at her, smiling distantly. This was what his smiles always looked like these days. Distant. "Oh?"
"I'm Bertha. I'm a full-time waitress here." Bertha smiled winningly at him. That smile had felled a couple of suckers in her time, but not this one.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Dylan." He dropped her hand pretty quickly after the handshake, as per his habit. One would think he had a phobia of skin-on-skin contact.
"You're in high school, aren't you?" She really was persistent; I'd give her that. Then again, it probably had something to do with his personality, that innate aura of indifference that surrounded him. He always seemed so uninterested in what was happening right in front of him that it made people want to try to reach out and grab his attention – to make him react, to break that smooth, impassive mask he usually had on. What they didn't realise was that their efforts tended to be wasted on him. Dylan had very clear ideas on what he did or did not care for, and not many things or people made the cut.
He smiled politely. "Tara and I just graduated." Bertha's smile widened, because this was the longest statement he'd contributed to the mostly one-sided conversation so far. But then he looked past her at me, and Bertha realised that she was losing his attention. As a last ditch effort at matchmaking, she pounced on Mary-Jane as the girl passed by.
"Hey, have you met Mary-Jane? She's a junior at St. Helen's." That was the prestigious private academy for girls on the other side of town. No wonder she was a wreck around Dylan. That, and she didn't seem to know a thing about Dylan's no-date rule, which had basically been common knowledge at Northridge.
"Hi," Dylan said, reaching out to shake Mary-Jane's trembling hand briefly. "I'm Dylan," he repeated politely, except I knew him, and I knew he was already mentally tuning out.
Mary-Jane was blushing to the roots of her hair. "Hi," she mumbled, before grabbing a tray and shooting off into the kitchen.
I frowned. She was like a nervous rabbit. Even under normal circumstances, she would never catch Dylan's attention that way.
A holler from the kitchen told me that Dylan's order was ready. I grabbed it and shoved it in his direction. "Here."
Dylan took the sandwich, his fingers wrapping around it with a slowness that was frustrating.
"Bye now," I said, just to get rid of him more quickly. He didn't take the hint.
"So…" He was still leaning over the counter, watching me. He didn't complete his sentence.
I glanced at the clock. It read two. Time always crawled when you were at work. Unless there was a long queue, and then suddenly all the hands you had weren't enough. "What do you want, Dylan?" I asked tiredly.
He just stared at me silently. I felt a tremor start up in the region of my stomach.
"Tonight," he said quietly.
"Dylan." There was now a warning in my tone. Just a few days ago, we had agreed that this dysfunctional relationship needed to end. And yet…
A big part of me was tempted. Very much tempted.
He held eye contact but I saw no hint of the pain he had to have been feeling, to issue that almost-invitation. Whatever he saw reflected in my eyes must have been answer enough, because he flashed a grim sort of smile before he turned and sauntered off. Despite myself, I watched him until he was out of sight. I couldn't have torn my eyes away if I'd had to. Judging from the sudden silence from behind me, neither could the rest of the waitresses.
Once she was also done watching him walk away, Bertha spoke up. "Don't talk, my ass."
"It's okay if you're with him, Tara. You didn't have to hide it," Mary-Jane, emerging from the kitchen now that the danger was over, piped up. She scurried off without looking at me.
"I…" About to insist that I wasn't with him, per se, I changed my mind and clamped my jaw shut. What did I need to explain myself for? My relationship with Dylan was none of their business. Besides, Mary-Jane was definitely not Dylan's type. He would get bored with her within the day.
An unfriendly silence settled over Bertha and me when she realised that I wasn't even going to pretend to make an excuse. It was so awkward, standing at the counter with her at the next register, that I was almost grateful when a couple came over to place their orders. Almost, because I recognised Rick Williams when he was just a few steps away. He met my eyes and balked, but it was already too late to turn back without incurring the suspicions of the girl beside him.
Rick cleared his throat when he reached me. "Uh, two hotdogs, please."
"Toppings?" My tone was indifferent – bored, almost.
"Mayo," he responded, relaxing a little when I didn't say anything else. The girl leaned up and whispered in his ear. Why didn't she just speak up? Under my sardonic gaze, he flushed and amended his order. "Uh… Make that one with mayo, and one plain."
I raised an eyebrow. Someone was over-dependent, was she?
But I verbalized none of that, just a, "Coming right up."
Rick paid, taking care to ensure that our fingers didn't touch. He was being so careful that it pissed me off, just a little. The hand he kept wrapped around his girlfriend's waist also pissed me off. Just a little.
When the hotdogs were done, I handed both to Rick. "Here you go," I said, and just because I felt like it, "Rick."
He glared at me.
"You didn't say you knew her, Ricky." The girl finally spoke up. Her voice was breathy and high, all feminine-like.
"Yeah, well… We had the same Calculus class last year, is all."
Liar. I was in all honours classes and had never shared a class with him. Ever.
I smiled nicely, "I thought we were in the same Biology class, too?"
Rick looked about ready to kill me. "I didn't take Bio," he said through gritted teeth.
I turned to his floozy, "Hi. I'm Tara."
"Melody," she said with a shy smile, shaking my hand. "It's nice to meet you."
"Oh, the pleasure's all mine," I said, and in a tone filled with a wealth of meaning, "I've heard so much about you."
The stupid girl was blushing. "Nice things, I hope?"
I flicked a glance at Rick, one side of my mouth curving up into a half-smile. "But of course."
"Let's go, babe," Rick said, handing the girl her hotdog and all but ushering her away.
"Bye!" I chirped brightly. Rick turned and glared at me again. I narrowed my eyes at him.
Of course, he would pretend not to know me. He'd been with his girlfriend, after all, and we hadn't exactly parted on the most amiable of terms. And now, seeing him again, I was pissed off.
In a demonstration of very bad decision-making behaviour, I'd let him stick his tongue down my throat at Mario Gonzalez's party at the beginning of summer. He might've gotten more from me, too, except I'd discovered that he had a girlfriend who had been off cruising in the Caribbean with her parents. It hadn't been one of my prouder moments – discovering that I had been an accomplice in helping him cheat. After that, I'd extracted myself with as much dignity as possible and hoped never to meet him again. Apparently my wish hadn't come true, but then they hadn't for a long time now.
My bad mood was obvious for the rest of my shift, and Bertha probably thought that it was directed at her – self-absorbed, much? – because she started scowling every time we crossed paths. And working in a small place like that – we crossed paths a lot. How I managed to keep from snapping at her I didn't know, but the moment the hour hand hit six, I was gone.
I passed by Dylan's house on my way home. It would've be a little difficult not to, considering the fact that we were practically neighbours. He lived just two doors down. It was clichéd, but our geographical proximity had been a huge factor in establishing our friendship as children. That, and our mutual love of mud and toy cars – one that my sister hadn't shared, which was why she hadn't been part of our twosome as kids. I hesitated at the gate, then strode past determinedly.
"I'm home," I said, when I unlocked the door and stepped in. The house was dark, but I knew she was home. She always was these days. When there was no reply, I flicked on the lights and meandered upstairs.
The master bedroom door was slightly ajar. I hesitated as I passed by, then resigned myself and slowly pushed it further open. I had to check. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I hadn't checked and something had happened.
"You're back," my mother said, a little too late, a little too slowly. Her eyes were red as she stood unsteadily from the bed. The empty vodka bottles that littered the room spoke for themselves. She looked at me and then almost instantly looked away, like the sight of me had hurt her. I understood perfectly. The sight of me hurt me. There was a moment of silence in which she looked bewildered, as if trying to remember what a mother should do. "Have you had dinner?"
"Yeah," I lied. "I'll just be in my room." Without waiting for a reply, I headed down the corridor. I had a chocolate stash in my drawer – tonight's dinner would have to be that. For a moment, I wondered if I should have gone to Dylan's, after all. His parents were never home, so Dylan had learnt to cook. There would have been dinner at his house.
Dylan showed up a little after seven. The doorbell rang twice, which meant that it could only have been him. Nobody else ever visited anymore. When neither my mother nor I paid it any heed, I knew he would try the door handle and find it unlocked. I had probably been anticipating his arrival subconsciously. I waited until I heard footsteps sound along the hall outside – I counted twenty-four in total. Then came the knock at my door.
"Come in," I sighed.
The door swung open. "You didn't come," Dylan said, poised at the doorway as if unsure whether he was welcome.
"I know," I said. I didn't give an explanation, and he didn't ask for one. He moved forward, and, when I showed no signs of resistance, stepped into my room entirely. I watched him shut the door and blurted, "Mary-Jane is interested in you."
He stopped and slowly turned to look at me. "Mary-Jane?"
"You met her today… remember? Petite, long blonde hair…"
He cut me off. "Tell her I'm not interested."
I remembered the look of scorn on Bertha's face and the tone of reproach barely detectable in Mary-Jane's voice. "Tell her yourself."
It was Dylan's turn sigh. "I don't want to date, Tara." Left unspoken were the words 'anyone else'.
"I know," I said. It had been that way for close to a year now, and I was reminded of the reason every single day.
We both stood watching each other. "What's wrong?" Dylan said, after a long pause. He had always been so damned perceptive when it came to my moods. I still wasn't sure if that was a curse or a blessing.
"Ah, screw it," I finally muttered, striding up to him and grabbing him by the collar. Then I yanked his head down and kissed him fiercely. I knew he had been waiting for it, because he reacted instantly, his hands reaching up to cup my face as he kissed me back.
See, Dylan and I – we were best friends. Or at least we had been, until that one night, almost one year ago. He had been dating my fraternal twin sister at that time – sassy, cheerful, light-up-the-room-when-she-walks-in Talia. We both had the same green eyes, but that was all we shared. While my hair was dark and slightly wavy, hers was dark blonde with curls that sprang up no matter how much she tried to comb them down. In short, she looked just like our mother, which had made her Mum's favourite. She was also about two inches shorter, one size thinner, and always got the boy she wanted. And that boy, at that time, had been Dylan. It didn't matter that he had been my best friend, my first love.
But no, I wasn't being fair to her.
Talia was far from a bitch. That was what pained me the most. I was the bitchier one, out of the two of us. She was so nice – everyone had loved her, including me. She had been the best sister anyone could've asked for. To this day, I believe that if I had told her about my feelings for Dylan, she would've stepped back. She was sacrificial like that. But I hadn't told her. She'd even asked me – she'd flounced into my room one day and asked, a little nervously, about my relationship with Dylan. I'd pretended to be impassive and emphasised that we were just friends. Then she'd divulged, almost shyly, that she had the greatest crush on him. She'd asked if I was okay with her confessing her feelings to him. And I'd said the three words I'd eventually come to regret: "Go for it."
She'd gone for it. As Dylan's best friend, I'd known even before I'd walked in on them kissing in the kitchen what the outcome would have been. It had been around the seventh grade when Dylan had started to look like a deer in headlights whenever Talia's name came up in conversation, or when she'd walked past the open door to my room when he'd been over. I'd known that he had been crazy about her, even though we'd never talked about it. And when I'd walked in on them kissing in the kitchen, Dylan pressing her up against the refrigerator like he could no longer hold himself back, my heart had already been shattered by that prior knowledge.
After they'd started dating, I'd tried to distance myself from both of them. That had turned out to be near impossible. For one thing, living in the same house as Talia had meant that I'd always – always – seen them together. Talia was my sister. It had been impossible to avoid her. Avoiding Dylan had been marginally easier, but he, like Talia, had worried about leaving me out. They never had caught on that I would have preferred to have been left out. I'd tried to slip away whenever I could've, but had had to suffer through several outings with them. Several more than I'd ever wanted in this lifetime. It'd felt like been stabbed in the chest by a million shards – the shattered pieces of my own heart, probably – every time I'd had to see them holding hands or sneaking in kisses when they'd thought I wasn't watching. I had been, and it had been hell.
And then there was that night, near the end of the summer before senior year of high school.
They had been dating for fourteen months by then, and still going strong. There had been a party. We'd all gone together, but I'd broken away from them the first chance I had. Then I'd proceeded to go nuts, mixing brandy with tequila, whisky with vodka. I'd been so out of it, I probably would've danced naked atop a table if Dylan hadn't found me and dragged me out of the crowd. It was all a blur. I had no idea what had happened, exactly. The next I knew, I'd been waking up in a hospital bed with my parents, red-eyed and pale, by my side. Dylan had also been there, sitting in a corner away from my parents. I hadn't known what had happened, and why Dylan had been sitting almost lifelessly by the window, dull blue eyes shuttered, until I'd croaked, "Where's Talia?" and my mother had broken down crying.
Later, much later, Dylan had stiltedly told me the whole story. He and Talia had argued. Dylan had been sick of my attitude, as he had put it, but Talia had stuck up for me. Eventually, Talia had stormed off, dragging me along, even though she'd been frustrated with me herself. Dylan had watched her pile me into the car and then drive off, all the while knowing he should've offered to drive us both, because Talia was reckless when she was angry. And she had been furious that night. Instead, he had watched her screech off into the night before returning to the party and proceeding to get angrily drunk. He'd only found out the next day that Talia – and I – had gotten into a car accident. The car had veered off the road and straight into a wall by the roadside. Miraculously, I'd gotten off with only a few broken ribs, a broken nose and a concussion, but Talia's heart had stopped by the time the paramedics had arrived. She hadn't been wearing her seatbelt and the impact of the crash had jolted her forward and upward, slamming her head against the windshield. Then her airbag had deployed with a rush of air that had acted like a hard punch that had barrelled through her abdomen and snapped her spine. I'd been saved because she'd had to strap me in to stop me from rolling off the car seat while she drove.
After Talia's death, Dylan and I had stopped speaking to each other altogether. I suppose seeing me had reminded him too much of her. We were twin sisters, after all. The similarities had been few, but they had been there. I had the exact same eyes that she'd had.
To be honest, I hadn't wanted to see him either. We hadn't been that close since he and Talia had started dating. I think he'd seen my efforts to avoid him and Talia as proof that I'd been jealous – either of him for taking my sister away, or of Talia for taking my best friend away – and he'd had no patience for it. That had probably contributed to the fight they'd had the night Talia died. I blamed myself wholeheartedly, and I knew that Dylan probably blamed me too. He hadn't so much as glanced in my direction at the funeral, just stood in the back, head down, jaw clenched – looking in all the world like he'd lost the love of his life.
Maybe he had.
You'd be surprised at how easy it was to avoid someone who lived just two houses down and went to the same grade at school. The first time I'd seen Dylan after the funeral was two months later. I'd been out jogging at night, trying to drown my misery in music and the rhythmic pounding of my footsteps, and he'd been drowning himself in beer on his porch when I'd gone past. I almost hadn't stopped, but the sight of him had sent such a surge of emotion within me that I'd yanked the ear buds out and stomped up to confront him. And that was when I'd seen his impassive mask break. He'd railed, blamed, shouted and cried. I'd done the same right back. And then all of a sudden, we'd been pressed against each other, kissing almost brutally. We'd kissed like we had been trying to hurt each other, to vent that anger and regret festering deep within each of us. Then he'd pushed me away and stumbled back into the house without even a word of apology, slamming the door in his wake.
All thoughts of running having flown clean out of my mind from that first touch, I'd trudged back home and cried myself to sleep.
A week had passed before we'd run into each other again. This time, it had been at the café at the beach, the one I now worked at. I hadn't been working there yet, back then. I'd only been there to get a quick sandwich when he'd walked in with some of his friends, friends that I also knew. He'd looked so out of place, the only unsmiling one in the group of joking high-school boys. He'd seen me almost immediately, but had looked away just as quickly once our gazes touched. I'd clenched my teeth together and prepared to leave. He probably would've ignored me completely had his friends not seen me and crowded over to say hi. They were my friends, too, even though I wasn't half as close to them as I'd been to Dylan.
"Where have you been?" Reid had asked, nudging me playfully. "It's like you dropped right off the face of Earth."
"I've been… around," I'd said uncomfortably. I'd been very conscious of Dylan standing outside of the circle Reid, Caleb and Ryan had formed around me. And I was also hoping to hell that none of the guys would bring up Talia.
"How are you, Tara?" It had been Ryan's turn to ask quietly. He had always been the most sensitive one in the group.
I'd tried to smile. "Fine."
"I'll go order," Dylan had said abruptly then, breaking away and making his way to the counter without a single glance at me.
A moment of silence had come over the guys as they'd exchanged glances over the top of my head.
"He's just being an ass," Caleb had offered, not even going to pretend that it hadn't happened.
"I should go," I'd muttered, trying to push past them.
Ryan had laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. "If there's anything…"
That had made me smile, albeit a little grudgingly. "Thanks, guys."
Caleb had stepped back to let me pass, but Reid had held out a hand to stay me. "Hey," he'd pitched his voice lower even though there had been no need to, considering the fact that Dylan had probably had no interest in our conversation, "we're throwing a party for Dyl on his birthday. You should come."
I'd stared at him, wondering if he'd been blind to the obvious snub Dylan had delivered earlier on. "I don't think he would appreciate me showing up."
"Just come," Reid had been adamant. Ryan had given him a look, but Reid had shrugged unapologetically.
"I'll think about it," I'd promised half-heartedly, having already decided to do nothing of that sort.
At 3:27 A.M. on the third of November, I'd found myself walking two doors down with a wrapped box in my hand. I'd wrestled with myself all night long before hopping out of bed and sneaking out into the chilly night before I could lose my nerve. The front door to Dylan's house had been left ajar but the house quiet, which probably meant that the last of the party-goers had just left. There had been no response when I'd knocked, so I'd simply pushed open the door and walked in.
Dylan had been the only one there, sitting on the arm of the couch in a way that couch arms weren't meant to be sat on, staring blankly at the empty glass bottles at his feet. The rest of the living room – from what I'd seen – had been surprisingly clean. The guys had probably helped to clean up after the party. The empty bottles scattered beside the couch must have been the remnants of Dylan's own pity party, most likely started after the others had left.
I'd stood silently by the door, waiting for him to raise his head and notice me. After several long minutes when he'd seemed content to just sit there and continue staring into space, I'd stalked up to him and dropped the present in his lap.
He'd jerked like he'd just been rudely made aware of my presence in his house. Then he'd blinked several times, as if to pull himself out of the drunken haze the bottles of beer had sent him into. I'd seen the exact moment his gaze had sharpened and settled on me. "What," he'd drawled rudely, even as his eyes had flicked over me. "Are you my birthday present?"
"You're an asshole, Dylan," I'd retorted, without any real heat, before gesturing at the box he was now holding in one hand. "No. That is."
He'd stared at wrapped box, as if not knowing what to do with it. "You got me a present?" He'd asked, his voice softening. I'd had to take a deep breath before replying, because in that moment, he'd sounded so much like the old Dylan – my Dylan – that I'd wished I had brought him a present.
"No," I'd squeezed past the tears in my throat to wheeze. My voice had come out in nothing louder than a whisper. "It's from Talia." I'd found it in her closet the day before, when one of our past conversations had suddenly come back to me. She'd been worrying over what to get Dylan for his birthday, and I'd suggested the automatic chronograph watch that he'd been wanting for a long time but had never gotten around to saving for. We'd gone out that very day to pick it out together. I'd made fun of her for buying the present four months early, but she'd just laughed and said, "I want everything to be perfect for his birthday! He only turns eighteen once, you know."
The pain had come flooding back at this memory. I'd bitten my lip, hard, to distract myself from the threat of tears.
Dylan had frozen in shock; the next moment, he'd swung his hand back and the box had flown across the room and bounced off the door before clattering to a stop – ironically – beside the empty beer bottles at his feet. "Fuck you," he had grated, making no effort to moderate the angry hurt in his voice. He'd leapt off the couch and turned his back on me. When I'd seen him lift his hand to move it in a tell-tale swiping motion across his face, I'd looked away and bent down to pick up the present.
"She wanted you to have it," I'd said, starting to cry myself. "She bought it way early, in July. She wanted your birthday to be…" Perfect. I hadn't been able to say it.
He'd known anyway. He'd turned back around and stared at me, eyes red but dry. Then he'd slowly made his way over to me, walking like someone wading through thick swamp mud in a desperate attempt to get to shore. He'd laid his fingers on the box in my hand, and whispered, "What is it?"
"A Tissot Seastar 1000," I'd croaked.
His fingers had fallen away. "She knew," he'd muttered under his breath, managing to sound awed and pained all at once. I'd decided, in that split second, to never tell him that it hadn't been her idea – that it had been mine.
Because I'd looked into his red-rimmed eyes, into the raw grief swirling with the blue of his irises, and I'd known. He really had loved her. He'd loved her in that reckless, uncontrollable way that youths loved, and even though he might have grown out of it in the years to come, it was also equally likely that love could have stabilised into something more, something greater – something that could've seen them living out the rest of their lives 'happily ever after', if only she'd lived. If I hadn't gotten myself so drunk that night. If they hadn't argued. If he'd worked past his anger and offered to drive us home. If she hadn't been so worked up that she'd forgotten to buckle herself in.
If only that night hadn't happened.
His eyes had fallen closed, and I hadn't been able to tell if they'd been wet, because my sight had been distorted by my own tears. I'd tried to push the box – now looking a little worse for the wear – into his hands so that I could get out of his house and back to the sanctuary of my own room, where I could curl up and rehash every single 'what if' and wish I'd been the one to die instead.
He hadn't taken the present, but he'd wrapped his hand around my wrist and yanked me to him. For the second time that night, the gift-wrapped box had fallen to the floor. The moment his arms had wrapped around me, I'd latched on and started to bawl hopelessly. A part of me had been mortified, but another part – the larger part – had known that it had been inevitable. These tears had been a long time coming.
I didn't know how long we'd stood there, in each other's arms, me trying to cry silently but failing miserably, and him – I had a vague idea that he'd been crying as well, but he'd made not a single sound. Eventually, when my sobs had subsided, I'd pulled away and tilted my head back to look him in the eye. His eyes, too, had been wet. My hand had drifted up, of its own volition, to wipe the wetness away. He'd reached up and grabbed my hand, stilling it.
"Is this the part where you push me away and slam the door?" I'd whispered, my voice hoarse from the crying fit earlier. I'd been referring to that incident a week prior, when we'd kissed and he'd practically shut the door in my face.
He'd known what I'd been talking about, even without any further elaboration on my part. He'd let out a little sigh. "I'm sorry. That was rude."
It had been more than rude, but I hadn't quibbled. It was such a rare event in those days, getting a direct apology from Dylan, that I had been a little surprised. I'd stared at him, and he'd stared back, something flickering at the back of that impassive blue of his gaze. There'd been a little pause in which we'd both reflected on what had happened that day.
"Why…?" I'd asked then, pushing out that one word because I'd been unable to frame the question in exact wording. To do so would've felt more like a betrayal to Talia's memory than it had been already. It had been something that had sprung up in the heat of the moment, when anger had mixed with guilt and relief and grief and blame and then it had all exploded and instinct had taken over, the pull too hard to ignore. It hadn't been a pleasant kiss – it had been one full of teeth and blood, one that had meant to hurt. It had seemed like the only way to communicate at a time when words had seemed like such cheap imitations of what we'd been feeling. But I'd wanted to know if he'd had a better explanation for it.
He hadn't. "I don't know."
We hadn't broken eye contact, but now his gaze had been different. Harsher, darker. It had been as if something in the air had subtly shifted and uncoiled. Like watching a car crash happen in slow motion, I'd known what had been about to happen and had been unable to stop it. Unable to have wanted to stop it. There was no knowing who'd closed the gap first, or if we'd both leaned in simultaneously – and anyway it hadn't mattered. The truth was that we'd somehow ended up kissing – again – and it had been nothing like the first.
This kiss had been slow, comforting, and so gentle that it had brought tears back into my eyes.
"Don't cry," he'd murmured, leaning his forehead against mine and letting his eyes flutter shut. His dark eyelashes had been short spikes against his skin, clumped together from the wetness. I'd closed my eyes and held on, my heart full with a mixture of emotions that I hadn't been able to name. With his face so close to mine, I could feel – and hear – his every exhalation. As I'd stood there, listening to him breathe, feeling every short burst of air rasp against my skin, I'd felt a need so deep, so strong that it had threatened to choke me – the need to feel alive, to know that I'd still lived, that I hadn't been the one buried six feet underground… because sometimes that was what it had felt like.
What did it mean to be alive? How could I ever know?
"I hate it," I'd whispered. He hadn't asked what it had been that I'd hated.
"I know," he'd whispered back. I'd opened my eyes and seen in his that he'd understood completely. He'd been the only one who understood my pain.
And it had been that knowledge that had changed everything between us.
Drawn by the need to be, the need to feel – I'd taken a step forward, boldly pressing our bodies together. He'd stilled, his hands falling away from where they'd been on my waist. I could've sworn he'd even stopped breathing as well; he'd been that still. I'd fancied, offhandedly, that if I'd listened closely, I could almost hear the gears of his mind screeching to a complete halt.
His body, however, had reacted almost at once.
Acting quickly so that I wouldn't have given myself time to think, I'd slipped my hands underneath his shirt and looked up at him, the unspoken question in my gaze.
"Tara," he'd breathed. I'd felt his heartbeat beneath my fingers – a quick, indistinct flutter. But it had been proof of the blood moving in his veins, his aliveness, and I'd found it comforting.
I'd known that if I let him have time to think, to remember Talia, I would lose him. "Don't think," I'd ordered softly, leaning up to capture his lips, as well as any other words of protest he might've had. Then I'd started unbuttoning his shirt.
"I don't want to think anymore," he'd admitted in a pain-filled voice uncharacteristic of him when we'd broken apart for air.
"Don't think," I'd repeated. By this time, his shirt had been fully open and I'd pressed my hand against his chest, right over his heart. "Feel."
He'd placed a hand over mine and for a moment I'd thought that he would've pulled away. But then he'd grabbed my waist and pitched us forward such that we'd fallen onto the couch, with me pinned under him. I'd been able to feel his erection through the bulge in his jeans, and his hands had suddenly been moving all over, touching, caressing…
And so – on the day after his eighteenth birthday, close to three months after my sister had died driving me home, I'd slept with her boyfriend.
I'd heard about comfort sex, about the overwhelming desire to reaffirm life after losing a loved one to death, but had always scoffed at the notion. "It's just another excuse to have sex," I'd told Talia sceptically, back when we'd discussed the topic. "You can't be sure," she'd argued. "The human mind has odd ways of dealing with trauma." And I could now fully appreciate the irony of our positions on the issue.
We had done it because we had both been falling apart at the seams. Ironically, what was supposed to have helped piece us back together had only served to break us further. The guilt and regret had set in even before Dylan had pushed himself off me and disappeared into the kitchen to get rid of the condom. I'd known he wouldn't be back.
Neither of us had said a word, and I had no idea what he'd been feeling, because I hadn't been able to look him in the eye. When he'd left the room, I'd curled up on the couch and crammed a fist into my mouth, blinking back tears. How could I have done this to Talia? She had been my sister – still was; death didn't just end a relationship like so many people seemed to think it did. Except it had become increasingly clear that I'd never read the sister's codebook, because I'd done everything wrong.
When I'd left Dylan's house that day, in the wee hours of the morning, pulling the door shut behind me, I'd fully expected to never have seen him again. After all, if he'd ignored me because of a kiss one week ago, it would've made sense had he moved out of the country to avoid me after we'd slept together. I'd been understandably surprised, then, when I'd heard the pebbles pinging off my windows in the middle of the night the next day.
I'd opened the window and looked down to see Dylan standing on the lawn below. My room was on the second storey of the house, and it had been his habit to throw pebbles at my window until he'd gotten my attention. But that had all been back when we'd been best friends, before he'd started dating Talia and before she'd died and we'd become strangers overnight.
He'd almost sent another pebble sailing in my direction before he'd realised that I'd been leaning out the window, watching him. "Oh," he'd said, lowering his hand but not releasing the pebble in his hand just yet. "Hey. Let me in."
It had seemed so much like one of our past interactions that I'd fallen into my old role without even thinking. By the time I'd returned to my senses, I'd already been downstairs and opening the front door for him. After letting him in, I'd stood by the door and asked, warily, "Why are you here?"
He'd shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded me guardedly. He'd been uncomfortable coming over, I'd realised then. I'd been living there for so long that it hadn't struck me that others would've seen it as Talia's house, as well. "Let's go to your room," he'd said, keeping his voice low so that the sound wouldn't travel much. "We'll wake your parents."
I'd snorted. "Not like anyone's going to care," I'd muttered, but turned to lead him up the stairs. If he'd been confused by my comment, he'd kept his curiosity to himself. Or maybe he just hadn't cared enough to ask.
In my room, I'd closed the door and taken my usual seat on the bed when I'd seen him grimace and look away. Then I'd realised what the bed had reminded him of, even though we hadn't technically done it on a bed. Swallowing uncomfortably, I'd repeated my question. "Why are you here?" Left unsaid was the fact that he'd not been in my room alone with me for a long time now. He'd known that Talia had been insecure about the closeness of our friendship back then, and had striven to never do anything to foster those insecurities. In a way, he'd been as much to blame for the deterioration of our friendship as I had been. Talia hadn't made him choose, but he'd chosen all on his own. He'd been one of those guys who'd chosen his girlfriend over his best friend from childhood. He had been the perfect boyfriend.
And he had been, from the day they'd started dating, irrevocably hers.
"I could've come in by the tree… but then I'd have to go through Talia's room…" He'd obviously been stalling, saying the first thing that had come to mind, that he'd thought I'd known all along, but I had been stupefied by that piece of news.
"The tree outside Talia's window?" I'd been horrified at the thought that he'd been sneaking into Talia's room during their year of dating and I hadn't known. Then I'd shaken my head, deciding that I hadn't wanted to know. "Never mind."
He'd swung around to look at me, surprise making him forget all about the awkwardness of seeing me perched on a bed. "You didn't…?"
"No," I'd said, a little more sharply than was warranted. "Talia didn't tell me everything."
The mention of Talia had subdued him. He'd paced in agitation to the window, which I'd closed before heading down to let him in, and stood there silently.
I'd quickly been running out of patience with him. "If you have something to say, Dylan, just spit it out. Or leave. I don't care."
"Look…" He'd sighed and run a hand through his hair, causing a few locks to stand up messily. I'd stared at them, wanting to smooth them down but knowing that I had to keep my distance. "About last night…"
And I'd waited – waited for him to say what a mistake it had been, to make excuses for what we'd done, to blame it all on me for propositioning him when he'd been drunk on grief – all things that I'd turned in my head over and over until I'd been dizzy with it. What had come out of his mouth next, however, had been none of those.
"Are you okay?" He'd asked, and I'd had to wonder if I'd looked odd or been fidgeting or in any way showing my inner distress outwardly, before I'd realised that that had been it. It had been what he'd been about to say about what had happened the night before.
An almost-hysterical laugh had escaped my lips before I could've swallowed it back. Was I okay? I'd barely remembered when I had last felt 'okay'.
His hands had found their way back into his pockets again, and his eyes had been shadowed. "Last night," he'd begun, but there had been a waver in his voice and he's trailed off. When I'd made no move to break the silence, he'd closed his eyes briefly as if pained.
I hadn't understood why he'd shown up to drag out this post-mortem. "It was a mistake. The end," I'd said flatly.
"It shouldn't have happened," he'd agreed, looking away.
Watching him, I'd thought back to the empty bottles I'd seen gathered at his feet last night. I'd somehow forgotten that he must've drunk them all before I'd shown up. He'd seemed sober enough. Out of his mind with grief, but sober enough. Something in my chest had squeezed painfully. I'd known then, without a doubt, that he wouldn't have slept with me if he'd been fully sober.
Finally, his eyes had met mine. We'd stared at each other for a moment, before he'd whispered in an unmistakably pained tone, "Shit."
That one word had summed up everything that could've been said right then. There had been no excuse for what we'd done.
That one word, on top of the guilt that I'd betrayed by sister's memory that I'd been battling all day, had been too much for me to handle all of a sudden, and I'd reacted by bursting into tears. He'd paled immediately. He'd crossed the room in two strides and reached out to me, before snatching his hands back like he hadn't known if he should've been touching me.
I'd been crying so hard that I'd begun hiccupping. When I'd shaken my head, he'd taken it to mean that I hadn't wanted him near and he'd taken a step back. He hadn't said anything, just stood a foot away and watched me cry. I'd pressed the balls of my palms against my eyes, trying to stop the shuddering sobs.
He'd rubbed at his face with his hands, exhaling loudly. I'd watched, through the tears, at him moving towards my desk. Then I'd remembered what was there and held my breath for so long that my tears had dried up.
Then he'd stilled and I'd known that he had seen it. He'd been frozen for a moment, before lifting his hand to touch Talia's smiling face in the photograph that I'd stuck on the wall after she had died. I wasn't much of a photograph person; I'd never been one of those people who'd plastered photographs of my friends all over the walls of my room. But when she'd died, I'd dug out an old photograph I'd had of the both of us – thirteen, our arms slung over each other's shoulders, grinning widely into the camera. Us against the world. My twin sister. My other half. And I'd betrayed her one of in the worst ways possible.
Dylan's fingers had caressed her image with such loving tenderness that I'd had to look away. I loved my sister – I really had, I really did – but seeing her have what I'd wanted, even in death… It had hurt with the pain of a thousand burning feathers, a thousand plummets to earth. And I'd thought my heart couldn't have shrivelled even more.
"I'm sorry," I'd said softly. The words had just escaped, together with my next breath. And I had been sorry. I'd been sorry that I'd betrayed Talia; I'd been sorry that I'd slept with her boyfriend, but most of all, I'd been sorry that I'd forced him to shoulder the pain of knowing he had betrayed her memory. But I couldn't have said, with a hundred percent certainty, that I wouldn't have done it again, even if time-travel and second chances had been possible. I wouldn't have given up that one time with Dylan for anything – almost anything.
And that had been the worst betrayal of all.
Dylan hadn't looked away from the photograph, but his hand had dropped back to his side. He'd clenched his fist for a moment, then, with palpable effort, torn his eyes away from Talia and turned back to face me. He'd stared at me for a long time, maybe mentally cataloguing the physical differences between Talia and me, maybe thinking about what had happened last night, maybe wondering how different life would be if it had been Talia who'd been in front of him, instead of me. Or maybe he just hadn't been thinking about anything at all. "No," he'd said finally, "I'm sorry." As he'd stood by my desk, staring at me, while I'd stared silently back, I'd wondered what had happened to us that we'd come to here and now, to this – standing across the room, apologising stiltedly, barely able to stand the sight of each other because it had reminded us too much of what had happened.
And then I'd remembered. Love had happened. Talia had happened. From the age of fourteen, I'd known that he'd had his heart set on her. He'd been my best friend. She'd been my twin sister. And that had been why I'd had my heart set on forgetting.
I'd discovered that I'd been wringing my hands together nervously. I'd forced myself to stop. My heart had begun hammering away inside my ribcage, remembering how it had been. How right. And how so very wrong.
"I guess… I guess you should go," I'd croaked finally, because the restlessness and anxiety had been creeping up while we'd stood there, in the same room, but as mentally far apart as strangers. The tight, hollow feeling had spread in my chest, and if he'd stayed any longer, the events of the previous night would've been re-enacted.
Perhaps he'd known. "I guess I should," he'd acquiesced, too easily to not have been feeling the same crawling need that I'd had. And with one last look in the direction of my desk, he'd been gone.
I'd waited until I'd heard the front door click shut, before heading downstairs myself to latch the door after him.
Our unspoken, mutual avoidance had lasted for almost a month after that. Then I'd gone to Mallory Knight's party – the first I'd been to since Talia's death – and Dylan had been there. I'd melted into a corner, where I'd stayed half the night, surreptitiously watching him nursing a beer on the couch. He'd had a lot of acquaintances, people who'd come up to him and spoken for a little while before his surliness had sent them on their way for better company. I'd known how he'd felt; it had felt like the crowd had been closing in on me, the air in the house being replaced with vacuum bit by bit. Everywhere I'd looked, everything I'd looked at, had had traces of that party that late summer's night – the night Talia had flown out of the windshield and snapped her neck and never opened those vibrant green eyes, never smiled, never barged into my room for no reason at all, never lit up a room by walking in – ever again. The claustrophobia had kicked in and I hadn't realised I'd been crying soundless tears until I'd seen the drop of wetness fall into the cup I'd been holding. Then I'd looked up and instinctively sought out Dylan. He'd been looking straight at me.
We'd barely made it out to his car. It had been his car because it had been nearer, plus I'd been too distraught to remember where I'd parked or where I'd put my keys. My tears had slowly dried up as we'd both fallen haphazardly onto the backseat, lips fused, limbs entwined, fingers fumbling at reticent buttons. Then it had just been skin on skin, heartbeat against heartbeat, and I'd closed my eyes and tried to forget everything else except the sound of his breathing against my ear.
After that, we'd stopped trying to pretend that the need to feel, to forget, to simply act and not think, wasn't there. In public, we'd tried to keep our distance. But every now and then, when we'd run into each other and ended up alone, it would inevitably end in another downward spiral together.
Now, almost nine months later, it had become a deeply ingrained habit. We broke apart, then gravitated back towards each other when the pain became too great, and then broke apart again when the guilt became too great. It was a vicious cycle, but the only way of coping. Our only way of coping.
Still, every single time, I wondered. I wondered if, when he closed his eyes while touching me, he was imagining that it was Talia instead. And it was this thought that made me strive to stay away after every transgression. But even in that, I failed miserably. As I always did when it came to him.
"Stop thinking," Dylan whispered now, unwittingly echoing the sentiment I'd expressed that first time almost nine months ago. It had been slightly less than nine months ago, but felt like an entire lifetime. In a sense, it had been.
"I–" I opened my mouth – to say what I didn't know, and it didn't matter anyway, because he swooped down and kissed me again. He was rougher than he usually was, his lips moving with a kind of desperation that hadn't been present since the earlier months. I'd tasted his despair then, and I tasted it again now.
Something had happened to remind him of Talia, and he was trying to drown out his pain through actions.
I let my hands trail over his belt buckle, unfastening it easily with months of practice. He gave a little growl when I broke away to push his pants, together with his boxers, down his legs.
"You're overdressed," he said when I was back at eye-level. As if to emphasise his point, he lifted the edge of my tank top and yanked it over my head.
I struggled out of it, responding breathily, "I can change that."
At that, he grinned a wolfish grin that shot straight to my heart, one that was a world of difference from the vague smile he'd sent Bertha at the café. He didn't smile like this often, which meant that when he did, I was basically putty in his hands. "Let me."
When all the pieces of my clothing had joined his on the carpet, I pushed him back onto the bed and clambered on top of him. Not to be outdone, he anchored his hands on my waist and rolled the both of us so that I was underneath. I arched an eyebrow, but didn't say a word. He was in one of his moods, and the best way to deal with it was to let him have his way.
I hadn't been lying when I'd told Bertha and Mary-Jane that Dylan and I rarely spoke. We didn't speak. We didn't need to. Feeling his skin on mine, his heartbeat beneath my fingers, feeling him alive and knowing that the sensations he evoked in me were proof that I, too, was alive – that spoke more than words ever could.
When it was over, Dylan rolled off me and we lay silently, side by side, for a little while. I closed my eyes, waiting for the surge of guilt to come. When it did, it was only in the form of a mild twinge, not the flood that it had been eight and a half months ago. And that scared me. She was my sister, my other half – how could betraying her come so easily?
I couldn't let myself forget that Dylan was hers. I shouldn't.
When I opened my eyes again, Dylan was already on his feet and halfway done with dressing. My lips twisted into a grimace. "Can't wait to leave?"
He pulled his pants on and stood staring at me. "Don't be stupid." His tone was brusque, a far cry from the way he'd been speaking earlier. He really could be a jerk sometimes. Talia had probably not seen this side of him – that is, until that night when they'd had that blistering argument over me. It seemed that I always brought out the worst in him. Sometimes I even wondered if all those years when we'd been best friends had been just a series of events I had hallucinated.
Sometimes I missed our friendship so damned much. Did growing up always have to mean growing apart?
I gritted my teeth in exasperation even as nostalgic sadness swamped me. Just five years ago, I wouldn't have believed we'd be here one day, almost strangers but not, sniping at each other. Then again, I wouldn't have believed I would have lost Talia so early, either. Sometimes life didn't give you lemons. It had given me death. Death of a sister, death of a friendship. This thought made me feel bitter. "I really can't deal with your mood swings," I snapped then.
He fixed me with a long stare that seemed to bore right through me. "I could say the same about you," he finally replied.
I sat up, taking care to wrap the sheets around my body, even though it was a little too late for modesty around him now. "Okay," I said, starting to feel the temper rising in me. "Let's have it."
"What?" He found his shirt and threw it on.
"What the hell is up your ass?" I demanded. I hadn't really wanted to ask, but his attitude was grating on me. And I couldn't forget that he'd come to seek me out, not once, but twice. This had never happened – our encounters in bed had always been by chance. He must have been hurting to have sought me out like that. I couldn't just let it – him – go without an explanation, even though I usually enjoyed the way we operated on a strictly need-to-know basis.
He didn't reply. I found myself leaping up, pulling the sheets from the bed in my haste, and grabbed his arm when he was just about to leave. He turned around to look at me, and this time the fire in his eyes was burning. He was furious, and I didn't know why. "I know what you were doing back there. Don't ever do that again."
I was bewildered. "Do what?"
"Use me to forget some other guy." He glared at me, and I knew he'd seen Rick come into the café. Like everyone else – everyone but Rick's girlfriend, that was – Dylan probably thought I'd slept with the slime-bag at that party. We had been making out at a pretty well-lit spot, after all.
I didn't know what to say, because he was right. I had been using him to forget. Just not in the way he thought. But instead of saying that, I retorted, "As if that's not what you do to me every single time we fuck." It was the first time I'd said it out loud, but goodness knew I'd thought it many times.
He blinked. "That's…"
"Different?" My tone was challenging. What hypocrisy.
"Not true," he finished. He turned away, running an agitated hand through his hair, as if dismissing the conversation from his mind.
"Really?" I couldn't let this go, even though I knew I should. I was breaking our unspoken set of rules by delving into this topic, by even daring to acknowledge what we were doing at all. "What do you call this, then? Or maybe you're not trying to forget her, but using me as her substitute?"
I saw his fists clench. "Don't, Tara," he said softly, a warning in his voice. I knew what he was saying. Don't open this can of worms.
Still, some masochistic part of me persisted. "Do you see her when you look at me, Dylan?"
"No." But he still didn't look at me.
Reaching out, I cupped his face and forcefully pulled him to face me. The sheet slid from my shoulders and pooled around my feet, but I was beyond caring. We stared at each other for a moment, eye-to-eye. "Look me in the eye, Dylan," I whispered, even though he was already doing so. "I have her eyes, don't I?"
I saw his pupils dilate – whether from shock or something else, I didn't know. "Stop it!" In the next moment, he'd shoved me away and leapt halfway across the room to get away from me. He had his back to me, but he was breathing heavily and I saw his jaw clench. He swiped a hand over his face, taking deep breaths as if to calm himself. After a while, he said, "You haven't eaten, have you?"
I could've resisted his obvious bid at changing the topic, but his reaction had already given me the answer that I'd dreaded. "No," I said instead, sinking back onto the bed. Almost as an afterthought, I picked up my clothing and started pulling them on. I needed to move, to do something. Anything but sit silently and let this newest discovery fester in my mind.
He let out a long breath, moving closer to the door. "Come over," he offered without looking at me. "I'll make you something to eat." How he'd known that I hadn't had dinner was beyond me, but then he'd always been observant.
"Okay." I'd managed to get dressed, but still I sat on the bed, the lump in my throat gnawing away at me. Shit. I was going to cry. I bowed my head and blinked furiously. It was one thing to suspect, but another entirely to have that suspicion confirmed.
Dylan turned sharply. He must have heard something in my voice that hinted that not all was right. He came over and knelt in front of me. He placed his fingers beneath my chin and tilted my face upward until he could see my eyes. I scowled at him just as a tear broke free and ran down my cheek.
I jerked away and swiped at my eyes angrily. He was the last person I wanted to see me cry. So he'd been using me as a replacement for my dead twin for the past nine months. So what? It was just sex.
"Tara," Dylan murmured, but I angled my body away and refused to look at him. I heard him sigh, then felt his warmth envelope me. He'd gotten back on the bed and was holding me to his chest. He could be really gentle if he wanted to. That was probably why Talia had fallen for him. She would've been so shocked to discover that he could kiss and fuck with such ferocity… Then I checked my thoughts, because I wouldn't be having angry sex with Dylan if Talia had been alive. He had probably been gentle with Talia. Maybe her death had flipped a switch within him. I would never get gentle sex with Dylan. But I could have this.
And even before the thought formed fully in my mind, guilt swamped in. Dylan's gentleness wasn't mine to have. But he was alive, I was alive… and Talia was dead. I deserved this much… didn't I?
I'd loved him first.
I sighed, closing my eyes to keep these bitter thoughts at bay. What right did I have, to be blaming Talia for going after what – or who, in this case – she wanted? She had already given so much to me. She had stood up for me that night, had taken care of me. And she had died in my place.
It should have been me.
If I'd been the one who'd died instead… Talia and Dylan would have mourned, sure, but then they'd have gotten over it and lived happily ever after. My parents would've coped better. My mother wouldn't now be crying all day and my father wouldn't be spending so much time at the office, trying to escape the demons at home. My family wouldn't be falling apart.
I wouldn't be falling apart.
"Do you wish…" That it had been me? I trailed off. Even the crassest person wouldn't give a positive answer to a question like that. And Dylan was far from crass. Before this, before our friendship had fallen apart, before he had turned into this moody stranger, he had been the nicest guy I'd ever met. The best guy. And he had been Talia's. Now, he'd changed and she was dead, but he was still hers. I knew, deep down inside, that my closeness with him now would only be temporary. Just like it had been temporary in the past.
Friendships didn't last – not when love was also present, but in just one side of the equation.
Dylan was quiet for a moment. "I wish for a lot of things," he said finally.
Giving up the struggle, I snuggled into him, turning in his arms enough so that I could bury my face into the crook of his neck. He smelt faintly of sweat and sex and cologne and a scent that was all his own. I loved that smell.
He touched my cheek softly, the first bit of gentleness I've had from him since we'd stopped being Dylan-and-Tara and he'd become a part of Dylan-and-Talia. "But probably not what you're thinking."
"How do you know what I'm thinking?"
He shifted. He tried to look into my face but failed, since I still had my head on his shoulder. "I know I blamed you for it," he said finally, in wry acknowledgement, "but it's not your fault."
Those were words I'd needed to hear, but now that he'd given them to me, I was far from satisfied. No matter what anyone said, I knew, deep down, that I had contributed to her death. It would always be my cross to bear. I also knew, without him ever having to say it, that Dylan blamed himself fiercely, probably more than he blamed me. "It wasn't yours, either," I said softly.
He was silent. I knew he didn't believe me, and I sighed.
"Do you still feel guilty?"
His arms fell away and I tried not to miss the warmth too much. "About her…"
"About us," I interrupted. I was done rehashing the what-ifs of Talia's death. No matter how much we wished, Talia would never come back.
"I…" He sounded at a loss for words. "We…" Then he exhaled heavily. "Yes."
"Me too," I whispered.
He was silent for a long time, before it came out in a whisper – the reason he had sought me out today. "It's almost August." He tried to say it lightly, but his voice wavered.
And immediately, I knew what he had been talking about. The twelfth of August – the day Talia had died one year ago.
All of a sudden, I couldn't breathe. I was appalled at the reminder – not just because of the meaning it entailed, but also because it sent a tremor through me that made me want to bury my head back into the covers and never surface again. I'd managed to block it out for weeks now, but his words brought everything crashing back down.
My grip on him tightened, and his arms came back up around me in response. "Damn you," I muttered. Damn him for bringing it up. Damn him for putting the guilt squarely back on my shoulders.
And then he moved, so suddenly that I didn't expect it. Before I knew it, he'd pinned me to the bed, and his mouth was moving over mine. "Fuck that," he growled in between kisses. "I don't want to think anymore." He left my lips and started moving downwards, kissing my neck. This was what inevitably happened when we thought about her. I arched into him, welcoming it. Welcoming him.
"We can't keep doing this," I said softly. But I didn't want to think anymore, either. My fingers, in direct contradiction to my words, trailed a path down his chest to cup the most important part of his anatomy through his boxers.
He inhaled sharply at my light touch. His eyes had darkened and his pupils were dilated; I could tell he had already shut off his thinking processes. There would be no stopping today. "Tomorrow," he promised, as he pressed his body against mine to push me backward onto the bed. "We stop tomorrow."
My fingers were already engaged in the act of divesting him of the clothes he'd just put on. Tomorrow. Tomorrow sounded good.
I knew the exact moment that Dylan walked into the café for his lunch break the next day. I had just turned away to place an order with the kitchen when I heard – rather than saw – Dylan and his friends enter, because a sudden hush settled over the waitresses and they all turned, as if of one accord, towards the door.
I turned around a little bit slower, just in time to see Dylan and two of his friends saunter in. His shirt was buttoned today, but that didn't stop the female population of our staff from running their eyes over his physique. Some flashed him sultry smiles of interest, but those just went right over his head.
I barely refrained from rolling my eyes. Bimbos, the lot of them. They'd only taken a look at him before panting after him for a scrap of attention. They'd judged him based on how he looked, but what did they really know? They didn't know him at all.
He gave me a small nod of acknowledgement when our eyes met, but didn't come over. I tried to feel relief, but only felt a crawling anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I narrowed my eyes in frustration, but what had I expected? This was the norm. Yesterday had been the irregularity, the exception. It was stupid to expect otherwise.
"Trouble in paradise?" Bertha asked, watching our interaction with a glint in her eye.
I ignored her, turning away to wipe down the counter with more focus than was necessary.
When Mary-Jane next passed by, she and Bertha huddled in a corner for a long time, whispering secretively. Based on the glances that they threw in my direction once in a while, I got the feeling that they were talking about me.
It was nothing new. Over the past year, I'd gotten used to the whispers that reverberated in the hallways that I walked through, and the conversations that stopped abruptly whenever I walked into a room. And whenever Dylan and I were in the same room… There was always an unspoken tension hanging in the air, as if everyone was watching out of the corners of their eyes and waiting with bated breaths for either one of us to snap. I knew there were several rumours floating around about us – about how we'd transitioned from best friends to unspeaking strangers virtually overnight.
Talia's death had taught me one thing. People were voyeurs. And they weren't very skilled at hiding it either.
"Hey." I looked up to see that Marjorie, one of the managers, had sidled up to me. There was a mischievous look in her eyes, even though her expression was serious. "Why you don't take this tray to that table over there?" I understood the mischief dancing in her eyes the moment she gestured towards the table that Dylan and his friends were at.
"I'm manning the counter," I said shortly.
She smiled at me. "I'll take over. You don't mind, do you?"
I kept my face blank and picked up the tray she'd pushed towards me. The other waitresses in the vicinity had all deliberately slowed their movements, trying to hang around for the show that they thought they were getting. Without another word, I headed for Dylan's table. He didn't look up until I was right beside him, and even then it was only to murmur a polite thank you when I placed his coffee in front of him. His friends smiled at me and did the same. The whole ordeal only took a minute or so, and it was all so very civilised that the other waitresses had lost interest and dispersed before I'd even made it back behind the counter.
Marjorie silently took the empty tray from me and vanished through the swinging door that led to the kitchen. Bertha returned to her place at the next cash register and Mary-Jane scuttled away to see to another order. The other staff went about with their work as if they hadn't all been watching my every move with malicious smiles just a few moments before.
I plastered a smile on my face as a customer came forward to place an order.
Voyeurs, the whole lot of them.
Parties always reminded me of the night Talia died. It hurt every time I went to another party, remembering what had happened and how I'd all but murdered my own sister with my irresponsible actions. Yet, I didn't stop going. I saw Talia in every party I went to – it was the only way I could feel close to her again. When I blended into the crowd of people, I could almost believe that she was just somewhere else in the crowd or in another room, getting another beer. Until reality hit me all over again and I turned to the drink in an attempt to forget – in an attempt to relive that night so that I could make the right decisions this time. Except it had never worked, mostly because it had been my drinking that had led to Talia and Dylan's argument and her driving me home prematurely, which had then led to the crash… and everything else after that. And those thoughts would inevitably lead me to drink more…
That was how Rick had happened – or almost happened, depending on the way you looked at things – the last time. And two days after the rough, almost desperate sex with Dylan in an attempt to erase the knowledge that Talia would have, in two weeks, been dead for a year, I found myself in Aaron's arms.
There was a pattern here, and I knew what set it off, every single time. Every time after Dylan and I slept together, we would try to stay away from each other for a while. During that period, I would go to a party in an attempt to forget him. And at that party, conversely, I'd remember Talia. And then I'd drink and get myself roaring drunk. And eventually, I would find another guy to hang onto – another stranger. This Aaron – I didn't even know his last name, either because he wasn't in my grade or because he wasn't in my school. But hey, six degrees of separation, right? He was probably a friend of a friend of a friend.
From what I could see in the dim light, Aaron was good-looking. Really good-looking, in fact. And he had a great body. Still, he was doing nothing for me. Dylan was a little hard to top.
I leaned my head back and stared at the ceiling. I wasn't drunk enough for this.
Aaron pulled away from where he'd been nuzzling me and looked sheepish. "Not feeling it, huh?"
To say that I got a huge shock was an understatement. In all of my life, in all of the dark upstairs rooms that I'd gone into with guys I'd just met, this was a conversation I'd never thought to have. Even if I hadn't been 'feeling it', I would've slept with him anyway, just so to further delude myself into believing that anyone other than Dylan could do. That I could want someone else with the same ferocity that I wanted Dylan. I had to find someone else, because Dylan wasn't mine. He wouldn't be mine for long.
Aaron had to have known that I'd been willing to go all the way. Most guys wouldn't have cared. They would've taken whatever had been offered. That he'd noticed and brought it up first – that was unprecedented. It went beyond all the boundaries of logic that I'd previously known.
"Are you gay?" I blurted the question that was scrolling, in neon letters, at the forefront of my mind.
He laughed. "No." He pressed against me, for a moment, and I felt the unmistakable bulge in his pants.
I felt a sense of surreal calm settle over me. "Seriously? Then… Why...?"
He rubbed the back of his neck, clearly uncomfortable. "Well... I... I think I can't."
I let my gaze flicker downward. "I'd say you can," I replied drily.
There was a bit of a silence before he blew out a long breath. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said slowly, "but I guess what I mean is that I don't want to."
I stepped away from him, feeling hurt even though it didn't make sense. He was just a stranger. His opinion on my attractiveness shouldn't have meant anything to me. "There's no 'right way' to take a statement like that," I snapped. Then I turned and made my way over to the door, fully intending on leaving before this random guy could, with a few words, bring back all the old insecurities I'd barely left behind. Dylan hadn't chosen me, either, when my twin sister had been alive.
He crossed the room in two strides and grasped me by the arm. "Wait. You've got it wrong."
"What?" I asked, none too nicely.
"Look, I..." He sighed again. "Well, I... sort of have a girlfriend."
"Oh my God," I muttered, closing my eyes briefly. What the hell? Was I some sort of boyfriend magnet? Other people's boyfriends, that was, because I sure as hell couldn't get my own.
"I mean," he rushed in to clarify even though I had no interest in his self-justifications, "we're not really... We're on a break. I can sleep with whoever I damn well like."
"What is this 'on a break' business?" I asked, fed up. Rick had probably seen himself as taking a break from having to be faithful as well. "That's the dumbest relationship status I've ever heard. You're either together or you're not."
"She wanted space," he defended, his tone taking on a tinge of belligerence. Then the belligerence melted away into bewilderment. "I don't know what the hell she wants, actually." This last part was muttered half to himself.
"What you need is to figure out your relationship, not trying to score at some party," I snorted, then realised I was preaching to the converted. He'd been the first to stop, hadn't he? "Besides, have you not watched Friends?" I demanded. "Being 'on a break'," here I used air quotes, "does not justify cheating." Then I thought of Rick and felt like a hypocrite, lecturing this poor guy on cheating when I'd helped someone cheat not too long ago.
Aaron scratched his neck, chagrined. It was probably a little too weird for him, standing here half naked while being lectured by the girl he'd almost slept with. "I should probably…"
"Go," I filled in for him, because he seemed too embarrassed to.
He nodded and bent over to pick up his shirt.
The party was still raging downstairs. By some kind of freak accident, I ran smack into Dylan at the bottom of the stairs. I'd sobered up from the incident with Aaron, but running smack-on into him had messed with my balance and I swayed slightly on my feet. Dylan put out a hand to steady me.
Then he took one look at me and his mouth flattened. "You just had sex." He was near enough for me to hear him, even over the blasting music, and from his tone, it wasn't a question. As if on cue in a B-list movie, Aaron sidled down the stairs behind me. Dylan's glare could've flayed stone.
Aaron nodded at him. "Hey, man."
Dylan just stared back, his gaze hard and unfriendly.
Aaron looked between Dylan and me, opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he simply nodded at me briefly and left. Dylan and I stood in silence until he had disappeared into the crowd. The pounding music was, by now, giving me a headache, so when Dylan grabbed my hand and pulled me back upstairs, I didn't resist.
At the end of the corridor, where the music had dulled to a faint pounding, Dylan turned on me. "Really?" He asked in disgust. "He has a girlfriend." He pinned his glare on me, as if I had wronged him greatly by going upstairs with Aaron. I hadn't even known he'd been at this party. Then again, I'd be the first to admit I had no idea whose party this was. All these parties, all these people – they all seemed to blend into each other after a while.
"I know," I said, then did a double take. "Wait, you know him?"
"He goes to Northridge," Dylan said slowly, as if he was explaining something to a child.
Not even six degrees of separation, then.
I huffed. "Look, we didn't… okay?"
Dylan continued to stare suspiciously at me.
I wrapped my arms around my midsection and turned away from him. "I don't have to explain myself to you."
He grasped my shoulders firmly and turned me back around. "When we've been sleeping together for the past nine months – then yes, you do."
"Oh, come on," I glared at him. "As if we have any sort of relationship. We're not even fuck buddies. We're like…" I grimaced then, because I didn't know what we were. Fuck-every-time-we-don't-want-to-think-about-Talia buddies?
I turned and began making my way back down the corridor. I no longer wanted to be here. The footsteps behind and the warmth at my back told me, without looking over my shoulder, that Dylan had followed.
"It's called common decency," he growled from behind, overtaking me and standing squarely in my way. "How many guys have you been fucking besides me?"
I shoved him away. "Fuck you," I said furiously, "you know nothing about me and what I do, and you sure as hell don't have the right to make me sound like a slut." I ignored the little pang of hurt that hit me from the knowledge that, for all reasons and purposes, I was. The rumours had been exaggerated, but I had had more than my fair share of one-night-stands. Most of them, however, had been before Talia had died. I had been hunting for Dylan's replacement then, and I'd been hurting too much to care. If I couldn't have had Dylan, anyone would have done. And now that Talia was dead… I finally had Dylan. But he wasn't always there. And he wasn't always mine.
He wasn't mine. I had to find someone to take his place before he left me. Before I forgot all about the guilt and started wanting more.
Dylan took a step back. "Okay, I didn't mean it that way."
"You obviously did," I snapped. Because he was still blocking my way, I yanked open the nearest door and dashed into the room to get away from him. When he tried to follow again, I slammed the door on his foot. He hissed in pain, but didn't remove it. "I'm going to do it again," I warned, referring to the door-slamming.
He braced a hand against the door to ensure that I didn't slam it on his foot again. I stood with my hand still on the doorknob, glowering at him.
"Look," he said tiredly, running his free hand through his hair again, "I just… We…"
"We've ended it, haven't we?" I reminded him, even though we 'ended it' every other day and never seemed to be able to stick with the decision. "Who I sleep with now is none of your business."
"The hell it's not my business." The glittering need and anger mingling in Dylan's eyes exploded and he surged forward and covered my lips with his. I leant into him and let go of the door, giving him the opportunity to throw the door open and sweep me into his arms. I stared at him, slightly dazed, as he kicked the door shut and pressed me up against the now closed door.
"How many?" He asked, boxing me in with his arms on either side of me.
I glared mutinously at him, shoving at his chest to no avail. "Get out of my face."
"Really?" He grinned suddenly, wickedly, changing tacks so quickly that I was breathless to keep up. "But you like it when I'm in your face." Then he leant in and kissed me again.
I kissed him back, hard. "Damn you, Dylan," I bit his bottom lip on purpose, smirking when I heard him let out his breath in a hiss. "Aw, did that hurt?"
"Sassy," he murmured, fusing his mouth to mine with a strong sense of urgency, his question forgotten. I ignored the relief that flooded me. I didn't want him to know how many. Instead, I put all my efforts into undressing him and pressing hot kisses onto every new inch of skin I revealed. Even in sex, Dylan was competitive. His hands and lips worked just as furiously as mine.
Pretty soon, there were no more physical barriers between us.
I made a move to kick off my heels, but he curled a hand over my shin. His thumb made repetitive stroking motions on my skin. "I'll get them," he murmured. He ran his hand, slowly, down my thigh, my calf, and finally tugged the shoe off. I shivered at his touch. Then he did it all over again, with his other hand, down my other leg, with the other heel. Both heels fell with a thump onto the floor below, quickly forgotten.
I pulled him closer, making him let go of my leg and move his hand to the underside of my breast. As his thumb stroked the skin there, I wrapped my legs around his waist. In response, he rocked his hips hard against me, making my breath hitch, "Dylan…"
"Tara," he said, before he leaned in and kissed me aggressively. My hands buried themselves in his hair, my mouth opening to yield to his demands. He pressed his body harder against mine, as if trying to brand me as his forever. My lips felt raw by the time he raised his head to look into my eyes. He licked his lips, now red from the friction. "Mm," he purred, grinning playfully. If it had been under other circumstances, I would've marvelled at the way his smile lit up his face and transformed him, for a moment, back to the Dylan I used to know and love. As it was, I felt my heart blossom with emotion for him. I loved him – this playful Dylan, the one smiled like he meant it, who didn't hide all his feelings under that so oft-constructed poker face of his.
I was clutching onto him desperately. "Dylan." My breaths were coming in gasps, and I felt like I was going to die if he didn't do something soon. I writhed against him, taking satisfaction in the groan that ripped from his throat. "Dylan, I want…"
You. I want you.
"Patience," he whispered, but moved his hips to give me what I wanted. I cupped his face with my hands and he focused deep blue eyes on me. We stayed that way for one long second, before all of a sudden, my hands were running all over his body and he was moving with frenzied strokes, as if we could never have enough time together.
And thus we fell back into old habits.
As the days to Talia's first death anniversary decreased, the times Dylan and I found ourselves rolling in my bed – or his, or any flat surface for that matter – increased. It was the first time I'd seen him so frequently since Talia had died. But quantity, in our case, didn't mean quality. We rarely talked on these occasions – it was always just sex. Sex to lose ourselves in, to forget. I knew, and he knew, that this was an unhealthy way of coping. But it was all we knew to do. It was all we could do.
One week passed; two.
Then the twelfth of August came, and Dylan became the last person I wanted to see. He apparently felt the same way, because even though we had to be visiting the same places that day, I saw neither hide nor hair of him.
Truth be told, that didn't bother me. After seeing him every day for the past two weeks, I'd needed a break from him and the memories that seeing him inevitably brought. In a way, seeing him always reminded me even more of Talia. What Talia had meant to him. What Talia had meant to me. And what he had meant – still meant – to me. My relationship – if one could call it that – with Dylan had become a mass of contradictions. Being with him let me forget, but also, inevitably, forced me to remember.
For lack of a place to go to, I found myself back at Talia's grave for the second time that day. The fresh flowers I had brought that morning lay where I had placed it. I sighed and bent over, running my hand over the cold gravestone.
I imagined her lying six feet down below ground, with nothing but the soil and maggots for company, stuck in the coffin with no way out. The bile rose in my throat as I squeezed my eyes shut.
"Sis," I whispered. It was the only word I managed before the tears came.
I have no idea how long I spent in the cemetery, crying, kneeling over my sister's grave. Eventually, when I straightened, my throat was hoarse and my eyes were so swollen they felt glued shut. Whoever had said a good bout of crying was cathartic had been spouting rubbish. Now I only felt a clawing ball of agony lodged within my chest.
There was a rustle behind me and I jerked around to see Dylan standing a distance away, in the shadows under the trees.
But he wasn't looking at me. He was looking past me to Talia's gravestone. He walked slowly, sluggishly, towards the gravestone, leaning down to place his hand on it like I had. It had made me feel closer to Talia, and, watching him, I wondered if it made him feel the same. He ran his hand over the slab of marble, stroking it, caressing it, looking as if he could see something I couldn't.
I saw his lips move silently and looked away, feeling as if I was I intruding on the private time of two lovers. I stared into space for a long time, battling tears that now came for an entirely different reason. When I next looked back, he was placing a single tulip – Talia's favourite flower – on her grave. Then he swallowed and turned on his heel.
I let him go without a word. What was there left to say? Seeing him treat Talia's gravestone so gently had brought it home – what we had going on... It was betrayal. It couldn't continue.
This was the end – the end of whatever had been going on between the two of us. I should've never started it in the first place, but I hadn't been able to help myself. For a little while, he had been my sanctuary, just like he'd been when we had been younger – just in another way. And that was enough.
It was time to let go of what had never been mine in the first place.
Talia's memorial was held in the park near Northridge High School. The venue was fitting – the park had been Talia's favourite hangout spot when she'd been alive. The memorial was a large affair; all sorts of people came that I didn't recognise – strangers united in their love of Talia. A group of Talia's closest friends had organised everything, and my parents had chipped in for the funding. There were flowers, candles, balloons and a memorial table filled with things that Talia had loved. Katie Schmidt, Talia's best friend, had asked me to contribute a memory for the table and I'd torn off that photo of us from my wall and given it to them. She'd also asked me to give a short speech, but I'd declined. How did I fit all that Talia had been, all that she'd done, into a few hundred words? I couldn't.
Dylan could. He, among others, spoke at the memorial, but when it was his turn, there was a mild buzzing among the audience.
"That's her boyfriend," this whisper rippled through the crowd.
"I've heard he hasn't dated since."
"Wow – it's been a year!"
"If that isn't devoted, I don't know what is."
"Such a pity though, he's a real looker."
A giggle. "Hey, Cathy, how long do you think it'll take to get to come home with me tonight?"
"Don't be a jerk! It's Talia's memorial service, you know..."
"Maybe tomorrow, then..."
I was standing with my parents at the front and centre of the crowd, not two feet away from him. If I heard them, Dylan must have too, but he didn't blink an eye. He spoke about how Talia had been in life, about her flaws but mostly about her strengths, and how she had made a difference to the ones who'd known and loved her.
I wasn't listening, not really. I was watching his expressions change – the muted light shining in his eyes, the half-smile quirking his lips when he remembered her. His love was etched on his face for everyone to see. I felt something bitter start gnawing at me from within.
A part of me – the part of me that was a twin – was happy that Talia had such a staunch supporter. She had been so blessed to have had Dylan in her life. Some people searched a lifetime for such a love. Another part of me, the part I wish I didn't have – the part of me that was me – was darkly jealous.
After the speeches, the memories, we were all handed a balloon each. Rose pink – Talia's favourite colour. Memo pads and pens were passed out, and everyone wrote a short message to Talia before sticking it on the balloon they had been given. I thought long and hard and came up with nothing. She had been my twin sister, my other half. I wanted to tell her everything that had happened since she'd been gone. How did I condense a year's worth of letters into one memo note? Eventually, just as everyone else was ready to release their balloons, I scribbled two words down: "I'm sorry." Then I let my balloon fly with the rest.
We all tilted our heads and watched as a sea of pink rose up to meet the night sky. I remember vaguely thinking that Talia would've loved that sight. She would've found it poetic.
That was more than I could take, and I retreated deeper into the park, away from the crowd, when Talia's friends started asking for guests to recount their favourite memories of Talia in the guest book.
The purpose of such an exercise was beyond me. I didn't want to pick a favourite memory, didn't want to sieve through every single memory of Talia to find a single shining spot that I could bandy about and claim as the culmination of our relationship. It didn't work that way. With siblings, it was the everyday that counted. Tiny, fleeting moments that didn't matter much until they accumulated and became the definition of your relationship. There was no favourite memory. Just lots of good and bad memories that came together to define who we were to each other.
How long I sat there, remembering, I didn't know. By the time the haze of memories had dissipated and I re-emerged into reality, cicada cries were the only sounds I could hear.
When I stepped back into the clearing, two things became clear to me at once. First – that the memorial service had ended and nearly everyone had gone. I must have been zoned out for a long time. And second – Dylan was the only one left.
Looking at him standing there, staring into the distance, the moonlight reflecting off his hair, sharpening the angles of his face, giving him an air of danger and mystery and putting a shine in his eyes – that was all too much for me. In that moment, I hated him – hated him for being so attractive, hated him for not feeling the same way about me as I did about him, hated him for loving my sister but not caring enough to stop her from driving that day, hated him for not being wholly, irrevocably mine. I felt the anger rising in me like an inferno, and welcomed it.
Anything – anything but this pain of remembering.
I started out in his direction, not taking any care whatsoever to silence my approach. I wanted him to hear me coming. He didn't look at me until I stopped half a foot in front of him.
"Why are you here?" He asked.
I stared at him oddly. "She's my sister. I'm supposed to be here."
He frowned and gave a short, frustrated sigh. "The service is over. Why are you still here?"
"Why are you?" I countered.
"If this is about us–"
I cut him off with a mocking laugh. "What 'us'? Don't be conceited, I'm not always looking to jump your bones."
"Good." He turned his back on me, not-so-subtly dismissing me.
I felt a flare of anger hit me at his standoffishness. He was content to ignore me as long as he didn't want sex. Did he think he was the only one who loved her, who missed her?
"You're a real asshole, Dylan," I said to his back.
He didn't respond.
"She wasn't just yours, you know," I bit out, angry that he was behaving like an ice statue. For the first time, I understood how his usual attitude of indifference made people feel. I wanted to punch him, to crack that ice, to make him react. "She was mine, too... She was mine first."
I finally had his attention. He turned and I saw that his eyes were spitting sparks. "I knew it," he said, in the grimly satisfied tone of someone who had been proven right on something he hadn't wanted to believe but did.
"Knew what?" I clenched my fists to stop myself from wiping that satisfaction off his face.
"You are such a selfish little bitch," he snarled, turning on me with a vengeance. I saw that his own hands were curled into fists. "You were jealous, weren't you? You couldn't stand it when I stole your sister away from you."
He was wrong. He was so wrong that I found myself speechless for a second. "You're wrong," I managed, taking an involuntary step back. I hadn't been jealous of him. I'd been jealous of Talia, because she'd had him. If that made me a bad sister, I was a terrible one. But I knew the truth, and it was that if Talia had been dating anybody else, I would've given her my full blessing... But it hadn't been anybody else. It had been Dylan. The one exception. "You're wrong," I repeated, my voice stronger this time.
He ignored my denial. "You started avoiding me the moment we started dating," he pointed out, as if that was the only proof he needed. "You left rooms that I walked into. All of a sudden, overnight – you couldn't stand the sight of me!" His eyes flashed with remembered anger. "You threw away our friendship like it meant nothing to you, all because you were so petty you couldn't stand to see your own sister happy."
"Not everything is about you," I said sharply, even though for me it was. It had always been about him. But he hadn't been the only one I'd tried to avoid. I'd avoided Talia too – it had just been less obvious because we'd had to live in the same house. He was right about one thing, though. I hadn't been able to stomach seeing Talia so happy with him. That familiar old guilt rose up, almost choking me.
"No, but not everything has to be about you, either," Dylan said flatly.
"You think I don't know that?" I burst out. I couldn't stand listening to his accusations for a second longer, because they were simply not true. It had been a year since Talia had died, but my parents were still so busy mourning her every day that they'd forgotten they still had one daughter left. They'd forgotten that I had also been in that accident, that I had also lost a beloved family member. And Dylan... It had always been just Talia for him. Always had been, always would be. Sometimes I wondered if he even remembered who I had been to him, before he had started dating Talia. "Nothing is about me. Nothing is ever about me."
His eyes were narrowed. "God, you are so self-centred."
"I can't stand you!" I screamed at him then – it was either scream or cry, and I didn't want him to see how deeply his words had cut into me. Did he not know me? What were those ten years of friendship worth?
"The feeling is mutual," he replied emotionlessly, like he had reached into himself and shut off any feelings he might've felt for me. Then again, maybe he'd had none in the first place. Likely, I'd just been a convenient piece of ass for him. And how even more convenient for him that I looked like Talia. It irked me that he'd agreed so easily, as if I meant nothing to him, that I wanted to hit out at him. To put a little bit of the pain I was feeling in his eyes.
"So I suppose you'll find someone else to fuck tonight?" I challenged. "You fucking nymphomaniac." I wanted to hurt him by saying crude things, things that would shock him.
"Yes, maybe," he bared his teeth in a feral grin that was no grin at all. It reflected no pleasure, just grim determination. Determination to lash out and hurt me. He was just as furious as I was, just as bloodthirsty. "Anyone but you." Then he chuckled mockingly. "I'm the nymphomaniac...?"
I gritted my teeth but tried not to react otherwise. I couldn't let him see how much he'd hurt me with his words. I rallied and took the plunge. "Admit it, Dylan," I said scornfully, as if his words didn't matter to me one way or the other, "you'll come crawling back sooner or later. I'm the closest thing to Talia you will ever get, now that she's dead."
His eyes glittered. "Are you comparing yourself to her?" He asked, leaving the cruel punchline for last, "You could never even come close."
I laughed, hating it when the sound rang in the air and I heard how brittle it was. "And what do you know about her?" I shot back. "All you've seen are the sides of her that she knows you like, things that I told her you like. How can you be sure that the girl you love really exists?"
That took him aback. He opened his mouth then closed it again, clenching his jaw. "You..."
"She wanted you, and I helped her get you," I shrugged, narrowing my eyes at him. "So how does it feel to know that you were manipulated like a stud by your oh-so-perfect girlfriend?"
"She's your sister," he growled. "Watch what you say about her."
It was my turn to fall silent. He was right. Every word that came out of my mouth was hurting myself as much as it hurt him – maybe even more, because he didn't seem to be hurting at all. Even now, even after everything I'd said, he was still icily calm.
"You were right, you know," he continued, knowing that his prey was cornered and going in for the kill. I knew the words that were coming even before he said them, and I knew that he hated me. He couldn't not hate me and still say something like that.
"Whenever we fucked, I'd look into your eyes and pretend it was her."
And with that one sentence, Dylan Ainsworth completed the heartbreak that my sister had started so many years ago, when she'd come into my room and told me that she had fallen in love with my best friend.
There was a long silence. I didn't know if I stopped breathing for a few minutes. I only remember feeling dazed, like the world had stopped spinning, like in that one suspended moment before a crash when you knew – just knew, that you were never going to recover from this for the rest of your life.
Then in the next moment, everything sped up and pain exploded in my chest. I gasped – I couldn't help it; it was either that or suffocate. There was a roaring in my ears as reality hurtled forward to make up for the long moment of complete silence. Dylan stood watching me, his eyes black in the darkness, watching, just watching. Watching me bleed from his words.
I knew he was lashing out in response to my goading. His failure to displace the pain that came from remembering how Talia had died one year ago had made him cruel, just like it had done me. He might not even truly have meant what he'd said.
But there were some things that you could never – ever – take back.
"I hate you," I whispered through stiff lips, my words thin and frail in the night air but so sincere that Dylan flinched a little. But I could care less about his reaction by then; it was all I could do to focus on placing one foot in front of the other in a bid to get back into the house unscathed. No – not unscathed. It was too late for that.
I needed to get away from him.
The park was deserted when I walked through it. My parents had left. Maybe they'd tried to call but I hadn't felt my phone buzz, or maybe they'd simply forgotten. They had been so adamant about my not driving, not on this day that had taken their daughter from them, but they'd still left without me. Sometimes it felt like Talia had been their only daughter.
I shook my head, heading for the parking lot. It didn't matter. I'd been looking out for myself for the past year, ever since Talia had left a gaping hole in our family unit that I couldn't even begin to fill. I'd driven here on my own; I could drive myself back.
I had just turned the ignition key when I saw, through the windshield, Dylan stalking purposefully towards my car.
He must have followed me out.
I hit the locks, but he was faster. He yanked open the passenger's door in the split second before the locks engaged, and slid in beside me.
"Get out!" I snarled.
"No," he said flatly. "Not unless you let me drive you home." There was a bleakness etched around the corners of his mouth that told me he wasn't thinking of me; not really. He was trying to rewrite history. He was thinking of her again. Still thinking of her.
But Talia was dead. No matter what he did now, she stayed dead. And I wasn't her. I was furious, hurt, heartbroken – but I hadn't planned on driving home immediately. I'd been planning on parking three blocks away and stopping to have a good cry. I couldn't do that with Dylan here.
"Fine. I won't drive. I'll call a cab. Just get out of my car."
"I wasn't born yesterday," he said drily, "I know when you're lying."
"You don't know anything about me," I ground out, even though I had been lying. I would've hit the gas the moment he'd gotten out of the car, and he knew it. I knew that he knew it.
He leaned over and I shrank back, instinctively, into my seat. Something flickered in his eyes, but he continued reaching across me until he'd gotten a hold of the buckle. Then he drew the seatbelt across my body, fastening it with a click. Apparently satisfied with his actions, he sat back in his own seat.
I felt all the energy drain out of me. If only he'd done this for Talia that night. If only I had. Sick at heart, I muttered, "Put yours on." I drummed my fingers nervously against the steering wheel, watching out of the corner of my eye as he buckled himself in.
When he was done, I shifted the gears and started manoeuvring the car out of the parking lot. My hands were shaking a lot harder than they usually did. Maybe Dylan buckling me in had driven home the way Talia had died, or maybe that incident from one year ago was just weighing heavily on my mind that day – even the idea of driving, of being trapped in a car on the road surrounded by other cars, gave me the shivers.
Still, my pride prevented me from simply pulling over. I gritted my teeth and drove on, my fingers gripping the steering wheel so tightly that I was almost sure I had left hand imprints on either side of it.
It took me a whole ten minutes to just inch out of the lot.
Dylan didn't say anything. I flicked a glance at him and saw that his lips were set in a grim line. He knew why I was driving at a speed barely faster than a crawl.
I drove for three blocks. It took a long, long time. By the end of it, my hands were shaking so badly that I had no choice but to pull up by the curb before I hit someone or someone hit me.
Dylan was still silent in the passenger's seat. I didn't look at him, didn't want to look at him and see the expression on his face. I could almost imagine his mockery and I didn't want to see it. I felt that I really would cry then.
My mind was spinning with images – images that burned my brain. They were probably born of my own imagination, though, since I didn't remember a thing from that night – images of Talia, hurting during her last moments. Talia, scared to death in that last few moments, seeing me out cold and wondering if she'd killed me. Talia, bleeding slowly to death behind the driver's wheel. Was this how she had felt? Slowly turning colder with every second...
"Tara." I felt burning warmth on my hand and looked down to see Dylan's larger hand covering my small, pale one. He gently pried my fingers away from the steering wheel, working first on my right hand, then leaning closer to do the same with my left. I watched the movements of his fingers numbly. "Tara," he repeated, more sharply now. "Calm down. Look at me."
I shook my head, and the world wobbled as if in slow motion. I looked out the car window, vaguely wondering why it felt so cold. Summer nights weren't usually this cold. Then I felt heat engulf my neck, and insistent fingers push at the sides of my face. I blinked as I came face to face with Dylan.
His blue gaze was bright with some emotion that my mind didn't want to latch onto right then. "Tara," he said, "it's okay. You're okay. Breathe. Take deep breaths."
It was then that I realised my breaths had been coming out in short pants. I was breathing too quickly, too shallowly, and my heart was hammering in my chest. And I was shivering. I couldn't stop shivering. "Deep breaths," Dylan repeated, and I tried to focus on the warmth of his hands and the steadiness of his voice.
I looked into his bright blue eyes and breathed. In that moment, he was my anchor. Nothing mattered but him and breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale... Exhale.
"You're okay." Dylan regarded me steadily, his hands drawing comforting patterns against my neck. His body heat was burning me, seeping under my skin, chasing the cold away.
A while later, when my breathing had returned to normal and my hands had stopped shaking, I remembered. I turned my head away from Dylan. He let his hands fall away and settled back in his seat like nothing had happened.
I started the engine again, listening to the soft purr of the car. My hands felt clammy. My heartbeat sped up and I was feeling light-headed again. I couldn't risk it. Not when Dylan was in the car, too. If we crashed and he died and I didn't... I wouldn't be able to handle it this time. "I..." I licked dry lips and forced my next words out. "Maybe you should drive."
He didn't say a word, just got out of the car and came over to open my door.
After the switch had been made, I sat in the passenger's seat, clutching at my seatbelt as the scenery outside surged past. Dylan was a good driver, but I couldn't stop the anxiety quivering in my stomach. I knew that he was completely sober, that he wasn't Talia, that it was just a short drive home and nothing would happen – my mind knew that, but my heart didn't. So I sat in the car, terrified to even move for fear that I'd upset the balance of the car or do anything else that would cause a crash.
Dylan darted a quick glance at me. "When was the first time you drove after the accident?" He asked.
"Don't... Don't talk! Look at the road!" I cried, somewhat hysterically.
He exhaled audibly, but did as I said.
By the time he pulled up in front of my house, I was all too ready to scramble out, but Dylan grasped me by the shoulder and yanked me back none too gently.
"What the hell are you doing?" My nerves were fried from the car ride and I wanted nothing more than to stumble back onto solid, unmoving ground.
"How long have you been driving like that?" He snapped. He was scowling at me again, looking like he was raring for another fight. Hadn't he already hurt me enough?
"I'm not in the mood to get into another argument with you now, okay?" I tore away from him and vaulted out of the door.
He was there when I reached the front door. I turned to gape at my car in astonishment. "You didn't even close the car door!" I accused, before retracing my steps to do just that.
"You were running away," he said, like that explained everything. I glared at him as I slammed the car door shut, then held out my hand for the keys. He dropped them in my palm.
After ensuring that the doors were locked, I turned back around and realised that he was blocking my path to the house. "Get out of the way," I demanded.
He was unmoved. "How long?"
"How long what?"
"How long have you been trying to kill yourself?"
I felt the blood leave my face. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"What happened – back there," he flung a hand in the direction of my car, "is that what happens every time you drive?"
His gaze was steely and I couldn't meet them any longer. I looked away, the action more telling than words could have been.
Dylan turned away and swore viciously. "What the fuck were you thinking?" He bit, anger edging his every word. "Are you trying to get into a crash?"
"It doesn't happen every time," I found my voice, but it came out in a low, defensive mumble. "And I always stop if I don't feel well."
"You're a fucking moron," Dylan gritted out.
"Fuck you!" I shoved at him, even though I knew he wouldn't budge. "I've had enough of your fucking insults! Just leave me alone!" I could feel the pressure building behind my eyes and knew that the tears were just another well-placed criticism away.
He grabbed me by the shoulders as if tempted to give me a good shaking. "Tara..." His fingers were biting into my skin, a reflection of the agitated state he was in. "What are you doing to yourself?"
His words set off a spark deep within me. "What right do you have to ask me that?" I snapped, feeling as if a dam had burst within me. Tears streaked down my cheeks but I paid them no mind. I rounded on him, shrieking, no longer caring if the neighbours were going to hear. "Fuck you, Dylan Ainsworth! With you, it's always Talia, Talia, Talia. Do you think I don't know I'm just a substitute for her? Do you think it doesn't kill me a little bit inside every time we fuck, you pretend I'm her? Do you think nobody notices that you never date anymore, that you never take off that fucking watch she gave you from the grave? Do you think I don't think about her every time I see you? I may look like Talia, but you are the walking, living, breathing reminder of her!"
He looked stunned by my outburst.
I wiped a hand across my face and came away with a palmful of snot and tears. I was winding down, my anger deflating curiously. "You've built yourself into, like, a living shrine of her. It's not just me; everyone thinks that. I get that you loved her, fine. But don't talk to me about what I do to myself when I'm just trying to continue with my life the best I can. But you... You're not moving on at all. I don't know if you ever can. It's like... You're broken, Dylan. It's like without her, you may as well be dead."
This was different from what we'd been doing earlier. Back then, we'd been having a calculated argument, almost like a game – each of us trying to see who could hurt the other the most. But now I wasn't trying to hurt him. This came from the heart, and maybe it was what made it all the more potent. All the more painful.
Dylan's face had turned to stone, but not before I saw a stricken look flash in his eyes. "So this is what you think? I should have died instead of her, or maybe with her. Is that it?"
I stared at him, hurting because he was so obviously hurting. He was misunderstanding every word out of my mouth. His very being was both a balm on my soul and a dagger in my heart, but how could I tell him about the good he had done me without revealing my feelings for him? And how could I tell him that I loved him without further betraying Talia?
Then I thought back to what he'd said earlier that night and my heart turned to stone. Why would he even want to know?
"That's not it," I finally whispered.
I'd taken too long to reply, because then he was suddenly brushing past me. He got as far as the pavement before turning back around. "Just go into the house, Tara," he said lowly, not quite looking me in the eye.
"What?" I was bewildered at the sudden change in topic.
He slid his hands into his pockets, watching me with hooded eyes. He was done talking, I realised. There was a kind of finality in this moment, the kind that all our previous goodbyes had never had. I looked at him, wanting to say something, anything, but the closed off expression on his face discouraged further communication.
Still, he stood there, obviously itching to leave, but waiting for me to enter the house before he would. My heart clenched.
Mechanically, I marched myself down the path and through the door, stopping only to fumble with my keys. It was only when I was back in my room that I pushed aside the curtain to watch Dylan walk away. His steps were quick, restless, and he had barely taken a few before he broke into a run, as if he couldn't wait to get out of his own skin.
Or away from me.
Dylan had flat-out refused to date again after Talia's death. Anyone trying to flirt with him simply got a polite smile and a quick brush off. Even at parties, he was very careful about how much he drank and how he danced. As soon as anyone got too close for comfort, he left. I was the only one he got close to, and even then, never in public. As far as anyone else was concerned, we were simply best-friends-turned-acquaintances who were mourning the most important person in our lives.
Nobody knew the exact reason Dylan had taken himself out of the dating equation – some said that he was still mourning Talia, others said that he had buried his heart with her and yet others suggested that it was just his way of assuaging his own survivor's guilt. Whatever the reason, I had found a measure of comfort in the fact that he was holding back from entering another relationship just yet. It let me pretend he was mine.
Because Dylan's no-dating policy was so widely known at Northridge, the gossip spread like wildfire when, a mere three days after Talia's first death anniversary, he broke it for the first time in a year.
I was one of the last to find out, mostly because school was still out and I had withdrawn so much socially that no midnight messages lit up my cell phone screen, no whispered conversations took place over coffee. It had been when I'd gotten to work that Bertha had come up to me.
"I hear you and lifeguard boy are over," she commented with something that was akin to a mocking smile.
"What are you talking about?" I deadpanned, even as my heart stuttered. Nobody knew that we'd been sleeping together. Nobody should have known. "We were never together."
Bertha raised her eyebrows. "Really? Then I guess it doesn't matter that he found himself a new girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" I parroted, too astonished to keep quiet. "Dylan doesn't date." Not since Talia. And it would be a long time before he would. He was obviously a long way from being over Talia. At least, that was what I'd thought.
Now she was regarding me with something akin to pity. "You haven't heard? He does now."
"And why would you know?" I demanded disbelievingly. She didn't even go to Northridge. Why would she be privy to the details of Dylan's life, when even I didn't know? Close on the heels of this thought came the realisation that I would be the last person to know what was going on in Dylan's life. I was not a part of it anymore.
Bertha jabbed a finger over her shoulder. I saw Mary-Jane standing there, hugging a tray to her chest. "Mary-Jane told me," Bertha said. "It's apparently the newest big news among your schoolmates now."
I shot Mary-Jane a disgruntled look and she shrank back. I'd never pegged her for a gossip. It really was the quiet ones that you had to watch out for.
Then I absently wondered if she'd spread it around that Dylan and I had been together. That wouldn't have helped my reputation any. People would've assumed I'd moved on from seducing random girls' boyfriends to seducing my own dead sister's boyfriend. But what did I care about what they thought? They'd already judged me in comparison to Talia and found me lacking. Just like my parents had.
Like Dylan had.
"Good for him," I finally muttered, knowing that I'd hesitated far too long for it to sound convincing. Looking at Mary-Jane's over-bright eyes, I knew another rumour would be making the rounds by the end of the day.
Annoyed, I took my place behind the counter. Bertha hovered, obviously wanting to watch me have some kind of meltdown. I disappointed her by going about my job as calmly as possible. I would never let her see how much the news had shaken me.
A part of me was frozen in disbelief. I had known that our dysfunctional affair had had to stop – I had been prepared for it. What I hadn't expected was that Dylan would find someone else so quickly. And it was that part of me that was hurt. If anything had proved that I'd meant nothing but a substitute for Talia to him, this was it.
Another part – the part of me that was still Talia's older sister – felt indignant on her behalf, even though I knew it made no sense. She'd been gone for a year; it was well within reason for him to move on. Besides, it was hypocritical of me to expect him to hold onto the memory of Talia forever – I had been the one who had induced him to betray her memory in the first place.
By the time lunchtime rolled around, I was a seething mess internally. It took all that I had to keep calm outwardly. I had no desire to let the voyeurs like Bertha see me squirm.
Unfortunately, Dylan chose this day to visit the café with his brand new girlfriend. I recognised her immediately. Annie Fordham. She was a year below us, and pretty well-known as one of the best gymnasts in school. From what I knew of her, she was also smart, vivacious and pretty. All in all, a younger, alive version of Talia. Dylan had a very clear type.
As if his presence wasn't enough to fire up the rumour mill, Dylan found the need to walk, with his arm wrapped around her, right up to me.
Then he turned to her and flashed one of his bright, genuine smiles. "What do you want, baby?" I heard Bertha's sharp intake of breath and knew she, like the rest of the female population who was subject to that smile, was hooked.
I clenched my jaw. "Your order, please?"
"Could I have a salad combo, please?" The girlfriend shot me a smile that could have rivalled Dylan's. Oh, she was good.
I punched her order into the cash register. "Is that all?"
"I'll have the usual," Dylan said, finally letting go of the girl to reach for his wallet.
"That's a chicken sandwich with extra olives, right? Got it." I smiled sweetly at him.
A tick manifested itself in his jaw. He hated olives. "I think you've got your regulars mixed up, Tara," he said smoothly, his tone betraying no hint of his agitation. Then he flashed me a smirk. "But that's fine, I don't mind trying something new once in a while."
Asshole. "That'll be twelve dollars and eighty-five cents," I droned, all pretence at civility evaporating. I just wanted him gone now.
Dylan whipped out the money and slapped it on the counter before the girl could object. She pouted a little, then gave it up with a tinkling laugh. She reached up to tug at his sleeve, "I'll go grab a seat, okay?"
In a way, I was sad to see her go. Once Dylan was done watching her meander to the other side of the café, he turned back to me unsmilingly. The show was over. Now came the showdown.
"So," I said, just to get it started with.
"So," Dylan repeated. "That's Annie."
His gaze was challenging. He was trying to prove something. Maybe what I'd said to him the night of Talia's memorial had struck deep and this was his way of striking back. Or maybe he'd realised the same thing I had that day – that life had to go on.
Either way, he had chosen.
"Your girlfriend," I said, finding a malicious sort of pleasure in the surprise that crossed his face. My pre-emptive strike had taken the wind out of his sails. "I heard."
He recovered quickly. "Well," he shrugged, "it was time to move on."
I glanced over at Annie Fordham, little and pretty and all smiles, and had to acknowledge that that was his type. The petite and cheerful kind. Just like Talia had been. And what I was most definitely not. My lip curled at this thought. I had no right to feel the crushing sensation in the region of my chest. I had made my choice all those years ago when I'd told Talia to "go for it". And Dylan, apparently, had made his. Even with Talia gone, he had chosen someone that wasn't me.
"So what are you still doing here?" I asked flatly. "The little Talia-clone is over there."
His lips thinned. "Don't call her that."
I was very much aware of all the eyes on us, especially those belonging to Bertha and Mary-Jane. I shrugged and opted for a flippant tone, "I call it like I see it."
"And you've always had such a unique perspective on things," Dylan drawled, a hard, mocking edge in his voice.
It occurred to me that things were about to get ugly. We were virtually airing our dirty laundry right here in the middle of the café, where I was supposed to be working. Everyone was staring at us, even the customers who probably had no idea what was going on.
I discovered that I no longer cared.
"So much for moving on," I said. "All you're doing is just replacing Talia with a clone."
Across the room, Annie leapt out of her seat. "Excuse me?"
We both ignored her.
"As if you're any closer to moving on." For one moment, he was angry. I could see it in the way his eyes flashed and his lips twisted. "You just sleep with any guy who'll have you."
Well, shit, that had hurt. Outwardly, I clenched my jaw but did nothing else.
Mary-Jane stood at the edge of the counter awkwardly, the tray of food in her hands. Without looking at her, Dylan said, "We'll take that to go."
"Fuck you, Dylan." Rational words were beyond me at this point. I was spitting mad and I wanted him to lose his composure like I had. "Don't give me that holier-than-thou attitude when you're guilty of the same crime."
He leaned forward and glared at me. "It was only with you. Can you say the same?"
"You wanted a number, Dylan?" I asked sweetly now, dredging up an old argument. "I'll give you one. Sixteen. Do you wonder which number you are?"
He pushed away from the counter in disgust.
I felt a pang at his reaction, but ignored it. I'd known that he would be disgusted. Wasn't that why I'd tried to keep it from him in the first place?
Not that it mattered what he thought of me, now. What we'd shared was over. And we were both leaving for college pretty soon. We would probably never see each other again.
That thought sobered me a little.
Meanwhile, Mary-Jane had been packing up the food and now she handed it over. And just like that, the argument was over.
Dylan took one last look at me. "Goodbye, Tara."
I made no reply, just watched him walk out the door with his new girlfriend.
The moment the doors swung shut behind them, the café shuddered back to life.
As if on cue, Marjorie emerged from the darkened office at the back. "Tara," she said sharply, "office, now."
I was going to get berated like a small child who had started a fight in the middle of the playground. Not that she'd done anything to stop us while it had been going on; likely, she'd stood in the doorway of the office and devoured the scene like everyone else had.
What a hypocrite.
My mind was made up within that split second. I pulled off the apron that was part of the work uniform and threw it on the counter. To hell with that. To hell with them.
I took great pleasure in saying the words. "Don't bother. I quit."
That night, I did what I always inevitably did when deprived of Dylan. I went to a party. Then another. And yet another. This time, though, it was different. Before, I'd always known that there had been unfinished business between Dylan and me – no matter what the both of us said about stopping. But this time, there would be no more relapses with Dylan. It was over for good. I had nothing more to lose.
By the end of the week, I was all burnt out. Recklessness had taken root, and I of all people knew how dangerous it could be. It had taken the most important thing from Talia, after all. And on Saturday night, at yet another party thrown by yet another nameless schoolmate, it was this recklessness in my blood that drove me to try and take back, from Annie Fordham's dainty little hands, the most important thing I had left.
Dylan had come with Annie to the party – probably milking the opportunity to show everyone that he had moved on from Talia. He was rarely seen without her these days. We also hadn't spoken since the day when I'd quit my summer job, and since I no longer worked there, the chances of me running into him were close to none. That had worked well for me when I'd been avoiding him. Now, though, I needed to get him alone.
It didn't take much planning. I simply waited until he left to get a drink for his little clone of a girlfriend before accosting him. When he wandered into the kitchen, I shoved him into the storage room and pulled the door shut behind us.
"What the–" Caught off guard, Dylan swore as he tumbled into a shelf of supplies.
I snapped the light on and saw the moment recognition dawned. His gaze flitted from me to the door, a frown beginning to crease his forehead. "What are you doing, Tara?"
I didn't reply, just reached up and started loosening the top buttons of his shirt. He caught my wrists in one hand, effectively stopping me.
I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him. His lips moved against mine for the fraction of a second, but then he jerked away and moved backwards. I instinctively reached out for him. "Dylan…"
He was running a frustrated hand through his hair. "Tara… Don't do this. Please."
I moved forward determinedly, but he took another step backward. "Dylan, I... Forget what I said before," I tried to explain, but the words seemed all jumbled up. "You're the only one who understands. I need you. Now." As proof, I launched myself against him and wrapped my arms around his neck.
He took me by the shoulders and gently pushed me away. "I can't," he said. "Tara. I can't. I'm with Annie now." Annie, again. He seemed really determined to make that relationship work.
"Why?" I croaked. Why her?
He shrugged. "Why not?" He turned away from me and walked to the windows. "It's time to… move on."
"Just because you have a girlfriend doesn't mean anything," I tried.
He turned furious eyes on me. "I'm not like those other guys you fuck, Tara," he bit out. "I don't cheat."
I flinched a little at the venom in his voice. "That's..." That wasn't what I'd meant, and he knew it.
I saw him glance towards the door, and I knew that I was losing him. His expression had taken on that distant cast – the one I had witnessed being used on an unwanted suitor so many times, the one that I had never in a million years thought would be used on me. Even after Talia had died and friendship and concern had soured into hate and anger... He'd always had an emotion for me. I had always been the exception. Until now.
"What if," I began lowly, desperation driving my words, "it wasn't Annie you're dating?" That question had him jerking his head up to stare at me. There was a horrible look in his eyes that pleaded with me not to say it. There was a sour feeling spreading in the region of my stomach and I realised something.
He knew. Panic spasmed in my chest. How had he known? How long?
"What if," I had to swallow to get the words past the lump in my throat. I almost considered not saying the words, because I knew from his expression what his answer would be, but I couldn't stop. Not now. Not when I'd finally gathered up to courage to say what I'd never said two years ago. "What if it was me?"
Dylan's hands clenched into fists. I knew he was physically restraining himself from coming over to touch me, to succumb to blissful escapism, like he always did. The fact that he was trying so hard to stay away from me just about killed me. "We need to leave each other alone, Tara," he said quietly, evasively. "Don't you see? We're killing each other like this. With us, it's always two extreme ends of the spectrum. We're either fighting, or we're fucking each other's brains out." He closed his eyes and sighed. "I can't do that anymore. I don't want to do that anymore."
What he wasn't saying came across loud and hear. He didn't need me anymore. He had tried one way of coping, and it hadn't worked. What he wanted now was stability – who he wanted now was Annie.
"I see," I said, and I did see. We weren't good for each other – I'd known that from the start.
Dylan took a step forward. "Tara–"
"I love you." The words were flat, drained of the emotion they should have conveyed. I watched him flinch. "But you already knew that."
He looked at me for a long moment, then said simply, "Yes."
"How long?" My voice was steady, but I'd had to grab onto a table to stay upright. The hard edge cut into my palm, but I barely noticed. It was nothing compared to the bud of betrayal beginning to flower within me. He had been using me, all along, even though he'd known...
"Since that night." He could suddenly no longer meet my eyes. "That night… when Talia…"
My throat had suddenly dried up.
"I didn't tell you before, because it didn't matter."
I stared at him, waiting. The drumming noise in my ears was so loud that I couldn't be sure if it was the sound of my own heartbeat or the sound of guilt coming from beneath the floorboards, like in Edgar Allan Poe's short story.
"That night…" He had to clear his throat before continuing. "That night…"
And suddenly I didn't need to hear him say it to remember. I felt a rush of blood surged through my brain, and with it came a clear image that hit me so hard that I had to take a step backwards.
That night, I had kissed him.
It had been when he'd pulled me off the table and shoved me into the kitchen. He had shouted at me. He had wanted to know why I had gone so off the rails over the past year or so. And I had told him, in a drunken rage, that I had loved him for long before Talia had. And then I had kissed him.
And he had pushed me away, before fixing a pleading gaze on something behind me… He'd pushed past me, lifting his hand in a gesture so universal that no words had been needed. Wait.
I felt like someone had sucker-punched me in the stomach. The breath left me in a whoosh of air, and I wondered sickeningly if this was how Talia had felt when that airbag had punched through her in those final few seconds of life.
It all made sense now. That was why they had fought. Tears pricked my eyes. Talia… How guilty did she have to have felt, to have heard that I'd been carrying a torch for her boyfriend all along? How betrayed?
"Did…" My voice failed me for a minute, because I already knew the answer. "Did she…"
"She saw." His voice was barely higher than a whisper.
I stood mutely, unseeingly.
"I didn't believe you," Dylan said now. His voice was quiet, steady, but then he'd had over a year to come to terms with this piece of information that he'd just unloaded on me. "I thought you were just trying to break us up. And it worked. She broke up with me right there and then."
And there it was – the reason why Dylan had seemed to hate me afterwards, why he had blamed me for Talia's death that night.
I felt cold, the kind of cold that started on the inside and spread through your body until even your veins turned to ice. I had been right. She had stepped back. She had put my happiness before her own.
Because she was that kind of a sister.
He took a deep breath. "I never guessed that it was true. I never believed you, until..."
"I have to go," I whispered, because I didn't want to hear anymore. I could feel my soul curling inward, trying to protect itself from the pain that the truth brought. I stumbled towards the door, suddenly needing to get out. I was suffocating in here. Being in this room with him was killing me, bit by bit. Word by word.
When my hand closed over the cool doorknob, I heard him say, as if throwing a pitiful dog a bone, "It wasn't your fault."
I yanked open the door. "Yes," I said, so quietly that I wasn't sure he could hear me. I could barely hear myself. "It was."
Outside, the party went on – people laughing, dancing, drinking like nothing of import had happened. Like my world hadn't just been shattered again.
I parked myself by the beer keg and started drinking.
I lost track of time. It must've been my eighth cup before I felt a warm body come to stand next to me. I ignored it.
Another few gulps later, I heard it speak. The deep baritone revealed that it was male. "Are you alright?"
"No," I said shortly.
"I'm Trip," he said.
I ignored him.
"What's your name?" he tried again.
"Are you trying to find someone to fuck?" I asked, expecting the question to scare him away.
"What would you say if I was?"
I looked up for the first time. Trip was about my height, with shaggy brown hair and passably good looks. When I didn't immediately throw the contents of my cup into his face, he sidled closer and wrapped an arm around my waist.
I let him.
It was no longer about forgetting Talia, or Dylan. It was about escaping the guilt festering anew within me, even for one brief moment.
I threw back the last of my beer and crumpled the paper cup in my fist. "Okay," I said.
My mistake was in throwing one last glance over my shoulder on the way up. By some freak coincidence, my gaze cut through the crowd of people and collided with Dylan's.
He looked back at me, his eyes glittering with the same pain that I knew was reflected in mine.
Numb, I followed Trip up the stairs.
After that, the next time I spoke to Dylan wasn't until an entire year later.
In the meantime, everything had changed. I'd gotten into a college far away from home, and had left as soon as everything could've been arranged. And I'd never looked back. I hadn't returned home even for Christmas, knowing what a farce that would have been.
Unlike the typical college experience, mine had been a pretty uneventful year. I'd focused more on work and avoided most parties. But I'd met people who'd only known me as Tara, the college student, rather than Tara, the twin. I'd made friends. I'd gone on a couple of dates that had led to 'coffee' upstairs. I'd tried my best to stop feeling guilty about Talia's death. And I'd tried to forget Dylan.
Neither plan had worked.
On the other hand, so much had changed at home in the time I had been away. My mother had finally gotten help for her alcoholism, only to succumb to infidelity as a form of escapism. I'd received the news of my parents' impending divorce through a terse phone call from my father telling me that my mother had fled her old life, leaving him alone in the empty house full of haunting memories. And now it was summer once again, and I had returned home for the first time since I'd left for college.
Not that it mattered – my father still worked eighteen-hour workdays to avoid returning home, even when I was there. In that sense, nothing had changed. The day I'd returned, I had decided that after this summer, I would finally put my old life behind me. When I left at the end of the summer, I was going to leave this town for good. At college, I had realised that I could be anyone I wanted. And I liked that feeling. There was a new life waiting for me out there, and I had all the time in the world to find it – after this one trip, this last trip home, to say goodbye. Goodbye to my childhood home, my twin sister… and a childhood love I had never really let go of.
Two days after I had arrived home, I came across Dylan quite by accident. I had been walking along the beach, wondering if my return had been as futile as the action of the waves lapping at the sand – trying so desperately to get closer, only to be pulled away in the next instant. I had visited Talia's grave earlier that day, but if I had been expecting an epiphany at the sight of her name carved in marble, I had been sorely disappointed. Everything had looked... the same. It was as if I had never been away.
That had been a depressing thought.
It was then that I'd looked out over the ocean and seen that gleam of familiar blond against the deep blue water. I'd heard that Dylan had just returned for the summer as well, and hadn't yet decided if I wanted to see him.
Now, seeing him for the first time in a year, I realised that I didn't. The year away from home had been a breath of fresh air. I had just started learning how to breathe again. Being back home, seeing all the places and people from my past – it all brought back memories that I would rather forget. There really was nothing left for me here.
I was just turning to leave when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dylan sink into the sea.
I held my breath, watching the waves, waiting for him to surface. A long moment passed and he didn't, and I was feeling the staccato rhythm of panic beginning to beat in my chest, even though I knew he was probably just holding his breath underwater, testing his limits. He was a good swimmer – he was brilliant, actually. But there were also unforeseen circumstances; cramps, jellyfish, seaweed – didn't I know that all too well? There were always unforeseen circumstances. Accidents happened. And people died.
Before I was even aware of doing so, my hands were pulling off my clothes, leaving me in only my undergarments, and my legs were moving, my feet pounding on the sand, and then the water closed over me and for a moment I sank. Then my legs kicked and I shot upwards and then I was gulping down air, and swimming, swimming in search of him – and I could barely see where I was going with the water in my eyes, and all the while I was wondering: why did all these things happen to the people most important to me?
I swam desperately for a while before realising I was so disoriented that I had no idea where to begin to look for Dylan, and it had been so long since he'd gone under. And even if I did find him – what could I do? I had no idea how to go about saving someone, and he was almost twice my size. I stopped with a choked gasp as logic reasserted itself. But I couldn't leave Dylan to die alone. More tears sprang into my eyes and I felt the current pushing against me, urging me further out, further from the shore. For one crazy moment, I looked at the dark waters and wondered how it would feel like to just close my eyes and sink.
Then suddenly there was a splash, and another, and another – until it evolved into a steady rhythm and I turned to see Dylan swimming with long, strong strokes towards me. The relief that poured over me was so intense, so overwhelming, that I forgot that I was in the ocean. Just as I was focusing all my attention on his approaching form, a wave crashed over me and took me by surprise. I saw Dylan's eyes widen and then I went under and darkness engulfed me from all sides.
And in that split second, I realised something – I didn't want to die. I wanted what Talia had never had the chance to do. I wanted to live.
I kicked blindly, not knowing which way was up, and was starting to truly panic when I felt something warm grab me and pull. Stifling my natural reaction – which was to scream, which would have let the oxygen out of my lungs and replaced it with salt water – I tried to shove it away, pushing it down in order to propel myself upwards. That warm something fought back, twisting to break away from my death grip. I felt a sharp pressure on my thumbs and let go, my mouth opening involuntarily in a silent cry of pain. The air gurgled out of my mouth and I knew it was over. If I breathed in, I was going to drown. And if I didn't, I was going to suffocate.
Just as these two choices flashed through my mind, choices that weren't choices at all, I felt my legs being seized and my body was spun around, and then that warm something came back and anchored itself across my chest. Barely a second later, my head broke the surface of the water and I gasped, gulping down the cool night air greedily because I couldn't get enough of it. When my lungs had stopped burning, I tried to twist around to see what it was that had wrapped around me so tightly and was even now carrying me forward through the water.
"Don't move!" Dylan shouted in my ear, doing something that pushed his arm more tightly across my chest and locking me in against his hip. I couldn't see him, but I heard his ragged breaths and the splashes he made in the water as he swam us both back to shore with only one free arm. I tried to relax, to make his job easier, but dread was filling me as I figured out that the warm thing that had tried to grab me underwater – that I'd pushed away and tried to clamber on top of – had been him.
Closing my burning eyes, I sent a prayer of thanks that he'd been trained as a lifeguard and had thwarted my attempt to push him deeper into the water. How could I have lived with myself if I'd killed him in my own attempt at survival?
When we finally reached the shore, Dylan carted me a little way up before collapsing on the beach with me still in his arms. He hovered over me, arms cushioning my back, knees in the sand on either side of mine, as if he was trying to create a shield around me with his own body. Then he crushed me to his chest, holding me so tightly that I gasped. His head fell forward until his face was nuzzling my neck. "Oh God..." I heard him mutter, over and over.
Slowly, I reached up and put my arms around him. His skin was unnaturally cold, even for someone who'd just walked out of the ocean on a cool summer's night. He was in shock; I didn't know about what. Maybe it had just sunk in that I'd tried to kill him, back there under the water? "Dyl," I whispered, unknowingly reverting to the nickname I'd called him by back when we'd been friends, stroking my hands across his back to try to warm him up. "I'm sorry."
"You better damn well be," he said, even though he sounded more exhausted than angry. "I've never been so scared my entire life."
A pang of guilt hit me. He must really have been worried for his life to have divulged that. "I'm sorry," I repeated, in a wobbly voice now. My nose was starting to ache and my eyes tried to blink back tears that I knew were coming. "I didn't think... I would have died before doing that to you."
"Don't talk about dying." Dylan raised his head and met my eyes for the first time in a long time. "Doing what?"
"I..." I looked away, ashamed. "I almost killed you."
I felt him jerk in surprise. "What?"
"I'm sorry," I whispered again, as the tears spilled over. I tightened my arms around him, hugging him to me. "I wasn't thinking... I just..."
He brushed a finger over my cheek to get my attention. "What are you talking about?"
"You... you were trying to help me... and I pushed you down," I closed my eyes, unable to look at him, to see the disgust on his face that I had been willing to sacrifice him to save myself. "God... If anything had happened to you... I..." I choked on a sob. "Oh, God... I'm so sorry, Dyl. I'm so sorry..."
He was quiet for a moment. Then I felt him press his lips against my neck, right over my pulse. It took everything in me not to turn my head and seek out his lips with my own. I heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears. He had a girlfriend, I reminded myself. When the silence dragged on, I cracked open my eyes and saw him staring at me seriously. "I don't care about that. It's not your fault."
"How can it not be? I..."
"It's instinct," he interrupted. "Everyone does it. It's not your fault."
I laughed, a little tearfully. "I guess you're used to the people you save trying to drown you, huh?"
He smiled back. "No, you're the first." His voice was teasing, but the guilt hit me again and I opened my mouth to repeat my apology. He shot me a look that had me swallowing my words and divulged, "One of the first things they taught in lifeguard training was how to break free from panicked drowning victims. It's a natural reaction."
Glad that he didn't hate me, I gave into my inclination and nuzzled into his shoulder. Just for a moment. It had been so long since I'd seen him, and his warmth felt good. I'd missed this. I'd missed him.
"Why were you in the water, Tara?"
I didn't want to tell him. It would sound so stupid, especially considering the fact that he had ended up being the one saving me instead.
I sighed. He was like a dog with a bone when he wanted information. Once, I would've been able to distract him with sex, but now... He had a girlfriend. Besides, that part of our lives was long over. "I saw you," I mumbled.
"And decided to join me?" I could hear the scepticism in his tone.
I bit my lip. "You... You went under... and never came back up."
There was a long pause, and then he said, carefully, "And you jumped in to save me?"
"I know it sounds stupid," I snapped, feeling my cheeks heat. "It was stupid. Forget it."
He chuckled. He dipped his head closer to mine, until all that filled my sight were his eyes. I could see each individual brown fleck scattered across the overwhelming blue of his irises. "I think it's sweet." His statement hung in the air around us. His face was too close. Much too close. Then he seemed to come to his senses and pulled back a little, "But you shouldn't have."
"So I should've just left you to die?" I asked, almost scathingly.
He sighed. "I was never in danger of dying."
I clutched at him, wanting – needing – to make him understand. "Accidents happen," I whispered.
The molten look in his eyes froze. "I know," he whispered back, after a few suspended seconds where we just stared, motionless, at each other. "Thank you for caring."
I looked away. "You know I care." I cared too much.
He leaned forward until his forehead was touching mine. "I was so scared when I thought you'd drowned."
I jerked my eyes to meet his, startled.
For a moment, staring into his eyes, knowing that both our guards were down for once, it was as if our friendship had never gone away. As if none of the pain, the blame, had happened. As if he had never fallen for Talia, and she had never died, and the past year of absence had melted away, and I was still the most important person in his life and he was still mine.
Then reality reasserted itself and I cast my eyes downward in an effort to break the eye contact. Unfortunately, seeing his bare chest pressed against my bra-clad one only served to remind me how inappropriate this position was. There was another silence, this one sharp, edgy, crawling with unspoken words.
"We should probably get dressed," I said uncomfortably, after a while. "Annie isn't going to be happy."
Dylan's mouth twisted, as if he had bitten into a slice of lemon. "Under the circumstances... I think she'll understand."
"She must be a saint then," I retorted. I might have been able to understand the need for some human contact right after a traumatising experience, but we were long past 'some' contact. We'd been pressed up against each other for a whole ten minutes – ten minutes too long.
He stared at me then, his blue eyes reflecting a silver of moonlight as he looked down at me. His gaze jerked downwards, towards my lips, then rose back up to meet my eyes. "No," he said softly, "not a saint."
He looked to be in danger of forgetting all those morals he'd preached back then, in that room where he'd removed me so cleanly from his life, so I started to scramble out from under him. "Dylan, get off!"
He looked at me one last time, determined that I meant it, and sat up, pulling us both into a sitting position. His forearms and knees were covered in sand, as were my legs. He let go of me to dust himself down and I took the chance to untangle myself from him and ran to retrieve my hastily discarded clothing. My bra and panties were still wet from my dive into the ocean, but I pulled on my clothes, grimacing at the uncomfortable sensation of having my undergarments sticking to my skin.
Dylan was dressed and waiting when I turned back around. "Well, bye now," I said, trying to be casual, dismissive, as if we hadn't practically been wrapped up in each other just a few minutes ago.
"Wait, Tara," he said, pitching forward to wrap a hand around my elbow.
I half-turned, "Thank you for saving my life, Dylan."
"Why are you being so formal?" Dylan sounded annoyed now. He sounded more like the Dylan I knew now, instead of the Dylan from the past, and this Dylan I could deal with. This Dylan was Talia's; was Annie's.
He had nothing to do with me anymore.
I tugged my elbow out of his grasp. "Dylan... We have nothing to do with each other anymore, remember?"
He came around to stand in my way. I tried not to remember what had happened the last time he'd done that. He'd saved me back then, too, when I'd had a panic attack and he'd driven me home. It seemed that he was always saving me. "You could've died back there."
"But I didn't." I folded my arms across my chest, looking at him – really looking at him now, for the first time since we'd run into each other again. We had never talked about it that last summer, but I'd heard that he'd chosen to go to a university only a short half-hour away from my own. Even though we had been in the same city for the past year, I hadn't seen him around at all. It was a big city. And now, finally seeing him after so long, I could see that the year away at college had changed him. He looked… happier. Damn her, Annie Fordham had been good for him.
"Does it change anything?" I asked softly, feeling suddenly vulnerable. "You're still Talia's..." I paused because I didn't know how to define it anymore. I changed tack, "You have Annie now. And I'm still just a substitute–"
"No," he interrupted fiercely, "never. Never a substitute–"
"That's not what you said." My voice rose to drown his out. Then again in a whisper, "That's not what you said."
He ran a hand over his face, looking pained. "It's not true. I don't know why I said it."
I knew. He had wanted to hurt me, to drive me away, so that he wouldn't have had to look at me and be reminded of Talia that night. I understood, and I could even forgive him for saying it – but I could never forget.
"It doesn't matter," I said flatly, even though it did. It mattered too much. "It doesn't change anything."
He breathed out an impatient breath, "I know I said it, but..."
"Frailty, thy name is Dylan?" I quipped, hiding behind mockery.
"Don't do this, Tara," he sounded tired, at his wits' end. His obvious exhaustion pulled at my heartstrings. I couldn't forget that he had just pulled me out of the sea, after all. I owed him so much – I owed him my life. "I haven't seen you in so long," he said lowly. "And then today..." He leaned forward to grip the top of my arms so tightly that I was sure he could feel my pulse pumping through my veins. "This past year, it's made me realise... You're so important to me. I don't want to lose you."
Unable to help myself, I reached out and touched his face softly. I could feel the roughness of his stubble under my palm and my heart ached. I wanted him so much. I still loved him – so much that my entire being was throbbing in an effort to keep the emotion locked up. But he was wrong. He'd lost me a long time ago.
"I hope you're happy with her, Dyl," I said, choking on my words but utterly sincere. Annie Fordham would help him move past Talia's death, would make him happy – I was sure of that. "She's good for you. Talia would have wanted that."
His eyes were bright with emotion. "What about you?"
I dropped my hand and almost immediately missed his warmth. My fingers curled into a fist. "What about me?"
"Is that what you want?"
I laughed, a little sadly. "What does it matter what I want? We're talking about you."
He took a step closer. "It matters."
I moved back. "I hope you're happy with her," I parroted.
"I'm not with Annie, Tara. I haven't been for a long time."
My heart stilled. "What?" My voice came out in a whisper. I couldn't manage anything else.
His lips quirked. "I broke up with her a long time ago," he said. "We lasted… what, a week?"
A week. I had been gone within the week of our last conversation. Not that it would've made any difference. He had been right. We'd been killing each other slowly. We'd needed to be separate to heal. "What do you want me to say, Dylan?"
"Stop calling me Dylan."
"It's your name." I scowled. He was being ridiculous.
He fixed steady blue eyes on me, "You never used to call me that."
"Things change," I said, avoiding his gaze. He knew that better than anyone else. Everything had changed.
"I've missed you, Tara," Dylan said softly.
I bit my lip, but I couldn't not give him the words. "I've missed you too."
"That last time..." His eyes darkened, and I knew he was remembering the disastrous last conversation we'd had. "I didn't want to leave things like that."
"Yeah, well..." I scuffed one foot in the sand, "There wasn't much left to say after that."
He moved toward me, his eyes oddly bright. "Sometimes I wish..."
I knew what he was going to say even before he said it. I gave a short shake of my head. "No. You were right. We wouldn't have worked."
"Who's to say for sure?"
I shook my head again. Maybe it was that too much time had passed, and the passage of time had softened the edges of his memories of our time together, because he was viewing everything through rose-coloured glasses. There had been nothing worth salvaging in our dysfunctional affair.
"You left," he said. It wasn't an accusation, just a matter-of-fact statement. And he was right. I had left.
"I had to," I found myself trying to justify my actions a year ago. After Dylan had gotten with Annie and I had quit my job, there had been nothing holding me back. It had been a full two weeks before the official start of orientation week at college, but I'd packed up what little I'd needed and made the move early. It had been the right choice. I'd spent those two weeks exploring the city, learning how to enjoy life again. "I needed to leave to start to move on... to forget."
Dylan pressed his lips together. I knew what he wanted to ask, and elaborated, "About what happened that night Talia died..." I realised then that it was the first time I'd said it out loud. "And... my feelings for you."
He took a deep breath. "So… Did it work?"
"I don't think I'll ever stop feeling guilty," I said honestly, "but it gets better every day."
He nodded like he understood. Maybe he did. Maybe he felt the same way. The guilt would never fully fade, but we were healing. "And... About the other thing?"
I smiled a little. "I'm not that much of a sucker for rejection."
It was an evasion, and we both knew it.
"We've never really talked about that," he said quietly.
I didn't say anything.
"If I'd known, way back then..." But he couldn't even say that he wouldn't have rejected me, because we both knew that he would have. He had loved Talia from the start. I'd never even been in the running.
"It's okay," I said, laughing wryly, "I know you ever only saw her. It's okay."
"You were special to me too, Tara." He said this in a soft voice, almost as if it was a secret he was too afraid to reveal. "I didn't want to lose you." But he had, inevitably, when he had chosen Talia. Because I couldn't have stood staying such close friends with him when I was in love with him and he was dating my sister.
I stared down at the sand so that I wouldn't have to look at him. In a sense, he had been right, the night of Talia's memorial service. I had been jealous. Just not of him. But it had been my jealousy that had broken up our friendship, and it didn't change the fact that I had started avoiding him first. He'd been angry that night – he had called me selfish. And I was. I had chosen to protect myself from the hurt that seeing them happily together would bring. I had chosen myself over our friendship.
"Tara..." He moved forward but hesitated. His reached out with his hand only to stop short and withdraw it a moment later.
"It doesn't matter," I said now. "It's all ancient history."
"Is it?" He had been hesitant, but my statement had pushed him to a decision. Now he strode determinedly up to me and without courtesy pulled me to meet his lips.
His kiss was different. It was gentler, slower, in a way it had never been when we'd been together all those times after Talia had died. Now, a year later, he was kissing me so gently that I felt my heart swell with emotion. This was the Dylan that I had missed. The Dylan that I loved. Because I did still love him. I loved him so much that my heart could've burst from it.
To my horror, I found my eyes filling with tears. When they overflowed and ran down my cheeks, Dylan tasted them. He pulled away immediately, wiping at the wetness with his thumbs.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking helpless in the face of these waterworks. "Did I hurt you?"
I opened my mouth to deny it, but all that came out was a strangled sob. Incorrectly, he took that to mean a 'yes'.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a strained voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to… God," his expression twisted in self-loathing, "I can never get it right, can I? I always just end up hurting you."
"No," I finally forced out. "It's not you..."
His eyelashes dropped down to veil his eyes. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should… go."
Without thinking, I reached out and latched onto his sleeve. "Don't," I whispered. Then I bit my tongue, because I hadn't meant to do or say that. This would make the final goodbye a lot harder.
He froze, but only for a moment. In the next moment, he'd cupped my face with both hands and was bending down to look me straight in the eye. "And why is that?" he whispered back.
"I…" I couldn't say it. Three measly words, and I couldn't say them. I'd said them once, and he'd shot me down and walked out of my life. If that happened again, I would never heal from the hurt. "I don't know," I whispered finally, looking down to avoid his piercing blue gaze.
His hands fell away from my face and he straightened, looking almost… disappointed.
"I came back to say goodbye," I found myself saying, just to fill the silence. I saw his lips part and rushed on, "to say goodbye to… Talia. After this summer... I'm never coming back."
There was a long pause, and then, "What about me?"
I finally chanced a look up at him and saw that my words had hurt him in some unfathomable way. When I didn't answer immediately, he pressed on, "What about me? Do I get a goodbye, too? Or not even that?"
"I..." I remembered how I'd decided to stay away from him, just minutes before I'd seen him sink into the ocean and not come back up and that had changed everything. "I don't know."
"Ten years of friendship," he said, almost disbelievingly, "and I don't warrant a goodbye?"
I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. "Ten years," I repeated. We had met at the age of six. We were now nineteen. Even not counting that last year at college, there were two years missing. "You said it yourself. We're not friends anymore... We haven't been for a long time."
He was silent then. We stood looking at each other, the only sound filling the air the crashing of the waves. When the silence continued to drag on, I turned and left.
He let me.
Sleep was a long time coming that night. I was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Thinking.
What had Dylan really meant to me, in those last two years?
I was so deep in thought that it took me a while to realise that there was a suspicious scratching noise coming from somewhere outside. All coherent thought flying from my mind, I sat up, the covers pooling at my waist, and listened.
Then came a loud crash from Talia's old room that had me jumping out of bed in fright.
I reached for my phone on the bed stand, then stopped. There was no one I could call. My father was probably at work, or I would've heard footsteps on the landing already. There was no way anyone could have missed that crash. And since it had come from Talia's room, where none of us ever set foot in anymore, it could only be one of two things: a burglar, or…
Somewhere along that train of thought, I had padded out of my room. Now I found myself standing in front of Talia's old bedroom door. I reached out to touch the wooden surface.
Talia's old room.
I hesitated, my hand on the doorknob. I hadn't been in there since... Then, clenching my teeth, I twisted the knob and the door swung open.
I didn't know what I had expected – some ghostly figure of Talia, maybe? – but it definitely wasn't the sight of Dylan, in a heap on the floor by the window.
Under my gaze, he picked himself off the floor and dusted himself down. "Guess I'm a little rusty," he said with a lopsided smile.
I stared at him. "What the hell?"
"I rang the bell. But you didn't answer, and the door was locked…" He shrugged. "So I came in from here. The tree's still there, you know."
I walked over to the window and saw that, yes, indeed, the tree was still there. I continued staring out blindly until my vision started to blur.
I was in Talia's old room. She had slept here, lived here, let boys in through the window here – until one day she just hadn't anymore. At some point, someone had packed up her room. Other than the boxes stacked against the wall, there was no sign of Talia's previous occupancy of the room. But I could still see it in my mind's eye: the rumpled bed, strewn with pieces of clothing as she'd picked out an outfit for that last night, the messy vanity littered with bottles of cosmetics and that perfume she'd loved so much... Her hairbrush. That last pair of earrings she had worn. The stacks of heels she had buried away in the closet. The romance novels that she'd hidden in the bedside drawer.
Her life, her entire life... Now packed away in sterile cardboard boxes.
I didn't feel the hot tears streaking down my cheeks until Dylan pulled me to him and kissed them gently. I turned my face away and tried to push against him so that he would let go, but he held on tight.
"Don't," I said, my voice all choked up, "not in her room... Not in Talia's..."
"She's gone, Tara," he said softly, his lips brushing against the shell of my ear.
I pushed him away stubbornly; it was the principle of the thing. Talia had tried to step back for me, it was the least I could do to not rub it in her face.
Dylan followed me back to my room.
When the door was shut, he leaned against it and looked at me. "So..."
We stared at each other.
"Why did you come tonight?" I asked finally.
"Why did you let me in?" He countered.
I was perplexed. "I didn't – you came in through the window–"
"I meant your room."
When I had no ready reply to that, he moved toward determinedly, like a panther stalking its prey. "If we are no longer friends..." He stopped right in front of me, blue eyes serious. "Why did you let me in?"
"I... You..." I didn't have an answer for him.
"A year is a long time," he said.
I didn't know what he was getting at, but I nodded. So much had changed since we had both gone off to college. I liked to think that we'd both matured – we were able to stand here, in my room, and have a civilised conversation. That hadn't been possible just a year ago. I smiled wryly. All our conversations back then had inevitably delineated into either sex or competitions to see who could hurt the other the most.
"This year away... It's made me think." He cleared his throat, "About us."
"There is no us," I said faintly. "We were just trying to forget."
"We were just lying to ourselves," he corrected, "about what it meant."
I shook my head. He had always been a romantic, that was why he had been so good for Talia. "You're putting too much of a good slant on things, Dylan. It wasn't like that at all."
"Then what was it like? Tell me."
"It was us, trying to forget," I repeated. "Me, trying to justify it by telling myself that I loved you more."
I managed to silence him for a moment with that statement. "Was that all it was?" He asked after a long pause. "Self-justification?"
I stood staring at him, my eyes hooded.
He suddenly pulled me to him, a rough motion that had me colliding with his chest. "I love you," he said, his fingers digging into my hips, as if trying to brand me with those words. "I know you're over me, damn it, but I love you."
I pushed him away out of sheer shock. "What are you...?"
"I love you, Tara," he repeated stubbornly.
"Stop saying that."
"I won't." I was backing away, but he followed me every inch of the way, slowly but surely backing me into the corner. "Because it's true."
I shook my head again. "It must be transference, or something."
He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Have you been taking Psychology 101? It's nothing like that."
"You're not over Talia," I said, my voice wobbling, because it hurt to have him declare his love for me when I knew that it wasn't true. "And I look like her..."
"You don't," he said softly, sliding his arms around me, "not in the ways that matter."
"I…" I bit my lip, "My eyes… They look like hers. You said so yourself. You'll look into my eyes... and think of her." Just like I would always think of her. Every single day, when I looked into the mirror and saw those green eyes staring back through the glass, I reminded myself of her.
He shook his head. "I was an idiot."
I smiled, a little sadly. "You don't need to lie now–"
"I'm not." He lowered his head to look me directly in the eyes. "They're not entirely the same, you know."
"What..." My mouth was dry. "What are you talking about?"
"Your eyes." He stared into them, observing, thinking, his own eyes pensive. "Yeah, they're the same shade of green, but... You have these little flecks of blue that she doesn't... And your expression, the look in your eyes... It's all different."
I stared back at him, my heart thudding erratically in my chest. "You don't have to lie, Dylan. I know you feel bad about–"
"I'm not lying!" He exploded in frustration, grasping me by the shoulders as if he would like nothing better than to shake some sense into me. "You're different. She's her; you're you. I've never seen the two of you as part of each other. You're–"
"–separate," I finished in a whisper, because it was what I'd always wished for someone else to understand. I'd never told a soul, though – not even Talia. Not even Dylan, back when we'd been so close that we'd shared almost everything. And yet, he knew. He'd figured it out.
"You've always been separate to me," he whispered back. "Tara..." He paused significantly, before continuing, "Talia."
I felt my eyes fill with tears. He got it.
"So when I say I love you," he continued in a quiet voice, "I mean you. Not Talia. Not as a substitute. You."
He sounded sincere. It would take a long time before I would be able to believe him wholeheartedly. But for now...
"I still love you," I said. The tears spilled over onto my cheeks. He leaned in and kissed them away.
"I don't want this to be another series of meaningless hook-ups, Tara." He hesitated, then continued, "I don't think I will ever be able to… to forget completely. She was a huge part of my life."
"I know," I murmured. I knew he had loved her. And a part of his heart was still with her – he had buried it with her, and I knew there was a chance I could never take it away. A part of him would forever be hers. And I couldn't begrudge her that. If Talia had lived, he would never have been mine, not even after I had drunkenly accosted him at that party two years ago, the night that Talia had died.
He made an impatient noise, shaking his head. "God, what am I saying? I must be the biggest asshole ever. She was your sister. She was a bigger part of your life than she was mine."
I grabbed his arm. "Don't. Don't say that. You were a big part of her life." I forced myself to meet his eyes as I said this next part, "You were the love of her life."
A stricken look flashed through his eyes, and I knew I had been right. He still wasn't as over her as he'd tried to seem. The sheen of tears lining his eyes broadcasted the truth loud and clear.
I dropped my gaze. "I'm sorry. For coming between you." Left unspoken was the fact that she might've still been alive had I not acted so outrageously that day. Every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Talia had paid for mine.
"Don't," he said, cupping my shoulders now, waiting until I looked back at him. "Don't play 'what-if'."
I closed my eyes and breathed out a sigh. I knew that, but sometimes it was hard not to. There were so many things I wanted to do over... So many things I would've changed.
"I know," I said instead.
Dylan reached out to cup my face in his hands. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he still wore the watch Talia had bought for him on his left wrist. "We'll take it a day at a time. Can that be enough for now?"
I reached up and wound my arms around his neck, even though my heart was slowly breaking inside with the knowledge that, no matter what, Talia would always be a ghost between us. But still, if this was all I could get, I would grab hold of it with both hands and hope that he would never want to let go. And maybe, between the two of us, we could somehow make it work.
"It's enough," I whispered, leaning forward to kiss him and tasting the salty remnants of my own tears on his lips. "It has to be."
A/N: Um, wow, this was a long time coming. I actually started this back in 2010, even though it was just a drabble (inspired by Mayday Parade's 'Kids in Love') at that time and I had no idea where it was going. It only really began to take shape (i.e., I added in the Talia plot) earlier this year. Most of the story came to me when I was listening to Blink 182's 'Feeling This' on loop. Then grad school got in the way and I only got to come back to it earlier this week. This time I was mostly listening Revolverheld's 'Halt dich an mir fest', and Ano Hana's opening and ending songs while writing it. Other than that… Bits of the plot, and bits of the conversations in it, were inspired by things that have been going on in my life. Best friend issues, falling-for-the-same-guy issues, feeling-a-little-lost-in-life issues, etc. I really should have broken them up at the end, but I couldn't bear to. I'm a romantic at heart like that…
Happy new year, everybody! Please review if you managed to finish this 30k-word monster, it would mean a lot to me.