Prologue1 Pandora’s Box2 No Do-Overs3 New Year, New Experiences4 Blind Leap5 Not Boring6 A Thousand Words7 Worlds Collide8 Capturing the Silence9 Feeling Again10 Predictable11 What Are You Afraid of?12 Over the Edge13 Too Late14 Just Like Your Mother15 Different16 Yesterday17 Not the Same18 Still Here19 Give Me a Reason20 Guilt Trip21 Twelve Days22 Taking Me with Her23 Silent Pain24 Waiting for Her25 A Little Honesty26 Letting Go27 Gone28 Finding a Reason29 Not Knowing30 Choices31 Truce32 Relentless33 The Pool Thing34 Just Don’t Think About It35 Brutal Honesty36 Always You37 All About Tomorrow38 The Promise39 No More Secrets40 What is YoursEpilogueAcknowledgements
USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Donovan has been a writer most of her life, but has just recently been deemed an author. Her debut novels, Reason to Breathe and the follow-up Barely Breathing, have resonated with readers around the world. Out of Breath is the final instalment in the trilogy. Rebecca graduated from the University of Missouri–Columbia and currently lives in a small town in Massachusetts.
Books by Rebecca Donovan
REASON TO BREATHE
OUT OF BREATH
For my loving friend and life-sister, Emily ~ you are my happiness, and the choice I never had to make ~
‘I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY I BOTHERED picking up. Yeah, maybe I’ll talk to you about it eventually, after you stop acting like such an ass.’ I stood at the top of the stairs with a heavy box of textbooks balanced in my arms. Sara released a frustrated groan, so I assumed she’d hung up.
I made some noise as I neared the door so she’d know I was coming and could hold her temperament in check. She’d told me about her decision to end things with Jared, and I’d listened. But I was basically incapable of offering any guidance. Sara didn’t confide in me too much lately, afraid something would upset me. It wasn’t that I was that fragile. I just refused to talk about … anything.
‘Is that it?’ Sara asked, her smile brighter than usual, overcompensating for the annoyance that still lingered in her eyes.
‘You can tell me, you know,’ I offered, trying to be the friend that she needed right now.
‘No, I can’t,’ she said, redirecting her attention to the boxes stacked all over the room. ‘I don’t have much space to work with. This room is tiny.’
I let her avoid the topic, since that was what she preferred.
‘I don’t need anything. Really. No need to bother.’
‘I thought you’d say that,’ Sara replied with a small smile. ‘That’s why I only brought one thing to decorate your room.’ She reached for a purse so big it could honestly be called a duffle bag, and pulled out a frame. Flipping it around, she held it up under her chin with a beaming smile. It was a picture of us at her house, in front of the large bay window overlooking the front yard in the background. Anna, her mother, had taken it during the summer I’d lived with them. From the gleam in our eyes it was apparent we were on the verge of laughing.
‘Omigod,’ Sara said with a shocked seriousness. I tightened my eyes in confusion. ‘Is that a smile I see on your face, Emma Thomas? I was wondering if I’d ever see one again.’
I ignored her, straightening my lips, and turned towards the built-in desk in the corner of the small bedroom.
‘Perfect.’ Sara set the photo on the dresser, admiring it. I pulled out the textbooks and tucked them on the shelf under the desk. ‘Okay, let’s unpack you. I’m so happy you’re out of the dorms now. And I’ve always loved Meg … and Serena, even though she won’t let me do a makeover. I’ll work on it. But what’s up with Peyton?’
‘She’s harmless,’ I said, breaking down an empty cardboard box.
‘I guess every house needs drama,’ Sara noted, laying a stack of folded shirts in an open drawer. ‘And as long as Peyton’s the only drama in this house, I can live with that.’
‘That’s what I was thinking,’ I replied, hanging clothes in the minuscule closet.
Sara plopped a black boot box on the bed. ‘Should we keep the boots in the box or set them in the closet?’ She began to slide the cover off, but my hand slammed it shut. She jumped and looked up at me in alarm.
‘They’re not boots.’ I could hear the edge in my voice.
Sara’s mouth opened in surprise as she took in my intense expression. ‘O-kay. Where do you want it?’
‘I don’t care. I’d actually rather not know,’ I answered. ‘I’m getting something to drink. Do you want anything?’
‘Water,’ Sara requested, her voice quiet.
When I returned with the two bottles of water a few minutes later, Sara was making the bed, and the box was gone. Setting my shoes on the bottom of the closet floor was the final touch. There was a benefit to not owning much.
I sat on the rolling chair at the desk while Sara lay on her stomach on the bed, scattering the display of decorative pillows she’d just masterfully assembled. I knew I’d stuff them on the top shelf of my closet after she left.
‘You know I ended it because I can’t do the distance thing, right?’ Sara asked. I spun the chair around, surprised she’d decided to open up.
‘I know it’s hard for you. It always has been,’ I replied. She’d had the same challenge in high school when we were in Connecticut and Jared was attending Cornell in New York. But she made it work by visiting him practically every weekend for the last part of our senior year.
‘I’ll be in France; there’s no way I could do that to us,’ she continued. ‘It doesn’t seem fair to make him wait.’
‘But would you want him seeing anyone else while you’re gone? Because that’s basically what you’re giving him permission to do. And then what happens when you get back?’
Sara was quiet, resting her chin on her hands with her eyes focused on the floor. ‘I just don’t want to know about it. And if I meet someone in Paris, he doesn’t need to know about that either. Because in the end, I know we’re supposed to be together. But I’m not sure either one of us is ready to admit that.’
I still didn’t understand her logic, but I wasn’t about to challenge her.
She sat up suddenly, not allowing me the chance to say anything in return. ‘So, do you think … since I’m going to be gone … that I can let Meg know a little about you? Not everything, just enough so she’ll be here for you while I can’t be. I hate the thought of being so far away without someone –’
‘Looking out for me,’ I finished.
‘Yeah,’ she replied, smiling gently. ‘I don’t want you to be alone. You have a tendency to shut yourself off for days at a time. It’s not good. I’ll still call you every day, of course. But I hate not being close … in case you …’ Sara looked down, unable to finish the sentence.
‘Sara, I’m not going to do anything,’ I promised feebly. ‘You don’t have to worry about me.’
‘Yeah. It doesn’t mean I won’t.’
‘BONNE ANNÉE!’ SARA SHOUTED THROUGH the phone. Music and voices exploded around her, making it difficult to hear her clearly. It could also have been that she was calling from Paris, and the reception wasn’t the best.
‘Happy New Year to you too,’ I replied loudly. ‘Although it’s still last year here for another nine hours.’
‘Well, I’m telling you next year is looking pretty frickin’ fabulous from where I’m standing! This party is insane. Designer drunks,’ she giggled, her own sobriety in question. ‘And I designed my own dress just for tonight.’
‘I’m sure it’s impressive. I wish I could see it.’ I wondered if we really needed to keep yelling to be heard, but she didn’t retreat to anywhere quieter. I sucked it up because I wanted to hear her voice, even in her current giggly mood. I hadn’t heard it enough since she’d started the exchange programme in France in the fall.
She’d spent last summer and every break during our freshman year in California with me. Knowing I was going to see her every few months almost made life bearable. So far, my sophomore year sucked. If it weren’t for my room-mates, I wouldn’t do anything outside of soccer and school.
‘You’re not going to lock yourself in your room like you did last New Year’s Eve, are you?’
‘The door won’t be locked, but I am staying in my room,’ I confirmed. ‘Where’s Jean-Luc?’
‘Getting us a bottle of champagne. I’m sending you a picture of my dress as soon as we hang up.’
‘Hey, Em –’ Meg poked her head in my room, then noticed I was on the phone. ‘Sorry. Is that Sara?’
‘Hi, Sara!’ Meg screamed.
‘Hi, Meg!’ Sara screamed in return.
‘Umm, I think she heard you,’ I told Sara, wiggling a finger in my ringing ear, ‘but now I can’t.’ Meg smiled.
‘Well, I have to go,’ Sara yelled above a roar of laughter. ‘My man and champagne have arrived. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you, Em!’
‘Bye, Sara,’ I replied. God, I missed her. I wasn’t sure if she realized how much. It wasn’t like I told her. But I did. I missed her … a lot.
‘It sounds like she’s having an incredible New Year,’ Meg remarked, sitting down on my bed. ‘I could hear the party all the way across the room.’
‘What time are you leaving?’ I asked, knowing she was meeting up with some friends in San Francisco to celebrate.
‘In an hour. We’re all supposed to go out for dinner before the party.’
My phone chimed, and an image of Sara filled my screen. She looked stunning, of course, in a shimmery dark green sleeveless dress that had a twenties flapper-girl flair, her shoulders dramatically exposed before it swept up into a high collar. Her wavy red hair was twisted back at the nape of her neck. She was puckering her shiny red lips, her eyes smouldering as Jean-Luc kissed her on the cheek while clutching a bottle of champagne.
I shared the picture with Meg. ‘Sexy. Did she design that dress?’
‘Yup,’ I replied.
I placed the phone on my desk next to my laptop as Meg asked, ‘Do you mind if I borrow your black boots?’
‘Go for it.’ I turned back towards my screen to continue downloading the required reading for the next quarter. ‘They’re in the box under my bed.’
‘You can still change your mind and come with me,’ Meg offered. I could hear the box sliding along the carpet.
‘Thanks, but I’m all set,’ I told her. ‘I’m not really a New Year’s fan.’ I tried to keep my tone flat, not allowing the reasons why to reflect in my voice. The last time I’d celebrated, the year had held promises of happiness and a future I wanted to be a part of. Now, it was just another page torn from the calendar.
‘Em, I’m begging you one more time. Please, please, please go with me tonight,’ Peyton grovelled from my doorframe. ‘I really don’t want to go with Brook. You never go out with me and it’s New Year’s. Make an exception this one time!’
I spun around in my chair to decline for the thousandth time. Before I could utter a word, her eyes lit up, with her attention direction towards Meg. ‘Ooh, what’s that?’
I followed her inquisitive expression as she walked into the room. Meg had just removed the cover to the box that was set on my bed. The wrong box. A vapour of memories and unfathomable heartache was released into the room as the box opened. I couldn’t breathe.
Meg ripped the white T-shirt with the blue handprints out of Peyton’s hands as she held it up.
‘Stop it, Peyton!’ Meg scolded. I remained paralysed as she flaunted my past in front of me.
Still not doing a very good job fading. His voice flitted through my head, sending a chill down my back.
‘I love this,’ Peyton admired, shaking out my pink sweater. ‘Can I have it?’
‘No! Knock it off, Peyton!’ Meg snatched the sweater and placed it back into the box. ‘Sorry, Em.’
A rush of painful emotion coursed through me, forcing me to feel more than I had in the past year and a half. I couldn’t utter a sound. It was as if I were being flayed, every nerve exposed.
Before Meg could slide the cover back over my past, Peyton removed a jewellery box.
You can’t have it. Please, I’ll pay you. But you can’t take that from me.
Desperation echoed through me, and the memory of cold hard eyes triggered a flash of panic, releasing me from my silent torture.
I sprang from the seat and grabbed the blue box from Peyton’s hand. My sudden movement forced her to take a step back. I threw it in the box and slammed the cover back on. My heart was beating so fast my hands were shaking. I gripped the edge of the cover, waiting for the pain to subside. But it was too late. The simple act of opening that box had unleashed the wrath of guilt and despair I’d hidden within my darkest depths, and now it wasn’t going to be confined by a lid.
‘Sorry, Em,’ Peyton whispered. I didn’t turn around. I slid the box under my bed and took a deep breath. My heart singed around the edges like a burning piece of paper, the flames slowly creeping towards the centre. I closed my eyes and tried to extinguish it, but couldn’t.
‘I’m going for a run,’ I murmured, barely audible.
‘Okay,’ Meg responded cautiously. Afraid of what she might see in my eyes, I didn’t dare look at her as she ushered Peyton out of the room. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’
I threw on running gear and was out the front door within minutes. With my iPod blaring music in my ears, I began to run. Picking up the pace until my thighs burned, I cut down side streets until I reached the park. I stumbled to a stop, unable to fight back the onslaught of emotion. I clenched my trembling hands into tight fists and released a guttural cry, until I feared I’d collapse.
Without looking around to see whose attention I’d drawn, I took off into a sprint again.
By the time I returned home, my face was dripping with a mixture of tears and sweat. The exhaustion from the run had helped ease most of the fire, but I couldn’t extinguish it all, as much as I tried. My insides still burned. I considered what I could do to push the torment back into the dark and return to my numb state. I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed help. I was desperate.
‘Peyton!’ I called out from the bottom of the stairs. She turned down the music in her room and poked her head out.
‘Hey, Em. What’s up?’
‘I’ll go with you.’ I heaved, still trying to catch my breath.
‘What?’ she asked, unsure that she’d heard me correctly.
‘I’ll go to the party with you,’ I repeated more clearly, my breath beginning to even out.
‘Yes!’ she exclaimed. ‘I have the perfect tank top for you to wear too!’
‘Great,’ I grumbled, heading towards the kitchen to get a drink of water.
‘You have no idea how happy I am that you changed your mind,’ Peyton chirped when we stepped out of her red Mustang at the end of the car-lined street. Even from here, the music carried down the block.
‘No problem,’ I replied absently. I needed to be distracted from the voices that were suddenly whipping around in my thoughts. I needed to find my way back to being numb.
‘You cannot wear that sweatshirt,’ Peyton scolded before I could shut the car door.
‘But it’s cold out,’ I argued.
‘Not where we’re going. It’s only a short walk to the house. Come on, Em. Suck it up.’
I reluctantly removed the sweatshirt to reveal the glittery silver tank top beneath and shivered as I tossed it into the car.
‘Much better,’ Peyton admired with a vibrant smile, joining me on the sidewalk and sliding her arm through mine. ‘Let’s go party!’
Peyton strode alongside me in her strapless red dress, her golden blonde hair lying in a glossy sheet down her back. Her greenish-blue eyes were lit with excitement as she escorted me towards the music that grew louder with each passing house. I was surprised the police hadn’t shown up yet. But when I looked around, I realized it was surrounded by college housing. Most of the residents were probably away for winter break or at the party.
We approached the side of a beige house with a large white tent in the back yard. A couple of guys were handing out tiaras and top hats as we passed through the entrance. Peyton slid a tiara on her head and I took a top hat. A guy ladled red liquid out of a trash can and set the cup on a table in front of us.
Peyton’s eyes widened when I took the cup. ‘You know that has alcohol in it, right?’
‘Yes, I do,’ I replied casually, taking a sip. It was … sweet. It reminded me of an overly sugared fruit punch. This wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought. Why had my mother opted for the dreadful taste of straight vodka when this was an option?
‘But you don’t drink,’ Peyton countered in obvious shock.
‘New year, trying new things,’ I explained dismissively, holding up my cup.
She grinned and tapped it. ‘To trying new things!’ As Peyton took a sip, I opted to drain the contents of my cup, needing the effects to kick in sooner rather than later. After all, it was the reason I was here.
‘Em!’ Peyton scolded. ‘I know it doesn’t taste like it, but there’s a lot of alcohol in there. You may want to pace yourself.’
I shrugged and grabbed another before we entered the tent crammed with bodies. We made our way to the stage where a band was performing, drowning out any possibility of a conversation – which was fine by me.
‘Hey!’ Peyton hollered, recognizing a tall guy with wavy brown hair dressed in typical college plaid.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ Plaid Guy replied.
‘I told you I was coming,’ she returned playfully. She turned towards me and said, ‘Tom, this is Emma, the room-mate you haven’t met yet.’
‘Wow,’ Tom said. ‘I can’t believe you’re actually here.’
I feigned a smile, wondering what Peyton had told him about me. I could only guess.
‘And this is Cole,’ Tom said, directing my attention to a blond guy with broad shoulders standing next to him.
‘Hi,’ Cole responded with a nod and slight smile. Peyton elbowed me. I ignored her and barely nodded in return, taking a sip out of my cup instead.
Insistent, Peyton grabbed Tom’s arm and said, ‘I need another drink.’ Tom eyed her full cup in confusion, but let Peyton drag him away. I glared at her as she smirked back at me.
‘Having a good time?’ Cole yelled over the screeching coming from the stage. He didn’t appear concerned about the forced pairing. I cupped my ear to indicate I couldn’t hear him. Instead of repeating the question, he bent down and said, ‘I was beginning to wonder if you were real. I kept hearing about you, but I’ve never actually seen you out.’ I leaned back, not wanting to encourage him to get so close, and began scanning the crowd around us. ‘Don’t say much, huh?’
I shook my head and took another large gulp of my drink to drown the inferno still burning beneath the surface. Why had I thought coming to this party was a good idea?
What did I do?
Just you, everything about you – you’re amazing,
My back straightened, the clarity of the voices invading my head. Images of the last New Year’s party I’d attended threatened to surface, and I swallowed them down with another sip.
‘Are you going to say anything at all?’ Cole asked, pulling me out of the painful remembrance of being wrapped in Evan’s arms while watching fireworks explode overhead.
‘Huh?’ I finally looked up at him. ‘What would you like me to say?’ I challenged.
‘Well, that was a start,’ he taunted, not fazed by my rudeness. ‘You go to Stanford?’
I nodded my head, then caught myself when he accusingly widened his eyes. ‘Yes,’ I stressed. ‘And you?’
‘Yeah, I’m a junior,’ he answered.
‘Sophomore,’ I responded, pointing to myself. I pre-empted the next predictable question: ‘Pre-medical.’
He appeared impressed. ‘Business.’ I nodded in return. ‘Do you play soccer with Peyton?’
I sighed, and took another gulp, not loving the mundane exchange. ‘Yup. Are you on a team?’
‘No. I played lacrosse in high school, but nothing here.’
I didn’t come to the party for small talk or to get to know someone new. I needed to get away from this guy. And I really didn’t care what he thought of me. I swallowed the last mouthful of the drink.
‘I need another,’ I announced. ‘I’ll see you around.’ I turned and walked away before he could respond, dodging through the crowd in search of the drink table. The band stopped to take a break, and a DJ started, igniting a movement of dancing energy towards the small stage.
I was still feeling too much. I’d never drunk more than a couple of sips before, so I didn’t know how long it would be before it took effect. I also had no idea how it would feel when it finally did. My mother turned to alcohol to numb her pain, and even though I swore that I’d never drink, there was only so much a person could endure before breaking that promise. And I didn’t want to be in pain any more.
I squeezed through the crowd towards the far side of the tent, where a table was lined with filled cups.
‘Need a drink?’ a voice asked close to my ear.
I turned to find a guy with a thin, muscular frame, a mop of black hair, and a dark line of facial hair down the centre of his chin. From the tattoo behind his ear that crept down his neck and the few guys with similar attire of T-shirts and ripped jeans, I deduced that he was with the band.
‘Are you talking to me?’
‘Yeah,’ he replied with a cocky grin. ‘I’m Gev. I noticed your empty cup and thought I could help you out.’
‘Well, you don’t have a cup at all, so maybe I should be helping you out.’
He laughed, but I left him and kept walking towards the table. When I turned back I had two cups in my hands. He stopped short and smiled when I offered him one.
‘I like your name. It’s different.’
‘I’m attached to it,’ he said with a quick raise of his brows, making me roll my eyes with a low laugh.
‘Are you going up again?’ I asked, nodding towards the stage, deciding I might as well talk to someone, and he seemed interesting enough. At least he wasn’t predictable.
‘Nope. We’re done for the night. And now I have some catching up to do.’ He downed the cup with several large gulps. I looked on, amused, and handed him another, which he accepted with a flashy smile.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, moving away from the crowd forming in front of the table.
‘How are you feeling?’
A minute ago I would have answered, On fire. But now I realized the fire was gone. In its place was a dull hum. A swirling calm ran through me, casting a veil of numbness over my senses.
‘Calm,’ I answered with a deep breath, relieved that the jacked-up Kool-Aid had finally kicked in.
He laughed at my answer. ‘I’ve never heard that one before.’
‘You’ve never met me before.’
‘True. But I like that – I mean that you say what you’re thinking. No bullshit. That’s cool.’
‘Well, here’s to no bullshit,’ Gev raised his cup, and I tapped it with mine before we both took several large gulps.
‘Do you go to –’
‘No bullshit,’ I cut him off.
‘Okay,’ he said, considering my request. ‘What colour underwear do you have on?’
I was caught off guard by his forwardness. ‘I can’t remember.’ I pulled my jeans by the belt loop to take a look. ‘Purple.’
‘Nice.’ He nodded in approval.
‘And you?’ I asked, liking this ‘no bullshit’ conversation. It was more interesting than talking about majors and sports teams.
Gev was more daring, unbuttoning his jeans to show the top of his boxer briefs. ‘Black.’
‘I can see that.’ I pursed my lips to keep from smiling.
I tipped my cup back and finished it, embracing the haze that continued to creep in.
Gev’s hand slid along my back as he leaned in to ask, ‘Who are you kissing at midnight?’
‘How much time do I have?’ I enquired, not that it made a difference.
He looked at his watch and answered, ‘An hour.’
‘I guess whomever I’m closest to.’
‘Then I’d better stay next to you,’ he replied with an arching brow.
‘Emma!’ Peyton exclaimed. I turned towards her voice and squinted to focus as she neared me. ‘Where’s Cole?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied when I finally recognized her beside me. She looked from me to Gev and scrunched her eyes in confusion.
‘Come over here,’ she demanded, grabbing my arm and dragging me away from him. I stumbled after her, not prepared for the sudden movement. ‘Who is that?’
‘Gev. He’s with the band,’ I answered and waved back at him. He raised his cup in return.
‘What happened to Cole? He’s hot.’
‘He’s boring,’ I huffed. ‘Gev’s much more interesting.’
‘How many drinks have you had?’
‘Three.’ I grinned proudly at my accomplishment. ‘And I’m numb.’
‘Three?! Em, we’ve only been here an hour! You can’t drink anything else, or you’ll be on the ground before midnight. And I don’t think Gev’s a good fit for you.’
‘So?’ I wasn’t looking for a ‘good fit’. I was just looking for someone interesting to talk to, or drink with. But I didn’t want to waste my words trying to explain that to her.
‘Omigod. You’re already drunk.’
I considered her accusation and smiled widely. I was numb from head to toe, except my lips felt tingly. I didn’t mind being drunk. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but it wasn’t bad.
‘Okay,’ I answered, accepting her assessment as true. ‘I’m going to find Gev now.’ I was done with the lecture. She wasn’t being fun. I turned, and the quick motion made everything blur past me. I remained still for a moment to allow the world to settle back in place before searching for his dark hair among the faces.
‘Fine. I’ll find you at midnight,’ she called after me.
I felt a hand grab my arm, and I turned my heavy head to find his dark blue eyes. ‘Still next to you,’ he declared, clasping my hand.
‘Tell me something interesting,’ I requested, taking the cup he offered me.
‘I think you are the most interesting person I’ve met in a long time,’ he responded. He slipped his hand around my waist and leaned in to say, ‘Dance with me.’
I was about to open my mouth to explain that I didn’t dance, but the next thing I knew, we were squeezed in among the sweaty bodies and his hand was pressed against the small of my back, pulling me against him. I flopped my arms around his neck to steady myself and let him do all the dancing. He even danced for me, swaying my hips along with his.
Time moved fast, and the next thing I knew, I was yelling along with everyone else as this year ticked away into the next.
‘Happy New Year!’ we all chimed in unison. Gev turned me around and made certain he was the one closest to me. I allowed his wet lips to slide along mine, followed by the force of his tongue. My head buzzed louder when I closed my eyes, propping myself against him. He pulled me closer, making me stumble slightly. Gev gripped me tighter and continued to kiss me aggressively. I didn’t stop him. I kept thinking about how strange it felt. I couldn’t feel my lips, or maybe I couldn’t feel his lips. Either way, it didn’t seem like we were really kissing, and I was more focused on this than the fact that I was kissing at all.
‘Wanna get out of here?’ Gev offered, his breath tickling my neck. ‘I live a few houses down, and we have a hot tub.’
A hot tub sounded good. Besides, I wanted to sit down. My legs weren’t doing a good job holding me up.
‘Sure,’ I replied, and he led me through the heat of the crowd and into the cool night. It must have warmed up after we’d arrived because I didn’t need my sweatshirt any more. He kept a hold of my hand and led me down the sidewalk.
I could’ve sworn he said he lived a few houses down, but I felt like I saw a million sidewalk cracks before we were finally in his back yard. But then I didn’t remember seeing his front yard. Maybe his house really was close by. Either way, we were here and I couldn’t wait to sit down.
Gev uncovered a hot tub tucked next to a fence. As he turned on the jets, I studied it, trying to figure out how I was supposed to lift my leg over the side. It seemed so … tall.
Gev stripped down to the black boxer briefs I’d gotten a sneak peek of earlier. I followed his lead, dropping my jeans and tank top on the ground. I discovered I didn’t have any shoes on, and I couldn’t remember where I’d put them.
‘I love purple,’ he declared, pulling me towards him and nuzzling his face into my neck. He was distracting me from solving the hot-tub dilemma. I was about to push him away when I finally spotted the stairs. I smiled proudly.
He led me to the hot tub, and I slipped in, breathing a sigh of relief now that I was finally off my feet. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. Everything started to spin.
I could feel Gev’s hands on me and his mouth on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and he was right there, eager for more kissing. I tilted my head towards him and connected with his greedy lips. I still couldn’t feel them, but I couldn’t feel anything any more, so I didn’t care.
Caught up in the kissing and the hot swirling water, everything suddenly ceased to exist. My head mimicked the motion of the water, and the steamy air closed in around me. Gev was there again, pushing up against me. I was too distracted to participate, trying to keep the world from spinning out from under me. That’s when I felt the tightness in the back of my throat and knew I had to get out.
I pushed past him and staggered down the stairs, just in time to find the bushes and release the red contents of my stomach. The world spun faster, knocking me to my knees before I heaved again.
‘Are you okay?’ Gev asked from behind me. I shook my head, giving in one more time. I took a deep breath of cold air and pushed myself up to stand, leaning against the fence to steady myself.
‘I need to lie down,’ I told him, not even knowing where he was.
He grabbed my hand, and I stumbled after him. Everything flashed by in a blur. I concentrated on keeping my feet under me as I tried to keep up with him. We were in a house; then I saw a door. The door opened, and a light revealed a bathroom.
‘I’ll get you shorts and a T-shirt to put on,’ he said and disappeared.
I gripped the edge of the sink and closed my eyes, trying to find centre. The scales of calm had tipped to swirling chaos. And I had an awful taste in my mouth. I opened the cabinet above the sink and grabbed the toothpaste. Squeezing it along my finger, I scrubbed my tongue before rinsing my mouth with water.
Folded clothes appeared in front of me. I removed my wet bra and underwear and slid them on. The warm, dry T-shirt smelled good as I slid it over my head. Then Gev’s hand found mine again, and I trailed after him into a dark room.
Gev stood before me in a pair of shorts. I leaned against him for balance, my hands pressed against his bare skin. He took this as an invitation and bent down to taste the toothpaste on my lips. His hands gripped my hips, and he kissed me hard. The numbness that I had so desperately wanted to possess me kept me from caring when his hands groped my back under the T-shirt. I didn’t care when he thrust his tongue into my mouth. I didn’t care when he ground his hardened body against me and groaned in my ear. And I didn’t care when he slipped the T-shirt over my head and let me fall back onto his bed.
MY HEAD SPLINTERED INTO A THOUSAND pieces as I slowly opened my eyes. I placed my hand against it to keep it steady while I propped myself up on my elbow.
Where was I?
The slightest movement intensified the lightning storm inside my skull. Glancing around the musty room, I tried to remember what I’d done and why I was here. There was someone lying next to me. I noted the dark hair on the unmoving form under the blue plaid comforter.
I tried harder to recall last night, but was only met with flashing images of the party – and a guy. It must have been this guy. I looked under the comforter. I didn’t have any clothes on. My stomach churned as I sank back onto the flat pillow. I looked over at the nightstand and saw a torn package. I was about to be sick. What had I done?!
I lifted the blanket and examined his lean, naked body beneath it. A winding tattoo along his back finished behind his ear. Who was this guy? I knew he’d told me his name, and I searched through my broken memory to find it. Gev. That was it.
All I wanted was to leave and never see him again. But I didn’t know where my clothes were. Flinching in agony, I crawled along the bed, trying not to disturb Gev, who was breathing heavily with his mouth open. It didn’t look like anything would wake him.
I found a T-shirt and shorts on the floor and slipped them on. Moving gingerly, to keep a fit of axes from slicing through my head, I glanced around the small room. The full-size bed took up most of it. The walls were papered with rock posters, and clothes hung out of the half-open drawers of an abused bureau.
I opened the door leading to a small hallway, peeking out to listen. A hum of voices carried from a television, but otherwise it was quiet. Passing the bathroom, I suddenly stopped – recognizing my purple bra and underwear hanging on the doorknob. Unable to remember removing them, I sighed and shoved them under my arm before continuing down the hall.
A sprawled figure lay on the couch with the remote in his hand and a bag of chips spilled on the floor next to him as the morning news programme aired on the television screen. I crept past him, flinching as the screen door squeaked and I entered the frigid morning air. The grass was coated with dew, chilling my bare feet as I stepped across the back lawn. My clothes caught my eye, lying next to a hot tub. I pulled my phone out of my jeans pocket before flinging them and the tank top over my arm.
Hugging my body to quell a shiver, I listened to it ring as I walked towards the sidewalk. Sitting on the edge of the front lawn, as if waiting for me, were my shoes. I blew out an exasperated breath as I hung them from my fingers and kept walking.
‘Emma?’ Peyton rasped, still half asleep. ‘I lost you. Where are you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I whispered, though my voice still sounded loud in the predawn quiet of the sleeping neighbourhood. I began to notice clear plastic cups strewn along my path. ‘I think I’m near the party. Where are you?’
‘On the couch,’ she muttered. She groaned and continued with, ‘Let me find my shoes and I’ll meet you outside.’
I spotted Peyton’s red dress several houses down and continued to move slowly in her direction.
‘Hey,’ I croaked when I finally reached her.
‘Hey,’ she uttered in return. She plopped a top hat on my head and slid her tiara in place before wrapping her arm around mine. With her head on my shoulder, we trudged towards her Mustang, which felt about a million miles away.
I carefully lowered myself onto the passenger seat, trying not to jostle the few brain cells I had left while Peyton positioned herself on the driver’s side. She slid on her oversized sunglasses and sighed in relief – even though it was barely light enough to see without headlights.
When we arrived home we crept silently up the stairs and closed our bedroom doors behind us. I stripped out of the T-shirt and shorts, not wanting them touching my skin a second longer, and tossed them in the trash before slipping on a pair of boxers and a tank top. I pulled the covers over my head and passed out.
‘Emma?’ Peyton beckoned softly. I was jarred slightly when she sat down next to me. ‘Are you alive?’
‘No,’ I grumbled from under my blankets. ‘I was hoping for death.’ I pulled the blankets tighter around my head. ‘Drinking sucks.’
Peyton chuckled. ‘The way you drank does. It’s almost noon. Let’s get breakfast. It will make you feel better.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ I griped without moving. ‘I think a decapitation is the only thing that will make me feel better.’
‘Grease is a hangover miracle cure,’ she promised.
I peeked out from under the blankets. Peyton’s hair was a tangled mess, and her puffy eyes were smeared with mascara. I could only imagine what I looked like. Glancing in the mirror above my dresser, I ran my fingers over the nest that was once my hair and wiped the black streaks under my bloodshot eyes. My mouth was pasty with the lingering taste of something putrid.
‘Let me take a shower first,’ I conceded.
Peyton stood up and headed towards the door. ‘I need one too. I’ll meet you downstairs when we’re done.’
I grabbed random clothes from my drawers and faltered blindly towards the bathroom, unable to open my eyes beyond a squint. I turned on the water until it was almost scalding and stood under the cleansing streams. The night was slowly coming back to me as the water pelted my skin, turning it red.
You’re fucking disgusting. Carol’s hateful voice rang through my head. With my eyes clenched tight, I forced her away and scrubbed harder.
I tried to scour away the feel of his hands on my body and the taste of his tongue in my mouth. When I turned off the water, I was still repulsed with myself.
After dressing in jeans and an oversized grey hoodie, I tucked my hair under a baseball hat and found Peyton slumped on the couch. She stood up, and just as we turned towards the door, Meg walked in. She looked tired, but not near death like we did.
Her eyes flipped from Peyton to me, and then back to Peyton.
‘You got her drunk,’ Meg accused.
‘She did that all on her own,’ Peyton countered. ‘We’re getting breakfast. Wanna come?’
I lowered my head in avoidance. I could still feel Meg looking at me when she answered, ‘Sure.’
‘Good.’ Peyton held up her keys. ‘Then you can drive.’
A line awaited us when we pulled into the parking lot of the local breakfast spot. The busy restaurant was occupied by a mosaic of pale faces, trying to piece together their New Year. Thankfully, the line progressed quickly, and we slid into a booth fifteen minutes later.
Meg studied me from across the booth and shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you drank. I mean, you never drink. What happened?’
I shrugged and mumbled, ‘Pandora.’ As Meg’s eyes dipped in sympathy, I redirected my attention out the window.
‘What does music have to do with getting drunk?’ Peyton questioned, not understanding my reference. ‘Do you mean the musician you hooked up with last night? Were you trying to be cryptic or something?’
‘Wait. You slept with someone?!’ Meg’s voice rose, drawing the attention of a couple of guys walking by. I sunk into the booth, pulling my hat over my eyes when I heard them chuckle.
‘Meg!’ Peyton said sternly. ‘Why don’t you just announce it to the whole diner?’
‘Sorry,’ Meg grimaced. ‘But I –’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ I interrupted firmly. They both opened their mouths, and then closed them again. Our food arrived, thankfully, allowing us something to do other than dwell on my drunken indiscretion.
‘Where did you end up, Peyton?’ Meg interrogated.
‘On Tom’s couch,’ she stated. ‘Alone. He disappeared around three, and I couldn’t find Emma, so I fell asleep on his couch.’
Meg filled us in on her night as we ate our bacon and egg sandwiches – it wasn’t nearly as eventful. And, as it turns out, grease really does have miraculous effects. At least my body felt one step closer to rejoining the human race when we left the diner.
My phone rang as we reached the front steps. I knew what was about to happen, and I wasn’t ready. I took a deep breath and answered the phone anyway. ‘Hi, Sara.’
‘Happy New Year!’ she bellowed. I winced and pulled the phone away from my ear.
‘Not so loud,’ I begged.
‘Uh, okay,’ she replied in confusion. ‘Wait. Did you go out last night?’
‘Yeah,’ I answered softly. ‘But I’m not talking about it.’
Sara was quiet for a moment. ‘Does Meg know?’
I sat down on the couch and rested the back of my head against the cushion. ‘Yes.’
‘Can I ask her about it?’ she requested cautiously.
I paused and swallowed hard. ‘As long as you promise we’ll never have to talk about it.’
I could hear her thinking on the other end of the phone. ‘I promise.’ She hung up on me, and within thirty seconds Meg’s phone rang. She shot a glance at me from the other end of the couch.
‘Sara wants to know what happened to me last night, and I told her I wasn’t talking about it.’
‘But I can tell her, right?’ she confirmed.
‘Not in front of me.’
Meg stood and began to climb the stairs as she answered her phone. ‘Hi, Sara.’
‘I’m coming with you,’ Peyton called after her, taking two steps at a time. She was obviously feeling better.
I chased two aspirin with a Vitaminwater and remained on the couch, watching movies all afternoon.
I slunk away to my room in the early evening, leaving the girls with some horror movie that I really had no interest in. Sleep and I had taken way too long to finally find each other, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that with a movie.
Someone knocked lightly on my door. ‘Come in,’ I answered.
Meg poked her head in. ‘Hey.’ She sat at the end of my bed. ‘Still feel like shit?’
‘Tell me it goes away,’ I begged, my eyes closed.
‘You’ll be better tomorrow,’ she assured me. ‘Peyton told me how much you had to drink, or what she saw you drink anyway.’
I remained silent. Then she finally said it. ‘I know you don’t want to talk about it, and we won’t. I promise to never bring it up again. But before you drown in shame, know that everyone makes mistakes. And as far as I’m concerned, Ev–’
‘Don’t,’ I shot out before she could finish his name.
‘Sorry,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘I meant that it didn’t count. It was a mistake, and it doesn’t count.’
I’d never told Meg about my life in Weslyn. I didn’t explain why I almost never went out or why I refused to drink – or had, before last night. But I let Sara tell her when she came to visit after I’d moved into the house this past summer. She never mentioned what Sara had told her, but it helped her understand why I kept everyone at a distance. I trusted Meg.
I’d met her on the first day of soccer conditioning during our freshman year. She’d flown in from Pennsylvania, so we were both transplants. Meg accepted my withdrawn demeanour, and instinctively felt the urge to look out for me. This reminded me of Sara, and we bonded instantly.
Over the season, we found Peyton gravitating towards us. Truth be told, Peyton gravitated towards everyone. She was in your face and refused to be ignored. People either hated her or loved her, and she couldn’t care less either way. I think her brazen attitude is what made me like having her around.
And then there was Serena. She was from California, as was Peyton, and she was currently spending winter break with her family. But when she was with us, she completed our mismatched quad perfectly. Serena was genuinely the kindest person I’d ever met, but it was laced with a straightforward attitude that would tell a priest where to go if he crossed her. I responded to her cutting-edge Goth lifestyle with equal measures of intrigue and respect.
As much as I was grateful for Peyton’s and Serena’s patience with me and acceptance of who I was (although Peyton did have moments of being a little too … well, Peyton), it was Meg who I trusted with the truth about a past that we’d never actually talked about. Meg became my voice of reason, vying to keep me sane. When I was tiptoeing along the edge, Meg was there to make sure I didn’t fall over.
So when she told me that my one-night stand could be erased, I wanted to accept her assurance and swallow it whole, letting it salve the guilt like an antacid. But I knew there was no use in trying – everything had begun to crumble the moment she opened that box. My shameful encounter was just one more destructive choice I’d made that couldn’t be undone.
New Year, New Experiences
CLASSES FOR THE NEXT QUARTER BEGAN the following week, allowing me to continue into the new year consumed with books, lectures and studying. Everything seemed back to how it had always been. But it really wasn’t the same, and I knew it.
Meg and I drove to school together. Since we were both angling for acceptance into the School of Medicine, we shared several classes, but while she was gearing towards the hospitals, I was seeking refuge in the labs.
Peyton flitted through the house as usual, not knocking when she entered the bathroom or bedrooms. She wasn’t bothered by what she could be potentially walking in on – except with Serena, the only one of us with a boyfriend. Serena had little tolerance for Peyton’s invasion of privacy – not to mention that Peyton annoyed the hell out of her.
‘Okay, listen.’ Peyton approached me while I was in the kitchen making a sandwich before heading to the soccer field with Meg. ‘I know the party a few weeks ago was a bit of a disaster, but I think you should go out with me again. I promise to keep a better eye on you and help you gauge your level of drunkenness.’
I laughed at her absurd proposal. ‘Peyton, the drinking was a one-time thing. I’m all set, thanks.’
‘Em,’ she implored passionately, ‘you had one bad night. It doesn’t mean that you should give up your entire social life. We’re in college. This is the time when we discover who we are … and flirt with our tolerance for alcohol. I swear to you, there is a way to have a few drinks and not end up in some random guy’s bed.’
I whipped around and threw a piece of bread at her. ‘Shut the fuck up, Peyton.’
She deflected the bread to the floor. ‘Sorry. Really, that was stupid. I’m sorry,’ she grovelled. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’ Before she walked away, she begged, ‘Will you at least think about it?’
‘Fine,’ I responded impatiently, just wanting her to stop. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Great! There’s a party this Saturday,’ she chirped, and whipped around before I could object.
‘You’re going to that party at College Green?’ Meg questioned as she rounded the corner, a soccer ball tucked under her arm.
‘I’m not –’
‘You’re going too, right?’ Peyton interjected before I could finish.
‘I guess so.’ Meg shrugged, then looked to me. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll have fun.’
I blew out a defeated breath. ‘Okay,’ I caved.
Peyton produced a triumphant smile, and proceeded to bang on Serena’s door.
‘What?!’ Serena hollered from the other side.
‘Are you going to the party with us on Saturday? Emma’s coming too.’
Serena poked her head out and raised her eyebrows in my direction. ‘You are?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Okay. I’ll go,’ she replied and slammed her door in Peyton’s face.
‘Please tell me that’s not what you’re wearing.’ Peyton scowled at my worn jeans and faded concert T-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt.
‘You want me to go?’
She huffed before returning to the bathroom to finish her make-up while I went downstairs.
When I reached the bottom step, Serena walked through the front door with a paper bag in her arms, wearing form-fitting black pants, a black tank top under a cropped leather jacket, and black combat boots. Her short black pixie hair flipped out stylishly around her powder-white face. Dramatic liner framed her large brown eyes. Serena’s look was more than a style: it was a statement.
She returned from the kitchen with a beer in each hand and offered one to Meg, who was leaning over the coffee table, painting her nails.
‘I’m driving,’ Meg told her with a shake of her head. Serena eyed me and held out the bottle.
‘Umm, I can drive,’ I offered.
‘That’s okay,’ Meg said. ‘I don’t mind. Go ahead if you want to drink. You’re going with us, not just Peyton, so we’ll watch out for you.’
‘Hey!’ Peyton shouted down the stairs in offence.
I contemplated the bottle in Serena’s hand carefully. The first time I drank had nothing to do with the alcohol. And I never wanted to be that drunk again … ever.
‘Okay,’ I agreed, taking the bottle. Meg flipped her eyes to me in surprise. But she went back to painting, trying to appear unfazed by my decision.
Serena acted like we drank together all the time. But then again, Serena was pretty accepting of just about everyone and everything, taking all that came her way without blinking. I’d yet to witness anything that surprised her.
I took a sip and grimaced. Yeah, I didn’t like beer. ‘This tastes horrible.’
Serena grinned. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’
‘Why would anyone want to acquire a taste for something that tastes like ass?’ I scrunched my nose in disgust.
Serena laughed. ‘I’ll make you a drink,’ she said before disappearing into the kitchen.
‘I’ll drink your beer,’ Peyton declared, appearing at the bottom of the stairs. Her shiny golden hair hung down her back, not a single strand out of place. She was very mindful of her appearance, intently assembling herself from her shiny pink lips to her polished toes. She’d never let anyone other than us see her less than picture-perfect. Just thinking about what she had to go through to keep this up exhausted me.
‘You’ll drink anything,’ Meg teased, twisting the top on the polish. ‘I think you’ve probably tried just about everything there is.’
‘Funny,’ Peyton sneered, tipping the bottle back into her mouth.
‘Here, try this.’ Serena handed me a glass with red liquid in it. My stomach instinctively clenched. Noticing my cringe, she assured me, ‘It’s cranberry and vodka. I made it pretty weak too.’
I accepted the drink and took a sip. It tasted mostly of cranberry with a hint of something else. ‘Thanks.’
While Meg finished getting ready in the upstairs bathroom, we sat in the living room – drinking. Something I quite honestly never thought I’d ever do.
Was I supposed to keep holding the glass, or set it on the coffee table? I watched Serena and opted to hold it. I took a sip, not wanting to drink too fast. I knew I was being paranoid; I just needed to relax already.
‘So, where’s James tonight?’ I asked Serena, needing to distract myself from internally freaking out.
‘He’s working,’ Serena replied, finishing her beer and getting up. ‘Peyton, you ready for another?’
James was a bouncer at one of the clubs that showcased local rock talent. With his shaved head, his broad frame and the tattoo on the back of his skull, he fit the persona. On the other hand, he was a dedicated student at Stanford, pursuing an education degree. The thought of James reshaping the minds of adolescents always made me smile.
‘Sure,’ Peyton called.
I’d barely finished half the glass, and they were already on their second. Maybe I was drinking too slow. Or maybe I just needed to get a grip and stop obsessing.
‘There’s a great show coming up in a few weeks,’ Serena informed me. She handed Peyton another beer.
Serena was my direct line to the best shows in the area. I was thankful to have a room-mate who understood my need for fast beats and heavy guitar. Meg and Peyton didn’t appreciate the genre, preferring head-bopping or hip-swaying music, although I’d recently taken Meg to a few shows, with encouraging results.
‘Let me know when, and I’ll check if I have tests or anything due.’ I took another sip.
‘Em, you spent all break reading the upcoming assignments for the next month,’ she accused. ‘You’ll be fine regardless. It won’t be a late night.’
‘Ready to go?’ Meg announced, bounding down the stairs with her spiralling auburn curls bouncing around her. We finished off our drinks and followed her out the door.
It was obvious when we’d arrived at the party, because there was nowhere to park. After circling the block a few times, we were finally able to creep into a spot as another car pulled away. We followed a small group of people through a gated archway into a courtyard.
Meg nudged me playfully. ‘There’s a pool.’
‘You wouldn’t,’ Peyton threatened.
‘Relax, Peyton,’ Meg snapped. ‘We wouldn’t do that here.’
Two floors of apartments wrapped around an inner courtyard. People were mingling on the balconies and throughout the central area. A half dozen apartment doors were open to grant access and a sound system was set up in the open space, blaring the most recent hip hop music.
‘We need drinks!’ Peyton announced, raising her hands in the air and moving her hips to the beat.
We followed her form-fitting green sweater through the crowd. She turned heads as she wiggled by, but she was too focused on her mission to take notice.
We continued up the stairs and into the closest open door.
‘Wait here,’ she instructed. ‘I’ll get us something.’
I didn’t think we could squeeze in any further if we tried; the room was packed. Peyton reappeared, her fingers dipped into small plastic cups of Jell-O. She handed one to each of us. I looked down at the cup, trying to figure out how to eat it without a spoon. Squeezing the edges, I tried to slurp it.
‘Don’t chew. Just swallow.’ Meg laughed as I licked at pieces of Jell-O still clinging to my lips.
‘Always excellent advice,’ Peyton giggled.
Meg grimaced. ‘Eew. We’re only talking about Jell-O, Peyton!’
It took me a moment to figure out what the hell they were talking about, and I scowled in revulsion when I figured it out. Peyton took note of my delayed reaction. ‘Oh, Emma. Are you sure you had sex with that guy from the band? ’Cause I swear you’re a virgin.’
‘Let me get another round so you can try again,’ Meg offered, dragging Peyton with her.
When they returned, I took two little cups and awaited instructions.
‘Swipe your finger around the edge to loosen it and then pop it in your mouth.’ Peyton demonstrated with ease. I made another attempt and got most of it in my mouth. My Jell-O shot ineptitude made Meg laugh. But I did better with the next one.
‘Now you let it settle and wait for the Tickle before you drink anything else,’ Serena explained.
‘A tickle?’ Peyton questioned Serena with her brows raised. ‘Serena, you are so weird.’
‘Whatever,’ Serena said, turning away.
‘Tom!’ Peyton suddenly hollered across the courtyard to the opposite balcony. To my surprise, he heard her and waved. She grabbed my wrist, causing me to stumble after her, though she didn’t seem to notice, or care, as she forced our way through the crowd.
‘We’ll wait right here,’ Meg called out behind us.
‘I was hoping you were going to be here,’ Peyton exclaimed when she reached Tom, giving him a hug.
‘You’d know if you’d actually call each other,’ I mumbled under my breath. Tom and Peyton had a strange relationship. I kept hearing about him and how they’d meet up at parties. She was obviously interested in him. But we didn’t think they’d even exchanged phone numbers yet. We were all confused by it.
I looked up to find Cole standing in front of me. Gritting my teeth, I forced a smile, suddenly realizing why Peyton had been so adamant about bringing me along.
‘Wow, two parties. I’m impressed,’ Cole taunted.
‘Parties aren’t my thing,’ I countered in annoyance.
‘Obviously,’ he stated. ‘Otherwise I would have seen you before.’
‘True,’ I admitted with a slight nod. ‘Well, it’s a new year, so I’m trying new things.’
‘What’s next on your list?’ Cole enquired, his clear blue eyes focused on me. I avoided his gaze and studied the crowd around us.
‘Umm … stage diving,’ I answered without thinking. I really didn’t have a ‘new things’ list. I was making it up as I went. But now that I’d said it, I actually wanted to try it.
‘Nice. You’ll have to let me know when so I can witness that.’
‘We’ll see,’ I answered, not wanting to commit to seeing him again, no matter what he looked like. When he turned his head in the other direction, I slipped away. I heard Peyton call my name, but I ignored her.