I collapsed down in a chair. “No, Jared. It’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like? Where the fuck are you?”
“This isn’t because of the news?”
“Yeah. I mean, that’s another thing. You hanging with Stone Reeves? I thought you were like mortal enemies and what? Now you’re fucking?”
Shit. I frowned. “Is this how high schoolers speak now?”
“They are when their parents are dead and their only family has been absent every minute since they died. The funeral. Everything.”
My heart squeezed. There was ahold on it, crushing it inch by inch.
“Jared. I was in a car accident. I’ve been in a coma.” Had no one told him? I should’ve told him. I should’ve figured it out.
Silence. Again. And I didn’t know how he was reacting, but I was painfully aware the other people we both loved had also been in a car accident.
His voice was strained, “You okay?”
“I…” This was hard. I was swallowing tears almost as fast as they were slipping down my face. “I got the news and got in my car, and a moving truck totaled me. I backed out in front of them.”
“They were worried about swelling on my brain, so they put me in a medically induced coma. I just got pulled out of it a few days ago, and since then, I haven’t been handling anything the best way.”
I should’ve called by now.
I should’ve called him the instant I heard.
“I’m so sorry, Jared. I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, well.” His own voice broke. “Do you not want me, Dusty?”
I sat still, holding that phone so tight, and making sure I heard him right. Logically, I knew there were ways to think about this situation with us, but I wasn’t thinking logically. I was thinking with all emotion, and that question pierced straight through my chest, finding my heart. Bullseye. Without missing a beat, I said the words that had haunted me about Jared since I woke up from the coma, “Do you want me?”
“Yes! I mean, shit. You’re my only family. You’re my sister.”
This day. Right here. Right now. I would be better. I would no longer be an okay person, or a good person. I would be a fucking great person, and I’d have to google how to do that because I knew it’d be a lot of work.
I breathed into the phone, “Yes. Yes. I thought Apollo’s parents would be the best for you. They have a stable house. They have jobs.” I didn’t. “You don’t have to leave school. You could finish the year out there—”
“I don’t give a shit about any of that. I want you. You’re my family. The only person on this Earth I have left who cares about me.”
I was nodding, and crying, not knowing how I was going to do any of this. “Okay. Yeah. Okay. Um,” I stood. I couldn’t figure out how to be this new person sitting down. That made no sense. “Okay. Just, okay.”
“You have any idea what you’re going to do?” I could hear a bell sound where he was. Lockers opening, shutting. Conversations. Laughter. Shouts. A ‘what’s up, man?’ Followed by a ‘pound my fist, dude.’ He’d left his class early to call me.
“Not a goddamn clue.” My head still felt woozy. “I think the concussion is affecting me.”
“Coach says to take that stuff seriously. You shouldn’t even be on your phone right now.”
“Yeah. Well. I’m glad I am. I’m glad I had it, or I would’ve missed your call.”
I heard his laugh, and everything righted for a split second. I could do this. I could keep going. Right? I was asking myself. Right? I just answered myself. I was feeling inspired.
“Okay. Well. You let me know.”
I was nodding and smiling to myself and beaming like a fool. “I will. Right. Have a good rest of the day.”
“Er. Okay. Bye.”
“Bye!” I was waving, to the microwave. “Lov—”
That word stuck in my throat. I hated that it was there, but it was. Jared hung up.
I stood there.
I didn’t move.
I almost felt the microwave was going to start heckling me, and then I heard from behind me, “You did not just do what I heard you just do?”
Stone was there. Stone was furious. Stone was probably back to being my enemy after this.
I gave him a weak smile. “I blame my concussion.”
He growled, fixing me with a heated glare. “You are so fucking stupid.”
Yep. I so knew that. But on the flipside, I was now a single mother-figure. So, yay that?
Well. The joke was on me.
Apollo’s mom called me thirty minutes later. I was just leaving the stadium with Stone beside me. Seeing Georgia’s name on the screen, I glanced at Stone before answering. “Georgia. Hi.”
She started right in. “I am so sorry. Apollo called me and told me what Jared said to you. Now, you have to understand that I am in no way trying to get between a stepbrother and sister. You both lost your parents, and if I thought there was even a small inkling that Jared meant what he said, I wouldn’t even be making this call. But having said all of that, Apollo told me last night that Jared has an alert set so any stories about Stone Reeves go right to his phone. He got the alert that Page Nine sent out a day ago, and he recognized you. Jared has…” She hesitated. “Jared’s been a bit difficult the last couple days, with reason. We get it. We can’t imagine his pain, but he was talking to Apollo last night and said that he wants to ‘hook up’ with his sister and score free Kings tickets.”
She paused, her voice cracking.
“I am so sorry that he actually called, and I am so sorry that he even did this because you lost your father, too, and my heart is just breaking for both of you.” Her voice grew hoarse.
I had stopped. We were right in front of the exit doors of the stadium.
Stone was watching me, moving in closer with his eyebrows raised. He was dressed in jeans with a Kings blazer on, and a Kings ballcap pulled low. His head inclined toward me and his mouth was flat, so I knew he could hear Georgia.
“He’s such an avid fan of Stone Reeves. I think it stemmed because of his family’s connection to yours, and it only got worse the last six months, and now with losing your parents and seeing that you’re actually down there and with him, well, I’m just so sorry about this all.”
I couldn’t speak.
My body had rooted itself in place.
Noting all of this, Stone muttered a curse and took the phone. He turned away. “You’re saying all that bullshit on the phone was for what? To get free tickets to one of my games?”
I couldn’t hear her, but Stone was listening. He had the phone pressed so tight to his ear. I didn’t know if he was doing it on purpose, to block me out and shield me, or because he was that pissed off. I was guessing it was for both reasons.
A longer pause.
“Yeah.” He turned back to me, his eyes holding mine, but his face gave nothing away. “Yeah.” And then, a sigh. “Yeah, I’m sorry, too. I will. Text me your information and I’ll have my manager reach out. Thank you.”
The call ended and he tossed the phone my way.
I caught it at the same time his hand came to the back of my neck. He gripped me and tugged me toward him. Bending down, so his forehead was almost touching mine, he said, “That kid is hurting and he’s thinking of every possible way to avoid feeling even more hurt, so he fixated on me. That fixation grew after the accident, and what you heard from the mom was accurate. What you didn’t hear from the mom is that he does want a relationship with you, but he doesn’t want to actually leave their home. She said they’d put off the adoption if you wanted to wait and see if you did want to take him in. Knowing that, though, you gotta go up there and live there because that boy is adamant that he doesn’t want to leave his hometown.”
His jaw clenched.
His hand tightened on my neck. “All that said, most of that call was to get free tickets to my next Kings game. How are you feeling about that?”
I shook my head, whispering, “I have no idea.”
He stared at me, long and hard, and let go of my neck. He stepped back, his arms going back to his pockets, hunching his shoulders forward. His head inclined again, but he could still see me just under the brim of his hat. “You’re still in college. You’re a kid. So’s he. You take him on now, you got his college debt to take on. I know my dad paid for yours, but I didn’t go three rounds with him just to see you take on debt that isn’t your responsibility. Want my advice?” He cracked a grin, and I swear, the sight actually made my heart skip.
What the fuck was that?
I scowled, more at myself, but nodded. “Yeah.”
“Call him later. Talk to him. Let Apollo’s parents take him on as their own, and then work in a regular relationship with you. I talked to her and she seems legit. Had a few calls put out last week about them, too, and they all said what you said. Bud and Georgia Montrose are good people, good family, genuine. They ain’t bullshitters, and I think her tears were the real deal. Be clearheaded about the future.”
He tipped my head up, making sure I was looking him in the eye. He said, “Promise me.”