The guy’s eyes bugged out and he quickly deleted it. He was gone in the next second, scurrying off through the crowd.
Mara glared like she wanted to kill me. “We’re going to make her life hell. Full disclosure,” she sneered. “I’m the nice one in the group. Not anymore. That girl is going to wish she was dead by the time we’re done with her.”
I saw red and started for her.
Someone screamed beside me, startled at how quickly I’d moved, but I caught myself, holding back.
“Don’t,” I warned, and I was real serious. “Don’t you dare hurt her.”
“She’s a loser, Blaise. What are you doing falling for her? Claiming her? You’re a loser.” She gave me a onceover, but she’d lost her heat. She didn’t mean what she was saying, and then she was just crying. “I hate you. I hate you so much.”
“Mara.” I reached for her, but I didn’t know why. To hold her? Comfort her? I couldn’t do either.
“No,” she choked out, turning and pushing her way through the crowd.
I hung my head. “Fuck!”
I was sweating bullets, my phone next to me.
Blaise was in school for the last Thursday of the year, and I was sitting in my room. I wished I could talk to him.
Was this dumb of me? A stupid idea?
What sister was nervous about calling her brother? I mean, that alone made me a freak, right?
It wasn’t that Nate didn’t like me, but he was older than me. When he went back to Fallen Crest, he’d been angry, and with reason.
Owen and I had understood it even back then.
Nate had been close with his friend, and then Mom and Dad pulled him away. If someone pulled me away from Owen, I’d—well, maybe that wasn’t a good comparison.
But anyway, Nate and I had always gotten along. When I saw him, he was kind. He said all the things a big brother should say. He asked me how I was, teased me about dating. He asked about school. He asked who my friends were. And those questions were all easy to answer, but they were surface questions. Nate and I never went deep. I never felt like I had a right to ask him about his life, so I sat back and let Mom do the talking. What if he told her the kinds of things I told him? What if he wasn’t fully truthful because he didn’t want Mom and Dad to actually know how he was doing?
He had reason not to trust them. I got it. I wasn’t honest with my parents either. It was easier for them to think everything was fine, and for the most part, everything was fine.
I mean, really, what was my problem?
I had anything I could ask for, except maybe friends.
Having Blaise in my life was opening my eyes. It was as if I’d been living in a room with the shades drawn, the windows closed, and the light off. And I didn’t know it. I hadn’t known there was a world with lights on, the windows open.
Now I wanted things I’d never had before, like friends. How did I get some? Were they worth it? Or maybe not? Maybe they’d just leave too?
This made me feel like a dramatic, angsty teen because yeah, yeah, everyone leaves. That’s how life works. The world goes around and relationships start and end, but saying that to taunt myself and actually living it were entirely different things.
Blaise had chosen me. He’d broken through the walls I had up, though I didn’t feel like I’d really had the chance to build them with him. He was just in, and that terrified me.
But I couldn’t do anything about it now, except ride the wave as long as I was on it. When he would leave, I’d crash and hope to survive it. Because that’s what was going to happen. He would leave. I wasn’t being dramatic. I was being realistic.
I wasn’t the girl for a happily ever after. I never had been. I’d always known that.
Happily ever afters were for girls who were, I don’t know, loveable—liked by people. They weren’t freaks. They didn’t have damage. They didn’t go camping alone for days, weeks, and one time a full month by themselves. They thought that was crazy and ridiculous.
When I woke from the accident, I hadn’t just mourned Owen. I’d mourned the life I’d thought maybe I had a chance at having. He died, and I knew my shot at being normal went with him. People left me, so whatever. I needed to deal with it.
Still, I was fully aware that I shouldn’t have been scared to call my older brother.
“Just do it, Aspen,” I said out loud. I could do this.
My hand shook, but I couldn’t keep going this way.
I hit his number and waited, sitting with my knees pressed against my chest at my desk. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but it helped me feel safer. I felt like disappearing.
Oh my God, he answered.
“Nate?” I coughed, my voice coming out shaky.
“Yeah. Aspen? What’s up?” I could hear voices on his end, and then he cursed. “You haven’t called me in forever. Wait, is everyone okay? I just saw Mom and Dad. Are they—”
“No!” My hands were clammy. I hadn’t thought about him jumping to that scenario. “They’re still in LA—for work, I think. Or maybe they were staying for a benefit.”
“Oh.” He sounded relieved, and the noises behind him disappeared. His voice came back clearer, louder. “So what’s up? It’s not every day my little sis gives me a call.”
He sounded cheerful, like he meant it.
I cried with relief. Why had I been nervous? Nate had never been unkind to me. Ever.
“I…” Still shaky.
I was such a freak.
I coughed again. “I was just calling to call. You know. Um…” I picked at the edge of my desk. “Mom said you were in LA?”
“Yeah. I’m here visiting some people.”
Um. . . “So, uh, are you still in Boston?”
His tone shifted, growing softer for some reason. “Yeah. I’m still in Boston. I’m living with a friend who’s in law school. You remember Mason Kade?”
“He’s not the one in law school.”
“No, no. I’m living with his brother, Logan. We were all in a house with Mase and Sam, but that didn’t last long.”
“The NFL guy and the runner?”
He laughed. “Yeah. Sam’s the runner.”
Mom was right. He did sound happy.
“You’re at Fallen Crest Academy now?”
“How’s that going for you?”
“It’s okay. I mean, we’re basically done for the year. I’m done for the year.”
“Right.” He grew quiet. “Owen would’ve graduated this Sunday. Right? Your guys’ graduation is the same as Roussou’s, isn’t it?”
I frowned. “How did you know that?”
“When Roussou was graduating?”
“Some good friends of mine, Channing’s little sister goes to Roussou. She’s graduating this year. Actually, I’m coming back to Fallen Crest not this weekend but the next one. Heather’s throwing a party for Bren—”
“Bren?!” I jerked upright.
“Bren Monroe. Do you ever hang out at Manny’s? Her brother’s girlfriend is the owner.”
Blaise’s brother’s girlfriend.
Bren, who had come to my defense at the gas station, who I had helped hide at a party one time. She was connected connected to my brother.
Did she know?
“Aspen?” Nate asked, his voice faint and soft again. “You still there?”
“Yeah.” My voice was raspy, and I hated it.
Why was this bothering me?
“Does she know you?” I asked.
There was a moment of silence on his end.
“Do you know Bren?” he asked.
“Does she know you, Nate?” I whispered. “Please, just answer that.”
If Bren knew my brother when I barely did? That thought ripped me apart.
“No, Aspen.” He sounded alarmed. “Do you know Bren?”
“Not really.” I barely got that out, sinking down in my chair. Could I disappear? I wanted to disappear.
“Why are you being weird about this?”
“No reason,” I said quickly.
Please let this go.
“I’m not getting a good feeling here. Why is that? What’s going on? Are you okay?” he asked. “You never call me. Mom said you’re doing great, but…” He cursed. “Mom and Dad are in LA this weekend?”
He already knew that.
“Owen would’ve graduated this year.”
His voice grated against my ears. He wasn’t getting it, and then I started to get it… Had Mom never told him?
I was supposed to graduate this year too.
I had been bumped up a year because my birthday was in late May. I was never too far behind, but never quite in sync with my class. Most were turning eighteen. Most were starting to feel like adults, and I had just turned seventeen two weeks ago.
Another way I’d never been normal.
I thought Nate knew, but it happened when he wasn’t talking to the family. It could’ve been overlooked and forgotten to fill him in because it was so normal when he started talking to us again.
I had to stop this conversation.
I didn’t want Nate alarmed. I didn’t want him calling our parents.
“You’re going to be alone the day Owen would’ve graduated, aren’t you?”
It was too late. He was going to call them.
“Don’t say anything. Please.”
I could hear his disapproval, but even worse, I heard his pity.
I couldn’t stand his pity.