It was time, right?
“It used to be me and Owen. Nate left us while we were at Hillcrest, but I had Owen. He had friends. I didn’t, though I didn’t realize that until later. I’d thought they were my friends. Owen was the popular one. I never was. I was a year younger, but in the same grade, and when people know that, it makes a difference. They look at you differently. You’re not one of them.”
I could’ve told him some other stuff about when they found out you were smarter than they were, but I didn’t have the energy at the moment.
“Kids can be cruel,” I said in summary, my words faint even to my ears. “Owen died last summer.”
The metal being hit.
“There was a car accident,” I told him. “There was nothing salacious about it, just a run-of-the-mill car accident.”
“No car accident is run-of-the-mill,” he rasped.
“No drugs. No drinking,” I clarified. “Owen was driving me and two of his friends. They were in the back. I was in the front.” Here was the hard part.
I didn’t want to feel it, so I started closing myself down.
One wall at a time.
“You gotta tell him, sis. For you.”
“Owen and I were fighting over the music.”
“I don’t want to listen to rap,” I’d told him.
He’d laughed. “Whatever. Driver picks the music.”
“I changed the music because I was being stupid,” I explained.
“No sad shit, Asp. Come on!” He’d still been laughing.
“We started a little wrestling match, shoving back and forth, and then…”
“We were going around a curve, and there was a car coming toward us. It was in our lane.”
“Owen yanked the wheel, and time slowed down. We missed the car, and it was so weird because I could see them perfectly as we passed. It was a lady, and she’d been reaching back to the seats behind her. She didn’t even see us coming, but they did. She had two little kids in their car seats. She saw them see us, and she was starting to turn, but it was done by then.”
“Aspen,” Blaise breathed.
My throat was so tight, I could barely swallow. I could barely talk.
“Owen held my hand as we hit the metal guard rail on the ditch. The doctors think that’s what saved my life, but we don’t know. Owen died on impact. One of the guys in the back was tossed from the car, but he ended up being okay. It was a miracle for him, and the other guy just had scrapes and bruises.”
I was completely numb, just the way I liked it in moments like these.
I whispered, “I was in the hospital for two months.”
“And no one visited you?” His voice came from right behind me.
He had migrated closer. I could feel his heat now.
I found myself leaning back, and one of his arms curled around me, resting low on my hip.
I nodded, my head moving against his shirt. “His friends never came to see me. I thought maybe it was the hospital not letting people visit, but that wasn’t the case. My mom and dad were there almost every day. Nate visited too. The days kinda blurred together.”
I turned in his arms and tipped my head back to look at him.
“That’s why my parents came back here. They were worried about me the first semester, but now they’re on this whole kick to make things right with Nate.”
Blaise’s other hand came to my hip, holding me against him.
His eyes searched mine. “Why aren’t your parents here this weekend, Aspen?”
I felt a rock in my gut.
“My parents aren’t bad parents. They’re just... They’re workaholics, and when they get into a project they’re passionate about, they’re really into it.”
“They forget you.”
I heard his condemnation, and I moved back.
“It’s not totally like that.”
“It’s exactly like that.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not. They’ve just been gone this week. At the beginning of the year, they were here every day. I couldn’t move in this house without my mom or dad on me, asking how I was, talking to me about my counseling sessions. They were overly in my life, so when they got the green light for this new project of theirs, it was a relief. I could go to school again and pretend to be normal.”
It was now.
Now or never.
“I miss my brother. I miss him so much that after the accident,” a deep breath, “I wish it’d been me. Not him.”
I closed my eyes, folded my head, tried to disappear in on myself.
The after when I wanted to disappear and be with Owen.
“Aspen,” his voice was so soft, so tender behind me.
“I’m better, but it’s a lot. It’s why I wanted to be invisible at school, why I was proud of having no one. It’s better to have no one to lose than to have that one get ripped from you, and wish it’d been you instead.”
“Aspen.” His hands came to my shoulder, stepping up behind me. He folded me against him, just holding me. “Do your parents know?”
I shrugged. “Told my counselor. I don’t know what she shared with them.”
It’s done, sis.
A tear fell.
I said, leaning back against him, letting him hold me, “I don’t know Nate that well. Our family is so distant.”
He was quiet, so I looked up.
His mouth was pressed in a flat line.
He had to understand.
I pulled away, turning to him. “I’m not going to our graduation ceremony.”
His eyes flared, and he opened his mouth.
I shook my head. “I can’t be there. Owen was supposed to graduate with me, and he won’t be there. And no one here knows him. No one knows me. My parents have forgotten about graduation, and I want them to keep forgetting. I’m going to tell them next week after it’s all done, and I know they’ll feel bad. They’ll want to throw me a party, but it hurts too much. Owen was my best friend, and I… I don’t want to celebrate these things without him. It’s too hard. It’s too painful.”
That was it. That was all of it.
I could wait now.
Would he understand? Would he push it?
I hoped he wouldn’t.
I didn’t have the energy to argue anymore.
Blaise sighed and brought his forehead to rest against mine. “Babe, that’s why you have to celebrate these things. I don’t know your brother. You’ve barely talked about him, but I’ve got a strong feeling he would want you to walk across the stage.”
No, no, no.
I tried to pull away.
His hand tightened, and he moved even closer, his lips just above mine. “I don’t care how you slice it in your head, if he loved you, he’d want this for you.” A beat. “He would want you to do it for him.”
I woke the next morning, and I had to make decisions today. Hard decisions.
I wasn’t excited about any of it.
Aspen had her head tucked into my arm, and she was hugging me like an octopus. I grinned. So cute.
I needed to be an asshole today.
After she talked last night, we went to bed, but we’d only cuddled. I wanted to know more about Owen, more about all of her family, and once she’d opened the dam, the rest came flooding out. I don’t think she dozed off until around five in the morning.
It was now nine-thirty, and if I was going to do what I was going to do, I needed to get to it.
Pressing a soft kiss to her forehead, I eased out of bed. I grabbed my clothes, went to one of the guest bedrooms, and used the bathroom there to clean up. My head was killing me. My neck was stiff. I didn’t even want to look in the mirror, I knew there’d be bruises there I didn’t want to see.
Fuck. I was sore.
I popped some painkillers and headed for the kitchen. Coffee was needed like I needed an IV bag.
I was checking my phone, heading to the main level when I heard a door open and shut.
I couldn’t remember if Aspen had said what days Miss Sandy and Benny had off. Was it the weekend? Or just Sunday? I knew they weren’t usually around that day... I also remembered her brother Nate was in town. And he’d promised to meet her here.
Walking into the kitchen, I realized that time was here.
He was pouring some coffee when he noticed me.
“Well…” He turned, leaning a hip against the counter. “If it isn’t the punk kid who took my sister away from me.”
I couldn’t help it. It was a reflex.
“Right. Because me staying in that environment would’ve been cool for who again? You?” I shook my head. “By the way, where the fuck have you been all Aspen’s life?”
His eyes narrowed, and his glare turned icy. “You might want to watch the attitude. I’ve squashed assholes bigger than you.”
“You think I care about that?”
I didn’t know much about Nate Monson—he was best friends with Mason Kade, and Zeke talked way too much about that guy, so mostly I’d tuned him out. I’d gotten the gist. And that gist was that he and his friends could handle their own against a lot of enemies. They weren’t afraid to piss someone off, and they weren’t afraid to fight.
Respect there, but I didn’t give a fuck in this situation.