My forehead wrinkles. “They didn’t wonder why nothing else was stolen?”
Conor barks out a sardonic laugh. “Nope. The cops decided some teenagers probably just wanted to trash the place. They said they’d seen it a million times, a crime of opportunity, and that maybe the teens got scared off by something.”
“So you got away with it.”
“Yeah, but that’s the thing, right? The guilt tore me up from the moment we stepped inside the house and I saw what Kai did. What I did. Somehow in my head I convinced myself that it’d feel good to see the look on Max’s face. But it fucking hurt. What kind of asshole trashes his own house? My mom was terrified for weeks afterward that whoever did it would come back. She couldn’t sleep.” His voice cracks. “I did that to her.”
My heart hurts for him. “And Kai?”
“He found me at the beach a couple weeks later and was asking, you know, how’d it go. I told him I couldn’t hang out with him anymore, that he’d gone too far and it was a bad idea to begin with. And that was it, we were through. In his head he thought he was being a good friend, like he was sticking up for me or something. That’s probably the best example anyone could give you of how his brain works.”
“I’m guessing he didn’t take the break-up well?”
“Nope. I think more than anything he was worried I’d rat him out. But I reminded him that doing so would be mutually assured destruction. And we went our separate ways.”
“Buffalo,” he agrees ruefully. “Then Saturday at the beach. He followed me there, gave me the same old story. He owes money to bad people and they’ll kill him if he doesn’t get it. Except this time he needs ten grand.”
“Shit,” I say under my breath.
Conor laughs sadly in response. “Right?”
“You can’t give him the money.”
He cocks his head at me.
“No, I’m serious, Conor. You can’t give him the money. This time it’s ten, next time it’s fifteen, twenty, fifty. He’s blackmailing you, right? That’s what this is all about? Mutually assured destruction? And the contents of that envelope…I bet you didn’t get the money from your family.”
“I don’t have a choice, Taylor.” His eyes turn angry.
“Yes, you do. You can tell Max and your mom the truth. If you come clean, Kai has no more leverage. He’ll leave you alone and you can finally get on with your life without worrying about the day he’ll show up again to derail your whole life.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no—”
“I know that because of this shame and embarrassment you feel, you’ve blown me off, fucked your family over, and done who knows what to get that money. When’s it going to stop? When is it enough?” I shake my head at him. “There’s only one thing you can do to fight back, or you can be a slave to this secret forever.”
“Yeah, you know…” Conor gets up. “This really doesn’t concern you. I told you the truth and now I’ve gotta go.”
I jump up and try to intercept him, but he sidesteps me with little effort on his way to the door. I grab his hand as he turns his back on me. “Please. I’ll help you. Don’t do this.”
He snatches his hand away. When he speaks, the coldness and detachment has returned. “I don’t need your help, Taylor. I don’t want it. And I definitely don’t need some chick telling me what to do. You were right. We shouldn’t be together.”
He doesn’t look back. Down the hallway and out the door. Not a single hesitation.
He just leaves me there with the poisoned memories of this room, with my makeup smeared and hair falling down.
Conor Fucking Edwards.
There was this girl when I was growing up. Daisy. She was around my age, lived a couple doors down in the old neighborhood, and she used to sit for hours in her driveway drawing with little rocks or broken pieces of cement because she didn’t have chalk. When the sun turned the concrete slab into a griddle or the rain wrinkled her skin, she’d throw stuff at us when pre-teen Kai and I would ride past on our skateboards. Rocks, bottle caps, random trash, whatever was lying around. Her dad was mean as shit and we figured she was just like him.
Then I watched one day from my porch. I watched her getting off the school bus, knocking on her front door. Her dad’s truck was in the driveway and the TV inside so loud the whole neighborhood could hear the sports highlights. She kept knocking, this skinny girl and her backpack. Then trying the window where the bars had been torn off during a break-in and never replaced. And then finally giving up, resigned, and picking another rock from the side of the street that from some decaying part of the neighborhood eventually tumbled its way to her.
Next I watched Kai rolling down the sidewalk on his skateboard. Stopping to talk to her, to taunt her. I watched as he did donuts over her drawings, then pour a soda out on the pictures and flick the bottle cap in her hair. And I got it then, why she threw stuff at us whenever we passed her. She was aiming for Kai.
The next time she sat alone in her driveway, I brought my own rock and joined her. Eventually we left the driveway and explored the world. We watched the highway from a tall tree, counted planes from rooftops. And one day Daisy told me she was leaving. That when the school bus dropped us off, she was just going to walk away and go somewhere else. Anywhere else. You could walk away, too, she’d urged.
She had this magazine picture of Yosemite and got it in her head that she would live there, at a campground or something. Because they’d have everything you’d need and it doesn’t cost anything to camp, right? We talked about it for weeks, making plans. It’s not that I truly wanted to leave, but Daisy needed so much for me to go with her. It was the loneliness she feared the most.
Then she got on the bus one day and she had purple bruises on her arms. She’d been crying and suddenly it wasn’t a game anymore. It wasn’t some story we were writing about a great adventure to pass the time between school and sleep. When the bus pulled up at school, she looked at me, expectant, her backpack hanging heavier on her shoulders than normal. She said, We leave today at lunch? I didn’t know what to say to her, how to not say the wrong thing. So I did something much worse.
I walked away.
I think that was the moment I learned I wasn’t any good for anyone. Sure, I was barely eleven years old, so of course I wasn’t running north with nothing but a backpack and a skateboard. But I’d let Daisy believe in me. I’d let her trust me. Maybe I didn’t understand at the time what was really going on in her house, but on a conceptual level I got the fucking gist and yet I didn’t do anything to help her. I simply became another in a long line of letdowns.
I’ll never forget her eyes. How in them I saw her heart break. I see them still. Now.
My hands shake. Gripping the steering wheel, I barely see the road. It’s like tunnel vision, everything narrow and far away. I’m driving by memory more than sight. A tightness in my chest that’s been building for days now clamps down, climbing my throat. Suddenly it hurts to breathe.