When the phone buzzes in the cup holder, I nearly swerve into oncoming traffic, startled by the sound that feels louder in my head.
I hit the speakerphone button. “Yeah,” I answer, forcing my voice to work. I can’t hear myself. The static in my mind makes me feel like I’m underwater.
“Making sure you’re still coming,” Kai says. There’s noise in the background. Voices and muffled music. He’s already there at the stuffy Boston college bar where we arranged to meet.
“On my way.”
I end the call and toss my phone on the passenger seat. The ache in my chest becomes unbearable, clenching down so hard it feels like I might snap a rib. I cut the wheel and veer onto the shoulder, slamming on the brakes. My throat’s closing as I frantically tear out of layers of clothing until I’m in just a wife-beater and sweating. I lower the windows to fill the Jeep with cool air.
The fuck am I doing?
Head in my hands, I can’t stop seeing her face. The disappointed look in her eyes. Not Daisy, the little girl from my past. But Taylor, the woman of my present.
She expected so much better from me. Not what I’d done back then, but what I was choosing to do now. She would’ve let me off the hook for acting like such a jackass this week if only I were strong enough to make the right decision when she gave me the chance.
Damn it, Edwards. Grow a pair.
I promised myself I’d be better for her and try to see myself through her eyes. See myself as more than just some gutter punk kid or an aimless loser or a walking one-night stand. She found the value in me, even when I couldn’t. So why the hell should I let Kai take that from me? Because he hasn’t just hijacked my life, he’s stolen from Taylor. I should be at a dumb dance with my girlfriend, not having a panic attack on the side of the road.
Shaking my head in disgust, I grab my discarded sweater and pull it on. Then I reach for the gearshift and put the Jeep in drive.
For the first time in my life, I find the courage to respect myself.
My first stop is Hunter’s place. Demi answers the door, greeting me with an inquisitive if somewhat hostile look. I don’t how much she’s heard since I last spoke to Taylor or what Hunter might have said after he wrote me the check.
I kiss her on the cheek as she lets me in.
Demi kind of recoils in response. “What’s that for, weirdo?”
“You were right,” I say with a wink.
“Well, obviously.” She pauses. “About what, though?”
“Hey man.” Hunter approaches us cautiously. “Everything okay?”
“It will be.” I pull out the envelope of cash and hand it to him.
Demi narrows her eyes at the handoff. “What’s that?” she demands.
Hunter takes the money, confused. “But why?”
“Answer me, monk,” grumbles Demi, tugging on Hunter’s sleeve. “What’s happening?”
I shrug and answer Hunter. “Don’t need it anymore.”
He appears understandably relieved, though I don’t envy the interrogation he’s about to endure from his girlfriend.
“Go easy on him,” I tell Demi. “He’s a good guy.”
“You want to stay and order a pizza?” Hunter offers. “We’re just chilling tonight.”
“Can’t. I’m late for a dance.”
Leaving Hunter’s place, I call Kai. Already the tightness in my chest has subsided, and my hands are steady as the phone rings.
“You here?” he says.
“I don’t have your money.”
“Don’t fuck with me, bro. I make one phone call—”
“I’m going to tell Max it was my fault.” The resolve in my voice surprises me. And I become more assured of my decision with every word. “I’ll leave your name out of it. For now. But if you call me again, if I so much as feel you sniffing around, I’ll out you in a heartbeat. Don’t try me, Kai. This is your last chance.”
I hang up on him. Then, steeling my nerves, I make another call.
I violently don’t want to be here.
As in, I’m considering grabbing a steak knife off the nearest table and taking a hostage on my way out a shattered window to make my escape.
Sasha and I have taken up a strategic position near a stack of speakers to deter others from trying to talk to us. She also commandeered some expensive champagne, which is dribbling down our dresses as we drink straight from the bottle while watching Charlotte run around the dance floor chastising sisters for twerking on their dates in front of concerned boomers. We had to leave the DJ booth because alumni kept asking Sasha to play Neil Diamond and ABBA and she threatened to take the next one’s eye out with a fork, so I forced her to take a break.
“You should go dance with Eric,” I tell her, spotting him on the floor. He seems to be having a great time despite the fact that his date’s all but abandoned him to the wolves.
“And miss the chance to judge everyone condescendingly from the corner? Do you not even know me?”
“I mean it. Just because I’m resigned to wallow in self-pity doesn’t mean you have to suffer with me.”
“That’s exactly what it means,” she says. “Or, you could chug the rest of this bottle and get white girl wasted on the dance floor all over some overdressed trust-fund boy.”
“Not in the mood.”
“Oh come on.” Sasha takes another swig of champagne and wipes her mouth with her arm, painting it with lipstick. “We got all dressed up and shaved our legs. The least we can do is have something to regret in the morning.”
Ha. I already have regrets. For example, what the hell I was thinking when I picked out this ridiculous dress? The tight black fabric makes my tits look like two squished hams and every fold and lump is pouring out like toothpaste from a tube. I feel disgusting and I can’t remember why I’d been so excited looking in the mirror and imagining Conor’s face when he saw me.
Oh wait, I remember why—because I’d let Conor fool me into believing I was beautiful. That he didn’t see a chubby girl or just a pair of breasts, but me. All of me. He made me believe I was something desirable. Worth having.
And now I’m left with the ill-fitting disappointment of what could have been.
I’m annoyed to notice tears dripping down my cheeks, and I tell Sasha I’m going to evacuate some of that champagne. The restroom is stuffed with Kappas touching up their makeup, one stall occupied by a loud vomiter who has two Kappas holding her hair back. Another stall contains Lisa Anderson, who’s locked herself in with her phone and is drunk-texting her now-ex Cory over the protestations of her sisters banging on the door.
After using the toilet, I’m washing my hands at the sink when Abigail and Jules walk in laughing. My stomach knots when their malicious gazes take in me and my smudged mascara.
“Taylor,” Abigail calls loud enough to make sure everyone’s paying attention. “I haven’t seen Conor all night. He didn’t stand you up, did he?”
“Leave me alone, Abigail.”
She looks perfect, of course. Shimmering silver sequin dress and perfectly curled platinum hair, not a strand out of place. No sweat beading at her hairline or makeup dripping down her neck. Barely human.