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I flung myself out of bed, the tight horror in my chest the only thing keeping me from yelling in shock. I had been kissing Tara…I had been groping Tara… "Jack, what are you…" Amanda couldn't even finish the sentence. Her eyes were bulging with shock. Shit, why did it have to be Amanda who caught us? "Amanda," I said, hoping my voice was steady, "Please leave." "You were kissing her!" "Amanda, keep your mouth shut.

Don't tell anyone." "You were fucking squeezing her tit!" I turned to her, trying to look as furious as I could. "Amanda, get your ass out of here. Now!" "But—" I took a threatening step towards her and she fled. Would she tell anyone? Probably not. At least for right now. But it couldn't last. Once the shock wore off, I knew she'd try to use this. She didn't need ammo. I'd given her the fucking gun. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!

Why did it have to be Amanda who caught us?! FUCK! I slammed my hands against the side of my head, digging my nails into my temple. What had I done? How…how could I have done this? I turned back to Tara and realized, with a horrible shock that felt like a punch right to my nuts, that what she was wearing wasn't exactly going to help my case. She was wearing a very, very tight tank-top that stopped halfway up her ribs and a thin pair of panties.

Standard sleepwear, probably, but when I was kissing and groping… It was like a balloon was being inflated at the front of my chest, squeezing my heart and stomach back until it was unbearable. I wanted to puke, to shout, to do anything but think about what just happened. "Jack…" Tara said, tears streaming down her face, "I'm sorry." "Tara, stop," I said, holding up my hand, "Just…don't talk. I need to…" What? Think?

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About what? Everything was plain as could be. I fucked up bad. She hugged her knees to her breasts and buried her face in them. "I'm sorry," I could hear her whispering, "I'm so sorry." I couldn't think.

My brain was spinning out of control, all attempts at reason blocked by a gigantic mental sign that roared YOU CHEATED ON KAYLA!

It flashed and screamed and everywhere I looked, there it was. Kayla…I loved her more than anything in the world. And here I was, with the taste of my cousin's lips still on mine. Oh, God, why?! Why couldn't I have just taken a second to see who was in my bed?!

In my bed… "What are you doing in my bed?" I demanded. She looked up with shock. "You let me sleep here," she replied, a little defensively, "Last night…remember?" I did…sort of.

It was like remembering a dream. I paced back and forth, beating my hands together, trying to drown out the hammering of my heart and the nauseating feeling in my gut.

"Why didn't you stop me?!" I shouted. I felt bad; this wasn't her fault. But my emotions weren't exactly tethered at the moment.

I expected her to shout back, show me some of the flame of Tara that only a few unfortunate people ever witnessed before being cowed into silence. Instead, she buried her face into her hands and sobbed. That was even worse. "I'm sorry!" she wailed, "It just…Jack…for once, it was someone who…cared." "Of course I care," I moaned, squeezing my face with my hands, "But not like that!" "I know!" she cried, looking up at me pleadingly, "But it felt so good and I just didn't think and I got caught up in thinking…Jack, I'm so sorry!" She put her face in her hands again but it did nothing to stop the tears flowing between her fingers.

I should have comforted her. Told her I didn't blame her, that this wasn't anyone's fault, that we would work this out. We probably could have, too…if Amanda hadn't seen. Shit… "Tara," I said slowly as I sank to the floor, "I just cheated on Kayla." Saying the words out loud was like hearing the bell ring to announce your execution.

I felt hollow. Something had dug inside me and scooped something good out. Tara looked up at me quickly, horror in her face. "No!" she shouted, getting out of the bed and coming to kneel beside me, "You didn't! It was just a kiss!" "And groping," I said dully. She ran a hand down her face. "Yeah…that too…" She sat down next to me, chewing on her lips.

"I can't believe this," I said quietly. My head felt empty, a state beyond a migraine to where all I had was an empty shell that echoed my words. She put a hand on my shoulder. I flinched away. She scooted back, horrified. "Sorry," she said quickly, "Sorry." "I have to get dressed," I said robotically, going to my dresser and yanking out some clothes.

I don't even know exactly what I grabbed; I just had an urge to grab and throw everything I could. How could I have done this? The idea of cheating on Kayla…hell, even thinking about it now made me sick. But I had. I had kissed Tara. Yeah, I guess I could be shocked that I had kissed my cousin but…I didn't care about that part. Kayla. I had cheated on Kayla. The woman I loved more than anything. Cheated…I had cheated. "Jack…" "What?" I said, turning.

She gestured at the ground and I looked down to see that I had torn out pretty much all my clothes from the drawer and flung them to the ground. "Oh." Silently, she began to help me pick them up. I managed to find a shirt and pair of jeans to wear and, with lethargic movements that seemed to take a year each, managed to get them on.

My skin was tight and twisted, the clothes seeming more coarse and scratchy than they normally did. My heart was being pinched and for a panicked second or two, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. What had I done? What had I done? Tara wordlessly began stuffing my clothes back in my drawer. "I don't know how you fold them," she said quietly, her eyes down. "Mmm." I wanted to cry. God, I wanted to cry, to show I felt some remorse for what I had done.

And I did! Trust me, I regretted what happened more than I ever regretted anything before in my life. But it was like…why wasn't I crying? Shouting? Beating my head against the ground until the skin split and the blood flowed onto the carpet?

Shouldn't I be doing stuff like that? No…I shouldn't… What should I do? My phone beeped from the bedside table. With a sinking heart, I picked up the phone and opened it. 1 New Message. Kayla: Good morning, handsome :) sorry we got home so late last night. See me before work. I had known it would be her, but I felt like I'd been punched in the gut all the same.

I sagged against my bed, staring at the message, feeling the tears finally start to well up in my eyes. I don't think a message telling me she'd seen us somehow could have been worse.

She didn't know. Not yet. Tara saw my reaction and bit her lip. "Is it Kayla?" she asked hesitantly. I nodded. "Oh, God…" She actually looked like she was going to retch for a second but managed to control herself. "Go put on some pants," I said hoarsely. "Huh?" She looked down and flushed red. "You're right! I'll, um…be right back." She quietly left the room, throwing me another despairing look as she left.

Part of me wanted to figure out who to blame for this…Okay, that part of me wanted to blame her for this. After all, she knew exactly what had been going on. She knew it was me. She didn't stop it. Hell, she encouraged it and probably would have done more if… I shook my head and slapped my palm against it.

This wasn't a blame thing. This was fucked up, fucked up beyond all belief…but it wasn't a blame thing. Besides, I was the one with the girlfriend. The girlfriend I cheated on. I looked back down at the message and had to suppress a huge sob that caught in my chest and sat there painfully as I looked at her words, still so unaware of what had happened. Oh, God…Why?. Tara came back in, a pair of sweatpants on.

"Jack," she said, trying to sound calm, "I am so, so sorry. I don't know what else to do. I'm…" She looked down. "If you hate me…" "I don't," I replied. "Okay," she said, sounding relieved, "You're sure?" "I'm surprised you don't hate me," I said flatly, "I mean…I kissed you." "Did you know it was me?" I shook my head. "I couldn't even think.

I just knew there was a girl in my bed and…well, I thought it was Kayla." "You don't remember me asking you to sleep in your bed last night?" "Like…vaguely. I don't know. It's like…like I was drunk or something.

I don't know." Or drugged…no, that's stupid. The only person who would possibly try to drug me would be Amanda and if she had a plan attached to something like that, it was escaping me.

That look of shock on her face was genuine. Tara drummed her fingers on her arm, looking guilty out my window over at Kayla's house. "Jack…Kayla…" I nodded.

"I know. I feel…" I shook my head. "It wasn't cheating," Tara said firmly, "You didn't know it was me. Trust me, I know you didn't know it was me. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. I knew." "I still kissed you first. You didn't do anything until I did it first." "Jack, what are we gonna do? What if Amanda tells your parents?" She swallowed hard and set her mouth, trying to hold back tears.

"Oh my God…your parents…" "She's not going to tell," I said, standing up. "How do you know?" "She's gonna hold this over my head. Slave for life, or something. I don't know. But she's not gonna let this slip by just yet." Tara looked frightened.

"What about me?" "She doesn't care about you," I said harshly. I saw her hurt look and continued, "I mean, she doesn't care what you did. She likes you and, besides, what are you gonna do for her in the next few days? Give her a free facial?" She smiled a little at that. It disappeared as quickly as it came. "Jack…what if she tells Kayla?" I stared out the window. It had snowed. I hadn't noticed that before. Not much, just a light dusting along the ground, but it was something.

"Hmm…" "I mean, they seem really close and stuff and I don't think Amanda's a bitch or anything but…what if?" What if…God damn right. If I didn't do what she wanted, she'd tell Kayla. Probably my parents too. They were having a hard enough time dealing with one incestuous pair in the house. What would she want?

As if I didn't know…Fucking hell, we resolved this! Months ago! How can this crawl back up now? I put my head against the window, looking across to where Kayla's window was. She wasn't there. Thank God…I don't think I'd have been able to hold myself in check if I saw her. Kayla… But I had to see her. She wanted to see me before I left for work.

I glanced at the clock. I'd have to leave in an hour.

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What was I going to say when I saw her? There was no way I'd be able to keep myself in check. I might be a good actor but…not with stuff like this. I couldn't lie to her. Something like this… It could destroy everything if I told her. But if I kept it from her… I knew what I had to do. I turned to Tara. "Amanda's not going to tell Kayla," I said calmly. Serious calmness, too. That surprised me. "How do you know?" I took a deep breath.

"Because I'm going to tell her." We could still hear people moving around downstairs. The sound of my mom opening the oven, the clink of silverware, my dad's voice. Heck, I could even hear the wind outside. Tara and I just looked at each other. Her eyes were searching mine, looking for some indication that I wasn't serious, that I was joking.

I wasn't. And she eventually realized that too. "Are you serious?" "Yes." "Jack…this could ruin things between you two." "I know." "You love her." "Don't tell me that," I said sharply, "I know. I love her with all my heart." Tara looked at me steadily. "It'll…ruin things between her and me, too." "Not if I tell her it was my fault." "Jack!" she said loudly, stamping her foot in her exasperation, "That's not true!

You want to be honest with her, right? That's why you want to tell her. Don't lie to her!" I looked away and nodded. "Okay…I'll just…It'll be no one's fault." Tara came over and lifted her hand to put it on my shoulder, thought better of it, and let it drop to her side.

"I…Do you want me to go with you?" "No. I'm her boyfriend. I have to tell her alone." "She's one of my best friends," she said softly, her eyes watering. I sniffed, feeling tears threaten my eyes as well. "Yeah," I said shakily, "But it's worse that I did it and I have to own up to it. Alone." Truth be told, I was pissing-my-pants terrified. Not just about losing Kayla but for her reaction. Anger, sadness, betrayal…whatever she reacted with was going to rip me apart.

"Are you sure?" Tara asked, her hand to her mouth. I nodded and let out a big breath. "I hate that things can get so fucked up so fast." "Jack…" "Yes, Tara?" "If…" She swallowed. "If the worst happens…I'm here for you, okay?" I'm not exactly sure, in the circumstances, if that was the best thing to say but the thought gave back a little warmth to my insides, which were numb with terror and despair.

"Thanks, coz," I said, feeling shivers run through my body, "Let's just…try to act normal at breakfast." She nodded eagerly. "I'll go down first so it doesn't look like…" She stopped herself and I could tell she was swearing at herself on the inside. I wasn't blaming her. This was something that would be impossible to forget, no matter what happened with Kayla. "Okay," I replied. She gave me one last look of sadness and left.

I had to tell Kayla, I knew that much, but what the hell was I going to say? "Hey, sweetie, so I invited Tara into my bed last night and accidentally started making out with her and groping her when I woke up. Whoopsie!" Yeah…the groping part was going to be hard to explain.

What was I going to tell her? That I thought it was her? Then she'd ask how I could possibly mistake Tara for her. I slammed my palm into my forehead. I'd have gladly had a second fight with Brad, on my own, if it meant all of this would magically go away. It was only when another five minutes had passed and mom called me from downstairs that I was able to break out of my thoughts and start working on composing my face.

Amanda hadn't said anything yet, at least. If she had, my door would have been booted open by dad long before now. She was waiting.


If she really was trying to come after me again and would use this to seduce me or whatever, the best thing I could do was take away her ability to do it. Well, shit, that sounded fucking selfish. Confess to Kayla just so I wouldn't have to deal with Amanda. Fuck… The entire way down the steps, I fought to keep my face relaxed but inside was a maelstrom of guilt and pain, made even worse when Tara looked up at me from the table. The flicker that passed between us was thankfully lost on everyone else, who were all eating their meal with gusto, but I felt it like an extra squeeze on my heart.

"Welcome to awake, lazybones," mom said, passing me the plate of bacon as I sat down, "Sleep well?" "I slept okay," I replied, forking a couple of bacon strips onto my plate.

"You still look exhausted," mom said, frowning at my lack of verbosity, "Late night video game binge?" "Nope." Amanda was looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I didn't look directly at her but I got the impression that she was more curious than scheming. Like, I don't know, I kind of expected sly glances from her or catty double-entendres about, 'staying up playing with something else'. But there was nothing. Odd. Dad passed me the bowl of biscuits. "So, gang, I was thinking…how about we have the Hannigans over on Christmas and we can open all of our gifts together?" Aaaaaaand boom, pit of guilt drops into my stomach.

I tell Kayla what happened, then any chance of that happening can be kissed goodbye. Hell, if Kayla told her dad…okay, I don't think she would do that. Not out of spite anyway. But if he figures out I did something to upset his daughter… "You sure about that, dad?" Alan asked, oatmeal dribbling out of the side of his mouth, "What happened to the closed family Christmas?" "Wipe your mouth," mom said, tossing a napkin at him.

"Okay, I'll rephrase," dad said, "How about we ask them over for Christmas morning? For presents and stuff." "And the meal, of course," mom said with a smile. "Of course," dad nodded, "What do you think?" Alan shrugged. "Okay. Cool." "Fine by me," mom replied. Dad looked at me. "Jack? Why haven't you shouted, 'yes!' yet?" "Huh?" I'd still been thinking about how what I had done would fuck over the whole Christmas thing.

I mean, I'm not so dim as to think that my relationship with Kayla was the only reason our families were so close but it was a big part. And it wouldn't be a lot of fun opening presents on Christmas morning in awkward silence while I got dirty looks from her parents. "Kayla? Here on Christmas? I mean, I know you see each other every day but…come on. Enthusiasm. Get your hands up." He reached over and tugged my arm up by the cuff of my shirt. "Girlfriend over on Christmas!" "Yeah, absolutely," I said with as much enthusiasm as my horrified insides would allow, "Awesome!" He didn't seem convinced quite yet but was more or less satisfied.

"And you," he said, pointing to Tara, "Your thoughts?" She smiled. "I love the idea." That was a better response. It was a good idea. Whether or not it would actually happen was another thing entirely.

Amanda clapped her hands together. "Well, I don't know what's up with these two, but I think it's great, dad," she said happily, smiling at him, "Jack, you're gonna go see Kayla before you go to work, right?" I looked at her.

Where was she going with this? "Yes," I replied, trying not to hesitate too long. "Well, you can ask her," she said, "After you talk about other stuff." She gave the last two words just the barest inflection.

I blinked. Did she…did she actually want me to tell Kayla? "Uhh…sure," I said, flicking my eyes up at the clock, "Probably should go now." "Oh no," dad said, putting a hand on my shoulder and keeping me in place, "Eat." He pointed at my untouched food. "I'm not really that hungry." "Okay," he said, shrugging, "Honey, get the crowbar." "What are you going to do with a crowbar?" mom asked, rolling her eyes.

"Yank open his mouth and cram it in," he replied, "I wish he was like one of those trash bins with the opening pedal at the bottom." "Well, he can be," Alan said, pleased at the thought, "Stomp on his foot hard enough and his mouth will open, trust me." "Be nice," Amanda admonished.

I was seriously confused. She wasn't going to feed off this golden platter she'd been given? No humiliation? No blackmail? Can't let my guard down yet. She might just be trying to get me relaxed. I picked up a strip of bacon and nibbled on it. My stomach was sour and tight and just the idea of eating made it shrivel up even more. The bacon was cooked as perfectly as mom always made it but chewing on it was like chewing paper.

I could sense the flavor but it did nothing to refresh me. If anything, it made me want to throw up. I managed to eat one strip of bacon and a couple of bites of a biscuit before I stood up.

"Sorry," I said, wiping my mouth, "Just not feeling that good." "Do you want to call into work?" mom asked at once, getting up and putting the back of her hand to my forehead, "If you're not feeling good…" "I'll be fine," I said, taking her hand away, "Just a little stomach ache." Dad nodded.

"Pizza will do that to you. Maybe next time you'll slow down a bit and chew your food like a civilized animal." Mom flicked his ear.

Truth be told, there was no way I could stay home from work. Kayla was going to see me today, one way or the other, and the last thing I wanted to do was be trapped at home where I would have to be constantly reminded of how much I fucked up after I told her. I could use the distraction of work after…after I went over and told her how I kissed and groped my cousin and Jesus fucking Christ, Jack, what the fuck is wrong with you?!

I was halfway up the stairs when the rage hit. I sagged against the wall and clutched my head in both hands, my eyes squeezed shut as my mouth fell open.

I wanted to roar with fury, fury at myself, at my stupidity. I loved Kayla. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. And because of one minute of stupidity, I might have thrown all of that away. I tried to roar, but nothing came out. My insides were boiling with fury and I was seeing red behind my closed eyelids. The outside world faded away until I was in a closed box, curled up under a spotlight I couldn't escape from. Everyone and everything could see me.

They saw what I had done. No reasons, no explanations…just actions. I had cheated on Kayla. They saw my fury, my anger at myself, my desire to rip myself apart until what was left could fade away with the breeze. I was naked and there was nothing I could do to take back what had happened. It was forever and only an instant at the same time. The anger slowly subsided and I was able to gradually pull myself out of the ball I had curled into.

The pain from my rage was still there, a hard throbbing in my head like someone using it for boxing practice and a pinching at my heart. I seriously felt like I was going to have a panic attack. What had I done? What the fuck is wrong with me? Part of me argued that my remorse was enough, that I didn't need to tell Kayla anything. I could take this secret to my grave. So would Tara, if I asked her. And Amanda…well, maybe she really wouldn't use this against me, at least if I talked to her first.

Explained it all and asked her to please, please, please never mention it to Kayla. Things would be okay. They really would. I was at the top of the stairs now and, as I turned to my room, I imagined how it must have looked to Amanda, coming into my bedroom without a clue what was happening inside.

What she saw…how she had felt. The shock of it, anyway. Me kissing Tara…groping Tara. Like we'd been doing it for years. There was no way I could hide that. Stuff like this…it always comes out in the end. And when it did, then Kayla would demand to know why I didn't tell her before, why I had kept it from her.

No secrets. That's what I had promised. Well, what about her secrets? the asshole part of my brain asked, She's hiding stuff from you. The text messages. They were text messages. Probably from someone trying to get with her, based on her annoyed reactions to them. She wasn't cheating on me, I knew that. How would she be able to get around? I was basically her ride around town and we both texted each other as much as possible. Besides…it wasn't like her. It wasn't like me either but…I fucked that up but good.

I had to tell her. After all, my plan of keeping it a secret involved explaining it to Amanda. How could I explain it to my sister just fine and not to my girlfriend? It had to happen. Come what may. By the end of today, a piece of my heart may be gone. Putting on my shoes seemed to take as long as getting dressed did and I started to suspect I was purposefully dragging it out to avoid talking with Kayla. The part of my brain that agreed with that idea hadn't shut up since I first decided to tell her and now it was screaming at me, telling me to put it off at least, or, preferably, just not do it.

A secret is fine. It's only one. Besides, it's to protect our relationship. I mean, I had to think about the relationship. Sometimes you have to do something hard, something you're not comfortable with, to preserve something like this. Would it be fair to Kayla to give her a reason to break up with me when she was happy with me? Thinking about us…breaking up sent a rip into my heart.

Yes, it would be easier to not say anything and just live with the secret forever. Yes, Kayla was happy in our relationship and breaking up would make us both miserable. Yes, it would only be me living with the guilt forever. And Tara, of course. But she'd keep Kayla's friendship and they'd… "No," I growled to myself, finishing tying my shoes and grabbing my jacket. Tara was waiting for me in the foyer when I came down the stairs, looking sadder than I'd ever seen her, even when her dog died.

She and I stared at each other for a second before I walked past her to the door. "Jack," she said as I turned the knob. I looked at her. "Yeah?" She took a deep breath.

"If you want me to talk to her after you, I will." I was going to speak and she continued, "Hang on, hang on a second, Jack. I know it's all noble of you and everything to want to do this but…I mean, think about it. She's going to be miserable without you." The voice in my head chimed in agreement.

"She still needs to know." "Yeah, she does, I guess. But that doesn't mean you two can't still be together afterwards." "Tara—" "Jack!" she hissed, staring at me fiercely, "You two have something that most people never actually have and I hope to Christ you're not going to let it go so easily. What, are you just going to tell her and whatever happens happens? Jack, fight for it, God damn it! What happened sucked and telling her is going to suck but I don't believe for a single fucking second that you'd be perfectly fine if she told you that she never wanted to see you again." She was right.

I wouldn't be. "So I will talk to her after you and explain it from my side so she understands all of it. And then she can make a decision. Jack…you love her. She loves you. And I want to believe that, even after you tell her, she's still going to love you. She'll be pissed, yeah, but who doesn't get pissed at the people they love?

It's healthy!" I smiled a little at that. "If you're going to talk to her," I said slowly, "Make sure…you give her—" "I know," Tara interrupted, "I'm a girl, Jack. I know how long girls need to digest something like…this." I sighed. "Okay." She came over and gave me a hug that I didn't return. Not because I was angry at her. I just wasn't in a hugging mood.

"I love you, Jack," she said, "And so does she. And I wish there was…I kind of don't want you to tell her. Just keep it a secret." "Part of me does too," I replied, "But…it'll come out sooner or later." "It always does, don't it?" she sighed, pulling back, "Well…good luck." There were tears glistening in her eyes. I opened the door and glanced once more into the house.

I should have said goodbye but I didn't have the strength for it. Right before I closed the door, I saw Amanda looking at me from the kitchen. Her expression was unreadable but, again, I desperately clung to this as hope. No schemes. God, please no schemes. The air still had that oddly metallic smell of oncoming snow. What little there was on the ground didn't even crunch as I walked across the lawn, feeling like I was a dead man walking. My heart was pounding in my ears and each breath grew heavier and heavier, resounding in my skull like window down a tunnel.

My hands, stuck deep in the pockets of my jacket, trembled with fear and I balled them into fists to keep them still. It didn't stop the tremors. They crept from my fists into my arms and down my back until my whole skeleton felt like someone was running along it with a stick. Even my jaw was chatting, my teeth clacking together like marbles. Fear was twisting my stomach into a knot, making me very aware of cramps in my shoulders, and giving me the feeling like I should have gone to the bathroom before I left my house.

If people really do piss themselves out of terror, I understand why now. Don't do it! the voice in my brain screamed as I walked up the steps to her porch, Don't say anything about what happened! Just get a kiss then leave! The voice was so insistent that my hand froze before it knocked on the door, hovering in midair as my conscious grappled with itself. Tell her…don't tell her…secret…no secret…no relationship…breaking up…no more Kayla… Lying to Kayla… I couldn't lie to her.

And when this inevitably got revealed down the line, however long it might be, I would pay way more than I would right now. But Tara was right…maybe, just maybe, Kayla loved me enough to forgive me. Maybe…right away? Probably not but…maybe. I knocked on the door, my bladder and stomach squished together painfully.

Footsteps, quick footsteps, grew louder on the other side of the door until it was flung open and Kayla, with a smile on her face that made me feel even worse, stood in the doorway. "Hey, Jack!" she said, leaning in and giving me a kiss. I hesitated before returning it.

"Hey," I said, trying to force a smile on my face. "I am so sorry about last night," she said, stepping out onto the porch and leaning against me for warmth, "My phone died in the middle of the drive home and traffic sucked! Like, we were bumper-to-bumper for…What's wrong?" She was frowning up at me.

The distress must have been more obvious than I had originally thought. I could still turn back. Make some excuse. Pretend that… "Kayla," I said slowly, "There's…something I need to tell you." My heart was beating against my chest so hard, I was surprised it wasn't making a lump in my shirt.

"Okay," Kayla said, confused, "What's up?" "Do you want a coat or something?" I said, swallowing the sour taste that was creeping into my mouth. "I'll be fine. What do you need to tell me?" She leaned against the door and looked at me with steady curiosity. Normally, she might tease me a bit more but the way I looked…the way I talked…probably told her this wasn't joking time.

"Kayla…" Shit, the tears were starting to form in my eyes. I brushed at them but it didn't hold them back. My throat was closing up and I coughed. Shit, I was so scared.

"Baby," she gasped, putting a hand on my shoulder and turning my face up to hers, "What's wrong?! Are you sick?" Sick… "Kayla…I…" I could feel the tremors stronger, whether they were from sobs or sheer terror, I don't know. "Jack, if you don't want to tell me, we can—" "I kissed Tara," I blurted out. The silence that followed was a million times worse than anything I had experienced so far.

A million times more awkward than the silence between Tara and I that morning, a million times more terrifying than the walk over, a million times more painful than when Brad slammed his hands into the sides of my head. I wasn't even aware of anything around us. My words just reverberated in my head over and over and over.

My brain was empty, devoid of reason, logic, anything that made it run. The world stood still and it was horrible. I couldn't even meet her eye. I was looking at her shoulder, noticing the fraying cotton. Probably Tori had been pulling at it. Had she played with Tori today? Was Tori mad with her for being gone so— "Huh?" I looked into Kayla's eyes. They were confused. I took a deep breath, needing to say something to stop the pounding of my heart, the sourness in my stomach, the trembling in my limbs.

"Tara…she came into my room last night. Carson…she'd been texting Carson and he has someone else back home he's interested in so…She was upset and she asked if she could sleep in my bed with me and I don't know, I was half-asleep.

I didn't even remember when I woke up. She was sleeping in my bed with me and I woke up this morning and I wasn't thinking, or I was, maybe, and…I don't know, I knew there was a girl in bed with me and I thought it was you and I just started…kissing her and then…I mean, I was still trying to wake up so I wasn't thinking properly.

I wasn't thinking at all. And then I saw it was her and…" I trailed off. Shit…that was probably the worse way I could have explained it. Kayla took a second to process all of it and, to my horror, her expression started changing. She had been confused and now…if she had been angry, pissed off, out for blood it would have been better.

Anger is easy to understand. You can quantify it and put an end-piece on it. Anger I can deal with. Pain…her pain…was something else. Pain and sadness slowly spread across her face. Her mouth fell open slightly and her eyes, so bright and lively, grew dull and watery. She blanched, turning her already-pale skin to a shade that made the untouched snow looked dark by comparison. Worst of all, though, was the look in her eyes.

Normally, when she looked at me, I saw trust, love, a bond so strong we could feel it no matter how far apart we were. Now…there was nothing.

Just nothing. It was that nothing that gave my heart the biggest kick of all and I babbled on: "Kayla, I swear, I thought it was you! You know I'd never do anything like that on purpose! I promise! It was all…I didn't think…I wasn't thinking.

I just woke up and there was a girl and…I mean, you're not just any girl but…I thought it had to be you because there was a girl in bed with me and, I mean, who else would it be? I don't even remember Tara getting into bed with me last night. Like, not until she reminded me and even now, I'm trying to think about it, and I barely remember it. Like a dream or something. But I stopped as soon as I saw who it was.

Right away! I promise!" Tears were running down my face and I was a moment away from falling to my knees. "Kayla, I swear, I didn't do it on purpose!" "I believe you." Her words cut through my rambling. "I…you…you believe me?" She stared at the ground and shrugged slowly. "I mean…I know you. And it's not like you would confess if you thought you could get away with it." "I wasn't…that's not what I was…" "Okay, I'll rephrase…If you did it because you meant to, you wouldn't tell me.

So…I don't know. I know you and…" She shook her head slowly. I was relieved. Surprised, but relieved. "Kayla, I promise, I'm going to make sure I'm awake before I talk to anyone about anything again. Like, I'll write down notes if I have to and—" "Jack." She said it normally but it had an edge that cut my words off short. "You work today, right?" "Yeah." "Go to work." I didn't fully register her words but that creeping feeling of horror was tightening the muscles in my shoulders.

"I was going to but I had to come tell you—" "Jack." She looked at me steadily, an expression of seriousness and displeasure that I had never seen before on her face. "I want you to leave." "I…Kayla, I didn't mean to do it. I still love you. I love you more than anything." "Please leave, Jack," she said in an even tone, "Right now I can't… look at you without thinking about what happened. You still kissed her, Jack." My mouth twitched.

She noticed. "It was just kissing…right?" "I…" Oh, fucking hell. "I may have…I did…my hand was on her boob for like, a second…" She drew in a rattling breath. "Okay," she said, nodding slowly, "And you thought it was me. It still happened and right now, all I'm thinking about is that it happened.

You with another girl…is one of the worst thoughts I've had while we've been together." "It was an accident!" "You didn't trip and fall on her lips, Jack." "…No." "Mhm." "Kayla, I would never…I love you." "Jack, I'm asking you nicely. Please leave. And please don't text me.

When I'm ready to talk, I will text you. I don't know when that will…" She closed her eyes for a second and shivered. I took off my jacket.

"Please, take it," I said, desperately, feeling like I was watching my world crumble piece-by-piece, "I can handle cold. I deserve to be cold." "You aren't going to punish yourself," she said haughtily, "Just, right now, I don't want to see you or talk to you.

I don't know how I'll feel later and…Fuck, Jack, you kissed Tara." The tears were starting to form in her eyes.

"You kissed Tara." "I didn't mean to!" "You still did it. Jack…please leave. Just go. Please." There was nothing else I could do. Nothing else I could say. I nodded slowly and backed away. "Please text me soon," I said shakily, "Whatever your mood is, even if you want to say you hate me—" "Stop," she barked, glaring at me, "Just stop." "Okay," I said, holding up my hands, "Okay. I'm going." I backed up more, not wanting to take my eyes off her, feeling that if I looked away, our connection would be broken forever.

"I love you." She just looked back at me. I tried to see something, anything in her that said she loved me too. A nod of the head, a look in her eye, a twitch of her hand. Nothing. She was as still as a statue. Just looking at me. If she pulled out a gun and shot me, it would be merciful at this point. I got into my car, looking away for a second as I opened the door, and when I looked back up she was gone. Gone…Gone forever?

No, she said she'd text me back. When she was ready. How long would that be? She didn't say she loved me back. I sat in my car for a minute, unable to move, to think, to comprehend anything other than the fact that I told her I loved her and had gotten no response. She didn't… I shook my head. Tara's words echoed in my ears again: "I want to believe that, even after you tell her, she's still going to love you." I did just drop a bombshell on her, after all.

Even if she still loves me…She does! She does! SHE DOES! She has to! How could I live without… I put my face in my hands, too sad to cry. I was wallowing in self-pity, I knew it, but I couldn't stop it.

Kayla…just don't hate me. Please don't hate me. I had to go to work. I needed a distraction. Something…anything… Kayla… I can't lose you. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- "Hey, Jack," Frank said as I grabbed my coat from the backroom. I turned to him. "Yeah?" I asked, no inflection in my voice.

He looked at me for a second, then gestured to the chair. "Sit down." I sat heavily in the chair, focusing on a loose thread in my jeans.

I had to resist the urge to pick at it. "What's up?" "I'm putting that question to you," he said, steepling his fingers, "You're not the Jack we're used to. Normal Jack would look at this Jack and give him a lollipop." I didn't smile. "Just some personal stuff. Sorry." "No need to be sorry," he said simply, "No complaints or anything.

But…there's something missing from the story and I'm thinking…" He pointed at me. "Like I said, it's just some personal troubles." "Those are the worst, aren't they?" he said, running a hand along his chin and regarding me down his nose, "Need to talk?" I snorted a little. "You've got better things to do." He picked up the papers he'd been looking through, stacked them neatly, then threw them behind him so they scattered on the floor.

"My work has mysteriously disappeared," he said with a small smile, "What's up?" There was no way I was going to reveal everything. No way, Jose. If he knew one-twentieth of the fucked up shit that had been going on in my life…All the same, keeping it in throughout my shift had been like having shards of glass scattered throughout my innards, being driven deeper every time I thought about Kayla.

Talking about it…might help. At the very least it would give me another reason to stay away from home a little longer. I took a deep breath. "Well…my girlfriend and I…no, just me.

It was just me." He nodded. "Continue." "I kind of…accidentally kissed another girl. I thought it was my girlfriend, but…" He made an 'eesh' expression. "Ouch. Yeah…That'll shit in your soup." "Yeah…" "Accidentally?" I chewed my upper lip and nodded.

"Completely. I really thought she was my girlfriend. And I stopped right away when I saw it was…someone else." "Did your girlfriend see?" "No, I told her." Frank put his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling.

"Wow," he said, "That's a new one." "Huh?" "I don't think I've ever known a guy who would tell his girlfriend right away that he had…done something with another girl. I'd usually call it cheating but kissing? I don't know, that seems kinda harmless." "Well, it's not. She's super pissed at me right now." "Well, of course she is," Frank replied, frowning, "You ever heard, 'Hell hath no fury…'?" "I thought that was about women scorned." "Women in general," Frank replied, grinning, "Did she say to no talk to her for a bit?" I nodded.

"She said she'd text me when she was ready." "Did she yell?" "No." Frank leaned against the table and gave me an encouraging smile. "I don't you have anything to worry about…Okay, I take that back. But it's not as bad as it could have been." "But I should still worry?" "Angry woman? Of course." I nodded slowly, my fingers pressing against my forehead.

"Yelling would have been worse?" "If she's the kind to yell, then yeah. When my first girlfriend in college told me to piss off…she was breathing fire. Stuff she said would have made sailors blush, I'm telling you." Nothing about that was really reassuring and he could tell. "Look, Jack, we get hot girls in here all the time, with boyfriends or not. I haven't seen you give them a second glance the entire time you've worked here. And I only see you at work. Your girlfriend, hanging around you all the time?

She knows you better than I do." That actually did help a little. "She said she believed me when I told her it was an accident." Frank spread his hands. "There you go! Just give her some time!" "I mean…it still happened, though." "And?" I suddenly got the impression that Frank may not have been the best authority on stuff like this, at least in terms of perspective.

Wonderful for morale but… "I drop a gun, it goes off and hits someone, it's an accident but it still happened." He took a second to mull it over. "Was she friends with the girl you kissed?" I hesitated. "Yes." "Mmmm…that actually might be worse." "Yeah," I sighed, slumping back in the chair.

"Damn it, Jack, I'm sorry," Frank said sympathetically, "Look, I think you'll be fine. Give her some time and space and things so work out a-okay." "Okay…thanks, Frank." I got up.

"Just go home and relax. Play some video games or something." "Will do." Actually, video games were the furthest thing from my mind.

All I could think about was Kayla's look when I told her I had kissed Tara. The hollowness where there were always sparks and flames. And it had been directed at me.


I had caused that. Damn it, I couldn't lose her. I know she asked me not to text her or try to talk to her but…I mean, how could I not? I had to try to fix this. I screwed up and I needed to fix it. What could I do? Send her an innocuous text? No, then she'd think I wanted to just sweep everything under the rug. Visit her parents? Shit, what if she told them? My veins went cold at the thought of an angry Mr.

Hannigan coming after me. I mean…what if I bought her something and… I wanted to slam my head into the wall. Yeah, buy her something. Bribe her into not being mad at me anymore. What a great idea! I knew Frank was right, that I needed to just wait and let her talk to me when she was ready but…this was the first time since I met her that Kayla hadn't 'been there'.

I don't mean physically but just not there in spirit. She was still in my heart and she always would be but knowing how mad she was and knowing how badly I'd screwed everything up…I felt a piece of my life was missing. I couldn't get up the enthusiasm about anything.

You could have offered to let me wander through Best Buy unsupervised for half an hour and whatever went missing, no questions asked, and I wouldn't have been interested. Yeah, it was that bad. I was sitting in my car, freezing my butt off, not wanting to turn on the car.

If I turned it on, I had to go somewhere. I didn't have anywhere I wanted to go. I could go home…and be closer to Kayla…And Tara and Amanda and everything else that would remind me of what happened. But where the hell else was I going to go? The mall? The bowling alley?

My phone buzzed and I bashed my elbow against the door yanking it out of my pocket. Was it…? No, it was Joe. Joe: Hey buddy! Watcha up to? Me: Not much. Joe: Wanna hang? Belle wants to go to the skating rink and they're having a two-for-one deal. Two couples for the price of one. :D Me: Not really. Sorry. Joe: Dude, you okay? Me: I'm just not feeling good. Which wasn't technically a lie.

But I couldn't tell him that Kayla wouldn't come without telling him why and…shit, this was just going to be an endless cycle of deceit and lies, wasn't it? Joe: Well, stop it! Kayla better be looking after you. Me: I'll get better soon. Don't worry. Joe: You better! Christmas in two days!!!! :D what did you get me? Me: You'll have to wait and see. Joe: Boooo! Get better, man. I'll text you later. Me: Ttyl. I turned on the car, jumping as the cold air blasted me in the face.

I wanted to hang with Joe, I really did. I could probably use some of his goofiness right now. But there was no way I'd be able to hide what I was feeling. Believe me, I was doing my best at work and Frank still noticed. I rubbed my face tiredly, feeling like I just wanted to fall into a coma until Kayla decided to forgive me. No…that was me trying to punish myself and Kayla said I shouldn't do that. Well, fuck, what the fuck was I supposed to do? I was getting angry again, though at what I didn't know.

Myself probably. The situation. The fact that all this happened because I just couldn't wake up fast enough.

The fact that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make it better and even if there was, I shouldn't do it. I couldn't force this to fix itself. I wanted to, oh, God, how I wanted to. But everything I thought of doing fell apart in face of the fact that Kayla had said to leave her alone…And just thinking about that made me want to die.

It had started to snow. I pulled out of the parking lot and drove home, feeling like if I fell into a sinkhole on the way home, it wouldn't be a big loss. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- "Hey Jack!" I looked up.

I had been getting out of my car, still wallowing in my misery. I'd done that most of the way home and it was a miracle that I didn't wrap myself around a tree or something. The snow was falling in earnest now, obscuring houses halfway up the street, but there was no mistaking Mr. Hannigan's bulk through the flakes.

My stomach lurched for a second in terror until I realized he was waving, not charging at me like he wanted to clothesline me for record distance. He was standing in his driveway, sweeper in hand, waving me over.

"Hey, Mr. Hannigan," I said, trudging through the deepening snow and doing my best to smile like nothing was wrong. "Good day at work?" he asked, shaking my hand and giving me a smile I know I didn't deserve. I shrugged. "Holiday shoppers.

You know." "Eesh," he said, grimacing and leaning on the sweeper, "Nothing says Christmas like consumer greed, huh?" I chuckled. "No, not really." I glanced at the house. "How's Kayla?" He sighed and looked up to where her room was. "Not feeling good. She said she was feeling pukish and just wanted to be left alone." "Should I go see her?" I knew I shouldn't ask but it slipped out.

He shook his head. "I asked her if she wanted me to ask you to come over when you got off work and she said no." He frowned. "Everything okay between you two? She usually antsy when you're not around." I was already feeling bad enough hearing that she wasn't doing well but his question almost made me vomit. "She…didn't look too hot when I saw her this morning." He frowned. "You saying my daughter isn't hot?" "Oh, she is! Definitely!" "Good," he said, shaking the sweeper threateningly, "Don't wanna have to crank you with this." I would have deserved it.

"What are you doing?" "Well," he said, looking up at the sky, "Thing I hate more than anything is having my car skating around on the road. So I gotta get the drive swept off so I can put the Ice Melt down." "Why don't you just put it down right now?" I asked. He gave me a crooked grin. "Your dad makes you shovel the driveway, doesn't he?" I nodded.

"Every year since I was eight." He laughed and patted me heavily on the shoulder so I slipped and had to catch myself. "Yeah, that's why. Ice Melt will melt the snow, but won't do anything for underneath. So, we sweep—" He swept a drift of snow off the driveway, "—and then put down the stuff." "Okay.

Makes sense." "Yes it does," he replied, "Pro tip for when you own a house." "Did you need a hand?" He looked down the driveway, then back at the areas he had already swept where the snow was remaking the thin layer of white he had just gotten rid of. "You know what? I do." He gestured back to the garage. "I'll sweep, you put down the Ice Melt behind me, okay?" "Sounds good." "Come on." He brought me into the garage and handed me a bucket full tiny blue pellets and a small scoop.

"You're just going to sprinkle a little bit where I sweep. I want my driveway black, not blue." "Got it." He took the sweeper and swept away the snow right in front of the open garage port, revealing the black asphalt underneath. I dug the scoop into the pellets and quickly sprinkled the pellets over the revealed ground. Mr. Hannigan nodded in approval. "All right," he said, "Let's get to work." It was slow, repetitive, and tedious. Just the sort of thing I needed right now.

Waiting for him to sweep away the snow, sprinkling the Ice Melt, moving forward a little bit…lather, rinse, repeat. But it kept me focused. Didn't let my mind wander. We didn't speak, him being too focused on making sure he didn't leave any area untouched and me not being in a very talkative mood to begin with. Before long, the snow had piled up enough to where the sweeper just disappeared into the snow bank without actually moving it.

Mr. Hannigan slapped his gloved hands together and said, "Hang on. Gotta get the shovel." "Okay." He walked away, beating out the end of the sweeper, and my mind started to wander back to my sadness.

I looked up at Kayla's window, at the far end of the house. Had she looked out to see who her dad was talking to? Could she even hear that far? Did she look out when I got home since I usually got off at the same time every weekend?

I stared through the thick flakes but the window looked dark and empty. This distance was usually nothing. Normally, I could have been at work and felt her. But now, with what happened this morning…that window was looking very, very far away. And she was in that room, sad and angry and hurt. Because of me. And I couldn't do anything about it.

Everything I could think of involved me talking to her, in person or not, and I couldn't. I was forbidden from contact until…until what? She forgot? She forgave? Why wouldn't she do that right away? She said she believed me that it wasn't on purpose. I felt just a little bit of anger. At her. This was tearing me apart and if she would only realize that I didn't mean to do it, then it would all be fine.

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Why was she dragging this out? Hell, she had to be feeling just as bad as I was. Why couldn't…why couldn't she just… The tears started coming in, freezing right away to my eyelids and I rubbed them away painfully.

I don't think I had ever felt this low, not even when I had first found out that Craig Version 1 and Kayla were together.

Mr. Hannigan came back out with a shovel and saw me staring up at her window. "She'll be better soon, Jack," he said, smiling at me, "She'll probably text you tonight." "Sure," I said, highly doubting it. We returned to the work, trying to get everything taken care of before the snow got too deep even for a shovel.

I kept glancing up at her window, hoping she'd be there. Even if it was just for a second. She had to be curious why her dad was taking so long. And when she saw me helping him… I mean, I was helping her dad because he asked me. I wasn't doing it to suck up to her or anything. Just being a good guy to be a good guy. If she saw that, then maybe… "Am I gonna have to install a balcony, Romeo?" Mr. Hannigan asked with amusement.

He had caught me staring at her window again. "Huh?" I said as I sprinkled some Ice Melt on the newly-revealed asphalt. "Jack, don't worry. She's going to be fine." "I know, but…I still wanna talk to her." He knocked the shovel against his boot.

"Want me to ask her if she's willing to let her boyfriend visit? Just for a minute?" I chewed my lip. I knew the answer I wanted to give, and it was putting up a good fight in my brain, but the last thing I needed was to give her more reason to be pissed off at me…or, just as bad, make her parents aware of what had happened. "No," I said slowly, "I know she needs her rest. But…could you tell her I'm thinking about her and that I love her?" He grinned and nodded.

"Of course!" "Thanks, Mr. Hannigan." "No problem, Jack. Now, come on! Let's get this finished before we turn into popsicles." We moved like machines. Shovel, sprinkle, shift. Shovel, sprinkle, shift. I would have offered to take the shovel for a bit, mainly to give myself something more physically demanding to keep my eyes away from Kayla's window, but Mr.

Hannigan's arms never faltered for a second. I guess being a behemoth had its advantages. Eventually, finally, I dropped the last bit of Ice Melt at the edge of the driveway, right where it connected with the road.

Mr. Hannigan stretched and groaned. "Thanks a lot, Jack," he said, stretching his neck, "Wanna come in for cocoa?" I handed back the bucket and said, "Thanks but I gotta get home. They're probably wondering where the hell I am if my car's in the driveway." He laughed, then sniffed.

"All righty. I'll let Kayla know you said hi and that you're still over-the-moon-and-to-the-stars about her." "Thanks," I said, blushing, "See you later." "See ya, Jack!" I tromped back through the snow which was past my ankles at this point, glancing up again at Kayla's window.

Please…just for a second. I needed to see her. I didn't care if she burned holes in my face. I just needed some sort of acknowledgment. Something to hold onto aside from the look of shock and pain that stamped itself over all my other memories of her face.

Nothing. The window was bare. Great. Just fucking great. I swung open the door, kicked my shoes off, and stalked up the stairs. "Hey, Jack!" mom called from the kitchen. "Hey," I grunted back, not stopping. "How was…Jack?" I didn't stop. I was too pissed off. It had been hours.

Hours. How the hell could there still be an issue? Yeah, I get it, she's angry and upset. Believe me, I get that. But I explained it! Hell, she even admitted that I probably would have kept it a secret if I did it on purpose.

So why in the name of all that's Holy is she keeping me in quarantine? Am I just being punished at this point? I wanted to send her a text message. Just something innocuous. See if she would respond.

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I was twisting in the dark and I wasn't seeing a lifeline. I shouldered my way into my room and swung the door shut, but the latch had hardly clicked when it swung open again and mom was standing in the doorway.

"Next time, young man, you stop and talk to me when I'm talking to you," she said icily. "Sorry," I muttered, taking off my jacket and throwing it in the corner. "What's wrong?" "Nothing." "Jack Matthew Harrison, don't you dare lie to me." Her hands were on her hips and her eyes were on fire.

Damn. "What is it? Work? Kayla?" I looked away. "It's Kayla? What happened?" "I don't want to talk about it," I replied darkly, throwing myself on my bed and facing the wall. "Did you two have a fight?" "Something like that." She gripped my shoulder and flung me around so I faced her. "If you're going to feed me bullshit, at least do it to my face," she snapped, "What happened?" "We just had a fight," I replied, "And now she wants me to stay away until she's ready to talk to me." She looked out my window over to Kayla's.

"What was it about?" "That's not important." "Yes, it is," mom said angrily, "Talk to me, Jack. I want to help." "We just had a fight, mom. It happens." "If she asked you to stay away, it's more than you just not complimenting her new purse." I looked her in the eye. "It's personal, mom. Okay? Can we leave it at that?" Mom's eyes narrowed and her mouth looked like it could cut steel. "Should I call over and ask her what's wrong?" "No!" I shouted, sitting up, "Mom, just leave it alone!

It's not going to help if she feels like we're pestering her to stop being angry with me!" She glared at me, then threw up her hands and left the room. I slammed myself back onto my bed, facing the wall. Great. Now I'd gotten mom upset at me too. I don't even know how long I stayed curled up on my bed, staring at the wall. My mind just sort of went blank at some point and all I was aware of was a crushing depression. Kayla was angry at me. Mom was angry at me. Who else was I going to piss off before the day was out?

How the hell did this all go so wrong? One minute of bad luck and…poof. Everything goes to shit.

I wanted to hit something. Briefly, I considered going downstairs and wailing on the punching bag but I lacked the drive to get out of bed. Besides, if I left my room then I might have to talk to people and right now, conversation was the last thing I wanted. I just wanted to lie here, to stay locked in this cell I had made, just shut out everything else. Yeah, I was being childish but what the hell else could I do? Memories, happy ones, ran though my mind. The first time I saw Kayla, our first date, our first kiss, the first time we made love.

Random things, like the way she inhaled her food like someone was going to take it from her. Her hair bow. The way she smiled when she rolled her eyes at you so you knew she thought you were an idiot but she loved you anyway. Her excitement when someone told a new joke and the way she looked away for a second afterwards, as if mentally filing it away for later. The little bounce in her step when she was in a good mood…which was pretty much all the time. All those memories…what if… I'd see her around, obviously.

In school. And probably at home, since our parents were such good friends. Would they be if we broke up? NO! SHE WON'T BREAK UP WITH YOU! STOP THINKING THAT! It stuck in my mind all the same. Someone knocked on the frame of my door and I struggled to turn myself over.

Amanda was standing in the doorway, looking more serious than I'd ever seen her. "Hey," she said tonelessly. I sighed. "What?" "I just said 'hey'. Nothing else." "What do you want?" "To talk to you.

Is that okay?" I turned back to the wall. "Not right now, Amanda." "Well, I'm okay with it so I'm going to stay." "Fine," I snarled, sitting up to look at her, "What do you want to say?

I owe you? Do what you say or you'll spill the beans?" "What are you talking about?" she snapped. "Oh, come on. You've got the perfect shit to dangle over my head.

Do what you say or else. So what do you want, Amanda? Me to be your sex slave?" She flushed. "What?" "I know you want me again.

You know, even after we worked the whole thing out?" I got out of bed and walked over to her, getting right up in her face. "So if you're planning on grabbing those handcuffs again, you can—" SMACK! I held a hand up to my stinging cheek. Amanda was glaring at me, her eyes full of angry tears.

"You gonna keep being an asshole?" she hissed. An asshole…Two days ago, Kayla had demanded that I be an asshole, to show I could be if I wanted. Well, here it was.

I sat down on my bed, feeling like I had just been hit with a door. "Ow," I muttered. "I hope it hurts like crazy," she said acidly, rubbing her hand, "What's wrong with you?" I rubbed my face, the pain causing my eyes to water. "Kayla doesn't want to see me," I muttered. "You told her?" I nodded. She sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Good." I looked up at her in surprise. "Good? You're happy?" She looked at me in confusion for a second, then looked pissed. "Seriously?" she snarled, "Like…really, Jack?" "I've seen how you've been looking at me.

Things you say, way you act, stuff like that. You're want me. Again." "Wow," she said with a laugh that had all the mirth sucked out, "Someone's got a big ego." "Amanda…" "So you thought after I saw you and Tara this morning that I'd threaten to tell Kayla?" There was an edge to her tone that made me think it would be inadvisable to say 'yes'.

I stayed silent. It was answer enough for her. "Wow, Jack. Thanks for making me feel like shit." "I'm sorry," I said, looking down at the floor, "But the way you've been acting—" "You know," she said, cutting me off, "If you've had time to notice how I've been 'acting' around you, maybe you also noticed that Kayla and I are friends?

Like, really close friends? So when I see you kissing someone else, and let's just forget that it's our cousin…my first thought is not, 'well, hey, maybe I can use this to fuck him!'. Believe me." "I didn't want to kiss her," I snarled, my anger coming back, "I thought she was Kayla! I woke up and there was a girl in bed and I just thought Kayla!" "Trust me, Jack, the look on your face…I knew you didn't do it on purpose.

Still disturbing to see." My mouth dropped open. "You're talking about disturbing to me? What about you and…" That was too mean. I immediately clammed up. Her mouth still curled into a snarl. "Next time I hit you, my hand will be closed," she warned, "Watch you mouth." I nodded. "God damn it, Jack, you and Kayla are in trouble and the first thing you think of is that I'm going to blackmail you?" "I thought you were." "Regardless of what I want or how I feel, the last time I 'tried something' was before you two were even together.

Remember?" I did. "You're right." "I know I am. So let's just put aside any idea of me being a complete bitch, okay? Because that's going to help no one." "No one's going to be helped," I said quietly, glancing at my window, "It's all over." "You're giving up that easy?

Jack, it's been a few hours." "I told her it was an accident," I growled, putting my head in my hands, "Why hasn't she…" "Called you up to say she understands and all is forgiven? Gee, Jack, do you think maybe it's because her boyfriend, whom she loves and adores, kissed another girl?" "On accident!" She sighed and paced. "Jack, all she's thinking about right now is that your lips were on the lips of another girl.

And not just another girl…Tara. How do you think that feels? Would you be ready to forgive her right away if she accidentally kissed Alan?" I snorted. "Would you?" "Fuck no. Alan wouldn't be able to piss without screaming for a week. You didn't answer my question." I sat in silence for a bit, then said, "I can't imagine her doing something like that.

I just…can't." "It's probably the same with her, Jack. She never imagined you would do something like that. So how hard do you think it is to know you did?" That was a sucker-punch to the stomach.

I fought as hard as I could but the tears flowed out. I angrily swept the back of my hand against my eyes. No more crying, I snarled internally, trying my best to hold back sobs. My body shook and limbs quivered, barely holding back the tears that wanted so desperately to flow. Amanda's expression softened a little. "You screwed up, Jack, but you did two things most guys wouldn't do." "What's that?" "Fess up right away and actually stay away." I swallowed a sob.

"You wanted me to tell her." "Of course I did! Honesty and all that stuff." I nodded. "So how long do you think it'll be before she…" She spread her hands. "I don't know, Jack. I mean, if you want, I can talk to her tomorrow but right now, let's give her some space. Okay?" "Okay." She walked over and said, "Get your butt up." I stood and she wrapped her arms around me, pulling me in for a hug.

"Jack, you gotta be calm about this stuff. Women aren't as easy to understand as guys." I snorted. "We're easy to understand?" "Please. You get in a fight and then go for a beer. Girls…we'll make you squirm." She poked my sides and smirked. "We're getting ready to have dinner. You gonna join us." "I'm not hungry," I replied, sighing. I felt almost as exhausted as I had the night before. "Oh, how's Tara?" "She's been upset pretty much all day but she's kept it on the DL.

Mom and dad haven't noticed." "Did you talk with her?" "I was going to. Girls' time." She smiled and walked to the door. "Want me to close the door?" "Yes, please." She gave me an encouraging smile. "It'll work out, Jack. Just gotta give it some time. Okay?" "Okay." "Love you, bro." "Love you, sis." She closed the door.

I wasn't sure how I felt at that moment. Reassured? Not really. The empty feeling in my heart still gaped painfully. Disappointed? Not exactly. Amanda's words still clung to me, comforting if not completely reassuring. Despondent? Kind of, though now it was fueled more by guilt than by self-pity. I'd made mom upset, pissed off Amanda, and had my girlfriend keeping me at an arm's length. Not bad for a day's work, Jack, you stupid piece of… Amanda was right.

I needed to be patient. Things would work out. They had to. Kayla and I loved each other and we'd get through this.

I just needed to give her space. Of course she was upset. I would be, too. We were bound to make each other upset at one time or another and…well, the first time was a big one but we'd be able to get through everything else much easier now that we've been clocked with a brick wall.

I hope. A thought occurred to me and I quickly opened my laptop. I pulled up Facebook and checked Kayla's relationship status. It still said she was in a relationship with me. The weight on my shoulders lifted slightly. Yeah, maybe she just hadn't been on her computer all day but I was going to be optimistic about this.

It was still a good sign. I had a shot to get through this. I still wasn't feeling very social so I spent the rest of the night in my room, poking around online, checking my phone and Facebook occasionally to see if Kayla had messaged me.

Yeah, I know, I was supposed to be patient, but that just meant I wasn't hounding her for a response. I could still check every…few seconds or so. That's fine. Dad knocked on my door at one point to ask if I wanted some dinner. "No thanks," I called back, my voice breaking out of the sullen monotone it had been stuck in most of the day. "Okay." There was a pause. "Jack…you doing all right?" I thought about it.

"Not really," I replied, "But I'll get there." "Good. And if the worst happens…let us know, okay?" And there it was. The dark cloud that had been slowly receding returned, darker than ever. The worst…break-up. Yeah. That's the worst that could happen. And I know I was supposed to be optimistic, love conquers all, that sort of thing.

But…what if? Those two little words I hated so much refused to leave my mind. What if? What if she decided to break up with me? What if my apology just wasn't enough? What if my ego was desperately trying to protect itself so I thought kissing Tara was less of a big deal than it was? What if…what if…what if… I set my computer down and lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling.

I tried imagining life without Kayla in it and I kept drawing a blank. I couldn't imagine it. This wasn't a learn-from sort of high school relationship.

I knew I loved her. Yes, I was young. Yes, I was still a naïve teenager, but I still knew. And I was going to fight to keep it. Not just for me but for her as well. I knew I made her as happy as she made me and I didn't want her to lose that.

Was that selfish? Maybe. I was depressed. A wave of exhaustion hit me and I decided, since there was nothing else I could do to speed up the time outside of science fiction, I might as well go to bed.

And I'd set an alarm. Last time I woke up without an alarm blaring in my ear…it led to all of this happy horseshit. As an extra precaution, I locked my door. Not to be a dick but because the last thing I needed was one more kick to the nads on top of everything else. I thought back to last night, trying to remember when Tara came in and asked to sleep in bed with me. I could sort of remember it…vaguely.

The way you remember a dream. Bits and pieces. God, what was I thinking? I should have offered her my bed and slept on the floor or something. No, I think she wanted me in bed with her. For comfort or something. Like I said, bits and pieces. I lay under the covers, ready to go to sleep, knowing something was missing. Every night since I first met her, we had texted 'goodnight' to each other. We added many other things on top of it but that 'goodnight' had been consistent.

Unwavering. Something I didn't even realize that I'd come to rely on until now. It was something so small and insignificant yet, somehow, it made all the difference.

I stared at my phone, hoping she would text me, even just to say 'goodnight'. It had to have the same effect on her as it did on me, right? Subconsciously. I waited and waited, my vision blurring and my eyelids dropping as I watched the black screen, waiting for it to light up with a message. I don't know how long I waited. Nothing. No message at all. Be patient, Jack.

Be patient. My hand started to creep towards the phone. I know she said not to message her but what if I just said 'goodnight'? That's innocuous. It's not like I'm giving her explanations or excuses or anything.

I'm just wishing her goodnight in a calm, harmless fashion. She couldn't object to that, could she? She said not to. No texting. How was it going to look if I ignored her request? I could deal without a 'goodnight'. My hand crept closer. Just one night. That would be okay. She'd probably forgive me tomorrow and everything would be like it was. I picked up my phone. Listen to her. She's obviously thinking about you right now, even if they aren't the nicest thoughts.

That should be enough. At least for one night. I opened up her contact. Seriously, stop. Listen to her. Everything will okay. You'll see tomorrow. Just one night and you'll be fine, Jack.

Just don't text her. She's thinking about you. But I want her to know I'm thinking about her. I typed out the message, 'Goodnight' and, before I could stop myself, sent the message. Immediately, I slammed my head against the pillow. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Now she was going to be more pissed off than ever! What was my justification? That I wanted her to know I was thinking about her? Well, no shit, Sherlock! You think she doesn't know that? You think that's a mystery to her?

God damn it! I slammed my palms into my eyes, wanting to roar with frustration. I'd just fucked everything up worse.

One simple thing and I couldn't even do it for one night. Yeah, great boyfriend material. Dumbass. I raged and panted and twisted and turned for a long time, the word 'stupid!' resounding in my head. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep, but not before checking my phone one last time. Maybe…just maybe… Nothing. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ I was having the nightmare again.

I was floating in the water, nothing around me but empty void. The surface was too far above me to be worth swimming for. Below me was nothing but darkness. I was hovering right at the line where blue turned to black. Something was moving just beyond my sight, an impression of a shape.

Massive. Threatening. I didn't know what it was but it made my whole body shake with terror. If I kept very still…maybe… It seemed to turn towards me, growing larger and more defined. I still couldn't tell what it was. My heart slammed against my chest painfully, blood rushing to my limbs, desperately trying to get them to move. It was coming closer, malice intent obvious in the shape that was growing ever more defined.

It was massive. It wanted me dead. My throat closed up…I squeezed my eyes shut… And woke up, panting and sweating, dry tears crusting my face. Something was blaring nearby. My heart was pounding in my ears so loudly I could barely make out what it was but as my pulse slowed, it resolved itself into the beeping of my alarm. I pressed down on the button with a shaky finger. Jesus, my whole body was shaking. I slid out of bed to the floor, one hand over my heart. I could feel it in my fingers.

God…I can't even remember the last time a dream terrified me that much. What was that thing? I didn't get a good look at it but whatever came to mind when I thought of scary stuff in the ocean (sharks, sea monsters, etc.) didn't even come close. Fucking hell… Wiping my face with my arm, I took a deep breath and tried to reorient myself.

I was awake. Not in the ocean. No monster. No threat. Just… Kayla. I leapt up, risking head-rush that slammed into me the second I was on my feet, and seized my phone. No message. Of course. What the hell was I supposed to expect after disobeying her wishes? Forget about her forgiving me today. I'll probably be spending this Christmas single.

And it was supposed to be our first Christmas… I threw my phone down on my bed and started pacing, beating my hands together. How could I make this right? I'd already broken the rules by talking to her so what if I could…I could what? What the hell was I going to do to make this right?

She was pissed at me and doing something would just make it worse. Tara said she would talk to Kayla. God, I hoped that would make a difference. As if hearing me, there was a knock on my door and I heard Tara's voice: "Jack? Can I come in?" "Hang on," I replied, throwing on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt.

"Okay, you can come in." Tara opened the door, already dressed for the day in a thick sweater and long johns. Okay, dressed for the day around the house. She looked at my face and grimaced in sympathy. "Nothing from Kayla?" I shook my head sadly. "Nothing. Amanda said I should just give her time." I frowned. "How did you know Kayla wasn't talking to me?" "Well, unless you didn't tell her…" She looked at my face again.

"I can tell you did. Besides, Amanda talked to me." "Yeah. Thank God she's not going to tell anyone, huh?" "No kidding," Tara said, shuddering, "Your parents would kill me." "Right after me. They'd make it slow." She smiled wanly. "Well, we don't have to worry about them. Sorry I didn't talk to you after you got home yesterday." "Yeah, well…I didn't exactly make myself social." She walked over to my bed and sat down.

"How are you feeling? Like, I know that's kind of dumb to ask, but I wanna know." "Like shit," I said, shrugging, "My girlfriend's pissed at me and she doesn't want me talking to her so I've got no clue how long she's going to keep me in communication quarantine." I looked out the window.

"I don't even want to do anything. I just wanna stay in here and wait for her to message me." "Even if you're waiting all day?" "Yeah." She stood up. "No pouting," she said sternly, "You gotta stop this." "Tara, my freaking girlfriend might be breaking up with me. I think I've earned the right to pout a little bit." "Yeah, if you're some regular Joe Shmoe from Who-Gives-A-Fuck-sville.

Jack, I get it. She's your first girlfriend—" "Only girlfriend," I replied, remembering saying the exact same thing to Carson yesterday. "—Okay, only girlfriend. It's the first time you've had a serious problem. I get that. Jesus, I've dated more than a few assholes. They've put me in communication quarantine." I looked up in surprise. "They did not." "Oh, yes they did. It sucked. After a while, I realized they were assholes and told them they could kiss my candy ass." She saw my expression.

"Obviously, that doesn't apply here. My point is that I know what you're going through. Waiting sucks." "You said you'd talk to her, right?" I asked. "Yeah. And I'm still planning to. You, however, aren't going to wait around by your phone for me to tell you how it's going." I narrowed my eyes.

"Tara…" "I'm serious, Jack. You need to do something. The whole family's worried about you." "They wouldn't be if they knew what happened," I muttered.

Tara sighed. "Jack, knock it off. Get your ass up, get out of this room, and do something." "Like what?" "Anything! Hell, I go running when I'm in a funk. Why don't you do that?" I looked out the window again. The snow remained as it had been the night before, covering the grass and most of the sidewalks with a thick blanket of white.

I raised an eyebrow at her. "Running?" "Get your endorphins up. Seriously, Jack, get out there." "It's covered in snow." "Oh, waahhh.

So you might have to run in the street for a bit. Isn't there a park or something nearby where the sidewalks might be clear?" "Yeah, but—" "Boom, there you go." I rubbed my temples. "Tara—" She put her hands on my shoulders and shook me slightly. "Jack, was last night fun? Waiting for Kayla to text, was it fun?" "No." "So what's the point of sticking around here waiting for me to text?" I looked into her eyes.

I saw nothing but concern and love. It was a look that I had desperately needed, one that told me someone was fully on my side and ready to help me, no matter what. I smiled at her. "Okay," I replied, "That actually would help. I helped Mr. Hannigan shovel his driveway yesterday and that helped. Quite a bit." Well, sort of. It helped while I was doing it, anyway. Tara grinned at me. "And you got some brownie points in the deal. Good job." "But you promise to text me if—" She rolled her eyes and grabbed my phone.

I jumped for it but she slid away. "I'm going to hang onto this for a bit," she said, bouncing it in her hand. "Why? Give it back!" I lunged again but she twisted away with the grace of a dancer. "If you keep it, you're gonna spend your whole run staring at it.

You'll get it back when I'm done talking to Kayla. Something else for you to look forward to." I huffed and threw up my hands. "Why would she talk to you?" I asked, the idea suddenly flashing in my head, "Her dad told me she didn't want to see anyone." Tara looked down, biting her upper lip. "Jack, if another girl kissed my boyfriend, you can bet I'd want to talk to her at least once." Tara…you're amazing.

"She hits hard," I said wryly, "Just letting you know." "I bet she does," Tara acknowledged, tossing her hair, "And if she wants to get a punch or two in first, that's okay." "No, it's not," I replied, frowning, "No punching." "Believe me, I don't want it, but if that's what it's going to take for her to listen to me…" "What are you going to say to her?" Tara looked at me with a smirk.

"That's for me to know," she replied, picking up my running shoes from the foot of my bed and shoving them in my hands, "You've got some pavement to pound." She swept past me to the door. "Come on!" I said, dropping my shoes, "How are you going to convince her I'm not an asshole?" "Jack, you're not an asshole," Tara sighed, looking back at me, "I told you; I've known my fair share. They flock to me." "Or do you flock to them?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. She shrugged. "Maybe both.

Like with Carson." "Why were you attracted to Carson?" I asked, "I mean, he's cool, but he's dude-cool. He wasn't exactly wooing you to the altar." "He was hot," she said simply. "What? That's it? Smart girl like you settles for 'hot'?" "I can be shallow sometimes, too," she replied, leaning against the doorframe, "It's probably why I haven't had luck with guys.

A lot of assholes are pretty good-looking." I snorted. "So why go for a guy at all? Just be single." "Well, I've got this cousin who's in an awesome relationship and I kind of want that, too," she said, frowning and looking away as if she was thinking.

I hesitated before asking, "Is that why you kept kissing me? Even though you knew I didn't know it was you?" She looked away. "…Yes.

Just for a moment…it was nice." She looked at me, an odd look on her face. "Jack, it was the best kiss I've ever had and I know how weird and inappropriate that is to say right now but…it's true. If nothing else…thank you for that." "You're welcome?" I said, uncertainly. She rolled her eyes. "Get your butt moving before I have to kick it out the door." With a final brandish of my phone, she turned and walked off. I smiled a little, feeling a bit better now that I had something to do.

Yeah, I was kind of pissed that she had taken my phone but, honestly, I was kind of glad to be rid of it. She was right; I would have spent the entire time staring at my phone. I pulled on a hoodie and laced my shoes, trying my best to focus on running, not Kayla.

I mean, yeah, Kayla was always on my mind, but I was trying not to focus on the fact that the future of my relationship may depend on my cousin, who Kayla was probably pissed off at as well… And there I go again.

God, I can be a baby sometimes. Running. Okay, gotta get in the running mindset. Get my feet working, get my brain focused on the movements, not anything else. Yeah, I can do that. Mom was in the living room when I got to the bottom of the stairs, sweeping up the needles that had fallen from the tree.

She looked at me with amusement. "Going to run the marathon?" she asked. "Just run," I replied, stretching my arms, "Take my mind of stuff. You know." "Tara suggested it, didn't she?" "Yeah. How did you know?" "When was the last time any of you slugs went running?" she asked sardonically, "Your dad would have a hernia if I even suggested it." "Hey!" dad called from the kitchen.

"Just kidding, honey!" she called back, then mouthed to me, "No, I'm not." I finished stretching my arms and opened the door. I hesitated, then turned back. "Hey, mom," I said, my lips set, "Sorry about last night." She put down the broom and pan and came over to give me a hug. "Things will work out," she said, patting my back, "You'll see." "That's what everyone keeps saying," I replied, pulling back, "Now it just needs to happen." "Patience, young one," she said, tapping me on the nose, "Did you even remember that tomorrow's Christmas?" "Oh, yeah." I'd completely forgotten.

"Well, it's nice to have you distracted by something else for a change but…" She sighed. "Just give it time, Jack. You've probably heard that from everyone already but it's true." "Okay. Thanks, mom." "And whatever you did, don't do it again," she snapped, swatting me on the rear, "I want her to be a Harrison someday." That was the dream, wasn't it?

Me and her together. Forever. And it was in danger… "See you," I said quickly, darting out the door. I walked to the end of the driveway before I stopped and stretched my legs. I could feel the tiny pops in my ankles and knees as the muscles stretched with painful relief. I crouched, sticking each leg out in turn and leaning hard into them, relishing every bit of the stretch. Being inactive all of last night was probably the wrong move.

More than a few of the pops were pretty dang painful and I had to give myself a few seconds to let the pain subside. Once it did, though, my legs felt a whole lot better. I did a couple of hops to loosen up my limbs and took off down the street. It was less of a 'run' and more of a 'jog', since I didn't exactly care about distance or time.


I just needed the mechanical movement of the run, the constant jolt of the pavement beneath my feet that seemed to make my whole skeleton shake. I needed the cold air against my face, turning my skin numb so that I had to look down and shake my face to get the blood flowing again.

I needed the slow, controlled breaths that gave me enough oxygen to keep going but not enough to start giving me cramps. I needed that most of all because that required my thoughts. To keep them away from other things.

I ran up the street, every foot I ran reminding me more and more why I used to like running.

Weißes Mädchen geklopft von 10 schwarzen Jungs

Mom was right; we'd become slugs recently, though I blame that on school and homework. But when I had free time…yeah, I liked to run. And not because it was a good way to keep my mind off stuff. It just felt good. That's the only way I can describe it. The feeling of the wind against my face, the satisfied groan of my muscles, the little stitches that started to grow in my shoulder and side that I had to force myself to ignore. I loved it.

It felt great. It was a test to overcome, something I could beat. I had to beat my own limits. I closed my eyes, forcing my breath to slide out slowly and smoothly. Just keep going. Don't think about anything else. Kayla's face popped into my mind. My eyes flew open and I increased my speed, flying up the incline of the road. Can't think about that…mustn't think about that… I let my mind go blank for a bit and just focused on moving forward, keeping the rhythm of my legs going.

When my mind finally snapped back into place, I found myself at the park that Tara had mentioned. There were more cars on the road now and I was forced to shift to the, thankfully, shoveled sidewalks. The sidewalks surrounded the park, which was little more than a knot of trees next to a miniscule playground whose snow covering had not been disturbed since the first shower.

Not many people were out and about: a small group of kids, watched by their parents, were having a snowball fight by the trees, a handyman was sprinkling some more salt on the sidewalks, a man was sitting alone on one of the benches.

Day before Christmas, after all. Thank God I didn't decide to run at the strip mall. I circled the sidewalk a couple times, keeping my head down as the wind increased, snatching some of the snow off the tree branches and scattering it. Some got in my hoodie at one point and I hopped with discomfort for a little bit as the flakes melted against my skin. The cold air had penetrated my lungs so I felt like I was breathing shards of ice with each exhale. My muscles were stiff and sore and screamed with protest every time I decided to pull another lap.

Perfect. Pain keeps the mind from wandering. Unfortunately, mind and body are not always one and slowly, little by little, my protesting muscles got the better of me and I slowed down to a halt, putting my hands on my knees and panting for air. I looked around as I caught my breath, smiling as my gaze traveled past the shrieking kids.

God, I can't even remember the last time I had a snowball fight. Nowadays, it would probably be just Joe and me trying to slam each other's head into the ground.

I stood up, ready to continue running, when I spotted a couple new arrivals to the park. A couple, strolling arm-in-arm and leaning against each other. I was still panting and my muscles were still on fire, but they dropped to the back of my mind as I imagined that couple was Kayla and me, leaning against each other for warmth as we talked and laughed and just enjoyed being in love.

It would have been us…until yesterday. No, no, don't think about it. Don't… Kayla's face, full of pain, swam into my head. I put my hands to my face, pressing my palms hard into my eyes, trying to get it out. No use. It stayed. Her pain…it had been me. God damn it, why couldn't I escape this? Every time I tried something, anything, to distract myself, it all came back. Fuck… God, give me something.

Something to help me forget. "Harrison?" I dropped my hands and turned. The solitary man on the bench was staring at me, his eyes wide. His face was mostly hidden behind the folds of his thick coat but I recognized that voice.

"Coach Walburn?" He sat up and I was able to get a look at him. He looked terrible. His eyes, bloodshot and murky, were sunken into a face that had lost too much weight too quickly, leaving it gaunt and sickly.

Even under his thick coat, I could tell that most of his original bulk was gone. A patchy beard was growing along his thin jaw and it would have been brown, once it had been washed. He leaned forward, grimacing as if the effort was actually painful.

"Not 'Coach'," he muttered, coughing and spitting out a glob of phlegm, "Not anymore." I moved closer, hesitantly.

"What happened?" He looked up at me, his upper lip twisted up to reveal browned teeth. "Whole lotta shit," he grumbled back, falling back against the bench. He took a couple of rattling breaths, then looked at me again.

"How are you, Harrison? Long time." "Yeah…" I didn't know what the hell to do. Last time I saw this guy, he was ready to have Craig choke me to death. Now…I probably would have called an ambulance if Tara hadn't taken my phone. "How's…everything?" He was muttering everything, not looking at me in the eye, as if the words were programmed into his head.

"Okay," I replied, "What happened to you?" "Got fired." "I know. After that." He shook his head slowly. "You don't wanna know." Part of me agreed but a bigger part, namely curiosity, won out. "Yeah, I do." He looked at me for a second, then looked away. "You don't care." "I do." "Uh huh. You actually think about me before now, Harrison?" "Yeah, I did," I said crossly.

It's true. I mean, not a whole lot, but I did think about him. He snorted again, then coughed. "Like what?" "Like why you had me and Craig fight the day you got canned," I replied, "The hell was up with that." His gaze grew distant and he leaned against his knees, staring at the ground.

"That…wasn't good." "No, it wasn't. Why did you do it?" "Don't ask me." "Yeah? Well, I just did. You didn't do shit while Craig was choking me out. Hell, you encouraged it! Did I do something wrong to you? Is that what it is? Were you pissed at me?" "No." He hadn't moved.

"Then what?" He didn't answer. He just continued to look at the ground. I was probably more angry than I should have been but remembering that fight, on top of the current situation with Kayla, was lighting a fire that I needed to release. "You know what?" I said acidly, stepping back, "Forget it.

Keep it to yourself. Hope you feel good about it." He looked up suddenly, his gaze like a whip as he glared at me. "Feel good?" he snarled, "No, I don't. Do I look like I feel good?" "Of course not. But whatever. See you later." I turned. "My son…" He stopped.

I turned back around. "Your son?" I asked, frowning, "Didn't know you had one." "I don't." He looked down again. The pieces started fitting together in my head. "Your son…he's not…" "Dead?" he asked, looking up at me with empty eyes, "Yep." "That day…Was that the day it happened?" He shook his head. "Carl…that was his name, Carl…He was serving over in Iraq.

Tech Sergeant. They didn't exactly tell us how but…they visited us the night before. Knocked on our door and told us that he was dead. Just like that. Gone." He broke off, blinking hard. "They said they'd assist us with the funeral arrangements and everything but…I stopped listening after I heard that my son was dead." "Oh, God," I said, my stomach dropping guiltily, "I'm sorry." He ignored me.

"So…there it was. Just dead. One minute we're having dinner and the next we have a uniformed guy stepping into our home to tell us our only kid is dead." He shook his head and put his face in his hands. "So…yeah, I was kinda pissed off." "You could have taken the day off," I said lamely. He glared at me. "I never missed a day of work. Even…even with my son…" He broke down, shaking with sobs but unable to produce any tears.

His face was twisted and a line of spit trailed from his mouth, but his eyes were dry. Like he'd cried out every tear he'd ever had. I just stood there, unable to do anything.

"I'm sorry," I said. Slowly, he regained control of himself. "And then…losing my job…" He coughed again, spitting beside the bench. "God, that was a kick in the ass." "Sorry about that, too," I said, grimacing as I realized that I was kind of responsible for that.

He shook his head. "Well, I almost got you killed. Or close to it. I don't know, I just…I was so mad that day. And you…damn it, Harrison, why are you so much like my son?" "I didn't know I was." He peered at me. "Same attitude, same confidence…all that.

Even looking at you now…" He stared at me for a second, then looked away. "I wanted it to be untrue. The military got it wrong or something. Just…wanted him to fight for it, you know?" He coughed again, leaning forward as each hack seemed to take a little more out of him.

"Coach," I said, bending down to try to catch his eye, "Do you have someplace to go? I mean, your home or something?" He snorted loudly. "Home? You think my wife stayed with me after all that? She's gone. I don't know where." He leaned his head back against the bench, staring up at the sky and taking several deep breaths. "Lost the house…weeks ago." "Where have you been staying?" "Wherever I can." "Coach…let me call someone.

We can get you help." He just looked at me. "Help me how? My son is dead. My wife is gone. The only person I've talked to in weeks is you…and you're the reason I got fired." He ran a hand through his dank hair. "Things just…fall apart so easy, you know?" I looked away. "Yeah…" "This is the first Christmas I've ever been alone," he said distantly, looking around, "My wife and son…we used to make a big deal out of it…" "There's plenty of places you can go.

They'll take care of you. Get you whatever you need." "What I need?" he said harshly, "What I need…is gone, Harrison. Gone.

What do I gotta look forward to now? A soup kitchen and a cot in the community center? What?" "I don't know," I replied, "But it's better than nothing, right?" "I got nothing." He dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his coat. "Nothing." He looked at me again. "Why are you even talking to me? You've got better places to be. Your girlfriend and stuff." I decided not to explain the current situation. "Come on, Coach—" "Stop calling me that." "All right…Mr.

Walburn. You don't have nothing. You've got…hell, you've got a nice coat. Better than what I got." I indicated my hoodie. He looked away. "Bullshit," he muttered. "And hey, if it hadn't been for you, Craig and I wouldn't have become friends." He looked back in surprise. "You and Carter?" "Yeah," I replied, grinning a little, "The whole world's as surprised as you, trust me." "How did I…" "Well, if not for you, Craig and I wouldn't have had our big fight—we had a big fight during Homecoming—and…well, it's a long story, but at the end of it Craig and I became friends and…" Probably not a good idea to mention Brad.

"We're friends now. Really good friends. I mean, yeah, it's weird that we had to fight a lot to become friends but there you go.

It happened. Because of you." He blinked, as if waking up from a long sleep. "Are you serious?" "Dead serious.

If I had my phone, I'd call him and have him tell you himself." "Wow." There was a spark in his eye for a brief moment, the same kind he used to get right before he ordered us to line up in front of the pull-up bar. Then it faded and his grim demeanor returned. "I'm glad it worked out for you." My heart was beating faster. Something was wrong. "No, Mr. Walburn, that's because of you.

You helped with that. It's as much for you as—" "Doesn't change anything. Carl is dead. Beth is gone. Forever. Both of them." Yeah, something was definitely wrong. His voice was becoming distant again and his expression looked exactly like how I had felt yesterday when I didn't see Kayla at her window.

"Mr. Walburn, please…let me get you someplace. Get you some help." I desperately looked around for someone. "No point. I got nothing, Harrison…Jack. Nothing." "Well, I'm here," I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking, "I'm here to help. Even if no one else is going to." "I messed up," he said pensively, not seeming to hear me, "It's all gone. You…I messed up with you. I shouldn't have done that." "No. It was a good thing." It wasn't, really, but I was starting to get desperate.

He was scaring me. "Craig and I are friends now. No more fighting. Come on, Coach, please." He looked at me, giving me something like a smile. "No more fighting…I'm glad. Thanks, Jack. This…I needed this. It helps." "Helps what? Please, Coach…" "Thank you. I needed that.

It…helps." His right hand came out of the big pocket of his coat. Something was clutched in it. Time slowed down as its shape was outlined against the white of the snow. A gun. My heart stopped cold, my limbs locked in stasis as the shape and all the hidden threats behind it raced through my mind.

A gun…I was brought back to the moment one was pulled from my locker. All those feelings, the ones I had hoped to forget, came rushing back. But there was more…much more. It was a state above terror. I'd moved beyond feeling to the empty void where feelings don't reach. The children, their parents, the couple…my senses didn't register them.

The world around us vanished as our eyes stayed locked together. He looked at peace, his eyes distant and the smile still on his lips. He kept that look as he raised the pistol, put the barrel to his head, and pulled the trigger.

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